In a second floor bedroom in Kent, about 10 women crowd around the edges of the room, chatting in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and watching a bride primp. The group is dressed in brilliant pinks, greens and purples. The sounds of traditional Khmer instruments fill the air from the living room downstairs. Nary Kuy is right in the middle, kneeling down to pin skirts and adjust gold accessories.
It is Bory Khun and Chhonly Pin’s wedding day, and Kuy is in charge of making sure the bride and groom look like royalty and that the bridal party matches perfectly.
Once everyone is dressed, the party heads downstairs to begin the daylong festivities. Kuy stays in the background taking photos with her phone. She is smiling. The scene reminds her of home.
“I miss home but I’m happy when I do weddings because it is like I am still there,” she says.
Kuy, 44, grew up in Cambodia. After losing her father when she was 11, she quickly stepped up to help her mother. She was one of five children.
As a child, Kuy started her days fishing in the wee hours of the morning with her older sister. Then before she went to school, Kuy would stop by the bus and taxi stations to sell sweets, beef and fish that her mother made. She also sold food during her breaks at school.
“I had to grow up fast and support my family,” she says. “We had no money to eat. It was very hard.”
Kuy married when she was 18, and had two children.
She moved to Washington in 2003. After arriving in White Center, Kuy started going to night school to learn English. She also worked as a janitor during the day, to earn an income.
“I wanted freedom,” she says.
Her kids joined her three years later, and her mother followed in 2012. She is still trying to get her siblings here, all of whom are still in Cambodia.
Once she learned English and earned her cosmetology license, Kuy opened her own salon: Nary's Beauty Hair Salon. She says her customers are like family, often inviting her to birthday parties or dropping by the salon just to chat.
She started styling traditional Cambodian weddings in 2014, and also works nights as a janitor in West Seattle. This is how she supports her nieces and nephews in Cambodia, sending money to help with school, clothes and food.
“That’s why I work day and night, to support myself and support over there,” she says. “This life is not easy.”