Archive for the 'Culture Shock' Category



Evening In Front of Uncle Ho

Bubbles blowing and bats swooping. Children giggling. The squeak-squeak of those little shoes they put on toddlers.

It’s nighttime in front of the Mausoleum, summer in Hanoi. The last time I was here it was winter and the city had a strict bedtime—10pm and like a light switched off: wide streets vacant, narrow alleys thick with shadows that slunk from the sharp cast of headlights.

But it’s different now. Or I’m different now. The season has changed and the city is full, parks blooming and bursting with people. Kinda like dusk in Phnom Penh, the “Golden Hour” I always called it—sky all pink and breezy, everything made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the fact that it’d all pass so goddamn fast, like sand through your fingers (have you ever held sand through your fingers like that? I hadn’t till then).

The stadium lights beat down and the bats swoop behind.

I’d wanted a walk. I needed a walk. It had been my first real shit day in Hanoi, following what had been my first real great day in Hanoi. It was the xeoms that had done it—stranded and lost and giving myself heat stroke, showing the driver the wrong address, him screaming at me when I realized my mistake, my eyes welling up, men at the cafe staring placidly, legs crossed and coffee. He had me. He charged me $6. I paid it.

I never did find the school I had the interview at. I felt about as broken and lost as I am in this city, in my life right now. My friend took me out for dinner; I ate too much; he said, “Remember that Bukowski poem: ‘it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left.'”

Exactly. Another chopstick full of noodles please.

So I needed a walk, something to clear my mind. He lives on this little peninsula and if you follow it down, you go on an isthmus between two lakes. The couples sit on benches and the lights stream pass and the old men sleep on their motorbikes. Get to the end, there’s women doing line dancing; they’re dancing in pairs and then they line up and “Macarena” comes blaring on the speakers and they start to dance with no irony whatsoever. There’s a boy up front, away from everyone else—socks pulled high and shirt tucked into his shorts—and he’s dancing to his own rhythm, wild and unrestrained and tragic. I can tell before I see his face that he’s got Down Syndrome.

He dances alone.

I keep going, cross another park, another roaring street and I come to the wide open green in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’ve got those big white stadium lights on and it washes everything in brightness, seems to make each blade of grass gleam. In the cement stretch in front of the building—block-shaped and austerely uplit in red—families are strolling, powerwalking, children chasing bubbles while a thousand hand-held fan whir.

There’s guards milling around, uniforms and little hats. It feels almost Italian the way the people are out. There’s a breeze and it feels like luxury across my arms.

I realize I haven’t seen a single prostitute during my stroll. At least a blatant one. I’ve got a head full of Phnom Penh and half my heart too, and all I keep thinking is—“Grass: you’d never see that in Phnom Penh”; “Look how nicely cobbled the pathway is”; “It’s after 9pm and normal people are out, families and kids.”

I like this, I think. This feels good.

I watch a mother blow bubbles for her toddler son; he squeals, waves his fat arms and chases them. A girl snuggles under the crook of her boyfriend’s arm. Two girls sit on the walkway between patches of grass, giggle in close towards each other. “Hello!” a boy exclaims at me. “Hello!” I exclaim back, just as jubilantly.

Had all this really been waiting? Really been going on—hidden under the cover of winter and of my own distance?

It had.

Just then the stadium lights start to snap shut—one, two, three—and a dimness is cast over the grass. It’s suddenly quiet, still, dark, backlit but the thousand motorbikes that snake around on the street beyond the grass. It feels further away than it is.

The guards start to blow their whistles. People gather their things, make their way towards the street.

I check my phone: 9:30.

I smile. So the city does still have a bedtime.

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.

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.

How Hip-Hop Saved Me In Cairo

So. On my way to Cambodia I went to Cairo. (No, it’s not actually “on the way.”) I went with a lot of expectations and very little planning—pretty much a sure-fire way to ensure disappointment. It was really hard and kinda sucked. Until the last night.

You can read about it here. And then repost it, tweet it, tumble it, whatev. Cause that’s how we do.

Thanks.

Glitter and Consumerism in KL


Let’s just say that my mind is blown.

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.

The World’s Most Amazing T-Shirt!

About a year ago I blogged about the utterly unironic English language t-shirts in Cambodia—nonsensical phrases, constant-clutterfuck non-words, uncouth slang beside hearts and smiley faces.

