Don’t Marry in a ‘Widow Year’? On a Chinese New Year Superstition

Did you know that 2019, the Year of the Pig, was a widow year, and it was supposedly “unlucky for marriage?

A “widow year”?

I’ve heard the term “widow”, a woman whose husband has died, used to describe all sorts of things, from the “widow’s peak” on your hairline to, of course, the deadly “black widow spider”. And given the original meaning of “widow”, the term, when paired with a year, struck me as a rather ominous combination.

This piqued my curiosity, which prompted me to do a little research and learn more about this superstition.

Why do people call it a “widow year”? And why is it supposedly bad for marriage?

A “widow year” means any year in the Chinese lunar calendar without lichun or Spring Commences, one of the 24 solar terms that divide up the lunar year. Specifically, lichun or Spring Commences marks the coming of the spring season.

According to the China Daily article Couples Rush to Tie Knot Ahead of “Widow Year” (published Feb 3, 2010), some Chinese people think of lichun or Spring Commences as “a time of Yang (masculine) energy.” To them, a year without lichun or Spring Commences equals a year without Yang energy as well.

The article provides further clarification:

Superstitious people believe women who get married in a year without the “Spring Commences” day will become widows. … Tradition-bound parents also fear consequences like husbands coming to harm, marriages breaking down and children getting bad luck.

Should you postpone your wedding plans during a “widow year”?

If you’re newly engaged, should you put the nuptials on ice or opt for a speedy elopement before the “widow year” begins?

Well, consider what that China Daily article also said:

Regarding the idea of a “widow year”, Guo Hu, director of Beijing’s Bureau of Meteorology, says that on average, there are seven so-called “widow years” every 19 years. But there are also seven years with two “Spring Commences” days in the same 19 years.

“It is totally groundless to say a year without a Spring Commences day is unlucky,” Guo told the Beijing Daily.

In other words, it all depends on your perspective and what you consider auspicious.

After all, imagine all the hundreds of thousands of people who marry in any given “widow year” around the world. Every single one of these couples could not possibly suffer the same marital misfortune. If a “widow year” truly posed a threat to people everywhere, then why didn’t anyone ever pass the warning on to me while in the US?

And, apparently, a growing number of young Chinese people don’t mind flouting this superstition either, as the China Daily article Vowing to be different with the nuptials notes:

Wang Xiaoqiang, a 26-year-old white collar worker in Shanghai, doesn’t really care that the Year of the Snake 2013 is not regarded as a propitious year for weddings.

“I was told Lunar 2013 is not a good year to get married but that is something believed by elderly people,” said Wang.

In other words, when a “widow year” comes, worry less about the superstition — and follow your heart instead.

What do you think about the “widow year” superstition for Chinese New Year? Would you marry in a “widow year”, or would you postpone your wedding?

Correction: Updated original post, which incorrectly named 2020 as a widow year.

When East Marries West: When One Wedding Won’t Do

Many years ago, fellow blogger Tianjin Shannon, an American woman, penned a post titled The Most Married, where she wrote about her third wedding ceremony with her husband Haike, from Hunan, China. Yes, you read that right — third. (And in fact, she would go on to later hold a fourth ceremony!)

While Shannon might indeed claim the title of “Most Married,” in fact, many other intercultural and/or international couples straddling the East-West divide have also held more than one wedding ceremony.

Tying the knot across cultures and borders makes it that much harder to have all your family and friends together at one single ceremony. Travel costs and even securing visas can already get in the way of well-intended supporters who would love to watch a couple say “I do”. Plus, every country and culture has its own distinctive wedding customs and foods, often difficult to replicate outside those borders. And what about those of us who, say, grow up with a dream of getting married at home?

For all of these reasons — and more — many East-West couples prefer to organize at least two wedding ceremonies (and yes, sometimes even three or four)!

Whether you’re looking for wedding inspiration, a way to remember your big day, or a delightful diversion, here are two different examples of how East-West couples have chosen to walk down the aisle more than once.

