A Wedding

December 15th, 2007

lzh left for the village on Wednesday 28, November to take care of all those little last minute wedding details, leaving my parents in Roubaozi’s capable hands for the day (I still had to work). The next morning, Thursday 29, November, my parents, Roubaozi and I piled into a taxi and headed for the 919 bus station at Deshengmen, where we met lil B, a friend of ours who would be helping with translation duties when lzh and I were too busy during the wedding. She would’ve been invited, anyway, but her good English and Putonghua meant she drew this duty as an added bonus.

Being a Thursday morning, the bus station was not crowded, and we got on a bus fairly quickly. I claimed the back seat so the five of us could sit together. Soon we were off, stopping at that absurd stop at Madian to pick up anybody who wasn’t bothered by the lack of a seat (really: Why does the 919 fast bus bother stopping at Madian on the way out? It’s very rare for anybody to get on once they’ve realised there are no seats left. Still, it’s a good stop to have on the way back in), then we were on to the Badaling Expressway proper. Once again, being a Thursday morning, the traffic was pretty light and we got across Haidian and Changping pretty quickly.

Now, I don’t see much on that plain stretch of the expressway, the run from Deshengmen across Changping to the Nankou at the foot of the mountains, that’s worthy of note. A couple of things, like the Chinese-style mosque to the right of the expressway on roughly the boundary of Haidian and Changping, or the failed and long-since abandoned attempt at a Disney-esque castle up closer to the mountains, but Mum and Dad seemed to spend the entire trip glued to the windows, soaking up all the could soak of Suburbia, Chinese-style. Fair enough, they’d only been in China a few days, and they were still very much in that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, wow, it’s all so new and cool stage. We were all like that once. The fortunate thing for my parents is that they left China long before that euphoric stage passed.

Well, we passed Changping town and suburbia started subsiding into that odd mix of villages grown together and villages joined up by rundown factories that exists on many edges of many Chinese cities, and then, the mountains. It was only a short climb up the valley, and a warning for me to keep their eyes peeled, and then they got their first sight of the Great Wall as we pulled in to the Juyongguan carpark for the safety check. Safety checked, we pulled out of the carpark and back on to the expressway, and under the Wall, climbing higher up the valley.

I had to explain to Dad that the other half, the southbound side, of the expressway was actually in the next valley over, the expressway splits in two halves as it crosses the mountains, and that’s why it had apparently disappeared.

We made our way up the valley, passed the Shui Guan section of the Wall, then hit the summit and started descending, glimpsing Badaling high on our right just as we entered the tunnel. And emerging on the other side, I turned to Dad and said, “We’re outside the Empire now.” Then we were down on to the basin floor and rolling in towards the county town. We crossed the Gui River over to Dong Guan, where we got off the bus. lzh, Ma and Ba were there waiting for us, and so both sets of parents met for the first time. We got the luggage and walked up to the hotel, the Xin Feng, at the intersection just ahead, checked in, got ourselves settled, then arranged for a miandi to take us off to lunch.

Lao Gu and Lao Gufu had arranged a large private banquet room in a restaurant overlooking the river, a room that was toasty warm with the midday midwinter sun streaming in. We got a pretty nice view across the river over to the mountains we’d just crossed, not that anybody was interested, we had more important things to do.

Well, lunch was had, conversations were translated, the two sets of parents got a chance to size each other up, then we made our way back to the hotel. There were still last minute things that needed to be done, but there wasn’t much us laowai could do but sit around and wait for our orders.

Eventually dinner time came and we made our way across the square to a restaurant, lzh, myself, Roubaozi, lil B, Mum and Dad, the bridesmaid, xiao Luo who was in charge of getting Roubaozi and I into the cars… On the way back we heard yangge being played in the square, so we took Mum and Dad down to see. Dad, of course, was interested in the instruments being played. Mum just looked frozen. But they got to see a small slice of northern Chinese folk culture that I suspect most tourists don’t know even exists. But Mum just looked more and more frozen, so I hurried us home for the night before we had a case of hypothermia to deal with.

