White people are scarce in Cambodia. Outside of the Capitol at Phnom Penh and the two major tourist hot spots – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Shionkville (beaches) – Anglos are few and far between. Ex Pat communities thrive in tourist areas precisely because tourists, after a few days reveling in the “strangeness” of a new country, long for a little bit of home. So, here in Kampong Chhnang, Sara and I are two of three Anglos (the third being a mysterious Peace Corps volunteer named Greg who we haven’t met yet). So you can imagine that we stand out. Sara, if she wears sunglasses and doesn’t say anything, could probably pass as just a fair skinned Cambodian. But not I. My blonde hair has drawn more curious looks than I can count. We are obviously new in town (and way better equipped to adjust than Renee Zellwiger in that terrible Romantic Comedy).
But, everyone is kind to us. A little distant, but friendly. They return our smiles, sneak looks at us as they ride by on bikes and allow their little children to unabashedly wave and call to us. It’s a bit like being a celebrity, and reminds me of a visiting a school in Guatemala where the students wanted our autographs because we were American. But, for all that this seems harmless, it really points to much bigger issues – race and privilege.
I can’t make many astute comments on the racial dynamics at work in this former French colony that has only in the past 20 years come out of a terrible genocide (which wiped out all of the intellectual class, but more on that in a future post). But I can speak about what I’ve observed – that to be fair skinned and western is to be the most respected and most coveted. It’s a little uncomfortable to know that the children that wave to us and say “hello” – a word that is not used too often in everyday Khemer – are doing so because to them, being Western makes us quasi-celebrities. I don’t like the feeling of privilege, which in many ways I feel is undeserved on my part – that comes from merely being blond haired and blue eyed. What does it mean to have to learn English in order to hold a non-tourist related job? What does it mean to have to learn someone else’s language in order to host an intern in your own country? I recognize that being a white American woman has given me HUGE advantages, but I also feel that from my place of privilege comes huge responsibilities. But how do I honor the dignity of the precious Cambodians that I meet every day while not seeming to condescend or patronize?
It’s difficult. It’s certainly a journey. I am reminded why I never want to be famous. I don’t want people constantly watching where I’m going, intruding on my personal life and being fascinated with every single thing I do from what I eat from breakfast to when I have my first bathroom break! No, leave the fame for the Bennifers and Brangelina’s of the world, and give me a good, honest Cambodian smile.