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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



The Meas family home is my Phnom Penh base for this 2014 time in Cambodia. Nee’s two sons want me to stay with them rather than in the small city guest house I had chosen. They say they need to be sure I am safe when I go to the city for a meeting or to the bus station for Battambang journeys. ‘Just don’t trust anyone else,’ says Reaksa.

This house in the Proan Pra area of the city has space for the three of us. At the front there is a tiled main room. Neighbours in identical houses use this as a safe place for a car, as the metal security grill is wide enough to allow a vehicle to be driven in from the street. Since nobody in this family has a car the space serves many purposes. The motorbikes and helmets are stored here, so are our shoes. We put our laptops on the table and can talk to each other if we work or surf the net at home. There is a TV, an ironing board, a wardrobe and a bench that can be used as a bed. Raksmey sleeps here and there are floor mats and pillows for guests, but not for me.

Reaksa has one of the upstairs bedrooms, I have the other. They have prepared it for me.

The kitchen is behind the downstairs open space and behind that is a tiny backyard with a clothes line, a water tub and a high mesh fence for protection. Reaksa once bred guinea pigs in a cage here, but thieves climbed the fence and stole them. ‘Be careful not to hang your tee-shirts too close to the fence, Yeay.’

Throughout the day the front roller door of our garage- like space is rolled up to let in the light and air. We hear the children calling to each other as they play in the street. Vendors pass our doorway selling food: bread, noodles and ice cream. The maze of streets is like a labyrinth; we can hear the special music of each vendor long before he reaches us. My favourite is the bread man who plays ‘Amazing Grace’ and carries warm loaves and baguettes in a covered basket on the back of his motor bike. I can smell the fragrance before he lifts the cloth.

My days in Phnom Penh settle to a predictable routine. Raksmey and I meet early each morning as he packs his bag, ready to travel across town to the Cambodian Development Research Institute. Reaksa takes me to the city on his way to university, and we meet to travel back again on his large red motor bike at the end of each day’s work. We veer through traffic at sunset in a haze of petrol fumes, unlock the roller door and are glad to be home.

It is lunch time in Proan Pra and midnight in Rochester Minnesota where the temperature is minus sixteen degrees. Snow is falling there. Reaksa and I have been watching a video clip of the energetic toddler Desmond Reaksa playing in the snow this very day. I hear his mother’s voice telling him over and over that it is time to come inside but this little Cambodian boy in his padded snow clothes is reluctant. ‘Mummy wants you inside now. That’s a good boy. Come on now.’ Srey Leak sounds firm and loving. As we talk about this her name flashes at the bottom of the computer screen. At last our times online match and we are connected to Skype.

Srey Leak has been out to dinner to celebrate her seventh wedding anniversary. Monee has returned from an event to raise funds for children in Cambodia and is ready for bed, warmly clad in a tracksuit and with her long hair loose below her shoulders. Srey Leak is walking around holding an iPad and showing me all the rooms of her new house. She and Siem have worked and saved to put a deposit on this home of their own. The little boy, ‘Dizzy’ they call him, comes sleepy from his bed and pats my face on his mother’s iPad.

Reaksa has emailed the stories I have drafted. We talk of my writing and of Monee and her daughter’s vivid memories of the past. Srey Leak says the word ‘flashbacks’. I cannot tell whether she is talking of herself or of her mother or of the tight Cambodian community in Rochester. In all of my time spent with survivors this is the first time I have heard a Cambodian say these words. I have always known of the reality.

There is laughter coming to us across this great distance. Dizzy is growing more and more excited, rolling, tickling and giggling with his grandmother on the bed. I tell Srey Leak about my visit to Yeay in Battambang. We have all been worried about her eye operation but she now seems to be recovering.

Srey Leak is urging her father to come to Rochester for a holiday. She and Siem work hard for the life they are shaping but she could help with Nee’s fare.

Reaksa cooks the evening meal, holding the preparation at just-before-ready, waiting for his father to arrive because Nee has sent an SMS that he looks forward to coming back from a week in distant villages and having a meal with us all. There will be special dishes tonight. Reaksa is considering studying to be a chef after he finishes his business management degree. I’m enjoying watching this young man, whom we called ‘Lucky’ at birth, sample the limitless options that seem to open before him. This January his hair is cut in a style popular among his friends at the university, shaved at the sides and back while ample and square at the top of his head. It took a few moments for me to recognise him at the airport.

We are hungry for hours but Nee hasn’t come. Raksmey is keeping himself awake watching a Korean TV music channel while ironing shirts for himself and then for Nee. He finishes each carefully and hangs it on a rack. We remind each other that the bus from Battambang is often late. Past being hungry we now share disappointment.

