Archive for the 'Transition' Category

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

A year ago today, I laced up my running shoes and walked down the steep cement slant of my parents’ block for one final run around Lake Merritt.

It was a drizzly cold day, nothing like Indian Summer is supposed to be in the Bay Area, all crisp skies and fogless mornings. It was brisk but in a good way, a way that makes your run better, that invigorates you—that, when you come around the bend to the intersection where you usually cross the street and go back up the hill, you keep going. You go another lap, dodge the geese shit and dinging bells of the bicyclists, pass the cackling dreadlocked dude always posted at the bridge; the patch of trees that smell like maple syrup; the playground you used to go to as a kid; the boathouse you used to drop off time sheets at; the hedge maze they planted when you were a kid that never grew, all the geese eating the seeds so that it’s still just a mossy stump, raising like a ringworm in the ground. Know every step, every inch of gravel, the tree roots to avoid cause they’ll twist your ankle.

Stop back at the intersection, your hands on your knees and breathe. It’s the first time in all your 28 years that you’ve ever ran twice around the lake.

Switch back to the first person: I left my home a year ago today. After that run, I went back to my parents’ house, showered under that gloriously high-pressure nozzle in that green bathroom they remodeled when I was 12 (time capsule letter still nailed to a stud inside the wall somewhere). I said goodbye to the cat (who was so old I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see again, and I was right), and carried my bags to the car.

We went for lunch at a neighborhood sushi joint; I had a seaweed salad; we walked over to Boot & Shoe where I got a cappuccino and a pastry for the plane and said one last goodbye to my co-workers. Hugged my mom. Drove across the bridge with my dad. Looked out the window at the familiar landscape: the skyline of San Francisco, the row of billboards, the bend in the road, the traffic tangling then loosening, roadside giving way to the clapboard suburbs of South San Francisco. Planes arching, Airport Parking and shuttle buses—knowing again every inch, each sign, a route I’d taken a thousand times, it felt like, on a thousand trips but this time I wasn’t coming back.

Hugged my dad on the curb. Walked into the airport, alone.

I was rereading the posts from a year ago, all the commotion and to-do leading up to my leaving. It could have been worse, could have been a lot more dramatic and I think if I’d decided to run off and be an expat any earlier in my life, it would have been. I was struck by the anxiety of those posts—I didn’t remember being that anxious. I’d already edited that out, made my leaving and my last summer in the States into something more bittersweet and stoic than it was actually was. It was hard.

The whole time I knew I was making the right decision, knew that for whatever reason I had to go; I’d grown all I was going to grow in that life there, as good as it was. I felt this kind of bell tolling. I thought the bell was Cambodia, I thought the bell was supporting myself as a freelancer while writing a book on a subject that terrified me. That didn’t turn out to be it at all, but I still believe there was a bell.

I was thinking a lot about what I wanted my one-year post to be about. Nothing is how I’d envisioned it’d be a year ago, when I stood in line at the check-in counter, my three ridiculous bags strapped to my body at various angles. The freelancing dream lasted four months before I had to start teaching. The book project crumbled just about the moment I reached Cambodia. Cambodia, well, that’s another story, one I don’t even know how to tell yet. And now Hanoi—four months and starting to feel like home, starting to get it dialed in to this perfect, almost-cocoon-like existence. A city I hated the first time I visited—who’d have thought?

So I’ve learned a lot. A fuck of a lot. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier working a job that pays my bills and writing for the love. I’ve learned that I’m a shitty freelancer. I’ve learned that I’d rather tell people I meet that I’m a kindergarten teacher than a writer. I’ve learned that you have to deworm every six months, that boiling tap water doesn’t necessarily make it safe it drink, that there’s a kind of humidity that’ll sprout mold on your clothes in two weeks time.

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned in this year is that there’s this placeness, this center at the center of me. Does that make sense? Like, all those posts from a year ago, I was so mad anxious about leaving home for the first time. About not having a base, a place to come back to, my familiar people and places all waiting. Of course I was—I’d never really moved out of Oakland. It was a big leap.

But I’ve learned that there’s a stillness in me. It’s hard to get there and most of the time, I don’t think it shows; I’ll catch myself picking at my nails or digging at the scar of an old wart in a way that I know makes me look nervous, unsettled, like a goddamn lunatic. But there’s this other me, underneath that me, that’s always kinda been there. It’s the me I sink into on long bus rides, staring out the window and thinking about nothing. It’s the me I write from, in the best of times which isn’t very often—when the buzz of that other me dims, turns thin, goes away and my fingers move on the keyboard, almost independent of me, as though one part of me were telling another me a story.

