Posts Tagged 'cambodia'

“It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles

Tourist time with Uncle Ho!

“Hanoi: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes”

This was the tagline that ran through my head my first few weeks living in Hanoi. Which perhaps isn’t most people’s dominant first impression of the city. Which perhaps says a helluva a lot more about me and where I was coming from, my Cambodia goggles, than it did about Hanoi itself.

I’ve been talking a lot to one of my friends here about first impressions of places, whether there’s any clout in them or if they’re all just superficial and uninformed and in the long run say more about the viewer than the place itself. (We’ve reached no verdicts but I’ll get back to you if we do.) Particularly we’ve been discussing the tendency of certain travel writers/memoirists to put places into what feels like a pre-determined box—the exotic romanticism of a place like Hanoi.

For instance, if a writer talks about the smells of “verdant green” and “incense wafting” in Hanoi, it makes you stop and think: “Really dude? Are we talking about the same Hanoi?” (“In Hanoi I just smell trash,” another writer friend said.) It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.

Which doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot about Hanoi, but does tell you a lot about the person experiencing Hanoi. For instance: last week I had two friends from Phnom Penh in Hanoi. It was another one of those long weekends that riddle the Cambodian calender like bullet-holes, a great excuse for them to bus-it and plane-it up to Hanoi to soak up some autumn breezes, street food and much-need kick it time.

I miss the hell out of my Phnom Penh friends, so it was great to catch up and roam around playing tourist. But one of the funniest things about my friends visiting was listening to their impressions of Hanoi, cause they were the exact same as mine when I arrived here. Which basically amounted to: “Holy shit, I’m in a developed country!”

Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure. Every time I saw the garbage collectors when I first came here—a mini-phalanx of women with rubber gloves and masks and UNIFORMS—I wanted to cry. When a xe om driver could read the address of where I was going, I nearly teared up. When my landlord installed a new stove top, with actual gas burners, I instagrammed that shit.

Both of my friends had been to Hanoi before, one more recently than the other, but their remarks were basically the same, including:

“People are so fat here!”
“Wow, a mountain bike!”
“Wow, a city bus!”
“Hanoi is like, a real city.”
“It feels like there’s so much more to explore here.”
“The beef is so good here.”
“People are kinda mean.”
“You can really feel that it’s a middle-income country.”

Comments like that made me feel good, made me laugh a bit too—when we stood on the corner and perused the poncho selection, the ones with the clear plastic in the front so you can put it over the front of your bike and still have the headlight visible (what I call the Teletubby Poncho). “The ponchos here are so nice,” running their fingers over the sturdy plastic. “How come people in Cambodia haven’t thought of this?”

All of which is great cause you hear a lot of bullshit about Vietnam—such as this god-awful post lamenting the deformed beggars (??) and fragile (haha!) Vietnamese women—shit that makes you think, “Are you sure you were in Hanoi and not Phnom Penh? Or did you just decide that Hanoi was gonna be a third-world shitshow and look for examples to confirm this belief? And when you didn’t find enough examples, you invented them?”

When I moved here there was a number of people I met who wanted to Tell Me How It Was In Vietnam. Sigh. I suppose they had good intentions, but it all chalked up to “Vietnam is so crazy!” And I just kept thinking, “Puh-lease. You clearly haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” So much so that I tuned out a lot of the lingering dysfunction and insanity of Vietnam, was so enamored with the functionality that it took me a few months to notice the things that really still weren’t developed.

All of which makes you wonder if you ever really see a place clearly, or if it’s all just an endless shifting of projections, in a Jacob’s Room sense. Which is bullshit—of course you can see a place clearly, it’s just a lot harder to do, takes a lot more thought and insight and care, and maybe only comes in fleeting moments of sensory assault.

Either way, it was great to spend a few days trolling around Hanoi in tourist-mode, seeing it again through Cambodia goggles.

Typhoons Vs. Monsoons, Hanoi Vs. Southeast Asia

Like this


So here’s something I never needed to know the difference between before moving to Asia: monsoons and typhoons.

Both big-ass storms, right? I must have learned what they were at some point, in some half-assed curriculum from some out-dated textbook during my laudable California public school education. But seeing as though this knowledge had zero relevance in my life, I conveniently siphoned it off to the mental slush pile along with all the other useless shit that had no impact on my life, such as Civil War dates, the metric system and the geography Midwestern states.

