In the final of a three-part series on the life of a Khmer family in Phnom Penh,
John C. Brown looks at several of the younger charactors in the story, their
pasts and futures.
"I DON'T want to stay here, but I don't know where to go. Will you adopt
Bopha minds a cigarette and drinks stand on a main street in Phnom Penh as she
has every evening for the past five years. She does not talk about the beatings she
receives, nor does she talk about her mother who died two months ago. She is 17-years-old
and she talks about escape from her present situation only if asked. But if asked,
the only escape she can imagine is becoming the koin jingjem (adopted child) of someone
Like countless other young women, Bopha was brought from the provinces by a relative
or friend - an uncle in her case - to work for a Phnom Penh family.
She works for Chenda - the violent sister-in-law of Samnang, the professional bet
backer - and helps her to run the cigarettes and drinks stall outside the house of
Samnang and his wife.
Chenda usually occupies the chair to the rear of the drinks stand. This large and
sometimes intimidating woman first loved Bopha like her own child, neighbors say,
and sent her to school. But when the girl dropped out of school at age 13, the beatings
If Bopha says she is a koin jingjem (adopted child) - perhaps out of optimism, perhaps
it is wishful thinking - what her "foster mother" calls her is koin jnuol.
That translates to "rented child" - a servant, or a slave, depending on
Family members and neighbors who speak English sometimes use the word "slave"
to describe Bopha. It doesn't mean that she's a slave in the strongest sense of the
word, but implies that the English word "servant" does not quite capture
the content of the relationship as it is understood in the Khmer language and as
it is practiced in Khmer society.
Regardless, Bopha's life is not one of love and comfort, and she bears much of the
brunt of the anger of Chenda, known for her temper. The oldest of Samnang's five
sisters-in-laws, Chenda is the one who is most intent on forcing he and his wife
to sell their house and split the proceeds among the sisters.
Bopha comes from a village in Siem Riep next to the village where Samnang and his
nephew Piap originate. While Bopha - sent to Phnom Penh by her mother to earn money
- ended up working at the cigarette stall, Piap got work helping his uncle in their
nightly confrontations with Lady Luck in the bet-backing business.
But Piap, with the benefit of a school education, is also a student in the School
of Pharmacy at the University of Phnom Penh. Like Bopha, he left his family and village
at age 12; he to attend lower secondary school in his district town and she to attend
first grade in Phnom Penh and to work.
Three years later Piap went to live with his aunt in Siem Riep in order to attend
upper secondary school. In 1993 he entered preparatory medical school, where he met
his now good friend, Lim Huor. He was the number one student from Siem Reap, while
Lim Huor was among the top students from Battambang.
Both are among 29 exceptional students in the Faculty of Medicine who receive $30
a month from the Fujimoto Foundation in Japan. By the time they had arrived in Phnom
Penh, Bopha had already quit school. These days she gets no money for her work at
the cigarette and drinks stall; the wages she got in her past always went to her
now-dead mother in Siem Reap.
Lim Huor is the first member of her family to go to university. Piap is the second
in his family, and the first who is likely to finish. Piap's older sister studied
medicine in Hanoi for two years in order to become an Army doctor. It was just her
luck that the Paris Peace Agreements were signed at that point and Vietnam could
not let the army medical students finish (though nearly 100 civilian medical students
continue to study there).
Both Piap and Lim Hour are in the middle of their respective families, luckier perhaps
than their older siblings in that their obligation to help support their families
is, for now anyway, less. But both say that without the Fujimoto money they would
probably not be able to stay in school.
It would be a mistake to think that the flow of children is just from the provinces
to Phnom Penh. Two of Samnang's children from his first marriage now live in the
Siem Riep village with neighbors, and the oldest son of that marriage recently returned
there after dropping out of school in Phnom Penh, and showing a strong disinclination
It was Bopha's mother who first sent her to Phnom Penh, in return for receiving advance
wages for Bopha's work. It was money that she needed, after years of poverty. Abandoned
by her husband early in her pregnancy with Bopha, and without land, she was working
as a day laborer in Samnang and Piap's village, though troubled by her penchant for
drink and for gambling.
In her five years in Phnom Penh, Bopha saw her mother only once. After the first
year she returned home, not intending to return. She stayed for one month with her
mother, before being "hired" away again by Chenda. She has been in Phnom
Penh ever since.
Lim Huor originally wanted to study law, but her step-mother insisted that she study
medicine instead. Lim Hour says that it took a week of discussions to persuade her,
but ultimately she had no choice. "She is the person who controls the money
in the house, if she is unhappy with me, it will be impossible to support myself
in Phnom Penh," she says of her step-mother. Like Bopha, Lim Huor has not been
able to go home very often, sometimes once every two years. It costs about a 100,000
riel for the round trip, and even with the Fujimoto generosity, that is beyond her
But with a qualification, Lim Huor's future, like that of Piap, will not be a bad
one. At worst, after they graduate, they could rent their diploma certificates to
hang in a pharmacy shop. Such shops are required by law to be run by trained pharmacists
but some just rent someone's certificate for a few hundred dollars a month. Piap
and Lim Huor don't want to do that - but they could.
