Every day, cross-cultural couples in Cambodia decide how to fuse their differing customs and beliefs. Marissa Carruthers finds out about more about the unique challenges that such partners face and how they can be overcome. Photography by Conor Wall.
“Sometimes, when we have relatives round, I have to pull him back,” Ly Moniroath says, flashing her husband an affectionate gaze across the table.
“At times, her family don’t appreciate my abruptness, but that’s the Western way,” adds her other half, 42-year-old Brit Alex Hales.
On the day of their second wedding anniversary, celebrated with a trip to the cinema, the couple describes the endless mishaps that arise because of their different backgrounds. Take the time when Alex raised his eyebrows in reaction to an amusing story told by his mother-in-law.
“She thought that was very disrespectful, because it’s seen as suggestive in Cambodia. I had to explain it’s different in the West,” 30-year-old Moni says with a laugh.
Such misunderstandings can be common in relationships where individuals have differing upbringings, expectations and social scripts. According to UK-trained clinical psychologist Dr Ken Carswell, this adds an extra level of complexity within a relationship to navigate.
“The power of cultural beliefs and expectations in guiding our thinking and behaviour means that it may make this difficult, as there is the added pressure of what society thinks and says should happen,” he says.
But with Cambodia a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, many are choosing to embark on not just long-term relationships but also long-term considerations of how to meld their backgrounds and beliefs with those of their partner.
Dating The Family
Thanks to traditionally close family networks, dating in Asia can often mean forging a relationship with more than your love interest, and it can be vital that the relative relationship works.
Couple that with concepts of arranged marriage and traditional ideas of a woman’s role in society — Cbpab Srei, a 19th century Cambodian law for women that dictated females shouldn’t walk too loudly or risk sounding like lightening, was taught in schools as late as the 1950s and 60s — and the dating game can, for foreigners, be a vastly different playing field.
Australian Joe Phelan and his Khmer wife Sat Sokan met while working at ANZ Royal bank in August 2011. They got engaged last Christmas Eve and were due to get married just weeks after being interviewed by AsiaLIFE.
“If I was living at home it might be a different story,” says Kan, who moved from Siem Reap to the capital three years ago, glancing shyly at her partner. “My mum is strict and thinks girls shouldn’t go out by themselves at night.”
In today’s world, however, many parents accept that a new generation does things differently.
For headstrong Kan, who told her family she did not want to follow in the footsteps of her younger sister’s arranged marriage, her mother was understanding, and it didn’t take long for Joe to be accepted into the family fold. The relationship grew stronger through regular visits to relatives in Siem Reap and Kan’s mother and sister coming to stay in Phnom Penh.
But in any new partnership there are hurdles to cross, including battling cultural stereotypes and dealing with pressure from eager parents wanting their children to tie the knot.
“I remember we’d been on two dates,” says 31-year-old hotel worker Stan Mackleston of the initial relationship with his wife Samean, who he met in 2008 while working in a Siem Reap guesthouse. “After that, every time we’d go and see them, her mum and grandmother would ask when we were getting married. It was incessant, and that was fairly overwhelming.”
But with a little patience and understanding, Samean was able to explain that it’s part of her culture for women to marry young and quickly.
“It was his kindness that struck me,” says the 29-year-old restaurant manager. “He did things like hold the door open for me and pulled my chair out before we sat down for lunch. That was sweet.”
“It’s called being a gentleman where I’m from,” her Australian husband retorts with a smile.
But a perfect gentleman is far from how some parents perceive Western men. Despite being aware that her daughter was dating an Englishman, Moni’s mother expressed concern when the couple, who met on a boat trip, announced their engagement.
Having heard stories of Western men leaving their Cambodian wives high and dry, she worried that Moni was wasting her time. “She thought he was just another barang,” Moni says. “That he can leave and go back home tomorrow, and that worried her initially.”
Alex spending regular time with the family and proving his love for their daughter helped to build the relationship and break down barriers, as did gestures such as learning to speak Khmer. He now tries to spend an hour every evening with his mother-in-law, who speaks no English, to perfect the language.
In many Western cultures, moving in with a partner is now the next step in a relationship, coming before marriage and children. But in Cambodia, many think differently.
Anna Lena Till, a 27-year-old German linguist, and 31-year-old Cambodian engineer Phoury Heng struck up a friendship five years ago in Vietnam. The couple started a long-distance relationship in August 2012 and Anna Lena moved to Cambodia in June. They plan to wed in April.
Phoury says his family constantly questions why he is turning his back on tradition by living with his fiancée before the big day.
“It’s their first question,” he says. “For a Cambodian, I’m doing everything backwards, but times are modern now.”
But though times are changing, many foreign partners still have to adapt to alien concepts — such as taking in a whole new family as well as their partner.
Alex was well aware that Moni’s family came as part of the package, and was more than willing to take that on. Moni’s dad died when she was 16 years old and her mother feared being left alone, so Alex moved her into the apartment above the couple’s home on riverside.
“I’m lucky because I’m aware many Western husbands wouldn’t take in a family,” Moni says. “He doesn’t have to accept my family, and I was prepared for that.”
Tying the knot is undoubtedly one of the biggest commitments in any person’s lifetime. But it is also one that unifies two people in the eye of the law, which can pose unique challenges for cross-cultural marriages in Cambodia.
In March 2011, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a prakas stating that all foreign men who wished to marry a Cambodian woman must have a monthly income of more than $2,500 and be aged below 50 years. The move, according to a government statement, was to “avoid the undesirable consequences of human trafficking.”
