My name is Ratana Castillo. Similar to most Cambodian Americans my age, I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. I came to America with my family when I was 2 years old. I have 2 younger sisters and 1 younger brother. My older sister died of starvation during the Khmer Rouge when she was 3 years old, leaving me to be the oldest of my siblings. Being the oldest child in a Cambodian family comes with high expectations and responsibilities. As a first-generation Cambodian American, I am stuck between 2 cultures with completely different lifestyles. The fear for my parents coming to America is their children not embracing or respecting their traditional culture as they adapt to the “American” way of living. I grew up in America with the expectations to carry on the tradition of a Cambodian woman raised in Cambodia. As the oldest child, my biggest responsibility was to be obedient. I am the role model, and my actions will reflect how my younger brother and sisters will behave. Obedience affected my entire life. This is my story of how obedience led me to gain my confidence, made me a selfish person, and turned me into the strong, resilient Asian woman I am today.
It was 1998. I don’t remember the exact date, even though this should have been an important day in my life. I can hear the loud rhythmic banging of the gong calling for the bride to come out of her room. It was the day that lived in my dream ever since I was a little girl. To be Princess for a day. I have always imagined my wedding day to be the best day of my life. Everything would be perfect and well planned out. A brief moment in time when the world would revolve around me. My aunt came into my room to see if I was ready. The wedding planner looked at me up and down to ensure that my entire ensemble was perfect from head to toe. She ran her hands through my traditional Cambodian attire and quickly straightened out every flaw between the folds of my skirt. My aunt held her hand out to me, gesturing that it was time to go. As I placed my hand in hers, I took one last look at myself in the mirror before she was able to guide me out of my room. Looking like a Cambodian Princess with my beautiful bridesmaid following behind me, no one will ever see the fear well-hidden on my face.
As I stepped into the room crowded with joyful people eager to see the bride, I greeted everyone with a smile. I was happy to see my family all gathered together to celebrate this ceremony. Looking around the room, I see many unfamiliar faces. I greeted them with a smile as well. We made our way through the crowd to a sitting area with two chairs set up similar to a throne in a castle. The furniture was beautiful with intricate carving and gold trimmings on every piece. There was an empty chair waiting for my occupancy. Looking past my chair to the one next to it, I see the groom waiting patiently for his bride’s arrival. I took a deep breath, maintained the smile on my face and sat in the chair next to my future husband, a complete stranger.
I was 16 years old when men started showing up to my parents’ house asking for my hand in marriage. Growing up I was never allowed to date. I never quite understood why. I always thought my parents wanted me to focus more on my education. I dated a few guys in high school, obviously without my parents’ consent. Dating was hard since I was not allowed to have friends or go out anywhere. I only socialize with my peers during school hours. Outside of school, I was home with my family. This was how I was brought up. So, it wasn’t strange to me that I couldn’t have friends as a teenager. As a child, my only playdates were sleepovers at my cousin’s house. I never had playdates with any peers outside of my family. Not being able to socialize with peers outside of school made it difficult to maintain a close friendship with anyone. The relationship I had with my friends from high school did not exceed my classmates. Without any friend close enough to share my personal and private life with, I was a vulnerable teenage girl.
Growing up, I was always the “good” daughter. My parents controlled my entire life, and I was the obedient child that did everything I was expected to do, complied to all of my parent’s requests and never rebelled. When I was 16 years old, my parents told me that I was going to get engaged at 17 and married at 18. I had no idea how to respond to my parents at the time. Did I have a choice? Are they asking or telling me? Is this the time to rebel? What will my parents think of me now? Am I going to bring shame to the family? Will they still love me? With no one to turn to, I was lost in my own confused, vulnerable world. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do, I stayed silent.
My wedding day was a whirlwind of events with everything happening so quickly. Everyone was telling me what to do. Commands were coming in from every space in the room. “Get closer to the groom. Turn this way. Sit up straight. Move the strand of hair from your face. Don’t look so nervous, the pictures must look nice. Breathe. Smile.” Obediently, I complied to every demand not knowing where or whom it was coming from.
I was exhausted when my wedding day was finally over. Then the exhaustion was quickly overcome with fear of the uncertainty of what will happen next. I was 18 years old and married to a complete stranger. My husband and I stayed at my parent’s house the night after we got married. I dreaded going into my room that night because I knew another person would be sharing my space with me. I stayed up as late as I could only for him to come out to call me to bed. “It’s getting late you should go to sleep now.” I pretended that I didn’t hear or even noticed that my husband was standing at my bedroom door. My mom approached me to say “Go to sleep. Your husband is calling you.” Hesitantly, I walked past him and into what was no longer my room. I laid down on my bed, face the wall, closed my eyes and hoped to fall into a deep slumber. Before I was able to fall asleep, I felt the weight of another person laying down next to me. I already knew who it was, and I was hoping he just wanted to go to sleep. Then I felt his arms wrapped around me and the breath released between each kiss on my shoulder. I knew where this was going. This is happening. I do not want it to happen. I don’t know how to stop it. Am I allowed to stop him? Is this my duty as a wife? Can you be raped by your husband? Is this rape? I was afraid to show any sign of resistance, so I allowed him to continue. This was definitely not the honeymoon that I had envisioned. Lost, confused, and more vulnerable than ever, I laid there and prayed for this moment to pass as quickly as possible.
