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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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Yunnan Province (October 2010)

6 Sep

One trip I took over the past year but failed to write about on here was to Yunnan Province in Western China during National Week.  October 1st is National Day for the Chinese, and most businesses and schools shut down for much of a week, from October 1-7.  Since I still taught in schools at that point, I had the whole week off, so I tagged along with some co-workers who were headed out west.

A 24-hour train ride took us to Kunming, Yunnan.  After staying a night, we caught a bus to Dali, a small tourist town about 6 hours away.  We stayed there a few nights and then headed back to Kunming and then got another 24-hour train ride back to Guangzhou.  Even though half of the week was spent on either a bus or train, it was a good time due to great company.

My favorite part of the trip was enjoying a few things that the people of Yunnan enjoy in their local cuisine that the people of Canton do not.  For example: limes, yak cheese and edible flowers all popped up frequently throughout our meals, and we savored every interaction those delectable ingredients had with our taste buds.

Some other highlights include an evening fire dance we participated in, the brightly-colored and abundant wet markets, the unnerving amount of large spiders we came across hanging out everywhere, some gorgeous lotus ponds, and a random Italian punk band we saw at a bar called the Funky Monkey.

Here are pictures for your enjoyment.  The first is not mine, but rather was taken by one of my travel companions on his vintage Minolta with 35mm film.  The rest are digital.  For more, go to my Photobucket album.

Thailand, Cambodia, Laos (January 2011)

5 Feb

Over two weeks in mid-to-late January, I traveled with 3 companions through these three countries.  We started in Bangkok, headed to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, went on to Don Det in southern Laos (one of 4000 islands in the Mekong River), went to Pakse and Paksong for a life-changing tour of a coffee plantation, and then finally went back into Thailand, staying in a smaller town called Ubon for a night and day to catch a train to Bangkok for a few nights before returning to Guangzhou.  We flew to and from Bangkok, but all other travel was on train or bus.

It was a trip full of adventure, a few mishaps, lots of laughs, amazing coffee and mind-numbingly good food.  I’ll never forget it, and either because it’s still so fresh or because it was such a mental, emotional and sensory overload, I don’t think I’m capable of writing much more about it at this time.

BUT, I’ve got some pictures posted on my trusty Photobucket site for family and friends, so check them out here.  I’ve got two albums, one finished and one on the way.  The finished one is an album of pictures taken on an old Minolta analog camera, and the other is of pictures taken on a digital camera.

I’ve also got an album there called “Yunnan” if you want to see pictures from my trip to west-central China, to Yunnan Province.  I went during National week in October, a week-long national holiday in China.  I spent the most time in a city called Dali, which is a gorgeous, sleepy little tourist town in the mountains.  That trip was cold when Guangzhou was scorching, and the trip to the Southeast Pacific was warm when Guangzhou was freezing…perfect temporary escapes from the concrete jungle I’ve learned to love and call home during this chapter in my life.

Hainan Island (August 2010)

13 Aug

“Lady Gaga sure is popular here.”

This is what I was thinking at around 10:37 yesterday morning as I said goodbye to the beach.  A taxi was blasting “Poker Face;”  a few days ago the coffee shop I was in played “Bad Romance,” and the other night I heard a woman with a nice but very husky voice sing a decent cover of “Alejandro” in a beach-side bar.  Actually, Lady Gaga is hugely popular all over China, but the “here” I’m referring to now is Sanya, a laid-back, sunny city on the southern tip of Hainan Island.

I spent the last week there, and I really wish I didn’t have to leave.  I’ve realized that I’m in love with the ocean.  I haven’t spent much time in my life near an ocean, but the hypnotic cadence of the waves sucked me into their hold forever.  I’m still a little drunk on the cathartic, volatile serenity of water crashing onto sand over and over, thousands of times a day and thousands more all night, unceasingly, enduringly, forever.  The ocean thus has a timeless quality, and anything that seems timeless, to me, is utterly godlike and – by default, I think – mysterious and enrapturing.

