Video Rising, 8(3), 3-7, 18, 1996.

Teaching American Cultures with Wedding Scenes from The Deer Hunter

Johanna E. Katchen

Chinese students on Taiwan believe they know quite a bit about American culture from the media and from friends and relatives who have visited or lived in the United States.  However, the idea of only one American culture is actually inaccurate; within it there are many subcultures.  Some EFL texts include Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others who "look" somewhat different from the stereotypical "white" American.  Students may think Americans of Italian, Jewish, Scandinavian, Lebanese, and other European and Middle Eastern backgrounds look similar, but their behaviors and values may be quite different from each other and that of the "general" American culture. 

It is our purpose here to show how we use a video clip of a wedding ceremony of Rusyn (mixed with Ukrainian and Russian) Americans with Chinese students in Taiwan to illustrate how even among "white" Americans, there may be cultural differences.  The Deer Hunter (EMI Films, Inc., 1978) was chosen because it was easily available, because it showed something of the ethnic group of which this author is a member, and because wedding ceremonies, though a more superficial aspect of culture, are at the same time appealing and non-threatening to university undergraduates.  Moreover, easily observable outward differences can serve as a springboard to discussion of deeper values.  This lesson could easily be adapted to EFL students in other countries.

Pre-Teaching Questions

Have you attended any weddings recently?
 Do you like to go to weddings?
 What part do you like best?  

Defining a Typical Chinese Wedding

Ask students: 
Imagine this situation. You have a foreign friend here and this person has been invited to a local wedding next week.  S/he is curious about what will happen and how s/he is expected to behave.  With your partner, make a list of the things that happen at a typical wedding here (on Taiwan), all the things that you think your foreign friend should know. If you and your partner disagree or think of variations or different possibilities, please include them.

After 10 minutes solicit ideas from students and make a list on the board, discussing and asking questions as you go.  We soon discover that even people from neighboring counties have slightly different rituals or interpretations of what the rituals mean. 

Defining a Typical American Wedding

Ask students to look at the list of activities at a Chinese wedding and, with a partner, try to think of ways that American weddings they have seen in movies or heard about are different.  After students finish their lists (about 10 minutes), ask the class for differences and put them on the board, making a second list.  Here the teacher has an opportunity to point out both the differences and the similarities between Chinese and western customs.  For example, in Taiwan money is given in red envelopes and the amount each person gives is public information.  In the US, while some people still give gifts, many guests give money, but the amount is not public information, presumably to avoid embarrassing guests.

Discovering the Hyphenated-American Wedding         

Ask students: 
Do you have any relatives or friends living in the United States?  
Did any of them get married there?  

What kind of wedding did they have?  Which parts were Chinese, which parts were American?

Why didn't they have a completely Chinese wedding? 
Why didn't they have a completely American wedding?

When these couples' children grow up, what kind of wedding do you think they will have?  Why?

Some of the following ideas should emerge from the discussion.  Just as Chinese-Americans mix parts of Chinese culture with parts of American culture, so peoples from other countries have done the same.  While in many cases we can speak of a general American culture, there are also many sub-groups and variations.  Thus if the couple feels strong ties to their ethnic group, their wedding ceremonies may reflect a mixture of customs from their ancestors' homeland and those of general America.

SCENE 1--The Church Ceremony

Tell students: Now you will see a video clip of part of a wedding ceremony from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter.  It's a long film about the Vietnam War, but at the beginning one of the main characters gets married.  First we are going to see part of a church ceremony.  The place is Western Pennsylvania.  As you watch, note what you expected to see in an American ceremony and also the things you didn't expect to see. [WATCH CHURCH SCENE,  0:23:37 - 0:29:32]  

Ask students: 
What was similar to our typical American wedding? (e.g., church, white dress, formally dressed guests, throwing rice as symbol of fertility)

What was different? (e.g., look of church, language of singing, dress of priest, procession with crowns BUT the language of the vows was English.)

