Phnom Penh is a wonderful place to live. After a few weeks of being here, I didn’t wonder anymore at how many expats I’d met that call this place “home”. Low living expenses, friendly people, new experiences, and an availability of Western joys (restaurants, malls, movies, fashion, etc) provide for a very comfortable living situation. Additionally, with hundreds of NGOs, there are many opportunities for Westerners to seek a job that makes them feel like they are doing something important.
When a friend of mine expressed surprise at how positively I spoke about my time here in Phnom Penh thus far, I remembered how most of my conversations went [about coming to Cambodia]: “Wow Olivia, it is so amazing that you are going to Cambodia to fight against sex trafficking. I can only imagine the types of things that you will see. I am sure that this is going to be a really hard experience but I know that you are going to learn and grow so much.” Before I left to “fight sex trafficking!”, no one assumed that my trip was going to be full of rainbows and butterflies. And it hasn’t been. But the sun certainly has shone brightly everyday [figuratively].
My work here in Phnom Penh has been to interview and write a report (with a team of 4 others) about 100 women who work in massage parlors. Ever since prostitution was made illegal in Cambodia, karaoke bars and massage parlors often serve as “brothel” fronts. Some of the women who work in these types of places offer sex services.
The organization I am working with, Love146, has conducted several research projects in Southeast Asia, one of which targeted KTV (karaoke bar) women. Massage parlor women are a group of women that have not been researched much by any NGO in Phnom Penh, so my team has done the best we can in learning about these women’s lives as a part of this “pioneer” research project.
Needless to say, conducting research in a country where you don’t know the language or culture is challenging enough. Add to the experience hearing the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frustrating (and sometimes simply normal) stories of these vulnerable women, and you have a recipe for a very interesting (difficult? emotional?) couple of months.
Here is my paradox (which I think is probably similar for many other NGO workers here): how do I “be ok” with my comfortable, exciting life here in the midst of this type of work?
(I don’t have an answer.)