As I sat on the back of my Valentine’s moto, skimming by hordes of young couples donning sequined red dresses and earnestly chosen polyester button ups, I felt a pang of sadness.
When we stopped at a stall outside Lucky Supermarket to buy a dozen roses for my mom and they told us they would be $25, I became even sadder, even a bit angry.
I’m not anti-Valentine’s Day. Even during times of single-ness, I enjoyed picking out Lord of the Rings cards for my colleagues and watching my dad give my mom bouquets of lilies and drinking cheap champagne with friends. I don’t usually go all out for the holiday other than on a few select occasions in the past, mainly because I find it sad to act a certain way on a particular occasion when I should be exhibiting that sort of love daily. Ladies, throw on that red Marilyn Monroe inspired dress. But gents, go out and buy that big box of chocolates for your lady. I can appreciate that people are doing what makes them feel like you’re honoring those that they love in your life, whether it be their significant other, family member, and in some weirder cases…pets?
What did bother me about the whole V-Day scene yesterday was the fanaticism I witnessed around me. From the start of the day in the office, girls and women alike were running across the street to salons and getting their hair pin curled and their lips reddened. Gangnam Style blared on repeat from the wedding planners shop under my office and I was constantly bombarded with questions on what I would be doing that evening, always with what seemed to be underlying expectations of a response of fireworks, rose petal filled Jacuzzis, and 6 course dinners topped with Cristal. When evening hit, the roads were packed to the brim with Lexuses on their way to Stonegrill and T-Bone Steakhouse and aisles at the grocery were lined with freshy boys trying to choose between which boxes of shitty chocolates they would get their sweetie. Although in the States Valentine’s Day is capitalized the same if not more, I had never encountered the same frenzy about the holiday as I did here. A $25 bouquet of roses is a quarter of some individuals’ salaries here, but I continued to see stretching queues of people waiting to snatch up a meager bouquet. The pressure was on.
The Phnom Penh Post released an article about the crackdown on young couples visiting guesthouses to have sex and public statements were released by Hun Sen for women to keep their virginities on Valentine’s Day. Ritchie had previously brought up the strong influence of authorities on the sexual behaviors of young adults, especially during this holiday, and I responded with “well they don’t have prom.”
Which is true, high school prom is the all American event where countless teens have lost it in the back of Toyota Camrys and Subaru Outbacks and since the 16 year olds of Phnom Penh don’t have that event in their lives, Valentine’s Day could just be the filler. In the sexually repressed culture in Cambodia, this may just be the biggest excuse for romanticism and that with the expected romance come the opportunity for sex, the same way BCBG clad dance goers in the states do on prom night.
In the article from the Post, they chatted with Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, he saying that
“I think public education is needed on issues of pre-marital sex, but you can’t do it by violating people’s rights.”
I’m in total agreement as it seems obvious that the sexual education, influences, and practices in Cambodia are extremely skewed, especially compared to modern movements in feminism and basic human rights. When polled, a majority of young Khmer men ranging from age 18-25 have participated in rape of some kind, whether it with a paid prostitute or with a group of peers. That, we can all agree, is not right. My take on this (and I have a lot to learn here) is that nothing about the sexual culture in Cambodia can truly be changed without education as Ou Virak stated, but for a strong shift in sexual entire social structure has to change. Men are going to have to lose their bravado, learn to respect their wives, daughters, and women in general, and the ladies of Cambodia are going to have to muster the courage, change their submissive ways and stand up for themselves and their rights. Maybe they’ll be able to not feel guilty about being a career woman or feel that it’s their prerogative to get angry when their husband shows up the next morning with no explanation and to not fear violence when they do feel that way. For this kind of change, it will take years. To add to the demands of a relationship already stretched thin, the absolute necessity for the Khmer youth culture to fit in, follow trends, and have what everyone else does only widens the strange gap between idealism and reality here. Not everyone can afford an iPhone 5, brand new shiny moto, and knock-off Birkin but they’ll find a way-as long as they can keep up with the trends. Sometimes I feel conflicted, working for a women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine in such a consumerist culture where money is so unevenly split, only perpetuating the desire for more than what is in our reach and never being content with the fabulous things we are fortunate enough to possess. I do try and placate myself though knowing that I can’t save the world, and that the position that I am in may allow me to voice my opinions, urge individuals and myself to understand well rounded style but be able to mirror it in a way that stays true to ourselves. I hope to shape the magazine in a forward thinking way, open up young women’s eyes to something beyond copying Korea or the U.S. and urge self inspired thought.
I did partake in a day date lunch with my mentor-ish lady friend Lina at La P’tite France where we enjoyed a bottle of rose, pate, French onion soup, salade Lyonnaise, bone marrow, and quiche so I can’t say I didn’t treat myself. For the record, we had made these lunch plans before we knew it was V-Day. We were able to share freely the ups and downs of current and past relationships, unload some baggage, and stuff our mouths with delightfully rich fare.
For Valentine’s evening, I made chicken and dumpling soup for Ritchie and Duncan with my mom at her welcoming little flat. We dined around a small, low table, they drank Talisker whiskey and I sipped on Savanna Dry Cider and we shared stories about family, edification, love, and our histories that have found themselves intertwined in the most stunning way. We listened to music that my mother dances to in solitude, we looked at photographs of my dad from his golden youth to the winter of his life, we were struck with awe when looking at photos of Scotland’s beautiful seas and we batted mosquitoes to their deaths, laughing uncontrollably at the ease of it all.
Although I scorn the Valentine’s Day culture here, I also understand the need for companionship, the necessity of contact and striving for a connection; something we all need, whether we admit to it or not. If it takes years of overpriced bouquets, gaudy diamante and nights in Hennessy clubs for someone to find what really gives them that true sense of happiness when being with someone that holds their heart and soul with utmost care, then so be it.
I know that I’m the luckiest, and I really shouldn’t boast.