Right now, my email inbox is a cheery and eclectic mix of correspondence with Gay, the vicar of the tiny round church which will be our UK wedding venue, Michelle from rentapartytent.co.uk, Stu from the farm-shop who will be doing the catering for our reception party on his fruit farm’s grounds, and various family and friends trying their best to help me – a lady with minimal planning skills- make arrangements for my wedding in the UK from sweaty Phnom Penh.
My fiancé and I have not chosen to get married in a church for any kind of religious reasons (in fact the bloody Christians in Cambodia do my head in so much I am almost ready to flee the bible bashing belt that is Toul Tupoung). But this place is one of the four only remaining round churches in the UK and it is a tiny, round, hobbit-like, magical stone building.
My fiancé and his father loved the pictures I showed them of it and I hope that a part of him will be excited about being in such a historical building in my homeland in a similar way that I am enthralled when exploring old pagodas and temples in Cambodia. Not saying it is on a par with Angkor Wat, but still, there is history and beauty within those stone walls.
After we made the decision to ask to get married there I emailed the vicar and the email went something along the lines of:
My partner and I would very much like to marry at the round church Little Maplestead. My partner is a Cambodian Buddhist and I am not a practicing Christian but I used to go to primary school in Little Maplestead and have very happy memories of this church. We also recognize the historical beauty and importance of the round church and would be delighted to get married there….
Or some such inane request.
She replied saying she would be delighted to marry us there and has been absolutely brilliant sorting out all our paperwork and meetings with the Dean Surrogate.
I have been and always will be accepted inside a pagoda in full understanding that I am not Buddhist. I feel good about the fact that my local Church of England vicar treats the round church with the same no closed doors approach.
I grew up with nativity plays, harvest festivals and hymns during morning assembly in my C of E primary school and I recognise some similarities between this and the Buddhist traditions and ceremonies most Cambodians follow as part of the ideological background of their native heritage.
I can in no way call myself a Christian because I do not believe in God or heaven or hell but culturally I think religion can be a positive part of cultures and communities across the world. Of course the blindingly obvious fact is that religion will also always be used as a veil for all kind of unspeakable evils.
But, Gay, the vicar that will marry my fiancé and I seems absolutely lovely and doesn’t mind us having a ceremony devoid of religious readings or hymns, so to the round church we will go.
I am sure that the Little Maplestead villagers will have a good old gander at and gossip about the wedding ceremony of Mr. and Mrs. Pen-Spencer. I think we can place a pretty firm bet on the fact that my fiancé and his brother will be the first two Cambodians to have ever set foot in Little Maplestead. This will be on par with the gander and gossiping that the villagers of Lovea Aim enjoyed as they set themselves up for the day at the entrance to my fiancé’s home on our engagement day.
That engagement day was so special and as my fiancé told me a year ago when he asked me to marry him, it is traditional to get married in the lady’s province, so as my province is on the Essex /Suffolk border in the UK, that is where we will tie the knot.
It will be a simple ceremony followed by a small, local gathering with good food and plenty of merriment as I follow my fiancés lead in his organization of our engagement day.
A marquee set up on some land on a local fruit farm, a lamb spit, a few family and friends plus my fiancé’s brother as his best man and fellow countryman, a good spread using produce from the farm shop, a stack of speakers and plentiful supplies of Suffolk cider and Adnams ale plus (fingers crossed) wonderful British July weather will make for a day that may well live up to the happiness of our engagement day.
The hardest thing for my partner will without a doubt be being the centre of attention. We both share the same quality of not being overly extrovert and the attention on him may be difficult. I know it is for me when I go to the province. This is why it was of much importance to the planning and budgeting that his brother, a good English speaking and very extrovert tuk-tuk driver can come out for ten days to join the wedding.
