Chapter 20 – Culture Shock
Since we’d decided to be jackasses and stay out drinking until seven in the morning, we ended up sleeping through our morning bus to Phnom Penh. From what I can recall of the conversation we’d had with the concierge the day beforehand, there were two morning buses that run from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian capital and one that leaves in the mid-afternoon.
“Which bus is the best one to take?” we’d asked the Vietnamese girl at the front desk. “Which one would you take?”
“I’d probably take the eight-thirty because the seven is too early for me.”
“What about the other one?” we’d asked with our inevitable hangovers in mind.
“Umm,” she made a face and grunted. “We discourage the mid-afternoon bus because it causes you to arrive in Phnom Penh after midnight.”
“Yeah? Is that somethin’ you don’t wanna do?”
“Umm, yeah. Phnom Penh is not so nice of a place that late at night.”
“Really? What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s just not nice,” she refused to step out of vagueness. “A lot of travelers end up getting culture shock.”
“Culture shock?” I thought to myself. “Pfff. C’mon. I’ve been out at night in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Saigon already without having any problems. What could there possibly be in Phnom Penh that’s gonna make me feel uncomfortable?”
I don’t know why, at every stage of my life, I’m always so prone to thinking that I’ve seen it all. That there’s nothing out there that wouldn’t surprise me. That whatever someone is telling me must be over-exaggerated because they’re stupid and don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know how a sheltered-ass white kid from a pussy-ass neighborhood could’ve developed this blasé attitude, but it’s been with me for as long as I can remember and is something I need to work on.
Following my eighth grade graduation from St. Juliana School, I decided to get my secondary education from Loyola Academy out in one of the ritzy suburbs on Chicago’s north shore. One of my SJS buddies named Cahill had instead gone to St. Patrick’s High School further in the city. Although the neighborhood the school’s in is not bad, the parks at which their baseball games were held had been in borderline shitty neighborhoods to where ghetto activity had often spilled over. Cahill never used the phrase “culture shock” when describing the things he saw at Riis and Amundsen parks but, all these years later, I understand that’s what he’d been going through.
“Yo dude,” he said one weekend when we’d been hangin’ out, “you’ll never believe what happened the other day during my baseball game.”
“What? What happened?”
“Aw dude, it was ridiculous,” he rolled his eyes. “So, I’m in the outfield. It’s like the fourth inning. There’s two outs or whatever and, you know, I’m just tryin’ to concentrate on the game. In between pitches I glance off the side of the field towards one of the park benches. Keep in mind that this is the middle of the day.”
“So, what I see on said park bench causes me to double take. I’m thinking to myself, there’s no way this is happening right now, I must be seeing things. But I look again. And what do I see?”
“What? What’d ya see?”
“I see some dude with his pants at his ankles sitting on the park bench and this big fat-ass chick straddling him. Her bare, cottage cheese ass is bouncing up and down on his monster dong. They are fucking on this park bench in broad daylight.”
“No way. You’re fulla shit.”
“Uhh, yes way. And if that’s not ridiculous enough for you, once the original guy had busted his nut, pulled up his pants and walked away like nothing had ever happened, another guy who’d been awaiting his turn comes creeping out from behind a tree and sits down on the park bench where – guess what?”
“The bitch sits down on his ready-to-go dick and starts fucking him. I swear, if a ball had been hit my way, it would’ve knocked me unconscious. I was absolutely blown away by what I was seeing.”
At a different time, Cahill had once again regaled me with one of his unusual baseball experiences.
“Yeah, so, it’s an early April morning. It’s cold out. I’m in the outfield and notice this group of like twenty middle-aged dudes carrying a bunch of coolers into the pool area. As I said, it’s freezing. There’s nothing in the pool but two or three feet of dirty-ass snowmelt. There’s obviously not gonna be any swimming so I have no idea what’s going on. It strikes me as suspicious, but I have a game to play and can’t give the situation the attention that it deserves.”
“So, when I can I glance back to see what these guys are up to. And, one after another, I see ‘em all dumping the contents of these coolers into the swimming pool. I can’t see exactly what it is from that far away but to me it looks like fish.”
“A couple innings later, I hear a dude on loudspeaker. ‘Mic check. One. Two,’ ya know. And I look over and the guy is standing next to a table covered by a fancy cloth that’s got a bunch of trophies lined up on it. They’ve got grills goin’ and he’s addressing a bunch of his buddies who are all standing at attention with fishing rods in hand.”
“What the hell?”
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Turns out they were hosting a catfishing tournament and handing out trophies to whoever could re-catch the largest already-caught fish they’d dumped in the empty swimming pool and then fryin’ up the whole lot of ‘em afterwards.”
“Dude, you’re makin’ this up. No one does that.”
“Hey, it was hard enough for me to believe when seeing it in person but, yes, people do actually do that.”
From my buddy’s baseball days, there’s one more stand-out tale of culture clash I can clearly recall.
“Our team was up to bat. Some suburban team – I think it was Highland Park, but don’t remember – was in the field. All of a sudden, you start hearin’ all these sirens. They’re gettin’ closer and closer. We keep playing. Then we start hearin’ these car horns and they too are gettin’ closer and closer. From the bench, I see these kids in right and center field start running away. I stand up to see what’s going on and this fuckin’ dude who’d been laying on the horn comes tearing onto the field. He’s swervin’ all over the place on the grass and he’s wavin’ for everybody to get out the way like Luda does in the ‘Move Bitch’ video.”
“Yeah, you like that reference?”
“I did like that reference.”
“I thought you would,” he smirked. “So, in hot pursuit of this dude is a line of like five or six cops speeding closely behind.”
“Jesus. Did anyone get ran over?”
