A wedding is universal celebration of a couple’s love and commitment to each other. They typically follow a standard order of events—walking down the aisle, an exchange of vows, and the first kiss. However, beyond the pomp and ceremony, there are layers of nuanced differences. In particular, for AAPI individuals and couples, a wedding is also about the coming together of two families and a chance to pay tribute to their elders. Often, there’s a section of the festivities dedicated to honoring age-old traditions and rituals.
“In our culture, respect for our elders is of the utmost importance. Honoring our family heritage and traditions was without question to us,” shares Sophie Yuth, a first-generation Cambodian-American who had four wedding events including a Cambodian ceremony and a Chinese tea ceremony.
Beyond the elaborate rituals and costumes, there is a deeper, symbolic meaning to the wedding practices that differ according to one’s ethnicity. Through speeches and toasts and sometimes the combination of several multi-cultural rituals, AAPI couples find creative ways to celebrate their heritage.
“There is a Vietnamese proverb, “uống nước nhớ nguồn” that translates to “drink water, remember its source.” This best conveys how we envisioned our wedding, embodying our genuine gratitude and debuting our authentic selves as a couple," share bride Lisa Le. “We couldn’t celebrate our future together without remembering where we came from, and everyone that helped us along the way. We hope our wedding highlighted the rich blending of cultures and traditions that we are so thankful to have inherited as Vietnamese Americans.”
For some couples, their union also presents an opportunity to highlight diversity within their community and the wider world. “At the entrance to our wedding, we had the word “welcome” written in four different languages—English, Telugu, Hindi, and Gujarati. In many ways, we thought about the importance of highlighting our different backgrounds, but ultimately what we will remember is how our guests, regardless of their backgrounds, embraced our union and the coming together of two different families and religions," explains Zarine Patel, who is Zoroastrian. "It was a moment in time in which we felt so much love and encouragement, which transcended any culture, religion, or background."
Of course, every wedding is unique to a couple, their families, and their backgrounds. Below, we share the stories of 11 AAPI couples who uniquely celebrated their big day while commemorating their respective heritage and traditions.
Erin and Halley
For Erin, who was raised in the Kaimuki suburb of Oahu, holding her wedding on the lush grounds of the Lanikuhonua estate held special meaning.
“Lanikuhonua literally means 'where heaven meets earth,' and Halley and I loved the lush tropical garden setting with unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean. I am a local girl at heart, and while I am biased, I think Hawaii is the best place in the world because of its natural beauty but also because of the people, whom I think are the most warm, loving and welcoming in the world," she says. "For one of the most important moments in my life, I wanted to share that beauty with our closest friends and family, especially as we had a lot of guests flying in from the mainland.”
The couple who met at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center while Erin was a second-year resident and Halley was the chief resident. Their romance developed over matcha lattes and lots of late nights, eventually getting engaged in Paris “at sunset, my favorite time of day on the Ponte Alexandre III Bridge”.
While the pair did not have a specific theme for their big day, they knew the vibe they wanted to communicate: relaxed, tropical with pops of blue and the colors of the sunset, accentuated by tropical florals like pin cushions, proteas, gingers, anthuriums, and orchids. For added effect, they also had their event planner Aloha Bridal Connections set up a shaved ice truck as part of the cocktail reception because “who doesn’t love shaved ice?” For the ceremony itself, they started with the Oli Aloha, a Hawaiian blessing chant, “to bless the space and welcome our guests." They also included an exchange of leis, which the wedding couple gave to their parents and each other; “a maile lei for him and a pikake lei for me”.
Since Erin is a fourth-generation Japanese-American, that meant a rousing round of Japanese celebratory toasts was also in order. “One of my best friends Lauren gave the banzai toast from the guests to the family and my uncle gave the toast from our family to our guests," she shares. “Banzai roughly translates to 10,000 years, and in this context, it is given twice. The first, 'shinro shimpu, banzai!' means 'long life and happiness to the bride and groom.' The second, 'raihin shokun, banzai!' meaning 'long life and happiness to all the guests!' After each toast, participants shout 'banzai' three times in unison, raising their glasses each time, and drinking after the third.”
