On the road to the northern provinces, they say it's still as bad as ever. I didn't want to go there, or even to take the job in the first place. The whole region was dangerous—and, moreover, I'd just been engaged two months before. But we had money troubles. My mother had paid a bribe—a significant one, to high-up people, a bribe large enough to secure a position as provincial governor to a son just out of university with no experience in government. And so I felt it was my duty to go. Had I not, the money would have all gone to waste.
Aisha Down is a writer and a poet. She learned Khmer volunteering as an English teacher near the Stung Mean Chey neighborhood in Phnom Penh, and now works in Cambodia translating Khmer forgiveness narratives. She studied Physics and English at Harvard College.
This is the story. It still gives me a headache most days. Before this all happened, at times when I had certain kinds of questions, I'd find a way to talk about them with my friends. I would like to bring this story to my friends, too, but I find that I am too ashamed. I have on me the marks of corruption, and I don't want anyone to see them. Even if it's true what they say, that everyone knows how things really work in this country, I still want to hide what I've done. I'd like my friends to believe that my skin is clean, that by myself I had had the intelligence to get the position just out of school. I wanted to show my classmates that I was a better man. That I could do it.
There's a popular song they sing around here, about the wild ox: "If you want to eat a little bit, follow the little one...if you want to eat a lot, follow the big one." This song melts some of my shame. Because it's true—bribery and corruption are an old, old story in our Khmer society. My mother reminds me of this again and again. She's accustomed to my feelings— she knows I didn't want there to be any bribes, at all.
Back when I was in school, and my friends got scholarships to go study in the Soviet Union, or in Germany, or France, or Australia, or Yoon1, they'd make proud mouths. They'd say that the scholarships were an indication of their merit. Their parents would brag even more— they had a child going to study abroad. But everyone—all children, all parents, all the scholarship committees—knew that none of us were actually deserving of awards. What did we do? Life must proceed, after all. The committee members took our bribes while looking the other way, then they gave out the awards. Our nation, after all, has just emerged from the regime of the killing fields. We are poor and we lack human resources.
I can remember some of the committee members complaining to my father from time to time when they were over at our house. They believed that if they were offered money and refused to take it, they stood to lose their positions:
"If we've taken the bribe, we have to give them what they want—no choice there. And we can't refuse money. If we do, they'll find another man, someone rich and powerful, and they'll make him approach us. And he'll tell us: "Help them to find a position." If we try to say to this man, There is no way, he'll reply, There is always a way."
As for myself, I'd like to say I don't give any credence to corruption. But my mother has always helped me along in school through small bribes. I'm her son. I wanted these things and I didn't want them. I went along with her, though, because I did not want to make her upset.
It was a few years ago. She called me down one evening, "My son! It is time to eat rice already. Why are you so quiet up there?"
I left my room, but I didn't reply. I'd been very troubled in the past several days over the job for which I would soon depart, and over leaving home.
My mother was putting the bowls out. In the dining room, my father sat with his feet on the table, reading the Vietnamese newspaper. "How about the job, then? Have you made your arrangements yet?"
His eyes didn't move from the paper as he spoke to me. "I don't want to go," I said to him.
He turned and his glasses came sliding down his nose. My mother put down her spoon. She looked at my father, then at me.
"My own son," she said. Then, "How can you forget what this is? Do you have any idea how much money we've paid? And so what do you want, then? If you don't take this job, if you don't go through with it, do you really expect to ever have any power at all?"
She paused, pushed away her bowl. "You know of the children of our friends, of our colleagues in society. They were glad when it came time for them to leave. They were happy to do their duties, the work of this state! Think of your fiancée's middle brother, who sees his mother maybe once in six months. Or think of the youngest brother of Sreypov. He's not even grown, but his father sent him to go work at the border, to help the cause of our nation.
Every day, your future in-laws are collecting money and enjoying influence in society. They live well, and they have a voice that people respect. They are even able to travel abroad. And how about us, my son? Do we not have someone, too, who is born with this chance?
