Author(s): Warya Pothan, HERS Coordinator

Contributor(s): Collaboration with Cambodian-American youth, college students and community members in Seattle

Date Authored: July 1, 2003

2 Cambodian teen girls looking at a laptop
Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh (cc license).

The State of Washington has the third largest Cambodian refugee population in the U.S. with most Cambodians living in Seattle/King County. There is little official data on alcohol and drug abuse and reproductive health in Cambodian and other Southeast Asian populations in Washington State. However, Asians’ use of alcohol and other substances appears to increase with entry into mainstream American life (Kim et al., 1992). Washington State data from the broad category of “Asians” should not be generalized to Cambodian refugees. While hidden by the “model minority myth” the Cambodian population in Seattle is one of the most economically disadvantaged. Over 54% of Cambodian-American children in Seattle lived under the poverty level compared to 40.7% for Samoan, 38.1% for Vietnamese, 36.3% for Native-American, 22.1% for African- American, 21% for Mexican and 4.7% for Whites (City of Seattle Website).

The lack of available detailed information about substance abuse, reproductive health surveillance in the community, combined with underreporting and lack of access to health care due to language and cultural barriers are factors that mask the true impact these issues are having on Asians, especially Cambodians. With this in mind, a group of Cambodian- American youth, college students and community members in the Help Each Other Reach the Sky (HERS) youth program in Seattle decided to conduct a needs assessment to determine what local Cambodian youth know about, and the attitudes and beliefs they have toward, alcohol, drugs, sexuality and promiscuity, and how those issues relate to family and social context.

An informal needs assessment was conducted in 2003 and survey data was collected from 44 Cambodian-American youth, most of whom are involved in the HERS program or in Safe Future Youth Center, and some other youth who are not part of a particular program in the Seattle/KC community. The goal of the HERS program is to increase family and individual protective factors and to reduce risk factors that cause Cambodian- American girls to become perpetrators and victims of anti-social behavior and violent acts. Youth selection into HERS is based on family and individual risk factors, such as a history of drug abuse or gang activity among relatives. HERS counselors and bicultural and bilingual staff assess both the parents and the youth to determine their eligibility to be in the program. HERS offers year round employment, tutoring, parenting classes, mental health services and other activities for youth and their family members in Seattle and King County in Washington State. Safe Futures Youth Center is primarily geared toward working with Southeast Asian and East African youth between the ages of 12 and 19 and their families. Safe Futures programs and services include tutoring, case management, and community organization of a variety of youth programs. Most staff members at HERS and Safe Future Youth Center are bilingual and bicultural. Both programs are culturally competent and linguistically appropriate for Cambodian-American youth and families.

The needs assessment found that in the sample of 44, mostly “at-risk”, Cambodian- American youth respondents:

  • 93% did not talk to their parents about sex, HIV/AIDS, STDs or reproductive health problems.
  • 83% became sexually active at the age of 16 years or younger, compared to 33% of American youth in general (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1991).
  • 84% did not talk to their parents about drugs and identified marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, ecstasy and “wet” as the most common drugs of choice within their community. “Wet” (also called “sherm”) is embalming liquid that cigarettes or marijuana are dipped into and then smoked. Other drugs mentioned by respondents were heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
  • 68% reported that they knew someone in a gang who had access to alcohol and other drugs.
  • The average youth knew of 12 other youth and 13 adults who used and abused alcohol and drugs.
  • 88% were allowed to hang out with friends on the weekend.
  • 70% were allowed to hang out with friends after school.
  • 64% said their Cambodian-American parents knew of their children’s closest friends. 

In the Seattle and King County neighborhoods, the youth identified the following gangs that were familiar to Cambodian-American youth. These gangs included:

  • Asian Boyz (ABZ)
  • Ghetto Boyz (GB)
  • Oriental Troopers (OT) or Oriental Troops
  • South Asian Gang (SAG)
  • Srey (mean girl) Local Thugs (SLT)
  • Tiny Raskal Gang (TRG)
  • Oriental Bloodz (OBZ) / or Original Bloods
  • Scandalous Krazy Boyz (SKB)
  • Young Oriental Troopers (YOT)
  • Lao Blood Sisters (LBS)
  • Little Ruthless Boyz (LRB)
  • Oriental Fantasy Boys (OFB)
  • Lao Asian Blood (LAB) / or Loco Asian Blood
  • Folk
  • Blood
  • Hoovers
  • Crips
  • Many more 

While some of these gangs were mainly described as groups of young people hanging out together, others had members committing criminal activities, abusing and using drugs and alcohol.

In conclusion, the findings of the assessment underscore that many Cambodian- American youth do NOT fit the model minority stereotype. However, readers are cautioned that the information presented here is not considered as official research data nor can it be used to describe Cambodian-American youth culture in general. The sampling of respondents was a combination of people the interviewers know (convenience sampling) and youth who participate in programs for at-risk youth in Seattle/King County. Additional studies should be conducted and reviewed to further assess the issues facing the Cambodian-American youth community in Seattle and elsewhere.

Literature Citation

  1. Kim, S, McLeod, JH Rader, D, and Johnston, G. (1992). An evaluation of a prototype school-based peer counseling program. J. Drug. Educ. 22: 37-53.
  2. Preventing HIV infection among youth (1991), OSAP Technical Report 5.
  3. City of Seattle, Human Services Department, Income Trends