We stayed at my parent’s house for a week after the wedding. After that, I moved into my husband’s house with a new family. If I was lost before, I am stranded now. Here I am in a new house surrounded by complete strangers. Home no longer exists for me. Work and school were my escape from my new house. I was working full time for Long Beach Unified School District and attending Cal State Long Beach enrolled in 18 units a semester. I needed to stay as busy as possible and kept myself away from the house I was living in as much as possible.
One month after the wedding, at 18 years old, I found out I was pregnant. This wasn’t a surprise to me. I knew it was going to happen. However, I didn’t expect for it to happen so soon. That didn’t change anything. I continued working and going to school. I avoided lengthy conversation when classmates and colleagues asked about my relationship status and my pregnancy. I simply told them I was married and now I’m pregnant. I didn’t want to go into details about my arranged marriage and how I allowed my parents to do such a thing to me. I put all my time and energy into work and school.
August 8, 1999, two weeks before my final exam for the classes I took that summer, I gave birth to my son. One look at him and I was in love and in awe of the life I created. Somehow, I managed to carry this little creature and kept him alive for nine months inside my womb while running around work and school campuses. While I was in the hospital, I reached out to each one of my professors to let them know that I just had my son and to see if there was anything incomplete for me to do to complete the course. One of my cousins came to visit me and pick up my portfolio to drop off at one of my professor’s offices. I had already registered for the following Fall semester and was planning to go back to school without any break in between. My family was very supportive and helped care for my son in order for me to finish my education.
With the summer classes completed and a baby to care for, it was time to turn my life around and start taking control over the situation around me. My life at that moment had changed forever. I am 19 years old, mother of a child whose entire life depends on me. It was time to grow up. I wanted nothing but the best for my son. I wanted him to live a happy and healthy life. I wanted him to have a loving, caring and nurturing family. I would sacrifice my happiness, for my son’s happiness. I was determined to make a few changes and that includes working on my marriage. I needed to get to know my husband. I knew that the changes were going to have to start with me. So, I took the initiative.
As a 19-year-old mom, I was a little more mature than my 16-year-old self. In order for my son to have a loving family, I needed to create one for him. I started looking at my husband differently. My husband was 11 years older than me, born and raised in Cambodia. I thought that being raised by my very strict traditional parents, there wasn’t going to be much of a difference by the way children were raised in Cambodia and the way I was raised by my parents in America. We couldn’t have possibly had too many differences. I started looking at my husband as a man I am dating. I wanted to make this work for my son. Maybe my mom was right. You can learn to love someone. So, I gave our marriage a chance and I started “dating” my husband, only to find out that we were very different and incompatible.
I came home one day and bought a gift for my husband. I don’t remember the occasion. It could have been his birthday, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, or maybe just because I wanted to do something nice. He took the gift from me, not very thrilled with my kind gesture and told me to return it. He said “It was a waste of money. You are a young little girl that likes to spend money and doesn't know how to save anything.” I was torn and didn’t know how to respond to that. In my defense, I did my research and studied him a little before buying the gift. I know that this was something he used daily and was very valuable to him since he’s purchased it before several times in the past. Without responding, I took the gift and kept it for myself. I comfort myself with the excuse that he’s probably just not the gift giving kind of person. Therefore, receiving a gift was an unnecessary gesture.
For our next date, we went out to dinner. We enjoyed our dinner and exchanged a few words. I don’t remember what our conversation was about. That night I paid for dinner and tipped the waiter before we left the restaurant. I did not expect the reaction I got from him once we got into the car. He was very angry, accused me of flirting with the waiter and that I must have secretly wanted to be with this person because I tipped him and that was something a woman should never do. I was so confused but the obedience that was deeply embedded in me decided to just let it go without arguing or defending myself.
Going out with my husband wasn’t going to work. We just don’t have any common interest and we were two completely different people. So, I decided to stay home more. I came home right after school and right after work. We frequently spent time with his family and very little time was spent with mine. I grew up in a big family and have always been family oriented. I invited him to spend time with my family during the holidays. He denied my invitation every time. I would end up visiting my family during the holidays alone with my son. I never knew how to answer my family when they asked, “Why isn’t your husband here?” It was always “He’s busy.” I know he is just as family oriented as I am because he loved being around his family. I was always with him when he visited his family. I just couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to be around mine. I started visiting my family more with my son hoping that he will accompany us someday. He never did. I would spend time with my family, and he would spend time with his. To say we drifted apart wouldn’t be the correct term because we were never really together. We didn’t do much together, we didn't have anything in common and our relationship was more like roommates.
