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The Breadwinners

How a handful of teenage girls are changing the fate of their families.

by Hannah Warstler

What on earth am I doing here? I wondered, backing into a corner of the kitchen. I watched the bustle of young women around me, their brown caps concealing their eyes as they lit burners, chopped cucumbers, and made bread dough.

What do teens in a kitchen have to do with injustice

What do teens in a kitchen have to do with injustice

I was supposed to be on a grand adventure, gaining renown as a world-savvy journalist and fearlessly exposing the underbelly of an exotic developing country. Somewhere along the line I must’ve missed the memo “culinary skills required.” The only thing I was good at cooking was boxed macaroni and cheese. I had no Khmer vocabulary except “Hello.” Worst of all, I had an inexplicable aversion to teenage girls – a demographic I’ve found to be intimidating and bewildering since my own adolescence.

On top of everything, I wondered what any of this – giggling girls in a kitchen – had to do with social justice. Did it even matter that I was here? As the trainees at the Green Mango conversed amiably in Khmer, innocuously frosting cupcakes or serving coffee, I worried that I’d meaninglessly committed myself to two months of alienated misery.

Now, six weeks later, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Misfit

When I was in sixth grade, a girl named Ali Plikard ridiculed me for tucking my shirt in. It seems trite now, but at the time my stomach got all twisty and my heart shattered into a million pieces and I knew she’d hate me forever. Teenage girls, I thought, were like her: egotistic, calloused, and shallow. It hadn’t helped that I was hopelessly out of touch with local teen culture. They knew the names of every boy on the basketball team; I knew the names of every actor in the Lord of the Rings movies. Yep, that was me – the dorky, rather frumpy nerd who knew more about Mark Twain than mascara. I couldn’t relate to teens then and still haven’t learned the art.

Yet here I was, doomed to spend the summer with a bunch of sixteen-to-twenty-year olds who preferred to decorate cakes with pink frosting. They were here as students in the Culinary Training Center, a Center for Global Impact (CGI) program in Battambang, and I was, well…in the way.

The Green Mango is a stark contrast from the city outside.

The Green Mango is a stark contrast from the city outside.

I might have felt more useful if there was glaring injustice for me to document and photograph, but even that proved elusive. The first time I rode in a tuk-tuk through the city, I noticed the pungent smell of open-air markets, the yelps of scavenging dogs, and the rusty-brown tint of the Sangke river. I thought, Aha, here we go. This is going to get real. Then we pulled up to the Green Mango, a well-kept building bordered with flowerbeds.

I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t the clean tile, crisp lines, and polished glass tables inside. It wasn’t the gentle folksy playlist and the hum of air-conditioning. It certainly wasn’t the spotless glass doors opening into a spacious, stainless steel kitchen. Where was I again? A poverty-stricken city or back in the States? And where were the young women daringly rescued from the dregs of society? The only girls I saw were courteous servers and competent chefs dressed in matching green uniforms.

What on earth am I doing here?

Welcomed In

I leaned up against the white kitchen wall, feeling very insecure and disillusioned. Theangly stood over the industrial sinks, scrubbing away at a growing pile of dirty dishes. Though the same age as the other girls, she looked no older than twelve­ – the least intimidating person doing the least difficult job. If I was going to be helpful and outgoing, it was now or never. I walked over and reached for a faucet.

Theangly is all smiles as she prepares lunch for the girls on the morning shift.

Theangly is all smiles as she prepares lunch for the girls on the morning shift.

“No, sisteh!” Theangly stayed my hand in protective alarm. “K’daow – Hot!” I smiled sheepish thanks, picked up a sponge, and got to work alongside her. Best. Decision. Ever.

That simple word – k’daow – opened the door to conversation between Theangly and me. She loved practicing English, and I loved learning Khmer. Sometimes we sat together at the large worktable in the bakery while I drew simple pictures and she labeled them. Dog – chikkai. Car – laan. Sister – bon srey. Every time I pronounced a word correctly (after five or six tries, of course), Theangly responded, “Yeah!” with high-pitched, genuine delight.

Turns out this Cambodian teen wasn’t so intimidating after all. In fact, she was even kind of delightful.

At the end of the shift, Theangly invited me to join the girls for lunch. I followed her to a low table between two mango trees while girls brought out food, dishes and utensils. Channa handed me a heaping plateful of rice while I looked over my other options. Several fried fish gazed up at me with greasy, forlorn eyes. In a pot next to them were vegetables floating in a cloudy broth. I avoided the fishy stares and instead slopped some dripping greens over my rice.

The girls and I snail hunting in a rice field. Not something normally associated with girly girls.

The girls and I snail hunting in a rice field. Not something normally associated with girly girls.

As our party slowly grew to five, six, seven girls, the group became easygoing and animated. Channa was telling a joke, the punch line sparkling in her eyes as she delivered it. Kunthea didn’t look up from her soup, but a small grin spread over her face. Soon the girls were teasing, laughing, throwing arms over shoulders, reveling in the camaraderie of the moment. I was bemusedly charmed – and when Em burst out in jovial, unrestrained laughter I couldn’t help but chuckle myself.

