Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 17: Missing All the Clues

Posted on by Andy Ahmed
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She seems to endure a very stressful time whenever she sees her family and always returns having not slept or eaten which in her present fragile condition leaves her looking sallow and haggard, yet despite me not cutting her any emotional slack, after a day of being with me, sleeping and eating well, she always recovered quickly and would be happy and glowing – and I could still despatch her off to bed in time for the football.

Indeed once before I did that I surveyed the scene; a small apartment, me with my work on my lap, the footie on the TV, my computer on one side and my best girl on the other and I thought, “this is bloody brilliant.”

I had in fact segued into a routine of domestic bliss with no significant transition at all: I’d sit with a mound of papers in the living room, listen to her with a plastic bowl, scrubbing brush and mountain of washing in the bathroom and it all felt just right. Since that New Year’s Eve I’d only been out once whilst she stayed with me, preferring to spend all evening every evening gazing into her eyes.

The third day of the new year demonstrated that her family’s wretched luck was not going to diminish. I’d sent her to the market to buy homey stuff whilst I endured my chaotic first day in the new job. On my return I detected that all was not well and it took another two hours of patience, reassurance and tenderness to draw out the story.

She was at the market with the sister she officially lives with. A friend brought news that the sister’s drunken wastrel of a husband had been in a motorbike accident and was in hospital. This brother-in-law had forcibly borrowed the phone I bought my girl for Christmas for ‘a couple of hours’ three days previously and had not returned it; as he and his friend lay dazed in the road they were relieved of their watches, phones and other valuables: such is Cambodia.

The sister wanted her to keep vigil with her overnight at the hospital but my lass was angry concerning the phone and refused. I suggested she should make peace with her sister at least and go to the hospital but she wasn’t willing.

I’ve said repeatedly that this girl and her family give me such a unique and deep insight into the lives and minds of ordinary Khmers. That’s true in more ways than you might imagine. You know how when you come across a kid who is repeatedly bullied by diverse others or an adult who seems to be a victim in multifarious ways you begin to wonder whether there isn’t something about that person which is in a sense ‘asking for it’?

Are Khmers poor and downpressed because they are viciously exploited or because they are lazy? There is a great deal of truth in the observation that there are two kinds of Khmers in Cambodia; dirt poor peasants and the filthy rich – what they have in common is that neither of them know what hard work is; all the businesses are run by Chinese and Vietnamese, and will be until the economic and social revolution centred in our university pervades into the wider community.

There was one aspect about my girlfriend that had always grated on me but my superhuman qualities of patience and understanding caused me to overlook it for so long but in the end I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It’s the Khmer concept of time.

For months before we were in a relationship and she moved in with me a persistent pattern went like this: ”I’ll meet you at 7 o’clock/in 10 minutes’. Then she’d turn up three or four hours later – or days later if she went to see her mother, if she came at all. And she rarely thought to call me if she was going to be late or cancel.

I put it down to her illness at the time. We only have one set of keys and time and again I’d come home exhausted and starving after a long day at work with a pile of papers to go through and I’d be locked out.

The excuse was usually something like she popped round to see her sister who borrowed her phone to nip out and see a friend and return hours later or something – nothing pressing or urgent.

I tried everything – reasoning, kindness, firmness, anger, refusing to see her but it made no difference. She had told her family she had a new job as a domestic worker, taking care of a family, yet being typical Khmers no one thought it odd she was so rarely ‘at work’ (she couldn’t tell them she was living with a guy) until she was ‘fired’.

A further tension crept in, inevitably concerning money and the family. Her mother hadn’t celebrated the Chinese New Year for a couple of years due to lack of funds but she decided this year, despite unprecedented financial hardships, to have a big bash.

On learning that her daughter had just procured new employment, she importuned her to ask her boss for a month’s salary in advance and give the entire sum to her. My girlfriend concurred.

When I learnt this I informed her that I had no intention of funding a party and I told her she should have discussed this with me first. It upset me that the mother had sniffed out a kind and moneyed barang helping the family through a series of crises and responded like the stereotype.

That made it awkward that I’d accepted the invitation to visit them at this time, but there was a further problem here: the holiday was due to stretch from Saturday to Tuesday, but I only had Saturday and Sunday off and I’d need to return on the Sunday.

