Ever since coming to China I have wanted to go to a Chinese wedding. After all, weddings are such cultural markers, I was really curious to see what it was like. Fortunately, last week I finally got my chance!
Wendy, one of the women at the international office finally had her wedding. (I say finally because she has been planning it for a long time, ever since I’ve known her.) And it was quite a production, over 400 guests were invited.
I guess traditionally, weddings are all day affairs. It starts in the morning with the bridesmaids helping the bride get ready and also heckling the groom. Diana, one of the bridesmaids, told us that in a Chinese wedding, the guests are the boss. The guests can demand any silly thing out of the couple and they have to do it. Like in the morning when the groom came to get Wendy, each bridesmaid made him to a bunch of silly things before being able to see her. (Diana said she made him sing songs, make 10 promises, say 10 romantic things etc. And she was only one of 4 bridesmaids he had to get through to see his wife.)
We arrived at 5 pm for the dinner and ceremony part. There were only 7 of us English speakers at the wedding, so of course, everything was all in Chinese and some of it was hella confusing. So I’ll just describe what happened and you can make of it what you will.
One thing we were all worried about was what to wear. Not many of us have fancy clothes and when Wendy invited us, we asked her what to wear. “Just wear anything,” she said. “Chinese weddings are different.” And she wasn’t kidding. When we walked into the wedding we were surprised to see t-shirts, baseball hats and jeans. Even the father of the bride was just wearing a normal polo shirt and slacks. Nobody dressed up. One of the foreign teachers wore a suit and he was the only one (aside from the groom).
We sat down and soon after the show began. I say “show” because that is exactly what it felt like. The lights went out, and a spotlight came on. Instead of a priest there was a host, a high spirited, high energy guy who got the crowd warmed up by cracking jokes and making fun of the couple. Then he called on the groom to comeÂ on stageÂ (I think he said, “groom, come on down!”) and in a flurry of music and clapping the groom came running down the aisle and bounding on the stage.
When the groom came up, he got the crowd riled up again. (“Is this guy handsome?” he yelled out. “Yes,” we all yelled back.) And then, as any good host, he brought the mood down and let the groom say a few words about his lovely wife to be. Then, it was time for the bride to come down the aisle. Thankfully, she didn’t run down clutching her dress, but rather wasÂ precededÂ by the bridesmaids holding candles. Then she walked with her father to a flowered arch where they waited for the groom to come get her.
There might have been some words between the father and groom, I couldn’t really see, but after a minute the two of them started walking towards the stage, arm in arm, in a shower of sparks and glitter. It was a low room, and the sparks were shooting into the ceiling and were actually bouncing off the fire sprinklers. It was pretty crazy looking to be honest.
Then the host took over the wedding ceremony, and while I couldn’t understand much it seemed like a typical wedding ceremony. It was sweet because Wendy was crying like a baby (I think because of the nice things her husband had said) and had to keep wiping away her tears. Some vows were said, rings were exchanged, and when it was all over they gave each other a big long hug. (They didn’t kiss until later during the game part of the wedding.)
Then the host made them do some silly things to each other. (Like bow really low and the lowest bow meant they loved the other person more? To be honest, I didn’t really understand it.) They also filled some champagne glasses spread out in a champagne tower and lit some candles together while they thanked their parents. The parents came on stage at one point and the bride’s father read something to the crowd, I assume about how happy they were to have a new son or something like that.
The whole thing lasted about 30-40 minutes, and then Wendy and her husband walked out arm-in-arm together. We would see her again soon, but first she had to change. Meanwhile, it was time for the rest of us to eat! The food was pretty interesting, and I imagine, quite expensive. Let’s just say their were a lot of heads at dinner that night and Renee, a vegetarian, didn’t get much to eat.
During dinner we got to see Wendy and her husband as they came table to table to offer a toast. Toasting is a huge part of any Chinese banquet and all throughout the meal you could see various tables all stand up as they were toasting each other. But the bride and groom traveled table to table and with them came the entourage. First their was the couple, then her parents, then his parents, then a bunch of guys which had bottles of drinks (everything from baijiu, rice wine liquor, to Sprite and orange juice) to fill your cup with if you were out, a couple of photographers and the cigarette guys. Â We filled our cups and gave a toast to the new couple. In China you don’t just say “cheers” and take a sip. You say “gan bei” which means “dry your glass” and you have to drink the entire thing or it is considered rude.
Wendy and her hubby had these teeny tiny thimble glasses, after all, they had 40 tables to toast with. Wendy was refilling hers with orange juice, but the groom was drinking baijiu with is incredibly strong liquor. The groom was probably no more than 100-pounds soaking wet, and I guarantee you he hadn’t eaten anything in awhile. By the end of the toasts I can only imagine he was pretty smashed.
When they left, that’s when the cigarette guys appeared. Pretty much none of us smoke, but we took them anyway because we didn’t want to be rude. The brand ofÂ cigarettes, I later learned, was very high quality.
Meanwhile, as Wendy and her husband are doing that, the host is still going strong. The entire time he was chatting people up and playing games. One game has a lot of guestsÂ scramblingÂ around to collect different things, like small coins, or wrappers, and the winner got a giant teddy bear. There were also a few games involving Wendy and her husband, one in which they had to do silly things the crowd demanded from them, like stand on one foot while doing other things, and to kiss, and keep kissing until the crowd told them to stop.
Like I said, toasting is a big part of Chinese culture and sure enough we didn’t get away with just one. Bob, also from the international office, came over and toasted us all. At my table was 7 foreign teachers and 4 foreign students, so Bob knew us, ad toasted us all.
And a wedding wouldn’t be a wedding without running into an old friend, andÂ unbelievably we did. We didn’t even notice him until right towards the end of the wedding when he got up and was talking to another table. Ryan and I noticed him at the same time, but he looked a little different so we were sure that it was actually the person we knew. “Is that….” Ryan said. “No, yeah, no. Maybe?” was my answer.
Turns out it was not only an old friend, but our oldest Chinese friend Zhu. Zhu was the student helper that picked us up in Shanghai on our very first day almost 2 years ago. He spent the entire 3-hour drive talking to us and explaining every thing we needed to know. He also spent a lot of time with us the first few weeks helping us get settled into China. Â During his last semester he went to work at the Shanghai Expo and we didn’t see much of him. Then he graduated last June and we haven’t seen him since so it was nice to catch up with him.
Within two hours the whole wedding was done and it was time to go home. There was one final thing to take care of, the gift. Getting a gift was a major headache for us. You see, traditionally all you give at a wedding is money (called hong bao). But it isn’t just as simple as a western wedding. The hong bao is counted, and kept track of, and next time you go to the wedding of a friend who came to your wedding, you are expected to give the exact same amount back. So basically it is like a loan system to help new couples.
It’s a great idea, but we are outsiders and didn’t know if it was appropriate. So we thought getting a regular gift would be best, but there is also a pretty strict gift protocol in China, so we weren’t sure. We got some advice from Diana (the bridesmaid and also a student) and she suggested getting some glasses or something as it meant Â best wishes or success to the happy couple. Ryan ended up getting help from some other students and we got her a beautiful tea set. Unfortunately the thing was HUGE and since hardly anyone else else gave a gift to her (aside from theÂ foreigners) it was kind of awkward for her to deal with and I’d rethink it next time.
But all in all the wedding was quite fun and a very unique experience. I just wish I could understand more of it! Wendy is now in Hainan (the Hawaii of China) enjoying a relaxing honeymoon. So congratulations Wendy and thanks for the invitation!