Obstacles to the Educational Success of Cambodians in America

by Nga Nguy
UCLA Class of 1999

Asian Americans are seen as setting the educational pace for the rest of America. However, a closer look will show that certain ethnic groups within the Asian community are not doing as well as others. This is especially true for the recent arrivals, refugees from Southeast Asia. The purpose of this paper is to understand why it is that Cambodians in America are not as academically successful as the Vietnamese, even though they are both Southeast Asian refugees. In order to answer this question, it is necessary to examine several factors that put Cambodians at a disadvantage in comparison to the Vietnamese: these include historical and educational background, culture, family, language, and mental and physical health. Although both groups are categorized as Southeast Asian refugees, they are two very different ethnic groups. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the background of both groups in order to explain their current accomplishments.

Historical Background

Both Cambodians and Vietnamese left their homeland because of the constant warfare and systematic persecution of individuals by the communist governments that came into power in their respective countries in 1975. Yet the lives of the Cambodian and Vietnamese people were very different during and after the war. The Cambodians had to live through the "Killing Fields" experience, from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and engaged in the rampant killing of all educated Cambodians. Individuals had to watch people, including family members, being killed or tortured right in front of them. Those who were survived had to live through a life of starvation, pain and suffering. When the Vietnamese invaded and defeated the Pol Pot regime, Cambodians began finding ways to leave the country. Individuals went by foot to neighboring Thailand for refuge and to seek asylum. Those who were successful in escaping from the country were placed in refugee camps in Thailand and had to wait out their fate there.
       The Vietnamese had to deal with a new communist government as well when Saigon fell on April 29, 1975, after the last of the American troops were evacuated from Vietnam. Family members were sent to re-education camp if they had any political or military ties to the former government. The government took control over everyone's possessions, such as businesses and homes. The hardship after the war caused many people to seek ways to leave the country. Resources were pooled to pay passage on boats which left the country illegally, in order to seek asylum in nearby countries. Besides the danger of being caught and put into prison, the "boat people" experienced extreme weather, hunger and thirst, and faced the threat of lurking Thai pirates who raped, killed, beat and robbed them out at sea.
       By 1992, 147,460 Cambodians and 653,521 Vietnamese had arrived in the United States.[1] Forty-five percent of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees to America settled in California. The second largest population of Cambodians settled on the East Coast, in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York and Rhode Island. The Vietnamese's second largest place of settlement is in the Gulf states, in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.[2] Many Vietnamese were fortunate enough to have come to the United States in the first two waves of Southeast Asian immigration in the 1970s. Most Cambodians, on the other hand, came in the 1980s as part of the third and most recent wave of Southeast Asian refugees, so they have not been here for as long as the Vietnamese. Four times as many Cambodians as Vietnamese stayed in the refugee camps for over two years (as can be seen in Table 3). Cambodians missed out on years of formal schooling while they resided in the camps. Since Vietnamese have generally come to the United States at an earlier date then Cambodians, they are at a slight advantage in achieving proficiency in the English language.[3]

Educational Background

Before their respective civil wars, both Cambodia and Vietnam had a French-based school system. In order for Cambodian and Vietnamese children to advance to the next grade level, they had to pass exams.[4] During and after the war, however, Cambodian and Vietnamese students had their education disrupted in different ways. The Cambodian educational system was completely shut down by the Khmer Rouge when they came to power. The Khmer Rouge sought and killed anyone who was educated in order to prevent any criticism of or rebellion against their leadership. The only education that children received from the Khmer Rouge was learning the time tables by rote memorization and learning the Khmer Rouge's ideals of citizenship. According to Tevi, a school girl at the time:

School proper began around 8am and lasted about three hours. We recited the times tables, nothing more, nothing less—no history, reading, writing, or other kinds of math. Day after day, year after year, that is all I learned. We had no books. We had no desks, no papers, no pencils.[5]

