Help me make the best decision about the effects on living in Phnom Penh on an American teenaged girl.
June 13, 2011 12:22 PM   Subscribe

(Unmarried) American couple thinking of working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for 3 to 12 months. Her 14-year-old daughter would come with us. What do we need to think about?

I'm considering applying for a temporary position in PP, and my girlfriend is excited about the possibility. We've found some good information about what adults can expect (and I've been to Thailand, so I'm familiar with the general vibe in Southeast Asia), but our biggest concern is with how her daughter would do.
I know every kid is different, but FWIW about her and us:
-She's 14, friendly, very bright, witty, and reasonably curious about other cultures, new experiences, new foods, etc. In fact, she threw an "Asian party" a few years back, where she served food from different parts of Asia, played Asian music for her and her friends to dance to, etc.
-On the other hand, she's fairly sheltered in some ways. Thanks to her real father's income, she leads a pretty privileged life compared to most kids her age: Big house in a wealthy suburb, all the latest gadgets and clothes, participation in numerous clubs, sports, hobbies, etc. She spends a lot of time watching TV, has a tight (and very white) circle of friends, and in general hasn't spent much time without things like air conditioning, convenience food, very clean surroundings, and such.
-After conflicts with "mean girl"-type friends, she's asked about switching school districts, so she's not excessively attached to her school or friends.
-She's never been out of the USA at all, let alone a developing country.
-Although Daughter is used to a certain standard of living, both my girlfriend and I are comfortable with the requirements/"negatives" of living in a place like SE Asia, and we would expect to spend considerable time helping her navigate her new surroundings.

My questions:
1) This idea will come totally out of the blue for her. How do we broach the subject of uprooting her for up to a year and taking her to a developing country? How do we gauge what might be a normal American-kid reaction to the prospect of leaving for a while ("Cambodia? Weird...") and real red flags?
2) Assuming she's willing to go, how do we prepare her for the big culture shock she's likely to face?
3) Should we worry about any stigma or negative reactions to our not being married, but having a child living with us?
4) Are the international schools in PP able to accommodate students who will potentially be there less than a full school year? How do we make arrangements with her school back in the USA to keep her from falling back a semester or a year upon her return?
5) What can we do to make her transition to life in PP as reasonably painless as possible? I'm OK with buying her a window A/C for her room, for example, but I don't see the point of going halfway around the world to try to recreate what she's used to (only associating with expats, not exposing her to the Khmer language, etc.).

We definitely do not want to go ahead with this opportunity if it will do her more harm than good. But I think that, if we properly gauge her feelings and behaviors and prepare her for the trip, she'll get a lot out of the experience.

Sorry for the long post; any ideas?
posted by Rykey to Travel & Transportation around Phnom Penh, Cambodia (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't see how a year immersed in a different culture can be bad for any teenager, but especially for one that is leading a stereotypical upper middle class life of luxury here in the US. I spent about half my school age years in foreign lands. My only regret is that I did stay on the Air Force Bases, and didn't get out and experience the culture.
posted by COD at 12:54 PM on June 13, 2011

It might to have some travel documentaries on the city that you can show her. Start out the conversation with:

"We definitely do not want to go ahead with this opportunity if it will do you more harm than good. It's only for a year, and we think it'll be a great opportunity for you/us to experience a different culture. Here's some stuff on the area."

I don't have any video recommendations, unfortunately (I think Anthony Bourdain has been there for No Reservations, but not sure how that presents the city). You can sing the merits of nearby places you can travel to (beaches in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, Angkor Wat, etc.)

I think you can help the transition a lot by presenting her with books and other media from the area. This thread on books about Southeast Asia might help.

I think it'd be an awesome experience - I hope she can be convinced.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:54 PM on June 13, 2011

I moved from Oklahoma to Singapore when I was 10. I had a lot of preconceived notions about what life in SE Asia was going to be like that turned out to be wrong, mostly centered around assuming things would be much more backwards than they actually were. I pictured myself riding through the jungle on a moped, not taking taxis with A/C so cranked up my glasses would fog over as soon as I got out.

1. dunno. Ask her what she thinks a typical non-school day is going to be like, compare that to what you expect her to do with her time there.

2. look for books about being an expat in Thailand. I learned a lot before we even got to Singapore by reading one of them. It was geared specifically for Americans moving to Singapore; I suspect a similar book for Americans moving to Thailand exists. It covered all sorts of things, from explaining squat toilets to the basics of local politics.

