When my husband and I first started talking about getting married, I had expressed how important it was to me to represent his culture as Taiwanese in our ceremony. As such, we had planned on having a traditional Taiwanese wedding ceremony at some point in time. Some point was August 6, 2022.
This past summer, over a year after officially entering a legal marriage in the United States, we were able to hold our traditional ceremony in Yilan (宜蘭), at a private villa in the country. This quiet but expansive farming region was a far cry from the experience I had thus far in Taipei – Remote, with far few options for food and entertainment and rice fields dividing property lines. Yilan held its own beauty however, with sprawling flat farmlands and a warm, inviting population.
The Day Before
There are many ways to execute a traditional wedding ceremony, which can span over multiple days. For us, day one was for arriving, planning, and preparing what we could before the vendors arrived in the morning. Only the more important guests were there, and we played games while setting up the foundations for the wedding. We also laid out our gear and had our oh-so-important pre-wedding dinner.
The restaurant of choice was an unusual, banquet-hall-style restaurant with smaller tables along the wall for smaller families and round tables occupying the center of the room with Lazy Susans for easy access. This style of eating is common for Taiwanese on special occasions like weddings, but it was an entirely new experience for me.
Breaking the Ice
Dinner was a whole roast chicken, which would be served out by a member of the family. But as we might expect in the West to be provided with utensils for carving, instead the restaurant provided gloves to pull the chicken apart and serve by hand. The whole affair was messy and awkward, but certainly provided a great deal of laughs as we watched our loved one struggle to dismember the carcass before them. As sides we were served a variety of vegetable dishes and various small plates. Bamboo, water spinach, and a great deal of additional sides made the feast more than enough for even our party of 15+ guests.
We slept early that night, having had our fill of hearty food and eagerly awaiting a long and busy day ahead.
Getting Ready: The Good, The Bad, and the Painful
We woke the next day around seven in the morning and went to work on finalizing some for our plans before my husband and I headed to hair and makeup. The process of putting on makeup and styling my hair alone was nearly a 2-hour process and proved a special challenge for my Taiwanese cosmetologist duo, who fought tooth-and-nail to make enough hair out of my drab, fine locks to hold up my headdress.
After the final touches were put on my husband’s makeup (yes, the groom too wears a full face), we headed down to the ceremony site to run a rehearsal while the rest of the wedding party entered the makeover hot seat. If I wasn’t nervous prior to the rehearsal, I certainly was now: the steps were slow, but somehow still felt too fast for me as commands were thrown my way and I fought through the language barrier of trying to recall what little Mandarin I knew and to decipher the heavily-accented English from the ceremony staff. I managed to stumble my way through, but somehow felt even more terrified of the upcoming performance than I had before.
Then it was time to get dressed.
Our dresses for the ceremony were layered and had several ties that even the nimblest of people could not possibly reach themselves, so dressing ourselves was not an option. After we were tied and buttoned and strapped into our layers of clothes and sufficiently sweating in the 35 °C (about 98 °F) weather, it was time to don the dreaded headpiece.
Beauty is Pain
The thing weighed in at about 3 kg (a little over 6 lbs) and trying to balance it while struggling not to pass out from heat exhaustion would be the day’s challenge. I was poked, prodded, and jabbed for about 20 minutes before the piece was tugged this way and that atop my head without budging from my skull and I was ready for… another quick makeup session.
A Parade to Remember
Being August and only about a month before Taiwan lifted their foreign entry restrictions, my guests as well as my husband’s international friends were unable to attend. Which was especially unfortunate for me since the next section of the ceremony was the procession, wherein I would be carried inside a wooden Sedan down the street while my husband led the procession on horseback. Instead of several of his more appropriately fit military friends, I was lifted by his lanky cousins who had never been tasked with showing any form of strength in their lives. If getting into the sedan with an extra 5 inches of height atop my head without ripping or untying anything from my dress while blinding myself with a fan to keep my face hidden wasn’t terrifying enough, feeling the shaking knees of the youth who held my life in their hands certainly was.
