Inside I found row after row of goods—everything you could ever want, and plenty that you would never need. Independent Roomba vacuums? A dozen varieties of cheese? A wall attachment to hold a wine glass when you’re sitting in the bathtub?
I thought back to Chao Sang Hok, then Siem Reap’s largest grocery store, where I’d gone every once in a while when I felt like cooking a Western meal. There, brie came inside a sealed tin can at the cost of nearly ten local meals, while chicken feet sat wrapped in plastic in a cooler in the back. At Chao Sang Hok, the local employees would follow me around, giggling as my flip flops released a grimy mix of sweat and red dust onto the floor. Each time I walked around a corner, the staff would shuffle behind me and sweep up my trail of dirt.
That image flashed through my head as I walked further into the Walmart’s labyrinth of shelves. The more I looked around, the shallower my breath became, and the glare from fluorescent lights made my head spin. Suddenly, the foreignness of an environment I’d once taken for granted landed on my chest with tremendous weight, and I ran outside to sit on the curb and ground myself in reality again.
Usually during discussions at the elite boarding school I attended on full scholarship, where I was grateful to have access to an education usually reserved for the ultra-wealthy. While I had a firm grasp on the intellectual meaning of the word, as someone blinded by my own circumstances I couldn’t possibly acknowledge all of the realms of experience that “privilege” held within it.
There were ways in which my life was not easy—I was born with a severe genetic disease and my artist parents grappled with the stress of financial uncertainty—but I lived in a first world country, was raised by a loving family, and never feared for my safety or doubted there would be a next meal. I’d seen American poverty up close before, such as when my parents brought my sister and me through indigenous reservations on cross-country road trips, or even when visiting extended family in a rough city outside of Boston, but I’d only ever been a visitor, not a participant, in its realities.
Before I moved to Cambodia, I’ll admit there was a part of me that idealized poverty, that believed the poor were somehow spiritually wealthier than those mired in materialism. So it was that idealization, a fascination with Eastern culture, and a fondness for Buddhism that prompted me to visit Southeast Asia as a young traveler. What I hadn’t planned on, however, was feeling more at home in Cambodia than I’d felt anywhere else on earth, and staying there for nearly two years.
On the ride from the airport to the hostel where I’d signed up to bartend in exchange for room and board, I watched traffic swerve to allow cows to lumber across the highway. Dust from the road stained the swaths of jungle in between buildings a rusty red, and entire families bumped along on the backs of motorbikes. Wandering through the city center, I found street stands selling every imaginable good (rice porridge, flash-fried donuts, even döner kebab), knots of electric wires dangling into the street, and tuk-tuk drivers swinging from hammocks in their vehicles. The smell of burning trash and incense mixed with the dusty air with each inhale, reinforcing the understanding that I was now in a world unlike any I’d ever known.
A couple of weeks later, I rode in a tuk-tuk around the base of Phnom Krom, a hill on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Here, houses swayed back and forth on stilts in a murky lake, and homes along the trash-lined road ranged from bamboo structures with palm frond roofs to scraps of aluminum leaning together that housed entire families. Bony children ran around, playing in the mud by water pumps attributed to foreign NGOs, stopping to wave frantically at me as I passed. Here I could no longer ignore the reality of poverty—it hit me with a sickening thud that I was a foreigner observing from a tuk-tuk while the human beings in front of me would never be able to afford a meal in the city, let alone a plane ticket. I wondered if they were as happy and at peace as I’d once imagined.
At that point I was just 20 years old, with no higher education or career prospects, but I felt I had more to learn from Cambodia than from any classroom or work environment. I’d already found my place in the expat community, with friends from a dozen different countries and local friends who I called “brother” and “sister.” There were many ways in which my life was more inconvenient than it’d been in the US, yet it was also filled with far more joy. I even felt like I understood the nuances of poverty and privilege, although it wasn’t until I spent a week in the village of Chrung Popel to deliver donations to an elementary school that my perspective fully shifted.
One balmy June night, I sat around the dinner table with my friend Alex, a German expat, drinking shots of Jägermeister. Lethargy and the heat lulled us into drunkenness and our shared love for the country we called home inspired us to find a way to give back. So we decided to join forces and start a charity to benefit the school of Chrung Popel. Alex’s wife had grown up in Chrung Popel, and on trips to see his in-laws, my friend had noted the school’s dilapidated condition.
