How Traveling To Cambodia Changed More Than Just My Profile Picture

It’s strange to me that I can call Cambodia home. Not just because I grew up in the states and am now living on the other side of the world, but because the past 18 months here have been an addicting cocktail of false starts, epiphanies, misperceptions, and the incessant removal of comfort. Anyone who’s lived here long enough knows that’s just how it goes. Phnom Penh isn’t for everyone.

It definitely wasn’t for me four years ago. It’s my second time living here and I’m still left wondering about that stranger Old Cambodia has become. Unclean water forced me to regularly eat antibiotics and the disparity made me realize that I was utterly unprepared. Kids walked the streets at midnight selling roses and everyone assumed I owned a yacht and three cars. I didn’t, but my skin color said otherwise.

And bleed my heart did. I thought I, in all of my 22 years of wisdom, saw a solution that somehow every other sleeping soul had missed.

We needed to help these people, but no one else sensed the urgency. My English teaching coworkers — and eventually I — drank ourselves out of time and place because after months of impassioned rants to strangers I got sick of hearing, “There’s not much you can do.” So began the destruction of my idealism. A painful, but necessary process.

After four years of traveling and even more chipping away at innocence, I came to glimpse reality. Not the cold, impassive kind like I’d been led to believe was inevitable, but more an all-encompassing awareness of how backwards my approach had been. I was thrusting my knowledge of what works in my own culture onto a place without a single common thread. And whether it was this more mature version of myself or the fast developing Cambodia, I found my aged perspective allowed me to finally appreciate this country and her people. I grew to accept their ability to struggle and still get on with it, whatever way they knew how.

Some of those harsher realities included selling their bodies as sex workers and getting caught in a poverty cycle perpetuated by garment factories’ low wages and high promises. I’ve sat next to these women and watched them walk across the street arm in arm, so it’s surreal when I read a statistic that reduces them to a number and decisive problem that needs fixing.

But I’ve been in that mindset before, so I let it go.

Anne Elizabeth Moore’s non-fiction graphic novel, Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, digs into those issues. Not the problem with the so-called victims, but with society at large for putting them there. Unlike the missionaries posing as agents of change and NGOs very frequently doing the same, Threadbare gives us a glimpse of the morally complex global catastrophe that is the garment industry without a hint of a savior complex. I applaud her for her audacity.

Through each country she takes us to, she calls into question the motives of leaders of clothing companies, aid organizations and politicians. Staring down the gun’s barrel, she presses on. Cambodia reveals a slew of misdirected NGOs and violently oppressive government — something I am all too familiar with — while the US and Austria are a mess of blind, insatiable consumerism. It seems as though entire nations are supported by the controversial work of these women, so to disrupt the status quo is to shake the system to its very core.

Her comics present anecdotes paired with implicating statistics, but right when I revert back to my youthful idealism and hope to get some oversimplified solution to unsatisfactory wages, false reporting on working conditions, or whether sex work is morally abhorrent, she moves on to the next dilemma. This formula parallels reality in that it’s a book full of grey, trying to unravel these overlapping issues and having no one person or party to blame.

How do we solve a problem when it’s a little bit my fault, a little bit yours, and a little bit culturally misunderstood?

In her final statements, she asserts, “The global economic condition of women is caused by bad policy. And that can, and must, change.” Policies like allowing innumerable and completely unnecessary NGOs to set up sweat shops in places like Cambodia need to change. Policies around seeing sex workers as legitimate professionals, thanks to Margaret Cho and other brave women for voicing this, need to be implemented. And recognizing that the garment industry has, for too long, been skirting the issues of fair wages, safe conditions and environmental impacts. This needs to be clearly addressed.

These aren’t the elitist models of old, quite the contrary. These are slow, conscious propositions using the people affected as the voice for solutions, rather than unqualified “professionals” speaking for them. Moore’s work to propel this conversation will hopefully inspire others to join — those who possess a good dose of realism and, hopefully, just a hint of leftover idealism.

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To gain a current perspective of the impact of tourism and our perceptions of developing countries, pair reading Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking (Amazon release date of May 3) with “Secret Aid Worker” and “The ‘Third World’ Is Not Your Classroom”. For those with a sense of humor: “White Saviour Barbie’s world of orphanage selfies and charity startups”. Oh, and travel.