For more info about the Village Voice project, head this way.
Na Vy is the eldest and most self-effacing of the four midwives at our health center. You know her from her our stoic pagoda selfies and her enthusiasm when faced with her first ever pumpkin pie. She both works and plays the hardest day in and day out. As a feisty single woman approaching 40 years young, she is an uncommon treasure in my life awash with married women my own age. We interviewed one morning at work after the early-morning wave of patients had come and gone. It was a privilege to peek into the complicated love she has for her parents and was surprised to learn that her competence at the health center belies her limited formal schooling.
Siblings? There are just two of us. My younger brother is three years younger. I had an older brother but he passed away when he was about 18, he got a terrible infection from a tattoo he got. Don’t get tattoos!
Job? One of four midwives at our commune health center.
Birthplace? Here, in our commune.
Fave songs to listen to? To Sing? If I can’t think of a single song, is the singer okay? I like Preab Sovat, he’s new. And also Serey Sothea, but she’s from a long time ago. I like all vintage Khmer music.
Most influential person as a child? My parents, I listened to them more than anyone. I trusted them, they always talked about wanting a good future for my brother and I.
Favorite place in Cambodia? I haven’t really travelled much. I get too carsick, I can’t travel easily! But I have always wanted to go to some of the modern markets we have now with Western items and foreign shoppers, like Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. (Thinks for a bit.) Actually, my favorite place in Cambodia is coming here to our health center. We all have so much fun together and are good at taking care of one another. (Smiles to self.)
Farthest you’ve been from home, then? Oh, I’ve been to Phnom Penh (84 km away) because my brother lives there with his wife and son, but I’ve only been a few times. The last time I went my nephew was nine months old and now he’s two and a half years! This Khmer New Year’s I’m glad my brother brought his family here for a visit, instead.
Biggest wish for your future? I want a “big job” but have never had the extra time or money to advance upward. In truth, I want a job that’s just right, not too serious and stressful but also one which is respectable. Right now at the health center, our level is considered the lowest or least reputable. (Thinks more, then speaks quietly.) Also, someday I want a family for myself – a kind husband and good children, a sanitary and safe home. A good life for us.
Biggest wish for all of Cambodia? I want development and I want it now! But it cannot happen right now – not with the way our politics and other world politics are going. I wish for us to have good relationships with other countries so they will still visit and support us while we grow.
Biggest fear? I am afraid that my mother will get sick. She is allergic to most medications. They cause her throat to swell up and she can’t breathe. When she is sick with common illnesses, she lets us massage her and boil hot water for her to drink, but that is all. If she becomes seriously ill I am afraid I will not be able to help her, just watch her die. My mother is over 60 and has had problems with mental health since my father died. She thinks too much.
Best cure for a common cold? We usually drink hot water with ginger boiled in it. If that doesn’t work, then we take medicine.
Skill that brings you the most pride? Being a midwife! But I wish I had a higher distinction within my title.
Favorite Khmer proverb? Oh, I don’t remember any of those! (Laughs.) An easy one is gkon l’aar sdap owpuk mdaj, suh l’aar sdap gkroo (“Good children listen to their parents, good students listen to their teacher.”)
Favorite Khmer tradition? I love going to the pagoda, especially for our national festivals like Pchum Ben and Kathen. I like that it provides something different to do from the day to day. And it makes us feel rich!
Something you find interesting about another country’s culture? I’ve never been to another country. But something I’ve heard or read? (Thinks.) I think it’s interesting how closely they follow rules and laws in other countries, like when a thief steals something they actually try to track him down to catch and make an example of him, they raise awareness, you know? Also, I think it’s interesting that when Americans get old, the state gives them money to take care of themselves. Many people in Cambodia fear getting old because they may become poor.
Favorite value in Khmer culture? (Puzzles over this for a long time.) In Cambodia, we don’t like for women to go too far or do too much alone, but men can go wherever and whenever they want to. (Dissatisfied with her answer, thinks some more.) I don’t know if I really understand this question. It’s hard to answer, but… Actually, I think the way we dress here is important – long traditional sampots (skirts) or even long pants sometimes with long pretty sleeves. I know in other countries it’s okay to dress “sexy” but I think its good to cover women’s bodies and protect them. I know that now the culture is changing here and becoming more modern, especially in the cities. They call it a what? An “update.”
