Near around the time that school was finishing up in June, several interesting things happened. First there was a holiday called Dragon Boat festival. This is to celebrate a certain famous Chinese poet and thinker who, when political climates turned against him, threw himself into a river and drowned. Supposedly people threw sticky rice balls after him so that the fish would not eat his inspirational remains, so thusly, it is traditional to eat sticky glutinous rice in celebration. The dragon boat part of it makes slightly less sense to me, but I suppose that if you want to celebrate a holiday near a river, why not have some boats involved? And if boats are involved in a traditional Chinese festival, why not make them look like dragons? And then why not have them race? Because otherwise you are just looking at colorful boats hanging out in a river. Not that I am in any way or form an expert in this stuff. There aren't any dragon boats festivities near Yibin and I never saw any in person.
Instead, some of my students, the ones learning 'Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language', mine and some of Leo's as well and one of their head teachers, they come and host me on a trip to a small village, Lizhuang, not too far from Yibin. It has a few old buildings, an old school and it gives name to a special food that has its origins there, 'Lizhuang bairou', a kind of thin sliced pork you dip into a spicy sauce. We spent most of a day, walking around the narrow streets, out in gardens and fields and strolling along the wide lazy river. It was a nice place, not a whole lot to do, but relaxing in its own way.
That day I did eat a few of the sticky glutinous rice things, though after a while they made me a bit nauseous. They aren't really the kind of fun treat I would associate with a holiday. Not bad exactly, but just not that great I think.
After that, school was wrapping up, I had two weeks of finals for my English majors. This time I wanted the final to be something interesting. I told them that their final was a story they had to tell about their family. I wanted it to be something that they had not heard before, something old, about their parents or grandparents perhaps, and it should be something that is important to their family, or at least, important to them. This gave them a lot of freedom for interesting stories, as was my goal.
Some talked about parents, some about grandparents, about meeting, or falling in love or having an arranged marriage, or about having children or working. And some talked about siblings or childhood stories or things like this. Some were really interesting, and of course, some were not so much.
One described her father performing ghost exorcisms in their small rural hometown. There was a girl that talked about how when her mother was her age, she saw a movie for the first time. About parents being the only one from a village to go to college, about themselves being far from home but eager to return. Some stories were about them or their parents as young toddlers accidentally drinking rice liquor or getting into accidents. One story was about a fish and where her family name is believed to have come from. Some stories were about grandparents that were landlords during the Cultural Revolution and relatives that were killed by the Red Guard. One story was about how a runaway pig brought her parents to meet each other.
All in all, it was a rather enjoyable way to finish up the semester, much better than last year, and it gave the students to tell a story with words that they knew and present it to their classmates. I hope it also encouraged them to talk to their parents and grandparents about the past and their own childhoods and educations and what life was like in their memory. I cant be sure, but I feel that kind of curiosity is not particularly encouraged here. They have mountains of propaganda to tell them about the glorious achievements of the past 90 years of the communist party. They know about medieval China and its accomplishments. Many of them know about certain emperors and princesses, some true and some fairy tale, no doubt, but there is that. But very few know or care much about recent history, about things that happened in China in the 80s and 90s, let alone what could have happened in the 60s and 70s when so many things were changing. And things still are changing, hopefully they will tell their own children about how they were raised.
Ok, enough rambling.
The next thing that happened, and how I will finish up this partial update, is that I went to a Chinese wedding. I suppose I was not particularly surprised by any of it, which surprised me a little. I guess because I was witness to a handful of Senegalese celebrations, including a few wedding ceremonies, that perhaps I am too jaded to the strange ceremony that this one did not seem all that odd. I think it may be that also I haven't been to enough weddings in America that other weddings seem so strange.
I knew the bride from school, she is a teacher or assistant or English major that I have seen around a lot near the end of the semester. We were invited though, by her cousin, another teacher at the school and for most of the day we, myself, the British volunteer Joe, and the Japanese volunteer Kanda Ai, followed her and did what she did. We did not know the groom, and he spoke little English, so we had very few words with him and did not really do much with him until that evening.
The first thing that I noticed was the decorations. I could direct you to the recently posted pictures under the May and June 2011 folder to see a few random shots that I got when I was there. I wish I had better pictures, but I think some of them are ok. Anyway, so this was not a traditional wedding or, as far as I know, an arranged marriage, so it was not too odd. When I came in, I was greeted first by the bride and groom, standing by the door to the hotel (the wedding and reception all happened in the hotel's banquet hall,) handing out cigarettes and candy and people were taking pictures every-which-way. I stumbled through my wedding blessing for them, but with the noise and the shuffle I don't think anyone heard me and I didn't have time to repeat it before I was hustled through the entrance way.
