Editor’s Note: This is a satirical response piece to “No R.S.V.P.? In Rajasthan, India, No Worries,” by Adam H. Graham, published by The New York Times on November 12.
In the tiniest of formalwear shops in a strip mall in the southern part of New Jersey, a lone tailor fussed frantically over me. It was the peak of the summer wedding season in 2012 and I was being stuffed into a bustier, the traditional American undergarment worn by women under evening gowns at New Jersey weddings. My friend Raj was standing in a nest of bow ties and cummerbunds, trying on colorful tuxedos. He was debating between the camouflage tux and the glittery baby blue number.
We had been invited to an American wedding. As the laser-printed invitation put it: “Mr. and Mrs. John and Janet Ramone along with Mr. Robert Whitaker and Ms. Jane Smith invite you to share in the joy of the marriage uniting their children Madison Destiny Ramone and Jacob R. Whittaker. The celebration of love will be on 11-12-13.” This invite was accompanied by several little cards printed with the names of American retail stores. (Visitors should note that in the United States couples traditionally provide their friends and family with lists that detail the only gifts that would be acceptable to them. Anything outside the list excepting cash/checks/gift cards constitutes heresy.)
The newlyweds-to-be were not old friends from college, family members or even friends of friends. Truth be told, we didn’t know the bride and groom or any of their 100 other guests. We had been invited thanks to a New York-based tour agency called Culture “R” US, one of a handful of tour agencies that provide access to American weddings. Weddings in this region, which are mostly arranged through Internet dating websites or arise from chance, seemingly fleeting encounters known as “hook ups,” are a big deal — and for a tidy price, crashing them can be a great way to poke one’s head into a rich cultural window that displays how people on the other side of the world celebrate the lifelong commitment between two people. You won’t get an experience like this from a guidebook or Hollywood film.
Wedding season in America is April through October, peaking in late June with another spike occurring around September. Culture “R” US America tours have seen a seasonal uptick in guests’ requesting access to these lavish one- to three-day ceremonies, long known to include the couple’s pet animals, spontaneous displays of a dance move known as “twerking”, over-the-top wedding processionals done to pop hits like Chris Brown’s “Forever” and sparkler displays.
“Big American weddings often have a simple, rustic appeal to the Indian consumer,” said A. Propriation, Culture “R” US’s New Jersey-based operations manager. “Our Indian clients appreciate over-the-top American wedding-themed reality shows like My Fair Wedding, Four Weddings, Bridezillas, I Dream of NeNe: The Wedding and Say Yes to the Dress.
American retail wedding shops have been known to invite Indian travelers to weddings, while some travel outfitters scout out hotels where weddings are booked and place their guests there. “Our hotel was hosting a two-night wedding while we stayed there,” said Shilpa Datt, who traveled from Mumbai to New York City in 2011 to crash a wedding, “so our guide arranged for us to watch a post-wedding brunch” — a lively gathering held the morning after the formal festivities are over. The meal Datt observed was led by a hungover groom frantically Google-mapping the brunch location for a coterie of out-of-town guests. “The colors, drama, hastily-assembled outfits and sheer number of hung over guests we met were astounding,” Datt raved.
Regardless of what province the families come from, the rolling, rusty, dusty plains of South Jersey remain a wildly popular wedding destination. And the local Days Inn or Holiday Inn, festooned with tired, off-white streamers, is the pinnacle location, a crossroads for Americans from different castes and regions. Along its shores, a flush of middling hotels one-up the others with unimpressive exteriors, and DJs promise to play thumping techno music with the occasional Village People hit thrown in for good measure. Guests wear elaborate wedding garb — Jersey gals with brightly colored eye-shadow and elaborately backcombed poufs and young men from Atlantic-City in gold-embroidered Ed Hardy shirts.
All weddings are different, of course, but food almost always plays a central role. However elaborate the ceremonies, much of it constitutes over-priced, over-cooked chicken entrees. It’s generally meat-heavy and bland. Fragrant bowls of stale Jordan almonds, stacks of over-boiled pasta atop silver plates, and bowls of uncreative garden salads with a dash of ranch dressing stretch over long tables. Bars are generally cash-only, and PBR flows heavily.
Men and women are separate for most of the elaborate rituals that take place before a typical ceremony. Women gather for ornate French manicures and pedicures in one room, while men exchange bachelor party stories and discuss craft beer in the other. Women may enter the men’s tent, but men are strictly forbidden from the women’s. I warily peeked into the women’s tent to check in and witnessed women of all ages sitting in a circle, bitching about the expense of wedding parties and struggling to adjust horrendous, ill-fitting bridesmaid dresses. (Many Indians may be surprised to learn that American custom dictates that these young women — the bride’s closest friends — pay for these elaborate, pastel-y gowns themselves, though they often cost hundreds of dollars and are unlikely to be worn ever again. Like never. Ever. Never ever.)
Each day of the wedding is marked by a complex itinerary. There is the classic pre-wedding meal known as the “rehearsal dinner,” in which the bride and groom presumably both run through their vows while also trying to keep one or more sets of divorced parents and/or grandparents as far away from each other as possible. Don’t miss the garter toss custom, in which the groom emerges from under his wife’s skirts after charmingly procuring an elastic band from the thigh of his blushing bride with his teeth alone. Then there’s the famed bouquet toss, which includes the bride and her friends making each other feel bad about their respective life choices. It’s a verifiable mixture of guilt, tradition and roses. After the ceremony, the groom’s family decorates the marital car with strands of crepe and tin cans.
If the idea of wedding crashing reeks of reverse-colonialism to you, keep in mind that many Americans are especially warm and welcoming to visitors and that many relish the chance to show off their knowledge of Eat, Pray, Love. You might, as I was, be complimented by an elderly great-aunt of the groom’s on your working knowledge of the English language, or be asked about yoga or even be told which guests are especially amenable to “exotic” folks such as yourself. Upon observing you, nearby guests are likely to exclaim, “I didn’t know [insert bride/groom’s name] had any Indian friends!”
The marriage ceremony I visited was so big that it had other interloping wedding crashers present: three 50-something Indians from New Delhi — their hair carefully styled using a uniquely American tool known as a “Bump It” — were herded around by a handsome American guide. I stayed at the wedding for only one night — and never met the bride or groom, which is not uncommon. Since they didn’t invite me personally, and they were both pretty wasted by the end of the evening, it didn’t bother me at all.
Many South Asian travelers leave these weddings feeling more connected to American culture and surprised by how universal expressions of love and marriage are. One main difference is that American weddings eschew the sentimental for the practical. “We prefer cash gifts because this elaborate ceremony is putting us further into debt” remains the golden rule. So gate crash at your leisure, just don’t come empty-handed.
Correction: November 13, 2013. An earlier edition of this article misstated a phrase that is often used in American wedding vows. It is ‘lifelong commitment‘ not ‘lifelong confinement.’