girl at Sihanoukville dumpsite displaying her art

Expat Living: life from a different perspective

I joined an expat “community” on G+ today. Yes, I’m one of those rare individuals who occasionally visits G+. Anyway, I joined because one post captured my attention. It was a Nelson Mandela quote: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

I joined so I could share a comment:

I returned to my home town after 20 years in Australia. I thought it would make me nostalgic, but it kind of creeped me out. It was exactly as I had left it. As I walked past a real estate agency, I looked in the window and saw a salesman who resembled me enough that I could put myself in his shoes. What if I had stayed and lived my whole life in that community? What a small world I would live in.

Manhattan Beach is the kind of community many people would love to live in. Mostly upper middle class and near the beach, it even got a mention in a Beach Boys song: “All over Manhattan, and down Doheny way, everybody’s gone surfing, surfing USA.”

I learned to surf there, but that’s about he only good thing I learned. I also learned to believe “there is no life east of Sepulveda” (the road that divided the beach communities from inland Los Angeles) and had I not travelled, would probably have gone on to be a flag-waving American. I came of age in the sixties and, like many of my contemporaries, experimented with psychedelics and opposed the Vietnam War. Unlike so many, I didn’t go back to being an ambitious patriot when America withdrew from Vietnam, though. By then I had travelled overland to India and spent nearly a year there. It changed my perspective on life. America, I realised, was not the centre of the universe and not the “greatest country on earth” — just the greediest.

Leaving America for good

greed is good?From then on, I never felt at home in the United States. I welcomed the opportunity to leave for good in 1985. Australia suited me because the country still had a strong working class ethic. Socialism wasn’t a dirty word as it was becoming in increasingly privatised America and being a flag-waving patriot wasn’t a prerequisite for acceptance into Australian society.

Australia had and has its faults. Many Australians are racist, for one thing. They still call aboriginals “abos” and usually the word carries the same connotations as “nigger” does in America. Amusingly, they also have a pejorative for Americans. You don’t hear it often in the cities, but I moved to what was still a “country” town, although it was at the beach. The first time I heard myself referred to as a “seppo,” I was bemused. Later, a friend clued me in. Seppo is short for “septic tank.” It’s a label reserved for Americans.

Australia had its faults, but felt like a big step up from America, which was becoming even more divided along class lines. The hippies had been replaced by yuppies and Hindu gurus replaced by success gurus like Werner Erhard. Neither hippies nor yuppies gained much traction in Australia. You could be either one, but it didn’t define you. Neither did your bank balance.

An expat living in Cambodia

I’ve lived in Cambodia for the past eight years. The only thing I don’t like about the country is that the people seem to be trying to follow the Western capitalist model. It’s understandable, but disturbing. I tend to agree with Cambodians I’ve met who have told me life was best just before and after the Khmer Rouge, when they lived freely in villages and a central government didn’t meddle in their lives. One man told me he wanted for nothing as a child in his village. A schoolteacher remarked that the best years of her life were just after the Khmer Rouge era. Although there was no government to speak of and she was only given a bowl of rice in exchange for teaching, the villagers took care of and protected one another.

sihanoukville dumpsite residents
Residents of the Sihanoukville dumpsite — Feb. 2008

My perspective on life has changed drastically in the past eight years. When I came to Cambodia, I still thought of it as a “Third World” country, with all the connotations the term carries with it. Wanting to help poor Cambodians, I became secretary of a small NGO run by a Cambodian neighbour. We were trying to help the residents of the Sihanoukville dump site.

The first time we went to the dump site, my heart went out to the people there, who seemed to be living miserable, downtrodden lives. I certainly wouldn’t want to change places with them, but while conditions were horrible, there was nothing “downtrodden” about the residents. Life had dealt them a harsh blow, but they did the best they could with what little they had. They formed a community, worked hard, and shared the meagre earnings from the plastic they sold to recyclers. When issues came up, they would discuss them.

girl at Sihanoukville dumpsite displaying her art
Our painting project was a hit while it lasted

The village leader, a woman, did not rule with an iron fist or get special favours. She was a leader because of her forceful personality and lack of fear when dealing with outsiders who thought they were superior. That included the NGOs who occasionally visited and had a hideously condescending attitude towards them.

Meanwhile in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Westerners on pensions were drinking themselves to death and spending their extra money on prostitutes. Some declared with straight faces that they were helping the Cambodian economy by going out with prostitutes and all tacitly agreed they knew what was best for Cambodia simply because they were Westerners.

On the other side of the world, Americans were still believing they were defending America and bringing democracy in the Middle East by bombing it into oblivion. They pitied the squalor in “Third World” countries, but were happy to buy cheap clothes made in those countries and turned a blind eye to the corporations that exploited them. 

After eight years in Cambodia, I admire the average Cambodian more than I admire the average American or Australian. Of course there are bad ones, but in general, they’re a self-reliant people who have strong family ties and a sense of community.

I’d love it if Cambodia had a populist leader like the late Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. It doesn’t, though. A new generation of Cambodian, one that doesn’t remember all the good the current Prime Minister has done, is demanding change. It may be time for a change, too. I just hope it’s not a change for the worse. I’d hate to see this country become like America. Greed is NOT good. Taking care of one another is.

 

  • m

    Good post, subscribed.

    One thing though: Capitalism has the potential to drag such societies out of poverty. Being raised in East Germany i know this first hand.