Saying 'I Do' to cultural heritage | February 8, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- February 8, 2006

Saying 'I Do' to cultural heritage

More than a white wedding, couples return to their roots

by Sue Dremann

When Una and Ofa Mataele decided to elope, they went to the San Mateo County courthouse in Redwood City for a marriage license and a betrothal before the justice of the peace. But upon their return, Ofa's parents returned Una to her family, along with a collection of woven Tongan mats and a pig.

The return of the bride to her family's East Palo Alto home wasn't punishment for eloping. It is part of a ritual of respect in Una's Tongan culture. The young couple could not stay together as man and wife until they were married by a pastor and had spent their first Sunday together in church before going home together.

The Mataeles may have had an abbreviated version of a traditional Tongan wedding, but they still adhered to their families' cultural decorum.

Local couples are combining the rituals of their cultural heritages with elements of the typical American wedding. In doing so, they enhance and enrich their wedding experience and keep their culture alive, they said.

Weddings such as theirs pull in the entire family, often the extended family. As they navigate their way through the two worlds they live in, melding Western and cultural traditions can be both revelatory and tension-filled, according to Rev. Heilala Ahio, pastor of the First Tongan United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.

Before her marriage, Una hadn't expressed much interest in the value of cultural artifacts, but following the traditional ways did teach her some valuable lessons that have helped her as a wife and mother. "I didn't care about things like the mats, but getting these things is a way to learn to start saving for a family," she said.

Ahio counsels many Tongan couples, whose large extended families are involved in the wedding preparations. Tongan weddings have many rituals, one of which is the give-away. Families exchange gifts in large quantities -- the Mataele's entire driveway was filled with mats, tapas (traditional mulberry bark cloth), and blankets. Some families give expensive bedroom sets, including dressers and beds as gifts, Ofa said.

"Taovala," or woven mats, often adorned with designs or colorful bird feathers, are layered as part of the wedding dress and must be brought in from Tonga. Each mat can cost $500 to $1,000, Ahio said. As part of the wedding, the bride's family must give at minimum 10 of the mats to the groom's family -- a cost of as much as $10,000.

"The Church keeps the Tongan peoples' traditions alive," Ahio said, and Tongans are deeply religious Christians. Of all the traditions in their highly structured society, maintaining their culture's matrimonial traditions within the Christian church may be the best chance the Tongans have to not lose their culture, as the younger generation increasingly dissolves into an American way of life. Ahio sees few divorces among Tongan couples, in part because they are deeply religious and "really believe couples are two who become one in God's eyes," she said.

Palo Altans Vae Sun and Cary Chin took elements of their Chinese heritage in combination with a Western ceremony. The couple, first-generation Americans, chose to honor their parents' desire to instill their culture in their children, Sun said. As the children of immigrants, Sun and Chin see in themselves and their parents two conflicting drives: the drive to maintain their culture and also to soak up as much of the Western culture as they can, she said.

Chin's parents' home is filled with lacquer tables and traditional paintings -- clear reminders of the culture from which they have come. But Chin and Sun's own home is decidedly more Western, with high ceilings and sleek, streamlined furnishings, and accented with elements of Chinese culture.

As a student at Stanford, Sun saw many Chinese American students, some of whom were fourth- or fifth-generation Americans, facing identity crises. She and Chin have made a conscious decision to incorporate some of the traditions of their heritage into their lives.

"It (cultural heritage) gets diluted very fast. We're happy we did that," she said of their decision to incorporate in Chinese wedding traditions. "I think it's enriched my life. To bring the best of both cultures together is a privilege. The sense of family in the Chinese culture brings strength to each of our individual self. It lends perspective to where you are and where you are going," she said.

For their engagement, Chin chose a traditional approach, sending his fiance traditional Chinese wedding cakes, (flat, round, pastries filled with winter melon), and a roasted suckling pig. Wedding cakes were also delivered by the couple to relatives as invitations to the wedding, Sun added.

Sun and Chin had a Western wedding ceremony, which is typical for most Chinese American couples, she said. Sun wore a white wedding gown while at Stanford's Memorial Church, but soon thereafter, she switched to Chinese matrimonial traditions.

After the simple ceremony, the family gathered at the couple's home, for a tea ceremony. "The goal is to show respect for the bride's parents, thanking them for raising the bride. She's 'given away' in a sense," Sun said.

At the tea ceremony, Sun began the first of several changes of dress. The more dresses a bride changes into throughout the day, the wealthier the family is thought to be. She wore a traditional embroidered gown of silver thread, as the couple served tea sweetened with lotus seeds and red dates, symbols of the sweetness and fertility of their marriage, she said.

Jaspreet and Kanchan Dhau have barely had time to adjust to Western traditions. A new immigrant, Kanchan still wears her sari and nose ornament.

Their marriage was arranged by Jaspreet's aunt in India. Before the marriage, Kanchan's family came to Jaspreet's family's home bearing gifts. They looked over the groom's family home to make sure it was suitable for their daughter, he said.

Rituals are highly prescribed in Sikh culture, and Jaspreet was required to bathe in front of elderly women from both sides of the family. The women performed dances and ceremonies and engaged in ritual teasing - all part of recognizing his relationship with the women in the bride's family, he said. Marriage involved not just the families, but the entire village.

Having little reference to Western ways and the effects they have on diluting one's culture, Dhau could offer only this advice regarding the importance of keeping traditions alive: "Keeping the culture alive is important, because that's how people know you. There is no other demarcation," he said. "You must have something about yourself to tell."


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