“CAMBODYA! Pero, por que?”
Nico’s eyes bulge through the steam and heat of the dishroom, his voice a cut above the gurgling machine sounds, glass clinking, and pumps huffing.
I blink and stammer. I don’t have an answer.
It’s not a language thing, not really. Work in California restaurants, even for just a few months, and you’re bound to work with a Nico: twenties or thirties, short and dark-skinned, Mexican or Central American. He’ll be dishwasher or busboy or maybe a prep cook–he’ll play La Preciosa on a beat-up old radio and sometimes he’ll sing along.
He’ll be there always, it will seem, head down and working, six days a week. He’ll be there when you come in–moving, moving, a steady pace. He’ll look up to smile and say hello. It’ll get to be a joke between you two, one of the few you can really share, because it requires so little language.
“Cuantos horas trabajas hoy?”
A sheepish grin, a shrug: “Diez,” – Ten.
Sometimes you’ll switch it up, ask him how much he’s worked this week, and you’ll watch the numbers revolve around him, two or three jobs. “Seventy, eighty.”
And then you’ll repeat the number – in Spanish, cause it’s one of the few words you know – and shake your head and say, “Solomente? Huevón!” – Only? Lazy! – and you’ll both laugh.
He’ll work all night, through your shift, and you’ll finish the night together. He’ll roll out the trash bins and put his baseball cap on, a kind of signal that another day’s done. Sometime he’ll walk you to your car.
He’ll be alone here. He’ll have a wife but no wedding ring, children that exist only in a photograph he keeps in his wallet. They’ll be far away, and you’ll see one of those pre-paid international calling cards when he opens his wallet to show you the photograph.
He’ll have big dreams he’s saving up for. He’s gonna go back to Mexico, he’ll tell you one night, and build a house there on some land he’s already bought – a big pinche house – and he’ll live there with his kids and he’ll never have to work again, he’ll be rich in his country and he’ll have it made and maybe someone will even wait on him.
You’ll work together, in the same building and on the same payroll, but you’ll exist in different spaces. While he sweeps and moves tables and cleans the front windows, you’ll sit around discussing wine varietals, engage in heady debates about the politics of eating local. You’ll make absurdly more money, because you work for tips and you’re young and American and speak the international language of privilege. You’ll spend that money on expensive lattes and yoga classes and shoes you don’t need.
But you’ll also be saving up for your own big dream. And when you announce that dream – when it’s no longer a dream but a one-way ticket – someone who speaks better Spanish than you will tell Nico, and he’ll ask you about it when you bring a stack of dishes back into the dishroom.
It’ll be a minimal conversation, each of you trying to speak the other’s language, a toddler’s vocabulary and a laughable accent.
“Yo quiero escribir.”
“But, Cambodya? Why?”
The corners of his lips will rise into a half-grin, linger there, as though this were a joke he doesn’t quite get, but is sure is funny. The grin will wait for a punchline you don’t have.
You’ll think of how to explain it: you want to write, have a project you want to work on, specific to the country. It costs so much less to live there, you could actually support yourself freelancing. You’ve wanted to live abroad for years now, and you’re 28 and single, and it’s the shit-or-get-off-the-pot point you’re afraid your life might hinge on.
You won’t know how to say any of that. So you’ll tell him it’s not expensive, “Cambodya no es caro.”
And Nico will stare at you, a funny kind of stare that isn’t at all like the stares you’ve gotten from your fellow Americans. There’s no astonishment, no alarm, no reverie, or thinly veiled resentment.
Nico will blink a blink, and say finally, “But your family is here. You can work here.”
For a moment, in the steam and the sweat, in the clinking sound of dishes and the blare of the Mexican radio station, you’ll see yourself outside of yourself, the way you think Nico must: as a girl that’s got it made. You’re white, you have an education, you speak English natively, you have legal work documents. Your family is here. There are no other reasons for you to move out of your country.
And in a way, you’ll think, he’s right. All this privilege, all this opportunity, in the land of privilege and opportunity, and you’re leaving it. For a moment, the distance between you and Nico will seem vast, bigger than language or culture or race.
But an immigrant and an expat are not at all the same thing, you’ll want to tell him. Sure, you’re both strangers in a foreign land. You’re both muddling through languages you don’t speak, looking for work, negotiating visas, dodging legalities. There’s a reality to that, the nitty-gritty nuts-and-bolts, that cuts the exoticism and glamour out. It’s not wildly romantic, it’s not Paris in the 20s–it’s just very, very real.
Nico understands that, you think–the experience, what it means to be away from home, indefinitely. He understands better than you do. And in a fundamental sense, what motivates you is the same: a dream of a different kind of life, where you don’t have to scrape and struggle and work so goddamn hard.
But the reality of that, how that actually looks, is very different. As an expat, you’re going with skills, education, language, a laptop, to a country where the majority of people don’t have any of those things. As an immigrant, Nico comes to one of the wealthiest countries on Earth with nothing more than his own ability to work hard, to bust ass – muscles that move beneath a thin t-shirt – and to do it for cheap.
But you won’t have words for any of that, not in Spanish and maybe not in English. So you’ll shrug, grin, and tell him you’re crazy: “Soy loca.”
And then you’ll set your armful of dishes down, scrape half-eaten scraps into the compost bin, and add, “Y huevón!”
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler. She maintains the blog lonelygirltravels.com, where she writes about her explorations of untold stories, underground music, abandoned buildings, street art, tattoos, 12-step recovery and of course, travel. She is currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, researching and writing narratives of trauma. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.