On my way to the United States, which is actually my first-ever encounter to the place, I met two Cambodian women and spotted many young Cambodian girls at the Phnom Penh International Airport – I thought they were teenagers. They were pretty and well-dressed. Different from my last flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where many Cambodian girls and women I saw at the airport were way much younger and looked quite distressed. Most of them had so short hair that I thought they looked like men. Driven by poverty and a promise of prosperity in a foreign land, these young Cambodians travel in flocks to a completely different country where they do not speak the native tongue.
These young ladies who were on my flight with me to Incheon airport giggled and showed off their wealth through fashionable clothes and jewelry they wore. Not long ago, young Cambodian women were lured into a promise of an honest though old South Korean husband with a high annual income, a house and a car, as long as they live, life there would be better than in Cambodia. Many were married to South Koreans, some through brokers or dating agencies. Just early this year, Cambodia had stopped all international marriages for several months, because of concerns over human trafficking related to South Koreans and Cambodians, after several such claims had been made, for instance, of a Cambodian woman who was locked up to be shown to a prospective South Korean husband. The list can go on. In November, the government lifted the ban on foreign marriages which apparently brings a rise again in marriages between South Koreans and Cambodians.
Mostly, it is marriages between Cambodian women and South Korean men, and it is rare to see Cambodian men married to South Korean women, because, as part of modernization, South Korean women start to marry late, or they do not marry at all and have no children. This, as a result, prompts South Korean men to look for brides in South East Asian countries like Cambodia and Vietnam.
A conversation with two Cambodian ladies that lasted for nearly 30 minutes left me in awe. Of course, I know people leave from one place to a completely new place every year, if not every day. Challenges are ahead in a new country, but these two women feared nothing, for they said they had faced enough in Cambodia. Economic growth in South Korea and Cambodians’ desperation for a better life are real contributors to their immigration. At my first sight, they were doubtlessly sisters. And, they really were. The older sister (A) was in her early 30s and spoke Korean so fluently that her Khmer accent became almost manipulated/changed. Her younger sister (B) was in her 20s. Like many Cambodian women, they had a very fair complexion. The older sister has lived in South Korea for more than 6 years already while her younger sister followed her to live there three years ago. “A” is now a mother of a 5-year-old boy and the wife of a South Korean husband that is simply much older than her. But she said that she was happy with her marriage. Now working around the house, “A” said she did not have to work while she was looking after her son. “A” described to me a “great” picture of South Korea and how better her life has become after settling there.
Good roads, a higher salary, more respect of human rights, advantages for citizens, security and better health care are a combination of reasons that drives “A” to live there forever till she grows old, she said. However, she regularly visits her parents at home, and has promised to bring them there after several years. Whereas “B” is single, and I assume she is looking for a husband there too. “B” was helped to settle in South Korea by “A” because their salaries could really help upgrade their family’s life back home. From Monday to Friday, “B” said she works in a car manufacturing company, and though her work is a bit hard, her pay is very good, and therefore she can save a lot more to visit home regularly with her older sister.
These two women are clearly examples of average Cambodian women whose wants and needs have to be heard by the whole nation. Their life in Korea seems to be very good and happy, but not everyone who ends up in Korea can run into happiness like both of them. Cold weather, loneliness at a strange place, and a different language, can cause distress and despair. However, they came to fight once and for all. Drifted away by their description of a brighter future, I finally found it was time for us all to board the plane. Immediately after that, the younger sister of “A” nudged me to look at other well-dressed young girls. The sad fact, “B” said, is that their husbands are much older than they are, and love marriage does not count any more.
“Do we need to marry for love any more? Not in this century,” “B” asked and answered all by herself.
After more than five hours on the plane from Phnom Penh to Incheon, the two sisters and I said goodbye, and because “B” wanted to maintain contact with me, I gave her my number. I told her she could call for help if any unfortunate things might happen to her. It never occurred to me that I was not in a position to say that. While I was wondering who could legitimately say that and waiting for the next flight to catch at Incheon airport, the sun was rising so brightly in front of my eyes.
The article can also be read here.