Love works in mysterious ways.
Jarrod: For sure. I was on what was supposed to be a three-day visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia, when Peou and I first caught sight of each other across a crowded dance floor. I’m normally a very reserved person but I just couldn’t shake the feeling “I must talk to her” so I asked her to dance. While dancing, she said, “The way you smell, you must kill all the girls,” implying that I smelled good. That sealed the deal for me because my own mother had said something very close to this when she first met my father.
A cross-cultural match made in heaven, it seems.
Jarrod: Peou, being a Buddhist, has suggested perhaps we are reunited from past lives. How else to explain the fact that we fell in love at first sight, or that, despite being so radically different, we could still find things to talk about for hours over the phone, or that both of us were already willing to radically readjust the trajectory of our lives to be together?
You’re developing a documentary about the Ramayana, right?
Peou: Yes. The Stories Without Borders Documentary Project was started by Jarrod and an American television producer, Andrea Fraizer in 2009, not long after Jarrod and I first met.
Jarrod: After Peou and I began our relationship, it made sense for her to be involved, too. I speak Malay-Indonesian, some Tamil and Khmer, and I read Sanskrit. Peou is a polyglot; she speaks Vietnamese and Khmer fluently and is comfortable with Thai. So between us, we have a lot of South and Southeast Asia covered! We won’t begin shooting the film until 2013, however, as we’re still in the fund-raising phase.
Any similarities between the Ramayana and your own relationship?
Jarrod: In the Ramayana, Rama is banished into the forest for twelve years by the machinations of his step-mother, the queen. His wife, Sita, insists on coming with him. Later, she’s kidnapped by the demon Ravana who steals her off to Lanka. With the help of his brother, Lakshmana, and the Monkey King Hanuman, Rama is reunited with his wife. It sounds a lot like getting a visa, really.
But, seriously, stories like these are great for bridging cultural differences. The Ramayana, for example, illustrates filial piety and the value of devotion within marriage, and the story is widely-known throughout Southeast Asia. If you understand the values expressed in the Ramayana, it opens up a window into the cultures of South and Southeast Asia.
What’s the secret to making your cross-cultural marriage work?
Jarrod: It’s about cultivating understanding and being sensitive to the differences. When we were first married, we were watching an episode of the old Pink Panther cartoon and I noticed we weren’t laughing at the same parts. I got some of the cultural references but “Little Beau Pink” didn’t mean anything for Peou. It was a good reminder that we all have different expectations shaped by our cultures.
Peou: In 2011 Jarrod took a leave of absence from school and moved to Cambodia so he could learn more about what it was like to live and grow up there. He made a real effort to be with my family. They don’t speak any English, and Jarrod has really improved his Khmer so that he can communicate with them—and my family really loved him for his efforts. A lot of people, particularly ex-pats who have Cambodian or Vietnamese spouses, really don’t have anything to do with their in-laws. In a culture where family is so important and individualism isn’t that can cause real tensions in a relationship. But after about six months, Jarrod invited my family to live with us—so my mother, father, and my sister and her three kids all moved in. It was a full house!
You really jumped right in, Jarrod!
Jarrod: Yes, I think that my rural Kentucky upbringing, on the family farm surrounded by my aunts and uncles, created a shared set of values for us that we are able to draw from. And Peou and I found that sharing stories—fairy tales and bedtime stories from my childhood and the myths and legends that Peou learned—really helped us bridge our differences.
You face cultural challenges, I’m sure.
Peou: Well, I know Jarrod gets aggravated sometimes when I won’t eat the Western food he’s made. But, the biggest challenge by far has been dealing with immigration and getting a United States visa. It can be very difficult for Cambodians.
Jarrod: Sometimes there are language challenges. Peou’s English is very good, much better than my Khmer. But sometimes, particularly when she is in Cambodia and I’m in the United States, it can be a challenge when there is some word that neither of us knows in the other’s language.
Jarrod: And when we are in Kentucky, I know it will be more challenging. Hawai’i, where I am now, is a good “halfway” house. You can buy lemongrass and galangal here. You can get Khmer and Vietnamese DVDs. I was in Kentucky by myself, in its largest city, and couldn’t even find lemongrass. So far, Peou hasn’t had to deal with a “monolithic” American culture, and we both know that there are still challenges ahead of us.
Any advice for other couples in a cross-cultural relationship?
Peou: Remember that it isn’t just about two people; it’s about two families being in a relationship. When my brother-in-law passed away, leaving my sister a widow with three kids, Jarrod’s family raised money so the kids could stay in school. Isolating yourselves away from your families can really cause problems, especially since one of you is probably already feeling culturally-isolated.
Jarrod: As a professional cultural consultant, I help people move and succeed in cultures other than their own. In Cambodia, there is a great saying that I’ve adopted–“same same, but different.” There are real differences between our cultures, but they’re meant to largely accomplish the same things. However, because you each have different cultural competencies, you have to learn together and realize that just because you do something differently doesn’t mean one of you is doing it wrong.
Peou: At the end of the day, we love each other. So, while we know there will be obstacles and challenges, and misunderstandings and mutual culture shock—like those beautiful Indian epics, our love transcends borders and cultures.