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Deaf-Hearing Marriages in Cambodia

KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia – It all began with a funny story followed by an innocent question.

A few weeks ago, I visited my friend, Srey. It was the first time I had been inside her home. She was giving me a tour of the house and when we entered the bedroom she shared with her husband, I noticed a thin mattress, the size of a double bed, with mussed sheets on the floor next to a queen-size bed.

With a laugh, Srey signed, “I was sleeping there,” pointing to the mattress. “My phone was ringing but I was sleeping and didn’t hear it. My daughter toddled over, patted me on the shoulder and gave me the phone. She is so smart and I am stupid!”

Putting aside for the moment the problematic issue of hearing equals intelligence and deaf equals stupid, I asked her with a puzzled look, “You sleep there, on the mattress on the floor?” Seeing Srey’s embarrassed expression, I wished I hadn’t asked.

It hung in the air between us. Srey lowered her eyes, signing, “Husband problem. Let’s not talk about it.” Stricken, I nodded.

Srey is deaf and her husband is hearing. He doesn’t know Cambodian Sign Language and has no desire to learn. They have a hearing daughter and the husband criticizes Srey for signing to her. They live in a remote area and it is a long journey to go see her. She is basically alone, with nobody to sign with except for her daughter.

Srey is not the only one. This particular marriage, arranged by Srey’s parents, is one of many marriages in Cambodia arranged by parents who don’t want their deaf child to marry another deaf person. The reasons vary: fear of more deaf people in the family, the belief that deaf people can’t take care of children because they won’t be able to hear them, or the desire to ensure their deaf child is taken care of after the parents are gone.

This doesn’t quite happen. In many cases, the hearing spouse is abusive and/or exploitative.

One of the questions I often ask in interviews is: do you prefer to marry a deaf or hearing person? Why? The answer is invariably, “I want to marry deaf. Hearing people hit deaf people or they talk on the phone with their lovers and we never know.”

During the morning portion of one of the deaf-deaf weddings I attended, the topic of deaf to deaf weddings came up. A few of the deaf people at the table, in between slurping their soup, speculated about the number of deaf to deaf weddings, debating if this was the fifteenth or seventeenth and trying to determine who the first couple was.

Proud parents look on as their son, who happens to be deaf, marries his love, who is also deaf. This is one of the very few deaf to deaf weddings so far in Cambodia. Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

One of the hearing teachers from Deaf Development Programme turned to me and said, “Did you know the parents were against this at first?” She explained that the parents of the bride and groom were against them marrying each other because they were both deaf. The teacher told me that she intervened, explaining that deaf people could raise children without hearing them.

During this conversation, the mother of the bride said, “When their baby cries in the night, how will they hear it and take care of it?” The teacher explained that deaf people use a string tied to their wrist, so if the baby moves or cries, the deaf parent wakes up (which is also an old trick used by deaf people in the United States before the advent of technologies such as flashing baby cry signalers that turn the bedroom into thunderstorms).

I have been told so many sad stories about deaf-hearing arranged marriages: a man couldn’t marry the love of his life because his mother didn’t want another deaf person in the family. They both remain single. Another friend lost the house his parents had built as a wedding gift. He now lives alone, working in the city while the in-laws live in the house his parents paid for. Yet another friend’s parents scoured the country for a Cham woman willing to marry their son. They were able to convince the woman to marry him only because they had a big house and money. He told me this story, grinning.

One of the reasons I do this work is because I have hope, as naive as this is going to seem, that through sharing these deeply personal and painful stories, people will better understand what deaf people are capable of and that being deaf isn’t so terrible. I hope that in the future, more and more deaf people in Cambodia will be free to love and marry whomever they please.

Note: Some of the identifying details in this post have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

For a more personal and visual perspective of my experiences in Cambodia, follow me on Instagram @ErinMHarrelson and on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH