Organising a nice simple wedding where boy meets girl next door, they fall in love and get married in the village church is bad enough. For advice on that and other weddings between people from the same country, see the tips contained in this collective entry. However, as the world gets smaller, more and more people get to leave their village and indeed sometimes their entire country, and meet exotic foreigners with sexy accents and nice tans. Sometimes, the inevitable happens and after a shorter or longer period, depending on your cultural references, marriage can rear its ugly head.
If this sounds like your case, or if you're just interested in practical anthropology, then read on. This entry aims to give general advice on dealing with the clash of civilisations that is a multinational marriage. Some of it should also apply to multicultural marriage. For specific rules of etiquette in a given country, see this entry.
There are at least four possible strategies for resolving the thorny question of where you do the deed:
You pick one place to get married, the 'traditional' place. For western cultures, this will generally be the home town of the bride. This has the advantage of being easy to explain to others 'it's tradishun, innit!'. If the other side of the family are very insistent about it being at their place, or it is ridiculously difficult to get to the default option, then you might want to think again:
If the traditional place is in some grim industrial town, or somewhere that poses obvious logistical issues, then you could switch it to the other side of the family. If they live somewhere that is easily and pleasantly combined with a holiday, then this makes it much more palatable for the side of the family that will have to travel further. They can also console themselves with the fact that this will relieve them of much of the organisational burden (see below).
If you live in some third location to both sets of parents, having it there has some significant advantages. More of your friends can come, and both of your families have to travel - no accusations of favouritism. You get to call more of the shots on what happens and organisational aspects are simplified. On the other hand, you won't be able to benefit from much family help.
Two Stop Option
If the families live a long way apart, this can be a popular choice. You have a ceremony in one spot with all of family X and just close members of family Y, and then a blessing or simply a party with all of family Y and just close members of family X. This saves on travelling for most of the guests and could be good if you have two very different cultures or religions to satisfy. It can bump up the costs and logistical issues, however, and your families don't really get to meet each other or your friends.
Desert Island Option
Both your families are giving you grief, your religions are incompatible or you can't face organising the do? Head off to Vegas, Gretna or somewhere nice and do it there. You could take just close family and friends, or just a couple of witnesses, or just the two of you - many places can sort out some witnesses. Have the honeymoon in the same spot, take plenty of photos or a video, and announce it as a fait accompli when you get back home. Your Auntie Mabel may never talk to you again, but did you like her anyway?
Ceremony and Traditions
Marrying someone from a different country makes some things more complex, but it also makes some things easier. If there are any traditions or obligations that your family would like you to do but that you and your better half are not keen on, simply explain that hiring a limo/doing the first dance/leaving before the end or whatever is not the done thing in the country of your spouse, and that undertaking that action would cause major embarrassment. By playing the two cultures against each other, you should be able to do mainly the things that you want to do. Even if a given tradition is not what is normally done in that country, you may find that your guests consider that it is a great idea1.
Not strictly the topic of this entry, but if you, and your family have strong religious beliefs that differ from your better half and her family then things can get difficult. If one half of the wedding is not religious, then it is quite common for them simply to go along with whatever ceremony is proposed: 'you want me to swear allegiance to the forest god? Sure, where do I sign?' Alternatively, religious clerics of various kinds are becoming more tolerant of mixed marriages in many places - it is possible to get a liberal rabbi and a tolerant protestant pastor to officiate at a mixed ceremony, for example - other combinations are undeniably possible. Otherwise, you need two ceremonies with the attendant cost and complications. The closer you are to the fundamental wing of your religion, the worse it will be, but then, you probably deserve it.
What if your future beloved does not speak the same language as you? Even if you're both now bilingual, your family and friends are unlikely to have made that sort of progress. This can be a barrier, but with a bit of imagination and work, a lot can be achieved.
If you're lucky, the local mayor/priest/rabbi or whatever that is marrying you will agree to be translated at some point or speak a few words in the second language of the couple, where this applies. It is certainly worth asking, as not only will it reduce the 'stranger in a strange land' feeling of that side of the family, it is usually a good comedy moment as they get the sentences wrong or deliver them in a thick accent.
