December 3 was the anniversary of my move to Cambodia. Although I felt pretty much prepared for the experience, I have learned a lot.
Everything about making Phnom Penh my home is new. I have never before been retired, never lived as an expat, never expected to have English be so often understood here and never spent more than vacation time in a developing country.
The list of what I learned about Cambodia and me is long, but I’ll do my best to provide mere brushstrokes of my perspective in the hope that I won’t tax your patience.
One surprise has been how deeply moved I have been by the widespread poverty, how desperately I’d like to help a poor people and how hopeless the effort seems.
The amount of corruption has not surprised me. I expected that. What I didn’t imagine, however, was how indignant I have become about its prevalence and how unavoidable is its evidence in person and in the English-language press.
To me, the implications of the foregoing two paragraphs go hand in hand: With less money funding corruption, there would be more to help the poverty-stricken.
I consequently am fascinated by the young women who frequent the cafe that I visit almost daily. They are the children of privilege as opposed to the appalling percentages of the children of deprivation, who are stunted, undernourished or both.
They might be students or ladies who lunch, though assuredly not kept women. They are dressed, manicured, pedicured and clearly pampered to a degree that intrigues me. Their fashion-forward attire from chapeau to impossibly high-heeled shoes invariably matches. Their abundant golden jewelry jangles and otherwise speaks volume to me in a cafe no more luxurious than a Starbucks.
Their footwear especially intrigues me here in Phnom Penh, where the streets and sidewalks are in constant disrepair. Obviously they tread but a few steps to their big black — almost always black — SUVs, often with drivers.
Everything about them screams expensive. . . and extravagant.
As you can discern easily enough, their sense of entitlement greatly offends me. And to be fair, it does everywhere that I note it in the world. But the gap between the distinct minority of them and the multitudes of the poor is especially striking, and it is hard to believe that they can claim few, if any, achievements of their own to warrant their airs.
Moreover, the gains of so many of their parents or spouses might well be characterized as ill gotten in societies less riven by corruption, where huge bribes are paid for the privilege of conducting whatever businesses they choose.
That brings me to political corruption, which, of course is inextricable from the financial variety that I have described. The country seems to have made some progress since the rigged national election in 2013, but the prime minister of 30 years — 30! — remains a strongman.
What we have in Cambodia is widespread violations of human rights. Street protests are in grave danger of being quashed. The police are routinely paid off at seemingly every level, from someone’s breaking minor traffic laws to escaping arrest for a fatal hit-and-run accident or murder for hire.
As I write, I am discovering that I have painted a far darker picture than I have intended. I like living here, but I acknowledge that I don’t love it. (That was true about New York, too.)
For one thing, I don’t dwell on my concerns — except perhaps for the poverty. For another, I maintain a realization that Cambodia may be my home, but it is not my country.
And I am fully aware that no place is perfect.
Although my heart belongs to Manhattan , the truth is, as I wrote before I moved away, the cost of living there put a considerable damper on my enjoyment of that city.
Phnom Penh obviously is far from perfect as well, but it does provide me with a great number of benefits, among them:
- A cost of living that enables me to buy anything and go anywhere in the world without fear of running out of money before I die;
- The pleasures of immersing myself in a foreign culture;
- The delight of hearing very young children squealing “hello” when they see me and grinning when I reply in the local language;
- The selfless support and enduring affection of my Khmer “family;”
- A chance to try a range of new foods, many of them admittedly not all that memorable, except for the tropical fruits on which I gorge myself;
- The manifold opportunities to “give something back” in ways yet to be determined — for example, monthly visits to English-speaking expats imprisoned in deplorable conditions, part-time teaching of aspiring journalists or maybe working to establish a peer-counseling programs for depressed Cambodians;
- The possibility of walking virtually anywhere I want to go, albeit by having to “own the road” in the relative absence of navigable sidewalks and in defiance of the onrushing mix of motor vehicles, bicycles and people pushing carts;
- Seeing monks in saffron robes and overhearing their chants;
- The warmth of the populace and the openness to friendship that I have discovered;
- So many holidays and colorful festivals.
Almost every block provides considerable quantities of candy to my eyes and healthy nourishment for my spirit:
- Construction sites that give me the chance to monitor daily progress;
- The moto and tuk-tuk drivers seeking fares who recognize me and banter as I walk a few minutes to the cafe that I favor or to my gym;
- The mismatched clothing that some women wear and that, yes, betrays hard lives;
- Open storefronts in which wares are visible near the entrance and households can be seen beyond.
I also have enjoyed attempting to learn the Khmer language, now by practicing the language with waiters, cashiers and gym habitués; making new friends such as dear Amanda and believing in the likelihood of having established lasting relationships; bicycling to the outskirts of sprawling Phnom Penh; honing my negotiation skills; explaining complex texts to university students I have met at the cafe and urging them on to excel in their exams; wandering through the food markets; and visiting distant provinces.
There is more, of course, but readers who have made it this far must be as worn out as me. So I am willing myself to stop writing.
The bottom line is this: I expect to live here for many more years. How many must remain open to question, as it would anywhere.
The truth is that I am happy here and intend to stay until it is time to move on either to broaden my life experience or simply to live where medical care is not substandard. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll just get itchy feet and yearn for more change.
Having dispossessed myself of anything that didn’t fit into two big suitcases, I am free to go wherever I want. It is wonderful knowing that I have choices, but Phnom Penh is where I’ll stay for the foreseeable future.