One of my Cambodian “nephews” — I am merely close to the family of five — has been talking for several months about marrying a young women with whom he works.
Like many prospective bridegrooms, “Socheat” is full of anxiety about spending the rest of his life with someone. But he is going ahead with the planning because, he says, the bond will make his parents, her parents and her happy.
Whether he is truly in love with “Sophea” is, he has confessed to me, very slightly open to question. Yet he acknowledges now how much he missed her after an argument that resulted in a week of silence between them and believes those feelings indicate they are meant for each other. I think he is just naturally afraid of the commitment and the likelihood of fatherhood now not so far away.
Fair enough. Still, that ambiguity pales in comparison with what it is taking to move forward. Cambodian culture and rituals along with the family’s long-ago roots in Chinese tradition make the process difficult.
First, both families wanted to be sure the kids, who are in their late 20s, had compatible birth dates. Their Chinese signs have to work together. Although I was told months ago that they didn’t match, new interpretations seem to have prevailed.
In a society where women normally rule inside the home (though their dominance may not be not evident to outsiders), Socheat’s mother provided a fortune-teller with the dates a couple of weeks ago. She was told that the couple shouldn’t be wed until 2017, certainly not this year. The fortune-teller darkly refused to provide more information, but my nephew was grateful then that he would have time to be absolutely positive about his love.
At the same time, as I am told is typical, his intended’s family is in a hurry for the marriage. So the young woman’s mother consulted another fortune-teller. Hey, if one disappoints, simply try one more. And wouldn’t you know that not only can the couple get married, the second fortune-teller opined, but they have to do so by the end of the year.
There are other traditions that certainly will be familiar to most readers or at least similar to their own experience.
My family had to met the other family. Mother and father went to the prospective bride’s home, where the four parents and their two children became acquainted with each other and engaged in virtually no conversation about details.
Then, there was a second such meeting, which occurred this week, when the talk came down to the nitty-gritty. In other words, how much money are Socheat’s parents able to contribute as a dowry and as partial payment for the wedding ceremony?
The agreed-upon sum is $16,888, using digits that the Chinese view as lucky.
Tradition requires the bridegroom’s family to finance a morning ceremony in which 100 guests bear fruit plates in a procession into the wedding location as a component of breakfast. Half of the fruit then is given back to the donors. I am baffled how it all works, so don’t ask until after I have attended the event, which will last for hours.
As an honored senior quasi-member of the family, I have become the recipient of a four-pound box of traditional sweets made variously of coconut, jellies and nuts, among other comestibles. Socheat instructed me to eat the single orange first in keeping with custom, and so I did before gorging myself on a fraction of the contents.
There are, my nephew reported, many details to be completed in a short time — traditional dress to be rented, a facility to be booked and the all-important caterer to be selected. Socheat didn’t mention other items to be checked off, but you know that floral displays, extraordinary elaborate invitations and numerous other aspects of a wedding will have to be addressed. At least they won’t have to worry about a gift registry: Guests are expected to deliver cash when they arrive.
One critical matter still had to be decided on the day that Socheat came to see me to report that both sets of parents had approved of the marriage, come to terms on finances and otherwise were charging full-speed ahead. They had to fix the actual date, once again letting a fortune-teller reveal the most propitious one.
I know the wedding will be a day, undoubtedly a long day, in December. That, for sure, is one month I won’t be leaving Phnom Penh.