Zen: The Save-the-Date Saga

I hadn’t read Meg’s book when I first got engaged, but (spoiler) it has recommended steps for the newly-engaged person. As a lover of lists and inveterate box-ticker I would’ve been delighted by this, and I would’ve been even more pleased to know that I had Step One down.

The first thing to do is to brainstorm and to dream. Let yourself dream unrestricted by reality at first, because the heart has a way of guiding you in the right direction, even when the heart seems a little crazy. —From Chapter One

Because weddings do weird things to your brain, what I started dreaming about was… stationery.

My save the dates came to me in a flash of light, attended by angels singing. A picture of me and my fiancé astride our Chinese zodiac animals—the tiger and the ox respectively—leaping in mid-air and high-fiving!

I had it all figured out. I’d get my ridiculously talented artist cousin to draw my vision and email it to me, I’d print it off on a bunch of postcards, send it to all my friends, and sit back and bask in the glow of knowing I had the cutest save the dates (wo)man had ever seen.

This, of course, is not the way any wedding-related dream goes. Reality took the form of my mother—and reality, as always, was stranger than you think.

“It’s real cute!” said my mother via text message. But she hinted darkly at “some implications from some traditional old sayings.”

My parents’ concern turned out to be the prominence of our zodiac animals. “The tiger eats the ox so maybe people will joke you will bully Peter,” said my mom.

“But if I bully Peter it’s because I’m just that kind of person, not because I’m a Tiger. I’ll bully him if I’m a Rabbit also.”

Strangely my mother did not seem to find this reassuring.

“And I think it’s nicer if the card is in colour,” she said. “You want black and white ah? Colour is nicer.”

Aha, mom! That’s where I’ve got you! The question of “nice”ness is one of subjective aesthetic judgment, and as one of the two people getting married I wield ultimate veto power in determining niceness in the context of the wedding!

“Colour’s more expensive,” I said diplomatically. “Black and white simpler. It’s only the save the date, don’t need to be so fancy.”

The next thing I knew my mother had, er, strongly encouraged my cousin to finish inking the design, wrested the picture off of her, and printed off 100 copies of the design in various colour combinations, all of which I disliked.

Because I try to be a good daughter, I made sure to do all my tooth-gnashing and hair-tearing before I got on Skype and demanded an explanation. And it was only then, amidst the wreckage of my paper goods-based dreams, that my mother came clean.

“Black and white pantang lah,” she said. “You know, when your brother got married, he did his own invitations and sent them out in white envelopes. Dad’s friend’s feelings were so hurt, instead of giving angpow at the wedding, he brought the envelope and put the money in that.”

This requires some explanation for a non-Chinese Malaysian audience. Pantang is Malay for “taboo.” Angpow describes the red packets in which gifts of money are traditionally given at happy occasions such as Chinese New Year and weddings. But—and this was the detail I was missing—gifts of money are also given to attendees at funerals. They are given in white envelopes.

Why my mother didn’t just tell me she didn’t want black and white save the dates because the colours are associated with death is a mystery that I will take to my grave. But that’s weddings for you. Frickin’ everything means more than you think it will, and the reasons people give for the things they demand of you don’t always have anything to do with their actual reasons.

There’s a happy ending, though it does involve some waste of paper. After an internal struggle I directed the 100 postcards to the recycling bin and got my cousin to recolour the design. She did it in vivid pinks and reds—nothing more auspicious than pink and red—and I had the cards reprinted to my exacting standards.

We worked out the zoological issues with the design as well. “It needs a more partnership feeling,” said my dad. “Not one person stronger than the other.” The amended version of the design shows the tiger and ox high-fiving as well as Peter and I. Apparently this is all that is needed to indicate good will among zodiackal carnivores and their prey.

 © Alina Choong

What my save the date saga taught me was that you can’t predict what the points of tension are going to be when you start planning a wedding, because a wedding is a community event. To predict every point of tension you’d have to be able to think as the whole community. And most of us can’t do that because we’re humans and not Borg.

