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*All photos courtesy of the talented Alex + Jess Photography.
One of the most beautiful things about living in a melting pot of a country like America is that we can freely celebrate the coming together of two cultures for love!
As a Cambodian American woman who married a Tunisian man in my hometown of Monroe, Connecticut, it was important to me to not only pay homage to my Cambodia (Khmer) roots, but also to Mohamed’s Arabic culture and our American traditions to celebrate our marriage.
From outfit changes to the symbolism of traditional Cambodian wedding ceremonies, I wanted to share how we incorporated our American, Cambodian, and Tunisian cultures into our mixed cultural wedding!
Deciding to do a modern Cambodian wedding ceremony instead of a traditional American one represents the celebration of me finally reaching the pinnacle of understanding (and being proud of) my Cambodian American identity.
Growing up in Connecticut as the first generation to parents that are survivors of the Cambodian genocide, I struggled with my identity as an American minority, especially at a young age. As soon as I went to school, I knew I was different. From the way I looked to the foods I ate, to my family’s traditions, I often felt like I didn’t fit in. And I hated it. I just wanted to feel and look like everyone else.
It wasn’t until a life-changing trip to Cambodia as a naïve 17-year-old back in 2007 when I realized how rich my Cambodian culture is and how beautiful the Khmer people are.
Throughout my 20s, I dedicated myself to learning and embracing more of my heritage as I continued to evolve and understand what it means to be a Cambodian American woman.
Celebrating my marriage with a modern Cambodian wedding is not only my way of paying tribute to my unique roots but also symbolizes my evolution into a woman that has finally understood her identity as a proud, first-generation Cambodian-American.
But my identity wasn’t the only thing I wanted to celebrate with a multicultural wedding. I wanted to honor and embrace my interracial love!
As a Cambodian woman, I was expected to marry someone within my community or at least ethnicity. But as they say, love is blind and the heart wants what it wants. And that was the random Tunisian guy I partnered up with in Muay Thai class back in 2016 named Mohamed.
Although our cultural backgrounds were so different, our morals and perspective on life were aligned. Like my parents, Mohamed is an immigrant himself and we believe that is a huge influence as to why our values are more similar than different.
Only in America will you see a Cambodian girl freely fall in love with the Tunisian guy from martial arts class and honor that unity. Having a multicultural wedding that pays tribute to our Cambodian, Tunisian, and American cultures was the only way we wanted to celebrate our marriage!
Seen as one of the most significant milestones in a young Khmer person’s life, a Cambodian wedding is a HUGE and SPECTACULAR event celebrated by families, friends, and sometimes, the entire community. Filled with interactive, symbolic ceremonies and extravagant, colorful outfits, Khmer weddings are an opportunity for people to come together and celebrate life in the most memorable way possible!
Traditionally, Cambodian weddings consist of eight ceremonies spanning three days. Each ceremony, is symbolic of the couple's journey as they enter their new marriage together. But the bride and groom aren't the only ones honored and showered with blessings; Cambodian weddings are an opportunity to pay tribute to the couple's families and ancestors.
We celebrated each of these Cambodian wedding ceremonies at my childhood home, making this day even more sentimental! Tents and food tables were set up in the backyard, decorated with lavish gold Cambodian decorations and offering plates.
However, what makes a Khmer wedding so unique and fun is how engaging and interactive it is. Guests are encouraged to be a part of the different ceremonies to bless and celebrate the couple. Personally, it felt like I had the entire world behind us as we started our new journey as a married couple.
And with each Khmer ceremony comes with a new wedding outfit to fashion!
We modernized our Cambodian wedding by selecting just a handful of ceremonies special to us to celebrate in one day. FIVE ceremonies, EIGHT outfit changes, and ONE badass night of dancing made our wedding the single-most epic, memorable, and exhausting day of my life!
Traditionally, before any large event, homage is paid to ancestors as they are believed to be the caretakers of the family. Food and tea are offered to the ancestors while the living family asks for blessings and protection.
A day before the wedding, my family and I headed to my grandfather’s grave to introduce him to my new husband, ask for his protection, and invite his spirit to join the celebration!
What better way to kick off a wedding than with a parade!
For the Groom's Processional, the groom and his family march with gifts to the bride’s house to meet his new wife and her family. This ceremony symbolizes the groom’s long journey to his new bride’s home to ask her parents for their permission to marry.
This reflects the social norms of the past in Cambodia. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by parents (my parents were arranged!) and the bride and groom had little to no say.
To start our wedding, Mohamed, his family, groomsmen, and guests lined up at the top of our driveway. Everyone in the parade carried one of the 30 gift platters as they marched to the front of my door, where I stood with my parents.
As the Cambodian priest (Achar) led the groom and his parade down my driveway and across the garden, the groomsmen held lavish gold umbrellas over the groom, shielding him.
