I was 28. I got engaged and bought a home and left the country to meet the people who made my clothes. I had a few small assignments that would pay me hundreds of dollars for three-months of reporting that would cost me thousands.
Nari was 25. She was living with 7 other young women in a room that was maybe 100 square feet. She worked in a garment factory making Levi’s. She paid a $50 bribe to get her job, which paid her $50 per month. She sent half of her money home to support her family in her village. She wasn’t shy.
Ai was 24 and shy. She was one of Nari’s 7 roommates. She missed working in the fields at her family’s home in the country where no one tells you what to do.
All-in-all, the tiny apartment in which Nari and Ai lived vibrated with the energy of a college dorm. For the first time these ladies were living on their own in the city. They cooked together, talked about boys, and complained about work.
I took them bowling. We traveled out to the countryside together to meet their families.
Yesterday, 10 years later, I met up with them.
Now, I’m 38. I’m married and have two kids who adore me (What? It’s true. Shut up!). I have a career writing stories about folks like Nari and Ai. Life is more stressful. There’s healthcare, autism, and a damn dam that needs repaired.
Nari is 35. She has two kids. She moved back to the village and works on a rubber farm. Up at 2 AM and done by 10 AM. Time to watch the kids. Her husband is a teacher. She thinks about her city life and her life in the factory with a smile on her face. When she talks about traveling around the country to find her six-year-old son medical attention for his chronic cold, she doesn’t smile. Her daughter cries a lot. The doctors thought she was still born at first, but then she moved and breathed. Now she likes to ride the motorbike with her grandpa and play with the neighbor boy. Nari and her husband live with her parents when I ask her how life is she tells me, “It’s in the middle.”
Ai is 34 and eight months pregnant with her 2nd child. She holds her three-year-old son on his lap, he’s a child-sized ball of energy. She lives in Phnom Penh and up until recently worked in the hotel cleaning $18 rooms for $100 per month. She wants to move back to the village, but there are no opportunities there.
I’m thankful they remember me. I haven’t forgotten them.
Ten years ago, there were no buildings in Phnom Penh over five stories tall. Now there are more skyscrapers than I can count. I thought I had flown into the wrong city. You can buy Starbucks lattes, Burger King burgers, Krispy Kreme donuts, BMWs, Porsches, and Rolls Royce.
A lot changes in ten years.