One Fine (Three) Days

Wardrobe changes, multiple venues and drama -- the staing of cross-cultural weddings.

January 1, 2008

LATA MURTI would have been fine with marking Dave Cochran just once Instead she married him three times.

The first time was in a historic train depot in Lawrence, KS, surrounded by close friends and family and free from all the strains and pageantry of a lavish ceremony-just as she had wanted.

A year later, she married Cochran in an Indian ceremony, wrapped in a crimson and green sari, draped in a thick necklace of flowers and blessed by a Hindu priest-just as her parents had wanted

Forty-five minutes later, she switched into a white sari and walked down the aisle once again to be wed by Cochran's uncle, a Presbyterian minister. No one is really sura who wanted that ceremony but at the tin it seemed like the fair thing to do.

Now that five years have passed, Murti, 31, looks back on all three weddings with fondness. But she also recounts her experience with frustration-a remnant of more th|n a year of planning, bickering, tugging and relenting.

"Sometimes I wish I could have gotten married later, not because I was too young to be married," she says. "I was too young to have a wedding."

As anyone trying to meld two cultures into a marriage would know, weddings can turn into a careful negotiation of ethnic identities, between both people in the relationship as well as everyone else jockeying for a say in how the couple should be wed.

Family expectations often clash with personal preferences. One culture may start to upstage another. And couples end up haggling over how to reach a balance.

"Marriage is a transition filled with fear because something's ending and something's beginning and a lot of times that happens with that ceremony," says Cheryl Larson, founder and president of Treasured Moments Special Event Planning, a New Jersey wedding planning company that specializes in fusion weddings for interethnic couples. "It represents who they are and what they believe."

Some couples find the best way to celebrate their cultures is by mashing together aspects of each into one ceremony, but they also run the risk of watering down both by cutting out too much.

Others may choose to devote a separate ceremony to each culture, but face the burdensome costs of hosting two weddings, not to mention the challenge of keeping guests from fidgeting in their chairs during lengthy processions.

Either way, the stress factor multiplies as more elements are added to the wedding planning process.

"There are just way too many things to go wrong even with one ceremony," says Sonal Shah, founder of Save The Date Event Consultants in New York. "Now you're increasing your chances by having two ceremonies."

But multiple ceremonies, as well as fusion ceremonies, are becoming more commonplace as people of diverse ethnic backgrounds break from their bloodlines and create a new hybrid of culture through marriage.

For Shah, about half of the 20 or so weddings she plans a year are ethnic fusion weddings.

"They've definitely increased since I started five years ago," she says. "We only did a couple the first year."


Deepti Hajela, who was planning a November wedding in New Jersey, always knew she would have a Hindu ceremony, even though her fiancé is Christian.

She nixed the idea of holding two ceremonies over a span of two days, deciding instead to have a Hindu ceremony followed by a Christian ceremony on the same day in an effort to make things more convenient for her guests.

"It's just really expecting a lot from them to come back another day," she says. "I didn't really think that was fair to people. I tried to put myself in people's shoes. While it makes for a long day, I still feel like one long day is easier on guests than multiple days."

Forsaking either ceremony in the name of efficiency, however, is not an option.

"It goes back to going to Indian weddings and loving them," she says. "I'm Indian. I'm Hindu. It never occurred to me to not have an Indian wedding."

At the same time, Hajela wants to be fair to her fiancé. "As much as I want a Hindu wedding, I would hate for him and his family to be overshadowed," she says. "Indian weddings are so powerful and so overwhelming. But I'm conscious of the fact that it's both of our weddings."

Larson says she sees a lot of conflicts arise when couples don't discuss their cultural differences beforehand and wait until it's time to make wedding plans. And then suddenly everything explodes, whether between the couples themselves or with their respective parents, who may not be so keen to see their children let go of their heritage.

"Anything ugly you're going to see ten times fold," Larson says. "Anything you put a Band-Aid on is going to come out raging and roaring."


For Murti, who moved to Kansas from upstate New York when she was 12 and found herself surrounded by very few other Indians growing up, she had imagined herself dressed in a white gown on her wedding day, influenced by the American soap operas her mother used to watch on TV.

"I think I grew up with the same notions of marriage like how other girls in the US grew up," she says. "I grew up with more images of white weddings."

As she began to form a greater sense of her own identity, Murti favored the idea of a white sari, a color traditionally worn by Indian women in mourning but for her served as a combination of two ideals-her Western upbringing and her ethnic heritage.

Cochran's parents, both devout Christians, had a hard time warming up to Murti, fearing their son's traditions would wither against hers. Murti's parents wanted to see their only child marry in the same way they had, by a Hindu priest.

Both Cochran and Murti wanted a simple civil ceremony but felt pulled in different directions. They managed to get their way by turning a planned engagement party into a surprise wedding in front of 80 assembled guests at the train depot in Lawrence.

"We always count that as the day we got married," Murti says.

But her mother marks Murti's wedding anniversary as the following year, when the couple got married Hindu-style.

"My mother did most of the planning so she counts it as the real wedding," Murti says.

One can never underestimate the power of parents when it comes to putting on a wedding, especially if they are bound by traditions. Even when couples are ambivalent about infusing their cultures into their ceremonies, many still feel pressured to appease their parents' wishes.

"Families and parents have a strong influence," Larson says. "Couples want to respect their parents' traditions and culture. They're concerned if their mom will approve."


Vicki Chun's parents insisted on Chinese traditions when she got married in May to Jonathan Grospe, who is Filipino. Likewise, Grospe's parents pushed for Filipino traditions.

