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In This Place, We Are Kin

By: Heidi Hoefinger Posted: September-17-2011 in
Heidi Hoefinger

We meet at corner of the main street and the entrance to the maze. We navigate our way through the winding concrete alleyways in this Cambodian slum, past the salted snails, the fried crickets, grasshoppers, and iced coffee. Sochua and I stop and buy a bag of fried spiders. People around here recognize me now, but still stare at the white barang.

Towards the end of a narrow alleyway, we finally get to her concrete box. She shares this small, square cement room with six other girls—all nomads, all ‘bar girls’, living out of their suitcases. It’s 1pm. Many girls are just waking up off the hard, ceramic-tiled floors. A urine-stained hammock hangs in the corner. This is where Sochua’s seven-month old baby sleeps. Today baby Maly gets a treat. Sochua chews a tasty salted spider and feeds it to the baby. The taste is new for her. She quizzically licks her lips as spider mush dribbles down her chin. We find this entertaining and laugh endearingly.

As the girls wake up, the concrete box comes alive. First, they bathe: dip the plastic bowl into the cement trough of water and splash it over themselves. Come back to the communal room, rummage through each other’s suitcases, and voila! Dressed. Now, a few squirts of body spray and perfume and soon the smells of sweat and urine are swallowed up by floral bouquets. Sochua dries her hair with a sarong. Earlier, that sarong was the baby’s blanket, then a pillow for the old lady who stopped by for a rest, then a rag to clean mud off the floor, then a hanky for Maly’s runny nose, then a dish towel, and now a hair towel. Resourcefulness abounds here. After that: decoration. The girls dig around a big communal bag of make-up, stand in front of a small mirror hanging from a nail on the wall and paint their faces. I share my own sticky bag. They like the new stuff. Someone paints me. Sochua and I trade earrings. I feel accepted.

The crowded room is bustling. Girls changing, babies crawling underfoot, elderly grandmothers hovering in the doorway over puddles of Maly’s pee, trying to sell their dried fish. Some young Khmer guys show up and start smoking crystal meth. The kids and grandmothers don't deter them. Sochua hates it and wants to move out. Privacy doesn’t exist here. We hear a roommate having sex with one of the guys up in the loft—a site blocked only by a thin towel hanging over the rail. Boyfriend or customer, no one knows, and no one seems to care.

All dressed and ready to go. But Sochua has one last surprise for me. After seeing my hideously holey underwear on my clothesline yesterday, she decides to give me the most personal and generous gift of all: her two best pairs--a black g-string in the shape of a butterfly, and a purple lace thong. This offering is by no means a sexual gift, but a sign of sisterhood. They’re not only personal, but valuable, since she wears them to work and to help her make money. While some might be embarrassed to get used underwear as a gift, I’m utterly touched and honored. I quickly change into the butterfly g-string, and we’re off.

***

Weeks fly by. Sochua invites me to visit her family in the countryside. Her hands are full carrying gifts of baby formula, sarongs and rice, so she hops on one moto taxi by herself, and hands me baby Maly to hold and hop on another one. Here, on this rickety motorbike, helmetless and exposed, swerving through lanes of chaos and traffic, I sit clutching this baby with one arm and holding my bag with the other. It’s here that I know I am trusted.

A few hours later, we arrive. First stop, Sochua’s sister’s house—a bamboo hut that Sochua has built with her own sweat and tears. She’s proud. She’s also proud to show off her American friend. She speaks English and the villagers all stare in amazement. We give her sister, Pisey, the gifts of baby formula and rice. She gives us sweet mango in return. I meet Pisey’s five kids, 3 boys and 2 girls. Everyone stares and laughs as I eat my mango. It’s amazing the entertainment a foreigner brings. But also the trouble.

Within minutes, local police catch wind there’s a white girl in town, something that doesn’t happen around these parts. A young, round-faced cop shows up and interrogates. He needs my passport—which I don’t have. Only my American driver’s license, and thirty dollars in my pocket. Damn, I should have taken more money. I didn’t think of having to pay off cops. It’s a problem that I don’t have my passport, but he’s going to ‘look after me’—whatever that means. He also says I can’t stay here in Pisey’s bamboo hut because if local bandits find out I’m here, they’ll come slit my throat for the thirty dollars in my pocket. We have to move to a more secure house…one with a lock.

We walk through rubber trees to their uncle’s place. He lives in one of the French colonial concrete houses in the rubber plantations. It has a wooden door and shudders that lock. I’m under house arrest, but happy to be safe. That is until another cop shows up. An older, more experienced one. My stomach churns. Apparently I’m under suspicion of being here to traffic children for sex, or that I am an NGO worker coming to take away all the orphans. Either way they think I’m up to no good. I repeat, ‘I’m only here as a friend.’ He takes my driver’s license information. In case I disappear, they’ll be able to report me to the US embassy. A comforting thought.