Reaksa keeps checking the food on the stove, then goes out to the tiny backyard.

Tonight Nee’s uncle, his mother’s younger brother who still works as a motor-dup driver in Svey Reing, is with us. He is welcome to stay as there is always space for a mat on the floor.

It is well after ten o’clock. Just as we begin to worry that some accident may have happened on the risky road, the metal roller door rattles. Nee wheels his motorbike inside, takes off his helmet and has a word with each of us. He has brought home a packet of fresh meat and a bottle of Coca-Cola. I notice that he tries to do something thoughtful whenever some other responsibility has caused him to disappoint his sons. I wonder how it is for him to balance his sense of responsibility to those who still suffer, his realisation that he has authority to bring change and his need to be with those who love him the most. I wonder whether he realises that bringing home gifts doesn’t compensate at all. Reaksa reattaches the gas to heat the meal then puts Nee’s contribution away for tomorrow. Nee looks pale and tired but as he welcomes his uncle he tells him with a soft laugh that the meal will be ‘part barang’. The old man nods knowingly. He has already steamed some rice in the pot and fried some small rice-field fish which he carried from Svey Reing, carefully packed in newspaper in his pocket. He is now ready for sleep.

We eat wearily, struggling to think of something to say. The special meal is flat with the waiting.

It is hot in the small Proan Pra kitchen at the end of Raksmey’s working week. I am glad to be here with him to listen to what has been happening at work; being part of the staff is very different from volunteering. Raksmey is washing dishes while I cook.

We talk about politics: the fifty-five opposition party candidates who were elected are still, after all these months, refusing to take their seats in parliament until the Cambodian Election Commission is reconstituted so that it is independent of the ruling party. They have not wavered though there is every financial inducement for them to take their seats. Raksmey has studied ethics and quotes from books he has read and lectures he heard at university. When we talk together like this I wish his father was here to listen to him; Raksmey has become a man while his father is busy with other things. In the past few years he has lost his lanky boyish look, his shoulders are broad, he has grown strong. It surprises me that suddenly we are talking as adults, discussing issues we both care about.

Our conversation stretches back to memories of twenty years ago. Then we talk of his father. Raksmey points to a large framed image of Nee on his graduation day at La Trobe University. It was, if my recollection is correct, taken from a phone camera and enlarged until blurry; there were surely better photos of his graduation than this. I am in the photo too. Raksmey says, ‘Whenever we move house our father carries that picture separate from the luggage and puts it on the wall of our next house.’ There is something important about his need to tell me this. I stop what I am doing and listen. Then he talks about a responsibility that he and Reaksa believe weighs heavily upon their father. They want me to tell Nee that there is no need for him ever to worry; they are ready to accept this responsibility when he can no longer do so.

‘Raksmey, two or three years ago you told me that you understand your father better than he thinks you do.’ He stands in the frame of the kitchen door opened to the cooler outside air. I look up at him as I speak; Raksmey is taller than I am. He looks to me, nodding. I take this as encouragement. ‘What do you understand?’

He tells me. He went with Nee to a village and watched what happened there. He was amazed. There is something different about his father. Nee can change people’s lives, people who are very poor. It is hard to explain. We both know that it is both a gift and a weight of responsibility that when Nee works with men and women who are without hope they gain dignity and are no longer passive. This is not so much something that his father chooses to do but rather something he must do.

Raksmey has a circle of close friends. He shares meals, talks, and texts with them daily, but does not talk to them about his father. He expects they would ridicule a man with an overseas doctorate who missed the chance to take his family to a safe country. ‘You went to Australia. You didn’t stay!’ people say.

‘My father spends his life for strangers.’ Is it hurt that I hear in Raksmey’s voice? Insight? Both? I reflect, but do not say, that Nee will surely be forever bonded to those not yet free.

Sometimes Raksmey can cope with his father, sometimes he cannot cope at all. He knows what is happening, but he wishes it could be different. He and Reaksa try to care for Nee, Reaksa sending constant SMS messages, Raksmey stocking the kitchen with nourishing food when Nee is due to come home. They agree their father works far too hard, in addition to often working without payment. Sometimes they are completely frustrated. While Nee is in the village he forgets everything and everyone else in his life, and he will never learn to protect himself. He will speak ‘soft words’ to those who will, in the end, exploit his selflessness.

Nee’s sons tell each other that when they expect Nee to be back in Phnom Penh on a certain date they should add at least a day or two in their minds.

‘I know,’ I say.

‘We understand,’ he says.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy