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Vuth became my counterpart after some resistance on my part. He constantly offered to take me with him on vaccine outreach through the commune and persistently tried to teach me to read Khmer writing, specifically the children’s immunization card. Though I repeated, “I’m not supposed to give vaccines! I can’t even speak Khmer!,” he gently kept pushing. Thankfully I abandoned the futile search for my idealized counterpart (female, young, in need of empowerment) and saw plainly that Vuth was one of the kindest, most helpful, and by far the most welcoming person at our health center and in the village as a whole. He’s been a health care provider in the community since before the health center was even a solid structure. He is the very definition of avuncular, my teacher and friend all in one. I even forgive him for his blatant smugness about the fact the he eventually succeeded in teaching me Khmer. This interview revealed a more outspoken, confident side of his personality I had never seen which made me raise eyebrows about the many hours he’s spent quiet and bashful during our work.
Age? 55, I think, I’m not sure. I usually lie and tell everyone I’m about 47.
Siblings? I am the 4th of six siblings altogether. All sisters, except for me.
Kids? 4 boys, ages 28, 25, 20, and 17. All boys, no good!
How you met your wife? We were both from here, in the same village. After the Pol Pot years, she and I were both without parents and ready to create a new family. We met through our relatives and married in 1987. There were plenty of families looking for husbands for their daughters and the rich families even promised to pay for the entire wedding. But I never trusted them! My wife and I were both poor so we understood each other’s’ lives.
Favorite song? “Roomdual Krawjeh” by Keo Sovat (រំដួលក្រចេះ កែវសវាត់) I can sing it, too.
Most influential person as a kid? My parents, but I loved my mom more. She was more playful and open about loving us.
First thing you do in the morning? I exercise! I have ever since I was young. I do pull-ups for a half hour to an hour, then I lift a barbell over my head and do balance-exercises to make my thighs strong. Back when I was studying in Takeo to be a health care worker, I would sneak down to the fields south of the town where they were cutting down the forests on either side of the national road. I spent my free time exercising by pulling the cut trees around and even putting them in piles.
Favorite place in Cambodia? I have been to all the provinces and love all the old temples the most. I’ve seen all the Cambodian mountains, even the ones Thailand tried to claim from us in Oddar Meanchey. I love to travel. Most people don’t dare explore in Cambodian forests, but I enter, even when they yell at me not to. I want to know the forest. Actually, I really love the places where they’ve found gold and diamonds. In Mondulkiri Province, I once met a Chinese woman who had spent years looking for gold in the river by her house.
Farthest you’ve been from home? Maybe Poipet or Oddar Meanchey Province (about 140 km from our village). I’ve also been to Vietnam a lot but that’s a little closer (100 km).
Biggest wish for your future? I used to want a really good job, but I have that already. I have everything I wished for already.
Biggest wish for Cambodia? Peace. I don’t want more planes overhead with missiles and bullets.
How you make the most of your money? My work as the vaccinator at the health center even though I don’t make money from most of the advice and counseling I give out around the commune. I still make enough. (Laughs.) You have seen how the grandmothers pull at my shirt and yell when we do village outreach for the children’s vaccines? I still do not hurry because I want to do my work correctly. They say I do not know how to be angry.
Skill you’re most proud of? I know how to do everything! (Laughs, big time.) I can make chairs, tables, beds, and fish traps. I can raise animals and grow any plant. I know to fix machines and how to paint houses. I’m also a health-care provider in my free-time. (Big infectious grin.)
Biggest fear? I worry that one day one of my kids or grandkids will need help that I don’t know how to give them. If they need help with their education or about how to get a big, fancy job, I won’t know what to do.
Job history? I’ve been a fisherman, helped in the rice fields, moved wood and other commodities around. I used to paddle a boat back and forth from our village to Vietnam, through the channels in the lowland. this was before motor-powered boats. It was like a taxi, I took customers whenever they wanted to go. It took about 4-5 hours in one direction.
Best cure for a common cold? Fill a large laundry basin with boiling water and sit in the water. Pour very cold water over your head until you feel better. Sometimes people use tea in the hot water. Also, exercising helps cure it quickly.
Favorite Khmer tradition or custom? I love festival games like viej k’ahm, tug-of-war at the pagoda, and dice games.
Custom from another country you find interesting? I haven’t gotten to learn much about other countries. They didn’t let us read books from other countries or learn their languages after Pol Pot. Just French or Vietnamese in most places. I love watching the international news now. I want to know what’s going on, especially when other countries have issues. We can learn from that to help improve Cambodia and avoid our own problems.
Most important value or belief in Khmer culture? Personally, I value that we try to protect our girls and women. We don’t let them travel far on their own. For example, I tell you (me, Kelsey) not to ride your bike through the rice fields and you go anyway! How am I supposed to know who might wait out there to hurt you? How can you know either? (Jokingly boxes at me and laughs quietly to himself.) Also, I appreciate that we believe in ghosts. It reminds us of our ancestors and helps us scare students and kids into behaving well. I regret that most young people aren’t believing in ghosts as much these days. (Here Vuth described, at length, something like dark magic. He recounted a man in our commune performing a ritual in which he swirled around a shallow pan full of blood with a small knife in hopes of making his fruit trees grow fruit quickly. The man died shortly after this. Vuth never dared to enter his home or even walk nearby. “I was too scared!” He said there are still many people who still do this kind of thing, especially in Mondulkiri but also in Battambang and Bantey Meanchey.)
