The following memoir was written by Dara Phan, a Cambodian woman here at the Agape workshops with me. What is below is only an excerpt; she is still at work on it. When she sent it to me, she warned me that it might be primarily of interest to people in Southeast Asia.
No, I told her, this is of interest to everyone. I’ve encouraged her to seek a book contract with a publisher somewhere in the West, which I think she could get in approximately five seconds.
This is her story and these are her words. I helped her with grammar and English idioms, but I tried to change as little as I possibly could. To a native English speaker, for example, it may seem like I added the extraordinary chapter headings, which are straight out of David Copperfield. I did not; the headings speak both to her gifts as a writer, and to the truth of Dickens’s book.
Accordingly, and very importantly, THIS IS A COPYRIGHTED WORK, and Dara Phan reserves all rights. It is NOT being posted here under my usual Creative Commons license. I am reproducing it on a one-time basis with the express permission of the author.
First of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am Ms. Dara Phan, and I am thirty years old. Currently, I am working with a volunteer group called the Steering Committee of Interfaith Peace Building for Youth. I am also an active member of the Cambodian Student Christian Mission, and take part in their programs for Cambodian women. I am very pleased to be able to tell my story, honestly and from the bottom of my heart.
1. Refugee Camp and Life With My Foster-Parents
When Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, my family went to live in a refugee camp near the Thai border. I was born in the camp in 1980. When I was a year old, my parents divorced; at this time, my mother was also pregnant with my younger brother. Our living conditions were poor, and she couldn’t feed all of us. Faced with this difficult situation, she decided to send me to live with her brother, my uncle, and his wife. She expected my life with them would be comfortable, because they were rich.
Like many of my friends, I was accepted into school at age six, but unlike them I was busy doing housework. I asked my foster-parents for permission to begin school, but they refused. I asked them twice more, but their response was the same. By the time I was seven I was very concerned about not studying. So I tried to get them to give me permission, one more time, and this time they agreed to send me to school. However, they suggested I make an agreement with them if I really wanted the privilege of studying. The agreement was that I would wake up early and do all of the housework. If everything was clean, I could go to school. If not, it would not be allowed. After school I had to hurry home; I was not allowed to play games with other children. If I came home late, my uncle hit me. My foster-parents made me collect rubbish after school. If I didn’t do it perfectly, I would not get any food for the day. However, I was still happy, because I was getting an education. I thought other kids had agreements like mine, and did all the housework in order to attend school.
In 1988, I entered second grade. Unfortunately, my family moved, so I had to repeat first grade. In this new school, every lesson was new, and I wasn’t well-prepared. I worked like a slave at home, cleaning and serving meals. My uncle would tell me, “No work, no food. If you’re a human being, you have to work hard.” Every day, until I was 12 years old, he beat me. He used a variety of materials: iron, rope, wood, sticks. He beat me for no reason. He also tried to rape me many times, and would call for me to come give him a massage. I told my aunt, but she couldn’t help me. She would just become sad, and cry. She loved her husband very much, and suggested I keep quiet. She said: “As a woman, you should not tell anyone about this. You can’t criticize him because he is your father.”
“Do all fathers do this to their daughters?” I asked. She told me it was not a polite question, and that I shouldn’t be asking questions. She taught me that women have no authority over men.
“Women are unclean,” my aunt said. “Keeping silent and doing housework is our identity.”
I disagreed with that. “No!” I shouted. “If women are sin, why do men marry them? Women are human beings, like men. They must be the same.” But the more I wondered, and the more questions I asked, the more beatings I received. I challenged everything they said that wasn’t right, but had nothing to show for it.
In 1991 and 1992, UNBRO sent the Khmer people still living in the refugee camps back to Cambodia. (Those who didn’t repopulate became citizens of Thailand.) My family returned home on the 22nd of December, 1992. I went back with my entire family. It was terrible. I was leaving the only place I’d called home; I would never see my friends or my old school again. This was the most difficult struggle of my life. However, I was at least glad that my uncle wasn’t with us. He went to live with a second wife. When we reached Cambodia, we all lived with the sister of my aunt (my uncle’s ex-wife).
At that time in the refugee camp, I was in sixth grade. I applied to begin school once again, in Cambodia. The dean of the school gave me an exam, which I passed. He allowed me to skip ahead to 8th grade, since I was so advanced. But my aunt asked my mother to enroll me in 4th grade instead, because she wanted me to study with her daughter. My mother agreed. Although at first I refused to go along with their plan, eventually I had to resign myself to obeying them, because they were older. So, in 1992, I became a fourth-grader.
