Throughout history, marriages have been less about love and more about social contracts between two families hoping to combine assets and power. That often meant families from very different backgrounds had to find a way to assimilate each other's cultures diplomatically enough not to cause an international incident. Luckily we don't have pressures of that magnitude any more, but that doesn't mean it's an easy feat to plan a wedding where two halves of the guest list are from opposite ends of the universe.It can be done, but to make it work there are a few things you should be careful of...
Avoid the awkward
First off, don't let one side dominate too much over the other. If your fiancée has family flying in from another country, they are probably already feeling like outsiders, and their experience with weddings is likely very different from the traditions we have here. So some care should be taken to prevent them from feeling further alienation when the two families should be coming together. You may even want to prepare them by sending them links to websites in their language explaining common American wedding traditions.
You also might find ways to incorporate the "outsider" culture, even if it's just in little ways. The music played during cocktail hour and dinner are great opportunities to do just that. And at one wedding we did recently, where the bride and her family were Indian, the couple hired a henna artist during the reception to do henna tattoos on all the women's hands!
If a significant portion of your wedding guests are not strong English speakers, it's only considerate to have at least the ceremony and the toasts translated. For best results prepare this ahead of time, instead of just getting someone's bilingual kid to wing it. Also, translations tend to work best a few sentences at a time, rather than doing an entire speech in one language and then having it repeated in its entirety in the other (otherwise, half the place basically tunes out and gets bored until it's their turn again). And if you really want to score points, get yourself a bilingual emcee. Ideally you'll find a DJ who can do the job, but if not, you may want to invest in a separate emcee who can.
But the opposite is equally true. That is, sometimes it's the visiting team that gets all the attention. So if your fiancée is Thai, your American family and friends will love the exotic dress, the interesting music, the food, the cadence of their language during the speeches, all the different traditions-- but only to a point! Too much of that can alienate the others and make them feel less important. This is especially true when the "visiting team" is from a particularly gregarious culture-- like Brazil or Italy-- where just the normal course of celebration for them can totally overwhelm your average American. About a year ago we did a wedding with an Iranian groom and a Californian bride. All the Californians thought it was great when the Persian dances started, but when that became the only thing that the Iranian side would pay attention to, things got a little weird.
So be aware of just how much attention is paid to the more exotic side of the guest list. They should definitely feel welcome, for sure, but not to the exclusion of everyone else.
Embrace the awkward
But you can't be too careful, right? After all, differences can be fun, and your guests will totally appreciate attending a wedding that (finally!) isn't exactly like every other wedding they've ever been to. As long as both sides are equally represented, your wedding day can be an opportunity to marry the two worlds and set the tone for future.
It's especially fun when you can blend the two at the same time. An easy way to do that is to have your DJ alternate between the two with his song selections during the dancing portion of the evening. But you can get creative with it, too. One of my favorite weddings was with an east-coast Jewish bride and a Scottish groom (complete with family and friends fresh off the plane from Scotland). Every groomsman wore a yarmulke and a kilt, and during the reception, we transitioned right from the Jewish Horah to a traditional Scottish highland dance. Never before or since have I seen two groups of people from different backgrounds more bonded than I did in that moment.
Here's your call to action: What solutions have you seen to the mixed-culture thing? How successful were they? What issues are you worried about for your own multi-cultural wedding? Let us now in the comments...