How to Make Cambodian Friends and Influence People: Expats Parallel Lives in Phnom Penh

Are expats in Phnom Penh willfully segregating themselves from the locals? That’s the thesis of French journalist Frédéric Amat in his new “Expatriates Strange Lives in Cambodia,” a critique of the life-styles and attitudes of Cambodia’s many foreign residents.

From the Phnom Penh Post’s interview with Mr Amat: “They [expatriates] don’t really open the window to Cambodia. They don’t try to speak the language. They are not interested in the culture. When they finish their job, they just go to the foreign bars, have beers with friends. They live in Cambodia, but they don’t really live with Cambodians.”

The new book quickly stirred up a storm of Internet indignation and soul-searching among Cambodia’s expats (and some locals, too). Not that this should surprise anyone. Most expats in Cambodia notice pretty quickly that the social scene in Phnom Penh is strikingly divided, with local Khmer and barang living largely parallel lives.

I definitely noticed the parallel universe thing quickly when I moved to Phnom Penh. For many Western expats, relationships with locals don’t extend much beyond work, shopping, restaurant wait-staff and perhaps work-related social events. Expats rarely just went and grabbed a beer with locals, and the reverse was true.

A Western expat might have a nice relationship with that Cambodian guy or girl he or she sees everyday at the office, but the two are pretty unlikely to run into each other in the Java Cafe morning latte line, or at the neighborhood Cambodian beer-and- roasted cow joint.

Locals are usually in rather short supply at expat parties, popular expat restaurants, and at bars that are commonly frequented by foreigners (with the exception of hostess bars that have a certain intrinsic reliance on local labor).

Hell, the fact I even feel the need to add the qualifier “expat” to a list of public locations indicates that something is amiss.

Why is this? Are foreigners in Cambodia inherently neo-colonialist jerks, re-enacting the bad old days of total French domination, forced labor without pay, and the wanton consumption of gin n’ tonics? Do we secretly wish we could still run around Phnom Penh in the back of a hand-pulled rickshaw while wearing a pith helmet? (Some middle-aged tourists apparently never got the memo on that one.)

As with most things, the truth about social segregation between foreigners and locals in Cambodia is a lot more complicated then that.

It’s worth pointing out here that most expats who move to Cambodia aren’t stereotypical, unenlightened racist pigs. Aside from the ever-popular sexpat crowd, most permanent foreign residents of Cambodia are educated, intelligent, and exceptionally open to new experiences.

Think about it:  it’s a hell of a lot easier to be an abhorrent racist from the comfort of your own pleasingly air-conditioned and clean Sydney/Indianapolis/Birmingham flat, than it is to willfully choose to live in a rented closet-sized Phnom Penh apartment with a persistent giant spider problem. So, we’re not looking at a demographic group that has serious intrinsic problems with cultural differences.

Than why is there this obvious, striking divide between foreigners and locals in Phnom Penh?

Probably because it really isn’t that easy to make local friends in Cambodia for various reasons, which we’ll get to later. And once an expatriate new in town finds a comfortable group of foreign friends who speak her language, understand her culture, and can totally sympathize with those never-ending gastrointestinal problems, putting forth the effort required to make local friends becomes a much less attractive prospect.

Take me. I felt (and feel) guilty as hell about my lack of local friends. I wanted to have local friends. I just couldn’t seem to translate intention into action, and once I had a healthy group of foreign acquaintances, it became that much harder to step outside my bubble and put forth a concentrated effort to overcome all those cultural and language barriers. (I think I did do the right thing by learning some Khmer, but I’ll get to that.)

I felt especially bad about my lack of local friends because I’d had a totally different experience while staying in India. When I was interning in Bangalore, almost all my friends were Indian, my co-workers were (mostly) Indian, and I had no clue where expatriates hung out – nor did I feel a pressing desire to find out where. I was deeply suspicious of expats and tourists who refused to associate with anyone who wasn’t a Westerner.

Then, I moved to Cambodia.

I don’t think of myself as a racist – I know, famous last words –  but I also have very few Cambodian friends, despite 15 months living in Phnom Penh, my work directly with Cambodians as a reporter, and my attempts to learn some of the Khmer language. This could be because I’m a douchebag, and God knows I won’t attempt to deny that — but it’s also true that a lot of my fellow Western expats, if not most of them, were in the same boat.

