We are spending a couple of days in Xi’an. Xi’an means “West Capital” and the city proper is known for its old city wall and for the Terracotta warriors. We will see them tomorrow.
Today we are in the town of Xianyang – right outside of Xi’an and the capital of the Qing Dynasty. We are here for the wedding of Jingjing, a colleague of Jason’s from Vermont. Although Jingjing is from Guangzhou, her husband, Zhan Lue, is from an even smaller town outside of Xianyang. They already had a wedding in Vermont, today they had their wedding banquet here with his family and next week they have another banquet in GZ.
We arrived late last night. This area is considered Northwest China. It is interesting to see how much less developed the area is – economically speaking, anyway – compared to GZ but also to small towns in economically advanced Guangdong and Fujian provinces. This place looks a lot like the 1990s USSR/Russia to me – the same bleary concrete buildings, limited commercial establishments (e.g. most restaurants are the ones run by the hotels) and folks scurrying around wearing black coats for protection against the cool weather (30s) – all visible through the thick haze of smoke from the coal-fired heating systems. Coming off the airplane last night the first thing I noticed was that smell of charcoal and the hazy orange moon providing all indications that coal smoke was everywhere.
Zhan Lue and his niece, Yangyang, met us at the airport. He is a really genuine and nice person and it was a stroke of genius to bring Yangyang because our kids were already exhausted but having a big girl of about 10 years of age to try to impress was bound to keep them in line for some time. Zhan brought us to the hotel where we met Jingjing and her parents. Usually there is some requirement that we show passports, etc, but they had apparently cleared all that with the hotel in advance. They had a private room prepared in the hotel restaurant. We dropped off our bags in the room. The kids remarked at the lovely plate of apples with the chinese characters for happiness and long life in their skin (just a change in the pigmentation – how do they do it?) . Then we went to dinner.
This was our first take on Northwest Chinese cooking. Yum. Heavy on the bread, noodles, dumplings and less rice. The food is spicier up here too. There is a particular spice – a smoky dried hot pepper that is completely unique and delicious. We had it in our “soft noodle” bowls last night (wide hand formed noodles, tofu, egg, beef, greens), we had it in our chow mein at breakfast this morning, we had it rubbed on a soft, thick flatbread at the wedding banquet this afternoon.
This was also our first Chinese wedding. At dinner Jingjing told us that she needed the kids to be flower girls and that, as the only VLS person in attendance, Jason was the representative of the employer of the bride and would be asked to give some words. This morning Jingjing’s dad met us for breakfast while Jingjing and her mom went to get hair and make-up done. Then we came back to our room to get dressed (in HK we bought the girls 2 delightfully tacky dresses to wear and we acquired some equally overwrought black patent leather shoes with black bows and “diamonds” at the market on Monday so they were all set for their flower girl positions). As we were getting ready, we heard some commotion out in the hallway. We emerged to see Zhan Lue and a gaggle of people pounding on Jingjing’s door. They were laughing and chanting and Zhan would intermittently shout things like, “I love you, please open the door.” My Chinese is not good enough to understand the nature of Jingjing’s muffled replies. After about 20 minutes, they finally did let Zhan (and the substantial crowd which we had joined) into Jingjing’s room. A few people had brought confetti crackers and they let them off. Jingjing was sitting on a bed, in her wedding dress with it spread out nicely all around her. Everyone made jokes, had the couple do some smooching, and took loads of pictures of and with them. Then Zhan and his male friends all took Jingjing away. Jingjing explained that it was tradition for them to “steal” her away from her parents home (hotel, in this case). It is also tradition that she spend the first night after the wedding at the home of her husband’s parents. Of course, it used to be that the husband lived in his parent’s home and the bride was becoming a member of that household which explains the traditional Chinese preference for sons. Daughters went off to care for their husband’s parents. Only sons would provide stability and support to their own parents.