Well down at the Russian Market recently, I found the shirt to end all shirts:

First off, you’ve got the letters: glittery gold. You’ve got the allusion to gangsta rap (at least I always think of NWA), which is literally and culturally on the other side of the fucking planet from Cambodia. Then you’ve got the fact that a sizable number of the people who’d actually buy and wear this shirt would have no clue what the words even meant, let alone the potent cultural references.

But that’s not all. The brilliance of this shirt, what elevates it from just another joke shirt to The World’s Most Amazing Shirt, is its juxtapositions. It works on so many levels! It’s multi-fucking-dimensional!

Let’s take a closer look:

Okay, so we’ve got a Philadelphia police emblem—cool, at least we’re in the right country.

Wait… Is that… Sting?

Why yes it is.

Oh, but why should we stop there? Gangsta rap versus new wave, UK versus USA, anarchistic anti-authority versus just not liking a band—what do the words “Fuck The Police” really mean? Can any one group claim ownership to the phrase? What does the phrase mean in different contexts?

There are no easy answers. Like any great work of art, the shirt merely raises the questions, leaving the audience to determine their own answers, revelations, resolutions. If in fact there are any. Perhaps the shirt is actually a statement on cultural relativity. Or maybe on the unifying, equalizing distaste for the police so many of us share.

You can’t be sure. So is the world we live in.

But is it possible, is it conceivable, that inside the glittery block letters, wedged between the emblems clustered around the words, there’s yet another meaning? A third and possibly more sinister layer of context?

Let’s get Crass involved:

Well now I’m really at a loss.

As you can see, we no longer have any fucking clue as to where we are or what any of this means. We’ve got an English-language t-shirt making references to three English-language bands that were all trailblazers in their given genres and decades. But that’s the only cohesive thread I can find (other than the snazzy black stitching along the shoulders). Do we hate Sting or are we trying to stir up revolt? Are we making references to racialized police brutality or a more class-driven variety? What fucking continent are we even on? What decade—scratch that, what century? Why is this shirt in Phnom Penh, at the fucking Russian Market, a sweat-bomb of stalls overflowing with bootleg H&M clothes, sacks of rice and touristy trinkets? Why is it $6? Why am I buying it? And wearing it around town?

And why do I not know if I’m wearing the shirt ironically or unironically?

Well, so is my life these days. An Oakland girl living in Phnom Penh—why should any of it make sense? Why should I even try to make sense of it? Better to just pay the $6 (“Really? $6? Why so expensive? I pay $4? $5? Ok.”)—better to put on the shirt, enjoy the glitter and the juxtapositions and relax in the fact that I’m not ever gonna figure any of it out.

But I can still look fly in the meantime.

Being An Asshole Abroad

I am one.

Not all the time. Not most of the time or even some of the time. But on ever so rare occasions (at least I like to think), I have been known to snap. I’d like to water it down, cushion the blow to the ego, but that doesn’t do anyone any good—I can be a big flaming asshole, and that’s just the truth of it.

That’s what my latest piece on World Hum “The Particular Anger of Powerlessness” was about. You guys might remember the piece—an earlier draft appeared on this blog around a year ago. It was a gamble publishing it for a couple reasons. One, it incriminates my parents for traveling illegally to Cuba. But the good news about having supportive parents is that they’re so stoked to see their kid get published, they’re willing to risk their own hides.

But the main gamble is that I was opening myself up to attack. It’s like going in for a knee in Muay Thai—better keep your hands by your face cause someone can clock you good at that proximity. Basically, I reveal myself to be an asshole in the piece. Or rather, I reveal myself at one of my asshole moments—one where I’m not the picture of cultural sensitivity or a deep, abiding sense of my own privilege. Instead, I’m the picture of An Ugly Westerner.

I knew I was doing it—leaving myself open. In fact, I knew I was doing it in the moment, when I acted that way, and it was mighty uncomfortable. It’s like I was watching myself do it and some other part of me was shaking my head—I knew how it looked. But I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

That’s the question I try to delve into in the piece. We all act like dicks sometimes, right? We’ve all flicked people off while driving; we’ve all snapped at grocery clerks; we’ve all been snippy at waitresses—whatever your version is, there’s been a moment when you’ve thought, “Fuck, did I really just do that?” There’s a certain vision one has of oneself and there’s moments that prove that vision, and there’s moments that contradict it. It’s easier to just push them aside and not think about them. It’s less easy to force yourself to go back and make amends. And it’s even less easy to delve into it, to look at it squarely—“This is not how I’d like to act, so why did I do it?”