Traditional ceremonies in the East (Japan) and West (Italy) – My Japan Slice

The blogger at My Japan Slice represents the most traditional choice for those who decide to have two wedding ceremonies. Their reasoning would surely resonate with most East-West couples:

Since the beginning we planned a double ceremony. We are both interested in each other’s culture and we like to learn and experience about it so having our wedding ceremony only in one of our countries would have meant missing something.  Besides, we both have aging grandparents who could not travel. A double ceremony, one in Japan and one in Italy, was the perfect solution.

They set their dates in winter with Dec 23, 2016 for the Japanese ceremony in Kyoto:

My husband’s family lives in Kyoto so it was natural for us to get married there. We choose Kamigamo Shrine because the Kamo river had played an important role in our story being the place where we strolled hand in hand for the first time on our first date. Again we were lucky because the shrine was already almost fully booked and we got the 12.45 slot.

For the Italian ceremony, they chose Jan 5, 2017, at a church in a small mountain village in the northern Alps:

I choose this village because it is the place where the priest who celebrated my parent’s wedding lives. He moved there some years ago and we kept in contact. He was overjoyed when I asked him to celebrate our wedding on January 5th 2017. He also helped us a lot because, since my husband is not Catholic, we needed to obtain a special permission from the Catholic Church in order to get married with a Catholic ceremony. My priest is so dear!

The couple also decided to sandwich their honeymoon between the two ceremonies (they went to Norway — Northern Lights and dog sledding!).

This blogger went on to chronicle every moment of each wedding ceremony, with lots of Instagram-worthy photos. In Kyoto, the couple organized the day a little differently to reflect their cultures and also accomodate guests from outside Japan. Here’s my favorite quote about their ceremony:

The ceremony lasts twenty minutes and ends with further blessings and prayers. We leave the wedding hall and walk to the inner shrine where we pay our respect to the god. In the meantime it has stopped raining. My father in law says it is the hare hito hare onna power. Hare hito hare onnameans sunny guy, sunny girl, my father in law likes to say that when me and my husband are together the sun always shines. The funny thing is that it is actually true almost all the time, we have always been lucky with the weather.

And here’s a highlight from their wedding in Italy:

We didn’t exchange rings during the Japanese ceremony because we choose to do it during the Italian ceremony since the rings exchange originally is a western tradition. Our wedding rings are a gift from my parents and our Best Men. Usually inside the wedding rings there is the wedding date engraved but we got married twice and we didn’t want to choose one date over the other so we decided instead to write 二人三脚 (nininsankyaku) that means “two people, three legs”. It is a Japanese proverb and it describes two people cooperating and sharing responsibility to achieve a common goal. To us it is the perfect synthesis of what being a married couple means.

You can read both posts for a vicarious look into the ceremonies in Japan and Italy (and to ooh and ahh over the photos)!

East-West ceremonies in each country (China, USA) – Adventures in Asia

If you’re an East-West couple, then shouldn’t each ceremony truly reflect your cross-cultural relationship? That’s the kind of reasoning that Katie at Adventures in Asia shared about her decision to have a Chinese-style wedding in the US and an American-style wedding in China:

My dream was to have an American-style wedding in China and a Chinese-style wedding in America. I thought this sounded fun and interesting! Until our wedding, none of my family had visited China before, so giving my relatives and friends a taste of my relationship and my life in China at our wedding in the U.S. was very important to me. I felt that doing cross-cultural weddings would express our cross-cultural identity as a couple. Doing our weddings this way would mean sacrificing certain customs – that is, I couldn’t have a truly and completely American wedding in China on a reasonable budget, and we couldn’t do all of the Chinese family traditions in America. That’s reality.

So how did they pull it off?

Here’s a quote about what Katie and her husband did for their Chinese-style wedding in the US:

The Chinese wedding dinner usually includes a Western-style ceremony inserted halfway, complete with the bride dramatically entering in a white dress and the exchanging of rings and simple vows. This is sandwiched between the Chinese traditions of the bride and groom welcoming all the guests at the door (and receiving all the red envelopes of cash money), and the couple toasting each table of guests (after the bride has changed into a red dress or qipao). There is also usually entirely too much food stacked onto the tables, the parents give speeches, someone sings a song or performs a dance, and an emcee entertains with games and prizes. We tried to replicate this dinner at our States-side wedding and got decently close!

