Why We Planned a Surprise Wedding for Our Parents, 30 Years Later
What does it take to convince two parents to be in the right place at the right time — for their own surprise wedding? Apparently it takes two crazy children, lots of deception, and a lot of Google Translate.
Now, I know the words “surprise” and “wedding” don’t usually go together. Especially when in combination with “for your parents.” As poor immigrants who came to the United States from China in their twenties, our parents never had a wedding ceremony, but were legally married in 1990. That was pretty common practice among parents like them, but my mom and dad always mentioned wanting a wedding ceremony for their 50th anniversary. My mom had always regretted not having the opportunity to wear the white dress and walk the aisle with my father all those years ago, even if it was only a formality.
So when my parents asked me if I wanted to go to China in October, coincidentally on the dawn of their 30th anniversary, I knew this would be a perfect chance to give them the surprise of their lives. Why a surprise? Because as Asian parents, they would never allow us to do something as rash as this. So they couldn’t possibly know until the very last second.
Having never gone to a wedding before, I somehow had the audacity to text my younger brother, Jeffrey, in early July, not knowing that this text was like taking the red pill in The Matrix and heading down the rabbit hole of wedding planning.
Over the summer, this crazy idea manifested itself into a family deception plot similar to the one in an Awkwafina movie I had watched earlier that summer called The Farewell — but instead of a fake wedding this one would be real, and no one (luckily) was terminally ill. It was an elaborately planned four-month web of lies that could have been spoiled at any moment.
We had three main problems. First, we had only four months until I went to China, and for anyone who has planned weddings before knows, that is not much time to find an open venue, plan all the festivities, and get everyone on the same page. The second problem was that we wanted to keep it all a surprise, and that involved getting my brother who was studying at University of California, Irvine, to China, without triggering the suspicions of our overprotective Asian parents. Our final problem is that the wedding would be in China, and we were in the United States. We had only AP-level Chinese abilities, and they were definitely not enough to plan something so important and so secret.
When I told my aunt about my plan, she told me it was impossible to do in the time we had left before we went to China. We might as well just plan a simple wedding photo shoot, she said. Those were easy to find, with hundreds of cheap options available in China. But for some reason, as a kid raised in Silicon Valley, being told that something was impossible only further fueled my insanity and obsession to make it happen. The wheels started turning after I contacted my uncle, who was in China, and my mom’s best friend, who was also in China and happened to be the manager of a wedding venue. Using my internet stalking abilities, I stealthily messaged all of my parents’ best friends and relatives to loop them into the plan. I swore them all to secrecy.
We planned the whole wedding over WeChat, a popular messaging app in China. I was on my phone almost every day texting my uncle, my parents’ friends, relatives, and wedding planners in broken Chinese, describing what we wanted to happen. About a week before the actual event, we told our parents we’d planned a surprise wedding shoot for their 30th anniversary, and that they would need to purchase wedding clothes. Luckily, they were so shocked at the news about having a photo shoot that they didn’t realize we were planning a real wedding ceremony.
11/1/19: One day before the wedding
For the final step, we had to sneak my brother from UC Irvine to China. To do this we created an alibi for him to be in Irvine on the day of the wedding using a photoshopped poster for a school event. We had his friend purchase his ticket to China and turned off his location sharing to maintain the facade.
There were moments of panic, like when we found out my brother’s connecting flights had been canceled. There was also that time when my brother nearly ruined the surprise by almost calling my mom in a hungry, desperate panic when he couldn’t find a working ATM during his eight-hour layover in Xiamen.
When he finally got to where we were staying, it was like a real-life game of Metal Gear as we secretly moved him from room to room without alerting our parents who were sleeping right next door.
There were so many other moments when our cover was almost blown. From my grandparents accidentally mentioning that Jeffrey was coming before he arrived (we had to quickly cover that up using the excuse that our cousin’s English name “Jerry” was similar to “Jeffrey”), to the printed wedding schedules almost falling out in front of my parents, to our parents gradually becoming more and more suspicious over time. The situation continually required just the right amount of ambitiousness, craziness, and recklessness.
