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How Cambodian Americans Heal the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma

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A boy holds his hands together in prayer while sitting in a large group of people doing the same indoors.
Tyler Neang (center) prays alongside his family at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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ions and angels guard the perimeter of the main pagoda at Fresno’s largest Cambodian Buddhist temple, resplendent in gold, green and red hues. They were witness to the inauguration of the temple’s first-ever abbot, a lifelong appointment so rare that dozens of Cambodian Buddhist monks from around the world flew in to offer blessings.

A sea of orange robes lined the procession route winding around the pagoda. At the center, the new abbot, Say Bunthon, sat atop a chariot serenely taking in the scene. Temple-goers began their circular march as a boisterous band of musicians and singers set the rhythm. This was where I met Nancy Meas a year ago.

“Aren’t they gorgeous?” she asked, smiling from behind a row of lush flower bouquets.

The pagoda at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Designed to mimic the colors of the Buddhist flag, blue, orange, red, yellow and white bursts of delphiniums, snapdragons and mums were arranged on the dais. There are 12 in all, and together, they symbolize completion. For Meas, they were a hopeful sign that things were moving in a new direction.

She’s dealt with more than her fair share of pain and loss.

The 36-year-old was born and raised in Fresno to parents who fled the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, soldiers under communist leader Pol Pot, murdered, tortured and starved people in an attempt to rebuild a society free of Western influences.

More than 40 years after the genocide killed some 2 million Cambodians, the refugees who survived are still struggling to move past the trauma they endured. And that brutal past is often echoed in the next generation — children of refugees like Meas and her siblings.

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Piecing life back together after a genocide

Nancy’s father, Kong Meas, became a monk at the Fresno temple in 2014, a few years after his mother died. She was a nun and Kong felt the need to carry on the family tradition. Through his practice, he found a measure of peace after surviving brutal working conditions under the Khmer Rouge regime. There wasn’t always enough food and many people starved to death.

“We’d work so hard every day, but they would only give us a little bit of porridge,” he said, speaking in Khmer. “Since I didn’t have food to eat, I became really skinny and I couldn’t walk. I would almost fall.”

Nancy Meas (left) and her father Kong Meas hold a photo of Phay Prak, Nancy’s grandmother and Kong’s mother in the garden at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

One of his children died from starvation. His older brother was executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. He never knew what happened to his remains.

“They killed soldiers from the former Lon Nol government. They took them away by carloads, including my brother,” he said.

In 1979, when the regime fell, Kong and his family fled to Thailand. While they waited for exit visas, he risked his life to help other people sneak into their camp, Khao-I-Dang. It was the main place people could get visas to immigrate.

 

“Sometimes, I would see others on the path having a difficult time,” Kong said. “Or sometimes, the people were lost and didn’t know the path. I would see them and just help guide them.”

Kong Meas recalled how risky the missions were. Most of the time, they had to travel at night.

 They encountered thieves who searched travelers for hidden jewelry and he was always on the lookout for armed guards that prowled the jungle paths.

“Even when we arrived, we wouldn’t go in immediately for fear that soldiers would see us and shoot us,” he said.

One day, it was his family’s turn to leave. They received a visa for the United States and immigrated to Fresno in 1984. Nancy was born two years later.

More than 40 years after the genocide, Nancy knows her parents suffer from the trauma of what they witnessed, but they don’t talk much about the details. Even if her parents were willing to share more about what they went through, Nancy might not understand them. She grew up in the U.S., speaking English, while her parents mostly speak Khmer. Things get lost in translation.

“It’s broken English, broken Khmer all mixed up. There’s a lot of miscommunication,” Nancy said.

Community members offer alms to the monks at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

There are cultural differences at play between the generations too. Nancy said her parents didn’t understand the way their kids dressed or acted once they moved to Fresno. Cambodian society, where they had grown up, is a more reserved society, one with more rules.

“It’s hard to understand their parents, where they came from,” Nancy said. “It’s just a culture clash.”

