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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Thunderstorm Light Rain
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Double blessings: Weddings of two brothers connect modern Madison and traditional Tibet
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Two brothers marrying two cousins: Namgyal Tsedup, Lhakpa Dolma, Tenzin Thardoe, and Tenzin Youlo thank guests with an American-style champagne toast. Credit:Tenzin Tamdin, Sherab Lhatsang

Seeing Goodman Campus Hall bedecked with roses and balloons didn't surprise me, but I didn't know quite what to do when I was greeted by a traditionally dressed couple holding a carved wooden container (chendu), containing barley powder (tsamba) and barley grains.

I was gently instructed to touch the powder to my forehead, repeat the words of a short prayer for good fortune, good health and long life, then dip my ring finger three times into a silver goblet of barley wine, and flick it toward heaven to symbolize good luck to the couples for their whole lives.

Wild horses on the Tibetan plains couldn't have kept me away from this double wedding the weekend before last of brothers Namgyal Tsedup (East High class of '01) and Tamdin Thardoe (West High class of '05), who I'd known since they came to Madison in 1998. I'd been an informal sponsor of their mother, Tenzin Kelsang, and had seen how hard she'd worked cleaning hotel rooms days, nights and weekends for three years to bring her husband and four kids to join her.

Inside, a rainbow of colors on women's traditional aprons intensified the festive spirit. From his portrait at the head of the hall, His Holiness the Dalai Lhama beamed down on festivities from a make-shift altar. I no sooner took a seat than I was served a cup of sweet Tibetan tea and de sil, sweet rice cooked with coconut and raisins, to bring good luck to the marrying couples.

Smiling, jocular emcee Jampa Khedup, himself a brother of one of the brides, announced the single-file entry of the wedding procession, the parents of the grooms, followed by their two sons and their new daughters-in-law, Lhakpa Dolma and Tenzin Youlo. In reality, both young women were now living with their in-laws, having arrived from their Indian-Tibetan refugee villages months ago and even having weddings on that side of the ocean.

Sadly, the parents of both brides were absent, denied visas by increasingly stringent U.S. security restrictions. With a baby on the way, Lhakpa was especially disappointed, hoping her mother would be here for the birth.

The couples each bowed in front of the Buddhist altar, then took seats at the front of the hall on soft leather sofas. After various introductions, the emcee announced the beginning of the scarf ceremony. Hundreds of guests, Tibetan and non-Tibetan alike, lined up to drape soft, sheer kata scarves around the necks of each of the four newly-marrieds, left their gifts or wedding cards on a table, and wished them well. Tears came to my eyes as I greeted each, thinking of how far this family had come.

Parents Tenzin Kelsang and Migmar Dorjee still each work three, near-minimum wage jobs. Tenzin says that $7/hour isn't much, but if you have three jobs, it's like $21/hour. With Migmar's three jobs, it's like $42/hour, enough to buy a house, cars, big screen TV and to travel back to India occasionally to see family members who weren't chosen in the tiny lottery that brought them originally to Madison. "We work," she says. "We work lots. We work hard."

The room filled with Tibetan dialects, English, and Hindi, most guests likewise having been born or spent years living in India's modern-day Tibetan refugee villages. The emcee called selected forward to sing love songs in Tibetan or Hindi.

I was surprised to recognize the American custom as two identical wedding cakes appeared. The couples cut their cakes and fed one another amidst laughter and applause. Then hands reached out to pull me and all the other guests into a huge circle of Tibetan folk dancing. When I wasn't stumbling over my own feet, to try to keep in step, I admired graceful steps and stomps of older men and women who'd grown up singing and dancing hundreds of these old songs.

But soon old gave way to new again. The young women had changed from their traditional chulpa dresses into mini-skirts. Lights dimmed, strobe lights flickered, and the younger generation thronged to the floor to shake and shout to a DJ's American and Hindi full-volume disco.

