I ducked into the Uber and said, “Hi Monika.” I put on my best smile. Inside I felt disoriented, out of place, and needed to just get through the next 30 minutes to get back home. At home, I could decompress with the Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle before falling asleep.
The past two hours had been a mistake.
I wasn’t mentally in a place where a party made any sense to attend. Being surrounded by people swilling cocktails was like sandpaper on my nerves. I wanted to be anywhere else. Slowly, my flight response began to build. I looked at the scene in front of me, and realised I didn’t belong here — not just now, but ever. I asked one of the women who was catering the event, “What’s the fastest way out of here?”
Within a few minutes I was in an Uber and headed away.
Monika began with some usual driver chat — about how she’d had a ride to Bankstown but then it was dead and she hadn’t made very much money today. I noted a SouthEast Asian accent but couldn’t place it, so of course I asked where she was from originally, and she said “Cambodia.” I’d met another person of Cambodian ancestry earlier this week, after years of not having met anyone from the country that still holds a special place in my heart from my two trips there.
I told Monika about my connection to Cambodia and how the country had inspired me and affected me — that despite it’s brutal history, despite every man my age that I had met having lost parents and siblings to the Khmer Rouge, that the country was filled with optimism and love. She began, slowly, to tell me her story.
Monika’s family had to provide one person to serve in the Army. From her brothers and sisters, and her parents, Monika was chosen. She was 16 years old and sent to train with Russian soldiers, and treated “like a man not a woman.” They put her through the same military training as the men, and then she served in the food service (where they assigned all the women after training). She was alone, away from her family, and didn’t feel safe every day.
Years later, she fell in love with an Australian man who was working in education in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. She frantically told me that she had scared him off early in their relationship because she didn’t know how to say that she wanted a long term serious relationship and didn’t just want to be his girlfriend, and so she asked him to marry her, and he fled. Eventually they reconnected and fell in love again, had four children together, and after several years moved to Australia.
She told me how hard she had to work, and how difficult it was to learn to drive in Sydney, and how tired she is after 12 hour days driving for a ride sharing company. We commiserated on how exhausting it is to speak a second language when you have to exert three times as much energy just to form simple sentences and be understood. Monika talked about how difficult it is to learn a new language when you have never received an education in your primary language. Monika can’t write any English words, and so she has learned everything phonetically from parroting what she hears. And sometimes that even gets her in trouble because she doesn’t know she’s said something vulgar or inappropriate!
Every day is long. No day is easy. Monika looked at me through the rear view mirror after all that and said, “This is my heaven.”
I thought about all the complaining I had heard and seen (especially online) over the last week. I thought about how I struggled to be in a city with so many people who didn’t care about the important things. I had recently made the joke that “duck poo” (ducks deciding my deck was their toilet) was the biggest problem in my life to accentuate how lucky I am. Monika’s life was 10x harder than mine, yet she was in “heaven.”
I thanked Monika for sharing her story with me and how much it meant to me. I exited the Uber and wished her well.
That thirty minutes was the best part of my day, and probably my week.
Thanks Monika for reminding me about what’s important.