Histories and Hope

By Jennifer Jang '95 A.M. / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007
In the wedding Polaroids, my mother looks like a doll, her rouged cheeks and fluttering showgirl lashes peeping out from beneath a cascade of lace. (It was 1964 Las Vegas.) She leans hopefully against my father, who wears a suit of two mismatched blues. Later he and the best man would slip away from the half-dozen neighbors sipping gin and eating white cake at his grim cinder-block apartment; my mother thought they'd gone to get ice, but it turned out they couldn't resist the slots on such a lucky day.

There was nothing lucky about this wedding for my grandparents, so they stayed away. Neither family imagined that a marriage between a Midwestern Finn-Swede and the son of Chinese immigrants would last. Years later, having been rejected by her in-laws, my mother always assured my sister and me that she would attend our weddings no matter what. "I'll tell you if he's a jerk," she cautioned, "but I'll come."

When Sam, who is Jewish, and I got engaged, I was certain that, given the thorny history of family racism and my parents' own unorthodox wedding, I could not possibly be asked to enact "tradition." How could I have known that all the estrangements of the past might be smoothed over if I had the right flowers and the proper cake? "If only you would wear a veil!" my mother implored, hint-ing at a cosmic rearrangement. Yet I too pinned hopes upon the wedding, fervently believing it could offset a recent, terrible event: the sudden death of my father two weeks after the engagement. Perhaps the joyful addition of Sam to the family would reduce our sense of vertigo.

Finding a rabbi became our first task. Several rejected us because we were not members of their congregations or because I would not convert. My determination to create a Jewish home wavered during this time, but eventually we found a rabbi who agreed to marry us in San Francisco's oldest temple. For the reception I wanted a Chinese banquet - no champagne brunch or London broil buffet - and I dreamed of a lion dance that would announce our marriage with a clash of cymbals and the great golden head of the lion dipping and swaying around the banquet room. My plans were derailed when Sam's parents asked that the dinner be kosher - this from a family who ate crab cakes and sneaked the occasional Polish hot dog. Sam and I argued politely. Naturally, high holy days such as weddings called for a stricter adherence to sacred practices, but the Jangs' feast days called for rare, rich meats. At last a compromise was forged: an eight-course dinner without pork or shellfish, a butter-based cake, and non-kosher wine.

With the menu resolved, I relaxed a bit. Then one night my mother accused me of not knowing what she stood for. The Jewish and Chinese sides were accounted for, but where was her Scandinavian heritage? We stood in the kitchen, not speaking. She was asking me to be more Fin-nish for one day than she had ever been. Finally, desperately, I suggested that she toast us using Scandinavian berry liqueur instead of champagne.

On July 6, 1997, the plangent notes of Sibelius's "Finlandia" filled the temple as Sam and I exchanged vows. After we stomped on the glass, the rabbi compared the shards to our enduring broken-heartedness over my father's death, which co-existed with our joy on this day. Then a bright Swedish march pierced the sadness, urging Sam and me back up the aisle to enjoy yichud, our first meal alone as a married couple. Moments later the limo whisked us to Yank Sing, where guests were feasting on grass-green dumplings and miniature spring rolls. With the boom-boom of a lion dance troupe behind us, we began the celebration.

Nothing marred the night, not even our butchered first dance. People ate and ate. The lucky steamed fish did not disappoint the discriminating Jangs, and a friend coolly serenaded us with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" By midnight the room had emptied, and Sam and I bade goodnight to our parents. As we walked along Battery Street to our hotel, with me lifting my skirts to step over wads of gum, we recounted my mother's loving, tipsy toast, Sam's parents' smooth fox-trot, and the broad smile of R.D., who'd been my father's best man. We knew that the wedding had been a smashing success, the best party we'd ever give. For a few hours we'd stitched together our disparate histories and hopes, creating a night of fabulous fiction that would sustain us for a long, long time.

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September / October 1998