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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Crazy little thing called Love

Crazy little thing called Love


After returning to Cambodia, deportee "Hawaii" battled gangsters, yama and life on the streets of Phnom Penh. Now he takes on a Khmer wedding.

Taking a break from make up preparations, Sar contemplates the future.

The day before his wedding, Chhin "Hawaii" Toeun learned that bachelor parties aren't a Cambodian tradition.

A deportee from the United States, Hawaii was enjoying the talents of a young dancer when his fiancee, Chhay "Sar" Sokhoeun, returned home unexpectedly.

"I knew I'd catch you," she yelled, before grabbing a kitchen knife and chasing the girl out of the house and through the streets.

"That's when I got on my bike and bounced," Hawaii said. "I wasn't going to mess with no woman with a knife."

The premarital spat foreshadowed the couple's recent wedding, a muddling of cultures. When a groom is shaped on the streets of Honolulu and his bride grows up selling vegetables in provincial Cambodia, there are bound to be clashes - from dowry negotiations to fighting over a doo-rag's role in the ceremony.

"The guys who come back here are young Americans who speak Khmer," said Bill Herod, who coordinates the Returnee Assistance Project. "Most of them know very little about Cambodia and the country's culture."

That includes marriage.

Of the more than 100 Cambodian-Americans deported since 2002, at least half have wed local girls. The unions are a mixed blessing, Herod said. While marriage serves as a stabilizing influence, it also opens up deportees to a world of unanticipated expectations and responsibilities-both cultural and financial.

"Most of these guys don't know what they're getting into," Herod said.

His and hers

In the case of Hawaii, 25, and Sar, 21, the couple's strong personalities heightened usual cultural tensions.

Hawaii is tumult. With his shroud of tattoos and penitentiary frame, he storms into a room, and could just as easily collapse in laughter or sock you.

"He's a loose cannon on a burning ship in rough waters," Herod said. "If I can figure out how to work with Hawaii, I can work with anyone."

After committing several serious offenses in Honolulu, Hawaii was deported to Cambodia two years ago, a country he hadn't seen since infancy. Local relations shunned him, put off by his thuggish style and anger problems.

"I lost everything at once and didn't have no one," said Hawaii, who left a wife and three children in the states. "I was using drugs (yama), on the streets, sleeping under coconut trees."

Hawaii's behavior became so erratic, Herod had to kick him out of the returnee program. That's when the former drug pusher started to turn things around.

He went cold turkey, and has made "heroic and dramatic progress" despite the occasional relapse, Herod said.

Still, sobriety hasn't muted Hawaii's turbulent nature, which makes Sar a good match.

"She has chutzpah," Herod said of the former garment worker. "I was impressed with her from the beginning."

Sar's fresh face and sweet demeanor disguise an inner toughness, developed these last seven years in Phnom Penh. She doesn't dance, dress or argue like a modest country girl, and when annoyed, she'll jump into a fighter's stance and shout "Boxing, you!" - only half-jokingly.

Sar can take what Hawaii gives. He yells, and she yells back.

That's how they met.

The beginning

Around four months ago, Hawaii was riding his dirt bike on Sihanouk Boulevard when he spotted Sar. She was walking down the street, wearing a clingy top that showed off her petite, but curvy, figure.

"I hollered at her and she yelled back," he said. "I slammed the brakes."

Herod had just given him money to pay an electricity bill. Hawaii decided he could put the funds to better use.

"I said, "Hey what's up girl? Want to go cruisin'?" Hawaii remembers, grinning. "There went the electricity money."

He lost his lights, but got the girl.

The courtship lasted several months, with the two making dates to window-shop in Sorya Market and Big A, since "I was dead-ass broke at the time," Hawaii said. Sar came to stay with him "and she stuck by me, even when we were sharing a bag of soup a day. I kept telling her to go home, and come back when I could take care of her, but she wouldn't leave."

Sar had her reasons.

"I saw a future in us," she said. "He seemed like a humble guy with a good head on his shoulders."

Let's get hitched - now

It wasn't long before culture intervened.

