I left Cambodia as a 10-year old girl. I returned to Cambodia 14 years later in June 1994 as a 24-year-old woman representative from a law firm to the Mekong Region Law Center Conference. Returning as a woman, I encountered a difficulty that I had never imagined to exist. Nineteen-ninety-four Cambodian society is very harsh in its perception of returning Cambodian women. Cambodian society's evaluation of the worth, integrity, intelligence, and status of returning Cambodian women is outrageously chauvinistic and wrong.
Upon arriving at Pochentong Airport, the immigration officers perused my passport as they peruse those of other arrivals. However, upon hitting the critical line of "place of birth," the immigration officers and others in the visa-issuing area learned that I was Cambodian and immediately started offering assistance in Khmer. The assistance offered were the usual taxi services, transport to relatives' place in Phnom Penh, hotel reservations, and etc. As I turned down such offers and gestured that my boss, an Australian, and I have already taken care of transportation to the hotel, the people immediately distanced themselves physically and left. That is, they assumed that I was completely taken care of by a white man, and thus stopped the harassment.
The Cambodian hotel staff and Cambodian conference organizers thought that I was a secretary or liaison person responsible for bringing the group of foreigners to Cambodia. On the first day of the conference, I received several reports of Australians and Americans not arriving at Pochentong Airport, and reports of the organizers' diligent effort at waiting at the airport for the missing persons.
On the second day of the conference, the hotel staff and Cambodian conference organizers learned that I was not a secretary, as I had not assumed the responsibilities of the position and had specifically told them several times that I was not a liaison person. From the second day until the end of my stay in Phnom Penh. I was faced with: "Who, which foreigner, did you come with?" "Where is the guy you came with?" and each time after speaking to a Caucasian man, the question was "Is he the guy you came with?"
From these questions and other subtle actions by the Cambodians, I come to the conclusion that Cambodian society (men and women) do not expect that a Cambodian woman can ever return to Cambodia on her own. That is, a Cambodian woman is able to return only because she is married to or is a mistress of a white man, who supposedly purchased for her the very clothes she wears and of course, paid for her trip. According to the Cambodians I met, there is no way that a Cambodian woman could ever make the trip on her own resources and initiative.
I found it uncomfortable, degrading, and frustrating to be seen by fellow Cambodians as a woman whose only accomplishment was that I was fortunate enough to attach myself to a right man. Is it that incomprehensible that a Cambodian woman can actually return to Cambodia on her own initiative and on her own wallet? Added to the frustration and disappointment is the fact that educated Cambodians working with major corporations such as the Cambodiana hotel and working with important international organizations in Cambodia also think in such way.
- Navi Te, Bangkok