labor unions to advance worker rights. A job I actually was suited for,
no wonder they offered me a contract. I promised I would learn Khmer,
I promised everything.
My mother thought I was crazy to go. She thought the Khmer Rouge
would kill me, despite my telling her they’d been out of power since 1979.
“I’m off to the Glorious East,” I said. “That’s not so bad.”
“You always lived in a fantasy world,” she said. My mother was well
into her eighties now, with contempt for anyone not as alert as she was.
I told her Phnom Penh was the capital of a real country. I had a Delta
Airlines ticket to it.
“You always think you have the secret to Paradise,” she said.
She imagined I had secret plans, that was really what she meant. As if
I were a dreamy teenager, climbing out through the window to the freer
parts of the neighborhood. Mountaineering for world revolution.
Some friends said they envied my going off into the sunset—how free
I was, how brave—and some said, “Well, you have nothing to keep you
here,” which meant they thought they were better off. I reminded them
all that I was going for work, not vacation, into a city of one and a half
million, not a tropical garden. My pay was going to go far, but I would
not be lounging around in a bed of orchids.
All the same, Phnom Penh was a big jolt. A modern Asian city, with
high-rises and traffic lights and historic temples, that looked like a
washed-up village, lined with vendors’ carts and tattered awnings and
soot-streaked walls and not one foot of unbroken sidewalk. Motorcycles
and bikes and tables and unpacked crates were all over the sidewalk anyway—that was how they used it. The city was kind of great in its way, but
not what I expected.
In the first weeks I had to get used to what they wanted at work. We
were in a campaign that involved sending missives to government agencies about how fucking hot the garment factories were. They answered,
we answered back. The old hands in the office—kids in their twenties,
Americans and Euros—took me out drinking at night; they wanted me
to like Phnom Penh. A glass of beer was a dollar, and they knew places
where it was even less. I liked the bars—I always liked bars—and I could
never decide between the cool ones by the river and the cheaper ones by
the market. Everybody thought I was settling in very nicely.
Did I mind being the oldest person in the room? At times I did. The
Cambodians in the office (we had a few) included two sisters close to