Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 11: The Look of Love

In the last couple of articles I’ve been focussing on the voluntary work I was doing, leaving my ‘love-life’ in abeyance. I guess it’s time to return to that topic now.

I’m about five months into my life in Phnom Penh now, already depressed by the routine cheating and laziness of students, and corruption and ineptitude of education management, but still believing that my voluntary work could at least ‘make a difference’.

In the meantime, I’d vacated the room in the hostess bar, and found accommodation in a busy ‘backpacker factory’.

With my work commitments, I was very rarely dropping into hostess bars by now, resulting in the phone calls and text messages drying up. Through this time I had maintained an interest in two girls: one was a very lovely and respectable girl who worked for just a few weeks in the respectable bar that was my ‘sanctuary’ from the hostess bars until her parents forced her to quit and return to their province to find work closer to home; as a result we were allowed to meet in the presence of a chaperone once every three weeks.

Between rendezvous, it would always be up to me to call to chat on the phone; respectable girls cannot take such initiative. I misinterpreted that as a lack of interest and eventually called time on that sweet and innocent physical contact free relationship (until she defied her family and culture by emailing me a year later resulting shortly thereafter in our marriage, but I’m getting ahead of myself here).

The other girl was the sweet cashier at the hostess bar I had previously been staying at. She was not a hostess and always stayed behind the bar. She’d been sweet-talked by legions of barflies promising her the Earth, promising to wait for her and so on, and she’d seen every one of them soon renege and pick up an easy girl.

So far, despite the myriads of spies in every bar, I’d somehow gotten away with my surreptitious behaviour and passed muster. Conversely, her behaviour all this time had been genuinely ‘pristine’, in that there were no guys she was concealing from me.

Nevertheless, for all that she was ‘different’, she was working in a hostess bar and that ruled her out of contention. I still liked to see her, however, but due to my work commitments, my visits to her bar had become infrequent.

In desperation she broke her golden rule and arranged to see me for a date on her day off. Unfortunately it clashed with one of those chaperoned dates with the other one; I came clean, she got hurt and that’s the last I heard or saw of her for a few weeks (a while later the other ‘relationship’ died away, but I was too ashamed of myself to contact the cashier).

And then one Saturday she contacted me. Her nearly-blind motodop father had had an accident, running over a woman’s foot which resulted in the foot being broken. Cambodian justice works like this: it was decided on the spot that the offender would pay $800. That’s a phenomenal sum here but there’s no recourse to legal aid or any form of arbitration for the poor.

The family rallied round and flogged and pawned what they could to raise the princely sum of $600. In a plaintive text message she mentioned that she hadn’t been back to work for three days and the boss was on the verge of firing her but she was too depressed to show up. Given what she was imagining about my new relationship (which, as I wrote, had ended), it took a heck of a lot for her to contact me and when I called her she was a real mess – physically and emotionally the poor thing had absolutely gone to pieces.

It’s not about the money – well it is; in a society where people have none of course it’s about money. She’d never ever asked me for anything and was always deeply embarrassed to accept help from me but I made her promise to tell me if she ever had a problem. Previously I’d put my hand in my pocket when she needed medicines and dental care but this was a big one and the $200 sum hurt me but I gave her the shortfall; thus she was, in her mind, indebted to me on so many levels.

I’d put myself in a situation that I’d tried so consciously to avoid; as a rich man in a poor country like a colonial patron I’d exerted power over a powerless family and what’s more a girl whom I’d been trying to prevent falling in love with me was now indebted to me both literally and emotionally. I didn’t want this but how could I have avoided it?

We arranged to meet the next day, on the Sunday morning, where I’d hand over the cash. I waited at the pre-arranged time at a riverside café – for four hours. It put my powers of patience to the test and I passed with mellow yellow colours.

It helped that I had nothing to do all Sunday save catch up on my sleep and mark more exam scripts but also I knew she was in a really bad way and the worry had made her physically very sick. I was deeply concerned for her and I couldn’t just switch that off. It was ten at night when she finally mustered enough strength to meet me at my guesthouse restaurant and when I saw her she looked terrible.

This I what I wrote about her that night: twenty-nine, not under any parental control but has taken on board ultra-conservative values possibly as a necessary survival measure given the environment she has to work in – she’s truly a pure lotus rising above a stagnant cesspool. She used to have a very good, well-paid job in a classy hotel for a long time but had to quit in order to care for her father due to a prior moto mishap.

She’d saved a considerable amount of money ($5000) through her hard work and frugality but what didn’t go on his medical expenses was lent to an uncle who never repaid it which is how she found herself penniless and working behind the counter in a brothel where she’s always putting herself out to help the ungrateful bling-obsessed bubblehead hookers.