But that’s OK. The Borg probably miss out on a lot in life. I bet their weddings suck.

Illustrations by: Alina Choong

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  • Aims

    bahahaha! Family (well, people actually) can be so damn random. I’m glad it worked out though. These save the dates rock!

  • One: your save-the-date design is absolutely adorable.

    Two: That’s such an interesting story. I knew a little of the colour white being associated with death, but I had no idea the connotations were so strong. Sometimes resistance to a cultural norms is.. well.. futile ;)

  • oh for cute! Love those save the dates. And your post reminds me of conversations I had with my own mom about details. Sometimes, I actually just came out and said “is there something deeper here? Explain to me why you want XYZ.” I was surprised to see that it sometimes helped!

    • Leah, I’ve only ever heard Minnesotans use the “oh for…” construction– are you a friend from the Land of 10,000 Lakes? :)

      • Jennie

        Oh my gosh, have you read How To Speak Minnesotan??? It’s so fantastic. I’m from Iowa and friends with lots of Lutherans, so it was a Universal Midwestern Psychological Primer to me. The cast of Fargo all read it before shooting began. I bet you would love it.

  • I don’t know how I’ve made it this far in life without seeing a picture of a tiger high-fiving an ox, but I’m glad I don’t need to struggle through life without that image any more. These are the cutest save the dates this woman has ever seen. AMAZING.

    Funny story. When my brother-in-law married his Chinese wife, they asked for money because they were moving from the UK to China. I found out about the tradition of giving wedding money in a red packet, and without having a local angpow supplier handy (Edinburgh occasionally feels like it may be the least multicultural city on the planet), made my own out of red tissue paper. The night before the wedding, I went to put it in my bag, but couldn’t find it. “Fin, have you seen that little tissue paper packet with Pete and JiaJia’s wedding present money in it?” Um… Yeah, he’d thrown it in the bin. And thrown the bin down the rubbish chute. Excellent.

    Fortunately, it was nothing that a little rummaging around in the stinking basement (by HIM, obviously) couldn’t remedy. I feel like there’s some sort of blessing for the couple in there somewhere, some message about overcoming adversity together, but maybe that’s just me trying to find excuses for giving them a wedding present that spent the better part of a day sittingin a pile of used tissues and festering potato peelings.

  • That illustration is so bomb. And the Star Trek reference pulls me over here to say so. Rock on!

  • Rachel

    “What my save the date saga taught me was that you can’t predict what the points of tension are going to be when you start planning a wedding, because a wedding is a community event.”

    This is probably the biggest thing we’ve learned with wedding planning. We’ve been so lucky to have incredibly chill, awesome friends and relatives through the whole process. Nobody’s been telling us what to do, everyone’s been supportive of our sometimes non-traditional ideas, our families have been totally happy to go along with everything we’ve suggested. The issues we thought would cause problems had unexpected reactions: Not getting married in a church? Cool! Good for you for doing what feels right! Seeing eachother before the ceremony to take pictures? Excellent! Very practical! Bridesmaids not wearing matching dresses? Great! They’ll be more likely to wear them again! Serving lasagna for dinner instead of a formal meal? Mmm… comfort food!

    But then…

    We told my fiance’s mom that he was going to be wearing a yellow gingham bowtie, and there was a meltdown. I think she’s still upset about it. She thinks he’ll look like a children’s entertainer and regret it for the rest of his life when he sees the photos. I think she’s finally made peace with it (although I still don’t think she’s happy about it) – and my fiance is going to surprise her by switching into a simple navy blue tie for their mother-son dance, but it was just so unexpected that THIS became the major conflict point of the wedding. You just never know!

    • Lana

      I love that you’re embracing it and making an inside joke/just for mom moment out of it during the mother-son dance!

  • PA

    “But that’s OK. The Borg probably miss out on a lot in life. I bet their weddings suck.”