       As for Vietnamese students, even before the war, school appears to have been more rigorous compared to the Cambodian system. Students had to take competitive national exams every five years and their performance on them would determine the course and nature of their educational career.[6] Those who did not perform well enough to register for public schools had to rely on familial support to enroll in private schools. During the war, Vietnamese students would have to stop going to school if the fighting was in their area, and they would go to school at night when the fighting had ceased. After the war, the school structure remained based on competitive national exams every five years, but it was no longer French-based. The students learned about communist history and ideals, along with their math and writing.
       The children of Cambodian immigrants had very little, if any, formal school experience because of the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, the children learned practically nothing about reading or writing Khmer. In some areas of Cambodia, there had not been any educational institutions for over 10 years.[7] Therefore, Cambodian children who recently arrived in the United States needed time to adjust to a formal school structure. The American school system was a new experience for these children, not just because of the new language, but also because there are multiple subjects to learn. Vietnamese students may have had an easier time adjusting to American schools because their schooling was never disrupted for as long a duration as the Cambodians. And they do not have to adjust to both learning English and learning multiple subjects, because even after the Communist government took over schools in Vietnam, the schools were still structured with multiple subjects. The inexperience of Cambodians in formal schooling placed them at a distinct disadvantage when entering the American educational system.
       In America, students' academic abilities are measured by academic achievement tests. It is likely that Vietnamese children were more comfortable with taking such examinations since they were still administered in Vietnam after the war. The Khmer Rouge's inadequate education system did not include examinations. Having never experienced this practice, many Cambodian children needed time to become acquainted with it. A study of Cambodian public school children in San Francisco demonstrated that academic achievement was enhanced when these children were placed in a cooperative learning environment, rather than a competitive one.[8] This suggests that Cambodian children were not use to the competition inherent in the American educational system. In contrast, Vietnamese students were familiar with having to compete with each other academically to get into the small number of universities in Vietnam:

In Vietnam, it was very difficult to get into the university. Not like here, where so many people go to college. In Vietnam, you had to pass many tests, and each one was more difficult than the one before.[9]


In Cambodian and Vietnamese culture, an educated person holds prestige and status. In each culture teachers are given a great deal of respect. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese parents hand over responsibility of teaching and disciplining the child to the teacher. Yet, the ultimate responsibility for learning is placed on the child.
       In Cambodian culture, it is believed that a child is born with innate talents and dispositions. Their performance in school and the career path they choose is believed to be determined by these inherent abilities. This belief makes Cambodian parents reluctant to push their children in school. As a consequence, Cambodians are not as aggressive as Vietnamese students in pursuing academic success.[10] But the American school system is a competitive one, which uses a system of tracking and labeling to place its students. Tracking or ability tracking involves placing students in groups of matched ability.[11] The American school system thus presents obstacles to students who are labeled as low level at the outset. Cambodians are more vulnerable to being placed in low ability tracking than the Vietnamese because they are performing below the average of American students. The Cambodian belief that learning is innate therefore traps parents into believing that the level their children are placed in at school is where they should be throughout their education. When faced with failure, those who believe in innate ability or innate limitations are more likely to give up and resign themselves to their fate.[12]
       As for Vietnamese students, they are accustomed to pushing themselves to achieve better results. In their culture, they follow the belief that if they work hard, they will be rewarded. Confucian ethics drives people to work, excel and repay the debt they owe to their parents.[13] Vietnamese are more competitive than Cambodians because in their culture they believe in Confucian ethics—achievement through hard work. They will not allow tracking or labeling to inhibit them from pursuing high academic results because they will challenge themselves to do better. They are motivated and compelled to learn, especially for their parents and kin.[14] If they are faced with failure, the sensible course for children who believe in effort is to work harder and not quit.[15]
       For children to succeed in the American school system, they need to challenge themselves. In a low level track system, the teachers essentially have students do a minimal amount of work and do not challenge them to be high achieving students. Teachers are more controlling and criticize the low ability group more than the high ability group. In the high ability group, the teacher initiate more academically-oriented interactions.[16] When the school system labels and places students in a low level track system, their disadvantages are thus perpetuated.


Educational achievement is a collective effort for both Cambodian and Vietnamese families. Parent-child interaction regarding education is different for the two ethnic groups, however. Cambodian families do not push their children as much as Vietnamese families do. Cambodian parents hesitate to push their children against the child's own interest and desire. Even though they may have high aspirations for their children, the parents tend to only give advice and guidance, rather than pressure them to excel in school.[17] One researcher observed:

For one's children, taking the middle road means not demanding too much of the child, not expecting more than the child can deliver. To push one's child in a particular direction and fail, said another parent, is to risk losing face and one's standing in the community.[18]