She also shared some of the pros and cons of doing an American-style wedding in China, including the following:

+We had our ceremony at the church where we attend, and as such we did not pay anything for the building, the officiant, the pianist, or the sound guy. In China, it’s all about who you know!

-Finding an officiant to marry us was surprisingly difficult. Most of the people we asked weren’t too keen on the attention of a Chinese-foreigner wedding. (For Chinese, the emcee usually narrates the vows, if they do them.) I wrote the entire script for the wedding myself (mostly inspired by traditional Western ceremony I found online), and my husband translated it.

+We were able to hire a company to handle the reception decorations (as mentioned previously). Our dining tables were outdoors with candles and dangling lights in the trees and dancing under the stars! This definitely would have been outside our budget in the U.S.

-Finding everything from candles to the flower girl basket in white, not red, was a constant struggle, but possible!

I recommend reading Katie’s entire blog post, which details everything from some of the initial challenges to their East-West engagements and both of the ceremonies.

For East-West couples who are considering two wedding ceremonies, what do you think is the best solution?

Mandarin Love: A Banquet of Chinese Wedding/Marriage Words, With Personal Notes

It’s nearly summer, that intoxicating season of endless love — and, where I’m from, one punctuated by lots of wedding invitations. If you’re planning to tie the knot in China or know someone who will, here’s handy little reference of Chinese wedding/marriage words and expressions, with some of my own personal notes.

Getting Married in Chinese

Qiúhūn, 求婚: Whether you’re getting down on one knee or making a big spectacle, this word means “propose marriage.”

I proposed (marriage) to her.
我向她求婚了.
wŏ xiàng tā qiúhūn le

Note that in recent years, the trend in China is for men to turn wedding proposals into major spectacles — make it memorable and romantic!

Jiéhūn, 结婚: If you’re “getting married” here’s the word for you — as in

We’re getting married!
我们要结婚啦!
Wǒmen yào jiéhūn la!

But keep in mind that there are also different words for a woman marrying a man versus a man marrying a woman. The difference reflects the Chinese perspective that the woman marries into the man’s family.

Qǔ,娶: If you’re a man and you are marrying someone, you use qǔ,娶, which also can mean “take a bride”. For example:

He married a girl from Henan.
他娶了个河南姑娘。
Tā qǔle gè Hénán gūniang.

Jià, 嫁: Women, however, are perceived as marrying out and so you use the word jià, 嫁 instead. For example:

I married (gave myself to) him.
我嫁给他了。
Wǒ jià gěi tā le.

But if you think that’s confusing, so are anniversary dates in China. That’s because most people register their marriages and thus become officially married ahead of the wedding ceremony itself. (If you’re curious, read The Dengji Question: How Marriage in China Gets Confusing.) Which brings me to the next word…

Dēngjì, 登记: While this word means “to register” in general, it’s also a term people use to describe registering a marriage in China (which must be done in a marriage registration bureau and usually happens before an actual wedding ceremony occurs).

We registered (our marriage)!
我们登记了!
Wǒmen dēngjìle!

Hūnlǐ, 婚礼: This is the standard word for “wedding ceremony” and the best term to use when in doubt.

But there are other similar words people often use to talk about wedding ceremonies (which usually just comprise the banquet with guests in China), such as xǐshì, 喜事 (usually taken to mean “wedding”), xǐjiǔ, 喜酒 (meaning “wedding feast”) and of course, hūnyàn, 婚宴 (“wedding banquet”, also the name of the famous film by Ang Lee).

Wedding Attire in Chinese

Hūnshā, 婚纱: The white bridal gown, which has become standard for brides in China. At wedding ceremonies/banquets, the bride usually wears her hūnshā first. If you’re purchasing a wedding dress in China, keep in mind there are lots of options for having yours tailor-made, which is what I did years ago in Suzhou (which like a number of cities, has its own “wedding-dress street).