    It’s a wonderfully-told story – something that was clearly hugely frustrating at the time, but that you’ve told with humor and grace! And it’s a good reminder to brides and grooms to step back, when someone is making a huge fuss about something, and say, “It seems like this reaction is really disproportionate to what they say is going on. I wonder what the real issue is?”

  • clampers

    “Frickin’ everything means more than you think it will…”

    Love that line!

  • I, too, dreamed immediately of gorgeous stationery when we got engaged! <3 u, paper.

  • :) I love your posts and I really like your save the dates. Your cousin is really talented!
    And now I really wonder what your mum would say about the fact that I’m a Dragon and my husband is a Goat…

  • Beth

    I took a break from writing shower thank-you’s to get my daily dose of APW magic, and thank you Zen! I am so happy that you were able to develop a solution that was meaninful for you and your family, and that you did not just give up and say “Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated” (loving the only wedding blog EVER with a Borg reference).

  • That. Is. Adorable.

  • Cass

    I’m not sure Borg weddings would suck. I think the Borg weddings would be appropriate for the Borgs, and we can’t fault them for doing what they find appropriate.
    I hope your wedding will be just as appropriate for you and your future husband :)

    • I don’t know that the Borg would marry. Wouldn’t that imply some sort of individual identity?

      I bet the Borg queen’s wedding would be intense though.

      • I love that this is turning into a discussion.

        Carry on!

        • Rachel

          The Borg queen’s wedding would be awesome.

          • Essential question: who would be the (lucky?) groom?

          • Sarah H.

            I think their vows would be something like, “We will add your distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

            Love the Star Trek reference!

          • Rachel

            Ahhh the groom would probably have to be just one of the “worker” Borg. Since the Borg are like bees it would probably end up being the leader of the bees/borg.

            Those vows are perfect by the way.

  • uhhhhhh HILARIOUS!!

  • Uhh! Hilarious! I really did love this post, I feel like my grandparents will be on my case about each and every meaning in the wedding tradition! BTW Blooms By the Box is still giving away Meg’s A Practical Wedding Book! Please visit our facebook, like us, and comment why you want it for your chance to win! Facebook.com/Bloomsbythebox! Thank you! Keep up the good work, really funny stuff lately!

  • Fantastic tale and delightful resolution!

    And, as a wedding paper designer, the perils of Color and Correct Image and Meta Message are so right on — I’m nodding “yes!” over here! Who knew that one could stir up such angst over a card and envelope?! Believe me, it happens.

  • Granola

    Line of the post: “Why my mother didn’t just tell me she didn’t want black and white save the dates because the colours are associated with death is a mystery that I will take to my grave.”

    So true. If only we could just all say what we mean clearly. If I had a dollar for every time I got burned by some version of this…..

    • Rebecca

      So many times. Sometimes I feel my imaginary graduate post would be a list of everything that meant something to someone in our community.

  • I love this story and those cards are incredibly cute.

    People not getting that white means death is why me and my fiance spent the best part of the morning my friend got married sticking pink and purple butterflies to the white sheets kindly provided by the venue, that actually ended up being in the corner of the room where the tea ceremony was performed.

    They usually provided white sheets to cover the pictures by local neighbourhood kids as most couples want white on thier wedding day. but we had the butterflies so all was well. I also quite liked doing it, jumping up and down to stick them up was good use for the massive excitement I had at her getting married.

  • Wow, what coincidental timing – I’m going through something very similar right now. Not anything with cultural connotations, but we were about ready to send our invitations to the printer and then I showed them to my mom. I totally should have showed them to her before, so that was my mistake, but now we have some last minute scrambling to change them (which will include installing another trial of Adobe InDesign on another computer) because she doesn’t like the wording – namely she wants the parents to be represented differently from how we worded it, which is important. I guess it was a lesson for us to remember to slow down and include our parents more, since we’re not the only ones paying for/hosting the event.

  • This was HILARIOUS!

    Awesome start(ish) to my day, and to the APW 4th anniversary!!!

