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Cambodia Microcosm 1 – the Family




The Wife’s Family Photograph 2004
Back Row Left to right:  Cousin, Oldest Brother, My Wife, her late Mother (RIP), "Bad Boy" Father
Front Row: Enterprising Brother; Quiet One, Errant One.

A recent blog explained why I have had to accept that sometimes your best is not good enough. But I keep on trying regardless.

Usually I refer to policy matters and aspects of Cambodian Society at the macro-level in the hope of helping to influence change for the better.

Equally though it applies at the micro-level, at home and in the neighbourhood, both being exact microcosms of Cambodia, its wider society, with its intoxicating mix of blessings and ills.

This blog is Microcosm 1 – the Family.  Our little street 251 in Takhmau will be the next blog Microcosm 2 – the Neighbourhood. 

This is a long blog.  I make no excuses for that. It needs to be, as does the next Blog.  Therefore I give a brief summary of the main points here, of the fundamental issues raised.  I hope that they encourage you to read on.

  • The main issue is gender equality, with the deep-seated practice of daughters having to sacrifice their personal interests, aspirations, reputations, well-being and even health for their family – sacrifices that are not always appreciated, even taken for granted as an entitlement.
  • Inequality is manifest in many ways such as the payment of dowries.  Families fork out a lot for their sons to marry; as much as they can afford as it depends on various factors including level of education of the girl. Then they sell their daughters for the highest price but usually less than they've paid out for the sons(s) because they are worth less, having sacrificed their education.
  • Men-folk still try to decide for women; exclude them from matters affecting them; even try to trick and intimidate them.  Such issues are still not being addressed in Cambodia that has signed up to International Laws guaranteeing equalities.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and NGOs do try, but they hold little sway where it matters. Needless to say Cambodian Courts are no help.
  • The vast inflow of foreign money after UNTAC 1993 has led to a belief that money comes easily; will go on forever and has two differential values.  A foreigner’s dollar is worth much less, far less than the Cambodian’s dollar.
  • Keeping secrets within the family persists (discussed more in Microcsom 2). This can and does hide ills.
  • Children may also be abused. Although on the whole Cambodian adults are good with children, they do things that are harmful to them, with implications for the whole world, such as misuse of prescription drugs.
I have been with my Cambodian wife for over 17 years now and usually we are the best of friends.  But there is one thing that we do keep falling out about.  It is when I think that she is being over-kind to her family or they in-turn take advantage of her generosity, or treat her badly. 

One thing I can tell you is that she's far more afraid of upsetting her family than upsetting me!

Daughters making sacrifices for the family

In my macro-writings, and in direct human rights education work, I have often referred to the [inequitable] phenomenon in Cambodian family life of the daughters having to make their personal sacrifices for their brothers. That obligation falls most heavily on only or eldest daughters, as in my wife’s case. It is a life time obligation.  As a famous sociology study paraphrased: "A daughter is a daughter all her life, a son is a son till he finds a wife!" 

Most people know what happens in far too many poor families – the daughters are the first to drop out of school. They must do the domestic chores.  I always ask the “ladies of the night” the girls we take for granted serving our food and drink two questions.  They love answering them. “How many in your family.....?  You would be amazed how many reply that they are indeed their family’s only or eldest daughter.  They take on the job for money, to send back to their families.  Their laudable sacrifice however is disparaged in a Society where “Good girls stay at home till married”.  In fact the second question “Which province are you from?” denotes the sense of shame – invariably they work far away from home in the hope of not being recognized. They tell folks that they have some other “more respectable job”.

Now my wife’s family was not poor.  They weren’t rich.  Their mother had the good sense when allowed back in to Phnom Penh after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, to claim back her shop and small apartment on Monivong Boulevard.  Unfortunately their soup restaurant did not prosper, so she rented the shop out. So the family had some income but not enough.  The only daughter had to leave school and go to work.  Mother’s early untreated diabetes meant all the domestic work fell on her too until a girl came from the provinces who would eventually marry a brother.  An older brother went to Thailand in search of work. Three other boys were supposed to complete schooling, but the youngest (Errant brother) preferred his bed.

My wife’s life and status changed

Then I came along and she and I started to be serious.  A brand new motor-cycle helped to see to that after her old one was stolen at the market.  Soon I was asked “How much rent do you pay?”  I had just moved from one apartment for $200 a month to a $300 one. ‘Why pay out all that money in rent, you can buy?”.  No sooner said than done! Before I knew it I was taken to view properties in Takhmau. I liked what I saw. So we bought one and then proceeded to add “Western” bathrooms and a kitchen; add two extensions and refurbish an annex for domestic help or a guard/handyman.

