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 was asked the question quite frequently. Some people are genuinly curious while some others mockingly asked ‘You studied Social Work. But why did you become a writer?
My initial response was ‘Well, maybe I want to contribute to a social issue I’ve observed?’ Consequently, the repeated questions make me think further. Why do I write?
Readings as a child might be a big influence on becoming a writer. When I was able to read, my mum was a book vendor. She was really good with her business. She bought many serial of novels. During the 80s, most novels were written by hands and then copied by hands and sold to various provinces. My mum rent those novels to her villagers. I remembered one corner of our house was to stock piles those books. I also remember that mum was not keen for me to read those romance novels. Well, like many traditional parents, she was raised to believe that readings bring more bad than good to girls. I could not understand why but I did manage to read the novels anyway. I read many books when she was not around.
Many people were heavy readers. My mum’s book rental business went so well was due to the fact that many people read. Villagers came and rent the novels. When finished they returned the books and rent another series. This went on and on. Occasionnally, she needed to buy new novels as villagers were asking for new books to read. One night, mum’s hair caught fire from a lamp while she spent almost the whole night reading her favorite novel. This evidence tells that people do read if books are conveinent, affordable and accessible to them.
While mum had plenty of novels at home, dad always bought books from Phnom Penh and brought them home. I remembered I was so happy to hold those shining books. I read all of those. He himself is also a heavy reader and has a talent in editing Khmer literature. If you give a draft to him, he would fine every minor spellings and able to suggest for changes/revisions of the draft.
I kept writing throughout my life. During my university life, I wrote many poetry. Once, when I was seversely sick and needed to stay home. I needed to skip class for a few weeks. I missed my classmates so much. So I wrote a long poems to describe everyone of them. Later, I also write but not frequent propably due to work and lack of future aspiration. Though my writing was on and off I did write on diary and a blog I created.
Social Work education helps me with voice finding in my writing. After graduation from Australia with a Master Degree in Social Work, I started to write again and this time I made it go far. Soon upon returned, I noticed some challenges within Cambodia societry especially people’s mindsets on how women should behave. Co-founded with my friend Hout Socheata, Kampu Mera Editions was established in 2013, two years after I came back from Australia. After its establishement in 2015, we have published 5 titles, three of which are short story collections, one is a historical novel (Bophana, the Flower that Never Wilts), and another one is a translation from French. With social work background, it helps me balance my literary value veruse economic driven value.
After these reflections, I think even thought I had not published until 2015, I have been reading and writing since a very young age. So becoming an author now should not be a doubt for others. I strongly believe that reading as a child helps, attending creative writing workshops, and social work background do buulding me as a writer now.
I stood behind her. She was not too far from me. She was there. I could see her. She turned and looked at me as if she wished to send me a signal. I wondered. Then she started to walk ahead. Immediately I felt my danger and suddenly I reached my right hand to her aiming to catch her right shoulder begging her to stop. I could not reach her. She kept walking ahead of me. My hearts had started to race.
Scared, I started to run to catch up with her speedy steps. I tried and tried and tried. I needed to stop in between to catch my breath before I could continue. She was way ahead. Her speed was stable and she did not even turn back to see me who was desperately struggling to stop her from moving without me. She did not turn back even once.
After trying many times, my feet stopped listening to me. They did not really care how much on earth I wanted them to carry my upper body to move forward. They were shaking. They sent a strong deadly messages to me that it was enough to try. I should stop chasing her.
She had already disappeared. I could see her no more. She had completely gone. Finally, she’s gone. For good.
Since I could not see her anymore, I looked back behind my back. Everything I could see now was all the problem for me and my country people to carry on our burden shoulders. The village is empty. Drunk young men are singing drunkenly all days and nights. Women apply whitening creams on their faces and every edge of their skins. Some others have their noses, lips, nipples, breasts, eyes, eyebrows, chins, cheeks a redo under the unhygienic knife to go inside their skins with high price. Young boys and girls are drinking and injecting heroin into their veins in the name of the modern-day friendship. Health centres are also empty. There are nurses but they are actively urged their patients to go to their home clinics instead with the hope of robbing their innocent patients’ hard-earned money, the money from borrowing greedy microfinance institutions. Old women burn countless plastic bags they greedily ask from the markets. Young children speak to each other in English…
I thought to myself. I can’t blame her. She has gone for good. She has been waiting for us for decades but still, we didn’t even want to move a single step and sometimes we even move backwards. It looks as if we are tasting the same mistake we used to wrongly committed a hundred years ago. I wish her well.
Hopelessly I walk back to my underdeveloped villages and slowly join the drunken men and sing karaoke whole days.