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.

14 Responses to “Lunch In The Bubble”

  1. 1 Akhila K. (@akhilak) May 19, 2012 at 2:44 am

    Wonderful post and article- I love your writing. When I visited Afghanistan, many expats there never learned Dari– even the most committed and passionate to helping the country & those who knew so much about the politics of the place & its development. Perhaps there’s a fear of getting in too deep, because then you wonder if you’ll ever get out and go back ‘home.’ You’re not sold on the idea that Cambodia is your home. And maybe you don’t want to get too attached?

    • 2 laurenquinn May 19, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Super interesting to hear that comparison. It’s the way people admit to not knowing Khmer that makes me think it’s more than laziness or whatever. Can’t speak for them, but for me it’s definitely a fear of getting in too deep. Kinda a bummer to admit, but hey, there it is.

  2. 3 tlivy May 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Lauren

    I’ve just started reading your blog, and felt the need to comment – a beautifully written post, and refreshingly honest. The fact that both you and your friend suffer from insomnia is very interesting – do you know many expats in Cambodia with the same problem? I always think that a good indicator of how much a place is “your place” – how good it is for your emotional, intellectual and spiritual heath – is how well you sleep there. That’s often how I feel about the places I visit anyway. Maybe on a deeper level you recognize that there is something about Cambodia that isn’t good for you, and that is manifesting itself in your reluctance to learn the language?


  3. 4 Christina May 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I really appreciate this post, and you telling it like it is. I feel like I can relate to it in a way.. or perhaps it just made me think of something somewhat similar. I’m half Lebanese and have spent a lot of time in Lebanon (but grew up in California). While part of me has always wanted to immerse myself in Lebanese culture and be able to speak Arabic fluently, the other part of me is quiet anxious about that actually happening. I think a lot of it has to do with this generation of Lebanese culture being constantly molded into something else, with everyone speaking English and there being so much American and European influence, that there isn’t, and hasn’t been a solid Lebanese culture in much of that country for a while. And what gives me the most anxiety about becoming immersed, is the constant clash of traditional Lebanese culture versus how life there really is now.

  4. 5 Rob May 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I’m so pleased to read an honest appraisal of expat life in Cambodia.

    I haven’t learned much of the language because I’m too dumb, but I live 24/7 with a Cambodian family who want to know how to speak English and are smart enough to have picked it up.

    After 6 years here, I can count my friends on one hand and my good friends on one thumb. I think it’s because I don’t hang out in bars. I brush my teeth regularly and use deodorant, so that can’t be it. I usually keep my hyper-critical feelings to myself, so I don’t think that’s it, either. Maybe it’s my awesome 64 year old physique which has helped me tackle the mean streets of Sihanoukville? Nah, can’t be that. They’re not nearly as mean as people like to make them out to be.

    Personally, I found other expat “paradises” boring. Cambodia is always a challenge and always interesting. I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out, but I have learned how to live reasonably happily here.

  5. 8 Emma in Euroland September 20, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    What a wonderful post. I spent some time in Cambodia when I was 17. There was something haunting about it. It’s the only place I have felt a need to go back to rather than a desire. I’m jealous of your time there!

  6. 9 eof737 September 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing snippets of your expat life… As an expat, I can relate to much of what you write.. Kudos! đŸ™‚

  7. 10 carol September 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    real flavour, our grandson is in Cambodia and his experiences are not dissimilar

  8. 11 barbaramelnikcarson September 22, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    I enjoyed ready this. I have been living in an apartment in Prato, Italy with my sister for the last month. We’ve been traveling to other cities and experiecing life here mostly as tourists.

    Daily living stuff like grocery shopping, laundry, figuring out the bus schedules and noisy neighbors are where we step off vacation mode.

    Our language skills isolate and limit our choices. I wish I had studied Italian more before we left. I’m loving this trip, but wonder how it might be better if I could emerse myself in the culture more.

    We are also experiencing insomnia. Not sure why.

    Look forward to reading more…

  9. 12 hjfoley September 24, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    You post a good understanding of cultural laziness. Strangely enough its something one quickly gets used to. On my first trip to Phnom Penh I went to Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields.. That afternoon went for a long lunch with the idea of getting drunk to wipe out the images of the morning. The drink did not work. Tuol Sleng was one of the saddest places I have ever visited.

  1. 1 Focus On: Expat Life Blogs | The Daily Post at Trackback on September 20, 2012 at 9:05 pm
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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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