And Nancy said her parents didn’t have a lot of time to spend with their kids to overcome these barriers. They were busy adjusting to a foreign country and finding work, which left Nancy and her siblings fending for themselves in the lower-income neighborhood where they lived.

Second-generation trauma looks different

The Meas family survived a genocide, but they couldn’t escape more tragedy in the U.S.

Nancy Meas is one of eight kids, but only five are still alive today. One child died in Cambodia, and Fresno claimed two more. Nancy’s older sister, Kunnea Meas, died by suicide in 2010 at age 25.

“We didn’t expect it to happen,” Nancy said. “My sister was a very bubbly person, loving, caring, kind.”

Kunnea was only a year older than Nancy and they were close.

“It was just so hurtful that she couldn’t at least share what was going inside, what was bothering her because we were really best friends,” she said.

Kunnea had been struggling with depression for months, but it was taboo in their family to talk about it.

“You have to be happy and move forward,” Nancy said. “And [my parents] would always tell me the kids back in Cambodia have it much worse than us. You know, we are blessed to be here in America.”

Nancy knows this is how her parents learned to cope with all they suffered, but she wonders about the impact it had on her sister’s mental health.

Nancy Meas at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“I felt like they were dismissing what we felt internally,” Nancy said. “[I don’t want] to blame them, but I feel, in a sense, that’s the reason why my sister hid everything inside and didn’t dare to let anything out. And she dealt with it by herself.”

Around the same time, one of Nancy’s brothers, Chantha, was detained for gang activity. She said gangs were hard to avoid in the Southeast Fresno neighborhood where they grew up. Gangs were a way for boys, in particular, to protect themselves. Two of Nancy’s four brothers got involved. Because of his gang connections, Chantha was deported to Cambodia.

“He doesn’t even know Cambodia,” she said. “He doesn’t know the culture. He can barely speak the language.”

 Just after he was detained, Kunnea died by suicide. Chantha was in shackles when he attended Kunnea’s viewing. He wasn’t even allowed to stay in the country long enough to attend her funeral, which took place several days later.

“He took it really hard. He was able to go to her viewing for literally 30 minutes and it broke my heart to see him drop down to his knees and just bawl,” Nancy said.

Lawyers for the family have been working to bring him back home for the past seven years.

Rocked by these losses, Nancy planned a trip to Cambodia the following year. She wanted to visit sacred religious sites, check on her brother and ground herself. While there, she experienced something profound, what she calls an “awakening.”

“I completely changed. I just completely prioritized my life and filtered out what wasn’t important and what was,” she said.

When she returned to Fresno, she leaned into her faith, spending time at the temple meditating and praying. It helped her feel spiritually connected to her ancestors and able to accept what had happened.

“I felt like I had a huge role in bringing the family together in a sense, spiritually,” she said. “And if I don’t do that, I feel like we’re gonna fall apart again.”

But Nancy’s faith was put to the test once again. Just a few years ago, her oldest sister died from complications related to alcohol, a way of coping with all the other losses.

Culturally responsive mental health care could help

Throughout her grief and loss, Nancy Meas continues to turn to her religion and culture for comfort. She saw a therapist when Kunnea died, but didn’t feel the need to continue sessions. She said if the care focused more specifically on the experience of Cambodian Americans, it might have been different. She would even be open to getting her parents to try it too.

There is a model for that type of culturally responsive care in Fresno already. But it’s geared toward the Hmong population, many of whom are older and don’t like direct questions.

The Fresno Center in Fresno on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“It’s almost like a dance,” said Ze Vang, the clinical director at The Fresno Center whose mission is to offer health and immigration services to the Southeast Asian community. “They come in, we have to talk about, ‘So what did you do today?’ That type of thing, and they’re like, ‘Oh nothing.’ And we have to kind of dance around what they do and how they’re feeling. And then, 10 minutes into the session, they finally say, ‘Oh, I feel really depressed.’”

