Audio Recording of Interview
Sovan Tun, a refugee from Cambodia who was involved in the creation of the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in the U.S., discusses his refugee experience in the wake of the Communist takeover. Tun talks about his own religious exploration in the United States and Cambodia between Christianity and Buddhism, and how the temple in Cambodian diaspora communities plays the role both of religious and cultural center.
Other interviews of this person can be found below:
Narrator: Sovan Tun
Date: July 5, 2019
Location: Silver Springs, MD
Content Warning: Rape
Summary: Sovan Tun, a refugee from Cambodia who was involved in the creation of the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in the U.S., discusses his refugee experience in the wake of the Communist takeover. Tun talks about his own religious exploration in the United States and Cambodia between Christianity and Buddhism, and how the temple in Cambodian diaspora communities plays the role both of religious and cultural center.
Topics: war, family, immigration process, places of worship, religion, cultural adjustment, family, historical context
Section 1: (00:00-15:15)
War — Came first to the U.S. in 1962 to get a bachelor’s degree at Tennessee, then went back to Cambodia and worked in the agricultural ministry then with the Cambodian President. Later came to the U.S. in 1972 to escape the war as a member of the census bureau, and extended his visa in order to get a PhD/escape the war.
Family — after the communists came to power and pushed everyone to the countryside, lost contact with his mom and sisters.
Immigration Process — changed his visa to get refugee status when the communists came into power. Says that after Pol Pot fell, people tried to escape the country, mostly to Thailand, but many died of thirst, hunger or were raped/robbed.
Section 2: (15:15-23:57)
Immigration Process — when communists came into power, the U.S. government tried to get the ‘cream of the crop’ from Cambodia for use in D.C.
Places of Worship — Cambodian buddhists began to want their own temples to worship at, because even at other Buddhist temples, the manner of worship was different. First Cambodian temple built in 1976, first in Oxon Hill, MD, then later moved to New Carrollton, then Silver Springs.
Section 3: (23:57-37:25)
Religion — outlines the importance of Cambodian buddhist monks, who bless a variety of things from a new baby to a new house. He notes that they cannot legally marry people, but do bless marriages. Says that the temples are good for refugees who come with heavy hearts from Cambodia.
Immigration Process — outlines again the first wave of refugees, who were diplomats and top officials who went to work in D.C., and the second wave, who were escaping through Thailand in the jungle. When the second wave of refugees began to come in 1980-82, the temple in MD would train monks who would then go off and serve as monks in their community around the U.S.
Cultural adjustment — says that the second wave of refugees had more needs and came from all walks of life, some even being born in refugee camps themselves. They didn’t know how to use a bathroom, shop, etc. — especially have trouble communicating.
Section 4: (37:25-45:35)
Places of worship — talks about the role of the temple. First, he says that he was able to find and help many refugees informally through the temple; but more importantly, that the temple provides spiritual needs for new refugees. The temple also serves as a community center, especially for older Cambodians.
Family — talks about the third wave of Cambodian immigrants, who came into the U.S. under reunification programs. These people were not refugees; rather, they were immigrants that the refugees had ‘left behind’ in Cambodia. This is one reason that the number of Cambodian Buddhist temples in the U.S. went up.
Immgration Process — says that it’s far easier to immigrate with an R-1 visa as a religious worker (e.g. monk) than other ways.
Section 5 (45:35-
Faith — says that when he was young, and when he came to the U.S. in 1962, he didn’t think much about religion. He felt he was a Christian in Tennessee, and weighed Christianity against Buddhism on his return to Cambodia. Describes himself as a Buddhist now, but notes that there was no “conversion process.”
Immigration Process — details why it is mostly Christian groups that sponsor Cambodian refugees, not Buddhists — because churches are the ones with resources to sponsor them. His family was sponsored by a church when he was in Tennessee.
Historical Context — when he was getting his undergrad degree in the 60s, he was regularly discriminated against but didn’t pay it too much attention. These days, he does — in fact, he used to serve as an expert witness in discrimination suits.