Their solution was to marry in a Catholic church in San Francisco, which included veil, coin, cord and candle lighting ceremonies as part of Filipino custom. They also had two Chinese tea ceremonies-one in the morning with Chun's maternal side of the family and one in the afternoon with her paternal side. In the evening, they hosted a Chinese banquet dinner in Emeryville, CA, feeding 320 guests and toasting all 32 tables.

"We kind of just went with what our parents really, really wanted," Chun says.

The couple went through several wardrobe changes throughout the day. Chun wore a traditional Chinese qui pao to the morning tea ceremony and Grospe wore a tuxedo. Then Chun changed into a wedding gown for the Catholic ceremony.

For the second tea ceremony, Chun changed back into her qui pao and Grospe into a Filipino barong. At the reception, Chun disappeared after a few courses to put on a cheongsam, another traditional Chinese dress. She then slipped back into her wedding gown while her husband put on his tuxedo for the first dance and the cake cutting.

"We didn't eat at all during the reception because we changed so many times," Chun says.

Chun put her foot down on some issues-like opting out of the roasted pig tradition during the tea ceremony. She tried to fight other traditions like the groom having to buy a new bed for the wedding day but her parents won that battle.

Chun and Grospe also argued over whether to have a money dance at their reception, a ritual Grospe had always enjoyed when he attended other Filipino weddings but which Chun worried would seem to her Chinese family members as asking for chaoge. In the end, Chun relented.

"I think everything we wanted to do, we ended up doing," Chun says in retrospect. "I was fine with doing all the traditions that my parents wanted."


As important as it may be for some parents to see their culture represented in their children's weddings, it can be equally as important for the couples themselves. When Giles Li, who is Chinese American, married Sopheak Tek, who is Cambodian, he was mindful of preserving both their traditions.

"I wanted to make sure we both played a part in planning the wedding, that it wasn't all one person, that we don't forget that the marriage is a representation of two people," says Li, who celebrated his first anniversary with Tek this summer.

The couple spread their ceremony over two days, starting on a Friday night at Tek's home in Farmington, CT. There, they received a blessing by five Buddhist monks and held an umbrella over the heads of their parents as part of Cambodian tradition to honor them.

"It was all new to my parents but they were open to it-they were happy to do it," Li says.

The couple combined Chinese traditions into the Cambodian ceremony the following day, and held a banquet for 300 guests later that night. They managed to keep some of their costs down by having Tek's brother, who runs a Thai restaurant, make the hors d'oeuvres tor the reception. They also purchased flowers for the wedding through a wholesaler and Tek hired a Cambodian seamstress to sew her wedding gown.

"I think we had everything we wanted," Li says. "We just had to think about how to be creative without killing our budget. Some of that has to do with being lucky and knowing the right people."


Prlya Sankar was lucky that her parents planned an entire wedding for her in India in June, leaving her and her husband, Devon Snell, to concentrate on putting together a Christian ceremony in Alabama in September.

Sankar and Snell started planning both weddings soon after he proposed to her last December, four days before Christmas.

"His family is in Alabama and mine is in India, and we couldn't imagine it without them," Sankar says.

For Snell, who had never traveled to India before, his wedding in Chennai was both exciting and overwhelming.

"There was very little I understood about the wedding," Snell says. "I thought once I got over there, it would be explained to me but once everything started, it started with full force."

Four of Sankar's cousins stuck close to Snell's side, briefing him on what to expect as much as they could.

"It was an unbelievable experience," Snell says. "I wasn't nervous. I was enjoying every part of it. I was nervous of doing something wrong. I didn't want to offend anyone."

Sankar and Snell still joke about the differences between the wedding in India and the one in Alabama. For instance, the Indian ceremony lasted two days while the Christian ceremony was only 30 minutes long.

For the wedding invitations in India, Sankar's uncle came up with a list of 275 invited guests and factored in an additional 150 unexpected drop-ins, something Snell and Sankar would never consider for their wedding in Alabama.

Such informalities did not seem to go over well with Murti's guests at her Hindu ceremony in Kansas. Some of them had never been to such a ceremony before and considered the whole thing disorganized compared to Western standards.

One of Murti's bridesmaids resisted the idea of having to pay for a purple sari to wear in the Christian ceremony, complaining that she would have no other occasion to use it again. Others felt uncomfortable with being manhandied by a flock of Indian women trying to dress them in saris all at once, with Murti's mother barking orders in the background.

"I think my bridesmaids expected it to be like the weddings they were used to, and it wasn't, and they were frustrated," Murti says.

She admits in retrospect that maybe she tried to cram too much in one day for the sake of upholding two traditions.

"My mother and I had a lot of arguments planning this because it sort of had become my mother's wedding," she says. "My dad tried to get me to stop my mother, but there's no stopping my mother."

Parts of her wedding are still a blur looking back on it years later. But one memory clear in her mind is of an old family friend who she hadn't seen in years wrapping her in her wedding sari and chatting with her as if no time had passed.

Murti tries to keep the best parts of her weddings in the forefront of her mind, however hard it may seem sometimes.

"You hear a lot of people talk about wedding amnesia, and a lot of it I don't remember," Murti says. "But I remember the receiving line, and I gave them a heartfelt thank you for putting up with the chaos. I spent a lot of time on the thank you cards."


A graduate of Columbia's journalism school, PIa Sarkar has been a journalist for 12 years, working in New Jersey: Providence, Rl; end San Francisco. She has been a bridesmaid in six weddings.

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