On Thursday afternoon one of my former students, a tall, steady, 50-something, Nepali patriarch of a large, fun-loving clan who reminds me of my own dad, appeared unexpectedly in my office and handed me a brightly-colored invitation to his daughter's wedding on Saturday. Crazy, but how can you pass up an opportunity like that?!
The wedding today was one of the strangest cultural experiences I have ever had. Many friends and family had converged on the small home to celebrate, and the ceiling, walls, and floor of the garage, which was the main site of festivities, had been fully covered in an eclectic assortment of brightly colored bedsheets, and strung with garlands of balloons. Couches and chairs had been carried in to line the walls and the center of the floor was covered with an exuberant assortment of fake flowers in vases (including 4th of July leis, poinsettias, and everything in between), lit candles, plastic milk jugs filled with water, styrofoam bowls of food (offerings to Krishna), fancy gold vessels, and a coffee table with a package of paper napkins and several bowls of tikka (the red dyed rice mixture spread on the forehead). I arrived a few minutes after the start time on the invitation, so I was pretty nervous that I was going to disrupt something, but I should have known better. Instead I arrived to find just a handful of folks scattered in chairs outside the garage talking. Confused, I scanned the area for someone I knew, and spotted another former student, who welcomed me cheerfully and showed me into the house full of people, where I was passed off to the sister of the bride, who guided me into the bride's bedroom for a few minutes to see all of the girls dressed up in exquisite and vibrantly-embroidered saris, including the bride, who had a gorgeous red sari, very heavy makeup, and a big gold veil. I then followed the sister around for a few minutes, saying hello to some other Nepali friends and students, and the sister found me a chair outside by some unknown but friendly women and a cute baby who I chatted with to amuse myself.
Eventually the bride and groom came out to the garage and were seated in tall cloth-draped throne-chairs. I moved into the garage so I could see everything that was happening, and found one of my current students, a friendly girl about my age with good English, and planted myself next to her so she could explain things to me. The guests took turns coming forward and smearing tikka on the bride and groom's foreheads as a blessing, pouring water on the couple's feet and then sprinkling it on their own heads, and giving envelopes of money to the groom, bride, and attendants, all of which was passed onward to the attendants who stuffed the envelopes into large purses. The whole time this was happening, to protect the couple's beautiful clothing from being stained by drips of the red dye, a Mickey Mouse beach towel was spread across their laps. This went on for maybe forty-five minutes, and then they left the garage and disappeared again into the house. The gal I was sitting with left me and I planted myself awkwardly on the edge of a circle of Nepali conversation. Eventually the sister found me again and said "Come." So I came.
She took me in the house and had me join a group of people who were sitting at the table eating. The food was delish, of course, but the whole thing seemed so disorganized and scattered, with some people eating, some cooking and cleaning the kitchen, some sitting around chatting, some outside, the bride doing her thing in her bedroom, people going in and out. I chatted, made some new acquaintances, was warmly and kindly welcomed by all, and then meandered back outside. After another half hour or so the bride and groom came back out and sat on the floor with all of the paraphenalia while a very skinny older gentleman in khakis and a suit jacket perched on a folding chair, legs and bare feet crossed, pink striped scarf wrapped around his head and neck, huge glasses on his nose (and somehow his appearance was utterly charming) and spoke/hummed/sang pages and pages and pages of Nepali ceremonial who-knows-what, while the couple at various points dipped dandelions in water and sprinkled the water on each other, walked around the garage attached by a white cloth, mixed coins and string and wet flowers and a big rock into a pile on a yellow cloth and wrapped it into a bundle, and lots of other stuff that I didn't understand at all. At one point the bride's father and the groom's father gave each other new traditional hats and hugged, which was sweet, and at one part the sister blessed the bride and started sobbing, which also made more sense than anything I had seen that day, and then close to the end the groom put a necklace of green beads around the bride's neck, which I could get, but most of it was totally beyond me. I realize that at this point your eyes are probably glazed over because I have given up on explaining things coherently, but hopefully this will really give you a sense of what it was like to be there watching it in person.
But really, what made the whole thing so incomprehensibly weird was not the chanting and candles and unfamiliar rituals. It wasn't the different decorating style. It wasn't the foreign language. It wasn't even the fact that this ceremony went on for well over four hours. Instead, it was that the ceremony was not what you would ever call a ceremony in any American sense of the word. When I think of an American ceremony, I think of an organized, rehearsed, streamlined... performance. A performance at which the audience arrives early and sits quietly in nice neat attentive rows and applauds at the end. Not so here. The whole thing was so seemingly chaotic and disorganized. Guests would watch for a while, wander off, talk loudly to people on the other side of the room, go in and get some food, come back out, sit with their backs to the ceremony, perch on the couch behind the couple and pose for pictures, shout out directions to the couple, make jokes, and rearrange the decorations over the couple's heads. It was so so weird. The rituals were interrupted about a hundred times every time someone new would arrive (2 hours late, three hours late, no biggie) and the couple would go back to their thrones and cover up with the Mickey Mouse towel so that the new wellwishers could bless them and present their gifts. Furthermore, no one, even the people participating, really seemed to know what they were doing; it was like they were making it up as they went along. The flow of the ceremony kept stopping for conversations like this (granted, the conversations were in Nepali, but I am almost certain this is the stuff that was going down): "No, no, no, walk the other way around the fire." or "Hmm, I can't get this bag open. Can somebody run in the house and get me some scissors." or "Oh, we forgot to tear the yellow cloth into strips beforehand. Here, you do it, and we'll just keep going and go back to that part whenever you get them torn up." or "I think the maid of honor went inside to get some more pickle. Who wants to come sit up here at the front for a while with them until she gets back?"
My poor little American brain had absolutely no frame of reference for a wedding like this!
Sometimes in the course of building friendships and living life with people from different cultural communities, there are moments when I feel an electricity of connection, when I think "Wow, we may look totally different on the outside, but our hearts are completely the same." But sometimes I have experiences like today, when I drive away stunned, shaking my head, with a daunted heart, thinking "I will never, never, never understand this culture. The divide is just too big." Days like this can be discouraging.
But even today, in the midst of all of the exhausting craziness, there were reasons to be encouraged. I was so welcomed and cared for by the Nepali community present at the wedding. People kept checking in on me to make sure I was doing okay, I was offered food or drink about every ten minutes, many people made attempts at chatting with me in English, and all of their actions and words communicated complete freedom: sit if you want to sit, stand if you want to stand, eat if you want to eat, stay with us if you want to stay, if you need to leave it's okay, participate if you want to, or don't, we are glad you're here and you can just do whatever makes you feel comfortable. I felt so safe. It made me want to spend more time with this community... though I will definitely need a few months before I'm ready for another wedding.
ps- I have some sweet pictures, but I need to get permission from the family before I post them, so hopefully they'll be up here sometime soon.
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