Erin continues, “There is a Japanese phrase 'okage same de,' which translates loosely to 'I am what I am because of you.' By incorporating local Hawaiian and Japanese traditions, it enabled me to honor my heritage and pay tribute to my parent’s love and sacrifice. I am so grateful for their love and I am so proud to have grown up in Hawaii, a place that I think uniquely celebrates diversity and is accepting of all cultures. To get married and also share some traditions with my local and mainland friends and family was a dream come true!”
Pear and Phuong
From handwritten place cards with their guests’ names written in English and their native language to the craft beer selection from Virginia, the Pacific Northwest, Thailand, and Vietnam, Pear and Phuong’s little touches gave their garden vineyard wedding organized by Linda Ha Events a unique twist.
For Pear, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand, and Phuong, whose parents are refugees from Vietnam, paying tribute to their roots and honoring their parents was a key theme of their celebrations. They wanted their big day to “reflect who we are and where we came from.”
“We did a Thai Water Ceremony called 'Rod Nam Sang.' According to Thai tradition, the pouring of water is the most important part of the Thai wedding ceremony as it signifies the couple officially becoming husband and wife. Traditionally, this was all that was required to validate the marriage," shares Pear. “During the ceremony, the bride and groom kneel together, and a string is draped from one to the other, forming a circle and connecting the couple. They then 'wai' by clasping their palms together, a Thai symbol of respect. One by one, guests walk up and pour a conch shell full of water over the couple’s hands and offer a blessing or marital advice. The water ceremony is usually performed by all guests older than the couple, with the grandparents and parents proceeding first, followed by relatives and friends of the family.”
Pear also wore a traditional Thai wedding dress called a sabai, an elegant shawl-like garment covering just one shoulder that wraps around the upper body. She later changed into a red Áo dài and khăn đóng headdress during the dinner reception. “Keeping our heritage alive is so important to us and our family," Pear explains. "In many of my friend circles, I'm the only Thai friend that they have, and this was a way to have them participate in something unique.”
Doris and Molson
Some wedding couples splurge on a fancy wedding car. But for Doris Lu and Molson Hart, who run Brain Flakes Toys, they hired a lion-dance troupe to escort them from their wedding ceremony at Soho Grand Hotel on Broadway to their wedding reception at China Blue in TriBeCa.
“We want to have our wedding in a diverse way, because that's what New York City is all about,” shares Doris, a former fashion designer at Ralph Lauren. She had moved to the U.S. from Taiwan at 15 years old. “In Chinese tradition, we always have firecrackers in wedding ceremonies, which is a way to spread happiness to your neighbors and scare away evil spirits with the loud noise. Since we can't do that in NYC, we thought about having a lion dance as an alternative way to spread our happiness to everybody. We picked a golden lion which symbolized good wealth and a red lion which symbolized good fortune! We started the lion dance on the street in TriBeCa with our guests watching it from the restaurant balcony. The lions led us into the restaurant dance floor, where we had our first dance to "Yellow" inspired by the movie Crazy Rich Asians.”
Their choice to host their wedding reception at a Chinese restaurant wasn’t just a nod to Doris’ heritage, but one that held a deeper meaning. Doris shares, “Molson’s parents had their wedding at a Chinese restaurant back in the day, which we thought would be a great tribute to their trend-setting wedding! We wanted to celebrate our roots and cultures in a modern and true New Yorker style. As both our families are not religious, we had a lot of freedom to plan our wedding the way we wanted and we are glad we had our wedding this way. It was a very theatrical and special day to us!”
Zarine and Vineet
Like many Indian weddings, Zarine and Vineet’s wedding celebrations was an elaborate, multi-event affair. Taking place over a few weeks, their celebration included a sangeet, mehndi, and adarni. Then, on the actual wedding day at Belle Mer in Newport, Rhode Island, they held a pre-ceremony baraat, two ceremonies (one Hindu and one Zoroastrian), a lunch, and a reception.