Once inside, i was assaulted by the blues and pinks and reds of the banquet hall. There was a blue arch of flowers and dolphin ballons along a red carpet. Thick pink covers were placed over all 500 or so chairs, gathered around red draped tables already set with beer and rice liquor and several dishes: salty egg slices, smokey flavored tofu, thin sliced pork ear. There was a stage set up with more blue decorations, flowers on pedestals. A single hanging sign in the middle of the back drop, in English, said "Wedding", as if the English speakers were confused, or maybe it was some other sign of good luck...
The Chinese seem a rather superstitious people, lots of things about numbers and certain words and phrases that rhyme with other words and phrases and signifying certain things. For example, the number 8 is lucky. Thus, that Saturday, the 18th was certainly a busy day for weddings. There was also something about how we would begin at 11:58 or the vows would happen at 12:08 or 12:18 or something like that. I am pretty sure that nothing ever happens on a schedule like that in China, and that was no different for this wedding, despite their efforts.
The other thing that I noticed was the dress of everyone, both in the ceremony and in the audience. I was told not to wear anything too nice, maybe just a polo and khaki pants, not even as nice as I sometime dress to teach class in for goodness sakes! But Im glad i didnt, nobody there was dressed up, and if I had worn anything more I guess I would have looked better than the groom and that was not allowed. The strange thing was that he was just in a short-sleeved white collared shirt that looked not particularly like something one would wear to a wedding, maybe more like a day at the beach, and a pair of grey slacks that looked no better than the pants I had on. There wasn't anything at all to distinguish him from anyone else. He wasn't busy, but he wasn't sitting doing nothing either, he did not look particularly happy or unhappy. Later he got drunk of course, but not much more drunk than anyone else there. Most of the day and night I kept having to remind myself which one he was.
The bride on the other hand, did have a beautiful white dress. She only wore it for the ceremony though, for most of the day, the bride is expected to wear red or pink, a lucky wedding color, of course. Oh, there is some other traditional behavior that I did not get to see, mostly just at the beginning and end of the wedding day. At the beginning, the groom comes to the bride's house, where they have a traditional giving away practice. He tries to come in, but her parents and family should not open the door. He can plead with them, beg them, and eventually, offer them red envelopes of money. When the family has deemed that he has offered enough envelopes, they may let him inside where he can gather up his bride. But of course, more complication, she is supposed to hide her shoes and they cannot leave until he pleads and offers her and her family more envelopes in exchange for the location of her shoes. Eventually, they do get away from her parents house and move to his house. I am not as sure as to what happens at his house in the morning, maybe she just talks to his parents, she is to become part of their family now: the bride and groom, his parents, maybe his grandparents, and eventually their children may all live together in one apartment.
Anyway, so back to the wedding: They come marching down the aisle, everyone swarms around them, cameras flashing, children giggling, adults giggling. With the press of the crowd, its a wonder they do make it down, sitting quietly is certainly not a part of this formal ceremony. There are also loud bangs of confetti guns going off as they walk town to the stage, they are rather loud and shower the crowd in colorful bits of paper. At last, they make the stage and then there is a lot that i didn't understand. One lady, i guess she was officiating the ceremony, she talked for a while, welcomed people, gave congratulations. Eventually, they exchanged rings, gave each other hugs (kissing would be way to much for the Chinese), and together they lit a candle display in the shape of a heart.
The ceremony itself I suppose was on the short end. After, there were speeches. I do not recall if the bride or groom ever said anything, but their parents had much to say. As far as I know, the husbands father had some sway that the wedding was almost not as expensive as it looked. There were maybe 50 or more tables, each with at least one bottle of rice liquor that probably was more than $30 each, plus all the food and beer and everything else. Talking to the bride afterwards, she said that she had picked out certain music, love songs and traditional Chinese songs, and had told the DJ to play those. Her father-in-law had an arrangement with them and was getting them on the cheap. Because of this, or in spite of the bride, either way, they played the music that they felt like. And they felt rather strangely. I recognized the theme from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and several other similar action movie theme songs. They also played some other rock songs, none Chinese, few that I recognized, and none that one would find appropriate for a wedding ceremony. The strangest thing I guess for me was that the bride was just so unperturbed by it, as if the wedding were just something she was watching on TV and she didn’t have a hand in it or the power to change what the characters were doing. But I suppose that is just a different philosophy toward the tradition.
