06 February 2007

Here Comes The Bride, All Dressed In...Three Different Dresses

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a “traditional” Chinese wedding here in Shanghai. The stepson of my school’s doctor who is also the stepbrother of my closest Chinese friend was getting hitched and that meant it was time for firecrackers, cigarettes, alcohol, and ungodly amounts of food.

A thirty-minute subway trip, seventy-minute bus journey and ten-minute taxi ride through “we’re the only white people” land and we had arrived (I’ve never been watched quite like this before. People were stopped on the streets staring, pedicabs were running into each other, and cabbies were weaving from lane to lane. It was ridiculous)! I was told that timeliness was important, so we made our entrance at 3:50pm, ten minutes prior to “showtime.” We were the first people there. Immediately our “foreigner” status was apparent. Two old men approach and offer us cigarettes. I have been told previously that rejecting this offer is like saying “I hope the bride and groom have a horrible, babyless life together.” We reluctantly accept. I have never even held a cigarette much less smoked one, leaving me awkwardly sucking but not inhaling from this tube of death. Now that it’s lit I hold it oddly while it slowly burns away, an enormous fake smile plastered on my face.

Thirty minutes pass. Still no bride, but I look at the second-story window to see the mother of the groom (my school’s doctor) pulling up on her scooter with a small child riding in front. She sees me and waves, loses her balance and tips the scooter over in the middle of the street. My heart skips a beat thinking they may have been injured. Instead, they both get up laughing. The doctor tries to stand the scooter up, accidentally revs the engine and drives it into a tree. More laughing.

Another fifteen minutes pass. It is now 4:45pm and still no people. I am now fake-smoking my third cigarette so as not to send ill wishes to the bride and groom. A man (smoking a cigarette) is outside unrolling two long strips of firecrackers. Finally the “wedding wheels” arrive. It is a 2003 Buick Le Sabre with a huge bouquet attached to the hood. 100 people appear from out of nowhere and crowd around the car, making it impossible for them to open the door. Some pushing, shoving and yelling occurs and the happy couple finally emerge, the groom in a dark suit and the bride is a beautiful white gown. They enter the restaurant. Everyone follows. The man who unrolled all the firecrackers now uses his cigarette to light them. They explode with fury, filling the entire neighborhood with extremely loud noise. Then he picks up some skyrockets, holds them away from his body with his right hand and launches them into the sky, all whilst smoking a cigarette. They also make a loud exploding sound. Car alarms are going off and dogs are barking. How romantic!

The 100 people who were previously outside are now inside, taking their seats at one of the dozen ten-person tables. We are asked to move from table seven to table six. No one will take our place at table seven for the rest of the evening. I am now sitting next to the father of the bride, who immediately pops open an enormous bottle of baijiou (tastes a little something like lighter fluid) and pours us each a shot. He raises his glass and offers a toast. The whole table toasts with him before downing the whole glass of brutally painful alcohol. He pours us another one. I laugh and wave him off. He then tells me in Chinese that the drunker I get, the happier I am for the bride and groom, so if I want them to be happy, healthy and prosperous I better drink. Disaster.

Meanwhile, some woman in blue jeans (nobody dresses up except for the bride and groom. I was overdressed with slacks and a button-up shirt) is making a speech at the front of the room. The microphone’s echo feature is cranked to high, which makes her next to impossible to understand. Pan to the guests; none of whom are paying attention to a thing that’s happening at the front. They’re too busy smoking the cigarettes that were passed out BY THE CASE to everyone in the room and eating the mounds of food that are now arriving on the tables. The bride and groom’s parents take the traditional “toast of union” from matching cups. The bride and groom then make speeches and cut the cake, which incidentally reads “happy birthday” around the edge. A Caucasian couple is plopped on top. Not a soul paying attention! The bride could have been on fire and no one would have taken notice.

They sit down and we all start to eat. I spend the next FOUR hours alternating between eating one of the THIRTY different dishes they brought to the table (including fried eel and an entire catfish), taking shots of lighter fluid, sipping Chinese rice wine, and fake-smoking cigarettes. Slowly but surely everything begins to get a little hazy.

Meanwhile, the bride is being forced to participate in what can only be described as a round of “Survivor: Shanghai Wedding” which includes physical challenges, eating strange foods, and changing her dress under a time limit. First physical challenge: light a cigarette for every man in the room. Initially you might think this is easy but time consuming. After all, she just has to light a few cigarettes using really big matches. Wrong. That would be too easy. Instead, she has to try and light these cigarettes while everyone around her attempts to blow the match out. By the time she got to the third table people were thinking this was too easy, so they started increasing the difficulty level by standing on chairs, window sills and tables. At one point the groom had hoisted his new wife onto his shoulder so she could reach one of the man’s cigarettes!

After spending an hour smiling politely while fuming internally because of this ridiculous practice, the bride was sent on to physical challenge number two: change your dress, hairstyle and make-up in under ten minutes behind a curtain. Go! In the meantime I continue to toast and drink every minute or two with the whole table to prove how just how happy I want the bride and groom to be. At this point I’m just touching my lips to the foul-tasting liquor and making a facial expression that says “wow, yikes, sheesh, this stuff is good!”

Twelve disappointing minutes later she returns looking fabulous in a purple gown with hibiscus flowers clipped to her head. Time for the next challenge: While we continue to sit, eat, drink and be merry she and the groom must toast and drink with EVERY person in the room. This is also the moment they collect their presents from everyone: always money in a red envelope with a different amount based upon the relationship. Announcement of the amount in a clear, loud, billowing voice upon handing it over is also customary. Mind you, they both have yet to sit down and eat a bite of food. They begin at our table. We toast our rice wine and take a swig. I hand over the Dove chocolate bars that we brought, announcing with pride, “Chocolate!” The crowd goes wild. Because we don’t even know the bride and groom a financial gift was not only unnecessary, but would have been considered rude (obviously?). They move on and continue to toast, their pace slowing as the alcohol begins to set in. This lasts for another hour, at which point the bride is whisked away for another “costume change” into dress number three, a traditional red Chinese number. We continue to fake-drink and fake-smoke so as to appease our neighbor, who is now completely and utterly intoxicated.

The bride returns looking dazzling, though now bracing herself against the wall due to her newfound intoxication. She still hasn’t eaten a thing. Finally, the dessert arrives. It’s bean paste bread covered in sesame seeds. Yum! The Doctor leans over and apologizes for the lack of food. Seeing as how I popped my pants-button a good fifteen minutes ago, I tell her there is no need to worry and that I am very full. She apologizes again. I tell her “it’s ok.” It is now just past 8pm. There is no more food, which means that it’s apparently time to leave. Just as quickly as they arrived people are up and out, not even saying goodbye to the bride and groom! We struggle to our feet, gather our things, take a quick photo with the bride and groom, and head downstairs. Judging by the amount of alcohol I consumed and the number of cigarettes I pretended to smoke, you could say I was REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY happy for the new couple, though I still don’t know their names…

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