First of many snags to tackle

I then hit the first snag.  With the benefit of hindsight I now know that it has set the tone of my relationship with the wife’s family ever since. When we came to do the property transfer work, I was not happy that everything was in Khmer, so I had it translated.  Although I was happy for the property to be in the wife’s name, as foreigners could not own at that time, they had put it in her father’s name without telling me. It was a good job I had not signed.  I vetoed the plan.  The name was changed.  Later neighbours told me that Father boasted it was his house and I was the lodger.  He had taken up with one of their school-age daughters. Then when he tried to run the place as if it was his own, disregarding my personal privacy, he had to go.  For ailing Mother, most upset by his dalliance, I was her best friend (for a while). The wife was also most displeased with "Bad Boy" Father. They have been distant ever since.

One day she brought some very elderly neighbour ladies to see the house.  At that time “House Barang” was the best in the area.  It’s a palace” they remarked.  It is a palace no longer!  I tell why below. Dozens of far larger salubrious villas have supplanted the modest abodes of many humble folks as Takhmau has developed as a prime near-Phnom Penh location.  Oddly though, the same directions work. Back in 2002, a former colleague wanted to send me papers from Phnom Penh as I was working at home. She asked for my wife to give her driver directions and was amused by the description.  “Just come to Takhmau and ask for House Barang!” For a while I was the next-most famous resident to Prime Minister Hun Sen whose helicopter still flies straight above our house. (No, you can’t park a Surface-to-Air Missile here!)

Patron-dependency, but with no respect for non-Cambodian patron

Asian values, family values means that for almost all of these 17 years, it is family members accorded the privilege or task of sharing the property, supposed to be acting as guard, handyman, cleaner, etc.  Twice we took in the cousin (top left in header photograph) and his family.  The first time was when they returned from Thailand homeless and penniless. At first they were quite industrious but it did not last long.  Although they stayed for free, most food paid for too, the $50 a month pay was not enough for him nor was a rise to $70.  So the cousin wanted and took a day job.  Then he also took a night job – a toilet attendant in restaurants, offering men massages.  It meant he left at 6.00 am for one job and returned back around midnight, at weekends 1.00 am or later.

Needless to say, the first signs of neglect soon appeared.  I was never consulted about the outside-working and my complaints about the deteriorating state of the place went unheeded.  One day, Cousin invited in the coconut boys, to make some money.  I heard an enormous crash, roofing panels were smashed.  They destroyed my new guttering. They had dropped a whole bunch of coconuts from high.  They laughed.  Apparently that was my bad luck.  Their good luck was they could keep all the money. They felt under no obligation whatsoever to do repairs.  This apparently is still the policy today.

Like Father, like Son (and Cousin). 

Actually this cousin was for many years brought up like a brother in the family.  One day, again while working at home, I heard a kafuffle outside.  Cousin had invited some folks in, with his son who had recently left school.  He had been offered a job.  The wife joined them.  I noticed a rubber ink pad; on some papers they were all putting thumb-prints.  I asked the wife what it was. They want me to act as a referee” for his job application. I took a photograph of the original and emailed it straightaway to my lawyer friend.  “Your wife is undertaking to hand over the property deeds in the event that this company suffers any loss while he is cashier”.

 
The company’s representative who until then had professed no English, spluttered out in very good English “Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean anything!” I replied “No it won’t.” and ripped up the original and all copies.  (That was the wife’s third close escape, after her the first one with her Father. The second will be in the next Neighbourhood. blog.)  The job offer was withdrawn. The boy cried, and the cousin moved out in anger.  They left the Annex for the second time, in a disgraceful state. 

Once again I had failed miserably to convey the idea that you should leave a place the way you find it.

The Lamp Post that was badly damaged, almost felled during the attempted car-theft.  Close inspections shows also the grounds that had not been cleared or cleaned for weeks.


Mother’s demise and estate

Now before I venture in to the trials and tribulations with the family’s next caretaker, I need to narrate the sad story of the death of Mother in 2010, aged just over 60.  We knew that the end was coming.  My wife for months had gone to her every day to do what daughters do well and dutiful daughters do best. (Later in #Alnwick #Northumberland, my Aunt never stopped praising the wife’s ministrations to her in her last few months, praise never accorded in Cambodia.)

