Zen: They’re Both Real, Dammit

Interfaith and intercultural weddings are HARD, y’all. I know, because I had one. If you looked at our wedding on the surface, you would have seen a lovely progressive Jewish service. But what you didn’t see were the years of heartache that led up to that moment: the struggling of two people with deeply-held traditions and cultures, trying to find a way to work together. And guess what? It doesn’t magically get easy when the wedding is over. (Example: I recently found out that if you’re not raised High WASP, you are not given baby china at birth!? At Passover this weekend, someone had baby china out as a key dish, and I was the only one who knew what it was. Needless to say, these things continue to be baffling to both of us.) But the hard stuff is also the best stuff. It’s the dig deep stuff. So today I’m thrilled to give you intern Zen, talking about how both weddings are real (but secretly one is a little more real…)

My parents have had the interesting fate of marrying two children off to Catholic partners. There’s a small but staunch community of Christians in Malaysia, but my family comes from a typically Buddhist/Taoist/syncretic Chinese folk religion background, so church weddings are still a fairly new thing to us.

The precedent in my immediate family was my brother and sister-in-law, who got married over two days, with the Catholic wedding on the Saturday and the Chinese wedding on the Sunday. After the Catholic ceremony my mother came out of the church heaving a “well that’s over” sigh:

“Now, at the real wedding tomorrow …” she said.

It’s been an issue. I’m gonna be honest here, right. I want the Malaysian wedding to be the real wedding. I would ideally have liked it to happen first, but the dates didn’t work out that way. (We got the date for the Malaysian wedding by the usual means of astrological determination—you give your birth dates and times to the temple and they tell you what the “good” dates for getting married are–so there was no flexibility on that point.) So when people ask me, “Which one’s the real wedding?” I know what I want the answer to be.

But when you’re in an intercultural relationship you can’t really do that. You kind of have to recognise the legitimacy of each other’s customs (I know, right, what a bore!). Sure, the first dance and the various toasts may seem like stuff people have just made up to torment me and my family, but it’s made-up stuff that means something to my partner and his family, so if I wanna skip ’em, I better have a good reason.

It’s just part of a continuous process of negotiating each other’s expectations, though, and the differences in these expectations in an intercultural relationship aren’t what you might expect. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that Cephas actually prefers to eat cheese sandwiches for lunch every day of his life, and it doesn’t add to his enjoyment if I sit by gazing at his plate in open dismay and saying, “Are you sure? Don’t you want something that would taste better?” Cephas has had to accept that it is seriously part of my culture to spend four hours in an eating establishment talking about nothing with my friends. (Google “mamak stall culture.” It’s a thing!)

I’m not sure you could say we’ve embraced each other’s cultures. I’ve lived in the UK for a while now, but when a zine which was publishing a story of mine wanted to identify me as a UK author I told them not to. I’m not British and I don’t want to be. Cephas may enjoy sunflower seeds in the shell with Chinese tea, but he will never be Malaysian. But we respect our differences. They’re part of our relationship. And there’s more about us that is the same than is different—otherwise we presumably wouldn’t be getting married.

When I was last home my dad sat me down for a serious You’re Getting Married So I’m Going to Give You Some Wise Dadly Advice talk.

“Your relationship with Cephas has a lot of diversity already,” he told me. “Race, culture, religion, nationality. You should try to close the gap.”

I said I’d think about it. But I’m not sure “closing the gap” is the way to deal with diversity. If growing up in a pluralistic nation has taught me anything, it’s that at a certain point you have to accept that people are just always going to be different. We will never agree—and our disagreements will be on vital, serious points, points like whether there’s a God, what women’s status in society should be, or whether the government is entitled to police the people’s morals.

Of course, I think all my opinions are the right ones, but other people can be right too. There can be different kinds of right. And even if other people are wrong—and oh, some of them are so wrong—you kind of have to live with them anyway.

That’s how I see me and Cephas, and our differences. They’re differences to live with. Different kinds of right. So maybe that’s what I’ll tell people the next time they ask about my weddings.

“Which one is the real one?”

“They’re both real,” I’ll tell them. “Different kinds of real.”

