Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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Friday, June 17, 2011

A girl from Cambodia

Uncountable people know her, have ordered a Pizza or Schnitzel, answered the usual questions for tourists "How long you stay in Phnom Penh", enjoyed her smile and friendly behaviour. But who is this girl working at a long established restaurant at the Phnom Penh Riverside?
She grew up an a village 2 hours away from the capital. You won't find it named on Google Earth, it is too small, although at least the next village with school and market is named. That's where Sopheap (it is not her real name, I changed it to keep her privacy) spend the first 23 years of her life. She went to school for some years, helped her parents on the rice field, played with her friends. "Sometimes on the way back home from school, my sister and I jumped in the water of the rice fields and tried to catch the fish with our hands. That was fun, and we got wet all over our body." She has some small scars on her arms, like from burning. "I don't remember where they are coming from, and my parents told me they don't know either"
Her older sister got married with a soldier who is now serving at the Prehar Vihar temple, where Cambodian and Thai army fighting a senseless dispute. She has two younger brothers, both still with the family. Her school education was quite basic, and no English of course.
"I wanted to learn more, so I was reading a lot of books, in the evening, with a candle, because we don't have electricity in my town", she says. But books weren't enough, so one day she decided to take the bus to Phnom Penh and start an adventure.

When she arrived, she had no clue, no job, not even friends. She just went to a restaurant and asked for work. As unexperienced as she was, the boss assigned her to clean the kitchen. At night, she slept on the floor of the kitchen, during the day, 8 hours, she was cleaning. Her salary was 30 Dollar a month, but she got food and shelter. As a curious girl, she observed the cook, and it did not take long and she was cooking as well. The money from the increased salary was invested in an English course. 7 Dollar a month, one hour a day - not a bad deal. The investment payed off of soon, because she was then assigned to the living room, working as a waitress.
That was the time when she met her first boyfriend, a Cambodian. " I was in love, he was the one and only for me." Unfortunalty, she wasn't the only one for him, he was cheating on her and finally told her, he was to marry another woman. "I think I was too poor for him". He now manage a guesthouse and a restaurant.

At that time, she was't sleeping at the kitchen floor anymore. She rented a room, actually some space on a mattress she shared with another girl. The mattress was old, dirty and saggy. The roommate was a bar girl, coming home late every night, often drunken and vomiting just next to the bed. Sometimes, when Sopheap was too tired after work, she shared the room in the mezzanine floor with her boss at the restaurant. The old lady was always good to her, she says, helping her out. From her low salary, she bought a nice dress for 10 dollar at the local market. One day, she went to the Sovannah shopping centre, a new shiny fancy mall in the Cambodian capital. "I was just window-shopping, everything is too expensive for me." At one shop, she saw the same dress she has. "I asked for the price, and the answered 110 USD. They told me it is Prada. But it was the same style and fabric then my one. They cheat on their customers."

After 2 years, she wanted to move on. The country girl applied for a job at an internet cafe and got it because of her English skills. After her work there she was cleaning some apparttments of foreigners. Two years later she will meet one of the foreign teachers in a coffee shop, will say "Hello Anita", but will recieve a unintelligible look, and a "Darling, do I know you?". "I cleaned your room", she will say, but Anita will just smile to her and go on with the conversation with her friend, mentioning "I think she cleaned my room one day..".

The job at the internet cafe wasn't too bad, she could practise English due to the many backpackers using the cheap (and slow) connection to the world. One year and 10 months later she got another job offer. A friend was working in a night bar and told her, to try it. The bar was one of the places with "friendly" staff, meaning the girls have to sell drinks for the guest and for himself. Every lady drink is 3 Dollar, one dollar for the girl. Since it cheap, but real alcohol, the girls get drunk easily. Customers are usually not here for talking, so it does not take long and they ask for more. "I did not like to kiss them in front of the other girls, or touch them. One time, a customer took me to his hotel. He was from Australia, and really nice. But the other girls were very jealous. There was always fighting about customers. I did not like it"
Two weeks after she resigned and went back to the restaurant she started her adventure in Phnom Penh. Her former boss was happy to get her back. Her salary is 70 USD a month plus 10 share of tips, at the bar she got 60 USD plus tips and what she gets when she accompany a customer. She could save some money even in the two weeks, and bought herself a new mattress. "I want to rent a room for my own. and I want to learn how to write and read English. Then I get a better job and more salary", she says.

She is 27 years now, usually Cambodians are married. "I can wait. I was very disappointed with my boyfriend, and I don't want to have this experience anymore. At least he did not infect me with HIV", she says. Work at the restaurant is okay she says, she can go to her hometown when needed, like the anniversary of her grandfathers death, when the family has to return and conduct a special ceremony. "They deduct me sometimes 2 dollars a day from my salary, but we have part time girl stepping in when someone has to ask for leave, so it is okay and gives me some flexibilty". Anything else to tell? "No", Sopheap says, "this is my story."

Friday, April 29, 2011

A tale about a tailor in Vientiane

She is now 31 years old. Her boyfriend is far away in Australia and she doesn't know if he will ever come back. This is the story of Tui, a woman in Vientiane, Laos. When she was young, she grew up in the south of Laos, close to the famous Wat Phou temple. "As children we used it as a playground", she says, "and my brother used it sometimes as a toilet, because there was no other place to go." Her father quit the family early, moved to America. The mother was left with 4 children and some land for growing rice. The Lao social system based on a close mutual commitment between family members who support each other might have saved Tui's life. She went to a local school, learning basics like writing Lao and reading. Most of the time she spend on the rice field. Electricity wasn't available at that time.

When she was in the early 20s, she decided to move. "I wanted to make money to support my mother, and in my home town was no way to do that". So she went to Vientiane, the capital. The brave woman found a job in a textile factory, and the next 4 years she was producing t-shirts. But she was smart enough to watch other sewing, and one by one she starting collecting pattern blueprints. In the rare free time she started sewing at home. after 4 years she had enough. "We worked very hard, 10-12 hours a day, the food was poor and bad. I was done with it". she got another job as a cleaner in a Apartment building. At that time she made enough money to attend English classes. That was enabling her to communicate with foreigners. Her goal: Getting a foreign boyfriend. But her requirements were quite high. at least 45 years old, tall, "good heart". Young man "gamble and drink", she said, "old man don't do this anymore".

One day the dream became true, she met an Australian man fitting in at a bar popular with westerners. He became her boyfriend, she stayed with him in the hotel every time he came to Vientiane. She also quit her job, rented a small apartment with a bedroom, an outside kitchen and a small living room for 80 USD a month and made some money from making Sinhs, the traditional Lao skirt for 40.000 KIP each (5 USD). Main income was still the money her boyfriend gave her, 5000 USD a year, he also payed the rent. She has a bed, what she did not have before. People usually sleep on the floor, having as small mat as mattress. She bought a washing machine and a gas stove. She still prefers to use the traditional Lao grill for cooking. But compared to her mother, she has a luxurious environment.

But now this story seems to come to an end. The boyfriend won't come to Laos much often. "It is okay", she says, "I will find another one." In the appartment complex next door just moved a foreigner in. "His name is Alex, he is handsome", she says, "maybe he want Lao girlfriend?". Love seems to have a different meaning in Laos.

Note: I changed the name of the woman to keep her identity secret.