Tóushā, 头纱: The veil for your white bridal gown.

Qípáo, 旗袍: As I wrote before, the qipao or cheongsam is “a high-necked and form-fitting style of dress with slits down the skirt, often on both sides. The dress first appeared in 1920s Shanghai as a modern take on traditional Manchu garb, and has since evolved into a stylish tradition of its own for women in China.” Since most Chinese brides wear several dresses, many opt to have a qipao at their weddings. I actually wore two at mine.

If you’re debating whether or not to have one, see Do You Need to Wear a Cheongsam in Your Chinese Wedding?

Wǎnlǐfú, 晚礼服: The evening gown, another wedding dress option chosen by many Chinese brides.

But let’s not forget the groom…

Yànwěifú, 燕尾服: A tuxedo, one option for the groom.

Tángzhuāng, 唐装: A Tang suit, which mainly consists of a jacket, often made of silk or silk brocade, to match a bride’s qipao. My husband wore a Tang suit at our wedding.

The Wedding Party in Chinese

Xīnniáng, 新娘: The bride. While weddings in the West traditionally have reflected the bride’s style, weddings in China often revolve heavily around the family and guests. In other words, it’s a family affair, much like in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.

Xīnláng, 新郎: The groom.

Xīnrén, 新人: The newlywed couple.

Bànniáng, 伴娘: The bridesmaid(s)

Bànláng, 伴郎: The groomsman/groomsmen

Traditionally, bridesmaids and groomsmen in Chinese weddings should be unmarried individuals.

Other Wedding Must-Haves in Chinese

Hūnshāzhào, 婚纱照: Pre-wedding photos, one of the most important — and glamorous — steps in getting married. There’s a huge industry in China devoted to turning every young couple into models for a day, complete with multiple outfits, professional makeup and hair designers, and airbrushed photos.

Jiéhūn jièzhǐ, 结婚戒指 (hūn jiè, 婚戒): The wedding ring. While not a traditional part of Chinese weddings, most couples today will exchange rings.

Hūnchē, 婚车: The wedding car, a modern version of the traditional wedding sedan chair (or jiàozi, 轿子). Expect your wedding car, which is almost always a luxury model, to be decorated in elaborate flower arrangements.

Xīnfáng, 新房: While it literally means “bridal chamber” — traditionally, extended families lived together so the new couple only had a chamber within the home — now people use the term to refer to the apartment or home purchased explicitly in preparation for a wedding, usually bought by the groom. (The pressure to buy an apartment in China, where prices have skyrocketed in major metropolitan areas, weighs heavily on the shoulders of young men, especially if their families don’t have much money. See Marriage in China Is Home, Car Money?)

Xǐtáng, 喜糖: Wedding candy. Whenever someone gets married in China, they will pass out wedding candy to all their guests as well as friends and even coworkers who may not have attended the nuptials. There’s a whole industry built around this, with ultra-cute boxes for the candies. (I love chocolate, but soft corn candies shaped like miniature corn cobs are a personal favorite as well.)

Nàodòngfáng, 闹洞房: Roughhousing in the bridal chamber, also known as the most humiliating portion of the wedding for the bride and groom. Their friends will either corner them in the banquet hall or follow them back to the new apartment or a rented hotel room, and tease them with risque practical jokes (including those involving bananas). Traditionally, it was done to ease the new couple into their sex life, long before sex education existed; now it’s just done to amuse the guests and make the couple blush, and then some. Sigh.

Hóngbāo, 红包: Red envelopes stuffed with money. Chinese weddings may be exhausting for the couple, but at least you can count on receiving lots of these from your guests.

Other Helpful Chinese Wedding Expressions

Méndānghùduì, 门当户对: Refers to families of equal status. Traditionally, Chinese marriages happened between families that matched each other in rank and wealth.

Báitóuxiélǎo, 白头偕老: A happy greeting for the newlyweds that means, “May you live together until you’re old and gray.”

Sāndàjiàn, 三大件: The three big items, which refers to three must-haves for married couples. Once upon a time when my in-laws married, it was actually four big items (sìdàjiàn, 四大件). In more recent times, the must-haves are things such as a home, car and money — or even a home, car, money and nice honeymoon.