The girls started inviting me along whenever they spent the afternoon together. We explored rice fields, visited Theangly’s house, ate lunch by the river and went to an arcade. We talked about boyfriends and listened to sappy Khmer music. And what do you know? I didn’t even mind the girly stuff. In fact, Khmer tunes are kind of catchy! One day, the girls invited me to meet them at the mall. I got there first and sat on the steps outside. Incidentally, that day I’d straightened my hair for the first time since I’d left the States. I saw the girls come pedaling into view, with broad grins on their faces and shouts of excitement on their lips.

“Sisteh! Beauty-ful!” They cheered. Normally, if anyone had made such a show of my appearance I’d have punched her in the arm. Now I just blushed and smiled, my heart warmed by their sisterly admiration. Theangly gave me a pink bracelet, and I wore it with pride. Because it wasn’t about the straight hair or the girly jewelry – it was about their genuine invitation of friendship. My company was treasured. And I treasured theirs too.

But the delight of my newfound relationships mingled with a growing sense of bewilderment. I was relieved that the girls were not pretentious snobs, but I was confounded by their easygoing joy. They were goofy, talkative, and even self-confident. What did this lively community have to do with poverty or sexual exploitation – the things the Green Mango purported to address? And how was God present here?

I soon had an opportunity to find out.

Around the Corner

The Culinary Training Center employs a full-time social worker named Sokhoeun. She is the liaison between CGI and neighborhood leaders, partner NGOs, and potential program participants. When I told Sokhoeun that I was here to learn and write about the organization, she invited me to go with her on house visits and applicant interviews. Finally! A chance to see the other side of these girls’ lives, I thought. I hopped onto the back of her moto and off we went, joining the stream of incessant traffic and heading toward – wait. This is the neighborhood I passed every day on my bike. The one with three-story concrete homes and government residences. What?

Minutes from the Green Mango, Em’s home seems a world apart.

Minutes from the Green Mango, Em’s home seems a world apart.

I gripped the seat tight as Sokhoeun turned down a narrow side street. Suddenly we were in a “slum area”—a dirt road lined on one side with huts built of wood, plastic sheets, and corrugated tin. Thin women and naked toddlers watched us slowly pass. A little girl was playing in the dirt, scooping it up with a cracked plastic container. Suddenly I realized that the real Battambang wasn’t all paved sidewalks and white expats. The more I participated in Sokhoeun’s regular visits, the more I discovered that desperate poverty is found just around the corner – if I’m willing to see it. We snaked along a muddy trail, passed an old building full of squatters, and stopped in front of a house rising above a thin wooden fence. Em’s younger sister greeted us at the gate and invited us inside. I sidestepped murky puddles and took my shoes off at the door.

The home was plain and sparsely furnished. A TV stood in one corner, the family’s only material entertainment. There was a sleeping mat rolled up in the corner. Sokeaun pointed through an uncovered window to the swampy lot next door, which harbored tall lily pads, humming mosquitoes, and concealed amphibians.

“She says that snakes from there come into the house,” Sokhoeun translated as the sister spoke. I shuddered. Em’s mother wasn’t home, so Sokhoeun chatted with the sister for a few more minutes.

As we buckled our helmets and set off for the next destination, Sokhoeun explained to me the meaning of our visit. Sokhoeun wanted to make sure the family had enough to make ends meet. Em, I discovered, is the primary breadwinner of her household. Her father left years ago to work in Thailand, and her mother washes laundry to make a meager living.  Although the girls attending the Training Center get paid a weekly stipend, some work second jobs elsewhere in the city. If Em was looking for an afternoon job, Sokhoeun wanted to make sure she obtained a safe one.

Channa’s mother and two sisters.

Channa’s mother and two sisters.

The options for uneducated young women here are sobering.  Some of the girls at the Green Mango used to work in a plastic bottle factory, where the harsh chemicals burned their hands.  Others have worked at karaoke bars, which can be leisurely places to unwind or obvious fronts for prostitution. In either case, even if one is only a DJ or a server at a karaoke bar the risk of exploitation can be substantial. As we drove away, Sokhoeun still seemed worried for Em. I didn’t want to think about it.

We turned into an alley and were suddenly in the middle of a crowded squatter’s lane, lined on one side with houses and on the other by a greasy channel, where a child was washing dishes. A man drew water from a muddy hole, the local “well.” Sokhoeun and I got off the moto and started walking down the street, where we were greeted by a solemn-eyed woman with a baby on her hip. “This is Channa’s mother and sister,” Sokhoeun explained. “They are living with HIV.” Soon Channa’s other sister arrived home from school, and the three of them somberly discussed the infant’s health.

I asked Channa later about her life, and she told me that when she was thirteen years old she’d dropped out of school to start helping her mother wash dishes at a small Khmer restaurant. “I was happy to stop,” she told me. “When I study, I always worry about my mom. When I stop, I have peace because I can find money and help my mom,” she said. Her older brother works in Thailand and rarely sends money home; Channa’s stepfather (her father died of malaria) also has HIV. I couldn’t fathom what it felt like to be a teenage girl with an entire family’s health weighing on her heart every day.

