These are what women (and men too!) have been suffering. These are called social pressures and expectations. The society expects women (and sometimes men too!) to behave and act and to speak, to dress in a certain way.
Recently, I was mocked by a former colleague on social media. He wrote, “[your] face looks very old”. To be honest, I was enraged. So I penned back to him raising my strong voice I feel the need to tackle “age shaming culture” by a Cambodian man. He is not the only man who feels the entitlement to shame women on their age.
I am 41 years old this year and I love my body tenderly, much more than I was 10 or even 20 years ago. I have never felt young and energetic like before. I have contributed so much to the society. I take the risk to become a female contemporary poet in an obsessed traditional literary community. I have published 6 titles of books. I have written short stories and they have been asked for translation into various languages. I give countless talks and workshops. I am able to mobilise forces to organise literature festival while many people even afraid just to use the word “festival”. I have never been active before. At 41, I feel I am me, Phina, who is happy with my life.
So, I wonder why people could only see me as a 41-year-old woman. I also wonder how can they expect my face to look young? I age gracefully. I embrace my age. I grow old with gained wisdom. Can’t people see that besides being a 41-year-old woman, I am a good, active, and critical citizen of Cambodia whom many girls and young women are looking up to me?
I would like people to know that when I speak up for myself, I do speak for other women so that they don’t suffer from age shaming, fat shaming, skin shaming, hair shaming, slut-shaming, victim-blaming and everything shaming culture. So that we are free from being judged and free to take a positive breath and be free to be energetic and continue to work for the best interest of ourself and others. Let’s allow our brain to think something useful rather than just age, skin, body type, or hair.
It is very unfortunate thing for the country to have a population who believe that they are too young in their earlier 20s and too old when they are in 30s. I wonder how much does your life can contribute to the society when you have this mindset? Why do we care much about age anyway?
I chose to read four poems. All are in Khmer. I didn’t really have time to translate them into English. I will try to write a little bit about it here and also will share the story of the yellow shirt.
The first poem is about me who sees myself travelling from Phnom Penh to a province. In the car and along the way, I witness people buying and paying for threads happily. They were singing, dancing, and telling jokes. Lives go on with the thread on their every mouth including mine.
The second one is about someone whose soft hand guiding me toward a direction. I was scared but I could not escape because when I tried the hand turns from soft to rough and scary. The third is about learning to love my self. Growing up, I witnessed two burned scars on my stomach. I felt so embarrassed and disappointed with myself. I explored this with my parents and learned that the scars were a result of life, death, and love. The fourth one was a simple romance poem.
I kept thinking about choosing what to wear for the reading and of course how to read. I read my poems many times and try to find a theme. One of the poems especially the third one is about my mother. To save me from death, she brought me to a Kruu Khmer (traditional healer). And I have been in love with one of her traditional shirt. It is yellow. Old. Out of fashion. It is something many girls would not wear out of shame. However, I love it and I want to bring it to life again.
I was reading a translation text in English for the award-winning poet Chin Meas. I called him the Fried Noodle Poet since he sells noodles every night in Siem Reap to make a living. Being a poet is tough.
When I decided to wear it, I had to face another challenge: self-doubt. I grew unwanted fat on my body. With this, women would hide it because we believe it does not look good and it is not a beauty standard. After thinking for a while and talked to a friend, I made a final decision to wear it. Of course, I was so much conscious about my body. I was afraid that it shows my belly or it does not suit with my age. Turned 41 last week, I believe women are repeatedly told to wear clothes their age. I was all about shy and nervous. However, there is one thing I needed to be clear with myself. As a feminist, should I worry this much? I asked myself. If I don’t love my self, who would? If I don’t embrace my body, who would do? Since I am one of the people who promote body-positive, should I be worried and nervous about my body? I should not. So I wore it and I was completely happy that I did.
The yellow shirt belongs to my mum. I initially thought that it might be around the 80s because I used to see her wear it when I was a child. However, she told me that it was since 1974. She wore it a few time before the Khmer Rouge time. Since she loves it so much, she carried and hid it with her during the civil war and the genocide. I asked her if she was afraid that she would get caught she said at her village, it is not an issue as long as she does not wear it. I don’t remember since when I started to love the yellow top. I remember that I wore it to a film festival but I was really shy that I wrapped it with a shawl. Not this time. The only thing I felt a little uncomfortable is it is too tight. lol.
Generally, it was a great event. I was glad to hear that the audience loved the readings a lot. Most said it was not their expectation. They expected to hear just the readings but in fact it was a lot more than readings.
Please enjoy a few more photos below. Any familiar faces?
The artworks you have seen on the wall are of a unique artist Khchao Touch currently exhibited at Mirage Gallery, Siem Reap.
Whenever he met us, he smiled and slightly lowered his head while he was taking off his hat as a sign of showing respect. He often did that when he greeted my parents. He was not one of my Cambodian uncles. He was a Vietnamese soldier who was stationed in our village during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was probably in his late 20s or early 30s, tall, fair, and thin. He had an honest and sincere facial expression. I was about 8 or 9 years old back then. All of my friends called him Chu, a Vietnamese word for ‘uncle’. My village is ‘Potakouy Village’, Lolok Sar Commune, Sampov Meas district, Pursat province while he was stationed in a village next to my village divided by a railway. I remember him until now and tears often swelled up in my eyes when I am wondering about him.
The most memorable picture of him is how he waved at me from the rice field from an ox cart. Behind him was full of recently cultivated rice. His hut was built by mostly straw and some small wooden wall. The hut was facing the railway. He shared the little hut with one or two of his friends. I usually played along the not so busy railway that divided my village, which was on the north side, and his village, which was located on the south side. He was working in the rice field helping villagers transport their rice. The way he waved looked as if he saw his own children returning from school. It was heartfelt for a child to receive such a sweet, welcoming smile and exciting wave.
