LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE - CHAPTER 2
LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE
THE COMMUNIST SCHOOL BANS LOVE
In 1988, Dara and Duongchan were in grade 11. Their love went against the cultural values and traditions of their country. But they could also face trouble from the disciplinary office of the school they attended. Under Communism, all school regulations in Cambodia were very strict. Many facets of the students’ social life, such as dating, were totally banned.
Student behaviour had to comply with the communist way of life. Colourful or sexy clothes were not allowed in school…and neither was romance. Students who violated the regulations could be criticised in class and could even be expelled from school. But these regulations could not stop Duongchan and Dara’s love and they secretly exchanged love letters hidden in the covers of their books.
There were not that many books in the library, especially given their school was a rural one, so they often passed the same book back and forth after reading. These exchanges allowed Dara to not only pass love letters but also money to his struggling girlfriend.
The morning class was about to finish. Students would shortly head for home. Farmers leading cows were returning from their rice fields and walked past the schoolyard.
Dara took a book from his Vietnamese-made schoolbag and walked over to Duongchan, telling her to take the book from him quickly.
“Why do you want me to take it so quickly?” Duongchan asked.
“There is something in it.” Dara said and pointed to the book cover. “I wrote you a letter.”
Duongchan reached out her hand to take the book while Dara brushed her hand gently and smiled. Duongchan was a bit shy and giggled and asked, “Oh, my dear, what is the letter about?”
“It’s about you and me.”
“That’s nice, all about us,” she said smiling as she dropped the book in her rough schoolbag made of creeper vines.
The school had banned students from having relationships as the school managers were worried that romance would distract students from learning and studying. But the same managers had many good ideas such as encouraging the students to study in groups and to exchange ideas so that the cleverer students could share knowledge with any who were struggling. This school policy was used by Dara and Duongchan for not just sharing knowledge and learning but also to build their relationship knot of love. They had been a couple for nearly nine months but had told no-one except Duongchan’s mom.
Dara along with about twelve classmates, including Duongchan, would meet and discuss schoolwork every evening from 6pm to 8pm. There was no electricity so everyone carried a kerosene lamp. Sometimes the lamps would be blown out by strong winds from as far away as the Gulf of Thailand while they walked to the classroom. Schools were made of wood and covered with tiles made of clay. The school structure was the ideal place for geckos and other types of lizards to live and thrive. Behind the schools were rice fields, palm trees, and in the centre of the campus a few mango trees where the school bell, which was a defused shell left over from the Vietnam War, dangled under the tree. The barrel of an AK rifle was used as the drumstick to ring the school bell when it was time to attend class.
Both the school building and classrooms were in poor condition but the atmosphere among the students was happy and friendly. They felt no need to complain as they had never experienced a more materialistic way of life. The classroom had only a clay floor, and the wooden tables with open drawers were neatly placed. The whiteboard - made of cement – was stuck to the wall along with other boards made of wood. Teachers and students were grateful for donated chalk, which had travelled thousands of kilometres from the Soviet Union before reaching Sihanoukville Port and being distributed to schools across Cambodia. A hammer and sickle sign, which was the usual Communist symbol, was hanging from the wall and was posted on the wall dangling, and you would often find gecko nests – or even snakes- hiding behind it or the boards.
Dara and his girlfriend would usually arrive early for the study groups so that they could spend time together, flirt, and exchange sweet expressions of love for about thirty minutes before the other students arrived to discuss their school subjects and homework.
One evening Duongchan arrived early and she reached into a drawer to get an eraser - which was as big as a small pillow - to clean the white board. She felt something else in there and heard a deep croaking tone. She again tried to pull it out. It was a giant toad almost as big as a shoe. Duongchan screamed loudly when she saw what it was. Dara, just arriving at the school on his scooter, heard her scream and accelerated into the schoolyard but hit a large rock and crashed into a banana tree with the scooter landing on top of his left leg, pinning him to the ground.
“Hey Duongchan, please help me to get my scooter off me.” Duongchan heard Dara’s screams and rushed out. As she ran out the class she slipped and fell, hitting her face on the ground. Luckily their classmates were arriving and went to help them both. Although their injuries were slight they both missed the first classes the next morning. The teachers suspected that they were skipping class to meet up somewhere, and though they tried to explain the reasons when they arrived for later classes, the teachers did not believe their stories.
Their female teacher addressed the whole class; “Students, please understand that this school is built and operated by the People's Republic of Kampuchea and supported by the USSR and The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. You come here to learn, not to have fun or fall in love. Your parents send you here to study not to have a relationship. Don’t you agree, Dara?”
To be continued...
“Well, I partially agree. I mean I do not come to make war, I come to learn and maybe to love in free time because without love there is no peace. I respect you and I love you as much as the other teachers,” Dara replied, and the other students giggled when they heard him talk about loving the teachers.
Dara had gone further than what the teacher had asked and she was silenced by his words.
“I also love the communists who teach me how the Soviet and Vietnamese systems work.” Dara said.
The teacher told Dara to shut up before the school bell rang for the end of class. But Duongchan was sad and felt her heart was breaking. She had completely misunderstood when she heard Dara talk about loving the woman teacher. Duongchan cried. She was unhappy and walked straight home after the morning class. When Dara realised this he wrote another letter, inserted it into his cover book, and lent it to Duongchan.
He spoke to Duongchan in low voice and said, “Please read my letter inside the book cover and you will understand what I meant by talking about love towards the cantankerous teacher. After reading it, burn it, ok?”
Duongchan said nothing but stared at her boyfriend before snatching the book from him, still in a bad mood. Once Duongchan got back to her hut she was a bit tired and hungry. She needed to prepare her own meal so she made a fire and placed three large stones on it to prevent the pot of rice from spilling over. While the rice was cooking she took out Dara’s letter and read it.
“Dear Darling, I can tell you misunderstood me when said I love the woman teacher. It was a joke only. I am sorry for such a bad joke; I did not mean to make you cry. But I just wanted the teacher to believe that I am her loyal student who loves her teaching only, but not falling in love with her, although she is as cute as a Vietcong woman soldier hiding in the bunker during their fight with American troops on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.”
To console her bad feelings, he also talked about the incident when she fell the night before;
“I could see your cheek was still swollen and bruised. Luckily, you did not break your teeth, or injure your lips or eyes. I know how much you care for me by how quickly you ran out when you heard I crashed my scooter. You are such a caring girl. I will get you some medicines tomorrow, so please wait for me at your hut after 9pm. I will be there as I have promised. Your sweetheart Dara.”
The next evening arrived and Dara came to see her at the hut as he had promised. In the dark evening, Dara spoke to her in a low voice and handed her three packs of medicine. He also took some money from his pocket so Duongchan could buy some good food. He hugged Duongchan as gently as he could before saying good night, “Please take this medicine. Get well soon. Good night!”
Unfortunately, the medicine did not work but managed to make her worse. She vomited and was tired with no energy. There was no-one to help and she could not get out of her rattan bed for morning class.
When Dara saw that she was not in class he asked their friends if anyone had seen her but no-one had seen her since the day before. Dara was so worried that he ran the whole 300 metres to where Duongchan’s hut was situated. He found her sleeping and motionless on her bed. He tried raising her head and waking her. Her voice was low and weak and there was a strong smell of vomit.
“Please help me. Please take me to hospital. I am so tired as I haven’t slept the whole night.” She said.
Dara carried her out of the hut and called for a horse cart to take them to the local hospital. It was 7:30am and there were still no medical staff there, only birds flying in and out of the front entrance, chirping around and landing on the front desk next to the Communist flag.
“Is anybody here? My girlfriend is really sick.” Dara called out.
A skinny female nurse came out from her room looking half-asleep and yawning and said to Dara in a sleepy voice with her eyes hardly opened, “Is she your wife or sister, Mr. cute boy?
“She is my wife, please help her.” Dara replied.
Duongchan heard her boyfriend say that and it made her feel better even when lying feeling so weak on the floor.
The nurse gave her an injection to give her some strength. After the injection, Duongchan seemed more awake and asked, “Where are you, Dara?”
“I am here, standing next to you,” he replied.
Duongchan reached out her hand to grasp Dara’s and said: “Thank you for bringing me here.”
“Don’t mention it. I will always be with you. Would you like to eat anything?”
“I’d like porridge with fish soup please,” she said.
“Ok. I will go to Tonle market to buy some for you. Anything else? How about some bananas or oranges?”
“Anything you can get me, something sweet like sugar, but not the sour palm juice you gave me the other day. That gave me diarrhoea.”
“Ok, I will do as you ask.” Dara kissed her before he left for the market.
Back at school, the same two students were absent from class. The female teacher noticed and asked the other students if they knew anything but none of them did.
To be continued...