  • I have my reservations about using Save the Dates, but I absolutely love these. Now I’m brainstorming what sort of cute cartoony designs we could do.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • suzanna

    I LOVE that save-the-date! Zen, you cracked me up. Loved the Borg reference. And the message of “you never know what’s going to end up being an issue” is really important. It’s so easy to get all excited about some plan in my head, and it can be crushing when someone else has a problem with it. Funny how weddings involve other people…

    Also, I just have to say that I really appreciate seeing more multicultural representation here on APW! As a white girl marrying a Chinese-American dude, it’s so nice to see my kind of problems on here! Learning and respecting my fiance’s family traditions and expectations, and figuring out how to prioritize them and combine them with my own, and what we as a couple want, is quite an undertaking. And awesome.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    I’ve been thinking of it this way: Weddings are a new thing I have to learn to talk about with my mom. For each stage in our grown-up lives, there’s a new, complicated thing we have to learn to communicate with our parents about. Once upon a time, it was boys. Later, it was law school. Then, I had to learn to talk about my work with her. Now I have to learn to talk about the wedding. And she’s learning how, too.

    • Yes! This is exactly how I’ve been feeling but couldn’t quite put it into words.

    • Marina

      Wow, I love that way of looking at it. And that’ll just continue through other life-stages too. What a great reminder that these things are new to me AND to my parents.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        The joys of being an eldest child…

        • Kat

          I’m the eldest child too.. but am so glad my younger sister is getting married first. She can do something first in her life and blaze the way for me… for once I’d like to have it easier … said as a true eldest child lol

  • “Apparently this is all that is needed to indicate good will among zodiackal carnivores and their prey.”


    Also, these are the greatest save-the-dates ever.

  • Martha

    And this is why I love APW. Borg + wedding zen. Where else does that thought even exist?!? (Also, your cards are great.)

  • Sharon

    Funny thing about attending a Chinese wedding in the US – most of the wedding cards here are white and that’s very taboo. We ended up buying both a Wedding card and a Christmas card (the wedding was late October, thankfully) and swapped the envelopes.

  • Zen, I think you and I might have the same mother. The similarities are uncanny!

  • DNA

    I love your save the dates! I’m Chinese-Thai myself so I can totally understand wanting to be the good daughter by respecting my parents and my relatives’ wishes while still remaining true to myself.

    Our invitations for our wedding in Bangkok were originally gray, black, and white, and my dad also gently suggested making our wedding invitations “brighter” as well because black and white both had negative connotations. He suggested red or pink instead, but we compromised and the invitations ended up being green (a color that both my fiance and I like) and the envelopes were a deep red with the double happiness character all over them.

    Also, speaking of the Chinese zodiac, my fiance was born in the year of the Dragon, and I was born in the year of the Dog. According to the Chinese zodiac, the Dragon and the Dog are supposed to be incompatible. My relatives determined that we were both born during the hour of the Dragon though (7-9 am) so according to them, that overrules the Dragon-Dog incompatibility. Phew! :D

  • “What my save the date saga taught me was that you can’t predict what the points of tension are going to be when you start planning a wedding, because a wedding is a community event.”

    How I wish I’d been prepared for this fact when I started planning my wedding! Oh well. LOVE your save-the-dates!!

  • Such a fun read! I had my own Save the Date hair-pulling, but it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as yours!

  • AndyGirl

    Not just preaching to the choir, this one is preaching to the preacher!

    Never ceases to amaze me the strange and entirely unpredictable things that people (and, in my experience, mothers in particular) will have a difficulty with when it comes to wedding planning.

  • The accent! I can hear the accent through your dialogue!! <3

  • Kit

    Well that was an ordeal that was totally worth it, because the colored version is unbelievably adorable!

  • Day

    Fellow msian here and am planning my wedding this year too! Great to see familiar words and traditions story in this site that I can relate too :) wishing u all the best in planning the wedding!

  • Ciara

    I love your save the dates!

    I 100% agree…since we have been engaged there have been SOOO many random points of tension. We think we are making simple decisions, and yet when other people hear about it…it becomes a big deal!