Turnabout is Fair Play—Wedding Speech

by Michael Pronko

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do.

To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” T. S. Eliot


In my all-English literature classes, my students are tasked with adapting to another language, handling challenging materials, working with a different teaching style, and navigating a range of cultural assumptions. Rarely have they returned the “favor” of that experience. But there is one way—asking me to give a speech at their wedding.  

My first wedding speech was for a student who graduated seven or eight years before. When she asked me, I said sure, thinking it would be easy. But she wanted it in Japanese. “Oh, OK, no problem,” I stammered, locked in by pride. I’d given speeches on NHK in Japanese, at open campus at the university, and in faculty meetings. How hard could it be?

Very hard, I soon realized. What did I know about how speeches were given? I was sure that any Japanese wedding speech would be expected to follow a specific form and not deviate from that. But what was that form?

I searched frantically on the internet and found multiple examples of wedding speeches. Clearly, others had panicked before me. I surveyed the templates, unsure how to do things right. The speech types ranged from best friends to work bosses to my category, onshi, former teacher. I copied the phrases, looked up the kanji, and got to work. Are wedding speeches in my work contract? I don’t even have a work contract. Anyway, it wasn’t work exactly.  

And it wasn’t like any speech I’d ever given before. Japanese wedding speeches involve a perfect storm of formal language, ingrained expectations, and carefully scripted performance. There was little room to improvise and a lot of room to fill up. I didn’t see any way outside the strictures. Was the growing panic I felt the same thing my students felt before presentations?

The how-to websites also included a long list of taboos, cranking my anxiety up further. Wedding speeches must avoid words related to knives, cutting, death, or breaking things. I edited out any bad luck words that could jinx the whole marriage. It wasn’t easy fitting my jokey American looseness under the unsmiling weight of Japanese beliefs.

Friends fixed my grammar and corrected my pronunciation. I memorized it as best I could and practiced in my head, deleting some phrases I couldn’t get my tongue around. I recorded myself, listened, and tried again. “Try to give your speech comfortably, freely, naturally, without reading directly,” I tell my students. Or used to.  

On the wedding day, I tucked the final copy of the speech in my jacket and headed to the wedding hall. I fidgeted on the train, practicing in my head, feeling pinched and awkward in my white wedding tie, stiff shoes, and black jacket. In class, I usually dress more casually than most of my students. Was formality always about discomfort? Did I think that while living in Japan I could escape either one?

I also fidgeted with the thick envelope for the goshugi, the obligatory gift of nice, clean cash. I secured pristine, unused ten-thousand-yen bills from the service counter of a department store. Three bills would have seemed cheap, and four would mimic the sound of the Japanese word for death, another taboo. I slipped in five. I’d bought cars for less as a graduate student. I suppose it was a small refund on tuition. Or maybe it was my tuition.  

Sitting in my assigned seat at the front of the hall, the slick master of ceremonies, an attractive woman still dreaming of being an actress, came over to confirm I would be ready. She promised to call my name loud and clear when it was time for me to ascend the podium. I wanted to run through my speech one more time but didn’t want to appear desperate, so I waited inside my ‘sensei’ mask, already feeling on stage.

All around me, people chatted in polite, hushed tones, introduced themselves in formal language, and sat in their assigned seats staring at the shiny plates, cutlery, and table decorations until the bride and groom entered and the spotlights followed them to the seat of honor. Engulfed in such formality, such ceremony, there are only two choices—perform well or be shamed.

There’s nothing like a spotlight hitting you in a large hall to make your memory malfunction. I’d never given a speech to such a well-dressed crowd. Everyone sat in silent, rapt attention. “Be sure to prepare and practice enough,” I tell my students. I wished I had, but I didn’t want to embarrass my student, so I got right into it.

In the speech, I recounted a couple of anecdotes about my student, read a sonnet from Shakespeare that my student had printed out in translation for each table, and at the end, adlibbed a few comments in English, the language I use with students in class and out. I remembered most of the speech.

I think everyone applauded, but my ears were ringing as I bowed and sat down. My students don’t have the luxury of a drink after giving their speeches in class, but I didn’t restrain myself. Wait staff rushed over with a bottle in their white-gloved hands, and I downed a glass of champagne. Then another. I would never assign speeches in class again.

I wondered if my student, from her perch at the front surrounded by flowers, would award me points for effort or mark me down for my bumbled phrases, simplistic content, and panicky posture. And what did the room full of family and friends think? I gave my speech a B minus.

Sitting there drinking, recovering, and wondering why I hadn’t studied Japanese harder, I watched as the groom’s boss, a section chief at his company, got up to give his speech. He was nervous, too. I wasn’t the only one. But then, he pulled out several pages from his inside pocket, straightened his white tie, and started to read his speech!