Well I’ll be damned if suddenly some things from that slush pile are not now extremely relevant, with extremely immediate impacts on my life (NOT Civil War dates or Midwestern geography). One, the metric system. Do you know how tall you are in centimeters? I didn’t for the longest time, despite it being an easy conversion for which there’s now an app. I also know how much I weigh in kilos (NOT telling) and how far my morning jog is in kilometers.

The other thing I now know the difference between is a monsoon and a typhoon. Cambodia has monsoons. A monsoon season, in fact, which they’re now in the middle of: big daily rains where it’s like the heavens have unleashed, like someone slashed a cut in the sky and a million silver coins come thundering down, plodding on your tin roof like they may as well be metal. They’re pretty predictable, usually striking some time in the afternoon, so that you can structure your day around them. It’s almost kind of nice, as long as you’re not stuck in it—an hour or two, like dusk or dawn, a way to divvy up the day and mark the passage of time. Like a really long, wet cigarette break.

Monsoons come like this: clear mornings and bright skies. Slowly over the course of the day the clouds thicken, the humidity gathers; you feel the heat press down like a big invisible hand. At around 3 or 4, you see these dark-ass clouds march in, like horsemen of the fucking Apocalypse. The branches start flailing, trying to snap themselves off their trunks and look for shelter; the wind becomes a living thing with a high, howling voice. And just when it feels unbearable, all this tension about to burst, like being inside a big-ass bubble—boom, snap, pow, the pressure pops and the skies open up and it does its thing for a few hours and then it stops, leaving everything flooded and blinking-eyed and with a pleasant little evening breeze that almost makes it all worth it.

I was just starting to get the hang of it, the rhythm of it, when it was up and time to move to Hanoi. Hanoi is tricky cause it’s secretly not Southeast Asia. It’s not Northern Asia either—it’s own little pocket of Something Else, Chinese and French influences toppled on top of its own defiant culture that I can’t quite classify yet but love the hell out of.

The people here don’t really look Southeast Asian; they’re lighter skinned, got none of the trace Khmer brown. They don’t play that smiley, welcoming, submissive thing that often gets associated with Southeast Asians. (How many times during my arrival did I get yelled by motorbike drivers for not knowing my way around the city?)

They’ve got a coffee culture to rival Italy or shit, even the Bay Area. The French brought it over, but the Northern Vietnamese high-jacked it and turned it into their own strangely unique, immensely caffeinated, sugary and DELICIOUS concoction. I mean, who the hell else in the world puts yogurt in their coffee? But then you taste it and the question changes to why the hell has no one else thought to put yogurt in coffee?

And another huge friggin difference is that there’s seasons in Hanoi—real seasons!—with a proper summer and an even more proper winter that I’m totally and completely dreading.

During the summer months, it rains a lot here. Like Cambodia. Cool, I’d thought, I’ve been living where it rains; I’ve at least got this part down.

Well, no. Like everything else, I’ve been surprised by how different Hanoi really is from the rest of Southeast Asia. And I’ll be goddamned if even the way it rains isn’t yet another example.

So, in case you missed the unit in school or tuned it out (which you’ll probably do again unless you suddenly find yourself in Hanoi; don’t say I didn’t warn you…), typhoons are completely different monsoons. Technically speaking (okay, I Googled it), monsoons have to do with wind patterns, while typhoons are storms that rip through the Pacific and the land fringing it. Instead of everyday, they occur once every few days or every weeks. The basic rhythm is that same, the slow build up of pressure and heat, but the tempo is stretched out, elongated, and it varies, skats like a goddamned jazz singer and while I can appreciate the unprediactability and ingenuity, I’m often left in a plastic poncho with my sandals in my hands, wading down my flooded alley wondering what the hell happened.

Wading home

The biggest difference for me is the way the pre-storm pressure gathers. Monsoons feel like something pressing down on you, while typhoons feel more like a thickness, like the air literally gets thick with charged particles, buzzing around like mosquitoes and damn near humming as loud. You can feel this kind of electricity, moving down your spine, and you swear everyone else can feel it too, the way they zip around when a big storm is about to hit—“like pouring water into an ant hill,” a friend says.

I don’t remember it ever drizzling in Cambodia either, but here the rain will strike and recede, drizzle for a bit then start up again. Sometimes I’ll think it’s over but it’ll just keep going; other times I’ll put my poncho on and be sweating under the sheath of plastic like a jack ass. (Hanoi seems to get a private kick out of making a jack ass out of me, and I’m only too happy to oblige.)