As well as sounding meaningful, this answer has the added advantage of being a bit mysterious, which will hopefully baffle people enough that they won’t think to argue with me over it. And because I’m serious about honouring the customs and usages of Cephas’s culture, I won’t say the last bit: But the Malaysian wedding is just a little bit more real than the English one. It doesn’t count if you’re just thinking it, right?

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  • PA

    “…this answer has the added advantage of being a bit mysterious, which will hopefully baffle people enough that they won’t think to argue with me over it.”

    This is a very good tactic for wedding planning. I think we should all try to use it when confronted by the ever-present, “But aren’t you going to … ?” question.

    An interesting article! A lot of food for thought – I’m off to drink my tea and stare at the wall and ponder it!

  • Zen,
    I’m really enjoying your posts. We come from such different backgrounds, and I feel like I learn something from you every time you write a post. My fiancé and I come from similar backgrounds (culturally and religiously), so my view of “what a wedding is” is pretty narrowly constricted to an American Catholic ceremony followed by a traditional Western reception with cake, toasts, and dancing. Thanks for broadening my horizons.

    • Parsley

      I agree that I’m really enjoying your posts, Zen. My finacee and I are realizing that our wedding really is an interfaith wedding, though not intercultural the way yours is. It’s helfpul to read the reflection here of both my own desire to honor where my partner is coming from, and my own honest sense that the aspects of our wedding which come from my practice actually are the ones that resonate with me more. Thank you for this.

      • Zen

        Thank you both! :) Glad you’re enjoying the posts.

  • Kristen

    Interesting article… I feel as if I’m facing a slightly similar dilemma. My fiancee and I are both Catholic but hardly practicing. His parents don’t REALLY practice either, but my dad has become this born again Catholic and my mom is pretty traditional.
    My fiancee and I are pretty set on not having our wedding at a church, and I think my parents are. We’re not planning to have the sacrament on the day of our wedding. Do I want to? Sure, but it’s not a top priority because we’re planning this from across the country. We just don’t have time for those couples classes. I think my fiancee and I will be footing more of the bill than my parents, so if they insist that it happens — then I feel like they should contribute more — or at least be more vocal about how much they can contribute rather than what they expect us to do.

    • Rachel

      I’m a practising Protestant and really struggle to understand why practising parents of any religion push the envelope so hard on their nonpractising kids. Surely they know that Added Holiness!TM is not going to magically make you or your union something other than what it is.You may want to make the point to your Dad that it is not going to ‘save’ you or make God shower you with 10% more love and gumdrops if you get married in church/have the sacrament.

  • I think baby china must be universally WASPish, because I’m British and I had that exact same set!

    • meg

      That’s totally my set too, which is hilarious, because it’s what came up when I googled “Baby China Set.”

      • Jo

        Ok, I must disagree. I am Jewish and had the Peter Rabbit set too. When I clicked your link to see what you meant by “baby china” I had quite a moment!
        I was actually just at my parents’ home for Passover this past weekend and had a conversation with my mother about how I’m going to use those with MY baby when I have one. We had several servings worth, and I have very special memories of how at Thanksgiving when my parents and aunts/uncles/grandparents would break out the nice china, us kids would have OUR “nice china”. We had enough at one point for me, my brother, and my two cousins, but a few have broken over time. A few years ago for Chanukkah, my brother actually bought me another serving set as a fond memory for me.
        SO. There you go.

        • meg

          Well good. I’m obviously Jewish, and my kids will have MY baby china and baby silver. I’ll tell my husband it’s traditional for jews!

          • Jo

            Sounds like an excellent plan.

        • EM

          brilliant! *this* is how I’ll use mine (half wasp / half jew here, and I’ve always been confused about the purpose of the china. guess I always thought my grandma just *really* liked beatrix potter!)

      • PA

        I flabbergasted the other day when the Caribou trivia question of the day was, “What fictional character was chased out of Mr. MacGregor’s garden?” and the person I was with did not know. Now I’m wondering if I knew it because of my baby china …

      • Flan

        I have the Royal Doulton Beatrix Potter baby china. (We’re semi WASPs, but my parents friends were High-WASP), I also have a nearly full set of the tea service and the china character figurines, which were given for birthdays, Christmas, and other holidays until I was 18.

