Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chinese Wedding

Jamie made a friend at the primary school, Vivian, who introduced us to potato noodles. So great is her love for her "best friend" Jamie that she invited her to her wedding, which was today. Then she invited the rest of us. The boys chose not to go, not wanting to take the focus off Vivian on her day by creating a Circus of Americans, but there was no way on earth I wasn't going to this. I will, in all likelihood, never attend another Chinese wedding, so I jumped at the chance.

Vivian told Jamie that we needed to be at her house at 6:45. Since we've been in China, I haven't even gotten out of bed before 7:30, so this was something of a struggle for me. I ended up not sleeping all night, partly because of the insomnia I suffer from on a regular basis, but partly because I was wound up and terrified I'd sleep through my alarm.

Jamie and I wore "teachery" outfits, since that's all we brought here with us, though I lent her a pair of flats (it's the first time since we've been here that either of us have worn something that isn't sneakers, and it became immediately apparent why - right off the bat I started collecting grit and rocks in my flats. If that happened in STL, I'd likely just take the shoes off and walk in the grass, but in Fuxin, there is no grass, and even if there was, you couldn't pay me enough to walk in it). Turns out, we were among the best-dressed people at the wedding; we saw more than a few people in sweatshirts and jeans. To think we'd fretted over our clothes!

At Vivian's house, we were basically in the way. She wanted us right by her side (and, in fact, kept telling people we were her "best friends," which I found awkward, especially in light of the fact that her actual best friends were there), so we spent a lot of time either being in her wedding photos or dodging our way out of them.

In order to marry Vivian, her fiancé (whose name no one ever told me) had to get into the room by answering questions posed by her friends ("Do you love her?," "Will you take care of her?," etc.). Once in, he had to searchfor her wedding shoes. After he found the first one, I almost started laughing, because I thought he'd found the wrong shoes - I thought for sure he'd picked up a shoe she went out in in her single days, because it was pretty hookery. Nope, though. Those red suede shoes with the ankle buckles are totally the shoes she got married in. After putting them on her, he picked Vivian up and carried her out of her room and presented himself to her mother, which involved giving her a cigarette and lighting it for her.

From Vivian's house, her family, friends, photographers, Jamie, and I embarked upon a procession around the city. We were in the car for about a half hour, during which time I totally fell asleep for about ten minutes. I was glad, though, because I needed even that little bit of sleep since I had no idea how long a Chinese wedding was supposed to last (Google was of no use to me on that front). When we finally stopped, we were outside at Vivian's soon-to-be in-laws' building, where she presented her mother-in-law with the bouquet (and ended up getting it back?) and everyone was showered in confetti.

After that, we took a ride to the new couple's new apartment, which was enormous. This caused no end of speculation on Jamie's and my part, because Vivian is a teacher, and her new husband is a tennis instructor. Their apartment was huge by Chinese standards (unfortunately, I was too busy gawking to get any photos), and we figure the tennis teaching game must pay quite a bit; either that, or the apartment was a wedding gift (usually the bride's family helps set up the household, though, and Vivian's mother is a widow, so I don't know how feasible that premise is). I guess I would feel gauche discussing such things at an American wedding, but in China, people always want to talk about how much money other people make. At the apartment, there were several engagement albums with glass covers (talk about terrified! I was sure I would drop one), and a DVD of the photos the two of them had taken a few weeks ago. These pictures were pretty hilarious: Shots of them in "New York," "on the beach," in a "field of flowers," and craziest of all, they looked like white people. Chinese women are vain about their skin and do their best to keep out of the sun so they don't turn "yellow" or "black," and the retoucher of these photos earned every yuan they paid him. He must have completely eliminated any hint of yellow, because both of them had porcelain white skin.

After we posed with the couple, oohed and ahhed over the albums, and speculated about the apartment, it was time to go to the reception. Well, the reception hall. The wedding hadn't actually taken place yet, and once we got to our table, we probably waited an hour. You can tell it was a while by the pile of peanut and sunflower seed shells parked between our places. We didn't touch anything (soda, rice wine, sunflower seeds, peanuts, food) until someone else at the table did first, not knowing the custom, and there was a little awkwardness when the food was served because, as foreigners, I think we might have been considered honored guests expected to start the table eating.

Finally, the emcee of the event (who had earlier done a hilarious spot for the videographer at Vivian's house), came out and made an announcement. Jamie and I sighed, ready for things to get going, but we had to wait another twenty minutes. Finally, the groom came out and sang a song to his bride. Then she walked down the aisle (er, I mean "runway") and they were married. Instead of kissing, they hugged, which cracked me up. PDA are so frowned-upon here that they don't even kiss in public at their own weddings. After it was official, the two of them sang a duet. Apparently singing is huge at Chinese weddings, because Vivian had told Jamie and me that we were to sing. First off, only Jamie has a good voice; if Vivian had ever heard me sing, she would never have made such a ridiculous request. Secondly, it's not like we walk around knowing all the words to songs that are suitable for weddings. We had both been sick with sore throats all week, though, so we had truthful excuses for why we would not be entering Chinese Wedding Idol.

After the wedding part, food was served. As is usual in China, there was a huge lazy Susan nearly the size of the table, and servers brought out dish after dish after dish. Now, the only bad food I've had in China is, as you might imagine, cafeteria food. Apparently wedding food follows the American tradition as well, because this stuff was not good. It wasn't as bad as the whole turtle and plate of chicken heads we were served at the barbecue restaurant, but it just wasn't great food. We recognized nearly nothing, though we split a huge meatball that wasn't half-bad. Jamie said she was just going to keep telling herself is a meatball because she might be sorry if she started thinking about what, exactly, was in it. Sometimes that's a good strategy in China.

After dinner (lunch? Brunch?), Vivian returned to center stage in her Chinese wedding dress, which is red. She then threw the bouquet. Jamie and I were relieved when she called all her girlfriends up for that part and forgot about us.

Then, it was over. Done. We didn't know it, though we had surmised from the lack of a dance floor that no one would be doing the electric slide, but all the festivities were over. The actual wedding itself, which we had been terrified would take upwards of eight hours, was finished in less than three, food included. I looked around nervously and told Jamie we needed to keep an eye on the door so we could leave as soon as other people started to but not be the first ones out. We agreed that at noon, we'd make a break for it, but by eleven-forty, there was a bottleneck of people at the door leaving. Not wanting to say our goodbyes to Vivian then be stuck there awkwardly, we waited till the exodus died down a little. I had noticed that our area at our table was the only one piled high with sunflower and peanut shells, and as we left, I realized why: People just threw everything on the floor. As we scooted toward the door, my pants, which are a little big on me, dragged through the thin layer of beer, rice wine, and Sprite that covered the floor. I hopped from one foot to the other on the way out, hissing "My pants are wet! My pants are wet!" They were taken off and thrown in the laundry immediately upon entering the compound.

I certainly don't want to say that I find another country's custom's disappointing, but I think the big let-down for me was the fact that most of what happened (hidden shoes and red dress aside) was co-opted from contemporary American weddings. I guess I figured that a four-thousand-year-old culture would have long-standing traditions that would carry on to today, but what I was confronted with instead was a tacky American wedding made tackier by the presence of both a bubble machine and a smoke machine. I guess I'm supposed to appreciate the fact that technology has made our world so much smaller, and in terms of keeping touch with my family, I definitely am, but there is so much of America everywhere in the world it's like there is no wholly indigenous culture anymore. I was relieved to find, though, that the tradition of a ten-course meal (with the highest offense taken if a guest leaves before all the courses are served) has gone by the wayside, since I didn't get any sleep last night. I was ready to go home and take a nap.

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