Watching the groom's parade marching towards me as I stood by the front door was magical. It was incredible to envision this symbolic journey Mohamed was on to be with me, with all of his loved ones marching with him in full support. I started thinking of everything we've been through together to reach this moment, our wedding day. And yes, I did tear up!
As Achar rang the doorbell, my dad opened the front door, and thus our home, to the groom. In Khmer, I heard Achar talking to my dad. He mentioned that the groom traveled long and far to meet his beautiful bride asking to enter the home with gifts for the family. My father then allowed Mohamed and his parade into our home.
Together, we all marched to the ceremonial tent in the backyard for the ring exchange, a tradition that pays homage to my American roots. Sitting on our knees, Mohamed and I had our parents sitting beside us as Achar asked each of our parents if they agreed to our marriage. Upon their consent, Mohamed and I placed our rings on each other as an American symbol of our unity.
Note: Days before the wedding, my family and I prepared the gift platters, which consisted of different Cambodian foods, fruits, and desserts on gold platters. We even included Chinese moon cakes to honor our Chinese roots. These plates were then wrapped with colorful wrapping.
According to older Cambodians, lychee fruit is a requirement for wedding gift platters, as they believe it brings good fortune. In contrast, rambutan fruit is believed to be bad luck so we made sure not to include those!
Paying homage to family members (past and present) is everything in Cambodian culture. During this time, the bride and groom honor their parents, thanking them for their sacrifices and raising them to this point in life.
Remember those gold umbrellas used during the Groom’s Procession to shade the groom? The bride and groom use these same gold umbrellas to shade their parents, symbolizing the reversal in roles.
As we honored my Cambodian parents and Mohamed’s Tunisian parents, we passed gift platters to each of them, bowed three times each for respect, then showered them with our gratitude and love.
The significance of the Hair Cutting ceremony in Cambodian culture is to prepare the couple for their new journey together as husband and wife.
The hair of the bride and groom is metaphorically cut. Cambodians believe that cutting the hair symbolizes the bride and groom's past being cut away for a clean start as a married couple.
Once the hair is "cut", perfume is sprayed on the couple.
Using gold scissors, Achar led the ceremony and was the first to cut our hair. He blessed us on our new journey and sealed it with a splash of my mom’s Coco Chanel perfume.
Our parents and close friends lined up to "cut” our hair and shower us with blessings!
This ceremony is for all of the married couples to be a part of!
The Passing of Blessings ceremony is for all married couples to be a part of!
As the bride and groom kneel on the ground, married couples form a circle around them. Three sacred candles are lit by Achar and passed around the circle seven times counterclockwise. As Achar recites a special Buddhist prayer, each married person that receives the candle waves their right hand over the sacred flame before sweeping it towards the bride and groom.
This Passing of Blessings ceremony is an opportunity for married couples to pass on their blessings and martial successes unto the bride and groom.
As I kneeled alongside Mohamed counting the number of times the candles circled around us and listening to the Buddhist prayer, I was so overwhelmed by how much support and all the good fortune our friends and family wished for us and our new marriage!
The only way to properly close out such a lavish event like a Cambodian wedding is with the Knot-Tying ceremony!
During the Knot-Tying ceremony, the bride and groom lean onto gold pillows side by side. The couple clasps a sword between their hands, which represents the groom’s loyalty and protection of his new bride for eternity.
Led by Achar, a red silk string is tied onto the bride and groom’s wrists as they receive blessings on their new life together. This red silk string represents the unity of the bride and groom for life-long love.
Once the string is tied, a flower is dipped into the holy water and sprinkled over the heads of the newlyweds.
What an overwhelming sense of love and support to have each and every family member and guest personally bless our marriage with well-wishes, health, and happiness!
Once everyone finished tying our wrists with the red silk strings, Achar inspected each string on our wrists and cut off any that looked "suspicious" or filled with ill-blessings. Then gave us his final piece of advice for a successful marriage together.
And we all know that the only way to close out a wedding ceremony and send off the newlyweds into the world is to throw stuff at them!
As a final blessing and celebration, guests throw white palm tree seeds (“pka sla”) at the bride and groom. The couple is OFFICIALLY MARRIED!
After recovering from the pelting of palm seeds (that may or may not have landed in my mouth!) Mohamed and I concluded the Cambodian wedding by walking three times in a circle. Mohamed held the sword in his left hand and my sbay (the shawl of my outfit) with his right hand as we walked, representing his protection and support throughout our marriage.
Traditionally, the bride and groom must wear the red silk strings around their wrists for at least three days to preserve good luck. On the third day, the couple’s parents can cut the red strings but must pray for the couple beforehand. Otherwise, the couple can wear their red strings until they fall off on their own.
Two weeks after our wedding, our red strings continue to hold strong around our wrists. I hope this is symbolic of the longevity and strength of our marriage into the future!