If you want anything in this world—if you want a face in society—you can't drag around that conscience you got at the university. We struggled so much for you, your father and I. We paid them for your entrance exams, we paid to send you to Vietnam—even for your final exams, we paid them! And we've provided for you, this house, this car, and an education, too."
My father interrupted at this point, quietly. "Settle down, darling." My mother quieted.
"You give our son all this advice—but he went to university. He knows more than we do, now." He turned to me. "If you do not want to be a man who gets what he wants—if you do not want to be a man of property, then you are free, of course, to do as you would like. Your mother and I can only help you this far."
I thought about this for a time. I wasn't clean of corruption, that I knew. But it seemed to me we were all sucking away at the blood of a snail. Our country is poor and getting poorer. The state is entangled in debts, with no clear means to repay them. What will we be forced to, I wonder? Will we sell everything to them, as they're doing in the north—our oil, our mines, even our animals and forests?
In a hundred years, we will run out of everything. And the people of the next generation will live on what? We are wringing everything we can of the earth, and the flavor is nearly gone...
I did not want to make my mother upset, though, and I did as she asked. "I have agreed to go," I said. "I know of what you've spent. You're nearly out of money, with all this help you've given me. I have no choice. I will follow the path you've set."
That was what I said. It didn't make my mother or father happy at all. The kokor soup with sugar palm fruits cooled in the bowls, and the fried freshwater catfish with tamarind was left untouched. We got up, all of us, and we went back to our separate rooms.
I thought hard, then, on the sort of advice my father used to give me, "You cannot live according to the wishes of someone else." My father had encouraged me to study hard in order to help our nation, and so to raise the face of our family. It was the opposite of what my mother did: my mother who liked only those people who had more than herself, who enjoyed nothing more than submitting herself in order to win favor. She'd pushed far, my mother, and she had managed to ask for the daughter of a very important person to be my wife. This, she said, would make me powerful.
And perhaps it would. At that time, everyone with anything in the city of Phnom Penh was enmeshed in a scramble for power and position. Merchants were doing their utmost to evade taxes, and at the same time to win the favor of those in power through whatever means possible, so that they would have some sort of protection, and so that those in power would legitimize their work.
The three cars you could see parked in front of my family's villa were bought without us paying any import taxes—and we didn't pay tolls on any of the roads, either. My father's car had a military license plate, and my mother's had a state license plate. My new car had a license plate from a police car. We had even worked out an arrangement with the ministry for our gas. And as for the family of my fiancée, with their dozen or so cars—they did the same. Given this, you may ask, how about the thousand or more other ministers and officials who were employed by our state?
It's true! We rich people were all thieves. We were people who stole from our nation. All I saw around me some days were the petty crimes—people stealing from their workplaces, and using this money to live on. The police caught a few every year, but most kept on.
Of course I wanted to change us, our habit of ignoring the laws. I wanted every person of every class to have equal rights and privileges. But there was my mother, always repeating:
"Carry the earth on a platter on your head, and you'll never get anything done."
I always caved to her. I never was brave enough to do anything else. I told myself that this was because she was sick. She suffered from serious hypertension, and I worried. If she ever became truly angry, she could get very sick, so sick that she'd have to stay in bed indefinitely, so sick, the doctor said, that she'd never move again.
A week before, we'd had a party. A lot of people had come to our house, among them the family of my fiancée. My father and mother had welcomed them very affectionately, as if we had known them years. My fiancée was right behind her parents. She'd smiled at me.
"My husband is going north to work, far from his family and far from me, I know! All I ask is that while you're there, you don't take a mistress. Can you promise me?"
"I've made that promise already," I said mildly, "In my heart, there's only space for you." "And how do you plan to make me trust you?"
It was a difficult question, because in truth I had no way to make her believe me. I brushed her cheek with my nose, once. It was hard for me to speak at that moment. I hurried her back to the party, and we joined our parents.
The ceremony went according to our nation's custom. The guests entered and congratulated my fiancée and I, and then my mother and father, for having such a successful son. A gifted son, they said, an obedient son, a son so intelligent and such a quick learner that soon he would go and become a provincial governor. My mother was very happy. I tried to smile back and repay our guests' courtesies. We made such an effort to show ourselves, our own successes. It was as if we were on a stage. They thought that we were people of capacity, but they were completely wrong.
