Seeking better lives for their children and remittances from abroad, parents are buying American spouses for their children. Nathan A. Thompson reports.
In the brutal heat, a cortege of family and friends filed past the recently married couple carrying gifts of fruit, meat or batteries (in Cambodian villages, power cuts are common). Supheak was dressed like a toy soldier, wearing a lilac coat with brass buttons and black trousers. Danna wore a green lace blouse and floor-length skirt that restricted her walking to a shuffle. The guests placed their gifts on a table and each received, from the groom’s young cousin, 200 riel in a small red envelope.
The couple’s wedding lasted three days. By the third, neither could disguise their misery.
Danna and Supheak are one of thousands of couples whose marriage helps Cambodians immigrate to America every year. Some result in successful, loving relationships, but others fail. One reason is the pressure exerted by older family members on their children to get married, and the practice of paying for a spouse with American citizenship does little to help. Although these kind of marriages are becoming less common as the country develops, this issue still affects thousands.
At the wedding, it was time take pictures. The photographer motioned for the couple to stand. Danna, the 17 year-old Khmer-American, rolled her eyes, sighed, and lifted herself from the chair she had been slouching in. The photographer manhandled her and her village-boy husband, Supheak, 23, into absurd poses. Danna seemed to be in denial. She performed each part of the ceremony like a teenager fulfilling a parental demand to take the rubbish out.
The reception was a lavish affair by village standards. Beneath pink and gold marquees a live band whipped the crowd into a frenzy of dancing. Danna had been knocking back beers since dinner and was drunk. Supheak helped her through the crowd to the central table where a white wedding cake was ready to be cut. Danna held the knife, swaying, struggling to aim, until Supheak helped her guide it through the white icing. Everyone cheered and fired silly string. The couple retreated; covered in neon spaghetti.
According to Dr Jonathan H.X. Lee, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, arranged marriages are common among first generation Khmer-Americans, though less common among the second generation.
“When they do take place, they are typically for the financial gain of the Khmer-American family who are paid $30,000 to $50,000 for such a marriage,” he said.
The idea of moving to America has such traction in the Cambodian psyche that some ask monks to recruit supernatural forces to aid their immigration cause.
“Some people come to the temple and dedicate food or money”, said Vandong Thorn – who was a monk for 20 years and is now director of Buddhism for Social Development Action in Kampong Cham.
“Then they ask the monk to pray to the spirit of the Buddha and ask him to help them fall in love with an American citizen so they can get a visa and stay there – I have experienced this before”.
Danna and Supheak were engaged when she was six and he was 12.
“Danna and her mother came from America to visit my family”, Supheak said in an interview at the temple where he teaches English.
“In those days I looked after my grandfather because he was sick; and when Danna’s mother saw my concern for her father she wanted me to marry her daughter”.
Before he died, Supheak’s grandfather told him to marry Danna and go to America.
“This is because he loves me very much,” said Supheak.
His grandfather decreed that Supheak would marry Danna and go to America as a reward for helping him in his old age. The family, respecting the wishes of the patriarch, decided the two children should marry when Danna graduated high school. In the meantime, Supheak became a monk.
“This is a rare case”, said Lee. “They must have a strongly intact Cambodian family where the patriarchs can still exert some kind of influence. To me it’s impressive because, in most cases, the American side would refuse to do it because the Khmer-American community overall are not very successful socio-economically so I doubt they would be willing to support a poor spouse and their family”.
Supheak and Danna got married this year. Supheak was defrocked from the monkhood and his family paid $5,000 for him to marry Danna – a sum they scratched together by selling land and borrowing from their neighbours.
“I loved being a monk because everything the Buddha said was right”, he said. “When my parents told me to get married I was very sad”.
Supheak’s voice began to swell. “I am worried to go to America because the people will look down on me because I can’t speak good English and I will not have a good job”.
He looked at the floor, nodding slowly. “My mother said I could remain a monk, but then she changed her mind because she wanted me to go to America and earn money”.
Chhun Tek Sov, managing director of Pyramid Translation in Phnom Penh, deals with 10 to 15 such marriages per month. People come to translation companies like Pyramid for help translating the documents needed for an international marriage or visa application. They also help fill out forms in English.
“There were more marriages 10 years ago. Since then there has been a decrease of around 50 per cent. I think this is because the standard of living in Cambodia has increased,” said Sov.
“My personal opinion is that these kinds of marriages are good as long as the partners know each other and have enough money. It is important for the parents to inform the children about the situation and let them make their own decision – if they force them, then this is not a good situation”.
Kim Naroath from Kandal province is optimistic about her marriage. She hopes to join her Khmer-American husband with their seven-month-old baby this year. She married in 2011 and their baby has dual-citizenship, giving her a strong application for a US visa.
“My aunty and his uncle are married, so we were introduced through them”, she said through a translator.
“He wanted to marry a Cambodian girl because American girls are too individualised and do not understand our traditions and culture.
“We fell in love and were married one month later; now we talk every day on Skype”.
And what of her fears of moving abroad?
“I do not worry because we really miss each other; I look forward to going to America to be with my husband so we can make a family together”.
Lee believes arranged marriages between an older Khmer-American man and a Cambodian woman are more likely to be happy than marriages between second generation Khmer-Americans and their Cambodian counterparts.
“Arranged marriages between a 1.5 generation Khmer-American man [someone who immigrated when they were under 7 years old] and a Khmer woman tend to work well”, he said. “The Khmer-American man is often unsuccessful finding a bride his own community or elsewhere; so his family arranges a partnership for him; this works better because the Khmer-American is fully on board with the marriage and it is not just about the money”.
Danna arrived in Phnom Penh in April this year to marry Supheak. It was clear from the outset arrangements were not going to run smoothly.
“When she got off the plane I noticed that her behaviour had changed”, said Supheak.
“She didn’t reply to my questions and she kept her distance from me. She had no sweet words for me and only complained about the weather. I tried my best to talk to her but she was rude to me. I tried very politely but it was hard. Danna’s mother said even though she doesn’t love me we must marry because this is my grandfather’s wish.”
After the wedding, things deteriorated further. “After we married Danna stayed with my family for six weeks”, Supheak said. “She called me stupid and crazy; I said to her, ‘I’m your husband don’t say that to me’ but she just laughed and said that she was joking; but I don’t think she was joking”. Supheak began to fidget, “then she told me about her boyfriend in America and that she has sex with him; she said this because she wanted me not to love her”. After Danna returned to the US, her mother called Supheak’s family; “she told us that Danna doesn’t love me and asked us what we wanted to do”, Supheak said. “My family still wants me to go to America and get divorced when I have citizenship”. Supheak sighed - the thought of disappointing his parents forged a deep frown - “if she still loves me and has no other boyfriend I will go but if she has another guy I will not”.
Supheak may go to America and return home if things don’t work out. “When I was last in Cambodia, I met a few Khmers who retuned home after marrying an American”, said Lee. “The big thing for them was that they had to rely on their American spouse for everything; and that person was only doing it because of economic or familial pressures so the level of assistance they provided wasn’t adequate”.
When it comes to the world of arranged visa marriages, there are some successes and somewhere the course of true love remains unrun. Will the practice continue? “It depends on Cambodia”, said Lee. “If Cambodia becomes a safe country and stable economically and politically then there will be less people seeking a way out”.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.