"One night she just hit me with it," Hawaii said. "She said we couldn't be together no more unless we got married, that people in her village would look at her funny."

Many of the deportees have found themselves in similar situations, Herod said. Cambodian girls expect more commitment at an earlier stage than their American counterparts - and often conflate physical intimacy with an official engagement.

"The only way to kiss a girl around here is to marry her," joked deportee Loy Prim, 29, who got married in August.

After dating his wife Chanda for a few months, "things got serious real fast," he said. "Her parents kept pressuring us."

Even though Sar's parents initially thought Hawaii was disrespectful because he didn't bow or take off his baseball cap when they met, they also began to push for a wedding. Hawaii said he's explained to Sar that he can't return to America, but she and her parents continue to believe the couple will be able to settle there.

Afraid he'd lose his girlfriend if they didn't marry, Hawaii relented.

"I said, 'OK, I'll marry you, but I ain't got a dime in my pocket'," he said. "I was about to sell my motorcycle and everything. You can save up for a new bike, but a good wife, that comes once in a blue moon."

This, Herod said, is where a lot of deportees get into trouble. Hawaii was no exception.

"It always happens," Herod said. "Guys fall in love with a local girl and they think they can get married for $20. It's closer to $1,000 and they go into debt after debt. This is something I hadn't seen coming, and something we're going to have to prepare the guys for."

Cold fiscal feet

Stress about finances only worsened Hawaii's pre-wedding jitters. The week leading up to the ceremony, he was a blur of nerves, hyperactively rambling about unexpected costs - material, shoes, fruit.

"I've just been getting money every which way you can think of," he said. "I said I'd get married and made a bunch of promises and now I'm going crazy over it."

Cambodian brides-and their families-often suffer from the misconception that because deportees are American, they must have substantial amounts of money. In reality, most of the guys are making modest incomes, around $100 a month, and receive little or no financial help from the States.

So while Sar shopped for dress material a few days before the wedding, Hawaii weighed the pros and cons of pawning his cell phone.

Police intervention

The situation hadn't changed much Saturday morning October 30, the ceremony's first day.

"I've got a headache this big," Hawaii announced, swinging his hands in the air. Sar and several family members left for her home village, located about 40 kilometers from Phnom Penh in Kandal province, while Hawaii stayed behind.

"I've got stuff to take care of," he said, pulling a beige high-heeled pump out of his backpack. "I've got to find one of these things in black - and I've got to find some money."

When Hawaii arrived in the village midday, there were more complications. Pink curtains and shiny Chinese streamers already adorned the dirt yard of a relative's house, where the ceremony was scheduled to take place, but local police were threatening to shut down the wedding.

Wearing a DMX jersey shirt and baseball cap, Hawaii rode his dirt bike into the rural scene.

"(The police) sweatin' me for the money," he said, as a gaggle of relatives and half-dressed children gathered around his bike. "They say they're going to arrest me at my own wedding."

Although various people in Phnom Penh had called the local authorities and explained that Hawaii wasn't an "overseas Khmer" and therefore didn't have to pay a $150 marriage fee, the police didn't believe it.

His first meeting with officials was unsuccessful.

"Look, these guys grew up bargaining in the market," Herod explained to Hawaii. "Talk them down."

"Yeah, yeah, OK," Hawaii replied sullenly. He set off again for the police station, leaving a group of expectant Cambodians waiting for his return.

Great expectations

Hawaii's the American, they figured, he'll work it out.

This attitude has come to frame most of the relationships between deportees and their wives' families, Herod said. Many aren't prepared for the responsibilities that come with being the "American husband."

Once Hawaii marries Sar, "everyone's going to look up to him as the head of the household," Herod said. "He's been overseas, he has education - he knows how to use a TV, a telephone."

"If she steps on a rake," he continued, motioning to a little girl wielding a stick, "he's the one they're going to call."

From loans to illness, Cambodian families believe their deportee relations are the ones to consult. A returnee recently came to Herod because his uncle had liver cancer and his wife's family expected him to solve the problem.

