News Flash: Cambodia Is Hard

And apparently this is only news to me.

Actually it’s not. I knew coming out here that, as a Westerner, Cambodia is simultaneously an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult place to live. That seems to be the jam with developing countries.

On the one hand: the almost ridiculous ease of getting a visa; the nonexistence of work visas; the number of other expats; the way they throw English teaching jobs at you; the way they cater businesses to your rich, Western ways. I mean, I can buy peanut butter in the grocery store here. I can’t even do that in most of Mexico. I hang out at swimming pools and get shoes special made; I have house cleaners and I pay other people to do my laundry for me. I can buy whole fucking coconut for 50 cents.

But then… There’s all the other, developing country stuff. There’s the lack of reliable things you don’t really realize you depend on: health care and a postal system and electricity that doesn’t randomly cut out. There’s how I can’t buy clothes that fit me, how all the towels are made of some nonabsorbent material that leaves a trail of linty residue across my heat-rash-ridden torso (the $90 doctor visit achieved nothing on that front). There’s how far I am from home—about as far as you can fucking go—and how that makes setting Skype dates a pain in the ass, how it means I don’t get to pop home every six months the way friends living in Latin America or Europe do.

I knew that. I knew all that shit coming in. But as I’m edging up towards the six-month mark, it’s starting to wear on me in a way I hadn’t suspected. There’s the forestry activist that was recently murdered. There’s the terrible accident I saw coming home last week—broken brains on the pavement.

There’s the shitshow of the schools here, how no one seems to care—not the administration or the teachers or 90% of the students—but how there’s that 10% that do care, that are sacrificing to be in your classroom and are getting fuck all out of it. There’s the slow, steady way that disheartens you. There’s how shit the pay is in those easily gotten English-teaching jobs, how you start to feel yourself becoming one of those people who doesn’t care. It’s how there’s NGO workers making more than I did in the Bay Area, and how this is the brokest I’ve ever been in my adult life; there’s the little sense of failure that comes with that.

There’s the social scene here—how I’m too much of a fucking alien to really relate to the Cambodians but how I don’t really vibe with most of the expats either. Cambodia is still a place where people come to go off the rails. And it takes me all the energy I’ve got just to stay on the rails. There’s literally one other sober girl under age 50 here. That shit is hard.

All of which I also knew. But I guess what I didn’t know was the way all that accumulates in you, starts to eat at you. I don’t really notice it in my day-to-day; it becomes normal. I’m so busy trying to stay hydrated and keeping my tattoos out of the direct sunlight and trying to eat right and get enough sleep and still exercise (even though it’s so hot I feel like I’m gonna vomit most of the time) and how there’s a part of my brain that’s constantly thinking about the next spot with AC that I can duck into. That becomes normal, and I forget how much energy I’m spending just taking care of myself.

So you know what happened to me? I left. I went to Malaysia for Khmer New Year and rode glass elevators in the shopping malls and pretended to sea kayak. It was great. But before I even left, when I was at the airport in Phnom Penh, I was browsing the magazine rack and holy shit, I saw an issue of Juxtapoz. Which I don’t even read often in the States, but for the novelty factor, I picked it up. The issue was two months old and $11. I stood there flipping through the pages and skimming the interviews and looking at the silly pictures of silly hipster art and outta nowhere it hit me with this insane sense of homesicknesses. It’s funny, you know, what makes you homesick.

And it occurred to me in that moment that there’s whole conversations going on that I’m no longer a part of. Sure, I follow the blogs and since I’ve only been gone six months, I can still kinda fake it—but it’s starting to slip. I can feel it slipping.

Which I guess is to say that I’m starting to realize how much I’ve given up to be here, how much I’m sacrificing. Again, I knew it coming in. I just didn’t know how it would affect me, the way it would feel after six months.

And you know what? That shit is hard.

None of which is to say I’m ready to give up and toss in the towel on Cambodia. But it is to say that I’ve thought about it. It’s an incredible experience, to live in a developing country—not just any developing country, but fucking Cambodia, with its fucked-up history and centuries of corruption. Where I’m about as much of an alien as a person can be.

Of course there’s things I love. Those are harder to vocalize, because they’re not rational; they exist in these random-ass moments, walking at dusk with the pink sky and the traffic, when I suddenly feel like my heart is gonna jump outta my chest, like there’s this feeling my body physically can’t contain. But I guess I just don’t know if that’s enough. Like, in the long run.

