Regarding Escalators and Cambodia Expats: A Little Rejoinder for Gavinmac

While in most respects Sovanna shopping mall seems to differ little from City mall or Soriya mall, there is at least one way that it does. Here, what I have in mind are the several occasions in which I encountered people afraid to use the escalator. Why is it that I have never seen a patron afraid to use the escalator at City mall or Soriya? Why have I encountered this many times in Sovanna? Who knows?

The first time I witnessed this, my girlfriend and I were on our way to the top floor to look at books. We came upon 3 children standing before the escalator with horrified looks in their eyes. Above, one of their braver peers was calling to them, trying to coax them into mustering the courage to ascend.

My girlfriend took the hands of the two youngest and got them onto the escalator. Each child gripping the side tightly. I took the hand of the last child, who seemed as afraid of me as she was of the escalator. We both stepped onto the escalator. At the last moment she let go of my hand and jumped back down. I went to the top without her. Feeling a bit guilty, I decided to go back down and get her. The second time, confidence did not escape her.

On several other occasions we have performed this service, much to our amusement.

The last time we were at Sovanna we encountered a slightly different scenario. This time there were two beautiful women (seemingly in their early to mid twenties and from the countryside). I am not sure whether they were newly arrived garment workers on their day off, or if they were from the provinces here on vacation visiting relatives. One woman was standing in front of the escalator nervously laughing. Above, her associate giggled while berating her.

My girlfriend explained to the poor thing how to use the escalator and why she ought not to fear it. She then followed my girlfriend onto the escalator. At the last second, she pulled away in fear. My girlfriend did not turn back to retrieve her. I knew that if I took her hand I risked vexing my girlfriend. I merely mimed instructions and hoped she would follow. She did not. I am not Mother Theresa over here. I left her where she was, gazing up at me unable to transcend her apprehension.

(I fear the unscrupulous will see this as an effective way to pick up women. They will lurk about Sovanna on the weekends and seek out the rural women standing aghast in front of escalators. There, they shall endeavor to assist one up, hoping to win her heart, or perhaps something else.)

There are many kinds of expats: IT workers, artists, teachers, NGO members, businessmen, sexpats, etc. Some come here to make the world a better place. Others are looking to find a cheap place to retire. A few are part of the four hour work week crowd, looking to drop out of the rat race. Others are looking for adventure or to party hard.

There are also some like myself, economic migrants: chronically fluctuating between unemployment and underemployment in our respective homelands. Being over-educated with no marketable skills is one of the perks of a humanities masters degree. Here, I can find work as a teacher and lead a comfortable life.

Whatever our individual motives happen to be, what we all have in common is that we got on the escalator. We all left our families, friends and old lives for the unknown. We all agree that being an expat is better than the alternative. Many of us have friends and family back home that reject the expat lifestyle. They are hostile to our choices and are either unable or unwilling to do as we have done. They stand like children afraid to step foot upon the escalator, no matter what may or may not be above. Most of us expats couldn’t give a fat babies ass what these people back home think.

I do not know a single expat that regrets being an expat. Sure, some wish they had more money. Others wish for a better career. We all have regrets. Most of the expats I know wake every day feeling fortunate that they are not back home.

The systemic economic maladies of our time have stymied many in my generation. Some sit in their parents’ basements out of work, or working for minimum wage. Others have financial independence, but only at a subsistence level. Those that are successful, with good jobs, are often making less money than their parents did at a comparable age.

A few examples of my “successful” friends and family members are as follows. My friend John is the son of a tool and die maker. John graduated with a BS in computer science. Currently, he works as a cellphone tower maintenance worker. Brian & Eric are brothers, sons of a dairy farmer. Brian has a BS in political science, but works in a factory assembling medical equipment. Eric has an MA in theology. He was working as a store clerk for minimum wage until he became an ESL teacher in South Korea. Dana’s father owns a small successful hvac business. Dana has a BA in biology with a specialization in genetics. She currently works in a genetics lab. My cousin Danielle’s father works in the loading docks of a hospital and her mother does data entry. Danielle has a BS in political science and is currently a paralegal. Another cousin, Jennifer, is the daughter of a computer programmer (he never got a degree, but taught himself to program in the 80’s). Jennifer got her law degree and is now barely making ends meet practicing family law.

