One Third Coke, Two Thirds Sprite Spring, 2011
For the last six years before I came to China, all of my students at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago were zhonguo zhengfu guanyuan, Chinese government officials. Many have become friends, and I stay in touch with them as much as I can. This is about a wedding I attended recently. Michael, one of my government students, picked me up at school.
When Michael got married, in 1990 in the northeastern province of Liaoning, the ceremony was much simpler, he said. At that time, some rural people did not have much money, not even food to eat sometimes, he said. He had been working on a dam project in the south of China, and he took time out from that to get married in Shenyang. His bride was a college classmate, also from Shenyang. He graduated from the university in 1988.
He was happy to accompany me to Hangzhou to the wedding of Chen Yifu and his bride, because he said he learned some things about how young couples do weddings now. Michael is about 45.
There is no standard format to a Chinese wedding, just as there is none in the US, although there are some common features. I am not expert enough to know what is common and what is not, so I will just tell you what I saw.
Not having to worry about churches and ministers seems a really nice difference in the Chinese ceremony, compared with the typical American wedding. For one thing, it makes scheduling easier, since you only have to schedule one venue on one day. In general, that is a hotel or big restaurant. There are enough people in China so that weddings happen every day of the week, and are scheduled in some places like clockwork. Ten o’clock to twelve o’clock. One o’clock to three o’clock . Four to Six. None of the American standing around to see if the groom shows up, or if the best man is drunk or not. If you don’t start on time, you might end up marrying the next guy or girl in line for the banquet hall.
Chen Yifu is an interpreter in the foreign affairs department of the province, so he has a pretty sophisticated job. He has a lot of friends, and since he is only 29, a lot of people will want to be his friend for a long time. The banquet hall was full, and I figured that to be about 400 people. The usual friends, family, and co-workers. In this case, that included about twenty of the fellow government officials from IIT in Chicago. They came from Hangzhou, of course, but from all over the province, some from four or five hours away by car or bus or train. Did you know anyone from work who traveled five hours by bus to get to your wedding? Many friendships are deeper here.
The wedding is simply a personal celebration of commitment, and is a fun and happy occasion without the overlay of religious and moral depression. No one has to feel bad, or has to worry about the relationship between love for one’s partner and commitment to a body of religious dogma. You and me, babe. And nobody else.
Chen was happy to have his leader, the chief of the Provincial Foreign Affairs office, do a toast and little speech near the end. That really signals his importance, and his future prospects, and the importance of Party as family.
Before the ceremony, the room looked pretty much like a hotel wedding reception set up anywhere in Chicago. About 36 tables, ten people to a round table. Defined center aisle for the procession, and a raised stage for the performance.
There were some differences, though. The opening music was a progression of themes, from the old MGM movie opening theme, to the Carmen Burina music in the Steven Spielberg movies, the part where the bad guys are just about to roast the virgin, to the Star Wars opening.
After Star Wars, the lights dimmed, and the focus went to the big screen set up, where there was a five minute show of baby pictures and growing up pictures of the bride and groom, set to some decent music so that it was pretty fun to watch. And not just single picture after another, but each screen was a montage of shots, and some faded in and some out, as if it had been designed by someone who was not the brother-in-law. And then, to applause, the procession of the bride and groom, only. No best man, no wedding party, no in laws. They were already in the room, at the tables.
It is probably a waste of electrons to write that the bride was radiant, but its true. She had a big white dress with lots of petticoat like things and some silver spangles near the middle, to go along with her big dark eyes, and a big red rose pinned to the top. No strap, shoulder-less dress. Very pretty. She had a diamond tiara like headband that worked great with the dress and the eyes. Chen wore a tux with a flower in the lapel, and looked pretty sharp himself.
Chen and his wife, Hu Yuanyuan were the focus of attention, obviously, but they were also the masters of ceremony here. After the procession, they mounted the stage and with dual microphones, did some introductions and thanks and moved on to a serenade to each other, each taking a part and standing at either end of the platform. This is where all the Chinese singing practice comes in handy. Both had good voices, and were not afraid to use them. If I didn’t know them, I might have figured them for a new stage act. After lots of applause, they proceeded to another video piece, this time a sort of cartoon celebrating their parents, and how their parents were getting older, and how much they had learned over the years from their parents, and how even in their old age (Chen is 29 years old, so his parents might be as much as 55) they should take heart, because, in the last slide of the video, they should expect a new addition to the family some day.
There were stage flood lights on the couple, and video recording of the event, and it was well choreographed. There must have been some rehearsal for this, but I think the hotel people have done this before, so my guess is that if you give them cues, they can present the music and lighting very well.
Chen reached in his pocket, and gave Yu a ring, which he slipped on her finger, and she did the same for him. Not all people wear their wedding rings, even if they have them. Some couples do not have rings, or only buy them later when they have the money. The rings were the symbol of commitment to each other, and after that, the parents came up on stage and there were brief speeches by the fathers, and a brief song by the bride and groom to their parents, ending with a joint, wo ai nimen, which is I love you, from each of them to their parents and inlaws.
