Archive for the 'Phnom Penh' Category

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.

Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part II: Things Fall Apart

So late April and I went going great guns. I scoured job forums and posted an ad for private English tutoring. I sent out my CV to a couple NGOs I’d researched who did legit work on issues I was excited about (there’s less of those than you’d think). I wrote a couple new pitches to those local magazines that had never gotten back to me, and I started Khmer lessons. I resolved to go out more, be more social. I talked to all my friends, networking and brainstorming ideas of how to build a more sustainable life here.

And at first it seemed to go great. I got several responses to my ad for private tutoring. A PR rep from a new legal advising firm contacted me—would I be interested in a contract editing gig? Some friends had good ideas of places to volunteer at, ways my skills could be useful here. I met a guy who was in town, scoping out the scene to see if he wanted to live here; he was sober and funny and cool and I developed my first crush in months.

Maybe all it took was throwing myself in.

It was a long dusty motorbike ride through rush-hour traffic to the home of the young boy I’d be tutoring. His family lived in a villa out towards the airport. I’d met them for coffee at a swank hotel to discuss my rates and qualifications the Saturday before. The dad had sent me a text later that night, saying that he was so glad they’d found me. And that my appearance was “much more than he expected.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Folks here a lot more open about commenting on your body; I was willing to chalk the comment up to cultural differences and the lack of intonation texts provide. Still, I filed it away.

The boy was lovely. He was smart; his reading comprehension was far beyond most of the high school students I’d taught. He liked to read, so tutoring him would be easy and fun. The pay was decent. I felt good about it.

But the text messages from the dad kept coming. Emails too. Wonky messages that made me increasingly uncomfortable—what to my Western mind felt like blurry boundaries. Then he asked me out for a drink.

I ran the situation by a bunch of friends who’ve been here longer than me and know the culture better. They all agreed that it was a little off. It was probably nothing to be too concerned about, they told me, but if it was making me uncomfortable, better to bail.

I decided to pay it safe. Because I’m a girl living alone in a foreign country, so if there’s ever a time to play it safe, this would be it. I made up a reason about scheduling conflicts and quit.

The editorial position seemed more promising. I met the PR director in the lobby cafe of a gleaming new skyrise. They had a two-month contract they needed to fill while their permanent editor was on summer sabbatical. I came back the next week for a test edit and passed. The gig was high-paying and part-time; it would give me two months to save a little and plot my next move. It was also in an air-conditioned office building, with a Western bathroom and a water cooler, and for the first time in my life, these things seemed appealing. I’d never worked in a office; in fact, I realized, no one in my family had ever worked an office job. I was gonna be trailblazer. It was kinda funny. And kinda perfect.

They sent over a contact the next week. But wait—could I start a week earlier? And could I be full-time instead of part-time? Well, I’d have to see if I could leave my current job at the preschool a week earlier, I said. Great, they said, let us know and we’ll send the revised contract over.

So I put my notice in. It was a little bittersweet—I’d really come to love those little rascals. (Ok, some of those little rascals.) But it felt good, to be moving on to bigger and better things. To be moving towards a successful Phnom Penh life. Things were coming together.

I wrote the company and let them know I was good to start May 21. Then I waited. And waited. After four days, I wrote an email to check on the status of the contract. “We’ve been reevaluating our media team and don’t know whether the position will be full-time, part-time or restructured. We advise you don’t put your notice in until you have a contract in hand.”

Um, thanks.

In the meantime, shit got weird at the school. I could have tried to stay on, stretch out my time while I waited to hear back from about the contract gig, but again—I’m a woman alone in a foreign country, where I don’t know the rules, where I don’t know what’s safe or not.

Things were falling apart.

A week passed and the only word I got from the company was “We’ll understand if you take another position in the interim.” None of the volunteer gigs had gotten back to me; I hadn’t heard back from any of the pitches I’d sent out. That guy I had the crush on left the country. The lease was up on my apartment and I was down to my last $500.

Meanwhile, summer schools were hiring in Hanoi. They started at $20/hour—double what the schools here pay and with a comparable cost of living. My friend had a mattress I could crash on. I had just enough money for a visa and a flight. I’d liked Hanoi when I was there last year—the food and the coffee and the hipsters. It was an exciting place, with better roads and less corruption. There was more going on there in terms of art and culture. It was “Detroit” and Cambodia was “Buffalo.” And I could go to a reliable doctor if I got sick.