Similarly, there are many options for the speeches. Either you get both fathers or other speakers to do theirs in the foreign language, or a bilingual guest or spouse can simultaneously translate. Either will lighten the mood and get people in the right frame of mind for talking to each other.
For the sit down meal, it is not a good idea to put people who have no or little language in common on the same table. It's asking a lot of guests who do not know each other to create a rapport, without adding that complication. After dinner, when the alcohol has flowed and the dancing begins, is when people will relax enough to try a few words in a foreign language. It's amazing the sign language conversations that will ensue!
Food and Drink
Things are likely to be easier if you pick a menu that is a bit neutral. Foodstuffs like Foie gras or oysters would be typical on a French wedding menu, but you may find British guests unwilling to eat them. Similarly, vegetarianism may be unknown in the host country, but your veggie friends should not be expected to tuck in to raw steak. Linked to this can be different cultural values. This researcher needed to explain to his father-in-law that he shouldn't put too much money into the red wine, because the rate it was going to disappear down British gullets, he was going to be facing a serious bill! Too much choice can be difficult to handle for the company doing the food, but a buffet section to the meal will generally be simpler than a full set menu. As for the drink, cover a number of different options - if you do overestimate, it won't spoil. You'll just have a well stocked bar at home for a while...
More difficult than you would think. We may live in a globalised economy, but the type of pop music that will get people dancing varies a lot from country to country as well as generation to generation. If you have a DJ, you risk seeing people dancing in stages, depending as to whose music is currently playing. A much better option is the kind of dancing that is organised, but where people would expect to get up and try it. A Scottish or Irish Ceili band with a caller works very well, encouraging mingling and the possible exchange of words, 'I'm sorry, was that your toe?'
Also, another cultural issue is the length of the reception and the day in general. As well as following the dictum that a short wedding is a good wedding, try and allow some options (a spare room, some chairs outside etc) for those that do not want to party through the night, as well as those that do. Keep things as flexible as possible.
If people are going to make the effort to travel a significant distance to get to your wedding, the least you can do is produce a few sheets of A4 with hotels, car hire and tourist attractions for the area. Distribute these with the invite. Bear in mind that if they don't speak the local language, all that kind of thing will be more tricky.
If one side of the family is coming on holiday to the region a few days before the wedding, they will expect to have activities arranged. This is one task that you should delegate to the parents or close family on that side, as you won't have time. They can use your information sheet to organise themselves.
Allow plenty of time to get the bureaucracy right, especially if your marriage is going to be important in terms of giving access to a new nationality for one of the couple. It can take a long time, and you may be asked for papers that do not exist in your home country.
On the day itself, be aware that the standard advice about delegating as much as possible to best man/maid of honour and parents may not apply if they only speak one of the languages. You may be one of the few bilingual people there, and this will mean that you will bear a heavier load than normal in introducing people, dealing with organisational stuff, and even getting crowds into the right place for the group photo. This makes it even more important than normal to get as much done beforehand as possible. Part of this should include organising a meet up between your parents and theirs, so that they can get those uncomfortable moments out of the way before the big day.
By far the easiest solution is to get an internet based list for a big store somewhere near your home, or with a reputable dotcom that offers access to several shops. That way people can buy stuff for you with their credit card, you don't incur bank fees on cheques and they don't have to bring a present with them on the plane. Even where lists are not the norm for one side of the family, you can still put the word round discretely about the existence of the list, they'll soon see the light. More on the pros and cons of a list is available in this entry.
The hassle involved can sometimes make you wish you were marrying your cousin like your hillbilly relative did. Therefore, this researcher would like to leave you with three positive thoughts:
- You are helping develop the human race - scientists have identified exogamy (sleeping with someone outside your immediate family circle) as an important stepping point in the development of homo sapiens
- It's very difficult for the two families to have an argument if they can't speak to each other
- Making the logistics more complicated than normal helps significantly in ensuring that people you don't like but have to invite stay away
Recommended BBC Links
Thinking about getting hitched? Pop in for some advice at BBC Relationships - Why Marry?