Never before had Rachel Yang responded to a Facebook message from a guy she didn’t know, but something about Chris Antoun “just seemed so warm and approachable.” And looking at his photo, the U-M grad student recalls, she liked his “beautiful blue eyes.”
Chris–now also a U-M grad student, but then newly back from the Peace Corps in Thailand–had never before approached a woman online. But seeing Yang’s photo on a friend’s Facebook page, he recalls thinking, “She just looked very stunning.”
Rachel not only got a good feeling from Chris’s note, but she too had just returned from living in Asia. She answered his message and soon the two, living two hours apart in Virginia, were seriously dating.
Last summer, four years after that first exchange, they were married, at Cobblestone Farm. Both thirty-one, they will spend their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple in Ann Arbor this month.
While their meeting was pure twenty-first century, Chris’s proposal was dreamily traditional. On the terrace of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he bent on one knee and nervously offered her a sparkly platinum-and-diamond engagement ring. Rachel was so overwhelmed she can’t recall exactly what he said–a “combination,” she thinks, of “You-make-me-happy-I-want-to-spend-my-life-with-you”–but her acceptance came quickly. Hugging each other, they didn’t realize immediately that people were watching them–and applauding.
In many ways, Chris and Rachel typify a young professional couple of the twenty-first century. Like most of their friends, they weren’t interested in marrying right out of college, preferring to take time for travel and career explorations. Neither saw their ethnic differences–Rachel’s mother is Taiwanese, and she has a strong connection to that culture–as an obstacle. Without strong ties to a church, they chose to be married by a secular “officiant”–in their case, Rachel’s uncle. And though both were children of divorce, they didn’t hesitate on their own way to the altar. That, too, is typical, says Stephanie Fox, a local officiant: “All my friends were children of divorce, and they’re getting married like gangbusters.”
Chris’s grandfather was Lebanese, but the small town in Pennsylvania where he grew up was pretty homogenous. He says his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer (he helped set up AIDS programs in Thai schools and taught English) broadened his “cultural awareness.”
A onetime cheerleader from Falls Church, Rachel took a break from James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley to move to Taipei, where her sister, ten years older, had settled with her husband. Fluent in Mandarin, which she spoke at home with their mother (their father is Caucasian), she quickly landed a coveted job recording books and magazines in English. “I know how to manipulate my voice,” she says. “You’re in the sound booth with headphones on and you had to be dynamic and goofy, and I had a really fun experience.”
As an “ABC” (American-born Chinese), Rachel says she attracted considerable attention from men in Taiwan, but romance was low on her list of priorities. More important was “a draw and a pull to a culture that was mine but also foreign.”
When she and Chris “met” online, she was completing her degree at James Madison in Harrisonburg. He had just started a job in Richmond. The Facebook friendship led to emails, which led to phone calls, which led to several coffee dates, which led to weekend visits.
About three months after they met, Rachel recalls, she told her mother that “I thought he was the one. She took it really seriously–I had never said anything like that before.” Quieter than Rachel, Chris recalls his surprise at how things “kept working out so well.” He found her “nice and interesting” on email, “warm and engaging on the phone. At every stage it kept getting better.”
Chris’s parents divorced when he was very young; he remains close to both, who “are happily remarried.” Rachel’s parents divorced when she was two. She has no memory of her father, and says she didn’t feel his absence growing up.
“Whatever happened to a generation before us was beyond our control,” she says. “I think love is very powerful, and most people want to be optimistic about it.” Chris agrees: “We’re not naive,” he says. “But we’re optimists.”
In 2009, after a year and a half of commuting between Richmond and Harrisonburg, Rachel finished her undergrad degree and moved with Chris to Ann Arbor. He is now in the second year of a PhD program in survey methodology. Rachel works part-time for the U-M’s Confucius Institute (which promotes the arts and culture of China) while working on a master’s degree in higher education administration. Living in an apartment near campus, they bike or walk to classes.
They felt so at home in Ann Arbor that they chose Cobblestone Farm as their wedding venue. Though Rachel and her wedding planner researched every detail, she says, she and Chris managed to keep things in proportion: “We never lost sight of what was most important–our ceremony. It wasn’t in a church, but it was very solemn to us.” Their vows were traditional. “We didn’t add any cute or funny parts. We recognize the gravity and the seriousness.”
After the wedding, the couple went to D.C., where they had a Chinese-style reception for Rachel’s mother and her Chinese American community (Rachel wore a traditional red dress). They honeymooned in Belize, where they learned to scuba dive and explored its fabled coral reefs.
Chris “has a thirst for learning and knowledge, and he’s not tentative about getting something he wants,” says Rachel–“whether he wants to pursue a PhD program or sees a photo on the Internet of someone he wants to know.”
Chris is amused that the couple met the only time either sought out a prospective partner online. But Rachel points out that their mutual Facebook friend was both a high school acquaintance of hers and a college classmate of Chris’s. “I believe things happen for a reason,” she says.