|Vannak with village chief of Om Pouprey, Kandal District|
Photo by Amanda King
Life full of misery and suffering started on January 08, 1989. It was the time that my sincere mother delivered a newborn baby to this world. Being the firstborn child in a Chinese family was a tragedy for me. My presence in this world scared the hell out of my grandmother because she had never expected that her first grandchild would be a girl. My father is the eldest son in the Chinese family, whereas my mother was born to a family of Cambodian farmers. Obviously, my parents are completely different in terms of family background and concepts, and I wondered how they met and fell for each other. All of my grandparents from both sides passed away during the Pol Pot regime, except my Chinese grandmother, who passed away just a few years ago. Since my father is the first and the only son in the family, he naturally became the most important person and it should have been more likely that his children would be loved as well, but that’s not the case.
From the time I was born until now, I had no ideas why my grandmother hated my mother and me very much. My world was filled with hate and jealousy. I was shaped to hate and to be hated. I’ve done many things in hopes that I could earn my grandmother and my father’s love. I always thought being a good child and good student would change their minds. My mother was working very hard to help my father support the family since we were very poor, and she expected that her mother-in-law would see and support everything she did. However, it didn’t matter how hard we tried, my grandmother never changed her mind.
The words my grandmother used most frequently with me were “STUPID” and “CRAZY.” She always said, “You are just like your mother, stupid as always! You are a girl with no brain! I don’t understand why you can’t be a little smarter, why don’t you take your brother and your cousins as a sample?” My father had the same thought as my grandmother, and I was shit in his eyes. It hurt when my grandmother put all the blame on me. Even when I didn't do anything wrong, my father would just agree with what she said and hit me with the stick without asking a word.
I always wore the same old clothes for many years and never asked for new ones because I knew my parents were poor. I used the candlelight to read the books because I wanted to save electricity. I didn’t buy anything to eat at school because I was afraid I would waste my parents’ money, but no one knew.
Life moved on and I got used to my grandmother and my father’s behavior. I finally gave up begging them for love and care. I put all of my effort and energy into studying. I studied hard — not because I wanted them to love me, but for my own future. I would make them see that I’m not stupid or crazy as they thought.
My effort paid off, yet it wasn’t recognized. I was applying for a scholarship at two different universities after I passed the National High School Examination. Unfortunately, my GPA was a bit lower than the requirement, and I was rejected for the scholarship program at one of the well-known universities. I got a scholarship from the other university but it was not where my father wanted me to pursue my higher education. I’m a bit upset but also happy because I already tried my best. While most of my friends were having a party (even though they didn’t receive any scholarships), I was worrying what would happen when my parents learned about my results. Instead of having a party, I was scolded by my parents. I locked myself in the room and thought of what I had done wrong. I had no choice but I was forced to follow and study the subject I hated: Accounting.
When I was a senior at university, I got a part-time job. Life was getting harder and harder for me. I was very stressed because of work, study, family and friends. I got sick, and everything was almost destroyed because of my sickness. I was diagnosed with heart disease, but I was not allowed to know what the real problem was. Everyone, including the doctor, was trying to hide the fact and kept telling me I would be fine, yet I felt there was something wrong in me. After a few weeks at the hospital, my mother brought me home, but I don’t feel better at all. Though I received a lot of treatment, I still felt weak and had trouble breathing as before.
A few days later, the old symptoms came back. I felt my heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t breathe through my nose. My vision was blurred, and I couldn’t see anything clear — not even my mum’s face. I felt that every part of my body was not functioning properly, but I could hear my father very clearly when he shouted at my mother. He got very angry when he heard I was sick again. He said he spent a lot of money for the treatment last time and if he takes me to the hospital again, he will spend all his money and maybe he has to sell all the property. I heard my mother cry and say she didn’t care how much it cost, that she would sell everything to pay for my treatment.
I couldn’t express in words how I felt when I heard what he said. It was too painful to accept. Death was the only thing I could think of since I felt my heart had already stopped beating. I closed my eyes slowly and said, “I’m going.” Suddenly, I felt death was moving toward me, and I had nothing to be afraid of. Once I died, I would have no more pain and I would be in peace forever.
While I was thinking about how happy I would be after death, I heard my brother crying and saying, “Please don’t close your eyes! Please wake up! Please! Please go to the hospital! Please, I beg you! Please don’t die! I will do everything for you! I love you!” I remembered every single word he said, and I had never thought my life meant this much to him. I was touched by his words, but I still couldn’t open my eyes.