They really anger me now; when I finally caught up with her she looked skeletal after not eating or sleeping for four days and the reason it was so difficult for me to make contact with her is because she switched off her phone after getting a series of calls from these girls none of whom expressed a momentary concern for her welfare but were asking her to lend them money.

These included girls who’d received between $250-750 in the last fortnight but who had already blown the lot (or their husbands had) on shopping and gambling. They all are of the opinion that because she is single, childless and not extravagant she must have heaps of cash to lend them and if she wasn’t well-off she’d naturally do what the rest of them do and whore herself.

The way they treat her sickens me yet she is endlessly patient with them but at some cost. I’m the only person she trusts to reveal what is behind the façade and what I see is a very pure and precious but desperately fragile heart.

She deserves so much better but am I the one? She preserved her body, heart and soul for Mr. Right and now she thinks she’s found him and as much as I’ve consistently tried not to encourage that, by being consistent I have encouraged that. And then when I found her broken in little pieces I knew the medicine the doctor gave her wasn’t going to cure her because her physical state was merely symptomatic of a heart that had suffered more than it could bear and I was the only person who could put her back together again whatever complications that might cause in the future. What else could I do?

Andy Ahmed

Photo used by kind permission of Chris Coles from his photo essay Noir Nights in Phnom Penh

24 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 11: The Look of Love

  1. Bitteeinbit Reply

    Things are getting pretty interesting, looking forward to the next instalment. And waiting 4 hours is pretty hardcore!

  2. andy Reply

    No SD, I eventually married the other one. Bt – the 4 hour wait was mere foreshadowing ….

    • Soi Dog Reply

      Thank goodness, Andy. If you have the time, please PM me if you know what happened to that DV8 cashier since (if it’s not eventually covered in your stories here). She was unique, as I recall – as far as bargirls go. I was always curious how her life turned out.

  3. cobbler Reply

    Andy-everyone seems to think you married the cashier. May wanna clear that one up.

  4. andy Reply

    Paragraphs 4-6 spell it out unequivocally; I suspect some people are skim reading to get to the juicy bits! Anyway, she may have been a cashier at DV8, but she was DIFFERENT!!!!! 😉

  5. Jay Reply

    I still can’t believe all this was written by a 40-something at the time.

    • Peter Hogan Reply

      He made extensive contemporaneous notes as was mentioned in an earlier article in the series.

  6. andy Reply

    I was 40-something though. I can assure you that I was and am by no means the only naive middle-aged westerner to rock up in Cambodia!

    • Soi Dog Reply

      Not the only one? I bet many of us made some choices in our naive early days in SE Asia that make your decisions look wise by comparison. Like you, I try to look back at my past temporary lapses in judgement and laugh at myself. Almost all of those bad decisions were girl related. Such is life. Live and learn. I’m out of cliches.

    • Jay Reply

      Yes, I have seen quite a few of those ‘naive’ Westerners but wouldn’t have expected a self-professed intellectual who must have seen the same things in his previous forays to India, Nepal, and Laos (was it?) to be so easily drawn into an emotional morass in Cambodia. Usually, it is the more simple-minded kind that is so quickly taken in. I am just a little surprised, that’s all. Midlife crisis, was it?

  7. andy Reply

    I can look back now and laugh at myself. Long after this story finished I did marry the right girl (who waited a year)and we now have an astonishingly strong marriage. In addition my career is now in a very healthy situation. However, it was a long hard slog to get here, with rank luck playing its part in places. Plenty other guys don’t get the breaks and find that a serious error of judgement on the woman front leaves them screwed for life.

    • KhmerBornNraisedNcallie Reply

      Good for you if you are one of the few good marriages that will last. I’ve seen so many friends from the States that were charmed by the girls in Cambodia only to end up disillusioned and poorer in the pockets. Sadly, I’m a bit prejudiced in my opinions because I’m Cambodian but raised in the States. The things I’ve seen and heard makes me a bit sad. I’m really surprised that most “westerners” thinks that they will actually meet a “respectable” girl in a bar/hostess place. Seriously?! Not in Cambodia! No matter how dire her family situation is, once a Khmer girl steps foot in a club/bar/brothel, she is no longer considered “respectable” to the Cambodians. It doesn’t matter if she is still innocent/virgin…she’s already considered to be loose/slut/whore. No respectable single Khmer girl will even think of going to those places because it would bring shame and dishonor to her family. I’ve meet good Khmer girls and I’ve meet the shameless two-faced Khmer girls pretending to be pure. On a side note, I’m married and I’m not even allowed to go to those places when I’m in Cambodia. Because I wanted to respect my in-laws wishes, I refrain from doing anything that will make them look bad. Even though most native Cambodians don’t expect much from American born Khmers.

