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San Francisco Teacher Shares Cambodian Cultural Traditions

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) Marlai Ouch was a teenager when she and her family escaped the brutality of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge in the 1980s. She started a new life in San Francisco, but realized something was missing. So she started teaching the Cambodian language of Khmer to eager adults and children like 11-year-old Sydnee Kong.

"It's my culture, it's my tradition," Kong said.

Ouch founded the Cambodian School of San Francisco in 2012. It offers free two-hour Sunday afternoon language classes at the Nagara Dhamma Temple.

"Especially with generations in the U.S., they're not familiar with it," she explained. "The more they know it, the more they can appreciate the culture."

And the older generation can learn to read and write their native language for the first time. Like most Cambodian refugees, Ouch's mother was denied an education under the Khmer Rouge, and remained illiterate until now.

"I can read her handwriting!" her daughter exclaimed. "That's amazing!"

The class welcomes anyone curious about Cambodian culture.

Ouch has recruited volunteer teachers like her brother and sister-in-law, and Keo Sar, who praises Ouch for bringing the community together.

"Language forms a central part of any culture. Without it, you lose a little bit of identity, " the volunteer teacher said.

So far, Ouch has served hundreds of students, not just at the San Francisco temple, but also online.

She recorded 74 Khmer language lessons on YouTube for more than a thousand subscribers.

She also shares video of cultural ceremonies, like a rice ball blessing, that was even new to her!

"I learn, I get excited, I document it, I share it!" she said.

In addition, Ouch encouraged the monks to start a Dharma meditation classes for senior citizens, and she organizes pilgrimages to Buddha's birthplace in Nepal.

Student Ryan Samn calls her an effective leader.

"She's an honest person, and people see that, so they follow her, where she leads us," he explained.

So for helping Cambodian Americans preserve their cultural identity through her Cambodian language school, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Marlai Ouch.

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