The obnoxious pink, yellow & red shawls wave in the quiet wind as the joyous clatter fills the air. The brothers play hacky sack with any object they can find as the babies amble about, dazed and confused, but entirely amused. The elders gaze expectantly into the tent that will soon be occupied by their dearly beloved.
The procession of food and drinks brings water to the mouth as thoughts of decadent entrees paired with ice chilled Anchor beer pervade the head. The unavoidable tent erected towards the center of a major street makes no attempt at subtlety. Although its design is somehow given the aura of riches and serenity with the flick of a switch, fake gold and red galore, and the touch of a magic Khmer wand.
The energy is inescapable. Just being inside the tent makes even a passerby a part of the family. It excites and unites. It doesn’t tolerate unhappiness, regret, or a treacherous decade of unspoken anger and pain. It sweeps the past under the carpet and looks to the sky for what new memories lay ahead.
As guests arrive and take their seats, the scene is more reminiscent of the ballroom dance from Beauty and the Beast than that of a wedding at all. All the women, ages 5 to 50 are dressed in custom made outfits whose designs could be shrunk and matched to those of Barbie herself. Their hair and makeup is impeccable. Their reticent behavior provides the perfect mix of class and intrigue to make the men go wild. That and a bottomless bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label on each table, and you’ve got front row seats to some extremely desperate, nonsensical pick up lines and implacable stares.
The live band sings Khmer pop songs intermittently as the power goes in and out. The waiters seem to be running a relay race passing the baton of food between one another, assuring that no guest is left unstuffed. The beer girls, identified clearly by their advertising attire, are summoned at any man’s beck and call with a mere eyebrow twitch, head nod, hand flick, or lift of an empty glass.
We gather round to throw sweet smelling jasmine flowers as the newlyweds tentatively begin their walk down the red carpet towards a beautiful centerpiece cake and a lifetime of untainted dreams. The emcee taunts and teases the two to nudge them into an unforgettable night with stars in their eyes and kisses on their lips.
Our table is quiet as the inebriated old men skeptically and plainly question why the only two foreigners in a crowd of 300 are dancing the Khmer two-step, singing the Khmer songs, and raising the Khmer juice in celebration yelling “Choul Muy!”
All is joyous. But the dirt-laden children running barefoot from one abandoned table to the next grip at my heart and yank me away from it all at once. I watch in agony and awe as they sift through the mess searching for cans they can sell, food they can salvage, money they can plead. A girl of 5 years catches my eye, and in a fleeting moment I see a world of hope lost; happiness and innocence replaced by a hardened understanding of the truths of suffering. Her beautiful eyes implore mine for something, anything. I point to the bountiful plates of leftover food on the table but she will not take it. She is proud and respectful. And she is smart. I want to engulf her in my arms and give her all the food in the world and bring her to sleep anywhere in my home and teach her all that I know. Perhaps she saw it in my eyes. I pleaded with her to save me from my life as she pleaded with me to save her from death. But in that fleeting second we both looked away, with the grave understanding that the world simply does not work in this way. In that second she turned on her heel to grab her brother and sister and escort them away, satisfied with what they had, not wishing to push their luck during wedding season. “This is a good day for them,” my friend remarked, watching my eyes follow their footsteps. I turned to him, searching for meaning and reason and justification in this unfair world. “I know,” I whispered, “that’s what makes me so sad.”