Back in November, when I landed in Phnom Penh, there was a sale on Air Asia. I looked into my crystal ball and determined that come April—Cambodia’s hottest month and when the biggest holiday of the year shuts down virtually everything for a week—I’d be ready for a vacation to the developed world. So I booked tickets to Kuala Lumpur.
I really can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a trip. Riding the tuk-tuk to the airport, I was literally vibrating (I’d also had a ton of coffee). The idea of a city with sidewalks, a Metro and Western fucking shopping malls was as exotic to me as… well, Cambodia is to some people.
One of the incredible things about living in a developed country for me is how quickly things become normal, how quickly you adapt to your surroundings. I really don’t feel like Phnom Penh is that ramshackle; when I return from a trip the provinces, in fact, Phnom Penh feels like the glittery big city.
Are we starting to see where this is going? Are we starting to see how wildly impressed one would be any Monorials and overpasses, by international chains and consumerism, by diversity and hipsters, air-conditioned walkways and traffic lights people actually obey?
I am not in any way ashamed to admit that I spent my first day in Kuala Lumpur completely inside shopping malls. I didn’t sweat all day, and it was glorious. I rode glass elevators and ate Krispy Kreme donuts and reconfirmed that I really just don’t like Starbucks coffee. I heard “Pumped Up Kids” inside a Forever 21; I heard Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in a Topshop. I passed women in burkas and women in booty shorts, both clutching Coach bags. I ate in a motherfucking food court: I had sushi and Turkish coffee and some kinda weird Taiwanese shaved ice that was really not that awesome. I tried on pants that fit me and bras that fit me, that weren’t three-inches thick with padding.
I bought some nice-ass work clothes and paid for them on a credit card and signed my name and got one of those itemized receipts with the credit card digits blocked out with little stars.
I was dazzled, and utterly unashamed by how dazzled I was.
There was a time when I would have been mega critical of the malls of KL. I would have deemed them inauthentic, not real cultural experiences. Well, they aren’t—everything is imported, corporate, packaged, temperature controlled. And that’s what’s so amazing—how inauthentic they are.
Cause you know what I’ve realized? In Cambodia, my most “authentic” “local” “cultural” experiences have been really uncomfortable. I’ve been hot and confused and unable to communicate and unsure of how to bathe myself and mildly-to-extremely sick to my stomach. Which isn’t to say that they haven’t been important, valuable experiences, just that they haven’t been easy. Not like, say, a corporate shopping mall.
We’re obsessed in the West with authenticity. Travelers are always looking to get off the beaten path, away from the tourist circuit. We scour Yelp to find the best local restaurants. And remember that Lana del Rey thing? People were so pissed off because she tricked us—we thought for a minute, you know, with a shitty youtube video, that she might be “real” and not some music executive’s wet dream of indie.
Maybe those are anecdotal, but I kinda don’t think so. Living the last 5 months in a developing country, the majority of what I buy and what I do is non-corporate—I buy produce at the market, top-up cards at roadside stalls, bottles of water from mini-markets set up in a family’s living room. I guess that’s pretty authentic, when you think about it.
But still. I was so fucking excited to be in a shopping mall I couldn’t take it.
Cause it’s in you, you know? Consumerism such a deeply rooted part of American culture, such a deeply rooted part of myself, that I’m often not aware it’s there. You’re constantly interacting with it—even if you shop at local mom-and-pops and go out of your way to support small businesses, you’re still interacting in opposition to it. You’ve been marketed towards since you were a toddler; you’re a unit of consumption and you consume. In one way or another.
Until you move to Cambodia. And you can’t. Because, aside from KFC and a Mango, there’s just not the option. And you don’t miss it. Or you don’t think you miss it. Until you land in KL and you wander through the pristine malls, floors glittering and piped-in music playing, with stars in your fucking eyes cause it’s so goddamn impressive.
But, now the third day, something else has happened—I’ve begun to get sick to my stomach. That’s probably because I’ve been stuffing my face with every thing I pass that catches my eye, because who knows when I’ll get another chance. It’s like a sleeping beast has been unleashed—the problem being that I’m now indigestive and constipated and gross-feeling.
Which is metaphor of course for consumerism. Not that I’ve even been buying much stuff, other than some work clothes, but just that I’ve been around it, been in it, so startling and dazzling. And so soulless. All the manufactured identities you’re supposed to buy in to; all air-brushed models; all the feelings of not having, of not being good/thin/rich/beautiful/cool enough; all the subtle alienation—the inoffensive, comfortable, sparkling clean wanting-more-ness.
All the bras that fit me.
All my favorite make-up.
All the brands I like.
Which I guess is just to say—man, you don’t realize how complex and conflicted a relationship you have with consumerism until you’re out of it and then you’re plunged back into it. And you don’t really know a place until you leave. Cambodia was becoming so normal to me; I was forgetting what made it special, different, fuck-up and amazing and and exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.