My fifteen minutes on the Lao-Cambodian border last year was one of those moments. And the answer I came up with, after looking real hard at the situation, was powerlessness.

This may or may not be the right answer. But the point, at least I like to think, is that I wanted to look it. Cause travel pushes you beyond yourself, right? It pushes you out of your comfort zone; it exposes you to new things, some of which are exhilarating, some of which leave you fuming/confused/rushing for the bathroom. But the idea is that travel expands you, that you’re not the same after a trip, that you learn something—both about the world and yourself.

I knew some people would take up issue with it. And when the comments started to come in—“I thought we independent travelers were supposed to be culturally sensitive”; “Way to go, rubbing the guy’s poverty in his face, you definitely came out ahead there”—they didn’t really bother me. I mean, that was the shit I was saying to myself, in my own head. (I realize in retrospect that I should have worked that angle more explicitly in the piece, instead of leaving it hanging around in the subtext…)

The thing is, they’ve got a lot of valid points. The whole speaking-on-other-people’s-behalf thing makes me a wee uncomfortable, chimes itself of a kind of imperialist attitude—but yeah, you know, I get where they’re coming from. You do carry a certain amount of responsibility as an outsider in a someone else’s country, and there’s a certain level of respect one ought to conduct oneself with.

Which is a whole nuther rant for a whole nuther day. But what happens when you fall short of that? Or when you watch other people fall short of that?

It’s something I have ample opportunity to muse over, living here in the shitshow of Phnom Penh. I mean, fucking Cambodia—it’s Westerners Behaving Badly all over this MF. A lot of folks come here for the sole purpose of acting in ways they can’t get away with at home—sleeping with prostitutes, drinking all day, etc.

And believe me, I was way the fuck judgy at first. I remember standing in line at Lucky Supermarket, watching this guy in front of me totally berate the clerk for not wanting to accept a wrinkled $20. It was ugly. Being Cambodian, the clerk didn’t get back in the guy’s face, but instead apologized and groveled and looked real ashamed/embarrassed. Then I felt ashamed/embarrassed. I shot the guy dart-eyes and, after he left, apologized to the clerk on his behalf.

But you know what I’ve realized? Well, one, that apologizing for someone else’s behavior is not my job, regardless if we’re both Americans in another country. But more importantly, that milder versions of the same thing have happened to me. That—holy shit!—I’ve been on the other side of it. Maybe not that bad, but still. That afternoon on the Lao border was one of those times.

It’s humbling indeed to discover you have that in you. (As one friend says, “Cambodia reduces you to what you really are.”) I hate to say it, but I’ve snapped at tuk-tuk drivers, gotten mad at slow service, yelled at people in English when they’ve nearly run me over on the street. I’ve seen poor dudes from the countryside pissing on the sidewalk and blowing snot rockets and thought, “Ugh, poor people.” And I’ve been fucking horrified at myself.

I’ve talked to a lot of expats here about this and there’s always this cringy way we admit it. At least some of us admit it—that sometimes we snap and act like assholes. Maybe it’s the difference of living somewhere versus passing through on holiday—all the shit you could brush off in the moment becomes your life.

Whatever the reason, I realized I had to look at it. I mean, I’m here, this shit is happening, it’s not how I want to act, so I need to at least pretend to be a grown-up and deal with it.

There are some things I just don’t get. I mean, they can be explained to me and I can conceptualize some sort of understanding, but at it’s core it just seems wrong. Bribery and corruption are one of them. It’s a cultural difference, but guess what?—I’m culturally different. You will never convince me that bribery is okay, on any level, no matter how much it’s rationalized. (The same with pissing on the street. It just fucking smells.)

But here I am, in their country (which I can do, being privileged, and they by-and-large cannot)—so what do I do? Well, one is that I accept it bothers me. I don’t play the tape of oh-you-should-be-more-culturally-sensitive. Nope, I just accept that it doesn’t fucking seem right to me. The second is that I notice that it only reeeeally bothers me when my tolerance is down—when I’m stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. So, in the interest of not being a raving asshole all the time, I do my best to not get stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. When I’m taking care of myself, when I’m rested and full and happy, it’s a helluv a lot easier to shrug and say, “Well, that’s not how I roll, but so be it.”

