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A Cultural Exchange of Vows: Couples of different ethnicities and faiths uphold wedding traditions by blending them


Susan Carpenter, LA Times, June 23, 2005
Sent By Davi Cheng

When Ashokkumar Patel and Sirvart Kassabian entered the ballroom for their wedding reception this month, they followed the beat of their hearts - and two drummers. There was the barefoot and turbaned dholi, or traditional Indian drummer, who escorted them into the room. And there was the Armenian dance music, which drew both sides of the family onto the floor. While the Patel women swirled around in red, blue and orange saris, the Kassabians danced the night away in pink, red and black evening wear. Patel, 35, and Kassabian, 31, are now honeymooning in Italy, relaxing after months of high-stress wedding planning. They found that blending high-contrast cultures into an event that simultaneously reflected themselves and respected their families was no easy trick - but it's one in which a growing number of couples are engaged. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2002 Current Population Survey, 2.9% of the country's 58 million married couples are interracial (up from 1.8% in 1990 and 1.3% in 1980). In many instances, that translates into a confluence of traditions and styles.

Talk to area wedding planners and they'll tell you that the number of cross-cultural couples is on the rise. Randie Pellegrini, executive producer of Cordially Invited, a Beverly Hills event production firm, estimates that 80% of her client couples come from different cultural backgrounds; the couples represent different ethnicities or practice different faiths. "People want the big movie of the Prince Charming marrying his true love and [living] happily ever after. Sometimes it's just not in the same culture," said Pellegrini, who has coordinated weddings for a wide variety of mixed-ethnicity couples, including Swedish-African American and Jewish-Japanese.

In urban areas such as Los Angeles, the trend is especially apparent. The percentage of U.S.-born interracial couples here is nearly triple the national average, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Here, people from wildly diverse cultures to rub elbows everywhere, from the grocery store to the office, and, sometimes, fall in love and get married. These days, it isn't uncommon for weddings to be officiated by a priest and a rabbi. Receptions might include a mariachi band and a gospel choir. The banquet might offer sushi and hummus. "One of the huge trends we're seeing in weddings is this personalization factor. Couples are really trying to incorporate special details that mean a lot to them, and culture is one of the largest ways to personalize your day," said Kathleen Murray, weddings editor for the Knot magazine. "A marriage is combining two families, so it shows appreciation to their families and also honors where they came from."

That doesn't mean it's easy to do. Anyone who has planned a wedding knows how stressful it can be to coordinate the bridal party, attire, invitations, caterers, photographer, banquet hall, musicians, favors and everything else. Try combining Hawaiian and German traditions. Or Chinese and Irish.

For the Patels, the cultural nods began with a wedding invitation in Armenian, English and the Indian dialect Gujarati. It continued with a two-part, two-day wedding ceremony. The actual ceremony kicked off with an ancient Hindu beautification ritual at the Valley Temple in Northridge on a Friday and ended the following evening with an Orthodox Christian exchange of vows at Holy Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church in Encino. Dinner was a mix of Indian cuisine and Middle Eastern fare, followed by music, which segued from Hindi to Arabic. "We wanted all our guests to know that [Sirvart] and I still love our cultures, but we love one another too," said Patel, who met Kassabian six years ago in medical school. "We don't want our families to think that we're going to forget about our culture.... We just want to reflect what we think about these things."

The rise in marriages between faiths and ethnicities goes hand in hand with various cultural phenomena, most notably the delay of first marriage. Today, the average age is 27 for men and 25 for women in the United States. In 1960, it was 23 and 20. That may not seem like a significant increase, but the implications are enormous. Instead of meeting and marrying someone from socio-economically defined neighborhoods or high schools under the watchful eyes of their parents, increasing numbers of young people go away to college, travel around the world, have jobs and live on their own before they are married, giving them more exposure to other cultures as well as personal and financial independence. "If you're living at home, it's hard to keep secret from your parents who your boyfriend is," said Michael Rosenfeld, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University. "What's happened in the last 40 years in the U.S. is young adults have the opportunity to have social lives that their parents are unable to supervise. They're exposed to different people and have the opportunity to have a relationship with them without their parents immediately knowing about it."

Twenty something brides and grooms are typically more accepting of interracial relationships than their parents. When the Pew Research Center in Washington began polling Americans about their attitudes toward interracial dating in 1987, only 48% of the public approved. By 2003, the most recent year the question was asked, acceptance had increased to 77%. The greatest acceptance was among the youngest polled: 91% of Generation Y participants said in 2003 they approved of interracial dating, compared with 85% of Gen Xers, 77% of boomers and 49% of the World War II generation.

Keywords: marriage, intermarriage, multicultural