Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Expats and their Forums in Cambodia

Foreigners come to Cambodia for a variety of reasons, most of them not so altruistic as one might at first thought be led to believe. According to a newspaper article there are about 80,000 foreigners living in Cambodia. The majority of them come from Vietnam, China, South Korea, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. Estimates how many Western expats live here are hard to come by. They tend to stick out simply due to the fact of their different looks. I personally estimate that there may be around 15,000 to 20,000 spread out over the entire country. Most of them can naturally be found in Phnom Penh, but Sihanoukville, a city of some 200,000, has a sizable foreign population too. Most of the NGOs have their main offices in Phnom Penh. Although they do employ local people, management and higher executive positions are usually staffed with Westerners. The Christian churches of multitudinous denominations alone account for a good share of those foreigners. Western embassies make up another large chunk, probably led by the U. S. or Russian Embassy.  But you also have independent business people, a few artists, doctors, dentists, therapists, etc., not to mention retirees who came here for the lower cost of living. Of course, there are a few derelicts who amble along streets shirtless, filthy,  and are often under the influence of alcohol and drugs. These are the ones that are conspicuous the most and give the term expat a bad rep. And one must not forget the many Westerners either who come here to find cheap sex and drink, although I believe these a mostly seasonable expats, not to mention the pedophiles who still think they can easily satisfy their urges here. Law enforcement seems to have taken hold in that respect. They are now quickly apprehended and sentenced to a few years in prison and then swiftly deported (judging from newspaper accounts).

Although, many of the expats I can observe have settled down here with a local wife living on a small income from a business or their retirement benefits. I wouldn’t know of anyone who could be counted as affluent.

What always amazes me, though, is that people practically immigrate to a foreign country only to gather at drinking holes or establishments of their own nationality or the same language. Nowadays, this is often replaced by online forums, Facebook, and so on. There aren’t too many of those message boards outside Facebook in Cambodia. In fact, I can think of only two English-language boards that have a large readership. Some people don’t seem to have anything else to do but spend their lives online. What’s also remarkable is that there are usually only a few posters that populate a board and they tend to dominate all discussions.

The quality of those two boards is very different.  On one, verbal abuse and insults are commonplace, the other one is a more subdued, but both primarily deal in hashing over news and events that were reported before elsewhere. Seldom do they have first-hand tidbits of interest to the general expat community.  Of course, there are exceptions, and this is why I usually check them out too. Sometimes they post things that have slipped my attention elsewhere, although I am an avid news junkie.  

These boards sometimes serve an individual poster’s vanity first and foremost. They want to show how smart and educated they are. I remember one instance when one individual was moved to post a copy of his masters degree diploma when someone had questioned his education and his intellect. Mind you, that was a 50-something mature man. That same man, now proven highly educated, still felt driven to lay bare his soul in a series of articles about his first experiences in Cambodia, including falling in love with a hooker (was it?). What drives these people to disclose so much of their private lives? At one point, he resigned from his teaching job at a local university but couldn’t find anything else. So he went back to his own country where obviously nobody was waiting for an elderly professor past his prime who spent years in a ‘wretched’ country like Cambodia. He decided to head back to Cambodia. He put all that on the board for everybody to read.

Since most of the information is second-hand, assumption, conjecture, and speculation abound. A case in point was a recent incident where a European man was arrested for raping a European girl at a guesthouse after some joint heavy drinking. The facts were scant. Newspaper articles just mentioned the arrest and the accusation. But both boards could not get enough of that discussion, imagining all kinds of scenarios. Of course, googling makes it possible once the name of the accused is known and they are not withheld in the Cambodian press. So they quickly found out that the man had a rap sheet for violence and sexual assault in his home country.  That guy must be guilty for sure, right? Many also had some good advice ready what to do and what not to do if you meet a drunken girl. It turns out the evidence presented pointed to a consensual act with the purported victim fallen down the staircase in her drunken state after leaving the accused’s room sustaining the injuries her concerned friends took to be the consequence of an assault. This had prompted them to assume that this must be a case of rape. Anyway, the actual facts will not be known, I guess; only the man involved will know exactly what happened; the girl obviously was too drunk. The case was dismissed and the man was let go. This case is an example par excellence of how a story can assume a life of its own on a message board. You just need the right people. There is one who is especially diligent in forming pre-conceived opinions without knowing the facts; he virtually drives most of the discussions single-handedly. Best of all, he is by all appearances not even a full-time expat but a seasonal visitor here to enjoy some of the benefits local females are willing and able to bestow on him.

The Internet has replaced the physical get-togethers in bars, it appears. And when you go to a café or bar, you see two or more people sitting together with each tapping on their phone or tablet. Conversation – none. Judging by the posts of some individuals one must think they just sit there waiting for something to crop up so they can jump on it immediately.

Another, really obnoxious thing is that many people jump to conclusions and despite being alerted that they got it wrong they maintain their position even in the face of facts and real experiences. Others go and google someone in order to see whether they can find any dirt on that person. There is one individual with access to police records or court data in the U. S. The results he will post on a board without hesitation. In the Western world this all might fall under the term ‘Freedom of Expression’. But anonymity leads to online behavior that would never be accepted in the non-virtual world there. Freedom of expression has certain limits in Cambodia. Consequently, you won’t find any disparaging or even insulting posts about the powers-that-be in Cambodia. Authorities can now easily find out who posted something they might not like as a young local man found out when he was arrested for calling for a color revolution in Cambodia on Facebook. Individuals, though, who can hardly defend themselves are easy prey for many people on those boards.

Of course, often a board also serves to vent someone’s frustrations with the country and its people, and believe me, there can be many. I guess, originally a foreign-language board was meant to inform people about certain facts about a country and the life there. At least one of them in English is far removed from that. To their credit they occasionally publish real good and sometimes funny articles about the locals, the expats, the way of life here. But that has become too infrequent and has moved to the background vis-à-vis the many rather stupid posts. I noticed that even more level-headed people sometimes succumb to an unfair and unjust disposition. Now, that’s disappointing. 

No sunshine today

No sunshine today
Time to spend on the Internet in weather like this.

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