Getting engaged is a big deal in Vietnamese culture. It is not just the coming together of a couple in love, but indeed, the joining of two families, presumably for the rest of eternity.
In our family, we have had several engagements over the last few years, but it wasn't until my oldest sister-in-law's children got engaged that we saw the full traditional ceremony in action. It helped that her children were involved with other vietnamese. (A rarity, in this family, I have to say. The last person to marry a vietnamese before Nien's children was my younger brother-in-law... about 12 years ago or so. Everyone else has ended up with non-vietnamese spouses.)
Yesterday, on a very blustery, chilly New England fall day, my nephew Dan officially got engaged to his lovely girlfriend, Tu Anh. We were all there to celebrate.
The clan met in a parking lot of a local McDonalds to gather our forces. We all showed up dressed to the nines. Men is suits, vietnamese women in ao dai (pronounce ow yai) and western women in dresses and heels. My sister-in-law, Nien, told us that we would drive to Tu Anh's and park a block or so away so we could get everything together for the formal procession.
In the traditional culture, the bride marries into the groom's family. She leaves her home and goes to live with the groom and his folks. In the old days, this usually meant that she became a servant to her mother-in-law. She would work her fingers to the bone caring for her in-laws until they died. By then, hopefully, she had a son of her own, who would bring home a bride for her to boss around. Because of this, the bride's family needed to be 'compensated' for the loss of their daughter. Hence, the groom's family would show up to the engagement party with very special gifts for the bride's parents.
Red is an auspicious color in Vietnamese culture, so all the gifts are wrapped in red cellophane and then placed in huge red tin containers which are draped with red velvet cloths embroidered with dragons. The dragons must be facing the front of the container when handed to the recipient.
Some of the gifts include special teas, delicious sweet rice with coconut milk, bottles of cognac (a vestige of the French colonizers) sweets, fruits, betel leaves and a whole, roasted, 40 lb. pig.
Tu Anh's family lives in a run-down, working class neighborhood north of Boston. We met about a block from her house on the front lawn of a business that was closed for the day. This became our staging area. Nien arranged everyone in order of how they were going to present the gifts. There were 8 huge metal trays, with lids, each weighing several pounds, plus the pig, which was also wrapped in red celophane. Nien and her husband were first in line, then the two men carrying the pig, then 3 sets of unmarried men and women, each carrying a tray, then the rest of us. The gifts are presented in a particular order, so it was important that everyone know who they were supposed to follow.
Meanwhile, at the bride's house, the family had set up an arch at the gate, and a big red sign for good luck. They decorated their front porch and built an altar in the tiny dining room. They had a bench on which to lay out the pig, plus a table with red cloth to receive all the trays.
We began to process down the street. Even for me, who was in the line, this was an amazing spectacle. All the vietnamese women's ao dai were flapping in the wind, their white pants billowing underneath. The colors were spectacular in this grey neighborhood: tangerine and crimson and lime green and pinks. All the men were in dark suits, with bright white shirts and colorful ties. And the gifts, in their brilliant red containers, being marched down the block towards Tu Anh's waiting parents.
The neighbors gawked.
Upon arrival, Nien and her husband,Mo, offered their gifts to the parent's of the bride, who graciously accepted them. The pig was carried into the tiny house and placed on it's bench. The trays were lined up on the low table, and my very soft spoken older brother-in-law inquired as to whether Tu Anh's parents would accept these gifts. The answer was a warm yes.
There were a few speeches, none of which could I understand. A set of red candles with dragons engraved on them were lit and placed on the altar. Photos taken.
And then, in this tiny house, 5 or 6 folding tables were set up cheek by jowl and the entire Nguyen clan sat down to be served lunch. Tu Anh and her parents and siblings sat at the head table with Nien, Mo and my older in laws. The rest of our family took up all the other tables. The rest of her family and friends stayed in the kitchen and waited on us.
Food started coming out. First, crab soup with egg and some strange textured something that I thought, at first, might be jellyfish. Then plates of huge oysters that had been steamed with black bean sauce. A tray of lobster, stirfried with green onion and ginger. A whole, deep fried, crispy flounder. Beef with chinese broccoli. A tray of pork, beef, abalone and jellyfish. Fried rice. Sweet coconut rice. Fried taro root baskets filled with squid and shrimp. None of this was traditional Vietnamese food. It had been catered by a Chinese firm from Boston, so it was foreign even to my husband's family.
We toasted the couple with champagne and chatted and laughed. We tried some of the more exotic delicacies and drank beer and soda.
At one point, I had a chance to speak with Dan and ask him more about Tu Anh's family. They are much more recent immigrants, having come over in 1995 when the government of Vietnam was allowing former dissidents (and political prisoners)to leave the country. As Dan was describing their history, I was suddenly struck by what a mature young man he has become. He is soft spoken, like his dad... but like his dad is confident and sure of himself. I was amazed to think that at my own wedding, Dan was around the same age as Noah.
As the afternoon wound down, the bride's family packed half of the gifts, including half the pig, into the trays and presented them back to Nien and Mo. This is part of the tradition. The two families share the bounty of this engagement with each other.
We drove back to Nien's house, where she cut up the roasted pig with a cleaver and sent each of us home with a chunk. We were given tea and some pasteries and little meat pies, which we shared with my brother later, while watching a movie on tv.
As I sat in that cramped house during the lunch, it struck me that this was the exact opposite of the wedding itself. At the wedding, there will be hundreds of people I don't know. There will be guests that are invited as part of a complex social obligation system from both sides of the family... and most of them will be strangers, not only to me, but to the bride and groom as well. This event, though, was just for family. This is the moment when the two families come together and acknowledge that they are to become one. We are invited into their home. We bring gifts. We are given gifts in return.
Bless this union. Bless this sweet couple with a lifetime of love and happiness. Let us, as their family, support them and offer them our gifts of love and wisdom, humor and joy. Let us open our hearts to receive the gifts that they, in return, offer us.