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Nov. 29, 2004

Cambodian arts director brings her culture to Blair

by Grace Harter, Page Editor
Natalie Chhuan is a small woman with dark hair and tastefully done makeup. Though tiny, she bustles around the room with all the energy and force of a tornado. Her smile is gracious and welcoming, and her eyes immediately light up when asked about her pet project, Blair's Cambodian club. However, her face soon turns dark and sad when she recounts the events that led her to leave Cambodia and start a new life in America.

Chhuan didn't leave her home country of Cambodia—she was forced out. In April of 1975, the communist group Khmer Rouge took control of the country and made all city-dwellers evacuate and work in farm camps, most infamously known as "killing fields." Chhuan, pregnant at the time, escaped with her husband to the United States but only after many members of her family were killed by the brutal regime.
The Club poses.

<i> Photo courtesy of Blair's Cambodian Club.</i>
The Club poses. Photo courtesy of Blair's Cambodian Club.

It has been Chhuan's life work to preserve the culture of her country. She works as a program director at the Cambodian Network Council to inform audiences about Cambodian arts, something the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy back in the 1970s. Chhuan believes it is part of her mission to reach out to the younger generation about her culture, which is why she sponsors the Blair Cambodian club.

"America is my home now"

Chhuan has since traveled back to Cambodia, but she would never consider living there again. "America is my home now," she says. However, she and others in the Cambodian community of Silver Spring hope to bring a part of their homeland to the area so that Cambodian culture and tradition can continue. Chhuan points out that during the Khmer Rouge regime, the communists attempted to destroy much of the art and culture of the country, and she is therefore intent on preserving that same culture by spreading news about Cambodia here in the Blair community and in other parts of the country.

Chhuan first approached Blair ESOL Director Joseph Bellino about starting a club in 1991. In her community, she says there has been concern over the increasing dropout rates of Cambodian high-school students. "I want to encourage kids to stay in school." she says, adding that she hopes to keep them from participating in illegal activities after school by establishing a place for them to go.

The start of the club

Chhuan chose Blair as the site of her national Cambodian club after she learned of the school's size and diversity. The club did not officially take off until 2001, however, when senior Catherine Lee noticed that there seemed to be a cultural club for every country except Cambodia. Lee, who moved from Cambodia eight years ago, wanted to inform more students about her culture. She enlisted the help of senior Camilla Silva, the current president of the club, to spark interest around the school. Silva originally joined the club as a favor, but she soon became more and more involved. "I started enjoying the culture, so I couldn't leave," she says.

The club experienced a small crisis last year when Bellino announced he was giving up sponsorship because of his busy schedule. However, ESOL teacher Karen Shilling soon stepped in so that the club could continue. "We're still alive because of Ms. Shilling," says Chhuan gratefully.

Shilling good-naturedly disagrees. "They don't need a sponsor. They have Natalie," she says, laughing. Shilling believes her role as sponsor is limited to paperwork and finding gigs for dancers and musicians in the club, such as at various school international nights. Shilling plans to sponsor the club in the future because she says being with the Cambodian club has taught her much about the culture of people of all races.

Spreading the culture

Chhuan's main focus in her outside work is to preserve the culture of Cambodia. She is especially interested in spreading information about the arts of her native country. Last year, she was told of an elderly dance master in Cambodia who was one of very few people in the world who knew the steps to the rare dance "Golden Clover." Chhuan convinced Malaysian Airlines to give her a ticket, and she flew to Cambodia to record the dance and music for posterity. She made copies of the performance so that the life of the dance could be continued for years to come.

In a similar incident, Chhuan's daughter performed another uncommon routine called the "Garuda Dance" at the Kennedy Center, when Chhuan could not find anyone else who knew the steps. Her daughter has since performed the dance at the Kennedy Center three other times to much applause and critical acclaim. However, Chhuan's real happiness comes from knowing that these dances will still be passed down from generation to generation.

It's all about the arts

Chhuan’s profession has allowed her to obtain many resources for those in the club. Members are taught traditional Cambodian dances and instruments, and if interested, they can enter international night shows or even get a chance to perform at the Kennedy Center.

Shilling herself is fascinated by the beautiful dances performed by some members of the club. The dances tell stories, she says, and they're "so precise, such a science."