So I’m still working on getting the timing and rhythm of this whole thing down. I’ll probably have it just about figured out by the time the season ends and the cold sets in. In the meantime I stare out of my bedroom window at the sliver of sky between the buildings and try to ascertain what in the hell the weather is gonna go. For the sport of it, I take a guess and invariably I’m wrong. Which is secretly another thing I love about this place—that it’s not so easy to figure out.

So I try to never leave the house without a poncho and not get too bummed when I’ve gotta slosh through the flood water to get in my front door.

Cause you’ve gotta hand it to Hanoi—it’s a city that’ll keep you humble.

Home sweet home

There’s Truth in Skyping

Wednesday morning, post-jog Skype sesh: sitting in my robe, cup of coffee, laptop in my lap, feeling all warm and good after a shower and a bowl of pho.

Routines are one of my favorite things (because I’m officially old and boring). Watching the routines emerge in my new life here in Hanoi has been a sweet, kinda precious thing. And one of my favorites are Wednesday mornings. It’s my only weekday morning off right now, so I force myself to make the most of it: wake up at 6am to go jogging before the worst of the heat presses down. It doesn’t really help much; after ten minutes I’m a fucking slip-and-slide of sweat and after twenty minutes I’m woozy from the heat. It’s really more of an excuse to get up early—cause as it turns out, dawn is one of my favorite times in Asia and who really says, “I’m getting up early to go strolling”? Well, most of SE Asia, judging from how many people are out and about, stretching their limbs and buying vegetables and sitting on little plastic stools drinking tea. But not me—I’m the giant, red-faced tattooed girl ducking from all the low-hanging tree branches, curly fro flopping in the breeze. (Majestic, really.)

Anyway, I do that for twenty minutes and after I’m sweaty and disgraced enough, I go down the block and get a bowl of pho, stroll over to the market and buy some fruit, stop for a coffee, come home, shower, BLAH BLAH BLAH and I’m on the computer and (in theory) ready to write by 8am. Killer.

Except 8am here is 6pm on the West Coast, 9pm on the East, and a reeeeeally good time to catch up with friends. So I end up chitty-chatting for a couple hours, that Word document slowly getting buried behind Skype and IM and FB windows. Like most writers, I feel a sense of urgent, impending failure unless I’m writing 2000 words a day, but I try to reassure myself that maintaining connections with folks back home is important. Because I love my friends, but also because they know, really know me, in a way I often don’t know myself. (And besides, I enjoy the fuck out of a witty IM.)

So this morning I’m Skyping with a friend in Oakland. She’s telling me about this nightclub debacle and I’m telling her about my wading-through-sewage debacle and we’re laughing and shit. And then she goes, “You sound so much happier!”

Okay, so this is like fourth time I’ve heard this from someone. Granted, they’re not here in person and all they’ve had to go on for the past 10 months has been my voice, maybe a grainy little video box that freezes a lot and makes my skin look yellow. But still, I think there’s something to that. You know how they say when one sense is shut down, the others become heightened? Like blind people are supposed to have mad good hearing? I don’t know if this is true but I like the sound of it and it goes along with my theory, so let’s assume. Cause it would then follow that if your only contact with someone is through their voice, you’d get pretty good at reading and gaging it.

So I tell her, “Yeah, you’re like the fourth person who’s told me that.”

And she goes, “Well do you feel happier?”

I answer without missing a beat: “Totally.”

Now, the transition to Hanoi has been turbulent. I don’t find Hanoi a particularly accommodating city, and I had to hit the ground running. I’ve had more demoralizing breakdowns in my move to Hanoi than I did in Phnom Penh, and the air is worse and the traffic is mental and I think it might actually be hotter here.

But it’s true, I’m happier. I’m happier in this hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way, in the same way hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way I was UNhappy in Phnom Penh.

I’ve been trying not to talk about it too much. One, because you don’t really wanna sound like a smug bastard and two, because I don’t know how to explain it. Why am I happier here? Life is easier in Phnom Penh in a lot of ways—it’s a smaller city, it’s less polluted, there’s more access to foreign products, food is less expensive, people are damn friendly, there’s tuk-tuks, etcetcetc. People here have asked me, you know, what was Phnom Penh like, why did I go there, why did I leave, and I usually just shrug and say, “Hanoi’s a better fit for me.”

