Before I came, I knew I wouldn’t be here forever.
Since I arrived, I’ve burnt my lungs and ravaged my liver. My gut is a fleshy “bodge podge”: the product of eschewing roadside noodles or the supermarket for a diet of four dollar burgers and cheap beers.
This week I’m leaving and I’m not entirely sure why. Sometimes I’ve felt that my lifestyle here is something I need to wean myself off for the sake of my own sanity.
Other times I’ve thought that the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be for me to fit in when I go home. I don’t have the courage to abandon the safety net of a family, lifelong friends, decent hospitals and a welfare system. But when it came time to make a decision, what drew me back more than anything was a girl.
When I left town she was one of my closest friends and I confided in her to a degree that I’d never before done with anyone.
Whenever it came up in conversation here, I always told people I came because I was in exile. I always loathed those sorts of questions and I ducked them with snarky replies, but in this case there was some kind of fundamental truth, because I needed to be away from her. But if I’d been honest with myself about how I felt about her, I wouldn’t have come here in the first place.
Some men have religion, others have women.
For a few months, as we started to haltingly acknowledge our unresolved feelings for each other, mediated by Facebook and Skype, the idea that I was going to return home and live happily ever after with her was an article of faith. Whenever I felt like there was turmoil in my life here and I was lonely or miserable, this is what consoled me. For her, the feeling wasn’t sustainable. Now that she’s moved on, I’ve had time to wonder if I did the right thing by letting us become so emotionally invested in each other.
If I hadn’t, perhaps I would’ve engaged more with the people around me, perhaps been a bit more serious about seeking out something meaningful.
I always consoled myself by silently watching the fractious love lives of other people here, and convincing myself that the transience of the expat community would always conspire to prevent anything enduring. It was a reassuring lie. Another friend of mine left for home a few months ago and has since been trying to make sense of his two years here at the same time as living with his parents and going through the motions of his previous life.
“You should never go to Cambodia to ‘find’ yourself,” he wrote to me recently, “because you probably won’t like what you see.”
I found out a lot of things about myself here, plenty of them objectionable. But if I had my time again I wouldn’t do anything differently. If there’s one worthwhile thing I’ve learned the hard way, it’s that looking for your own redemption in the affections of others is a recipe for perpetual immaturity.
I’ve learnt this lesson far too late in life, but it’s still the reason why I’m excited to return home, and I’m looking forward to spending some time on myself.