“No. Not from our game at least. But as soon as they came, they were gone. The chase led them elsewhere. Since our team is somewhat used to that typa shit from practicin’ there all the time, it didn’t seem like such a big deal and we were ready to get back to playin’ some baseball. But the suburban pussies on the other team were appalled by the incident and needed some convincing.”
I had no idea what it felt like to be exposed to such an environment. Given my upbringing, would I have been freaked out seeing that type of shit for the first time in person? Hell yeah I would’ve. But since it hadn’t been me seeing it and I’d only heard it as a story from my buddy, I found it difficult to empathize. It all seemed so distant. I couldn’t relate. I loved the tales from the start but wouldn’t fully appreciate them as something “real” until I’d attended college up in Milwaukee and lived in a borderline ghetto neighborhood where I’d experience that type of inner-city ridiculousness firsthand.
The same concept can be applied to the warning given by the concierge about Phnom Penh. Even though she’d been there before and had told us that we don’t wanna arrive at night, I had trouble believing the hype. Her concept of “bad” was something that I wouldn’t take to heart until I’d seen it for myself.
Since the itinerary for our two-week loop through Southeast Asia had been jam-packed, we had little to no margin of error. After fucking up and missing the eight-thirty bus for which we’d bought tickets, waiting around until the next day was not an option. The mid-afternoon bus was do or die.
Boasting far more unoccupied seats than a sodomy convention, the coach contained only a handful of passengers. As such, I seized the opportunity to sprawl out. Cutting off any further access to the back of the bus, I blocked the aisle by bridging my severely hungover body from one set of double-seats to those on the opposite side. Once I’d found a reasonably comfortable position, I flipped down my shades, shut my eyes, let out a few sphincter-burning farts and dozed the fuck off.
Sometime after the sun had set, I was snatched away from my sleep.
“Hey, yo,” Tim’s hand had been shaking my shoulder. “Wake up dude. We’re at the border.”
We’d filed off the bus, filled in some forms and proceeded to wait in line at the hot sticky gecko-infested border crossing. I jumped around and did some stretching to get the sore stiffness out my knees which felt like they’d just gotten the Tanya Harding treatment. While inching along in that steam room of a government building, I could feel sweat running down my asscrack, making its way across my gooch and dripping off my sack like a Mr. Coffee machine. After finally reaching the front of the line, they barely looked at my passport before taking my money, snapping a quick photo of my face and sending me on my way. Shortly thereafter, we resumed our roll.
Within the first couple minutes of driving, the pitch blackness had been interrupted by the neon flash of casino lights. Written in English but also in Khmer, these dazzling signs used every color of the spectrum – often varying with each letter – to let patrons know exactly where they’re about to blow all their money. There’s a decent amount of casinos in Vietnam but it’s illegal for citizens to use them which is my belief why these gambling establishments had been just on the other side of the border.
As we continued to make our way to Phnom Penh, the glitz and glamor soon disappeared and the jungle resumed. Unable to see anything out the bus window and with no other diversions on hand to occupy my time, my eyelids behaved as my testicles had fifteen years beforehand and began to drop involuntarily. In no time, I was fast asleep.
The bus arrived in Phnom Penh shortly after midnight and I once again had to be pulled outta dreamland by my more functional and apparently less hungover friends. We filed out and convened at the side of the automobile to retrieve our baggage. While gathering our belongings, we’d been encircled by a group of tuk-tuk drivers who seemed willing to fight each other to the death for our business. Way too tired to start a bidding war, we picked one from the pack and asked him if he knew the location of “Encounters Hostel & Guest House.” He said he did, so we hopped in the back carriage of his auto rickshaw and were on our way.
Not even a whole minute after leaving the bus station, I had a pretty solid understanding of what the concierge at the Park Hyatt Saigon had been talking about. Piles of garbage had been everywhere, flanking dimly lit streets and, in some cases, had been stacked waist high. The most disturbing thing about the piles of trash hadn’t been their stench or their unsightliness but the fact that they served as people’s homes. Women holding naked babies sat on street corners, barefoot children laid atop piles of rubbish and tweaked out shirtless men stood staring as we drove through their “living rooms.”
Not only did I feel absolutely horrible for all these poverty-stricken people, but I was downright terrified. I felt a million miles from home. All’s I wanted to do was get to the hostel in one piece, pull out whatever cash I had in my wallet, turn to the driver and let him know the change was his to be kept.
About ten minutes into the petrifying excursion, the man in control had turned down a dark and desolate avenue. Up ahead on our right had been a row of connected buildings. Across the street from those buildings, on our left, had been a park where a group of dudes were hanging out. We began to slow down. Unlike all the other times in which our driver reduced his speed, however, there was no intersection in sight. The tuk-tuk rolled to a stop and the clique in the park began looking at us like we were fresh fish being ushered into Shawshank along with Andy Dufresne and the rest of the new inmates who The Sisters hadn’t “gotten to” yet – at least, in that paranoid state of mind, that’s how I’d perceived them to be looking at us.
The driver hopped off the motorbike at the front of the tuk-tuk, pulled off his helmet and approached us in the back.
“Here,” he’d pointed towards a door which read “Encounters Hostel and Guest House.” “Encounters here.”
Gripping my bag between my legs and still contemplating between fight and flight, I tried my best to comprehend what he’d just said.
“Encounters here,” he smiled, reaching for one of our backpacks. “I help with bag. No problem.”
“Really? Right there?” I asked while pointing to the same door he had. “That’s it?”
“Oh,” I gave an awkward laugh and let out a sigh of relief, “thank you.”
We paid him in full and gave a handsome tip on top of it. After checking in, I went upstairs to try and sleep off the culture shock and the lingering effects of my Tet hangover that seemingly wouldn’t end.