In this case, the Cambodian parents place a label on their children by either saying they can or cannot achieve.
       It is a different situation for Vietnamese children. Vietnamese families study collectively, and not individually. They help each other by mentoring or tutoring each other in different subjects.[19] They set up a time for children to do their homework together. Also, younger siblings are expected to follow the footsteps of older ones who have performed well in school. Parents stress the value of self-sacrifice for the benefit and prestige of the family, not just for the individual student.[20] They place strong pressures on the children to succeed against all odds to achieve their educational or career goals.[21] If the child is labeled as a slow learner or is placed in a low level track, then the child will want to do better and challenge himself or herself to achieve higher results to make the family proud. Parents add to the competitive nature of the Vietnamese student. An example of this type of parental influence can be heard from Hoang Vinh:

He never told me, "Oh, you do good," or "Oh, you do bad." He say, "Next time, you should do better." He encourages me. He talks about why you have to learn and what important things you will do in the future if you learn.[22]

       Whether or not a family is intact also may impact the performance of a child at school. In 1990, the percentage of Vietnamese families in America that were intact was approximately 75%, whereas for Cambodians it was about 50%. Cambodian families have a higher percentage of single parents because many spouses were taken away and killed by the Khmer Rouge during the Democratic Kampuchea period. The task of raising children alone in a new country makes it difficult for single parents to act as role models for their children. Cambodian students may find it harder to be academically successful if there is no one to whom they can look up to as a role model or mentor. According to one sociologist, two parent families have better psychological conditions, higher levels of academic achievement, and stronger educational aspirations than those in single parent families.[23] Cambodian students may be hindered in their academic pursuits by their lack of two-parent families, which may thus contribute to their lower performance levels compared to Vietnamese children.


Since English is the language used in American schools, students must be English proficient if they are to achieve academic success. It is especially important when schools do not provide a bilingual education system, like California schools because of the recent passing of Proposition 227, which prohibits the usage of any language besides English in the classroom. In American public schools they believe in the "sink or swim" linguistic policy, where the child is totally submerged in English in the classroom and has to learn on his or her own.[24]
       Both Cambodians and Vietnamese desire their children maintain their native language to facilitate communication between the older and younger generations. Nevertheless, both ethnic groups also want their children to learn the English language as quickly as possible. This can be seen with Cambodian parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, who enroll their children in an all English school system, even though bilingual education is available to them. The difficulty of learning a new language and learning how to read and write are the things that Cambodian children face when they enter school. As mentioned earlier, during the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodian children learned very little beyond communist propaganda. They never learned to read or write Khmer. Even for those who did somehow become literate in the Khmer language, the English alphabet is very different from the characters used in Khmer. Thus, Cambodian children were faced with a significant obstacle to achieving even minimum levels of English proficiency.[25]
       Unlike the Cambodians, Vietnamese children continued to learn how to read and write in school after the communist takeover. Even though they learned Vietnamese and not English, they are better off than the Cambodian children because the Vietnamese language uses Roman letters. This, in addition to the fact that they had formal schooling experience, enabled them to have an easier time in learning how to read and write English.

Table 1. Percentage Classified as LEP and FEP among San Diego High School Students.[26]

School Year Number of Students Limited English Proficiency % Fluent English Proficiency %
Vietnamese 1987 1184 61.9 38.1
1990 1618 43.9 56.1
Cambodian 1987 391 91.8 8.2
1990 415 77.8 22.2

Table 2. Academic Grade Point Averages of San Diego High School Students. [27]

School Year Limited English Proficiency Fluent English Proficiency Total
Vietnamese 1987 2.38 2.96 2.60
1990 2.47 3.02 2.78
Cambodian 1987 2.30 2.77 2.34
1990 2.21 2.82 2.35

       According to the San Diego study, Table 1 shows that the Cambodians have a greater percentage of students with Limited English Proficiency than Fluent English Proficiency. Cambodians also have a greater percentage of LEP students in comparison to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, have a higher percentage of FEP students. To examine the actual intellectual accomplishments, it is necessary to examine the cumulative grade point average of the two groups of English proficient students. Table 2 shows that FEP students do better than LEP students. This can explain why Cambodians are not doing as well as Vietnamese. Cambodians have a greater percentage of LEP students; therefore, their overall GPA is less than that of the Vietnamese. If Cambodians had a greater percentage of FEP students, then they might have a chance at performing as well as the Vietnamese. Besides the lower GPA, Cambodians are also at greater risk to drop out of school. LEP students on average have been observed to be at greater risk of dropping out of school.[28] Since school is in English, LEP students may have a harder time keeping up and become frustrated by the inability to understand or express themselves in the classroom. This language handicap is likely to be a considerable factor in explaining low scores and high drop-out levels.