Two years later, in 1994, my relatives began to discuss my future. By then I was in sixth grade. She has had enough school, they said. What is the point of more study? She will still become a wife, and it is a wife’s responsibility to spend her life taking care of her husband and children. Soon after, my aunt lost her money and her gold, and became poor. When that happened, her sister and brother-in-law threw us out. For five years, until I was 18, I worked in the market from morning until evening, selling fruit, fish, vegetables, and other things as well. I bought the fruit at a discount, from a seller on the roof train. In Cambodia, there is only one train track, far from where I was living then. To buy fruit, I would have to spend a night with a friend in the forest. I chose older people to be my friends; that made things much easier. Many times, in the forest, I encountered young men who tried to rape me; the older folks, though, helped me and took care of me, as if I was their own daughter.
Meanwhile, I looked for any other work I could find: cooking, sewing, cleaning houses, harvesting rice, giving massages. I did anything I could around the neighborhood to support my family, and had no time for myself or for fun. Everything I did was for my family and others around me. I earned lots of money from those jobs, enough to buy a big house, and to go into business selling gasoline, beer, rice, soup, ice cream, and other groceries. I started a karaoke business that was open at night. Three months later, when my uncle found out that our living conditions had changed, he came back to live with us again. He asked his wife how we had become so rich so fast.
“It was not through my labor,” she said. “I just stay at home. All our property is thanks to our daughter’s efforts, and everything belongs to her, too.”
“Why would you say such things?” he shouted. “We fed her from the time she was a little child until she was grown. The work is her responsibility, but none of this belongs to her.” Still, though, he didn’t want me around. Perhaps he thought as long as I was there, everything still belonged to me. So he told me to leave, and when I refused, he chased me out late one night.
I had no money; I had no choice but to plead with him. “Please don’t make me homeless. I just want to live with you, and I will not ask for any of the property.” I had no idea where I would go.
He would not relent. “You can work in the garment factory in Phnom Penh,” he told me. “I’ll ask my friend to pick you up in the morning.”
This made me extremely anxious; I didn’t know his friend, and thought my uncle might be trying to traffic me. I did not know what to do that night. I looked at the sky, and I saw the stars. I started to talk to the sky, and to myself. Who created you? I asked. Who created me? Who created this earth? If there is truly a God, please, help me right now. I imagined living with my real parents again, and being happy again, and warm. I cried through the night, until early in the morning. Soon, I knew, my uncle would send me to work in a garment factory. But then, suddenly, good news: my real mother and brother were on their way! I was surprised, and filled with new hope. I knew, now, that there was a true God, even though I didn’t know who He was. I only knew that I was very happy.
2. I live with my real mother
On 13 April 1998, I left my aunt and uncle to live with my real mother. She promised to make me happy. She told me nobody would look down on me, or neglect me, any longer. As I listened to her making these promises, I wept.
I made the trip there safely, and when I arrived at my mother’s house, I saw lots of men sitting and talking. “Who are they?” I asked my mother.
“Some of them are my students,” she told me. “They live so far from school that I allow them to stay here. Some of them are your relatives.” That last part scared me. Then my mom began explaining the work I had to do. Every morning I was to get up early, cook, clean the house, and do everybody’s wash. After I finished all that, I could leave for school.
This is how it is: my mother does not love me, because I look like my father. My father doesn’t love me because, so he says, I have the same face as my mother. But personally, I don’t think my face, or my attitude, resembles them at all.
Even though my mother didn’t love me, she allowed me to attend school. In 1998, my mother sent me to study ninth grade, only three months before the final exam. It was very difficult to study for the test, since I’d dropped out of school in sixth grade. I studied hard, and I passed. One day my mother went to Phnom Penh to help a relative sell moon cakes. She left me alone with my brother and a house full of men. That night, one of them, a nephew of mine, tried to rape me. When my mother returned home, I told her, but she had no time for me. She was busy with her work and her friends. She didn’t ask me how I was feeling, and later, when I tried again to tell her what happened, she still didn’t want to hear it. I forced her to listen to me.
“Did he rape you yet?” was her response. “If he raped you, you might end up marrying him. Didn’t you know that?!”
I had no control over who was allowed to stay with us. Just the opposite: they controlled me and took enormous liberties. It was then I realized how my mother was really going to treat me. I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to kill myself. But even as I was considering suicide, I was also becoming increasingly determined to stop being depressed, and to replace my hopelessness with optimism. I simply knew, from that day forward, that no-one could take care of me but myself. I needed to care for myself, so that I wouldn’t be dependent on anyone.
At the end of an unfinished section entitled “My Struggle For The Future,” Dara writes this:
My story is a Cambodian story. Everything that happened to me, happens to many women there; these experiences are part of our culture. This is not a story about overcoming sexism. Sexism has not been overcome. I suffer its effects every day, like all the women of my country. So I am dedicating my story to all those who struggle for women’s rights and gender equality.
As for me…I want to see the world.