Two weeks ago, I was on the bus heading back from the airport. On the bus was a young woman talking loudly on her cell phone. She had several bags and a large rolled up poster. Evidently she was an undergrad just coming from a medical research conference. She told her phone companion that many researchers were shocked that she wasn’t even in medical school yet, and that they were confident that someone who was already presenting research would get into a good school.
As the bus moved along, she started talking about all the food available at the conference. She described in detail the delightful pastries, the sandwich platters, “those cute little cheesecakes.” She complained that some of the food wasn’t of acceptable quality, but that some were really excellent, and all of it free. She was loud enough that even though she sat near the front, I could hear her from my seat near the back.
What struck me about this was not her, but the people around her. The bus was traveling through a run down part of Chicago. Some people on the bus may be struggling. Some people may not know if they’ll be able to afford food this week. It struck me as tactless for this young woman to be so vocal about food in that situation.
At the same time, I needed to check myself for how often I behave this way. Even if I am not as outspoken about it, there are ways in which I assert my entitlement to things and complain when I don’t get them. This experience reminded me to be mindful of others around me. This is not about censoring myself for the sake of fragile folks around me, but about taking care about how my words may have an effect on others.
This weekend, I was at another wedding, this time at a small church in Ann Arbor. The church building was owned by a Lutheran congregation, but was used by a Korean community. The ceremony was in Korean and English; the prayers, the sermon, the vows were all done in both languages. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no flower girl or ringbearer. They served simple Korean food: japchae, bulgogi, kimchi. There was no fancy silverware—tables were laid out with plastic cups, wooden chopsticks, paper plates. There was no dance, no big toasts, no instagram hashtag. There entire wedding lasted about two hours.
What this wedding did have was a strong sense of community. Church members decorated the space and served the food. People laughed and talked across the long tables, children running around to play. After it was over, the younger guests stayed behind to clean up the tables and pack away the metal folding chairs.
This wedding reminded me of the role that marriage plays in an immigrant community. In a community that has few resources, everyone has to chip in. The wedding is not just the celebration for the newly married couple, but is a declaration of the vitality of the community. Marriage is connected with family, both in bringing forth children and in joining two families together, thus strengthening the community. This is true for all people, but is more valuable for an immigrant community trying to cement a place in a new country.
“I finally found you. My missing puzzle piece. I’m complete.”
Katy Perry, Teenage Dream. This song was in a dance performance at a wedding I recently attended. It expresses a sentiment I hear often: “You make my life whole. You make life worth living. My life would suck without you.” A beautiful expression of intimacy. With you, the sun is brighter, the sky is bluer, everything is better.
Yet does this mean that life is incomplete without a romantic partner? I remember talking to a friend years ago who had just gone through a breakup with her boyfriend. When I asked how she is doing, she responded, “I’m fine. Just getting used to being alone,” and started weeping. She was responding to the pain of loss, but there was a deeper pain of incompleteness. Without him, her life lost all color and happiness. I want to take pains to communicate to others that a romantic relationship is not a prerequisite to a rich and fulfilling life.
My counseling teacher once reflected on the wedding tradition of lighting candles. The couple each lights a candle, then light a single candle together, symbolizing their unity. “But when you do that, don’t blow your candle out! You still have a life outside of your marriage. Your union is not extinguishing your individual lives, but joining them together to something unique and beautiful.”