#23. The Rainstorm
We went back to the boat and were about to push off when Samnang spotted curtains of gray gauze in the sky. “We should stay here for a while,” he said. It wasn’t safe on the river in a storm. Within minutes, rain was falling: pounding the roof, kneading the road to mud. Argumentative, rainy season rain. We ducked into a grocer’s hut. Two naked infants were playing on a table. Their mother moved them onto the dirt floor and began boiling water for our packaged ramen. The tin roof above us roared. Nobody talked.
As we were eating, a drunk wandered by. He ignored the rain, although it was coming down so hard it seemed he should have buckled under it. Instead he was performing a slack dance down the road, the dance of a marionette. He stumbled into the hut and demanded some money. I told him no—or my translator did, shouting over the noise—and, finding himself outnumbered, the man wandered away.
The storm passed. On the way to where we’d moored the boat a child ran into a house, crying. An old man stopped us. He was amused. “My granddaughter is afraid of you,” he said. “She’s never seen a foreigner before.”
We ran into trouble back on the lonely winding stream. The sky was eerie. The storm blotted out the mountains to the north and, as was always the case after a hard rain, the current was heavy with water hyacinth, a weed native to the Amazon, disastrously introduced into India and now poaching oxygen from the fish of the Tonlé Sap River. The stalks clump together and when rain falls there comes down the river armadas a half-mile wide, cutting off streams, paralyzing whole villages for weeks on end. People can’t fish, can’t get to market. The hyacinth roots kept catching in Samnang’s propeller, forcing us to stop every few minutes and frighten water buffalo with our engine’s grinding. Then the drive shaft snapped. The propeller froze. We were stranded on the water.
We waited. White-rumped ants marched along the gunwales. It started to rain again, then stopped. If the rain came back in earnest it could be dangerous. We could capsize and drown or be struck by lightning. On the other hand, it didn’t bear thinking about. The current pushed our boat against a wall of reeds. At last a Khmer fisherman came our way setting barrel traps for crabs, and Samnang called out. It was an acquaintance from the market where Samnang sold fish. The fisherman agreed to tow us to the bean farmer we’d met earlier.
“It’s like this,” Samnang said as we were being towed. “You see, we’re friendly with each other.”
A woman came out to greet us when we reached the shack. She wanted to help but the price of gasoline was high. It was a long trip to town. We agreed on a price: five dollars. Her son got the boat ready and did all the steering while she looked back at us smiling across the water. The rope between us held fast.
We rode for thirty minutes back across the channels, avoiding the treacherous wakes of cruise boats. The son shoveled water from their leaking boat with a plastic scoop made from a gas jug. Then the unthinkable happened: the farmer’s engine, which had been groaning unhappily, fell into the boat. We came to a stop. Everyone laughed nervously. Would we need a tow to tow our tow?
We wouldn’t. The boy took a mooring rope and tied the engine to its block, and we managed—slowly, with no sharp turns—to putter to a machine shop. This was a wide long-tail with a lofted thatched roof and an industrial engine throbbing in its open belly. Every inch of the boat was grease-stained. Four young Vietnamese boys worked in flip flops, threading paths through a landscape of scrap metal. One lit his cigarette with the welding torch as though to say life is short indeed and went to work on Samnang’s drive shaft. In two minutes flat they had us ready to go.
On board Samnang’s floating home, we drank coffee and watched a dubbed Indian soap opera. The TV ran to a car battery beneath two family shrines. Samnang thought back to the men at the pagoda. It was all right because I’d been there, he said. Otherwise, he wasn’t sure what might have happened. He asked if I remembered the drunk we’d sent out into the rain. I said I did.
“If I had been alone,” he said, “I would have paid him some money.”
Years ago, Samnang followed a Khmer friend ashore to a ceremony in a nearby village. There had been a dance party and everyone was drunk. He was the only Vietnamese person there. A man asked Samnang to give him some money for beer. Samnang didn’t have any money so the man crushed a glass into his face and ran off. As blood poured from his forehead, the village leaders gathered to decide what to do. They agreed to send for the attacker’s mother, who gave Samnang a few dollars. The stitches at the hospital cost twenty times what she gave him.
The attacker was lucky to be Khmer, Samnang said. “If I had done something like that, I would have been arrested. And I would have had to pay a lot more money.” As things stood, Samnang hadn’t bothered going to the police. They would have taken half his settlement. All questions of justice were at bottom questions of cash. Who would be paid and how much? He could see the whole thing philosophically now, but he didn’t go into strange Khmer villages by himself anymore.
Above is a pair of short scenes that didn’t make it into the published version of “The Floating World,” published in 2018 here. The scene takes place shortly after the conversation at a pagoda several miles from the floating village of Kampong Chhnang. (A few sentences got worked into the story in altered form.)
Conditions in floating villages in Cambodia have not improved since that story’s publication. More than 1,500 Vietnamese homes and fish cages were demolished in Phnom Penh last year. Some families moved their homes to other districts to evade destruction. The demolitions followed an order of the Phnom Penh Municipal Administration on June 2, 2021, to dismantle or remove fish rafts, floating houses, and other unregulated structures along the river. The structures, the government claimed, “seriously affect water biodiversity, damage water quality, pollute the environment and affect the beauty of Phnom Penh, as well as affect the health of people who use unclean water.” Activists say that Vietnamese residents are not supported with housing or food assistance from the government, and suffer from a lack of rights and civil liberties due to their enforced statelessness.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Cambodia has asked the government to offer practical support to residents and to ensure their rights and welfare are respected. At the same time, Vietnamese authorities do not consider ethnic Vietnamese communities in Cambodia to be Vietnamese citizens and will not permit boat families to enter Vietnam, leaving many in limbo between the two countries. This status quo, which has persisted for decades, makes ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia an invisible people, lacking even international recognition of their plight.
Christoph Sperfeldt, a human-rights researcher who focuses on issues of statelessness, and who is quoted in my story, published an update to the legal status of ethnic Vietnamese people in Cambodia in 2021. The article, “Legal Identity and Minority Statelessness in Cambodia: Recent Developments,” appears in Statelessness & Citizenship Review. He concludes:
The ‘foreigner’ census, new resident cards and instructions to local authorities demonstrate that the Cambodian Government deemed necessary more centralised, regulatory action regarding Vietnamese populations on its territory. However, these actions focus on managing the problem, not improving the lives of affected communities. What is lacking is a clear pathway to Cambodian nationality, to which many are arguably entitled under Cambodian law. The 2018 amendment of Cambodia’s nationality law was a missed opportunity, as it did not address the legal identity challenges faced by these populations. Access to nationality alone will not overcome entrenched discrimination and social exclusion, but it is one step towards improving access to rights and opportunities.
In my experience reporting among stateless and immigrant populations, the lashing of rights to nationality is always fraught with the threat of exclusion. If a right depends on shifting ideas of ethnic and national belonging, or on the use of state force to police categories of community, then it is really no right at all, only a political advantage wielded by the powerful. That’s still the unfortunate reality for some minorities in Cambodia and throughout much of the world.
Thanks, as always, for reading.