It’s what I’d do now if I encountered the border situation today. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with bribery—I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not gonna fucking fight it every day. And when I see dudes like the one at Lucky that day? Well, I don’t apologize for them but I also don’t really judge them anymore. Most times I honestly think, “Fuck, he must be having a real hard time, to be spreading that kind of negativity around.” It’s the kind of compassion I’d like for someone to look at me with, if they saw me acting like an asshole.

I get lots of great examples, living in this fine city, of how I don’t want to act. And the cool thing is, I’ve learned how to take them as just that: examples and nothing else. And then I try to be my own example of how I do wanna act.

All of which is to say, I’m a lot less bothered by other Westerners’ behavior. It’s kind of not my business. Of course, if you publish a piece about it, then you’re making it everyone’s business. But I did it cause I thought it was a productive thing to do, to come right out and say it. Like I said in my response, I’d love to see a piece by someone who really lost their shit—cussed out an old woman or some shit. Not for the shock value, but because I think looking at those uncomfortable parts of ourselves is really fucking important. Cause we all have them, right?

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe the folks that left those comments really have never had their moment of entitled asshole total-melt-down-ness. Maybe they’re uber-PC and culturally sensitive every minute of the every day, every trip they’ve taken, every waitress they’ve encountered, every shit driver that’s been in the fast lane in front of them. If they have, though, I don’t really want to know them—I don’t trust them.

Maybe I’ve just grown a really thick skin from all these years of writing. Maybe it’s one in the same—people are gonna say what they’re gonna say and do what they’re gonna do and god bless em for it.

And if I do see people who piss me off? Well, I’ve got a jam for that:

Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality

“Gender disparity”

I wrote the phrase in blue felt pen on the dingy white wipe board.

“What does this mean?” I asked, underlining the phrase for emphasis. Because it felt teacherly.

I looked out on a chorus of blank eyes.

Which is not actually what I looked out on, but what I’d like to think I did. Really, it was a chorus of chatter, back-of-the-classroom text messaging, shuffling, soda drinking, and probably only a half dozen eyes actually looking at me, the teacher, in the front of the class in my button-down shirt and skinny pants that haven’t been cleaned since Oakland.

This is teaching in Cambodia.

I haven’t written about it much, since I plan to write (and sell) funny disheartening funny pieces about the whole fiasco that is applying for, interviewing for and teaching in Cambodian schools. It’s a complete and total farce. Given that neighboring countries pay double, you really get the dregs of Western society over here. Reminders at the all-staff meeting for the university where I teach evening classes for high school students included: 1) come to class on time, 2) don’t tell your students dirty jokes, and 3) don’t come smelling like alcohol.

Note: Not “don’t come to school drunk.”

“Don’t come smelling like alcohol.”

Are we beginning to get the picture?

So I teach in this rundown ramshackle-ass classroom with trash in the corners and a door that won’t close all the way, that some industrious student wedges a plastic straw in the doorframe to keep it shut. The majority of class arrive late, play on their phones and cheat on tests—all of which I’d been warned of and told was best not to fight against—it’s a losing battle.

But I can’t get myself to totally not give a shit. Especially cause there’s those five kids that sit up near the front and actually appear to somewhat give a fuck. You know, the kind of kids whose eyes light up a bit, whose voices raise timidly after the dead silence of my glaringly obvious reading comp questions.

And as it turns out, they like to write. Well, they don’t actually like to write, they bitch and moan about it, but the class goes real quiet when I make them write paragraphs and when I read them, they’re grammatical bloodbaths but at least they’re original, ie not copied.

And, as a bonus for me, I make them write about shit in Cambodia, so that I can learn a thing or two. The first assignment was to write about how Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year (cause they do). One kid wrote: “We burn the ghost money.” And if that’s not a goddamn beautiful line, I don’t know what is.

So tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. It’s a public holiday over in these parts, which baffled the shit out of me last year when I was here. Really? In a country with a fucking 80% domestic violence rate, endemic prostitution, fainting garment-factory employees and expatriated domestic help who live like slaves in neighboring countries?

