Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A REAL Chinese Wedding

I attended the second of my friends’ weddings last week. So I hear, all weddings are pretty unique these days, but I’m pretty sure this one is going to take the cake (rice pudding?) for years to come. Not only was it fun and interesting, not only did I meet a group of happy and garrulous people, but I also had the opportunity to experience the elusive REAL CHINA.

The wedding invitation specified that it was going to be a “Traditional Chinese Wedding” and requested that all guests be dressed accordingly. The ceremony was set for 4pm on Saturday, September 27th in the historic watertown of Zhujiajiao on the outskirts of Shanghai. Buses were to leave promptly at 1:15pm from People’s Square (for those of us without cars).

The groom, a classmate from Stanford, called me the day before asking if I’d like to bring a friend and whether I was SURE I’d be able to attend. I hesitantly responded, “No, I’m ok I think. And yes … of course!” As mentioned in one of my previous columns, the workweek extended for seven days last week. Saturday I was supposed to be working for eight hours. Luckily, we were asked to work from home that day, and no one s.p.e.c.i.f.i.e.d exactly what hours those were to be. Also, I knew no one attending the wedding, but assumed that if a few of my fellow alumni would be there then I’d be able to charm/self-deprecate my way into a group of new friends.

So, on Saturday morning I woke up at 5:00 to double-up my day. I worked for eight hours in the morning, then threw on a hot pink, over-wide but under-long qipao that I randomly had hanging around, stuffed a wad of cash into a makeshift “hongbao” (red envelope), and rushed over to People’s Square for the bus.

I grabbed a window seat at the front of the bus and watched the others board. As each person arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the local Chinese were dressed in high-fashion, brand-name, non-traditional clothes, and the foreigners and overseas Chinese were generally dressed in ridiculously bright, hokey qipaos and Mao suits. At least I wasn’t the only one.

I promptly fell into a deep sleep when the bus started to move, and was jarred awake X hours/minutes/days(??) later. The bus driver was angrily hollering Shanghainese into his cellphone while the rest of the bus nearly broke into a riot. We were in Zhujiajiao but the driver didn’t know how to drive directly to the site of the wedding. He ultimately left us off at the Zhujiajiao Kindergarten, turning off the engine and directing us all to leave and walk to wherever the location happened to be. Thank goodness I wore flats, I thought.

Off the bus and down the street, I followed the parade of silly foreigners and stylish Chinese. We walked to the closest bridge then turned left into an alley that led to stone lanes, scenic waterways, hawkers galore, and plenty of 4-foot tall, toothless, octogenarian onlookers. 200 meters away we could see the red lanterns hanging outside of a crowded entryway … we had found our destination.

The location for the wedding was a guesthouse that had once been a siheyuan (a traditional courtyard-style home). There was a front door leading to a courtyard, then another entrance into another building that led into another much larger courtyard, and on down the line. It was beautiful in that overly perfectly renovated Chinese way – stone walkways, white stucco walls, cherry wood trim around the windows, fishponds, ornate woodwork surrounding the doorways, I could go on. 4pm had almost arrived, though, and we were told to wait outside along the waterway until we heard the sound of firecrackers.

At this point I had already found the crew of college classmates – a bunch of aggressively friendly ‘00s and ‘01s who had traveled from all over the world for this wedding. Together we stood on the stairs of a stone bridge as the fireworks went off, a Chinese marching band of traditional instruments and clangy music strode by, then the groom in a marvelous remake of traditional groomswear (a red pointy hat, and a long, plastically-shiny red robe embroidered with dragons and other decorations) with a goofy smile on his face, then his best man in a similar, but yellow, costume holding a live carp, and finally the hot-red sedan with the bride inside. This wedding procession was symbolic of the groom having picked his bride up from her home, then escorting her to his home where they were to take up residence after the wedding.

