She works at an outdoor piazza style bar-restaurant, like hundreds that line the streets of Phnom Penh. Twenty odd tables, each with a large umbrella hovering above. When you enter, you're accosted by attractive "beer girls" dressed in colorful velvet-polyester-looking skirts adorned with different brands. The girl you pick becomes your beer, implicit in the choice is the promise of repeated interaction, providing awkward chances to flirt. For customers the situation is novel, the girls playful and pretty and the beer intoxicating.

The Anchor beer girl, tightly wrapped in a bright-red skirt with the Anchor logo across the waist, says she will drink with us after the first half-hour of boozing and banter. She's young, and dainty-looking with a sleepy face but a bright, toothy smile which reveals straight kempt teeth, like so many Khmers. She takes well to my compliment of her smile, predictably flashing it again. We drink, and like an attentive hostess she empties the pitcher into our glasses, keeping them full. As customers we're enjoying drinks with a young, made-up, exotic beauty. As I peer into her eyes and face, her expressions tell me that the situation is completely different for her.

She's 20 years old, illiterate, never making it past second grade. She makes 2 dollars for a day which begins with a meeting at 3:30 and ends at midnight. If she takes a day off from work, she is docked 5 dollars. If she were to work 6 days a week she would make 12 dollars minus 5 dollars. Or 7 dollars for 6 days work. For working every day in a month, which is basically a necessity considering the rate at which she loses money for not working, she will earn sixty dollars. This is forty dollars more than the girl who patrols the bar ensuring glasses are full of ice. But the ice girl doesn't have to drink with customers.

Evident in her muted expressions, her sleepy demeanor and occasional smiles is the sallow glint of an alcoholic. Her job requires her to sit and drink with customers. To propose the erstwhile toast, which I witnessed her do perfunctorily as if it were her millionth meaningless toast this week, where you must finish the contents of your glass, with the end result being that glasses are refilled, pitchers emptied and wallets opened.

How many other Khmai speaking customers uncover the details of her job and life. Behind the flirtatious smile is a workmenlike charm to get beer into bellies. Behind the verity of the story of her harsh life may be the same desire to get a handout. Just think what 5 measly dollars would mean to her. But when I see her eyes brighten, her face light-up exposing flawless teeth, the notion that she could be disingenous, feeding another tourist the same old sob story, disappears.


Cambodia Day 14

I did not come here with any intention to learn Khmer at all. I came just to travel because I was bored and apathetic at home. I've picked up several words and phrases. It's amazing how forcefully one learns a language during total immersion.

Internet cafes here suck, they have tremendous lag.

Every school seems to be teaching English, but no one speaks well. Vendors know virtually nothing other than how to state prices. Many of them can't even do that, when you ask them how much, they pull out a calculator and type the price in and show it to you. I asked the prices (by pointing of course) of over 20 watches this way. Just about everything is negotiable. I attribute this to the poor economy. There just isn't enough money floating around, so vendors are desperate to make sales.

I don't feel like I've changed. I feel like the same asshole. Obsessed with trivial details that I worry about and allow myself to become preoccupied with. For example, even though I'm above average height here, I still wish I was taller because most Westerners you see are taller. And therefore Cambodians have come to expect (I assume, again my mind loves making assumptions and sticking to them) Westerners to be bigger. And maybe even they harbor some latent inferiority complex. I wish I could fulfill that expectation secretly. That I could be "that tall American" that everyone expects to see.

I'm invisible in the United States. Just a regular guy. Mr. slightly-below-average. In Cambodia people stare at me (it seems as though they do it all the time, but I'm tempted not to believe my own perceptions because I know the tendency of my crazy mind, which is to believe that all eyes are always on me), young women say hi to me. I can't even get a date in America, and in those rare events when I do, nothing comes of them. I.E. I'm not able to create enough interest (or I try too hard to generate interest which backfires) for another date. But here I feel important, almost like a celebrity at times. All the hopes and dreams and fantasies they have of America, of the English language that just about everyone seems to be learning are projected onto me. A few dollars make me wealthy, I'm tall at 5'8 and handsome with white skin and a pointy nose. Back home, I'm small, scrawny with a bad job and no prospects.

So I feel like the same asshole, but I'm not. I'm Clark Kent in the United States, but Superman in Cambodia. The truth is that Superman is always just Clark Kent. As I'm always just innocuous Andrew, a kid too neurotic to fit in or stand out. The caped guy flying around saving people isn't sustainable, his real nature, the one to which he must return is always just Clark Kent. So I must return to the States, to once again assume my role as Mr. slightly-below-average.