With the persistent family pattern I described above I realised that in all probability I’d be marooned in a remote village and risk losing my job. I didn’t mention that another factor is that I didn’t want to be discussing marriage and investing in a business at this stage, or not until a long period of time had elapsed and I could be sure these issues were not going to continue.

In addition a sense of suspicion was beginning to creep in on learning that her mother was suddenly talking about selling the property in the province and renting accommodation in the city.

Now that might have been due to the experience with the cops but I couldn’t help thinking that she might have been scheming along the lines of, ‘My daughter’s about to marry a rich, kind barang; let’s move the whole family to within hand-out distance.’ Smell that barang dollar; bees to the honey-pot.

I may have been wrong on all counts but the feeling of discomfort was growing. I guess my backing out must have come across as a serious double-snub even though it was their persistent unreliability that brought me to the decision and I’d never even hinted that I might fund the event.

It’s not as if she was deliberately deceiving me or being greedy or intentionally causing me problems but after presenting the situation in simple black-and-white terms it made no difference at all. It’s a very deep-seated Khmer trait to make a life out of sitting around doing nothing, being inconsiderate, unreliable and thoughtless and asking an individual to change such a habit is challenging enough but she’s not an individual; she part of a typically Khmer family and it was unrealistic to expect her to get her act together.

She simply couldn’t extricate herself, even momentarily, from her family’s daily woes. I asked her if just once she would tell them, ‘It’s 8.30, I have to go’; it was a demand too far.

She insisted that she would, so I waited for her at home – and she never showed. She turned off her phone to ensure I couldn’t contact her. Why? Not for any sinister or deceptive reason and I finally worked out the real motive for the Asian angle on truth.

I’ve explained before how Asians will tell you what they think you want to hear and I’d reasoned that it was because they don’t want to hurt your feelings by giving you bad news. I now see that the motive is more self-centred and cowardly; they tell you the nice thing rather than the truthful thing because they don’t want to deal with an awkward situation.

Thus, rather than call me to say she’d be ten minutes late and risk upsetting me she’d turn off her phone and not come at all – that way she’d avoid any initial confrontation and not see or hear me be upset.

When she’d show up a day or two later she’d be hoping I’d somehow forgotten all about it, but when she’d realise I was even more upset at her behaviour she react by disappearing and going incommunicado for an even longer period.

At the same time I was moving on the fringe of elevated circles and I’m sorry to be snobbish but with the way my career is going I figured I couldn’t have a wife who is causing me problems every single day due to her and her family’s basic ineptness and unreliability, constantly dragging me down or embarrassing me by failing to accompany me to functions for no better reason than she was busy watching karaoke TV at her sister’s hairdressing shop.

I explained all this clearly and patiently, repeatedly over a long period of time. I don’t think I was asking too much really, and I pleaded with her to be more considerate; what more could I do? Another heart broken and I’m really really sorry, but I had to finish this relationship.

But I couldn’t …

Andy Ahmed

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22 Responses to Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 17: Missing All the Clues

  1. Alan says:

    I really didn’t see the story moving to this extent – reading between the lines of course.

    Had you been aware, you’d have probably been shocked at how big the game you were in was revealing itself to be. As it was, you were probably more shocked to have learnt how blind you’d been (or how much you’d let yourself believe your own dogged reassurances..)

    Reading the similarities with my own experience keeps me reading and I’d love to pump you for more. For now I’d like to know if you think these girls ‘let’ themselves get sick for real somehow (referring to your earlier entries as well as the start of this one) or whether they have an unnusual ability to be able to bring about some self inflicted psychosomatic illness upon themseleves – which in itself would probably make them quite physically ill all the same…

    Self pity has always been a good defence mechanism and I suspsect induces a kind of hallucinatory masochistic high THESE girls probably crave.

  2. andyinasia says:

    This girl was the most extreme case I knew, but I’ve seen others where the sickness is quite genuine but wholly psychosomatic. It’s a reaction to stress in a society that doesn’t understand psychology. In her case there was the additional complexity that she was such a consummate liar, she’d lost the ability to distinguish fact and fiction in her own mind. In short, she was a mess. For all that, my compassion (and stupidity) would possibly have been endless if I hadn’t eventually discovered the REAL truth behind all this obfuscation. That will be revealed next time.

    • Alan says:

      Thanks, it appears we’ve reached similar conclusions – I’m just a tourist though. My ‘V’ had a similar capacity for lying, you know…fascinating creatures!