I ran ahead of the procession back into the siheyuan where I took a place in the main courtyard just as the last of the thousands of firecrackers in the doorway went off. At the top of the stairs leading to the inner building sat the bride and groom’s parents. While I stood there, the octogenarians began to pour into the courtyard as well. I wondered, were they invited? Is it a tradition that the entire community is invited to weddings in the town? Of course, this wasn’t the bride and groom’s community – she is Sichuanese, and he is Taiwanese. Hmm…

Nonetheless, everyone else entered, and eventually so did the bride and groom. She stepped elegantly out of her sedan and into the courtyard. She was wearing ruby-red slippers reminiscent of Dorothy, and a headdress of epic proportions that held a magnificently embroidered (but also plastically shiny) cover over her face. The groom uncovered her face, and confirmed that she was his bride. The audience giggled. Then, the rest of the ceremony continued.

The ceremony itself is muddled to me, as I was too busy getting shoved around by the little old ladies. I did get to see the bride and groom give some tea to their parents, step over a little pot of fire, and eventually be led upstairs to the guest room by the groom’s father. He stood there, outside the door, apparently guarding and holding the key. All of a sudden a huge ribbon flew out of the window and landed on a very confused looking foreign guest – a blonde woman in a super-short, uncomfortable looking qipao who was standing next to her husband. One of my new friends elbowed me, “That’s the traditional Chinese version of the bouquet. I guess we missed that one.”

Meanwhile, we were asked to enter into the large courtyard where the dinner was to take place. As soon as we were asked to do so, the old villagers rushed upon the entrance, pushing the guests out of the way. “Let us in! Let us in! Give us candy! Give us candy!” One unlucky guest tried to protect the hongbao in his pocket while a pack of little, old ladies mobbed him and attempted to snatch them away. The groom’s sister came to the rescue, in qipao, up-‘do and all, slapping the ladies’ hands and pushing them out the door.

I guess they weren’t invited.

At this point, it was only 4:30pm and the banquet wasn’t supposed to start until 6:30. My new buddies and I killed some time by walking around the town, tasting a few of the local candies along the way, wandering along the endless stalls of preserved pork, deep-fried stinky tofu, scarves, hats, umbrellas galore, and renting a Chinese gondola to take us around the canals.

By 6:00, we were back to the courtyard and found our table. The groom had sat us all together – the foreign table of qipaos and Mao suits, his sister, and her Seattle friends. We all got on quite well, everyone was making fun of themselves, laughing at the groom’s silly grin with his pointy hat, and joking about the obviously dead and weighted carp that had been put back into the fish pond out front. The sister was giggling about her fake eyelashes and caked-on makeup. “They did this to me!”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Our wedding planner's team,” she responded. “It was kind of amazing, actually. We told them we wanted a traditional Chinese-style wedding without too many decorations. Although they kinda screwed up the decorations part last night, and the bride had a shitfit and asked them to all be taken down. But really, basically all we had to do was show up! They did my hair, my makeup, they found my brother’s silly costume, they found the carp, the location, the sedan, the band, everything.”

Dinner started soon enough, and it was obvious that the wedding planner had chosen the menu too. Alcohol was ginger-infused huangjiu (Chinese yellow wine), snake in a clay pot, stir-fried hacked-up soft shell turtle, at least five pork dishes (wrapped, steamed, fried, preserved, surrounded by peanuts), and a host of other similarly unappetizing but adventurous dishes. Actually, I am sure they were all delicious, I just so happen to have kosher tendencies and couldn’t stomach it.

Up front, one of the groom’s cousins served as emcee. He told funny stories about the couple, brought them onstage, made them play racey games with each other, and eventually led them to each of the 20 or so tables to do a toast at each.
At 7:45 the first bus was about to head back to Shanghai, and I was beat. Time to go. I grabbed my things, gave the bride and groom big hugs, handed my hongbao to the groom’s parents (uh oh, was I supposed to give it to both parents??), and then rushed off to the bus that was still waiting in front of the Zhujiajiao Kindergarten.

On the way back to town, I watched out the window. Zhujiajiao is surprisingly RIGHT outside of Shanghai. It took us at most 40 minutes to return to People’s Square. 8:30 I was back and it was time to go out for some real partying on the town - after I changed out of my plastically shiny qipao, and into a pair of designer jeans and stilettos, that is.