Last week, I went to my first Chinese wedding in a village where no non-Chinese had ever set foot. My friend who invited me was the only person who spoke English.

I spent a good 5 or 6 hours trying to find suitable clothes in Beijing’s Xidan.  I almost didn’t go to the wedding after that, I couldn’t stop worrying about all the things I might do wrong, the customs I might break. As my Chinese friend wisely told me “Don’t worry about it. They know you’re a stupid foreigner!” Good point well made.

Usually English couples know each other for at least a couple of years before they decide to get married, but I am told in China relatives put more pressure on couples to marry quickly. This couple had known each other a year. The woman was a couple of years older than the man, which seems to be normal.
The last English wedding I went to was mostly suits and simple dresses. But at a Chinese wedding , bright colours are preferred, to wish happiness and new beginnings upon the newly-weds. Thanks, Uncle Internet. For girls, pink is recommended. I’ve not worn pink since I was ten years old.(http://chinesecommunity.org.nz/site/topics/show/391-dos-and-donts-when-attending-a-chinese-wedding) Most of the guests were people from the village and the men turned up in their farm clothes! And there I was the day before worrying about what colour skirt I should be wearing. I just loved the casual, friendly atmosphere even if I did feel a bit out of place.
Maybe a traditional English wedding begins with the relatives mingling outside, then they make their way into the venue and sit down quietly to wait for the bride. Then the groom watches the bride being led up the aisle by her father or brother.Mostly, Chinese weddings begin with the groom’s friends blocking the bride from entering the house! They went to great efforts to do this. Eight red cars and a big truck were parked in the road to stop her getting through, and the groom had to try to rescue her from the car before his friends got there. Traditionally the groom is the only one allowed to touch the bride until the wedding is over.

Eventually the car got close enough to the house that the bride could get out if she wanted to, but seven or eight of his friends held the groom back, making him fight to get out. Jeering, they hung a little bit of red cloth outside of her window and held the groom back, pretending they were going to open the door. They sprayed paint and foam all over the driver’s windscreen so he couldn’t see where he was going! If I hadn’t been warned about the 开玩笑 (kaiwanxiao: playing jokes),who knows how I would have felt! When he finally broke through he rushed her into the house, veil over her head, while his friends threw glitter and confetti all over the white wedding dress!

English weddings take place in hotels and maybe they have performers. The Chinese wedding was in the groom’s backyard and there was a brass band!  The hostess asked me to come up in front of everyone and give the bride and groom some flowers and my blessing (in Chinese): “白头偕老 早生贵子 (Baitou xielao zaosheng guizi)” . Literally it means ‘white hair, grow old, early born treasure’ and could be translated as “I hope you grow old together and have a beautiful baby”. During the ceremony the groom’s friends started setting off fireworks so no one could hear anything! Children ran over the stage.
Perhaps at an English wedding, the bride and groom will drink a glass of wine together to symbolise their unity. At the Chinese wedding, they drank juice! The bride helped the groom pour a glass of Coca-Cola (really!) into what seemed to be a ceremonial glass to show the longevity and prosperity their marriage would bring.
After the ceremony, the bride changed from her white wedding dress into more traditional red clothing and unwrapped small candies to give to all her close relations to thank them for coming. Her parents did not come to the wedding because the marriage would have been a sad occasion for them. Their daughter will move away from home to live with her new husband, so they stay at home to reflect.

Finally, there was the food. SO much food. The whole village had got together to make hundreds of these little meat and veg dumplings called 饺子 (jiaozi) and every house I went into wanted to give me dumplings. Seems like they didn’t know how to treat a foreigner aside from giving me food and smiling, but they all wanted me to eat in their house. After all, food is a universal language! I ate about twenty or thirty dumplings that day, along with steamed fish, roast chicken, roast pork, green vegetables, and two kinds of shrimp. I knew I had to eat a LOT to make them happy, but I didn’t digest those huge meals for three days because they had almost no fibre content! Really, really delicious though . The steamed fish was especially 好吃, and that home reared roast chicken…

WP_20141127_086Copyright: Grace Jackson

They showed me how they cooked the food on a big stove which was also used for warming the beds using steam circulation. The beds were about four metres long and maybe even two metres wide- my friend explained to me that the beds were built so big to accommodate seven or eight children in older times. She told me how they could only shower when it was sunny, because the water was heated by solar power, that water came from collected rainwater and there was no flushing toilet .I thought the whole village was extremely clever, and it was great to see some ancient inspired cooking methods. But there were many elements of modernity about the village as well. Every room had a place I could charge my phone, all the houses had a TV and many posters and photos were pasted on the bare walls. I saw her father’s small scale battery farm. Over 2000 chickens laying eggs, four to a cage, in a small brick building. The noise of those chickens was mournful, you could hear the moaning one hundred metres away. However, I understood that they needed to produce that many eggs to make a living, so it didn’t put me off my dinner!

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Copyright: Grace Jackson

Stray cats and dogs wandered around the bungalows (平房 pingfang) and through the hutongs. One time, a man brought about twenty sheep out of what seemed to be his backyard, and there were piles of sweetcorn everywhere. Small alleyways with tall gates separated houses, and people grew crops in their yards. My friend pointed out the good looking house across the fields, and explained that a member of the government lived there, overseeing crops and distributing plots of land to villagers. One house I went into was plastered with posters of President Xi JinPing and Mao Zedong. The farmers said they loved Xi Jinping because he had fought corruption among overseers, ensuring the farmers would get a fair deal for their produce. One guy’s second question to me was ‘习近平好不好’ Xi Jinping haobuhao (Xi Jinping: good or not?) I spoke a lot of Chinese and described England to my friend’s mum, who was very interested in what English people eat, and what English people wear. I drew a map to explain to her where Europe was.

Oddly, when I came back from such an environment, my Chinese level seemed to have improved considerably. Perhaps I have finally passed the first step to learn Mandarin! I would advise other learners to immerse yourself entirely in a language whenever you can in order to learn it.

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