The skies ripped open in the late afternoon, with thunder and lightning that rattled the bones and generated a shiver of excitement. I glanced at my phone and noted that Sideth’s wedding celebration was due to start in just a few minutes. Was it considered a bad omen? I didn’t know.
I was gleeful when I received my wedding invitation. Weddings are a big deal in Cambodia. The invitation was beautiful- a long silver envelope embossed with ribbon and hand glued sequins, personalized with a name sticker. As the rains deluged Phnom Penh, I knew it would mean some challenges for the event. Part of the wedding culture includes the small, bill-sized envelope in the invitation. Gifts are secondary; the custom is to make a financial contribution for the event and a little something extra for the couple. The older and/or richer that you are, the more you are expected to give. I wanted to look the middle-aged expat boss part, which meant a new dress.
There’s always a mix of hope and dread in the Southeast Asian shopping experience. Walking around in markets frequented by tourists, I feel besieged by shopkeeper’s pleas. I like to look first: gauge size and color, style and fabric. But here, stopping in front of a market booth to look is an instant signal that you are ready to buy. Various items presented, the plastic bags holding inventory are rustled through and after a few minutes of the service frenzy I start to feel guilty about not making the purchase. However, that morning I saw what I wanted right away. It was $18, more than my usual clothes budget but it looked like a solid prospect.
This was not the "perfect" dress, but it was the only one I had for the Khmer New year party in early April. Note Rotha and Grace, work colleagues, both wearing the traditional glue-on eyelashes. We went to the beauty parlor for hair and makeup.
If I was going to buy I wanted to make sure it fit. I hustled into the narrow aisle between booths, stripped off the shirt, tried not to make eye contact with the women starting at me (this was unprecedented behavior for a foreigner) and realized, as the sequined and silky fabric slipped over my shoulders and around my waist over the skirt I was already wearing, that it was absolutely, completely, wonderfully, perfect. Cranberry red lacy Cambodian style in an XXL!
When my work colleagues picked me up later that evening, it had stopped raining. We made our way to the wedding through the streets: past people wading through puddles calf deep, driving across ponds created from backed up storm and sewer drains that brush against the bottom of the CRV, past the market with the flood waters lapping up against the food carts lit by a single compact florescent bulb, and through traffic jams created by other wedding celebrations that nearly block off the entire street with a towering white long narrow tent bedecked with brightly colored bunting. My colleague drove confidently; his family had been to this venue before. Sideth, mindful of the notorious reputation that tent wedding celebrations have for food borne illnesses such as Typhoid Fever, was going a little upscale. He'd likely been saving to afford the wedding for months.
As I trouped in behind Grace with her husband and daughter,the music was blaring against the gleaming marble of the floor and I got a few approving nods from my Cambodian co-workers on the outfit. Tables were empty, reflecting people’s water-logged transportation problems. We were seated, blissfully away from the music speakers, at a large round table with an enormous lazy susan in the center. Cans of sodas and beer were intermingled with chopsticks, bowls and spoons around the periphery. Others joined us to fill the requisite ten seats, which cued the arrival of the table’s bottle of Johnny Walker Red. This was followed by appetizers, an entire fish cooked with steaming broth, vegetables and a sterno and the the celebratory half-fertilized eggs (soft, crunchy bones with a salty, yolky flavor),
other unidentified meat products, more flaming soupy things and rice. Meanwhile, all around us the partying escalated to epic proportions. Crumpled napkins and beer/soda cans littered the floor around each table, with boisterous and jovial bantering. The party began to move into the zone from nice event into a somewhat exploitative "how much free beer can I drink" free-for-all of young men going wild. As the whole loud, raucous and echo-y environment jangled my inner introvert on all levels, I realized that the median age of this party was pretty low.
