Tears in Phnom Penh

I never know when the tears will come but I know they are there.

Whenever I mention my kids in Cambodia, my beautiful kids that I lived, worked and shared my life with, I feel hot tears stinging the back of my eyelids. I secretly clench my fists, hold my breath and pray to get through another conversation about my old life that feels so far from the beach in Thailand that I live on.

Just recently, after 18 months, I landed back in Phnom Penh with a smile from ear to ear as I sat in the back of the tuk tuk and was reminded of the smells and sights of this beautiful and broken city. Chaos is the best way to describe this place. And it is home.

I saw my Khmer family and friends; my old housemates, ex-pat friends, local friends, my old boss and brother ‘KK’ and all my kids who are now grown up. I made it through the whole week without crying. Even when I saw ‘Frog’ who I met at 15 as a troubled teen with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Frog, who would run away often, get back on drugs often, who I took to Italy to visit a drug rehab community … and even ran away from there! Frog, who I hadn’t seen for five years now because he had run away when I left the country. I had dinner with him. We ate tacos. He is now 20 years old. I stared and stared in disbelief at this adult before me and the two of us got the giggles. But I didn’t cry.

I saw my two boys I worry about most. The two that have been to hell and back more times than anyone ever should. ‘Tra,’ still with his girlfriend and ‘Kha’ smiling and trying to hide the sadness in his eyes. We hugged and hugged and stared at each other. We held hands, we smiled, we chatted and we knew. But I didn’t cry.

Then one night we sat around chatting about ‘Ya’. My beautiful, beautiful Ya. Ya, with the voice of an angel. Ya, who found English mind-boggling. Ya, who sang on stage with me in Australia and New Zealand in 2012. Ya, who I spent months teaching one sentence to in English so he could perform it at TEDx. Ya, who sang to me at my farewell party ‘Srei s’art Romi, mokpi Australi, ’ ‘Beautiful girl Romi who comes from Australia.’

Ya, the incredible young man I met at 19 who took extreme poverty to a level I had never seen before, even working in the slums. Yet he was humble, generous and forever shy.

Ya, who in 2012, was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

Ya, scared and penniless didn’t have any money to pay the police or eventually the judge to get out of what would become a 12-year sentence, later reduced.

Back at the bar, one of my girls picks up her phone, dials, hands it to me and says ‘Ya.’ And Ya is on the phone. I run outside for some quiet and start talking to him in Khmer language. He answers in English. I do it again. English again. I am confused and start to wonder if it is actually him.

“Ya?”

“Yes”

“Ya?”

“Yes mum” and I know it is him.

“But you’re speaking English.”

“Yes, I study English in jail,” and he giggles.

He tells me he is ok and will be out in three months. He wants me to come back to celebrate. Three months!

We hang up and I am left standing in the streets of Phnom Penh in silence with a phone in my hand. And I cry.

I cry and cry so much my chest hurts. I can’t breathe. The owner of the bar Darin, comes out to me, her eyes full of concern. Darin who herself understands my kid’s lives better than anyone. Darin, the greatest success story off the streets of this poor country.

“What’s wrong?”

“Ya… jail … he speak English … three months… all grown up … my kids, they all grown up … Frog, Tra, Kha … all of them … they ok … they all grown up … I hug them … I see them … I know them …”

She stops my words by hugging me deeply.

“I know, I get it” and I know she does in a way that maybe no one else in the world could.