Jīngpílìjié, 精疲力竭: Completely exhausted, which is how the bride and groom will probably feel after that marathon Chinese wedding. Trust me.

What do you think? What terms would you add/recommend?

Do You Need to Wear a Cheongsam in Your Chinese Wedding?

When you tie the knot across cultural and even international borders, as I have, the whole idea of “I do” suddenly becomes even more complicated. Now you’ve got another culture to consider, with its own set of expectations for the wedding.

If that culture happens to be Chinese, that means there’s another possibility for your wedding dress – the cheongsam. Which leads to this question:

Do you need to wear a cheongsam in your Chinese wedding?

For those of you who don’t know about the cheongsam, also known as the qipao, it’s a high-necked and form-fitting style of dress with slits down the skirt, often on both sides. The dress first appeared in 1920s Shanghai as a modern take on traditional Manchu garb, and has since evolved into a stylish tradition of its own for women in China.

By C.H.Wong Photo Studio.Shanghai.China.中国上海王开摄影有限公司 – http://blog.voc.com.cn/blog.php?do=showone&uid=2785&type=blog&itemid=85453;http://www.kaixin005.com/repaste/3273028_2612066860.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8669270

While most women in China don’t wear the dress on a daily basis, it does appear at certain holidays (like Chinese New Year) and special occasions such as weddings. So it’s very common to see brides wearing cheongsam in their pre-wedding photos and at their wedding ceremonies or banquets.

But does that make the dress a must-have in your Chinese wedding?

The short answer is, not necessarily.

I’ve attended a number of Chinese weddings where the brides never even wore a cheongsam. While you’re almost guaranteed to see Chinese brides decked out in a white frothy gown fit for a princess, the cheongsam is generally optional. (Unless, of course, it’s an expectation or wedding tradition of the Chinese side of the family.)

Still, a lot of brides in China will opt to have a cheongsam for a number of reasons. First, you get to wear more than one dress – three is very typical for weddings in China — which means, at least here, you don’t have to choose. And second, the cheongsam is a gorgeous way to add a little Chinese flair to your bridal look.

Many women have rocked the cheongsam in their Chinese weddings, and it’s hard to resist the allure of this sexy dress, which hugs every curve. I ended up wearing two in my own Chinese wedding ceremony (which I’ve shown in the photos I included with this post).

So really, the question shouldn’t be, do you need to wear a cheongsam in your Chinese wedding? Instead, you should ask yourself, do you want one?

P.S.: While you can purchase a cheongsam or qipao online through stores such as Amazon, I highly recommend getting yours tailor-made in Asia. Here’s a list of tailors in Hong Kong, a list of tailors in Shanghai, and a list of tailors and stores in Beijing.

P.P.S.: While the issue of cultural appropriation can come into play whenever non-Asian women are wearing a cheongsam, I like Walking May’s take on this:

I feel the difference between the offensive and non-offensive is crucially ‘how one wears the traditional dress’, so here’s a few ideas to consider:

  • Research that dress! If you would like to wear a Qipao (Cheongsam) respectfully, then do a little research into what looks nice with it and know the name of what it is that you will be wearing. It is probably best not to mix a widely perceived Chinese dress with items from other Asian cultures, to avoid making broad statements about all Asian cultures, or indeed dig out the political through a historical war context that could simmer a stereotypical grudge of some sort. If in doubt, keep it simple.

  • Mere fun-filled costume or true loving appreciation? Your intention matters, and how you choose to wear a traditional garment will allow others to decipher information about you as well as how you feel about the garment. If you love something, then you will simply want to do it justice and appreciated it in the best way that you can.

What do you think?

Why Your Chinese Family Wants You to Have a Wedding Banquet (Even if You Don’t)

When a friend told me she didn’t want to have a big wedding banquet in China, I could totally understand why.