There’s not a lot of irony going on in this country, so yes, really. But, you know, okay—at least we get a day off, right?

I’m supposed to do these listening exercises with them—I read aloud and check their comprehension. If you think reading comprehension is painful in this country, try listening comprehension. It’s painful stuff, and just to make it more painful (for me), I pick stuff not in their boring-ass American textbook that they can’t relate to (ie: the lesson on the NYC subway, to which I opened by asking, “Who’s been on a train before?” No hands raised. Now how the fuck do you teach that??). Noooo, there I go giving a shit again, and I bring in one of the English-language newspapers and read that shit aloud, stopping every few words to explain terms like “gender disparity.”

The gist of the article is that Cambodia ranks lower than any other country in the Southeast Asian region when it comes to gender equality, as measured by literacy, economic participation and empowerment. Of course, the government is disputing this, because disputing stone-cold facts is something they do.

Which I’m not dumb enough to begin a debate around. It’s in my contract that I can’t teach “controversial” material, which given the aforementioned propensity to deny inconvenient facts pretty much includes anything you’d read in the English-language newspapers. So I’m already pushing the envelope. I mean, this article’s got a quote from the (female) opposition party leader. (Should I be writing this on my blog?) That, and it took fifteen minutes to drag the above summary out of them.

So we focus on access to education, since “the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.”

“What’s a ‘social pressure’?” I ask. I write the phrase on the boar beneath “gender disparity.”

More blank looks.

We hash it out, and come up with a good little list. A lot of the expected “a woman’s place is in the home” kind of stuff, but I’m surprised by “girls can’t study at the pagoda.” Boys can become monks and study for free; girls can’t become monks. That hadn’t occurred to me.

But I’m most surprised by how quickly some of them say “because the war.”

I just leave it there, on the board beside a bullet point: “war.”

I know better than to ask.

I point to our list. I inhale, “Now, what you’re going to do—” They groan. They know what’s coming. “—is write a paragraph telling me about why you think girls don’t go to school as much as boys in Cambodia. For those of you that have been listening,” I stare not at the kids who’ve been listening but at the ones in the back, “it’ll be easy.

“Oh, and this is how I’m going to take roll today. So you’d all better write something.”

They shuffle around and pass each other sheets of paper, and pretty soon they’re writing, scribbling, and it’s not quiet in the room, but as quiet as it gets—which is kind of like a jungle-quiet, with a constant buzz of insects and the occasional strange what-the-fuck animal call. (It’s usually a ringtone.)

I should say here that these are patently not the population the article is referring to. These girls are the privileged—they have iPhones and bedazzled purses and platform wedge sandals that remind me of Boogie Nights. They’re pursuing higher education, and their families have the means to send them to what is sadly considered one of the better schools in the city.

But still.

The “social pressure.”

“Pressure’s like a hand pushing on you,” I told them, demonstrating on my arm. “It’s what you feel whens something’s pushing on you.”

After fifteen minutes I collect the papers. We review some vocab and I let them go early, their eyes are so glazed.

I read the papers later, over dinner. Some gems:

“Because Khmer old culture they thought that women can’t go to school because if the women get high education they can write love letter to men and it not good for Khmer culture.”

“They think if the girls go to study, girls can go outside and have boyfriends, that is not the culture in Cambodia.”

“I think Cambodia is the small country that get up from war in 1993 and it’s stay from colonial a lot too. Long time Cambodia have one culture that unfair for girl is the boy can go to study but the girl cannot.”

“Some women in countryside [read: poor people] have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. And the schools are far from the house. Some students in Phnom Penh didn’t study because they are allowed the foreiner [sic] tradition.”

“They think if women get high education or not is not important because they will become a housewife and only work in chicken and look after the child.”

“They’re think that if they agree the girl go to study, the girl can meet a lot of boy can write letter love and don’t listen parents advice.”

“Because the girl is 15 year old – 18 year old they alway get marries.” [We’ve reviewed “always” like 800 times, so this especially broke my heart.]

Those were from my more stellar students, most of whom are sit-at-fronters and girls to boot. As you can see, I’ve got my work cut out for me, when it comes to correcting and editing this stuff. Guess that’s what you get for giving a shit and trying to go all Dangerous Minds on these kids.

