Family is considered to be the foundation of social life for most Cambodians. Theis the core of the domestic unit, but Cambodians also tend to have a strong sense of attachment to members of the extended family, close neighbours and friends. Financial concerns play a significant role in defining household structure and the roles of family members. For example, if extended families live together, it is often due to financial reasons.
Each person generally has certain lifelong expectations, roles and responsibilities towards their other family members. Everyone is expected to support, care for and show respect towards their elders. Individuals also have a responsibility to help maintain the reputation of their family, as families have a collective. There are also specific roles designated to certain family members. For example, if the family is in need of assistance (e.g. running their family business or taking care of the household), the responsibility often falls on the youngest daughter to pause her studies in order to take on this role.
Due to the large number of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia continues to have many orphans, widows and single-parent families. This has emphasised the familial relationship referred to as ‘thoa’, which roughly translates as adoptive/foster parent or sibling. Thoa is a relationship closer than friends but not as close as blood relations. This relationship serves to strengthen interpersonal ties and provides a support structure for the individual.
The roles of men and women are well respected within Cambodian culture. There is some variation in perceptions of the common household structure between urban and rural dwellers, with the latter being more conservative. During the Khmer Rouge regime, communal work broke down rigidly defined gender roles, leading women to play a larger role in civil service.
The oldest male, often the father, is seen as the head of the household and main income earner, while women are the primary caregivers and homemakers. Women also tend to have more control over household economic matters such as the family budget as well as the education of their children. In this sense, the Cambodian household structure is morethan in other Asian countries. A Cambodian man may jokingly refer to his wife as “mother-wife” to reflect the respect that the man has for his wife and her authority, much like his own mother.
Dating and Marriage
Many Cambodians have an expectation from their parents to eventually marry. Generally, Cambodians are encouraged to get married before leaving home. While men and women are able to choose their spouses, the parents will organise dates in order to assist their children in finding a suitable partner. One main consideration for parents is the social class of their child’s prospective partner and their family, in part due to the perception that marriage is one effective route for social mobility. In urban areas, dating and marriage practices tend to be less conservative and are becoming more influenced by the West. Meanwhile, in rural areas, the courting period – the time between meeting someone and becoming married – can be quite short, with some couples marrying a month after meeting.