3. I would suspect yes, you definitely want to look into the legal aspects of this, making sure you have required documents so that either partner can make legally binding decisions for medical care of the minor, etc.

4. If the international school in PP is anything like the Singapore American School, they are used to short-term expats and can provide some guidance on how they deal with those students.

5. One of my biggest difficulties in adjusting to life in Singapore was the food. I wasn't a particularly adventurous eater and the smell of the market was off-putting...oh durian, is there anything you can't make smell like a sewer? As for socializing with the locals, don't expect too much out of a teenager. Again, speaking from my experiences in Singapore, where at least one of the official languages is English, it seemed like I never met anyone socially that wasn't part of the expat community. They weren't always, or even often, American expats, but neither did they come from the local community.
posted by nomisxid at 1:08 PM on June 13, 2011

Is her birth father going to be okay with her going to Cambodia for a year? If he's not, there's no point in planning further.

There's an International School there--it's not cheap.

One of my kids would have been totally up for this and the other would have thought we were punishing her. Personally, I'd not have her move until she'd visited there and actually lived with you two for a lengthy period of time here (does her mother have full custody now?)
posted by Ideefixe at 3:56 PM on June 13, 2011

Yes, Mom has full custody, and Real Dad is OK with her going. Mom, Daughter, and I have lived together for two years now here in the USA.
posted by Rykey at 4:25 PM on June 13, 2011

International schools, by and large, are exceptionally expensive. You might want to consider an online high school.
posted by k8t at 4:56 PM on June 13, 2011

I really loved Cambodia and Phnom Penh in particular.

If I had to imagine what being a teenager would be like there, let's see -- it's filthy, no getting around that. Not just trash, but seeing things like people crapping in public. It's not everywhere, but there's a lot of poverty and a lot of grime and a lot of interesting smells.

She'll see a lot of people missing limbs or who are horribly disfigured. The various wars there have left a lot of literal and proverbial scars.

She'll see prostitution in various forms.

She'll constantly be asked for money from locals, and in particular young children will ask her to buy trinkets while their mother stands ten feet behind them.

Of course, you'll see all of this as well.

I guess it boils down to a question of maturity -- if she's the type of kid who is curious and can see these things but then try to understand why they happen (history, poverty, living in a post-genocidal state) I think it could make for an amazing, life-changing experience. If she's the type of kid who will LOL and/or be entirely freaked out by the gritty reality there then it's probably a bad idea.

And if you do go, you have to visit Angkor Wat of course (self-link).
posted by bardic at 9:32 PM on June 13, 2011

Oh, and I forgot -- have you had the drug talk yet? Because she will be propositioned for pot (at best) and most likely for heroin and speed and possibly everything else.
posted by bardic at 9:37 PM on June 13, 2011

Wow - wish I had this opportunity at 14.

Consider home-schooling for a year - plenty of materials to match up scope and sequence - or keep the bookwork simple in favor of the Real Life Learning she'll get to experience first-hand.

On the practical side, there's plenty of stuff to bring to make your place feel more homey. I'm living in South Korea right now, and my apartment is an opportunity to shut out the world and bask in some American movies. When I'm ready for Korea, it's right outside.
posted by chrisinseoul at 3:59 AM on June 14, 2011

Start subscribing to and lurk there to get a sense. No-one is going to ask about your marital status but you'll just be assumed to be married. Almost every kind of apartment that's safe for expats to live in has air-con.

The expat groups in Phnom Penh tend to divide by nationality and religion. There's a big missionary subgroup that's really nice, ditto Buddhist expats, and people are generally friendly. If you're there on a high-paying expat package, you can live in an expat bubble with your kids going to international school etc, but you're looking at US$5K and up each month minimum. If you're going low-end, two adults and a teen could do okay for about US$1.5K a month.

International schools there are super expensive. There are some local versions, but most expats I know there with teens homeschool or do remote school online. Note that the internet is kinda crappy - youtube crawls, and downloading a 100MB file can take half an hour.

I would be really really concerned about drugs and teens. Drugs and alcohol are very easily available and cheap, and if she is a risk-taker, it would be so easy for her to go off the rails. If she's close to you guys, obedient and cautious, then yes.

She will have way more fun if she - and you two - learn some Khmer before going and have family language lessons.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:15 AM on June 15, 2011

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