And it’s the me that was sitting in the departure terminal of SFO a year ago, bags checked and pastry greasing up the thin bag, watching a guy in a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass shirt chase his tangle-haired toddler around. There was the surface me, sitting there tweeting some dumb shit, but there was also the center me, ready and waiting to board. A year ago today.

The Xe Om Saga, Part Two: Exactly 100% Like Dating

This, but in 115 degree heat

Remember that humorous, uplifting and vaguely life-affirming post I did a few months ago about finding the dream xe om driver?

Yeah well, that shit blew up.

The funny thing was I kept relating the search for a xe om to dating. Cause it’s totally similar. Which is NOT Vietnam specific; a far wittier and more insightful friend in Phnom Penh correctly surmised that having a regular tuk-tuk driver was always like having a boyfriend—the jealousy, the controlling, the weird reliance you have on them and the even weirder, unspoken power dynamics. (She told a hysterical story about getting into a fight with a tuk-tuk driver that culminated in her screaming, “You are not my boyfriend!”)

So, Hanoi: same jam, different mode of transit. The situation with Da devolved for a variety of reasons, which you can explore here (you’ve all been reading your Vela regularly, right? Riiiiight?!)—but the thing I didn’t get into in the piece is the way in which it was totally, 100% just like dating.

1. Suspicion: “He can’t possibly be interested in me.”
2. Disbelief: “Okay, so he’s interested but there’s gotta be a catch.”
3. Honeymoon: “Holy shit! He’s interested in me! And he’s not crazy!”
4. Settling In/Cracks Emerging: “Everyone’s human, no big.”
5. Ignoring of Flagrant Red Flags: “That’s totally NOT alcohol on his breath.”
6. Increase in Frequency of Red Flags, Combated with an Increase in Denial: “That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues! That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues!”
7. Realization: “Fuuuuuck. That’s indicative of scary anger management issues.”
8. Breaking Up: “But why do I still feel guilty?”

(Here it should be noted that while I’m completely powerless to stop this cycle, I do still have some shreds of self-preservation and have thus not dated in a long time. Like, a really long time.)

The only way in which my relationship with Da was not like dating was in the end: we only exchanged two texts after I dumped him. He didn’t show up at my work unannounced, didn’t harangue me on various forms of social media, didn’t leave sobbing messages on my phone at 4am (cause I don’t have voice mail, thankyouverymuch). And also dissimilar to real dating, I found a new dude the next day; it’s been two months and he has yet to show any signs of mental/emotional instability.

This isn’t just a haha funny thing. I remember when I realized that my patterns in relationships didn’t just apply to the romantic sphere but tentacled out into every relationship in my life: my work, my friendships, everything. Of course the same pattern would hold true for a motorbike driver, right? It’s not like I get to move across the planet and escape this shit.

I guess the crazy thing to me is how much we sniff each other out, without even knowing it. How much we communicate our various forms of brokenness and the compatibility of that brokenness, in some animal part of our brain we aren’t even aware is at work. How much we keep finding different versions of the same people, all over the goddamn earth. Who knew a 50-something Hanoian xe om would evoke the same emotions in me as a 22-year-old Oakland punk? It’s kinda remarkable, really.

But of course the real crazy thing is, after I’d been working on this piece for a few hours last Friday, I headed out to my meeting. I was walking up Xuan Dieu, listening to my headphones and dodging the blinding streak of headlights when whooooo should I see drive by?

Yeah, that’s who.

He said my name and gave a little wave.

Which was totally, 100% NOT like dating.

Revenge of the Long Nose, Eyewear Edition

I knew I’d been in Asia awhile when I passed a herd of European tourists—flushed from the heat, sun-twinged limbs gleaming in sweat, tall and robust and covered in what suddenly seemed like an ungodly amount of body hair—and thought, “White people: how uncouth.”

Just me? Maybe. But the longer I’m here, the more absurd white people in Asia become. We’re a delicate race and we really don’t belong anywhere that sees more than 3 months of sunshine a year. Put us in the Americas, in Africa, put a crapton of us in Australia, and it’s just kinda sad: sweating everywhere, dehydrated and sun-burnt, leathery necks and sun-spotted arms.

In Asia we stand out for other reasons too: we’re large, we’ve got facial hair (I’ve got more of a ‘stache than most of the men I see), our eyes are comparatively the size of dinner plates and our noses like some real-life Pinocchio shit.