All weddings are rites of passage, but at this one I saw Madison's Tibetan-American community in transition, having new wealth for elaborate celebrations, yet quickly losing touch with many customs that connect ancient and present-day Tibet, far away.

The success of Madison's Tibetan community as a whole is marked by new arrivals' success at finding jobs, bringing family members from India and Nepal, becoming U.S. citizens, earning a solid reputation among employers, establishing a Saturday school for children, hosting repeated visits from the Dalai Lhama himself, and raising funds to build impressive Deer Park temple.

But for this family, to host and honor hundreds of friends who shared their journey who were a part of the journey and to marry handsome sons to college-educated young women was an especially proud, hard-earned moment.

Namgyal is the oldest of Migmar Dorjee and Tenzin Kelsang's four children, and as he approached marriageable age, his mother began making telephone calls and even one visit to India, asking relatives who might be just the right future bride for him. Namgyal had once told me, "I'll marry the woman my parents choose."

With a connection through her brother-in-law in Delhi and more telephone calls, an understanding was created: Namgyal would visit India and meet Lhakpa. If the two young people liked one another, there would be no family objections to their marrying.

So in 2006 at age 26, not having been in India since he left as a 8th grader, Namgyal traveled with his brother Tamdin and this time, my sister and I. Unaware of the match-making, I thought it was a trip for them to revisit the three Tibetan refugee villages of their childhood, and to meet up with youngest brother Tenzin Thardoe, who'd enrolled in the Tibetan Institute for Thanka Art after graduating from West High School. But in Dharamsala, amidst the tourists and chanting monks, Namgyal met Lhakpa and her family and the real purpose of the trip dawned on me.

"In reality," says Lhakpa, "it took a full two years of e-mailing and talking to one another on the phone before we decided to marry. I kept thinking, 'Is he the one?'"

Tibetans-Americans in Madison are still largely marrying other individuals of Tibetan cultural background. With Tibetan refugee communities scattered across India and Nepal and other countries and now in many US cities, there are lots of possibilities.

As youngest child, no one yet had marriage plans for Thardoe. But he proved capable of his own research, shyly studying Tibetan-Indian beauties during his year at art school. When we traveled south to his old village of Bylakuppe, I saw he'd re-met Youlo, a childhood playmate. Amazingly, Youlo was a cousin of Lhakpa, further cementing tight family bonds. Wedding wheels rolled on.

"I cried when I left," Youlo and Lhakpa both said, of their leave-taking with families. "Everybody cried. There were so many tears." Family and friends lined up at wedding receptions before their departures, and the white kata scarves were once again in abundance.

Tears at weddings are nothing new, especially in the old days when the bride would seldom again see her family home. Rural weddings in Tibet may still take six days, three days at the bride's village and three days at the groom's, and are filled with words to farewell songs that Madison Tibetan-American youth have never learned, and customs that only old people remember.

But the paths that connect Tibetan refugee communities to another are still well trodden. When the wedding date was set, Tenzin and Migmar arranged a shopping trip to India to buy wedding paraphernalia not sold in Madison shops -- fur-lined wedding hats, a silver wedding tea set, yards of cloth to cut into kata, and lovely silk chulpa dresses and aprons.

Ten families helped with cooking, and the wedding table sagged with piles of braided white buns called tingmo, pork, lamb curry, fried beef, chili chicken, chow mein noodles, a spicy black bean dish called kalachana, 400 hand-shaped kapse and no less than 2,000 hand-made momo (meat dumplings). "I'll elope," laughed the grooms' sister Lhadon Nawang. "This is too, too much work."

As the moon misted over and disco music waned, the grooms and their new brides stepped out into the cool summer night, laden with kata, to give blessings and thanks to each departing guest.

On Monday, both brothers were back at work. Honeymoons aren't yet a Tibetan-American tradition. As they vacuumed or rang up groceries, I'm sure few who passed had any inkling of how many cultures, languages, and history their weekend traversed, in the Tibetanstyle double wedding.

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