Real City

A friend of mine says my Instagram makes Phnom Penh look like a quaint hipster town… It’s not.

Yes, I know, all I show you are the pretty waterfronts, the delicious coffee, the magical architecture… And these places really do exist here. But if this is the story I keep telling you, there’s going to be a huge dissonance between expectation and reality when you come visit.

Here are some of the not so pretty things about this place: the real city of Phnom Penh as I live, see, and unfortunately breathe it.

  1. It’s so hot. And so humid. Think of it as a sauna that never turns off. Never have I feared as much in regards to my eyebrow game, mustache sweat, and body odor.
  2. Mosquitoes are rampant during rainy season. They sure do love the sweet nectar of my O-type blood. (Special shoutout to the ants that eat my breakfast before I do, the cat that leaves its pellets down the hall, and the rats that are… eh, enough said.)
  3. Parks? Sidewalks? What are those?! They don’t exist here. Oh, how I miss you Golden Gate, Presidio, and Lands End…
  4. Construction means infrastructural and therefore economic growth, right? It actually probably means an oversupply of condos, unsightly green tarp littered in the skyline, and ridiculously loud booms and clacks that you can’t dance hip hop to. And lots of traffic.
  5. Hide your kids, hide you wife, and especially hide your purse. RIP iPhone and crossbody bag that got snatched off my colleague by a moto driver after dinner.
  6. Ahh, a breathe of fresh air (pollution). Top that off with rush hour traffic on a bicycle, and you’ve got yourself a dizzying, smoky, and balmy adventure! (Non sequitur: I once dodged a tractor while making a left turn, then averted an SUV but managed to graze its bumper. Cue adrenaline rush.)
  7. Sometimes the wind blows in the wrong direction, and you regret being alive. There’s nothing like getting hit the face with the smell of trash and human waste to get your morning started. Bonus points goes to St 105 for looking like fresh blue water on Google Maps but really being a sewage canal with plenty of litter to boot.
  8. Today, I saw a sign at an apartment complex that said, “No sex tourism allowed here!” Last weekend, I went clubbing and danced alongside prostitutes who were scouting their next customers. It’s easy to overlook or even miss what’s happening before you, and it makes you uneasy when you see it and don’t know how you should respond.
  9. The income disparity is very visible. You traverse down the main road and see a giant Hummer next to beat up moto with four passengers on it. And, I have a unique positioning in Cambodia where I look and live like a local but have access like a foreigner, so I get to see a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. There was a night where I rode in my neighbor’s worn out tuk-tuk alongside his two daughters whose clothes were torn and dirty; then a few hours later, I popped into an acquaintance’s shnazzy Range Rover, equipped with a driver and LV pillows. Oh, the juxtaposition.
  10. Education is improving, but it has a long way to go. In 2012, attendance rates for primary school were in the mid-80s, dropping to the mid-40s for secondary school. In 2014, with new anti-cheating measures enforced for the national high school exit exam, pass rates dropped to under 26% versus 84% the previous year. And while reforms are in place to minimize teachers taking bribes from students, “tutoring fees” are rampant and replacing the old “time-honored tradition” of bribery.

With all that said, I still really love this place. At Harpswell, I interact with some of the brightest and hardest working women in Cambodia. Their modest backgrounds in contrast to their unbridled ambitions to elevate their country is beyond inspiring.

Additionally, I can’t complain about how my foreign pockets allow me access to so much food and coffee, something I couldn’t participate in when I lived in SF.  

And when you do get out into nature, like in Kep and Kampot, it’s pretty damn unbelievable.

This place is in constant growth, always evolving. It’s a world of extremes. As the next generation of leaders take hold, and stability and infrastructure ripple through the city, you see Khmer people leaning less on aid and more on each other. While this place is not without its moments of frustrations and difficulties, it’s also bountiful in hope and passion for a future anew.

This is the unedited photo of the graphic, which is also the alleyway I live off of. Add some naked babies and food trolleys, and it’s another day in the neighborhood. Please take note of the crumbling walls and grounded trash bags.

Mixed Identity

I have always been the minority. Despite nesting in Little Saigon, I felt my otherness as soon as I left the tribe. Billboards, tv shows, and magazines were subconscious and continual reminders of that.

Obviously, Cambodia is different, but not in the way that I imagined. I thought I would stand out as a foreigner with my ombre hair, straight teeth, and tight yoga pants. Asian, yes; but local, no.

That is not the case. While I am not Khmer, the people of Cambodia beg to differ. Google Somaly Mam, and you’ll see why.

When I first arrived, my students thought I was Khmer, shocked when I told them I was actually Vietnamese. When I walk into shops or restaurants, I’m greeted in Khmer, confusing the staff when I don’t respond to their inquiries. When I clarify that I’m not Khmer, they always say the same thing: “But you have a Khmer face!”

However, this inclusion isn’t always welcoming. I’ve been checked out and pointed at while walking down the street in my above-the-knee dress or Berkeley tank top, both considered sexy by Cambodian standards. White foreigners do not get this treatment. And once during a lunch meeting, the restaurant staff thought that I was a young Khmer woman chatting it up with an older foreign gentleman – a common pairing that holds stigma, as I’m sure you can imagine. (To clarify, it was an informational interview for a consulting gig, and the person I was meeting with was the Khmer one.)

Being included in this tribe means that the rules of Cambodian culture are projected onto me, despite me not knowing the game. While it’s similar to Vietnamese culture, I’m sure I miss the mark on many, many things. But at the same time, I have the privilege of being the majority, of blending in. For the first time, faces on the streets and in media look like mine.