Other weddings I have seen have fireworks outside after the ceremony, sometimes pretty big ones, but Chen and Yuanyuan did not. There is a procession of cars, some with the same kind of paper flower stuff we do on cars in the US. Chen and bride stayed around for another hour or two. Ms. Yu had changed into another big dress, purple this time, with lots of petticoats and frills. They went around from table to table, doing toasts and offering guests a small gift, nuts or cigarettes. This was the picture and congratulations time.
The ceremony part took all of about 45 minutes, and it’s a good thing, because people were starting to eye the bottles of mao tai sitting on each table. Mao tai is the preferred brand of strong Chinese clear alcohol, pretty much like vodka. It is the drink of choice for early toasts, and later toasts if people can keep going.
I sat with seven or eight of the students from last year in Chicago, along with the provincial organization department representative, Mr. Wu, who sends Zhejiang Province people to IIT. Food was the Chinese version of pasta, chicken, and polish sausage that dominated weddings on the south side of Chicago that I attended when I was 29. Beautifully prepared fish, tender and juicy chicken arranged in a separate dark meat-light meat bowl, duck cut up and rearranged in pieces shaped to look like a flying duck, several vegetable dishes, nuts, intricately carved fruit, beautifully arranged shrimp, …. Okay, maybe a lot nicer than Chicago south side weddings in 1979. As you all know, everyone in the world tells Americans what bad food they eat, and the food at the wedding is a clear reminder that Americans have a lot to learn about good eating.
There were no flower centerpieces on the tables, which would be a problem with the food all sitting on the zhuan pan (lazy susan) on each table. But the center aisle of the banquet hall was lined with flowers in standing containers, each about four feet high. The tables were loaded with food, and mao tai, and then beer, and coke, and sprite. As you know, the toasts are a big part of the greeting and bonding at these events, and if it is a government related wedding, my guess is that the toasts are even more meaningful.
I sat next to Kathy Guo Chenglong from last year. Guo is smart and beautiful and has big eyes and long dark hair and a big and easy smile, and her English is very good and she is tall and imperially slim and dresses like a thirty two year old woman in business. Taller, more confident, and holds her head higher than people around her.
So it seemed a natural question- how does she, weighing about 100 pounds (45 kilograms), keep up with the after work business meetings three or four nights a week that she must do as part of the business of government in China? The mao tai stuff is really potent, and no one can drink this stuff for long without bad effects.
The first toast is usually to everyone at the table from the host of the table, and the liquor is that chosen by the person giving the toast. But after that, it is usually possible to make substitutions to beer or wine. It is difficult to avoid having something. But the mao tai is clear, and cannot be distinguished from water after the people around you have had a couple of glasses full, and beer, Guo said, looks pretty much like one third coke and two thirds sprite, and Shaoxing yellow (brown) wine can be approximated with other proportions, and my guess is that Kathy is an expert at that, and that is how she gets through the evenings. But don’t tell anyone.
Some of the guests at the wedding had come from a long way to attend, and did not want to go home right after the ceremony. You know about KTV, the ubiquitous karaoke palaces. We adjourned to one not far from the hotel, about 14 of us. It looked as if it would be all men, which was going to be a little depressing, but then three of our government official female students showed up, which made singing a little easier. Better voices, and more range. The women said that the men were a little shy about singing, and in some cases that is for good reason. Me, included. But I had to try, to summon the strength. Some of the men had good voices, but Mr. Wu, the organization department man, would not participate at all. Too embarrassed. He sat there, and enjoyed the show, but he didn’t make any selections for himself at the big karaoke song selection computer.
As the guest at the KTV event, I had to find a couple of songs to sing, and you know that is not too hard. There are hundreds of songs in English, but most of them are from this century, and my musical knowledge is from the prior one. And I never participated in any national day singing competitions, so my voice is perennially rusty. But I could find Desperado, and Edelweis, and everybody in China knows Edelweis, so they could sing along, and the words apply equally well in Austria, and China, and the US. And after about an hour, I dragged the provincial organization department head up to the front, and he sort of stood there while I sang Edelweis, and getting him involved was a good thing for the group, and for me, and I think for him. Get him out of his shell. I think that is my job in China. I was sort of the American Fraulein Maria, played by me instead of Julie Andrews, with Mr. Wu as Commander von Trapp.
The singing went on for a couple of hours, pretty much everybody taking a turn or two and joining in on others. The video backgrounds to each song are usually in keeping with the love seeking, love found, love lost themes of most songs. But three songs had inexplicable rugby scene videos as part of some kind of love song, with Chinese rugby players, and the students knew that I had played that long ago, so there was some connection for them and me. But at the end of the day, nothing compares with singing Desperado, or Edelweiss, in English with a bunch of Chinese friends, with Chinese accompaniment, in China and away from home, and being by far the oldest person in the room, and wondering what is going through everybody else’s heads as you contemplate letting somebody love you and bless my homeland forever.
Nothing compares. This is golden.