In this series we talk to Cambodia expats about what they wish they had known when they first moved to Cambodia (that they know now).
This week we talk to Australian expat Stephen Mussig. Stephen, who is 29, moved to Cambodia six months ago after visiting Cambodia for more than ten years. He works in Phnom Penh for an international NGO in human resource management.
MTC: Stephen, based on what you know now that you didn’t know when you moved to Cambodia, what advice would you give to new expats?
SM: “So you’ve arrived in exotic Cambodia, you’re expecting an adventure full of wonder and awe and instead what you find is… a bubble. A shield of sorts that protects us expats from the big, bad, scary Cambodia, and one that holds amazing restaurants, bars, clubs, cinemas and just about anything you could ask for. Such a life appears to be without fault, a perfect mix of living overseas in a crazy and alien culture with all the comforts of home, though you soon begin to feel a linger of fatigue as those stocks of adrenalin wear off and ‘real’ life begins. A tiredness that on self reflection has no real grounds for existence. You begin to feel stress, even though on paper you’re surrounded by the means to release it, be it through partying, trips away to amazing places or simply lounging around at one of the fifty-two thousand cafes in the city.
Then the slippery slope begins, as this inability to truly understand your stress and fatigue becomes in itself another source of concern as you start looking for reasons and justification for your state of exhaustion. This continues until (and this is from my experience) you realize that Cambodia is not your country and you are living in a culture that is not your own.
You realize that even after 6 months, your brain and body never truly relax, whether it’s being alert to traffic, aware of how you’re holding your bag in the tuk tuk or down to the finer points of dealing with that street food that you shouldn’t have eaten the night before. You begin to realize that all the bubble really does is stop you from truly engrossing yourself in the exotic surrounds, preventing you from really connecting to Cambodia’s people and its culture. It is this divide that means that even after so much time you are still in a constant state of culture shock.
My advice to anyone moving to Phnom Penh is to keep in mind the power of the bubble and the way it is impacting how you live and experience Cambodian culture. Find ways to burst it; learn more about the culture, its history and its language. Make friends with Khmer people and actually go to the dozens of weddings that you will be invited to. As you allow this country into your life, you’ll realize that the things that once drained you of energy are just another part of the day. It will be then that you truly begin to live and make the most of the Cambodian experience.”