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How Asian American couples are honoring their cultural backgrounds in modern weddings

These happy couples are including special touches from their cultural backgrounds on one of the most special days of their lives.
For these couples, it was important to include specific cultural traditions when they said "I do."
For these couples, it was important to include specific cultural traditions when they said "I do."TODAY Illustration / Toby Frigillana/Nabeela Habibulla / Lauren Scherr
/ Source: TMRW

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the month of May.

Andrea and Eric Oto have always had a close connection to their cultural roots, so when the couple got married in September 2020, paying homage to their Asian American heritage seemed like a no-brainer.

When the pandemic hit, the couple postponed their dreams of a big wedding reception and hosted a Zoom ceremony in Andrea's parents' backyard instead. And they made sure to sprinkle in several meaningful cultural traditions throughout the day.

The Otos on their happy day.Toby Frigillana

To honor Eric's Japanese-Okinawan heritage, the newlyweds completed the tradition of folding 1,001 cranes before their big day (the bride folds 1,000 and the groom folds one). After saying "I do," the couple hosted a Zoom cocktail hour in Hawaii and incorporated the banzai toast, a common Japanese tradition. It features two toasts — one to the bride and groom and another to the guests — and consists of everyone saying the cheer “banzai” multiple times.

When they host a larger reception in the fall, the newlyweds plan to put their framed cranes on display and have an in-person banzai toast.

"Many traditions have not been carried on by peers in our generation, so we feel a responsibility to keep them alive. We look forward to someday passing these traditions on to our future children," Andrea said.

During the banzai toast, everyone yells "banzai!" three times. Andrea Oto

The Otos are just one couple from the AAPI community who are incorporating a mix of cultural traditions into their special day. Just last month, Nabeela Habibulla married Roy Persaud in Bethpage, New York, and the bride incorporated a series of Indian traditions leading up to her big day, including a henna party and a nikkah wedding ceremony.

Nabeela Habibulla and Roy Persaud were excited to include several cultural traditions on their big day.Nabeela Habibulla

The couple encouraged their guests to wear traditional Indian clothing, served traditional foods and gave away slices of black cake and mithai as favors. Nabeela initially decided to include cultural elements into her wedding to honor her family's wishes, but she soon came to appreciate them herself.

"I think without the traditions, the wedding would not have been as enjoyable and memorable. These traditions bring the family together and give us something to celebrate," she said.

When Mychal Hatae-Kikuchi and her husband, Christian Kikuchi, tied the knot in February in Hawaii, they paid homage to their home state in several ways. The couple gave leis to their families, and had special Maile leis for the male guests.

Leis were a big part of this couple's Hawaiian wedding.Vanessa Hicks Photography

"This is traditionally a lei previously given to Hawaiian royalty, (but) nowadays is given for special occasions such as weddings or graduations. Maile lei is made from the Maile vine that is wound together, and they are fragrant smelling. We also added flowers to be wound into the Maile for added fullness and scent for Christian's lei," she said, adding that her husband is part native Hawaiian.

The men wore shirts and malos (loincloths) that were designed and handmade in Hawaii on the island of Molokai. "We wanted to support our local companies if we could," she said.

Cultural clothing played a part in this couple's wedding.Vanessa Hicks Photography / Vanessa Hicks Photography

Christian's best man said a traditional Hawaiian prayer, otherwise known as a Pule, and the newlyweds, who both come from Japanese families, included a banzai toast on their special day.

"Since we are both local Japanese we felt it was important to include the banzai toast which has been a tradition in our community for many years," she said.

Zarifah and Andrew Mathura, who both come from Guyanese backgrounds, got married in April 2019. Since Andrew is Hindu and Zarifah is Muslim, they had a three-day wedding that included two religious ceremonies and a reception.

Zarifah and Andrew Mathura had a three-day ceremony.Raj Studios

Throughout the celebration, the couple included several traditions, such as rubbing dye on their bodies the night before the wedding and saying religious prayers to bless each of their parents' houses before the wedding festivities began. Zarifah also applied bridal henna on her hands and feet.

The newlyweds looked wore ornate, traditional clothing on their wedding day.Raj Studios

"These traditions as well as the two different religious ceremonies were important to us because while we may not be of the same religion, we do understand the importance and respect one another," she said. "It was important to us that we begin our new lives having fulfilled our martial duties for our religions, especially since our religions are a big part of who we are."

Other couples who are still planning their weddings are also passionate about honoring their cultures on their big day. Helen Wu and her fiancé will elope in a romantic Zoom ceremony this spring but also plan to host a traditional Chinese tea ceremony with their immediate families.

"I will be wearing a traditional qi pao, similar to the one my mom wore for her wedding in her hometown of Hoiping, China. During the tea ceremony, I and my soon-to-be husband will pay our respects and show gratitude toward our parents and elders by serving them tea," the bride-to-be said.

The tea ceremony is a long-held tradition in Wu's family and she's excited to include such a special element in her wedding festivities.

"The older I get, the more I hold tight to my culture and the meaning behind traditions so that I can pass these on to our children one day," she said.

Lauren Scherr is planning a wedding in her home state of Hawaii with her fiancé, Tucker Fross. The lovebirds were disappointed when they had to postpone their October 2020 wedding due to the pandemic but are making the most of the situation by using this extra time to add several local Japanese/Hawaiian customs to their ceremony.

The couple will exchange leis with each other and give them to their immediate families, and will serve a mix of local food, like kalua pork, poi, poke, huli huli chicken and fried rice. Instead of cake, they'll serve malasadas (fried doughnuts) and Scherr is thinking of incorporating the Japanese tradition of folding paper cranes. The couple will also have a banzai toast at their reception.

Lauren Scherr can't wait for her Hawaiian wedding.Lauren Scherr

Scherr, who grew up in Hawaii and has a Japanese-American mother, explained that she's always been sheepish about claiming her Asian American identity since she's half white.

"I've reflected on that after the surge in violence against AAPI folks. I love being Japanese. I love being hapa (mixed race). I love Hawaii, and I especially love the mix of traditions and cultures here. I want our wedding to reflect that," she said. "Tucker and I live in Hawaii after spending many years in Brooklyn, San Francisco and DC. Since our wedding will be the first time many of our friends and family visit, we want to show them what makes it so magical."

Alvin Seenauth is Hindu and his fiancé Alana Ally is Christian and they both come from Guyanese backgrounds. The couple is planning two religious ceremonies for October and the festivities will span three days. Two nights before the wedding, the couple will host a "mehendi night" and the female guests will get henna done.

Alvin Seenauth and Alana Ally will incorporate traditions from both of their cultures into their wedding.Alvin Seenauth

"There’s a tradition where the henna artists hide the husband’s name in the wife’s henna, and if the husband finds it, it’s going to spread good luck for the marriage," he said.

Seenauth told TMRW that the process of including both of their faiths into the celebration has brought him closer to his future wife.

"There were times where I would wonder if she is comfortable doing so many tasks for a Hindu wedding since she is Christian. But she respects the religion a lot and vice versa on my end," he said. "I grew up as a Hindu and plan on continuing my life as one, even if my wife will be Christian. I think we just respect each other so much and our cultures are a big part of us."

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