Monday, March 2, 2009

Bangkok wedding

The ceremonies began the day before with a visit to the Bank of Thailand. It's not that Thais or our Thai friends are especially money-minded, though both families do carry on a bit of the Chinese-merchant tradition, especially when it comes to finding a bargain, such as a rent-free hall. The bride's mother is a long-time employee of the bank and as such has access to what serves on weekdays as the institution's cafeteria, but what would serve in the evening as the reception hall.

Apparently employees have in the past taken advantage of this particular perk. One couple, the legend goes, planned their reception very carefully, being attentive to all the details but one. They ignored the advice of the elders to offer prayers to the local spirits. And on the day of their wedding there was a great storm, with high winds and heavy rains that fairly ruined the reception.

Perhaps that's just a story that's told, like parents tell children, to frighten the couple into doing what they might otherwise ignore, or even disdain. The wedding couple, of course, would rather just have a casual party and skip the formality, but to please the parents, they go through the motions, as did our friends Krit and Knot, who offered prayers at a number of shrines to the former royal occupants of the grounds that now house the Bank of Thailand. One room featured a glass jar about the size of a coffee cup containing a tablespoon of ashes said (though hardly likely) to be those of the Buddha.

The prayers and visits to museums about the history of the Bank, Thai commerce and coinage, and a walk through some of the beautifully preserved colonial-style houses around which the more modern structures have been raised took up most of our afternoon. After dinner we retired early, as the official wedding ceremony would begin the next day at 06:00. It's not clear yet why it's necessary to start so early, but apparently this is the tradition. At least with such an early start there's plenty of time in the day to do everything that needs doing. Fortunately for Mutsumi and I, we were staying in the hotel where this would happen, so we didn't have to get up even earlier to travel across town.

The morning ceremonies included the presentation of the dowry and other gifts from both families, including ceremonial jewelry, food, and stacks of fresh currency, as well as the exchange of rings. The function was presided over by an old man whom no one seemed to know, a man hired for the occasion whose presence was intended to lend social credibility. Our friends, the bride and groom, had never spoken with him before and knew him only as a business acquaintance of the groom's parents. The rest of us knew him as the guy who looks like Lee Teng-hui.

After all the relatives and friends had their photos taken on the sofa with the bride and groom, there was a small break for food, followed by a blessing from a group of nine monks, who chanted a sutta, sprinkled some holy water, and were served their morning meal by Krit and Knot. After a short bit of post-meal chanting, the monks filed out and the morning ceremony concluded with close family and friends piling into cars to visit the bride and groom's new home, where we ate more ceremonial food, took more pictures, and killed time chatting while waiting for the ceremonial noon meal, the first one in the new home as a newly married couple.

Most of left before the meal was served, largely to catch up on sleep before the evening reception, which began at around 18:00 and without any formal announcement, just an invitation from a family member to go ahead and help ourselves to food and drink. As guests arrived they greeted the new couple and their families and each was photographed with the new couple. While the rest of us chowed down on bowls of noodles, sushi, stewed fish guts and pork blood, rice and steamed veggies, and plates of cocktail snacks, Krit and Knot spent most of the evening in front of the camera.

Around two hours later two of their classmates took the stage to introduce the new couple to several hundred people, most of whom Krit and Knot said they didn't know and had just met that evening. After a short Q and A session in which the couple talked about how they met and gave a brief resume of their lives and relationship, there was the ceremonial cutting of the cake and at last a chance for the bride and groom to step out of the spotlight and relax with friends.

It wasn't long after Mutsumi and I were escorted back to our hotel and with hardly anyone having said anything about our clothes. The looks during the evening were often noticeable, though as a foreigner you can be sure that there will always be looks, no matter what you're wearing. Except comments from Krit's family members, no one said a thing about Mutsumi's kimono or my kurta – at least to us. They were, it turns out, talking to Krit and Knot, who told us about it when we met them two days later.

For myself, it was the first time to see Mutsumi in a kimono. The first. Not the first in a few years, but the first time ever. It was quite a pleasant surprise. I hope we find more occasions for her to dress up.

with former President Lee Teng-hui



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