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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.

Asia Pacific Writers Conference, Manila.

“APWT is the largest, longest running, functioning literary network I know of in South East Asia and the Pacific”

Says Philipino Jose Dalisay better known ‘Butch.’

What an absolute pleasure it was for me to join this gang of amazing writers, publishers and translators. This is my third year at this conference which is in a different country every year. 2015 was in Manila with the theme ‘Against The Grain.’

To summarise my time there, I:

– I was on a panel titled ‘True Stories Need to be True’ with Beth Yahp (Malaysian), Irena Cristalis (Dutch), Neil Garcia (Philipino) and moderated by Qaisra Shahraz (Pakistani).

– I attended Tim Tomlinson’s incredible workshop on learning how to write/say a pitch.

– I did a public reading of my story ‘Climbing the Walls’ published in Griffith Review: New Asia Now to a full room. I was also pleasantly surprised (actually straight out shocked and excited) to arrive at the reading and find my name and a photo on a large projector… naturally I took a photo of me… and me… having a moment 😉

Australia – you amaze me!

I planned a 3 week trip to Melbourne as an International guest of the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival.

I planned a 3 week trip to Melbourne as an International guest of the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival. When the time I came I must admit nerves set in, with the main question being, ‘Who is going to buy a ticket to hear me talk for an hour at 5pm on a Monday?’ The answer? Over 50 people! This turned out to be the first of many events and an extended trip in my old home town. Thank you to my family who came to support me too, from my 12-year old cousin to my 93 year-old grandmother.

Watch the interview here:

Part 1.

Part 2.

 

 

My next event was presenting along side the amazing Natasha Corbin at Lisa Entwistle’s Wellthy Living Collection Wisdom; Inspired talks and authentic connection. An incredible bunch of women who come together each month to share and learn from each other. Here is a pic of me during the talk in this beautiful Morrocan style building.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then came the workshops – my first back in Australia. Again I wondered how the work I had been doing in Thailand with students from all over the world would actually work in Australia but I was more than presently surprised. My first workshop was booked  out within a week. I held one workshop through Jewish Women of Words and the other I organised myself, hiring a beautiful space at Healing Delight (pic).

‘A Perfect Statue’, Imprint14. Hong Kong

‘A Perfect Statue’ is a short story published in Imprint 14 Anthology, Hong Kong. It is a modified passage from Romi’s upcoming book: ‘Hip Hop & Hope, from the slums of Phnom Penh.’

A Perfect Statue  by Romi Grossberg

And some photos that go with the story. Below is Kha during his solo performance and right is the last scene from the story.

Australia Network Interview

Kate Arnott from ABC’s The Australia Network interviews Romi Grossberg, Manager of Tiny Toones Cambodia.

Romi brought her Cambodian hip hop group from ‘Tiny Toones’ on tour to Melbourne Australia to perform on stage at Chapel Off Chapel. Tiny Toones is a local Cambodian NGO working with street kids using hip hop and breakdance as the primary tool to engage with the underworld of Phnom Penh in the slums. The former street kids and now the teachers. Also featured in the interview are – Beaver, Fresh and Diamond.

Tiny Toones tour in N.Z.

My beautiful Cambodian ‘Tiny Toones’ ( hip hop centre working with street kids) family with founder ‘KK’ at the head, and I went to Auckland to tour their self-choreographed life stories of poverty, addiction, broken families and of course hope against all odds.

We performed at numerous high schools in poorer areas and met with similar centres to our centre in Cambodia. The aim of the trip was to meet with teenagers who understand hardship and share stories of hope and recovery through conversation and through hip hop and breakdance. The trip was a great success. Pain and recovery, shattered dreams and new hope are themes that cross all language and cultural barriers. I was the speaker at all of these events – the explanation in English, the intro to my dancers, to their stories. Hip hop was the real voice.

 

‘Wefree’ event. San Patrignano, Italy

In October I flew to San Patrignano, Italy with KK, the founder of Tiny Toones and four of our Cambodian teachers/mentors aged 16-21.

San Partignano is a drug rehabilitation community and completely self sufficient and sustainable up in the mountains near Rimini, housing 2-3,000 former drug addicts. Each year they bring together people from all over the world to celebrate WeFree Day – We are Free of Drugs in a 5-day meeting, learning and sharing of knowledge on the topic of drugs and young people through the creative arts. Hip hop and breakdance NGO’s from all over the world were invited to participate- Cambodia (that’s us), Uganda, Canada, Portugal, Columbia, Italy and more. I spoke in a number of different forums with an Italian translator by my side but to be honest the heros of this trip were without a doubt my kids and all the break dancers there.

 

Tedx rehearsal… on my birthday

Me rehearsing on my 36th birthday at ‘sound check’.

Notice the notes in my hand? Yep, I was told off. No notes allowed! With 7 days until the real performance I assured them … no problem (with  a lump in my throat and sweaty palms).

The kids rehearsed… and dutifully bowed….

AND THEN…. they suprised me with a birthday cake! My whole gang and the organisors came out of the kithen with cake for me. 

which we all shared before going outside to play …