On my first night in Phnom Penh, a thunderstorm ravaged the sky and the heavens opened up to release a torrential downpour of which I hadn’t seen the likes of since I was in Singapore. I took a seat in the common room of the hostel and watched the storm roll through the sky. The common room was more of an open terrace area, with a bar, pool, and snooker table. As I sat watching the storm, one of the Cambodian girls who worked at the hostel approached me and introduced herself, before asking if I wanted to play a game of pool with her. I told her that I wasn’t very good, but she just laughed and said it didn’t matter. Her name was Sana, and throughout the course of our few games she even gave me a few pointers and tips, so that I began to be not quite as bad as I had been at the beginning of the evening. However, I had a big day of sightseeing ahead of me the next day, so after a few games I said goodnight to Sana and went to bed.
The next evening Sana was off duty, and after she finished she asked if I wanted to join her at a local bar down the road to play some more pool. They had cheap jugs of beer, she told me, so I got dressed and we headed down to continue my education in playing pool, and sink some balls and beers. A few more of her friends turned up, coming and going and having a beer or two here and there, and before long I realised that we’d been there for a couple of hours, and had polished off several jugs of beer. It was at this point that Sana mentioned something about going dancing. After a few more probing questions, I gathered that Sana was talking about going to a nightclub later. Sure, I thought, why the hell not?
I’m not sure if something got lost in translation, or whether I was just oblivious to the signs, but to me the whole thing still seemed totally innocent at this point – a few beers and a drunken dance with a new friend. We went back to the hostel, because Sana said that I needed to get changed, and that she had “a nice dress to go dancing in” that she wanted to put on. Figuring we would be going to some of the nicer places in the area, and not just the street side beer gardens, I switched my singlet and thongs for a collared shirt and enclosed shoes. After I got changed, she told me that we had to go back to her house first, so she could change into her dress. I didn’t know why she couldn’t just change at the hostel too, but at this point I had relinquished any control over the direction that the evening was taking. So as I stood at the top of the stairs while Sana chattered to her mother and sisters from inside another room, who occasionally peeked through the ajar door to get a better look at me, I came to the realisation that I had unwittingly let this scenario become, for all intents and purposes, a date.
The first bar we went to was called Heart of Darkness, which only had a handful of patrons, most of whom were nursing beers and playing pool. As we sat down on one of the couches, Sana scooted right over next to me so that our knees were touching, and that was when alarm bells really started to go off in my head. So naturally, I asked what she wanted to drink. “Whatever you’re having, you’re the boss.” As I ordered two margaritas, I also realised that this time the shoe was on the other foot for me – as the man in this situation, it looked like I would be paying for this date. I still had no idea how it had happened, or how I was supposed to get out of it. Sana became even more flirty and a little bit tactile, getting closer so our knees where pushed together. Despite my best attempts to shuffle into a less suggestive position, I had to face the fact that my inaction or disinterest in the situation were not going to get the message across. So that was when I grew some balls and finally said what I thought everyone should have already been thinking.
“Hey, I need to say something. And I probably should have said it ages ago, and sorry that I didn’t… But you should probably know that I’m gay.” I didn’t feel the immediate change in atmosphere that I was expecting, and for a moment of horror I thought she hadn’t heard me, and that I would have to repeat the awkward confession again. But after a moment, Sana half-heatedly mumbled something, barely audible over the music. “Whatever you want to do, that’s cool. Whatever you do, that’s okay.” It was a better reaction than I had expected, though it wasn’t a hundred percent clear that she had understood what I had said. I tried to keep the positives coming by assuring her that I still wanted to dance, so we changed venues to another club called Pontoon, which had a few more people who were up and dancing. That still didn’t help the mood though, and I ended up buying her another drink, just because I felt so bad. We did dance for a little bit, but the mood had officially taken a nose dive since I dropped my bombshell, and in the end she was feeling drunk enough for me to walk her home. I did that, thanked her for the evening, and gave her a hug before retiring back to the hostel.
Coming out is a very peculiar thing. Most of the time we think that once we’ve done it – made that big step towards being openly homosexual – we’re out of the closet and that’s that. I still remember the little thrill I had after confiding in many of my close friends, one by one, and the relief that came with releasing another fragment of that burden. But once it’s done, you never really expect to have those nerve-wracking experiences, uncertain of how people will react or how you’ll be received. I had a pretty gay life back at home – I worked in a gay owned business, I went out to gay bars every weekend, most of my friends were either gay men or fag hags. I also took a lot of gender studies classes at university. I never made a huge point about disclosing my sexuality, but I was just used to people assuming I was gay based on a lot of the facets of my life. Either that, or it just comes up in conversation when meeting new people. I mention it in passing, or add it into part of a story to provide some context, but I never had to flat out say it just for the sake of saying it.
But when I was so removed from my old life, and thrust into a position that was blatantly assuming my heterosexuality, I really struggled to stay true to my identity as a gay man. Coming out the first time is hard, but having to do it again can be just as difficult. It feels as though you’re in a constant backslide, with a constant need to reaffirm your identity and save yourself from falling back into the script of normativity. Especially in South East Asia, where even the legalities of homosexuality still seem a little blurry, you never know how people are going to react. Maybe Cambodian girls just have really bad gaydars: in Sihanoukville I had another hostel worker girl doing splits by the pool for me in her bikini, and begging me to buy her a beer. It was uncomfortable, and there was no real way to stop the suggestive advances without making some kind of proclamation that would only result in more awkwardness for everyone.
And that really does suck. I hate feeling uncomfortable just for being myself. And I hate to think that I probably made Sana quite uncomfortable too. She was a lovely girl and I wouldn’t wish what I put her through upon anyone. Having said that, I don’t think what happened was entirely my fault. It was just a failure to communicate my feelings on something that Sana herself was being very clear about. In my journey so far, I’ve learnt a lot about myself, done some things I never thought I’d do, grown as a man, and ultimately, I’ve changed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but amongst all the change I need to stay true to myself, and not let go of the fundamental things that make me who I am.