Do you think these young people would understand the language of their grandparents?  (probably not, though they may know a few words)

Explain:  The people portrayed in this scene are first and second generation Rusyn Americans (see The Carpatho-Rusyn Americans) mixed with Russian and Ukrainian Americans whose ancestors arrived in the US between about 1895 and 1925 to work in the steel mills and coal mines in and around Pittsburgh.  This type of wedding ceremony, lasting from one and one half to two hours, is typical of those performed in Orthodox and Greek (Byzantine) Catholic churches around the world, no matter what the language.  In the US, English predominates now in church services, but the music and traditions remain for the most part the same as they were when the immigrants brought their language and religion with them to their new homes.  From that time and even today, the church was the one place people could go to meet people of their own ethnic background, speak their language, and share their traditions.  Thus the church not only served a religious function, but it also served a social function as well.

SCENE 2--The Reception

Tell students: Now you are going to see the second part of this wedding-- the reception (dinner).  Where do you think it is going to take place?  In their home?  In a restaurant? What kinds of activities do you think you will see?   Let's make a list on the board of what you think you are going to see.  In the excerpt you will see, the guests have already eaten a full meal and are now really enjoying the wedding.  As you watch, write down all of the things you see people doing.  Notice in particular the things you didn't expect to see.  [WATCH RECEPTION SCENE, 0:29:32 - 0:49:15]  [NOTE: This is a very long scene.  You may want to use only a portion of it to illustrate live music (orchestra), dancing, drinking, eating, flirting, fighting, attendance by children, bride throwing bouquet, etc.          

After viewing, ask students to list on the board all the things the guests are doing.
What were they doing that they don't do at a Chinese wedding reception? 
Whose pictures were on the walls?  What was written on the banner?

Did you see people doing anything in this video that they didn't do in our list of activities for the typical American wedding?  What?  

Explain:  Though these people enjoy some of their "foreign" customs, they are patriotic Americans.  This theme is also important for the film, as the groom and two members of the wedding party are soon going off to fight for their country in Vietnam.

The music is not American but Russian/Ukrainian, as are the dances.  However, the bride's throwing her bouquet of flowers is American; only the unmarried girls line up to try to catch it.  The girl who catches the bride's bouquet is supposed to be the next one who will marry.  Finally ask:  Do you think the guests are enjoying themselves?  Would you yourself enjoy such a celebration?  Why or why not?

Cultural Commentary

Ceremonies are a time and place where people express their identity.  In the US this is especially important because, with the exception of the American Indian, everybody's ancestors were immigrants.  Early immigrants (the English, Scots, Germans, Dutch, Irish--basically Northern Europeans) determined the course of the common culture.  Later immigrants either adopted the common American culture completely, particularly after one or two generations, or they became hyphenated Americans--the Rusyn-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc.  While generally blending in with the common American culture, they have kept part of their original culture, most often in the form of foods, religious ceremonies, family traditions, and even basic values and thought patterns in some cases.  

Although in the past, American was regarded as the big "melting pot" where immigrants were supposed to get rid of their foreign (and it was assumed backward) ways and become American, more recently attitudes have changed and now many people take pride in their ethnic heritage.  Among the many freedoms Americans have is the right to express and live their own ethnic identity, to be hyphenated Americans if they so desire and to be proud of it. They can celebrate their weddings and other rites of passage in any way they like (as long as they don't break the law).  This diversity and acceptance of diversity is an essential and exciting part of American culture or, more correctly, American cultures.

We could bring the lesson to a close by asking students how important they think it is to understand and be proud of their heritage and how they reconcile old traditions with a modern world.

Key Vocabulary

The couple to marry are the bride and (bride)groom.  

Their assistants or witnesses are the maid-of-honor (unmarried, or matron-of-honor if she is married) and the best man.  

The other members of the bridal party are bridesmaids (female) and ushers (male).   A bridal party may also include a flower girl (little girl carrying flowers) and a ring bearer (little boy carrying the rings on a small pillow).  

Reference Materials

Live, A.H. & Sankowsky, S.H.  (1980).  American mosaic.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Magocsi, P.R.  (1989).  The Carpatho-Rusyn Americans.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

O'Callaghan, B.  (1990).  An illustrated history of the USA.  Longman.

Ware, T.  (1963).  The Orthodox Church.  Penguin Books.

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