Bahai News -- MultiCulti Weddings When Catholics, Hindus and Jews fill the pews Sunday, June 23, 2002

MultiCulti Weddings When Catholics, Hindus and Jews fill the pews

Ami Chen Mills

According to my mother, I could not use the beautiful red and gold dragon banner my stepmom had given me for my wedding. My Chinese grandmother, my wy-poh, has a thing about dragons. Though immensely popular at Chinese weddings - embroidered into red wedding dresses, painted onto paper lanterns and carved into candles - Wy-poh was now a Christian. A dragon to her was an idol, a false god. Bad mojo.

Tea ceremony? Yes, good. Chuppah? No problem. Dragons? Sorry.

My mother, a dutiful Chinese daughter, did not wish to offend.

Then there were Jewish issues to consider: My fiance's brothers were flying in from Tel Aviv, with no English to speak of, eating kosher, and our wedding was on a Saturday (Shabbat), of all days!

My marriage in October to Barukh, a Sephardic Jew, was a blend of Jewish, Chinese, Christian and even Hawaiian traditions. Call it the melting pot of weddings. We had a blast, and felt it was the best wedding ever. But ours was just one in a tidal wave of colorful, wonderful multicultural and interfaith weddings.

San Francisco couples do not identify their race when they apply for a marriage certificate, but if the number of mixed-race children is any indication, California and the Bay Area are leaders in the nation for interracial couples (4 to 5 percent), second only to Hawaii (where 21 percent of children are mixed race) and Alaska.

According to the 2000 census, which, for the first time, allowed people to check more than one box for race, the Bay Area's mixed population is more than double the national average. Nationally, the percentage of interracial marriages doubled between 1980 and 2000. And by all anecdotal accounts, multi- culti couplings in the Bay Area and beyond are on an exponential rise.

The Supreme Court's 1967 ruling in the aptly titled case of Loving vs. Virginia upheld the marriage rights of Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, against laws in Virginia and 15 other states that forbid mixed marriages. Virginia's legislation was intended to prevent a "mongrel breed of citizens" as well as the "obliteration of racial pride," according to state documents.

I was born six months after Loving, in Florida, to a white man with Irish roots and a Chinese woman (whose race is listed as "yellow" on my birth certificate). I am a mongrel, a mutt, and thrilled to be. Though I am not particularly religious, I subscribe to the Baha'i philosophy, that "marriage between two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity."

So it was with great joy that Barukh and I planned a wedding combining all the cultures we could draw in, and celebrated the best of both our worlds.

Gathering Together

A mixed wedding is a balancing act, but one with great rewards. A mixed wedding is about unity, inclusion - and freedom. My fiance and I included our ethnic and religious roots in our ceremony and reception, and enlisted family members from both sides to help. He and I chose what we loved about both of our cultures and family faiths, altered pieces and parts of tradition, and also rejected terminology and rituals we could not stand for.

"My clients strive for diversity in their ceremonies," says Kimberly Thompson, a nondenominational wedding officiant in Napa. "Sometimes the priests and rabbis -don't want to mix so much, but my couples want to do it their own way. You make it your own and have fun with it, and if something - doesn't live for you, you -don't do it."

Bay Area couples who have opted to include two or more faiths or cultures in their weddings express the same feelings of freedom, inclusion and also rejection.

Veronica and Bob are Catholic Chilean and Presbyterian Anglo. A Jesuit priest and a female Presbyterian presided over their bilingual ceremony. For Veronica, having a female officiant "was a dream for me, coming from a very oppressive Catholic background of mostly men as leaders. And having my first language spoken at the ceremony was so emotional and warm for me. I felt I belonged."

Room Enough for Us All

The Bay Area is comfortable as a backdrop to the mixed wedding. It's the perfect spot for such a shindig, with cultural centers like Chinatown, North Beach and Japantown in the city, Berkeley's sari fabric shops and huge Asian markets from Milpitas to Marin.

"Weddings are rarely of two people from the same faith these days," says Amy Thum-hart, a Santa Rosa wedding planner who says she's always accommodating for families of disparate origins.

"We use nondenominational officiants, and we have the ceremonies outdoors. It's more neutral and puts everyone on even footing."

