A short guide to marriage as an ex-pat

Unfortunately, I’ve been hit with a bad bout of flu. I spent the past couple days in denial about how sick I felt, practically biting poor A’s head off when he suggested I looked a little tired. After somehow making it through a holiday party plus choir performance without fainting, I finally collapsed into bed with a temperature of 100.4 last night and barely moved out of bed for 14 hours. I feel a lot better now, but am putting aside my research work for the day and plan to spend most of it in bed watching TV and recuperating.

Yesterday I finished up the last couple choir performances of a busy holiday season. I really love the two choirs I’m in, and it’s been a great way to meet more people. One of my favorite performances was a short session of caroling at the U.S. Consulate’s adoptions office. It was so meaningful to see the families’ expressions. A bit hard to get through a couple of the songs without tears. The choir will perform there again tomorrow, but I’m going to stay home and recuperate.

Truthfully, while I have a wide open schedule today, I’m not quite up to a long, rambly post. On the bright side, this time I have a little something I prepared earlier. I recently wrote an article for the Guangzhou Women’s International Club (GWIC) December newsletter. The theme of the issue was weddings, so I shared a bit about A and my two weddings, and what it’s like to get married when moving internationally. I hope you enjoy.

A Short Guide to Marriage as an Ex-Pat

As I recently moved to Guangzhou for my husband’s job, people are understandably confused when I share that he and I are planning our wedding for next April. “But I thought you’re already married?” is a typical question. I often respond “Ah yes, we’re married but we haven’t had the wedding yet.”

In July 2015, my now-husband learned that he would be moving to China with his new job. We had just graduated with our Masters from Johns Hopkins, where we met. We left school rich in knowledge and friendships; poor in savings. He spent his first paycheck on a beautiful, sparkly engagement ring, and proposed a couple of weeks after learning about his upcoming move.

We knew that getting married before his move to China would make our life much easier. If I chose to join him in China, I would get a long-stay Chinese visa and health insurance. If I chose to stay in Washington D.C., being married would make it easier for me to visit him and smooth the way for when I would eventually join him overseas.

Being a progressive and outspoken feminist, until recently I would have reacted to the above by saying that getting married to follow one’s husband overseas is quite an antiquated idea… After all, it’s a bit like what my great great grandmother did when she moved from Ireland to join her new husband in India. Even today, no other status, including domestic partnerships, affords couples as many benefits as being married does when moving overseas.

However, a friend recently pointed out that ex-pat life is difficult. It requires commitment, compromise, and teamwork. Being married while overseas provides both people important protections and sets a firm foundation for a lifestyle that brings so many shared joys and challenges. I’m not advocating that all couples contemplating an international move get married, as it is a deeply personal choice. For us, though, it was the best avenue forward into a new international chapter in our lives. Most importantly, we were also ready to get married, and it would have only been a matter of time for us if we had decided to wait.

After considering all these important aspects, we held our small civil ceremony on November 21, 2015 with eyes and hearts wide open. Only a kind officiant, two close friends, and a photographer attended. No family or other friends were invited, because we didn’t want to detract from our April 2017 wedding, which will be the main event requiring more than a couple of months planning. That said, I treasure the moment when we made our vows between the two of us.

Already being married reduces the emotional pressure of our April wedding; I don’t have the same pre-marriage jitters. However, it remains extremely important to us to affirm our vows in front of our families and community. So now some tips for planning an international wedding:

Tip 1: Pick a location that maximizes attendance

As my family lives in New Zealand and the UK and our friends live all over the world, our wedding is automatically a destination wedding. For that reason, our wedding will be in Long Island, New York, where my husband’s immediate family and church community live IE where the largest concentration of attendees are based.

Tip 2: Book your venues early. Actually, do EVERYTHING early.

We found and booked our wedding venue at the end of 2015 and our DJ, photographer, and flowers in early 2016. This allowed us to make bookings while in the same time zone and visit in person. Also, since many vendors require a partial to full deposit upfront, we’ve already paid off half of our total wedding cost. Booking early can also save money, because vendors charged us 2015-16 prices, not 2017 ones which will likely increase.

Tip 3: Go for an all-inclusive, experienced venue

We also picked a venue that specializes in weddings. Our venue provides outdoor and indoor space for the ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception; all the food including the cake; an open bar; staff; all linens and tableware; a dance floor; and most importantly, peace of mind that they’ve done this before. No way could I handle stressing out about having enough chairs and silverware along with an international move to China.

Tip 4: Minimize complications

While I like the occasional craft project, I’ve minimized extras for our wedding. Planning all the must-haves is enough work already! For example, instead of painstakingly picking out matching bridesmaid dresses, I told my (amazing, competent, caring, and savvy) bridesmaids to pick a formal, floor-length dress and provided them with a color palette, images of examples, and suggestions of stores. This guidance allows each woman to pick something that she’s comfortable with in look and price AND reduces a ton of stress on me. Plus, it’s led to some great conversations over email about dresses they’re considering. One bridesmaid loves sewing and plans to make her own dress. Letting go a bit can lead to special and personal outcomes!

Finally, planning an event half a world away and in advance sometimes causes me to lose sight of why we’re doing it in the first place. It’s been important to remind myself to have fun and to look forward to this event that will be a huge reunion of our closest family and friends.

We recently attended the post-marriage wedding of two close friends. They held it in Seoul, South Korea where the bride’s family lives. Although we’ve long been used to thinking of these two friends as married, attending their wedding was so special. In addition to celebrating them, I was reminded why we’re planning our own wedding. The love and support in the room was palpable. I feel very blessed to get married twice, once with just my love and again with the support of our family and friends.

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