I used to move around the world a lot. Changing city or country was easy, and the people I met along the way make up the foundation of the memories I have today. Before coming to Cambodia, I had been in Canada almost five years – a sort of break from globe trotting. Although in those five years I moved from Vancouver to Ottawa to Toronto and back to Vancouver, I definitely had the sense of stability in re-discovering my Canadian-ness. I dare say I got used to it. By the time I left Vancouver in June 2013, I felt a tsunami of emotion. I was leaving my career after five years of working to re-establish myself in a country that doesn’t necessarily value foreign experience or credentials. I was leaving my family again, from grandparents to little new ones – for a period of time that I could not predict in a life-shift that demanded me to re-focus. I was leaving my relationship that had given me nearly seven years of stability and direction. My new world was a jump into darkness. I experience all kinds of emotions on a daily basis in Phnom Penh. I experience so much often so intensely, and consider it absolutely fortunate to go through it all with my six Phnom Penh stars. These are the people based (or were based) in Phnom Penh – living and experiencing this adventure with me.
If you don’t already know Chhonn, you should. I work with Chhonn at least 9 hours a day – and then add two or three hours that we usually spend to eat dinner or have drinks after to continue talking about work! I’m supposed to be an advisor but I’d have to say Chhonn is more like my advisor. Chhonn believes strongly in justice. High level justice within a state system, and even more importantly the basic everyday human side of justice in the lives of average people and how they treat each other. I’ve never watched someone take so much s@#t from people and keep it together. He is one of the rare true “do-ers” and works extremely hard to get things done. We share everything. We fight a lot, but in a way that I can only fight with those that I am very close and comfortable with. He knows me very well and is an expert at managing my sudden whims of emotional outbursts that have developed through occasional frustration and disappointment. He has inspired me to be more proactive in the fight for justice and also to look at the bigger picture rather than stay stuck in the daily tasks and challenges. For me, Chhonn truly is everything that my work here is supposed to be about. I probably spend as much time with Chhonn as he gets to spend with his wife and baby. And every minute I learn something from this wise and generous soul.
Etelle is my social and emotional lifeline in Phnom Penh. There is nobody else I’d rather spend my day with to swim, eat, drink, talk, cry, watch freaky drag shows with, and dance Nigerian. Etelle inspires me to enjoy life and to think the bigger picture in almost everything. She also protects me from my potentially spontaneous disasters and guides me the right way in any situation. Besides being lethally beautiful, she is also dangerously intelligent. Half French, half American, this Yale Law School graduate is changing the world through research, activism and diplomacy in human rights and the environment. Yet somehow she still has time to spend with me and talk about anything and everything! And her boyfriend Alex is also a wonderful friend. In fact, “Etellex” is one of my most favourite couples in the world. Etelle and Alex complement each other so beautifully and include me in so many of their Phnom Penh activities – they remind me that love is ultimate in the most cheesy and profound way. Etelle is one of my dearest friends and someone I actually miss so much when away. Our friendship is one that epitomises those that develop in a foreign environment through intense idea-sharing and simply being together to enjoy newly-discovered daily pleasures that a new life provides.
My youngest friend ever, Joy is my all-around pajama/spa/massage/lounge sweetheart that says the most sensible things at exactly the right time. Joy makes my days in Phnom Penh so enjoyable and relaxed. We often make plans to do home grown aloe vera facials together but end up passing out before we get a chance. Joy always reminds me what it is like to have your future in a world as your oyster. A third year undergraduate in development from Toronto, she is getting practical experience in the field here before she graduates. As you probably know about me, I do not do roommates. But… if I were to ever have a roommate, this is the one I’d want. I love when Joy stays over and often am begging her not to go home. I feel like she brings a light into my house and complete tranquility to Phnom Penh chaos. Joy is caring, generous, sweet, sensible and so many more adjectives – and she always tells me I’m in my early 20s! LOVE! Joy is my current pop culture guru and my next generation lingo teacher. By the way, Joy is gorgeous and single. Contact me for more information… 😉
Phirun is my sweet alliance. We used to work together and he supported our graphic design attempts to improve the brand of our network – though now we seem to have more fun since he got a job elsewhere. Phirun is a very busy guy. We only have the chance to see each other on Sundays. He gives me the best advice how to survive in Phnom Penh. “Just keep smiling,” he says. “Then just create a very disturbing graphic design to express any internal anger you may have.” He is very responsible to his family and always asks me how I could possibly not live with mine and take care of ageing parents. He is also an admitted “slave for money” that is working hard to become a successful designer and somehow manage to contribute to a social cause. Phirun is a true artist – not just in the way he works but also in the way he thinks and acts. And he is a star communicator. He knows how to talk to people and adapts to who he is speaking to. He is my social media guru – with well over 5,000 Facebook friends and followers, he runs his own communication empire and knows how to get the right message out at the right time to his well cultivated audience. Even when he’s busy, he always comes through on his promises and is the type of guy who will take care of everything for his friends. And best of all, nobody in Phnom Penh can make me laugh as hard as Phirun. He is hilarious and his vocabulary may shock you!
Ay mi querido Uli. I have known Ulises for quite a few years since we worked together in Canada. Ulises is Phnom Penh to me. In a mysteriously coincidental turn of events, prior to coming to the city, I found out that he worked in the same organisation in the same office. I knew he was here and was pleasantly surprised to find out how much he was intertwined in the project I’d start. He picked me up at the airport and took care of me like a baby for everything I needed. In fact, you must know that this wonderful guy stayed longer than he planned to welcome me in Asia. Ulises finally abandoned me for a girlfriend and Africa – but not after teaching me every Phnom Penh survival skill in the book 😉 Ulises is from Vancouver and helped me to get over Stanley Park and focus on getting through heavy traffic, pollution and forgetting #firstworldproblems! He also showed me some of the best ways to enjoy Phnom Penh both as a foreigner and as a local. I missed him so much after he left for Africa. But his legacy in Phnom Penh lives on in me as I frequent all the places he showed me during that blurry first month in town.
We met crossing glances at a party. In fact just to show you how connected Phnom Penh is, it was at the good-bye party for Ulises that Etelle was hosting. Weiyi and I just fresh in town started chatting each other up in the usual expat ‘what do you do’ kind of way. We discovered that we would soon be neighbours. Weiyi came to Phnom Penh from Georgetown University as an intern at the UN. We have lots of things in common, including our love to live and learn in new places among new people. We also don’t really feel complete as human beings until we get our dim sum fix over a week-end. Weiyi is an incredibly generous person and gives far more to her friends than anyone could ever give back. We had so many fun-filled evenings discovering Phnom Penh as well as each other’s company. Weiyi gave me one of my best memories in Phnom Penh after hosting the most incredible Thanksgiving party with her select friends, most of whom didn’t know each other. She magically connected everyone through a wonderfully planned event of gift-giving, jokes, and secret-telling. Weiyi has gone back to the States but our memories stay with me all the time as I wander through Phnom Penh.
I’ve met some incredible people since I started this journey and many others who don’t necessarily live in Phnom Penh. But these are my stars who have made my daily life in Phnom Penh such an extraordinary experience. My routine support system, they have made me feel utter moments of pure happiness since coming last year. My sweet six actually define Phnom Penh for me and it wouldn’t be the same place without any one of them. Thank you for enriching my everyday life here!