Both still have worries. They know that their diplomas have no international standing,
they wonder if training abroad will ever be possible, they are troubled by teachers
who skip classes in favor of private practice, and worry over the impact of competition
between the major parties for the loyalty of the student association at the Faculty
But they still have prospects. As for Bopha, what future does she face? She has no
family now. She says an uncle came six months ago to claim her, but it turned out
to be a scam to force Chenda to give him some money. She has not seen him since and
doesn't know where he is. Since she dropped out of school she has fallen into complete
illiteracy. She has no marketable skills. It is not clear how or whether she can
marry. The only hope she can now see is to find herself in a family-like situation,
to be someone else's koin jingjem, instead of being Chenda's koin jnuol.
But it is much more likely that she will continue under Chenda's power. In this,
even the neighbors dare not intervene. One says: "Sometimes you see her being
beaten and it hurts you, but you can do nothing, you must walk away. If you ask Chenda
why she is doing this, she will answer: 'Gom jeh-dung reung rebah knom' - 'Don't
interfere in my business'."
Like the gang of young toughs in the alleyway beneath Samnang's nearby office, like
the poor young Vietnamese girl beaten to death by a group of them one hot afternoon
a year ago, Bopha has come to learn that harsh words and fists are the law.
three-part series on a family in Phnom Penh has attempted to focus both on change
and continuity in the life of a Cambodian family. It has attempted to illuminate
some of the constraints that shape that family's life and the adaptations that they
have made to them, and in doing so, illuminate the lives of other Phnom Penh families.
I have always thought of the stories as sharing the same title: "Life is a Lottery,"
Part I, II, and III - even though in published form each story has had a different
name. The series was not just the story of Samnang and his bet-backing business,
but about the role that chance plays in the life of this family and of their neighbors.
It is certainly chance whether Samnang makes money on any given day, though he tries
to influence the outcome by placing the carefully tabulated bets on the floor in
front of a Buddhist statue and its three burning sticks of incense. It was also chance
that the young Vietnamese woman walked down the alleyway on the day she died. It
was chance that the young prostitute who lived on the floor above Samnang's office
(and Piap's bedroom) rode to her death in a car borrowed from Samdech Hun Sen's nephew
(as neighbors say, and according to one of the dead young men's classmates at the
Faculty of Medicine); it was chance that one of the gang members around the corner
from Samnang's house recently had a motor-cycle accident (though given the way he
drove, the odds of a safe journey were not in his favor), and it was certainly chance
that he lived and the boy he hit died. But it is not chance that none of the families
of those who died in these incidents will be compensated.
It was also a matter of accident that the most compelling aspects of the tale have
been what women do, what they do to each other, and what happens to them - though
here we might argue that today's social realities in Cambodia are biased in favor
of exactly that outcome. Samnang's oldest sister-in-law, Chenda, spear-headed the
effort to force her sister and Samnang to sell their house and divide the proceeds
in order to feed her appetite for gambling and to pay off her debts. Her relationship
with Bopha is a very sad one, and will likely remain so. The tale also has women
who become the second wives of men as they search for economic security, women who
were abandoned by their husbands and never found another, losing economic security,
and men and women who have left the children of earlier marriages with friends or
relatives when they entered new marriages and new economic arrangements. But if you
want to describe a Khmer family, how can you avoid these issues?
This series has also been motivated by an interest in the question of the fit of
western journalism to the situation and problems of Cambodia. I sometimes focused
on the semantic content of Khmer words and phrases, to raise the question of the
utility of straightforward English prose in capturing, describing or criticizing
Cambodian society. Why should we assume that the English semantics of social description
will fit those of the Khmer language exactly. Why should we imagine that the western
criteria of news-worthiness would also?
The reality behind these stories, to the extent one can discern it, is one of constraint
and adaptation. This Cambodian family in Phnom Penh is not dead, nor is it being
reborn, it is not at an end nor is it at a beginning. It is struggling, adapting,
and somehow coping in a social and economic reality shaped in part by the weight
of tradition, by the arrogance and immunity of power, by the ambiance of threat,
under pressure from a burgeoning economy and the widening disparities in the distribution
of opportunity and wealth. It resides in a place where justice still has to be bought,
where the role of chance has not yet been reined in.
A final note. Even though this family is being torn apart by gambling, greed and
the play of chance, they still reserve for themselves a space for love, laughter
and hope. There are still hugs for the children, and games along the street. My failure
here is that I have not paid enough attention to these aspects of their lives. Perhaps
I, also, am too much of a western journalist.