The family and I get on with the night. I enjoy the safety of the concrete. At midnight though, three motorbikes pull up. My heart sinks. It’s the cops. They’re drunk. They have machine guns slung over their shoulders. They barge in and demand tea. Auntie and Uncle nervously laugh and try to make these intruders comfortable. The problem that remains: I don’t have my passport, which is now against the law.

I look at Auntie and Uncle’s eyes—eyes which have witnessed the horrors of the Khmer Rouge—eyes which have worked the fields and been starved and abused—eyes which have seen innumerable deaths—and in those eyes I now see fear. And now I feel fear.

The fat-faced one gets up and pisses off the front porch. I can hardly understand what’s going on but I know it’s about me. ‘Pass-a-port…visa…embassy… police…’ Do they want money? No. They want to take me away to stay at their wives’ houses tonight and then stick me on a truck back to Phnom Penh in the morning. This of course, is for my own safety—in case the bandits come. I now realize these drunk, machine-gunned bastards are the bandits. And apparently the fat one wants to marry me. Paralyzed with fear, I know if they take me there is only one fate.

Hours pass. 2am. I come up with a strategy—Lay on the floor in front of them in the fetal position and pretend to fall asleep. Simple. As innocent, harmless and infantile as possible. Understanding my cue, Sochua lays behind me and wraps her leg and arm over me tightly, and holds me like a small child. This pose suggests, ‘we are family…we are intimate…and I am non-threatening’. As we lay there, spooning, and pretending to sleep, they finally buy it, and leave. In this case, our family ties have saved us.

***

It’s been three years since I was last in Cambodia. Sochua has since moved from her concrete box in the alleyway and now lives in Phnom Penh’s biggest urban slum. A huge decrepit shell of a building complex taking up many blocks. Within one of the large courtyards, I walk alongside colossal piles of garbage, humming and alive with cat-sized rats. Sinks and toilet drain pipes empty down from the flats above, and splash far and wide onto the mountain of garbage. I artfully dodge the splashes and try to balance on the decaying cardboard ‘bridges’ over the open sewage streams that form below. I’m wearing flip flops. I feel wet sewage squish between my toes. Barefooted children wander freely among the waste. Adults lounge on their bamboo beds and laugh as I maneuver past the heaving mountain of filth.

I’m happy when I spot Maly standing in front of her mother’s tin-roofed shack, with soiled dress, soiled face and rotten little teeth. She’s three-and-a-half now. I kiss her and Sochua welcomes me to her new home. We laugh as she points out her whole family, jokingly referring to the rats that openly crawl over dishes, across beams, and over the bamboo bed. Last night she woke in middle of the night to them nibbling on her toes. Again, we laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

Despite the destitution, she’s proud of her home. It’s all hers. She pays the entire $35 per month for rent. She makes the rules. She doesn’t share with any strangers or meth users. She provides a home for Maly, and her three nephews from the countryside. ‘Why are they here?’ I ask. Because her sister, Pisey, is dead. She killed herself by ‘taking too much medicine.’ When hubbie returned from Malaysia with his new wife and family, it was too much for Pisey to bear and she took her own life—leaving behind five kids. They got split up and Sochua’s in charge of the three sons, all under the age of fourteen. Now she has five mouths to feed from her work in the bar. ‘What about marriage?’ I ask. ‘It might take some pressure off.’ She shows me a thick raised scar on her left wrist. I never noticed it before. She cut herself with a razor after Maly’s dad took off. She wears the scar like a badge. A reminder to never let a man break her heart again. I start to notice these badges on others. Broken hearts are common here.

***

After weeks of not hearing from her, Sochua finally calls. She has the five-minute walk passed the garbage pile to her house to fill me in on the news. She met a Cambodian guy. He wants her to be his wife. He respects her and followed the traditional steps of introducing his family. Although Sochua is apparently ‘fat and old-looking’ according to his parents, they give their approval. She’s been staying with him for a month. That’s why she hasn’t called. Wow. This is big news.

We get to the room. The bed’s been moved. I comment on the changes. ‘Yeah, he wanted to make them.’ I see a skinny-looking Khmer character on the bed. I’m slightly shocked. This is the girl that swore she’d never go with another Khmer man again. The girl that wears a thick raised scar on her wrist as a reminder. Yet, here is this man, already making changes. Already shouting at Maly to stop playing in the rain.