On top of that, being Vietnamese holds a negative connotation. The history between Cambodia and Vietnam has been tumultuous, resulting in a lot of tension and racism between the two. There’s even a Khmer racial slur for Vietnamese, “yuon”. Some of my students tell me about how Vietnam keeps trying to take Cambodia’s land and resources, and even influencing the vote by illegally contributing. But it’s hard to tell fact from propaganda.

When I first got here, I quickly opened up about my Vietnamese ethnicity, but the few scornful looks I received was enough to shut me up. In this unfamiliar environment, you never know the consequences of the truth. So in regards to identity, I’m caught at a crossroads. I’m not Khmer, but I’m not Vietnamese either as far as you’re concerned.

In the end, whether majority or minority, privileged or not, it appears one cannot escape the questions and concepts of identity and perception.

photo by cindy vo

Letting Go

In the past, when presented with bad news, my heart and mind would become numb. Another mass shooting? A suicide bomber? Civil war and diaspora? It doesn’t really concern me. As a fellow human being, I acknowledge that this sucks, and I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone. But what am I supposed to do about all that? Just forget about it and move on.

This week is different. I see my friends speaking up and taking action in regards to how Black Lives Matter. I witness my students shocked and saddened about the execution-style murder of Kem Ley, a hero of Cambodia. And then I wake up to see notifications from Facebook that my friends have been marked as safe during The Attack in Nice, France. And all of a sudden my heart breaks.

I’ve heard it before, “Life is suffering.” But suffering feels different when it’s right at your front porch step. This isn’t a suffering that I can turn away from, hideaway and numb myself to. This suffering is impacting me.

All I want to do is comfort my students, friends, and community. To promise that everything will be okay and that all we need to do is move forward, have hope, and be the change.

But if I’m being real, I don’t know if what I’m saying is true or productive for that matter. I don’t know how this government works, I don’t know how to solve racism, and I don’t know how to prevent terrorism.

Then it dawns on me…  Who do you think you are to think you can or should solve all of these problems? And why do you think you can or should control other people’s outcomes?

So, instead of trying to fix everything, I relinquish control and recognize that there’s not that much I can do. In the next moment, instead of turning numb, I acknowledge the pain, frustration, and unfairness. The moment after that, instead of holding onto pain, I let go of it to make room for a new space, a space of love, kindness, and hope.

I can’t determine the future and I don’t have control over people. But, I definitely own this moment: I can see what is before me, right here and now, and determine what’s next. And that frankly is enough.

Employment

My title does a terrible job at explaining what I do. My own colleagues – the language instructors, the IT guy, the security guard, the lunchtime cook – they’ve been here for many years now, and they still have no idea what my role does or why.

As a Leadership Resident, my goal is to serve as a role model and mentor, sharing my knowledge and experience. It’s like I live in a sorority, but without the risk management. Instead, I manage stress levels and sleep schedules, boosting confidence and building strength. I’m a Big Sis with 31 Littles.

Let me explain in further detail. Depending on the time of day and the company I keep, I could be an English teacher, a consultant, a counselor, a professional developer, IT support, a therapist, a yoga instructor, a motivational speaker, an administrator, a project manager, a life coach, a comedian, or most importantly, a judge on The Voice Cambodia on the bus ride to Kampong Som.

The work can be frustrating. There aren’t enough resources, no structure. The language barrier between English and Khmer can be extensive. There is a point where I run out of extroversion. Working afternoons and nights as an early bird can be miserable. And despite being Asian, I’m also American, which leads to moments where harmony is out the door and independence just can’t handle how things work here.

I’m spread thin. No college degree could prepare me for this. And to be honest, I’m not sure I signed up for this.

In spite of all this, I am exceptionally grateful and happy. I’m amazed at how much purpose and impact can fuel you. While my previous careers left me empty at 75%, I can somehow muster up 150% with less comfort, money, or clout.

When your work feels like it changes lives, when you’re solving problems of a magnitude beyond your ego or paycheck, it’s remarkable how much abundance, community, and resilience you receive.

Home

I live on the southern edge of sunny Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in a working class neighborhood. The dorm that I live and work in is located off an unnamed, unnumbered street. We technically have an address, but it’s definitely not the street we’re on.

Enter from Monivong Boulevard, make the first left after the fourth electricity pole and look for the tiny gold sign on the wall behind it. If you see a recreation center to your left, you’ve gone too far. Once you successfully turn onto the street with no name (this is not a U2 reference), pass two speed bumps and a wall that jets out. Then, you’ll see a red door with no sign on the right. That’s me.

On my street, which is more of an alleyway, you’re surrounded by restaurateurs pushing their tiny carts, woodworkers building elaborate furniture and decor, and children running around barefoot or buck. Sometimes the kids smile and shout, “Hello!”, to me as I grab my morning coffee or ride past them on my bike. I think it’s the only English word they know, but boy are they great at it.

My neighborhood coincidentally houses quite a few Vietnamese folks, bringing more familiarity to my stay here. I order my 50¢ “cà phê sữa đá, ít đường” every morning. When I’m craving a second lunch, I grab some $1 bánh hỏi with some 25¢ gỏi cuốn.

But let’s not forget the many piles of trash or the endless monsooned potholes or the motos driving dangerously close to your skin. And the smell, you never know when it’s going to hit you. I don’t want you thinking this is some sort of tropical paradise vacation I’m on.

My means are modest. My room fits two bunk beds, four desks and chairs, and one dresser wardrobe. I’m currently alone, but we hit max capacity every now and again. I have the luxury of a fan to myself, no AC though. Bathrooms are dorm style. There’s a kitchen down the spiral staircase, and another one below that on the ground floor. I’m lucky to be fed with home-cooked meals made by the students.

Welcome to my Phnom Penh.