There are a lot of foreign musicians plying their trade in the bars of Siem Reap. Given my own skill set, and that I’m always looking for possible revenue streams, I’ve explored the idea of going back to acoustic performing. It seems like a viable idea, though my stomach for it depends largely on whether it involves playing “Hotel California” a lot, or handing over my beautiful new guitar to an audience member who will lustily embark on a cover of “Heart Of Gold.”
I was talking this over with Kevin Sysyn, the local acoustic rock elder statesman with a booming, Gordon Lightfoot-inspired voice and an admirable willingness to please the crowd that may or may not still be entirely within my wheelhouse. Kevin runs the Vagabond Café, where he performs several times a week and cooks chili for a more or less regular band of amateur and semi-pro musicians who get up and jam. I’ve only joined in once, on New Year’s Eve, but I wound up being onstage for nearly four hours, eventually doing my own set. There isn’t anything else to eat there, just drink, and given I have a limited appetite for alcohol most days usually I’ll stop by for a beer and head home before Kevin gets around to calling me up.
At any rate, I was discussing the possibility of establishing myself as an acoustic artist in Siem Reap with Kevin and he said it was probably doable, but advised caution for an unexpected reason — boredom. I was surprised to hear him raise a cautionary tale of the foreign expat with nothing to do but drink – a person slowly aging with a cheap place to live, but no home and nothing to do.
Though Kevin wasn’t the first to flag this issue, the context he brought it up in, together with my experiences in the last several weeks, have really gotten me thinking about this. Certainly (and I pointed this out to Kevin) my hobby of learning the local languages wherever I go has kept me intellectually engaged and also gives me an entrée into the local culture that many expats don’t have.
But I have started to feel restless in Siem Reap, just as I was starting to feel restless in Bali before I left, even though both are manifestly nice – and cheap – places to live. I have started to miss the chaos of Manila, that polluted city of eternal confusion, even though my lungs are starting to close up in anticipation of going back.
I’ve been thinking about what underlies this, and I think I now understand the reason…and with it I understand better why (with some notable exceptions – if you are an expat reading this you are probably one of them) I have often mixed uneasily with other expats, and why the Philippines tends to always call me back even though it’s a manifestly more difficult and expensive place to live compared to…well, most anywhere else in southeast Asia.
When I look around me here in Siem Reap, and to many of the other expat havens I have been to, a large bulk of the older foreigners are here without great ambitions. The beer is cheap, the people are friendly, the standard of living is within the grasp of a modest pension. There’s no striving to anything further. It’s a pleasant place to hang and to live out one’s days.
I say this with no judgment. That’s a perfectly valid way to be, and more power to all these folks (and some of them wear this lifestyle significantly better than others). It’s just not for me; that’s exactly the future I foresaw for myself back in Los Angeles, where at least I had a wide range of stimulating friends (who I mostly rarely saw) and an interesting job (that was physically taxing in an industry in a steady decline), and a physical environment I loved though I had also burnt out on.
I didn’t come to Asia to die. I came to Asia to live.
I realize now that Manila has always been stimulating because no one comes there to be a tourist or to retire. People come there to do things. It’s where everybody in the country with ambition goes to try and make something happen; it’s where everybody in the world goes to do business with that country. With the long-standing ties to America, the high level of education, and fluency in English, I can have a conversation with an educated Filipino at the same level of detail and understanding as I can with an American – except without all the cultural biases and navel-gazing groupthink that has made our own culture so boring (to me…again, I don’t expect anyone reading this to necessarily feel the same way).
This is a good thing to figure out, even if it leaves me with a difficult nut to crack, since no one place has everything and whichever one I choose offers different possibilities and adjustments. I do, generally, know the strings I need to pull to make a life come together. I have been pulling them, and there has been a response. The changes have been slow, as life adjustments usually are, but they are happening.
Those are, however, merely the ingredients of a life….the things you need – health and money, first and foremost. You still need a pot to stir all that up in. After all, a lot of the reason I left Los Angeles was after years of trying I finally came to the conclusion that some of the things that I needed for my life just weren’t there.
They are here, but in different ratios in different places. Siem Reap is a much nicer place to live than Manila. I can’t say it’s as stimulating, though. And if I’m going to build a life – I need things to push toward. I need goals. I need people around me that I can trust and count on. And underpinning that I need my health to be robust enough to put in the effort.
Barring some kind of a life-changing event it appears I will be in Asia for the next six months, then back to the U.S. in August for some recording projects and from there (if internet ads are to be believed, though no one has actually confirmed this to me personally) on tour in Europe, then presumably back here assuming I have built a foundation by that time.
This is all good news financially but I don’t want my life to be dicking around in Asia and periodically going back to the States to scoop up money. I’m fine going back to the U.S. once in a while if there’s a good reason. But I want to start building something new here.
There’s legit reasons I haven’t committed to anything yet. I’ve held back in many ways to try and get my health on firmer footing. There are also pros and cons to each country so it’s worth it to cultivate different options, particularly given the changing political climate of the world. I haven’t been spinning my wheels or wasting my time, even though (as it often does when I’m in the middle phase of a long plan) it may sometimes seem that way to me.
But the bottom line is the old “I’ll know it when I see it” – the thing that I’m ready to commit to – hasn’t happened yet. I do have plans for the expansion of the blog and of Karma Frog that will be getting underway in the next couple of weeks. That will certainly be interesting – but that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. That’s just a different iteration of what I was doing before. Just figuring out a way to make money, in and of itself, isn’t the point. It’s figuring out how to build a rich and stimulating life. Where, doing what, and with and/or around whom.
Leaving the U.S. wasn’t ever supposed to be the end; it was supposed to be a beginning. Just based on the metrics of progress, everything here is going well. Though none of these things are yet where they need to be, I’m trending healthier, spending less, making more. But again, those are the ingredients. I haven’t yet figured out what the life is going to be. I’m trying to resist the temptation to try to plan something to happen, to will it into existence, and to trust that it comes. But such things come when you’re busy doing something else, so I can’t just sit around waiting, either.
In so many ways, 2019 feels very similar to 1993 to me. 1993 was the year before Cockeyed Ghost started, the year when I moved into my house and got the garage rehearsal studio going, started writing a whole new set of songs in a new style, had a firm idea of where I wanted to go…but nothing was happening yet. Just a lot of getting ready, false starts, things being put into place. 1994 was an explosion, a start to the most exciting time of my life. 1993 was excruciating – a year where I realized there was the potential for something to happen, but I hadn’t figured out the delivery system yet. I was chomping at the bit to get there.
It’s amusing to think that at that time, my biggest fear was that time was short because I was getting old. Assuming that I live a normal life span – which I don’t, but I hope to – there should still be plenty of time for everything to happen, but just like then it doesn’t feel like there’s much time to waste. I suppose I need to take a lesson from 1993 and just be patient and continue to move all the pieces into place. I hope that God grants me the space, and the patience, to figure it all out.