        • LPC

          It was all about Peter Rabbit:).

    • Liz

      I totally got one of these as a kid, even if my family was Catholic!

    • marbella

      Me too! I forgot about it until I saw it! (Also a Brit)

    • I can confirm from Holland, which if you think about the history, was where some of the original settlers (white, anglo saxon and protestant) to New York came from, and my dutch husband has the exact same pottery set with the rabbits .
      Baby’s here also get a tile with their name.

      • meg

        Ohh! I want a picture of the tile! What do baby tiles look like? (Fancy baby gifts are the best.)

        • Just sent you a pic :) The regular ones are blue and white .

    • Cassandra

      I’m totally not WASPish whatsoever, but a high school teacher of mine gave my daughter Peter Rabbit baby china when she was born, so the second I saw the words ‘baby china’ I knew exactly what it had to be.

    • My husband’s baby china – a different but similar Peter Rabbit set – is sitting on our dining room table right this second. My mother in law brought it up a few weeks ago. And I remember the same set at my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. (My family is Canadian WASP, which means far less money, but just as much stoicism…)

      • meg

        My family lost the money long ago, but we kept the stoicism. And the baby china ;)

  • Emily A.

    “There can be different kinds of right.” – beautiful! This is something my FH and I have dealt with both within our relationship and with our families. My family has a tougher time with “different kinds of right” – orthodoxy will do that – but it’s a valuable lesson for all of us, intercultural relationships or no. Thank you for your insight!

  • “…it’s that at a certain point you have to accept that people are just always going to be different.”

    Yes, this has been something we had to come to terms with early on in our relationship for it to continue. We are also bi-national/intercultural, so we have our share of differences. And learning how to connect and love across difference has been rewarding (and challenging at times). But having a strong relationship despite disagreeing on some big stuff is a pretty cool thing. And like you said, I think it is connected to the larger picture of how societies and communities are learning how to successfully be pluralistic/multicultural…

    And this:
    “It’s just part of a continuous process of negotiating each other’s expectations, though, and the differences in these expectations in an intercultural relationship aren’t what you might expect.”

    So true! Every once in a while, something sneaks up on us and we are stunned to find a big cultural difference in some area we completely hadn’t expected.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and I wish you the best as you continue the negotiation of your cultures and expectations in your relationship.

  • Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. I needed to read this so badly and didn’t even know it.

    My guy and I are both Christian so this shouldn’t be an issue, right? Yet his Catholicism and my WASPyness have become this tense thing that keeps getting rehashed over and over and over. We always agree to respect each other and agree to disagree, but it never occurred to me that its ok to leave off the second half of our thoughts. That maybe it really is ok to think something but not say it and just hold it privately in your heart, because that’s been the real issue for us: feeling like the other person thinks we’re wrong or not “real”. Maybe if we stop telling each other that (even by implying our way is the real way), we’ll stop hurting each other…

    • meg

      Oh, my dear. Cut yourself a break! You’re dealing with a lot of cultural differences! My dad is low-church baptist and my mom is high-church Episcopalian, and they always used to say that was about as interfaith as any family could manage. Of course now, given David and I, the joke is on them ;) BUT. Still. Give yourself credit for the cultural difference you’re dealing with, and let yourself cry and talk it out when you need to.

      • …thanks. Believe it or not, having someone give me permission to feel all knotted up about this lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.

        I think what’s made it so hard is that we weren’t expecting to have to deal with this, you know? When we were dating (for six whole years at that), it was a non-issue. But start talking about whose church to get married in, or how he doesn’t want communion at our ceremony at my church because it’s “fake”, or what on earth to do about children, and suddenly it feels so very, very Big.

        • Michelle

          Cathi, I FEEL YOUR PAIN.

          My family is all flavors of Christian – non-denominational, Episcopalian, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, and there’s even a former Catholic in there – and we’re generally of the opinion that “While the traditions may be different, Christian is Christian.”

