By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of elPadawan.
The only time I was guest of honor at a wedding I felt sufficiently ill prepared for the occasion.
I arrived quite sweaty and speckled with gritty city dirt. My ceremonial attire consisted of a ripped, rumpled cotton floral dress complemented by dingy, worn brown Birkenstock sandals. I did not prepare any special speech to present the bride, groom, friends, or family. It wasn’t possible; I could not speak their language. Plus, I didn’t even know any of them.
That happened in Jakarta, Indonesia, completely spontaneously.
I was walking with a couple friends across a crackled sidewalk lined by weathered wood shacks and clearings of gravel lots. Packs of people lingered throughout the side shacks and spaces like an electrified human mass that made it difficult to focus on any single activity–though I do recall noticing a naked little boy standing in a shallow bucket, showering by holding a hose above his head. Vans and motorcycles buzzed by on the road, emitting unpleasant dust clouds I tried to avoid inhaling.
The sun just set, which cast a deep, pollution-shaded pink over the sultry chaos. Night engulfed Jakarta after our long, tiresome day out and about, and we were walking back from the shipyards to the dilapidated Dutch colonial buildings of the city center. We approached a tall highway ramp, but before we passed under, a man emerged from the right side of the road, pulling us aside to attend a party.
Dozens of enticed wedding guests were seated atop foldout chairs arranged on a bare dirt lot that was covered by a canopy of white linen sheets and little lights. Across the audience, underneath the highway ramp, sat a concert stage–an uneven makeshift platform stretched across three adjacent empty truck beds. To the side, the bride and groom were stationed on wooden thrones within an elevated well-lit, tapestry-lined, florally-arranged little enclave.
Hot, frizzy, and frazzled, I was escorted into the clean, colorful cave where the young couple sat. The freshly primped man and woman were wrapped in loose, silky paisley robes shaded yellow and green, accessorized with golden arm bands and white flower necklaces. Cameras clicked and flashes flicked while I felt equally unkempt as fascinated–but mostly odd that I was more of a spectacle than they were.
Following the impromptu portrait session, the guests escorted us to sit in the front row. A small boy, perhaps three or four, provided us plates of gado-gado and plastic cups of sterilized water; no alcohol was served on account of Muslim norm.
Attendants, young and old, continued to ogle at us. We munched on the servings of spicy peanut-sauced tempeh and bean sprouts, hydrated ourselves in the humid heat, sat there for a little, but departed before the entertainment session started on the truck-bed stage. Though abridged, the experience up to that point was enough to take in.
Being an accidental celebrity alien at the overwhelmingly hospitable event was certainly a memorable travel episode. I unexpectedly gained insight on some regional marriage customs, however they were represented in that particular part of Indonesia. While in town, I also learned that getting married is a very expected component in people’s family-oriented life–unwed locals respond to the martial-status inquiry as “Not yet.”
At times, I tell my Indonesian wedding story when recounting specific travel times; I’ve also listened to fellow journeyers’ accounts regarding their own experiences. A Finnish backpacker I befriended at a guest house in Taipei told me about having to eventually turn down guest-of-honor invitations at Tajikistan weddings. He said there were too many times he blacked out from excessive free vodka.
Generally speaking, marriage customs are one of those fundamental themes to both learn about from other cultures and to understand your own. They’re among the obvious go-to topics for mapping the mainstream culture of a given place, like food, families, living units, school, work, municipal buildings, and whatnot. All are common elements in cross-cultural comparison conversations, as well as educational material for foreign language classes.
During my stint as an ESL instructor at a for-profit, supplementary English education academy in South Korea, there were instances when I taught the classes about American wedding customs, simply because that’s what the textbook printed.
Bathed in fluorescent lights in a sterile classroom monitored by CCTV, I recall listening to bored students read aloud boring passages about the bridal custom, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”
To elaborate on the subject, I decided to then ignore the symbolism behind virginal white dresses or applied Biblical references, and talk about the differences of “Miss” versus “Misses” in America, explaining why it can come off as rude to assume a woman was the latter. Naturally, the conversation touched on the topic of how a woman chooses whether to take her partner’s last name–something Korean wives do not change.
Patriarchal name changing is yet another marriage custom that differs according to cultures. In the Czech Republic, for instance, it’s standard for the wife to not only take the man’s surname, but also add the suffix –ova to it. If a man’s family name is Svankmajer, the wife’s is then Svankmajerova, Blazek becomes Blazekova (and same goes for their daughters). When Czech papers refer to foreign women, they will often add the female surname suffix, writing “Michelle Obamova” or “Victoria Bekhamova”.
We should note that the Czech language as a whole is grammatically comprised of countless word alterations and contextual mutations. Still, regarding married surnames, a dilemma exists there over whether to preserve cultural tradition or transition women’s name expectations to apply to a more egalitarian modernity.
Around the world, sexist norms remain a conceptual predicament to lots of marriages. They prevail throughout countless different scales and situations, whether it’s the connotations behind a father “giving” his daughter to his new son-in-law or the religious single-male double standards that persist for polygamous relations.
Marriage customs anywhere, at any time, represent aspects about retaining traditional elements of the way members of the fellow society live, and the ways in which they personally adapt to them.