Editor’s Note: Since this piece was originally written in 2009, the ever-controversial issue of mixed marriages has taken a few twists and turns in Cambodia. In 2011, the government set an upper age limit of 49 for all foreign men wishing to marry Cambodian women in an effort to promote what it labelled “honest marriages”. The law did not apply to foreign women and Cambodian men. “Marrying a man over 50 years old seems like a grandfather and a granddaughter,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told the Phnom Penh Post at the time. “We want people getting married to look like proper couples.”
But in November 2018, this measure was finally lifted, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation releasing a statement once again sanctioning foreign men of all ages to marry Cambodian women, providing they earn at least $2,500 a month (and are willing to jump through copious bureaucratic hoops). The minimum monthly wage is reportedly to ensure a decent standard of living for Cambodian brides and minimise the risk of labour trafficking.
Much to the delight of his girlfriend’s family, William Masters and Sary Sothearoth went through a simple ceremony during last year’s  government ban on barang-Cambodian marriages.
“We wanted to be together, so out of respect for Cambodian traditions and the wishes of Roth’s family we were blessed by a monk and hosted a party to celebrate,” says Masters, 44. “But we had to wait until the ban was lifted to have the union legally recognised.”
After an International Organisation for Migration report highlighted its concern over a growing number of brokered marriages involving poor, uneducated women who ended up in countries such as South Korea and became victims of sexual exploitation or were forced into domestic slavery, the Cambodian ministry of foreign affairs introduced a ban on mixed unions in March 2008. It was lifted the following November allowing Masters and Sothearoth to finally put thumbprints to paper.
Out of respect for Cambodian traditions we were blessed by a monk and hosted a party to celebrate … But we had to wait until the ban was lifted to have the union legally recognised
An oil refinery technician, Masters returns to the US frequently to earn money. “It’s difficult for us to be apart, but I want to support my wife, our dreams and our future,” he says winking at Sothearoth, 25, who runs Zorro’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Although they differ on how many children they want – Masters wants as many as possible while Sothearoth quickly interjects “we’ll have two” – they agree they will be raised in Cambodia. “We want our children to have Khmer values, morals and customs,” says Sothearoth. “The experiences our children will face here – the daily challenges, the international environment – will better prepare them for life,” Masters adds.
On the other hand, for Jo Clifford, 38, and Sun Gao, 30, her Khmer husband, the education and healthcare facilities in Cambodia are the reason they may move to Britain, Clifford’s home country, in the future. “Our daughter Mae Li was born in England so she is a British citizen,” says Clifford, “and can benefit from the quality of education and healthcare available in Britain.”
Mixed marriages in Cambodia often carry layers of suspicion. Is the Khmer partner more interested in foreign citizenship and a foreign work permit? Will the barang partner suddenly pack his or her bags and leave? “Initially we faced a lot of cynicism from both sides of the cultural divide,” says Clifford. “We had to show our friends and his family we were committed to each other.” They married in early 2008.
The breadwinner in the family and eight years older than Gao, Clifford says most Khmer men, including her husband initially, find the idea of a woman bringing home the money in a marriage difficult to handle. “You have to choose your battles, but we manage to compromise on most things. Ultimately, though, I have the final say when it comes to issues such as health insurance and education.”
In the time since they married, the government has developed a legal framework to recognise mixed marriages. Foreign applicants must submit a certificate of “no impediment”, which is issued via their embassy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. If the form meets all legal requirements it will be forwarded to the Ministry of Interior for examination before going to the relevant local registrar to complete the marriage formalities. “Importantly, our marriage certificate is recognised in the UK, which will make it easier for us to move there,” says Clifford.
John and Sophiline Shapiro, founders of the Khmer Arts Academy, were married long before the new regulations. “We met and got married during the early 1990s,” says John Shapiro, 46. “At that time the United States and Cambodia did not have diplomatic relations.” Claiming to be the first American man to marry a Cambodian since the Khmer Rouge regime, he described the process they had to go through as drawn-out and farcical.
