My Out-of-Town Chinese-Italian Wedding Experience

5 May

I spent the last 5 days in Hangzhou, China, home of the famous Xi Hu (West Lake). I went there for the wedding of a friend of a friend who used to live in Hangzhou and knew several of the other attendees. This cultural experience was a gift, something I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own, and it entailed many intriguing and even humorous facets, especially as the very mellow, married couple-to-be were from two different countries and had a very international group of friends and supporters that they desired to celebrate with them in the bride’s hometown, a nearby village.

The most genius part of the wedding was that, because it’s difficult to get many people from out of town to gather with successful organization in a village, the bride and groom had everyone meet in Hangzhou, load onto a bus at around noon, and drive to the village, which was only about 90 minutes away. This decorated bus, full of cheerful foreigners and locals, was well-stocked with beer and some sub sandwiches, and it rolled up to a pit stop for a local spectacle of a restroom and smoke break halfway through the drive before finally making it to the bride’s house. It probably completely amazed the neighbors, who gathered to observe the colorful group. Few of the Chinese guests drank beer, while almost all of the foreigners did. Having indulged in the beer myself, I had to pee so badly that when I got there and said hello to a woman who was either the bride’s aunt or mother, she grabbed my arm and frantically rushed me to the nearest bathroom, which was ironically hidden in a space that made it seem looked like you were about to pee in a closet. We gathered in the bride’s house, nearly filling the living room to capacity. It reminded me of some family gatherings in my old home growing up, as every room was carefully made ready for guests; trinkets were packed away, furniture moved, and every inch scrubbed to a polished shine. The mixed-ethnicity couples and their children, the bride’s family’s local friends, and the wedding couple’s friends from many different Chinese cities and foreign countries filled the room with play, laughter and intriguing conversations.  I noticed, a bit shocked, that I was the only white woman attending with a white boyfriend, who even more ironically happens to also be an American, something quite coincidental considering our location and experiences living as expats.

The table contained an almost-overflowing collection of bowls, filled to the brim with pickles and finger foods, and cans of beer, which the foreigners continued the drink gleefully. The guests gathered in circles, chatting happily and meeting each other, while the bride’s family quietly kept order and cleaned up messes.  All the while, the bride got ready in a bedroom; she hadn’t been on the bus, and was unseen by all guests until that point. Then, she called all the women into the room with her, and the wedding traditions began. She stood in the corner, in a dim light in the colorful and cozy old-fashioned room, next to a bed that had very fine quality, bloodred bedsheets and folded up blankets and actually reflected a dim glow onto her brilliantly white dress and veil. She was barely moving but smiling brilliantly, obviously overcome with happiness. The room was packed with many nationalities of women, including the groom’s mother and cousin, some foreign English teachers from a few different countries, and Chinese women from all different cities of China, all brought together, each knowing only a few others in the room. The two Chinese bridesmaids in simple, classic dresses, announced that it was time for the Italian groomsman (whose mother tongue was Italian but who also spoke fluent, natural-sounding Chinese and English and taught English for a living) and his groomsmen to perform some difficult tasks. First he had to come to the locked door and answer questions asked by all the women present. He kept trying to slip his way in, and each almost-successful attempt led to a throng of screamish-squeals from the girls who anxiously tried to prevent him from entering or seeing the bride.

The groom and his groomsmen were a motley crew. They were called to the window overlooking a back balcony, through which the bride and her entourage handed them colorful hula skirts and ordered them to dance to music she played off her phone. They did, and they also followed suit when she pointed her thin, elegant finger, and demanded for them to move their hips more. The groomsmen were good sports, following every command with comedic gusto, being all the more interesting because they were a huge black guy from Kenya who grew up there, the UK and the States and a bald, slick Italian guy who looked a little like he was out of the mafia and who speaks impeccable Mandarin as a resident of Beijing. After the task was performed, they were given a handful of keys on red-ribbon strings, only one of which actually opened the bedroom door. The groomsmen did all of this while a crowd of the men and some older women from the bride’s family and their neighbors stood around and watched in entertained amusement.

