It's funny though--when I went to my wife's parents' house a little over ten years ago to ask for her hand in marriage, I brought along some pussy willows as a gift. When I was a kid living in Europe, pussy willows were a big Easter tradition, and it was early spring when we went to talk to Dr. Mom's parents, and they are hard-to-the-core Catholics, so I thought it might be just the gesture to put me over the top.
But it wasn't going to be as simple as all that. My future mother-in-law took my offering and put it in the corner, saying something to Dr. Mom in Vietnamese that I'm pretty sure meant, "He brought us a bundle of sticks? For what?"
After lunch, when I announced my intention to marry their daughter within the year, before we moved from Virginia to California where Dr. Mom would do her medical residency, my future father-in-law (we call him Bo--Vietnamese for "Dad") was much more amenable to the idea than we had expected him to be. His response was, more or less, Slow down there, cowboy--you kids can get married, that's fine, but it's going to be on my terms.
Because there was a real chance that her parents would forbid our marriage, seeing as how my profile (white heathen manual laborer) wasn't exactly what they had dreamed of as husband material for their eldest, we had been prepared to call their bluff and say we were going to have a small wedding with or without their approval and we would love for them to join us, and if they couldn't accept it now, we hoped that they would learn to in the future.
I had done my part with the boldness and the man-to-man and my confident opening gambit, so now it was time to hear Bo's demands:
1) The wedding would be a full-on Vietnamese Catholic shindig with all the bells and whistles.
2) There would be an engagement ceremony
3) There was no way the wedding would happen that year because...
4) I had to convert to Catholicism, which entails about a year of training and corresponds to the church calendar so that it ends with baptism and confirmation on Easter Sunday
And for the next couple hours, I sat there feeling like a ten-year-old, trying to look like I had some idea what was going on as Dr. Mom and her parents hammered out the details in Vietnamese. There were plenty of tears and raised voices, but Vietnamese is a tonal language in which each word has a certain pitch and each phrase has a melody, so it's difficult for a non-speaker to glean whether a conversation is desperate or hopeful or angry. I'm pretty sure there was a thread of dissuasion coming from the camp of her parents, but Dr. Mom was kind enough to not give me a play-by-play translation.
By the time we dropped the bomb on her parents that day, Dr. Mom and I had been...um...friends for nine years already. I had met her parents quite a few times, and was great buddies with all her many siblings, the youngest of whom was six when I started being friends with his big sister.
But Dr. Mom was not allowed to date, so, you know, we could only be friends. I was known as "The Guy Who Fixes Her Car" by my future in-laws. We would have liked to be more than friends, sure, but her parents didn't want her dating while she was in college because she was too young and it would distract her from her studies. So what could we do? They tried to set her up with a couple Vietnamese guys when she got close to graduating from college, but that never went anywhere. Then she graduated, worked at a research lab for a couple of years while taking some classes and studying for the MCATs, and finally went to medical school for four years. Her parents didn't think she should allow herself to be distracted by dating during med school either.
During that nine-year friendship, I had also graduated from college (2 years earlier than Dr. Mom), worked some carpentry jobs (just a temporary thing until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, of course), started my own two-bit construction company, turned thirty and seen a lot of my peers get married, have kids, get divorced, get remarried, etc.
But that stuff wasn't for me and my good pal, Dr. Mom--my platonic buddy who lived in the same town but in a totally different house than me because it would be wrong to live in sin and besides, how would we pull something like that off when her parents lived only two hours away? Would we invent a fictional roommate for Dr. Mom and shove all my stuff into "her room" and lock it when her parents came to visit and pack up all my tools and my dog and my two trucks and have me crash on a friend's couch for a couple of days? Would we have a separate phone line that only her parents knew the number to so that I wouldn't answer the phone if they called? Would we continue the increasingly transparent charade even after we moved to California? Of course not. Because that would be not only wrong but completely insane. That kind of stuff only happens in wacky sit-coms. No--for nine years we just waited patiently for the time we could begin our formal courtship and determine whether we were romantically compatible. Pretty much what anyone in that position would do, I suppose.
So, having secured Bo's conditional blessing, we headed back home (to our *ahem* separate houses), and started working on the logistics. I would have to sign up for adult catechism as soon as we moved to California, which was a bitter pill given my religious background of Skeptical Humanism. We would have to organize a reception at Dr. Mom's parents' house. My parents, of course, would have to fly in from across the country, and we would need to assemble a group of my buddies to carry a roast pig to the front door. We would have to procure some symbolic items like betelnut for a gift to the family, and rustle up some traditional Vietnamese attire. And after that was all over, we'd have to start thinking about planning the wedding.
Oh--the pig and the betelnut and traditional costumes? That was just for the engagement party, a simple little affair where the prospective groom and his parents and homies present the family with certain offerings, and the father of the prospective groom asks the father of the prospective bride permission for his son to start courting her, the father of the bride asks the grandfather (ong) of the bride, and when Ong gives his blessing, an aunt presents the daughter for introduction to the young man. After that, there is much burning of incense, praying (naturally there is a priest present), feasting, and karaoke. Nothing fancy. We saved that for the wedding, about which I wrote a little at the end of this post, and which maybe I'll write more about next year, if the PTSD has eased its grip on me.
Many of my friends and co-workers were surprised that I could tolerate the conditions of the years leading to our official courtship and marriage. Some counseled me to confront my future in-laws: to "man-up" and tell them that I didn't need their permission to date their daughter. I usually responded by pointing out that I went for nine years without having to deal with in-laws, so they should feel nothing but envy for me. What I didn't say, because you can get punched in the head for saying this on a construction site, is that, like the willow, our love grew stronger by being flexible and supple as it was buffeted by ill winds. And like some pottery, our passion grew shiny and, um, watertight in the fiery kiln of cross-cultural conflict.
Bam! Nailed it.
Happy ninth anniversary, Honey!