When Planning an Intercultural Wedding Is a Lot Like Living in a Romantic Comedy


There have been times when planning this wedding has felt like living out a rom-com on the theme of culture clash. It started when I brought Cephas to Malaysia with me to meet my extended family during Chinese New Year.

In the face of an endless stream of aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins to the nth degree, Cephas was diligently courteous and attentive. My relatives were somewhat less so. An auntie, watching us benevolently as we ate dinner, kept up a running commentary on him in Hokkien.

“That’s good ah, he can eat our food. Look, he can eat chilli! That’s convenient. Easier if he doesn’t mind eating the same things. It’s good that he can speak English.”

“But he’s from England,” my sister pointed out.

My aunt’s daughter had an ex from France whose English had not been up to par, and he had clearly had lasting influence on my aunt’s perception of the capabilities of European boyfriends. “Very hard to communicate,” said my aunt, shaking her head.

My favourite story from that trip is about the time we visited my great-uncle, a retired civil servant in his eighties who speaks beautiful English. I’m not sure he had ever really noticed my existence before, or I his, but he seemed quite interested in Cephas.

“Welcome to the Chan family,” he boomed. “Who is Chan? Her grandmother—” indicating me—”my sister, is Chan. Her grandfather was Leong. Her father is Kwok.”

We walked through the living room, where, as in a lot of my older relatives’ houses, there was a red altar laid with offerings to a Taoist deity. Pictures of monks in saffron robes adorned the walls. In the kitchen my great-aunt gave Cephas misai kucing (a type of herbal tea), my great-uncle explaining that it was good for diabetes. (Cephas does not have diabetes.)

“You are from England? My teachers at school were English. We were taught by the brothers, you know. It was a Catholic school. You’re Catholic? Yes, the brothers taught us about it—they read us the Bible, we knew all the stories. We used to say our prayers every day.”

Putting down his misai kucing, my great-uncle took Cephas’s hand and recited, “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

Cephas, being a nice earnest kind of person, bowed his head and said “Amen.” The rest of us looked respectful, but when we got to the end of the prayer my sister couldn’t take it anymore. Her mind’s eye full of monks, she burst out, “Tua Gu Gong, are you a Catholic?”

My great-uncle tapped his chest. “At heart I am,” he said gravely.

As we drove away from his house, my mom remarked, “His children are all so angry at him right now. You know, he had a girlfriend in Thailand and he used to put all these presents in the boot and go driving up there every week? At his age!”

Rakish great-uncles aside, my family have been more confused than confusing in this meeting of ancient cultures engendered by our wedding. My parents hadn’t encountered gift registries before, and I didn’t think to mention ours to them, since Cephas and I had set it up for the convenience of his family. But my friends and younger relatives latched on to it as a novelty—shopping for actual things! So much more interesting than giving money in envelopes!—and one day my sister asked my dad what she ought to buy me off the registry.

“What’s that?” said my dad, and when it had been explained that Cephas and I had made a list of things we wanted once we were married, he asked, “How many things are there on it?”

“Fifteen,” said my sister.

“Buy everything!” said my dad.

My sister thought this was probably not the correct thing to do with registries.

“OK, then buy the three most expensive things on the list,” said my dad.

“Do I say it’s a gift from you and me and mom?”

“No! Mom and I will buy the next three most expensive things on the list,” said my dad.

Fortunately, one of the most expensive things on the list happened to be a set of good knives. “Pantang (taboo) to give knives as a present. Tell Zen to buy her own knives.” My sister put off buying the three most expensive things on the registry to warn me about the knives, and I concocted a gentle but firm email to the effect that Cephas had not spent an afternoon in a department store shopping (an activity he finds ineffably boring) so that his aunts and uncles could be befuddled by a giftless gift registry.

There are times when I can’t predict what my family will be bemused by—upon learning that we were going to have a reading from Song of Solomon at the church ceremony, my sister protested: “‘Love is as strong as death’? You’re going to have the word death at your wedding? Pantang!”

But at other times it is incredibly obvious. With eight seats at our top table, Cephas asked me who I thought should take up the extra place that wasn’t occupied by us, our parents, and the best man.

“If your best man is on it, then my maid of honour should be sitting there also,” I said. ‘”But my parents will say it should be your grandfather.”

