In Honor of Hot Season

I’m reposting part of our March 2012 newsletter. It details my very first Khmer wedding experience, which happened in hot season. Hot season in Cambodia lasts from March to May, and it’s HOT. But it’s a prime time for weddings, due to the lack of rain. We melted at that first wedding. We’ve been to more Khmer weddings since then, but the following list accurately depicts my first impressions.



10. If you live near the wedding, loud music will awaken you and your children at 6:30 am. The decibels will increase until 10:30 pm, when it should hopefully stop. You learn that “very loud” in Khmer is “loo clang.” You find this ironic.

9. If the wedding is right outside your front door, there will be no space for your vehicle to exit. You must take a tuk-tuk (moto drawn taxi) if you want to leave during that day(s).

8. Wear a sparkly dress. The more sparkles, the better.

7. Wear big, sparkly jewelry. The more sparkles, the better.

6. Apply heavy makeup. The heavier, the better.

5. Wear big hair. The bigger, the better

4. Bring a large monetary gift. The amount will be recorded for future reference.

3. Arrive an hour or more late. If you don’t, the bride might not even be dressed yet, and there might only be 3 other guests there. And they’ll be white. Like you.

2. Seat yourself so as to fill a table completely. Do not spread out, even if your inner American wants to. Guests are served only after a table is full. Eat lightly; there will be 6 courses.

1. Avoid the raw salads. Avoid the ice. Eat only cooked foods. Drink only bottled drinks. Pass on the half-cooked pig’s ears. Your stomach will thank you later.


An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 3: The Food)

— by Elizabeth

There is a lot of food at Khmer weddings. Course after course of meat. But I’m not really a meat kind of girl. I’m really a carb kind of girl. Maybe it’s a holdover from my high school days. My formerly eating-disordered-self refused to eat anything but yogurt (the fat-free sugar-free type, yuck) and bagels (everything-bagels anyone?). True story. Just ask my mom, who had to buy all that tasteless yogurt and dozens upon dozens of bagels. Or ask the family I nannied for one summer, who asked me what they should stock their kitchen with (bagels and yogurt, duh).

Or just ask my husband, who knew me way back when I refused to eat hot dogs at our first youth retreat together, instead choosing peanut butter on a hot dog bun. (Can anyone say ick? Peanut butter on hot dog buns? I mean, peanut butter on just about anything is divine, but on hot dog buns? No thanks. Hot dog buns taste like cardboard.) Or ask him about that time when I disdained the consumption of donuts. On Donut Sunday no less. I mean, who doesn’t like donuts? And who makes fun of people who eat donuts, in front of people who are, at that very moment, eating donuts? Um, yes, that would be the formerly eating-disordered me. (And he still married me – evidence of the existence of True Love.)

Then again, my meat aversion could go all the way back to elementary school, when my entirely non-eating-disordered-self discovered that meat was . . . . muscle! (Insert childish gross-out factor and subsequent decades-long meat boycott here.)

Whatever the reason, when it comes to me and meat, I would still just rather pass. At a Khmer wedding, they usually serve 4 or 5 courses of chicken, fish, pork, squid, duck, beef, shrimp (you get the idea) before serving any carbs at all. I figured this out early on, that I have to wait several courses to get to the fried rice that I really want.

There is a catch, of course. The servers don’t bring out the next course until a table has eaten sufficiently enough of the last course. So I eat the broth from all those meat dishes while everyone else eats the meat. Now I really am a broth kind of girl. Remember that breakfast wedding soup? Well, I mostly ate the broth from it too. (And remember that yummy fried bread they serve with the soup? Well, it tastes suspiciously like an unsweetened donut – proof that even donut-haters can change their ways.) Plus, if you only eat the broth, you won’t accidentally eat the congealed pig’s blood that ends up in some curry dishes. Don’t ask me how I know that. Besides, can anyone tell me how to eat meat with only a spoon and two chopsticks for utensils? I haven’t figured it out yet. If you have, then by all means, enlighten me.

At this wedding, though, I finally asked my friend, why do they wait so long to bring out the food I love? I mean, who can stomach all that meat without a single bite of starchy goodness? It’s because rice is so filling, she told me. If they bring it out in the beginning, they would be telling their guests to fill up on rice. It would be sending the message that they’re stingy with the meat, the expensive part of the meal. It reminded me of the Bible story where Jesus turns water into wine, and everyone is so surprised when the hosts bring out the best wine last, because people usually serve the best stuff first.

So it seems that across millennia and across people groups, hosts show their good host-iness by serving the best stuff first. But if you happen to like the worst stuff best, then you just have to wait for the good stuff.

Like me.

An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 2: A Walk with Fruit)

— by Elizabeth

We’ve already attended 2 Khmer weddings this year. We learned about how the girls are supposed to dress up fancy and how much money you’re supposed to give the bride and groom (although advice on this varies, and looking back I’m afraid we accidentally erred on the side of giving too little). But we’ve only ever gone to the evening reception part, where you show up late and eat a bunch of food. Both weddings were for acquaintances.

This time my house helper’s son was getting married, so naturally we were more excited (hence the desire for a new dress in my previous post). In addition, we were invited to another part of the wedding – the fruit walk. The fruit walk begins at 6:30 in the morning, when it’s still (relatively) cool.

Remember how in Bible times, the day starts the night before? Well, when you’re talking about getting four kids someplace at 6:30 in the morning, the day most assuredly starts the night before, with an early bedtime. However, if your bedroom harbors a (wo)man-eating mosquito that you can’t quite kill, you might find yourself unable to sleep until well past midnight. That would be due to the insatiable itching and quarter-size swellings. On the other hand, you might be thankful that you brought some Benadryl cream from the States last year.

