Archive for the 'Phnom Penh' Category



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:

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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.

The Only Omar I’ve Ever Known

So one of the great things about being an expat in Phnom Penh is all the extra time I have. It’s kind of unreal. Despite the fact I now have two jobs, a volunteer gig, a possible contract position in the works and try to freelance my ass off, I’ve still got buttloads of free time. Why did I never have any in the States? I dunno, but here I fill it with all sorts of productive activities, from sweeping my apartment every morning to kick boxing to spending entirely too much time on Facebook.

Then there’s the bootleg DVDs.

They’re everywhere, and they’re mad cheap. Usually $1.50 a pop.

It’s a dangerous combo.

Add to this the fact that I’ve got a friend who has a killer collection and is about to leave town. I’m urgently trying to convince him that customs agents will freak out if he tries to enter any Western country with a 300+ stash of plastic cases with fuzzy, Xeroxed liners, and that the best solution to this is to leave his collection in my safekeeping. Don’t know if it’ll work, but in the meantime, I’ve been sampling his goods.

And I’ve gotten into The Wire.

I was afraid of The Wire. I was afraid for the same reason I’m afraid of Words With Friends—do I really need another addictive timesuck?

Why, yes, yes I do.

So I’m working my way through Season One, curled up on my less-than-comfortable wooden bench in my kimono each night, eyes glued to the laptop screen adjusted juuuust so.

The world doesn’t need another commentary on the series, so I’ll just keep it to what’s relevant, which isn’t really relevant at all, just feels relevant tonight: my favorite character is Omar. For obvious reasons. But for less obvious reasons, it got me thinking tonight. As I had my nightly cigarette on the terrace (sorry Mom) and watched the stray motorbikes whiz by three stories below, listened to the neighbor’s dog barking, felt one of those rare cool breezes dancing around the edges of my kimono—it got to thinking about the only Omar I’ve ever known.

Omar James. I’ll use his real name, cause why the fuck not?—weird things happen online and I might even find him. We went to grade school together. He was in my class, all the way through, but I remember him most from sixth grade.

Omar was American, which sounds obvious, but half of my grade school was immigrant kids, so it actually kinda narrows it down. He wasn’t a Bad Kid, but he wasn’t a good kid either—that strange kind of inbetween place people float in as kids, before puberty, when all hell breaks loose—that time when everyone’s lives hangs before them, unformed and waiting, like one of those planetary birth charts I’ve never understood or been able to read.

I remember the DARE counselor, a dude named Officer Lee, saying on the first day: “There’s three kinds of kids. There’s the kids that’ll for sure get into drugs and the kids that for sure won’t. Then there’s the kids in the middle.” He’d paused here, for effect. “Those are the ones we’re trying to reach.”

I knew positively I was one of the kids who wouldn’t.

So I’ve been known to be wrong in my life.

But I remember thinking Omar was one of the kids in the middle. He had a real raspy, low voice, so the teachers always caught him when he was talking (“Your voice is like a red race car,” one teacher had told him. “People are always gonna notice it.”) I remember one term we were seated in the same group, warped old wooden desks facing each other, and I’d tried to whisper something to him out of turn—my version of taking a risk—and he’d gotten frustrated, making a pssshhh noise and said, “Man, I can’t hear you.”

I probably turned real red.

Irish blood makes you do that.

No one else in that class had Irish blood.

Omar had real dark skin and a burn from a flat-iron on his forearm. Lots of the black kids had them, and I remember wondering why—in the same way other kids asked if all little white girls were born with parts in their hair.

He had rough hands too; I remember that. They had little scars on them, callouses and patches of grayed skin, and they’d seemed to me like grown-up hands, man hands. I remember watching them, holding a pencil during tests. I remember watching that shiny burn too, the way the light seemed to gleam off it someway special.

He also had these little gray hairs all over his head. They curled around the rest of his hair, in a way that made them seem curlier, though probably they weren’t. He said he’d always had them, and I’d remember that, since second grade, he had. He said his grandpa had them too, and that that was who he’d gotten it from.

Omar also had a Starter jacket. That was a big deal back in the day. Cause they were expensive and fly. Kids in Oakland fought over Starter jackets, the way kids also fought over Air Jordans, and the kids who had them had a reputation for, you know, the kinds of things kids with fancy shit in poor cities have a reputation for. The Oakland School Board got frustrated and decided to ban the jackets at all schools. This was before the days of semi-mandatory uniforms in public schools, so the ban was also big deal. The school board meeting where it was discussed made the nightly news, and I remember thinking, “Not all kids with Starter jackets are thugs—Omar’s got one.”

No one, I should say, ever tried to fight Omar for his.

Which is maybe why The Wire Omar made me think of him.

But I really don’t know why the fuck I should remember any of this. Maybe it was the hair, the little gray hairs, and how they made me have a picture of his grandpa—some old dude as a little boy once, somewhere, hella long ago, with the same little gray hairs. And picturing that had made me picture Omar as an old man, the same way his rough hands did.

Neither one of us would be old now.

But still.

Then I left that school—we all left, graduated—and I went to a nicer public school up in the hills, followed by a string of other schools—the typical hustle for a decent education in Oakland—and I lost touch with most of those kids. I’ve found some through Facebook—Alekist, who went to Brown and works for a biotech company; Dartanyan, who used to do backflips off the stairs and has a record label now. (Okay, so, I found two kids.) But even before The Wire, even before Phnom Penh and expathood and this weird ass new life of mine that has made me nostalgic for random shit I can’t explain, I’d looked for Omar a few times—plugged his name into the search bar and got nothing.

Cause some people stick like that. Some images stick like that.

Like a race car in the red.

A Poem Walked Past My Balcony Last Night

Teenagers

walk down the median,
streetlamp light
laughing.

Boy pauses
reaches
to a branch.

He pulls it down
picks
one, two

mangoes off the tree.
Hands one
to each of the girls.

They keep walking
and disappear.

Vaguely Familiar Dude Reports on Phnom Penh Nightlife

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

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

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

He shakes his head long and slow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He still doesn’t look up from his beer.

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

Glassy pupils pin at me. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You been here a long time or something?”

I shrug. “Well, I live here.”

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

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

“What’s a roast?”

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

I smile. “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile. “Nah, I’m cool.”

5 Expat New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions: I never make them.

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

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

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

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

1. A coconut a day

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

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

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

Finally it occurred to me: I need to hydrate.

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

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

2. Not taking motos

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

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

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

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

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

3. Buying real sunblock

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

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

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

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

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

4. Real health insurance

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

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

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

5. Regular pedicures

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

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

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


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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