The role of ethnicity emerged as important in several ways. Most notably, the unawareness and
misperceptions of the Cambodian ethnicity seemed to have adverse effects on the students’
education, as well as their interactions with teachers and other students. It was apparent that the
Cambodian culture was not very well understood by the staff and unfortunately, the students
were not necessarily in the best position to convey their needs or interests. For example, several
students shared that they have been told by their parents to respect their teachers and not to cause
any problems. However, to the teachers who were more accustomed to a friendlier teacherstudent relationship, the students appeared to be distant or disconnected.
The Cambodian American students were commonly perceived generically as Asian or
mistaken for another Asian ethnicity (e.g. Chinese or Korean). Moreover, according to two
teachers, Nancy and David, it was more common for students of other Asian ethnicities to
respond when mistakenly referred to as being Cambodian. One of the teachers, Barbara, did not
know how many Cambodian American students were in her class:
I know it’s sad, but I can’t even tell you if the Asian students in my class [are] Khmer or
Chinese or Vietnamese. I know that the student is Asian, has an Asian last name, and
looks Asian. I know that we have a lot of Khmer students, and the only way I can tell
them apart is when the student tells me their ethnicity. Oftentimes, the Khmer students
don’t tell me that they are Khmer. Other Asian students would tell me. I don’t know why.
Another teacher, Linda, shared a similar sentiment:
I don’t make any assumption of where students are from. But typically when I mistakenly
address students of a specific background, for example, Chinese students, they would
correct me and tell me, “No, I’m Chinese.” I see very few Cambodian students who’ll tell
me that they are Cambodians. I see more Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese
students who’ll speak out and say that they are not Cambodians. It is very interesting.
Due to this lack of awareness, it is possible that the teachers were not fully aware of the
unique educational needs of their Cambodian students. A number of researchers have argued that
the model minority myth has resulted in a common misperception that all Asians are smart and
excellent students (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Kao, 1995; Ng, et al., 2007; K. Yang, 2004). Since the
students were commonly mistaken as other Asian ethnicities, their teachers may have had certain
academic expectations of them.
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