Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Not-so-Chinese Wedding

The very happy couple
This past weekend we went to Inner Mongolia to attend the wedding of a friend from Yangzhou.  I was happy to hear that she was getting married because even 8 years ago in Yangzhou she was wanting to marry but didn't know if she would find the right guy.  Well, she finally found the right one - a Nigerian man who was teaching in her city!  I was interested to see what their wedding would be like.

We took an overnight train and arrived at 4:30am after very little sleep.  Fortunately, since many people in China travel by overnight train, most hotels will let you check in early in the morning.  Usually not 5am early, but the receptionist had pity on us, so we were able to settle in and get a few more hours sleep.
Our yummy fish stew
My friend was planning to meet us for lunch but she had too many last minute things to do, so she had us meet up with two of her friends who had just come in from Beijing.  They were very nice (and relieved that we spoke Chinese!).  Instead of Inner Mongolian food, we ended up having some kind of traditional Northeastern food I hadn't had before - a big stew cooked in a pot on your table.  The table itself was stone with a fire in the middle.  The waiter came around and added ingredients to the stew and wood to the fire.

At the end of the meal, the girls said they would be going to a rehearsal later today, but they weren't quite sure when or where.  We were wondering where we need to go tomorrow for the wedding, so they both ended up on their phones calling around to see where exactly the wedding was supposed to be.  Fortunately it turned out to be just across the street from our hotel.

The next morning we dressed Juliana in her pretty dress and headed across the street.  Most Chinese weddings are just a banquet with some different rituals included, depending on the part of the country, but the first part of this wedding would be a Christian ceremony similar to American tradition.  A meeting room at a fancy hotel was decorated and chairs were arranged alongside a red-carpeted aisle.  As we came in we were handed small bags of candy, traditional Chinese wedding favors, and a program.  We noticed a poster-sized picture of the bride and groom in traditional wedding photo pose.
The bridesmaids in their fancy white dresses
The wedding started with a procession of the bridal party, the leader announcing each person as they came down.  Leading the group was a 7-8 year old flower girl and flower boy.  They both carried baskets of paper hearts they scattered down the aisle with the help of a mother or aunt who walked along coaching the whole way.  Then came the bridesmaids, all dressed in fancy white gowns, impressive hairstyles, and lots of makeup.  One of the bridesmaids was someone I think I had met a few times in Yangzhou but I really couldn't remember her at all.  Of course, when people get that made-up they tend to look radically different from their normal-life selves.  Finally the bride was escorted down the aisle by her father.  She wore a surprisingly simple and beautiful white dress and veil.  Based on my wedding dress shopping in China, I'd say the commonly applied clothes adage "pretty+pretty=pretty" is only multiplied for wedding finery, so I was surprised to see a dress without large bows, fabric flowers, sequins, or crinoline.
The bride enters with her father
The ceremony was really surprisingly similar to an American wedding.  Everyone sang some songs and the pastor spoke about marriage.  He seemed to spend a lot of time talking about the wife's duty to obey her husband and the couple's duty to continue to care for their parents.  For the sake of the groom's Nigerian friends and a few other foreigners, someone translated most of the wedding into English.  The bride and groom shared their vows in both Chinese and English, exchanged rings, and after lots of prodding, kissed.  The bride and the groom sang a couple of songs for us.  If there is anyone who loves public singing more than Chinese, it may just be Nigerians.
The couple singing together
As in any kind of Chinese ceremony, people talked amongst themselves a bit, but overall the audience was much more attentive than usual.  At least the adult portion.  The kids ran around in the aisle collecting and throwing paper hearts.  Juliana sat on the floor by my chair tearing up all the hearts within reach until an aunty gave her a piece of chocolate.  The aisle was lined with little pillars topped by flower arrangements.  Unfortunately the pillars weren't steady enough to withstand the assault of small children and one behind us was knocked over, depositing the flower arrangement right on my head.  During the middle of the ceremony a small todder wandered up on stage.  The bride smiled and patted his head, and after a few minutes he wandered back off.  I appreciate some decorum and solemness but I can't help but enjoy the relaxed attitude most Chinese have toward children.  They are readily accepted into most parts of life; if they make a little too much noise or run up on stage in the middle of a wedding, it's just not that big of a deal.

Afterward they ask several family and friends to come up and give blessings.  A few days before my friend had said, "Hey, you could say something at the wedding!" and I said, "Um, ok."  So fortunately I had a little advanced warning to find some (hopefully) appropriate things to say.  In a strange turn of events I spoke in Chinese while someone translated me into English!

After the ceremony everyone wanted to get pictures with the bride and groom, then we headed over to the restaurant for the wedding banquet.  We were very surprised to find the banquet was going to be held at a Brazilian barbeque restaurant!  It didn't really seem Chinese or Nigerian, and it certainly wasn't traditional, but it was good.  We helped ourselves to a buffet style mix of Chinese and Western food and then waiters came around to the table and cut off pieces of meat - rib, bacon, tongue...  The especially funny part about this restaurant, a chain we went to once in Weinan, is that the whole restaurant is German themed!  I'm not quite sure where that fits in.

As we ate the bride and groom went around to each table, accompanied by a bridesmaid with a microphone.  They toasted all the guests and the guests said a wish or blessing for the new couple.  In much of China, instead of giving gifts guests bring money in special red envelopes.  A friend from Inner Mongolia had warned me that in her hometown they just forego the red envelopes, though - a bridesmaid waits at the door to collect your money and write down the name and amount in a large book.  This makes it easier to know how much you need to reciprocate later.

I didn't get to see too much of my friend during the weekend.  I expected she would be busy with the wedding, but she really wanted us to come over to their new home after the wedding to visit.  Unfortunately our train left earlier than she thought so by the time the wedding festivities were over, there wasn't enough time.  I was still glad to be able to attend her wedding though.  In a few months we will attend the wedding of another Yangzhou friend - one I expect to be much more traditional.   I am glad to have these friends that I have known for almost 8 years now and have been able to keep up with since we have parted.  Once you become close to someone in China, you have a friend for life.


Mallary said...

I think it's great that you have an 8-year friend in China, and I am so glad you could attend her wedding!

Allison said...

I love reading about all of your adventures. Your life is certainly different than most friends. Love what you're doing. And I echo what Mallary said, crazy that you have an 8 year old friend in China!