This list is just a small sample, I could go on and on. All these people have a few things in common: they were first generation college educated and they are all doing far worse than their uneducated parents. Only one person in this (incomplete) list is married or has children, John. Only one person is a home owner, John. They all suffer from debt. They are all in their early to mid thirties, unable to afford a home, children or significantly save for retirement. We were told to get a degree, any degree, and we would always be able to find a decent job. Work hard. Get good grades. You will become successful. We all followed that advice. Yet, I do not have a single college educated friend of my generation that is more successful than their parents.

How then can I call these people successful? Well, the fates of my friends and relatives that did not attend college or dropped out have been far worse. So, despite their debt and inability to start a family and home, they are relatively successful.

Millions of people sit back home, suffering in the rat race. Why is it that they languish away? Do they think that there will soon be a global economic turnaround? Do they really believe that the job market will return to pre-recession levels any time soon? How do they tolerate their situation? The longer you stay unemployed or underemployed the worse off your career and future earning prospects are. For many, becoming an expat is not financial suicide. They are already financially ruined, with no hope in sight of attaining the middle class lifestyle of comfort and security.

I wonder how many people reading this essay are part of this unfortunate cohort.

The essential question is: “what is it that you ought to do when your economic well-being collapses due to structural causes outside of your control and with no remedy forthcoming?” Shall you sit idly in denial, or wait for rescue? Or, shall you toss aside old futile hopes and strike out for bold and novel dreams? If you have no money, a dead-end job, or are unemployed with no prospects of financial stability in the future, then why aren’t you an expat? Indeed, why shouldn’t you get onto the escalator?

James Giacometti

15 thoughts on “Regarding Escalators and Cambodia Expats: A Little Rejoinder for Gavinmac

  1. Hey Zues Chris Tu Reply

    This is not limited to Sovanna. It happens at all the malls. Seen it at Sorya 1,000 times. Find one of the few elevators around town and witness how many prefer to take the stairs for additional entertainment. Curiously, no one is afraid of riding as the forth person on a motorcycle driven by a drunk, with no helmet on.

    PS. If you have a masters degree you could teach English in Korea and make 60,000$ a year, with housing and transportation paid for. I refuse to believe you came here to make $10 an hour.

  2. vladimir Reply

    Most of us expats couldn’t give a fat babies ass what these people back home think.’

    I think you mean ‘a fat baby’s ass’.

  3. Dave Perkes Reply

    I wasn’t an economic migrant when I moved here 10 years ago; but after a recent visit to UK I have come to the conclusion that if I ever returned I’d not have much chance of a job; so i guess that makes me one now!

  4. yeahbaby Reply

    nothing worse than an expat, that feels he has to justify being an expat

  5. chris Reply

    This just shows how we have adapted ourselves to fit to technology like robots. To Khymers though, escalators are something new, something rather strange and comical perhaps.

  6. Roger Mexico Reply

    As another James, last name Brown, used to shout, “Right on, right on!” At first I thought that I was just reading a fun article about countryside folk gingerly encountering an escalator for the first time (by the way, I recommend Nicholson Baker’s novel ‘The Mezzanine’ if one wants to get deeper into the subject of escalators), and then, just like an awkward and then sure-footed step onto an escalator (sorry for the meta-metaphor) this article rose to the occasion of an “expat explication essay,” some of which come off more successfully than others. I found this one to be clear, direct, effective, and more importantly, highly resonant with myself, a young(ish) member of what is now sadly encrusting itself as the Great Recession generation. I lived in Cambodia for nearly a year, and elsewhere in SE Asia, enjoying an ease of lifestyle that I am only now tenuously re-approaching back here in the US where I grew up. Most of my friends besides one who is an overworked medical resident (a new MD without the m-dinero) are underemployed, could not dream of supporting a family, many live at home and the luckiest ones are partially or heavily subsidized by the earnings of their parents– parents who, at my friends’ age, were already starting families and starting to save money and have kids. Looking at the stats I see in the newspaper, the numbers in Europe are even worse, and Thatcher-Merkelnomics combined with the sheer weight of the young unemployed will probably snap the remains of the social safety net/safety tightrope over there, but I digress…