Which brings us to The Big Day:

We got up early and went in search of breakfast. Unfortunately, the only restaurant available was The Worst Breakfast Restaurant Ever. Roubaozi and I had to try and explain that most restaurants serving the food we ordered do an infinitely better job. I mean, never before have I gagged on baozi. So we gave up pretty quick, left our barely-touched breakfast and beat a quick retreat to the hotel. Roubaozi and I got suited up (he was the best man) and we went downstairs to wait for the cars.

…and we waited…

The cars arrived half an hour late. Oh well. Xiao Luo stormed into the hotel lobby with a bag full of the flowers and the little labels that tell everybody who’s who. We were (very cruelly) told to ditch our scarves and overcoats. Look, it’s Yanqing in the winter. It’s bloody freezing outside (and that is the official meteorological term for the weather), and I don’t want to have to be chucked in the microwave and defrosted before the ceremony… Oh never mind, I’ll just obey orders and freeze. Then I deliverd their flowers to Mum, Dad and lil B, then Roubaozi and I were herded outside to the cars.

Audi A6. Nice. Damn, that was a good car to ride in. But we only had one Audi. The rest of the convoy was made up of five Passats, a minibus that turned out to be closer to bus size than minibus size, and two miandi for the stragglers. The Audi and Passats were all the standard, Party-issue black with black-tinted windows, of course. The cameraman, though, was stuck hanging out the back of a QQ to film us, but that’s ok, he got to be a cameraman because of all that nasty karma from a past life, and by putting him in a QQ we were helping him build up good karma for the next life.

Anyway, so we cruised out along State Highway 110, past the Shijinglong skifield which was busy wasting Beijing’s precious water supplies so rich bastards can play, out to the village. We took a slightly round about way through the village to get to the house, though, but that was necessary to make sure we could get the cars to the house and back out again. The village ‘roads’ are really very narrow paths, and there were a couple of moments when it looked like a courtyard wall would get a coating of Audi paint or we’d have to dig ourselves out of a cornfield (lzh’s family home is literally on the edge of the village). But we got there, the requisite fireworks were set off. When it was safe, we got out and went inside to pick up my bride.

Fortunately only the bridesmaid did the ritual resistance, refusing me entry. Fortunately, because I didn’t have all that money hongbao prepared to bribe my way in. But eventually I managed to get in to the room where lzh was waiting, hair done, made up, in her finery, and very sensibly with a fake-fur piece over her shoulders- that wedding dress wasn’t made for winter. The requisite tea and snacks were consumed, photos were taken, and then, according to whoever was setting the schedule, it was time to leave. Of course, I had to carry lzh to the car. Wow, that’s hardly difficult. Typical Chinese woman, she weighs about as much as a sack of potatoes (and still talks about losing weight). I deposited her in the car, got in myself, and then after much arranging and organising by xiao Luo and whoever else, we were off.

We cruised back down the highway. Damn, that was a nice ride, that Audi. Passing the slow trucks (the smaller trucks don’t go too fast, only the big ones) the driver put his foot down and we accelerated with that quiet, cool, calm confidence of a master craftsman. It was so smooth, so understated, and yet you could feel that quiet power pushing us along. Nice.

We went through the county town to Dong Guan, and then, instead of going directly to the restaurant, we went around the square, along the river road past the county government, then up a backroad and back down towards the square.

The fireworks were set off, of course, and the driver stopped and waited until we could pull up to the restaurant door without getting blown up. Out the window I saw my parents running for cover as if somebody had just opened fire. I don’t think they were expecting fireworks, and it’s been a long, long time since anything comparable to Chinese fireworks was sold legally in New Zealand. So we arrived, and as we got out of the car, we were showered in confetti and that spray-out-of-a-can streamer stuff. There were cameras and people everywhere, all with huge smiles on their faces, so many people, so many cameras, and so much happening that it was only watching the DVD afterwards that I got to see who, exactly, was doing what.

