Anthropology Students Help Present Cambodian Culture in Long Beach
Among the many papers and projects keeping students busy this month at California State University, Dominguez Hills is a unique collaboration with Cambodia Town of Long Beach. Using the methods and ethics of documentation set by the Anthropological Association of America and the American Sociological Association, students in anthropology professor Susan Needham’s Ethnographic Field Methods class have spent the semester interviewing and photographing artisans and experts on cultural activities such as cooking, shadow puppets, classical dance, and wedding traditions. CSU Dominguez Hills students will also assist the artisans when they present their work in the city’s Cambodian Arts and Handicrafts Exhibition on Dec. 6 at the Mark Twain Library. The students will create signage in English and Khmer and serve as facilitators for the event.
Needham’s longtime association with the Cambodian community in Long Beach gave her students an entrée into the community. She says that the event provides an insider’s glimpse at the Cambodia Town, the largest Cambodian enclave in the world outside of Southeast Asia and that many of the artisans would not have felt as comfortable presenting their work without the students as go-betweens to bridge language and cultural gaps.
“We may all be aware that there’s a Cambodian community in Long Beach and may have passed the stores [with] some curiosity,” she says. “But there are so few Americans who will just walk into a Cambodian store. This is a way of providing a place for people to interact and learn something about each other. Visitors to the exhibit can feel comfortable asking questions about Cambodian culture and history that they wouldn’t ask otherwise.”
The students found that the experience often showed them the many similarities between cultures even as they explored the differences. Alicia Klawin and Aubrey Abuana interviewed a dressmaker who was born in Cambodia and learned about the dress code of outfits worn for formal occasions, including attending temple services and visiting the king of Cambodia. Klawin, a junior majoring in anthropology, says that the experience reminded her of the strict dress code that she grew up with in Georgia.
“There were specific styles of clothing worn to church and to formal events that were a result of tradition and history,” she says. “Linen is a fabric still worn frequently during the hot and humid months in the Southeast because it is light and cool. Broad brimmed hats are still worn by women to church. These are images that still define the Southeastern part of the U.S., just as the various styles of sampot (a sarong-like garment worn by both women and men).”
Christopher Thomas, a senior double-majoring in anthropology and human services, says that an appreciation of ethnic traditions “adds to your life because you can incorporate the culture and the significance that it adds to their lives to [your] own.”
Claudia Jimenez and Vanessa Mosqueda worked with Vannary Lisa Ost, a Cambodian wedding planner. They learned about the various phases of the traditional seven-part marriage ceremony, which has been condensed from a three-day affair to one day, with numerous wardrobe changes for the entire wedding party in between rituals.
“More than anything, Vannery is responsible for this great cultural continuity that has transcended time,” says Mosqueda, who is a senior majoring in anthropology. “We asked her what has changed because I assumed that there are a lot of [modern] differences. What she said is that it’s just been [condensed], but the ceremonies are pretty much the same. I think it’s a really great thing that’s continued across oceans and many years.”
Jimenez, a senior majoring in liberal studies, underscored the importance of familial relations that is a motif of the Cambodian wedding ceremony.
“Another thing [Vannery] stated is that the Cambodian weddings are more about the community as a whole,” she says. “They incorporate the families a lot. They’re part of the wedding, not just watching it.”
A spirit of community is something that many students who study anthropology at CSU Dominguez Hills have integrated into their training for a career. Klawin, who plans to be a teacher, says that her study of anthropology has prepared her to work with people from a variety of different cultural backgrounds.
“I have a broader sense of the world and have learned how to study cultures that are different from mine within the framework of that culture's own value sets and history,” she says.
“Anthropology can add to almost any field – teaching, medicine, any field where you help people,” Thomas says. “I think it’s very important to incorporate the understanding of culture – especially in the medical field – if you really want to be effective. In jobs and internships [where] I’ve served a certain community, programs were designed with a cultural element in mind. It’s designing the programs for the groups instead of trying to fit the groups into the program.”
Julie Wennstrom, a senior majoring in anthropology, is considering becoming a police officer. She says that a working knowledge of the different cultures in Los Angeles would help her be a better officer.
“Understanding the differences in other cultures would make things run smoother,” she notes. “You’re never going to get a certain job or business where there is just one type of culture or ethnicity. Anthropology helps you relate to anybody.”
For more information on the study of anthropology at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.
For more information on the Cambodian Arts and Handicrafts Exhibition, click here.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: Selin Torum, junior, anthropology and and Susan Needham, professor of anthropolgy (at center) learn to make a traditional Cambodian dessert of sweet rice grilled in banana leaves from Mary Sinn, Long Beach business owner (at left).
Courtesy of Susan Needham