Saturday, May 5, 2012

To Take or Not to Take – A Khmer Husband


This is a very brief attempt at coming up with some insights into the opposite situation of my previous post. In fact, one of my readers was wondering whether I might be able to contribute something to this subject.

Now, I am no psychologist or sociologist so anything written her must be seen in this context. Especially in Cambodia itself, it is rather rare to find a mixed marriage between a Western woman and a Khmer man. If you see them they are mostly older, e. g. in their 50ies or 60ies, probably dating back to the Vietnam War era and its ramifications throughout the region at that time.

The cases I have come across are always of the arranged nature, that is, U. S. Cambodians hire somebody to marry one of their kin back in Cambodia, thus enabling them to immigrate to the U. S. Although there were some crackdowns by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to my knowledge the practice goes on unabated.

But supposedly real love unions do indeed appear to happen. My personal opinion of this, of course, still is – just as with the Khmer woman marrying a Westerner – that it is make-believe, that the Khmer man sees this as an opportunity to go overseas to find a purportedly better job and a better life. Love is an intangible concept. Proof of real love is hard to ascertain even by the most enlightened and sharp-thinking people. When love is involved, the chemistry in our minds runs amok anyway. Cambodian facial expressions are often a little hard to read by Westerners; that goes equally for both men and women. Cambodian men are equally as romantic and affectionate as Western men, they just don’t show it openly. Manliness is a highly regarded trait. But Cambodian men know how to woo a woman just as well.

Nevertheless, if a Western woman does fall in love with a Khmer man, the question is whether she realized what the nature and character of Cambodian men are. Even among the very young men, girls hold a lower social position than boys do. Traditions are very slow to change and the 30 years since the Khmer Rouge certainly weren’t long enough to whittle away at the most prevalent characteristics of the  man -woman relationship. The woman is there to take care of her husband, to bear him children, to raise the children, and manage the household. This is the underlying concept any Cambodian man holds of the role of women in society. Nevertheless, Khmer women have a strong position in a marriage, in other words, men are prepared to accept that they traditionally manage the family finances, especially if they are in business. They have no reservations to marry a well-educated woman either. That woman guarantees higher social prestige and most likely higher financial gain through better positions in government or business.

But we can’t change nature and only women can bear children. Cambodia does not have a social system that would allow the women to just take some time out or that even the husband share in the caring for the child the first three years, like in some European countries. More well-to-do couples will hire a nanny, but with less well-off parents the mother will just have to stay home. I would imagine Western women of marrying age these days would have a problem with that mindset in general.

A successful or even rich Cambodian man, or son of such parents, will not want to emigrate to another country. The man knows it will be hard to adapt to Western culture, its different concepts and ideals, the way people do business, etc. There is no economic incentive for him to leave. If the Western woman is fine with living in Cambodia, as many Western men are with their Cambodian wives, there should be no initial problems. The wedding ceremony in itself is a one-of-a-lifetime experience. If she adapts to the Cambodian ways more or less completely, they may be fine for some time. But people can’t wipe out their cultural background that is more or less 180° diametrically opposed to the one they have chosen to live in. So eventually, some problems will arise. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the man expects the wife to bend to his way. Once a baby is there, the woman always runs the risk of the man looking for his physical needs elsewhere, as short-lived as it may be. What about the economic conditions they live in? Making ends meet is hard, and who is the breadwinner anyway? The same problems couples face in the West they will face here with the added complication of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Mostly, though, I believe that the man wants leave the country. But he takes a lot of that country with him. Even if he is well educated in Cambodia, this will not count for much in the West. He will have to get a job to help support the wife and himself. From my experience, that job will not be a top shelf position. He might feel inferior to his wife, which is a sure-fire source of conflict. (That applies to some Khmer marriages too. I know a Khmer/Khmer marriage, where the wife made more than the husband does. He promptly emigrated to New Zealand to work at his uncle’s bakery there to save enough money and come back to start a business here. Well, he is still saving after 3 years.)

The clash of cultures of the man and his host country and of which his wife is an integral part will certainly make life somewhat difficult. It may be as mundane as greeting each other. Khmer people don’t say ‘Good morning’. They just arrive at the breakfast table, sit down without saying a word and start digging in. Don’t expect too many ‘Thank yous’ or ‘Pleases’ either.  A good night-kiss is practically unknown. They just turn over and fall asleep unless of course he has different things on his mind. Or the woman might find he has gone out without letting her know when and where he went, or when he would be back. He just leaves and shows up again as he pleases. Do not expect any great communication about this either. In today’s world with mobile phones in everyone’s pocket, this has become a lot easier. It still is a little disconcerting, though, isn’t it?

