Friday, August 13, 2010

A Cambodian Dilemma

A 26-year-old man, let’s call him Sun, came to me seeking advice in a very personal matter. He is planning to get married to a woman from his home village. However, he is facing a big problem. First, he has a competitor; second, he doesn’t have a home, nor enough income to support a wife, or a family for that matter. The potential father-in-law makes a living panning for gold in the Mondulkiri mountains and is moderately successful at it. That father-in-law’s brother had at one time struck lucky when he found rocks containing the equivalent of 1 kg of pure gold.

The competitor works as a carpenter in his father’s shop; in most villagers’ eyes he would be considered a good match. On top of it this, that man is Sun’s cousin. The girl herself doesn’t say much. She relies on her parents’ judgment. Sun doesn’t really know whether he loves that girl either, but he is eyeing her parents’ potential wealth; even though their current situation is not too bad already.

The girl’s parents are not exactly averse to Sun marrying her as he is also quite flexible when it comes to making money. Most of the time he acts as a guide to tourists, taking them all over town and occasionally to Siem Reap as well. He owns a car, which he bought with borrowed money from that gold prospector who lucked out once. He has since paid back the loan, so his standing with the family is quite good.

Marrying the girl would definitely mean going back to his home village in Kratie province. But what kind of job would he have there? He is still going to college too. Now that’s the real dilemma. If he loses out to his cousin that would certainly affect his manliness, at least in his mind. If he marries the girl, however, he would most certainly face a life of hardship for the first few years, if not most of his lifetime. Would he still be able to graduate from college?

He is not even sure whether he really loves the girl, and whether the girl really loves him. On the surface it looked to me more like a case of hurt pride than a basis for a marriage. Being a Westerner most will probably know what I advised him to do. After all, there are many beautiful young girls out there, or as the saying goes, there are many more mothers with beautiful daughters, why put all your money on one?

The second dilemma, of course, is Khmer tradition. Decent girls just can’t go and live with a guy to see whether they are a good match. In the West young people go out together for a while, have a relationship, and eventually move in with each other, before they get married. That’s a no, no for normal Cambodian girls. If they defy that tradition they are put on an equal footing with prostitutes. The perception of young people about this is slowly changing, but it will be a long time before people will shed their concept of the role of the sexes. Some people will even say why should it change?

So what’s a guy to do? Well, in the end he heeded our advice and let go of that inner compulsion to get married for all the wrong reasons and is now playing things by ear. The other day he told us he had to help another girl-friend in Phnom Penh whose mother was sick. It looks like it wasn’t such a big love after all.

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