This is not an unusual feeling in Phnom Penh. Over 20% of the population was killed between 1975 and 1979 under the maniacal tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Thousands more died afterward in the aftermath of starvation and non-existent health services. The young people who are 25 now were born in the mid-80’s while the country was still being stabilized under Vietnamese authority. Their parents were deeply traumatized; resources and government systems were in transition. A new government was established in 1992, with a bloody coup occurring just 5 years later when the current Prime Minister ascended to power. Today, about half of the Cambodian population is under 25 years of age. Fancy coffee and tea shops, trendy clothing retail stories and electronic shops are big here, but the most telling sign is the dismissal of evening classes at local Universities at 8:30, when hundreds of young people on motorcycles and bicycles stream into the city streets and make their way to cheap street side restaurants and home.
CIA world factbook
CIA world factbook
Unfortunately, even while a young person may have a degree or a certificate, it doesn't mean that they can do the work. I seem to spend a large portion of my workday coaching my young colleagues through problem solving or explaining written materials. The stated unemployment rate is at a respectable 3%, far less than the US at 9% (indexmundi.com), but it’s common around the hospital to have young people toiling away in the IT department or in accounting as a volunteer and hoping they get hired when a position opens up. The rich can buy their way through a diploma and receive a plum government post, meaning they are in a position to receive payments from others below them who want to keep their jobs. The young people working everywhere throughout the hospital are really happy to be here.
Sideth has an important position in the hospital. His English is very good, so he provides support to the international volunteer doctors that come to the hospital and helps me with grant management tasks. While salaries are low even by Cambodian standards (have you tried living on $400 a month?) , =ositions at the Center of HOPE include 26 national paid holidays a year and an additional two weeks of annual leave. He also supports two younger sisters and his new wife. As an expat, I’m making much more than Sideth, in fact equivalent to our senior level physicians in leadership positions. One day at work, he says, “Ellen. You are rich.” I looked at him questioningly and he clarifies that it’s not that you are blingy and tastefully clothed, but more that you carry the attitude.
Representative wedding photo. Asialife.com.
As Sideth and Phalla arose the stairs to join the revelers who were in full swing, they were both beautiful. Sideth’s creamy pink satin jacket with jeweled buttons, white pants and white shoes were a wonderful complement to Phalla’s incredibly positioned hair, heavy makeup and the glue-on eyelashes. Phalla also looked exhausted and overwhelmed as the two of them made their procession down to the wedding cake. Crowds of people lined the walkway and while most had a handful of flower pedals, there were others busily shaking cans of Chinese knock-off silly string.
Indeed, as the music commenced and they began to walk, the beautiful outfits and hair of all party attendees were sprayed in a tragic, colorful and toxic graffiti. Toddlers ran around with sparklers and some ceremonies happened a the front of the room,but most of the group went back to the tables to a fresher-upper. Before I knew it, Grace mentioned it was time for the fruit grab. The man carrying the entire branch from the coconut palm put my small handful of mangosteen to shame, but I was lucky to get anything. The band cued up for the first couple’s dance, the rest of the group soon followed with dancing in the circle around the table to the same songs and moves that everyone knows and is willing to teach you.
I wonder what is ahead for Sideth and Phalla and for the rest of their generation. Much of Cambodia’s young population has left their family’s rice fields behind for University education, jobs and the air-conditioned coffee shops in Phnom Penh. While this generation is doing their best to move beyond the horrific past of their parents and grandparents, they are also confronted with an old school government comprised of the “100 families” of Cambodia’s ruling elite. The Khmer Riche, as referred to by writer Andrew Marshall, holds a tight grip on Ministerial positions, extractive land concessions and the industries that continue the ever widening gap between the urban wealthy and the glaring poverty of the rural poor. They continue the cycle of corruption and greed, of privilege and entitlement. The elections are coming in July and all are confident that nothing will change. Prime Minister Hun Sen released a statement that says his eldest son was born from a powerful spirit, nearly in the same breath that he calls the Cambodia a "heaven of religious tolerance" and donates three large, flat screen TVs to a Buddhist Wat in a rural province.
On the way home from the ceremony, the flood waters had dissipated and life was returned to normal. Sideth and Phalla will wait until the sisters finish school to start their family. And for the years ahead, they will be the parents who stand outside the afterschool English classes waiting for their children, scrimping and saving to give their child the benefit of an education, the potential of an emerging economy, a step up the class ladder and the grand unknown future inherent in this generation in this country.