I was correct. Friends—young people, at that—sitting at the place of honour at the wedding, but not Cephas’s grandfather? “Why people so funny one?” muttered my mom.

I’m sure my family’s customs will appear equally outlandish to Cephas’s relatives, when the time comes—and they haven’t even got the assistance of a recently televised royal wedding, freely available on YouTube. I’m not entirely sure how our respective sets of parents will take to each other. Because in one sense, they speak the same language (my parents also having been taught by British missionaries), but in another, they totally don’t, at all.

But hey, to a certain extent this is what happens in most weddings, intracultural ones as much as the intercultural—two families learning to speak the other’s language. I’m not sure my family will ever be fluent in Cephas’s-familyese, but I’ll be satisfied if they can manage the convincing nod and the look of “Yes, I have definitely been listening and have not zoned out because I find your accent barely understandable.” We’ll get there someday.

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  • Molly

    Just wanted to say that this article was a joy to read.

  • Shira

    Zen, I love your earnest writing! Your stories and perspective are both touching and hilarious. Thanks for sharing, it was a great way to start the day.

  • Zen, I love your posts so much. I never thought I’d get my Hokkien fill through APW.

  • Kara

    You are a wonderful writer and I’m really enjoying seeing the process of your families coming together. Best of luck to you, it sounds like the two of you will have a marvelous adventure together (and with your families).

  • Caroline

    Your dad and sister’s conversation about the registry had my partner and I cracking up. I suspect when we get around to planning our wedding, there will be some, although probably more minor, cultural misunderstandings between my our understanding of our Jewishish wedding and his catholic mom. Or even my non-Jewish mom (I’m a convert with a Jewish dad) Or possibly, most of all, between the religious aspects that will likely be unfamiliar to my dad’s secular family.

  • Granola

    I can totally see the rom-com angle. Most people’s families speak the same verbal language, but nevertheless have a more insidious culture clash. This distance between your respective families doesn’t make it any easier, but it certainly makes for a different kind of entertaining struggle, particularly with you and Cephas the standard-bearers in the middle. It’s great that you can find the humor and perspective in the midst of the chaos.

  • Kay

    I love your articles surrounding culture clash, because I’m gearing up for a similar situation as I plan to wed my French Canadian man. We grew up a 6 hour drive away from each other but essentially in different worlds. Large portions of our families don’t share a language and I am continually shocked at how different the culture is. All my friends who have gotten married have families who (at least appear to) have melded together almost effortlessly, so I am starved for stories that normalize the abnormality of bringing together two different cultures. Thank you!

    • Cassandra

      I’m also an anglo marrying a French Canadian – I’m right there with you on the differences!

  • ElisabethJoanne

    Our cultural divides aren’t quite so wide (both families decades-long American residents, but it’s the first American wedding for his family, even as guests), but I tell him, “You have to be the go-between for your side….I don’t know what your side will do, so I can’t really tell you how to handle [late Rsvps, questions about what to wear, how much to tell them in advance, etc.]. But here’s what needs to get done.”

    On the flip side, I can totally relate to knowing your own family’s quirks. I can’t explain them to my future husband as well as Zen can explain hers to Cephas, though.

  • L

    Zen, I love your writing. This piece made me laugh out loud three separate times… and I very rarely laugh out loud because of something I am reading. I could just so clearly imagine your Dad’s matter-of-fact, “Buy all 15”. Love it.

  • Zen – I do hope you write professionally after APW. Your writing is top notch.

  • MDBethann

    Zen, that was great.

    Oh, and a way around the “no knives as gifts” thing is to give the knife giver a penny – then you “purchased the knives” from them so you don’t risk “severing the relationship” which is what my grandmother (Pennsylvania German ancestry) said would happen if you gave someone a knife/knives as a gift. Interesting how so many different cultures have taboos about giving knives as gifts.

  • dysgrace

    Zen: You are apparently living my life.

    Each and every single time J and I have a meal with my relatives (which is every week, as we live about fifteen minutes away), my mum asks: “Has J tried __(insert food here)__?” (He’s lived in Singapore for more than two years now. The answer is almost always yes.)

    In our case we gave up on the gift registry and baffled his Italian-American Ohio family with angpao etiquette.

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