He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
Nope. Not talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the other Big Brother of the Holiday Season – The Kitchen God, Zao WangYe.
This guy hangs around your home all year, keeping tabs on the family, and then reports back to his boss (the Jade Emperor) just how dysfunctional things have gotten for you and your kin. All this happens about a week before the Chinese New Year so the Jade Emperor can determine just how much fortune you deserve in the coming new year. Sounds like a snitch to me.
The Chinese feel the same, so what some will do is smear honey on his picture (usually hanging in the kitchen) in order to sweeten the message he delivers. Traditional sticky candy – Zao Tang – is also given to children so that their lips get sealed and they can’t spill the beans. Then the picture or effigy of the Kitchen God is burned so that he can carry his gossip back up to Heaven.
Because of the proximity to the Chinese New Year celebrations, this day is dubbed the Little New Year, and marks the beginning of the festivities for many Chinese. Presentations and performances are shown on TV, WeChat messages serving as heralds for the holiday season assault your phone, and, of course, families gather to eat jiaozi – dumplings.
The Little New Year was Friday, and it happened to also be XiaoYi Fu’s birthday (Xiao Ming’s youngest aunt’s husband’s familial title). On closer inspection, most of the older generation in the Liu family tend to have birthdays that conveniently fall on Lunar Calendar holidays. Xiao Ming suspects the dates are made up since the grandparents died young in some cases or couldn’t remember the specific date beyond the season and year. We went over to her parents’ place and had dinner with everyone. Pretty standard.
Then someone busted out their WeChat and started opening digital Hong Bao (Red Envelopes). Red Envelopes during the holidays in China means money. WeChat has a new(?) feature where the sender can decide on a sum of money to give away and the number of times it should be divided, but that sum will be randomly divided up into unknown amounts. Say you send 10 RMB to your family group in six envelopes. Everyone opens the envelopes. Some will get ten cents while others may get six RMB. For about thirty minutes everyone laughed and competed with one another to see who could get the most (and of course made fun of the one who got the least).
I got One RMB.
Next weekend is the Chinese New Year, the big one. The Year of the Rooster is upon us. It’s Xiao Ming’s year, and, as tradition dictates, she has to wear red undergarments – socks, underwear and bra, long-johns – for the entire first lunar month. I, on the other hand, can get away with just wearing red socks.
Chinese people know about it, know Santa brings gifts, trees get lit up, and shops fill with a flurry of purchasing mania. It’s that last economic fringe benefit of the holiday that mostly affects the Chinese, though.
But here in China a holiday does get celebrated right about this time – Dongzhi: the Winter Solstice. So, like a bunch of pagans, the entire country observes the shortest, darkest day of the year. Don’t be offended by the pagan joke. I love pagans.
As is the case with most Chinese holidays, the family gets together during Dongzhi and eats a meal together. In the South it’s the sweat, colorful rice balls called Tangyuan. In the North – where Dalian is – Dumplings are eaten.
And of course they’re homemade. When Xiao Ming and I arrived at our Xiao Yi’s house, her mom and dad were making them. That quickly changed when they pulled us over and put us to work.
I’d made dumplings once, years ago, but couldn’t seem to convince them of that with my completely inept dumpling stuffing and folding technique. My mother-in-law had to patiently show me at least four times before my dumplings looked edible instead of lumps of amorphous flour.
I kept this up for a while, catching my stride and trading small talk with her as Xiao Ming rolled out the round pieces we stuffed with meat and vegies. Then, just when I was beginning to think I didn’t totally suck at such a simple task, my father-in-law comes over and shows me how to pinch the tops of the flour together one side at a time to create an even cooler look. Once again, my first attempts looked like I’d done them blind, in the dark.
They tasted just fine, though.
The family – a small showing of only 10 for the evening – gathered around the table in the kitchen and ate. We toasted each other with red wine (Not sure where the Bai Jiu was that night), beer, and hot water.
What do Chinese families talk about at meals like this?
My father-in-law told jokes about some hillbilly businessmen who used to colorful sentence enhancers in every sentence during a meeting where he struggled to keep a straight face. That kicked off everyone telling jokes that involved swearing with wonderful DongBei (Northeast) flavor. They can really lay the profanities on thick in the North. I thought I got creative with merging English and Mandarin!
Then there was a large portion of time given for comparative linguistics. Well, kinda. They sat around joking in different Mandarin dialects, trying to sound like authentic Hebei or Tianjin locals. Xiao Ming told them about the time I had a full on five-minute conversation with a four-year-old Sichuan boy on the plane that all the passengers around us listened to and ended with a drawn out, rising and falling “man zou!” that made everyone laugh when the boy said it to me in his adorable accent. (Man Zou is said like Mahn Zoe). Then we drank, toasting gan bei in different dialects.
The final topic we all got going on about was familial titles and how to refer to different people. Unlike American families that just use “Grandma/Grandpa,” “Uncle/Aunt,” “Cousin,” and all the other simple titles we know, Mandarin Chinese calls for every person to have their own unique title. Your father and mother’s side don’t use the same, either, so no doubling up. Males and females have different terms as well as older or younger generations. I’m still hopelessly lost once we get beyond first cousins, but they still like to quiz me and each other. Even Xiao Ming makes mistakes! It’s not easy!
After dinner we all hung out in the living room and talked. We showed the family our pictures (some are in the previous post), and they all sat and stared at them for about fifteen, twenty minutes.
And like that, we passed the darkest day of the year together.
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
You can tell the good girls from the bad girls here by gathering a few basic facts, I was told about five years ago. The facts may be closer to stereotypes than reflections of real people, but who doesn’t listen to stereotypes once in a while?