But strangely, it was the half-assed papers that got to me the most—the ones from the boys in the back of the room, who spent the whole class dicking off and then furiously scribbled shotty sentences, or even bulleted lists (NOT sentences, minus points!).

There’s an almost haiku-like starkness to them:

“We don’t have enough schools for students.
A lot of families are poor.
We just finish the war in 1979.”

“Because:
– don’t have money for them.
– Family don’t have enough money.
– Tranditional.
– War along time in the country
– Girl can help housework.”

“Because parents don’t have money to study. Some women is the countryside have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. Cambodia have war.”

Or this one, the worst one, in terms of effort, information and sentence structure:

“Because Cambodia just get up from the war.”

Oh, there’s a sentimental old poet still knocking around inside me.

Screw it, I’ll give him the points for it.

Vaguely Familiar Dude Reports on Phnom Penh Nightlife

shitty flickr photo, not going all undercover yet...

The pub is dark and grimy and does not smell like meat.

I look up the bar and down the bar. I turn to a red-faced old dude clutching a glass of beer. “Hey, there’s not a roast here, is there?”

He shakes his head long and slow.

It’s Sunday and we’re feeling indulgent—indulgent enough to have just spent two hours at the FCC rooftop, drinking happy hour drinks and staring into the maze of foot traffic on the riverside below, and indulgent enough to top it off with a massive $9 plate of meat and potatoes and veggies and Yorkshire pudding, all drenched in gravy and butter.

There’s Sunday Roasts all over this city, and I’ve been waiting for the week when I was in both the company and the mood for one. Which is tonight—a friend in from Vietnam, with money to burn and time to kill. But I have to remember where the supposed best one is. The Something Pub on Street 17something. Which is not this place.

The old dude takes a deep breath, then unleashes the knowledge: a string of roasts and reviews, both popular and personal, as well as directions to the nearest ones. It’s as though he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

They say that the sexpats are some of the most knowledgeable folks around—for whatever you think of them, they’ve been here the longest and know the city, the culture, the language the best. Whether or not it’s true, this dude is obviously the Roast Master.

He speaks for a few consecutive minutes. He doesn’t make eye contact once.

Which leaves me to survey the scene. I don’t go out much here—there’s not much other than bars and the vibe gets mega-seedy. So I feel like a bit of a voyeur, peeking into the other side: pool tables and bad rock music and men slouched in the corners, along the bar, and thin women—impossibly thin women, with sharp faces and short skirts—moving around them like hungry insects.

I see a dude at the end of the bar. He looks vaguely familiar—some kind of ambiguous Latino, in a Neurosis shirt, pulled-up white socks and black Vans, long metal dreads bound together by another dread, tied on a knot. Not a style the expats rock here—an Oakland breed. I eye him.

When Roast Master finishes his litany, I nod and thank him.

He still doesn’t look up from his beer.

We walk past Vaguely Familiar Dude. “Hey,” I call out, over heads and between shoulders, “you from the Bay?”

Glassy pupils pin at me. “Yeah.”

I nod. “I’ve seen you around. You’re friends with Georgina and Adam.”

A slow, sloppy recognition spills over his face. “Hey! I’ve seen you!”

The truth is, I’ve been seeing him for years—at shows and parties, across crowded rooms, one of those people permanently on the periphery of your life, fixtures of vague features and forgotten names, “the extras in the movie of me,” a friend once called them.

“What brings you here?” I ask. “Just traveling around?”

He nods. “Yeah, man, shit, just traveling. I been in Thailand and Laos, I met this dude—” slaps another guy on the shoulder, who grins bashfully—“at the airport, and we’ve just been cruisin.” He launches into a haphazard travelogue, rattling off an orderless list of places; there’s a slurry undercurrent moving beneath his words, an intonation of long nights and jig-saw days.

It’s like he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

“So, where’s the party at?” he asks me when he’s done.

“Ha!” I let a wry laugh burst out of me. “I’m the last person to ask. I’m grandma in this town.” Really, I’m grandma in every town, but I let it seem like it’s just Phnom Penh.

“You been here a long time or something?”

I shrug. “Well, I live here.”

He gives me a funny look. “You don’t go out none?”

“Not really, it’s…” I trail off. “Well, we gotta grab this roast before it runs out,” I motioned to my friend.

“What’s a roast?”