          My fiance’s family is as staunchly Catholic as can be. He’s open to other denominations, but I get the feeling from his parents that they would be crushed if he were to regularly attend a non-Catholic church, because it’s not “real.” (Oh, and this is despite the fact that they don’t believe in many of the things that differentiates Catholicism from other denominations of Christianity.)

          I’m trying not to get offended by this (it’s been hard), and we’re making compromises: we’re getting married in his parents’ church, but my Methodist minister aunt is co-officiating. I’m just worried about the conflicts with his parents down the line if we decide to raise our kids “Christian” rather than strictly “Catholic”…

    • Zen

      I’m glad it helped! Yeah, I think telling each other what they do is “fake” or “wrong” is absolutely killer — but that’s not going to stop me being secretly convinced that I’m the one in the right. :P Good luck to you guys!

      And the Catholic vs WASP thing is a big deal — I’m not Christian, obvs, but the differences are striking even from the outside.

  • Flan

    This post is so wise, and so interesting! Having attended several interfaith weddings over the year, I’ve watched our friends wrestle with this, and I think you summed this up beautifully.

  • Oh Zen, how much I love your writing. You have said so eloquently how it feels. We are also from different nationalities, religions (though both within christianism) and cultures. And I agree so much with this:
    “. If growing up in a pluralistic nation has taught me anything, it’s that at a certain point you have to accept that people are just always going to be different.”
    but I think it is the differences that make the World so rich, so amazing… And I think we should try to be open and embrace all views, but keeping them, you know like that metaphor of tiny people looking at an elephant from different angles and only when putting all views together you can get a whole, more complete picture. Not sure if I made much sense.

    • Zen


  • christa

    I think it’s pretty fair to think, say, and believe that “this is the part that’s most meaningful for me” and “that is the part that is most meaningful for you”. It’s okay to have different parts be important to the different actors in the wedding, (brides, grooms, officiants and families all included) as long as everyone is respectful of the parts that are important to others, and everyone who matters gets at least some of what they think is the “most important part”.

    • meg

      If only it were that EASY though. You make it sound easy, and it remains difficult… pretty much for always.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Example of a practical difficulty: Lots of religions insist that that religion’s religious wedding rite be the “real” wedding, AND there may be little flexibility in the rite.

      That’s the case for us. My future father-in-law occasionally gets in a tizzy insisting a rabbi speak during our Anglican Catholic nuptial Mass. Well, only those trained by a Priest and licensed by a Bishop can speak at an Anglican Catholic Mass. What is important to him is flat-out incompatible with what is important to us.

      And it’s really hard to feel like something is “real” when it’s the result of compromise. Indeed, I remember a lot of Sunday school lessons about “not compromising your faith.” One possible interpretation of those lessons is that any incorporation of an element from another religion is an unacceptable watering down. [This is not our interpretation. We will have a chuppah, a glass breaking, and a ketubah, and a rabbi to speak at the reception, assuming my future in laws can find one.]

    • Zen

      Yes, but — she said perversely — you also don’t want your loved ones to be just going through the motions when participating in a ceremony of enormous significance to you! Life, why so complicated?

  • Ana Maria

    Thank you Zen for your great post!! We are also inter-cultural, inter-faith, bi-national and getting married using only one of our religious traditions, and we constantly are finding places were our traditions do not coincide and we have had to compromise to make it work. (Like having godparents for a wedding?? And not having adult bridesmaids and groomsmen but a child’s “court”!!). The upside is that we can make our own traditions and explain them to wide eyed aunts/uncles/friends saying that is how things are done in the other culture and get away with letting the traditions we don’t want be exchanged for more meaningful ones for both of us!

  • Courtney

    My parents got married in the Roman Catholic church in 1979. Mom’s Catholic, Dad’s Episcopalian. It was a heap big deal, and the first interfaith wedding that their pastors had ever had. That sort of mixing was a lot less common a generation or two ago. People assumed that one of them would HAVE to convert, but my mother briskly informed nosy-bodies that neither of them wanted to make the other change who they were. She loved and respected my Dad just as he was, so she didn’t ever for a second consider asking him to change. (Obviously, it would have been different if either of them expressed any interest in conversion, but neither of them did.) They did a concelebration (two officiants, one Catholic, one Episcopalian) and the Episcopalian officiant brought pre-consecrated communion. So everyone got to go up for communion, and everyone could participate. You hadn’t even been able to do concelebration until fairly recently (I think Vatican II in the 1960s).