I will miss the quiet beach now that I’ve returned to the noisy, massive city of Guangzhou, but perhaps I’ll return there before I leave China.  By air, Sanya is just over an hour away!

Here’s a picture of the beach, but if you want to see more, check them out on Photobucket.

Travel photos

1 Aug

I have finally found a way to easily share all my travel photos.  It’s difficult to rely on this blog due to how slow the site can be, so I turned to photobucket.  I’ve got albums for entries I’ve talked about and other places, so check them out if you want to see all of my China photos.

Click here.

This will take you to one album, but from that page, you should be able to see my other albums.  Enjoy!

Guilin, Yangshuou and the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (July 2010)

31 Jul

Today I am back in Guangzhou, in my apartment, for a vacation from my vacation.  The past week was beautiful and fun, but the last 48 hours was tiring and awful.  Lack of sleep and sinus congestion provided the answer; rather than go on to a new city, we just decided to come back to Guangzhou before heading off elsewhere later this week or early next week.  This might have proved to be a wonderful decision for reaching our next destination because Guangzhou is such a hub for transit.  And, as spoiled by my surroundings as I am sometimes, I know I sound like I’m bragging when I say that moving to China by itself seems like a vacation sometimes, so I feel as if I’ve been going at the whole new and unusual thing for almost two months now.

But, that aside, it was surreal to finally get out to the countryside.  Parts of China are so beautiful; I can see why three different cities in the country all claim to be the real Shangri-La, or the paradise city written about in a famous book years ago.  I visited one of those areas in Guilin and Yangshuo, two cathartic tourist destinations that don’t fail to knock the socks off, even if you’re prone to avoid tourist destinations.  Getting out into the countryside is always rewarding, and China’s jewel, Yangshuo, can easily make you never want to leave.

We set out on Thursday and arrived Friday morning via train in Guilin.  Finding our hostel was easy enough, and the place was decent (even though they sold us a botched tour and a the world’s worst 12-hour bus ride, for which we’ll be writing a scathing review).  We explored the city the first night and had some amazing food.  Here’s a picture of one of the tourist attractions in Guilin, the sun and moon pagados.

We also went to a cheesy little park that puts on a light show and has ethnic tribes dancing, but it was all very artificial and a little boring.  Here are pictures of the park and one of the city during daytime.

The second day was perhaps my favorite.  We caught a bus to Longsheng in hopes of seeing the famous Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longji.  We thought we’d only have to get to Longsheng, but once there, we soon found out that we actually needed to go another hour to Ping’An, a small ethnic minority village (the people are called the Zhuang) that is the center of some of the best preserved and maintained (for they are still in heavy use) rice terraces in China.  The village is fully of friendly, smiling people, but it is definitely a tourist destination; everyone wants to sell something and can speak enough English for that purpose.  The women in that town grown their hair out very long; they must never cut it because they wear it wrapped around their heads like turbans and it reaches down to their calves.  But, the best part of Ping’An is the terraces themselves.

It’s of course an amazing engineering feat that the Chinese came up with the idea of rice terraces, but to see them is something else entirely.  They literally cover every inch of land possible; nothing is wasted.  In fact, if you drive from the city to the countryside here, you will see a progression of small patches of rice fields, some no bigger than a living room, scattered wherever possible.  As you get to mountainous areas that are too steep for terraces, you see strips of them in between the mountains in each valley area.  Here are some pictures of the village and surrounding terraces.  The light or “smooth” pieces of land on the surrounding mountains are more terraces.  You can tell just how high some of them go.

I’ve included a few pictures here, but there are so many to choose from that I’ve also made an album on another site.  You can find the albums for all of my vacation photos here.

Costa Rica (November 2009)

7 Dec

Brandon and I recently went down to Costa Rica for a week. It was a great trip, great people, and a GORGEOUS country. Not only am I going back one day, but it’s currently number one on my list of countries to move to when I’m tired of everything else. Definitely need to set aside at least a month next time, because one week is almost cruel in its unsatisfying teaser taste.

