Meerkats and a Cambodian Wedding
In Johannesburg, South Africa this week, the United Nations
World Summit on Sustainable Development focuses on the
uplifting of the world''s poor and the protection of the global
environment. Very worthy goals but, realistically, any truly
meaningful steps towards achieving these goals would require an
unprecedented degree of cooperation among all nations. A
model of caring and cooperation for the common good already
exists in South Africa itself - the meerkat society. Another
model might be the caring and cooperative spirit of the
Cambodians that I observed last week at a Cambodian wedding.
Unfamiliar with the meerkat? Read the article by Tim Clutton-
Brock titled "Meerkats Stand Tall" in the September National
Geographic. The meerkat reminds me of a prairie dog and is a
small animal, only a foot tall, weighing just two pounds. The
little guy inhabits areas such as the Kalahari Desert in South
Africa. Its diet includes such delicacies as poisonous scorpions,
geckos, small rodents and snakes, which it searches out in the
light of day on the barren desert. Being such a small critter, the
meerkat makes a tasty target for the likes of eagles, cobras and
other predators, including even meerkats from other groups.
The meerkat''s vulnerability gave rise to the social behavior that
prompted Clutton-Brock and his colleagues from Cambridge and
the University of Pretoria to spend five years studying the
meerkat''s life in great detail. The meerkat society involves
intense group loyalty and an expenditure of time and energy in
tasks that insure the group''s survival. These tasks include
helping to raise offspring of other meerkats, sharing of baby
sitting chores, sharing of food and importantly, sentinel duty. It''s
the sentinel standing guard, erect and with eyes pealed for signs
of that eagle or cobra, that allows the rest of the group to search
for food and train their young. The meerkat on sentinel duty
gives a steady peeping sound that tells the group all is well. Spot
an eagle, and the alarm signal sends everyone into so-called "bolt
holes", part of a series of holes and tunnels constructed by these
When forced to make a stand, the meerkats have evolved another
interesting cooperative behavior. They come together en masse
to form what the predator may take to be a single, large hissing
animal - all the meerkats raising their tails and baring their teeth.
Although this may scare away some predators, life is still
precarious; only one out of four infants survives to maturity.
One aspect of the meerkat behavior is especially interesting to
researchers - breeding in a group may be limited to just one
mating pair in the group. This flies in the face of the accepted
belief that one of the driving forces for an individual in most
animal species is propagation of its own genes. In the meerkat
society, members of the group appear to willingly give up the
chance to procreate and help raise children that are not their own.
Researchers feel that their meerkat studies may answer questions
relating to other social animal societies, possibly even our own.
Over the years, I have known and worked with individuals from
Asian-Pacific countries but had not had contact with anyone
from Cambodia until last year, when I attended my Dickinson
College reunion. My wife and I had dinner with Andy, our
grandnephew, who was living nearby. Andy brought his friend
Dana, a young lady whose family escaped from Cambodia, then
under the murderous rule of Pol Pot. After dinner, Andy said
that we might have a wedding to attend. Dana looked surprised
and said, "Oh?" Was that a proposal, we wondered?
The answer is yes. The Cambodian wedding, at the home of the
bride''s parents in Philadelphia, paralleled the movie "A Big Fat
Greek Wedding" in many respects. The bride''s father insisted on
a traditional Cambodian wedding and had spent the past year
planning the event in every detail. The Cambodian community
came together to help make the father''s plans a reality. One
small example - all the downstairs furniture was moved into
another house(s) in the neighborhood!
Arriving at the parents'' home at 8 AM, we found the small
Cambodian orchestra was already playing, seated on the dining
room floor. My wife and I, flexibly challenged, were graciously
given folding chairs. Soon, the groom, his friends and family,
including our 9-year old grandson, went out into the drizzly
weather to collect gifts from the neighborhood. They then
paraded down the street back to the house, where they obtained
permission from the father to enter. (Our grandson was
impressed that, for carrying some sort of unidentified fruit, he
received $2 "lucky money".) The gifts included food, beautifully
prepared and displayed, ranging from the most impressive large
roasted pig to ducks and other items to be consumed later.
