Rediscovering a dignified past: An Interview with Mitty Steele


For US-Cambodian Mitty Steele the last ten years have been a discovery process as she traces her family’s stories about growing up in mid 20th century Cambodia.

More than quarter of 1 million Cambodians live in the USA and for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the refugees who escaped Cambodia during the Pol Pot era there is inevitably a sense of incompleteness; a sense of a stolen personal history. Among the US-based Cambodians to retrace the steps of her family, and to reconnect on a personal level with Cambodia is Mitty Steele, a young writer who began interviewing her father 10 years ago before he died.

Mitty was born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge came into power. Her family managed to make it to the USA and in recent years Mitty has been piecing together the story of her family.

Mitty’s father must have been a remarkable man.  Born in a village where illiteracy was normal, his parents placed their son aged six in a  Buddhist monastery in order that he may receive an education. The tuition he received as a young boy were sufficient for him to gain entry in what was the French style school system of Cambodia of the 1940s and 50s.

Mitty’s father studied to postgraduate level, and when he met the woman who would become Mitty’s mother, her parents insisted that there prospective son-in-law should become a professional teacher in order to have both the dignity of the profession as well is the assured income.

I first met Mitty via her blog in which she wrote, very beautifully and evocatively, about her parents and about her father’s love of teaching. So I contacted Mitty because thanks to her diligence and personal research she could help me understand some of the lost history of the education system in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot.  Mitty graciously agreed to be interviewed by email, and what you read below are her answers to my fumbling questions. Thank you Mitty for your help. By the way, here is a link to her wonderful blog.

Q: What is your current role in Cambodia?

A: My current role in Cambodia is to take this time in my life for personal reflection, to learn about Cambodia and our family’s history. I’ve lived in the U.S. for the last 30+ years and Cambodia was always an afterthought in my mind. That all changed when I first visited the country in 2004 and after that experience, I knew that at some point in my life I wanted to take the time to go back to Cambodia to reconnect with the country. A few months ago, our family received a great opportunity to move back to Cambodia. I’m taking a break from my career at the moment because I know this is a rare opportunity to come back and get reacquainted with a country I left so long ago.

Q: I’m sure there’s a complicated psychology going on for Cambodians such as yourself who have grown up in the west and choose to return. What things have you discovered about yourself since flying in to Cambodia?

A: Growing up I didn’t like nor appreciated the fact that I could navigate between two worlds, American and Cambodian. I saw my Khmer identity more as a burden because I wanted to fit in with my American friends. As I grew older I realized that it is not a burden but a blessing, but these are the lessons one learns with age and maturity. Now as I live here and am caught between the two worlds of being Khmer and American, I realize it is a blessing of which I no longer take for granted. I’ve learned that being able to do this is a priceless gift.

I also discovered I didn’t know many of the issues Cambodia faces. When I was an outsider looking in and reading the news about Cambodia from the U.S it was always portrayed as black and white. But having lived here for a few months, now understanding that there aren’t simple solutions to the problems facing Cambodians today. There are nuances that have to be understood such as history, cultural context, socio-political environment that can’t be captured in a sound bite or headline. I understand now that many of the problems facing Cambodia are deeply embedded in systemic failures of institutions and not easily fixed overnight. I believe that it will take a generation to overcome the historical traumas of the past and the culture of impunity of the present but only if real and meaningful reforms start happening now.

Q: What things worry you about modern Cambodia?

A: The future of the young people of Cambodia worries me the most. With over 70% of the population being under the age of 30, Cambodia is under tremendous pressure to find jobs for this burgeoning demographic.

Unemployment among young people is high because their levels of education are low. Cambodia has achieved an impressive 97 percent primary net enrollment rate, yet at only 40 percent of students complete secondary school. Many young people drop out during secondary school to find work or their family can’t support them through school. As such there is a huge gap of an uneducated workforce.
In addition, Cambodia’s economy has blossomed at an impressive rate of 7 percent on average, however that has been attributed to areas of low skilled labor (particularly manufacturing), which require limited skill sets. In order for the economy to sustain that growth or achieve even higher growth, it needs to diversify beyond manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. But that means deep reforms in the education system, starting with educating students with the skills of tomorrow to prepare them for an increasingly competitive environment.

Q: Mitty; In your writing you reflect on your dad. Your dad was a teacher in the 1960s. Did he talk much about those days?

A: Growing up, I don’t remember my father talking about his teaching days in the 1960s. I remembered my parents talked often about how we suffered during the Khmer Rouge time, perhaps as a way to help us appreciate how fortunate we were to come to the United States and the opportunities we were given. It wasn’t until I started interviewing my parents over 10 years ago—in preparation for my first trip back to Cambodia—that my father briefly talked about his time as a teacher before the war. In one particular story, he told me how he met my mother (who was his student) and that her parents would only let him marry her if he became a teacher for the government, which would give him more financial security. Parents wanted their daughters to marry teachers because it was considered a noble profession and would give them a high social status.

