‘you give him pigs tail, mama!’ she commands at me in her no nonsense and self assured way.
I smile. Usually I take what she says seriously, less and less so with time, but I plain refuse to feed my two year old pig’s tails to stop him from grinding his teeth.
‘yes mama!’ she insists with a mixture of annoyance and motherly patience, ‘ my husband did too, he eat pig tail, now he don’t do any more’
Parith is clearing up the kitchen as we speak. It is early in the morning, and I am holding onto my cup of coffee like a castaway to a float. I struggle to keep my eyes open, meanwhile she has vacuumed the floors, put away the dinner dishes, and carefully replaced yesterday’s food with new sweets on the makeshift altar she keeps behind the espresso machine.
She’s my age, one month younger really, or at least we think she is. But she treats me like I’m one of the children she has to look after. She bosses me around in a maternal manner, which would be annoying if it was not also sweet. She carries on talking as the children rampage through the kitchen knocking the cereal box onto the floor. It’s contents scatter on the recently cleaned surface, like it is a challenge to see which star can make it the farthest. The children run away screaming over who gets to keep the grey hippo cuddly, that really neither of them wants.
‘hey! Number one and number too!’ she playfully scolds them as she takes a broom and attacks the mess on the floor with the determination of a bullfighter going into the kill. I look at her in awe. The chaos that so often overwhelms me slides off her skin onto the floor, and gets broomed away as she chatters on about this imaginary world she lives in. Watching her always makes me envious of her energy
‘I feel like an old woman next to you’ I say, as I slowly take a sip from my cup
‘you no old mama!’ she laughs ‘you more old in Cambodia, there you very old. Now you young mama’ which -of course- means that I looked older when she met me, back in Cambodia. Back when the beasts, cordially numbered by her, where younger and did not let me sleep night or day.
Parith was born one month after me, but she could have just as well been born one hundred years before. She was born two years before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh changing the country’s history forever, and turning it into an emblem for genocide. This woman that stands before me lived through it all. She is also the oldest of nine siblings, and mother to two children. She has been looking after children her whole life, and in line with the Asian sense of group responsibility, she continues to look after them as much as she bosses them around.
She went to school, but not for long. She learned how to read and write, but has forgotten. She learnt English from her son because it is the best way to make money. In Cambodia, lawyers and doctors are working as drivers for the expats, because it pays better.
Parith can sow, that is her hobby and her passion, and she has sown M the princess many a beautiful outfits. She wants to earn enough money to open a restaurant back in Cambodia. She knows the money she makes here will make all the difference to her, to her family and her clan. She’s not a victim, she’s an unsung hero, and a survivor.
Parith is one of many women around the world that jump on a plane and leave their families behind, in order to provide a better life for them. Women that look after other people’s children, while someone else is looking after their own.
So don’t get confused.
When she first arrived many Dutch women, unfamiliar with these realities, felt sorry for her. They tried to speak to her pain, tried to identify with her. She looked at them with a mixture of surprise and contempt.
Once her year working for us was up, she came to me for help, to find another job, to stay a bit longer.
She now has a better paid job, and gets to go home a couple of times a year. She is one of the lucky ones, yes, but it is women like her, with her courage and determination, that really make a difference. They should not be pitied, they should be praised.
She continues to live with us, filling our lives with this imaginary world of spirits and potions she comes from, spicing up our food as much as coloring our lives.