Slowly I was starting to glimpse the heartrending challenges my friends faced on a daily basis. Females here are financial assets to their families. Because they are daughters, their worth is found in what, not who, they are. Cambodian girls grow up with their monetary value in the back of their minds. Should I play soccer with the boys? Getting a bruise or a scar may decrease my worth. Should I wear short sleeves and risk a value-reducing tan, or swelter underneath multiple layers of clothing?

I suddenly realized that young women didn’t wear turtlenecks everyday just to emulate billboard models. They did it to keep their skin pale and beautiful. Such decisions have a direct impact on their families’ abilities to survive economic emergencies. And because they love their families, these girls might do whatever it takes should such crises arise.

My thoughts were jumbled as our moto bounced through potholes and puddles on the way home. I was sobered by possibilities I didn’t want to face, and I was confused by the clashing images stamped upon my memory. Idyllic lunches beneath a mango tree didn’t fit with slime-green ooze beneath flooded huts. Self-confident young women didn’t correlate with the objectifying value their culture bestowed upon them. I just couldn’t connect the carefree faces at the Green Mango with the fact that all of them had family members in their care.

I was worn out. I didn’t understand how Em and Channa could be overflowing with joy and love when they had such bleak and stifling situations to tackle. I can barely endure the minor squabbles between my siblings and parents, or the drama my younger sister goes through at school. I fretted over every term paper in college and every new deadline in the office. I sat in the restaurant, pensively staring out the large windows. Why do Channa, Theangly, Em, and Kunthea smile when they bike home?

I had to know. The longer I spent with the girls, the clearer the dichotomy became. When I interviewed Kunthea, however, it suddenly all made sense.

Generous Hope

Kunthea lives with her mother and older sister in a karaoke bar, where her mother is the housekeeper. When Kunthea was fourteen years old, she dropped out of school so that she could work too, helping clean the building and playing karaoke tracks. Kunthea joined the Culinary Training Center a year ago, and soon after she asked CGI for a loan so she could help her sister go to university. She uses her entire weekly stipend to pay for her sister’s education. This summer, Kunthea started working a second job so she could save money to move her family to an apartment of their own.

Photo: BAM-1136 Kunthea has natural talent in the bakery and is using her income to provide for her sister’s college education. Photo by Brad Miller

 Channah has a bright smile despite having to care for two sick parents.

Channah has a bright smile despite having to care for two sick parents.

Wow. You know, when I was in college, it was all about me. I left home to find my destiny. I chose my career based upon what I wanted for my future. These girls – their career training is about everyone they care about. Kunthea is changing her sister’s future, and her mom’s too. Channa is providing for two parents with HIV. Em and Theangly are ensuring that their younger siblings stay in elementary school, as they and their older siblings never could.

It suddenly clicked: That’s why they laugh everyday. These young women have joy because they can be generous with their hope. All of them are on a journey together, discarding the only lives they ever knew and choosing to initiate change. A change that honors and provides for their mothers and fathers. A change that gives their siblings a future otherwise unattainable. And the Culinary Training Center empowers them to do so every step of the way.

Of course the income, healthcare and counseling CGI provides gives each girl resources to share with their families. But more than that, I think, it has given them a new understanding of their identity. When I asked Kunthea what she has learned about God from the Green Mango, she responded without pause, “God loves me.” That lesson is exemplified daily by the Green Mango staff. Every day I’ve seen Ryana, Sokhoeun, and LyPhalla interact with the girls with love, grace, and true attention to their personhood. And when the girls realize who – rather than what – they are, they discover soaring self-confidence that empowers them to hope, love, and serve more than ever.

All the confusion I’d felt at the beginning of my summer melted into wide-eyed admiration. I couldn’t help but feel proud of these girls – my sisters – and how much they’ve done with the resources they’ve been given. It seemed strange that I’d ever been intimidated by them; crazy that I’d doubted we’d develop relationships at all. In some ways, I had found exactly what I was expecting: teens with an affinity for manicures and shopping malls, houses amidst mud and fetid rivers. Those things are here, but they are more full of joy and hope than I could have ever envisioned before.

Kunthea, Em, and the rest of the girls are teens with open hearts, eager to impart joy and hope to the despondent – whether “despondent” means family members in poverty or a silly, insecure writer like me. These young women have changed my concept of “giving.” It will still include the things I can provide, like sponsorship for Theangly’s culinary training, prayer for Channa and her family, or an encouraging note on Kunthea’s Facebook page. However, it will be inseparable from the giving the girls do themselves – a college education for a sister, financial security for a mother, a school uniform for a brother.

Though I still can’t slice a tomato without endangering limbs, and I won’t be painting my nails again anytime soon (or ever), I will be returning home with a pink bracelet and an unforgettable lesson in joy. This joy, borne of generous hope, taught to me by the most unlikely teenage girls, is something I can begin to share with others. I’ll retain a deeper appreciation for a God that loves who, not merely what, I am.

And who knows? I might even start to enjoy washing dishes.

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