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Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia

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Though many expats have decided to base themselves in Cambodia, and many have lived here for years or even decades, it remains the case that some of the country’s foreign community have only the faintest understanding of the culture and heritage of the people that surround them. Segregated from the local population, declining to make even the most perfunctory attempts to learn the language, and subsisting on a diet of Western food, in many ways they live a life indistinguishable from their lives back home.

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It is this sort of expat experience that has been a constant source of fascination for 44 year-old French journalist Frédéric Amat, who has called Cambodia home since 1995. In his time here, he has seen myriad European and American residents of the country insulate themselves from local people. His new book, Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia, published last year in French and earlier this month in English, attempts to chronicle the lived experience of expats in the country, and touches on this phenomenon.

“I came to Cambodia to cover the fighting, especially in 1997,” Amat says. “I became interested in Cambodian culture. But at the same time, I became interested in foreign communities living in Cambodia. This was a poor country at that time. It started with nothing. There were a lot of expats and many expressed a lot of arrogance towards Cambodian people. I felt so much shock by the way these expat families treated the locals. This was the idea for me to write a book.”

Amat says that many expats first come to Cambodia as tourists with an idealised picture of the country’s people and its natural beauty, leading to unrealistic expectations when they decide to settle here over the long term.

“When they just visit as a tourist, Cambodia is like what they saw in postcard, a beautiful country. When they decided to live, then they turn to the back of the postcard and they begin to face a lot of culture shock: bad traffic, poverty, beggars.”

Rather than confront these issues, many instead decided to form their own expat communities and separate themselves away from local people.

“They don’t really open the window to Cambodia. They don’t try to speak the language. They are not interested in the culture. When they finish their job, they just go to the foreign bars, have beers with friends. They live in Cambodia, but they don’t really live with Cambodians.”

Frédéric Amat took at least seven years to compile the activities, routines and problems of the expat community into his book. Of particular interest to him were those foreigners who travelled to Cambodia to look for a prospective partner.

“A lot of single men come here because it’s easier for them to find love in Cambodia than their own country. They go to the bars in Cambodia. Some of them have the Cambodian girls from the bars. I write about the girls in the bars, who do not adhere to the usual traditions of Cambodian girls,” he said.   

In the last chapter, Amat gives his formulation for how expats can enjoy life in Cambodia to the fullest. To him, Cambodia is not a hard place to live and people are not hard to communicate with; the only barrier lies in foreigners refusing to truly open themselves to the society. If they open their mind a bit, they will enjoy their life here.

Jérôme Moriniére, the publisher of Cambodia’s Tuk Tuk Editions publishing house, has printed 4,000 copies of Amat’s work in English, with distribution planned for Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in the coming weeks.

“Mostly our writers wrote books about Angkor temples or the Khmer Rouge; this is the first time that we’ve published a work about people’s daily life, their social life and their culture,” Moriniére said.  
- Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia is available at Monument bookstores and the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for US$12.

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