    The more unusual solution was how they decided to handle having kids. They raised us kids Catholic, baptism, sacraments and all that jazz, BUT we ALL went to BOTH churches every Sunday. (I’ve never met anyone else who did this–it helped logistically that the two parishes are literally a minute and a half apart via car.) We did Episcopalian Sunday School and Christmas pageants, picnics, the whole deal. My parents made clear to us that we could convert if we wanted, and that it would be pretty easy. They gave equal time and money to each parish because we belonged to both and they were EQUALLY important and I’ve never really seen either of them in word or deed imply otherwise.

    People from the outside find it pretty bizarre, not so much because my parents were bridging a huge gap, but because they’ve done it with such total commitment, week after week, while being pretty serious about their own individual faith and doing lots of volunteer work and such at each church. I don’t mean to sound like this was so easy–it meant a lot of logistical juggling and often doing something less or different than what one parent wanted for the parish where they were the registered member. Friends sometimes ask me if I felt “confused” or resentful, but it’s been such a blessing and I mostly enjoyed going to both churches as a kid. I realize my situation was pretty unique and would NOT work for many families. But on a hopeful note, sometimes interfaith mixing means a lot of awesomeness and appreciation of all the multiple traditions we get to claim and love as our own. It formed our family identity in a really good way, for both my parents and definitely for me and my sister. Now that I’m in my own interfaith relationship, I’m learning all over again from that perspective and realizing how much work it must have taken my parents to get to their incredibly happy, harmonious marriage (at least on the religion front!).

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Thanks TONS for this. Our situation is even more complicated than I indicated above: My fiance just became Roman Catholic (converted from Judaism, a process he started before we met). I will remain Anglican.

  • Kaitlyn

    “They’re both real,” I’ll tell them. “Different kinds of real.”

    I am going to steal that and use it to explain the intercultural bits of our intercultural wedding. My family is very, very confused as to why I’m wearing a red dress to the reception. I try and explain that costume changes at a wedding are a cultural thing for my FMIL, but it’s just… not real to them, I guess.

    Same goes with explaining my Catholic mass to my Southern Baptist FILs. I flat out refused to do an interfaith ceremony (because I have serious issues with their version of that religion. I could do interfaith I was ambivalent about. I can’t do it when I’m morally against it), which my FH backed me up on, and it has definitely caused some hurt feelings.His family doesn’t see the Catholic ceremony as real.

    My FH identifies solely as American, not American-Chinese, but the cultural things pop up in the weirdest ways. Gambling games on Christmas? What? I was completely shocked that they actually expected me to take the money I won from his grandmother. They were just as shocked that my family doesn’t do it. It was just so completely outside my experience that it knocked me through a loop.

  • EM

    THAT’S what that Beatrix Potter bowl is! I got some of it when I was born and it’s just sat on a shelf for my whole life. What am I supposed to have been using it for?

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Sounds like you’re supposed to use it for Elijah’s place setting.

  • DKR

    Zen, I’m really enjoying your writing. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m in an interfaith/intercultural relationship, although the differences aren’t as pronounced as yours. My fiancé is Puerto Rican; I am as well, but I didn’t grow up with that part of my heritage (it comes from my paternal grandfather, who died when my dad was young-I grew up with my Irish and Italian heritage). I’m embracing and learning about my Puerto Rican heritage and him about my Irish and Italian heritage (although his stepdad was old-world Sicilian, so he’s familiar with it). On top of that, we were both raised Roman Catholic; I left the Church years ago and have long been a practicing Pagan. He’s a mix of Catholic and Pagan and his family priest is (hopefully) going to be our officiant. We’re working on a ceremony that incorporates both sets of beliefs, which is fair to both of us and will make our birth families happy. I understand your feeling that the Malaysian wedding is the real one; I’d love to have the ceremony in an entirely Pagan ritual of my tradition with the members of my old group present to perform it (most of us, including myself, moved away and don’t get together anymore).

