How would you feel waking up in a foreign land, which has a completely different culture, language, and tradition? How would you feel being far from home and not being able to communicate properly? This is the reality faced by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers overseas on a daily basis.
Yet this context of their lives has not been widely addressed or studied. There have been very few qualitative studies, articles, and reports done on the cultural context of Cambodian migrant workers overseas, and the ways they view and maintain their Cambodian identities while abroad. These topics are rarely touched upon despite it being an essential part of life and something that connects Cambodians together.
Reduced to Labor
There were approximately 1.3 million Cambodian migrant workers working in seven countries as of early 2022, according to government estimates, with the top three destinations for Cambodian workers being Thailand with 1.2 million workers, South Korea with 46,000 workers and Malaysia with 23,000 workers.
While migration has contributed to exchanges of cultures, races and ethnicities, migrant workers can experience a wide range of stress as a result of the loss of cultural norms, religious customs, and their social support system. Adjusting to the new surrounding environment can take a toll on migrant workers’ mental health and well-being.
Research into the lives of migrant workers from other countries, or other circumstances, has been able to illuminate complex issues caused by cultural otherness and struggles for sense of belonging.
A study into the lives of temporary migrant agricultural workers in Canada, for instance, found that host country perceptions and attitudes can make migrant workers feel excluded, unworthy, lonely and isolated. Migrant workers in Canada also reported “experiences of being reduced only to one’s labor.”
A person’s sense of Cambodianess may range from the food they eat to the way that person views the world as a Cambodian. It is the sense of belonging and connection that Cambodians have toward their home country and to their communities.
This sense of belonging to Cambodia influences the way Cambodian migrant workers live when they migrate overseas. A 2015 study found that most of the migrant workers migrate overseas with their family — parents, spouses and children — or with other relatives or peers from the same village. Cambodian migrant workers tend to migrate alongside people they know and these migrant kinships can range from five to 50 people. Thus, they live together or within the same neighborhood once they arrive at the destination countries. They maintain their own Cambodian migrant worker community to interact and socialize with.
Culture, identity, and religion also inextricably intertwined. In 2018, the Cambodian Embassy in South Korea announced that the first Buddhist pagoda specifically for Cambodian migrant workers was being built in South Korea. According to the Cambodian Embassy in Seoul, a pagoda was specifically requested by Cambodian migrant workers.
Notably, in the absence of a Cambodian pagoda to visit, Cambodians living in Seoul had been attending a makeshift temple being run out of a rented apartment. Studies of these kinds of grassroots efforts to maintain a sense of belonging have the potential to add value to our understanding of migrant worker life.
A Better Understanding
Cultural identity is a huge part of a person’s selfhood and it is also a quality that distinguishes one community from another, and a better understanding could help migrants in three ways.
Firstly, it can help the policy makers develop and implement more effective and well-rounded policies. By having a better understanding of the cultural aspect of the migrant workers, we might be able to get more insight into how policies may actually influence their way of life overseas.
There are a few scenarios where more studies would be beneficial; for instance, how group decisions within migrant worker communities are made. Since Cambodian culture is traditionally patriarchal in many of its values, does this influence the autonomy of Cambodian migrant workers who are women, or change how they make decisions? How are unity and solidarity being promoted? To what extent does religious celebration connect people within various migrant communities?
Understanding the dynamics of a makeshift apartment pagoda, for example, may help policy-makers reach this community with public messaging in a more effective manner.
Secondly, more research into these topics can also bring more awareness to how important support groups or community groups are, thanks to their ability to give Cambodians abroad a sense of belonging. Being far away from home can affect one’s mental and psychological well-being especially when one encounters culture shock, homesickness or loneliness.
Migrant workers are already more prone to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety because of the nature of their work and the socioeconomic challenges they are facing. This inherent vulnerability is heightened by lack of support, loss of social network, language barriers and other disruptions.
Finally, another potential outcome of this type of research would be to encourage changes in public attitudes toward migrant workers. A 2019 ILO Report found the majority of their respondents perceived that migrant workers threaten their country’s culture. The survey was conducted with 4,099 nationals from four countries — Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand — and 41 percent in Japan, 68 percent in Malaysia, 58 percent in Thailand and 53 percent in Singapore felt that migrant workers were threats to their culture and heritage. Migrant workers should feel welcomed and safe to practice their cultures no matter where they are.
Research that views labor migrants as more than just workers — research that incorporates their culture, their beliefs, their feelings about belonging — will help to portray the people in these communities with the complexity and richness they deserve.
Thong Sariputta is a junior research fellow at think-tank Future Forum. Her research interests include labor migration, human security and governance.
This commentary is part of the Social Cohesion Project. The project invites young Cambodian researchers to conceptualize and model social cohesion in Cambodia. It is produced in partnership between Future Forum and UNDP Cambodia.