Saturday, April 28, 2012

To Take or Not to Take – a Western Husband

Cambodian husbands have a tendency to be somewhat fickle. One possible reason for that is that even in today’s Cambodia marriages are still arranged between the children’s parents. At the very least the parents must give their approval. Cambodian young people don’t really go up against their parents, and that goes especially for Cambodian young women. The bond with parents is very strong. It is still a deeply ingrained tradition among Khmer ethnic people that the husband moves in with his in-laws. The wife just keeps on living there. It’s the other way around with Chinese ethnic people. So after a few years and a few babies later the husband’s eyes might stray a little; perhaps not only his eyes.

Back in the early 90ies when UNTAC came in, decent young Cambodian women did not cavort with foreigners at all. The ones that did, were immediately marked as ‘flighty’ or worse. But all that changed later on when normal foreigners entered the country as members of NGOs or businesses that set up shop here. Finally, Cambodian young women saw ‘normal’ Western people – not dressed in a soldier’s uniform. But the trend to hook up with a Westerner still hadn’t taken hold. Only the occasional ‘respectable’ Khmer girl ventured into a relationship with a Westerner, relationship meaning marriage. By and large, if they did marry somebody from the Western world it was an overseas Khmer man.

Up until about 2003/2004 there actually weren’t that many Westerners outside the diplomatic staff and the NGO network in Cambodia. A sort of influx started around that year, at least that is my personal observation. The higher number of Westerners also ushered in a period of numerous new establishments run by Westerners that catered and still cater to their fellow expatriates. A lot of them are what’s generally called hostess bars, which is just another word for bars where prostitutes hang out. These girls are sometimes directly employed by the owner in order to attract guests (though I heard that the owners usually don’t take a share of the girls’ after hours fees for legal reasons). Now some of these bar owners actually married one of their hostesses. The girl probably did it for reasons that have not much to do with love but more with financial stability and a different life style. These girls don’t work there because they like it but because economic circumstances drive them into this kind of work. Marriage to a Western foreigner gave them back respectability. After all, they were now the wife of a business owner, which is rather highly regarded among the regular population.

Of course, unions between Khmer girls and Western men aren’t all like the above. Most certainly, there are just as many or even more relationships with Western men from different walks of life and ‘decent’ Khmer women. But I would imagine it quite difficult for a Khmer woman to find out what the man is really like. Most likely you have the whole range of different Western male characters here in Cambodia as in any Western country. That there are so many nationalities present doesn’t make things any easier either. An American or German is definitely different from a Spaniard, an Italian, or a Frenchman, though I notice without being able to substantiate this with solid numbers that there seem to be more Australian, British, and Americans here, in that order, than any other nationality.

The job defines a man to a large extent as well. So a teacher or a businessman will probably be and act different from a sailor, to use an extreme. Some came here because they suffered from a severe burn-out in the West. Other came because they just wanted an easier life, and easier it is for a Westerner with the means the support himself decently. Some wanted to escape the generally regimented life. Many fled the dreary climates in central and northern Europe. The reasons are as manifold as the nationalities here. Those reasons, however, may be the exact opposite in terms of motivation of what a Khmer woman would like to see in her partner. Most likely, she won’t find out until she is well along in that relationship.

What the Khmer women may not realize is that Western men overall aren’t that much different in their approach to women. After a couple of years of going monogamous they also tend to try out something new or younger.

Seeing a number of purportedly successful marriages with seemingly faithful husbands, it may look like a good option to some young women to seek out Westerners to marry.

It’s a given that Khmer women look first and foremost for financial stability in a relationship. Whereas Western men first see the beauty of the girl, or woman (if she indeed is beautiful; I am astonished what ugly girls some men pick.), Khmer women don’t really care that much about either looks or age. Western men usually think love first, and money second. I venture to say it is the other way around with Khmer women.

Khmer girls that haven’t had much contact with Westerners are usually not in a position to see and assess what kind of man they are dealing with; and even the ones that are more familiar are still prone to severe misjudgments in that department.