  • JessietheBrit

    Lovely piece. In our age of choice and personal fulfilment, I’m interested by pieces that recognise the sacrifices and accomodations that we make in wedding planning- that recognise that we are part of a greater family and community. Much as I could wax lyrical about how the trick is always to remain authentic to ourselves and our relationships this is sometimes such a hard task when facing the conflicting powers of What Mum Wants, the WIC, and our egos.

  • Kelly

    I never considered my wedding “interfaith” as I am a practicing Catholic and my fiance is “nothing.” Because he doesn’t have strong beliefs of his own, he’s been supportive of having a fully Catholic wedding. However, I’m so worried that the readings, the music, and the ceremony itself won’t be meaningful to him because he doesn’t believe what I do. I’m not grappling with the issues of trying to incorporate two faith or cultural traditions into one celebration, but definitely struggling to make sure we both feel connected to the ceremony.

    • Susie

      I had the exact same issue. Was your fiance brought up in any church? Although my husband is “nothing” he had been dragged to Church of Scotland (Protestant) services as a child and so was familiair with some of the hymns that we could choose from. He’s also quite into music so I got him choose from a shortlist of Catholic hymns that I thought he’d recognise and pick the entry / exit pieces of music so he felt connected to that part of the ceremony. Note that some readings are pretty universal (our priest suggested 1 Corinthains – Love is kind…) and can be appreciated without being religious at all. The most important part of the ceremony – the vows – is completely universal in my opinion. He’ll be connected there for sure!

      The biggest hurdle I had was convincing my MIL that a Catholic wedding was not actually that different to a Protestant wedding…

      • KateM

        It will be meaningful to him because he is MARRYING you. stop . period.
        That being said, the Catholic Church teaches that the two parties confer the sacrament on each other, not the officiant and the vows that you make are not particularly religious. Also many of the readings focus on the beauty of marriage, not on particular teachings. Song of Songs is pure poetry and as someone mentioned above, St. Paul’s “Love is Kind” is universal. I know that I appreciate and admire the beauty and symbolism in many different religions, even though I don’t believe in them, there is still a take away.

  • DNA

    Similar to Zen, I’m also in an intercultural relationship, and by the end of this year, my partner and I will have had 3 weddings in 3 different countries so I completely understand the “different kinds of real” part. For me, all the celebrations will be real even though only one will be legal, and I’m grateful that my parents and his parents are treating all the weddings as equally important and real, especially since it’s something that definitely can’t be taken for granted!

    In terms of the cultural part, my partner and I grew up on opposite sides of the planet and come from very different cultures so it’s inevitable that we’ll run into some differences, but they’ve been (thankfully) small like the level of cleanliness we can each put up with and my more Type A personality vs. his more laid-back, we’ll-plan-this-stuff-later personality.

    The bigger cultural clash has been my partner and my vision of our wedding vs. the 3 different countries’ wedding industrial complexes. The wedding industries in Thailand, Hong Kong and the U.S. are very similar in that they all try to convince us that we *must have* certain things but the specific things can vary. It’s tiring enough to fight against one, and I wanted to be a good daughter and my partner wanted to be a good son-in-law so we both went with my parents’ and their slightly more WIC-y vision for the Thailand and Hong Kong weddings. For me, the Thailand and Hong Kong weddings were much more about making my parents proud and re-connecting with relatives I hadn’t seen in a long time so they were wonderful and meaningful in their own ways. For the U.S. wedding celebration that’s coming up, my partner and I have full control over what happens, and his parents have been wonderfully flexible about everything. This wedding will probably be more our style, and we’ve figured out a lot of the big picture stuff (low-key backyard barbecue wedding) and just need to work out the details (if I could figure out the logistics of incorporating karaoke into the reception somehow, that would be amazing!).

    Best of luck with your wedding planning adventures, Zen, and I’m eager to hear about how things progress!

    Just as a side note: I’m also really interested in hearing more about managing/living with/reconciling major differences between one and one’s partner. The ones that Zen has listed sound huge and important, especially the difference in opinion on women’s status in society. I don’t know if there’s a chance this topic could turn into a reclaiming wife post…?

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