Monday, May 28, 2007

the uneasy expat

while it's only been a few days since i've arrived in cambodia, i'm already feeling uneasy about my position as "expat." granted, this is not the first time i've travelled to a locale wherein i did not immediately belong, but never before have i sensed myself as being so separate from the local population as i do here. in phonm pehn there are two distinct worlds in parallel operation: khmer(native cambodian) and baraang (foreigner). and the only nexus at which the two meet is in the procurement or provision of services. expats want, cambodians provide. otherwise, it's all separate. restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, are in large part all for one or the other. (a key exception must be notd here for PSI (the org where i am working) that i will touch upon in a later entry)

ok, so maybe this isnt the most novel of occurences. there are plenty of places in the states and all over the world that operate simliarly. but it's perhaps the first time the difference has been so stark for me personally. despite my attempts to appear inconspicuously demure (you would laugh if you saw the drab outfits i purposefully assembled for this trip), i am under constant surveillance: as a curiousity (if i try to eat a local khmer restaurant, as i did today), as a potential boon (by every moto taxi driver that passes), or simply as one of "them." and of the friends i've made so far, none include a cambodian and (as i've been made to understand) none ever will. as another "expat" put it to me: "they have their world and we have ours."

so what's the big deal? it's hard to articulate. i suppose i don't feel comfortable in the notion that i occupy an inalterably prescribed role, having come from an urban environment in the states where social strata maintain a degree of fluidity. but more than the limited pliability, it's the privilege of the position (relative to my host population) that leaves me with a certain sense of disquiet. here, i am seen as being at or near the top of the socio-economic structure that started with french colonization and continued with the onslaught of the "development" folks. and with that, i will never feel at ease.

5 comments:

Geoffrey said...

it must be a strange feeling....given the problems they'd had with foreigners (french, vietnamese, or us), it's not surprising. if anyone can make some inroads, i'm sure it's you!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'm glad to hear you are doing ok and having some new experiences. I can only imagine how I would feel in your shoes. I find it personally fufilling to feel a sense of community with the people I live and work around, so I can empathize with your situation. However, walls are made to be broken down, atleast in this case. If anyone can do it, you can girl! I'll continue to check out your blog. Take care-- Hugs and kisses!
Meredith

Esther said...

I can only begin to imagine what you're experiencing. I'll admit, there has been the occasional resturant, country club or facility which I have walked into and the persistant glances have given the indication of "did you walk into the wrong door"! But to have that as a expected norm is something totally different. I know you will not allow the status quo to deter you...all the best
Esther

Esther said...

I can only begin to imagine what you're experiencing. I'll admit, there has been the occasional resturant, country club or facility which I have walked into and the persistant glances have given the indication of "did you walk into the wrong door"! But to have that as a expected norm is something totally different. I know you will not allow the status quo to deter you...all the best.
Esther

heather said...

I know what you mean... even in my office I get constant reminders of how I'm just another American intern who came along to to her thing for a few weeks. Most comfortable environment: hanging with the Peace Corps kids ;)