Later that night, I sat and watched the keepsake DVD they'd made of the ceremony. I saw all of my mother and father's old friends feasting at my departure. After a time, I couldn't watch anymore. I closed it and walked out to breathe the new wind in the rose garden below our house.
Already, it was almost time for me to leave. My father had bought a new Mercedes for me to drive to work—an idea of my future mother-in-law's. The shiny car stood white in our driveway, dulling my pride. I felt cheap looking at it. I remembered how my mother had bribed people so that I would pass my tests, back in days when I could not keep up at school. Little by little, I was becoming a weak person. I saw my future self as a man who would never quite speak, with a mouth like a pimple. I would never be rid of my fear—I would always wonder if someone would find out, or if everyone knew already, and all were mocking me. And then they would go on to mock all of us, my entire family. They would say that we were people without any capacity at all. Whatever came to us was bought through dirt and corruption.
In my free time, then, I used to practice martial arts. I do even now. I kept up with it because I wanted to have a stiff heart, as they say, and a good body. No matter how corrupt my acts were, they could not change this ability of mine, or the courage it gave me.
I did not drive the car even until the day I left. My mother had gotten a notion. She told my father and I that I should keep a humble spirit. In this way I would be more easily accepted among strangers. She said to me:
"You must grow used to waiting. You must learn to calculate far in advance, before you come to a conclusion...learn who is above and below you, who is to the left and right, too!
Remember to share what you get among your subordinates. Ensure they live well. A job as a provincial governor isn't easy to come by for someone who just left school, like you! Now you must defend it. So think carefully. What you learned at school is just theory and doctrine, which is not, as you know, enough to bring success."
I don't know if the lives of other people are like mine or not, whether they, too, have mothers who arrange their future like mine. There is one time she made me happy—she asked for my fiancée, who was a girl I had known and loved for a long time. Aside from this, I struggled to follow her wishes. In my heart, I was reluctant.
The transfer of power from the previous provincial governor to the next would be performed after the Khmer New Year. I was soon to leave Phnom Penh for the northern province. My mother and father had initially planned to make the journey with me, but they changed their minds when they learned my in-laws were busy. They would wait until the day of the power transfer, and then they would all meet me there, together.
It was a depressing journey. I rode north in a crowded bus, so tightly packed that the people in it were nearly a solid human mass. The road was bumpy and ill maintained. I frequently felt at the edge of vomiting. Worst of all, though, were all the illegal checkpoints. Whenever we crossed a bridge, soldiers would run to stop us. They would demand money matter-of- factly, as soon as we could hear them. Then sometimes, they would go on and threaten us, and the man driving the taxi. They had weapons in their hands, and on their shoulder straps. Their waists were wrapped with ammunition. When the car appeared, they would all start screaming—as if to stop a thief!
The person driving the taxi took the national highways five and six north. I do not think he made any money at all doing it. He had to spend our fares on gas, which was getting expensive, he had to pay the fees of the bus station, and he had to give money to the traffic police at the border of every province he passed, as well as to the soldiers at the illegal checkpoints, which had been set up nearly continuously along the highway north.
Whenever I saw our traffic police demanding cash from travelers whose old vehicles were missing a license plate, or stiffing peasants who were riding on an oxcart or facing the wrong way on a moto, I felt no grief or pity. We see that sort of thing every day in the city. Where there are people, there's corruption. I would see examples every day on my walk to high school, and, before then, in the newspapers my mother would show me, with their stories of illegal checkpoints.But here, there were so many illegal checkpoints that I had to pity our driver. He made nearly no money at all.
Vast, blinding fields of rice stretched hot and cracked with sun. They reached from one corner of the eye to another in the gaps between habitation. The chips of flashing sun in the heat of the day brought tears to our eyes—as if in grief for the desolation. On some of the plains, there was not even a single stump for adornment. Beasts here were so skinny that we felt their owners must have abandoned them. Cows were surviving on the sparse grass that had been left by the heat, but it was shortened so far that they could barely persist.
