The Phnom Penh Pyramid of JudgmentMarch 1, 2015
People love to look down on each other. Even those at the lowest of the low finds someone else to judge. Hell, when I was addicted to heroin I looked down on the alcoholic who lived downstairs. “The poor bastard is destroying himself,” I’d think after waking up to find myself face down on my keyboard having typed 232 pages of “mmmmmmm.”
In Phnom Penh a similar dynamic is at work. Here is the definitive list of Phnom Penh prejudice.
Top of the Pyramid are… Khmers
“When the foreigner try to speak Khmer it is very funny for us,” said a local friend of mine having split his sides laughing at my attempt to order coffee with milk.
“J’moi tuk lo go” – blank stare. “Tuk low goh” – still nothing. Raising my eyes skyward in despair I tried a third time, “Tuk lo coh.”
Khmers are at the top of the chain not just because they completely understand the dangerous and mystifying contradictions of life here but they have survived it. Having endured hardships most foreigners can only imagine they need only look at the latest arrival of tanktop-wearing, elephant-panted foreigners and shake their heads in good-natured condescension. And fair play to them.
Khmers look down on… Old Timer Expats
These are the older ex-pats who first came to Phnom Penh in the 1990s and lived through the 1997 coup. While us new arrivals marvel at the lack of public transport and ramshackle markets, these sensibly-dressed old timers sit back, sup their beer and remind everyone that when they first came here Phnom Penh resembled a malfunctioning version of Tatooine – the town Obi Wan takes Luke to in Star Wars. It’s an impressive look that could only be improved by the introduction of a pipe. These guys have earned their stripes.
Old Timers look down on… Professional Expats
Also near the top of the judgment pyramid are the professional expats. These are the guys who are skilled enough at their jobs to be provided with full western pay and benefits in Phnom Penh. They are executives, accountants, lawyers, NGO directors and fully-qualified teachers. Sure, they exist in a bubble and generally know fuck all about Cambodia outside their high-walled villas and BKK1 apartments but why the hell should they? They are here because they are good at their job and the Cambodian economy needs them.
Professional Expats look down on… TEFLers
The back-up plan of every western wastrel is to teach English in Southeast Asia. Due to a lax education policy and a culture that deems failing an exam to be an unacceptable loss of face, teaching English is a job that requires only that you show up. Hires are made on the basis that the teachers can speak their own language and are the right colour. After six months, working six-days a week, these gadabouts are utterly exhausted and disillusioned. They take their meagre savings and scarper somewhere else like Korea, China or the Middle East only to be replaced by the next traveler who has run out of money but still can’t face up to their responsibilities and return home.
TEFL Bums look down on… Voluntourists
Nearing the bottom of the pyramid of judgment are the voluntourists. Driven by bad conscience at having been brought up in middle class suburbia back in the US, UK or Australia and an ignorant wish to “help the brown people,” these types are not interested in a normal holiday. Instead, their fragile egos demand they make a difference. Unfortunately, there are few genuine opportunities to make a difference seeing as gangsters and cynical NGOs funnel these guys into a source of free labour. The most damning indictment of this kind of thing was given by legendary educator and activist, Ivan Illich who addressed the latest batch of US Peace Corp volunteers with the following scathing indictment: “Suppose you went to a U.S. ghetto this summer and tried to help the poor there ‘help themselves.’ Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, of your status as middle-class college students on a summer assignment.”
Voluntourists look down on… Backpackers
Backpackers are an easy target because they are young sophomores. Sophomore, in ancient Greek, means “wise and foolish” referring to that period when a young person first discovers Nietzsche and Chomsky and thinks they totally get the world’s problems. Such nincompoopery is tolerated by older people only because of the knowledge that they were once like that. And these guys, with their ability to think, are the cream of the backpacker community. The less said about the rest the better. Suffice to say we’re talking about people who heat clipper lighters to a thousand degrees and give each other “smiley” burns for fun.
Backpackers look down on… Sexpats
Gathering at Sorya Golden Mall like lecherous, pot-bellied denizens of some mad realm, sexpats are those foreign men who come to Cambodia to take advantage of its cheap whores. While the actual ethics of prostitution is a confusing area, there’s nothing like the sight of a flabby old man melting over a poor Cambodian girl to turn your stomach and attract the entirely justified contempt of those higher up the pyramid.
Sexpats look down on… Deathpats
Say what you like about sexpats at least they have made enough money somewhere down the line to afford flights, hotels, endless supplies of wifebeaters and litres of lube. They haven’t completely failed at life. You really have to wonder at the guys (and they’re usually guys) who come to Cambodia – a country with an unparrelled ease of life for foreigners – only to fail so hard they are found swinging from a noose in a riverside hotel room.
And everyone looks down on… the French
The writer AA Gill once said that, while the English have a barnful of words for “sorry,” the French, “have a mouthful of facial expressions for ‘I don’t care what you think’.” Hell, even the French don’t like themselves. I once had lunch with a laconic Frenchman in Chinese Noodle on Monivong and asked them why the French community doesn’t mix with the rest of the expats. “Because French people are assholes,” he said, with a shrug.