Whether in Napa's golden, rolling hills or the verdant Santa Cruz Mountains - where my wedding took place - the Bay Area is large enough, open enough in space and attitude, to marry us all. Our wedding was outside at a hacienda on a mountaintop overlooking the Monterey Bay. Because I had made the mistake of putting our deposit down for a Saturday, our local rabbi would not officiate, and I worried over this for a month. But we found a nondenominational officiant registered with the Universal Life Church, who cheerfully wore a yarmulke and agreed to read any kind of vow we wrote. We got married under a chuppah canopy, a gift from Barukh's father, held aloft by glossy red bamboo poles.

The basic joy of a mixed affair is in the huge range of options for everything - from food to dress, from favors and decorations to special ceremonies and rituals meaningful to both families.

"In a mixed wedding, you see a much richer, more vibrant decor. Not the pale colors we're so used to in Western weddings," says Thumhart, who once had to train chefs to cook basmati rice properly, using specially aged rice for an Indian-Western wedding.

Laurie Arons, a wedding and special events planner in Sausalito who planned the weddings for Vanessa and Billy Getty and Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze, among others, just helped marry a Korean woman and Israeli man in a ceremony that was strictly conservative, followed by cocktails and Korean spring rolls.

"It's an open book for mixed marriages," she says. "Couples are very inspired to include their cultures, and that makes it fun for me. You are honoring both families and joining these two souls, and their families. People are more open to combining their faiths, and that makes a wedding more beautiful and one of a kind."

For the Coppola-Jonze wedding, Arons forayed into North Beach to research the authentic Italian wedding cake. And she often shops in Chinatown. "We are so lucky to live where we live."

As a bride-to-be, I made full use of Chinatown's inexpensive sundries, and my prenuptial trips with Mom into San Francisco included all of Grant Avenue, along with Britex Fabrics and Macy's. We bought the cutest gold Chinese "pajamas" and matching slippers for my flower child, $6 blue-and-white Chinese ceramic pots for centerpieces and huge gold fans to decorate the walls.

My Chinese uncle Jo-Jo and his wife brought giant red lanterns and silky dangling charms as favors from China. I ordered fortune cookies with custom fortunes with our wedding date from a cookie shop in Texas and stuffed them into Chinese take-out boxes from a local restaurant. Out-of-town guests received a gift bag with a bottle of Soy Vay marinade, concocted and produced by a Jewish man and Chinese woman.

Because Barukh and I spent the weekend before our wedding in Hawaii with old family friends, we ordered wild ginger leis from a florist on Oahu and exchanged these at our reception. We also performed a Chinese tea ceremony after dinner to honor the elders in both families, and capped off the evening with a wild rendition of "Hava Nagila," performed on electric fiddle by Muslim,

Iranian-born musician Mohammad Nejad, the husband of a dear friend.

At my cousin JanJan's wedding, she and her Indian-Anglo fiance, Devin, offered dim sum and Indian samosas after their ceremony. At dinner, they changed out of a gown and tux into traditional Chinese wedding costumes (sans dragons) and later into Indian nuptial dress. Scripture was read in Chinese, English and Punjabi - and guests (including, to our astonishment, JanJan's and my Chinese elders) danced elatedly to Indian bhangra music.

Meaning From the Mix

When couples come together to explore their wedding options - vows and rituals, ceremonies, blessings - the increased attention to the various traditions yields greater meaning from rituals that can often seem rote.

"A lot of the time, these couples -don't know a lot about their own traditions, and they have to go back to the grandmothers," says planner Thumhart. "At the same time, you -don't have to follow the Emily Post rule book; you can create your own traditions. So it's an amazing opportunity to learn more about a different culture, about your own culture, and to come up with something new and richer."

In our wedding, we adapted traditional Jewish wedding blessings, which Barukh's older brother recited in prayerful Hebrew. My wy-poh gave us her Christian blessing in Chinese. After the ceremony, Barukh and I retreated for yichud, a period of solitude for the bride and groom away from the crowd and photographers.

The tea ceremony, during which we served tea to my Chinese and Anglo grandparents, surrounded by parents, aunts, uncles and older siblings, struck a chord in us we did not anticipate, a wave of gratitude for the love of our families. Our fortune cookie quotes were pulled from "A Course in Miracles," a book of special importance to me, but of no specific faith.