Initially we faced a lot of cynicism from both sides of the cultural divide … We had to show our friends and his family we were committed to each other
“The local authorities looked baffled by our request,” he says. He was asked to submit letters of permission from his parents, proof of funds from his bank, of employment from his boss, of good health from his doctor, of a crime-free record from a lawyer and a letter of no objection from the US government. Unsure of how to get the US government to recognise his intention to marry, he approached his local congressman, who then requested a letter of request from the Cambodian government.
“After all that we then had to get a US immigration visa,” Sophiline, 42, says. Going through the Vietnamese refugee programme, it took five weeks to get the documents. “The whole process took five months,” she adds, “but after the 1991 [Paris Peace Agreements, which secured the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war] it became a lot easier.” They lived in the US for 15 years before returning to Cambodia with their five-year-old twin boys in 2006.
Many couples prefer not to marry and thus save time, energy and money. “It was simply too complicated and expensive,” says a 45-year-old English teacher Raaj Sing of the $600 unofficial price tag attached to the marriage certificate he was offered.
Other unmarried couples complain of the “processing charges” for licences that add up to anything from $10 to $1,000 but amount, in reality, to little more than corruption. “In the end, we decided not to bother,” Tina Kim Pheng, 32, owner of Bites restaurant, says. “We have no plans to move to Canada, so there is no real need for us to legalise the marriage.”
In the end, we decided not to bother … We have no plans to move to Canada, so there is no real need for us to legalise the marriage
While Sing wouldn’t mind having Khmer nationality, it is not a priority for him, and the other three foreigners agree. “I have heard it can cost up to $50,000,” Shapiro says. “I don’t really see what advantages it would bring, but I can think of many other ways to spend that kind of money.”
Miscommunication is a common source of both amusement and anger among many couples. “It’s important to speak the same language as your partner,” say Clifford reminiscing over a wedding present that left 12 chickens running around their kitchen. A gift from his sister, Gao was reluctant to have them removed.
Sing and Tina say language barriers, not cultural differences, are the main source of confusion.
“He likes to talk about everything in great detail,” says Tina. ”She likes to talk in code, it takes a long time to get any information,” says Sing. But the arguments fuel the passion that keeps them together. “We love to make up,” they both agree. On their first date eight years ago, Sing took Tina out for dinner and ordered a bottle of wine. A less common tipple for many Cambodians, it was a first for Tina.
“After half a glass, Tina went to the bathroom,” recollects Sing. When she hadn’t returned 20 minutes later he went to look for her and found her asleep on the bathroom floor. “I’ve now progressed to one glass of wine or one can of beer,” laughs Tina.
When Sophiline was performing in the States some people refused to believe she was Cambodian because of her Jewish surname
Miscommunication has been a constant feature during the Shapiro’s 19-year marriage, “more so in the beginning,” says Shapiro recalling an incident early on when Sophiline asked why Americans hated their children. Shapiro pressed further to discover Sophiline believed parents made their children leave home at 18, unusual in a family-oriented society like Cambodia, rather than leaving by choice or to pursue higher education.
Their mixed marriage has also proven to be a topic of conversation for others. “When Sophiline was performing in the States some people refused to believe she was Cambodian because of her Jewish surname,” says her husband, “and then after the show we overheard a taxi driver saying, ‘she’s not Cambodian; she’s Japanese. I know because of her last name’.”
For Masters and Roth, regular breakdowns in communication brighten their relationship. Just a couple of hours before the interview Masters was playing with their nephew when he shouted out “baot cheung touch” or “I need to pee”, not understanding William continued to throw him in the air mistaking the plea for sounds of joy. The inevitable happened. The two-year-old couldn’t hold himself anymore and peed all over his uncle.
“Miscommunication is a funny thing,” says Masters wearing a clean t-shirt. “At least once a week one of us will say, with a puzzled expression, ‘What, honey?’”