“It’s a British thing.” I shrug again. “Meat and potatoes.”

“Oh, right on. Well, fuckin cool seeing you.”

“For sure,” I smile. We turn to leave.

I glance back down the bar. Roast Master is a little redder, but still hasn’t moved.

**

We’re walking down the riverside again the next day, plastic bags of produce peeking out of my tote bag and tickling the back of my arm. At one of the restaurants, I see Vaguely Familiar Dude and his friend sitting in a pair of big wicker chairs.

We laugh. “What’s up, what’s up!” I say.

They look dim and yellow and worse for the wear—two pm but my guess is that this is breakfast. “How was your night?”

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “Man, what’s up with this city?”

I smile. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like,” he looks back and forth, doesn’t bother to lower his voice, “it’s kinda trippy. Everywhere we went was just gross, man. Like, we’d sit down and bam!—hella girls would be all over us.”

I let another wry laugh come out of me. I’m not sure where it comes from, or what it’s supposed to mean. “Yeah, that’s kinda the jam here.” I don’t bother to lower my voice either.

We’d missed the roast the night before; by the time we arrived at the other pub, they’d sold out and most of the seats were empty. We ordered shepherd’s pies and talked lowly to each other, a wiry guy with blurred tattoos rolling a joint at the bar. We declined when he offered a toke, our friendly smiles mirroring his.

“So, like, everywhere?” Vaguely Familiar Dude asks.

“Kinda.” I tell him about the one spot I like, where a grumpy old Taiwanese dude with arguably the best vinyl collection in the country sits in a corner, plays weird records and scowls at people. “But sometimes there’s girls there too,” I add.

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “It’s kinda trippy, man,” he repeats.

I don’t know him. Not really. But I’ve seen him for years, in shitty warehouses in shitty neighborhoods in our shitty hometown, and he doesn’t seem like the type to get skeezed out by nothing.

It was weird to me at first too, I want to say; I wanted to puke whenever I’d see those crispy old sexpats with their arms around skinny waists. But I’ve gotten used to it. It’s not that I don’t see it, but that it’s sunk into the background, become part of the visual noise of the city. I avoid it, but you can’t avoid it, and it doesn’t creep me out anymore. I take their roast recommendations.

But I don’t tell Vaguely Familiar Dude any of this. I’m not sure why. I’m embarrassed, in a funny way—that I’ve let it become normal.

He takes a handful of fries, smears them in ketchup and mashes them in his mouth. “You want one?” he asks from between the mush.

I smile. “Nah, I’m cool.”

5 Expat New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions: I never make them.

In the States, they just annoy me. Invariably, in the first few weeks of January, the gym will be crowded with people stuffed into fresh Spandex, clutching water bottles and looking confused. They’ll clog the machines, fill the classes and then, by Valentine’s, all be gone. And I’ll think to myself—Why?

An exercise having your good intentions crushed by the reality of your laziness and an inherent disregard for your own welfare—what’s about that is fun?

But this year is different. Maybe it’s because the world is ending and all that, or maybe it’s because, here in Cambodia, the stakes are different: the consequences for poor life management are that much more dire. So, for the first time in years, I’ve made five New Year’s resolutions. They aren’t the self-care activities I know I’ll do—go running, eat my veggies, keep a clean apartment, go to meetings. But these resolutions offer a challenge. They’re all simple and totally attainable, but require the spending of a little more money in the face of cheaper alternatives. Which is one of my greatest spiritual challenges.

Here’s what they are, and how I’m faring:

1. A coconut a day

“No one in your generation gets thirsty,” my dad once remarked. “They get dehydrated.”

It’s funny cause it’s true—“this isn’t merely a dry mouth, this is a medical condition!” But you know what I’ve learned in Cambodia? There is actually is a difference between thirst and dehydration, and the latter is really fucking serious.

I’ll walk around the city. Because the weather is nice now and I’m not yet sick of it and I’m cheap, and motos and tuk-tuks add up (see below). I won’t feel thirsty, so I’ll forget to drink water. Then I’ll feel dizzy and nauseous, and think I need to eat. I’ll grab something at a food stall, but I’ll still feel crappy.

Finally it occurred to me: I need to hydrate.