At the hospital, Dara was feeding Duongchan and she felt much better. He asked Duongchan to stay at the hospital while he went and told the teachers what had happened to her.
After about an hour, Dara entered the classroom in a real rush and bowed his head along with raised hands with palms together as Khmer culture taught. He said to the teacher:
“I am sorry I failed to attend class this morning as I had to take Duongchan to hospital”.
But while the classmates believed Dara, the teacher did not.
“I have told you before; you come here to learn and not to have a relationship. But again you prefer to spend time with a girl to coming to school.” The teacher spoke sternly as her face turned red and grumpy.
Dara was quiet for a minute then spoke insistently. “I am telling you the truth. You can see and smell that my shirt is full of Duongchan’s vomit.”
The other students were shocked and immediately began asking if they could visit Duongchan.
Dara interrupted them, saying “Thank you all for your kindness. But I have to get permission from the teacher first since I do not want to be kicked out from the school.”
The teacher had realised she had been mistaken and said, “Ok, you can do that and please tell her that I am sorry to hear she is sick and I hope she recovers soon.”
“I thank you all for everything,” he ran out and almost hit the door.
When he got back to the hospital Duongchan was so happy and smiled.
“I love you dearly, Dara. But I cannot say so openly as you know that our school has clear regulations that falling in love is not allowed while we study here. This is a Communist school, not a liberal school. I am even quite shy to say so when I see you alone. I love you… but as a Khmer girl I am shyer than you as a boy.”
Not long after, Dara was separated from Duongchan because their exchanging love letters was discovered. A nasty female teacher one day wondered what was inside Duongchan’s exercise book which was covered with plastic and was thicker than usual. The teacher unfolded the cover and found the two letters that Dara had sent to Duongchan.
The teacher was about to read them to the class when Dara stood up and pleaded, “Please teacher, do not read them to the class. What is the point of reading my love letters to the class?”
Dara had not even finished speaking when the whole class applauded in support of him. But the teacher was so angry and responded:
“This is the class of political lessons on Communist ideology, not a lesson about love. I am warning you that you will be punished by the schoolmaster for such an act of falling in love. You know that you are student. There is no romance, no novel, no Romeo and Juliet here.”
“Again, I am pleading you to not expose anything in the letter to the public,” Dara pleaded.
The argument went on for a short time more before the teacher ordered Dara to leave the class. Duongchan was left embarrassed and shy, and her face was red and she felt like her head could explode. She put her face between her hands and looked at the ground.
The next day, the school decided to separate both of them based on the school’s rules and disciplinary code, saying students come to learn and not to have relationships. But almost all the students hated these school regulations and continued to support Dara and Duongchan quietly.
At home, the parents and relatives of both of them were hurt as the children had broken from their traditional way of life and culture. But still nothing could break the bond between them.
At break-times, Dara lobbied his classmates, asking, “Is falling in love a crime or is the pressure on us to study Communist ideology a crime. Which one?
All classmates showed their thumbs and said, “Communism is the crime, not love”. Again, Dara was in trouble for making such a statement on the school campus.
After class in the late afternoon, Dara walked to Duongchan’s hut near the school. When he got there Dara found Duongchan was making a fire to fry fish for her dinner. Duongchan said nothing at first but then asked him to stop coming to see her so that she will be spared from embarrassment at school and to preserve her reputation as a Khmer lady. But Dara couldn’t agree and said:
“Duongchan, please be strong. Our love is not a crime and we do not hurt anyone. I am sorry if I hurt you and I will marry you for sure when I graduate.”
Dara handed some cash to Duongchan and said, “Please buy anything you want to eat to make you healthy. I am a little worried when I see you look so sad and pale. We will be discreet in public. But our love will blossom once the Communists are gone. I have to go now but will see you tomorrow at school.”
Dara looked sad when he got back home. He said nothing but helped his mother to do the housework and carried water from the pond to fill up the big container in the house. Dara even worked hard in other ways from homework to housework and exercise, making him stronger. He was a good student but many teachers hated him because he fought for fairness, something that was not allowed under Communist rule.
To be continued …
Duongchan’s performance in class was not as good as Dara’s, but she loved cooking and decorating. Even her small hut is full of wild flowers with mixed colours that she picked from bushes near the school.
In 1988, Dara turned 21 while Duongchan was 19. Every second weekend, Dara took Duongchan out on his motorcycle. He was not only a student but also a part-time smuggler, bringing goods to and from Vietnam to make some extra money to support his girlfriend.
