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.

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9 Responses to “Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part II: Things Fall Apart”


  1. 1 Z May 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Well it’s unfortunate to hear of your departure from Phnom Penh, but it also sounds like it was the right choice to make. Don’t give up! There’s millions of places out there to which you can try again.

  2. 2 Awkward American Traveler May 25, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Lauren, I wish we had stayed in contact better. The stress of Cambodia and its shadiness were the main reasons why I left. It seems like a free-for-all, but really, as a woman, it is frustrating and patronizing. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to find something else because I wish I had that, too. I am so excited for your new adventures in Hanoi and I hope you will find happiness and respect there. Good luck!

  3. 3 Akhila K. (@akhilak) May 25, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Wow, I’m sorry to hear of your bad experiences in Cambodia. Definitely sounds like a difficult atmosphere to live in as a woman, but I am sure you’ll have wonderful experiences coming up soon in Hanoi!

    • 4 laurenquinn May 26, 2012 at 9:14 am

      You know, it’s funny—I think in some ways Cambodia is an incredibly easy place to be as a woman. Lack of street harassment is a big big plus. I just think that being anywhere where you don’t really know what’s going on is inherently more difficult as a woman—you’re always somewhat more at risk for crazy shit. But it is a country with insane domestic violence rates and pretty piss-poor women’s rights. And while that doesn’t affect me on the day-to-day, as an outsider, it’s a kind of atmosphere, yeah?

      So, like everything here, the answer for me is both yes and no—incredibly difficult and incredibly easy.

  4. 5 Anne May 25, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Lauren, I’ve been enjoying your blog and just wanted to affirm what you already know – sounds like you made the right decision for yourself. Good for you for trying and good for you for listening to your intuition and changing plans. I look forward to reading about your adventures in Hanoi
    Anne (GG’s friend…in case you were wondering…)

  5. 7 annabel lee (@annabelleeLA) May 29, 2012 at 12:59 am

    Hi Lauren,
    I’m also a California girl (LA mostly, but I did do a summer in Temescal [um, Bakesale Betty!] and SF) and I’m traveling alone in Southeast Asia for the next six weeks. I just found your blog and thought I’d reach out since I’m going to be in Hanoi in about a week and then Phnom Penh later. I’m here doing research on French colonial era architecture and would love to hear your take on the older buildings here, since it seems like you’ve done some exploring of building ruins.
    -Annabel

  6. 8 hannahinhanoi May 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Sounds like you made the right choice. Hanoi will be happy to have you–I’ll certainly be happy to read someone else’s observations of the city! Good luck!

  7. 9 Jess June 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    I am curious to see how everything unfolds for you. I think that knowing “when to say when” is an underrated skill. Although I rarely comment, I always love reading your posts. Good luck in Hanoi!


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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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