The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. I was back to life. The first people I saw were my mother and my brother, who slept by my bed and held my hand. My heart ached every time I saw my father, but I didn’t hate him. Since I am an atheist, I don’t believe in any gods or any spirituality. I had never worshipped Buddha or prayed to Jesus, but after I woke up, I said silently to myself, “God, I still don’t understand why you give me a chance to come back to this world, but with whatever reasons I will use my new life wisely. I promise you, I will be happy.” To fulfill my commitment, I try to study and work twice harder than ever after I left the hospital, which made my mum very worried about my health, yet I was fine.
The new adventure of my life began right after I graduated in late 2009 and got a full-time job in 2010. Actually, I had been working for CHAD (Community Health and Agricultural Development) since 2008 as part-time staff, but I was chosen to serve as Administrator in late 2010. Translation is what I hate most in my job description. I have practically a million reasons to refuse to travel to the field to do translation. It’s a pressure for me to meet with the churches, because they often think I’m a Christian, even though I’m not. Sometimes, I feel guilty that I can’t show my identity to them. I feel like I’m a liar. However, I got a lot of support and encouragement from my team. They treat me as a member in the family and give me many opportunities to see the different world.
I remember the first time I went to Kratie to translate for a medical team from Rocky Mountain, U.S., I kept complaining about the patients and how difficult it was to communicate with them. I kept saying, “I hate to work with them. I’ve tried very hard to explain it to them, but they still don’t understand.” I even said I couldn’t tell whether I was talking to a tree or a human. I made comments about how I was about to throw up because of their bad smell, but I never stopped to think why they are like that. One of my teammates asked me to reflect what I learned from this trip, and I quickly responded, “It was terrible, and I learned nothing.” At first, I don’t think I learned anything. I thought it was tiring and a waste of time to work with those uneducated people.
Before I left for Phnom Penh, one of the patients came to me and said, “Thank you so much for your translation. Without you, I would have had no idea how to tell the doctor about my sickness. You are very kind. You are about my daughter’s age, but you are much better than her. You are young, but you can speak English very well. I would be very happy if I could send my children to school as your parents do, then they would have a good job and a bright future like you.”
I was very impressed and touched by her words. Many things came up in my mind, and I was thinking about her words all the way home. I couldn’t imagine how my life would be if I were one of her children. I wouldn’t have a job as I do today if I hadn’t attended school. I might have had to work in a garment factory for little pay to support the family just like them. I would have died when I was sick if I hadn’t had access to the health center. I would have starved to death if I had no food. I would have been beaten if I had been born into a violent family.
All of these possibilities would be worse than what I was facing. So why did I always complain about my life when some people wished to be just like me? I felt like I had just woken from the nightmare. Everything was clear and possible for me. I felt great and ready to learn new things. I started to listen to people and open my mind to see the world in a different way. I started to be positive and trust people; I started to talk to people and be friends with them; and I started to share my worries and fears with my colleagues and friends. My family, my friends and my colleagues noticed the change in me. I love to work with the community unlike before, and I am happy to see their progress. I become a source of ideas for my mother and a role model for my brother.
Moreover, I’ve noticed the change in my father. He has started to listen to me and agree with me in some points. One day, he came to me and asked whether I had time to talk with him. I had a strange feeling about it, but I couldn’t guess what he wanted. He started the conversation by asking me what my goal in life is — something I had never expected to hear from him. I was kind of shocked to hear his question, but I acted as normal and told him what I wanted to achieve in the future. He smiled after I finished and said, “I know you work very hard and suffer a lot from the past. I see the pain in you, but I don’t know how to express my feelings toward you. I know I’m not a good father, and I know you hate me. I just want to let you know that you are not rubbish in my eyes, but you are my eyes. Honestly, I’m really proud of you, I have no idea how you define success for yourself, but, to me, you are already a very successful person. I do appreciate your effort and patience. Thank you for being a good child for me and your mother and a good sister for your brother.”
I guess no one understood how I felt at that time. My heart almost stopped beating, and I suddenly burst into tears. I couldn’t say anything — not even a word — because I was too excited. I had never dreamed of hearing all those words from his mouth. Finally, I showed my father and everyone that I wasn’t just a girl without brain, but a girl with a smart brain. I feel that my life is now full of blessing. I have a good job. I have a chance to pursue my master’s degree, and I have a warm family.
I should be thankful for the pain and hate in the past because they made me who I am today. They were some of the most important factors that pushed me to strive for the best in life, yet I don’t believe in making people suffer in order to push them to success because some people couldn’t bear the pain and would make a wrong decision, such as committing suicide or running away from home. Different people have different perspectives and responses to the same situation. I’ve learned many things in life — through all the pain, joy, success, failure, hate, love, and everything I’ve faced — and I realize that life is beautiful. People just have to dig out its beauty.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they protect me. Psalm 23:4
Be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead!
Vannak Huot, CHAD Office Manager