Many expats seem to forget that they choose to be here


Home is close to the work of these Cambodians, who pick from garbage anything they can recycle.

You hear the gripes, complaints and sparks of indignation all the time.

Expats regularly find fault with Cambodia in general and Phnom Penh in particular, and I hardly am blameless (as this post arguably demonstrates).

Whether it is about the vast majority of sidewalks that either are nonexistent or made impassable by parked vehicles and vendors’ carts or it is about intractable corruption, we continually voice our various displeasures to each other over restaurant tables and online.

We moan about the poverty, the money that goes into the pockets of the rich and powerful; we grumble that those funds should be invested in improving the lives of the poor and making this less developed country into one that is more developed.  At the same time, we find fault with those NGO employees who seem more interested in self-preservation and living high (sometimes in two ways) than in doing good.

And we engage in black humor about the traffic police being randomly on the take. The cost of electricity makes us grouse.  The dirt, dust, heat, trash in the streets and din and pollution caused by a swelling number of motor vehicles do so as well.

When the streets turn into seas during the rainy season, expats grump about the inconveniences that monsoons create.  Workers who seem lackadaisical cause us to frown and exchange knowing looks.

Mail that never arrives here or overseas is a constant irritant, and products that never are stocked dependably, drain bank accounts or lack quality annoy us. Last weekend, I walked scores of blocks literally for hours in vain search of a simple can of anchovies before finding success at an Italian restaurant, which sold me 100 grams (perhaps 10 filets) for $2.50.  With respect to other food, we say that the local beef is too tough and locally raised chickens, too chewy and skinny.

Politics, human rights, child labor, abuse of women, land grabbing, environmental neglect and election irregularities, among other issues, can be counted on to provide rich fodder for discussion.

It is not that none of these concerns, which range from the relatively trivial to the morally offensive, are without merit.  Nor is it beside the point that many of the nation’s some 5,000 NGOs — second only to the number in Rawanda — have as their mission dealing with them. How could I deny a moral imperative to advocate change?  Unfortunately, merely talking to each other isn’t likely to make much of a difference.

What expressing and dwelling on these problems illuminate, however, is that we expats are guests in this country, which lags so far behind the progress made by most of our neighbors in Southeast Asia.  Thriving Singapore is a great example, which was no more advanced than Cambodia half a century ago and is composed of so little territory.

Most of us expats don’t have to be here.

We have elected to live in this nation, and many of us have some combination of the funds and flexibility to leave.  If only that were true of the other 15 million folks who live here and seek broader horizons.  Few of them possess the necessary range of resources and resourcefulness to improve their quality of life, and most of them exist with no possibility at all of achieving a Western standard of living in Cambodia or elsewhere.

Choice has been our path, not confinement within systems that inhibit, even crush, an ability to lead lives for which much of the population of Cambodia longs with dim hopes of realizing their dreams.

Yes, I readily acknowledge that expats have a right to express their complaints, but we have no right to forget how we came to be in Cambodia for our various reasons; such reasons may be noble, if only superficially — for example, to help a people in need  — or may be base — for example, simply to live on the cheap.

choices 2

Dance performance on an outdoor stage last year evokes Angkor Wat.

Beyond casual criticism, we are well-advised to remember how much there is to celebrate about this place.  This truly is the Kingdom of Wonder, especially for those of us who, like me, have not lived until now in an emerging economy with a singular history.


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