This was a state of suffering. For the first time in my life, I pitied our animals. Last year, the floods had risen and submerged many inhabited areas. This year, the rains had stopped, and
the sun had baked and cracked the ground. How quickly the weather changes! Those who are unfortunate, those who live in remote areas—how isolated they become!
The traditional songs from the Roam Vory Dance and the classical Khmer Dance Surin were on a loud and continuous repeat in the car—especially Khmer Surin songs, which are sung in a dragging shuffle: the singer wails on and on through the notes. Most were satirical songs, to help us relax before the New Year.
Inside the car, there was no one who knew of me yet. After the border of ironwood country—cinnamon-tree country—I was in the car with country people, peasants who lived next to the Dangrek mountain chain near our northwest border. They were good-hearted people, with a pleasant, rasping dialect. They had a kind of accent and a warm banter that made one want to like them. When they started cursing about all the checkpoints, I found myself laughing at the odd sound of their swearing. But the groups of soldiers, stationed at these checkpoints, didn't speak like the country people, not at all.
The weather was hot, the land was dry, and the car's air conditioner was broken. One by one, we broke a sweat. Then the closeness of our packed bodies made us sweat more. As we reached the region of the bridge, Spean Aur Ciik, in the tip of Siem Reap province called Jongkal, two soldiers stopped us suddenly to demand money. They shouted and brought the taxi to a halt, then they came up to the driver.
"Twenty thousand. If you don't hurry, I'll shoot your wheels."
"Little brother!" said the taxi driver. "Two thousand, as usual—and let us on our way!"
The taxi driver gave a pleasant smile, rolled down his window, and extended his hand to give the money to the soldier who was demanding it. Meanwhile, the other soldier stood holding his gun, blocking the way of the vehicle. The soldier who had asked for money refused the cash that the bus driver held out.
"Not today, I won't take that today. You have so many people in your car. Don't look so surprised. Twenty thousand riels."
The person driving the taxi did not pull his hand back into the car. He reached further, and tucked the cash into the shirt pocket of the soldier, as if they were intimate friends. The two thousand riels in the soldier's pocket didn't change his mind: he continued to shout at the taxi driver. Behind him, the other two soldiers prepared their AK47s to shoot. The water of their faces grew solid. Their bodies were stiff with rage.
"Aaay, so we cannot speak together! It is nearly the New Year now. What can we buy with two or three thousand riels? Twenty thousand, at least—or we'll shoot to kill."
"Little brother!" said the taxi driver. "We are Khmer, both the same. I have never given you nothing. I stop for my little brother every time I pass, and I give you my money. Why are you being so cruel now?"
The face of the taxi driver was nearly bloodless, but he kept trying to arrange things so that we could be on our way. The soldiers would not back down. Their threats grew worse.
"Don't speak. You people in the car, get out. All of you. Faster, come on!"
The soldier fired a couple of slugs into the air. He dragged open the door of the car, and started to force us from the cabin. I was accustomed to seeing this sort of situation only in the movies. When I heard the gunshot, I was so afraid that I felt my heart would stop working. With great effort, I kept still. I kept my voice even as I spoke with the soldier.
"Older brother. I have seen him pay so much money, to all the people along the road. Take what he gives you, and let him keep something! Gas is expensive these days."
"Idiot! This is not some hero story. I'll give you a beating if I hear anything more."
The soldier who had fired the weapon raised his hand to slap me in the face, but I was quicker, and I hit him first. Immediately, the other soldier was behind me. He kicked me, then, as I fell, pulled a short pistol from his waist and put it to my ear. I twisted, punched his gut. Then I flung his gun to the earth. I took the gun from the soldier I had hit, and threw it in the opposite direction. I thought that I had finished with them, but the soldier who had fallen stood, threw dirt in my face, and rushed at me with his beltknife. His eyes rolled, and he looked mad. I protected my body from him.