In situations of conflict, both men and women ideally discuss their views in a sober fashion and are not supposed to let this escalate into an argument. Imagine a fight (as in argument) between a Western couple. I have never heard that voices were not raised. If the woman yells at the Khmer man, he loses face. He can’t have that, we know that much, right? Depending on his temperament, he might become violent or just walk off, leaving the house and have a drink with his friends. When he comes back he might by sulky or, if drunk, somewhat belligerent. I know this is a stark generalization, but I can only warn Western women, ‘Beware.’

Normally, the Khmer man tells his wife how this situation is supposed to be – end of story. The Western women I know will not put up with that, for sure.

Psychology and whatever this entails, e. g. anger management, is also generally a fuzzy concept or even completely unknown in Cambodia. There are a number of psychologists but you don’t hear a lot about psychological problems here. If someone behaves erratically, he/she must be crazy. Although I do attribute our Western love affair with psychology and/or psychiatry to a certain degree of degeneration, the more or less complete absence of these in the general population in Cambodia makes it very hard for mixed couples to understand each other completely and resolve conflicts in an ideally neutral manner.

Therefore, as in my post on Khmer women marrying a Westerner, I can only repeat it here for Western women. Usually, marriages or in general unions of such a nature aren’t a good mix. I think I made my case, but of course, it is up to the individual to find out for herself.

Some time ago, I posted this on my blog. http://ethnomed.org/culture/cambodian/cambodian-marriage
It will certainly help understand the complexity of such a marriage. The same site also explores the stigma of psychological problems in Cambodia.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can i just ask when this was written. I have had a khmer partner for 2 years now, and i know many western women that do. this is offensive to many of my friends and to my fiance. im shocked.

KJE said...

When was what written - my post or the article of the link?

I take it you live in the U. S. It is probably different with a Khmer man if not born but at least raised in the U. S. If he reached adulthood in Cambodia my observations are just as I wrote above. My article pertains to unions in Cambodia, and believe me, there aren't many Western women with a Khmer husband. If you think it is offensive you should come here and see for yourself.

Anonymous said...

There is also the language barrier, a western woman would prefer English as her primary language of communication while the Khmer man of course would prefer Khmer all the time. This would likely annoy the western woman to some degree... I personally don't know any western women who would ever date a man from Cambodia nevermind marriage for many reasons, they even mentioned it themselves.

Anonymous said...

I know there maybe few khmer men with western women but I've been to cambodia 5 times and its only for one person, I am 26 he is 27 I would love to spend the rest of my life with him and he would too and never would it be the case of him looking for visa or anything like that, which annoys me, but its very difficult as I dont want to leave my job and family here and he cannot come here to be (europe) easily.

KJE said...

I am not saying this cannot work; I only said it is seldom. I wish you luck. You need to get married and then the visa question should not be such a problem, unless your country requires that you lived together for some time in Cambodia and your fiance speaks your language.

Anonymous said...

Maybe, this article is focused too much on Khmer man in Cambodia. I am Khmer man, have been living in US for about 30 years. Most of my Khmer friends are married American women. Most of them have college education. It is very difficult for them to find compatible Khmer women. Going to Cambodia to married Khmer women is out of the questions. All my Khmer friends are very happy with their wives. The writer has no clue about Khmer men living in the US.

KJE said...

3:14
You are right, this article is focused almost exclusively on the Khmer men in Cambodia. You are Khmer only by origin, but American by assimilation, adaptation, and now nature. You are well-educated, as some of your friends are. Of course, with you there is no culture class with a Caucasian woman of equal standing. The NW is known to be more liberal and open-minded than the South, for instance. But the majority of Khmer people in the U. S. don't have a college degree (less than 25% of all Khmer accoring to the U. S. census), in fact, are poorly educated and very much steeped on Khmer traditions as taught by their parents, if their were brought up in normal circumstances, that is, excepting the wide-spread gang-culture among poor minorities. These men have difficulty finding a Caucasian woman. Even so-called 'white trash' have mostly bigoted views of other races, largely due to their poor education. Anyway, these men do come to Cambodia to find a 'true' (and mostly subservient) Cambodian wife. In additon, it is often arranged with relatives here. So my articles still holds.

As for my not having a clue, you err greatly. I don't know where you live, but go look in Cambodia Town (and this is where most Khmer live in the U. S.)or the appropriate sections of Houston , or Atlanta for instance. You would change your perception quickly.

Sparky Firecracker said...

You are definately a great observer. How long have you lived there? I'm Cambodian, and well, about to be 19, and I just arrived in the U.S. when I was like 16. Although, I'm still an adolescent, I agree with most of the part you said. You sound like a sociologist though :)
p.s. I really do enjoy studying my college sociology course. You got my vote!

Anonymous said...

i am a western woman living in Cambodia and married to a khmer man who is one of the kindest men i have ever met. In every culture there are those that treat others wrongly.