So I keep chatting with my friend, then I pop on FB and holy shit, Angelo’s online. So we start IMing, about curly fries and an on-the-job fender bender and some ridiculous Champagne Party an eccentric millionaire gives, when holy shit, ANOTHER friend pops up. (Cause I am so damn popular. In online life.)

It’s this dude I knew in Cambodia. He left before I did, in March, and we haven’t talked since then. So I’m bouncing between windows—curly fries, Cambodia, curly fries, Cambodia—when Dude goes: “I’ve been reading your blog.” Like. “It’s funny.” Like. “And negative.”

Wait, what?

“Negative?”

“It’s all about how hard everything is and how bummed you’ve been.”

Damn.

I’ve been trying to walk this line between being honest and being a total fucking Negative Nancy. Cause right now, to be honest, I’m pretty down on Cambodia. But I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut about it, cause I know it’ll pass and that really, that’s not how I actually feel. It’s just that it’s really fresh; it’s like I was dating someone and I got burned.

Cause I didn’t hate Cambodia. It wasn’t some shithole with no redeeming qualities that I was absolutely miserable in. There were things I loved about Cambodia, loved in that full-body, heart’s-gonna-leap-outta-your-chest way that you can’t quite explain. I friggin moved there, from across the planet.

But things didn’t go well for me there. I went with big dreams and they totally fell through. I had to work my ass off at staying emotionally balanced and healthy, and as dramatic as it sounds, I feel like I narrowly escaped with my sanity. I loved Cambodia and it broke my fucking heart. That’s not Cambodia’s fault and it’s not mine. But it’s easier to be negative about it, to keep a mental inventory of everything that’s more developed and better here—and there’s a lot—because I’m still too close to it to look at the full picture. It doesn’t yet feel safe to delve into the complexities of why Cambodia didn’t work for me or what exactly happened to me there. Maybe it won’t ever be safe—that’s another thing I learned in my time there: that some things aren’t safe in delve into. Why did this thing or that thing happen? In a way it doesn’t matter. I’m not a psychologist; I’m not a historian; I’m not a policy maker. What would the knowledge of why do for me? “If you understand, things are as they are. If you don’t understand, things are as they are.”

I’ve been thinking all this, secretly. But not-so-secretly, it would seem. Totally fucking obviously, perhaps.

So, what I’ve learned from this morning’s Skype/FB/IM marathon: I’m happier in Hanoi; I’m down on Cambodia.

Not exactly late-breaking news. But the truth.

Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part II: Things Fall Apart

So late April and I went going great guns. I scoured job forums and posted an ad for private English tutoring. I sent out my CV to a couple NGOs I’d researched who did legit work on issues I was excited about (there’s less of those than you’d think). I wrote a couple new pitches to those local magazines that had never gotten back to me, and I started Khmer lessons. I resolved to go out more, be more social. I talked to all my friends, networking and brainstorming ideas of how to build a more sustainable life here.

And at first it seemed to go great. I got several responses to my ad for private tutoring. A PR rep from a new legal advising firm contacted me—would I be interested in a contract editing gig? Some friends had good ideas of places to volunteer at, ways my skills could be useful here. I met a guy who was in town, scoping out the scene to see if he wanted to live here; he was sober and funny and cool and I developed my first crush in months.

Maybe all it took was throwing myself in.

It was a long dusty motorbike ride through rush-hour traffic to the home of the young boy I’d be tutoring. His family lived in a villa out towards the airport. I’d met them for coffee at a swank hotel to discuss my rates and qualifications the Saturday before. The dad had sent me a text later that night, saying that he was so glad they’d found me. And that my appearance was “much more than he expected.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Folks here a lot more open about commenting on your body; I was willing to chalk the comment up to cultural differences and the lack of intonation texts provide. Still, I filed it away.

The boy was lovely. He was smart; his reading comprehension was far beyond most of the high school students I’d taught. He liked to read, so tutoring him would be easy and fun. The pay was decent. I felt good about it.

But the text messages from the dad kept coming. Emails too. Wonky messages that made me increasingly uncomfortable—what to my Western mind felt like blurry boundaries. Then he asked me out for a drink.

I ran the situation by a bunch of friends who’ve been here longer than me and know the culture better. They all agreed that it was a little off. It was probably nothing to be too concerned about, they told me, but if it was making me uncomfortable, better to bail.