They were skinny country soldiers, and it wasn't difficult to beat them. I kicked them again and again. Eventually, their faces swelled up and they begged me to stop. They shouted that they wouldn't take the money. They asked me to let them return to their garrison.
The taxi driver stepped forward, and he asked me not to hit the soldiers again. He was afraid that they would hold a grudge against him, and prevent him from passing this stretch of road again. I told him and the other people in the car that I had never beaten another person before that day, but that I had to protect myself. It was necessary to set an example to those who were insolent, and who harassed their fellow Khmers.
I sent the soldiers back, and made the car leave the detour as quickly as possible. I whispered to the taxi driver, "After the New Year, bring me back here, O.K.? I want to see if those two are still at it..."
He nodded. The passengers of the car, one by one, turned to look at me. Some whispered, and I could not make out what they said. Some told me to take care of myself—perhaps the soldiers could come for revenge. Some asked after my family and my ancestors. I gave no response to any of them, just smiled quietly back.
Everyone was happy on the day of the New Year's ceremony. In that region, at the foot of the Dangrek mountains, it was an important time. We played traditional games. Villagers played Maantyoong all together. The local Buddhist monastery organized the celebration according to the local custom—it was very different from how we celebrated in Phnom Penh! In Phnom Penh, we threw white powder on each other's faces during the New Year. Here, though, they smeared soot on one another all during the celebration. By the end, everyone was stained black all over—the drunk people were the darkest of all.
When the games were played out, when the bets were settled, the people did not bother to idle and speak. Immediately, they dispersed back to their separate villages.
Soon after, the ceremony to transfer the rank of the provincial governorship was completed.
That evening, I brought army staffers to survey the area, the country of Jongkal. We walked around the region of Prasat temple. It was slowly falling to ruin. For years, people had been digging beneath it and around it, looking for our old gold artifacts to sell.
I wandered over to nearby villages, asking questions and meeting country people, but my intent was to find the soldiers who put up the illegal checkpoints on the road. I particularly wanted to see the ones I had fought with, a few days ago. I asked around to discover their squad and commander.
On the road into Jongkal, I saw that there were no more illegal checkpoints. I was pleased. Soon after I had arrived, I had met with police officers, and some army captains from neighboring areas. I had espoused the principles and guidelines of our government to them: I had put these at the core of my leadership. I had made each promised that they would not put illegal checkpoints on the national, government-built road again.
A few mornings after the New Year, the taxi driver was waiting for me early at the Aur Ciik bridge. He seemed surprised when I showed up, and clasped his hands very politely in a sampheap2. I responded in kind, and we talked for a bit.
We drove to the garrison. The squadron guard had invited me to tour it, and he was waiting for us there. After we discussed tactics to preserve the peace in the region—finding and catching those who smuggled illegal drugs, putting a stop to illegal landholding—I went to see the houses of some of the soldiers, outside of the garrison. This was my true purpose. I wanted to find the soldiers I had fought a few days ago, and to encourage them to stop making their demands at the checkpoint. I wanted to instruct them to cherish other people's lives. By instructing them, I hoped to change some small part of our nation's attitudes: our culture of threats and bribery.
If they continued to act in the way they had on the bridge, I thought, they would give me and the current party a bad name. Perhaps I wanted them to know of me and respect me, as well. I walked through the garrison. The soldier's name was Boeun, I had discovered. The taxi driver, whom I called Uncle Loat, was not brave enough to follow me. He imagined that the soldiers that I had fought would remember him and retaliate. To ease his fear, I used my position to guarantee his safety.
"Uncle, do not be afraid. We cannot do anything wrong. If you're afraid that these thieves will recognize you, that they will steal from you or hurt you, don't be. My bodyguards are waiting, and there are quite a few of them. Come. There will be no problem."
The taxi driver followed behind me. He kept glancing over his shoulder, especially as we passed through a small grove that had sprung up, on both sides of the road. We came at last to the house of the soldier named Bouen.
In his house, there was nothing. He was asleep on a bamboo bed, under a roof made of thatch, with old tarps for walls. His wife, it seemed, had just given birth. She was blowing on coals to kindle a fire, to make thin bobor3 for her husband and children, who were sitting on a long wooden bench. The children were scratching each other's hair, looking for lice. One was stitching at his father's old army uniforms.