Well, fortunately I was not expected to carry lzh into the restaurant. She’s light, sure, but we had four flights of stairs to climb to get to the room we’d booked. We walked in to the room, and everything was ready to go, but first the paparazzi had to snap all their millions of photos while the cameraman ran around getting footage for the DVD. Eventually they were all done, and I managed to sneak off to the men’s room… well, the ceremony was coming up, and I’d drunk a lot of tea that morning.

And then disaster struck. Some bastard had stolen the CD from our sound system, leaving us no music for our walk up the aisle. After some hurried and harried attempts to remedy the situation, we just walked without music. We were stopped halfway by the MC, though, because the second half was us taking a ceremonial ten steps together, with each step marked by auspicious words from the MC. Then we walked on to the stage, taking care not to knock over the line of fireworks (more explosives?! INDOORS!?!?!?) separating the stage from the tables.

Well, it wasn’t so much a stage as that space at the front that was set aside for on-stage activities, like, you know, a wedding ceremony, just as an example.

Anyway, onstage was us, Roubaozi and the bridesmaid, the MC and his translator. There was a backdrop announcing the wedding of Christopher 先生, with my Chinese name 王博 in brackets underneath Christopher (it would’ve been nice if they could’ve written my full name, but whatever) and lzh, and featuring what is generally considered to be The Best of the wedding photos that we had done, four chairs waiting for the parents, a tower of champagne flutes waiting for the mysterious pink liquid that poured out of the “champagne” bottles, and a rather irritating bubble machine that was occasionally cranked up when some random person (whose guts I wouldn’t mind using as garters) decided there weren’t enough bubbles floating around us.

And for a goodly portion of the ceremony, I had a lump of detergent from one of these bubbles sitting right on my right eye irritating the hell out of me.

Anyway, so it started. The best man and bridesmaid were asked to give speeches, which were duly translated. We exchanged vows, first in Chinese, then in English. Of course, the exchanging of vows in Chinese was greeted by people shouting at us to speak louder, so that we had to shout out “我愿意 (I do)”. lzh did a very good job of that. A witness was called to certify that we are legally married. We were going to give that job to my boss, but he couldn’t make it, so lzh’s high school English teacher was roped in to witness duty. Unfortunately he wasn’t too sure about how to go about reading out our marriage certificate, and nobody had told the translator-MC about the change in witness and she didn’t hear the different name, or just stuck to reading the script, but nevermind, the witnessing was done, and the MC proclaimed that we are, in fact, legally husband and wife under the laws of the People’s Republic of China, as we had been for 11 months and five days already (and just short of one year, now). We had to bow three times to the guests in appreciation of their coming to our wedding, with each bow representing good wishes pronounced by the MC. The DVD scares me at this stage- there’s more skin visible on my scalp as I bow than I am entirely comfortable seeing. Fortunately all the subsequent bowing was done facing away from the camera. Then the parents were called on to the stage, and we had to bow three times to our respective in laws, me first. My first bow was to thank my in laws for giving birth to such a beautiful daughter. The second to thank them for the love they have given us. The third, well, here’s what the translator-MC read out: “The third bow is to assure you that in giving her to me you can relax, I will definitely take good care of her.” Then Ma gave me a hongbao, and the MC announced to all gathered (and random people within earshot range of the speakers) that she had given me a big, fat hongbao. Actually, the contents were pretty damn impressive for farmers who’ve been dealt a pretty raw hand in life. I would’ve been content with an empty hongbao- let the guests think the rites had been observed, but I certainly didn’t expect anything. Then lzh bowed three times to my parents. Her first bow was to thank them for giving birth to such a good son. Would you believe that my mother laughed at this? Gee, thanks, Mum. The second bow was to thank them for the love they had given us. The third bow, again, as the translator-MC said: “The third bow is to assure you that in giving him to me you can relax, I will definitely take good care of him, and do all the housework.” Alright, so maybe that one was translated by me… Moving right along: Dad gave lzh a hongbao, and the MC described for all the world how big it was. Then we did the ritual serving of tea to our respective in laws. Or did they give us the hongbao after we served the tea? Dammit, our copy of the DVD seems to be up in the village! Anyway, it continues: We then had to bow three times to our parents together, with each bow in ever deeper appreciation of them having raised us. Then came the ritual bows to each other: As the translation of the script says:

The first bow, noses touching, is called flying side by side. The second bow, eyebrows touching, is called husband and wife treating each other with courtesy. The third bow, heads touching, is called finding each other congenial.

Alright, so it’s a shitty translation. Blame me, I did that bit, and that shows you why I’m an English teacher and not a translator. Anyway, in each bow we had to do what was described, and so that first bow reminded the five Kiwis present (me, my parents, Roubaozi, and a colleague of mine) of hongi. And the third bow? Yes, the MC, with xiao Luo (the Loudmouth) cheering on from the sidelines, said that when our heads touched, there had to be an audible heads-banging-together noise. And they made sure they got that sound broadcast through the PA system- although I must admit xiao Luo ran on to the stage and hit the MC’s hand so the microphone banged against one of our heads. Yes, the first time was not satisfactorily sound producing enough, so we were made to do that third bow a second time with xiao Luo helping make sure a heads-banging-together sound was broadcast. Next up was us drinking the ritual cup of wine- red wine seriously watered down with Sprite, as I suspect is the current norm in China- with arms interlinked. Not easy for me to do with no spillage considering the 20-centimetre height difference, but we succeeded. This was followed by speeches from “representatives of the parents”, or my father reading a prayer and then a message from my brothers, sister, sister in law and nephew on behalf of himself and Mum and the rest of the family, and then Ma giving a speech on behalf of herself and Ba, with translations of course. The poor translator-MC had to translate the message from my brothers, sister, sister in law and nephew off the cuff- nobody had warned her this would happen, let alone given her a chance to write a translation, but even so, she did a brilliant job of it. Then it was the “champagne” tower- scare quotes because I have serious doubts about the mysterious pink liquid that came out of the bottles. I guess it was some cheap, but passable-looking (i.e. with a fancy label), sparkling rosé wine that had been reused several times already. There certainly wasn’t much sparkle left, and I did notice the flutes being carefully emptied into some receptacle or another before they were taken off to be washed. And that left one final step: the 全家福, the family photo with the parents sitting in front and lzh and I standing behind them. Photos taken, the fireworks were set off, and we were separated from the guests by a formidable wall of flying, balloon-popping sparks. Pyrotechnics safely burnt out, it was time for lunch… for all but the wedding party, at least. The guests got stuck in while I waited for lzh to change so that we could do our round of drinks pouring.

There was one little, odd, but appropriate reversal in roles, though: lzh’s parents poured my parents’ drinks and encouraged them to eat. Normally it would be the groom’s parents pouring the bride’s parents’ drinks. But how it happened at our wedding seems entirely appropriate to me considering my parents were in China for the first time ever and totally reliant on lzh and I to guide them through the culture, manners, rites and rituals.

Anyway, I was told by some, including Lao Gufu, who played a pretty big behind-the-scenes role in organising things, that I could eat if I wanted, but I decided to follow the proper etiquette and wait. When lzh was ready, her parents, Roubaozi and the bridesmaid supported us on our round of pouring drinks for the guests, which mostly consisted of either lzh or her mother telling me the appropriate title for each guest, me pouring each guest a drink, and moving on, with the others being little more than bottle holders and exchangers. That done, we sat and waited.