Once Jingjing was gone, her parents moved her things out of the room. We all hung around for a bit until the car arrived to take us to the banquet. We appeared to be about the last guests to arrive. We entered to see Jingjing in her dress with a white fur capelet on her shoulders. We were led to the area directly in front of a small stage with lots of flashing colored lights, bubble-makers, etc. The table for family of the bride and groom was on the floor, stage right. We were introduced to Zhan’s parents. Our table was stage left – the table for distinguished guests – ourselves, Zhan’s dissertation advisor, a fellow graduate student.
The kids needed to go and stand at the back of the room under a pink canopy in front of an arch of pink flowers. They received a basket full of flower petals and it also transpired that a ring bearer was needed so Jie-jie was enlisted to do double duty. She was thrilled to have the additional responsibility of carrying the frilly heart-shaped pillow topped with bride and groom teddy bears (later on she expressed such reluctance to relinquish the pillow to the wedding M.C. that he gave it to her). There was a slide show with pictures from the Vermont wedding and music playing.
I am sure I will be forgetting loads of details if I try to give the entire play-by-play so I will just provide an overview of the ceremony. The MC introduces the family and distinguished guests (including us). The bride enters with her father. The groom is hidden in a big cloth bubble (for lack of better word) and introduced with music, lighting and language reminiscent of way the team is announced at a Chicago Bulls game. The cloth is pulled back to reveal the groom who walks to the bride with some flowers and goes down one knee to profess his love. When she gives him her hand, the kids shower some flowers on them. Then Jie-jie walks purposefully down the aisle tossing petals (Mei-mei was afraid). The bride and groom walk to the stage. Loads of words are said, addresses and well-wishes by Jason and Zhan’s dissertation advisor. Then the bride and groom leave the stage to address their parents. This part was really touching – Zhan was overcome with emotion as he spoke to his father. All the parents cried as their children thanked them for all they had done for them. Then the bride and groom went back on stage and Jie-jie marched down with the rings. They exchanged rings, they cut the cake (but no one ate any including the couple), Jingjing prayed (?) to a leafless potted tree with blue lights on it (I will try to find out what that was all about) and that was it.
During this whole thing, the 300+ guests were seated around tables of 8 or 10. The tables were already full of cold dishes (cucumber and radish salad, roasted chicken, steamed corn and potatoes, fried fish) when we arrived and people were certainly eating. After the ceremony concluded, the servers started bringing around the hot dishes – chicken soup, bbq beef, lotus bulbs with shrimp, carrots and cassava, stir-fried greens, steamed rice, tomato and noodle soup, that bread and pepper I mentioned before. Jingjing and Zhan Lue disappeared for a while. When they returned Zhan had a different suit on and Jingjing was wearing a red gown and a red fur capelet. While the rest of us ate, they stood on the stage for picture after picture with various guests. Various people roamed the room, stopping for toasts with other folks. The drink was rice wine –baijiu. That is some strong stuff. We figured out that the best thing to do was top off our own liquor glass with sprite when people weren’t looking. Various members of the groom’s family gave the kids some red envelopes with a bride and groom on the front and not insignificant amounts of money inside.
The wedding banquet ended in the way that Chinese events do, suddenly. One minute it seems like you will be there all afternoon and the next thing you know there is a mass exodus as people head for the door and you find that everyone at your table is waiting for you to finish whatever it is you just started eating.
Someone gave us a ride back to our hotel. There our key didn’t work. I told the fuwuyuan who was cleaning a nearby room that the card didn’t work. She said to me that there was “no money” but I figured that I didn’t understand (we believe that our hotel is being paid for by the groom’s family – that is the tradition). I told her I didn’t understand so then she wrote “no money.” I told her I couldn’t write. Then she started walking toward the room and got on the phone to the front desk. Her conversation with them went something like this:
“The foreigners in room 8416 want to come in. They don’t understand Chinese.”
“Are they Americans?”
“Let them in.”
And that is how I came to be sitting in my hotel room writing this post.