This short story is inspired by women I met at an event in Siem Reap on the Khmer Literature Festival.
This is a story about a girl who lived in a society where most families don’t support education and since she’s a girl, it’s much harder for people to believe the importance of books and the entertainment of it. Why is being a girl or woman matters in that period of time? Nevertheless, she has never given up on the persuasions of people’s words. What can this lead to?
A Page of Significance
21st September 1960
Walking on a side street on a busy day with cars and cyclos passing by, holding my mom’s hand, heading to the central market. As I walked by, a woman winked and smiled at me and went inside the door of the local library. She must be a librarian. I shook my mom’s hand and asked her in my sweet voice.
“Mommy, can we go inside the library? I want to read a book.”
She looked at me surprised and said “No Nita, I’m not letting you read books. It’s not good for you, especially when because you are a girl.”
“What’s wrong with me being a girl and reading books?” I queried in curiosity.
She put her hands on my cheek and replied, “Reading books is no use, it’s a waste of time. You’re just seven years old and you won’t be able to understand anything in those books. They’re only for adults, not for you my lovely daughter.”
I protested without hesitation, “but I can understand the newspapers that Papa reads every day before he goes to work.”
To my response, her eyes opened wide. “Now that you mention it, you’re not going to read those anymore. You’re not the right age to know what’s going on in our society and country, especially for a girl. When you grow up, you will be a lady and your job is to take care of your husband, your family, your house, and your beauty. So listen to what I say, because I’m always right. Just for you to start school, I’m already not happy because it’s a waste of my money. And busying books for you? It’s not going to happen.”
I was shocked at what she said and no words could escape my lips. Why is this world so unfair to girls? I asked myself. Half of me wanted to believe what she said, but the other half just doesn’t agree and I haven’t given up yet.
The next day, I went to my first-grade class in a government school as usual for this past two months. As I arrived my classroom, I quickly searched for my teacher, Rathana because I wanted to ask her if I could read books at this age. When I saw her, I swiftly ran up and gave her a hug.
“Good morning Nita!”
“Good morning teacher!” I replied with a beam. “Teacher, I want to ask you something.”
“Okay, what do you want to know?”
“I wonder… If I could read books, and…and before you say anything, I just wanted to tell you that I can read. I read newspapers and magazines and I understand most of it. My mom said I can’t because I don’t have the ability and because I’m a girl? Is there such a rule that you can’t read if you’re a girl. That’s not fair, I want to read. I love reading.”
“Okay Nita, please relax. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know, especially why you SHOULD read books.”
I interrupted her, “I should? Really?”
She put her hands on my shoulders. “Sweetie, calm down. I’m going to tell you why and you better listen carefully to me.” She took a breath. “First of all, what your mom said isn’t correct. I’m not telling you to not believe her, but part of what she said is wrong. At least that’s what society thinks and what most of the elders believe. The elders perspective is that girls or women shouldn’t be getting more education than boys or men. When girls become a lady, they are supposed to stay home, doing all the housework, taking good care of their husband and family and the men go to work, earning money to support their family. Nita, you have the ability to ask for your own rights, to do things you want to do and to live your life as you want. Not everyone follows society. Okay… way too far. Back to whether you should read books or not, the answer is, you absolutely can. If it’s really something you want to do, go for it. I think you’re a very talented young girl and you deserve to be educated.”
I was so happy to hear that, but at the same time, I was worried. “What about my mom?”
“Well, if you don’t want to let your mom know, try to find a peaceful place for your own enjoyment. But at some point in the future, you have to explain to her what’s right about being smart and educated. You can’t avoid it and hide it forever. Personally, I think there is no reason why you shouldn’t be reading, but just make sure that you only read things that are appropriate for your age.”
I nodded, letting out a hopeful smile. I wanted to read all the books that have ever existed in this world. I thought to myself. “But I don’t have any books to read currently.”
Teacher Rathana searched into her cupboard and took a book out, handed it to me. “This is my personal favorite fairytale book as a child. I think you’ll love it, and I’ll take you to the local library today to borrow more books if you want.”
“For sure!” I said in excitement.
