The elderly man had to be helped to the dance floor. Once there, though, the smile on his face glowed with radiance as he steadied himself in her arms. As they gently swayed to the strains of “Dance with My Father,” the emotional swell in my heart could not be stilled. And so I recognized once again a major reason I live in the Philippines.
My wife, Ivy, and I were attending her friend’s wedding in Tagaytay, a tony resort town just south of Manila. Our Swiss-styled resort, surrounded by fog-shrouded mountains, exuded the essence of a different time and place. But the wedding ceremony was pure Filipino, and therein lay its charm.
The dress code was specific: for principal sponsors like us, black coats or barongs for the men and long golden gowns for the women. For everyone else, strictly formal attire. That applied to the best man, maid of honor, groomsmen, bridesmaids, and all the secondary sponsors responsible, respectively, for the veil, the candles, and the cord. Add to that the bible bearer, ring bearer, coin bearer, flower girls and hordes of guests and you have the full Philippine marriage contingent.
It is both charming and intimidating. Intimidating because of the abundance of black ties and the fact that you may be called upon at any moment—as I was—to offer an impromptu speech. Charming because it’s all so formal, loving, and, well, traditional. Which is to say, serious.
Where I come from—specifically the wilds of Southern California—weddings, to the extent that they still happen at all, are taken with a grain of salt. That’s because, statistically, half of them aren’t likely to last. And because most of the guests have probably already been divorced once or twice.
In the Philippines it’s different. This is the world’s last country outside the Vatican that disallows divorce. So when you get married in the Philippines, well, you better take it seriously.
In the real world, of course, Filipino couples separate all the time. And it can be reasonably argued—and frequently is—that the lack of legal divorce here forces people, especially women, to remain trapped in unhappy and unhealthy relationships. And yet there is also something grudgingly admirable about a country that holds fast to the values of matrimony. That refuses to make it easy for families to unravel and disperse.
“I sensed a real difference in the Filipinas I encountered,” reads my 2015 memoir published several years after I married one of them. Though their culture encouraged and rewarded feminine strength, I wrote, it “also embraced traditional values in matters of marriage and family. These women, though strong, still inhabited a universe in which men occupied an important and unambiguous place.”
Which was very different from what I and scores of other Western men had experienced in post-feminist America. And so part of me rejoices upon hearing matrimonial vows that take seriously the “bonds” of marriage. Or smiles at a ceremony celebrating Holy union as a forever commitment instead of merely one that’s convenient.
That’s why seeing a bride dance with her father almost brought me to tears. And why watching someone carry the cord to “bind us as one” inspires my inner cheers.
Here’s what I wrote in a brand new book due out next week. “You haven’t really experienced a wedding until you’ve been to a Filipino one. What does it all mean? Simply that in a land where divorce is illegal, well, the damn wedding better impress.”
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino” is scheduled for release on January 26. A former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning author, journalist and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.