I had spent weeks in bilingual despair, memorizing tricky syllables, mastering new phrases, and feeling my way through the fog of another language. And this Japanese native speaker was just going to read his speech? I would never try to memorize a speech again. And I never have.

But more importantly, once I quit fretting about my fumbling, I realized a lot more was going on at those weddings than following scripts, avoiding humiliation, and slurping champagne.

Template or not, wedding speeches are a testament, a confirmation, a guarantee. It’s a recommendation letter delivered standing up in a big hall. I stood up for my student on one of the most important days of her life. That was an honor I never expected to get from teaching. Or maybe I wasn’t a teacher there. Weddings are set deeply into the culture, wherever they occur, and might be one of its most exemplary expressions. Very much like education.

By inviting me to their wedding, they were bringing that cultural immersion full circle. Probably my students imagined that since I expected that of them, it would be easy for me to do the same. It isn’t. To be a non-Japanese giving a Japanese wedding speech is to be pulled far out of one’s comfort zone.

And that’s precisely the experience I want for my students. Discomfort is part of learning. I drop them into poetry, short stories, films, music, and novels—complex, culture-laden stories—and ask them to handle it all in English. Compared to that, a fifteen-minute wedding speech isn’t much.

Each speech has gotten more manageable, and I do get to see more of the wedding activities. After the speeches, a Japanese wedding involves a lot of eating, drinking, and talking. And taking photos. Those universals ease the pressure, though it’s still cultural immersion. I’m always seated next to one of the bride’s classmates who speaks English, a language lifeboat to keep me from drowning, but it’s still intensely Japanese.

Like university courses, wedding parties move from one pre-planned minute to the next. Food arrives in steady courses like classroom assignments. The groom’s parents introduce themselves, pour me a drink, and thank me for the speech. The bride’s parents circulate over to meet me. There’s the cake cut. There’s no dancing, but everyone shuffles over to take photos with the bride and groom in choreographed huddles—childhood friends, college friends, work colleagues, and family members. We’re all there.

The lights click off to show a video made from snapshots of the bride and groom from their birth through their schooling to their first date, more serious dates, and finally, the proposal and the wedding day itself. On-screen, it appears to be a straight-line progression from birth to marriage to the future. I’m there as a passing photo, a tiny sliver of their timeline, but just the same, I’m pleased to be in the story of their lives.

But after the video, when the spotlight returns to the newlyweds, is when my students really show me up. The most important speech of the day is the final speech from the bride. Standing next to her new spouse by the doors of the wedding hall, she delivers a final farewell speech to her parents. It’s always a tear-jerker.

Often the groom has to help hold the mic—or hold the bride—because she’s crying too much to stand and read. She reads her carefully prepared speech, really almost a letter, delivered as if she’s already far away. And it’s always a far better speech than I have ever given, or ever will give.

Let’s be honest. Teachers fake it a lot of the time. Sure, I deliver speeches, explanations, comments, lectures, encouragement, and feedback as part of my job. Academia is filled with words, it runs on them, but the words rarely arise from the interior of my being. Has the grind of teaching depleted my words of force? How do I replenish them?

Maybe by listening to my students. Their speeches are so full of emotion that it overflows into tears, flushed skin, and shaking inside their big white wedding dress. The bride’s farewell speech is an advanced lesson in channeling thoughts and feelings from deep inside. It’s a hope-filled lesson in how to express gratitude and joy and how to celebrate life and commitment. Do my words do that in class?

I’m always impressed that my former students, often so awkward in English, are so fluent in the language of emotion. Standing at the door of the wedding hall, those just-married students express something profound about their existence on the planet. What grade could I possibly give that kind of speech? It’s ungradable. Fortunately, I’m not there to grade. I’m there to participate, celebrate, and learn.

I always feel honored to be invited into the nexus of their stories, especially on the day when all the stories in their life come together. In the part of my story that I call “class,” I invite students into a world of written and filmed stories, and like a return gift, so important in Japanese culture, they ask me into theirs. Only theirs are real.

I’m pleased to be there as a person, too, not just an onshi, a former teacher. It’s like taking a bow at the end of a play, moving out of character and back into oneself. I play a teacher usually, but I like to return to myself at the end of the act. Of course, the champagne helps with that.

Giving a speech at my students’ weddings, my students give me something of theirs, something to take home other than the return wedding present always handed out at the end of the ceremony.

It’s a hard-earned gift, one I have to pay for with the sweat of my speechmaking. But that’s the best kind of gift. My students set me a challenging task, having learned, maybe partly from me, that that’s the only way to learn.