Sanghak Kan and his wife, Sophea Chim, moved to the United States from Cambodia in 2017 with their two daughters — now 7 and 2 years old — leaving behind their home, job and family.
They quickly settled into Long Beach's Cambodia Town, started attending neighborhood events and soon after welcomed their third child, a boy named Jessda.
"We are very happy that our dream has come true," Kan said. "Moving here and being a part of this community, it is a dream come true."
But that American dream wasn't because Kan and his family were fleeing war or poverty, or some other terrible life event.
In Cambodia, both Kan and Chim had earned their Master's degrees in political science and public administration and worked full time at the United Nations office in Phenom Penh. Together they earned an income of about $5,000 USD per month, they said — which far exceeds the area's average income — providing them the means to send their children to private school and pay for tutors, maids and cooks. But there was just one problem, and that prompted the eventual life-changing move.
"Even though my wife and I went to school and earned our Bachelor degrees, and then our Master's degrees, and we worked for the United Nations and were able to build ourselves a good foundation, we are still limited," he said. "Our education, our qualifications, are nationally recognized, but are not internationally recognized."
Ultimately, Kan said that they made the move across continents (a journey that took them 12 years just to be approved for a visa) to give their children the opportunity to receive an international education, sacrificing their own educational accomplishments to live here.
Their oldest, Jessica, is now 7 years old and about to start the second grade at Whittier Elementary School. Kan and Chim both said that they hope their children will attend university after high school, pursuing higher education.
"We just wanted to make sure that we gave them that opportunity to have an education that they can take anywhere," he said. "Where they can move somewhere else and can still use their degrees."
And although the reasoning for their move placed a lot of emphasis on helping their children pursue their own education, Kan and Chim don't believe in just helping themselves or their family, they said. As new members of the Long Beach community, they have placed emphasis on helping their community members.
"When we moved here, we realized immediately that there was a language barrier," Kan said. "The problem is the older (Cambodian) family members don't speak much English, and the younger ones, they don't speak much Khmer, so I thought we can do something about that."
Kan and Chim are regular volunteers at the Mark Twain Library. Kan teaches free English and Khmer classes, while Chim leads children story time in both languages. Together, the couple spends the majority of their free weekdays and weekends helping their neighbors learn, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Since they moved to Long Beach about two years ago, the couple have been trying to help bridge the Khmer/English language gap in the city by volunteering. Kan has been teaching English and Khmer classes, offered for free, at the Mark Twain Library. The classes took a break for the summer, but will be picking up with more sessions in September with classes for beginners, intermediate learners and advanced students. Chim also offers English language tutoring to students at Whittier Elementary.
“I saw that I can contribute a lot to the community and also spend time with my children," Chim said. "I am so happy, and we are blessed because we have the ability to do this."
Kan's only paying job so far has been working as a library contractor to complete the "Khmer Cataloging Project," an endeavor that will make books in the library's Khmer collection searchable in both English and Khmer script in the library’s online catalog. The work is expected to be completed by September. With a total of about 4,000 Khmer items, Long Beach is home to the largest Khmer collection in any library in the United States.
Kan added that he and Chim have been volunteering even more of their time to correct documents poorly-written in Khmer — like flyers from businesses or from the city, or in one case, he said, informational material for Red Cross.
"Sometimes at nights or during weekends we can work together on the translations, so that can take up a little bit of time," Chim said.
"But we do it because for people who speak more Khmer than English, they can understand it better," Kan added. "Sometimes I read those flyers or notices and think, I cannot read my own language."
Between the volunteer work, caring for their three children and learning more about life in Long Beach, there doesn't appear to be much time left over in the week. But Kan insists that it's important for family time to be intertwined with action in the community, a state-of-mind that he hopes he is able to pass on to younger generations, including his children.
"In a community without learning, you don't have much idea about the rest of the world," he said. "The more you know, the better future you have, the more resources you will have to give back to your community.
"That's what we hope to show our children, and hopefully our efforts can help make our community better too."
Khmer classes and English classes for Khmer speakers will pick back up at the Mark Twain Library on Monday, Sept. 9. For more information, go to longbeach.gov/library/locations/twain/, or 562-570-1046.
The Mark Twain Library is at 1401 E. Anaheim St.
Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.