Some weekends Dara smuggled cheap gasoline from Vietnam by boat to sell in Cambodia to make some extra money instead of asking for it from his mother. Sometimes he smuggled cheap Cambodian paddy rice to Vietnam. As Khmer New Year in April was approaching, Dara asked Duongchan, “Is there anything you would like me to buy for you?”
“Anything you get for me makes me happy,” she said.
Dara smiled at Duongchan and said, “how about lipstick, bras, and underpants?”
“As you know, I am a poor girl so I can use anything you give me,” she replied in a shy manner.
The next week, Dara came to see Duongchan along with some items he had bought and a platinum ring, showing that his love for Duongchan is always there. It didn’t matter if the school kicked them out of class or if the family forbade them to see each other, their love would never die.
As a Khmer lady, Duongchan was shy and reluctant when Dara invited her to visit his house and meet his parents.
“I will visit your parents only after your parents agree for us to get engaged,” she said, “As you know I have been hurt on many occasions already at school and in my village because our love is violating both the school regulations and our Khmer traditions.”
Dara responded that it is not important, that what is important is that we can live and work together as a couple in the future. “Our parents will not come to sleep with us, our teacher will not come to kiss us. But both of us will share sadness and happiness together. We are the ones who will navigate our ship across a sea of love. The ship will sail or sink because of one of us, not anyone else.”
He did, however, accept Duongchan’s point about getting engaged.
One day soon after, he approached his mother and told her about the girl he had fallen in love with. He told her that she was smart and beautiful but poor.
“I want you to allow us to get engaged so that I can marry her when I graduate.” Dara said to his mother.
His mother turned down his request due to a number of reasons; the fact that none of Dara’s relatives knew Duongchan’s background or family, the fact that she lived in a remote area where the Khmer Rouge still operated, her being poor, and last but not least because Dara’s parents worried that Dara could not support Duongchan as he does not know how to deal with harvesting rice.
“The leeches in the rice fields in the rainy season in Duongchan’s village will terrify you,” Dara’s mother warned.
Their biggest worry was that Dara could be killed by the Khmer Rouge as Dara’s features are so like the Vietnamese troops who were the number one enemy of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite Dara arguing that he could overcome such situations, nothing could convince his parents and relatives that he could build a family with Duongchan. But still, nothing can force them apart.
Life moved on. The political situation changed all over the world. The Berlin Wall, which had divided the Communists of East Germany from democratic West Germany, collapsed in November 1989. Dara learned the breaking news quite fast through the Phnom Penh radio. He told Duongchan that, “The Communist camp is about to collapse, so it is time for us to study English now and put the Communist languages like Russian and Vietnamese aside.”
Duongchan did not believe him. She said, “Let us wait and see if this is the case though the prospects look good. I do not see anyone speaking English in this district, given that the Khmer Rouge killed all the intellectuals.”
“Well, I have heard a Cambodian old man named ‘Mr Hawk’, who lost his left leg fighting with American soldiers during the Vietnam War and he speaks English well.”
“You are quite wrong, Dara.” She said.
“What? How come?” Dara asked.
“I mean you do not speak English, so how do you know he speaks English well? She asked.
Dara giggled and replied, “You are right. But I am afraid the school and the authority will accuse us of committing another crime by learning English as they believe that almost all Cambodians who speak the language work for the CIA.”
“I am not afraid and I will go for it. I will fight back again if the authority gives us trouble for studying English. But first of all I need to find Mr Hawk and make sure that his English is good and that he is healthy enough to teach us. I do not want him to drop dead in front of the whiteboard.”
Duongchan laughed and said, “Wait a minute, what? I heard you said you need to check it out if his English is great, but you don’t speak the language at all.”
“You are right again, my mistake. I mean if he is willing to teach us,” Dara said.
The dream of Duongchan and Dara came true. They paid Mr. Hawk to teach them privately at his house at the foot of the mountain about 2 km from their school.
Dara and Duongchan learned a great deal from Mr. Hawk before he passed away three years later. They both went to his funeral and buried him under the palm tree where he had loved sitting and watching the sun set.
On the first anniversary of Mr Hawk’s passing, Duongchan and Dara sat and sadly looked at his picture hanging on the wall of his wife’s home.
Dara said, “My favourite memory of him was when he told me to always fight for fairness. What about you, Duongchan?”
“I most remember when he said that ‘When we fall in love, everything is sweet, but when the poor comes the love flies away… and the world keeps changing,’” said Duongchan.