They all looked up at me with doubt. Perhaps it was fear at my presence. A daughter, maybe twelve years old, was pounding at something that might have been prahok4 I saw a few burned crabs and snails being kept for an evening meal. One boy carried a pot of cold rice, to be eaten with coarse rock salt. His whole face was streaked with dirt, and snot dripped down his septum. He had no shirt to wear, and the waist of his pants was too wide—he wore a vine tied around him as a belt. The left leg of his pants was torn up, shorter than the right. When he saw me, he looked at me shyly, then quickly fled to hide behind the house and spy on me.
I had not managed to ask any questions. The wife of Boeun asked questions, and then started to ramble at us.
"You're here for what, then, uncle? Some father of a tiger beat him. He has not gone to the garrison for days, now. He sleeps and cannot get up."
"Where is he?" I asked.
"In there. Sleeping on the mat." She pointed to the mosquito net, and continued:
"You can see for yourself! They let my husband guard the bridge. If he watches the bridge, he brings in enough to buy fish or meat, and salt, and broth, and cigarettes to smoke, and there's still enough left to give to the general. We didn't know that someone had beaten him until his broken bone stopped him from standing. And now we have a new provincial governor—who knows how much money he'll be wanting from us?"
She paused to stir the bobor.
"Whoever it is just received the governor's position in this province, a few days ago, and he's put up all these new warnings that nobody understands. He won't let soldiers watch the road. He says that putting up illegal checkpoints brings corruption. But my husband only follows the orders of the general! And the provincial governor, speaking of corruption...well, who can say how many ounces of gold he paid to get this job out here? They do take money, my husband and the others —but at most maybe two or three thousand riels, just as the general tells us. We do it in order to live. Why does he accuse of creating corruption? He'd like to find us, I hear, and put us in jail."
I cut her off. "What makes it necessary for you to take these people's money, Aunt? Doesn't the army give you a salary?"
"I just do what the general tells us to do, uncle. If we don't get any money, then what shall we eat? The army has a salary, yes, but five months have passed and we haven't seen any of it. A wife and her children follow her husband, Uncle. We have no land, and no fields to grow rice. How can we live? We rely on the general to rotate out the soldiers who watch the road. That way, we can all make a little money."
Boeun's wife turned, and sat to nurse the baby that slept on the bed outside of the mosquito net of her husband. She told her oldest daughter, "Cut the banana leaf, put the prahok inside of it." Then she looked up at me.
"This provincial governor, you know, is just like the one before him. All provincial governors are the same."
Her daughter rummaged under the bench for the knife.
"Our province is remote, far from the capital. Why come here, if not to take the land of the country people, or to sell off the heads of the old statues in our forests? You can see it, Uncle, if you walk around. The whole forest has nearly been cut and made into fields already. Is this not the work of our provincial governor? Who, if not him? And we soldiers, we fight for him..."
Her youngest child was still crying. She went to him, picked him up, and put him sleep in the bed. After that, she spoke to me again.
"My husband—the father of my children—is sick. He has not found any money, and so we cannot buy medicine. There is nothing we can do for him. And I would like to go and insult our new provincial governor. I would like to speak to him until my heart is empty. He cannot even bother to give the army a salary. What is he waiting for? What makes him want to have certain things, and to do things to the people of sweat and blood, again and again?
And if I catch that taxi driver and his friends, the ones who beat my husband, I will cut them into small pieces—like this. I will pulverize them."
I stood and listened to her. The taxi driver looked over at me, bewildered, without saying anything. Eventually, he furtively left, and started to walk back toward the garrison.
Standing there, I was suddenly angry with Boeun. I wanted to throw him in jail, to fight with him again, to beat him. But perhaps it was that I was ashamed. I had not thought deeply. I had wanted to hurt the poorest soldiers, out of my own anger.