Now Westerners aren’t all the same. Unfortunately, in those years 2003/4 it wasn’t just the successful, decent, or entrepreneurial type that came ashore in Cambodia. As is the case in many countries like Cambodia elsewhere, the flotsam, dregs, scum of Western society, and other losers, came here for the cheap sex and the low cost of living, in that order.

Some ignorant girls, almost always from poor, rural backgrounds and without education, thought they had finally made it when they met one of those. Virginity is still very much prized but, as marriage was on their mind from the beginning, they thought, ‘Why not?’ and after not too long a time of persuasion from the man jumped into bed with him.

The awakening was all the ruder when she found out that she wasn’t the only one the man was having it on with. Or worse, she got pregnant and all of a sudden that promising husband-to-be showed no inclination towards fatherhood and lost all interest in her rather quickly. Granted, that is only one scenario of many, but still a valid one. It will also come as a surprise to many Khmer women that domestic violence is also wide-spread in the West, and that some Western men are as prone to beat up their wives when angry or drunk, or both, as their Khmer counterparts.

Oftentimes, even serious contenders for marriage aren’t cut out for a mixed relationship. The problem here is not their background but their cultural and other differences. Let’s take a pedantic guy. Now imagine this guy getting married to a girl that is used to leaving things lying around wherever she used them last; or she might cut her finger or toenails right next to the place where they eat or prepare their food; or dust is gathering all over the place, not to mention the state of the toilet. He might put up with it for a while, but after a few months or even a couple of years of no change despite his many attempts this relationship will go sour. He will probably give up in despair, if it hasn’t driven him crazy already, and she will most likely be completely at a loss why everything is coming to an end. In her mind, everything was perfect. She didn’t sleep around, made food for him every day, even tolerated his drinking, if he was, now why is he leaving?

One could write about many more possible scenarios but the moral of the story in my view is: Western men and Khmer wives usually aren’t a good mix. Both have to overcome a lot of cultural differences and show an enormous degree of tolerance for each other’s traditions and customs to make it work. As with everything, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule.

The daughter of one of my wife’s friends was thinking of getting married and originally thought a Western man would be ideal. After all, she saw me and my wife who have been married for more than fifteen years and, by all appearances, are still happy together (which we are). But then she heard of two cases where first the mother’s boyfriend used to beat her up when he was drunk and then where that daughter’s Western husband (a bar owner) slept around with his female staff. So she said, ‘No, I don’t think I want to take that chance.’ She is now engaged to be married to a decent Khmer guy a couple of years older than she. She made the choice herself, her mother initially approved but is now having second thoughts about him. Well, who said such a decision was easy?  Anyway, case in point!

By the way, none of the above applies to my personal story.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this- I really enjoyed your insights on such a complex subject.

Anonymous said...

Indeed Cambodia attracts many unsavory types from the West and these guys really have created the situation we have today; the majority of Khmer women see Western men as financial supports and a ticket to a better world as they know they're no good for much more than that.

That said, there are certainly exceptions to this and I'm lucky enough to know several of them. These women all have several things in common. They're all well educated, have high paying jobs, know a lot of Western and Khmer men and having tried dating a few have given up. Mainly due to the men wanting only sex and/or seeking their income to support them in "living the life" in Cambodia. These women care not so much for pleasing their parents or following tradition, but having a loving husband/boyfriend who will show them love, trust, adventure and eventually financial stability and a family (but in no particular hurry). Most of them don't care if they stay in Cambodia or go abroad, they just want to enjoy their lives without becoming a slave to some white guy.

I for one know quite a lot of married Western-Khmers here but there's only a couple of relationships I believe will last the test of time. Oddly enough, the women I mention above agree with this and try to use these relationships as a template.

Also don't believe for a minute that all Cambodians are hell-bent on tradition and marriage. These days I refer to my Khmer girlfriend of several years as my wife. The term 'girlfriend' doesn't do her justice and 'wife' is just easier off the tongue. She understands that I have a western complex about getting married and doesn't care. Love is love and neither of us need a piece of paper to tell us that.

My point is, with the plethora of Western guys I know (many them are friends) there is only one I would bother introducing to the women mentioned above. The rest wouldn't have a hope in hell of meeting the simple requirements of a decent Khmer woman.

KJE said...

Very perceptive comment. Thanks.

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