I decided to pay it safe. Because I’m a girl living alone in a foreign country, so if there’s ever a time to play it safe, this would be it. I made up a reason about scheduling conflicts and quit.

The editorial position seemed more promising. I met the PR director in the lobby cafe of a gleaming new skyrise. They had a two-month contract they needed to fill while their permanent editor was on summer sabbatical. I came back the next week for a test edit and passed. The gig was high-paying and part-time; it would give me two months to save a little and plot my next move. It was also in an air-conditioned office building, with a Western bathroom and a water cooler, and for the first time in my life, these things seemed appealing. I’d never worked in a office; in fact, I realized, no one in my family had ever worked an office job. I was gonna be trailblazer. It was kinda funny. And kinda perfect.

They sent over a contact the next week. But wait—could I start a week earlier? And could I be full-time instead of part-time? Well, I’d have to see if I could leave my current job at the preschool a week earlier, I said. Great, they said, let us know and we’ll send the revised contract over.

So I put my notice in. It was a little bittersweet—I’d really come to love those little rascals. (Ok, some of those little rascals.) But it felt good, to be moving on to bigger and better things. To be moving towards a successful Phnom Penh life. Things were coming together.

I wrote the company and let them know I was good to start May 21. Then I waited. And waited. After four days, I wrote an email to check on the status of the contract. “We’ve been reevaluating our media team and don’t know whether the position will be full-time, part-time or restructured. We advise you don’t put your notice in until you have a contract in hand.”

Um, thanks.

In the meantime, shit got weird at the school. I could have tried to stay on, stretch out my time while I waited to hear back from about the contract gig, but again—I’m a woman alone in a foreign country, where I don’t know the rules, where I don’t know what’s safe or not.

Things were falling apart.

A week passed and the only word I got from the company was “We’ll understand if you take another position in the interim.” None of the volunteer gigs had gotten back to me; I hadn’t heard back from any of the pitches I’d sent out. That guy I had the crush on left the country. The lease was up on my apartment and I was down to my last $500.

Meanwhile, summer schools were hiring in Hanoi. They started at $20/hour—double what the schools here pay and with a comparable cost of living. My friend had a mattress I could crash on. I had just enough money for a visa and a flight. I’d liked Hanoi when I was there last year—the food and the coffee and the hipsters. It was an exciting place, with better roads and less corruption. There was more going on there in terms of art and culture. It was “Detroit” and Cambodia was “Buffalo.” And I could go to a reliable doctor if I got sick.

I didn’t make the decision so much as the decision made me.

Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part I: Chinks In The Plan

Yeah, you read that right.

It started a month ago, when I got back from Malaysia. You might have noticed that posts took a detour to Bummersville. It was my first time out of Cambodia since I got here and it gave me the space to reset, to take a look at how my months here had been.

Not great.

Not terrible either though. I wasn’t miserable, I was plopping along happily enough in my day-to-day. I had a job I didn’t hate, that paid me just enough to survive. I had friends and routines I liked; I was going to kickboxing classes. I’d finally moved out of that phase of gnawing loneliness I suppose all expats initially go through. Every week I’d figured out something else, some new little trick to make me life easier—I can get a jug of water delivered for $1!—and that felt good. Things were, you know, okay.

But I hadn’t come here for things to be “okay.” I’d come with Big Fucking Plans, Big Fucking Expectations. (And you know what they say about expectations.) I was gonna immerse myself, I was gonna support myself freelancing, I was gonna write a book. On a topic no one discusses. Without any connections or financial backing or relevant training, other than my own life experience.

I got back to Phnom Penh last month and observed my days: wake up early; teach for 4 hours; have lunch; come home and nap through the worst of the heat; putter; avoid direct sunlight, walking around or anything that might cause heat stroke; try not to spend money; work out at dusk or meet a friend for dinner; come home and read or write or watch DVDs. Not exactly what you’d call cultural immersion, eh?

The obvious answer was that I had failed. If I’d just tried hard enough, if I just hurled myself into the mix, everything would be going according to that plan in my head. I’d be making good money, or if I wasn’t, I’d be doing something so absurdly fulfilling it wouldn’t matter. I looked at other friends for whom life here seemed to be flowing—getting articles published, dating, learning Khmer, having local friends—and I judged myself harshly. Obviously, I was at fault.

“I haven’t tried very hard,” I admitted to a friend.