A personal hero or someone you admire? (Thinks for a long time.) My dad. He used to be the chief of our health center, actually. He was so gentle and patient, he never drank, and he even helped around the house whenever he could. Whenever we were busy selling goods from the shop when he came home from work, he would cook for us himself, not ask my mother. On his days off when he could have been resting, he would often take my mother to our biggest market for fun, just the two of them, and he would buy her a present like a large, comfy shirts and once a new beautiful watch. He died peacefully in his sleep one night, just got tired and went to sleep and didn’t wake up, no pain or sickness. That was seventeen years ago. It was then that I wanted to become a midwife.
Luckiest thing that ever happened to you? (As soon as the question is clear to her, she answers immediately.) Actually, becoming a midwife. In truth I stopped studying in the eighth grade, the year my father died. My mother need help selling at home and in the rice fields. I had been to the health center many times because my dad worked there and I would still visit even after he died. When I was almost eighteen, RHAC (Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia) arrived and they were looking for ten volunteers to help distribute birth control throughout their communities. I passed the interview and go to go study in the RHAC office in our provincial town for the months and then another three months in the provincial hospital. Even before that, though, I would spend my free time reading all the books I could about health care, especially women’s health. Between my own studies and the training through RHAC, I was able to get a paying job here at the health center. At that time, though, there were no midwives so the operational district helped pay for a little more training for me to study and pass the midwifery test. (When I tell her it sounds like it was a mix of luck and her hard work, she laughs but accepts the compliment without fuss.)
If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do instead? I would do more to help my mother around the house. And read books! Books about women’s health, especially birthing techniques. (Sophea, another midwife: “Yeah right, you’d play Facebook allllll day!” Laughter.)
Most annoying question people ask you? If I have a husband yet. It is Khmer culture for people ask this when they meet each other, especially older women asking younger people. But when they ask, I don’t want to answer. Even though it makes me disappointed and upset when they ask, I would never tell them so. They would still ask anyway and probably laugh, then. I wish they would at least ask if I had a family and not just a husband or at least wait until we knew each other a bit better to ask. It feels really bad when people my own age ask stuff like this because I think they have felt the same thing before but they ask anyway. Also when men ask. (Sighs.) But this kind of thing cannot be changed, it will keep happening.
What do you think about marriage? Oh, I think it’s good if we are honest and can trust each other. And growing old in Cambodia without a family to care for you… That is the most difficult thing.
Something special about the place you grew up? We were middle class. My mother still sold goods from home and we worked the rice fields, but we didn’t raise animals or anything. (I ask to confirm that it was her family that made it special.) Yes, my parents. They were very encouraging and resilient, they never pressured me to do anything. Even when I quit school it was because I wanted to help them.
The best and worst thing about growing older? It’s complicated. Now that I’m older I appreciate more now just how supportive my parents were, that they encouraged me to keep learning even if I wasn’t in school. But, I have also realized just how many more opportunities they helped create for my brother. They didn’t force me to stay home but they weren’t happy when I tried to do things on my own or leave the house too much. My brother, though, he stayed in school, passed his national exams, and they saved money to buy him a moto so that he could go to university in Phnom Penh. After college he went to school in Japan for three years to become a Khmer-Japanese translator. Lately, though, he is teaches Japanese in Phnom Penh. (Thinks quietly for awhile.) Also, one thing I like about growing older is dressing nice to go to work!
Best advice you ever got? My parents always said twuhh l’aar ban l’aar (“Do good, receive good.”)
Something interesting about you? (When I first asked her this during the interview, she laughed it off. Three weeks later, she approached me.) I thought of something interesting. About myself. I was actually married once already, when I was 18 or so. It was awful. We weren’t… “true together.” I worked hard to make the divorce final, I had to get the approval of both my parents and his parents, then carry all the paperwork to our commune office. My former husband has a new wife and many kids. They even still live in our same commune. After the divorce was final, my father passed away seven days later and we still don’t why or from what. He was such an important person here. Did you know that Vuth was once just a poor child wearing nothing but rags? One day my father pitied him but knew that he was a hard worker, he invited him to come help here at the health center. He has been working here ever since. My father helped support many different young people here who couldn’t afford a formal education or other trainings. Me, too, that’s how I work here. He was a good man. My former husband, he was not.”