Meet columnist Chamanthie Sinhalage: a self-described Kiwi-Sri Lankan bride-to-be. Newly engaged, she’s navigating the murky waters of planning a culturally blended wedding to be held 11,000km away. It’s exactly as complicated as it sounds.
Weddings are a serious business for Sri Lankan families. From the day a girl is born, astrologers are consulted, dowries collected, first moons celebrated, fair skins cultivated and virtues protected – all of this is to make sure she is sufficiently prepared for when she eventually marries.
When I turned 21, my parents did that thing all Kiwi parents seem to do and became weirdly obsessed with my singledom.
But while my Pakeha friends’ parents subtly nudged, hinted, or, at worst, set their kids up on embarrassing blind dates, my Sri Lankan parents took it to a whole other level: they advertised in the newspaper.
“Parents seek husband for 21-year- old daughter, New Zealand citizen, studying law…” began the advertisement my parents placed in Sri Lanka’s biggest English newspaper in the summer of 2009. I was mortified.
Forty men responded with marriage proposals and the fact that none of them worked out in the end is probably proof that having too much choice is just as bad as having too little.
Fast-forward to 2017 and for the past seven years, I’ve been with a nice boy who, like me, has Sri Lankan parents and was brought up in New Zealand. We also managed to find each other without the help of either the print media or my mum and dad.
He proposed in June and we decided to marry in the full knowledge that organising a wedding that satisfies both our cross- cultural upbringings would undoubtedly
“We quickly learned that our families had wildly divergent ideas about what it actually means to be engaged.”
come with its own unique challenges.
What we didn’t anticipate, however, was how much we would confuse people with the use of the word ‘engagement’ and we quickly learned that our respective families had wildly divergent ideas of what it actually means to be engaged.
My mother-in-law confessed that she had assumed we had been engaged this whole time. Evidently, in her day nobody went on overseas holidays together unless they were already engaged or married.
Meanwhile, a text conversation with my father went something like this: Me: Why don’t we have the engagement party when the whole family is here in September? Dad: Okay, can you see if you can find a celebrant to conduct the ceremony? Me: What ceremony? It’s an engagement party. Dad: Yes, but that is where you officially get married. Me: No, that’s the wedding… in Sri Lanka… in April next year. Dad: Well, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘engaged’ then, if no one is signing anything. It turns out that for Sri Lankans, the engagement party is where you sign a piece of paper declaring yourselves legally married. Oops.
This also explained why my mother was fielding calls from irate relatives in Sri Lanka demanding to know why my Facebook status had suddenly changed to ‘engaged’.
Thankfully, my fatherin-law had a more conventional understanding.
After two months of being engaged, we’ve found there is only one explanation that satisfies everyone, and that’s to say ‘it’s a Kiwi thing’.
We have a funny feeling we’ll be using that line a lot over the next few months.