But I digress.

My point is, 5:30 am comes pretty fast.

After you drag yourself out of bed and slip into your clothes (sans fancy hair and makeup at this point), you drag your children out of bed, and instruct them to slip into their clothes too. You might be a sleepy-looking bunch. But you might not be awake enough to notice that. . .

If your friends call the night before and offer for you to follow them to the wedding, then by all means, accept their offer, because wedding maps in Cambodia are notoriously bad, even if your family boasts an expert map reader. As you arrive at exactly 6:30 am, as instructed, you might hear an announcement over the loud-speaker that the procession will instead start at 7 am.

So you will wait. But waiting is fun. You can look at all the pretty dresses. Seriously. Dress-watching just might become one of your favorite pastimes at Khmer weddings. Do try to keep the other guests from invading your daughters’ personal space, but as always, smile politely while guarding it.

Music is rather loud at a Cambodian wedding, so you might find your daughter looking like this:


When it’s time to start the fruit walk, you will get in line, and someone will hand you a wrapped platter of fruit. You will follow everyone else about 3 blocks away. If you were given an exceptionally heavy fruit package, and are wearing heels that are capable of aerating the dirt roads you’re walking on, and are carrying the diaper bag and the toddler who was walking too slowly, you just might start to fall behind yourself. And you will be happy no one took a picture of that. But then again you might also be so fortunate as to have your husband send an older child to carry the fruit platter so you can catch up. And you might even be so fortunate as to have him carry the diaper bag and the toddler when you get to where everyone else has gathered.

If you have white skin, you may be given the honor of walking at the front of the procession, just behind the wedding party. You will stand at the front waiting for pictures and video to be taken, and by then you notice the sun’s heat is really starting to increase. Now you understand why the fruit walk must start so crazy early. You will pause to reflect upon the special challenges of bringing your children with you to cultural events. You might start to wonder why you are crazy enough to bring them along in the first place. (And you tell yourself to address that later, in a separate blog.)

You walk back to the wedding tent, where you will be served breakfast — a traditional wedding porridge. It’s a thin, savory rice soup. You will eat that plus these thin little slices of fried bread for dipping. And you might just overdose on those pieces of fried bread. Heavenly. Then you will go home full and happy, and ready to take a nap.

An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 1: A Trip or Two to the Seamstress)

— by Elizabeth

The seamstress on my street does my mending, and each time I am happy with the quality of her work (and with her exceptionally low prices). While she speaks no English at all, she does speak her own language rather rapidly.

I’d been admiring the purple dress (my favorite color!) in her window for weeks but didn’t have the courage to ask about it. Asking about it would expose my ridiculous lack of Khmer language. But there was a wedding coming up, and I wanted something more formal than what I owned.  So three days before the wedding (can you tell I brought my whole self, including the procrastinating part, to Cambodia??), off I marched to the sewing shop. And this is how it happened:

I tell the seamstress I like the dress. I stand there next to it, unable to think of the word for “wear.” Because of course I want to wear it before buying it. Oh why didn’t I study first? That’s what Jonathan does before he attempts something new.  I have a limited Khmer vocabulary, and only the most used portions come to the front of my brain during a conversation. Words I don’t use much — like words about clothing — stay way in the back. Think think think. What is the word for wear?? The only thing I can think of is the word for clothes. I stand there unproductively, actually waving my hand in circles as if it could help me. She talks at me while I think. I have no idea what she is saying. Then poof! The word I need comes to me.

I tell her I want to wear that dress. I tell her, if I like the dress, I will buy it. She looks a bit confused, but she teaches me the word for “to try on.” I stand and think some more. Suddenly I know what to say: “I want to try it on now.” The light goes on, and she pulls the dress off the mannequin. I have found the Magic Key. (Magic Keys are an essential part of my life. The Magic Key asks a question that forces the hearer to answer me using words I already know. Or, as in this case, the Key asks someone to do the very thing I want them to do.)

I try it on, and it fits (hooray!). But the back shows too much skin, so I tell her I don’t usually show my back, because I am “shy.” (That’s the only way I know to explain my desire for more coverage.) She teaches me another new word, which literally means “skin for enclosing.”  She’ll basically make a wrap to cover my back and shoulders.

Then it’s time to hem the bottom. I don’t have my dress shoes with me. (Um, again, why did I not think to bring them?? I am so unprepared.) I’m not sure how much she should cut off, so I ask for her advice. She doesn’t seem to understand that I want her help in deciding the length. So I ask her to make it the normal length for dresses. Again, her face registers no understanding. I stand there, think think thinking again, about how to do this hemline. (Have you noticed yet that I do a lot of standing around and thinking??)  At one point she even tells me I should have my husband come (she knows he’s a better speaker than I am).

Finally I tell her, cut just a little bit. She seems to understand that. (Magic Key alert!)

But when I go to pick it up later, it’s not ready. She seems to be concerned that the dress and wrap materials are not exactly the same color, so she hasn’t sewed the wrap yet. At first glance, they look exactly the same to me. But as I examine them closer, I notice a slight difference. She is very concerned, so I start wondering if the slight color difference is a big deal to Khmer people and will I show up to the wedding looking extremely inappropriate?? (Insert internal freak out moment right here.) I stand there. Thinking. Asking myself what to do, as if I could possibly help myself. All this time she is talking at me again, and I understand nothing. Finally I say, sort of questioningly, “they’re close to the same color.” She agrees, “yes, a little bit different color.” I ask her if that’s good.  She says yes. (There’s that Magic Key again. Because let’s face it, all I really care about is covering up that back.)

In the end, I’m very happy with my new dress and wrap. And I’m very happy with my seamstress.satnight (2)