The other night I was solicited for love advice by a Cambodian woman. After months of me parading a succession of women in front of her and complaining to her after things inevitably went pear-shaped, I was surprised she had asked. I did not perform well.
SK met her Western partner on the internet, before he took a job in Phnom Penh. For the last couple of months he’s been back in England with their infant son. She implied he was homesick.
With the benefit of distance SK reflected on her four-year relationship and asked me if it was normal that he would never compliment her cooking, ask her about her day or acknowledge her presence when they were out with Western friends.
She said she’d spoken with him about it several times and it had moved beyond the point where he even pretended to acknowledge her hurt and promised to try harder in the future. She asked what she should do.
Her English was flawless, she was thoughtful and well-educated, and the age gap between them was insubstantial, so there was no apparent communication barrier. In any other situation, I would have said that her boyfriend was an inconsiderate, self-absorbed douchebag and if it wasn’t for the kid, to drop him for someone more worthy.
It’s to my shame that I wondered what she must have done to drill such apathy into him, instead of telling her that she deserved better. By ignoring what I’d come to know about her – in all those months of watching her exhibit a great deal of sense, worldliness and genuine interest in other people’s cultures - I’d fallen into a familiar trap.
Frédéric Amat’s Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia, an otherwise insightful critique of foreigners in the country, strikes an odd note in its closing chapters when the author predicts misery for any Western man foolish enough to take a Cambodian girlfriend, who will inevitably spend the duration of the relationship watching TV, gossiping with friends and sulking when forced out to dinner in the company of her boyfriend’s associates.
It’s easy to scorn these stereotypes in isolation, but in the tapestry of expat life they are pervasive, and many people eye interracial couples here with either amusement or suspicion.
If there is to be a wider rapprochement between the locals and the foreigners here, more substantial than cursory interactions in a classroom, tuk-tuk or BKK bar stool, it needs to begin with an acknowledgement that these two groups can pursue relationships on an equal footing. It needs to go against the damaging stereotypes of predatory Western men and hysterical, tear-prone Cambodian women.