cultural anthropology

10 Things I Learned at My First White-People Wedding

Photo: Jason Stang/Corbis

Recently, as I packed up to head down to Louisville to celebrate the marriage of my good friends, I realized something: In 27 years, I had never before attended an American wedding.

That’s not to say I hadn’t been to any weddings before. It’s just that — thanks to socializing primarily with other Indians, and receiving most of my wedding invitations via my Indian parents — they’ve all been Indian weddings. I love Indian weddings, in all their colorful, weeklong splendor; in fact, I’ve spent years lobbying my parents to throw me a Bollywood circus when the time comes. But when this “save the date” showed up in my mailbox, addressed to just me and nobody else, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Would a wedding be as fun if the entire event took place over the course of a day, instead of stretched out over a week? Would I be able to remember all the etiquette and customs expected of guests, despite never having encountered them before? Would I make a fool of myself, all because “what to do at white people weddings” yielded so few results on Google?

As it turned out, my friends’ marriage was just as magical as any Indian wedding I’d been to, even if completely different in every single way — and save for a few small gaffes, I was (I like to think) a model wedding guest. But that’s not to say I didn’t leave Kentucky with a few lessons on American weddings, and just how starkly they differ from Indian nuptials. For example: 

Invitations Are Actually Special, Rare
All it took was one look around the chapel before the ceremony to realize that I could easily count the number of guests in attendance without too much difficulty. My pewmate Jeff quickly confirmed that the 130-person guest list at this wedding was normal, if not even a little big. Save for a Kardashian or a Kennedy wedding. Judging by the lack of a single dry eye when the bride walked down the aisle, it was obvious that not only was Jeff absolutely right, but every person there genuinely knew and loved the happy couple.

Meanwhile, Indian weddings tend to be such a dog-and-pony show that guest lists above 200 are de rigueur (to say nothing of Indian weddings in India, where stadiums the size of football arenas are a norm). Meeting relatives you’ve never heard of is a given; accidentally making out with your second cousin is an all-too-real possibility. An invitation to an American wedding is an honor. An invitation to an Indian wedding? It just means you are as close to me as my sister or my first orthodontist.

It’s a Sprint, Not a Marathon
When it comes to Indian weddings, the week leading up to the actual wedding and reception are just as strenuous as the day of. There are at least three dinner parties hosted by different family members, an even fancier dinner party where everyone watches the bride get henna applied on both arms while the bride watches everyone else eat, a pre-reception reception that is honestly just a reception by any other name, and then, you know, the wedding and the reception. (For this reason alone, Indian wedding invitations usually come in gilded cardboard boxes half an inch thick, instead of a nice envelope.) But American weddings? God bless all of you for having the decency to limit the fanfare to one day — and maybe a drunken rehearsal dinner the night before.

You Really, Really Can’t Wear White
This one is my fault, I know. But after 27 years of riding the wedding-sari-selection carousel — having too-fancy choices vetoed by my mom because she doesn’t want to spend her entire night in the bathroom helping me re-pleat, then choosing a new sari with just minutes before we walk out the door — it’s easy to forget that there are fashion rules for weddings beyond “Beejoli, for the 100th time, please don’t forget extra safety pins to keep your sari in place this time.” Indian brides traditionally dress in reds and golds for the wedding — rendering those colors off limits for guests — but any color is fair game for both bride and attendees at the reception, the brighter the better.

After packing an adorable bone-white Topshop dress that had been gathering dust in my closet, my roommate looked at me, looked at the dress, and looked back at me. “I’m just going to stand here until you get it.” It took a few guesses (“Hemline too high? Neckline too low? I don’t spill that food that much anymore, and it’s not that whi … ohhh. Right. Barneys in an hour, then?”), but we finally got there. And for what it’s worth, I caught flak from my mother as well: “You can’t wear white at Indian wedding, either; that’s the color of death. How did your sister learn all this from me, and you didn’t?”

Unless You’re the Bride, There Are No Costume Changes (and Probably Not Then, Either)
There was no greater joy to my ears than finding out from a co-worker that no, in between the ceremony and the reception, there is no costume change. “Why would you change outfits? Is it your wedding?” Rachel chatted to me pointedly. “Even then, you don’t usually see brides changing between the wedding and the reception. You’re not an Indian Barbie; you don’t come with multiple outfits and a Taj Mahal dream house.”

As if the week’s worth of events weren’t stressful enough at Indian weddings, it’s unheard of for guests to not change from a daytime sari (still fancy! This is a wedding, after all) to an evening sari (even fancier, significantly more sequins) between the wedding and the reception. Men change from kurtas to suits, and if you’re anything like my family, complex Excel spreadsheets are involved to coordinate exactly which daughter is wearing which set of jewelry, and who needs to hand off which petticoat to whom if we’re ever going to make it to this damn reception on time. Whereas in Kentucky, I spent the usually frantic three hours between the wedding and reception knocking back the finest bourbon a boutique hotel in Louisville had to offer.