So whose fault is it? I think blame can be laid on both Western and Cambodian attitudes.

Many expats in Cambodia don’t work too hard at cultivating Khmer friends, especially because it isn’t easy to do. Now that that’s been established, it’s hard to discount that long-running and deeply held cultural and social differences between expats and Cambodians have something to do with the divide, too.

Traditional Theravada Buddhist teachings taught most Cambodians that higher education and persistent curiosity about the outside world weren’t much good – and the draconian anti-intellectual policies of the Khmer Rouge in recent history only reinforced this concept. Couple that with a culture that tends to value reticent, secretive public behavior – again, reinforced by the paranoiac Khmer Rouge – and you’ve got a recipe for parallel lives.

I suspect these cultural attitudes could also explain why most Cambodians don’t go out of their way to make foreign friends. When I was in India and China, having foreign friends was considered something of a status symbol among locals who had any command of the English language. You’d get stopped on the street by locals eager to practice their English and to find out more about you.

Although this eager solicitation of foreign friendship could get rather annoying at times – I started power-walking rather angrily through Beijing because of this, in fact – I realize now that it was a pretty easy and low-stress way to meet and interact with locals, that didn’t require me to put forth a ton of effort.

There is a real language barrier between foreigners and Cambodians, of course, but I don’t think this explains everything. Although Cambodians have pretty good English skills in general (especially when compared to locals in many other non-English speaking nations) you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who just wants to shoot the shit, as is commonplace in some other developing nations.

Maybe Cambodians just don’t want to approach foreigners to improve their knowledge – or, alternately, they think it’s plain rude to rock up to a barang and ask if he wants to get a coffee and talk about grammar, the latest Jennifer Lopez song, and the pros and cons of Barack Obama.

It’s also worth noting that huge economic disparities exist between foreigners and the vast majority of Cambodians. You may work at the same office and do the same job as your Cambodian counterpart, but it’s likely you’re making considerably more money than he or she is. Furthermore, most Cambodians have all sorts of complicated  family financial obligations, whereas most foreigners in Cambodia don’t have children, aging relatives, an extended family, or an ailing water buffalo to support.

Family obligations, the expense of drinking, and social norms also mean that most Cambodians are disinclined to bar-hop until 3:00 AM on a regular basis – and I’m guessing that many of the Cambodians that do bar-hop until 3:00 AM on a regular basis would probably prefer to be hanging out with their Khmer friends.

Then, there’s the education thing. Most Cambodians haven’t had much access to education, and that’s in stark contrast to the foreign crowd, who are often highly highly educated (and would like you to know about it).

This does matter when it comes to conversational topics and cultural touchstones, even if we’d all like to pretend it doesn’t – after all, so much of conversation among the over-educated classes revolves around what-music-do-you-like and what-do-you-think-of-Syria-anyway and did-you-read-that-book-on-giant-squid. This is not anyone’s fault (other than Cambodia’s dismal education system), but it does create serious cultural and conversational roadblocks.

So what can a hapless foreigner looking to break out of the expat bubble to do?

I’m absolutely no role model, as I’m still trying to figure this one out myself. Also, I am writing this from a small town in Southern Iowa. Seriously.

Now that these caveats are out of the way, here’s some ideas.

– Every expat in Cambodia needs to learn some Khmer. No exceptions. I don’t care if you’re “really busy” or “bad at languages.” There are language tutors everywhere. They will charge you $5 an hour, they will likely come to your home, and they will probably provide with you all kinds of interesting insights into Khmer culture.

My Khmer is lousy, but just being able to hold a simple conversation with Russian Market Underwear Lady or That Guy Who Makes Keys On My Corner made my life in Cambodia that much more pleasant. Not to mention that Cambodians are almost always flattered that you’re trying to learn their language, are happy to help, and will only make fun of you a little bit.

And by the way – I’m just plain offended if your excuse is “Khmer is a small language, and this is a really small country, and I’m probably not going to be here long anyway so why bother?”

This is just a duplicitous way to say “This country and its language are crap. Why am I even here?”