If there is one thing you need to learn being in a cross cultural relationship is that you will be looked at, commented on and just generally noticed. To be honest, it is the thing I have found most difficult over the past four years. I am the kind of person that likes to blend in but I am slowly learning to deal with the impossibility of this and to realise that most of the time it is just people simply making harmless observations of something unfamiliar to them. If at other times the response maybe cynical or negative what does that matter if we are happy?
I think for most of us immigrants/expats/barangs -whatever label we wish to pin onto ourselves-we must all have times when we just wish we could pop out for a bowl of noodles or to the market for our veggies, or to just step outside our front door and not be noticed, especially if we have one of those trippy, anxious kinds of hangover that warrant a quick mission out for hangover-cure food before getting back to the sofa as soon and as anonymously as possible.
Of course if we want to, we can just hang out in ex-pat places with all the others and for me, every now and then, this is exactly what is needed, but I would rather feel that nervy feeling of eyes on me as I try out a new lunchtime rice place than only ever go to expat bars and restaurants.
Of course, standing out and being hassled for tuk-tuks all the time is a tiny price to pay for having the luxury of having the freedom to roam this world and settle where we please.
I can go anywhere I like. If tomorrow I decide I want to go to Sardinia, Liverpool, Korea, Belize, Colombia, or wherever else, all I would need to do is get my head down, save up, sort out visas and go. In fact I am ridiculously blessed by having dual New Zealand and UK citizenship meaning paths are open to live and work pretty much anywhere without too much hassle. My feet are light and free to tread whatever worldly trails I wish.
In contrast I see how heavy are the feet of my Cambodian fiancé and the vast majority of Cambodians I live and work alongside here in their country. We as foreigners choose to move to Cambodia and leave whenever we want, alongside Cambodians who will most likely live their whole lives and die here through no choice of their own.
Ok, so some may go to Vietnam and Thailand but the vast majority won’t go much further than a few thousand kilometers from where they were born. Of course not everyone in the West chooses to travel and I am sure many Cambodians wouldn’t either, but the emphasis is on the choice.
‘Large numbers of people wish to move permanently to another country – more than 40% of adults in the poorest quarter of nations. ‘A low-skill male Cambodian can earn a living standard six times higher in the US than in Cambodia, for similar work.’
I am one of the 4,666,172 people who emigrated from the UK and in Cambodia, which has a population of 14,453,680, I am one of the 335,829 immigrants. (figures 2010)
Now I know that I am stating a very obvious fact here and I am not trying to encourage a mass wallow in a muddy pond of guilt but sometimes, for me anyway, this reality of just how lucky I am hits me very hard and does so especially now when I am in the process of assisting my fiancé and his brother with their visa applications for the UK.
I absolutely hate filling out forms of any kind and the UK border agency visa application is the kind of thing I go to do and then decide that polishing my stair rail takes higher priority right at that moment.
It is a long process and we have to bear in mind that my fiancé may be turned down first time and if this happens we will have to race to make amendments to re-apply in time for our pre-booked June 12th flights. As for his brother we will also apply but we won’t risk getting the ticket until we have the approval.
These giant walls of human creation that we build and the shackles that bind many people to see their world in the context of only their own country and sometimes only their own province makes me feel just so, so lucky that I was born with shackle -less feet.
It also makes me sick when I hear endless streams of backpackers going on about which countries they have ‘done’…….
“ I think we are going to do India next month and we did Laos and Thailand last week”
What did they see? In what way did they ‘do’ that country? And how much, despite their fashionably grubby bare feet, did they really appreciate their ability to wander and to roam?
It would be wonderful if in the future my fiancé and I could do a few seasons apple picking in the UK, tomato picking in Italy or waitressing in Spain- things I enjoyed doing a few years ago and would love to do again with my fiancé.
How amazing it would be to train it back from Cambodia to the UK together. These are pipe dreams of course really. Right now we can at least remain quietly confident that in four months we will be on a narrow boat cruising along the Norfolk broads, stopping along the way for halves of ciders and pint glasses of prawns in great British pubs on my nostalgic tour of my homeland. Now time to finish that visa application…