An Unexpected Winter Break in Cambodia
by Erica Yu


By the end of October, my plans for winter break included losing the three pounds I had already gained as a freshman and snowboarding for the first time with my friends. But all that changed when I was notified that my brother Nicholas was getting married in December — in Cambodia.

To be truthful, the only tangible image I was able to associate with Cambodia before my brother’s announcement was clothing. I knew nothing about the culture of Cambodia. The only real connection I had were some clothes whose labels read “MADE IN CAMBODIA.” So, I was anxious to see how my future sister-in-law’s family would accept my family and me. A marriage is not only a tie to the individual that you vow to support in life, but a union of two different families.

My first meeting with Narann and her family occurred the morning after my family’s arrival at midnight. I was still tired not only from the over 33-hour long journey to Phnom Pehn, but also the three-hour ride from the airport on the only paved road that was full of potholes and cracks to Kampong Cham. The drive felt like the Disneyland simulated ride, Star Tours, only without seat belts. Signal lights and street lights were nonexistent and our driver, Inn, was driving in the middle of the road. Every means of transportation could be seen from Narann’s house, which was located right by the main road. I saw an old, white ox pulling a large cart of goods followed by a small moto carrying a family of five with dozens of schoolchildren bicycling close behind. My family was treated to a wonderful home-cooked lunch outside. All of the food was delightfully fresh and flavorful. The chicken on the table had just been caught and prepared that morning and our mildly sweet coconuts, which were collected by Narann’s brother from a coconut tree behind the house, were just hacked open to drink when we sat down. Our conversation was tense at the beginning since only Narann and her mom knew some English and talking required the help of our translator, Mr. Bo. We found that the best icebreaker was good ole laughter; our families connected and joked over how much food my brother ate since Narann’s mom’s cooking was absolutely delicious. The rest of the meeting consisted of my family presenting gifts and Narann’s family showing us their property: the wooden house is lifted on large wooden poles to prevent flooding and is surrounded by abundant and lush tropical flora. A golden Buddhist temple can be seen peeking from the treetops and numerous ducks, chickens and pigs live on the property. This is all a far cry from the concrete-dominated world that I know as home.

As for the wedding, my brother did not even know all the details. There were many opportunities for surprises. My family and I were the only ones present for my brother’s side in addition to being the only ones from America, while my sister-in-law’s side consisted of over two hundred unknown soon-to-be relatives. I felt no real connection to my new extended family until I got my hair done. One of Narann’s cousins, who spoke wonderful English, along with one of the hired stylists styled my hair in to a beautiful curled bun with purple flowers. While watching and having my own hair styled, I experienced something special. I did not need to understand Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, to understand what was going on. I laughed with my family when Narann’s little niece ran wildly out of the bathtub still naked and slipped on the floor and when one of the cousins felt her butt was too big in her fitted Khmer costume, and I smiled with my family when I noticed the little girls trying on fake eyelashes while the elderly women chuckled in their seats. We were all sharing the same intimate and priceless experiences.

According to my new Cambodian relatives, the combined modern and Cambodian wedding lasted for a “short time,” from sunup to sundown, compared to the more traditional three or more days of celebration. There were various ceremonies and prayers that I did not understand, including one in which the groom and bride ceremoniously wash each other’s feet. Public displays of affection are taboo, so the traditional western kiss on the lips was not practiced. Narann and my brother had to change seven times in total into elaborate wedding costumes. Interestingly, the cake ceremony included the parents of both the bride and the groom. The worst part of the wedding was the excruciating wait for dinner. All of the immediate family had to wait for the guests to be greeted and eat before they could eat. I was actually dancing before I even got to eat which was unfortunate since I was later asked to dance while I was eating and then my food got taken away. But I could not pass dancing to bass-thumping techno music with a bunch of tanned Cambodian college boys.

The rest of my time in Cambodia consisted of exploration and adventure. I explored Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders, and many other majestic, ancient ruins while keeping hydrated with questionable bottled water including one called “Oral.” I climbed to the top of Phnom Bakheng and witnessed one of Cambodia’s brilliant blood orange sunsets. I even stomached a fried locust and rode a 49-year-old Asian elephant in the capital’s park. I paid my respects to the thousands brutally murdered on The Killing Fields and shopped in the local markets, straying away from the commercial shopping centers. My roommate also wants me to add that I got downright attacked and peed on by a temple monkey in Kampong Cham.

As my family and I went through airport security, paying our ridiculous $125 “airport service fee” that the Cambodian government charged us, and walked to our gate, I could not help but remember what Narann’s mother said: “I hope to see you again, some day. You can come visit me, but I cannot visit you since I am poor, I cannot.” I was saddened by her words but felt she was humble in how truthfully she spoke. Most of the Cambodian people, with the exception of the corrupt officials and the like, are warm and generous people, which I hope to see again as well some day. I could not have asked for a better winter break. I may not have had a traditional Christmas this year, but what I did have were once-in-a-lifetime experiences and a new, loving family — things that can outlast any manmade object.