Thoughts on drinking? Not good. It’s terrible for your health and it makes people mean. Beer has been available all the time, everywhere, since about 2000. There didn’t used to be this many breweries. Back then I would have said that Khmer liquor (e.g. rice wine and other Khmer moonshine) was the best, better than beer, even world famous. Now many people add strange chemicals from Thailand and elsewhere to make their brew the strongest. It’s poisoned people before, people have died. It’s not safe. Drinking used to be for special occasions, but now that beer is so available you can’t even walk by someone’s house without being pressured to drink. If you don’t drink with them, they refuse to agree with you about anything, they totally reject your opinions. I try to only drink enough so that their happy but always leave when I can still rive home. I’ve helped grab people fighting at weddings and also had people try to fight with me when they were drunk. They usually back off when they realize I won’t fight back, they get embarrassed. (Sighs then laughs.) If you’re drunk just go home and be quiet! One more thing… It used to be that new couples would have a lot of money left-over after their wedding to use for house repairs or even building a new home. Now that all gets spent on beer for the wedding.
And gambling? It’s okay if you leave the game before someone gets mad. (Laughs.) If you’re always playing until you run out of money, that’s a problem you need to think about. Especially if you’re swinging at your kids and grandkids.
Most annoying question you get asked? Eh, I don’t really have one for that. People can ask me anything. Usually they just ask about things going on at my job. It’s just normal, I like asking each other questions.
Luckiest thing that ever happened to you? I’ve been a health education volunteer in our community for more than 20 years. Last year, the King began a program which created a salary for me and other volunteers like me. Until this year I’ve always made about 400,000 riel (= $100) every month. This year, starting this month I’ll get an increase. I don’t actually know how much, they haven’t told us. But it will be more. (Thinks a bit.) Also! A few times I’ve been out fishing in a storm and swamped my boat, but didn’t drown. That’s happened… three times now. Even when I go out to fish when there is no storm coming, my wife still sits and cries and fights me not to go. (Laughs.)
Something everyone should do in their lives at least once? Everyone should experience helping out their elders. Most seniors don’t have much money. So, everyone should try to give back to an older person in their life so that they can travel and see temples or have a party with fancy food. Once when our health center chief and I were traveling I couldn’t stop giving out money to the elders we met on the road and I almost ran out of money! They needed it.
If sleep was unnecessary, what would you do instead? I would raise more animals and grow more vegetables! Mostly labor, family stuff for our home. I don’t even need to garden at my house, other people’s houses are okay, too. (Smiles.)
Something special about the place you grew up? That one is difficult to answer. I grew up a little bit in a lot of places. But our village is where I came of age, I think. It’s a special place because we all love each other. There isn’t really any gossip or conflict. I also love that in our community you can learn to do anything just by asking someone who already knows how if you can watch and learn from them. That’s how I learned how to make beds, houses, and fences.
Best advice you ever got and from whom? My mom was the one who helped me not to be a bad kid, always making me focus but also playing with me. My teachers were important, too. They respected me which made me respect and love them. I don’t remember exactly what they said but I always thought they knew what to do to be successful and kind.
Best and worst things about growing up? The best things have been all the opportunities I’ve had to keep learning as an adult. The worst things have been all the times I have been robbed. It has always been hard to trust people and see constantly how they cannot follow the laws. Even the police cannot do their jobs without bribery.
An interesting fact about you? (Laughs.) I think… It is interesting how I raised my younger sisters. And my older sisters. We all raised each other, after the Pol Pot years. At that time, I helped care for the deaf and the elderly. That’s why so many of the old people in our commune recognize and call to me when we ride the moto. Many of them were the parents of the disabled who I cared for then. I would also secretly climb the palm trees at night when the Khmer Rouge were resting and share the palm fruit with grandmothers who had a lot of grandchildren and then eat some myself, too. I was about 10 years old then. (Thinks a bit.) Actually, I stayed with Sina’s father during that time. He was the manager of our work group, myself and a bunch of other young kids. We just moved dirt around all day and dug out in the rice fields. After all of that, I was really focused on studying. I remember walking on the big wheels of our man-powered rice field pump while also reading a math book. That drove my sister crazy.
Favorite Khmer proverb? (Laughs.) I don’t remember, I don’t know any! Oh wait, there was one… I love this one: baor jong jeh owie samlap a’chaa, jong ban plai pka owie yok plung dut kuol (បេីចង់ចេះអេាយសំលាប់អាចរ្យចងបានផ្លែផ្កាអេាយយកភើ្លងដុតគល់. After much back and forth with various teachers and friends, the gathered meaning of this proverb is “If you want to know, slay your teacher with questions. If you want to harvest fruit, you have to start at the roots.”)