The quintessential coming-of-age question 'What do you want to do with your life?' doesn't scare this college student

Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of female writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you'll find here each week, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.

When I was 5 years old, my parents carved a clearing into the Cambodian forest and built a dream: an empowerment center and silk-weaving social enterprise for women in Stung Treng, one of the poorest provinces of Southeast Asia.

This is where I grew up, the Stung Treng Women's Development Center, where I raced along the paths between rice fields with the children from the center's kindergarten. I shadowed the women as they worked, pretending to weave the shiny silk threads before I was tall enough to see over the looms.

I watched how my mother fought for village women who had never been to school, whose choices were to become rice farmers, crush stones for a dollar a day, work at garment factories or enter the sex trade. Some could barely feed their children. One day a gaunt woman appeared at the center with two pale, emaciated boys. The boys had distended bellies, and although they were 4 and 5 years old, they could barely speak or walk. Under my mom's care, the color returned to their faces. My brother and I would take them home and share our lunches with them. I felt a leap of joy when I heard them laugh for the first time.

As a young girl, my mother learned the art of fighting for survival. She had no choice. Her family fled Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took power. And for more than two decades of ever-worsening hardships in communist Saigon and Thai refugee camps, she waited for her life to begin. She lost her whole family, often went hungry and gave up her dreams of medical school. She often says that during that time, her soul was floating. My mother cries when she talks about the past. But her painful history has given her two powerful gifts: She understands what it's like to be poor, and she isn't afraid of anything.

When the wars were finally over, my mother's soul found solid ground in Stung Treng. She sowed a new life there by helping village women plant their own seeds of independence. They earn a living wage and send their children to school. I can see how much happiness this work gives her.

Now, it is my turn to cultivate a life. I have been luckier than most young women in my country. There's a Khmer, or Cambodian, saying: "Women are white cloth, men are gold." In other words, boys have value, and girls are disposable. Khmer girls study a book called Rules for Women, which defines acceptable behavior for females. "Proper" women must be quiet and obedient, and in rural Cambodia, they are not expected to have an education. That's why so many of my female friends from Stung Treng are illiterate — they had to care for their younger siblings and do housework instead of finishing school.

I had no talent for following such rules. People often criticized me for being an "improper woman." I fought for my beliefs, I competed, I challenged, and I laughed out loud — things a proper Khmer woman should never do.

Contrary to those cultural norms, my parents are putting everything they have into my education. My mother, my brother and I moved to Phnom Penh so I could attend the best high school in Cambodia. And this month, I'll begin my sophomore year at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.

As far as I know, no girl from my town has ever studied at a university. Many of my former classmates are already teenage mothers, earning less than a dollar a day. They never learned to read or write. And I have become an outsider to them, a stranger who goes to college in the United States. For most of the Cambodian women I know, that dream is as dim and distant as the stars. I left Stung Treng promising myself to come back home one day — for them.

Many people have asked me, "What do you want to do when you're older?" I always tell them I want to work at SWDC and other nonprofits, and to fight for women's education, just like my mom does.

"No," they persist. "What do you dream for yourself?"

I usually reply with a smile, because I know they do not understand my answer.

I am here, studying in America, for myself. Learning is a joy. But I am also here for them: for my family, for the women of SWDC and for Cambodia. I hope to build myself into the kind of person a very poor country needs most. I want to gather skills like gems and carry them back home, and I want to help my parents keep their dream of SWDC alive. It's not a sacrifice; it's a pleasure. My mother always told me that there is no greater happiness than helping someone else.

Forty years ago, my country lost everything. Millions of people — along with our intellectual and cultural heritage — were exterminated. But if there's one thing I learned from my mother, it's this: Once you lose everything, there's nothing left to fear. I dream of finding bold ways to help Cambodia sow a more just society. I want to change how people think about poverty and the value of women's lives. I want to help women achieve financial independence and equality, and to be sure every girl has a chance to finish school.

What I dream for myself is a Cambodia where girls and women will be respected as productive citizens. Because only then will we truly be free.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com

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