On the long list of my misapprehensions about moving to Cambodia was the belief that all expats perceived each other as being in the same club.
Walking down the street, sharing a table at the coffee house or encountering each other in a restaurant, I assumed there was a common connection that would produce at minimum a nod or smile of recognition. Silly me.
Although it is true that I have acquired several gym buddies and, also from the gym, a delightful couple I already can call my friends, I infrequently enjoy any recognition from other expats that we are in the same boat.
I tend to be fearlessly sociable, known for striking up conversations with strangers in elevators or engaging them elsewhere in a mutual, if unspoken, perception of the foibles around us — for example, a mother relating to her child in a warm or hostile way, a couple publicly displaying affection, a merchant treating another customer rudely.
Here in Phnom Penh, I invariably attempt to make eye contact with Westerners approaching me along the same side of the street. I won’t say never, but I can count probably on one hand the number of times that I have succeeded.
At the same time, I have to say that I generally manage good results in close quarters, say, at a table that I’ve chosen at Brown’s — my favored coffee house a five-minute walk from our apartment — specifically because I’ll be in close proximity to other prospective acquaintances sipping and tapping away.
I have met and exchanged pleasantries with one Todd and one Steve (who suggested a language school to me) enough to have said hello on return visits. But those buds have yet to blossom into something more.
Being no teetotaler, I nonetheless have avoided the bar scene in search of connections. Expats have a well-deserved reputation here and in other countries in the developing world for gradually descending into a cycle of degeneration as they while away their leisure hours — which can amount to whole days — in the company of other dissolute souls.
Obviously, the generalizations don’t apply to the numerous folks who lead productive lives here. I intend no moral judgment, but the barflies are not for me.
In terms of nurturing mature or enjoying merely transitory friendships, certainly I have harbored realistic expectations. I know it takes time. Friendship is one thing, the absence of bare acknowledgment has proved, surprisingly to me, to be something else entirely.
While it would be nice to come upon at least as many friendly faces here as I have randomly in New York, I now know that seeing myself as an expat is nothing special, at least in the eyes of everyone else who finds themselves in the same situation as mine.
That’s not terrible, not even sad. It is nothing more than a small disappointment and another crack in the soft shell of my naïveté.