After stepping over a saddle as a representation of crossing the threshold, we were released to our room where we were showered with dates and other nuts and beans to symbolize fertility and longevity. Photos were taken and we were given the opportunity to speak to our livestream guests for a moment. Everything finally wound down, we were able to change, freshen our makeup again, and prepare for the ceremony.
A Ceremonial Snafu
It was terrifying as we walked through the initial entrance, side-by-side holding a banner between the two of us. We stopped prior to our seats to perform a bowing ceremony, which required me to listen closely for a very traditional word which I learned about 2 hours ago and to know when it was my turn and when it was my husbands. I missed one of these cues, making for a genuinely awkward moment I hoped my Western audience watching our live feed did not notice.
Simulating the Mundane
When we sat across from one another at a long table, we were served various foods and drinks, with specific ceremonies involved for each on. During the rehearsal we were told to pretend to eat/drink, Then told we could take a single bite of them during the ceremony if we wanted. I did – It was a mistake. After awkwardly fumbling with a tiny bit of the cake placed before us, I managed to get a tiny piece in my mouth before realizing the ceremony was quickly moving on and I now had to subtly make this piece of much dryer-than-anticipated food leave my mouth. I struggled to subtly smush the bit into smaller pieces before attempting to swallow it down without anyone noticing.
We then served tea to my new mother-in-law, and to my husband’s uncle who stood in for my father. Other than our uncle’s red envelope getting trapped in his sleeve, the tea ceremony was relatively smooth. After the ceremony, we were asked to stand behind our ceremonial table for photos with the family, our staff, and the other guests. It was about 45 minutes of thinking we were done before another group rushed us for more photos. My husband leaned over to me between a gritted smile to ask if I was okay. I was sweating buckets, in excruciating back pain from the too-long makeup session and weighed down by the boulder of a headpiece that was stabbing into my skull. “I’m dying inside” I whispered as I smiled for the camera again between straining lips.
The banquet began with speeches and us reading our vows to one another. Other than my clumsy self nearly falling while on stage and a rather awkward speech from a family friend, the banquet was amongst the most fun I have had at a large event. I am not a crowd person ,and certainly not one to be the center of attention, but everyone was so happy and eager to speak with us, it truly felt like a family atmosphere even thought I had only just met a majority of the guests.
If you are ever given the opportunity to go to a banquet like this – Go! The food was unlike anything I had before in my life. The lazy Susan’s were adorned with vegetables, duck, and seafood for miles – An Yilan delicacy! We wrapped up the night with more photos and handing out our goodie bags to all our guests as they left.
If you asked me a few years ago if I ever thought I would be getting married in a foreign country, performing a ceremony with customs far outside my own country’s traditions, surrounded by friends and family with a huge language barrier, I don’t think I’d ever see it happening. But this experience was eye opening, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The family and friends I met along the way transcended language and cultural borders, and I still get messages on Line from my hair and makeup team who have become great friends to us.
My final Thoughts
The bonds I formed in Taiwan and on our wedding day will be with me for many years to come and I now have new family to visit when we return to Taiwan next year. I couldn’t be more grateful to my husband’s family – Especially his mother who put everything together and his sister who took time out of her own vacation to see us get married. The experience was one I will cherish for the rest of my life, and getting the opportunity to experience my husband’s culture in such a unique way is invaluable. My family doubted my choices, but after watching our stream they understood the value in our decision and were glad we were able to follow through with such a beautiful ceremony.
Don’t let new experiences pass you by because of fear or pressure – own them and you may be surprised at how much they can change you for the better.
A special thanks goes out to our amazing photographer who provided all the fantastic photos, our hair and makeup team who were more than just our beauty gurus through the whole experience, but became great friends, the team who worked so hard to put together all the staging for our ceremony and executed a beautiful day for us, My sister-in-law for taking time to come to our wedding while she was on vacation with her friends, and my mother-in-law, for all the work she did finding our venue, finding our staff, organizing everything, and putting together an incredible experience we will never forget!