The Journalism Foreign Intrigue Scholarship: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Toward the end of my internship at The Cambodia Daily, I remember being hit with raindrops as I rode on the back of a motorbike on a dreary Phnom Penh afternoon. Pin — the Cambodian reporter who was driving — and I had been assigned to check up on the construction of a relocation site for residents who were being pushed out of a squatter neighborhood in the city. We were both grumbling because it took about a half hour to get out there even on a sunny day, and we both suspected the story would get edged out by something bigger, anyway.

“Call Kevin,” Pin told me, referring to our editor in chief, Kevin Doyle. Pin had written for the paper for about 14 years, and even he didn’t feel like making the trip.

We pulled over, just a few blocks from the office, and I got out my cell phone and dialed. Connections were always a problem in Cambodia, where competing providers had their own prefixes that were mostly incompatible with each other.

Kevin picked up. I knew this was a bad idea, but Pin wanted me to at least try.

I told Kevin about the rain, and that we pretty much had what we needed for the story. I didn’t sound very convincing. Kevin didn’t even wait for the end of my explanation.

“Jason,” he said. “Do you have a raincoat?”

And that was it. Worthwhile or not, we had to go. End of discussion.

This is life as a reporter in Cambodia. It’s life in Cambodia, period. There’s no room for whiners or neurotics or hypochondriacs. When you go, you’re exposed to a whole different kind of air, hot tropical air moist with germs your immune system can’t comprehend. Traffic is deadly. Cops will try to take your money. On some days, when you’re standing in a crowded market and it’s over 90 degrees, you feel like you’re going to pass out. And if you do, don’t expect an ambulance; you’ll probably be up and on your feet by the time it shows up, if it shows up at all.

But don’t be afraid. You learn how to navigate life there, just as the Cambodians do. You learn just as much about living as you do about reporting, probably more. You learn, as an American, how much you have, that you have more than you need, and that you are fabulously wealthy and lucky compared to almost anyone in Cambodia.

It’s not just the material possessions; it’s the opportunity. The Cambodia Daily is arguably the best paper in the country. As an intern there, you see reporters who are probably never going to do better. No matter how good they are, they can’t work in the US because their English isn’t good enough. But as a fluent-in-English American, you have thousands of possibilities ahead of you. You can find a publication custom-made to your tastes and temperament, but the incredibly talented reporters at The Cambodia Daily are at the high points in their careers, and they would be fools to give it up.

What you learn as an intern is that as an American, you can drop into a third world country, reap the benefits of cheap lunch and edgy, atmospheric encounters, and go back home and amaze your friends and families with your intrepid adventures. But the Cambodians cannot leave. They have to stay and find happiness through the simple things in life, like family, food and a house that doesn’t get flooded every time it rains. The non-simple things, such as decent roads, adequate medical care, credible schools and accountable government, are a long way off.

So you learn to give thanks for what you have. And as a reporter, as sad it as it may sound, you give thanks for what the Cambodians do not have. The scandals, lies and atrocities provide you with stories that only come along once in a blue moon for the average reporter in the US. So when you’re driving your motorbike, and a cop shakes you down for beer money, don’t be too upset. It’s because of people like him that you will probably get the best clips of your life.

By Jason McBride