At the end of the speeches, the last thing they did was set of these giant sparklers that sent sparks shooting up in front of the stage. I honestly have no idea how that did not burn the building down. Really I am pretty impressed that the Chinese manage not to blow themselves up or burn everything down with the amount of explosives and fireworks and sparklers that they use on a yearly basis. When all that was done, we all sat down to eat. Or rather, some sat and some people wandered about shouting wedding toasts and chugging beer or liquor. I managed to not drink too much, maybe just a two or three beers total with all of the toasting. I had hoped for champagne or wine, but beer or rice liquor was the choice, and I went with the one that would not knock me out on the floor.
Lunch eventually tapered off and ended, most of the guests went home, and I found myself sitting with the bride, now in a short pink dress, and some of her cousins and a few others, some foreigners from town and some children. The parents, along with aunts and uncles were gathered at a couple tables talking and laughing. The groom seemed to be running around busy, but what he was doing, I have no idea. As far as I could tell the bride did not have much else to do with herself after the ceremony and toasting her guests as much as she could stand. For a while we just sat bored and talked about various things. Eventually we had it in our minds that we would go get coffee or a snack, but when we arrived at a good place, we abruptly changed our minds and went looking for some Chinese massages. This was together with the bride and some of her cousins, again the groom disappeared somewhere to relax on his own.
We gave up after a while, no coffee and no massage, and we returned to the hotel banquet hall for dinner. This was a much smaller party than lunch, maybe not even a tenth of the number of people from before, mostly just close family and, inexplicably, us foreigners. We ate and then did some more sitting. Before we got out of the door, everyone turned fast and loose with the toasting. Downing shots of beer that is the style, I feel sure that I had another 4 or more beers in 5 minutes, accepting toasts from each of their parents and older relatives. Somehow drinking in banquets, in social situations and in ceremonies like this one, just is not enjoyable or comfortable. I left wanting to just lie down on the floor. And worse, after a day of drinking, I really just wanted to sleep. I still don’t understand how the Chinese can do it. Practice I guess, drinking all day and still functioning. That’s certainly one of the biggest obstacles to integrating in the community here.
From dinner we all headed out to the extravagance of KTV. KTV is Chinese karaoke. You get a room by the hour, there is a screen with words and invariably a picture that is something shot in China that never matches those words, and people choose songs to sing. It seems like something that would be rather fun, though I have heard almost no volunteer here say that it is ever fun to do KTV with Chinese people. Somehow they think us foreigners know how to read characters in songs, or that we know the random assortment of English songs that happen to be mixed in with the rest, and those are usually strange 80s songs that have long since died in the West. We are served more beer, rather, more shots of beer to take, one after another in a long process of more toasting. I try to stick to lemon tea with little luck. We stay there for maybe 4 or 5 hours. I manage to not get pulled up in front of anyone, it’s really only the younger people here, and they don’t choose any English songs anyway. As I said, the new husband gets very drunk and the wife is not much better, though I think that may be for what comes next that I am happy to not been a part of.
This last part of the wedding night, after everything else is done, was explained to me by the bride and her mom and aunt. A lot of Chinese and a lot of translating were involved, but I have confirmed this since as an actual tradition. From what I understand, Chinese feel that the more uncomfortable the new husband and wife are on their wedding night, the better their marriage will be. They say this as if it is a logical explanation for everything else. I am pretty sure it is not, but did not know how to explain how strange I thought this was. So the husband and wife go back to his room, but not alone. A party of friends and family, usually younger people, usually people not married themselves, but including young children, go back with them. And then they basically play a long dare game. The object is to get the couple to do something embarrassing, the more they refuse, the more they must do it, and everyone gets to make things up, from the children to friends to family members. They did say that the parents and aunts and uncles generally aren’t there. But so as far as I understand, it basically turns into a kind of bachelor party of games, but only the husband and wife participate. And generally everything is sexual. There is stripping, dancing, and, as I was told “mock sex acts” performed in front of everyone. Sometimes props are involved, or dexterity or stamina. And this can go on for an hour or two, before they let the couple, surely exhausted, drunk, and properly embarrassed, alone to sleep.
No other custom in China is so baffling to me as this. I am quite pleased that I was not invited to take part. I suppose wedding ceremonies in Africa were quite strange too, and I guess that gave me a lot of perspective.
Anyway, later I started my summer properly, and I can get to that in part 2 of this post.