Lessons from an 'Ethnic' Wedding

Ok, but why did Rachel’s wedding have an “Indian” theme again?

Ok, but why did Rachel’s wedding have an “Indian” theme again?

By Helen Mo

Thanks to a tidal wave of Millennials hitting marriageable age, who among us hasn't scrambled for a wedding gift or flicked through a score of Facebook engagement shots lately? In my own demographic, the flurry of matrimonial undertakings seems have generated a real ambivalence. On one hand, most weddings are inherently joyous affairs. Two people starting a life together with a public declaration of love and a big party - what's not to love? On the other hand, a public declaration of love and a big party in an age of heady materialism and narcissism - what such event could escape a firestorm of judgment and participant fatigue?

There's already a well established backlash against the standard wedding, that tulle-enshrouded extravaganza now homogenized into a pastiche of emotionally loaded and frequently expensive conventions. And although indie weddings may have been conceived as the hip, artisanal repudiation of uninspired weddings, once DIY brides and blogging aesthetes realized that rustic stylings are eminently photogenic, the choice between a flower crown and a tiara soon reflected mostly differences in taste rather than actual values.

In the midst of this fraught landscape, I propose taking a few lessons from an unlikely source: so-called ethnic weddings. It seems - in some slices of Canadian society, anyway - "ethnic weddings" get something of a free pass, particularly from those outside the ethnic community in question:

Scenario 1 A: So I went to this wedding on the weekend. The menus were hung with hand-whittled wooden clothespins from sustainable-growth forests.

B: Wooooooow...that is so hipster.

Scenario 2 A: So I went to this wedding on the weekend. The groom was Indian so they rented an elephant and had enough biryani to feed four hundred people.

B: That is awesome! I LOVE biryani and I've always wanted to wear a sari to a wedding.

Could it be that "ethnic" wedding elements occupy some kind of enchanted third space removed from the usual boho vs. bourgeois spectrum? I'd argue that both cultural tradition and spiritual or religious dimensions shield such weddings from much outside criticism and judgment—and that the same caution about respecting ‘ethnic’ weddings should probably be applied a little more widely.

First of all, ethnicity and religion are the third rail of Canadian social discourse: we're not always sure what they do, but avoid touching it just in case. Secondly, many ethnic weddings, perhaps because of their unfamiliarity, make it clearer that wedding rituals often have something more substantial than individual expression or aesthetics at their core.

Wedding celebrations are reflective of more than a given couple's choices. Snarking about the bridesmaid dresses is petty; doing the same about a tea ceremony crosses the line into cultural insensitivity. If there's anything that growing up in a multiethnic Canadian settings teaches you, it's that you can commiserate diplomatically with a classmate battling her community's norms, but venturing to condemn them on your own is dangerous territory.

The religious or spiritual elements of any wedding also carry the kind of significance that transcends the usual material concerns. Belief occupies a deeply private space in this society, and perhaps because it's not normally subject to public scrutiny, we instinctively tread lightly when encountering the beliefs of others. Witnessing a religious proceeding at someone else's wedding is like being a guest in their home: you take your shoes off and take your cues from the family. If nothing else, the novelty alone silences the inner grouse.

Moreover, there's the ultimate trump card of elder family members. Nothing says "this is just the way it's going to be" clearer than "my mother-in-law insists..." (Bonus points if said mother-in-law insists from a position of incontrovertible authenticity, like her childhood in an Old World village.) Implicitly, we acknowledge that while insisting on tradition is not necessarily more rational than insisting on personal expression, the former carries the baggage of an entire family's worldview and place in the community. There's more at stake when the parents of the couple in question have anticipated this wedding as the culmination of their parental duties and envisioned the communal celebration before their peers since the day their children were born.

There's no concrete reason why a suburban Alberta wedding carries fewer implicit community expectations (or is any less “ethnic”) than a Greek Orthodox wedding in Toronto. It's worth considering as guests that ultimately, the line dividing ethnic and mainstream weddings is an entirely arbitrary one.

Weddings reflecting a more mainstream culture may carry norms and signifiers that are easily lost in the noise of the Special Day narrative, but their underlying logic isn't so different from that of more novel varieties and they are certainly no less meaningful to those involved. Sometimes, a tiara is more than just a tiara. It wouldn't kill us to keep those “ethnic-wedding mindsets” on for good.