  3. Louise says:

    Andy DON”T STOP NOW – keep writing. I need to know what happens… is she already married, does she have a heap of kids somewhere, is there a gambling debt she is paying off, is she…..aaarrrhhh. Next installment PLEASE!!!!

  4. Rob says:

    Wow I hope after you spent time posting these memories from your journal or what ever you spent some time reflecting on them and realised how racist you seem. Talk about sweeping generalisations, not just content with racially vilifying all Cambodians you also need to mention how Asians have some kind of special angle on truth.

    I really hope your reply doesn’t start with “I’m not racist but…”

    • Megan says:

      Thank you, Rob and Thida. Andy, it’s time for some serious self-reflection. The fact that you can’t see what’s wrong with what you write and how you write it is really disturbing.

  5. andyinasia says:

    All I can say to Rob is that after 17 articles, this is the first time I’ve been accused of racism. Have you actually read them? Or are you just lazily pulling a line or two out of context?

    Louise – the conclusion will be here in a week or so.

  6. Thida says:

    “It’s a very deep-seated Khmer trait to make a life out of sitting around doing nothing, being inconsiderate, unreliable and thoughtless and asking an individual to change such a habit is challenging enough but she’s not an individual; she part of a typically Khmer family and it was unrealistic to expect her to get her act together.”

    “I’ve said repeatedly that this girl and her family give me such a unique and deep insight into the lives and minds of ordinary Khmers. That’s true in more ways than you might imagine. You know how when you come across a kid who is repeatedly bullied by diverse others or an adult who seems to be a victim in multifarious ways you begin to wonder whether there isn’t something about that person which is in a sense ‘asking for it’?”

    “I’ve explained before how Asians will tell you what they think you want to hear and I’d reasoned that it was because they don’t want to hurt your feelings by giving you bad news. I now see that the motive is more self-centred and cowardly; they tell you the nice thing rather than the truthful thing because they don’t want to deal with an awkward situation.”

    hmmmm…Not sure if it matters if you’ve written 16 non-racist articles in the past (based on the insights of this one, I don’t think I’ll bother reading them). In this article you repeat to insult an ENTIRE culture and race, and as a Cambodian woman I am very offended.

    • hammockman says:

      I’m pretty sure the writer’s positions on almost all the subjects covered in these articles has changed since he wrote them years ago, including the stances expressed in this one on the racial / cultural characteristics of Asians or Cambodians.

      I like the fact that the writer has not attempted to conceal or brush over his past failings and whole story wouldn’t make much sense if the misguided judgements that drove his behaviour were conveniently edited out in order to not offend people who don’t understand the concept of a memoir…

    • Jamey says:

      Do you mean to say you are of ethnically Cambodian heritage? I find it hard to believe you were raised in this culture – one in which Andy’s observations ARE generally true. If you were raised in this country and carry on blindly like you are you are just a part of the problem, regardless of how good it makes you feel to stand on your high horse it harms Cambodian people to ignore painful or awkward realities. You can call me racist if you want but I can still see most Cambodians are lazy and think they’re entitled to handouts and still have Cambodians as friends and a girlfriend – but I don’t know what you’d call ignoring reality and loving a people while clinging to prejudices despite the obvious. I’ve spent enough time in Cambodian cities, towns, slums and with families in rural villages to know people are wonderful, honest, warm, loving people – who are lazy and think they are entitled to handouts. I make an exception for my girlfriend’s sister, who is nothing but a money grubbing bitch.

  7. andyinasia says:

    Thanks hammockman – that’s spot on. Please judge me after the next and final installment – what I’m revealing is just how far I misunderstood and misjudged what was going on in the relationship. I was constantly making excuses for her behaviour on the basis of the lies she was telling me. In the end, when I finally discovered what was really going on, I was in a position to reassess everything that had happened over the previous year.

    By the way, for more than five years now I have been married to a wonderful Cambodian from a wonderful family – she and they display none of these traits.

  8. Thida says:

    I’m fully aware of what a memoir is hammockman, I would just suggest that if a memoir is describing the development of westerner’s perception of a foreign country and its people, they should declare this from the beginning. Not only is it the right thing to do for the Cambodians that stumble upon this site (and who has heard all of this before), its also good writing. There seem to be few 440 posts that contain racist and sexist slurs where the culture of a developing country is shamelessly insulted for the sake of poorly written comedy and satire.