The wife of Boeun had spoken the truth. I had gotten this position because I had bribed someone. There was nothing more to it. We had paid a lot of money, ounces of gold. The people before me here had had a large house, a good car, and had slept with an air conditioner. Why do people with ideals not catch their own mistakes? How could they have gotten away with not giving the soldiers a salary? Perhaps it wasn't just I who had bribed his way into this position.
I gave Boeun's wife some money for medicine to help her husband. After that, I said goodbye to the family. In my heart, I felt unclean. I could not understand why I had acted as I did when I hurt him. I had thought shallowly, I had wanted to win...was this the reason? I didn't know. I had not seen the whole situation. They had asked for 20,000 riels—and for this, I had raised my hand and beaten two people nearly to death. This was from me.
I felt there was a debt against my person. It was true: I was a corrupt statesman. I did not receive my position cleanly. I was a new member of the party, and I saw clearly, then, that I did not yet have the ability to lead even this one poor province into good standing. My duty would be to sign my name and accept the suggestions of those above me. I was to cooperate with the destruction of the province's forests, to allow its resources to be slowly wasted.
It would not be long before they would promote me. There'd been talk of a position in the ministry. I had refused to sign a land concession to hand over some of our last good forest land to foreign companies from Yoon and China. When I was gone, they—the state—would have it signed, and then sell my position to another rich family. After that, I suspected, the forest would be cut down almost completely. Another million hectares of dirt sold off. Life remains as it is.
My fiancée and I separated. Her mother returned everything to my mother. She will be married, soon, to the son of an ambassador, and he will take her to live with him abroad. She told me this with some hesitation.
"I am betraying you. I know that you are hurt. There is no need to reproach me. I am hurt, too. I am a betrayer."
We were sitting on a bench in my garden. She looked down for a time, and then she continued. "I don't know much about karma. I think our families have too much money to care about things like that. My mother would like me to have a husband with a face in society. She would like more for our family...I hope that you will find a woman who is better than me. You will, I know."
I smiled, but my eyes felt as if they would bleed. I'm a soft man. I could not endure the separation. The one woman I loved was the one I could not marry. I felt lost to myself. I said only:
"I am very sad, too. But don't worry. You must follow your mother. You will stop missing me when you've started life with your husband."
"Why don't you try to stop me?" she asked.
"I love you," I said. "If you don't marry him, I think there will be a lot of trouble. Your father and brothers have bodyguards—my father has one, too. We must not let them kill each other for this! I don't want to let you go. But I do not want our parents to be enemies."
My fiancée had tears in the corners of her eyes. I gave a tissue to her. A few minutes later, her older brother arrived with his car to take her home. He had been a good friend of mine. He was also a high-ranking statesman, but he never went to work. Instead, he spent his days investing in stocks and the Chinese market. When we met that day, we barely smiled at each other.
With my lost rank, the family decayed. As I watched the car leave with my fiancée, I dulled my heart. I am happy at times. My life is simpler. But my mother's expression is sad, and she reproaches me every day. She still tries to guide me, too—follow those people over there, see how that family does things.
My father, on the other hand, does not blame me. He told me, simply:
"You are grown now. You must learn from the mistakes you have made. Whatever you want to do in this life, whatever you'd like to have—it isn't certain you will get it. This includes a marriage and a family. I do not mock you. I would just like to remind you of a few things. Live. In the future, there may be awards again.
I could not reply to my father, but at dinner, I ate much more than usual. Finally, before my father left the table, he said to us:
"I have not had time to talk to you, as I have now. In three days, I will go to testify in court. My current rank is not a false one. I am not sure the level of my fault. I would like to ask you to remember that your father did not do anything wrong. Someone has accused me— someone with more power and connections than I. He can do as he pleases. Our society is like this."
After a while, my father decided to exile himself from our country. My mother and I have gone to live in the countryside, far from people. We are waiting to leave.
As for me, I cannot continue. I was a high statesman when I left school, but I obtained my certificate through bribes. Once in my life, I had a chance to lead a small society...but this, too, was through bribery. I am ashamed. I know that I cannot be among those who build our society. I have cooperated in the destruction of my nation. What I have done saturates my flesh. It cannot be exorcised.