The music started before dawn.
I knew this only because the holes in the corrugated tin roof revealed swaths of night. The room rattled each time the music boomed, buzzed metallic with each twinge of distortion. I could feel it in my teeth.
Dim lights snapped on, and bare feet padded over the floor, the narrow gaps between sleeping bodies. I stared up, blinking vacantly through the mosquito net. There were holes in that too.
One by one, the sleeping bodies rose; I listened as they rolled up straw mats, folded extra blankets, plugged in flat irons, whispered and giggled.
I rolled over. There was a bunched up blanket where Raquel had been.
When I finally peeled back the mosquito net, it was 4:30am.
I was the last one up.
To attend the Khmer wedding, I first needed outfits.
I needed two—one, a traditional skirt with a modest top, any color but black or white; the other, a party dress, and the more electric the color, sparkly the sequins and layered the lace, the better.
It sounded like a lot, but if I were the bride, I would have needed at least twelve different outfits to change into, over the course of ceremonies that lasted three days. I’d also need an inch of Barbie make-up and a pound of fake hair. But if I were the bride, I reasoned, I’d also be Khmer, and short and thin, without hips that busted zippers or tits that burst buttons. That is to say, I could buy clothes in Cambodia.
My friend Raquel had invited me to attend the wedding of one of her employees—a quiet girl named Sophy, with drilling eyes and a slight underbite who I’d met only once. It’d struck me as odd that Raquel could invite me so easily—I’d watched friends in the States agonize over wedding guest lists, making cuts that ruined friendships.
“Cambodian weddings are different,” Raquel told me. “Especially ones like these, out in the provinces. There’s like 600 people invited and, well,” a grin, “you’ll see.”
Raquel had been living in Phnom Penh for over three years. She’d come on a Fulbright, had started an eco-friendly social enterprise that employed disadvantaged women.
Raquel was fluent in Khmer.
I was not.
She was thin and petite, built like a Cambodian.
I was not.
She had Khmer friends and Western friends.
I had none and few, respectively.
Raquel also knew things. She knew which slums had just been bulldozed, which NGOs were shady, which K-Pop hair salons were best. She answered my newbie questions with endless patience: where can I buy Western bed sheets? (a stall at Central Market); why I do sometimes catch weird vibes off the monks? (a lot of them are only monks for a free place to live, not because they’re that devout); what’s that hose in the bathroom for? (to use instead of toilet paper).
So when I couldn’t find a shirt that fit me for the wedding, it was Raquel that suggested I go to a tailor. When I didn’t have enough time to go to a tailor, it was Raquel that wrangled something together out of other people’s wardrobes.
It was Raquel who knew Sophy; it was Raquel who knew Cambodia. I was just along for the ride.
By 7am, everyone was fully dressed in traditional outfits. I wasn’t sure where they’d all come from. Maybe fifteen people had slept at Sophy’s family’s two-room house, where Raquel and I had been ushered into the girls’ room and given a position of honor—an actual bed instead of a straw mat on the floor.
But now dozens of people milled around: men in shiny collared shirts, women all in slim embroidered skirts and colorful blouses, the wedding party in electric, sequined orange.
We were the only Westerners, the only barang. People smiled at us; they said words I couldn’t understand, the sounds of which got swallowed by the piercing loudspeakers. An old woman stroked my arm.
“She says you’re beautiful,” Raquel translated.
We were handed tin bowls of offerings—fruit and sweets, covered in ribbons and plastic wrap—and were herded out onto the dirt road in front of the house.
A man with a comb-over and a camera grabbed Raquel and I, and brought us to the front of the line that was forming. He positioned us beside the wedding party and family—another position of honor for the barang.
At 5’10”, I towered above everyone. Even in flats.
A boy wore an orange satin shirt and puffy red sneakers; he balanced a load of bananas on his shoulder. Another held a parasol over Sophy, her face painted so thick with make-up that it looked like it hurt to smile. She kept a frozen, half-smile on her lips.
“My shirt doesn’t fit,” I whispered to Raquel.
She tugged at the front of it, furled her brow. “The buttons are kinda tight… Well, just try not to lean back.” In a matching hand-tailored blouse and skirt, Raquel looked graceful in the morning light.
“No problem,” I said with a wink. “I’ll just walk like a hunchback.”
Two half-naked children stood at the side of the road, their bellies bulging beneath t-shirts. They stuck their fingers in their mouths and stared.
Music blared and we made our slow march through the town. I didn’t know where we were going. We walked past stilted houses, piles of tires, an old man digging in the dirt. Water from a pond gleamed behind the homes. I glanced over my shoulder—a trail of friends and relatives snaked behind us.
