Grey Girls Part One: Clarification and ClassificationJanuary 27, 2005
Khmer Proverb No. 2
‘Having a daughter is like having a toilet inside the house; one day you just know the smell will come’
A lot of people like to talk about girls here in Cambodia.
I do not just mean us guys out on a Friday night with a couple of beers inside us. Everyone it seems has an opinion on girls. Be it sex tourists talking about US$2 quickies with sex workers; NGO’s talking about anti-trafficking; tourists being shocked/amazed/delighted at the volume of girls they see working in bars of an evening; be it ex-pats comparing anecdotes about dating Khmer good girls; or Khmer males talking about which karaoke bar has better looking ‘waitresses.’
Everyone has; an opinion, a story [or five] to tell, we all know someone who did something. Be our reaction disgust at the situation, or revelling in the sweetshop selection of sin.
But a common theme across all of this is that Khmer girls fall into two solid and distinct groups; working girls and good girls; that is too say, black and white.
Culturally it is expected that girls are virgins on their wedding nights, anything else and the girl is not a ‘good girl.’
But in reality, this is a somewhat simplistic analysis and understanding of the situation. While the girls falling into the ‘White’ area may be easy to define, the girls that are in the ‘Black’ are not.
The truth of the matter is that even with the simplistic formula of ‘Virgin=Good=White’ the non-virgin girls actually fall into many shades of grey
I have spent a lot of time socially with a fair number of girls who fall into an assortment of grey areas and I do not just mean hanging around in bars drinking beers and chatting to girls.
Let me give a few examples of how a girl can end up in a non-white subset:
Is a widow. She was put through an arranged marriage at 18 to a 40 year old Korean gent, [that is to say she was sold by her dear old mum]. After a couple of years living in Korea said gent died [in somewhat mysterious circumstances] and Girl1 returns to Cambodia, where she chooses to live in PP working as a barmaid in an ex-pat bar.
She is looking for a foreign boyfriend, not a guy here for a few weeks on holiday, but an ex-pat who will look after her long-term
Used to be a good girl, but she fell in love with an ex-pat. The guy met the family, did the 6 months of dating with chaperones, etc. Once they were engaged, the family eased up on the observation. While her family were away on a business trip/holiday she ended up spending a weekend at his flat, boom boom, what the hell she thought, they were to be married next year, so she stayed at his flat for the next 3 months.
She then had to go out to the provinces for a week with her family – granny was ill or some such family tragedy.
When she returned to PP she found out that her fiancee had left Cambodia and had moved back to Canada. He had not told her that his contract was finishing or that he had no intention of marrying her.
A completely atypical Khmer good girl. Living with her family up in the middle of nowhere (Pursat) she is engaged to a young Khmer guy she has know for a while, the date for the wedding is set for later that year. One night after her parents have gone to sleep he comes to see her, whispering to her to come outside as he needs to talk to her most urgently. Worried, she goes out to talk to him.
He has been drinking and he insists that she sleeps with him there and then, she refuses saying that they will be together on their wedding night.
Upset by her refusal, her beau beats the living shit out of her, dragging her away from the house her rapes her behind her parents car.
The following morning the boy has fled the province and the girl is shipped to PP to stay with relatives.
But the story that cuts me up most is that of Girl4, who is a very close friend of my Khmer friend.
Lives all her life in a small town down in the South of the country. Her father is a subsistence level fisherman, her mother works in a shrimp peeling factory.
Girl4 works as a waitress in one of the local beer gardens, where despite offers from many drunk men, she works only as a waitress and never goes home with any of them, she is a good Khmer girl who one day expects to get married and start a family of her own, in fact there is a boy she likes who her father has been encouraging to come around.
One night after work she is cycling the 5 kilometres back to her family’s wooden shack when a car forces her off the road. A [drunken] man gets out, whom she recognises as a customer from the restaurant. After striking her a few times around the head the man then proceeds to rape her.
After the ordeal, the man throws some cash at her as she lies in the roadside mud and drives off.
Pulling herself together she manages to get herself home and in sobbing hysterics she manages to explain what has happened.
Her father is incredibly angry.
As a punishment for allowing this to happen, her father beats her repeatedly until her mother finally manages to intervene, and her father storms out of the house.
The following morning her mother manages to scrape together enough cash for Girl4 to get on a pickup truck to Phnom Penh where she can stay with her cousin.
So these girls, and more I know, all have stories of how they ended up working in bars.
Girl 1 could in theory remarry a Khmer, but most would not be interested, in fact she is actively opposed to the idea.
Girls 2, 3 and 4 can no longer marry a Khmer man or have any place in ‘proper Khmer society.’
So now that they are grey girls and workings in bars how do they survive?
One of them is a ‘working girl’ and she does $10 short-times in an upstairs room, or $20 for the whole night.
Two of them are looking for Western boyfriends; they will allow guys to wine and dine them for a few nights, if they guy is working here [i.e. going to be around for more than a couple of weeks holiday] they will start sleeping with him, doing his laundry and cooking for him when he comes home for lunch. They will then head off to work, via home and some clean clothes, mid-afternoon. In the hope that after a while the guy will start supporting them and they will no longer have to work in a bar where they are groped and leered at all night long by drunk and horny men.
One of them does not go outside the bar for anything. She concentrates on getting men to buy her ‘lady drinks’ from which she gets a percentage of the sale plus she gets tips from the customers and she has her paltry salary from the bar.
For those of you who know me personally, none of the girls mentioned above are anyone that you know, or have seen out socially with me at any time; since writing this story all of them have moved on from the particular bar where they worked to other bars, hence me feeling comfortable in publishing this