Things Run on Time
As I learned the hard way when I almost missed the shuttle from the hotel to the ceremony, these schedules are meant to be followed. The invite clearly stated the wedding started at 2:00 p.m., and damn if Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” wasn’t starting up on the church speakers at 1:59. Meanwhile, over at Indian weddings, call me a casual racist all you want, but ask any Indian and they will tell you that IST — Indian Standard Time — is a very real time zone, which renders anyone from the South Asian subcontinent 15 to 45 minutes late to every event. When I asked my friend Sana, an Indian wedding planner, if IST ever affected weddings she was organizing, she actually laughed for about a minute before answering. “Ever affected? I work an hour of tardiness into the schedule of every wedding I plan.”

The Ceremony Is a Reasonable Length of Time
Indian ceremonies tend to last anywhere from one to three hours, officiated by a guru in dialects of Sanskrit so obscure even the most seasoned Hindi speaker is left in the dark, often leaving guests bored and unsure of when to tear up at best and asleep at worst (looking at you, Dad: Sitting in the back row is not a good disguise). When someone warned me that our Kentucky friends’ Catholic ceremony would be long, imagine my surprise when I found out that the new definition for long was “a tidy 23 minutes.” 

It Is Highly Unlikely Anyone Will Punch You (or Bite You, or Kick You, or Otherwise Maim You in Any Way)
To combat the length of Indian weddings, traditions have been built in to entertain guests: namely, members of the bridal party stealing the groom’s shoes, forcing the barefoot groom to pay his bride’s sisters at the end of the ceremony if he wants to step off the dais fully clothed. While I’m sure there are years of Indian folklore that led to this tradition, here’s the real reason it still exists: With the three-hour wedding ceremony often veering toward boring, the battle for the shoes often turns physical very quickly as family members try to keep themselves entertained, and, well, I guess nothing says true love like bloodlust and beating the crap out of fellow wedding guests. And while I enjoy throwing a stiff arm as much as the next gal, after a cousin’s wedding a few years ago that ended in full body tackles, alleged bite marks, and loose teeth, I have to say that going to a wedding ceremony and being able to focus on the actual moments that mattered — the walk down the aisle, the adorable priest fumbling over the bride’s and groom’s names, the wedding vows — was a pleasant change from frantically searching WebMD mid-ceremony to confirm that no, you definitely did not crack your cousin’s rib. 

Tears Are Mandatory
It’s not to say that Indians aren’t sentimental, but Indian weddings tend to have so many steps, from the groom’s horse-led parade to the bride’s door before the ceremony to the marathon-length ceremony itself, that it’s hard to figure exactly when you’re supposed to cry, and when you’re supposed to be dancing to the beat of the Indian drums. An Indian wedding ceremony is not a precision-engineered tearjerker. For example: There’s no father walking his daughter down the aisle (the precise moment when I lost it), and rarely are there couple-exchanged vows.

But at an American wedding? I was crying at the start of the ceremony, I was crying during the vows, I was crying during the speeches at the reception. I was also crying in the bathroom at the end of the night, drunk on bourbon and my own singledom, but that’s neither here nor there.

As Clichéd As It Is, You Will Never Feel More Single
It actually took me a week to realize this, but when debriefing with a friend about how the wedding was, I blurted out, “I have never felt more single, ever.” I was so single that the bride and groom had to find me people to bunk with at the hotel, because I didn’t have my own date to split the cost of a room with. And while, yes, my older sister can attest to being followed around at Indian weddings by a veritable army of aunts asking when she’s going to settle down, at Indian weddings, that’s the difference: There are so many guests, the odds of being one of the few single friends is slim to none. Instead, much like a Bollywood movie, there’s precious little kissing to begin with, which helps downplay the whole “everyone is in love except for me.” And when that fails, there are at least 50 other cousins and friends to take the single heat first.

But at this wedding, there were slow dances galore, there was endless glass-clinking to elicit the requisite kisses, and nearly everyone there had a date. I truly believed what the priest had said about being in the presence of love, but damn if it didn’t cut deep.

Regardless of Culture, Hilariously Bad Dancing Reigns Supreme
While my foray into a weekend of non-Indian weddings was a culture shock, to say the least, one thing was the same: amazing dance-floor antics. Whether it’s watching white guests at Indian weddings learn to “screw the lightbulb, pet the dog in an attempt to bhangra, my Indian parents showing off the remnants of the year of disco lessons they once took in the ‘70s, or taking Snapchats of the groom’s amazing fiftysomething aunt bending over to the floor and twerking against someone else during “Baby Got Back,” it’s good to know that bad dancing — the kind that incites fraternity bros to take their ties off en masse and tie them around their heads the second Journey starts playing — is the same no matter where you grew up. As it turns out, if you give people an open bar and a thumping bass line, things will start to get wonderfully weird, and that fact is universal.

What I Learned at My First White-People Wedding