In addition, there is a complex legal process to navigate that includes announcing your intention to marry, posting it at the bride and groom’s home, and receiving a marriage certificate from a commune chief, plus conforming to any additional laws of a foreigner’s home country.
Thomas Pearson, a partner at law firm BNG Legal, advises “the best way for foreigners, especially men, marrying a Khmer national to avoid any legal complications in the marriage process is to comply with local law. Also follow the processes in the home country for recognition of the marriage, and any travel requirements for his or her Cambodian spouse.”
Nevertheless, the process can be fraught with difficulty. Joe and Kan thought it was fitting to get married in Cambodia — the bride’s homeland and the place they fell in love — but faced months of frustration.
“Before going through this process, I thought Cambodia was awesome and I didn’t want to live anywhere else,” he says, reciting tales of a disheartening battle with bureaucracy.
Despite the complications, the couple married during a one-day ceremony in Siem Reap that saw the two cultures and religions fuse. They chose to spend the morning following a select few Cambodian traditions, before holding a second ceremony in the afternoon with a Catholic priest.
Deciding where cultural compromise will be made can be a complex process, with relatives again playing a role in the decision-making. Cutting down on tradition doesn’t always sit easily with parents, who may have painted a mental picture of their child’s perfect wedding many years ago.
Alex and Moni are not big on tradition, but Moni’s mother wanted her only daughter to have a traditional wedding. The couple compromised by getting married twice, first in a one-day ceremony on the 21st floor of Phnom Penh Tower, where Alex worked at the time, attended by 500 guests. A week later, the couple headed to Kampong Som and held a small Western wedding on the beach.
“We agreed to go through with the traditional wedding, and although the idea of dressing up with all those changes was awful, it was actually very relaxed and in the end I was surprised at how much we enjoyed ourselves,” he says, calling it a demonstration of the couple’s commitment to compromise and understanding.
As couples weld contrasting worlds, no issue is more important than raising children, which produces a set of new considerations. Clinical child psychologist Dr Bridie Gallagher, director of counselling centre Indigo International, says these can range from child-rearing, emotional expression, to gender or family roles.
“Children with parents from two different cultures often have the benefit of two languages and, no matter where they are raised, will be exposed to two different cultures through extended families and social circles,” she explains. “When these differences are talked about and explicit, and the inevitable conflicts from different beliefs and values handled openly and with acceptance, children can benefit from having their own and their parents’ assumptions challenged.”
Nigerian Adjekota Shadrack, 29, and his 25-year-old American wife Bethany had a son, Emeka, in July. For the new father, ensuring that his offspring knows about his roots is an essential part of his up bringing.
“I want my son to be able to speak in my Nigerian dialect as well as English,” says the personal trainer and model, who married at a church ceremony in Phnom Penh followed by a lavish reception at the Sofitel hotel. “It’s important he knows about where both his mum and dad are from, and we will make sure he does.”
An additional dimension is that the couple is raising Emeka as an expat, meaning that he is picking up elements of Cambodian culture too. “I think it’s good when a child is brought up surrounded by different cultures,” fashion designer Bethany adds. “They are exposed to more and learn more, and that’s a good thing.”
With an emphasis put on family and friends in Nigeria, the American is also quickly learning that living with five of the couple’s friends has its advantages. “African men know how to look after women and family is really important to them, and not just blood relatives. Living in this house is very communal and everyone is so supportive.” She doubts she would have received this support from an American man, who she says are “much more selfish” and have more insecurities.
And though the tight-knit family network that exists in Cambodia has at times seemed foreign to Australian Stan, he believes it will prove to be a plus point when he has children with Samean.
“You know there’s going to be a strong support network there for you,” he says. “We already have her parents, grandmother and aunties and uncles telling us they can’t wait to look after them for us.”
Working Through It
In the majority of cases, cultural differences can be worked through. Yet they can prove overwhelming, with some couples citing such pressures as factors in crumbling relationships.
Cameron Franzter and Sophea Chan* married three years ago, but amicably divorced after 18 months. The couple met through mutual friends, started dating and fell head over heels in love. Within weeks the pressure was on from Sophea’s family for them to wed, and within six months the lovebirds caved.
That was when the problems started, with Sophea’s family expecting her husband to pay for everything from medical bills to a distant relative’s school fees. “It started to feel like I was a walking dollar sign, and while I didn’t mind helping out where I could there was a limit,” he says.
Add to that the mounting pressure to start a family plus Sophea’s strong bond with her relations, which meant she was reluctant to leave Cambodia — something Cameron was keen to do if they had children — and it wasn’t long before the clash became too much.
“We were in love, and we didn’t listen to the things that were wrong. Like with any relationship, if your future paths don’t match then it probably won’t work,” Sophea says. “I think a lot of misunderstanding arose from us not knowing each other’s cultures well enough.”
Treating disagreements with an open mind and being able to discuss and identify what is going wrong is important for argument resolution, advises Dr Carswell.
“When feeling emotional or stressed it’s harder to think straight, so agreeing to take time out from arguments and then coming back to discussing the conflict and issue to be resolved can be an effective way,” the psychologist says.
Many happy couples also believe that love, understanding each other’s cultures and tolerance are major ingredients to a successful marriage. These vital elements keep couples united, regardless of where they’re from.
For Bethany and Shadrack, love conquers all. “The most important thing is that we both understand each other, and we learn from each other. I’m so happy that I met my wife and married her. We’re the same people, and we get each other,” he says.
* Names have been changed.