    For me, the most exciting part about life in Cambodia was that I felt like I had the sort of self-assured vectors of choice, opportunity, and work-for-reward dynamic that made my grandparents’ generation (and to a lesser degree my parents’ generation, or rather, the situation with the Baby Boomers is more complicated since a lot of them are being hit super hard by these times and not a small amount of them were complicit in causing the recession in the first place) far more self-assured an upwardly mobile than my own. There is also the “little things in life” factor in Cambodia. The food is amazing. Good wine and decent beer are both very affordable. Pharmacies take a do-it-yourself attitude to medication. I happened to vibe very well with the culture to the extent that I participated/waded in it, but I also have to recognize my degree of foreigner privilege, which may be unfair in some ways (or at least unequal- if I am imparting otherwise unavailable expertise and training into the workforce and money into the local economy- and here I also mean the really local economy, like the laundry lady, the fruit stalls at the market, etc.) but is nevertheless a plus. I also think that despite the humid heat that can reach uncomfortable extremes, the climate offers plenty of absolutely lovely days, sunsets, cool evenings, and the biodiversity/habitats to explore are magnificent. Even a visit to the hyper-touristed Angkor Wat can turn “real” with a semi-scorched tube of krolan (sticky rice, palm sugar and black beans steamed in bamboo ) in your hand and a conversation over delicious Ratanakiri coffee with a tuk-tuk driver who decides to open up about his family’s survival stories during the KR time– not to mention that there are hundreds of awesome temples, cycling routes, trekking trails, etc. all over the country, interesting provincial capitals, the whole “battambang thing,” beautiful beaches, and of course as a male there was always this dream, never realized, of taking the plunge and settling down with a lovely local woman who will teach me Khmer and take me back to her family’s village where the roosters look like dinosaurs, the meat is always fresh, the rice is perfectly cooked, the locals are garrulous and curious and mostly friendly, and getting early to bed under the mosquito net means you don’t mind the cocks crowing at 3:30am.

    In any case, I for one agree wholeheartedly with James’ assertions, his sentiments, and I wish him all the best- RM

      • RogerMexico Reply

        Thanks, Joe- In a zen-like awakening set off by your comment, I realized that I’m a sock puppet of plenty of things: my inner drives and desires, my obligations, random circumstance. However, I have no relation to and have never met the author of the article above, so at least in that regard I’m not HIS sock puppet. I just read an article here on K440, one of many very good ones, and this one struck a chord with me and prompted a longish response. Who knows why I did it? Depends on whose arm was up my woolen, button-eyed arse at that particular moment. Yours truly, Sifl and Olly.

  7. Gaye Miller Reply

    I remember when the first escalators were installed in Phnom Penh, maybe ten years ago. The shopping centres advertised for foreigners to demonstrate how to use the escalators. People were frightened to get on and screamed their heads off.

  8. BaoDaiDynamite Reply

    Keep on making fun of the people who are inexperienced and new to technology. Way to go people. Here a piece I should also add to the mix. I read this one book describing the Cambodian refugees who landed in America in the 80’s for the first time and had to get some physical check ups in this one tall medical building. They stood in front of this elevator and then it opened. They were so shocked and then started to deny that they didn’t make the door open. They continued to apologize profusely to the people in the elevator. The other people thought that those Cambodians were weird or loco or something. The point is when you are new to thing, you tend to make a fool out of yourself.

  9. Sandy Kerr Reply

    Dangerous escalators in Sorya Mall. During a visit to the mall in 2012 we met together as a family at the elevators on the 3rd or 4th floor. While we were discussing our next move my 15 year old son stepped backwards and leant against the moving hand rail of the up elevator, it sort of grabbed his loose clothing and pulled him upward onto the moving hand rail. I managed to grap him and pull him back but he was completely off balance by then and if I had not grabbed him he would have either fallen on to the steps of the elevator or more likely over the edge and straight down to the ground floor. Very scary experience. Maybe the elevators are badly designed. Read that someone died in the mall falling to exactly the same spot he would have ended up if things had gone differently. Something needs to be done about these elevators.

    • Dermot Sheehan Reply

      I don’t understand how this could happen, are you one of those people who stop for a chat at the bottom of an elevator, thus blocking everyone else’s passage?

      • Travelkat Reply

        Don’t you just love it Dermot, when a bunch of people gaggle around at the top or bottom of the escalator and then give you a black look when you crash into them.

    • gavinmac Reply

      Maybe the escalators are badly deigned? Maybe you should teach your son not to lean against moving handrails of escalators he’s not riding on.

  10. Sandy Kerr Reply

    Just checked my comment, all references should have been to escalators, not elevators, hope that makes sense

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