Hofstra Horizons Research School of Education Teaching Learning and Technology

Hofstra Horizons: “Khmer Pride”: Transborder Literacy Practices of Cambodian American Youth

Theresa McGinnis, EdD, Associate Professor of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership, Hofstra University

Rithy posts a message on an Internet site, “putting both of my hands high to the sky saying ‘Khmer Pride.'” Samaly watches a YouTube video of a professional Cambodian dance troupe performing “The Coconut Dance,” and Panat1 creates his own video game character based on the Japanese anime Dragonball Z. Today’s generation of Cambodian American youth are growing up in communities with more transnational connections than in the past. Newer technologies and communication devices allow the youth to remain active in their heritage language and culture, and – through social networks – to interact with globalized youth culture.

My research seeks to address questions about the role of multimodal and/or digital literacies in Cambodian (Ethnic Khmer) youth’s production and maintenance of these transnational connections across space and over time, particularly with regard to identity construction, performance, and transformation. I examine the ways that their literacy practices reveal local, national, and global relationships and processes. Overall, in this article, I explore how Khmer youth use transnational literacies to express and articulate complex social identifications.

New Literacy Studies

Thirty years ago, a movement occurred within the field of literacy studies. Scholars such as Heath (1983), Scribner and Cole (1981), and Street (1984) challenged previous autonomous models of literacy by suggesting that literacy is not merely the decontextualized ability to read and write, but also the ability to socially construct meaning. Their research revealed that literacy is an ideological act, and cannot be separated from social factors, culture, and a group’s political and economic conditions. Literacy research within this paradigm, known as the “new literacy studies,” has moved beyond classroombased practices into local contexts where literacy operates in social groups. Within the “new literacy studies” perspective, the intensive intertwining of text and life was foregrounded (Baynham & Prinsloo, 2009). Though initially print-based texts were privileged, newer theories of visual and online literacies have posed interesting questions of what we mean by text (Baynham, 2007).

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]“ I examine the ways that their literacy practices reveal local, national, and global relationships and processes.”[/quote]

Scholars have focused on the literacies of immigrant populations to understand how textual designs are influenced by global society, cultural affiliations, and the transnational flow of goods and products (Warriner, 2009). For example, Sanchez (2007) describes how a group of Mexican American young women produced a picture book telling the story of immigrant families and their movement across the U.S.-Mexican border. For these bilingual young women the narrative they produced was a countertext to the unfavorable image of the border crosser as criminal. Pahl (2007) examines the text construction of a young Turkish immigrant who draws upon Turkish prayer beads to design a map illustrating his grandparents’ journey from Turkey to England. The boy used the materials he found in his home to portray how the lives of his family were shaped dramatically by large-scale global processes. The work of these scholars and others shows the proactive ways in which marginalized youth use informal literacies to explore possible worlds, claim space, and make their voices heard.

My research echoes these themes. The study presented here developed from a larger ethnographic research project tracing the journey of a small group of Cambodian youth as they navigate the complexities of life in Philadelphia and simultaneously draw on a variety of cultural resources (from urban American culture, from global culture, and from their own Khmer cultural inheritance) in constructing layered identities. I became interested in how the choices of materials used for textual production by the Khmer youth, children of migrant farm workers, are culturally, socially and economically shaped, and how their meaning-making processes drew from the sociocultural contexts in which they lived. My research explored how their text productions were formed by their material conditions and expressed their aesthetic and humanistic perspectives as the children of immigrants at a particular moment in history (Bahktin, 1981; Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001).


Cambodian American History

As waves of Southeast Asian refugees were produced by various political upheavals, war and persecution, many migrants found themselves beginning a process of unplanned and rapid adjustment to a new life. In particular, Cambodian refugees were people who had fled their country, endured life in refugee camps, and resettled in a new country – the United States (Ledgerwood, Ebihara, & Mortland, 1994). Hein (2006) asserts that this process of resocialization not only involves the refugees’ history, politics and culture of their homeland, but also involves coping with new identities and inequalities following migration. Cambodian immigrants come to the United States with “interpretive frameworks of how they make sense of the world around them” (Smith, 1994).

