Marriage and the Conservative Girl in CambodiaApril 18, 2007
It’s not uncommon for expatriates to consider marrying a Cambodian woman. Many such girls worked in bars; whilst there are sometimes complicated issues surrounding such relationships, they tend to be freer of taboos and traditional cultural norms (thus more like familiar western relationships) than those with girls from more conservative backgrounds. For readers curious about the latter, I thought I’d share a personal account of my intentions to marry such a girl.
The Khmer New Year holiday afforded me the opportunity to meet my beloved’s parents and ask for her hand in marriage. What I was dreading turned out to be a lovely experience. They live in Kampong Speu – a ‘nothing to do’, non-descript town in a poor province; a town of simple homes and businesses – one internet café which is slow and six times as expensive as the city, and no bars.
Now it’s my second home and I love it. In all my time there no one made any attempt to rip off the solitary foreigner, and I was constantly surrounded by simple, decent, dark-skinned friendly folk. The family is borderline ‘middle-class’ by rural standards – which means piss-poor by the standards of Phnom Penh. It’s an uncomplicated life – they have a basic wooden/concrete house which has electricity but little else. Bathing involves scooping water from a cistern (an activity I’m very used to but I enjoyed the story of a hapless foreigner who was told to bathe in a local village square using the communal traditional large clay water vessel; apparently he stripped naked and jumped into the container!)
The food was homely and with a few more legs than I cared to contemplate. By 8 o’clock it was bedtime; 9 lights out. We were up at 5 with family milling about in very lackadaisical fashion before wafting away to work as market-sellers after a couple of hours. The older siblings’ youngest kids are taken care of by gran – hence the kids and chickens pecking around one’s feet at all hours; the older kids (all daughters, aged about 6 to 12) play around the neighbourhood all day. Nobody supervises them, nobody harms them, and they don’t cause any trouble.
I was genuinely deeply impressed by a family whose living standards are so basic yet are utterly non-materialistic. They are the archetypal ‘salt of the earth’ – they have simple values of integrity, dignity and honesty. I hope that when it comes to a situation where I’m looked upon to offer support to them I’ll accept my duty with honour and pleasure.
During the evening meal, as the men ate and the women who had prepared the meal hovered in the background, I was thoroughly interrogated and rightly so. The parents gave their consent but asked that the wedding day be as soon as possible in order to protect the family’s honour. I’m acutely aware of the effect of my intrusion – it was evident that we’d held hands already, and by bringing me to her home my fiancée has announced to the whole curious community that we are pledged to marry – were I to back out it would devastate both the family’s standing and her reputation.
This is how traditional this community is: my 25-year-old fiancée and her best friend are the only two girls who have held out so long – even now most girls are married in their teens. One of the nieces loitering about the house is ten – already her marriage has been arranged to a Khmer-American aged 21. She will not be allowed to develop any interest in a local boy. The youngest sister, now aged 20, is deemed to be of the ‘modern culture’ – in other words she has been known to talk to boys (I mean that literally, not as some euphemism).
About that best friend – next month we’ll be going to her wedding to an American she’s never met; she admits her driving motivation is to leave Cambodia due to a broken relationship. She was courted by an Australian NGO employee on a project in the province. He bought her a house in the province, another in Phnom Penh, a car, plenty jewellery, provided for her family and even bought her the provincial private school where I met her (she was the director). The reason they split up and she lost so much is that she wouldn’t sleep with him before marriage.
Although they didn’t sleep together, she did live with him in Phnom Penh; therefore, she’s lost face in the community. Maybe not too many westerners are prepared to commit to marrying a woman without spending significant time alone and unsupervised, but if you were to commit to marrying into the ‘real Cambodia’, it would take a huge leap of faith and a lot of patience; furthermore, you would need to be acutely aware of your effects and responsibilities in a society of the strictest sexual mores and not driven by the dollar. In return you could just find yourself with the most fiercely loyal and devoted wife. Personally, I’m finding that the rewards are greater than I could have possibly imagined.