Which begs the question, do Khmer people want to be friends with you?

Spirit houses for sale on the road to the airport in Phnom Penh.

– Read books on Cambodian stuff. You got a job in a foreign country, I’m assuming you’re capable of reading a book. Books on Cambodian happen to be really cheap and available everywhere – thank you, nonexistent copyright laws! – and reading as many of them as possible is a really good way to familiarize yourself with Cambodian culture.

Understanding Cambodian history  – and that means stuff that didn’t happen during the Khmer Rouge era or in Angkor’s heyday – is another excellent way to contextualize day to day life in 2012 Phnom Penh.

A working knowledge of Theravada Buddhism will also go a long way towards helping you understand why Cambodians do some of the stuff they do. Also, you’re much less likely to look like a total blundering idiot next time you wander into a pagoda.

– Never turn down a Cambodian invitation. Get invited to a wedding/Khmer New Year party/family get-together/beer garden fest/Pchum Ben celebration? Awesome. Go. This does not happen everyday, you’ll almost certainly have a good time, and the Guinness at Paddy Rice will still be there tomorrow in case you were worried.

– Re-evaluate how you talk about and to “the natives.”  If expats aren’t talking about nightmarish gastrointestinal problems, the latest Totally Shocking relationship drama, or big important world events (less common), they’re likely complaining about Cambodia and its denizens.

This is part of human nature in small doses, but “small doses” does not describe some of the virulent language I’ve heard from my fellow Western adventurers. Knock it off. I do not want to hear your trenchant observations on how lazy, stupid, and foolish Cambodians are. I bet that girl at the bar who speaks way better English than you realize isn’t getting a huge kick out of it, either.

And then, there’s the more subtle language of exclusion. Not talking about locals at all, as you sit in a Western-owned bar over a bacon cheeseburger and a Fosters, or dismissing most Cambodians as some sort of ineffable, inscrutable Oriental stereotype, is demeaning as well.

The most tragic car scribbles in Phnom Penh.

– Talk to locals, instead of talking down to them. It’s easy to assume that the locals around you are a bit dense because you have to simplify your language somewhat to talk with them. This is intellectually lazy as hell, of course, but it’s something a lot of people do. Don’t do that.

Talk to people. Strike up conversations at the market, at the grocery store, at the bar, or at a party. Ask questions about day to day life in Cambodia, ask about the kids, ask about the family farm, ask about music, whatever.

I know striking up conversations with strangers is really difficult to do in Cambodia, but it’s certainly worth trying.

This goes double for your coworkers. Make a real effort to befriend them and include them in whatever it is you’re doing. Even if they don’t or can’t accept your invitation, I imagine they appreciate being thought of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’d appreciate more suggestions. Maybe we can make a longer list.

That’s the Western side of the equation, but of course, there’s more. Ultimately, it falls to Cambodians to write about how Khmer people might do a better job of reaching out to the foreigners in their midst – or at least write about how better a smart Cambodian might tolerate the Western deluge.

What’s the single most important thing an expat in Cambodia can do? Stop thinking of Cambodian people as a mysterious, inscrutable other race, even if it’s difficult, even if it gives you a headache. Even if working really hard to befriend and understand local people kind of sucks, and you’d really rather be eating sushi at Rahu while complaining about your neighbors 2-day-long epic wedding.

It’s extremely difficult to understand or identify with or befriend people from a totally different culture from our own, who exist in a different cultural paradigm, who speak a different language. I get it.

But isn’t that understanding why we live in a foreign country in the first place?

Afghan Children Probably Deserved It: Disturbing Reactions to the Kandahar Massacre

Watching the reaction to the Kandahar massacre has got me worried for America’s collective conscience. I’ve never seen so much widespread apologia for such a truly heinous crime.

Disturbingly absent in much of the US media discourse about this incident is the victims themselves. There’s much hand-wringing over the mental state of the soldier, and what this means for the American action in Afghanistan, and how this tragedy tarnishes the image of US military forces overseas.