Those of you who’ve spent time Asia might be familiar with the term “chang bizi.” It’s Chinese slang for white people and literally means “long nose.” (Check this forum discussion of long noses: “so long, it frightened me.”) And while I haven’t heard this term in my travels in other Asian countries, I have had people comment on the length and geometrical pointiness of my nose. I mean, my nose is pointy by Western standards; coupled with my round checks and Irish tendency towards redness, I look something like an ostrich. But good lord, get this thing out here, combine it with my blue eyes, curly hair and 177 cm of PURE WOMAN and I’m a show-stopper, really.

I mean, dang!

So you know, you get some looks out in this part of the world. (Not aided, as mentioned in the last post, when you go jogging in Spandex with visible tattoos.) You start to feel the offensiveness of your own body—your sweaty, ginormous, hair-and-sun-spot-covered body, of which the pointy nose is the icing on the cake.

In seemingly unrelated news, my contact lens debacle has continued: after the cleaner threw out my lenses and after I discovered I couldn’t get my particular lenses replaced in Vietnam, I contacted a couple clinics in Bangkok, where I’m headed next month for a wee holiday. The response: toric lenses are available in Thailand! Yay! Buuuut… not at the strength of my prescription. To get the lenses I require, they’d need to order them from overseas. “The cost will be between 20,000-30,000 Baht.” (Do the conversion, it’s not pretty.)

So. Glasses it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve solely worn my glasses. Because it’s inconvenient for exercise, meaning that I have to jog semi-blind (NOT advantageous with all the dangling wires and low-hanging tree branches in these parts). But secretly because I look really fly in a pair of big plastic sunglasses (byproduct of having come of age in the post-Kurt-Cobain era).

But if Asia thinks it’s got me beat, if it thinks my genetic inferiority with conspire with a lack of foreign products to take me down a notch in the realm of 90s-era style, I say NAY.

Long nose to the rescue!

Now you might not be able to tell in this picture that I’m actually wearing TWO pieces of eyewear: my 6-year-old eye glasses and my snazzy red shades from Malaysia. And the reason you might not be able to tell is that they both sit so comfortably on my nose. And with so much extra nose to spare.

Technically speaking, I’ve got room for another pair on there. I might just go buy some, solely to prove the supremacy of my pointy schnoz.

Would your average Asian nose wouldn’t be up to the challenge of two pairs of eyewear on one nose? I think not. Does this compensate for the fact that I can’t get contact lenses, can’t buy clothes that fit me, that I look like the fucking attack of the 50′ woman walking around this city? Not really.

But does it make me feel a wee better? Does it give me reason to walk around humming amended version of Smiths’ songs (two points for anyone who gets the reference)? Does it give me further reason to amend canonized poetry to fit my own particular circumstances and sense of personal triumph? (“From the ash I will rise with my long nose”—three points!)

Why yes, yes it does.

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.

Earning It in the Old Quarter

It was the heat that did it. 115 with humidity and no AC at my friend’s house, where I’d been sleeping on that stained futon for two weeks. Belongings scattered in three bags, towel strung along the back of a shelf in an attempt to have it dry. It never did.

So when I came back from lunch at 2pm last Wednesday and the power was out, not even a fan to cut the thick air into more manageable, breathable pieces, I knew it was time to cut out. I mashed my toiletries and dirty laundry into my bags, dripping sweat and shaking, and staggered down the alley to find a taxi.

I was off to be a tourist.

Obligatory flooded street photo

I’ve never been a tourist in Hanoi. Not in the proper sense. Thanks to my friend, I’ve always had somewhere to stay, someone tote me around on the back of their motorbike and take me to the good street stalls and even order for me. It’s been phenomenal, especially considering what a full-on assault-on-the-senses this city is. I’ve been massively culture shocked all three times I’ve arrived here, in a way that no other city had culture-shocked me, and if I didn’t have a good old friend to show me around I’d probably not have left my hotel room.

But after two weeks I was still kind of helpless. I couldn’t drive a motorbike (more on that later), didn’t know my way around, couldn’t tell you the names of any of the amazing food I’d eaten. I had, however, gotten three jobs and was feeling not exactly flush but at least less crushingly broke. I was ready to venture out on my own.

“Ugh, you’re going to the Old Quarter?” another friend said. “You couldn’t pay me.”

It’s true that it’s loud. It’s true that the traffic is mad and the alleys are narrow and the air is choked thick with pollution. It’s true that it’s mashed with backpackers with dirty hair and Vang Vieng tanks, who walk too slow and talk too loud. It’s true that the vendors overcharge you.

But.

But it’s kinda nice to be a tourist. To walk around—actually walk!—and get a sense for that layout of things. To find food stalls on my own, to haggle in my cursory Vietnamese, to be forced to fend for myself. It’s harder and more expensive, but I feel more like it’s mine, like I’ve earned it.

