Notes from Cambodia
Relationships between white men and Asian women are a common topic of conversation, usually tending towards the derogatory. White men who chase Asian women are called “Rice Kings”, or said to be afflicted with “Yellow Fever”. In many ways, it looks like a faction of the sex trade in Asia. Stereotypically, a white man who is unsuccessful with or disdainful of Western women goes and buys himself a docile and subservient and young Asian girlfriend. However, there is genuine love and affection in there, too. It is, like nearly everything else in human nature, too complicated and variable to generalize. So here are three conversations I had on the subject with Cambodian women, a Cambodian man and an English man.
1. The Women in Sihanoukville
Sihanoukville is a city along the Southern coast of Cambodia, a beach city like many others. The tuk-tuk drivers are as persistent as usual, although here, if you reject their offer for a ride, they ask if you want any weed. Late at night, I was in one of Sihanoukville’s many hotel casinos, watching Florian play at the black jack tables with a mixture of boredom and gratitude that they supplied free beer. Eventually, I was enticed into conversation and bowls of watery rice and ginger soup, with two Cambodian women. They told me that they come down to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh to relax and have some fun, and the conversation flowed as freely as the Mekong from there.
Channary, dressed to kill and intimidatingly beautiful, dominated the conversation, her wide brown eyes teeming with liquid laughter, fire and a deep sadness. She had just been left by her French parter of ten years for a seventeen year old girl, whom he promptly impregnated. “I’m old,” she said, “Thirty. Who will want me now?”
“Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge – to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum.” — Haing Ngor, A Cambodian Odyssey
The anger and heartbreak I saw in Channery’s eyes had transformed into kum. She was losing herself in anger, refusing to let go, like a captain going down with his ship. She took a small revenge nightly. She took money from him, lost it all at the blackjack table, and then called to ask for more. During their last conversation, he said this arrangement would have to stop: his baby was due soon.
Ary was Channery’s foil: cool, calm and wistful. But underneath there was the same anger and tenacity. She told me about her two children, whom she raises alone as she, too, was cheated on and left for a younger woman. “There is a man in America who loves me, wants to pay for everything, for my children to go to school,” she said, “he wants to move to Cambodia to be with me, but I don’t love him. So what can I do?”
The two of them took turns telling me about their lives, their loves and their losses. I asked ask why they don’t date Cambodian men and they dismissed the question with a lazy flip of the hand, and declined to elaborate. They mentioned in an off-hand, almost laughing manner that they get asked “how much?” everywhere they go. I reached over, grabbed Channery’s hand, squeezed tight, and we smiled at each other with watery eyes. Ary suggested we go dancing.
2. The Lonely Tuk-Tuk Driver
We arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in the evening, with only two days left in Asia. Florian was feeling sick, perhaps a little motion sickness from the long bus ride we’d just taken, so I went downstairs to get him something to drink. One of the tuk-tuk drivers who loitered around the guest house insisted on walking me to the corner, where a woman was selling cold drinks out of a cooler.
He put his arm next to mine, and said, “Ah, look at that white skin. So nice. Mine so brown, so ugly.” He had a good command of English and he exercised it well; he chewed my ear off about his women troubles. He told me he doesn’t like Cambodian women with same dismissive flip of the hand as I gotten from the Cambodian women. I asked him why, and he said, “because you only get them for ten minutes and no kissing.”
He asked if I had any beautiful Canadian friends I could introduce him to, and I asked him, naively, “Oh, so, you want a girlfriend?”
“Ah yes, one hour with a white woman. Then I will be in heaven.” He kissed his fingers and threw them skyward. I said a curt good night.
He called up the stairs after me, “If you find me a white woman, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go in my tuk-tuk for free!”
3. The Old White Guy on the Plane
He was 60 years old, of English decent but lived in Australia and made a living as a piano player. We were seat mates on my flight from Manila to Darwin. He was loudly nervous about flying, so I made a few jokes and asked him questions, to distract him. He jumped right into his relationship troubles, and we talked for most of the five hour flight.
He’d just spent twenty-one days with his fiancé and her three children in her village in the northern Philippines, amongst the World UNESCO Heritage terraced rice paddies. Doubt and insecurity already had their hooks into him. “What if she already has another boyfriend?”
“It’s great,” he said, “when I have money. We get on like a house on fire. But she’s less interested when I don’t have any money. I can’t figure out if she loves me, or just my money?”
“Both?” I ventured. He looked at me like I was Moses come down from the mountain. “I never thought about it like that before,” he said. “She has many other offers from men, but she picked me, didn’t she?”