To pull off this large list of events, the bride and groom engaged designer Erin Braun to create a cohesive vision that combined elements from each of their cultures and religions, Zoroastrian and Hindu. “For the color scheme, we went with soft, neutral colors (white, cream, and blush), a nod to the white attire and classic decorations often associated with Zoroastrian weddings, with pops of rich and vibrant colors that are often displayed at Hindu weddings," explains Zarine. "We included traditional symbols that overlapped both cultures [like] chalk patterns traditionally used for times of celebration, and hand-painted tiles as escort cards with banana leaves wrapped around each place setting at dinner."
The couple continues, “It was important for both of us, and our families, to incorporate both religious and cultural elements into the day. For Zarine, as the granddaughter of a priest and someone from a small religious community, it was significant to honor this part of her heritage. Similarly, for Vineet, it was important to honor wedding traditions that had been passed down through many generations in his family, especially as his maternal grandmother was able to be present for the wedding day."
One of Zarine's favorite memories was during the Ara Antar part of the Zoroastrian ceremony, which symbolized the uniting of the couple. “We had family members from both sides of the family on stage. A small spool of string was then passed seven times around us (the bride and groom) while the priests and those on stage recited a prayer. At the end of the seventh loop, a cloth that has been separating the bride and groom drops, and the couple showers each other with rice. It is a tradition that there is a bit of a competition for who will throw the rice first. Besides winning the rice toss (although Vineet continues to debate this part), I remember the feeling of being up on the stage, surrounded by my parents and loving family members, and looking out at guests who had so willingly and happily embraced learning all about my religion and culture.”
Monica and Dan
What started as a swipe right for Monica and Dan led to a surprise proposal in Hawaii, and later, a beautiful vineyard wedding in Sunol, California where the couple’s respective heritage were celebrated. Dan is Irish-American and Monica is of Indian-Filipino descent.
“We included a moment of silence and reflection, an Irish blessing, a special reading, and also a blessing of the hands. Additionally, the Indian tradition of the Saptapadi (or seven steps or vows) and the mangal sutra (auspicious thread uniting the souls through marriage) were included," shares Monica. "As part of the Filipino tradition, we also had principal and secondary 'sponsors' as part of our wedding party and incorporated the lighting of the candles and placing of the veil and cord, which symbolized the union of the couple in marriage and being “clothed as one” in unity."
Traditional rituals aside, the bride and groom found another way to inject Monica’s heritage into the festivities. Pastry artist Melody Lorenzo of Sweet Condesa created an elaborate dessert bar of Filipino-inspired desserts in tribute to the bride’s hometown, Bacolod City, known for its sugar mills and desserts. “The dessert menu included calamansi bars (a Filipino take on Dan’s favorite lemon bars), ube flan tartlets, and mini pandan pies. It was such a hit that we didn't get a chance to sample them," adds Monica.
Ada and Johnson
Disney movies inspire many love stories, and for Ada and Johnson, it was Tangled’s touching lantern scene that gave Johnson the idea to pop the question at the Las Vegas’ RiSE festival, as the first release of lanterns magically filled the sky.
As first-generation Asian-Americans, the couple worked with Celia Yu of Big Day Service to plan a celebration that was both Asian and Western. “Both our parents are immigrants to the United States and we knew how much it would mean to them if we continued this tradition to celebrate our culture," shares Ada. “Having our families' blessings mean everything to us, and with an intimate tea ceremony with our parents and elders, we knew we could have this as a special time to connect and for them to give us their blessings, advice, and share their love for us.”
Ada chose to don a traditional Kua, a two-piece traditional Chinese wedding gown embellished with auspicious patterns and motifs, to honor both of their roots for the Chinese tea ceremony. “I love how beautiful the red fabrics and gold threads come together to celebrate happiness, love, marriage, and our future together," she says. "I have also always imagined sharing this aspect of our culture and once-in-a-lifetime experience with our future generations.”
