Sunday 3 July 2022

The Wonder that Was Cambodia: an email written in 2010.


Last night's mandatory trip to the pub (that people pretend isn't mandatory) reminded me of various problems and shortcomings in/with Whitedom (I dare not say "White Culture", due to the paucity of culture).

It was an Australian-dominated event (though two French and two Americans were there) and when I asked various questions about what time I should arrive, etc., my boss told me to "lower [my] anxiety about the whole event" --as it was supposedly a very casual event, etc., and attendance was optional, etc., as it would be in Australia.

Instead, of course, it was very much the usual thing of respect mattering a great deal, but people wanting to pretend that it didn't.

And, of course, it really isn't a minor imposition: I was at work at 8:00AM sharp on Friday (and nobody else was; I was alone in the office for a fair while) --and now [my employer expects] me to hang out 5PM to past 8PM?  After discussing it with my boss, I showed up closer to 7:45 PM --looked at the menu in the place they had selected, and then immediately left to eat at a place two doors down ("Vego").

So, then I come back, fed, closer to 8:00PM.

[The implicit point being that everything on the menu in the first locale contained meat.]

There was one American guy there, who almost nobody knew at all (i.e., a recent/oblique friend of somebody on staff), who was close to coming to a fist-fight with me from the minute I sat down.  Typical white-ass stuff.  He'd had a few drinks, and has been in Phnom Penh for all of 6 months.  Apparently he teaches "International Relations" (i.e., pol. sci.) at Pannyashastra University --which tells you nothing about his background --and he became offended and defensive whenever questions were asked about his background (even his age).  Ian (my boss) was watching him carefully, as he noticed that the guy responded to almost everything I said with an insult (etc.) --including my remark that I normally (for the sake of simplicity) just describe my employment as "author" because "despite the details, I earn my living with a pen".  This, too, reflects the sadness of the situation: Ian really is the smartest guy in the room, with the longest research experience, but he isn't sitting at the head of the table.  Their white-Australian culture requires us all to mill about like pigs at the same trough --and we're not.  We all come to that trough with very different expectations of ourselves and of each other --and that boils down to respect.  I don't even remember the American guy's name --but I wouldn't be surprised if that did come to a fist fight at some random meeting in future (I assume he arrived unhappy about unrelated things --because I only discussed banal pleasantries in front of the guy).

Myself, the two French and one of the Australians (Andree) left again, to eat at the Indian place immediately next-door, shortly after I met the other professor (of Economic History, also at Pannyashastra, but British in origin) whom I was there to meet.

Most of these guys seem to be here for the wrong reasons --even if they're making a positive contribution of some kind.

After a long discussion of my research* I asked him (i.e., the British professor of Economic History) casually if he had already been interested in Cambodia before relocating here, and the answer was a flat "no": typically, he vacationed in Cambodia (after a divorce) and ended up with a second marriage (leading to a second divorce) and three half-Khmer kids.  I really don't think that Cambodia is a business you can marry into; but then, I could be shallow, crass, catty, judgmental and wrong.**

* [e.g., actual question he asked me:

  "What do you mean by saying your research is, 'obscure'?",

  My reply, "Have you ever heard of 'Pali' before?"


  "That's obscure."]

** [He did look the picture of a man who was killing himself with food and alcohol, perhaps not even gradually --and, you know, I don't regard the body and the mind as two separate things.  This, too, fills out the stereotype image of the white man who marries into a "career" (or semi-retirement?) on the Mekong --but can't actually walk up a flight of stairs.]

The two French are doing research pursuant to degrees in public health (they're not a couple, BTW, but obviously have a lot in common and hang out together).  We're of approximately the same age, and did "socialize well" together.  They're both specialists... but not specialists in Cambodia (nor the region).  One of them has prior work in West Africa (Nigeria, etc.) --and the other, I suppose, has ambivalent feelings toward Cambodia as she's obviously half-Vietnamese.  It would be interesting to hear her perspective on Phnom Penh --but I think she was already too drunk by that point in the evening.

[On another occasion, when she was entirely sober, this same half-Vietnamese half-French researcher would attempt to seduce me in front of my first wife, an anecdote that ended in a manner that was hilarious to everyone assembled --including my first wife.]

Shortly before leaving, I said to my boss, "Hm, I suppose A____ was too busy to make it.  I invited her, but she probably didn't have time to reply.  Did a nervous looking Swede approach you at any point during the night?"  He replied, "Yes, actually, there was a Swedish girl around here..." --so, I don't know if you tried to cross paths and then left (at one of the moments when I was away from the table) or if this was an unrelated Swede at the same bar.