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The first time I met my host-cousin Chhekka – by chance, in our village market, where she dragged me to her home – is the only memory I have of her without Sophea by her side. I met Sophea shortly after at the house. Two have kept me both in stitches from laughter and on the verge of tears from their encouragement and acceptance ever since. Both may live in Phnom Penh now but find their way to each other’s respective homes in the countryside on every free weekend. They are not only some of the most progressive Khmer individuals I have ever met, but some of the most broadminded people I know. They also speak impeccable English which aided this interview (and our friendship) in no small part.
Ages? (CH) I’m 24 and Sophea is 23. (SO) Yeah, I’m 23, thanks Chhekka (We all laugh).
Siblings? (CH) 3 siblings including me, and I am the only girl with one older brother and one younger brother, me in the middle. (SO) It’s the same for me! There are three of us, me in the middle, one older brother and one younger.
Jobs? (CH) I am a soldier for the National Cambodian Genderarmerie. (SO) I work for Cambodia’s National Center for the Disabled which includes the National Paralympic Committee.
Influential person in your childhoods? (CH) My father taught me about respect and accountability. But I also read a book when I was young about philosophy, I learned about Socrates, Plato’s teacher. He said, “the God is nothing; it is something about the soul inside of you that makes you develop.” It made me believe that no one can help you if you don’t help yourself. (SO) When I was young I never read that book (laughs). For me it was my mother. I had not father, only her, so her influence on me was huge.
First thing you do in the morning? (CH) Open my eyes. (SO) If I am by myself I will read English books out loud, especially books about psychology. I’m alone so it’s okay if I read incorrectly. Sometimes I go running for about 15 minutes or so. If Chhekka is there I will get up and shower quickly, then fry some rice and maybe an egg. (CH) After I open my eyes, I stretch like a lazy person. I don’t like to get up too quickly, it gives me a headache. I have to lay and think about my work, plan my day a little. Sometimes I will get up and fash my face, comb my hair if I am not too lazy.
Favorite place in Cambodia? (SO) Oh, I just like the popular places. I love Angkor Wat and Kampong Saaum province, Bokor Mountain in Kampot, Mondulkiri and Rathanakiri provinces. There are so many waterfalls there, it’s beautiful. And! Koh Kong province. There is a huge nature reservation there. (CH) Anywhere there is nature – mountains, animals, trees, sea. I love to climb the mountains and take photos with the trees, play with the animals. Except maybe the tigers, not the tigers. My new dream is to go to Kampong Saaum province and to the island Koh Rong Saloem. I also think all the rice fields are beautiful even when they are dried up and golden.
Farthest you’ve been from home? (CH) Singapore! I went with the Cambodian Red Cross as a university student. We met about disaster plans for the ASEAN region and I helped with some charity events. (SO) Indonesia! I also went as a Red Cross volunteer for an Indonesian festival. It was a camping event and there were representatives from 11 other countries there.
Biggest wish for Cambodia? (CH) I don’t know if I have one… Maybe the first is that we are all educated, the second is that we’re all healthy, the third is that there is no discrimination. We need to respect other countries. (SO) Because I work with people with disabilities, I want to improve their opportunities to play and compete in popular sports. I want to help them someday bring home a gold medal for Cambodia. Also, I want the people of the countryside to understand about mental health. They think mental illness is the same thing as being insane. For instance, they call epilepsy “the crazy pig illness.”
Wish for your future? (CH) I want a good little house with a good little family, and a BRILLIANT husband, just a kind person. I also want a small business, maybe selling books. And to travel abroad, everywhere! As much as I can. My dream country is New Zealand. (SO) Hey, that’s my dream country! My dream is similar, a small family and little house in Phnom Penh. Maybe another house in one of the provinces I mentioned, just for rest and happiness.
How you make most of your money? (CH) Most of my money comes from the state, about $160 per month. It’s absolutely not enough, for either of us. But, we both love to participate in the social and humanitarian events.
Biggest fear? (CH) About my family, especially my family. I worry about their illnesses. My father has a problem with his spine and my mother has diabetes. And her mind doesn’t help. She is always worrying about our future too much. And because I am not always here I cannot know who is here to help here. And for my brother I need to encourage him to study hard and want to help him get a good job. (SO) My fear is also for my mother. She wants me to make enough money to support myself and a small family but now I don’t even have enough to support myself. I worry I will not be able to make enough to achieve my dream and that she will be sad.