I also like sitting in the AC in my underpants.

Fish soup, down the alley from me

But true to form, I’m the shits at being a tourist. It’s been a week in the Old Quarter and I haven’t gone to a museum, haven’t seen a cultural attraction, have been half-assed about taking photos. I have eaten a lot of street food and sat at a lot of cafes. I’ve gotten up at 6 to jog around the lake, past the women doing that Chinese red-fan dance and the teenagers eating ice-cream (yes, at 6am). I’ve read a book and watch a couple movies and written two first drafts.

So I’ve had a pretty good week.

“I’ll be ready to leave in another week,” I told my Old-Quarter-hating friend, “when it’s time to move into my new place. But for now,” I shrugged at the tourists and the vendors and the xeom drivers perched on the corners, ‘I’m okay with it.”

It’s Too Easy (Cheating in Hanoi)

At the altar,
old ash curled
like fingernails.
A funeral pours into the street.
Bouquets of lychee,
electrical wires
like black nests,
the way his old Russian motorbike
coughs down the alley—
it’s too easy
to write poetry
in this city
where nothing else is easy,
where the air is thick
and my eyes sting,
where fishermen rise from arsenic waters,
gleaming as buffalo
while I drink coffee.

See?
It feels like cheating,
stealing
images the city wrote
when it wasn’t even trying
(when all I ever do is try)—

when it was looking the way other,
when it was waiting for the light to change,

revving its engine or else
leaning a head
against a back:
arms wrapped
eyes closed

Writing poetry in its sleep

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.

The Haze and the Lake and My Life in Three Bags

The haze hangs low over West Lake. Not big and billowy like fog, but flat like a pancake. Like the thin blanket I’ve been sleeping under, a futon on the floor of my friend’s living room. My life in three bags, wedged into the corner beside me, slowing spilling over onto the floor. This again.

It’s not so bad, really. The polluted mist, I mean. At least for now, it feels better than the suffocating heat of Phnom Penh, that felt like a hand over your mouth, or the way the too-strong sun stung my too-Irish skin.

My friend lives on a little peninsula along the lake. Down one of those winding alleys that remind me of the inside of an Italian town. Though I couldn’t really tell you why. It’s a mellow little enclave; there’s cafes along the water, chairs set up under umbrellas and the shopkeepers walk the coffee over to you, across the street on metal trays. You can sit there at dusk, watch the bats swoop through the mosquito-ridden sky, watch the lights click on, feel something resembling a breeze cut through that haze.

I’ve been in a fog since I got here, four days ago, 9pm in a taxi with a broken meter. I’d handed the driver the address, carefully printed with its strange slanting accents. He looked at it and nodded. He could read it and he knew roughly where it was. I wanted to cry.

The fog I’ve been in is not a big and billowy one, like home, the way the clouds will pour over the hills behind my brother’s house—how I’d watch it through the kitchen window and it’d look like a living thing. It’s been more like the haze that hangs over Hanoi, asthmatic and dense and twitching with mosquitoes. It’s a cheap metaphor, but the best I can offer right now.

I guess you could say I’m shell-shocked. It wasn’t so long a journey here—a six-hour bus to Saigon and a two-hour flight—and there’s no time difference, but I feel like I’ve traveled across the world. Been sleeping like a log, spending long hours online searching for jobs and sending CVs, drinking coffee that doesn’t seem to cut through the mental haze at all. Taking some walks, but mostly sitting still. Not writing, not really reading. Mostly just staring a FB feed.

I have no idea what to say about my time in Cambodia or why I knew I had to leave. I don’t think it’ll make sense for a long time, if ever.

My first morning in Hanoi, Angelo caught me on Skype and we chatted. He told me about his trip to Detroit while I looked at his Instagram photos of bombed-out buildings and roller tags and the inside of art studios, abandoned convenience stores and houses with a thousand haphazard numbers painted on the outside. Dead grass and sunsets and his beautiful girlfriend, in high tops and cut-offs, skin burning with youth.

“How’s Hanoi?”

“I dunno, I just got in last night.”

I told him it was hard, that I think the transition will be harder than I’d expected. But that ultimately, I’ll be happier.

“I mean, it’s sad. I left Phnom Penh under sad circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I wasn’t really ready to leave. I didn’t hate it, you know; there was still shit I loved.”

“Then why’d you go?”

A pause. “Self-preservation,” I answered without thinking. I considered it a moment; I looked out at my bags, my life, crammed into a corner. I nodded to myself. “I realized I had to get out. And I can’t totally tell you why.”

“Man,” he said.

We trailed off into silence.

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.

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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