It has always been my view that our religions and faiths have more in common than not, that if we could focus on these common truths (i.e., to love one another) the world would be far better off. At San Franciscans Bobbie and Eli's wedding, which was part Mexican Catholic and part East Coast Jewish, the couple's individually written vows got mixed up. At the altar, Jewish Eli read "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," and Catholic Bobbie read the Hebrew marriage blessing.

"People said it was really beautiful, even though it was a mistake. And, for us, it ended up showing we were one as a couple. It said, 'I am accepting all of you, who you are, your culture and your faith. I'm owning it.' "

Bobbie and Eli also followed the Jewish tradition of having both parents walk both bride and groom to the altar, and played "Ave Maria" as well as music from "Fiddler on the Roof" at the ceremony.

Blending Beliefs

The success of an interfaith or interracial wedding, and marriage, for that matter, depends on communication between the partners well before the ceremony.

Priorities must be set and areas of flexibility and compromise agreed on. Add parents and grandparents to the mix, and if a couple is not clear about what they want, a multicultural wedding, like any wedding, can become a dream turned nightmare.

Bobbie chalks up much of the success of her wedding to the Catholic marriage encounter the couple participated in before the wedding, where issues of faith and belief and what was important to bride and groom were raised and - addressed.

"I -didn't realize how much some parts of my culture and religion meant to me. We also decided out of respect for his family, we would not have the sacrament at the ceremony."

Honoring family can be one of the main reasons for having a wedding, so including areas of importance to both families is a wonderful way to bring families together and give them roles in the event.

Former bridegroom Devin says that although "we really wanted to expose our friends to and affirm our different traditions, it can also be a challenge not to exoticize and demean a culture. We found it important to get input from our families to make our rituals meaningful. We really -couldn't have done it on our own."

On the other hand, brides and grooms have been known to bend over backward for parents and family members, excluding partners in favor of family. Thumhart says one Indian groom of hers was so concerned about his parents, the planning process and wedding nearly collapsed - and the couple divorced three months later.

"And the parents were fabulous, incredibly nice people. He was just so afraid he -wouldn't live up to their expectations."

Nonetheless, the sad truth is "some families are just amazingly inflexible, "says Thumhart. In an inflexible situation, the experts agree, a couple needs to come together and stand up for what they truly want.

"The focus should really be on what's important, which is them," says officiant Thompson. "Be strong and look at the ramifications of everything and decide what you really want."

Thompson says she once married an African American man and Filipino woman who had encountered so much resistance and negativity from family, they decided to exclude relatives from the wedding altogether.

"There were no family members, only friends, and it was the happiest day of their lives," she says.

If you're a lucky couple, and your family is on board with your wedding wishes (or can be convinced), weaving ethnicity, race and faith into a ceremony that's all about togetherness can be the experience of a lifetime.

"You can add more pressure by bringing in more cultures, but couples have been amazing in how they embrace each other's traditions," says Arons. "These weddings are exciting and new and open. Different cultures are a wonderful thing to build on."

That's how Barukh and I felt, and still feel, about our wedding. Any child we have will be the product of three cultures and two faiths. Our relationship is stronger because of this, and so too will be any children of ours.

While attempting to blend backgrounds can bring up historically painful cultural divides and differences, when these are celebrated and not negated, the multi-culti wedding, like the multi-culti marriage, can lay a foundation of respect and inclusion for the future that is both the hope for the world and the very essence of what our various faiths profess: to love each other, no matter what.


Resources:

"Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies" (Dovetail Publishing), by Joan C. Hawxhurst.

"Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian - Ceremony" (Owl Books), by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner.

"How to Have the Wedding You Want (Not the One Everybody Else Wants You to Have)" (Berkley Publishing), by Danielle Claro.

"The New Jewish Wedding" (Summit Books), by Anita Diamant.

Many books are available on traditions of specific cultures and faiths, including Irish, Polish, African American, Jewish, Christian and Catholic.

Custom fortunes and cookies: Silver Gardens, Houston, Texas; (713) 222-1888.

Hawaiian leis and flowers: Pali Florist, Oahu, Hawaii; (808) 261-1818.

Soy Vay Enterprises, marinades and sauces: Felton, Calif.; (831) 335-3824.

Ami Chen Mills lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, and has written often on relationships and multicultural issues for Chronicle Magazine. She is also a consultant, trainer and counselor (e-mail her at www.healthrealization.com).

©Copyright 2002, San Francisco Chronicle


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