Not Your Normal Expat Scene: Khmer Kids Coming Back to Cambodia

“This not your normal expat scene.”

That’s all I kept thinking last night, as I stood sweating and stomach-sore in the crowd. I’d dragged myself out to a show, what was described to me as an all-girl indie rock band that sang in Khmer. Killer. No traveler’s flu would make me miss this.

It was a funny mix—local men in dress shirts and slacks, women in those super foofy sparkly dresses; kids, some just in the crowd, others wearing matching shirts for some organization I couldn’t quite make out.

And there were your typical expats—Western, mostly white. Some of them were extremely well-groomed, reeking of cologne and hair spray and kissing their friends on both cheeks. Some of them wore that aren’t-I-so-cool-for-being-here look. Some tried to dance along or move to the beat, and it was sad and cute in the way it’s always sad and cute. And others just seemed to be there, watching, enjoying the show, because that’s what there was to do that night.

But the kids putting on the show—the kids on stage and holding the cameras and checking the sound—they were not your normal expats.

Your typical expat does not drop their “to be” verb (“She crazy”), doesn’t say “y’all” or “aight.” They don’t wear baggy jeans and puffy sneakers. They don’t start NGOs called Tiny Toones or hip-hop groups called Klap Ya Handz, written in Godfather font. They don’t breakdance or freestyle or bust—and they don’t do it in the language native to their new homes.

I’d heard about the show from Bel, a girl I’d found on Couchsurfing. We had plans to meet up for coffee and even though my stomach was already getting wonky, something told me not to flake.

She was a cool girl and we talked for awhile. Her boyfriend was a Khmer-American who’d moved back to Cambodia, with no intention of ever leaving again. “He’s the most patriotic Khmer you’ll ever meet,” she said, and later he showed me the tattoo of a famous Wat across his back.

“There’s a lot of foreign-born Khmers moving back,” Bel told me. “Lots of artists and young people. And they’re really motivated to do something here.”

I wanted to see this; I wanted to glimpse what this was. Sure, I knew of people going back to their parents’ countries for a visit, but to live? To give up everything they know to fight for something better in a country they hadn’t grown up in? This was something different.

And it was. The show place was buried deep inside the maze of a mall, shuttered shops and a blinking arcade, bowling alley and bumper cars. I got there earlyish, paid a $10 cover—normal for the US, but exorbitant for here.

On stage was a DJ, two turntables and a MacBook glowing. Two artists were on stage, doing ad hoc graffiti art on a make-shift wall. “Empire State of Mind” came on. It was like being at any hip-hop show at home—except a hell of a lot hotter.

The first act was a hip-hop group called Klap Ya Handz. They spoke in a working-class English, like kids that grow up in Oakland. But in the songs, they flowed in Khmer. For one song, they brought out traditional Khmer drummers that were, well, bad-ass. During another song, the lead girl did what she later called “Khmer hands,” a hip-hop take-off on the hand movements of traditional Khmer dancers.

Cambodia lost a whole generation of artists during the Khmer Rouge. Traditional dance was virtually erased and, after Pol Pot, there wasn’t anyone left to pass it on. I’d read accounts of the few survivors left trying to teach the next generation, and it being hard—they were more interested, as teenagers usually are, in contemporary things. Like hip-hop.

The headliner was Laura Mam and the Like Me’s. They’re a bluesy, all-girl rock band from San Jose, California (local love). They’re Khmer-American and sing in Khmer. The crowd obviously loved them, singing along and snapping photos and waving their arms. I was told that they came to play in Cambodia relatively often. Either way, they showed the same kind of passionate pride in their Khmer culture that the kids in Klap Ya Handz did.

They played a song called “Diaspora”: “for all the refugees living in diaspora around the world—and missing Cambodia.” The crowd went crazy.

No, this wasn’t your normal expat scene.

Your typical expat is someone of relative priviledge; they have, say, a university degree and the social mobility to pick up and move around the world. Maybe they studied abroad, or spent time backpacking around. In any event, it occurred to them to leave their home countries in the first place and they had the means, however meager, to do it. The ones I encounter are largely middle-class; the uber wealthy ones exist on another plane, and I only see them in passing—the immaculate girls on the streets of Hong Kong.

These kids were categorically Not That. They’re the kind of kids, in the kind of scene, that I miss when I leave the US; when I think about moving abroad, I think, “Man, there’s so much shit I’d be missing” and this is part of what I mean.

And they bring their Americanness—their very, very Americanness—back here. But they’re making something new with it; there’s that frenetic energy, that spark you feel when cultures collide and you see people that are so intensely passionate about what they’re doing, you can’t help but feel it too.

Of course, not all of them are coming back by choice. The US opted to deport foreign-born convicts, regardless of whether they’d served their time, and nearly 200 people who were, for all intents and purposes, American were sent “back” to Cambodia. They brought their culture, a street culture, and they brought their art. And they’re doing shit; they’re bringing this to the kids of Cambodia, the next generation (ie: Tiny Toones).

So basically, watch the fuck out for these kids.

There was a shirt I kept seeing in the crowd, tons of kids wearing it. Its design was a take-off on the Star Wars logo, and it read: “The Khmer Empire Strikes Back.”

This was my first glimpse into this, my looking-through-the-peep-hole into this. I fully intend on investigating this more during my time here. But last night, sickness was calling, and I had to head back to the hotel.

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5 Responses to “Not Your Normal Expat Scene: Khmer Kids Coming Back to Cambodia”


  1. 1 Dianne March 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Dont let the diarohhea get you down lonely girl, loving your posts, esp this one!

  2. 2 neha March 4, 2011 at 2:15 am

    I’m so glad I read this post right after your last one. Two different worlds … this one filled me a sense of energy and joy. Thanks for sharing this, would never have heard about it otherwise.

  3. 3 Abbie March 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Wow that sounds awesome. This one definitely gave me the feelings that Neha described. Very cool.

  4. 4 Steve L March 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

    The Like Me’s we performing in San Jose in January, I almost went.

  5. 5 Rebecca March 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Sounds cool, I’d love to see this.


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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