Last Sunday I attended a wedding, thanks to the kind invitation of a colleague of mine, Ariel, who just also happened to be the bride. Although I was still recovering from a cold, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to experience an authentic Chinese wedding ceremony, so I gave myself a good dose of ibuprofen and, still feeling a little light-headed, joined a van of Japanese teachers to the festivities.
The wedding was held in the conference room of a local hotel, where a number of tables were set up for the guests. I sat myself with some of the fellow teachers from the university and did my best to make some small talk, which wasn’t easy considering that my voice was hoarse and most of my companions did not speak much English. (It was a pretty sad scene, socially.) I was a little concerned to observe a number of red envelopes on our table, designed to carry money for the bride and groom, and soon realized I had made a mistake in bringing a gift. (One major difference in Chinese weddings: money is always given.) However, since I was one of the only non-Asians in the entire guest list, I figured my Western appearance would serve as a convenient excuse for my cultural gaffe, as it usually does.
Unlike the American wedding ceremonies I’ve attended, which have at times been very solemn (and, in my opinion, slightly boring) affairs, this wedding was more like a party, complete with music and entertainment for the guests. The ceremony was opened by a cheerful hostess rather than a priest, who wore a shiny golden dress and cheerfully thanked everyone for attending. Then, even before the vows were exchanged, the bride and groom—dressed in Western-traditional tux and white dress—appeared on stage and began lip-synching to a pop song, with a bubble machine turned on for added effect. After the first verse, they were joined by the groomsmen and bridesmaids, who danced behind the couple while the happy hostess stood off the side, smiling. This was all very amusing.
After the song, the bride and groom remained on stage and introduced their respective parents with some tearful speeches (especially from the groom). Following this dedication, the parents walked down the aisle and joined the couple onstage, signifying the union of two families—rather than simply two individuals—that is inherent in Chinese weddings. The bride and groom then walked to the middle of the stage, where they exchanged their vows. Unlike American weddings, their remarks to one another were occasionally interrupted by an affectionate hug. When their vows were finished, they kissed briefly and engaged in one final, very tender embrace, which served as the natural climax to the event. (If I ever offer to hug anyone from China in the future, I must keep in mind the romantic significance of the act lest I get a slap in the face.) Waving to the audience, the newly married couple disappeared offstage, accompanied by their parents.
Next came lunch. Waitresses dressed for the occasion brought each table a seemingly endless amount of delicious food, including fresh (albeit dead) shrimp, pork, vegetables, soup, and, most memorably, a fried chicken with head-and-beak still intact (see picture below). As we ate, the bride and groom—the former now wearing a more traditional Chinese red gown—and their parents visited each table to offer congratulatory cigarettes and give small gifts to their guests in exchange for the money-filled envelopes. When they came to my table, the first thing Ariel exclaimed was, “Jeremy, what happened to your face?”, referring to the scar on my cheek from my squeezing a premature pimple the day before. (I’ve found that this culture is more blunt about calling out others’ appearances, where I’ve sometimes had Chinese friends and students tell me without hesitation when I need to clean my nose or remove the sleep from my eyes.) After explaining Ariel’s charming inquiry, she was to my relief very happy about my Western-style gift, and I accepted a nice embroidered napkin from her in return. “You look so beautiful,” I told Ariel as she and Jack, her husband, began to walk to the next table. “Thank you,” she replied, adding, “So are you!” As sick and acne-ridden as I looked, I laughed at this apparent attempt at humor.