Here’s a run-down of our activities: The first night we stayed in San Jose. We arrived with a list of ideal hotels to stay in and the comforting knowledge that we were visiting during neither the peak tourist season nor the secondary tourist season. Unfortunately, we had no idea that every hotel in San Jose was completely booked due to the Uruguay v. Costa Rica soccer game going on the following weekend. Every hotel on our list was booked, so we took a tip from our cab driver and stayed at Hotel Helena, which is basically a woman’s house and an adjacent builing. We ended up in a basement room next to a very loud laundry room, but luckily, there was free internet available.

Unfortunately, this learning experience came when we were most tired and in need of rest on our trip. Brandon and I had just run a marathon the day before, and we were looking forward to a relaxing week on the beach. We walked more during the first day than we did the rest of the trip. We healed eventually, and luckily, the headache of that first evening and night didn’t ruin the rest of the trip for us.

After getting settled in at Hotel Helena, we followed the directions of Helena herself to a local bus station so we could buy tickets for the next day’s 6 a.m. bus to our next destination city. Afterwards, we walked around Central San Jose, which is not “nice” but isn’t an eye-sore either. We got our first taste of a soda there – the typical Costa Rican eating establishment. I had my first casado, which is a typical dish that has some meat, beans, rice and other items. It’s a very basic dish; Costa Rica is not known for producing culinary marvels.

Day two took us to Putarenas by bus to catch a ferry to Paquera and then onto another bus to Montezuma, a sleepy, semi-isolated town that’s got a friendly white-Rasta-convert every few feet. This small, T-shaped piece of paradise hidden by jungle that comes right up to the beach was very safe, friendly and low-key. We stayed two nights just out of town (about a mile) in Casas Colibri, a small piece of land with three miniature houses for rent. Our hosts, a young British woman and her Costa Rican boyfriend (whom she only addressed as “mi Amor”), were enlightening, entertaining, and hopelessly in love, which was sweet to witness. We went with them to the Montezuma waterfalls the first day, and the second went with a tour group to Totuga Island, where we snorkled (my first time). Both the island and the waterfall were beautiful and the perfect pictures of paradise.

Our second night we hung out with a pair of young male teenagers, one of whom was still in high school (possibly a dropout). They were staying in the house next to us and made some great conversation around a cheap bottle of vodka and Coke; but they made me feel old for the first time in a while (and I’m only 23!). They had saved up their summer’s earnings for a 4-week trip backpacking around Costa Rica, which was quite admirable (heck, they could’ve spent their money on video games). Their insightful conversation made me wish I’d had some of the thoughts they shared when I myself was only 17 and 19 and not 23.

After Montezuma, we headed – on a 6-hr. bus/ferry/bus ride – to La Fortuna, a sleepy, friendly little tourist town at the base of the Volcan Arenal, which has been actively erupting since 1968. More notably, the volcano is surrounded by lush secondary rainforest. Since we were there during the tail-end of the rainy season, we never did see the peak of the volcano (because it was constantly covered by clouds); thus, we never actually saw any lava, which can normally be seen on clearer nights.

At Arenal, we went on a few tours: a guided hike through the rainforest floor followed by a trip to the hot springs resort Baldi (VERY touristy – I’d recommend trying to see the springs for free), a canopy tour via Ecoglide, better known as ziplining, and a horseback tour to the La Fortuna waterfall, a powerful and deadly couple-hundred-foot drop of water that is awe-inspiring, angry and exquisite all at the same time.

We stayed in La Fortuna until the morning we headed back to the States. We had some delicious food on our trip (I recommend Cocolores – get the red snapper cooked in cognac! – in Montezuma as well as the Italian food place by the Iguana Inn; also try Nene’s – and their sea bass cooked in lemon and butter – in La Fortuna).