“No,” she answered, with the unsentimental honesty I’ve come to value her for. “But there’s gotta be a reason for that.”

I wasn’t willing to look at that yet.

So.

So I’d give it a month, I said. I was down to the last $500 I’d come over here with. My friend in Hanoi told me that the summer schools there would be hiring in early June and getting a quick three-month gig would be easy. I decided I’d throw all my chips in, to give Phnom Penh my all—I was gonna network and hustle and give it my best shot to establish a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle here. Maybe all it would take was going balls-out.

But if a month passed and I was still in the same position, I had an out.

Not So Past Tense

Sit at a Western cafe. Your favorite cafe. Order a fish filet salad, pour the caper dressing from a little porcelain pitcher, watch the waiter fill your water glass from a thick green bottle. Read the day’s paper.

The photo: front page, full color. Two smiling boys in black pajamas, red Krama scarves around their necks. They’re posed with bamboo bayonets, beside Cham girls sitting in folding chairs, round faces glowing beneath their head scarves. Follow the jump, thumbing inside, page 21. Headline: “Politicking Mixes With ‘Day of Anger’ Atrocity Re-enactment.”

Lede:

About 2,000 monks, students, teachers and government officials flocked yesterday to the site of some of the most horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge era to reenact barbaric torture and execution scenes for the annual “Day of Anger” remembrance.

Spill dressing on the page.

It stains in little green dots, oil leaking through the white paper that isn’t newsprint, but white, like a school newsletter. Furrow your brow as you read on.

It’s campaign season. With elections coming next month, the ruling CPP party has been gearing up. Posters have appeared in storefronts throughout the city; campaign trucks have rumbled past your balcony, blasting slogans distorted by cheap speakers. Reports of bribery and repression have been popping up. Propaganda everywhere.

And now this. Day of Anger, once called “Day of Hate”—founded by the Vietnamese during their post-KR occupation of Cambodia. A time when people gather at the Killing Fields. Instead of mourning or remembering, lighting incense and raising in their foreheads, bowing—instead of that, the article says, teenagers dress up in Khmer Rouge uniforms and do historical reenactments of brutal torture: skull-smashing and rapes.

Remember, a year ago, at a different Western cafe, reading a report from Rwanda of their Genocide Memorial Holiday. It was a good piece. Remember squinting at your iPhone, zooming and scrolling, wondering why Cambodia didn’t have one of those.

You found later that it does, but it’s not as widespread as the one in Rwanda. You were here for the last one. You didn’t notice anything going on in the city.

Look up from the article, consider the difference in the very names: Forgiveness versus Anger.

Chew your salad and keep reading.

It sounds as though the reenactment was being used as propaganda. Ruling party members were on hand to remind attendees of how much the CPP has done for Cambodia, how much development has taken place since the real crimes happened—the real killings in the Killing Fields.

Remember going there. There were still scraps of clothes and bits of bones in the dirt. Imagine briefly these young men, marching in crisp clothes in yesterday’s heat, rubber sandals stepping over those fragmented remains of the victims.

Of course, there are some complaints—quotes criticizing the CPP for exploiting the Killing Fields and the Day of Anger for their own benefit. And more than even that, a threat:

Yim Sovann, SRP spokesman, said mixing political messages at a remembrance to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime was intentional.

“They know the people are afraid of war so they want to show this [Khmer Rouge atrocities] again to remind people and spread [the idea] around the country that if they vote of other parties there will be a war,” Mr. Sovann said.

Look up again. Think of the conversation you had with S last week, on the terrace of a wine bar overlooking the Tonle Sap river. “It’s always there,” S had said. “They’re always threatening genocide, in this veiled way.” S’s Khmerican, cleaved in that space between expats and locals, forever the hyphen. “And with all the same people still in power, it’s easy to understand why people are scared.”

S had looked up from her mojito and stared out, at the street below you.

Look out at the street before you now—a coconut cart, a moto driver picking his teeth in his side mirror. Pavement giving way to rubble.

You’ve been thinking this for awhile: that it’s not all so past tense. You came here to write about trauma, as though it were something that had stopped happening. As though it were just the psychological ricochets to deal with. As if it weren’t all still here. As if there weren’t still bones and scraps of clothing in the dirt.

How do you tease it apart? How do you write about one part with getting into it all? Is there even a “one part”? And how do you write about if you only ever hear about this shit the day after it happens, when you’re having your foofy lunch at your favorite foofy cafe?