We turned onto the highway. It was the one paved road in the village, and we walked on the shoulder, trucks and hand-tractors and buses to Battambang that heaved around us and sighed clouds of exhaust. The sun was already stinging; dust blew up and I squinted. The cameraman darted in front of me, snapped a photo. I tried to smile.
I looked down at my blouse—the buttons were pulling. I hunched my shoulders forward.
We walked in a circle, and made our way back to the house, still holding our offerings. We walked through arches tied with orange and pink ribbons, and past enormous glamor photos of the bride and groom; we placed the offerings back down, in front of the same altar from which they’d come.
We sat down at folding tables, plastic chairs covered in cloth, and shared a breakfast of boh boh, rice porridge. The chicken still had bones in it, and I didn’t know what to do with them—I spit them discreetly into a napkin, which I tucked under the rim of my plate.
Raquel watched me out of the corner of her eye and shook her head.
I looked around. Everyone else was yanking the bones out of their mouth with bare fingers and flinging them on the ground.
A dog with patchy fur and a small, shrunken leg hobbled beneath the tables, sniffing at the bones. I watched Sophy, sitting stiffly in her sequined top, her face hidden behind a mass of curly wig. I tugged at the waist of my tight skirt, letting my belly bulge out.
The music shook the tables.
We were told after breakfast that we could change out of our traditional clothes. We weren’t sure what to wear next; I managed to slide my skirt off without popping the button, and put on my jeans and a t-shirt. Raquel changed into a light dress; it had half-sleeves and a detailed waist. She looked fresh, breezy.
I felt my legs sticking to my pants.
We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We milled around the house and peeked in at other ceremonies—the couple wearing purple, kneeling before an altar; the couple wearing orange, standing before another altar; the couple wearing green, murmuring chants.
The cameraman slinked around the corners. The bride and groom sat before giant camera lights. Beads of sweat made their way down the groom’s flushed face, and it looked as though his hair gel had begun to melt. Sophy’s face stayed as painted and still as a doll’s. From a distance, under the lights, you couldn’t see how caked the make-up was.
She looks pretty, I thought.
The loudspeakers jangled my tired body.
The whole time, people filtered through. People would sit in folding chairs, watch the ceremony with half-interested eyes for a few moments, then wander off. Family members took part in different aspects, then changed into their pajamas and ate fruit. Old women with silver teeth and milky eyes smiled at me, said long sentences in Khmer; I smiled back and shook my head. Teenage girls sprawled out on the big bed I’d slept on and watched television, the sound cranked up over the loudspeaker. Children cried and dogs sniffed; the young boys hired as waiters yanked tablecloths off, and napkins and water bottles scattered on the dirt ground. The band sat on the floor in the corner, microphones slung around at different angles—thin old men and one young girl with glowing skin, who sang a high-pitched wail into a microphone. The music crackled and screeched out of the enormous speakers.
I wiped the sweat from my neck. You’re not hot, I told myself. You’re not uncomfortable and you’re not tired. You’re having a cultural experience.
An old man with orange lipstick held the microphone. He had sagging socks under his pointy dress shoes and spoke in the cadence of a disc jockey. Children giggled; the old women covered their mouths and laughed.
“What’s he saying?” I whispered to Raquel.
She shrugged again. “I dunno. They speak in a different vocabulary for ceremonies; I don’t know what any of the words mean.”
The old man made a gesture at the bride and groom, waved his arms in a slapstick manner. “He seems more like a variety show host than an officiator,” I whispered.
Raquel said nothing. Over the music and the laughter, I didn’t think she’d heard me.
Sophy sat in a folding chair, staring straight ahead.
The guitar strings rattled against my skull.
After lunch, it was time for the hair-cutting ceremony.
I wasn’t sure what that meant, other than that I had to change into my nicer dress. Raquel had brought three different dresses for me to try. “They’re all bigger sizes,” she assured me with a patient smile, pulling them out of her compact weekend bag.
Back in the sweaty tin room where we’d slept, I ducked beneath a sheet that had been strung up as a curtain. I stood between sacks of rice and tried one of the dresses on. I couldn’t get my arms into the sleeves. I sighed and peeled it off.
I tried the second—long-sleeved, dark blue. You could see my underpants.
The third dress was the same deal. I briefly considered not wearing underpants, then nixed the idea.
I looked at myself in the mirror—I looked sweaty and greasy. Crow’s feet dove between my eyes. I stood sideways, sucked in my belly then let it out.
The twang of the guitar cut against the tiredness behind my eyes.