KJE said...

7:16
I am glad it's working out for you. True, every culture has its wrong-doers, but you will have to admit that Asian cultures are very much steeped in old traditions that no longer hold great values in industrialized nations, e. g. a male dominated society, although even in the those countries equality among the sexes is still a work in progress.
Cambodian cultures are especially still deeply engrained as they had been shut off from the any modern influence. Even though communism treated women more equally, this was not passed on to Cambodia by their brother countries, as the latter's only interest lay in using their natural resources it.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add that i totally agree with you KJE on the subject matter and it annoys me that a khmer guy living in the U.S. for the past 30 years claims to be college educated and can't find a equal counterpart in a khmer women can't even write correctly himself.

Anne-Marie said...

Hi, I just wanted to add to these comments -I am a 31 year old western woman married to a Khmer man the same age. We live in Cambodia and have been married for a year and a half now. We both have jobs and neither of us want to leave Cambodia.Our relationship is very good and equal in fact he even cooks dinner for me every night. Him and his family are amazing and although my khmer is not great their actions speak louder than words. My parents have been out a few times now to meet them and they love my husband and his family so much.

KJE said...

Anne-Marie
Exceptions prove the rule, although I really don't want to generalize too much. My thoughts are based on my own observations in the U. S. and here, and on sociological data.

Anonymous said...

I'm with an American born cambodian and I found a lot of these not true. Maybe it's because he was raised here, but his family still holds on to a lot of their Khmer traditions. The only thing that was somewhat true was the anger thing, he does have a bit of a temper but has never hit me or cheated on me

KJE said...

3:07
Again, I stated that above. Exceptions prove the rule. It is a fact, though, that a lot of young Khmer-Americans come to Cambodia to find a wife with the characteristics they were taught to look for in a wife. You must be here to see for yourself.

Janelle said...

Hilarious! as a european woman from NZ married to a khmer man (hes been here for 12 years) - THIS- THIS - is us!!
"Or the woman might find he has gone out without letting her know when and where he went, or when he would be back. He just leaves and shows up again as he pleases. Do not expect any great communication about this either"
Despite this - I love my Khmer husband - and you have given me a fabulous laugh for the night!
THANKYOU!!!!

KJE said...

I am glad I could give you a happy moment.

So I gather you live in NZ and your husband's actions are not far from what I described? If it doesn't bother the wife I guess it's ok, but from my experience European women (both Europe and North America) don't usually put up with this kind of behavior; maybe once or twice, but then the problems will be written on the wall soon after that, don't you agree?

Beatrice said...

Hi KJE
Is it possible you could render me some advice? I met this lovely guy while I was volunteering just outside of Siem Reap and we got along so well. I spent only four days with him and I knew that we both had feelings for each other. The night I left he said 'you know what's so crazy?' and I said 'no, tell me!' and he said 'when we go out later tonight'. As it turns out, he and his friends didn't meet all us volunteers out and he never told me. We added each other on Facebook and I asked him a few days after I got home what was crazy, and he said he loved me. He's 19, I'm 18. I had absolutely no doubts that he did really like me, and I just thought that English being his second language he isn't taught the whole 'I like you' or 'I have a crush on you thing', but now I'm starting to get nervous having read articles just like yours. I'm going back to Cambodia at the end of June for 5 weeks and I'll be working in his village for 3. My problem is that most articles are based at Western men dating Khmer women who are in their late 20's or so on, whereas we are only teenagers.

Any insight would be greatly appreciated :)

KJE said...

Hi Beatrice,
Actually this would be better dealt with in a private email exchange. This is also a little difficult to answer as I do not know the persons involved myself. I can only sort of intuit your feelings and thoughts, as we are both Westerners. I also assume you are an American. As for the young Khmer man I can only say, regardless of Khmer or Western, teenagers at that age are largely driven and subconsciously motivated by hormones. Saying 'I love you' is easy and often used too lightly. He may have a crush on you, but how sincere is it? 4 days is no time at all to get to know each other. So when you come back for 5 weeks don't expect anything and look at everything with clear eyes. Although 18 and 19 is still very young, normally at least you in the U. S. should have had some experience with crushes, first love, etc. After all, many high-school sweethearts get married.

If I understood it correctly, he wanted to meet you and your fellow volunteers but never showed up, not calling you or excusing himself until you had communicated again via Facebook? That should tell you something. You can email me if you feel you can get some more insights. In my experience, and this is not in the field of relationships as I have been married a long time, Khmer people are somewhat unreliable. From what I see around me they are also possibly fickle in their relationships, which is not to say there aren't any serious young people out there. Please check his educational background, his family ties, his upbringing, etc. As I wrote in my post, the cultural gap is pretty wide and not easily overcome.

