On the heels of Duan Wu Jie—Dragon Boat Festival—this past June, my cousin-in-law got married in Harbin, Heilongjiang’s rusted, cramped, forgotten Russian outpost that’s served as the province’s capital forever. More well-known for hosting the winter snow and ice festival that gets national attention in the colder months, the city is stuck between what was surely its heyday during the birth of Chinese industrialization and marching into the modern stage of economic development. There are stretches of city where chains of crumbling, derelict one-story homes stand sentry in front of glass and steel monuments freshly minted and opened for business as if their purpose is to guard against the rushing tide of modernity that will render them piles of rubble in the near future.
Our over-night train from Dalian deposited us right in the heart of the city at the tail end of a storm. At 4:25 am. Working on about three hours of rough and dreamless sleep, I struggled to carry on conversations with my Chinese family in my usual upbeat manner as the train slid into the station and we alighted. My male cousin, who Xiao Ming calls Ge, or big brother, a short, tanned guy who shares the same national addiction to nicotine as most other Chinese men, also nursed a hangover headache as we all pushed our way out into the rainy morning. When he showed up at the train station with the rest of the Liu clan he was already pretty toasted. He had spent most of the previous night chatting away with me in broken English and Mandarin; convinced that a friend of mine in America could help him get his hands on industrial machines that he could turn around and sell to his customers, Ge boisterously lectured me on the merits of American, German, and Japanese technology and how the Chinese admired their craftsmanship.
With the exception of me—the one lao wai in the group—we were a fairly average group of travelers, considering our destination and purpose. The roster included Xiao Ming and I, her parents, the two aunts and their husbands, and the cousins Ge, and Zhao Jing.
The cousin getting married—Wang Lulu—was already in her husband’s hometown of FangZhang, three hours outside of Harbin. Her parents, my Xiao Yi and her husband, whom I referred to as Xiao Yi Fu (Each and EVERY member of a Chinese family has a specific title they are known by: as the youngest blood-related aunt, Xiao Yi, or “little aunt” and Xiao Yi Fu “Little aunt’s husband”), seemed excited for the occasion, but they’d already had their moment, really. Lulu and her groom/husband, Ni Ji, had already held a ceremony down in Dalian two weeks before, but this one was for his side of the family. Only his mom and dad could make it the first time, so Lulu and Ni Ji got two wedding ceremonies. The big difference was that this one would be a traditional Chinese wedding, something I’d read about, but never participated in. When we got married, Xiao Ming and I only had the Gan Xie dinner with the family where a few toasts were made, red envelopes got handed out, and Bai Jiu imbibed.
An older uncle on Lulu’s side picked our troupe up at the Harbin West Station, and walked us to a local hotel a few blocks away where we all—eleven of us—hung out for five hours in one room. It was about as fun as it sounds. After changing and cleaning some of the sweat and travel off, we all sat around and chatted. Unable to nurse the migraine that had developed while everyone rattled on about raising children, methods of education, and family stories I had no context for, I took a walk.
Harbin at six am is quiet, wet, and full of taxis. The cool air and brisk morning breeze woke me up a bit as I wandered around. After a while I found myself in a park watching older couples run through their exercise routines—walking backwards, patting their heads, speed-walking, and Tai Ji Quan sets. I’d heard that Harbin had once been considered chic and westernized. I wondered how long ago that was.
The building across from the hotel had broken windows and boards nailed to others without glass altogether. I’d thought the place vacant and abandoned until a man pushed his way out of the crooked front door. The Russianesque architecture couldn’t be original, either. Imitation has become another Chinese national custom, and it didn’t surprise me to see official office buildings that looked built within the last ten years topped with rounded domes and eaves sporting archangels as though commissioned by Russian patrons themselves. Sure, there had to be authentic bits thrown in throughout the city, but I didn’t see many that morning.
At approximately nine am we headed back to the train station and picked up even more family members. After shaking hands, snapping a few photos for posterity, and standing around, we hopped into a large van and drove out of the city just as it was beginning to fully wake up.
I slept. I tried to sleep.
Then, in a daze, I came to around two pm as we pulled into a small town about one traffic light removed from a village. A big family lunch got underway when all I wanted to do was shower and stretch out on a flat surface big enough so that my feet didn’t hang off the edges. Xiao Ming could tell I was in a bad mood. I get cranky when I have to do things in a big group, especially when it deviates from the plan. I was told we’d be checking into a room where we’d be left alone for the rest of the afternoon until dinner. An impromptu lunch with forty people was cramping my style.
