In Phnom Penh on December 18th, 2012, our study abroad group got the wonderful opportunity to interview our friend Tra’s landlord, a woman named Chieto. Our tour guide, Chen, was our translator; he also spelled out things such as her name, since Chieto is among the estimated 35.9% of women who do not know how to write (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cb.html), although I do not know if she is able to read. When preparing my questions to ask Cheito, the goal of my interview was to ask questions that helped reveal what everyday life is like for middle-aged, Cambodian women who survived Khmer Rouge, and how that experience affects their life today.
To give some background, Cheito is a 60-year-old Khmer woman originally from Phnom Penh. Cheito attended public school until grade 5. When she was 23 years old, the Khmer Rouge attained power (http://www.cambodia.org/khmer_rouge/). Like most Cambodians at the time, Cheito was forced to move to the countryside to farm for the government, despite the fact that she had no experience farming. After the Khmer Rouge, Cheito spent some time in Kampuchan before relocating back to Phnom Penh, where her career flourished as a popular street vendor of sweet and savory hand-made rice-dough cakes, called Khmoi and Akor, respectively. Cheito saved up her money and bought several properties in Phnom Penh, becoming a landlady (referred to here as “house mother”). She continues to be a street vendor and landlady today.
Through interviewing Cheito, however, I learned that it is naive and reductionalist to assume that this one woman can speak for an entire group of people– just like Americans, each Cambodian is a unique person with their own unique experiences, and they may or may not fit in to a prescribed stereotype. In my mind, I would be interviewing a typical Cambodian woman, and would therefore be able to generalize about Khmer women’s’ lives based on her story. However, that mindset was quickly shot down for me while interviewing Cheito because of her own unique situation. Unlike most Cambodian woman, Cheito never married or had children. However, as an interviewer I did not want to be rude by asking her “why not?”. (I assume that it’s not because she’s gay, however– Cheito had no qualms in firmly denouncing the increase in openly homosexual Khmer men.)
Cheito surprised me not only in her lack of spouse, but in her attitude on the extremely corrupt government (http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/APCITY/UNPAN002892.pdf). Her cake business is so successful that the Cambodian government regularly hires her out to make the cakes for important governmental functions. This is one reason why, when I asked her if she was comfortable sharing her thoughts on the (notoriously unpopular) government, her answer again surprised me. Cheito stated that her business prospers when the government hires her. Other than that, she says that she doesn’t really care what they do, if they’re corrupt, ect. Cheito told me that she just focuses on herself and her own life, and that she’s really not interested in the government. Life for Cheito is about working hard and making money, not worrying about the government’s dealings.
As an interviewer, I tried several times to ask Cheito to go into more detail about her life while under the Khmer Rouge, however, she seemed much more interested in educating us about her rice cakes. Again, as an interviewer I did not want to press her since the time for her could have been very painful.
Interviewing Cheito was beneficial because it gave our study abroad group a first-hand look at what life is like for one older Khmer woman– there is no “retirement”, no time to relax and play golf in Florida. At 60, Cheito plans on working until she is unable to physically do so– when that is the case, because she has no children of her own, Cheito’s nieces will take her in and care for her. However, it was also beneficial because I was reminded not to assume things based on my preconceived notions of what it means to be a Khmer woman. It doesn’t *always* entail disliking the government, or having many children, or being so impoverished that you are unable to save for large purchases such as property. Hopefully, Cheito’s interview will help both break any stereotypes of what it means to be a Khmer woman.