But little head-space or discussion time has been devoted to the reality of the atrocity this deranged serviceman commited. Let’s review: a US soldier stomped a child to death, put a gun in the mouth of another child and pulled the trigger, and proceeded to light the corpses of his victims on fire for their families to find. These people had committed no crime other than residing in a formerly Taliban-heavy village, which they had been told to return to for their own safety by the US military.

The presence of the victims and the survivors is felt in this rather good New York Times story, which perfectly encapsulates why this is such a tragedy, for both Afghans and Americans alike: an Afghan man who supported the American efforts to drive out the Taliban has now decided the US should get out ASAP. And why shouldn’t he? He went out for the day with his son, and came back to the smoldering corpses of his family. He has every right in the world to be distressed.

But these people are disturbingly absent in most other stories on the incident. Perhaps we can chalk it up to our collective reluctance to treat Afghan civilians as human. Firstly, treating Afghan civilians as something other than like-you-and-me makes it a lot easier to justify military operations that involve the taking of civilian life.

Collective horror over the fate of innocent noncombatants is disturbing, the sort of thing that keeps us up at night if we allow our minds to wander too far. On the whole, we’d rather not think about it, and this incident has brought the reality of needless civilian death to the forefront. (My Lai comparisons seem obvious, but I agree with Adam Elkus, who prefers to compare this most recent atrocity with the wave of US school shootings.)

The American people’s proclivity for not thinking about has stirred what I like to think of as the Internet Undertow, a stream of relatively anonymous thought that always bubbles to the surface when something really heinous happens. I like to read these comments, as abhorrent as they may sometimes be, because triangulating them often leads to some sort of consensus, admittedly of the sort of people who spend their free time leaving comments on news websites.

Regarding the Kandahar atrocity, commentators on blogs and news websites seem to be coming to a couple conclusions, which I have vastly simplified: “We shouldn’t have been there in the first place, let’s bring the soldiers out now,” and “What did this poor soldier go through to get where he was mentally? Are our pyschological services really that bad?”

As a matter of fact, it, our pyschological services are apparently that bad. The accused soldier’s home military base in Washington recently received flak for overturning over 300 PTSD diagnoses. The killer had previously served two tours of duty in Iraq, had worked as a sniper, and had apparently suffered a head injury from a car crash. Despite all this, no one at the military base appears to have put two and two together and figured out that this man was a strikingly poor candidate for service in increasingly tense Afghanistan. (The debate over whether major bureaucracies such as the US military could ever successfully perform accurate and difficult mental health assessments, no matter how much money might be thrown at the problem, is worth considering here.)

Now, let’s turn to the “poor solider” bit, which is what I’m really interested in. I was naturally horrified when I first saw a near tidal-wave of commentators expressing pity for the murderer, to different degrees and in different forms, from the classic “Kill em’ all, let God sort them out” attitude to a more subtle “Imagine what this man has gone through” argument.

Regardless of how subtly and carefully it may be expressed, I’m still seeing a mass outpouring of pity, and that’s really pretty weird. After all: we can agree that people do not normally express public pity for shameless child murderers.  It’s only really possible for a logical person to express pity for a child murderer if you’ve mentally filed away those children as something-other-than-children, something different than your neighbor’s 5-year-old or your own—and if you’ve mentally filed away the solider as a person inherently more sympathetic than said not-quite-children. (Bear with me here.)

Of course, people have attempted to justify this oddly sympathetic attitude in a number of ways. There’s the argument that the serviceman’s sacrifices for the country and ensuing trauma make him an inherently less culpable actor—argument by previous good deeds, if you will. Others pointed out that the Taliban uses young children as suicide bombers or operatives, an eery echo of Vietnam war era paranoia, where everyone and everything could theoretically be Charlie.

A popular strain of thought noted that the Afghan people are unpleasant, untrustworthy, and exceptionally unappreciative of the help the US has given them—inferring that perhaps the Afghan people’s bad attitude brought these killings on themselves, and we shouldn’t be feeling particularly sorry for them.

The fact that the reprisal killing of Taliban fighters and the reprisal killing of innocent children and other noncombatants are not exactly the same thing appears to be lost on these commentators.

When I distill these commentators attitude down to their essence, I’m disturbed, and I believe rightly so. The dark Internet Undertow’s hivemind appears to accept blaming Afghan children for the sins of the father. It appears to accept that an entire people are rendered subhuman by the heinious actions of a few.