Mother had suffered from diabetes complications for years.  I do not need to say more.  In Cambodia, it is a death sentence unless you pay out a lot and Mother didn’t want to blow her hard-earned assets on health bills. The wife shared with me her final thoughts.  Her assets were to be divided equally between all five children, four boys and the one girl, and the wife as the blood daughter was to have her jewellery.  In her last few days, instead of being allowed to die at home with dignity as advised by successive doctors, she was carted around hospitals and then to Vietnam for a special injection and miracle cure.  She died on the way.  The wife called me to ask for $1,000 to help pay the bills.  Before she got back from Vietnam somebody had entered Mother’s house and been through all her things.  Mother like most Cambodians had little faith in banks.  Her treasures were hoarded. Everyone knew but one person got there first
.
The main asset remained the Monivong property, with a capital value of at least $300,000 and rising rapidly. The shop was rented out at just under $1,000 a month. The apartment if rented out would have been $200 a month.  These values have gone up much since 2010.  So the question was - and remains to this day - is how to divide it 5 ways. Money was not “wasted” on a lawyer.  Two brothers (Oldest and  Youngest , Errant) wanted and took out their capital to build houses. One brother (Sensible, Enteprising) handled the estate’s dealings and money, while the fourth (Quiet) one lives in the small apartment. He and his wife operate a business there. I am told that they do not pay rent.

So basically one way or another all four of the brothers are directly benefitting from Mother’s estate and have been since 2011.  Income for the first year was used to contribute to build Mother’s Mausoleum with other estate assets, having paid funeral bills. 

The wife has had nothing – apart from just a share of Mother’s jewellery.  Mother’s wishes were interpreted that the jewellery was to be shared by her daughter and four daughters-in-law.

I have no doubt that their view is that because she has a Barang husband, they can also over-rule their mother’s wishes to deprive her of her 1/5 share bequest.  They no doubt think that I want my hands on it, despite me making it clear that I have worked hard all my life for my money.  I won’t take the wife’s. We don’t need to.  But still she is entitled to what her Mother promised her; not be solely dependent on me, and they have no automatic right to my money or possessions.

What’s Mine is Mine; what’s Yours is Mine too!

I have talked about expensive items of a house or home, to be cherished, respected.  But the same thing applies to many small bits and pieces that make a home a home, your home, our home.  Surely the people we take in, whether family members or not, are guests?   Now this conversation is had everywhere in the world. Nothing is more frustrating and annoying than not finding something you need.  Where is my pen to write with?  Or where is the electric drill or some other tool?  Where has the pan or sharp knife gone? In Cambodia, in our household, the first reply is “Where did you last put it?” that brings forth my usually correct reply “Where I always leave it!”.  And then, despite the fact that it is not there, we all have to go to check.  Familiar expressions of innocence are put on.  If I am lucky, the missing item will miraculously turn up there some time later.  It may be intact, or more it is usually worse for wear in some way.  If it has been broken, it has not been repaired or replaced.  Too often the missing item is never seen again.  A replacement is bought. Then a few weeks later, with remarkable repetivity, the same thing happens!

The most peculiar thing happened last year.  Suddenly the family “permitted” the wife to be able to use some of her 1/5 share of the rental income for the first time in 6 years. But please note that this money is NOT to go to her, Instead it is to pay off the debts of Errant brother and his estranged wife.  Apart from the house they had built in Prey Hor from Mother’s estate, they had taken out an expensive micro-finance loan of $10,000 at 19.4% interest per year.  Somehow it was approved by HFI without in my view proper due diligence checks as neither had ever held down a regular job.  Apparently the loan was to be used to complete rooms to rent out to garment workers. We wonder who did the business plan as neither of the two were literate or numerate?  In the event the loan was not used for that purpose.  We know that it was used to buy a motor-cycle, to help start the wife’s karaoke business in Kampong Cham.   

Needless to say the brother and wife soon defaulted on the payments.  HFI told me that as Enterprising brother has agreed to pay off the loan instead, they have signed an agreement with him. They have added to the “soft-title” collateral documents to protect his investment and to recoup it when the property is sold.   

Bizarrely, to me, instead of the payments going by bank transfer,  and through her bank if it is her money) they are given in cash to the family’s Father to go in to pay. The receipts are therefore in his name.