It’s like a person. More and more, I think of places as people and living here is like being in a relationship. It makes sense, right?—the initial buzz has worn off, the honeymoon is over, and the first big conflicts are showing up. I’ve gotten to sit and watch this place, how it really is, and I’ve gotten to watch myself in this place and how I really am in it. And I’m thinking to myself—can I really do this? Can we really be together?

Well, I don’t know. At least not yet. This whole expat thing is new to me. But what I can say is that while it’s incredible and amazing and eye-opening and I’m privileged as hell to be able to do it in the first place, it’s also fucking hard. And it’s even harder to admit it’s hard.

But, you know, whenever it gets too hard, I can always just go chill out by the poolside with a smoothie and some wifi. Cause that’s what being a Westerner in a developing country is all about.

9 Responses to “News Flash: Cambodia Is Hard”

  1. 1 tammyonthemove May 6, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Great article. I can really relate to this. Have also reached my 6 months mark here and it my emotions about Cambodia are so mixed up. On some days you just want to murder the traffic police for being so inefficient and causing even more traffic delays and on other days I forget about all that because a lovely little child said the smiliest ‘elloooooo’ to me. In the end you make the best of it and this experience will teach me so many things that I will cherrish forever. And you are right, as long as there is a pool and a banana smoothy I am in heaven. 🙂

  2. 2 emsok May 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Lauren –

    I can’t even explain how much this resonated with me. I lived in Israel for 3.5 years, and it was the strangest moments when I’d be hit with a wave of homesickness. I also relate to not being able to connect with natives on an authentic level, yet also not connecting to other expats. My Hebrew was not good enough to have a conversation with a stranger about anything other than how much Hebrew I know and how long I’ve lived there….and other expats moved there for different reasons than me. I also felt like I was missing out on “conversations” the way you described. And as hard as it was living in a *sorta developing country, Cambodia sounds much, much harder. Do you have any idea how long you’ll stay?

    Now that I’m back home in the states, I like reading your blog to sort of put myself back in that disorienting/euphoric state…I’m nostalgic already.

  3. 3 Steffi May 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Do you think you will eventually get over these feelings? I’m a long-term expat but have never lived in a developing country (and probably never will). How long are you planning to stay in Cambodia?

    • 4 laurenquinn May 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Well, the original plan was at least a year. Gonna hold out till August and reassess then…

  4. 5 Z May 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for the post Lauren, I know I recently asked you about this and it’s good to get a more in-depth look at how it’s been. I feel sympathy for you, because it’s such a completely different case than living somewhere like Seoul. I can only imagine the difficulties and it’s made me heavily consider what I will be doing next year and where I might be going. I hope you do find the bright sides of it all whenever you can though. It’s only six months, as much as it can seem like so long when you’re living it, it’s nothing in the end.

    Take care, and enjoy your smoothie 🙂

  5. 6 Kim Gruber May 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Lauren!

    I think I met you at Cheap Cheap with Margaret back in February – maybe January. Reading your blog post though was like reading my journal – seems like I have been having these conversations with myself and friends a lot lately. Thanks for posting and we should have lunch or dinner again sometime 🙂

    (my email is kdokos

  6. 7 Kim Gruber May 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Oops! email is

  7. 8 Rachael Findlay May 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Yes, this!
    It’s so hard to admit how difficult it is, it’s brave even. This really resonates with me.
    I’m currently ‘at home’ (in Australia) for a couple of weeks after almost 8 months in Cambodia. It’s the most amazing feeling to be here – to buy underwear that fits and to walk around my neighbourhood without hearing ‘tuk tuk?’, to not even be noticed on the street. But it’s not PP. There are no mangoes, no motos with 6 mattresses strapped on the back, and sunsets suck!
    So thanks for helping me to asses my options, I’m definitely coming back, at least for a little while longer 🙂

  8. 9 Rob May 16, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Great article -very honest and non-judgemental. I’ve been here going on six years straight now. It was never my intention to stay so long without a break, but that’s how it’s turned out. Sometimes I want to leave as fast as I can and sometimes I wouldn’t want to live any place else.

    I intended to teach ESL (my last job in Australia), but the pay is too poor, so I had to find an alternative and started freelance writing. I love it, but if I hadn’t been living here, I could never have gotten off the ground.

    Good luck!

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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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