Turning to our friends and family back at home, we raised over $3,000 and purchased new textbooks (in four subjects rather than the two previously offered), computers, a printer, and a set of soccer goals and balls. Although I was conflicted about acting the part of white savior bringing expensive gifts to a poor village, I justified it to myself with the knowledge that I was helping children, and that the money had not come directly from me. In fact, at that point I worked two jobs six days a week among native Cambodians, speaking their language and earning the same rates that they did. Even so, there could never be a doubt that I was of a different world. Despite my attempts to live as a local in many ways, I also relied on the security of having parents in the US. I knew they could bail me out of a tough situation in an emergency (which they ended up doing the next year when I became severely ill and was forced to return to America.) With these new questions and feelings bubbling to the surface of my mind, I boarded the overnight bus to Chrung Popel.
Eleven of us were crowded into one house, sleeping side by side on the floor. To shower, I poured buckets of water over my head in an unlit bathroom, and I was cut off from friends and family due to the lack of phone service in the area. We passed the long, hot hours of that week eating food cooked over a fire, drinking beer, and playing cards in the breeze from the one fan a solar panel could power.
Outside, the women sat apart from the men, gossiping in a mixture of Khmer and English (for my benefit) about Instagram influencers in Phnom Penh they envied and the purses they’d buy one day when their husbands finally became rich. I noticed my surprise and disappointment at the fact that materialism existed here—it seemed to betray my naïve notion that the poor were at peace.
Maybe I had clung to that notion in the hopes it would make me feel less guilty for being so fortunate, or so it would explain why human life was so grievously unfair. One of my goals in moving to Cambodia had been to escape materialism and find greater comfort with the inconveniences of life, but was it even possible to escape materialism if you’d never experienced it? Or was that something that could only be done by choice, not forced by circumstances beyond your control?
The property was even worse in person than it had appeared in pictures– two low-slung buildings sat in a bog where cows grazed, and over 100 children shared a hole-in-the-ground toilet and a set of rusty, dangerous playground equipment. Classrooms were dirt pits without windows, and the teacher’s lounge was made up of a few old tables and one lonely bookshelf.
I thought back to my own elementary school, which at the time had seemed incredibly outdated and old fashioned. Our wooden desks had generations of graffiti scrawled on them, the musty auditorium sported a creaky stage and tarnished floor, and in winter the heaters hissed and moaned. Even so, we’d had a real playground, with swing sets and climbing fixtures and soccer goals and a baseball field. We’d had spacious classrooms with lots of light, bathrooms with three or four stalls and flushable toilets, a huge gym and basketball court where we played games in the winter, and a large cafeteria with a full kitchen and rows of benches . . .
I was brought back to the present moment when the staff gathered to give a thank-you speech in Khmer. As they spoke, I sensed that they were more excited by the flashiness of their new belongings than the idea that the education of the local children could be improved. The magnanimous feeling I’d had while raising money for the school suddenly evaporated, conquered by the sinking feeling that we hadn’t actually helped them at all.
The silence of Chrung Popel rang loudly in my ears, broken up only by the chirping of cicadas, an occasional hum of a motorbike on the village’s new paved road, and Alex’s exclamations as he compared constellations to an app on his phone. Was charity as I’d gone about it actually helpful to the local residents, or was I just forcing Western standards on people for whom they were not relevant? It felt like everything I’d ever assumed about privilege, poverty, and wealth was shifting, and I was completely out of control of my world view.
I didn’t feel ready to bring up my thoughts with Alex yet, but I yearned to get back to Siem Reap, where the pace of life was slow but didn’t dawdle along like it did out here, and where I had a group of local and expat friends with whom I could discuss all of these questions. What struck me the most that night was my incredible luck to have these experiences, however brief they were. It was a gift none of my friends and former classmates in the US had been given—the gift of understanding, even in a limited way, the reality faced by millions around the world. I wondered what I was supposed to do with this new understanding. It was certainly easier to avoid the discomfort and chalk it all up to “that’s how it is.” But how could I ever return to first world ignorance after this?
I no longer cry every night for my home in Siem Reap as I did in the beginning, but my days are hollow, and the shadows of memories from my time in Cambodia haunt my sleep. Although I still have avoided buying an autonomous vacuum or a bathroom wine glass holder, I shop at Walmart Superstores now, loading up the shelves of my apartment with bags of candy and filling the fridge drawer with exotic cheeses. I may have returned to a mild form of materialism, but the way I feel in the Western world has been irreparably damaged. My social circle is limited because I bristle at privileged complaints and ignorance, and I stew in self-hatred when I make those complaints myself or spend more on a fancy dinner than I earned in a month in Cambodia. Sometimes I wonder if I should live beneath the poverty line here in protest, giving away my earnings beyond what I need to get by. Or should I participate fully in the American worship of *stuff *and bury my musings on privilege until they lie too deep within to bother me?
That might be the easiest strategy psychologically, but it would also mean betraying the version of myself who lived happily in Siem Reap. I’m a long way from figuring it all out, but if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that having the opportunity to live in Cambodia as a young adult has been the single greatest privilege of my entire life.