Example of much damage to my car. No compensation or repair
But apparently the family insists that this is the wife’s money and they are doing the right thing by her.  I disagree and have told them.  My lawyer friend also agrees and also told the wife that she should not accept it.

Now while Errant brother was defaulting on his loan and riding around on a motor-cycle he hadn’t paid for, where was he?

You are correct, my wife was persuaded or told to give him another chance, supposedly again to take care of our house – an arrangement made without my knowledge. 

We were in the UK at the time. When we returned, what did we find?  He had moved out.  Electricity cut-off.  The place not lived-in; we saw our poor emaciated, hungry dogs (kept alive by neighbours throwing food over the wall); and my car smashed up on all four corners and one side.   

The keys for the car had been locked away in a drawer with the key for that drawer very well-hidden or so I thought.  The brother had to go to an awful lot of trouble to find them – desperate to steal to feed his drug habit?  Only there was one problem.  He can’t drive the car.  That was the second time he had been entrusted with looking after the place.  I thought there would not be a third mistake.

When we were away, Mrs Bee took advantage of our absence, and that of the caretaker supposed to be looking after the place. She moved in with her family. Now I like Bees. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. But Mrs Rat and he sisters had the same idea.  I don’t like rats. We’re still catching them, every day, for over a month now.

For our next visit to the UK, we had asked the husband of the one and only good care-taker we had had, to take care of it and the dogs.

Guess what?  When we came back, Errant brother had moved back in and......not only was the place in its usual mess, as he had taken charge, but he had stolen the wife’s motor-cycle.  She wanted me to buy another, meaning all three motor-cycles I had bought her over the years had been taken from her. They each ended up as their possessions.  

This time I refused point-blank to buy a fourth even though her Moto means a lot to the wife (see Page 11).  I complained to the brothers, who in fairness to them rallied round to buy her a second-hand one. (It was an adequate replacement.)

The family does not agree with me that they are being unfair to their sister over their Mother's estate and last wishes.  They convince her that I am out-of-order.  It is easy to dismiss human rights in Cambodia that they are alien – foreigners do not know Cambodian culture. They think that I haven’t learned much in 17 years.  Have I?

They do not accept that she is entitled to receive and enjoy her fair share of their Mother’s estate. 

Yet despite that, and by contrast, they want her (and indirectly me) to take disproportionately high responsibility for the Errant brother's faults and debt. Father and all four siblings should be sharing it, if they do not want the MFI to fore-close?

Please note that I do not mind the wife supporting Errant Brother's daughter, although again that too should be equally-shared. The child has suffered enough through the behaviour and neglect of both parents. Equally I am happy for the wife to have Khmer company at home.

Actually that reminds me of one more cause iof recurring disagreement. I’m happy for nephews; nieces, friends’ children to stay. For the ones living near Phnom Penh’s main thoroughfares, here in Takhmau they have large open enclosed rural spaces to run around in safely.  For the ones who are asthmatic, due to exposure to fumes, it is a welcome relief.  However when they fall ill - “are hot inside” – the same predictable routine occurs.  First the universal cure is tried – copious rubbing of Tiger Balm. Next they reach for the Paracetomal to give one possibly two 500mg tablets regardless of the age of the child. Thirdly they may decide to “chuck chuck red”, that is to coin the child, despite his or her strong protestations. This is where they use a coin to scrape the skin. 

Sometimes they will head off to the Pharmacist and come back with a cocktail that always consists of an antibiotic tablet (or two) and an anti-malarial depending on the whim of the buyer or seller.  Needless to say I have something to say and it is what I say every time.  (It’s another reason why I feel on safe ground advising donors about the futility of  their support in expensive health projects, as discussed more in Microcosm 2.)  We have the same exchanges when peanuts are given to small children or they are given a second or third high-energy sugary drink. That by the way is the same one that was Mother’s regular daily drink despite her diabetes. Unfortunately I cannot stop myself saying “You people will never learn!”  I may be wrong.  They might when it is too late.

Despite my well-meaning intentions, the family insists that my wife's first loyalty is to them not her [foreign] husband.

I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  Please do so and comment.

Now my experience is not unique.  I know of at least four well-meaning peers who have also helped families, and groups of families, only at the end of the day to lose all.

It is why former US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli is right [1]. "Be careful, because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart".

It will also break your bank balances, if you let it.

