Don’t Forget March 11th

Guest Article by Emily Bernstein 
University of Maryland, Baltimore Country 

Never before had I been so invested in a wedding. Sure, it wasn’t my sister’s or my best friend’s wedding; it wasn’t even my cousin’s wedding. It was my mentor Nani’s wedding and it was destined to be a big deal. The first day I met her in January, she told me the date: March 11th– my brother’s birthday and a date that would be discussed quite often through my first month in SMK RMM. If I learned anything, it was to keep March 11th free and there was no way I was forgetting it.

Nani and I together on March 11th
When the wedding creeped closer, I was given an invitation to the reception on March 12th; wait-that’s not March 11th-but she told me to save the whole weekend-where should I go? What do I do? How do I figure this out? I knew that Malay weddings have two parts. The first  part is an intimate ceremony with only close family and friends, and the second part is a huge reception for essentially everyone they know; friends, family, colleagues, colleagues’ children, the quay lady (snack provider), random Americans’ neighbors, those Americans’ friends and the list goes on. Am I a close friend, or the woman who stood behind you at Zumba who you told to come with my children?

My roommate, Ashira, and I rolled up our sleeves (but not too high because modesty) and began plotting how to go about figuring out where I fit in to this two day event. Even if my personal instinct was to just ask Nani, I have learned that being direct could have some awkward consequences, so we decided on a through-the-grapevine/asking around for information tactic to get to the bottom of this cultural exchange mystery. When our detective work came up dry, it was time to consult someone who’d been playing this indirect communication game longer than we had, my MACEE coordinator, Becca. Finally, Becca gave me the cross cultural communication answer that I needed to solve this mystery. She suggested that I just text Nani and ask what I could do to help her on Saturday, March 11th….it was just crazy enough to work. That’s when I received my official invitation to the “wedlock” on Saturday night around 8:30. Sure! Whatever that is! Whatever “around” means; I’m there! The next day at school, Nani and I were chummier than ever, constantly referring to me coming to her wedlock, which we decided may not have been the best translation for what would be the ceremony.

Me with Nani’s beautiful bridesmaids/students sporting what I now revere as a very special color
Now that I knew my invitation status, Ashira and I had a grand task. We needed to go shopping for matching pinkish, greyish, rosish colored dresses. The color of the dress was crucial to proving our investment because it was the color of the bridesmaid’s dresses. These bridesmaids also doubled as Nani’s favorite student’s, who had agreed matching with them would be a fun surprise for Nani. The Friday before the wedding, we set out for what would be a three hour search. While it was an excellent bonding opportunity, it left us with irritated skin from the synthetic materials, dry mouths from the heat, and tired eyes from our color deciphering. Ashira and I came out with violet and white baju kurungs. We silently agreed to lie to ourselves until we believed that our new dresses were the pinkish, greyish, rosish color that had been described to us so many times.

On March 11th, Ashira dropped me off at Nani’s home at exactly 8:30pm. Once again, I had failed at following ambiguous instructions. “Around 8:30” must have meant after 8:30pm, because I was definitely too early. I was promptly sent up to Nani’s room where a woman stood over Nani, applying makeup. I sat in silence, not knowing what was appropriate small talk for a bride and her mentee. An English speaking little girl seemed pretty fascinated by me, so I scurried after her and out of the bride’s room. While waiting for Nani’s grand entrance, I was able to mingle with her lovely family. Most guests were equally welcoming and concerned about me being alone at this event. I sat on the floor with Nani’s extended family, talking to her cousin about her college experience in the States, and I started to calm down and feel like I belonged.

Nani sat under a flower canopy, waiting to be joined by her groom, or “Nani’s fiance as I liked to call him. When the groom’s family arrived, they left gifts for Nani on top of decorated display boxes, and proceeded into the next room to get these crazy kids hitched. Nani looked nervous and distracted, leaning her left ear closer to the next room. In that room, men recited text and I would later learn that her father was failing to say some important lines in one breath, which was amusing to most wedding goers. In the midst of posing for pictures and focusing in on the event’s happenings, Nani would make eye contact with me and smile. Even after she was joined on the couch by her soon to be husband, she would look over and explain in English what was happening. Each time it happened, I was startled that this person, who was a stranger to me three months prior, was actively engaging with me during her own wedding.
Nani turns to me and says “You may kiss the bride” and  salaams her husband

The wedding felt more casual than other weddings I had attended in the United States; there was neither a big “you may kiss the bride” moment, nor the couple reciting handwritten vows. Even if no one was in tears that their little Nani was getting married, I could see how huge this moment was for Nani. Seeing her not as a mentor or a teacher, but instead, as a person embarking on this big life change with someone they clearly cared for, was not only a joy for me to watch, but the start of us becoming more than mentor and mentee.

The next day, the wedding reception was huge; 90% of the people I knew in town were there (ok, that wasn’t so many at this point, but trust me, it was a full house). Although that was the “fun” part, being at Nani’s house and witnessing her moment was the part of the weekend that I’ll hold on to. Making eye contact with her through the ceremony made me feel how much she cared and I felt wanted. The day I met Nani, she told me her age and I noted that it was similar to my brother’s age. Bashfully, we decided that Nani would be like my Malaysian older sister. On March 11th, Nani started becoming that sister.
Selfie: No wedding is complete without a few selfies

(Sidenote: I saw Nani and her husband holding hands in public and I gasped at them and pointed and she said “he’s my husband!” with a HUGE smile on her face and it made me so happy. I also blurted out “How’s your English?” to her husband and Nani pinched me, also making me feel happy, like she really was my sister)

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