The history of the Cambodian refugees includes the Khmer genocide under the Pol Pot regime. This traumatic experience continues to cause postmigration stress within the Cambodian community (Nou, 2006). Socioeconomic deprivations are another aspect affecting Cambodian refugees in the United Sates (Chan, 2004; Hein, 2006; Nou, 2006; Ong, 2003). Both Hein (2006) and Chan (2004) point to low levels of “human capital” upon arrival; that is, Cambodian refugees do not have high levels of education, transferable job skills, or knowledge of U.S. culture. Ong (2003) further elaborates and explains that for exploited Asian workers, like migrant agricultural workers, there is little room for improving one’s socioeconomic status within the United States’ neoliberal market economy.

The Khmer Youth

I came to know the Khmer youth and their families through my work at a Migrant Education Program. They are too young to have been born during the reign of the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia; however, the youth in this study have experienced the stressors of their parents, including cultural adjustments and socioeconomic deprivations. These youth find themselves negotiating complex U.S. communities, public schools, and cultural practices. “Seen – if they are seen at all – as perpetual victims, and as refugees, their social and economic struggles with gang activities and welfare dependency dominate the discourse about them, pointing out and blaming their recent history as the origins of their ‘plight'” (Lee, 2010, p. xiv).

There is no simple, static form of identity that develops among the Khmer youth; however, there is at the same time a collective “Khmerness” or subculture of what it means to be Cambodian in an urban context. Their individual identities and collective shared identities are a complex entanglement of different layers (Jenkins, 1996). In truth, the Khmer youth are cultivating multiple identities, which include the negotiation of class, race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. The Khmer youth’s multimodal and digital expressive acts afford a space for cultivating these multiple identities. More specifically, drawing on Bakhtin’s (1981) notion of textual webs, or the idea that texts build upon other texts, I describe the “textual webs” that connect the Khmer youth across generations and geographical spaces, with artifacts and with practices in both the United States and Cambodia.


For example, Vantha learned the art of tattooing from his father, a Cambodian refugee. Magical tattoos believed to bring good luck, good fortune or protection against enemies have been popular among Cambodian men for generations. The tattoos usually feature images of supernatural creatures, Hindu gods, or characters from Pali and Sanskrit. Cambodian fighters were often adorned with intimidating images of a dragon, tiger or the monkey king Hanuman. Since Vantha was not a healer or a Buddhist monk, he did not have the spiritual abilities to create “magical tattoos,” but he used images like the monkey king Hanuman on tattoos he created for his peers (Figure 1).

In addition, Vantha created tattoos relating to urban gang culture and to his friends’ individual identifications, including tattoos of the phrase “Khmer Pride.” This practice of tattooing reflects a web of Khmer generational and cultural traditions, both as a familial practice passed down to Vantha from his father, and as a historical Cambodian practice. Vantha’s designs of gang signs and symbols reflect how his textual webs are also interconnected to U.S. urban culture and to current cultural shifts among U.S. youth where tattoos are no longer viewed as “edgy” but have become a popular part of a larger “mainstream” American youth culture.

“Khmer Pride”

“To be Khmer is to be born in Cambodia, to be descended from ancestors who were born in Cambodia” (Su, 2010, p. 357). The marking of items with the words “Khmer Pride” is a very obvious way that these youth communicate their Khmer group identity – their solidarity. They display their shared “Khmerness” through the words “Khmer Pride” or the letters K.P. These words show up sometimes in large bubble letters or in graffiti art in school on class folders, journals, portfolios and white boards. The youth also mark their Khmer identity on T-shirts and baseball caps.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]“ T he marking of items with the words “Khmer Pride” is a very obvious way that these youth communicate their Khmer group identity – their solidarity. They display their shared “Khmerness” through the words ‘Khmer Pride’ or the letters K.P. ”[/quote]

In examining this one multimodal textual production, made by Rithy (Figure 2), multiple textual webs are discovered. The style of lettering itself is a sign, since block lettering is similar to some of the urban gang affiliated tagging/writing and the word “pride” is a representation of the knowledge of the rap lyrics discussing “gangsta pride,” or one neighborhood gang, “Original Khmer Pride.” Thus, the sign marks the youth’s connection to, or membership in, urban youth culture. The word “pride” also expresses solidarity for a particular group of individuals, such as “Gay Pride,” or “Korean Pride.” This provides the other layer of the message – the demonstration of pride in the youth’s Khmer cultural heritage. This message is one that is also meant to distinguish them from other Asian youth, often in response to receiving derogatory comments from other youth in their communities such as: “You Chinese should go home.”