Star said...

Hello
KJE ,

I have met a Khmer man raised in this country since he was 8. I am thirty years older than him.
I am crazy about him. He is kind gentle spoken, not feminine though.
It is interesting how this relationship is developing.
Any ideas what kind of future if any we might have?

Thanks,

Star

Star said...

Hi KJE ,
I've been searching for how Khmer men raised largely in the US might view western women. But I am unable to find any information on this subject.
Even though I am so much older than him, he keeps saying that he respects me. What does this really mean?
And I am so much taller than him. He said he doesn't have a small man's syndrome with me.
Can there be a future, with me being thirty years older?

KJE said...

Star,

How can I possibly know how this is going to work out for you. If I am brutally honest I would say it is going to fail eventually because 30 years age difference is just too much when the older partner is the woman. Please don't be disappointed about this. Maybe just enjoy it as long as it lasts, but don't despair if it ends. Hopefully, there are no material issues involved.

Jimmy Um said...

You're fuckn racist bitch n completely retarded
I've been with my kiwi wife for 7yrs n we have two beautiful girls.... we're happy together.
You don't know what you talking about. ....so go fuck yourself

Anonymous said...

I think you're retarded/racist
I am cambodian I have kiwi wife n we're together for over 7yrs we have two beautiful girls n we're happy.
You don't know what you talking about. .......so go fuck yourself

KJE said...

Well, Jimmy Un,

The choice of your words will tell readers of what ilk you are. Possibly your IQ is not high enough to fully understand what I wrote. Perhaps, you read it again?

khmerian1985 said...

This article is spot on, I'm an australian born cambodian male and have noticed the things mentioned in the article about cambodian males in cambodia. its easy to understand as cambodia is still a highly patriarchal society although there may be exceptions to the rule, this is pretty much accurate. As the author mentioned this does not pertain to cambodians born overseas so I don't know why some people are getting their panties twisted

Anonymous said...

I see many older western men with much younger Khmer women but never the reverse. Why is this? Is it all about money?

KJE said...

5:28
I guess it's pretty obvious. This is a poor country and women here look for a husband that can support them and their family first. This also applies to Khmer/Khmer unions. Older western men can still enjoy a young woman, a young woman is taken care of. I venture to say this holds true in 95% of the cases.

Paddy said...

I agree with this article, although I feel there are a lot of stereotypes and generalisations in some part. I think we have to consider the context in which Khmer men grow up in. And if the western mind and concept can fully understand that and is willing to immerse themselves into this then there should be no problems.

Not all Khmer men are in it for the money, travel, experience overseas. But I think they are grabbing an opportunity that western countries take for granted. Not all Khmer men will survive living outside of their comfort zones but I guess that says the same about westerners going to live outside of their comfort zones.

Khmer men and Women, and whatever relationship they have cross culturally will have some problems from time to time. But if it is true love then it will survive its time. I know someone who is in a relationship with a Khmer man, and yet he is still bound to his traditional expectations. The difference is that their relationship is a gay relationship, and yet the Khmer Man is still bound to have a relationship with a girl too. In my opinion his is still coming to understand himself and who he is. But in a way they both told me that love is love. The problem with Western cultures is that they always tend to put labels on things and box it. I wish them well and their relationship is still very strong.

Unknown said...

I am a African American woman, currently dating a Cambodian man. I'm in love with him...been dating for a year now...he says he loves me too...my question is..is it normal for Cambodian men dating African females, will the family accept them dating outside their race?...

KJE said...

Now this is in the U. S. so perceptions of race are different there. I take it you are both young people so your boyfriend grew up in a more liberal society than back in Cambodia. As it often happens though, minorities live in their own communities and children grow up with traditional values. Let's just say this: in Cambodia ethnic African people are usually not accepted in the older generation. The younger generation even imitates African-Americans in music, dress, etc. Some of them could even pass for African-descended people themselves.
So for you, there is only one way to find out. Talk to his family and see what their reaction is. Don't be fooled by their outward friendliness; and ask your boyfriend outright. He should know best. Cambodians have a very strong relationship with their parents and listen to them even as adults.

desiree said...

Actually....to be honest..I'm 42 and he's 49...and thank u for the advice...he's the type of man whose very quiet about his family.

KJE said...

You are welcome. Since he is 49 he was born here and probably came to the U. S. via a refugee camp in Thailand at age 15, 16, or 17. Usually these people are still very traditional. Cambodians who fled during or after the Khmer Rouge were usually in support of the Lon Nol regime. People don't like to talk about that time as it was almost as bad as the succeeding regimes. That might apply to his parents, or at least his father. But he is probably fully Americanized, with the possible exception of a few Cambodian traditional values.

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