Archive for the 'Transition' Category



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.

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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.

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.

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.

Naked Like That (Kep Bungalow)

Tonight I miss America
at night.

Tonight I miss tambourines and harmonicas.
I miss the low whistle
of a train through the dark.
I miss fog-soggy sidewalks
and boys with stubbly beards
smoking cigarettes,
windshield shards
glittering beneath their sneakers
like that:
stars.

I miss driving home—
Bay Bridge jaundice,
hungry tunnel howling,
ears ringing
and headlights
like a lonesome pair of eyes.

I missed cracked windows
and cup holders,
the arch of 580
to 24,
the moment before
the highways touch

And I miss that city
laid out beneath me
and glittering

For one still moment

Like that
Like how I miss that—
Something I could almost touch
At night.

Tonight I’ve got the jungle.
Tonight I’ve got
Cambodia’s muggy black
of birds crying and geckos belching,
the low drone of insects
trying to get in.
Tonight I’ve got the world
behind a mosquito net
and the sea somewhere—
I can hear it.

I’ve got sheets and the shape
of some still body;
I’ve got a lonesome pair of eyes
probing in the dark
and all the goddamn stars in the world,
glittering like that

Naked like that

Like how I’ve always been—
Splayed and waiting

And breathing in the dark.


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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