It is also in this context, he would always tell me how highly respected teachers were back then. Students respected their teachers as they would their own parents. When I visited Cambodia with him in 2004, I was impressed to see how his students still held him in the highest regard and respect. And it wasn’t necessarily because he was the best teacher, but it was something you could tell was ingrained in the culture and relationship between teachers and students back then that transcended time. As I’m learning about the education system now, I’m not sure if this type of relationship would hold true today among teachers and students.

As I look back, I didn’t appreciate the information he was giving me nor understood what it meant until I came back to here to live and learned about the stark contrast of the quality education and life of teachers back then and now.

Q: You interviewed Mr Rithy Chea who could reflect on teaching in the old days, as well as the post-Pol Pot years. His comments about the earlier times must have been like a window for you, to look through and see something of your father’s life as a teacher. What did Rithy Chea miss from those days?

A: I think Mr. Chea wanted to become a teacher, for many of the reasons my father wanted to become a teacher, because it was considered a noble profession by society and had financial security. Mr. Chea had studied to become a teacher but then the Khmer Rouge came and that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers was gone and was a liability and a target for execution. When the war was over, that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers never came back and even as we speak, teachers are still struggling to gain this back today. I think that’s what he misses most from those days is the cultural value that the government and society placed on teachers, and the investment that was made in education in general.

Q: He has given 30 years since the 1980s to teaching. I sensed in your interview that he feels discouraged – for example about the low rewards and the widespread cheating by students/teachers who choose to buy or sell pass grades. How widespread do you think this is?

A: Cheating is so widespread that the government has made examination reform one of the top priorities in the education reform agenda. Cheating during examinations is so deeply ingrained in the system that it has become a well organized business machine. The government is looking into how it can tackle this problem, including how to take legal measures against those caught cheating, but this will be a difficult issue to tackle because there will be resistance from those who directly benefit from the cheating. There needs to be enforcement mechanisms for those who are caught cheating but there also needs to be incentives in place to reward the honest and hard working students and teachers.

Q: It seems to run counter to the widespread respect that Cambodians hold for teachers.

A: It does seem counter to the respect that Cambodians in general hold for teachers, but as we know the level of respect that students, parents, and society held for teachers in the past pales in comparison to today, and that is because of the cheating, the bribing, and the low salary that has diminished what was once considered a noble profession.

Q: If you could make three reforms to what you see of the education system in Cambodia – what would you focus on?

A: I would create strong accountability and enforcement mechanisms to deal with cheating and fake diplomas, such as suspending students who are caught engaging in this. I would incrementally increase the pay of teachers based on merit and performance; and improve the quality of education at all levels, especially the secondary level by finding incentives for students stay in school and help students gain the professional or vocational skills they need to find jobs when they graduate.

Q: You’ve probably got mixed views about what you see in modern Cambodia. Are you optimistic for the Kingdom?

A: I believe that change is in the air for Cambodia and I am optimistic for the future of the Kingdom. I believe the Cambodia as we see today will be vastly different in 5-10 years. The country is at a crucial turning point where current leaders are aging and the younger generation (which encompasses over 70% of the population) wants real change and reform.

We saw this as evidence after the results of the elections when it was a narrow victory for the ruling party. In five years time there will only be more young people who will be eligible to vote. To ignore these voices as a wake up call for real change and reform would be a mistake. If the time between now and the next elections aren’t used to make genuine efforts for deep institutional reforms I believe the results will not be as close as it was in July.

I think most Cambodians, including the young people, want Cambodia to choose a path of peace, economic and social progress and stability but they also need to feel hope for a brighter future for themselves and for their families.

Q: Last question. If you could talk to your late father about Cambodia: what would you tell him?

A: I would tell my father that Cambodia is so different. He probably wouldn’t recognize it now. Everyday since I’ve been in Cambodia, I’ve wished that he was here with me to see how much the country has changed. I wish he was here with me so that he can show me the places he went to when he grew up, the schools he studied and taught in, to tell me the stories of his life living in Cambodia, the good and bad times. My father loved telling stories, and loved everything about his country; the food, music, culture, history, and politics. It was always his dream to live back in Cambodia in his old age. I would have loved it if he were here with me right now to hear these stories of the past and compare them to what I see today.

When I started interviewing him 10 years ago the questions I asked were more about our experience during the Khmer Rouge, and a little about before the war—what life was like before then. What he provided to me was a peek into the past. I regret not asking him more questions when he was alive about Cambodia’s past, present and future.

Now that I am here the things I am learning about Cambodia and the places I see mean so much more as I try to understand the country’s struggles and strengths and my own family’s history and journey. But without him here, they are fragmented stories of a window to the past of which I am trying to piece together to help me understand our story and Cambodia’s story.

Thank you Mitty for your depth of insights. I encourage readers to also reflect on her beautiful piece of writing about her father’s experience as a teacher.

For more about that aspect of today’s cheating: Crackdown on Cheats.