Day by day, I read more books and hid more books under my bed. It’s the only place where my mom can’t find me because her back is bad and she doesn’t has the ability to bend down. I’m very careful to not get caught. Sometimes it feels like under my bed is another whole universe, with countless places to explore. Somedays, I was so obsessed and addicted to the story I was reading that I didn’t even realize how long I had been under my bed. My mom would panic trying to find me and I felt bad for her sometimes.
Whenever I read a book, I feel like I’m a character of the story, like I’m on an adventure or floating through the clouds. I feel like an imagination nerd where everything seems real to me. I feel like I’m the happiest human being in the world. I feel all the emotions that the character goes through. I get swept up into a whole other universe expressing the character’s feelings, memories, the pain or anger, confusion, sadness, and happiness. I feel like I am in my own world, a world where I can just forget everything that’s going on around me. That sad feeling I get when I finish a great book or when my favorite character dies. I just feel like I lost a little piece of myself, but I know I can always go back.
Today I’m reading a book called, The Love Story of Vithivy. I imagine myself being loved and cared for by the gentlemen. I was there in the story, looking into his eyes and his sweet soul. Their love story was just perfect until…
“Nita, what are you doing?” My mom burst in my room anger as she slams the door, making me extremely afraid. Today I’m not reading under my bed, but ON my bed and I was so caught up in the story that I totally forget about it and now I’m caught.
“Nothing Mommy.” I tucked my book behind my back, knowing that she already saw it. “I was just doing some reading.”
“I thought you were doing your homework.”
“I did, I already finished it.”
“Then why wouldn’t you come down and help me with the housework.”
“Because I don’t want to. That’s not what I want to do.” I reacted without any thought, just blurting out what I felt.
“Is this what you do then?” She said, forcefully grabbing the book I was holding and throwing it to the ground. She took other books from my table and ripped them apart. I was shocked, afraid, angry, depressed and I wanted to vanish from this world.
Not for long, I found myself sobbing harder and harder, I was choking on my own tears. My breaths came in sharp pants and I tried to gain control, but nothing was working. It hurt. My heart twisted and sunk with nerves. It just felt like my dream faded and not having books or being able to read made nothing in this world worth living.
20th October 2017
The smell of my hometown, the heat of happiness and the joy of my blood is the place I wanted to be the most in life. It has been more than 30 years, that I have been away living my happy and successful life. Where I lived isn’t where I’m from. Sometimes I felt like I betrayed my own nation, my own country, but knowing to myself that my heart will never do that. I will never forget where I come from and I will stay loyal and respectful. Even though I have been living in America, but I still know how to speak and write my own language. I even taught my children Khmer because I wanted them to understand their core language because they’re Cambodian too. I make them read Khmer books or I even write my own story for them to enjoy reading it as much as I do when I was a child.
Currently, I’m in Phnom Penh with my husband and my family of two sons and a daughter that were all born in America.
“Mother, I love it here! I can’t believe this is where I’m from.” My 20 years old daughter, Leza said with total excitement.
“I know, right! You can even communicate with everyone here even though you weren’t born here.” I replied back with hope.
“Thanks to you for having taught us how to speak and write our Khmer and we’re here to publish your books and share them with all of Cambodian. I love your books and everyone here will too. I’m so proud to be your daughter.” I’m so proud to have a daughter like you. I thought to myself.
This is what I have been dreaming about. It has been my passion for my whole life and I could never forget or give it up. It was never the right time to start doing what I want because I was selfish and never had the courage to come back to help my country. But it is time, a successful Khmer author, to bring back Khmer literature so that the new generations will still be able to learn and read Khmer books. Based on my knowledge, most of the Khmer books that I’ve read when I was a child were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge genocide and it is my job as a citizen to raise awareness. I always have had hope and courage to me that it will never be too late to do this despite the fact that I’m now an old lady.
“Johnson, come here love,” I call to my 25-year-old son, who has been helping me with the publishing. “Thank you son… for everything.”
“Don’t thank me, mother. It is my pleasure to be a part of this. I’m very happy for you and I think you’re the most determined and devoted person I’ve ever met in my life. One day, this country will realize how dedicated you are.” He solemnly bowed to me in the proper traditional Cambodian style.
These books that I published are dedicated to those who have a dream or goals but does not have the intrepidity to achieve it. Nothing is too late to start because our life doesn’t need a period to end.