Weddings in Cambodia are elaborate affairs. The venue is often a long tent that takes up at least half of the road (usually more). Music begins to blare from loud speakers before sunrise, proclaiming to the whole neighborhood that there is a wedding about to happen. Having talked to a monk about the most auspicious day for the wedding, the date has been carefully chosen. Most weddings take place during dry season, as to avoid the messiness of rainy season; some of our friends had up to TEN weddings in one week to attend!
For the morning ceremonies, close friends and family are invited–maybe around 50-100 people come and take part; it is a more intimate affair. The morning events start very early in order to avoid the heat of the day. In the evening (the reception and dance), all friends are invited and the number of guests swells up to 400-500! In the evening tables are set up, and once a table is filled with people, they start serving the food for that table. Thankfully you don’t need to wait for all 500 guests to show up to start to eat.
The first wedding I attended was of our landlord’s daughter. They had asked us to move out for a week so they could host all of the family that was coming in to the city. We had already decided to move to a new place due to the near-constant barking of dogs in the neighborhood (even more so than usual, if you can imagine), so thankfully we didn’t have to figure that all out.
In preparation for the wedding, I was told I needed to have a traditional Cambodian dress made. I showed up on time for the first morning ceremony, where the groom’s family and close friends carry fruit to the bride’s house in a procession. I was asked why I hadn’t gotten up earlier to do my hair and make up. The wedding party and many guests had been up since 3 am getting themselves prepared. I pleaded ignorance. I had chosen to wear a simple, but nice dress to the morning ceremony, only to find out I should have worn my traditional dress. Not only had I failed to wake up in the middle of the night to get ready, I had worn the wrong outfit.
That evening as I prepared for the evening reception, I put on my traditional dress and applied a bit more make up than usual. Upon arriving to the venue, I was told how beautiful my dress was but again, why hadn’t I gone to the salon to get my hair and make up done? Looking around, I saw women in prom-like dresses, lots of make up, and beautiful hair. Oops. Do you remember those old Glamour Shots that were popular in the 80s and 90s? The ones where you went into a shop and they “glammed” you out with ridiculous amounts of makeup and big hair, dressed you up and then had a photo session? That is the kind of the style acceptable at weddings.
That first wedding taught me a lot about what it means to participate in a Cambodian wedding. They were, of course, happy that we came and were involved, but I discovered that to show my support and fully participate, I was going to have to jump in all the way. So for my next wedding, I walked to the nearest salon, sat down in the chair and told them I was going to a wedding party. I tried not to freak out as the beautician squealed with glee at the prospect of making me a more glamorous version of myself. After some caked on foundation, drawn in dark eyebrows, glittery fake eyelashes, and crimped hair, I was declared ready to attend the wedding.
It made me a bit self-conscious at first, but when we arrived at the reception, that feeling disappeared. The more make up and the fancier the dress, the more I fit in, the more I felt like I was welcomed. I was no longer the outsider, unaware or even unwilling to participate. I was displaying to the couple that I cared for them so much that I wasn’t only going to attend their wedding, but take the time to prepare well for the event.
I discovered that I loved weddings. All of the chaos and the noise. All of the preparation. The seven-course meal that was predictably similar at every wedding. I knew I had arrived at a new place of cultural understanding when I sat down in the salon chair and was asked if I wanted the “natural” look. I said sure, but after they finished putting the make up on, I said, “You know what? It’s not enough. You need to put more on.” They smiled and agreed.
Are there cultural events where you have learned how to be a better participant?
How have you connected with your host culture’s dress code for certain events?