Mental and Physical Health

Table 3. Context of Exodus: Stressful Life Events of Refugees Resettled in San Diego County.[29]

Event Cambodia (N=120) % Vietnamese (N=157) %
Report death of family members 65.8 39.5
Family member in prison in homeland 5.5 42.0
Fled alone, without immediate family 29.2 13.4
Gave bribes to exit 19.3 32.7
Assaulted in escape 25.2 30.6
Feared would be killed during escape 80.7 73.2
Spent over 2 years in refugee camps 75.9 22.1
Cannot communicate with family left behind (unknown whereabouts) 76.3 41.0

       The stress of learning English is not the only stress that the two groups of children face. Their experience before coming to America may have caused Cambodians to be more mentally and physically unhealthy than the Vietnamese. Both may have experienced or seen rape, abuse, death and robbery, but the Cambodians had to deal with it more and for a much longer duration. Table 3 shows that the traumatization was more harsh on Cambodians. In almost all the events, Cambodians had a greater percentage than Vietnamese. The only three events that the Vietnamese had a greater percentage was family member in prison, giving bribes, and assaulted in escape. They did not have to watch, like the Cambodians did, as family members were taken away and killed or were killed in front of them. The Cambodians have more emotions to sort out than the children of the "boat people". Many feel guilty for being alive; they have nightmares of events that occurred; and they exhibit greater levels of depression. Therefore, Cambodians are more likely to participate very little or not at all in the classroom. They tend to become more distracted in school because they daydream or become emotionally withdrawn. It is much more difficult for them to concentrate on their studies because they cannot sleep well.[30] Besides the mental abuse that they suffered during the Democratic Kampuchea years, they also had to deal with physical abuse, such as starvation and malnutrition. Poor health makes it harder for the Cambodians to do well in school because it makes it difficult for them to focus their efforts on school activities, homework and making friends. Researchers have found that Cambodians tend to withdraw as a way of coping with their problems.[31]
       Although the Vietnamese students experience distress, they are more likely to overcome their difficulties sooner than the Cambodians. Guilt is not a big issue for the Vietnamese because their families are more intact than the Cambodians. According to Table 3, the only major problem a high percentage of Vietnamese experienced was the imprisonment of family members. Unlike the Cambodians, they do not have to worry as much about lost family members. For those who do not have their family, they tend to motivate themselves to do better because they know that their families back in Vietnam are depending on them to make it here in America so that they can someday bring the family over and reunite. They do not have to play catch up in terms of physical and mental development like the Cambodians.[32] Table 3 also shows that the percentage of Cambodian immigrants who remained in camp for more than two years before coming to America is greater than that of the Vietnamese. Since Vietnamese people were able to come to the United States earlier and not have to deal with the camp ordeal for as long, they have more endurance and mental reserve to deal with problems when they arrive than the Cambodians.[33]

Social and Economic Factors

Besides these different factors, it is still necessary to take a look at the social and economic resources that are lacking for Cambodians to assist them in achieving academic success. Success in school depends not only on cognitive ability and motivation of individual children, but also on economic and social resources available to them through their families.[34] The Cambodians arrived in large numbers in the third and most recent wave of Southeast Asian refugees, and consisted mostly of rural and less educated backgrounds, while most of the Vietnamese in the earlier two waves were more urban and better educated. Since the Cambodians came later than the Vietnamese, they have not had time to adjust as well to their new environment, which may explain why Cambodians have a greater percentage of families on welfare or living below poverty level in Table 4. Cambodians are not participating in the labor force as much as the Vietnamese: only 49% of Cambodians work compared to 64.4% of Vietnamese.[35] The low income of Cambodians may force them to find affordable, inadequate housing that is situated in dangerous neighborhoods. Life may be harder for Cambodians because they have to deal with poverty and adjusting to a new environment, which can affect their school performance. According to Portes and Rumbaut, "depression and distress associated with poverty are compounded by vulnerability and frequent disorientation in foreign environment."[36]

Table 4. Median Household Incomes, Public Assistance, and Poverty Rates.[37]

Median Household Income Public Assistance % Poverty Rate %
Vietnamese 30,039 24.5 25.5
Cambodian 19,728 51.1 38.4