It’s a dangerous train of logic that leads to this conclusion: It is more OK for Afghan children to be brutally killed than American children, because they deserve it more.  

Why Are So Many Cambodian Protesters Being Shot These Days? – UN Dispatch

Why Are So Many Cambodian Protesters Being Shot These Days? – UN Dispatch

It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be a peaceful protester in many parts of the world, and impoverished, corrupt Cambodia is no exception.

Since November 2011, gun violence against peaceful protesters has been on the rise in this troubled Southeast Asian nation. Local NGO Licadho has found that five land-dispute protests turned violent between November and January of 2012, while a city governor has been personally involved in a February garment factory dispute. Almost no arrests have been made in these incidents, and the police seem markedly disinterested in pursuing prosecution.

In what has become perhaps the most widely publicized case, a city governor personally fired into a crowd of 1000 garment factory protesters in Bavet, seriously injuring a 21-year-old woman and wounding two others. Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandith promptly disappeared after the shooting, although he allegedly showed up at the woman’s hospital to ask her not to press charges in exchange for money.

Even Cambodia’s deputy prime minister has jumped into the fray, after local police, at his request, offered the 21-year-old victim $500 if she did not press charges. The young woman, who is nursing a serious chest injury, refused the money, committing a noble act that may come to haunt her later under Cambodia’s current leadership. As for the governor, he has lost his job –although he will still retain a provincial government post of some kind.

Read more at UN Dispatch….

Sex Work and Dignity in Cambodia – Not Everyone’s a Victim at That Girly Bar

Sex work is still stigmatized in Cambodia, a largely conservative nation, despite what Street 51s more than healthy hostess bar trade may lead you to believe. A group of sex workers has decided to create a union and ask for the right to work—and most interestingly, they want to let people know that they don’t consider themselves victims, and they are not asking for anybody’s sympathy.

Trafficking is indisputably a big problem, but many outside observers in Cambodia make the mistake of assuming every woman in the sex trade is a trafficked and helpless victim. Although the electroshocked zombiefied 14-year-olds of Kristofian writing are definitely out there, there are plenty of over-18 women who have decided the sex trade appeals to them considerably more than working for minimum wage at a garment factory.

This passage from the article linked above is of particular interest…

“In the sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”
Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” and retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories. Workers get minimal instruction to operate sewing machines and usually receive no wages during the two- or three-month training period.”
I’ve also heard heresy of former prostitutes being “rescued,” locked in training centers, and escaping back into the streets….doubtless while their saviors scratch their heads in confusion. But is their reaction really so strange?

I am the same age as many of Phnom Penh’s bar girls, and I liked chatting with them at the foreigner-frequented girly bars I would occasionally find myself at. They were charming, spoke good English, and were usually happy to talk with a foreign woman their own age. Although I couldn’t exactly delve into their personal lives over a beer or two, they didn’t seem like they were being locked in a prison or forced into slavery or regularly beaten with chains.

Maybe  life at the bars was not their first life choice, but in their minds, it was probably an improvement over life in the rice paddy, or a job in a poorly insulated and potentially dangerous factory.

My impressions of these women seem to be backed up by a truly fantastic series on Cambodia’s hostess bars that ran in the Phnom Penh Post last month. The researcher found that a number of these women are looking for foreign boyfriends—and they are also looking for a good time and exposure to people from other countries.

These motivations would be considered pretty normal for an intelligent young woman, if these women didn’t just so happen to be impoverished Cambodians. Curiously enough, the idea that these women might enjoy drinking beer, having sex, and hanging around in bars more than menial labor is considered to be something close to blasphemy in some circles. Me? I’m 23, and I believe it. 

If we want to stamp out prostitution and the sex trade in Cambodia—and we never will entirely—we need to help women get decent and decent jobs, jobs considerably more appealing than minimum wage sewing work.

As it is, assuming that every single bar girl—prostitute or otherwise, and many are not—is both victimized and helpless is downright patronizing. Let’s give these women some credit for their intelligence and initiative in a desperate situation. Do you really think you’d choose much differently if you were in their shoes? I know I wouldn’t.