As I got older, more matured, and definitely wiser, I decided this is not how I want to live my life. I want to be happy. I want to be the best mom I can be for my son. In order for me to do that, I needed to be in the right state of mind. In an arranged marriage with someone that is the polar opposite of me and inconsiderate of my feelings was not where I wanted to be. I packed my belongings and moved back to my parents’ house with my son. It didn’t take long for my husband to realize he wanted to stay with me. To my surprise, my ex-husband came over to my parents’ house and begged me to go back several times. One time, he sent his brothers over to talk to me. It was too late. Somewhere between moving out of my parents’ house at a very young age to live with a complete stranger that is very incompatible with me and becoming an independent woman that no longer needs to obey anybody’s order, I grew the strongest will power a person can possibly obtain.
I became confident and selfish. I am confident with what I want in life and that makes me a go-getter. I never doubt my ability to acquire any goals I set for myself whether it’s a personal goal or a professional goal. If I want it, I will go for it. It must have been all of the effort I put in school and work in order to stay away from home that made me realize the potential I have and gave me the confidence I needed to do what I wanted to do and carry on with my life. Whatever it was, I am thankful that it made me the confident woman that I am now. I’m also selfish because I care about myself. My opinion matters. The choices I make in life, my thoughts, my words, ME, I MATTER. Selfishness is a powerful characteristic that is often underestimated and frowned upon. A selfless person is highly valued for their ability to care for other people. On the contrary, caring for other people is much easier than caring for yourself. It is much easier to want to please others and keep them happy. I used to be content and would settle with anything as long as the people around me were happy. I was happy making them happy. It took a while for me to realize that my happiness is different from other people. With my newfound confidence, selfish, and strong will, I put my foot down and said “No. We are two completely different people, and this relationship will never work. It's better to end this now.” I told my parents I did everything they asked me to, and I gave the relationship a try but it’s not working out. That was the end of my obedience and the beginning of a new me.
I am very happily married now; with a man I chose of course. We have 2 beautiful children, the best children any parent can ask for. My children are both very well behaved, geniuses, very independent and obedient. I’m not much of a religious person but my Buddhist parents who strongly believe in karma will say that my obedience is the good karma that brought obedient yet independent children to me. I don’t regret anything from my past because it made me the woman I am today. I am confident, selfish, and strong willed. Don’t get me wrong. Being selfless is a great personality trait as well. It is important to care about other people around you. However, don’t let the overvalued characteristic of a selfless person overpower and disable you from being selfish. As I mentioned earlier, it is so much easier to care about others than it is to care about yourself. In addition, the social stigma of being a selfish person creates the need to care for others more than one should care for themselves. For so long, I always cared and did everything I could to keep other people happy. My happiness revolved around other people’s happiness. I had no idea what true happiness was like until I became selfish. I became a much stronger, confident person once I started caring more about myself, my happiness and I want in life.
Fast forward to 2020. Last year, during a global pandemic, I put in my resignation from a managerial position for a huge corporation and took a leap of faith to open up my own business in a field completely different from anything I’ve ever done in my life. I opened up Venus Body Sculpting, a non-invasive alternative to cosmetic surgery. My business was a success from the first day it opened. I opened my location in Lomita, California with the mindset to provide service to all of South Bay. My goal was to help people look good and feel better about themselves. To my surprise, I have clients commuting from all over Los Angeles and Orange County. I knew right away I wanted to teach. Within a couple months of opening, I worked very hard to put together my curriculum and submit it to the National Medical Spa Association (NMSA) for approval and accreditation. As a result, I received a Secondary Education Degree from National Medical Spa University and I launched Venus Body Sculpting Academy. I am now an International NMSA Licensed Practitioner and Educator for Non-Invasive Aesthetics Medical Spas. With my license and credentials governed under NMSA I can teach my curriculum and license new practitioners anywhere in the world. Last year during a global pandemic, while most people were afraid to lose their job, I put in my resignation. Last year during a global pandemic, while most business owners were worried about how they were going to stay afloat, I opened up a new business. Fear never stopped me from achieving my goals. A global pandemic couldn’t stop me. I became a successful businesswoman during a global pandemic because confidence gave me the courage to go for what I want, and my selfish personality cared too much about me to let anything get in my way. I was going to make sure that I achieve everything I want out of life.
Obedience, confidence, and selfishness made me the resilient Asian woman I am today. I have overcome many obstacles to get to where I am in life. A global pandemic didn’t stop me from achieving my goals. I am unstoppable.
- Ratana Castillo