A friend at the newspaper I write for is getting married soon. He’s a great young guy with too big glasses, marvelous English and bad taste in beer selection. My Facebook newsfeed has been plastered with photos of the engagement party with all its pageantry and spectacle and his taste in brides is excellent. (I hope I get a pay rise out of this...!)
Sadly an English teacher’s work is never done and I’ll be working around the time of his wedding. As embarrassed as I will be that I can’t attend, it’s even worse that he’s sending me an invitation and I have no idea what would be a suitable wedding gift.
You see, I’m Australian, although I often feel more Vietnamese, even if my Vietnamese speaking makes my students die laughing and my dogs run for the door. The thing is we usually don’t give money in Air Post envelopes at the front door of a wedding reception – it feels like giving money at church and I hate churches.
Vietnamese custom for this ceremony seems straighter and more practical than our wealthier Western custom of giving gifts for the future household. My understanding of local custom includes the knowledge that the bride should receive (on the day of but before the wedding) betel nuts, cake, cloth fabric and jewelry, usually in a lacquered red box with the odd number of boxes for luck. Curiously, the envelopes of money are not only a sign of wealth and future posterity to the couple, but also to scare away the ‘bad spirits’ and protect against sickness and death – a strange thing to think about around a wedding time, still it’s better to think of ways to ward off everything except evil mothers-in-law.
So what to do? I can’t send money by mail, too impersonal, so I’ll give him my last 100,000 dong next time I see him in Ho Chi Minh City, maybe before I have to pay the beer tab. Betel nuts seem too weird to me, would a kilo of peanuts be an OK substitute? Or maybe I could buy a cake and get someone to take it to the wedding – nah... I don’t trust the balancing skills of a local motorbike driver against the fragile chocolate sponge cake that wobbles in that strange way that Vietnamese cakes do. In Australia, couples oftentimes openly discuss what they’d like to have for a gift, avoiding the huge loss of face if two groups of wedding guests buy the identically colored fruit blender. I can’t give them bedroom stuff like bed sheets (very expensive in Australia!) – What if they are too big or small? Use them as laundry bags?
A toaster (a thingamajig that cooks sliced bread into a golden brown color) is the safest choice in my country and if they hate it they can always secretly give to their neighbors and tell me that they are saving it for a ‘special occasion’. I gave up years ago on buying beautiful wine or champagne glasses because it was such a common gift – imagine how many homes in Australia have champagne glasses while everyone drinks beer! OK – no kitchen stuff – everyone uses chopsticks and plastic bowls anyway. Hmm... how about something for the living room? Oh, that could lead to trouble if it’s a great cushion and grandma decides it’s perfect for her. Maybe an ornament for the house might look snazzy and fashionable. Ah! I forgot about the transportation problem. What am I going to do? He’s a writer so maybe a fabulous pen kit would be good but I can’t forget about the bride, and I’ve been in trouble more often over giving women gifts than I ever was at school! I’m terrible at judging what women like – doesn’t matter if it’s jewelry, chocolate, food, clothes or cosmetics – I have failed miserably. No... It has to be something that they can both enjoy and remember my thoughtfulness until the goodies wear out. I’m sure I’ll think of something... I’m confident even when I have no idea what I’m doing.
Still, I hope that whatever idea I come up with, it will meet with Vietnamese approval and admiring nods about my wise choice and sensitive artistic temperament – after all, a wedding is a meeting of two hearts and minds that will slowly become a thing greater than the original dreams of the two happy lovers. So I wish my good friend a wonderful wedding and many years of peaceful and prosperous contention together. Hey... What about a pair of matching winter socks? Hmm...