Three Chapters of My Life
The lights of the city twinkled in the distance with its gentle glow. As the airplane started to descend, I hardly recognized this landscape. Only a few years ago they were a few flickers, one strand of lights enveloping the city. Now it was multiple strings encasing a growing metropolis.
I last visited Cambodia in 2017. I had the intention to visit every year or at least every other year to keep my connection to the country. To help my children maintain this part of their identity. But the world stopped in 2020 on a global and personal level. In July I travelled back to Cambodia after five years of being away. The country is the same, but different. The world is the same, but different. I am the same, but different.
I look back on my first visit to Cambodia in January 2004. I was 28 years old. As the plane hovered over the Phnom Penh sky, the landscape was dotted with green pastures, scattered homes and a few buildings. I was engaged and planning my wedding in September. I was eager to explore a country I had never known and after the trip, get married and start my new life.
Nearly ten years later I moved to Cambodia in 2013 after my father passed away. The empty skyline was budding with a few skyscrapers gently altering the landscape. I came back with two young children, eager to fill the void left by my father and reconnect more firmly in my roots. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to make up for the lost years of my childhood and to share in the same innocence of discovery as my children.
For three and a half years, through this blog, I documented my journey of rediscovering my roots and explored the past, present and future of Cambodia. I interviewed young leaders, what it means to be Cambodian-American, delved into my family history and explored countless cities, restaurants and quirks that make Cambodia unique.
It was my way of building relationships and showing the world that Cambodia is more than the history that it is often defined by. It was bittersweet when we left in 2016 to move back to the U.S. But I knew I wanted to come back often. It was a promise I made to the children when tears glistened in their eyes as we stared out of the airplane window, saying goodbye to the only place they knew of as their home. Their friends, school, community, familiar places of their everyday life. They were two and three years old when we first moved to Cambodia and five and six when we left. This was the only place they had lived for most of their lives, up until that point.
In 2019 I had planned a trip back for the summer of 2020. Then the pandemic hit. What started as a two-week quarantine turned into two months, six months, one year, two years and onwards. No one came out of the pandemic unscathed. Relationships of every level were tested, even the ones with ourselves. After 15 years of marriage and nearly 18 years together, my husband and I mutually decided to separate.
So, in this third chapter of my life, post pandemic, I returned to Cambodia in July with my two children, divorced, raising two adolescent children and navigating a new life that I hadn’t planned for. And while we are no longer the traditional definition of a nuclear family, we are an evolving family and partners.
The Stigma of Divorce
Divorce is hard enough to talk about with friends and family, much less in a public way. Yet, there is less of a stigma in Western culture such as the U.S. where the divorce rate is nearly 50 percent. There is more of a support system and network to process the emotions, navigate the challenges and heal. For example, when I was going through my divorce in the early stages I joined Divorce Care. Because it was during COVID, the group met online once a week and focused on a different topic each week such as recovery, anger, finances, grief, and children. I found empathy and encouragement from those going through the process and made some good friends along the way.
While divorce is more mainstreamed in the U.S., in Cambodian culture it is rare and viewed as taboo. Most marriages in Cambodia are arranged by the parents who search for a suitable spouse for their children, oftentimes within their social and economic class. The notion of dating is relatively new as the younger generation is starting to embrace Western concepts of romantic love such as Valentine’s Day. Love and marriage by tradition in Cambodia is practical, dutiful (particularly for women), and a reflection of the overall family. A failure in the marriage could be viewed as embarrassment for the family and “loss of face”.
There are very few resources for people to navigate through divorce and the Cambodian courts make it extremely difficult to go through the process. One friend has been trying to get a divorce for years from an uncooperative spouse. While this also occurs in the U.S. these are usually the exception. The process can be efficient if both parties are cooperative. For her, there have been multiple stalled court dates, outdated laws, struggles to gain custody of her children, and lawyers who just drag their feet. Children are often used as collateral and alienation of one parent is common to seek vengeance or justice.
Challenging the Norm
Divorce is also very stigmatized because it’s not talked about openly and very few role models, especially for women, who are brave and vulnerable enough to share their stories, until now. I recently came across an interview with Her Excellency Chea Serey, the Assistant Governor of the National Bank of Cambodia. Ms. Serey holds a powerful position in the government. She is a renaissance woman, highly accomplished in her career, very well educated, speaks multiple languages, a painter, global speaker and a recognized leader. She has always been a role model for Cambodian women in her professional career and now, she is a trailblazer, speaking publicly about an issue that is often swept under the rug. She is an advocate for woman to take control of their own personal happiness and financial security, despite societal expectations.
In that interview with her, she shares the story of her recent divorce from her husband of nearly 20 years. Her willingness to speak about this in a public way, and courage to leave a marriage that was not serving her was powerful. What she also speaks about is the importance of not only having financial independence, but also self-love and self-care, something Cambodian woman rarely do as we are often told to sacrifice our own happiness for our children, spouse, and overall family.
Speaking up about our needs is not the norm. This is ingrained in the societal view that women should be small, quiet, and powerless. In my parent’s generation this was taught in the traditional doctrine of Chbap Srey, a code of conduct that tells women how to behave, which includes the importance of maintaining peace in the home, not drawing attention to themselves and obeying and respecting their husbands. While these beliefs are viewed as outdated, especially among the younger urban population, women are oftentimes expected, in some degree or another, to behave that way.
With Serey being such a public figure, and with this blogpost, I hope this opens the door for more women, and men, to have an open and honest dialogue about societal expectations in relationships, marriage, and divorce, and empowers women to take control of their life and happiness. Having these conversations openly and honestly will not threaten the institution of marriage, but instead help each other to live richer, fuller, and happier lives.
We can evolve. It doesn’t have to be the same. It can be different.
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