Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Excerpt: Mother and the Tiger: A Memoir of the Killing Fields by Dana Hui Lim

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I Do

On the first day of the wedding, events began with prayer at six in the morning, a time at which the air was considered religiously pure. The relatives and friends from the groom’s side queued up in pairs, with Father and his best man at the head of each line. Every individual held a tray of food or material offerings, wrapped in fancy paper. The value of the gifts and importance of the guests declined towards the back of the line, with the closest family relatives being at the front. The level of honour that fell on each participant related directly to their position in the procession, and the significance of each was lost on no one. There was no shortage of willing hands at this point in the proceedings because everyone involved was given a gift, usually of money contained in a small red envelope. The more wealthy the family was, the greater the number of gifts and the longer the lines of people to carry them. In the case of my parents, eighteen people proceeded with great fanfare to the front of Mother’s house. Eight is a number considered lucky in Chinese; however, eight gifts would be considered too few and eighty-eight impractical. Once they arrived, Father presented Mother’s family with the customary gifts of cash and gold, enough to pay for a small house.

Though Father paid for everything, weddings traditionally took place at the bride’s house. Inside, the rooms were already crowded with relatives and guests, with monks chanting prayers and lighting incense sticks that filled the rooms with sweet smelling smoke. More was considered better, to the point where the air was probably hazardous to the health of everyone present. Cambodian women love jewellery, and a wedding provided the perfect occasion to display their wealth. Wrists, necks, ear lobes and any other limbs capable of holding something shiny were festooned with gold and diamonds, each competing with the other in a garish display of prosperity. Subtlety was not a notion to be considered. Despite the unyielding heat of the tropics the ladies’ faces were painted with heavy makeup, to the point where they bore little resemblance to their everyday appearance.

Custom made dresses were compulsory for women if they could possibly afford them. They had to be skin tight, no matter the size or shape of the wearer. Looking good was important, but less so than seeming prosperous. It was made sure that other people knew that a dress was new, and recently made for the occasion. A form fitted dress was evidence that it was both recently purchased and not off the rack. Hair was piled high, pinned, coiffed and lacquered to a finish that would survive a minor hurricane.

My mother was wrapped in a glittering gold dress that followed the tradition of Cambodian royalty. Her hair was more sculptured than anyone present and her makeup was as flawless as that seen in any Hollywood production. She was spared the discomfort of high heels as her dress was floor length, making shoes a non-issue. An ornate gold belt held the outfit together, but she wore less jewellery than most of the ladies that were present. There were many gifts of gold chains given to the bride later in the ceremony, so her arms and neck were left bare until then.

My father’s wedding attire was neat, clean and irrelevant.

To continue the proceedings, Father and Mother sat on the floor next to each other. They held a traditional pose with bodies leaning forward, elbows cushioned by pillows, legs folded to one side and their palms in prayer position, to face the monks who would bless them. To someone unaccustomed to such contortions it would appear to be an acutely uncomfortable position. It was every bit as painful as it looked, and required both flexibility and stamina to maintain with a smile. The monks took bundles of shredded banana stems and dipped them into a silver bowl of holy water, then sprinkled the liquid blessing over the couple, accompanied by more chanting. A red cotton string was tied onto the right wrists of the new couple, signifying their union as husband and wife. Following that portion of ceremony, Mother changed into her second outfit of the day. There would be several more to come.

On the second day a tea ceremony was held. Mother presented tea to her parents, and Father presented to a respected elder who acted as a stand-in for his absent family. In return, my parents were given an abundance of gifts. My grandmother gave my mother a gold chain and pendant, and placed it around her neck. A hair cutting ritual followed, which was designed to represent cleanliness and good grooming in the marriage. The bride and groom sat down, and a hired couple sang and danced around them; the woman carrying a mirror and a bottle of perfume, the man with a pair of scissors and comb. They pretended to snip at the newlyweds’ hair and sprayed perfume over their heads as a kind of appeal to the Universe. With luck, any spirits that were observing the occasion would be persuaded to keep an eye on the pair, and ensure that husband and wife were always careful to look good to each other.

Some fun was traditionally had at the bride and groom’s expense that needed to be endured with good grace. To not participate, or fail to act as if they had not seen it all a dozen times before, would cause a loss of face. There was a huge importance placed on maintaining one’s respect in the community, and in order to accomplish this it was sometimes necessary to play the fool. A relative would hold a peeled banana between the couple and ask them to both eat it without using their hands. As the couple leaned forward the relative would pull away the banana, causing the couple’s faces to bump into each other. The couple were teased throughout for the amusement of the guests, and presumably the annoyance of the betrothed.

While the ceremonies were carried out, food preparation went on in the background, making sure that everyone attending was provided with a meal, at any time during the three days and nights. It would be unacceptable for anyone to be the least bit hungry, resulting in much embarrassment. A professional cook was hired and a small army of volunteer women laboured to prepare the huge amounts of ingredients needed. On the final evening they each received a red envelope containing money. No one guest actually attended every ceremony that took place, nor stayed the entire time. People came and went as they pleased and the various events were separated by excessive eating, drinking and gossiping.

On the final night of the wedding, a lengthy and alcohol-fuelled reception was held for three hundred guests. There was no significance to the number; it was merely the total population of the village, minus the people who were working in the kitchen, serving the tables or playing in the band. An eight-course banquet was served, eight being lucky in Chinese culture and just about the number of dishes a guest could comfortably consume.

The guests presented the newlyweds with envelopes of cash upon which were written their names, so that the amount each person gave could later be counted and recorded. This was vital, so that a similar gift could be returned when each of the guests, or their children in turn, were married. Over time a person would attend as many marriages as they themselves had guests at their own wedding, and provided each guest was eventually married then everyone more or less broke even in the end. The whole system might have seemed pointless, but there was indeed a reason. A young couple would receive a large amount of cash with which to begin their married life, and in effect they started out with an interest free loan. Inflation was calculated and gifts were adjusted, according to how much the cost of food rose between one wedding and the next. A person who chose to stay single was out of luck financially because they would still be invited and expected to attend every wedding. In any case, a devoted bachelor or spinster would be an aberration. Marriage was the norm.

On the last night everyone danced to the music of a live band, and the newlyweds worked their way around to each table to thank their guests individually. At midnight and after eighteen hours of celebration, they were the last to leave the reception. Alone for the first time in their lives, the couple finally had the opportunity to actually get to know each other. The exhausting process of becoming husband and wife was over and Mother moved to Kratie where Father ran his business. This is where my parents began their new lives together.

Mother and Tiger

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Genre – Memoir

Rating – PG13

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