Wedding Brings Together Families, Cultures

RESPECT: Commitment came before introductions to families.
Rose Cox
09-24-2007

Anchorage Daily News

The cultures of Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie and Virgil Gillespie couldn't be more different: She is a Lao immigrant and Buddhist; he's African-American raised Methodist in South Carolina.

But when it comes to life's big issues, they couldn't be more similar. Among the parallels in their relationship are a commitment to higher education, a strong work ethic and belief in a higher being. Family is paramount.

If there's any line to be drawn, it's over fish sauce, the condiment made from fermented fish that is ubiquitous in Lao cooking.

"I'm borderline vegetarian," Virgil said. "I don't eat a lot of Asian foods. People are like, how can you two co-exist?"

The easy answer: When Toc craves Asian food, she heads to Mom's house for dinner. And she's adopted some American dishes.

"I couldn't stand salads," she said. "I really love salads now. I've really come a long way."

The couple met and exchanged phone numbers in summer 1999, when Toc came home to Anchorage from college.

"I just thought, he's such a beautiful man," Toc said. "And when we started talking I saw he had an old soul."

In the Lao community, it is improper for a woman to even be seen in public with a man who is not her husband.

"The rules are no touching," Virgil said. "I couldn't touch her arm or hand or anything."

Many Lao immigrants date in the United States, Toc said. But a Lao daughter represents her family, and her actions reflect on them. And Toc's family is old-school all the way.

"I consider myself in the 1.5 generation: We were born there, then came here," she said. "We don't consider ourselves as having dated, we've just known each other for a very long time."

"It made it seem like I was back in high school," Virgil said. "But as a friend, I was able to honor her culture a lot more. As a friend, I could understand a lot more, exercise patience and be open-minded."

Like Toc, Virgil believes in honoring the elders in his large extended family. He didn't bring his fiance home to meet his mom and grandmother until after they were engaged.

"Our families both expected some form of commitment," Virgil said. "If you're going to bring someone home to meet your family, you have to be at a certain point in your life; you'd better be committed."

Their respect for family nixed an elopement in favor of a wedding extravaganza that included two ceremonies the same day.

"I don't like the big fuss," Virgil said. "I knew when we invited people, the numbers would be through the roof."

In Lao culture, the entire community turns out for baci -- calling of the soul -- ceremonies, held for weddings, funerals, graduations and other milestones.

The couple sent invitations in English and Lao to more than 350 guests.

Dressed in traditional Lao wedding clothing -- embroidered silk dress and sash for Toc, red-and-white checkered sash and silk wrap pants for Virgil -- the bride and groom sat on a white cloth on the floor.

"I'd never seen a Lao wedding before, so I didn't know what to expect from the time I decided to put the wrap on," Virgil said.

Lao community elder Phoumy Mangala chanted best wishes to the couple, calling on their spirits to love and accept each other and each other's families.

Guests pulled cotton strings from two blessing trees -- one for the bride and one for the groom -- adorned with flowers representing love, longevity, cheerfulness.

The blessing trees, or pha kwan, were made by Toc's uncle, Venerable Chanthakhame Mingsisoupanh, a Buddhist monk from Utah. The trees were surrounded by symbolic foods such as eggs (symbolizing the fetus), fruit (the coming together of several parts) and a whole boiled chicken with head, feet and claws for divination purposes.

Guests tied the strings unto the wedding couple's wrists, expressing their hopes for happiness. Toc and Virgil carried plates of orchids and candles to elders in the group to show respect.

"I saw my mom and my community members smiling and really being supportive," Toc said. "I'll always be grateful to Virgil for taking a part in who I am."

The traditional American ceremony followed with six bridesmaids and groomsmen, white wedding dress, tux, garter, champagne and cake. Guests at the reception sampled Southern-fried chicken and potato salad along with egg rolls, sticky rice and other Lao dishes.

"The beauty of our weddings was they brought not just us together, but our families, friends and communities," Toc said.

Find Rose Cox online at adn.com/contact/rcox or call 257-4469.