       Although Cambodians have ethnic communities in America, they may not be as well developed as those of the Vietnamese. This may be because Vietnamese refugees have been in the United States for a longer period of time and have arrived in much greater numbers. Vietnamese have also been found to be more highly segregated compared to other Asians.[38] This fact may explain the availability of social resources that is provided within the community in order to help the children with educational achievements. Families are able to depend on the community to assist in disciplining and motivating the child to do well in school. Researchers in San Diego found that Vietnamese high school students did much better in both GPA and test scores than their Cambodian peers, and they found that one of the strongest predictors of GPA was the measure of ethnic resilience.[39] A strong community is important because healthy development occurs when there is a sense of identity, of belonging, exchange of information and mutual help, which aids the resettlement process of immigrants by reducing anxiety and mental distress.[40] In order to be more successful as community in supporting education, Cambodian ethnic enclaves need to develop dense social networks and closer monitoring of children by parents and kin.[41]


Understanding the different factors that make one ethnic group different from another makes it easier to see why one group is doing better than the other in academic achievement. Even though they are constantly grouped in the Southeast Asian refugee category, the Cambodians and Vietnamese have very different features that make it easier for Vietnamese to achieve academic success. After looking at the historical and educational background, culture, family, language, mental and physical health, and economic and social factors, the answer to why Cambodians are not as successful as Vietnamese becomes clearer. Nevertheless, there are other important factors that have not been mentioned in this paper that can also help explain the disparity in achievement levels, such as parental educational attainment level and native language literacy. The overall picture does show that Cambodians are at a disadvantage compared to the Vietnamese, but that they can improve their academic success once they learn to adapt and adjust to living in America, like many other Asian groups have.


[1] Pyong Gap Min, Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995) 241.

[2] Ngoan Le, "The Case of the Southeast Asian Refugees: Policy for a Community 'At Risk'," The State of Asian Pacific America (1993): 172.

[3] Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 223.

[4] Joan D. Criddle, Bamboo and Butterflies: From Refugee to Citizen (Dixon: East/West Bridge Publishing House) 55.

[5] Criddle, 55.

[6] Nazli Kibria, Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 62.

[7] Michael Messer and Norman H. Rasmussen, "Southeast Asian Children in America: The Impact of Change," Pediatrics Vol. 78 No. 2 (August 1986): 327.

[8] Barbara A. Frye and Carolyn D. D'Avanzo, "Cultural Themes in Family Stress and Violence among Cambodian Refugee Women in the Inner City," Advance Nursing Science 16(3) (1994): 68.

[9] Kibria, 154.

[10] David Brand, "The New Whiz Kids," Times August, 1987: 45.

[11] Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity (Massachusetts: Longman Publishers) 87.

[12] Catherine C. Lewis, Educating Hearts and Minds (Cambridge University Press) 48.

[13] Brand, 42.

[14] Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Ethnic Los Angeles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996) 316.

[15] Lewis, 48.

[16] Nieto, 87.

[17] Smith-Hefner, 262.

[18] Smith-Hefner, 262.

[19] Kibria, 155.

[20] Smith-Hefner, 264.

[21] Smith-Hefner, 264.

[22] Nieto, 177.

[23] Min Zhou, "Growing Up American: The Challenge Confronting Immigrant Children and Children of Immigrants," Annual Review Sociology (1997): 80.

[24] Zhou, 87.

[25] Le, 173.

[26] Portes and Rumbaut, 202.

[27] Portes and Rumbaut, 204.

[28] Xhou, 89.

[29] Portes and Rumbaut, 172.

[30] William Sack, et al., "The Psychiatric Effects of Massive Trauma on Cambodian Children: The Family, the Home, and the School," (1984) 380.

[31] Sack, 382.

[32] Messer and Rasmussen, 325.

[33] Messer and Rasmussen, 325.

[34] Zhou, 79.

[35] Portes and Rumbaut, 67.

[36] Portes and Rumbaut, 188; Min, 247.

[37] Portes and Rumbaut, 78.

[38] Mark Langberg and Reynolds Farley, "Residential Segregation of Asian Americans in 1980," Sociology and Social Research 70:1 (Oct 1986) 71.

[39] Zhou, 78.

[40] Nguyen Manh Hung, "Vietnamese," 203.

[41] Portes and Rumbaut, 256.

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