Y’see, it’s not appropriate for the wedding party to eat while the guests are still present. We had to wait for them to leave, and see them off as they left. But eventually…

…eventually we got to eat. By which time I was too thoroughly buggered to eat much. And I was having to fend off calls for some hard drinking from some of those involved in running things. Cousins in law, and so on. People who would’ve liked to have a drink with me. And that’s all well and good, but I was in no position to be drinking anything more than the one shot of baijiu and one can of beer that I had. I’d only narrowly escaped having to toast each table- well, thanks in part to in laws from north of the Great Wall, I can handle baijiu better, I suspect, than the majority of laowai, but with a minimum of eight and probably ten tables to toast, I would’ve gotten halfway and then collapsed in an embarrassing heap. I’m glad I only had to pour drinks and did not have to drink any. Anyway, all of us in the wedding party or organising things backstage got ourselves refuelled, we packed up our stuff, and….

…we walked back to the hotel. I guess circumstances necessitated a slightly unorthodox wedding night, what with eleven thousand kilometres of ocean lying between my and my bride’s homes. So back to the Xin Feng Hotel, with my parents and Roubaozi in tow (the bridesmaid having gone to her family home and lil B back to Beijing) for an afternoon of recovery.

Then dinner somewhere I can’t remember where, then an early night.

Looking back, I can’t see how I did enough that day to get so tired, but even so, it was utterly exhausting.

Exhausting, but so much fun. That’s what I love about Chinese weddings: They’re serious, but they’re not taken too seriously. This is not like a Western wedding with its very solemn, serious Church service followed, after the photos, by a banquet in which people are finally allowed to let their hair down. It’s a ceremony in which vows are exchanged, and that’s very serious and totally for real, and the rites are observed, and they are very serious and totally for real, but in which the people, guests and members of the wedding party, make sure they enjoy every step of the process. All through the ceremony, and through the DVD, but not as clearly, people can be heard having a grand old time. I think xiao Luo was the loudest- he can be heard calling out that I must be jealoous to death hearing the guests say lzh was beautiful, telling me that when I bowed my head must hit the ground, and making sure that we made a noise when our heads touched when we bowed to each other, and much, much more. A Chinese wedding is a serious, important, solemn ceremony, but it’s also a time to celebrate two lives coming together, and a celebration is meant to be great fun, and so the guests make sure everybody enjoys the ceremony.

In fact, right through the DVD and in all of the photos I have this big, stupid grin on my face, because I was totally enjoying all of it. The wedding didn’t go perfectly- there was that minor disaster with the music at the start of the ceremony, there were minor delays with the cars and the convoy, and we could’ve worked the translations and communication to Roubaozi and my parents better- but it went brilliantly well, and it was a grand time, a huge amount of fun. Exhausting, but great fun. I wouldn’t do it again (although we will have to do a Kiwi equivalent at some stage) but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m glad we did it.

Well, on the one hand, the Chinese extended family and friends are satisfied that we’ve finally done the rituals and observed the rites. Secondly, we have an anniversary that does not merely mark the wading through of bureaucratic red tape to gain a mere legal status- we now also have the cultural status and blessings of at least the Chinese half of the family, and an anniversary that marks something more significant than a mere collection of documents and red stamps, plus the DVDs and photos to back it all up. But here’s the important bit: We’re married in more than just the law’s and our own eyes. We’re married in the eyes of our parents and at least lzh’s extended family- and mine too, I am sure. We have to do something for the Kiwi side, sure, and we will, when the time comes, but now we are properly done. Properly husband and wife. And yes, we tried to mix a little of the Kiwi into our Chinese wedding, hence my father reading out a prayer. My parents are Salvation Army Officers, i.e. ministers of religion (pastors, vicars, priests, whatever word explains it to you), after all, and Dad’s prayer provided some Christian blessing to an otherwise traditional Chinese wedding, which was most welcome considering the mix of cultures and traditions this marriage represents, and considering my own (rather quiet) faith.

Comments are closed.