Thus, the textual production of Khmer Pride is multilayered. It serves as a way for the youth to form themselves in collective terms – to mark a collective Khmer identity representing shared cultural, linguistic and historical experiences. As a textual web, the marking of Khmer Pride connects Rithy to youth in his urban neighborhood and also to a larger affiliation to Cambodia. This production also serves as an important response to social situations that young Cambodians experience in their schools and in their community. Hence, through the Khmer youth’s multimodal practices there is a mediation of the self, and of the collective self, within their urban context.

New Technologies, New Spaces

[quote float=”right”]“… the Apsara dance can be viewed as an intrinsic bond between Cambodian past and present.”[/quote]

Rithy’s design was made with paper and pencil; however, as new technologies shift the materials, media and spaces afforded to these newer generations of Khmer youth, one can see their expressions of the Khmer experience, and their identifications as Khmer, circulate across time, space and cultures. For example, there are now websites where youth like Rithy discuss their “Khmer Pride” and build a virtual Khmer community with other Khmer youth living around the United States using digitally designed texts. Khmer youth watch YouTube videos of Khmer rappers who perform songs in their heritage language of Khmer and English, with lyrics such as, “I am proud to say, I am a Khmer with pride.”

These new technological spaces also provide avenues for the durability of Cambodian traditions, such as the “Coconut Dance” performed at Cambodian celebrations. As transnational cultural productions, traditional dances span time frames and geographical space. Samaly, whose interest in dance began at home through her mother, uses new technologies to study the movements of professional dancers to learn Cambodian dances, which in turn she teaches to younger girls in her community. In addition to the Coconut Dance, she learns the Apsara dance (Figure 3), a dance used by Khmer in America to retain the importance attached to their original identification as “truly Khmer” (Ledgerwood et al., 1994).


Embedded in the Apsara dance are Khmer notions of women, which include adjectives such as kind, gentle, graceful and refined. Khmer feminine comportment, speaking softly and moving slowly, are also symbolically represented through the Apsaras, celestial dancers whose figures decorate Angkorean temples in Cambodia. Ultimately, the Apsara dance can be viewed as an intrinsic bond between Cambodian past and present.


Though the preceding examples represent only a few tiny windows into the transnational literacy and cultural practices of the Khmer youth, I believe they serve to illustrate how, through the interweaving of textual webs made up of different modes and language forms, these youth express loyalties to youth cultural practices and home countries, and they articulate pride in their cultural heritage. These youth examine multiple identifications that are a result of their positioning within a transnational context. These include not only multiple identities across ethnicity, race, gender, and socioeconomics but also a range of encounters with racism, stereotypes, and anti-immigration sentiments. Therefore, transnationalism plays an important role in understanding from a more broadened perspective how youth form identities within local social networks and across national boundaries.


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Theresa McGinnis is an associate professor in the Teaching, Literacy and Leadership Department at Hofstra University. She holds a doctorate in reading, writing and literacy from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, Khmer Youth in a Migrant Education Program: Discourses, Literacies and Possible Selves, describes the literacy and discourse practices of Khmer children of migratory agricultural workers as they engage with their urban schools and communities. Her research interests include sociocultural theories of literacy, the transnational literacy practices of immigrant youth, and digital spaces as sites for identity construction. She has presented her work in these areas at national and international conferences sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, American Educational Research Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and International Sociological Association. Dr. McGinnis’ work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals, including Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Linguistics and Education, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement.

As a Hofstra faculty member, Dr. McGinnis has taught a wide variety of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral level courses. She has designed courses on digital literacies, and on the cultural and historical perspectives of literacy. In addition to her University teaching, Dr. McGinnis has spent more than 12 years teaching middle school students in the urban communities of Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

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