Whenever an expatriate visits home, the first question friends and family usually ask is why he has chosen to live in Cambodia, says French journalist Frederic Amat.
The fact that answers vary tremendously from one person to the next has intrigued him ever since he came to Cambodia in the mid-1990s and prompted him to write a book about the country’s expats, a project that turned out to take seven years to complete, he explained in a talk given at the French Cultural Center Wednesday.
“La drole de vie des expatries au Cambodge,” or expatriates’ strange life in Cambodia, was released last week in Phnom Penh by the publishing house Tuk-Tuk Editions. Negotiations are in the works for the English version of the 182-page book, editor Jerome Moriniere said.
Keeping in mind that “nothing in Asia is ever totally black or white,” expats in the country tend to fall into three categories, Mr Amat explained at the talk. At one end of the spectrum is the “sponge” type who plunges into Cambodian life and culture with no holds barred, eager to experience its every flavor. Some of those expats seem eager to cut themselves from the world they came from while others, Mr Amat said, “live in a permanent party state of bars and alcohol” as if there were no longer any social rules or taboos.
At the other end of the spectrum is the professional expat who has lived in numerous developing countries as representative of a business or international organization, Mr Amat said. “Whether he is here or on Fiji Islands is not important…. He has a program to implement, a business to manage and the fact that he does not want to mingle with the population or adopt some elements of the country’s culture is a way of protecting himself and live a normal life without either falling in love or hating the country.”
And then there are the “in-between expats” who keep their own culture while adapting to Cambodia’s customs. They are usually familiar with the country’s culture and history, may be married to Cambodians, but they know not to try being more Cambodian than Cambodians, Mr Amat said.
An expat—or “barang” as Cambodians refer to foreigners—will be made to feel welcome in Cambodia, although he may wonder why he has to pay a higher rate for electricity, garbage removal or airport tax, the 42-year-old journalist said.
Culture shocks abound and he may be puzzled that a wedding ceremony starts before dawn with music blasting out of huge speakers, or that a three-day holiday actually lasts two weeks, Mr Amat said. But when they criticize ways or habits, expats should remember they are living in someone else’s home and that this country with its infinitely complex culture goes back millennia. They also should remember the failings of their own countries, he added.
For many expat men, Cambodia’s attraction is its women, whose natural grace and charms fascinate them, Mr Amat said. When it comes to relationships between a Western man and a Cambodian woman, he said, “I believe that the difficulty that may exist is not cultural but social.”
The 42-year-old journalist, who has been married to a Cambodian for years, first worked in the country for the news agency Agence France-Presse, then the photo agency Sygma, the newspaper Cambodge Soir Hebdo, and now contributes to a series of publications.