      On a different side note, I find it hilarious when native Khmers talk shit about me when I’m standing right next to them watching them. Because of my light skin color, they usually mistaken me for Korean. When I finally speak, they just stare at me with their mouth gaping open like stupid fools while I put them in their place. My father was ex-military in Cambodia so I grew up knowing some very graphic cursing. Bad of me, but the American in me loses my temper when I have to deal with fools.

      • Williagra Reply

        Callie – Great post. I’d like to hear your thoughts of what I perceive as the culture of Khmer men marrying a virgin, having a kid, then off to the brothels soon after and then often bailing on the family entirely, leaving the wife and her family (mother) to raise the kid.

        • Callie Reply

          Hello. Williagra, I hope my post can answer your question some what. I technically, really can’t answer your question directly since I’m missing the required body parts to fully understand a Khmer man and their minds or any man on that matter.

          Are you aware of one of Cambodia’s many antiquated customs regarding women as second class citizens. That may explain a lot about the Khmer men’s attitude towards their women (not all Khmer men though). My husband told me that many khmer men do not think that they are committing any wrong doings when they have mistresses or take more than one wives. “It’s their right because they were born a MAN!” How can you argue with that kind of mentality. Cheating is not only a Khmer trait. Every culture has to deal with that aspect of life. It’s just that most of us know that the act of cheating is morally wrong and we accept that. They don’t. And it is making me mad just thinking about their unbendable minds, so I’ll have to leave it at that.

          You may want to look up some Cambodian fairytales regarding their culture. I’m not sure of the name but, it’s very familiar with most Khmers. It’s regarding the double standards that is actually a very universal problem. A girl is forced by her mother to marry, an arranged marriage. She marrys the guy and war breaks out. So being the manly man that he is he goes off to war. Of course, there’s some trouble and the guy goes MIA. When in the story he goes and beds another Khmer girl and asks her for her fetus (very important that he asks for her permission three times???) Okay, this is going to get a bit gruesome. Sorry, in advance. He kills her while she is pregnant with his child! He turns that dead fetus into a charm (for protection against bullets and such) using Khmer voodoo magic. So now, with his protection charm, he goes back into battle and defeats his enemies.

          Meanwhile, back in his village, his wife is married off to another guy. Her mother is the greedy old bat who forces her own dutiful daughter to marry against her will again. Can anyone guess what happens next? Yes. First husband comes back home a hero only to find out that his wife is married to another guy. Big trouble. They couldn’t decide what to do. Should she stay with husband number two or go back to husband number one? But wait! A Khmer woman can not have two husbands! She’s become tainted! Yea, it’s not her fault. Her mother forced the poor girl to marry. So what will they do? Well, the Cambodian King had to intervene. His verdict: Off with her head! (as an example to all Khmer women)…so that is where the story ends. She’s about to be beheaded.

          In some version, they didn’t want the king to look bad so they made him regret his decision and pardon her. So the messenger with the pardon comes galloping on his mighty horse, riding with all his might to the execution site…only to be too late. The king was a merciful And compassionate king but the Gods wanted her dead.

          Sorry for the long story. I tried to sum up that fairytales as best as I can. Luckily, they made some Khmer movies about it. You might want to check it out. I really can’t remember the name. I thinks it’s something like, “Pan Kong Kong Chan.” If anyone knows the correct title, please feel free to correct me.

      • gw Reply

        After dealing with a bout of cancer & having visions of an early departure from this life,i impetuously married a “Taxigirl”in many ways i have hit the jackpot!Profound loyalty are a couple of words that come to mind, the only downside this can be a bit stifling but hey its lightyears better than what was on offer back home. Please spare me disbelieving dribble, i have done enough homework.

  8. andy Reply

    Jay, in Nepal when I lived there it was a completely different culture. I took in the kids of a hundred mothers whose husbands were dead or had abandoned them; however desperately poor they were, never would one have contemplated offering her body. I two years I never so much as a held a hand. In Calcutta the prostitution scene was unspeakably grubby. I saw next-to-nothing in Laos. Only my short stint in Thailand exposed me to what I was to experience in Cambodia. As for ‘intellectual’ – well, that engages a very separate part of the brain!

    • Jay Reply

      Sure, but wouldn’t they know better how to deal with it? See the comment by the American Khmer above.

  9. gw Reply

    I retract the word “taxigirl” from an earlier posting, like my mixed knowledge of Khmer, i certainly made a blunder with the meaning of this word,the Barang who told me the meaning either was probably pulling my leg!

  10. andy Reply

    No worries – I think we got what you meant: a girl who worked in a bar.

  11. Jake Reply

    Great writing.

    Also, why in all my travels I keep from getting too close to all that stuff. Every story, the casualty of the writer (in getting married and whatnot).

  12. Jonnie Reply

    Andy…don’t think too much…you’re no intellectual. All Asian cultures are based on client-patron relationships and that all it is if/when you step into it by helping others less fortunate than yourself. Believe me, you are no colonial master.

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