    Thank you for your explanation Andy, I hope what you say is true. I dont appreciate that you did not clarify this to Rob however, as he expressed that some of the things you said were offensive. Why wait for the second disgruntled comment to say my original views were misguided aka ‘I’m not a racist anymore’?

    • Quit jerking off to Cambodia. says:

      You know what’s an even bigger load of bullshit than being racist or sexist? Venerating the culture of an oppressed people or an underdeveloped nation because you pity their ongoing status as victims. That’s some backwards bullshit right there.

      If we foreigners have a point or two of criticism about Cambodian society, well, that’s because their society is – by and large – fucked up. Seriously fucked up. It’s more racist and sexist than a meeting of the Daughter’s of the Confederacy in downtown Detroit. Just because the history of their ignorance is more conducive to them hating Vietnamese or Thai people instead of blacks (OH WAIT THEY HATE THEM TOO) doesn’t do much to impress me.

      Get it together. They don’t want you to be their knight in shining armor and they don’t deserve to have one to begin with. You know who you’re talking to every day? Some of them are the descendants of the victims – or the victims of – the Khmer Rouge. You know who the rest of them are? The Khmer fucking Rouge. They didn’t get beamed up to a starship at the end of the war.

  9. Thida says:

    * a few 440 posts

  10. andyinasia says:

    Thida, I have explained the purpose and direction of the memoir from the first installment and in many comments previously. They need to be read and understood as a whole series – taking one installment out of context is like taking one line out of context – you can twist it around to make it seem the opposite. If I began every installment by repeating the premis and telling the readewr how to interpret it, there would be little room for the story, and any literary dimension would be lost. Having said that, I feel there is a strong clue in the title – ‘Missing all the clues’ surely suggests that I was misunderstanding the whole situation. Throughout my series I’ve been inviting the reader to laugh at me – even get angry with me for my stupidity.

  11. Jay says:

    Andy, I will say it again, it is unbelievable that a forty-something would think along the lines you describe it in your memoirs, an academic to boot. I am sure you have changed but then it was high time, wasn’t it?

  12. andyinasia says:

    Jay, smarter men than me have been suckered, and will continue to be – which is the reason I’m exposing my idiocy like this. By heavily editing my memoirs, I’m not able to communicate the good times clearly enough (to be fair, I didn’t record that side so much at the time either – I wrote when I was alone). When there were no problems she was a truly fantastic person to be with and we had amazing times together – probably more intense fun than I’ve ever experienced before or since. After a while the ‘dodgy’ incidents became too frequent and far-fetched; I’ll be condensing a few of them in the next episode.

  13. Alan says:

    In Andy’s defence, it’s a Memoir; it’s got Memoir in the title; there are previous installments. Does he really need to start every sentence with “It was my feeling at the time…” or “In those days I believed….”

    He’s recounting HIS OWN EXPERIENCES, misjudgements ‘n’ all, and quite unashamedly too. It’s not meant to be an informed commentary on Khmer culture and society so stop trying to judge it as if it were…….

  14. Muppet says:

    I’m reading these articles from Nz, somehow stumbled onto this website and these articles are what keeps bringing me back. As a young man who has travelled, albeit briefly, through Cambodia and Asia in general I find it easy to recognise the ideas that certain types of people play up to. I also think it’s important for people to see the learning curves of others and this series shows a learning curve well. Racism is an ongoing problem and context is an incredibly important thing, you cannot be offended from reading one part of a series. Read the rest and then comment.

  15. BO says:

    Andy. It might not be a straight forward love, but your desire to be loved blinded you.

  16. andyinasia says:

    Partly true, Bo. However, it can’t be as simple as that since I was bombarded with offers of ‘love’ whenever I entered a bar in Phnom Penh. No, I thought it was ‘the right’ love; hence, I blinded myself to her many faults. It will all come to a humiliating climax very soon!

  17. Passerby says:

    “Jay, smarter men than me have been suckered, and will continue to be – which is the reason I’m exposing my idiocy like this.”

    Education credentials (or lack thereof) is not indicator of morality, wisdom nor “emotional intelligence”. We are all human and want to love and be loved.

    Count me as one of those suckered-except mine was by a Thai. Some of it was my fault,most of it was hers and when you throw in the long-term game playing and lies I did not stand a chance.

    Sad though. I genuinely loved her.

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