We used to hear many stories of misbehaved Vietnamese soldiers, which made us hate them and scared of them. However, with his wide smile on his lips, the Chu made the opposite effect. Once in a while, he invited us for a feast. It was great fun!
One fine day, he came to our family home. I did not know what he told my parents, but I remember being told to dress up. I happily put on my best student uniform: a white shirt and a black or blue skirt. My parents might have told that Chu wanted to bring me to a photography shop to take us both a photo. I hopped on an old bicycle with him as the driver. On the way, I am sure he must have told me something but I didn’t remember. Or perhaps he told me in Vietnamese language which I don’t understand? I only remember I got a mixed feeling. I wasn’t sure whether it was an exciting time or an anxious one. And I might have known that he was about to leave our village. Forever. Or no, not exactly. Maybe I did not believe such a lifelong separation could happen for someone that I knew, especially this ‘Chu’.
I went along with him. The photography shop was about one kilometre from our house. At the shop, we were told to go inside the studio. It was a small, dark room with a background made of a wide cloth with a sailing boat, which looked like it was about to hit a mountain. I can’t tell whether it is colour or black and white. It must have been a cool artwork for that time. Although it was about ten years after the genocide, the war had not stopped yet. This memory had been buried for quite a while until one day I found this photo again hidden in one of the family albums.
This is the photo of him and me.
In the photo, I am standing between his legs. We are both wearing white shirts. The difference is that my shirt fitted me very well with my skinny body, while his shirt was rather loose and a little bigger than his body. Neither of us are smiling, but I can see there is a little expression on his face. I looked a little worried. He is sitting on a small chair, putting his left hand on my waist and I put my left arm on his left foot. We are both almost expressionless as if we were facing a great uncertainty of the universe.
That is the last memory of him since 1989, which was the year most of the Vietnamese troops were ordered to leave Cambodia. I have no idea how the photo was left with me now. I didn’t remember one bit how did he leave. I didn’t remember if he came to say goodbye. I didn’t remember what did I had felt at that time. Though I do not have this memory at all, I have always wanted to believe that he came to our house while I was playing around the village. He might have handed the photograph to my parents and then said a proper goodbye. I don’t remember if I knew that he was going to leave. Forever.
I remembered I was standing along the National Road number 5 with thousands of students and villagers to see off the Vietnamese soldiers. After a decade stationed in Cambodia, those soldiers were told to withdraw. I also remembered they looked really happy and probably high in excitement for being able to return home and meet their family and loved ones. I looked for him everywhere but there was not a single trace of him. There were so many trucks full of cheerful soldiers. I kept thinking he might be in one of those trucks. I left one truck to the next hoping I could see him once more. There was no luck at all.
I remember I bought a pack of grilled bananas and handed it to an unknown soldier. He happily received them and gave me a beautiful smile as if I were a twenty-year-old charming Khmer woman who had just given him a love potion. That young Vietnamese soldier was not him. Unfortunately.
After that day, we still played in the rice field where he used to live and work. I do not remember if I missed him or not. Maybe not. Maybe yes. I only remember that life went on.
Now as a middle-aged woman, I look at the photo of a very thin girl standing between the legs of a man whose name she does not know. What she remembers is that he must be the ‘Chu’ who left her without a trace since 1989.
In 2017, I met Tran Luong, an independent performance and visual artist from Hanoi, Vietnam. He was invited to Siem Reap and be a mentor for CLA’s Living Arts Fellows. When Luong saw us, a group of artists, who were waiting for him, he waved his right hand just a little above his eyebrow, lowered his head a bit and smiled. It was a deja vu feeling and a wakeup call from a trace that I had intentionally buried three decades ago. After I introduced myself, I observed Luong and I started to wonder how old would he be now? Where does he live? Or if he remembers me like I remember him just now? Whether he is still alive?
I finally told Luong about my story at lunch before he flew back to Hanoi. We ordered Banh Xiao, a Khmer version of soft yellowish pancake with fresh vegetables and fish sauce. The calm expression on his face made me feel comfortable telling him the story. However, I was quite aware that I had to skip some parts and shorten it because I was almost in tears when I was telling the story. Luong was truly touched as if he had been told a bittersweet love story.
I still have hope that I might find him one day. Some days I think to myself, although I might not meet him again, the emotions and flood of memories which come and go are enough for me to go on with my everyday life. I end this story with a slight hope and a sweet memory. Maybe one day if I am lucky enough I might meet the ‘Chu’ again. Who knows?
ដោយមានការយល់ឃើញបែបបេះ គេសង្កេតឃើញថា នៅក្នុងគោលនយោបាយវប្បធម៌ ភាគច្រើន គេសង្កេតឃើញថា បានផ្តោតការយកចិត្តទុកដាក់ទៅលើគុណតម្លៃឧបករណ៍នៃសិល្បៈ (Instrumental value in the arts) តែភ្លេចគិតគូរឲ្យបានស៊ីជម្រៅទៅលើគុណតម្លៃខាងក្នុងនៃសិល្បៈ (Intrinsic value in the arts)។ ថ្មីៗនេះ អ្នកសិក្សាស្រាវជ្រាវសិល្បៈ បានទាមទារឲ្យមានការយកចិត្តទុកដាក់ទៅលើគុណតម្លៃខាងក្នុងនៃសិល្បៈឲ្យបានស្មើនឹង គុណតម្លៃឧបករណ៍នៃសិល្បៈផងដែរ។