Marriage used to be about necessity—the coupling of individuals to produce offspring to contribute to society and carry on the family name. Nowadays, if you’re lucky, marriage is much less depressing. Instead of being focused on necessity, it is pursued by two individuals with a common bond and love for one another. In honor of Valentine’s Day, Asian Avenue examines some common themes in Asian courtship and marriage traditions.
East meets west
It is common for modern weddings to feature both American wedding traditions and those of the bride and groom’s roots, especially in marriages between Asian-American individuals who want to embrace their familial traditions.
“Our wedding ceremony is best described as a fusion of cultural and traditional ceremonies, with a modern-American twist,” said Judy Thao Nguyen Te, who incorporated Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian traditions into her wedding ceremony. “The fusion of religions and traditions definitely proved to be challenging and time consuming, but it was something we had both expected and were prepared to do.”
Te and her husband Davuth incorporated the tea ceremony into her wedding, which involved the presentation of gifts to the bride’s family, prayers to ancestors and presenting tea to family members. They also had a knot tying ceremony in honor of his Cambodian roots; family members tied red string around the couple’s wrists and provided well wishes for their marriage.
Tea is a sign of respect and honor; it is a Chinese tradition to put lotus seeds and red dates into the tea to help newlyweds produce offspring early. Also, the sweetness of the special tea is a wish for sweet relations between the bride and her new family.
Jaclyn Jose made sure to include some of her husband Chris’ Filipino traditions into their wedding; she collaborated with Chris’ mother to make sure the cord and veil ceremony was accurate. The Filipino cord and veil ceremony includes male and female sponsors who are selected from each side of the family. The sponsors place the veil over the shoulders of the kneeling couple, which symbolizes being clothed as one. In addition, a cord is looped around the couple in a figure eight, a symbol of infinity.
“My mom was all for having the traditions because it was something unique at the wedding that other people aren’t used to seeing,” said Jaclyn Jose.
A family affair
Even though his family wanted some Filipino traditions in the wedding, the couple was encouraged to really make it their own, said Chris Jose. And the couple chose to make it a celebration of both families, who differed culturally, but share the same values. Both Chris and Jacyln’s parents’ marriages have lasted more than 30 years and the Joses hope to follow in their footsteps.
“They’re from different cultures, but both families are good examples of how family is supposed to be,” Jaclyn Jose said. “When I went to Chris’ house for the first time it felt like my own.”
Hanh Phi and her husband Phuc had a complete Vietnamese wedding—they had three ceremonies including a Buddhist ceremony at the Compassionate Dharma Cloud Monastery in Morrison, one at the bride’s home and another at the groom’s home. Not including the reception, they went through more than six hours of ceremonies on their big day.
“I’m the oldest in my family and my husband’s the oldest in his family, so both of our parents really wanted to hold on to the traditions and not cut corners. It was exhausting,” Phi said.
Te also recalls her wedding as a long, but rewarding process; the couple had Vietnamese, Cambodian and Western wedding attire, so an outfit change was in order for each tradition they incorporated.
“It definitely proved to be a long day, but we were happy that we were able to incorporate all of our traditions that define our culture and relationship,” said Te.
Audra Mincey and her husband Richard, both half Korean, chose to only include small traditions into their wedding like a bowing ceremony to honor their parents and a blessing in Korean after their vows because of time constraints. However, the size of the ceremony itself was quite traditional. It is typical for the bride and groom’s parents and their friends to get involved in the wedding; Mincey’s ceremony had more than 200 attendees.
Phi recalls how strange she thought her father-in-law acted when he found out she was dating his son. He followed Vietnamese tradition and brought offerings to her parents’ home with an engagement in mind after they’d only been dating a few months. Although Phi’s parents and her in-laws are great friends now, the behavior shocked her at the time.
“His dad found out we were dating, so he came over to my parent’s house, invited himself over, and brought over two bottles of XO Cognac,” she said.
“You complete me.”
Phi said she had an infatuation for the Vietnamese culture growing up and loved being able to find someone to share her passion with. Although she believes that two individuals from different cultures can be very compatible, there’s something special about being in a relationship with someone that shares your traditions.
“When you’re dating, it’s not that you only look toward Asians or people of your same ethnicity, but it does give you an extra level of connection when you can share a language or a background. And to know that my children will have that shared heritage too,” she said.
Te mentioned the value of being able to swap cultural traditions with your mate. Her husband was open to taking Catholic marriage prep classes as required by the church and often accompanies her to mass. Conversely, Te is happy to accompany Davuth to ceremonies at the Buddhist temple.
“It’s been enriching to learn and experience each others’ culture,” Te said. “We try to learn each other’s languages, mostly just words dealing with food and knowing how to say ‘I’m full’ when our parents overfeed us, and enjoy each other’s food.”
Karen Wong-Brown, who included many multicultural traditions into her wedding, said that her non-Asian husband helps balance out her identity. From the beginning, the couple decided to have a relationship based on “patience, tolerance, communication and honesty.”
“I struggled with my cultural identity for the longest time. Having Curtis really balanced me out,” she said. “Having both cultures really helped me find a middle ground.”
Wong-Brown was born in Hong Kong and came to the U.S. when she was 6 years old. A first generation college graduate from a traditional Chinese family, Wong-Brown knew she had to incorporate both cultures in her wedding. She had traditional Western and Chinese outfits, a Chinese tea ceremony, a wine ceremony reminiscent of Jewish and Native American traditions, and a ritual honoring ancestors and elders.
Some interesting historical traditions
KOREA Before a Korean wedding, the groom gives the bride’s mother a wild goose (a wooden goose is acceptable nowadays). Because wild geese mate for life, the gift is a promise that he will care for her daughter for life.
PHILIPPINES Similar to smashing plates at a wedding, bad luck is shooed away after the vows by processions of men holding machete-like knives and musicians playing loud gongs.
CHINA Before the big day, a lucky man or woman with many offspring is recruited to install a newly purchased bed for the newlyweds. Then children are invited into the bed for good luck after fruits like pomegranates and oranges are scattered all over the bed for the children to devour.
THAILAND Timing is key for the Buddhist ceremony for good luck. The timing of the Buddhist ceremony is set to ensure good luck and will commence at an auspicious time such as 09:09; nine is a lucky number in Thailand.
HMONG COMMUNITIES The bride-price for the Hmong community in the U.S. has formerly been set between $4,500 and $6,000.
THE ANIMAL KINGDOM More than 90 percent of bird species are socially monogamous, meaning that the same two parents will help raise their babies. Penguin dads keep unhatched eggs warm while the mom goes hunting for food. Beavers mate for life, and will only take on a new mate if the first one dies. Wolf packs typically consist of a male, a female and their offspring, making them similar to nuclear families.
Every corner of the world has its own marriage traditions, but their prominence and diversity prove that love can be translated into any language. Love is universal and the cultural traditions that surround it are truly priceless.
Written by Patricia Kaowthumrong