Expat (ˈeks-ˌpat). Noun. An expatriate person, or someone who has withdrawn (him/herself) from residence in or allegiance to his/her native country.

In GK’s migration class this summer, one of our assignments was to write up and present our personal or familial migration story, and this word turned out to be a tricky thorn in my side when writing up my narrative. See, in some ways, I’ve been expat: I have lived and worked outside of America for significant (6+ months) chunks of time, even though eventually I’ve returned to America. While abroad, I am put in the expat category if the tourist one doesn’t fit. So yes, it makes sense that I would call myself an expat.

And yet…

You can’t ignore the negative connotations associated with them. Exploiting the cheap cost of living and revelling in the exoticism of a developing country. Building and maintaining a bubble of comfort in the form of businesses and lifestyles that exclude or take advantage of the people who actually live there. Caring (or pretending to care) about the country’s political/economic/social problems while knowing that they have a way out if things get dodgy.

And while I do believe that there are responsible expats out there, and that reclaiming the narrative is important, I’ve already witnessed behaviors here in Cambodia that put a sour taste in my mouth:

  • Listening to a group of people patronize a Cambodian guy and his idea that helped an art project at a hotel. “Wow, he had an ingenious idea! That was great; Cambodians aren’t known for showing initiative, you know.” They said this while he was only a hundred feet away with other hotel workers.
  • Hearing a new acquaintance state, “You know what I love? The lawlessness here. It’s so refreshing.”
  • Going to Nerd Night, an event painfully catered to the expat community, in which I saw:
    • A man advertising his new school that is to be set up in Phnom Penh, talking about how other schools don’t serve everyone. When someone asked him how the school would benefit all Cambodians, given the school’s various fees, an evasive “We’re looking into it” stumbled out after many ums and uhs.
    • An old white man at the bar receiving a back rub from one of the female Cambodian employees, whom I’m pretty sure he paid.

And there are others. Over these past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to interrogate my positionality and privilege here as a white American, hoping to come to terms with actions I have done and will do as I stay in Phnom Penh for another seven-ish weeks. I’m certainly not claiming the moral high ground compared to these other expats; I have, for example, gone to Western restaurants, but I am trying to be more and more conscious of what businesses I support and simply how I interact with the environment here. And how I respond to moments like the ones above. I haven’t been doing a great job of it, honestly, and that makes me uncomfortable. I’m still processing a lot of things, like what I should be doing, as well as the feeling that I should be doing something. (Hence the slight incoherence of this post.)

On top of that, there are a lot of scary events happening right now in Cambodia in terms of politics. My coworkers and I have been advised to not talk about the issue publicly, or even privately, so I won’t be discussing them here. I do, however, worry about what might happen to a right-based organization like AAC here, and my coworkers. This adds to the discomfort, because, again, my way out is going to happen in under two months, while my coworkers will have to deal with these issues for who knows how long.

As I continue to live and work here for the next month and a half, I have to continue interrogating my role here and how I can best interact with Phnom Penh without perpetuating the same negative stereotypes of an expat.