I didn’t make the decision so much as the decision made me.

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.

Not So Past Tense

Sit at a Western cafe. Your favorite cafe. Order a fish filet salad, pour the caper dressing from a little porcelain pitcher, watch the waiter fill your water glass from a thick green bottle. Read the day’s paper.

The photo: front page, full color. Two smiling boys in black pajamas, red Krama scarves around their necks. They’re posed with bamboo bayonets, beside Cham girls sitting in folding chairs, round faces glowing beneath their head scarves. Follow the jump, thumbing inside, page 21. Headline: “Politicking Mixes With ‘Day of Anger’ Atrocity Re-enactment.”

Lede:

About 2,000 monks, students, teachers and government officials flocked yesterday to the site of some of the most horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge era to reenact barbaric torture and execution scenes for the annual “Day of Anger” remembrance.

Spill dressing on the page.

It stains in little green dots, oil leaking through the white paper that isn’t newsprint, but white, like a school newsletter. Furrow your brow as you read on.

It’s campaign season. With elections coming next month, the ruling CPP party has been gearing up. Posters have appeared in storefronts throughout the city; campaign trucks have rumbled past your balcony, blasting slogans distorted by cheap speakers. Reports of bribery and repression have been popping up. Propaganda everywhere.

And now this. Day of Anger, once called “Day of Hate”—founded by the Vietnamese during their post-KR occupation of Cambodia. A time when people gather at the Killing Fields. Instead of mourning or remembering, lighting incense and raising in their foreheads, bowing—instead of that, the article says, teenagers dress up in Khmer Rouge uniforms and do historical reenactments of brutal torture: skull-smashing and rapes.

Remember, a year ago, at a different Western cafe, reading a report from Rwanda of their Genocide Memorial Holiday. It was a good piece. Remember squinting at your iPhone, zooming and scrolling, wondering why Cambodia didn’t have one of those.

You found later that it does, but it’s not as widespread as the one in Rwanda. You were here for the last one. You didn’t notice anything going on in the city.

Look up from the article, consider the difference in the very names: Forgiveness versus Anger.

Chew your salad and keep reading.

It sounds as though the reenactment was being used as propaganda. Ruling party members were on hand to remind attendees of how much the CPP has done for Cambodia, how much development has taken place since the real crimes happened—the real killings in the Killing Fields.

Remember going there. There were still scraps of clothes and bits of bones in the dirt. Imagine briefly these young men, marching in crisp clothes in yesterday’s heat, rubber sandals stepping over those fragmented remains of the victims.

Of course, there are some complaints—quotes criticizing the CPP for exploiting the Killing Fields and the Day of Anger for their own benefit. And more than even that, a threat:

Yim Sovann, SRP spokesman, said mixing political messages at a remembrance to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime was intentional.

“They know the people are afraid of war so they want to show this [Khmer Rouge atrocities] again to remind people and spread [the idea] around the country that if they vote of other parties there will be a war,” Mr. Sovann said.

Look up again. Think of the conversation you had with S last week, on the terrace of a wine bar overlooking the Tonle Sap river. “It’s always there,” S had said. “They’re always threatening genocide, in this veiled way.” S’s Khmerican, cleaved in that space between expats and locals, forever the hyphen. “And with all the same people still in power, it’s easy to understand why people are scared.”

S had looked up from her mojito and stared out, at the street below you.

Look out at the street before you now—a coconut cart, a moto driver picking his teeth in his side mirror. Pavement giving way to rubble.

You’ve been thinking this for awhile: that it’s not all so past tense. You came here to write about trauma, as though it were something that had stopped happening. As though it were just the psychological ricochets to deal with. As if it weren’t all still here. As if there weren’t still bones and scraps of clothing in the dirt.

How do you tease it apart? How do you write about one part with getting into it all? Is there even a “one part”? And how do you write about if you only ever hear about this shit the day after it happens, when you’re having your foofy lunch at your favorite foofy cafe?

You don’t. Or I don’t. I can’t.

