Delightful Cambodians – Sreij Tooj
On their immaculate metallic blue Honda Wave 110 ccm, Srei (Mrs.) Tooj and her husband do arrive not one minute late for my dinner invitation. "Tiger muy", orders her husband whose name I never remember: one Tiger beer. But he forgot he is with his wife: "No need to drink beer, dear", she goes with a calm face and corrects his order for the waiter: "Coca muy for my husband, and Coca muy tee-et for me." Her husband accepts this change of diet with his dark enigmatic Khmer face unchanged.
Cambodians beg, steal and suck, right? That's what I hear on this site and elsewhere, too. But look at them as they happily chat into their mobile phones on Phnom Penh's Sisowath Quay, as they tender sundrenched rain soaked rice fields around Battambang, as they serve up guacamole in Siam Reap: Cambodians are people, too. With a horrifying past and a disgusting present government, many Khmers try hard to lead a life in dignity. In the course of this year, in several submissions, I would like to introduce you to Srei Tooj, Srei Lina, Mr. Chechren and Mr. Tok: Khmer thirty somethings who grew up when Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmers Rouges destabilized, then ruled the country in the seventies, to follow by an unwelcome Vietnamese regime that lasted into the early 90ies, to follow by one more unwelcome, but politically correct "elected" local regime. Their parents have been slaughtered on the killing fields, their properties went lost, they ended up in refugee camps or hi-jacked by jungle guerilla gangsters; even today they face death on every road junction, by gunned robbers or insane uncontrolled moto drivers. Yet they are delightful, amazing people with lots of that SE Asian charm you might miss elsewhere between Hat Yai and Ha Noi. They are honest and decent. If you like, today please meet Phnom Penh's resolute Srei Tooj.
She does not only control her husband's Tiger beer intake – Srei Tooj seems to keep control everywhere. Occasionally in the past, she had to pick her man off some blood young neighborhood girl. Beware, he didn't use the service they call "taxi girl" all over Indochina. But Phnom Penh has this new breed of young ladies working in the 200+ garment factories around town. Those women come from the very poor and conservative countryside; with a little overtime, they make a whopping 80 dollars per month. Still they have free time. Stripped off their family and village relations, they tend to forget a good girl's duties and fall for married men.
At least twice, investigative Srei Tooj caught her husband medias in res (as I learned from friends of friends). Nowadays, with her new translator job, she earns the main income for the family. This – of course – puts her in command at home. She made her husband swear to refrain from all further extramarital diversification. And at that point, the job was not yet fully done for robust Srei Tooj. With many words and just very few dollars, she convinced the landlord to remove the concerned young ladies from the block.
Having an unfaithful husband isn't complete disaster for Srei Tooj. "All men same-same", she shrugs, "they always want beautiful new lady." She decided to forget the undelightful events, and so she did.
Under the Cross
There are different things that Srei Tooj can't get over. Before her present job, Srei Tooj had had other occupations. As a teenager she attended some kind of business school, as much as was available under Vietnamese rule in a ruined country. From
early 1992, with the United Nation's UNTAC mission, a new system, a new government, new people and new chances came to Cambodia. Charity organizations invaded the country. Tooj was lucky – and persistent – enough to grab a decent job with
a Christian NGO from north America. Her task was mostly office work and translation. At first she was content. But soon after her first working day, her western boss knocked on Srei Tooj's apartment door.
I already know Srei Tooj for some years. She likes to talk down to earth, no-bullshit, or maybe slightly amusing things. She wants to see me, her estimated western friend, at ease. She would never load off her worries onto me. But as she reports about this first real job she had, and even a job for a western employer, who should be most respectable, right?, her voice goes off the rails. She definitely does not want to make me feel guilty or anything. Still her voice and face do transport disbelief and even anger – her anger with what happened when this western boss came to see her flat:
"You know what? He walked inside. He checked our room. He saw our Buddhist ghost house. Of course I need a ghost house to talk to my dead father and grandfather. Mee-en panyaha te? You know what he said? I must remove Buddhist ghost house. He said, I work for Christian organization now. I must put a Cross on the wall. Remove ghost house. Chaa!"
Never I saw Tooj rocked like when she recalls that Christian manager on her doorstep. He demanded something she could not do, and the demand itself she could not understand. But, imagine her situation back then: there was an old father who might need hospital soon… her husband had poor relatives, too… they dreamed of young ones who would need the very best schools on the continent… back then, in the mid-nineties, Cambodia might even fall back to the Khmers Rouges… no way to give up that safe and well-paid job now… So, yes: Srei Tooj admits she did remove her Buddhist ghost house indeed, and up on her wall came a Christian Cross.
Over two years, Tooj's American Christian boss showed up two more times to check if the Cross was up and hanging. Tooj herself, when she looked to that wall, she saw just an unwanted humiliating piece of wood lurking there in her private sphere. She remembers her upset like today: "Why he can ask me like that? I have a good heart! I work hard to help people! Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, we have everything in Kampuchea, adh panyaha! Everybody same-same, no?" In the restaurant, over her Thai style tom yum koong, Tooj looks at me bewildered: "I did a good job. Why I must put the Cross?" She says: "Okay, I put up the Cross and take the ghost house to my friend." I can hear she feels guilty about that. "My boss checked and thought I was a Christian." Then she hammers fiercely against her heart: "But here inside – I always have Preah Buddh!!!! Always – Buddaaah!!!"
After two years the Cross and the denial of her Buddhist belief made Tooj vomit. With the consent of her less earning husband, she quit her job and for some time changed to a local employer for a lower salary. On the day she quit the Christian organization,
the ghost house came back to their room. I never asked what happened to the Cross.
Srei Tooj managed to get back to her belief, but other yearnings remained unanswered: Babies did not show up. When after a lot exercise no young one appeared, the untired Khmer lady decided to take different action. She visited some of Phnom Penh's many orphanages and chose herself a newly born son fresh from the cradle. Paid a small fee and brought him home, her heart jumping sky-high.
The bad feelings came when she proudly toured papa and other family members with the newfound cutie. "He looks like a Vietnamese face", more than one relative observed maliciously. Shock: Vietnamese are the Khmers' dearest enemies, and there is no way of bringing Viet blood into a decent Khmer family.
Now what? Those were hard days for an otherwise very determined and fast forward Srei Tooj. Why didn't she herself notice his Viet features? She pondered exchanging the young one for a true Khmer baby, maybe this time with a certificate? But that was too much. At least, she thought, she might inquire about her son's parents – details she hadn't cared for at first hand. But what if his parents where really Mr. Nguyen and Mrs. Tranh, Viet-born fishermen from a poor ethnic Viet settlement on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake? What if his mother was an HIV-positive Viet taxi girl from a 3-dollar-boom-shack on Phnom Penh's seedy outskirts?
The little one moved in his tiny bed, croaked and even practiced his first sweet baby smiles. Srei Tooj is 100 percent Khmer, as she will tell you at any given time. But Srei Tooj is a full blooded Asian woman, too. She pressed her stepson to her heart and decided one more time to forget all difficult questions and worries, including those about her stepson's descent. And so she did.
Today, Tooj loves her baby dearly. At the dinner table over her tom yum koong and Coka, Srei Tooj raves to me: "Baby loves to dance soooo much! Now he can already turn on the CD player!"
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Pothole strikes again – great stuff!