I see by the look on her face that she’s doing it for them—not herself. Behind her smile is a slight look of defeat. But she just can’t do it anymore. Pulling the customers is getting more difficult and the five mouths to feed, too burdensome. She sacrifices her vow to herself for the sake of the kids. He’s unemployed, but he cares for them. And he proves himself in her greatest time of need.

***

A few days later, my phone rings. It’s Sochua’s fifteen-year old neighbor who works as a prostitute. ‘They do boom boom to baby Maly!’ ‘What? Who?’ I ask. ‘Some old man and the boys from sister, number one and number two!’ My stomach drops. Sochua’s nephews and another boy have sexually abused Maly. Panic and despair. Yet grateful that neighbor had called. Our growing friendship network has proven useful in this time of crisis.

I call Sochua. She’s hysterical at the police station. She explains how she went to the market for an hour and left Maly with the nephews, aged twelve and fourteen, and another eighteen-year old neighbor. The two nephews touched her outside, but the eighteen-year old tried to penetrate. When Sochua returned and realized what had happened, her boyfriend took charge, beat them senseless, and called the police, who tazered all three of them and threw them in jail. Apparently the older one offered her the equivalent of few cents beforehand, which she innocently accepted. The mentality here: if you pay, it’s not rape.

At the police station, three-and-half-year old Maly sits in a room all by herself and tells two huge Cambodian cops what was done to her. They give her a banana to demonstrate. They ask if she cried. She says no. Her fearlessness staggers and leaves me speechless.

Meanwhile, Sochua is distraught and desperate for help. I contact some relevant agencies. They call her immediately and tell Sochua her rights. They also offer to come take them to a shelter for support. Instead, she comes and meets us at her bar. What she needs more than anything is the comfort of her friends. We cuddle Maly. She’s tired, but amazingly, in good spirits. More than anything, Sochua is devastated that it was her nephews—the boys for whom she has been working endlessly in the bar to feed. I feel deep deep sadness…for Sochua, who is being blamed by her community for ‘allowing’ this to happen, for Maly who has been violated, and for the boys, who have been abandoned by their father and dead mother, who were influenced by the older neighbor, and now sit in one of the most dangerous prisons in Phnom Penh. The sheer brutality of life smacks us in the face, and we sit, mostly in silence, comforting each other.

***

Days go by. More visits to NGOs and police stations. More interviews with reporters. Eventually the boys’ father sends $200 from Malaysia to pay off Sochua and release them from jail. These orphans go live in some other province with some other relatives. The eighteen-year old stays in jail because his mother refuses to pay the $500 Sochua demands. This is how it works. This is ‘justice.’ There is no trial. There is no sentence. There is only money. But Sochua is happy with the results. She’s relieved the boys are freed, and no longer her responsibility. She’s happy with the NGO intervention and the small write-up she got in the paper. Maly gets to go to the NGO medical clinic for free, which is a big benefit. Sochua’s also happy with the support she receiving from her boyfriend.

One day, after things settle down, I’m fearful that I caught head lice from somewhere, so I go to Sochua’s to have her check my hair. We chit-chat about her boyfriend. As if it’s supposed to form the basis of all relationships, I ask if she loves him. ‘No, Not yet. Love will come later. But I respect him because he helped me.’ ‘Does he smoke meth?’ I ask. ‘Only sometimes. And he gambles a little too.’ Another recipe for disaster, I think.

She tells me again he wants to marry her. I pretend to be happy for her, but I have my doubts. The cynic in me is afraid this story will end the same as the others. More scars. More heartache. Or worse, she’ll end up like her sister. The feminist in me wants to tell her she’s better off on her own…she could do it if she just perseveres. But then again, I don’t know what it’s like to support a child on $2 a day. I’ve never known poverty and had to make choices like hers. From my privileged position, it’s easy to be skeptical.

As a sex worker—who are generally stereotyped as ‘broken women’—she wants the opportunity to ‘do it right’…to be traditional…to be respectable. She flat out asks for my approval. With her mother and sister dead, and her father far away, she has no family in the city to help her make tough life decisions like these. Traditionally, she needs family approval in order to marry. Here in this place, I’m fulfilling that role.

We talk some more. The rats gaily climb around and keep us company. Maly dances about and chases after her rodent friends. Her spirit is not broken. She’s more curious about her body and is asking more questions, which her mom does her best in answering over time. We sit on the bamboo bed frame as Sochua digs through my hair. She doesn’t find lice, but instead starts slowly and affectionately plucking gray hairs with a pair of rusty tweezers. I close my eyes and think to myself we are literally growing old together. Here in this place…in this city…in this slum…in this shack, we are kin.

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