Cambodians entered the United States as refugees after a group of Cambodian Communists named Khmer Rouge, led by the French-educated Pol Pot, won a civil war that had raged from March 1970 to April 1975 and proceeded to rule the country with extraordinary brutality. In power from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979, they destroyed all the major institutions in the country. An estimated 1.7 million people out of an estimated total population of 7.9 million died from executions, hunger, disease, injuries, coerced labor, and exposure to the elements. The refuge-seekers came in three waves: (1) just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, (2) during the regime’s existence, and (3) after the regime was overthrown. Some former Khmer Rouge personnel, who had escaped to Vietnam because they opposed Pol Pot’s extremist ideology and savage practices, returned in late December 1978, accompanied by 120,000 Vietnamese troops, to topple the government of their former comrades. A second civil war then erupted along the Thai-Cambodian border pitting the rump Khmer Rouge against two groups of non-communist combatants. Though fighting among themselves, all three groups opposed the new Cambodian government that was supported and controlled by Vietnam. When hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, along with Laotians and Vietnamese, showed up at the Thai-Cambodian border to seek refuge in Thailand, the Thai government and military did not welcome them. Thailand treated the Cambodians especially harshly for reasons related to the Thai officials’ concerns about the internal security of their country. Almost 158,000 Cambodians gained entry into the United States between 1975 and 1994, mainly as refugees but with a smaller number as immigrants and “humanitarian parolees.” Cambodian ethnic communities sprang up on American soil, many of them in locations chosen by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. By the time the 1990 U.S. census was taken, Cambodians could be found in all fifty states. The refugees encountered enormous difficulties adapting to life in the United States. Only about 5 percent of them, mostly educated people from the first wave of refugees who came in 1975 and who, therefore, did not experience the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, managed to find white-collar jobs, often serving as intermediaries between their compatriots and the larger American society. About 40 to 50 percent of the Cambodian newcomers who arrived in the second and third waves found employment in blue-collar occupations. The rest of the population has relied on welfare and other forms of public assistance. A significant portion of this last group is composed of households headed by women whose fathers, husbands, or sons the Khmer Rouge had killed. It is they who have had to struggle the hardest to keep themselves and their children alive. Many women had to learn to become the main bread winners in their families even though they had never engaged in wage labor in their homeland. Large numbers of refugees have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but have received very little help to deal with the symptoms. Some children, lacking role models, have not done well academically and dropped out of school. Others have joined gangs. Despite myriad difficulties, Cambodians in the United States are determined to resuscitate their social institutions and culture that the Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy during their reign of terror. By reviving Cambodian classical dance, music, and other performing and visual arts, and by rebuilding institutions, particularly Buddhist temples, they are trying valiantly to transcend the tragedies that befell them in order to survive as a people and a culture.
Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere. Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin. Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.
Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.