The Day I am Finally Shocked

silenceIt finally happened. Up until this point, I had experienced varying degrees of surprise, anger, disgust, horror, outrage, depression, hopelessness and a sense of injustice when being confronted with daily reminders of Cambodia’s dark side: her tragic past and poverty-stricken present. Call me jaded, but I hadn’t experienced outright shock.

I mean, I had visited The Killing Fields and felt depressed and somber at being surrounded by the mass graves of some 8,000 men, women and children and cringed when I saw the blood on the bark of a tree that babies’ heads were smashed against. I felt the same kind of emotions at Tuol Sleng Prison (now a museum) where 18,000 people had been tortured and executed.

I was horrified when I saw one of the little girls at one of the centers I teach at – her father threw acid on her face and body and now all her skin is burnt, melted away and she has disfigurement, severe scarring and must wear a hat at all times. Then there is another little one, a new recruit who is so malnourished you can count her ribs and who is suffering from myriad diseases. If the organisation hadn’t found her, she would’ve been dead in weeks.

Then there was the news that my fellow volunteer, a banker from Paris was attacked when riding her bike out in the provinces. The young men threw her off her bike and stole her money and passport, leaving her stranded, bleeding with nothing. That was close to home. As was the news several days ago that a French woman had been found floating in a river, dead and naked with severe head injuries in a location that I was in only a week prior. These incidences were disturbing, but not shocking.

So, here I am teaching my class of eight first-year university students. We are talking about Valentine’s Day and its significance in Cambodia. We read an article written by a Cambodian about how the special day has been misinterpreted by young Cambodians as a day to be ‘promiscuous’ and have sex (on the surface, Cambodians are supposed to wait until marriage, but it seems the reality is different), rather than a time to show your appreciation and love for your friends and family.

There is a line in the article about how a significant percentage of young men want to engage in Bauk, or gang rape. I asked my students about this notion. One of the girls then says, “It’s when the man takes his girlfriend or another girl to a hotel and then other men are there too, his friends, and they rape the woman. It’s so common. And they tell her that if she tells anyone, he will kill her.” The other students nod, confirming her explanation.

I proceed to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The drive home is grim and then I make matters worse by googling ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Rape’. I learn about this disconcertingly common practice of Bauk in which a man buys a prostitute for a night, takes her to a hotel or elsewhere where his friends are waiting to attack her and then proceed to gang rape her for as long as she is conscious. He pays her the same rate as he would if it was just him, then all the friends split the cost (the woman would cost about $15 for one night).

It happens with ordinary young women too – some tricked into going to a hotel with a guy they meet at a club and then ambushed by up to 10 of his friends, some girls are grabbed off the street, and some even do it to their girlfriends.

The BBC, CNN and various human rights groups have reported on the shockingly common instances of rape in Cambodia and tried to pry the lid off this taboo subject. I feel a degree of denial – I mean, these guys, they’re so physically small, timid, shy, passive and sweet. But then again, this is a culture that killed over a million of their own in one of the most brutal genocides the world has ever seen. Still, there is a disconnect.

The really terrifying part in all of this is that the victims HAVE NO RIGHTS. Even with evidence, the police are generally corrupt and lazy and don’t really care, especially in a society where men rule and the law is subjective and never enforced. Anecdotal reports state that they’re in on it too. It’s a growing trend amongst the new middle class and the rich – if you have money to pay off authorities, you can bribe your way out of anything, even really violent recreational activities that involve destroying the lives of others.

Now I understand why some of the older students at the organisation are making a documentary about incest and fathers raping daughters. Now I understand why women never go out alone after dark. It’s the ever-present threat nobody wants to acknowledge. Victims from villages in the provinces have to leave as they are shamed and ostracized. Victims fear for their lives if they ever speak out. And even if they do, who in a position of authority or power is going to care?

And then, there is outrage over Valentine’s Day and an effort curb ‘teenage lust.’ As stated in the Phnom Penh Post:

Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.

“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”

One token day a year to consider violence against women and girls is really a drop in the ocean. A culture that values and promotes chastity yet tolerates rape is in dire need of more than some half-assed policing of teenagers on Valentine’s Day. As long as the justice and legal system remain broken, as long as corruption reigns, and as long as women are silenced, rape will remain a fact of life for females in Cambodia.


Teen Spirit

Image by Lel4nd

I received an email from one of my good friends from high school this week – our beloved drama teacher is retiring and she wanted me to write a letter that would be presented to her on her final day.

I dutifully wrote it, and as I did, I was flooded with memories from those turbulent teenage years.

This woman’s no-nonsense, tough love approach and presence had a formative effect on my life. As I thought back to that era, I realized how much time we spent together – evenings and weekends rehearsing for productions, for assessments, for concerts. Having no children of her own, she dedicated much of her time and energy to us in all our emo, narcissistic, amateur glory.

It was because of her that I was able to have one of the most amazing experiences of my life – three weeks travelling and performing in the United States. This naïve, small town girl hopped on a plane for the first time and was transported literally to a new world. It was a transcendent experience – I devoured every ecstatic second of every teenage girls’ fantasy: giant shopping malls, Hawaiian beaches, Disneyland, and of course, performing a play about there being too many frogs and not enough princes for hundreds of Americans at a real American University. Hotels, international airports, palm trees, yellow cabs, buying blue jeans from The Gap – these experiences made me feel so grown up: invincible, as if the possibilities were endless. I was so lost in the moment that time ceased to exist. Everything was in technicolour and spaces seemed much larger, buildings much higher. It was as if each hour brought something better than the one that preceded it. I felt confident and beautiful and glowed like a candle on an altar.

That highlight aside, my teenage years were, like everyone else’s, awkward, and uncomfortable. I remembered my 17-year-old self. I am a little bit in awe of her. How did I manage to do well academically, keep up all those rehearsals, and work part-time at McDonald’s (usually the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights cleaning up my peers’ vomit at 3am)? I have no idea where I got the energy or motivation. Just thinking about that kind of schedule makes me feel bone-chillingly exhausted. Add to that an unstable family life, teenage heart-break, a mysterious ailment, and an insalubrious social life that revolved around alcohol, drugs and mourning Kurt Cobain. It’s a wonder I didn’t curl up and hide under a rock in my ripped Gap jeans.

I was such a diligent little soldier, ambitious and determined. I suppose I was driven to make something of myself, to be the first person in my family to go to university, to experience the world that featured in all those books I read when I was trying to escape from my painful reality. I can be grateful that I was pretty independent and self-sufficient from a young age.

Inevitably though, we get knocked down by life, and we learn to get up. Things wash over us easily when we’re young, but I feel now, although I have a stronger backbone, there are definitely chips in my armor. My confidence and resilience have been tested, and sometimes eroded. That is inevitable. The trick, I think, is to recall the strengths of that younger self and remind myself that I have got through crazy hard times before, that there is a well of inner strength there to be drawn from.

Also, now I have the gift of perspective and experience. I am older, wiser, more mature, less naive, definitely less innocent, maybe more cynical. Definitely more self-aware.

During those formative years, we need such mentors in our lives to provide some calm amongst the storm, a respite from the crashing waves of hormones and peer pressure. I was lucky to have had such a nurturing, if eccentric, role model.