On a windy morning in Melbourne, Australia, I put on an Ao Dai and joined my best friend’s Vietnamese wedding ceremony, accompanying the groom in a tradition that is centuries old.
I’ve known Reuben since Kindergarten at Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, New Jersey. The bride is a friend of mine as well; in fact, I knew her before the groom did. Thy (pronounced “Tee”, last name Vy, pronounced “Vee”) and I taught together in Japan and when Reuben came to visit me there, he met Thy.
And now they were getting married and I was the best man in a ceremony both ancient and compelling. First, the groom must go to the house of the family of the bride and bargain for her, offering gifts, envelopes full of cash, and, as I was soon to discover, push ups.
“No money, no bride!” shouted Thy’s sister-in-law as we opened the door. Reuben bargained the price down but had to offer up fifty pushups from everyone in the groom’s party, including his parents. So while Thy’s family cheered, we all got down on the floor in our ao dais, suits, and dresses, and fulfilled our side of the bargain.
Next came the tea ceremony, where each member of the bride and groom’s families offered gifts and gave advice to the newlyweds, wishing them good fortune and happiness. Minutes before it began, Thy’s brother thrust a responsibility upon me – to serve the tea. He instructed, “Make sure there is enough until the end; wipe off every glass gently with a cloth after serving; you have to stand with the tray the whole time.”
Ever so gently, I used my right hand to pour and wipe the glasses with the cloth, while gripping the tray with my left. The mothers bowed to a shrine, lighting incense and offering fruit to Thy’s ancestors, which reminded me of the Jewish emphasis on family – the groom and my background – and how they also bow when praying in synagogue.
Two separate worlds came together that day. The love between Reuben and Thy surpassed their family’s cultural differences. He moved across the globe for her; she converted her religion for him. So often we hear in the news of war, greed, and human suffering, but then there are moments like these that renew our faith in the power of love. I witnessed a testament to love that conquered oceans, surpassed ethnic boundaries, and was out of a romance by Shakespeare or Marquez – except it was real.
In the Symposium, Plato describes love as the attempt to reunite two halves of a single being. Like the words of Plato, Uri, Reuben’s thirteen-year-old brother, who often walks into lampposts, and is oddly similar to Buster in the TV sitcom “Arrested Development”, surprised many of us, when he delivered a profound message for the sake of the bride and groom. As I handed him the last cup of tea, he remarked, “I think of you as two pieces of the same puzzle. You’re completely different but fit together perfectly.”