Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pots, willows, and nine years of wedded bliss

I looked up the traditional gift theme for ninth anniversaries, and it's "pottery and willow".  I suppose I should be throwing a pot right about now like Patrick Swayze's ghost (is it too soon?), but we're not really into gifts so much around here, especially symbolic ones that take up precious shelf space.

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

Seemed reasonable.    

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 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!

 My dad asks if it's okay for Dr. Mom and me to go a-courtin'

 Bo says, "I don't know.  Let me check with my dad first."  (I'm the guy lurking in the background, wearing a dress and pillbox hat, feeling like a kid playing an ox in the Christmas pageant.)

Ong says, "Yeah, sure, why not?  Whatever."

I know I have a picture of the roasted piglet somewhere, but I'm not going to try to dig it up right now.


  1. Geez.

    Its much easier to club'em over the head and drag'em away.

  2. The pillbox hat comment killed me. I chose to convert to Catholicism to get married too. In our first catechism meeting, a sparky little white-haired nun told me I was a heathen/pagan. I hope you write about your experiences with that journey also.

  3. My husband's fam is also Catholic and I didn't/haven't converted. I supposed technically (in certain people's minds) we are "not married" since we didn't have a wedding mass. I think about converting off & on - may have to do it just for the stories!

    BTW, I remember being ROFL when you told us >9 years ago about the parents-only phone and how you had to be quiet when it was in use.

  4. God knows you don't mean it.

    -Pope B16

  5. Bravissimo, Andy - another great post!

  6. You know it's love when you brave the customs, religion and family scrutiny of your betrothed. :) And I'm sure during your long "friendship" all was chaste and chaperoned at all times by a nun.

    Just think next year will be your 10 year anniversary then I believe you get to kiss! Ha!


  7. Wow, you put up with a lot! I could've "forced" my husband to convert (my parents are a couple of frighteningly devout Filipino Catholics), but I was on my way out myself.

    Congratulations, and may you fall in love more and more each day!

  8. I remember carrying that pig in the house for the ceremony and then watching it get disembowed on the floor of the garage for consumption. It was mighty tasty

  9. It makes me happy that such customs still exist, and that 9-year friendships still exist, especially since we just plowed through the whole culture-blending thing. We were combining Jewish and Catholic sides, so there was a glass here, a unity candle there, and a minimum of effort on all sides.

    I wonder how your parents felt about all of this? When we got married, we tried to keep an even balance of stuff from each side. Did your parents care about having to do a bunch of work for a tradition that wasn't theirs?

  10. What a GREAT story!!!! Happy Anniversary!

  11. wow - it's My Big Fat Vietnamese Wedding!

    Long time reader, first time poster. Great words, man. You have a gift.

  12. Yikes -- what an intimidating situation, piled on top of what was already intimidating act in the first place: asking the family for the daughter's hand. Can I assume you got major points for this that lasted well into the next nine years?

    Happy anniversary!

    And good to see you yesterday. I can now verify the Galactic Cuteness of those twins in person. (Not that anyone would question it.)

  13. It looks like a Cold War era meeting. Good lord. But, hey, you won!

  14. aawwwww. it all sounds worth working for. happy anniversary!

  15. Ed,
    The clubbing was actually part of the engagement ceremony. Didn't I mention that?

    I will definitely find a way to write about my catechism. I wish I would have been blogging or journaling at the time. I went into it with such a negative attitude, but, as is usually the case, I found a lot to enjoy in it.

    Amy, a few people's eyes. And GOD's! Get thee to an RCI program! (Not really--unless you don't have anything better to do with your time.) Re: the phone--yeah, everyone had to shut up when it rang during our South Park parties. Crazy.

    What's up Ratzo? Haven't heard from you for a while. Of course I would never do anything that you or Baby Jesus disapproved of.

    Grazie tanto!

    OMG. We get to kiss next year? I'm so freaking nervous now. I think I'm going to vomit.

    Thanks. And happy tenth to you!

    When we saw "Big Fat Greek Wedding" just a couple years after our own, we were like, "Are you kidding me? That was a freaking Tupperware party compared to what we went through!"

    Thanks for reading and enjoying!

    I got a lot of points in the beginning, I think, but I really had a shortsighted strategy about the whole thing. I didn't complain NEARLY enough. Even going through catechism, I was all, "Eh--this ain't so bad." Stupid.

    It was great to see you and Mini-P too!

    Exactly! That's how I see it. I could have played brinksmanship a la Bay of Pigs; but that was way to risky. I decided to go with more of a seventies style Detente approach. It was a long road, but no nukes flew, so I consider it a great victory for everyone.

    It was totally worth it. The wedding planning (and the circumstances surrounding it) was the most stressful thing we had dealt with as a couple, and ever since we got through that, everything else has been a breeze.

  16. Mme P.,

    My parents were cool about all the customs. We don't have much tradition on our side of the family, so they were happy to embrace the cultural stuff. The only real problem they had was that they (Mom esp.) are not into wildly extravagant, expensive displays (regardless of who's footing the bill).

  17. How come when I went to Dr. Mom's house in 1992 (I'm guessing) I thought it was abundantly clear that you two were an item?

    Now I'm even more impressed that you spirited her away to Mardi Gras. Good thing they didn't have GPS back then...otherwise it sounds like they would have installed one in her skull. I'll always recall her and I bonding in the back seat of the Civic on the ride down when we realized we'd attended the same elementary school.

  18. Paul,
    I think there was a lot of denial and wishful thinking going on at that point. Ah, Mardi Gras--what a nice Catholic celebration!


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