my age, but they never went to bars. I felt I was becoming a marooned
colonial senior, far from home, staring into his lager, ready to talk to any
In some neighborhoods, when I walked out of a bar after midnight, I
was stopped by kids who were begging—a little girl carrying her infant
brother or a very scrawny boy in a shredded T-shirt. Night was work
time for them. The official word was to avoid giving money to children
because it encouraged adults to send them out. I didn’t always follow the
rule. Kids got hit if they didn’t bring home enough, you could see that
in a second.
My pals at work talked about this—who gave, who didn’t. The Cambodians wanted me to know that many, many kids in poverty had very
devoted parents who worked long hours at anything they could. The
factory women we advocated for, many were mothers. “Don’t get wrong
idea,” the Cambodian sisters said.
If a barang like me—a foreigner—wanted a woman, there were plenty
of suggestions about where to find one. I stopped fellow drinkers who
quoted prices. Not that. I began to think of old girlfriends, ones I’d really
liked. Lizzie, for instance. Being around all these twenty-somethings full
of intelligent, half-baked opinions made me think of her and the kind of
talk that went on in that apartment—our flashy, overextended theories,
our delight in whatever we said.
I went online to see if I could find Lizzie. I Googled her, and there
were several women with her name—one in New Jersey that I got excited about—but they were all the wrong ages. I checked Facebook and
LinkedIn, no luck. I had an email message all written in my head, ready
to send when I found her. Saying hi after all these years, hope you’re well.
I’m working now in Cambodia, very hot weather but you would like it here.
I sent friends at home my photos of Angkor Wat, once I had enough
time off to go there. What dazzled me, beyond the temples and the carvings, were the maps I kept seeing of the Khmer Empire, which had once
ruled most of Southeast Asia. Six hundred years of power, until Angkor
(including the largest city in the preindustrial world) was razed by a Thai
kingdom in 1431.
Of course, I felt strongly that the whole idea of empire was fucked up.
You had only to look at soldiers leading captives with ropes around their
necks in the beautiful temple carvings. When I expounded on this in a