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.