Looking back, beyond its visual effect, her kua ended up playing a pivotal role on the day. “One of my favorite memories was of my parents seeing me for the first time in my kua," Ada explains. "In their eyes, they knew they were about to 'give me away.' As they told me how beautiful I looked, we all welled up and started crying, shedding tears of pure joy. My Chinese parents are not very expressive, so seeing them tell me how they feel, tearing up, and giving me hugs (a first!) was one of my favorite memories from the wedding. I feel like the traditional ceremony brought us, and everyone closer.”
Esther and Lionel
Meeting your future husband at work isn’t unusual. Getting hit in the face while playing a flag football game where he’s the quarterback and you’re playing defense? Well, fortunately for Esther Huynh, a product photographer, and Lionel Park, a project manager, this “clash” didn’t stop their love from blossoming. They later got married at Dallas’ Perot Museum of Nature and Science amidst giant dinosaur exhibits and a kid’s race track.
Since Esther is Chinese-Filipino-American and Lionel is Korean-American, the couple took care to plan the day’s affairs to honor their roots. They held both a Korean Paebaek ceremony and a Chinese tea ceremony where the bride donned a cheongsam and a hanbok gifted by the groom’s relatives, while he wore a barong, a traditional Filipino shirt. “This was very special because there was not as much Filipino tradition included but we wanted a way to honor my maternal side of the family," says Esther.
For the Korean Paebaek ceremony, the couple enlisted the help of The PN Event for the setup and to provide all the elements that make up the table and some of the fun traditional royal garments and headpieces.
“Part of the ceremony involves the throwing of jujubes (red dates) and chestnuts for the hopes of future children by parents to the bride and groom to catch with a cloth. My dad provided the entertainment by picking up the entire tray and tossing the whole thing towards us,” recalls Esther. “Immigrating to the US was a big deal [for our families] and being able to proudly thank them by serving tea and bowing to them in front of our peers and our community was a symbol of respect. We wanted to share with our friends and peers the special elements of our background that don't get often shown in a normal setting such as the office or school, and for our guests to see the gratitude and love we have for our families.”
Somia and Jared
As an interracial couple, finding a balance between a traditional Western wedding while incorporating Somia’s Pakistani culture was of utmost importance to Somia and Jared.
“The flow of our wedding day, held at NYC’s Rainbow Room and organized by wedding planner Tzo Ai Ang, was like a traditional American wedding. But, it had Muslim and South Asian elements woven into it," shares Somia. “The Muslim wedding ceremony is called a Nikkah. In Islam, marriage is a very important part of the faith as is family and duty. As my 'wali,' my dad had a very important role in the Nikkah and 'gave me away' to Jared. This part of the ceremony is just so meaningful and beautiful to me and there were a lot of happy tears all around.”
To ensure their wedding was an inclusive affair, the wedding couple asked for the Nikkah to be performed in English “and all the parts in Arabic to be translated” so that no one felt left out and understood the meaning behind the ceremony. “[The ceremony] was carried out by our officiant, Imam Zaid Shakir, a well-known Muslim-American scholar and longtime family friend, who blended our cultures beautifully," says Somia.
Beyond the cultural and religious aspects, Somia wore two dresses from noted Pakistani designer Zara Shahjahan. “My Nikkah look was a three-piece 'sharara' with a long shirt, wide-leg pants, and a 'dupatta' (veil). Each piece had hand-embroidered details," she explains. "Like most South Asian brides, I wore henna on my hands, arms, and feet. It took eight hours to apply all the henna, but it was truly a dream come true because I have dreamed of wearing henna up to my elbows since I was a little girl.”
“I've come to appreciate my heritage more as I've gotten older. My parents are both immigrants and have always instilled Eastern values and culture because it is so core to the family," shares Somia. "It was important to me to carry on these religious and cultural traditions because they truly are so meaningful and a part of who I am."