You don’t. Or I don’t. I can’t.

The salad dressing stains spread across the page, turning the paper a soggy green transparent. The newsprint bleeds a bit.

You keep chewing and chewing.

Lunch In The Bubble

“Ugh, it’s rubbish.”

C took a sip of her miso soup. She looked down with a particular anguished embarrassment I’ve come to recognize. I know it because I share it.

The question was, “How is your Khmer?” And the answer is what I expected. Not because C’s only been here a few months—which is of course only a few months less than me. Not because she’s busy working split classes that send her scurrying all over town 6 days a week. And not even because we were eating Japanese food in a restaurant playing American blues, next to a Vietnamese-run nail salon in the expat part of town.

I expected her answer because it was the same one a hefty portion of the expats in Phnom Penh would give—what I’m tempted to say is half the expats here, though I have nothing to base that on. There’s a certain kind of guilt with which one admits their abhorrent level of Khmer language skills—“I really need to start lessons again” or “God, I’ve just been so busy.” They say it in the same shameful tone people in the States do when admitting they haven’t gone to the gym in 6 months.

I also expected her answer because it was mine.

C put her soup back down. “I don’t know what it is,” she confessed. “I just can’t be bothered. I feel bad about it. And it’s strange, because when I was living in Japan I was desperate to communicate. I studied all the time; I couldn’t stand feeling so isolated. But here,” she looked out across the open-air patio to the rubbled street, “I don’t mind the isolation so much.”

I nodded slowly, stared down at the teriyaki balanced between my chopsticks. “Yeah, that’s kinda a thing here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, so many of the expats here just don’t bother to speak the language. Some of it’s laziness for sure, or busyness. Everyone speaks enough English in Phnom Penh so you don’t have to learn Khmer. But I dunno,” I paused, chewing contemplatively. “I’m starting to think there’s more to it.”

“Like what?”

“I think it’s a symptom. You notice how most of us live in these little bubbles, these enclaves where we don’t really interact with Cambodian culture at all?” C nodded. “There’s a dude, he wrote a whole book about it.”

“Is it any good?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, it’s $12.” I paused. “But look at me. I came here explicitly to write about Cambodia and Cambodians. I came here to immerse myself. I had earnest, heartfelt intentions to learn as much Khmer as I could. Well, it’s been six months and look at me.” I raised my arms to offer C a look at me—in a pencil skirt from the States, a blouse from Malaysia, eating lunch at an expat restaurant. “I can count to ten and give a tuk-tuk driver directions. That’s it.”

“So what is it?” C looked at me out of the corner of her eye.

“Well, for me, I think it’s a kind of unconscious resistance to being fully immersed here. I think I want to be, I say I want to be, but at a fundamental level I don’t.” I shoveled some rice in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to feel the words linger. It was first time I’d admitted it, the first time I’d said it out loud.

“Why?” C asked.

My mouth answered before my brain could come up with a good excuse. “Because I’m scared. I’m scared shitless of being immersed here, and I can’t totally tell you why.”

I paused, trying to tease out the knot of thoughts I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying until that moment. “Sometimes I feel like there’s this whole undercurrent here, like there’s this dark fucking shit going on just beneath the surface. And I’m terrified of getting swept into it.”

C nodded. She hadn’t been in Cambodia long, but she’s been kicking around Asia long enough to know that something’s different about Cambodia.

I looked out at the road, watched a vendor pass. “And you get a lot of bullshit sensationalism, bravo stuff, you know—‘I live in Cambodia, it’s so edgy and dangerous.'” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t mean that. I mean that there’s a certain darkness here and I feel like I spend a lot of my time insulating myself against it. Holing up in my apartment watching DVDs.” C laughed and nodded.

I leaned forward, gripping the base of my tea cup and staring into it, so I wouldn’t have to look at her eyes. “And you know, I see the expats here who are fully immersed and they scare me even more. I mean, there’s lovely honorable exceptions, and I’m friends with some of those exceptions—but most of the folks I see that speak Khmer and have been here a long time,” I shook my head, “I don’t want what they have.”

We were quiet for a minute. I considered what I’d just said, wondered if it was true. I decided it probably was.

“This is the only country I’ve been in where I get insomnia,” I told C.

“Me too,” she said.

We sat on the terrace, the fan cutting the dog’s-breath air into panting little pieces. Bessie Smith played in the background while outside, Cambodia passed us by.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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