Slightly more than a month ago, I was sitting cross-legged on the laminate flooring of my parents’ room, recording a video of myself on PhotoBooth in preparation for a Skype interview due to happen in a few minutes. “Hi I’m Joey, a 21-year-old undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. I’m keen to apply for the internship in Cambodia because…” I recited, eyes shifting uneasily between the screen and camera of my laptop. Fast forward, I’m seated in the comforts of my apartment in Cambodia typing this.
(I’m sorry if I may have led you to think this article is a manual on acing an interview – it isn’t. And FYI I wasn’t even asked to introduce myself so all that rehearsals were for naught. Record your interviews only to check if your microphone and camera are working.)
I’ve been in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, for almost a month now, and boy, has it been treating me well. Even the the sun feels particularly good here. The rays seem to slide under my skin and fill my heart with warmth. I honestly haven’t been to many places, because the first few days were spent settling in my new environment and easing myself into what would be my full-time job for the next four months. But two weeks ago, one of my Khmer (Cambodian) colleagues (now a close friend, yay!) brought me to the Royal Palace, a popular attraction in Phnom Penh. The Royal Palace is made up of a complex of buildings and is where the king of Cambodia resides. The architectural symmetry and grandeur of the structures were truly a wonder to behold. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
Work has been nothing but enjoyable and fulfilling so far, despite the long hours. I knock off between 9pm and 11pm every night, so you can imagine that I am absolutely knackered by the time I leave my workplace. But nothing rejuvenates a weary soul more than a warm smile.
When I make my way down to the lift lobby and towards the exit ever night, I walk past a reception desk, and seated behind it is a lady of small stature, who dons the attire of a security guard. She has a small face, chocolate brown eyes, and Cupid’s-bow pink lips surrounding her small mouth.
Every time we meet, I would say hello to her, and she would spring to her feet and say “Hello!” enthusiastically, with almost a tinkle in her eye.
Because I would be making my way out of the building to go home, that would immediately be followed by “Bye!”, and we would both break out into a chuckle because it was so silly how our conversations began and ended.
One night, I decided to stay around to chat with her for a while. After all, I had gotten a chicken parmesan baguette for dinner earlier and I could have it while talking to her.
I learnt that she was only 18. I asked what she was doing there, working from 2pm to 2am every day. She said her high school exams had just ended and she was making use of the holiday to work before university commences, that is, if she gets to enter university.
“I want to study Accountancy!” she said with excitement.
But as if hit by a pang of realisation, she quickly said with dismay, “but I don’t have money.”
“How much do you earn here?” I asked.
That translates to SGD135.00 per month, SGD4.50 per day, and SGD0.38 per hour.
I felt a mix of sadness and guilt. Here was a girl who wanted so much to study, but couldn’t because of her financial situation. And here I was, holding a baguette that costs USD4.00 (SGD5.41). She would need to work for more than a day to earn that amount.
I caught her taking a look at my baguette, and I quickly asked if she wanted to try.
“No, you eat. This type… very expensive,” she said.
And this is something I experience with most of my Khmer friends, not just her. I remember the guilt I felt when one of them asked how I had spent my weekends, and I said I had gone to AEON Mall to shop. I didn’t know until a while ago that AEON was considered one of the more high-end, Westernised malls in the country, and is seldom patronised by Khmer people.
“Wow… AEON expensive… I only go there one time long long time ago,” my friend responded.
I was instantly hit with a pang of guilt.
As a Singaporean tourist in Cambodia, I tend to get overwhelmed by the significantly lower prices here and be overly generous with my cash. After all everything’s much cheaper, I should just spend on whatever makes me happy, right? But my identity as a tourist, and the accompanying privilege of coming from a first-world to a third-world country, causes me to lose sight of important problems in the country.
From now on, I hope to possess greater empathy, and to localise myself in Cambodia. After all, being in a country that is vastly different from Singapore politically, socially, economically, I should take the opportunity to fully immerse myself in my environment and gain something from here besides, well, USD4.00 baguettes.
How about you? Have you experienced guilt as a tourist before?