Grace and Ceron
As first-generation, Korean-Americans, Grace and Ceron Rhee, who work in tech and private equity, knew that paying tribute to their families' journeys from Korea to the United States would feature largely in their wedding celebrations beyond including a traditional Paebaek ceremony.
“As we're huge fans of Korean calligraphy, our Asian-American calligrapher Julie Ha hand-painted florals which were a motif for our invitations, wedding program, fans, and more. Our seating chart and paper goods also incorporated handmade Korean hanji paper featuring the calligraphy," shares Grace.
The subtle cultural touches trickled down to the finer details like flower baskets covered in traditional Korean fabric that were carried by their flower girls (the couple’s maternal grandmothers), and their Korean names handwritten by Grace's mom and recreated in the style of a Korean seal for their thank you cards.
For Grace, her favorite moment of the entire day was thanks to her husband’s spontaneity. “Hands down it was Ceron's surprise dance for me," she recalls. "It encapsulated our identities featuring music from global phenomenon BTS, the Broadway musical Hamilton, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and more.”
Sophie and Alvin
Sophie and Alvin met when they were 13 years old at a community center in Arlington, Virginia. They were both enrolled in traditional Cambodian dancing and music lessons. However, it was only 15 years later that “Alvin strapped on his guitar and proposed in our quiet apartment,” shares the bride.
For her, as a first-generation Cambodian-American, and Alvin, a first-generation Chinese-Cambodian-American, honoring their family’s heritage with a Chinese tea ceremony and traditional Cambodian ceremony, besides a civil ceremony and wedding reception, was “without a question."
“The morning [of the Cambodia ceremony] started early with the groom’s parade of offerings of food and fruit to the bride’s family in baskets and silver platters. The first part comprises honoring our parents and ancestors with prayers and blessings," Sophie explains. "Then, a cleansing ceremony prepares the bride and groom for their new life together where their hair is symbolically cut. We were then encircled by the married couples present who passed a candle around waving the smoke to protect the new couple from evils and troubles. Finally, the most memorable part, the Chong Dai (tying of wrists), in which our family and friends took turns giving blessings while tying a string around our wrists as they sat with their hands clasped with a sword. The strings represent health, happiness, and prosperity, and they showered us with petals of palm flowers at the end.”
The couple’s most memorable moment was a poignant one when at the Cambodian ceremony, their parents gave impromptu speeches to toast them and give their blessing. “Our parents are usually stoic with their emotions and to see them get choked up and speak from the heart was such a raw moment,” recalls Sophie.
Lisa and Steve
Lion dance practices and bubble tea were how Lisa Le and Steve Tran's romance blossomed. It was no surprise then that a lion-dance performance was featured in their ten-course Chinese wedding banquet, which they held at Morais Vineyards in North Virginia.
Steve is of Teochew Chinese descent but the duo share Vietnamese heritage. So, the couple blended Vietnamese, Chinese, and American festivities through the day with traditional rituals, dress, and decor. For the Vietnamese tea ceremony, family and close friends came dressed in traditional outfits (the Áo dài) as the groom’s family processioned into the bride’s family home to offer gift trays of fruit, tea, alcohol, and traditional desserts. Their Chinese tea ceremony was equally elaborate with jewel-toned lanterns from Hoi An and an altar featuring family heirloom Buddhist statues from Saigon, dragon and phoenix candles wedding candles, golden incense holders, and a banner proclaiming one hundred years of happiness (Trăm Năm Hạnh Phúc) that was hand-sewn by Lisa’s friends.
The real highlight, though, occurred at their wedding ceremony and reception. Instead of a typical wedding entrance, a lion dance team escorted the couple in. “We had two lions and our instrumentalists, who treated our guests to a powerful and prideful lion-dance performance full of powerful drumming instrumentals, acrobatic tricks, and confetti cannons. Our favorite moment was seeing all the elders, kids, friends, and our vendors erupt in excited cheers and applause. It will always be a moment to remember,” shares Lisa.