Luckily, coconuts are cheap and plentiful here. Vita Coco, aka “hipster juice,” may be all the rage in the States right now, but the coconut juice is actually pretty important here. Coconuts provide a lot of electrolytes; they’re kind of like nature’s Gatorade, minus all the food coloring and sugar.

So: a coconut a day. So far I’ve missed one day.

2. Not taking motos

Without public buses or (haha) a metro system, the cheapest way to get around town without your own transport is taking motos. You ride on the back of them, and they’re driven by weathered men in busted rubber sandals who smile a lot but usually have no idea where you’re going. A ride costs about $1, while a tuk-tuk is around $1.50-$3, depending on your destination.

But Cambodia lacks a few things that keep motos from being an ideal form of transit. #1: No helmet laws for passengers. #2: No safety regulations on helmets sold here anyway, so most helmets aren’t much more than glorified pieces of tin foil. #3: Cambodia has one of the worst traffic-related death tolls in the region. Really. Heads are busted open on the regular. #4: On the back of a moto, you’re an easy target for bag-snathcers. #5: When someone snatches the bag of someone on a moto, their body is often dragged off the moto as well, creating the opportunity for hard-core injuries (ie: a friend smacked her head on the street, had brain swelling and lost her sense of taste). #6: Cambodia lacks modern health care facilities, and should you find yourself in need of emergency skull-stitching, you’ll need to be evacuated to Bangkok asap.

I’ve heard enough stories. I was already not taking motos at night, when people are drunker and drive faster. But I’ve resolved that it’s tuk-tuks all the way now.

I should be transparent, and admit that I’m working the Freegan version of road safety—I’ll still accept rides from friends on their motos. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I rationalize it by saying my friends are better and more sober drivers than the moto dudes. (Yeah, it’s a lil flimsy…)

So far, I haven’t taken a ride on a single moto. Other than my friends’.

3. Buying real sunblock

You can tell if a commodity is only used by foreigners by how expensive it is. Valium: cheap. Dental floss: expensive. Bootleg DVDs: cheap. Sunblock: very expensive.

It’s been pointed out to me that sunblock is expensive in the States. That’s true, but it’s still a few dollars more expensive here. And $14 feels even more expensive when you’re living on $23/day.

So I’ve been buying this $3.30 Chinese sunblock. I went to the company’s website, and it seems more or less legit. But the sunblock feels weird, too thin and slimy, and it’s real hit or miss: sometimes it’ll work just fine, other times I’ll get burnt despite frequent reapplications.

It’s not so much the cancer I’m worried about as the aging (cause I’m vain, and as previously noted, have a less-than-stellar regard for my health and safety). But I’ve recently discovered that I’m in the early stages of getting what I call White Person Neck—you know, those deep, leathery creases old dudes have in the back of their necks. Ugh.

So I’ve resolved to bite the bullet and shell out the big bucks for the Nivea. Just, you know, as soon as I finish this last Kustie bottle…

4. Real health insurance

You can fib it a bit in some places, but as previously noted, the chances of accidents are high here, and the access to modern emergency care low. And, I’ve learned, once you’ve been in a destination for more than six months, World Nomads considers you a resident and not a traveler. So if you submit a $10,000 I-had-to-be-flown-to-Thailand bill, they’re probably gonna deny it.

So, in the interest of not bankrupting yourself or your relatives, you gotta go for the real deal. My Aetna estimate for just evacuation and hospitalization insurance was over $1200 for a year policy. Which sucks, but I suppose that’s what credit cards were made for, right?

I’ve got until April on my traveler’s insurance, so I haven’t crossed this bridge yet. But of all the resolutions, I’d argue that this is the most vital and, though also the most painfully expensive, the one I won’t cheat on.

5. Regular pedicures

Hahaha—no! It’s not a joke. This is a dirty fucking city—dust and trash and stagnant puddles of water/piss—and your feet get gnarly quick. Why do you think the Southeast Asians are so big on taking their shoes off in their houses? At the end of the day, my feet look like blackened gremlin claws.

The good news is that pedicures are cheap as shit here. You can go to the market and get a quick job with non-sanitized tools for a couple bucks. Or you can go somewhere niiiiice and clean and get the layers of grime scrubbed off for under $10.

I’m shooting for a minimum of two a month. This is probably my most fun resolution and because it involves primping and indulgence, one I’m more likely to keep. I mean, can you say no to these toes?


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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