I tugged my jeans back on, under one of the see-through dresses. I went outside, towards the edge of the ceremony, where Raquel stood. “Oh, that looks nice!” she said above the music. She looked down, “But why do you have your jeans on?”
“It’s totally see-through!” I hissed.
Her face stiffened. “Look, I did my best to help,” she said before turning her eyes back to the ceremony.
I hung my head. She was right—she’d gone out of her way to get me clothes for the wedding. I realized I hadn’t even thanked her.
Before I could apologize, I was ushered up to participate in the hair-cutting ceremony. A woman sprayed the couple’s hair, guided my hands as I pretended to snip their hair. I looked at the drips of water down Sophy’s back, the smell of her hairspray ripe in the air. The cameraman lunged forward and I winced in the camera’s flash.
I looked over my shoulder as I walked away from the couple. Sophy sat still and dripping, smiling her doll smile.
I apologized to Raquel later that night, when the heat of the day had broken and the bride and groom had disappeared. She smiled, shrugged, “Hey, it’s hot and loud and we’re both exhausted.”
I nodded. “It’s harder than I thought,” I ventured.
I looked around—at the dirt floor, the pink décor, the piercing lights, the muddy path to the outhouses. I looked down—at the sweat-stained clothes that didn’t fit, the faded tattoo on my wrist, the fingers swollen from heat.
She meant being at the wedding; she meant being in the village. She didn’t mean being in Cambodia; she didn’t mean being a barang in Cambodia.
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said.
The music went until 11. We danced around a table with fruit piled high, shuffling our feet and twisting our wrists, until we couldn’t anymore, and collapsed on the bed. I listened to the tin room rattle. When the music stopped, the quiet was dense and the warmth of sleep rushed over me.
I got up to pee in the morning—slid on my shoes and tip-toed towards the outhouses. I peaked through an open door and saw Sophy sitting there, under glaring lights, in front of another altar—full hair and make-up, another sequined dress, palms pressed and legs crossed.
The camera flashed.
It was ten till seven.
In the afternoon there was a massive banquet, the biggest yet. The wedding party greeted us at the entrance to the tent, posed for photos. We pressed our palms together and bowed to a succession of relatives wearing a succession of neon hues.
Inside we were seated at a table with local government officials—another position of honor. The men had earnest smiles and pressed shirts. They wiped our glasses with little pink napkins, filled them with Fanta; they raised and clinked glasses every few minutes.
One of them leaned towards me and spoke slow words.
I gave a weak, heat-wilted smile and shook my head.
He leaned closer, repeated the Khmer words. He smelled like beer.
My eyes darted to Raquel.
“Your nose,” she said. “He said you have a very nice nose.”
Eight courses were served and I ate each one, because I didn’t know what else to do. I drank soda even though I didn’t want it. I felt sweat dripping down the back of my borrowed dress.
After eating we were dragged to the dance floor, another jangling song through piercing speakers. We moved in pairs around another table, another pile of fruit. I felt bloated and heat-swollen.
A man rose from between the tables, began weaving his way through the crowd. I watched him. He was young but worn, had dark skin that looked taut over his sharp bones. He clutched a beer and stumbled around the other dancers, lurching and spinning to his own rhythm. Instead of dress clothes, he wore a t-shirt and stained work pants. His arms were covered in thick-lined tattoos.
In the States, they would have been prison tattoos.
In Cambodia, I didn’t know what they were.
He spotted me and came over. He pointed to my tattoos and grunted. He pulled up his sleeve to show me his—blown-out and rugged and older looking than him.
He had a scar across the side of his face, I noticed. His eyes were bloodshot, glazed in drunkenness.
He pulled up his other sleeve, then his shirt. His back was scrappy and hard looking—bones and muscle and little dark spots like cigarette burns.
Everything was hard, sharp, worn.
He reeked of beer.
I slowly stopped dancing. I stared.
Someone appeared to usher him away, laughing and bowing their head in apology. As he was herded off, the man glanced back at me and grunted.
“He was really excited about your tattoos,” Raquel leaned forward and said into my ear.
I watched him disappear. “He was also shit-faced.”
“Yeah, well, I’d be too,” she said. “If I were deaf in a country that basically had no sign language.”
I blinked. “Oh.”
I kept searching the crowd for him after that, but he was gone. My dance partner gave me encouraging smiles; I continued twisting my wrists and shuffling my feet, around the mountain of jackfruit and durian and bananas and mangosteens. The music buzzed in my teeth.
When we left the banquet, the bride and groom were still standing at the entrance, in the piercing sun. I wondered if they’d eaten.
We slid a red envelope of money into their hands. They pressed their palms together and bowed. The cameraman snapped another photo.
Sophy still hadn’t broken a sweat.