When we got married, we took the low-key approach. We eschewed the typical big day, big cost stuff and opted for a wedding that was us. That meant immediate family only, no dress codes, or long, drawn out nuptials. On a temperamental July day, we exchanged vows at sunset in one of our favorite Pittsburgh parks and then celebrated with dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant. Dinner was an appropriate choice given that we got married so that we could move to China together. It helped that we also liked each other and, of course, we were over-the-moon happy on our wedding day, just as we should’ve been. We never regretted the decisions we made for our wedding, though we certainly did annoy some by keeping the guest list light and waiting to spread the word until after the ceremony.
Basically, we did everything opposite the way most people do it back home. The same could be said for how the Chinese handle weddings, but more so, because a couple’s wedding day isn’t just about the bride and groom exchanging vows. A Chinese wedding is bigger than that. Much bigger. Weddings here are bombastic theatrical productions. The bride and groom may take center stage, but only for a little bit, as we recently learned.
After exchanging rings, the couple poured red wine into a tower of martini glasses and then jointly lit a candle on the other side of the stage.
Most of our fellow expat friends have attended at least one Chinese wedding during their time in Haiyang. Some will tell you they were invited because they were such good friends with a couple. That may be true in some cases. It’s probably more true that these particular expats failed to recognize the real reason behind their invitation. Ever the realists, we don’t fall into that category. We can admit to knowing why we were invited to our first ever Chinese wedding: we’re foreigners, and especially pale, pasty ones (though, we’d be even more of a novelty if we were blondes). We got to show up and look foreign for the benefit of the groom’s mother, who I’m tangentially acquainted with. This is a woman whose name I don’t even know and who I exchange a few friendly Mandarin words with every couple of days. She is my friend’s ayi and I mainly interact with her from a comfy seat at the standard issue faux-Ikea kitchen table that can be found in every expat’s apartment in the village. I normally sit there relaxing, sipping on coffee and chatting with my friend as this hard working lady bustles around doing the usual ayi chores of cooking and cleaning. I wouldn’t say we have a deep relationship, but, hey, I felt honored to be invited to her son’s wedding and was fine with being used for my foreignness. Really, it was a win-win situation: she got to look classy in front of her family and friends for knowing foreigners and both Iggy and I got to soak up a genuine, only-in-China cultural experience.
My Chinese friend (who did not attend the wedding) asked what I thought of this traditional, “home-style” Chinese wedding. This made me laugh. There were a few traditional elements scheduled into the afternoon affair like all the smoking and drinking and toasting (beware of anyone who shouts “gān bēi!” at these events). And, there were lots of hóng bāos or little red envelopes stuffed full of money that were delivered to the newlyweds.
As is custom, the bride (standing in the red suit), groom, and their parents stopped by each table to make a toast and thank everyone for attending.
Then there was the traditional lion dance that kicked off the whole event. The lion represents wisdom and luck and can chase away evil spirits. The dance is performed by one or more lions and is a blessing of sorts, if you believe what about.com has to say about it. But let’s be real — this is a surprisingly suggestive little number that doesn’t beat around the bush! The dance clearly foreshadows what will most likely happen on the couple’s wedding night. Fair warning: NSFW.
For the most part, the wedding was a sleek, modern production that was more akin to a televised variety show. It was complete with a saxophone-playing, joke-telling MC who looked like a Chinese version of the Beatles in their early years with his too-tight dark suit, shiny black shoes, and mop-top hair that I guarantee was permed and dyed. (This is a popular look for all the pretty, young metrosexual males in China these days.) He kept the day’s festivities rolling from his perch onstage, announcing the various entertainment acts, which included a group of scantily-clad girls who banged on drums that sprayed water with each offbeat stroke they made as the recorded music they were trying to keep up with blared throughout the banquet hall. Later, in a curious mixing (or mix up?) of cultures, the girls appeared onstage in Hawaiian luau-style garb and shook their bods to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”.
From my American point-of-view, the day’s various happenings verged on odd rather than romantic, sentimental, or even appropriate for the occasion, but they were undeniably fun. The wedding was sure more entertaining than ours, but we still have no regrets about our modest American wedding. The only thing we do regret is handing over a hóng bāo to a couple we’d never even met when it turns out that we should have been the ones receiving some money. To all my fellow expat friends in Haiyang and beyond, you should know that there’s a whole rent-a-foreigner industry in China that will pay for your participation in all kinds of events. Don’t believe me? Check out this brief, eye-opening New York Times OpDoc.
**Given the theme of this post, it’s only appropriate that I give a special shout-out to my sister and brother-in-law who are coincidentally celebrating their very own wedding anniversary today. Happy anniversary to one of the most fun couples I know!