The guests sat on the floor around the edges of the living room,
the gifts filling most of the room. The ceremonies were mostly
in the hands of a gentleman who played the role of advocate for
the groom, vouching for his cleanliness and suitability to become
one of the family. (I could be wrong - I don''t understand
Cambodian.) Repeated loud banging of gongs then summoned
the bride, who appeared in a stunning gown. After further
ceremony, it seemed as though matters were well in hand and it
was time for an intermission to clear the gifts outside where the
neighbors got to work preparing them for lunch.
With the living room set up with the elaborate accoutrements of
the Pairing Ceremony, the bride and groom reappeared, both in
gold outfits - they looked gorgeous! The Pairing Ceremony
included tying the wrists of the bride and groom together with
strings soaked in holy water and the passing of lighted candles
around the circles of guests who waved the sacred smoke
towards the bride and groom. The ceremonies ended around
noon with the throwing of kernels we stripped from palm flowers
at the bride and groom. The pig and duck and other gifts were
delicious, served under the canopy set up over the sidewalk.
After a nap, it was off to a Greek church and the banquet, which
began at 6:30 PM and was attended by at least 400 or 500 people
(some came all the way from France!). The church had two
huge halls downstairs to house the banquet and the open bar
cocktail "hour" (actually 2-1/2 hours!) The hors d''oeuvres
included all manner of cheeses, huge shrimp, fruit and other
goodies and even a carvery of roast beef. The decorations
included several large and impressive ice sculptures in both halls.
I understand that the Cambodian community contributed in no
small way to various aspects of the evening''s celebration.
At 9 PM, it was banquet time. At each place setting, there was a
little basket filled with candies. I heard that the father ordered
the ribbons for the baskets from Cambodia and glued the ribbons
on the hundreds of baskets personally. The "Asian specialties"
salad consisted mostly of what I assumed was some sort of
vegetable. Surprisingly, it tasted to me somewhat like calamari.
Examining the morphology of the salad more carefully, I
recognized pieces bearing a striking resemblance to chicken feet.
The "vegetable" was really the skin of a chicken foot. It seems
to me to be an acquired taste. The other courses were all readily
identifiable and delicious; sadly, we were already filled with hors
d''oeuvres and could not do justice to the 8 or 9 courses.
In a day full of memorable experiences, I would not have
expected the dance floor to showcase one of the most
memorable. The orchestra played music of a type common to
most of today''s wedding banquets, with a loud and heavy beat,
amplified to today''s typically high volume levels. However, the
female vocalist sang in Cambodian and gave the songs a
distinctly different flavor. Some of the numbers involved dances
of the sort where you form lines and follow each other around
the floor. Normally, these dances are fairly energetic affairs with
emphatic motions and some clods like myself totally out of step.
However, to the same beat, the Cambodian dancing was a thing
of sheer grace and beauty. It was mesmerizing. Those beautiful
Cambodian women, in their elegant long, slim gowns, moved
around the floor in a manner akin to a combination of the slow
motion of Tai chi with the arm and hand motions of the hula in
the most delicate and graceful way. The men were almost as
graceful. It was, we all agreed, outstandingly beautiful and a
highlight of the day.
Throughout the day, we were impressed by the caring and
cooperation of these gentle people. Hopefully, some of this
gentleness will rub off into our own culture. Yet these people,
most having escaped from Pol Pot, must have a great deal of
toughness to have survived. I spoke with one of the bride''s
cousins who lost two brothers to Pol Pot''s campaign to "purify"
Cambodia. He estimated that nearly half the population of
Cambodia died or were killed. I had seen figures of a third. It
seems clear that between 2 and 3 million of his own people died,
putting Pot up there with Stalin and Hitler as the worst murderers
of the 20th century. Have the terrible experiences of these
Cambodian refugees heightened their innate qualities of caring
and cooperation, much like the meerkats'' vulnerability led to
similar behavior? Ok, I''m probably stretching the analogy too
By the way, Andy and Dana, after all that ceremony and
celebration are not yet officially married! A typical Western
Pennsylvania Slovak second wedding awaits them this week. It
will be quite a contrast! However, having myself married into
that culture, I know the caring will be just as great.
Allen F. Bortrum