After all, I’m the one who wrote about Why I Don’t Like Going to Wedding Banquets in China. I still have a “just say no” policy when it comes to Chinese wedding invitations. Just the mere suggestion of a wedding in China fills me with dread. The last thing I need is more non-vegan food I can’t eat, a room polluted with noxious secondhand smoke, and a raucous atmosphere that will leave me unsettled for the rest of the night.

In short, a good book at home beats a wedding banquet in China any day for me.

And to be sure, there was a time when I once hoped that my own wedding ceremony in China would have been different. Smaller. More intimate. Vegan food. A strict smoking ban. I envisioned this glorious countryside wedding at the family home, a delightful ceremony closer to nature and tradition than anything I’d seen in the cities.

Well, it didn’t happen that way.

Instead, I got a big, red banquet in a hotel with more than 150 guests in attendance. The only vegan dishes were prepared for me, on the side. And as for that smoking ban, as much as we tried enforcing it, it was kind of laughable when there were free cigarettes at every setting (typical for most wedding banquets in China).

In fairness to the family here, I should be clear about one thing – I was enormously grateful for the wedding banquet for a number of reasons.

Having a wedding in the US was pretty much an impossibility for my husband and me. So if we hadn’t had the ceremony in China, we wouldn’t have had anything at all. Furthermore, they shouldered all the costs of the wedding, which was incredibly generous of them. And in the process of planning the banquet, they allowed me and my husband to make a lot of decisions. We chose the décor for the stage/backdrop. We organized the karaoke afterparty. We decided on the flowers. We specifically requested those candid photos shot during the event. We even planned to let me sing “our song” during the ceremony (which would have happened, had I not lost my voice). In short, we were given a lot of leeway to lend a personal touch to the event.

But yes, if I had planned it all according to my wishes, like brides in America do, I would have had a completely different wedding banquet altogether. (And nobody would have gotten those free cigarettes at the table!)

It was my husband who helped me understand the reality in China – that wedding banquets matter not just to the bride and groom, but to the entire family. As I wrote in Why Your Chinese Wedding Ceremony Will Always Be Big, Fat and Loud:

You can think of Chinese weddings literally as a family affair — a sort of public face that impacts the entire family, beyond you and your groom. And for Chinese families, good face comes from putting on the biggest, fattest, loudest possible affair. Reputation is everything here! After all no one wants guests to remember them as, say, the family who put on that small and pathetic little wedding banquet, or the family who served crappy food or booze. You get the point.

It’s no wonder, then, that often your fiancee’s parents and the rest of the family will have a hand in some, if not most, of the planning of that Chinese wedding ceremony. John’s family sure did.

There’s also another important reason why the wedding banquet must go on – because many families don’t consider you married without it.

Even though my husband and I registered our marriage years before our wedding banquet, the family didn’t consider us married until we, as the Chinese say, had our “happiness wine”.

So yes, your Chinese family wants and expects a wedding banquet. While there are probably lots of things you can have a say on – from the flowers to the décor to even your photographers – the actual wedding banquet isn’t one of them. Not even close.

But I say, if you’ve got to do it, embrace the experience. And believe me, there are benefits to getting married over here. How about having more than one dress in your ceremony? Or getting your hair and makeup redone several times during the event? Or even having those stunning wedding/engagement photos done? Trust me, there’s lots of potential to enjoy the whole “princess” treatment here.

As for me, I don’t regret the way my wedding banquet turned out. Maybe it wasn’t the “perfect day” I imagined long ago, but that’s OK. After all, my husband and I honeymooned in that magical island of Bali.

Yeah, you can envy me now. 😉

Why I Don’t Have the Luxury to Think “Marriage Is Outdated”

The other day, a friend told me the idea of marriage was outdated and totally over-commercialized. She said she had absolutely no interest in getting married.

I totally understood where she was coming from – because, after all, there was a moment in my life when I felt exactly the same way.

I’m not sure when it started – probably sometime in high school – but I was ambivalent about marriage and weddings. Whether it was the rising divorce rate, the growing acceptance of cohabitation or the fact that I never met anyone I could even picture myself married to, I can’t really say. I just know I didn’t grow up with dreams of the perfect white dress and honeymoons and the house in the suburbs with that white picket fence.