But as soon as we began eating I also began to wake up and my bad attitude drifted away.
Mandarin chitchat rolled off my tongue as red whine imported from Australia loosened my lips. I filled up on fish, chicken, turkey, greens, and rice. Ge and I began joking with one another, parlaying his Japanese with my English and Xiao Ming’s French in funny ways, using Mandarin as the lingo de franco when communications got cluttered. The whole round table consisted of cousins and friends of the bride and groom—all under forty years old. We were at the “kiddie table” while the adults sat on the other side of the wall laughing and eating.
As is usually the case at a Chinese meal, toasts began to be made. It always starts with one of the Big Wigs holding up a glass of Bai Jiu and the whole table standing as the speaker gives a hearty welcome full of gushing sentiment and red-faced cheer. This goes on for a few turns, each speaker putting their own flare to the toast, until finally the toasting does one of two things: it either breaks off and becomes about toasting those you’re sitting next to or, in the case where the party is big enough to have more than one room (our situation), the tables begin to mix and toast one another.
Ni Ji’s uncle, a barrel-chested man with a shiny dome and a wide face was first. The Biggest Wig present, he owns (somehow) one of the most popular food streets in Dalian, and is a successful import/export man. I didn’t understand all of his words, but his speech was more of a performance to watch than simply a toast to be heard. Dramatic volume changes, varying shades of red cheeks, and sweeping hand gestures made me wonder if he’d missed his calling as a Shakespearean stage actor.
Eventually, though, Lulu and Ge stood up. Then they looked at me. Waving me up from my seat, they said that they were going to the other room to give a toast and to represent the Liu side of the family and our room. They joked that they wanted me to be the English translator, but it was clear from the apprehension on Lulu’s face that she needed to surround herself with supporters. Why she didn’t ask anyone else around the table besides me, I have no idea. Maybe it was that she and I have always been on good terms. Maybe it was that Ge and I were the “men” on her side of the family. Hell, maybe my white face was a distraction that took the focus off her.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t hesitate. I’m fairly certain that the wine played a part in my lack of inhibition, but at that point it wasn’t about me.
The three of us entered the other room, the “adult room,” and, as expected, we caught everyone’s attention. Lulu held out her glass and in her quiet but clear voice thanked everyone for coming to celebrate her and Ni Ji’s wedding, expressed her gratitude, and then nodded toward Ge. He glanced at me and asked me to translate. Jokingly referring to something he and I had said earlier, I used my announcer voice to say, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” Everyone laughed, and then he began his toast.
As he spoke, I zoned out.
At my own wedding dinner, I’d given a brief, frankly childish speech. The crowd had been deeply forgiving and open. No one faulted me, I knew. But I also knew that mian zi played a big part in moments like these. Playing the token lao wai in China is easy. The role is made just for us foreigners. Everyone knows the lines we should speak and the faces we should make. I’ve played that role before. But as Ge spoke, I looked at my mother and father-in-law. They’d never treated me that way. I’ve always been a part of their family, not some comic relief.
I had to try.
As the toast ended and the glasses rose to peoples’ lips, I lifted mine and added in slow, careful Mandarin, “I’d like to say something.”
I wanted to make sure I was understood. Chinese people give me the benefit of the doubt occasionally, but older generations tend to struggle to comprehend more complicated sentences from me. As the table clapped and then fell quiet to listen, I ignored my pounding heart and hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“I’ve been in China four and a half years,” I continued. “And I know that China has a long culture and history that I cannot ever understand. But what I have discovered is that the most valuable part of Chinese culture is family.” And with a lift of my glass, I turned to Lulu beside me and added, “I am so happy to be here now to take part in Lulu and Ni Ji’s wedding. Gan bei!”
When it was over and my glass empty, I noticed that Xiao Ming had snuck into the room. No doubt planning on coming to my rescue. Instead of translating any mistake I made, though, she beamed with obvious pride. She took my arm and led me out of the room as everyone clapped and carried on. When I asked her if what I said was okay she smiled and said it was perfect. When we returned to our table everyone clapped for me, and it was only then that I realized that the entire group of people from both sides had heard every word.
It wasn’t something that was going to end up in the papers (although in that town maybe it was the first toast delivered in Mandarin by an American), but I’d made Xiao Ming proud, and, as cliché as it sounds, I did bring honor to the family.
