Nika banters with her client, Gusselford Scott, during a recent massage at the Seeing Hands clinic near Wat Phnom.
Many Cambodians believe a child is better off dead than blind. "When I was growing
up, people thought I couldn't do anything," says That Nika, 28, who lost her
sight after contracting measles as an infant. "They urged me to die soon so
I could be born again with sight."
Such discrimination was an everyday occurrence in Nika's childhood, but she tried
to ignore it.
And succeeded. After spending her early years at home, Nika enrolled in the Seeing
Hands massage training course when she was 19 and has developed a thriving career
as a masseuse and advocate for the blind.
Now her accomplishments have won Nika an unusual opportunity: on September 6 she
left for Okinawa, Japan, where she will study therapeutic massage for six months
on scholarship. Funding for the experience is provided through the Japanese International
Cooperation Agency (JICA).
She is only the second blind Cambodian to study abroad in recent memory, said Boun
Mao, executive director of the Association of the Blind in Cambodia (ABC). Because
Cambodians tend to "keep [blind relatives] in the corner of the family,"
he said, stories like Nika's are rare.
But even as a child, Nika wanted to be different.
Although she spent most of her time cooking and cleaning at home, Nika constantly
pushed herself to develop other abilities, especially her talent for languages.
"I listened to [American] radio programs and recorded them on cassettes for
practicing," Nika explains in her nearly flawless Yankee accent. "I learned
'hello' and how to greet."
She also mined her brother's knowledge of the language.
"It seemed like I was very crazy," she says, flashing a playful grin. "I
was always asking my brother, 'Please tell me one word, please tell me two words.'
I was always troubling him."
In 1993, Nika finally got the chance to officially study Khmer and English through
the Maryknoll Rehabilitation for Blind Cambodians course. Then, a couple years later,
she began learning massage.
"That is when my second life started," she says.
While Nika was excited to learn massage techniques, her family had misgivings. They
worried that she had been lured into a sex massage operation.
"When we heard she wanted to do massage, we were disappointed," says Nika's
sister, That Chanlivy, through a translator. "It has a bad reputation in Cambodia."
But Nika had a plan for handling her family's disapproval: She hid her training from
Each morning she instructed her brother to drop her at Seeing Hands, and bribed him
with free massages.
Her parents received a graduation invitation several months later. "They were
surprised," she says, giggling.
The ceremony won them over. After watching Nika demonstrate the skills she had learned,
her family "was very full of pride, especially my father - he was smiling and
Nika completed a second training course in 1996 and then began to both practice massage
and teach skills to other blind Cambodians. Partnering with the ABC - and even serving
on the organization's board of directors - she started leading sessions throughout
"She took off from work to go train other blind people," Mao says. "She
ís very kind and very brave."
He added that she always looked after her students, and even took them to the hospital
when they had medical problems.
This self-sufficiency is no surprise to those who know Nika.
Devoted clients rotate hourly through her small Seeing Hands room near Wat Phnom.
They tout both her independent spirit and skills.
Pat Engle, a regular, was paired with Nika the first time she came for a Seeing Hands
"I got lucky," she says. "She's very intuitive. Maybe being blind
heightened her other senses."
It took Gusselford Scott a little longer to find his way to Nika's massage table.
He tried other masseurs, but couldn't settle on one until he met Nika. Now he comes
"She's very good," he says. "She can explain what's happening to your
Kneading his back at a recent session, Nika lets Scott know why his muscles ache.
"You have bad posture," she chides, leaning in to work a particularly tough
knot. "I can fix it."
"No pain, no gain," Nika recites one of her stock Americanisms.
"Don't be angry with me," she continues. "You won't come back - you'll
say 'Nika hurt me'."
"Nika, I always come back," Scott says reassuringly. "Every week."
But like her other clients, he will now have to take a six-month hiatus.
In Okinawa, Nika will work with nine other blind masseurs, representing countries
from China to Bangladesh. She's both "excited and nervous" to leave the
house she shares with her parents and study abroad. After completing the program,
she plans to return to her home to teach blind Cambodians.
"I will come back to help my nation," she says.
Clients say this commitment is intrinsic to Nika's personality.
"She had a tremendous motivation to learn, to understand more," Engle explains,
"but she also wants to do something to make this a better country - and to improve
the lot of blind people."