For more about the Village Voices project, head this way.
Srey Heng lives next door with her granny, aunt, mom, and 12 puppies who regard her as their lord and commander. She was one of the first smiles to receive me, fresh off the Peace Corps van on day one and even stuck around that first day to help me unpack while repeating everything she said four to five times. Her lack of siblings – unique among her peers – and the fact that she spends the majority of her time with adults has sharpened her wit and self-sustainability as a cut above the rest. For months, her house has been swarming with carpenters and other tradesmen as they build a new, small stone home beside the old wooden one. When the racket is too much, she sneaks over to color. Ah Heng (“little Heng”) has been my informant and confidant. She keeps me on the up and up about village drama and sensitive subjects she overhears from the adults, then steers me away from potential pitfalls. Some of our best exchanges have been in knowing glances or rubber bands shot over our fence and I wonder if she cherishes my trinkets and paper planes the same way that I treasure all of her charms.
Heng jumping rope upstairs as I try to sleep.
Age? My age! 8 years old, born in the year of the cow.
Favorite song? An English one? I don’t remember what it’s called but it’s sung by an uncle who isn’t handsome but he has a tattoo on his arm near his armpit hair.
First thing you do in the AM? Was my hair and brush my teeth like a model child.
What you like to do in your free time? Sometimes study and read, sometimes draw pictures, sometimes scrub the windows, sometimes do the dishes.
Favorite place in Cambodia? Any place with a big lake, like our lake here. It’s so breezy and nice. Not the ocean, though, that’s too much.
(Of the funeral music playing down the street.) I really don’t like the bon khmaoc (“ghost festival,” i.e. funeral). They will march around with the fake paper ghosts at 4 and I won’t go. I was even more scared of the funerals when I was younger, I would stay inside and pull my hair. I remember I thought the ghosts would fly in and burn my hair off. And the music always makes me miss my grandad. He was strong right up until died, but… He went before granny, anyhow. Granny is so… soft. And (whispers) she’s always doing unsanitary things. She’ll touch dirt and then use her dirty fingers to pull the beetle leaf chew from her lips. They say that the tumor on her face can’t spread to other people but I don’t eat from the same bowl that she does, just to be safe.
Biggest wish for your future? I want to be a police officer, but in the city. The police here in the country don’t seem to ever do anything. If I can’t do that I will work in Korea. Lots of people from our village go to work in Korea and they come back much smarter. Also, I want to take care of my mother when she’s old.
Biggest wish for Cambodia? Two. The first is that I want Cambodia to have good health, like no high blood pressure, no drug addiction. Next is that I want people to stop littering and making the environment so disgusting. I have heard that in other provinces they don’t have trash everywhere like this.
(Questions she asks me in rapid succession out of nowhere: what cats do in their free time, how to make colored pencils, how to care for baby trees so they will grow.)
Favorite Khmer proverb? No, but here is a song instead. (Sits up straight and sings.) My child please remember well/That you must learn to keep life clean/Children, grandchildren of illnesses today, the types are many/In the past so many came from animals and spread to us people/Now you must get yourself protected, the doctors with the vaccines can help/So go, go to the health center, please!
Something boys do that you wish girls could do? (Thinks.) Just have people think about us as resilient, brave, and hard-working. The way they think of boys from when they are little.
Best cure for a common cold? Oh, buy medicine. (Looks at me.) You know, meds for a stuffy nose, a runny nose, and a cough? Don’t you work at the hospital? Also, ginger tea.(She stops and looks at me.) I’m gonna ask YOU something. Does a house have a life? (I think and say no.) Think again… Even though a house isn’t alive itself, the family inside of it makes it alive, gives it a life. Just like how we give life to everything and everyone we touch and know.
Favorite Cambodian tradition? Water Festival because we get to miss school but our village doesn’t have any activities for it so it’s real free-time.
Something you find interesting about another culture? I love everything, about all other country’s cultures. (I ask her to explain as she colors.) Because, knowing about… It helps us… When… I don’t know, I don’t really get this one, next question. Wait, hey, what’s your favorite country? (I answer “Canada.”) I don’t know it but if they are clean and nice and respectful to one another than that’s probably a good country. And if they know how to help support their poor.
If you didn’t have to sleep, what you’d do in your extra time? Study. (She springs up and sprints home, returning momentarily with her various school books.) Especially more math and writing exercises.
Farthest you’ve ever been from home? No idea.
Personal hero? Mom. She raised me. My dad left when I was 3 months old in mom’s belly. When I was born she said, “You little piece of my own blood, I don’t want to share you with anyone else! You’re all mine!” (Laughs then gets quiet.) I get jealous of the other kids though, they all have dads.
Biggest fear? Mom getting another husband. I have heard that new husbands do terrible things to the children their wife had with the old husband. But if she wants one, she can have one! I don’t care!
(P.S. Here’s some quick footage of Ah Heng trying her first ever peach. She was… moved.)