It started with a whole lot of tension and ended with a whole lot of compromise. It climbed hills of heartache but led to a lush land of so much life, so much wealth, so much growth. Our wedding was our first foray into what it would mean to have a cross-cultural marriage.
At that time, neither my in-laws nor myself knew how culturally different Tall Mountain and I were. TM was fairly well-traveled. We shared one passport and an accent. Having said that, I claimed little to no American identity after living abroad for 20 years. “Abroad” was a strange term in and of itself, because this particular “abroad” was my home. The fact that I did have an American passport led to plenty of assumptions about where the wedding should be held and what it might look like.
After taking the weekend to ponder upon our love and frolic in the fields of our new-found engagement (those were the days!), I waited patiently for my fiancé to broach the wedding planning topic. Like watching a child’s bright and shiny helium balloon being tragically struck down by a bow and arrow, my shoulders became heavy and burdened. It was such a disheartening conversation.
My fiancé imagined an outdoor wedding, his college friend to officiate, and a rehearsal to teach ten friends to silently stand at his side. I wasn’t sure why we needed to rehearse standing, and I certainly didn’t understand why my friends in matching dresses should be called ‘maids’. I pictured two witnesses per person, dressed as they so wished, signing a registry in front of a mayor adorned with a tricolor sash at the town hall. We’d obviously host a luxurious vin d’honneur with champagne and a father of the bride toast in three languages to accommodate French-English-German guests.
“No no no, there is no way we can do all this in three languages” my fiancé said.
“Well, then you can’t have ten guys next to you if I have just two on my side. And I’m not calling my friends bridesmaids.” I responded.
“We’ll clink on a glass and you will kiss” said my mother-in-law.
“Um, no I won’t. Why would I ever do that?” I snapped.
Clearly, we needed to take a step back. It didn’t need to be about fighting for which were the best of our traditions. It wasn’t really about fairness or self-preservation, with just a glistening wedding ring to mark our union. Rather, it was about bringing together what we deemed to be the most wonderful in all of our combined cultures. We walked a tightrope of wanting to honor our families, while planning a wedding representing who we were as a couple. This was about two becoming one brand new unit.
We ended up having an intimate civil ceremony in the idyllic French Haute-Savoie region where we were living at that time. Our marriage banns were published for all to see outside the town hall for two months. The paper featured our full addresses and professions. It’s a bit of an archaic tradition, but the purpose is for any person to notice and claim unlawful marriage on their way home from the bakery (and dispute the intended marriage). A legal signing at the mairie ensued as a prerequisite for our religious wedding ceremony. A religious ceremony isn’t recognized legally in France, like it is, say in the USA where any officiant can validate a religious ceremony.
We tried hard to honor my in-laws by hosting an American barbecue rehearsal dinner after the civil ceremony. I wasn’t sure we needed to brandish flags and all that, but my British mum, the forever peace-maker, purchased some American flag napkins for the occasion. I am also not sure what we rehearsed that evening. I just remember telling the ‘maids’ not to worry about matching dresses and just to come wearing some combination of bordeaux and white. One of my maids said that nah, she’d skip the barbecue and just come the next day. Another couldn’t come to stand, as was quite pregnant. One maid told me she had this perfect white dress she would like to wear and was that okay. Oh dear, I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t quite getting the importance of this wedding’s cultural etiquette.
In the end, we had to favor the majority two languages and thus settled for a French-English bilingual wedding celebration in a small Swiss hamlet overlooking Lac Léman. The idea of an outdoor wedding is much more common in the United States, but we had to take advantage of this spectacular view. As a back up, in case of rain, we secured the village church.
Friends from all over the world graced us with their presence – from China to UK, Switzerland to Germany, USA to Belgium, France to Canada…so we wanted to offer those staying on, an idea of things to see in the area. We designed a small bilingual booklet with day trip ideas, maps, our story with a German insert for guests who have never spoken in English or French to me. Knowing we would likely be moving to Asia, we also tried to find a tactful way to request monetary gifts. This is always awkward, but we thought of a clever way for guests to allocate it to a fund of their choice: appliances, bride’s chocolate allowance and so on.
What we consider to be our actual wedding, took place the day after the civil ceremony and rehearsal dinner. TM shared the story of us meeting, while I interpreted into French. It was intended as a fun reminder of how we met and also served a practical purpose. Our very first meetings was when TM had spoken at a young leadership conference, while I interpreted simultaneously for a francophone contingent. As it turns out, it is a little stressful to interpret during your own wedding, but I really couldn’t put up with rough translation on such a special day. We wrote our own vows and we had an interpreter present for that part. True to self, I corrected for accuracy on at least one occasion. Fellow linguists, you’d understand!
Throughout the day, we celebrated what brought us together. Our ring-bearer was a chef with whom we had taken cooking classes. We had asked him to bring the rings on top of a warm moelleux au chocolat. In the rush, he ended up cooking them inside the molten cake.
After the bilingual ceremony, we hosted a French vin d’honneur and a British fathers of the bride and groom speeches. Guests invited to dinner formed a convoy honking all the way to the community hall in true French form.
For dinner that evening, our chef friend made us all some of our favorite dishes we had experienced with him. Faithful to German tradition, we invited our friends to sing a song, dance, perform, read a poem, plan a group craft.. Guests unable to attend could send in video messages. Still to this day, my husband calls this part, “the talent show”. My ears cringe as I imagine family camp armpit songs.
That evening program (the so-called “talent show“), ended up being such a beautiful display of our international community’s support and love. Family presented the infamous “growing up” slideshows, university profs read letters and friends sang songs in Kabyle, French, English, German. One friend had each person draw their neighbor, leaving us with a huge drawing of all the guests who were present. A former employer even played the saw…
At about 11:30pm, once dessert and cheese had been served and the last slideshow had been shown, my husband was eager to wrap this thing up. I was a little embarrassed to leave before midnight but the Anglophone guests were already yawning. Our French guests were just warming up. Still, everyone rallied around our car and cheered us on as we departed on the wild adventure we today call cross-cultural marriage.
“Planning a wedding is the most fun you never want to have again!” a wise friend once told my groom-to be. It turns out, that is especially the case, when you get to plan a multicultural wedding.
I think that a wedding is very indicative of the place a couple finds itself at that point in time. Today, our wedding would have looked very different and most certainly have included more Asian influence. Still, we look back very fondly on that day. It is also definitely the most fun we never want to have again.
“What? I’m not calling them “maids”!” is a post written as part of this month’s Multicultural Kid Blogs blogging carnival. You’ll find a ton of awesome stories around cross-cultural weddings on Kali’s blog. Go and check them out and give them some love!