Though Chhuan is able to teach some of the dances and instruments herself, she received a grant this year to hire two teachers for the club. A dance teacher attends meetings on Tuesdays, and a music teacher attends meetings on Wednesdays to give lessons and help the members get a more in-depth feel about traditional Cambodian art.

Not just Cambodian culture

The greatest aspect about the Cambodian club, Chhuan believes, is how racially diverse it is. Contrary to what some may think, only two members of the club are actually Cambodian. The rest are a mix of Asians, Latinos and African Americans. "We see the similarities between one another," says Ulysses Som, a 2004 Blair graduate and former member of the club. Club participants encourage other Blair students to join to not only learn about Cambodia but also about the amazing variety of culture in the club.

"I want to learn, too"

Club members learn most about Cambodian culture, however, by observing the practices and mannerisms of Chhuan, says Shilling. "Natalie is very warm and welcoming. She says 'thank you' about a hundred times a day." Chhuan also takes time out of her busy schedule to transport students to venues and events where they can perform dances and play instruments.

Regardless of Chhuan's seemingly endless knowledge of Cambodian art, she insists that she is much like the members of her club. "I want to learn, too," she smiles.

The Cambodian club meets on Tuesdays in PT3 at 2:30 p.m. and Wednesdays in room 13 at 2:30 p.m.

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Silver Chips Online invites you to share your thoughts about this article. Please use this forum to further discussion of the story topic and refrain from personal attacks and offensive language. SCO reserves the right to deny any comment. No comments that include hyperlinks will be posted. If you have a question for us, please include your email address or use this form.

  • Khan Sowanna (View Email) on November 29, 2004
    Natalie, you're doing a good job. I wish I could do as you, and join the club.

    Wanna, a Cambodian student from Hanoi.
  • Schanley D. Kuch, LCPC (View Email) on November 30, 2004
    Congratulation Mrs. Natalie Chhuan, the Art Director and the CNC's program director, for
    the job well done. I hope that Blair, HS will find Mrs. Chhuan's arts program through the Cambodian student Club beneficial to, not
    only the cultural adjustment of the Cambodian ESOL students, but also to their social and academic development as well.
    Personally, I wish her the best of luck.

    Schanley D. Kuch, LCPC
    Licensed Clinial Counselor
    Past President of Asian-American
    Education Association

    4910 Macon Road
    Rocking Horse Road Center
    Rockville, MD 20852
    (301) 230-0670
  • anon on November 30, 2004
    awesome story grace, Ms. Chhuan sounds totally cool and devoted. These are the type of people who really keep Blair alive.
  • YOU Sethy (View Email) on December 5, 2004
    Dear Auntie Natalie,

    First of all, let me express my sincere gratitute to you that you spend most of your life time to preserve and promote our, Khmer, culture. It's hardly to believe that a Cambodian living in abroad sacrefy her time to do so.

    You know, I always heard, sometimes by my own ears, that some Cambodians living in abroad even do not want to tell others that he or her is Cambodian.

    I do hope that other Cambodians especially who living in abroad would do the precious job to preserve and promote Khmer culture as you.

    Please accept my support and appreciate what you are doing.

    Sincerely yours,
    YOU Sethy
    A Cambodian student in Japan.
  • TOL KOIM (View Email) on December 7, 2004
    i am so impressed when i read this article because of sister Chhuan's devotion to the club.i want her to know that what she did;it is so pricous to the nation of cambodia.i pray that god will find this kind of people to help this country which used to be ruined.
    finaly,i just want to say i love you all.keep up the good work.
    your regard,
  • Dr. Dhyan Lal (View Email) on December 9, 2004
    I compliment and Comment Mrs. Chhuan for her deligence and hard work. Through her tragic experience and penchant to teach others about the culture, she is educating a generation that would otherwise never learn about their heritage. Keep up the great work. You are a role model that others will follow.
  • lacey (View Email) on May 23, 2005 at 10:26 AM
    this is perfect for me to learn abot cambodian arts
  • kenny barfbag (View Email) on September 30, 2005 at 11:37 AM
  • kline (View Email) on June 29, 2006 at 6:30 PM
    its cool that you are putting the cambodian culture to others
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