"He came to me and said 'Bill, I don't know anything about my uncle and I know even less about liver cancer'," Herod said.

Even before Hawaii's wedding took place, it was clear Sar's family regarded their new relation with both distrust and awe. Wherever he went, relatives would follow and watch from a safe distance, treating him like a western guest.

"When I come (to her village) they're always whispering about me," he remarked.

It's little surprise they expected him to work miracles.

Runaway groom

In terms of the police fee, Hawaii did not disappoint. With Herod's coaching, he managed to convince the police he was a legitimate Cambodian citizen.

But whatever his official nationality, Hawaii is not really Cambodian, culturally speaking. His misunderstanding of Khmer traditions would mark the rest of his wedding, leading to more familial conflict.

After a short evening blessing, wedding guests began to prepare for a Saturday night party. Relatives drove in four huge speakers on an old farm truck, parking them next to the dirt dance floor, and Sar changed into a slinky red-and-black fishnet top.

Hawaii had other plans. Learning that Sar's family wanted him to sleep separately from his bride, as custom dictates, he decided there was no reason to stay in the province. He left for Phnom Penh.

Near tears, but determined not to lose face in her home village, Sar set out to have fun. As disco and Cambodian pop hits blared in the small space, she pulled bemused guests onto the empty dance floor.

"You come sing with me, you sing," she instructed in confused English.

A small group of her friends and sisters formed, swaying to western music self-consciously as Sar wiggled her hips music video style. Several toddlers waddled to the beat nearby, mesmerized by the speakers. The bulk of the guests ringed the space, watching the scene unfold.

After several hours and full digestion of the fact that Hawaii wasn't returning, more friends and relatives joined in, dancing late into the night.

The wedding festivities continued, even without a groom.

Before the storm

Despite the evening's turmoil, Sar awoke beaming. While relatives slept on straw mats in every corner of the house and a rooster crowed without interruption, the bride started her makeup application.

Professionals painted her eyes, lips and cheeks as rays of sunlight seeped through the leaves of a nearby banana tree. Slowly others began waking, sweeping the house's dirt floor and preparing silver bowls with fruit and rice sweets.

Several hours later Hawaii arrived and, aside from bickering over whether or not he would get married in a doo-rag, it looked like the ceremony might progress smoothly.

Even though he admitted he "wasn't raised on all this Buddhist stuff" and knew little about traditional Khmer weddings, Hawaii said he had adopted some new beliefs since coming to Cambodia.

"Sometimes I go to my grandma's grave and pray to her," he said. "That shit helps a lot."

As the day's ceremonies began, Sar helped guide Hawaii through the unfamiliar customs. The two prayed, meditated and received blessings together.

There were numerous moments of levity, when Hawaii would flick flower petals at Sar, or she bopped him playfully on the head. The two began to giggle as a stream of relatives cycled past them, each tying a piece of "good luck" red yarn on their wrists.

Things fall apart

The calm could only last so long. By Sunday afternoon's reception, new fights broke out over the issue of Hawaii's guests. Sar's family was reluctant to host the fellow deportees and left them waiting at a nearby river crossing for several hours.

When they finally arrived, camcorders and hi-fives at the ready, Hawaii's friends formed their own island.

"It's hella hot out here," they complained, as a dog gnawed a muggy chicken carcass under their table. Karaoke videos blasted in the background, entertaining young guests. "Man, turn that shit off."

By mid-afternoon, Hawaii decided he'd had enough. He and Sar drove back to Phnom Penh, leaving a smattering of guests to the warm meat and deafening music.

Later, she took a moto to the provinces alone. In her wedding dress. In the rain.

"If you're unfamiliar with the situation, it looks bad," Herod said, "but you've got to put it in context."

Deportee-Cambodian weddings are rarely easy. Often, cultural and financial outlooks are too divergent, and neither party can fulfill the other's expectations.

Still, he said, there's hope for Sar and Hawaii.

"They need to work hard from here, but they love each other," Herod said. "I'd hoped the marriage would be a smooth transition. Instead, it was just another muddy pothole to slog through."



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