February 23, 2016

Going Back to Phnom Penh after Six Years.

Six years ago, I flew to Phnom Penh on a one-way ticket with plans to teach as a volunteer until I figured life out. I had just finished my undergraduate degree, and the US economy had just experienced the great recession.

On the flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh in 2010, I sat between a middle-aged Cambodian woman and a 50-something government agent from America. The man's job was to conduct stings on child sex operations in Cambodia. He was supposed to solicit sex with a child from the brothel owner, and once inside the brothel, signal a raid to get all the kids out safely. Or something totally scary like that. I had known that child exploitation is a problem in Cambodia, but to be confronted with it on the flight in was unsettling to say the least. The woman on my other side was somehow connected to the Cambodian Institute of Technology, a university in Phnom Penh. She was flying in to help hand out diplomas to graduates. Possibly due to my charm and intellect, though more likely for my blond hair, she insisted that I come to help her with the ceremony. She was somewhat transparent about the fact that having an American present would add a sense of ethos to the university. She gave me her phone number.

A few days later, on one of my very first excursions in Phnom Penh, I somehow found my way across town to the Institute de Technologie du Cambodge (remnants of a former French occupation linger in Phnom Penh). I dutifully sat through a multi-hour ceremony conducted in Khmer, and then did my best to graciously hand out the diplomas and pose for photos.

This weekend, I returned to Phnom Penh for the first time since 2010. Oddly enough, I found myself sitting in the very same room at the ITC, listening to a presentation about English teaching. Alan and I were attending a language teacher conference. The conference was held in the aging buildings of the ITC, and the experience of being back in that particular room was profound for me. I had returned to the source of something that has been so important in my adult life. 

My stint in Cambodia six years ago has lingered in my mind as one of my biggest perceived failures. A failure because I didn’t thrive in the exotic environment. I was too hot, dirty and miserable for most of my time there. I was counting the days until I could leave. I left with a sense of giving up, of defeat.

Coming back to Cambodia with a lot more life experience, including a year in the middle of Turkey, and an ongoing experience in rural-ish Thailand, I was able to see just how difficult the context was in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh is damn hot during the dry season. It is super dusty. The air quality is quite bad—enough to give me a headache almost immediately. There are people and cars and motorbikes and goods everywhere, all jammed together in tiny spaces. It's too hot to sleep. Floors are wet. There is a hair in every dish you order. Windows have bars on them. The traffic is incessant and disturbing. There are barely any sidewalks in the city. Getting around means bargaining with hired drivers who want to squeeze every last dollar out of you. Back then, it was so far from what I was used to. It was so uncomfortable.

Desk graffiti at the ITC
Now, in comparison to living in Turkey and Thailand, I understand Cambodia a lot better. I can accept the sidewalk situation and the air quality. I have a much stronger support system now because Alan is with me. More important, I realize that I was incredibly brave (though also possibly reckless and stupid) to jump into life in Cambodia. Over the weekend, I felt a strong sense of self-confidence re-seeing places I had been so long ago. I took my husband and one of our friends from graduate school who was also attending the conference to a concert that I knew about because of a local paper that I sometimes check. I recommended foods to try. I enjoyed telling people about my previous experiences as a teacher in Phnom Penh.

Revisiting the ITC reminded me of the Cambodia that I knew six years ago. Aging buildings showing their wear-and-tear. Ancient-looking desks. Concrete walls with angled slats to let in the "breeze." The whir of ceiling fans overhead. Palm trees and lush vegetation growing in the courtyard. Bathrooms that make “holding it” seem like the better idea.

Dust and air pollution still plague the city that I remember, and in my opinion, the air quality is actually far worse than six years ago. The tuk tuk ride from the airport to our guesthouse was a gritty introduction to the city due to the swirling dirt clouds and heavy traffic. The din of karaoke bars, engines, and streetside construction also hangs heavily in the hot air.

What’s bothering me a little is that I liked the new and improved Phnom Penh. The influx of western comforts and additional attention to the desires of tourists (cafes, fresh coffee, and better lighting at night), have made the city more accessible. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked the place more if it had been this way six years ago--if I wouldn't have failed.

I know that on some level, I chose Cambodia in 2010 because it is a developing country, in every sense of the word, and a place where I literally knew no one. That last part was a big criteria, because I wanted to be unique. Cambodia, in all its mystique, was dirty, corrupt, and probably dangerous (and still is). From the perspective of a privileged American 20-something, living in a developing country is perhaps a rite of passage, an entrance to an elite group, something that your peers will admire you for. Ultimately though, the characteristics that gave Phnom Penh its exotic appeal are the same that made it such a difficult place for me to live six years ago.

After five months of struggling through life in Phnom Penh, I packed up and returned to my hometown where I spent the next year living with my parents and struggling with part-time work at a licorice store (yes, really) and at a Home Depot (yes, unfortunately). Decidedly NOT the outcome I had hoped for with that one-way ticket.

Coming back to Cambodia was important to me. Phnom Penh challenged six years ago with its oppressive heat, chaos, and pollution. But this city also gave me my first taste of teaching English—the very thing that would become my career and my passion in life.

Phnom Penh has matured since 2010. There are now many high-rise buildings in the skyline, and so many under construction. So many things look new and cleaner. There are better street signs. However, some things never change. The traffic is still incomprehensible and seemingly lawless. Cars and motorbikes jostle for position in intersections, and it seems like an accident is possible at every second. We even got into a tuk-tuk fender bender on the way to the conference before our presentation.

The Riverside view
The Riverside area of Phnom Penh still feels like a breath of fresh-ish air, overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and a smaller river. Monks in their bright orange robes walk the broad sidewalks in sharp contrast to the grey-blue skies. Boats of all sizes cruise by, disappearing in the smoggy distance.

When I was here six years ago, I lived in an area of town quite far from the Riverside. Most nights, we stayed near our house, treating ourselves to brownie sundaes at the few Western cafes in the neighborhood. Every few weeks, we would go downtown, to the swanky Riverside area to get drinks and go dancing. 

On this trip, I booked a guesthouse very near to the Riverside area so that Alan and I could explore and enjoy the foreigner-friendliest area of town in the evenings.

Tuk tuk ride to the conference venue
After our presentationat the conference, I felt a great sense of relief. The stressful project was over. The husband-wife research team could disband and just be husband and wife again. Phnom Penh could now be a place where I found inspiration for a career in teaching, and another place on the globe that Alan and I have experienced together.

I went back to Cambodia a better version of myself, and I feel that Cambodia greeted me with its own new and improved self.

I hope that my sense of failure about Cambodia will continue to fade. Seeing the Phnom Penh again, I realize that six years ago I was up against the most formidable of opponents--myself. In Nebraska or In Cambodia, it's the same Jena. The search for meaning in life isn't found at the end of a one-way ticket.

On my second trip to Phnom Penh, with my husband by my side and hundreds of like-minded teachers talking about how to serve our students better, I think I've found what I was looking for.