When we finally did make it to the motel, I was impressed. Despite being a small town, the accommodations were great. We had a large room, bigger than my first apartment in China, with tan oak walls and a fantastic shower. The rest of that afternoon was blissfully free of any family obligations. In the evening the younger members all ate together again, and then most of them went out for barbecue afterward. Xiao Ming went with them, but the lack of sleep had finally whittled away my second and third winds. Was I on a fourth wind? I stayed in the room and got a good night’s sleep.
The next day, “The Wedding” started early. Xiao Ming’s folks knocked on our door around seven, and we were dressed and outside before eight.
The Groom, Ni Ji, was not on site. He and his Groom’s Men would show up in a convoy of black Mercedes Benz later, but the Bride’s side had work to do first.
Aunts and Uncles, Cousins, and family friends all piled into one motel room – even with the cabinesque feel and size to it, the guests filled the room out. Standing room only, along the perimeter. I got the usual questions and comments, but some were present the day before for my spontaneous toast and I thought maybe they showed me a bit more consideration beyond open curiosity.
Dumplings got made, rolled and stuffed and then boiled, steamed, and baked. One aunt took a butcher knife to half a cow. The little tank of a lady worked at the task with incredible focus. Xiao Ming, watching her, began to cry.
“Li Niang Rou,” she tells me. Leaving the Mother Meat. It’s a custom of cutting the meat from the bone, a symbol of the child leaving the mother forever.
Soon after that the younger women, Xiao Ming and the other cousins, barricaded themselves in the back room with Lulu, the Bride. Ni Ji had arrived. Climbing out of the first Benz, he and two friends strutted up to the hotel room decked out in Tuxes, Red Envelopes in hand.
Without warning, everyone is rushing around in the motel room. The door is slammed closed, the male cousins press themselves against it, and pull me along with them. We’re blocking the door so Ni Ji can’t get in? Yes, yes, we are.
During a Chinese wedding the Groom has to overcome multiple obstacles to prove he’s determined to marry and provide for his new Bride. The first of these obstacles is getting through the front door.
Ni Ji arrives, yells to his Bride, “Lao Po! Wo Lai Le!” Wife! I’m here! We press ourselves against the door as he and his friends try to push it open. We hold.
Second obstacle: the third degree. Suddenly everyone starts shouting questions at him. Why are you here? What do you want? Who are you? And then the long line of Who am I? Followed by Ni Ji referring to everyone with the familial title specific to his position – I’m Er Jie Fu.
Third: The Payoffs. We don’t open, yet. Instead, people start asking for money. Seriously. Ni Ji starts sliding those red envelopes under the door. I collect two. Others get more. Later, when I look inside, I find 150 RMB!
Finally, we let him in. But it’s not over. He has to convince the girls to open their door. Another round of questions and payoffs.
Another task is left, though, before he can kiss or even look at Lulu. He must find her shoes.
Hidden around the room are the shoes she’ll wear at the ceremony later, and he must find them before he can claim his Bride. It takes him a while, too.
When he does succeed and the family relents in their attempts at keeping Lulu, Ni Ji whisks her away in the Benz. We all follow after in the other half a dozen Mercedes Benz! We pull up in front of an apartment complex I’m told is where Ni Ji’s parents live. Up to the apartment we go for pictures. A ceremonial wedding bed is made and the Bride and Groom sit on it while a professional photographer snaps shots of them and family members around them.
A large, thick, highly decorated wedding blanket is stretched over the bed, and in the shape of a heart are different nuts and seeds, all Chinese homophones representing marital hopes for the family. Dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, and dragon eyes “Zao Sheng Gui Zi” – Give birth to a boy quickly, is the phrase you hear when all the ingredients are said together. Subtle.
After the photo shoot, it’s off to the dining hall.
This is the most familiar part of the whole event. Dozens of big round tables, beer, food, an MC who tells jokes and gets the Bride and Groom to make speeches, balloons, music, slide show of the relationship, more pictures, and a little bit of dancing.
And then it’s over.
Getting back to Dalian seems to take forever as we retrace our steps back through Harbin city, to the train station, the over-night ride south to Dalian, and then the drive back to our home. Despite the rush and the moments of exhaustion during the weekend, I realize how lucky I am to have been along for the ride. Everyone made me feel welcome, a part of the family.
We all parted at the Dalian train station. Saying goodbye, I noticed that the apprehension of being with the whole family the entire weekend had been replaced by a stronger emotion, one harder to name.
My Family keeps getting bigger.