If you know Mohamed and me, you know that we weren’t ending our wedding day without a HISTORIC night of dancing, excessive pastries, and high vibes with everyone we love.
In true American fashion, we had a photoshoot on Penfield Beach, toasted to love, had our first dance together, and cut our wedding cake!
However, we still found ways to integrate parts of our Cambodian and Tunisian culture throughout the reception. Not only did we continue to celebrate the night showcasing another three Cambodian wedding outfits, but you better believe we sprinkled in cultural Cambodian and Tunisian wedding songs for our diverse group of family and friends to bust a move to.
And damn. What a night it was!
The most memorable part of our multicultural reception was how all of our guests openly embraced and celebrated our interracial love and diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though the majority of our guests (including me, admittedly) didn't know how to, or have even seen Khmer dancing before, everyone ran to the dancefloor as soon as that Cambodian beat dropped. Following my mom's lead, everyone danced around in a circle, moving their hands as best they could to dance Khmer.
And the same thing happened when the DJ played traditional Tunisian wedding songs!
And when it came to the food and desserts, we had to go with our favorite; a full-blown Italian buffet...with pizza and cannolis of course!
But the standout was the homemade pad thai, chicken satay, and Cambodian eggrolls that my mom and her friends whipped up. They were gone before Mohamed and I made our way through the buffet line.
Our multicultural reception was our opportunity to showcase and celebrate how beautifully the American, Cambodian, and Tunisian cultures come together in such harmony!
I know...showcasing eight outfits in a single day sounds exhausting, right? It was!
Traditional Cambodian weddings require different outfits for each wedding ceremony. Some ceremonies require the bride to incorporate different pieces into her outfit (like the shawl/sbay) while others don’t.
But the thing that makes Khmer wedding outfits so stunning and ornate goes beyond just the bright colors. It's the level of intricate beading found on the outfits and the lavish jewelry and accessories that accompany them.
For the Cambodian ceremonies in the morning, Mohamed and I changed into three different modern Khmer wedding outfits.
After the morning ceremonies, we had two photoshoots planned; the first at our local park where I had soccer games and cross country meets, and the second at Penfield Beach, where our reception was.
And you know what that means? Two more outfits! We rocked a stunning red and gold Khmer outfit at the lake and an exquisite teal baby blue and gold outfit at the beach (this one was my FAVORITE).
Cambodian wedding outfit #6, a chic teal and gold off-the-shoulder top, made an appearance for the Grand Entrance that kickstarted the reception. Guests were shocked that we were wearing yet ANOTHER outfit!
But we all know it's not a traditional American wedding without that iconic white wedding dress! So for the final Cambodian wedding outfit of the day (outfit #7), I showcased a modern white and gold Khmer outfit for the cake-cutting ceremony! To me, this dress represented an integration between traditional Khmer and American wedding outfits.
As beautiful as the seven traditional Cambodian outfits were, it was nearly impossible to eat all of the pizza and desserts my heart wanted or bust out any dance moves.
So my eighth and final outfit that closed out our spectacular wedding day was an elegant white romper that stretched in all the right places.
And thank goodness too! My childhood friend instigated me to do the worm in the middle of the dancefloor, a story for another day!
Sure, EIGHT outfits on ONE wedding day may be excessive. But this decision had a bigger, more personal purpose. I wanted to wear similar outfits as my mom and dad on their wedding day exactly 33 years ago. But not just that. Outfit changes were an opportunity for me to showcase the richness and beauty of traditional Cambodian culture for our friends and family to celebrate.
Our modern multicultural wedding that celebrated our interracial American, Tunisian, and Cambodian love was the kind of closure I was looking for. Celebrating our marriage through traditional Cambodian customs was the pinnacle of my personal growth journey. I finally discovered my identity and what it meant to be a Cambodian-American woman.
But my identity wasn’t the only kind of closure I found on our wedding day. Even though Mohamed and I come from different cultural backgrounds, I saw our loved ones come together to celebrate our unity and love!
Love is love...and the beautiful thing about living in America is that it will be celebrated, even if it’s interracial!
Traditionally, Cambodian weddings consist of several ceremonies that span 2-3 days. These days, modernized Cambodian weddings are done within 1 day.
Guests typically wear semi-formal outfits. Our wedding was a hot day in August, so guests wore summer dresses or dress shirts and khakis.
I wore eight outfits in total! Seven were traditional Khmer outfits and the final look was a simple, white romper for the dancing portion at our reception.
For our wedding, we only included our favorite ceremonies since we decided to celebrate our wedding in one day. Here is a list of all of the Cambodian wedding ceremonies. To find out the significance of each ceremony, click here.
The sword is truly unique to Cambodian weddings. It represents the groom’s protection and loyalty to his bride.
Cambodians (and Chinese-Cambodians) often give the bride and groom money as a wedding gift. We didn't have a registry, so the majority of our guests gave money.
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