Please welcome Suki, the new Assistant Editor of Offbeat Wed. As a way to introduce herself to the community, I asked her to share her perspectives of being a child of immigrants whose parents refused to attend her wedding. -Ariel, Publisher of Offbeat Wed
There’s a lot of wedding advice for how to handle family drama floating around the internet. Many of them say things like “Sit down and have a heart to heart,”, “Be patient,” or “Communicate.” Of course, this type of advice is all valid and reasonable, but for many non-white, non-Western families, this advice doesn’t neatly apply to your family situation.
(I’m looking at YOU, my fellow BIPOC and children of immigrants).
I’m a 1st generation Thai-Cambodian American. My parents are from Southeast Asia but I was born and raised in America. As many children of immigrants can probably understand, navigating the worlds between our parents homeland and the place we grew up can breed a new, un-google-able level of family drama.
My immigrant parents refused to attend our wedding.
When I got engaged, they told me I wasn’t their daughter anymore. They even took it one step further and forbid the rest of my extended family from attending. (If you’re not familiar with Thai or Cambodian culture, my parents are the eldest of both their families, so pretty much whatever they say everyone is expected to follow suit.)
As children of immigrants often do, I’ve had several dramatic clashes with my immigrant parents throughout my life. The worst it had ever gotten was when I declared myself a theatre major and they stopped talking to me for four months. I was no stranger to phrases like “We’ve sacrificed so much for you” and “You’re not my daughter anymore”.
But refusing to acknowledge my engagement or come to our wedding? Preventing the rest of my family from attending? This was un-fucking-charted territory.
There was no life experience or hardcover for “How To Plan A Wedding When Your Immigrant Parents Disown You” that could prepare me for this. I didn’t even have a cultural community I could turn to, since I live in an area where you can count the number of Asians (let alone Southeast Asians) on one hand.
…So naturally I went to the internet for answers.
Most wedding blogs declared “Tell them it’s your day, not theirs!” Wedding Facebook groups told me “Fuck your parents! Don’t talk to them ever again! Who needs them anyway?” (Every person who said this was white, by the way).
Meanwhile, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community Facebook groups shrugged with responses like, “Unfortunately, that’s the culture. But don’t worry, they still love you, even if they haven’t talked to you in a year.”
None of this made me feel better. I felt so ashamed. I dreaded standing at the altar, looking out at the guests and seeing a sea of white folks (my husband’s family) and all my friends staring back at me with deep pity.
The idea that I was entering an interracial marriage and wouldn’t have one Asian person witnessing my wedding made me feel pathetic. I take pride in my culture and heritage and I had always dreamed of a loud and vibrant multicultural wedding with my Thai and Cambodian relatives present.
In the end, I got married without a single member of my family there. Here's how I managed to get through the process.
5 ways to cope when your parents won't attend your wedding
I’m going to create the guide I wish I had, for all my fellow first-generation children of immigrants planning a wedding without their parents’ approval. Although I’m writing from my Thai-Cambodian American perspective, I hope this is useful for anyone going through a similar situation.
1. Find a therapist with a similar cultural background.
OK WAIT before you roll your eyes and yell at me about how therapy is a privilege, not financially accessible, and there aren’t enough culturally competent therapists, TRUST ME, I thought that too!
Life and weddings are expensive enough, the mental health industry is dominated by old white men, plus who has extra cash for therapy? Hear me out. (As an added bonus, I’ll share the affordable, BIPOC and immigrant-focused mental health resources I found at the end of this post).
When I was wandering cyberspace looking for answers, I realized what I really needed was someone to tell me what to do. Like step by step hand holding on how to heal. The reality is, no one on the internet or in your friend group can help you with your family drama (more on that later).
When you have a traumatic experience, you need a professional. Therapy is a lot like car maintenance. When you don’t take care of your car and leave things squeaking and hanging, it’s a lot harder to fix. You need to go regularly so that in the event of a crisis, you’ll know how to handle things safely.
Unfortunately, many BIPOC folks and children of immigrants are shamed by their families for considering therapy because it’s considered “weak-minded.” But whether or not you’re dealing with cultural family drama, therapy throughout wedding planning is always a good idea whether it’s just you or for couples/partners.
There aren’t many things I’d change about my wedding, but I always wish I had budgeted and planned for a therapist earlier on in the wedding planning process. Think of it as a wedding investment that benefits you long after your wedding day is over.
2. Your friends aren’t your therapists.
…And your partner isn’t either. I know this sounds disparaging — but just wait.
Of course they love you and want to be there for you. They might even share the same culture or heritage as you, heck, they might have also been disowned too! But they aren’t you. They didn’t have your parents. They didn’t live your exact experience.
For example, my Maid of Honor is a first-generation Indian American, and we often commiserate and laugh over our immigrant parent drama together. When my parents refused to come to the wedding, she did her best to comfort me. I cried and vented to her every day.
In fact, I cried and vented to almost every single person in my wedding party. Basically, I was expecting my friends to know the magic phrase that would instantly heal my broken heart. My friends and my partner were doing the absolute best they could to support me, but nothing anyone said made me feel better or brought me closer to the clarity I needed.
