Last weekend was going to be just another laid back weekend spent in and around the expert village. No big plans. Nothing exciting going on. At least none that we knew of.
Yeah, we never know of anything exciting going on because no one ever thinks to tell the fairly significant population of laowai that things occasionally do happen here. Do our hosts — the company that is employing said laowai — think we don’t care about our adopted home turf? Or, do they just not want us to participate in the goings on of the community? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and lean towards the former explanation but, let’s face it, it’s the latter.
You — I — would think that a company that sponsors so many foreigners would do more to bridge the cultural divide that exists between the Chinese and Western employees. The bridge gets crossed regularly, but at the individual level. There is no human resources campaign being waged by the company’s politburo that encourages its employees to establish meaningful relationships with their foreign counterparts who will be here for a not-so-insignificant amount of time.
Fortunately, we are able to obtain some information from the Chinese spouses within the expat community who have a little guanxi with Chinese employees at the power plant or those within the village (in case you forgot, the village is owned and operated by the company building the power plant). Even though this information is normally passed on to us laowai at the last-minute it’s better than nothing.
A just in time text on Saturday morning about a group wedding meant we could drop what we were doing (nothing) and attend. The fact that the wedding took place in the village soccer field meant we could show up just as the event got underway. The dozens of Chinese and handful of laowai amateur photographers meant I could snap picture after picture without standing out like the uninvited sore thumb I knew I was.
From a distance, the group wedding seemed chaotic with friends and relatives of the happy couples milling about the soccer field while professional videography and photography staff dressed in purple polos diligently followed the happy couples around. But it was a highly coordinated affair. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Chinese, it’s that they don’t leave much to chance. There is always an agenda and always some conductor orchestrating the scenes.
Out on the field it was the ladies dressed in blue pantsuits, pulling one couple into the circle of nuptials and rushing another out. Within the circle, marked by pink balloons and white and red flower arrangements, each groom took a knee and professed his love to his bride and asked her to marry him. When she accepted, he rose, they embraced, and then it was on to the next couple.
For the procession, it was a very sweaty guy who was often on his phone and who was obviously very annoyed at the uncooperative little kids leading the march down the aisle.
The bridal attendants in bubblegum pink dresses kept things moving on the aisle where they tossed red-orange flower petals over the couples who stopped just before the stage to exchange rings under a pink and white draped gazebo.
On stage it was the Chinese Vanna White in her siren red satin dress complete with silver bedazzlements and her young counterpart looking dapper in a light blue short-sleeve button up adorned with a black bow tie.
No American wedding I’ve been to (mine included) could match the pageantry of this group wedding. There were speeches. Of course there were. There are always speeches at Chinese events. Several were given by the snazzily dressed MC’s, two were given by underwhelmingly dressed bosses from the company, and one heartfelt speech was led by one bride and groom with the other couples joining in at times.
Another couple poured bottles of champagne into artfully stacked glasses that to my knowledge no one ever drank. A talented bride and groom, accompanied by two randomly dressed people, sang as the couples in the background swayed their arms back and forth over their heads.
The grand finale involved bubbles that magically floated up and away from stage left. Fireworks exploded not once but twice from the front. The couples kissed. Pink and purple balloons were released into the clear blue sky and watched with awe and wonder by the just married couples. All while a curious mix of Auld Lang Syne and a cover version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” played three times in a row.
The wedding concluded with group photographs with the beaming brides and grooms and the staff who kept the event running smoothly. Then the couples joined their families for their own photos before making their way to the village cafeteria that is only open to Chinese employees.
Like most cultural events that I am privileged to participate in — whether as a welcome guest or creeping laowai voyeur — I left with so many more questions about this country then I’ll ever get answered.
Like, for example, why hold the group wedding? I understand the wedding was held for couples, twelve in all, who met at the nuclear power plant where they work. I guess office romances aren’t frowned upon here like they are in the U.S. This isn’t even the first group wedding to occur here in the village. It’s the fifth, though it’s the first that I’ve crashed.
But who benefits from the group wedding? The couples? Were their wedding expenses paid for by the company instead of by themselves and their families? What was their incentive to participate in the event? Did they have a choice to participate? Did it feel weird for the brides to wear stickers in the shape of pink hearts with numbers on them on their arms and dresses?
Judging from all the signs and banners posted that displayed the company’s name, it seemed like the wedding was part of a marketing strategy. Was this a goodwill event to show it cares about its employees and is here to take care of them as demonstrated by this movie-like wedding ceremony? After all, why else would the company shell out money for such an event (yes, I’m assuming it’s the company who paid for most of the shindig).
I’m sure in some ways it benefits both the young couples and the company, but the idea of a company sponsored group wedding is just so, well, foreign to me. Sorta like living in a village with all the people my husband works with five days a week. Will I get used to this type of lifestyle where the separation between work and personal life is not as separate as I’d like? Probably not, but I’ll deal with it while we’re here. But, for the record, while we are here, I’d also like to feel like a welcomed member of the community…and not just the expat community, but the Chinese one too.