Skill you’re most proud of? (CH) For me, I am a soldier – a silent protector. My duty is to protect my people and be honest to my nation. What first interested me about the job was the uniform (laughs). My gradfather was also a solider so it is in my blood. He was skilled, he had a master’s degree from the Soviet Union. It is also important that women be soldiers too and complete the same tasks as men. (SO) Most people at the center where I work do not know English, like I do. I have one student who always asks me questions about English. Actually, a lot of people ask me lately (laughs).
Favorite Khmer proverb? (CH) “khluen tii pung khluen” It means you depend on yourself. (SO) “pjiayiam gohng ban samrayc” If you want something you have to try.
Job history? (CH) When I was 18 to 21 years old, I used to help my dad’s sister sell pork in Orussey Market (Phnom Penh). I was like her apprentice, I would make a little money and she would feed me. Also, during my third year of college I worked at the Tous Les Jours café and bakery in the city. I could speak English with the foreign customers. After that I was at a Japanese restaurant for awhile. Since then I have been in the military which is great because I only work Monday through Friday. (SO) I also worked in the service industry in Phnom Penh for a little while, a few months, not even a year. Then I volunteered at the little shop on my university campus. I didn’t accept any money, but the owner would often feed me lunch. Sometimes I would insist that they take my money but they would refuse. Now I volunteer at the Cambodian Red Cross and help organize events or help respond to big disasters, like fires. I love that I get to comfort people. My favorite fundraiser is on Valentine’s Day when we “sell” goods by donation and help buy supplies for the hospital.
Best cure for a common cold? (SO) Ugh, I am getting a cold now! Usually when I take medicine it doesn’t help. I try not to think too much about it, (sings) “let it go.” This is probably why I always have a cold for two or three months at a time (laughs). (CH) I don’t often get colds, maybe once per year. I usually just try to sleep more which I learned from a health update on Facebook. Colds make me think of the sun. Like, it rises and gets stronger and worse, then it sets and eventually goes away.
Favorite Khmer tradition? (SO) I love Khmer New Year. Even when all of us children are grown and live far away, everyone comes home for the holiday. Because we know the God will visit, we clean the house very well which makes it comfortable at home. And our traditional clothes are so beautiful and handsome. (CH) I like that we respect each other when we meet. Whenever we meet someone new or greet someone older we do like this (presses hands together below chin in the traditional sambeah gesture). It feels good to respect. I always call someone bong (“elder, reverential”) until they allow me to call them something else, even when they are younger. I love that it helps people love each other, not just parents and children but strangers, too.
Something you find interesting about another country’s culture? (SO) Like European and Western cultures, they are so brave. When they want to do something they just do it, they do not worry about “oh, what will they think of me, will they think I am not a good girl?” I don’t mean that they don’t care about other people, they aren’t destroying the livelihoods of others, or anything, they just care about their own selves. Here, because I am a girl, I dress someway or do somethings, I know that not only my parents will say something but my neighbors and villagers, too. (CH) Sometimes I want to kill parts of the Khmer culture. They treat children like chickens: we have to rely on our parents and all stick close together. Even when people get married they are expected to follow their parents as a married couple. I also like this about European culture, that they let their children find themselves.
Favorite Khmer value or belief? (CH) About our communication, we are so friendly with each other. When I visit a friend’s home, all of their relatives want to know how I’m doing and about my life. Usually they feed me which I must eat or they will be very unhappy. As long as I eat just a little, they will be happy. It is a kind of communication, too. And also, as a Buddhist I value that before we believe something we should think about where it comes from first. If you are angry, you have to think about where it comes from. They say dam daum chuu uhvey ban plai nooh, which means “plant a tree and that is the fruit you will get.” You can’t plant a papaya tree and expect oranges. (SO) It is good that we smile at each other. Even when we have nothing to say we can smile at each other and it is enough.
Personal hero or someone you admire? (CH) Yes, I have. My boss, Hun Sen’s son. First about his values as a person. He tries to be a good son and study hard to respect his relatives. Also he is a soldier. I want to follow his style and be simple as a person, not too proud, just a good leader. As a commander he always listens to and respects his soldiers. When he caught someone stealing bullets, he asked why. He gave the man the money he needed and helped him study abroad. He also helped create a group of health volunteers who offer health check-ups in the countryside. (SO) Also, my boss. A different man. He is so kind. He is disabled, he lives in a wheelchair and cannot walk. He encourages us all so much and is so knowledgeable. He helps everyone, not just the disabled. But my hero forever? My mom. Even when she was all alone with no husband she never stopped me from my studies. She knew that I needed a job that used my mind because I am not such a strong person with my body. She really believed in me and I know she would help with money if I asked but I wouldn’t ask.