It’s only now that I realize I was doing some SEVERE emotional dumping on my loved ones, which wasn’t fair to them. I remember after a particularly long bitch-fest, a friend said to me “Have you considered therapy?” Initially, I was hurt. “I guess she just doesn’t want to hear me complain anymore,” I thought. But she had a point. She couldn’t help me because she could never understand what I was going through, and I know she was trying her damndest.
If I was ever going to heal (and be a good partner/friend in the process), I needed to take this journey alone (with my therapist).
3. Allow yourself to grieve.
This is the first thing my therapist said after I (properly) emotionally dumped in our first session. “Let yourself grieve.”
I needed to grieve the loss of my parents.
The loss of the support I wanted from them on my wedding day.
The loss of memories I had always imagined we’d make together.
So every day I gave myself 10-15 minutes to grieve. I’d journal. I’d cry. I’d let myself feel hurt.
I grieved that I wouldn’t get to wear my mom’s Thai wedding dress.
I grieved that my husband and I couldn’t do Buddhist wedding traditions with my favorite monks.
I grieved that I wouldn’t get to make Thai food with my big, loud family for the rehearsal dinner.
And when the 10-15 minutes were up, I thought about something I was excited about.
I created this IG story highlights called “50 days,” where I documented one thing that I was looking forward to during the 50 days leading up to our wedding. This gave me the space I needed to address my pain, then move forward.
4. It’s not your fault.
This is the second thing my therapist said to me. In many patriarchal cultures, it’s common for the children to feel responsible for the collective’s (your family’s) wants and needs. Many children of immigrants are not strangers to feeling guilt and shame when they put their happiness first. Universally, most cultures get judgy when they learn your parents are refusing to attend. When my relatives learned my parents disapproved, their first reactions were “What did you do to them? What did you say to them?”.
If there’s anything you can take away from this post, I really hope it’s this phrase: It’s. Not. Your. Fault.
- It’s not your fault for choosing you first.
- It’s not your fault your idea of happiness is separate from the collective.
- It’s not your fault that centuries of generational trauma have shaped your family’s behaviors.
- And it’s definitely not your fault your family chose to make hurtful decisions.
I, an internet stranger, want with my whole heart for you to believe this.
5. Surround yourself with enough love to fill the ocean.
My worst fears came true: My wedding day arrived and my family wasn’t there.
I thought that by not having my parents' presence or approval, my wedding would feel illegitimate.
That I would walk down the aisle with a giant hole of shame, embarrassment, and loneliness in my heart.
But something happened. By making the effort to go to therapy, to grieve, to remind myself, “It’s not my fault,” I was filling in that hole, clumsily and slowly but filling it nonetheless. By the week of our wedding, the hole was still there, but it was mostly full now and it didn’t feel so big and scary anymore.
A friend once said to me “What makes a wedding perfect is the person you are marrying and the love you receive from the people there for you. And we will shower you with enough love to fill the ocean that day.”
You know how water will fill up an empty space? The love we received on our wedding day was a lot like that, completely taking over and filling in the parts of the hole that I couldn’t quite fill myself. Where my mom could have been helping me get ready, my 10 bridesmuses got me zipped, fed, and hyped before walking down the aisle. Where my dad could have been making a speech, my friends and sister-in-law got on the mic and made me feel special. Where there could have been homemade Thai food, my husband coordinated with a local Thai restaurant to cater all my favorite dishes.
I thought not having my family there would make my wedding “less.” But because I did the healing work, re-framed my expectations of what family and community look like, and chose to embrace the love of everyone who shared it unconditionally (instead of chasing down what wasn’t there), our wedding was far from “less.” In fact, it was beyond everything I could have possibly wanted and much more.
So, I got married.
And, spoilers: my parents UN-disowned me.
I stood at the altar and looked out at the guests. I saw a sea of white folks and all my friends looking back at me, but instead of pity they were all beaming with joy. There were no family members at my wedding and yet I felt beautiful, loved, supported, and empowered. Our wedding was loud, vibrant, and multicultural. And now, I was getting married to the person I loved in front of an entire community of people who loved us, my own chosen family, and I felt so full.
As for my parents, they eventually started talking to me again. We still have a relationship, although they never apologized or acknowledged the wedding happened.
But that’s ok with me. Although I can’t forgive them for their choice not to attend, I accept that it happened and am choosing to continue our relationship with a shiny set of boundaries, a great therapist, and a strong sense of self-worth.
To my fellow BIPOC and children of immigrants
I won’t tell you that what truly matters is marrying the person you love. You already know that. But I will tell you that the in-between space, that brave new world between your parents’ culture/values and the home you’re familiar with, that it is a freeing, vulnerable, and exciting space to be. My favorite part about this place? You can always surround yourself with enough love to fill the ocean.
Are you getting married while estranged from your family? This video might help you feel less alone:
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Mental Health Resources
Here is the extensive list I promised, put together by my friend Janette Valenzo. You can search for resources and therapist databases that serve your specific community. If affordability is a priority, I recommend you ask therapists about their “sliding scale.” If it’s important for you to find a therapist in your health insurance network and the listed therapist doesn’t take your insurance, ask them if they can recommend a therapist who matches your criteria (this is how I found my AAPI therapist in my network). Click here for the list.