art by sockmonkee
A week ago, my parents decided that our house was in dire need of a makeover. In the course of 3 days, they had the exterior repainted, the carpet cleaned, and the furniture rearranged. The fuss was over my cousin Helen’s engagement party. Her fiancee had proposed to her a few months back, and our families decided that we needed to acknowledge it with food and festivities. Not only that — it had to be done the traditional Vietnamese way.
Traditionally, in Vietnamese culture, the groom “proposes” to the bride on the same day as the wedding ceremony. He brings his groomsmen to the bride’s house, each bearing gifts for the wife’s family, an insurance premium that he will take care of her and provide for her relatives. Then, there’s a prayer ceremony similar to the one that you’re used to seeing on television in a church. They’re then considered married in the eyes of the family and celebrations ensue.
This contrasts the western view of being engaged, which entails a period in between the proposal and the marriage. To reconcile the two views, we decided to have the engagement party this past weekend and inviting all of our extended Vietnamese family, then hold the actual wedding ceremony next year.
A rational compromise that came with its own kinks. This is best illustrated by a conversation that we all had at dinner in June, a month before the actual weekend:
Helen: All right, let’s talk about food. What kind of food will we serve?
Helen’s mom: Buffet food!
Helen: NO. We are NOT going to have buffet food.
Helen’s mom: Then we can have a catering company come in. Kevin can recommend one.
Grandma: Well, who’s going to cook the pig?
Helen: [bewildered stare] …What pig?
(As is custom in Vietnamese tradition, a large pig is served to the guests at every engagement party. Helen would have nothing to do with it, while my grandma treated it as if it was plain as day. As an observer, I found this hilarious. Helen didn’t think it was too funny.)
Despite everyone’s bickering and worrying beforehand, it was a beautiful event. Our backyard was transformed into an image of a high-brow country club — white patio chairs on a freshly-mowed lawn, a jazz band in a gazebo (us!), wine and spirits, suits and summer dresses, catering, and tiki lamps.
Our family doesn’t often have the opportunity to share collective memories, so we all relished the occasion. Everyone eagerly tried to purpose him or herself by helping in some way — whether it was productive or counterproductive.
- Helen’s dad trying to rush and grab something from the backyard for the ceremony, not realizing the sliding glass door was closed, and running into it head first
- My dad taping a giant blue “X” at eye level on the sliding glass door so that no one would make the same mistake
- Helen’s dad not realizing the cranberry juice on tap was spiked with rum and unintentionally getting drunk
- Helen’s dad, while drunk, offering the alcoholic cranberry beverage to the Buddhist monk who attended the ceremony
- The band playing an impromptu set after our planned first one and continuing to jam out even after everyone was gone
- Asking the band to act as the groom’s party during the engagement ceremony, since the groom didn’t have any actual groomsmen
- My bed, littered with ao dai traditional dresses from all the girls in our family opting out of wearing them all night
- My uncle Phuong deciding (without telling anyone) that putting up pink, curly streamers that read, “Over the Hill” would be a good idea
- Helen flipping out when she saw these decorations and tearing them down in front of everyone
- My family trying to appeal to Chris’ caucasian parents by decorating our garden with American flags
It could have been a disaster — with everyone wanting something slightly different out of the event — but it was relaxed, placid, and — dare I say it — fun.
When it comes to big social gatherings, I play the introvert and prefer to observe. Small talk is not my forte, so I took to hanging out with the band most of the time. However, seeing everyone together in such good spirits lightened my heart.
The next day, we spent the morning cleaning and wrapping leftovers. The pressure to perform and entertain had finally dissolved into the summer heat, and the relatives who were still staying with us were finally able to relax. The maternal core of our family convened to debrief. In passing, I found my aunts sitting at the kitchen table, gossiping over peeled fruit. They talked about who did what, who said what to whom. Their laughter erupted in intervals. My grandma busied herself with sweeping in the cool kitchen tile.
Since most of us are grown now, our mothers have taken to adopting pets to fill their empty nests. The dogs are just as much a part of our family reunions as we are. While they barked and chased each other around the house, I, the constant observer, couldn’t help but smile. There was life in our home.
On Monday night, we lit up the sky with fireworks and laughed like children do. Something about staring at sparks and explosions for a couple hours immediately returns you to innocence. The fireworks marked the evening with a sense of finality after a long weekend. When we finally extinguished the last of the flames, I breathed in a sigh of content.
Summer was here.