Now I do acknowledge that a lot of Cambodians are devout Buddhists. Some practise the teachings.  “Self-sacrifice” is one of his 10 virtues.  It is third in the list after charity and morality, but following it are honesty, kindness, self-control, non-anger, non-violence, tolerance, and conformity to the law. Is it right that self-sacrifice should be applied strictly only to sisters?  Or should all 10 apply equally to all?

A final closing comment: despite all this, as a longtime journalist friend reminded us just last week “You can leave Cambodia, but Cambodia won’t leave you!"

 Why I have written and published these two blogs – Microcosms 1 and 2

In every culture there is pressure to keep things within the family.  In Cambodia that is extended to certain “things MUST be kept within the family”.  In my first organisation in Cambodia, the Cambodian leader took it further to warn staff members that they must keep things within their Cambodian family.  He told them not to co-operate closely with my two foreign colleagues and me trying to save the organisation and their jobs. “Who puts the rice on your plate?” he warned.  He was wrong on that point and only he was to blame for the crisis that ensued when his Cambodian Finance Manager told donors about systematic fraud.  Yet they believed him and they lost their jobs.

The work that people like me do is tough.  It is especially tough in 2017.  We want to make life better for others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. We always try to do that in co-operation with whoever can help bring change about. In fact we actually spend more time trying to raise money from donors to do it than we devote directly to the activities bringing change. Inevitably we confront officialdom and vested interests.  They seldom welcome change.  They usually oppose it.  They feel threatened by it and respond with threats of their own.  More fearless colleagues than me have paid the ultimate price, with their lives, for this work.

In any job, if it is rewarding, challenging, and hard work, what do you want to do at the end of the working day? You want to relax, to unwind, at home and to go out and about in restaurants, pubs, whatever is your choice.

These blogs tell you that very often, too often, when I return home after work, my work not only continues but is even more intensive. I have lived this way long enough. I am now in my waning years, freed of the commitments of full-time work. However it is clear that I will still have the same pressures at home and in the neighbourhood as long as I am around.

So I must soldier on.  I have absolutely no doubt that but for me, my wife would have lost our house and home before now.  Others, within the family, the immediate one or the wider Cambodian one, feel that they have an entitlement to some or all of it and that she must make the sacrifice for them.  They will probably succeed eventually.  All I can do is to try to put it off as long as possible. And to hope that we can bring about the changes needed. It is wrong, plain wrong!

                                                                                                         John Lowrie   12 July 2017
 Quick link to Microcosm 2 here.



Update  21 July 2017

It’s a small world.  The young lad learning English in his first job many years ago came to greet me yesterday.  He is now the local Bank Manager.  He reminded me that if my wife does not use her bank account, it will be closed. I told her. She did not reply.  These days it is not easy to open bank accounts anywhere.  I helped her to open it and to become a joint holder of my UK bank account, to handle money if something happened to me.  That seems not to matter.  So once again we see “Who is pulling the strings in her family.”

Update November 2017

We returned to Cambodia. Once again we struggled all the way with heavy luggage – over 50kgs wheeling the unwieldy trolley and entering the crowds that always gather to greet arrivals at Phnom Penh airport.  The wife, as she does every time we take this raucous path, scans the smiling faces along the barriers and along all the rows behind.

Again, no-one in her family has gone there to meet her to welcome her home, unlike all those other families.  She wants to cry but she doesn’t.

We take the Tuk-Tuk to “Mama House” for a reunion with her sister-in-law ; nephew and nieces. There’s the usual warm welcome. 

Almost of the 50kgs quickly disappears; all the presents are collected, as the missing family turns up in droves.

Good news.  The errant brother freed from drug rehabilitation seems to be doing OK. He’s even working, making money.  He has a new girl-friend who has moved in with him with her two children.  She too works, has helped him clean the place up and they have even managed to let out rooms to garment workers.

As described above “Mama House” and the adjacent shop on Monivong Bvd was their Mama’s estate, to be shared equally 5 ways when she died.  The four boys and one daughter were to benefit equally.

The four boys have all done well; got their share and more, especially the errant one.

Despite his new circumstances, the family has decided that the wife’s share of their Mama’s inheritance must continue to benefit him.  It continues to pay off his expensive ill-advised MFI loan. Her rights remain forfeited for having a foreigner husband.

Now back she resumes taking care of errant brother’s daughter for free of course.  Now she has to get up at 5.00am to take her to school. She does as she wants the best for her in life.

She has no choice.  Cambodia!  She wants to cry but doesn’t, like too many other women.


[1] As quoted in “Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land” by Joel Brinkley,

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