Multicultural Matrimony

How one Sacramento couple blended their Chinese and American customs for the big day

Selena Chow in a traditional Chinese wedding dress. Also featured on the cover with her husband, Brian Tam.

Selena Chow in a traditional Chinese wedding dress. Also featured on the cover with her husband, Brian Tam.

Photo By Todd Bolger of XSiGHT Photography

The Chinese icing on the American cake.Like many couples, Salena Chow and Brian Tam wanted their wedding to take place on the perfect day. But these two did some research.

In keeping with their Chinese heritage, the couple consulted a book that uses the lunar calendar and their birthdates to, as Salena put it, “spit out a lucky day” to get married.

The result: Oct. 7, 2006.

Salena, an analyst for CalWORKs, admits she hasn’t seen any hard evidence to back the superstition. Still, she figures, “if it could help, why not?”

Even if the belief proved groundless, Salena and Brian’s wedding would be perfect because it combined two important elements: their Chinese and American customs.

The two grew up with an experience familiar to other second-generation citizens. They assimilated to their American surroundings, but retained their parents’ language and cultural influences at home.

It seemed appropriate for their wedding to reflect their Chinese-American upbringings.

On the Chinese side, that involved a lot of luck.

For starters, the Elk Grove couple held a traditional “pang beng” or “pass out cakes or cookies” ceremony. This ritual marks the first time that both families officially meet. The pang beng begins when the fiancé and his family bring gifts—uncooked chickens, a whole pig, or a bride price—to the house of his betrothed. The engaged pair give out wedding invitations with “lo paw” or bridal cookies.

Brian, an assistant vice president for Citibank’s Student Loan Corporation, decided to offer $999 as the bride price because the Chinese word for “nine” sounds like the word for “longevity” or “forever.”

In Chinese culture, numbers are often considered lucky because of their phonetic resemblance to auspicious words. But “two” is lucky because the Chinese like things in pairs or even numbers. Tradition brought Salena’s family luck when Brian doubled most of his gifts at the pang beng. In the end, this was more ceremonial than practical—Salena returned half of the gifts and all of the bride price.

Then came the traditional tea ceremony one day before the wedding. The couple served tea to Brian’s parents in their home, symbolizing Salena’s acceptance into his family.

Salena and Brian planned to hold another tea ceremony in her parents’ home. The bride’s family traditionally receives the ceremony three days after the wedding. But time constraints forced the couple to postpone it.

Salena’s mother, Pam, said that she didn’t mind the lapse in tradition, at least not as much as her husband did.

“I let it go,” she said. “If they don’t want to do it, I don’t want to push them.”

Salena was fine with straying away from this custom because the rules are changing in modern society.

“Now a lot of people are doing [the tea ceremonies] at the same time,” Salena said. “It’s not as strict.”

Changing rules also made it difficult for Salena and Brian to merge the two cultures. Brian’s parents were fine with any kind of wedding, but Salena’s parents would have preferred a conventional Chinese wedding.

Ultimately, Salena and Brian wanted to include some of the American practices they were used to, like the bachelorette party that Salena’s friends threw for her or the golf outing that Brian had with his buddies.

The wedding ceremony generally stayed true to the couple’s American roots. Salena and Brian were married by Brian’s godfather in Capitol Park. The bride donned the traditional American white dress, despite the color’s association with death in Chinese society.

More than anything else, the reception was the point of conflict between the couple and Salena’s parents.

Her parents urged the couple to hold their reception in a large Chinese restaurant so that more friends and family could be invited. But Salena and Brian envisioned their 180 guests enjoying the smaller Sterling Hotel.

Photo By Todd Bolger of XSiGHT Photography

“We wanted it to be more personal,” said Salena, who noted that if her parents had their way, the guest list would have been twice as long.

“In a Chinese wedding, it seems to be more about the parents than about us,” she said. “It would have been our parents inviting people they know to show off that their kids are getting married. I didn’t want to take that away from them, but we had to battle it out because it’s our wedding.”

In separate phone interviews, both mothers insisted that they were happy with the outcome of the wedding, even if they preferred a more traditional version.

“Salena’s dad liked to have the Chinese style, but Salena liked the American style, so I’m OK with it all,” Pam said. “It’s nice to see how it’s different because we can learn both cultures. I’m pretty pleased.""I’m pretty open, I’m kind of modern, so I didn’t have any objections,” said Brian’s mother Judy. “My other son got married, and (the wedding) was totally Americanized.”

Brian’s chief frustration while incorporating the Chinese rituals was not knowing the logic behind them.

“If I don’t know something, I don’t want to do it wrong, that would be ridiculous,” he said. “I want to have things explained. Sometimes, I was never informed, and being college-educated, that doesn’t fly for us. That bothered me a lot. We’re taught to challenge what’s written.”

For Salena, one of the hardest parts was figuring out which customs to leave in and which to leave out.

So they struck a compromise. Salena and Brian would have the reception as they wanted it. To please the parents, the rehearsal dinner would be at a Chinese restaurant.

And Brian saw to it that the wedding party sat at the head table, while the parents shared a separate table.

“I was raised here (in America), so that’s the way I know how to do things,” Brian said.

In addition to the bouquet and garter toss, Salena had a father-daughter dance. Her mother, who had never danced before, joined Salena’s father half-way through.

“I felt it was a special moment to have her come out and finish [dancing] with my dad,” Salena said.

The reception also had plenty of Chinese nuances. Near the start, 50 to 60 family members were introduced in Chinese and in English. Guests also gave speeches in both languages.

Salena symbolized the merge of cultures with her dresses: she emerged in a traditional red Chinese wedding dress covered in phoenixes and dragons, which symbolize the husband and wife. Her bridesmaids wore similar black Chinese dresses.

“The Chinese are uncomfortable saying, ‘Be in my wedding, but you have to buy this $300 dress that I picked out,'” Salena said. “So my mom made all the dresses.”

The pair’s non-Chinese friends found the blended ceremonies to be an enlightening experience, especially those who’d never been to a Chinese wedding.

Groomsman Jeremiah Peacock, who is of Indian descent and has seen plenty of culture mixing, said Salena and Brian had just the right combination.

“Some things were American, some were ancestral, and that’s what makes this America,” he said.

Later in the reception, Salena changed back into her white dress just in time to cut the wedding cake.

And here’s the icing on the cake: Salena and Brian designed their cake to include the Chinese word for “double happiness” in gold frosting, a common image at any Chinese wedding. They had to go through an American bakery because the original Chinese shop wouldn’t cater to the style that the couple wanted.

“It was like a breath of fresh air,” Salena said of the transition from the Chinese to the American bakery.

She noticed that, from the bakery to the restaurant, “a lot of places are more accommodating of cultural traditions.”

Yet while she sees more American businesses opening up to non-American wedding requests, she sees just the opposite pattern in China, where her Chinese friends and family are embracing American wedding traditions. A shift toward Western-style wedding dresses is one thing. But Salena said the starkest change is seeing non-Christians in China get married in churches to keep up with the trend of Westernization.

Even on the other side of the Pacific, the affianced are trying to achieve what Brian describes as a wedding with “an Eastern flair and a Western flair.”

On this side of the Pacific, Salena and Brian’s cross-cultural wedding did fall on the perfect day.