My mother once told me about the girls she remembered from college, there for the so-called “MRS” degree. I started my freshman year at university with her advice echoing in my mind – how I should just enjoy myself and not get too tied down to anyone. I enjoyed going out with guys during college, but I always intuitively understood that it was never about finding “the one” and more about finding out who I was. Though I never explicitly said so to anyone or even to myself, looking back, I realize I struggled with the idea of being committed to anyone — making thoughts of the greatest commitment of all, marriage, impossible for me.

But all that changed when I went to work in China after graduation, and fell for a Chinese man. It was the first time the M-word – marriage – was a serious possibility.

It wasn’t just that I was deeply in love with him, more than I had ever felt for anyone else in my life up to that point. Nor was it some generalized cultural pressure from family, his or mine.

No, it had to do with something most of us take for granted – the ability to introduce someone to your family and your parents and even your hometown.

At some point in my first year in China, during that time when this guy and I were dating, I imagined what my dad and stepmom might say when they finally shook his hand in their home. Or what my grandma would make for us when we came to visit. Or what he would think after seeing the high school I attended and the library my mother once worked at.

But these thoughts were easily derailed by the harsh reality for Chinese passport holders, who included my boyfriend. After all, he had applied twice for a US visa and was rejected both times. It didn’t matter how much I hoped to take him home to see the family and my hometown, because there was always this huge international bureaucratic hurdle that stood between us.

It’s one thing to ask your parents if it’s OK to bring your steady boyfriend or girlfriend over, not certain how Mom and Dad might respond.

But it’s another thing entirely to have to ask an entire country for permission to bring this person over in an embassy or consulate, where your love for them and your word no longer matters. Where decisions can sometimes feel arbitrary and capricious in the cold, aseptic visa interview rooms. Where it’s sometimes hard to understand why some people get visas and others don’t.

In addition, there’s a flip side to this conversation – namely, the right to remain in the foreign country where you met your foreign boyfriend or girlfriend. While I never had this issue, consider what Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift once wrote regarding her marriage with Guo Jian:

For me, my decision to marry him wasn’t about pleasing him or pleasing his family and culture either; to be perfectly honest, it was about securing a visa! Anyone who has lived in China without a permanent work visa knows that the Chinese system for foreign visas is an ever-changing nightmare. And, by extension, I admit that I liked being identified as “the one” in his eyes—the one worthy of a life commitment. Are those first reasons selfish reasons to marry? Was I wrong to marry him when it benefitted me and my ego? I’ll concede that I stepped around my previous political views on marriage in order to express my respect for his culture, too, but that’s not exactly a selfless act of love; it’s more about mutual human respect.

While of course she loved Guo Jian, the added benefit of gaining a visa to stay in China was among the reasons she wanted to marry him.

I ultimately broke up with that guy I met my first year in China – but I’ve faced similar visa-related issues while dating Jun, who is also from China and who I eventually married.

What I’ve learned over the years is that debates about the “usefulness of marriage” or whether “marriage is outdated” or even whether “marriage is too commercialized and therefore pointless” are a luxury not everyone has.

You don’t have this option to talk about whether marriage matters when you’re a Westerner in love with a foreigner who isn’t given a visa on arrival for your country. Or when you’re a foreigner loving someone in his or her country, where securing a visa through marriage could ensure the two of you remain together. Being subject to the heartless bureaucracies that go hand in hand with immigration rules and residency gives you an entirely new perspective on the value of marriage.

I recognize that there are off-putting things about modern marriage and weddings. And I should know, because I’ve blogged openly about my dislike for weddings in China (to the point that I’d rather not attend them, if possible). We should have conversations about these things.

At the same time, I’m not advocating for sham marriages that exist only for the sole purpose of gaining a visa or residency in a specific country.

But the fact of the matter is, nothing is perfect. Not marriage or weddings or, especially, the immigration rules that can potentially wreck the best of plans between a young international couple genuinely in love with one another. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we have.

And sometimes, marriage matters simply because it could mean the chance to take your loved one abroad and finally see him shake hands with your father in your hometown, just as you always dreamed of.