When the groom made it in, he was allowed to approach his bride and kiss her. Some little boys (to symbolize a desire for sons, an aspect of the wedding ceremony explained to me by a fellow guest, a Chinese woman who was attending with her foreign English-teaching boyfriend) were called into the room to search for small presents hidden among the folded bed sheets. The bride’s-home rituals were then finished, and the bride and groom were together the rest of the wedding. They left the house to take pictures outside with the family and wedding party, and the guests followed, probably beginning to suffocate in the small apartment that the family was also probably happy to have emptied out. The house visit had included so many smaller cultural exchanges, including a moment I heard about later from the groom, in which the bride’s mother repeatedly hugged the groom’s mother, a beautiful, vivacious Italian woman who had begun learning Mandarin once she heard that her son was marrying a Chinese woman. We stood outside, mingling and drinking more beer, and then we were loaded back onto the bus and driven to the hotel, where we would dine for the main part of the wedding. We spent a decent amount of time figuring out how to go around a bridge that seemed too low for our tall coach, circling the town, and eventually just risking it and slickly making it through, a success which caused the passengers to erupt in victorious applause.

Once we pulled up to the hotel, we got whispered word that we were 2 hours early for dinner, so we dispersed to explore the grounds and hang out. Many of the bus attendees ended up in a guest sitting room which served food and drinks. I found myself at a table with my fellow American date, a Canadian teacher and his Chinese wife and their baby, a British teacher, the groomsmen, and the Chinese wife of the Kenyan-American groomsman. After more beers were ordered, our ensuing conversation covered multiple topics, such as beer, animal cruelty and which cities in China were the best to live in.

After a few hours were killed, we were called in to the dining hall, where we took our seats. I was later told that the pouring of guests into the room angered the bride of another wedding happening in the same hotel, who had to stand and watch her guests look on in awed distraction as this seemingly-random cluster of foreigners and Chinese filed into the Chinese-style wedding next door. Being the guest of a guest, I sat with my date at a table in the middle of the third row of tables, in a large room that contained perhaps 16 tables – 4 rows of 4. Of course, position and table-seating is an important part of the dinner, and the most fascinating part of the arrangement was that the bride’s family not only sat separate from the groom’s family, but also sat in the back of the room, in the row farthest from the stage. The groom’s Italian parents and cousins and their guests sat in the first row, at the table of most important location. The bride and groom entered, and the wedding dinner events began. Led by an MC, as is typical in Chinese weddings, the bride and groom exchanged rings and vows, poured an entire bottle of champagne into a stacked tower of glasses that cleverly allows the champagne to overflow slowly from glass to glass and symbolizes prosperity and abundance as all guests eagerly watched to see how many glasses can be filled by one bottle. They linked arms and drank together before cutting a wedding cake that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

After this, they turned to the audience and toasted them as a unit, and the dinner began. I enjoyed the adventure of eating almost all completely new dishes, new Chinese delicacies and feast staples I hadn’t before savored. Lobster, crab, and an amazing, chicken, simply cooked in salted water and some subtle sweet flavors in a Dutch oven-like pot were extraordinary additions to the new selections of pickles and appetizers I examined and tasted. The toasting alcohols included baijiu (rice wine), red wine and a special, strong-tasting brown Chinese drink that tasted a little like a less-sweet-vermouth-style ginger wine. The bride and groom began their rounds of toasting every individual dinner guest (the wedding party famously never has time to eat at weddings) while everyone else began the meal. The tables were served all the same dishes and in the same order, and each place setting contained not only several glasses for tea, for orange juice, water or soda, and for wine, but also small gifts, including chocolates, nuts and candies in little boxes. As the bride and groom went around, the bridesmaids gave out decorated chopsticks while the groomsmen toasted each guest with the groom and the groom’s mother gave out a traditional red bag containing small red Italian candies of nuts covered in chocolate and a candy shell. The note she hand-wrote in red ink and attached to each one contained: the bride’s Chinese name in characters – that she obviously practiced and wrote in the large fashion typical of people who haven’t been writing characters all their lives – on one side, the groom’s given name on the other side, and the date, written in typical European style, underneath.

Many of the foreign guests slowly and happily got drunk, and the families strove to make everything perfect. The bride, groom and their families all took turns making speeches, and the revelry lasted about two-three hours. Then, the bus was loaded back up, and with half its occupants passed out in drunken sleep, it returned to Hangzhou. The bride and groom came along, and a large group of closer friends and classmates went to a reggae bar to share bottles of tequila, whiskey and beer, play pool and relax with the bride and groom, who were finally relaxing after the long day, now in casual clothes and with very pleased and loving looks on their weary faces.


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