Cambodia as My ‘New Colossus’July 23, 2014
I’m a New Yorker born and bred, and thus, a creature of particular routines and habits. I eat the same breakfast everyday (toasted everything bagel with an egg, ham, and cheese), I go to the gym eight days a week (that’s a joke where I come from) and I go to the same bar every weekend where I see the same people drinking the same beer.
Another regular occurrence takes place on my Friday afternoons – Cambodia’s late night or early morning depending on who you ask – when I sit down to Skype chat with a petite Cambodian woman named Boramy whom I am particularly close with.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Ach! A hostess girl no doubt. Such a pity. Probably sweet talking the poor bloke right now with spurious passion into wiring her some money in order to fund her Khmer brother’s ice addiction.”
Not quite, although regrettably I have had some experience with that narrative as well with profoundly perilous results for all involved.
This woman’s cousin, a Khmer Surin, had previously worked as a laborer constructing houses and offices in Buriram across the northeastern border in Thailand. I use the adverb previously because she works there no more, having moved back across the border in the wake of Thailand’s most recent military coup and leaving her family in a bit of a panic. Even a novice student of body language could facilely pick up the air of apprehension in Boramy’s demeanor through the 14 inch laptop screen during our most recent conversation. There was a fear behind her dark eyes, not plainly evident but hidden in that inimitable Khmer way, observable beneath her subservient smile only by those with demonstrable clairvoyance. No, she did not ask me for money, but her concern for her family’s finances guided our dialogue.
Her cousin is but one of an estimated 250,000 Cambodians who chose–or perhaps were forced–to migrate back home following the Thai junta’s decision to begin cracking down on illegal immigration, an issue of significant complexity anywhere in the world but especially in Southeast Asia. In the weeks and months before the coup, there may have been as many as 400,000 Cambodians living and working in Thailand, a country with a stronger economy and superior infrastructure vis-à-vis Cambodia. These migrant workers move to Thailand ostensibly because they can make more money there which they can then send to their families back home. This is not exactly groundbreaking information and it is universally true throughout the world when critically assessing immigration issues.
But what about when individuals move from a more prosperous part of the globe to the Third World? Why would yours truly decide to take his game from New York–arguably the financial capital of the world–to Cambodia for the long haul?
For the culture? The food? Surely not the food. Despite Phnom Penh’s advancing reputation in the area of quality international eateries, the local cuisine is not exactly a great draw.
Maybe for the opportunity to live a life of utter debauchery where the only thing cheaper than sex and drugs is life itself? Such intemperance is not exactly my province either, though. Is there no place in the world which might be somewhat more salubrious than Cambodia?
Cambodia, where WebMD is literally a better option than seeing the local doctors.
Cambodia, where toweling yourself off from your morning shower can induce a waterfall of sweat during the hot season.
Cambodia, where your average monsoon storm during the rainy season can leave large parts of the capital looking like New Orleans after Katrina.
Cambodia, where nighttime power cuts leave one with a choice of sleeping without the A/C and potentially drowning in sweat, or opening the window for a breeze only to be eaten alive by mosquitos.
These issues are exactly what my friends and family back home constantly bemoan about with the loquacious peskiness of those who have never travelled much beyond their own state, much less their own country. Why, they ask with a peculiar combination of avuncular affection and something akin to pity, would I willingly choose to leave the U.S. and move to such a ghastly place? That’s where Gary Glitter went to molest boys, you know, and don’t they still have landmines scattered about?
There are many positive aesthetic qualities to living in Cambodia: the Angkor-inspired “new Khmer” architecture, the peaceful countryside, the slow pace of life. These things are unavailable in the Big Apple. But, incidentally, the principle reason why I am moving back to Cambodia is the same reason Boramy’s cousin left it: economics.
I made the mistake of pursuing my passion at college and majored in history. I had dreams of becoming a teacher, having summers off, and reading biographies in my spare time. With ignorant bliss, I neglected the troubling stories I had heard about the lack of jobs available in education, the impending student loan crisis, and the neoliberal-driven push to cajole university students to enter the IT sector.
