I DRUMMED MY FINGERS on the keyboard, waiting for my inbox to load. A sweating glass of ice coffee sat beside me. Outside, motors whirred and horns honked; the city purred beneath my terrace.
Fourteen new messages. None of them were from editors.
I sighed. Over the past month, I’d sent five pitches to five different publications. It was part of the plan, the sell-all-your-shit-and-quit-your-job-and-move-across-the-planet-to-write plan.
It’d worked, in that I’d been writing with more frequency and voracity than I had since I was a teenager. But so far, it was the publication bit that wasn’t going according to plan.
I felt frustration building, cranking my stomach into a knot that the coffee beside me would in no way help. I’d spent hours crafting those queries and submissions—honing cover letters for specific websites and magazines. I’d thought they were pretty damn good.
And I’d heard nothing back.
I watched an ice cube pop and shatter in my glass. I felt like I was standing outside of a party. I was knocking on a door, could hear muffled music and see dim figures moving through the peephole. But no one was coming to let me in.
Three stories down, the city moaned on.
Beneath a buzzing fan at an open-air café, I laid out my plan to Lina.
It was my third day in Phnom Penh, and I had a lot to do. After finding an apartment and getting settled, I would need to start taking Khmer lessons. I would need to start a writing group. I would need to start volunteering with a few organizations I already had in mind. “And, in a couple months, I’ll blow through all my savings and need to get a job.”
“What are you thinking?” Lina asked.
I crinkled my nose. “Probably just teaching English.” I watched the thin napkins flap in the fan’s breeze. “Which I’m not too stoked on.”
She cocked her head. “Why?”
I twisted my straw. “Well, you know, I moved here to write. I was hoping I could support myself entirely on writing. Which I might be able to do eventually, but not at first.”
I glanced up at Lina. She’d been living in Phnom Penh for a year and a half, supporting herself through a hodgepodge of freelance and contract writing gigs. It’s what I wanted to do, what I’d come to do, I thought. To admit I wouldn’t be able to, this early on, felt like admitting defeat.
Lina blinked, unimpressed by my admission. “Well, you can think of it that way. Or you can think of it as part of your experience here.” She shifted. “You know, it’s really fucking easy for the expats here to fall into a bubble—only going to Western places, only shopping at Western markets, only having Western friends. A lot of people, their only interaction with Cambodians is transactional.”
She paused. I wondered if she meant herself.
“So for you, for what you came to do, it might be really helpful to work with Khmer students. You’d probably end up having a lot more interesting and deep interactions than if you were just sitting back writing.”
I nodded, letting the insight sink in the cracks in my perfectly formed plan.
I gathered my breakfast dishes and stomped into the kitchen. My cheap kimono fluttered around me as I scrubbed the pan and plate clean. Voices and construction rumbles floated up from the alley and through my soot-stained window slats.
It’d taken a few days, but I’d let Lina’s comment sink in. I’d decided that, yes, eventually I would get a part-time gig teaching, and no, it would not be the mark of total failure.
But over the past month, I’d been waiting. I had enough money to last me a couple months, even if I didn’t sell any articles at all. So I’d held out.
While I waited to hear back from editors, I waited for other things too. I didn’t want to start taking Khmer lessons until I had steady income coming in, so I waited. I waited to contact organizations to volunteer for, because I didn’t know what my eventual work hours would be. Lina wanted to start a writing group with me, but she was swamped with deadlines, so I was waiting for her. And to look for a job, I’d need to go to the market and buy a respectable, tattoo-covering blouse. But finding one in white-girl size would cost money, so I waited to do that too.
I stacked my dishes in the pink plastic dish rack. I brushed my teeth, did some stretches, got dressed. I went back to my computer, and checked my inbox again. Nothing.
I closed my eyes, hung my head. I felt like I was pushing a rock up a hill; I felt like I was banging my head against a virtual wall. I was struggling, fighting, obsessing, and I didn’t know how to stop. But this is what I came here for, I kept thinking.
Through the open terrace doors, I got a whiff of my neighbor’s lunch. Lemongrass. It smelled delicious.
“So, can I ask,” Bill paused, glanced down at his Angkor beer, “What are doing with yourself?”
I let out a half-laugh. “Not a whole lot, really.”
We sat on the terrace of our friends’ apartment, watching the moon smudge behind the shadow of the lunar eclipse. I was three weeks in.
Bill worked for the Phnom Penh Post, and like all the journalists in town, seemed to work at least 60 hours a week. The idea of someone bumming around was probably as foreign and exotic to him as making a living as a writer was to me.
“Oh, let’s see,” I smiled. “I go jogging, I make up errands to run, I write. I spend a lot of time on the computer,” I admitted.
Bill nodded. “Are you bored?”
I squinted my eyes, considering it. “No. It’s the first time since I was sixteen that I haven’t had a job, so I’m kind of just enjoying it.”
I paused. Something about the answer felt dishonest, incomplete. “I also had a lot of decompressing to do,” I added. “I was traveling for five weeks before I got here, and my last month at home was really intense, with packing up and saying goodbyes and everything.”
Bill nodded again, and I looked down. Everything I’d just said was true, but it still felt somehow wrong—not the true answer.
I wondered if Bill could tell.
I looked up at the disappearing moon. “Restless,” I said. “I guess I feel restless.”
I puttered online the rest of the morning, reading articles and art blogs and checking my Facebook feed.
I had a Skype date with my parents, and the video kept cutting out. But for a few minutes, I saw them, their familiar smiles, the photos on the mantle behind them. They were eating dinner – the same wine glasses and water pitcher – and had placed the computer in my regular seat. I felt both like I was there and really far away.
I told them how frustrated I was. I tried to put a positive spin on it – “It’s all part of the freelancing process” – but even I wasn’t convinced.
I hung up, wandered back into the kitchen, made lunch, texted a friend. I went out on my terrace and watered the bougainvillea that had slowly started to flower.
I paused, a squint in the bright sun and panting heat. The city teemed beneath me—the tuk-tuks and motorbikes and SUVs, the loudspeaker cry of the egg man, the bodies perched on tiny plastic chairs at the coffee stall. The wind moved through the trees, and along the median, a barefoot boy with a sack slung over his back paused, knelt down, picked up a plastic bottle and tossed it in his sack.
I felt both near to it, and really far away.
What had I come here for? I wondered.
To be here, I answered.
A thought began to form. It came slowly, gently, the way my Big Plans and Great Ideas never do: Maybe, just maybe, my focus doesn’t need to be 100% on my writing right now. Maybe my focus should be on starting my life here.
I paused, looking down. Something about the thought made me feel calm, calmer than I’d felt in days.
I’d been standing on the precipice—watching, waiting, peering down. I’d moved to Phnom Penh to write about my experiences, but I wasn’t going to have any if I didn’t speak the language, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a real, full, regular life.
I watched the city beneath me, that almost palpable pulse of life. I wanted to be a part of it. I looked at the empty chairs at the coffee stall. There’s a place for me here, I thought, even if it is just as The Expat Writer, The Western English Teacher. There’s still a place.
I was ready.
But first I had to check my inbox one last time.