Till Death Do You Part – A Chinese American Look at Marriage Vows

bride-going-to-wedding

A bride on her way to her wedding. Normally, a bride would cover her face with a red veil. It’s not entirely clear why this woman is using a basket. 
Fuzhou, Fujian. Circa 1911-1913. [Ralph Repo]

This time of the year, the walk down Bay State Road (a stretch of Boston University) always brings back nostalgic memories from nearly a decade ago.  I remember running to class with nothing but PJs, mid-night strolls under the gas lamps, and whatever happenings that were compressed to those few moments that now define our youth.

Instead of lugging along a bag of books and lab kits, I was escorting a friend’s wife to a ceremony on campus.  This was one of the many weddings that’s been etched onto my calendar, soon to become viral hits on facebook and sooner to be replaced when baby photos are published.

In the beautifully maintained chapel, the couple exchanged a traditional Christian wedding vow where upon they both agreed “to love and cherish one another for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health until we are parted by death.”

BY DEATH!?

I tried translating the vow into Fujianese and giggled at the gravity of that statement.  Maybe my 5th grade understanding of Chinese is to blame but it does open a window into our interpretation about marriage and our anxiety in adhering to such grandiose commitment.

Romanticization of Marriage

I was involved in a short-lived relationship with this wonderful person a few years back.  The fact that we lived in two separate cities became a point of friction for us and our conversations quickly dissolved.  We remained friends and through the power of social media, I learned less than a year later, she was engaged, married and quickly became a young mother.  All within the span of 1 year.  There was almost no refractory period between the end of our relationship and her engagement.  Although my personal ego was damaged, it also allowed me to be introspective about finding Ms. Right.  Specifically, is there such a thing as the perfect someone?

This romanticization of love and marriage is often a synthesis of the media and a reflection of our individual pursuit of fulfillment.  Movies don’t win viewers with plots about mundane reality of relationships and compromises.  With the advent of online dating, we’re further led to believe that the “perfect” someone is merely a swipe away in this sea of potential partners.  

Somewhere along the way our cultural purpose for marriage has shifted from one of self-sacrifice for the betterment of “us” to one about personal fulfillment.  In other words, the perpetual search for a perfect partner is also a reflection on our inability to accept our flaws.

Timothy Keller puts it best when he says that the goal of seeking a life partner shouldn’t be to find the perfect finished statue but rather it’s to find the high quality marble that allows the partnership to sculpt a life together.  

Harmonizing Your Identity

For Chinese Americans (immigrant or not), exploring the concept of marriage digs deep into a self-examination of our bicultural identity.  More than an examination, our marriages can be a moment where a newer and fuller American identity is formed out of our own volition.

I once found myself in a conversation with a group of friends talking about relationship deal breakers.  A seemingly liberal Chinese American friend admitted that he would only marry a Chinese woman and like most politically correct leftist warriors, we sneered at how narrow-minded that must have been to say in the 21st century. However, his intent wasn’t one of exclusion but rather it was to harmonize who he is with his family values (who happens to be traditionally observant Chinese Immigrants).

Obviously these are anthropomorphic observations without right or wrong answers.  However, the point to recognize here is that our marriage partners should not only be examined in the context of their capacity to support our personal fulfillment, but how we can sacrifice our impulses for the greater harmony of our family and public good.  That is a vow worth taking.

Reference: The Meaning Of Marriage – Timothy Keller

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