What does it mean to be a foreigner in Cambodia? As we approach our final week here, I continue to reflect on the past month and all that I have seen and done. There is no question that I am the one gaining the most from my time spent here not to mention all the money it cost to make this trip happen. Perhaps some, probably inadvertent, things communicated in our time spent with the girls at Bamboo Shoot City Dorm will stay with the inspiring young women whom I have had the great honor of getting to know. I have contributed little and acquired a lot. In relation to this, I continue to wonder what else my presence here has contributed to.
As I stepped off of the plane and took my first gulp of the humid air one month ago, I reached to find the wallet in my bag ready with a twenty-dollar bill for the tourist visa that now sits in my passport. Within moments, I was handing over money without considering where it was going and, still, without a full understanding of what it meant for me to enter this country. The following day (and many times since), I went to Pub Street, where I ate and shopped – again, not thinking about what my patronage meant and to whom. There is something disconcerting about looking around a restaurant and seeing nothing but other foreigners. Is it good? Bad? Not so simple to address or avoid? I don’t know the answer(s), but the more time I spend here, the more I remind myself to think about these questions as I step outside each day.
After a brief look at a conversation between some expats living in Siem Reap concerning wages, development, fairness, and corruption, I am frustrated and, again, reminded to think about how my actions in the city may or may not be supporting people and ideas with which I do not agree. In and outside of seminar, we have discussed the many repercussions of foreign or international presence and development efforts. It is less often that I have pushed myself to look at my own role in this when the action is not as direct. Thus, the politics of visibility come into play. After walking into an NGO and reacting to practices that I can clearly observe, it seems, in many ways, easier to identify what is or is not detrimental. After going out into the city to get ice cream from a shop filled with more foreigners, I cannot immediately know (and don’t instantly think about) where the $1.50 I spent on a cone is ending up.
In one week I board a plane back to New York, and I still have not fully grasped the implications of my presence and action here, but I suppose that if I had decided that in five short weeks, I had figured it all out, I should feel more alarmed.