What do you think about drinking? (CH) I hate it. I will tell you something I don’t like about my father. He smokes, even when I tell him about lung cancer, and he drinks, too. When he’s drunk he shows his violence to my mother. Once my uncle, also a drunk, told my father that my mom loved another man which made my father very angry. He only ever thinks about how he will make more money, but he doesn’t know how to manage his time. But also… he never tried to stop me from my studies. Even when we had no money, he never pressured me to work in a factory, he only wanted me to have a degree. But! When I was young he closed off my freedom! If I was out too late, even at a relative’s wedding, he would come out and find me. But… this doesn’t mean that I think other people shouldn’t drink. At parties it is good to help people talk to each other at parties. (SO) I support Chhekka’s idea, that it is okay to drink a little for friendship. But many man say, “Drink for drunk, drink not drunk, drink for what?” It wastes our country’s money, mostly. They even say if you drink and can still walk on your own without someone holding you up, that’s not true drinking.
And gambling? (CH) A disaster, it’s rubbish! (Laughs.) But to play with family and just drink water when you lose, that’s okay. Like during Chinese New Year. (SO) So I don’t know much about gambling but playing for just a few hours with friends is okay. But for days and days, no good.
If you didn’t need to sleep, you would…? (CH) Probably watch TV, like movies about military which help me with my vocab relating to my training. Movies like Behind Enemy Lines, American Sniper, The Lone Survivor, Special Forces. They also teach me about U.S. military values. And I would read books about international relations and try to keep up with the news online and the newspaper. (SO) Instead of sleep I would also read and listen to music. I would maybe watch U.S. movies about psychology.
Most annoying question you get asked? (SO) I really don’t like it when I visit home and everyone asks how much money I make. I hate it when they ask but I’m not really sure why. (CH) Khmer people like to compare. We only finished with war about 30 years ago and with so much of our order destroyed, people like to compare Cambodia with other countries as we develop because we are trying to figure out what kind of country to be. But, they also do so to discriminate. Even though I was born in Cambodia and fight to help Cambodia, people still say I don’t belong and should leave because my dad’s ancestors are from China and Vietnam. This is why I try to take care of myself before I take care of Cambodia. I think many other people feel the same.
Something everyone should do once in their life? (CH) They should stop working long enough to spend time traveling with their family. It is my dream, too. I want to take my parents and brothers wherever they want to go, when they are ready. (SO) Go somewhere you truly want to go. Maybe with your family, but at least with someone you love.
Luckiest thing that ever happened to you? (CH) Having good parents. They love me. They love me enough for me. And my friend Sophea, here. She loves me so much! (SO) But I am not good, we fight all the time! (CH) It is just a game, though. She helps me talk through my mistakes and always asks me what’s wrong when I’m sad. (SO) I am lucky that I am the child of my mother and a friend to both of you. And to know Chhekka’s family. And, I was born in Cambodia during a peaceful time.
Something special about the place you grew up? (CH) I love the nature here in our village. During the dry season we are surrounded by green and golden fields and in the rainy season the fields fill and we are surrounded by beautiful water. We have change with the seasons. In Khmer we say, miən tai ka plah pdo ted ail mɨn plah pdo. Always changing but never changes. (SO) I am from Pursat Province. The weather there is very average, but the people work so hard. All they care about is money, not education or travel. They are all farmers and they work all the time. It worries, but it is special, even though I don’t like it.
Best advice you ever got? (CH) Just from people around me, they have just told me to eat healthy, not too much sugar. (SO) I’ve gotten good advice from my friends and mom. Mom told me the best way to make her happy was to study hard.
Best and worst things about growing older? (CH) Please speak English only. (We are surrounded by her family at home who speak only Khmer.) Confusing identity, that is the hardest part of growing older. I experienced to love a girl. That is dangerous, to lose control like that, to feel like I love her so much but have to be separated. It feels like death. She is still my friend but I have to keep separate. I don’t want it to happen again. If I were in Europe I would be a pair with that girl. I want a husband now, because sometimes I am lonely, even though I hate most men. My heart is dead now (laughs). (SO) When I was a teenager, I didn’t like my mom or home, just my friends and school. I didn’t know why. My mom always telling me what to do. I am glad my psychology studies have taught me that’s just a teenager’s nature and it is not my fault. Now I love my mom most of all. (CH) But also, growing up, I get to do so many new things and to get to know myself and learn to control my mind.