Sunday, July 27, 2014

Expat life: Cambodia vs India

I've been in Cambodia for about four months now. To be honest, while I love my job, I don't love living in Cambodia. I live in an expat bubble, and I find it incredibly frustrating. Expats, quite frankly, do not live in the same Phnom Penh as Cambodians. It's true that I never really intended to move to Cambodia, but I feel like if I'm going to be here, I should at least try to immerse a little bit and make Cambodian friends. But immersion is nearly impossible.

A perfect example: a few weeks ago, Kingdom Brewery was throwing an all-you-can-drink with burgers and fries party, with a $10 cover fee. I went with some of my expat coworkers, and as soon as I entered the brewery I realized that, besides the employees, there wasn't a single Cambodian in the crowd. This is a regular occurrence but it never ceases to upset me.

This is unlikely to happen in Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore. I can't imagine walking into a bar in India and not seeing any Indians. Expats tend to mingle in middle- to upper-class Indian circles. Certainly there are bars that expats frequent, but you would always see plenty of Indians too.

From what I've seen, there appear to be several reasons for the differences between the expat experience in Cambodia and in India:

1) There is a significantly higher concentration of expats in Cambodia. Cambodia receives more foreign aid per capita than any other country, and with foreign aid comes foreign NGO employees. I read somewhere that there are about 60,000 expats in Phnom Penh, a city of only 1.5 million people. I don't know how many expats live in Delhi, but Delhi is a city of 20 million. You don't see nearly as many foreign faces on a daily basis.

2) Foreigners who come to India are genuinely interested in India. India is a pretty intense country to live in, and this weeds people out. The foreigners who stay want to be in India. They have decided that it is worth it to put up with challenges of everyday life to experience India. A lot of expats in Cambodia--myself included--sort of just end up here. Many of us have no prior interest in the country, and we're here out of circumstance. These people are less likely to be interested in immersion and befriending Cambodians.

3) There is a larger income difference between expats and locals in Cambodia than in India. I made the same salary as my coworkers in India, but in Cambodia I earn a much higher salary than my coworkers. Expats in Cambodia tend to hold higher positions than their Cambodian colleagues, and quite honestly the NGOs might not be able to attract foreign talent at Cambodian salaries (I'm totally part of this system: I absolutely would not have moved to Cambodia if I had been offered a lower salary). Because foreigners in India want to be in India, and the kind of lifestyle desired by foreigners is much more affordable in India, expats are generally willing to accept lower salaries there (at least in my experience).  As my Indian friends and I earned similar salaries, we could afford the same social activities. However, with the big income gap in Cambodia, I would always think twice before inviting a Cambodian out to dinner--and when I do invite them, they usually turn me down to eat at home, understandably. This income gap is a huge challenge to building a social life with Cambodians. (Admittedly it's on me to be more creative with social activities, but what doesn't cost money? There are no parks in Phnom Penh! I'd be open to any suggestions you have...)

4) Educated Indians are much more comfortable in English than educated Cambodians. India is an incredibly diverse country with hundreds of languages, and thanks to British imperialism, English has become the lingua franca between cultures. If someone from Tamil Nadu wants to chat with someone from West Bengal, they are likely to speak in English. Educated Indians often socialize in English whether or not a foreigner is in their presence. In contrast, Cambodia is much more homogeneous and everyone speaks Khmer. There is no need for a second language to communicate. Additionally, many higher education institutions in India teach their classes in English; in Cambodia, university classes are usually conducted in Khmer. As a result, educated Indians can communicate and socialize much more comfortably with foreigners than Cambodians can (there are of course exceptions, but I find this to be true in general).

Another note about expat life in Cambodia vs. India: expats tend to stay longer in India. With the exception of summer internships, expats tend to stay in India for at least one year. In contrast, at any time of the year in Cambodia you find expats who are here only for a few months. I regularly meet people who I think are interesting, only to learn they are leaving next month. The transience of the expat community here has really demotivated me from making many friends. Why should I invest time and effort into befriending people who are leaving so quickly? I know that's a bad attitude, but I can't help myself. I've been focusing my efforts on the longer-term people instead (I use "longer-term" loosely; I mean more than 6 months), but they're not always so easy to find.

Needless to say, I greatly miss my social life in India (and, obviously, in the States). Hopefully things will get better for me in Cambodia soon.