The Fresno Center’s success with the Hmong community started with destigmatizing mental health, a huge obstacle to accessing mental health care.

“Generation after generation told them that if you have mental health [treatment], you’re actually crazy,” said clinical psychologist and program director Dr. Ghia Xiong.

It turned out that people were turned off by terms like “mental health” or “clinic.”

“We actually have the ladies test this out with their husbands,” Xiong said. “When he asks you where you’re going, you just say, ‘I’m going to the Happy House,’ rather than, ‘going and seeking mental health.’”

And, crucially, the center offers therapy in the Hmong language.

“When you provide mental health services with the interpreter, it completely changes the context of therapy,” Vang said. “Because then you have to translate what the client is saying to the interpreter, then the interpreter translates to you. You lose all the emotions.”

In California, mental health programs are growing in size and scope and becoming more widely available for underserved populations like Hmong and Cambodian Americans.

The photos of community elders adorn the walls at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 63, a ballot initiative known as the Mental Health Services Fund. It places a 1% tax on incomes over $1 million, which funds mental health programs like The Fresno Center.

Although Vang and Xiong are both Hmong and specialize in treating Hmong patients, they say the intergenerational trauma and barriers to accessing care are similar across the Southeast Asian community.

“Sometimes, the parents are just so busy making a living, so busy with making sure that there’s food on the table, they don’t have time for their kids,” Vang said.

She said many don’t understand why their children are struggling in the U.S., where life is so much easier than in Cambodia. On the flip side, the younger generation can feel abandoned and misunderstood.

“There’s really no sense of belonging with the family,” Vang said. “There’s no sort of relationship at all.”

To make up for that, children often try to find supportive relationships somewhere else, sometimes in gangs. Many also suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“But it’s because their parents have their own trauma,” Vang said.

Fostering a sense of belonging

Formal therapy isn’t the only way to help folks dealing with trauma. As Nancy Meas found, volunteering at the Cambodian Buddhist temple and maintaining a connection to the older generation through language and tradition can go a long way.

It offers a sense of belonging.

“Even though I’m American-born, I feel like to make my ancestors proud, to make my parents and family proud, I have to carry on the tradition,” she said.

United Khmer Cultural Preservation is trying to do the same thing for more Cambodian kids. It runs a weekly language and cultural arts class for children and teens as a way of bridging the cultural gap between generations.

Cahoeun (Chantao) Gov helps her granddaughters Zora Sanchez and Kai Sanchez pray at the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society temple on Sept. 9, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Setha Nhim teaches on weekends, teaching children how to play traditional Cambodian instruments.

“I started practicing a little before with Yeh Yeh,” said 8-year-old Nadine Gov as she tapped along on a drum. “I knew a little bit before we came.”

Now, she can count to 100 in Khmer, which makes her grandmother — her Yeh Yeh — proud.

 “I bring my grandchildren to learn about culture,” said Chhoeun Gov, Nadine’s grandmother. “I don’t want to forget Cambodian culture. And I like my culture a lot.”

Phany Sor enrolled all four of her kids in language classes at the cultural center because her husband is Lao and the kids mostly speak English at home.

“It’s kind of hard, like how you have two parents, different languages,” she said. “I want them to learn our language too.”

Nancy Meas doesn’t want to forget either. That’s why she often visits the Cambodian temple, taking a meditation walk each time.

“So each step that I take around the perimeter, you know the shrine, I feel like it brings me more healing, brings more peace, more comfort,” she said.

She often lingers at her favorite spot, the pond.

“I love seeing the lotus flowers,” she said gazing at a sea of green. The flowers sprout from green lily pads as tall, thin stalks blooming with white and pink flowers.

“In order for it to become the beautiful flower, it has to go through mud and all the dirt and challenges, the weather,” Nancy said. “But at the end of all the challenges and the winds and the storms it blooms so beautifully.”

This reporting was supported by the Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

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