Notes from the real world

Nicky Sullivan resurfaces in the dark depths of the real world.
Nicky Sullivan resurfaces in the dark depths of the real world. ANNE FERGUSON, OCEAN ADDICTS

Notes from the real world

Former high-profile Reaper Nicky Sullivan looks back in bemusement at her time in Temple Town

Watching the Cambodian election play out from afar was frustrating. Back here, in a small town on the south coast of Ireland, I could comb the streets for hours before I might find someone who cared even a jot, or who even conceived of Cambodia as something more than some strange place at the end of a map with a sign over it saying “Here be scary bad stuff, though maybe snacks too.”

I trawled through friends’ Facebook posts for updates, most of which were lucid, compassionate and full of concern for the people of the country they happen to inhabit at this time. It was a relief to still feel part of a network that actually cares about people, and about issues more compelling than heating systems.

The weirdest thing about moving back to Europe is the number of people who keep talking to me about heating systems. I’m not sure if I ever had an opinion on them or the slightest clue about how they worked before I spent six years in Asia.

Occasionally I’ll also check in the Expats and Locals Living in Siem Reap Facebook page too. I mostly do this whenever I need reassuring that, all things considered, I’m reasonably, indeed boringly normal.

In seventeenth century London, members of the public were allowed to visit the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam and the origin of that word’s meaning. It was an institution established for the mentally ill, and the visits were intended to elicit donations as well as provide a salutary lesson as to what might befall you if you allowed too remote a relationship with reason (and morals) to develop. Visiting the digital lunatic asylum that is the Expats Facebook page sometimes feels like that.

But therein lays the rub. The single constant refrain during six years in Asia in India and Cambodia was the question, “What are you going to do when you get back to the real world?” This question always fascinated me, and ticked me off. It was as though the enquirer thought we, and everyone around us, were existing and interacting in some fantasy game or alternative dimension in which human and physical laws did not apply. As though, even if you don’t necessarily have to account to quite so many people in Cambodia as at home, you still didn’t have to account to yourself. Sometimes, you have to account to many, many more.

And that’s the odd thing. Because despite the many popular (mis)conceptions about expatriates and in particular, it would appear, expatriates in Cambodia, I have never met so many fascinating people doing fascinating things anywhere else in my life, and doing so with a passion and compassion that is utterly missing from life in this so-called real world.

When people hear you’ve spent time in Cambodia, they will exclaim “Oh my, how wonderful!” and then swiftly move on. Without any frame of reference in their own lives to hang an observation on, it means little to them. You will be admired for doing something bold and different, in an acceptable way, but once you start to tell a story their eyes start to glaze over a little. You can see them wondering when you’ll stop so they can start talking about the school run, and the fiendish complications and power plays therein involved.

I’ve had people tell me that people move to Cambodia because alcohol is cheap, and drugs more accessible. I’ve had people talk over me to tell this to other people, who have also never been there. People think that expats choose their lives because they can’t function in the Real World. Expats can’t be responsible, and they can’t work hard, and they can’t be valuable members of society. When you get back, people won’t mind saying this to you either.

And when they do, I think about the people that I knew or met, in particular in Siem Reap, and I start to get a glimpse into how horribly wrongly people can construe the world.

A word of advice, try not to start too many conversations with an observation on how the decadent West will soon be out-stripped by the hungry East. People get very twitchy, and occasionally pissy, about that.

What is most peculiar about this “real world” in which I once again live is how staggeringly pre-occupied people are by very unreal things. These are often discussed with the utmost seriousness and attention to detail. And then things that really are real are discussed in terms that make them so remote as to become intangible, even irrelevant. This may be an extension of people’s sense of being unable to control events even if they did properly understand them.

I’m experiencing regular out-of-body experiences whenever people here talk to me about things on television, clothes (unless it’s to talk about the conditions under which they’re made, which never, ever happens), things celebrity X did, the British (or any) Royal family, sport, the price of whatever, which car to drive, paint colours, home décor, or what latest thing they want that is always just beyond their pay-scale.

I sit there and watch a friend’s mouth moving, dreading the moment when it will stop, while my mind goes on a terrified scramble through the recesses desperately seeking an opinion on these subjects that I can express without embarrassing myself.

For someone who’s rarely short of opinions, it’s been a real struggle.

“Green!” I say, “Green’s a lovely colour on walls… isn’t it?” only to be greeted with a quizzical silence. “Do you mean malachite or feldgrau green, or perhaps laurel might work with the blueberry plates we’ve bought.” I pour myself another glass of wine.

The magazine shelves are stuffed with celebrity magazines, and fashion spreads splashily tout clothes people don’t need at turnovers that make my head spin. When I left I’m pretty sure there were only two fashion seasons: ghastly-pastel season and morbid season, neither of which suit me but anyway. Now it seems like there’s at least 52 seasons in the year, and my otherwise intelligent friends scrabble to keep up on salaries that do not serve them well for the task.

The great thing about Cambodia being an expat is how it liberates you from that. Not being in any advertiser’s demographic for an extended period of time is a magical thing.

What you have in Cambodia instead of marketers and social pressure to dress/talk/think/work in a particular way is an environment in which you make the rules you live by, and creativity flourishes. This is where a friend who happens to bake beautiful cakes that make my knees go weak can open her own café, or another can set up a fashion label while helping women who need support to help themselves and their families, or yet another can create a bespoke line of gorgeously scented candles.

Someone recently wrote a brilliantly funny blog titled “7 reasons why you shouldn’t move to Cambodia”. The writer made some good points, but among the practicalities dealing with finances and pensions and your mum missing you, he forgot that the creative space that Cambodia affords those lucky or wacky enough to end up here is priceless, and that includes the space it gives to create yourself as you want to be. Some people lose it here, and would have it lost somewhere else more slowly.

There is more to this than them.

Sometimes I also think of the madness on the Expats’ Facebook page, and then remember the passion with which arguments are fought, the attention with which insights are shared, and the sense of community that organically evolves during a crisis.

The one thing the raging arguments and the bitching shows is that even if the people in Siem Reap can’t agree on how they care, at least they really do care, to which I can only say “keep up the crazy.”