The salad dressing stains spread across the page, turning the paper a soggy green transparent. The newsprint bleeds a bit.

You keep chewing and chewing.

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.

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.

Surviving Sunset, And My First Motorbike Accident

So, so much for that New Year’s Resolution.

To be fair, I was on my friend’s motorbike, so I was still acting in accordance with the half-assed guidelines I’d set for myself. But that’s not really the point, now is it? The point of not riding a motorbike was to avoid accidents, to avoid getting injured and thus avoid medical treatment and having to deal with open wounds in a swampy climate in which I am unaccustomed to dealing with open wounds.

As far as accidents go, it was pretty uneventful. We were on a dusty highway outside of town—though “highway” isn’t quite the right word. It’s a big road with a gravel-and-dirt shoulder, filled with wheezing trucks and swerving motorbikes and minivans full of black-eyed workers heading home, the unlucky of whom were relegated to sitting on the roof. It’s one of the big roads outside of town, lined with garment factories and gas stations and bakeries and endless rows of roadside markets selling t-shirts and produce and weird smoldering meats, from beneath endless rows of beach umbrellas displaying names of cell phone companies.

It’s one of those roads that make you realize how big this city actually is, how little of it you actually know, living in the expat bubble of the inner-city. Which is why we’d headed out there—my friend’s company put him up in a housing division out there and he’d kept telling me I had to see it: “It’s totally different out there. Makes the riverside look fancy.”

That and we were chasing the dusk—wanted photos of smoldering sunsets, red as a wound behind a horizon of dust and exhaust, this particular breed of humanity all cast in silhouette. Everything’s more beautiful as a silhouette; anything can be beautiful as a silhouette.

So we were weaving and rolling through the bottlenecks and break-necks, me on the back snapping photos and trying not to slide in too close to the driver, but knowing that each time we narrowly missed another bike, I’d reflexively squeeze my legs. You’re never sure if that’s the kind of message you want to send, or if you want to send a message at all. Sometime you do.

So I was only half paying attention when an old man wobbled slowly on a motorbike in front of us. He moved out from the shoulder suddenly, and we couldn’t slow down in time. We probably wouldn’t have fallen over if it hadn’t been for all the dust—the same dust that was making the sunset so damn pretty.

We fell, I skidded and it was over before I realized it happened. It didn’t hurt, because most things don’t hurt till later, unless they’re really bad. We stood up, shook off the dust and I laughed as the blood blossomed from my knee.

People from the storefronts and markets came out, stood along the dirt that passed as a sidewalk, and stared. “White girl bleeding on the side of the highway,” I thought and laughed. I waved.

They smiled and waved back.

Blurry, but still...

We cruised back towards my friend’s apartment, stopped at a pharmacy that was really just a medicine cabinet in the front of a family’s living room. The woman tsked at me in a motherly way, stroked my shoulder and disappeared; a smiley guy I took to be her husband tenderly cleaned me up.

The wound foamed under the hydrogen peroxide, and the Betadine was drippy and the color of old blood, rusty blood, and it stung but in a clean way. The smiley guy cut up gauze and taped my wound shut as my friend looked sheepishly on and apologized.

“Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault,” I said. Then, with a smile, “But if I’d been driving, I’d probably be apologizing too.”

Smiley charged us $2 and my friend insisted on paying, which I didn’t argue about. Then we headed back into the city center, everything blacker than night behind my sunglasses, which I still wore to keep the dirt out of my contacts. But he was right—the city center seemed fancy after that, developed and paved and rich.

So now I’ve got this knee to attend to. Three days and thrice-daily cleanings, and it’s still raw in spots. I’m waiting for the scab to form, cringing each time I look at it, wincing each time I rinse it in disinfectants. I always hate tending to wounds. It’s the same with getting tattooed—it’s not the thing itself that bothers me, it’s the healing, the dealing with it. Which is a metaphor, of course.

But before I’d gotten back on the bike—while I stood on that dusty roadside dripping fresh blood down my leg and feeling the stares on my body like sticky insects—I’d looked out and noticed the sunset.

It was goddamn beautiful.

So I hobbled over and snapped a photo.

Because everything is beautiful at sunset.


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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