A Khmer wedding will last for three days.
I told the officiant for the third day of Kim and Phan’s wedding that it was because Cambodians had a lot to celebrate. She hadn’t been to the other two days, the ones that carried meaning for our parents. Only this, the third day, the one inspired by the West that made my generation feel normal. In two years, the officiant and I will have our own wedding. It will be only a single day, and after the outdoor ceremony, when my family gathers at a buffet serving grey meat drizzled with a dark brown gravy they will ask where to put their ang pav—the red money-filled envelopes meant to bring luck to our marriage—and I won’t have an answer for them.
The wedding party and guests had begun pouring Hennessey over ice held in cheap tumblers because the venue didn’t allow people to serve shots of liquor. Bodies writhed on a dimly lit dance floor, and people shouted between tables about who had become more intoxicated.
Standing in a corner with my club soda, I asked the officiant how much she charged for weddings, and she answered it was eight hundred, plus gas money. It had been an emotional service, and she spoke well of the couple.
Her clients filled out a questionnaire, she said. She tried to get to know them as best she could, but there was only so much you could say.
It was strange, I said, without meaning any offense. It was all very – impersonal. Khmer weddings celebrated an intimate community, I told her.
She said it must be wonderful to be a part of something like that.
I said that it was, and how great it would have been had she seen the other days of Kim and Phan’s wedding, and all the colorful ceremonies, songs, and dances which shaped them. How food had been prepared outside of Kim’s parent’s home by neighbors and friends: big pots of curry bubbling sweet and sour, woks of frying oil with tiny treats tended by an aged woman, and piles of fresh herbs picked that morning to go in soups or be wrapped with pork in thin sheets of porpear prai.
When I spoke of the Cambodian delicacies she smiled and mentioned how much she loved Asian food. I think a lot of Americans say that. But when they come to my parent’s home and smell the pungent spices and sauces we cook with, they cover their noses and look away. And when we have our own house I won’t be able to cook the food I grew up with because she will say that she can’t stand the smell, even when the windows are open.
I told her that on the first day of a wedding, the family kneels and are blessed by monks who sprinkle them with water. And afterwards, among fruit, candles, and flowers all arrayed on golden trays, the couple—dressed in white and blue—serve their parents tea and bless them in our native tongue.
In five years my own son’s first words will be in English, not Khmer. And in ten years he will barely know his grandparents because he can’t speak with them, so when they say they love him he will look to his mother and me. When they attend his college graduation they won’t be able to tell him how proud they are, and the gifts they bring will seem small and perfunctory. At their funerals he won’t be able to understand the monks who chant for their souls, and he will walk away still not knowing who they were.
On the second day, I told her, Phan’s entire family had come to Kim’s house in a procession bearing food on silver trays, and a hired dancer lithely moved among the offerings to showcase their richness.
In 1977, my father had fled through the jungles of northern Cambodia, and drank stagnant water at nights, and ate late-summer fruit that had rotted on the forest floor. And now, on summer nights when we hear people shouting at one another in the apartments I grew up in, my father tells me of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. How he lounged by seasonal rivers with friends and gathered kafir limes to use as soap. And I tell the officiant how lucky my parents are, because my father had been called to the fields to be executed like his older brother, the one who had been shot in the back of the head, who had known it was coming and still walked sheepishly ahead of the armed soldiers. But my father ran into the jungle with others from his village. They ran, he tells me, until they reached the Thai border.
There was also a hair-cutting ceremony—Gaat Sah—for the couple on that second day. The officiant looked a bit shocked that any bride would let someone cut her hair during her wedding, but I explained it was symbolic, and that it was meant to free the couple of their past burdens. I said it with a smile that she will come to love, but my chest feels hollow when I think of my parents who can’t escape their past. I used to hear them crying at night, and when they light incense for my grandparents who never made it across the ocean my mother leaves the room and always returns with fresh makeup.
I will ask the officiant to be my wife in less than a year, while we walk along a trail overlooking a craggy beach. She will say that she loves me. My parents married one another long before they loved each other, and only because their parents had told them to. And on the day of Kim and Phan’s wedding, as I introduced myself to the woman I would spend my life with, I didn’t consider any of this.
Adam Joseph Nazaroff lives in San Jose, California, with his wife, dog, and newborn son. For twelve years he was an anthropologist and archaeologist. Nowadays he likes to tell stories about California’s diverse and vibrant communities. He has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s very short fiction contest.