I could easily find a teaching job in New York, I casually reasoned. After all I would have a degree and a network of contacts to hook me up. I was unconcerned with racking up thousands of dollars of student loan debt because I figured once I landed that elusive job it would be a simple matter to pay it off. I abhorred math, science, and computer classes because I was positively abysmal in the subjects. Needless to say, there was no job waiting for me on the other side of graduation day.
After slaving away in retail for the better part of six years, I moved to Cambodia to work as a writer and, eventually, a teacher. It wasn’t a panacea for me and I knew I wasn’t going to strike it rich. However, I reasoned that if I was going to accept $12/hour, teaching in Phnom Penh was preferable to stocking shelves on Long Island.
Upon returning to the States after a year away and laboriously valuating the America job circuit, I finally landed a job as an adjunct lecturer in political science at a small liberal arts college. Sounds great, right? Adding “professor” as a prefix to my name was cool for a while but the job’s cache essentially ended there. Getting paid per course, I actually ended up making and saving less money than I did as an English teacher in Phnom Penh. Adjuncts are the sweatshop labor of higher education, and my derisible salary was so meager that it nearly qualified me for food stamp assistance, a U.S. government-run welfare program for low income earners. My students couldn’t comprehend how or why a college professor needed to moonlight as a weekend bartender just to make ends meet.
An unmistakable gloom settled around me which typically accompanies the realization that one must move back in with their parents. Moreover, I found myself missing every little thing about Cambodia from the vacuous tuk tuk drivers who clap in your face to the street corner sim card sellers who can’t break a five dollar bill.
My unmitigated discountenance of life in America was matched by my energized anticipation of life Cambodia, and I didn’t hesitate to move back at the first opportunity. What started out as a gap year-inspired “let me bop around Southeast Asia for a bit because I don’t want to get a real job in America” experience gradually evolved piecemeal into a grand design to settle down in the Kingdom of Wonder and to pursue a working career as best a foreigner can.
My motives stretch beyond monetary ones exclusively, and the reasons for deciding to live in Cambodia vary by person–especially for those who have been here far longer than I have and who are undeniably more invested. Whether it’s the simple purity of strolling down the picturesque Riverside in the early dawn to buy an ice coffee for 50 cents, or relaxing at the end of another scorcher with a cool Angkor beer…for 50 cents, there is a palpable draw to living here that I feel isn’t always articulable but, rather, something to be experienced.
This post isn’t meant to be another in the line of the nugatory, attention seeking variety churned out by fellow millennials with increasing frequency on personal travel blogs who remark on their sojourn to the Global South and feel that they’ve earned some sense of respect or entitlement for doing so. Nor am I asking for sympathy by comparing my life to Boramy’s cousin, which is unequivocal in more ways than one.
But what I would like to convey is that there are serious problems in the West: problems in higher education, problems in the job sector, and systemic structural problems endemic to free market, capitalist systems. The solutions to such issues are complex and will take a long time to actualize, if they manifest at all.
In addition, it is exceedingly difficult for an American to work in the European Union. Countries like China and Korea, while paying better, are just too bland for my taste. Cambodia’s simplistic visa policy, high demand for English speakers, and unique social environment is a good fit for someone like me.
It would be disingenuous to gloss over Cambodia’s own economic issues, but that is a subject best left for a future article. It’s a difficult decision to leave one’s country, but that is the reality for many in a globalized world, from rich and poor countries alike. Just as Boramy’s cousin filled a need of low-paid labor in a neighboring country, so English speakers fill a need in Cambodia.
In the end, while the country does attract its share of barang derelicts, and there are indeed unexploded landmines still buried in the countryside, Cambodia is not the destitute backwater which many Westerners perceive it to be. Creature comforts are available, Western-style malls are being constructed, and there are even a few gyms.
Hell, USA Donut even carries whey protein powder. For a New York guido like me, how bad could it possibly be?