11/2/19: Wedding day
Of course, as with any surprise, the most exhilarating part is breaking the news at just the right time. The reveal was to be a multistep process, the first of which would be the presence of my brother. With our midnight operation, we had gotten him to the right place, but what now? How would we engineer a situation that would create a maximal shock for my parents?
On the morning of the event, with an hour left until the grand reveal, we had only a few supplies at our disposal to work with: a male hotel staff uniform taken from the front desk, a few deflated balloons, and my youngest cousin Jerry’s Halloween bear costume from a party the night before. With the clock ticking, my video game development experience came in handy as the details of a second undercover operation started to come together in my mind.
Our plan first involved me nonchalantly entering the hotel breakfast room and sitting down in a position that would give me the maximum visibility of my parents and the rest of the dining room. Then, when I was ready, I yelled a secret code word. On cue, my brother casually entered the hotel breakfast room dressed in the bear costume, pretending to be a waiter. Stifling laughter, everyone including the hotel staff (who were in on the surprise) pretended that this was perfectly normal and waved at the mysterious bear man. My brother even took some pictures with random guests (including an overexcited five-year-old girl) to further the charade, and then at just the right moment, he revealed himself, much to my parents’ shock and amazement.
The rest of the day went along exactly as planned, but often felt like we were just going through the motions: taking pictures, doing makeup, getting in place. Hundreds of hours of planning, all happening so quickly, right in front of my eyes. It felt strangely calm and strangely smooth.
It really didn’t hit me that the wedding was actually happening until the moment I saw my brother and my maternal grandfather escorting my mom down the aisle toward my dad. It was according to schedule, like everything else, but somehow felt very different. The stress and mess of logistics and getting everyone in the right place at the right time suddenly melted into my head.
As my mom drew closer to my dad, I could finally see what we had made happen. This was 30 years of anticipation, 30 years of life already spent together, and 30 years of waiting for this exact moment. It was as if we had been transported back to 1990, back to when they had first fallen in love, and had decided to take the next step.
With their own parents standing nearby, under the soft glare of the setting sun, I watched as my mom and dad looked into each other’s eyes and gave impromptu speeches about how the last 30 years of being together had brought them through so much; from the days they had only $100 in the bank after leaving their family behind in China, to raising two kids, to balancing part-time jobs, to building a new life in the United States.
I heard my dad’s voice crack as he professed how he was still very much in love with the woman he had fallen in love with at first sight 30 years ago.
I saw my mom wipe tears from her eyes as she recounted the fateful decision she had made by saying yes to the man that asked her to go to the United States with him.
And in that moment, I knew that everything we had done had been absolutely worth it: the hundreds of hours of planning, white lies, and even obsessing over details. All of it had come together perfectly to make this moment happen.
There was something extra-special about experiencing the wedding of two people who truly, deeply, love each other and have gone through so much in the last 30 years, especially when they are your parents! It was a small wedding, for only 14 people in total, but nonetheless felt like something much much bigger. I don’t know how many tears were shed that day, but in that moment, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and none of my everyday selfish worries mattered at all.
And there, on that very special night, we toasted to a successful wedding and to the end of the need for secrecy and manipulation. We danced away to Chinese pop songs and ended the day feeling completely exhausted. To top things off, on the very next day, filled with emotion and without enough sleep, I ran my first marathon in three hours and five minutes in the Hangzhou International Marathon and then qualified for the Boston Marathon!
It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily buzz of life and simply go through the motions of existence, but this is one day that I’ll cherish and remember forever. Even now, we don’t have the perfect family — no one does — but this is one moment that we can truly remember as having been perfect.
Would I do it again? Well, I wouldn’t recommend running a marathon after spending a day in heels at a wedding, but I 100% don’t regret our decision to make it happen. When I initially sent the text to my brother, I had no idea that what we were attempting to pull off would spiral into hundreds of hours on WeChat, lying to my parents (for good reasons), and a full-blown wedding ceremony four months later. I would also never have imagined that Google Translate would become my #1 phone app, or that I’d cry more than I had when I watched Train to Busan.
This doesn’t mean I’m recommending that everyone go off and plan surprise weddings, but I do realize now, more than ever before, that the simplest acts of kindness toward friends and family can go a very long way. Even the most basic things, like texting or calling regularly, can take you to places you never imagined. Especially if that text is to your brother about planning an overseas wedding.