A young Chinese woman who smokes – bad egg.
Tattoos – Watch out!
If she admits to visiting Five Color City frequently – Oh, boy!
FCC is about two or three blocks of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and a few random civil service offices. Tucked between the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) on the north and a large public square used by retirees at night for their Square Dancing on its south side, Five Color has a way of feeling like the center of Kai Fa Qu when you’re standing in the midst of it all.
Growing up in America where smoking, tattoos, and drinking with friends out at night are just common, none of these “Bad Egg” traits stood out to me as indicative of moral depravity. China, for all its robust growth and headlines touting progress across the board, is still a nation of very traditional values – that’s what most people say when you ask them.
Really, it’s a country playing tug-of-war with itself. One side yearning for a wide open field of complete and utter modernity and the moral ambiguity that goes with it while the other tries to anchor their end of rope in place to something like good old-fashioned Confucian principles with Mao’s flavor of Communism laced in there for good measure. Enter the wide-ranging foreign influence along with humanity’s natural inclination to make a buck and you’ll see why a place like Five Color exists.
Advertised in the late eighties as a tourist spot in Dalian, Five Color City drew crowds of families because of its trippy architecture and wholesome vibe. They even had a Western Restaurant! In time, though, the neighborhood-sized attraction lost its appeal, and it shut down in the late 90s.
When the doors began to open again in the 2000s it was for a different clientele. International companies and their foreign workforce needed a watering hole, and FCC provided it. Bars and restaurants opened, and soon the ridiculous facades of the buildings resembling something Disney or Tim Burton might see during a particularly rough trip on LSD became the backdrop of many, many drunken shenanigans.
Every few months a bar closes and another one takes its place – often just a name change marks this event. Painting, remodeling, cleaning are not requirements. In my time in Dalian I’ve seen at least a dozen new bars come and go. Only a handful seem to have any staying power.
Anchorage, Cafe Vienna, Holmes, The Nagging Wife, The Lazy Hog, Gold Bar, Memories – These are basically the only ones still around from more than five years ago. A few Japanese bars may make the cut, but even they turn over just as often (And they don’t like non-Japanese speakers). The bartenders working these joints are often young girls in their early twenties. In the summer you’ve got your college kids looking to either improve their English or up for some partying. Throughout the rest of the year, though, the girls tend to be a bit more worldly.
The shelf-life of a Five Color City employee is about 1-2 years. Anymore and the place works its evil, toxic poison on even the sweetest, bright-eyed cutie. Those in the life much longer than that have a way of aging physically and mentally much faster than they should. Some names come to mind, but I won’t call them out here. A few girls play the seasonal game where they pick up shifts strictly around the holidays, not totally succumbing to the effects of being a full-time bargirl. Probably the best route if you’re going to be a part of it, I suppose.
Start making friends with some of the owners and it becomes apparent that there is a network of power and influence that runs through the entire place. Some bosses command more respect than others while still others form alliances that benefit their bars. I have a friend who does shows. He’s played all throughout Dalian, but early on in FCC one particular bar owner sunk her claws into him and claimed him. He is unable to work in any other bar in Five Color without serious consequences – a threat he feels would actually be enforced. Girls jump ship occasionally, pulling the clients they’ve befriended (or bewitched) along with them. Behind the scenes, however, they all have a common foe.
All the bars give the local cops red envelopes in order to be left alone. A few bar owners have complained that around this time of the year the money gets hard to pull together because many of their foreign customers are traveling for the holidays and the police want bigger slices of the pie. Despite this overhead, bars keep opening all the time.
Sometimes the “Bosses” aren’t the owners, and figuring that out adds another layer.
Turns out, a lot of Japanese or Chinese business men like to be the money behind some bars, but they pick a pretty girl to be the face. Flower, the “boss” of Rainbow Bar a few years ago swore up and down that she owned the bar. Bubbly, charismatic, and just suggestive enough to keep folks coming back, Flower played her role well. She had that ditz thing down pat, but come closing time she could tally tabs and offer advice to her girls like a pro. She almost had me believing she was the sole proprietor until she closed down the place to do some remodeling one day and I caught sight of a shady looking Japanese guy paying the workers.
Sugar Daddy, of course.
The foreigners – those that stick around a while – become personalities around Five Color, too. The obnoxious Australian Seaman Jimmy ran Anchorage with his “wife” Summer when I arrived, but has since disappeared. Jolly enough, the guy never had a shirt on and could bullshit with the best of them. He cut off mid-story once to leap into a fight that had broken out between some Russians and Chinese in the bar. Barely got out of there alive myself. Turns out that was a common occurrence for Jimmy. Probably why he’s not around still. Tall, bald English Dean cozied up to Summer shortly after that. He had a hell of background and an ex, though. The owner of a local restaurant, she would fight with him in other bars, often breaking windows and glasses. That ran its course and he finally reinvented himself as an entrepreneur. He helped Summer remodel the bar, lost some weight, and stopped punching people after drinking too many. He’s still here keeping Anchorage afloat.
No more picking on fellow foreigners…
Then there was that one period of time with all the “Nanas.” For a while it felt like every other girl had the name! “Lily” had the same thing going on for a while. The odd names – Flower, Apple, Seven – never get old. They may be attractive in the right lighting, but tread carefully, friends.
Of course there was a stretch of time where I walked into several classic traps.
Flashy, sexy Eva flirting with the whole bar, but secretly giving eyes “only to me.” Drank like a sailor throughout her shift, and then balled her eyes out when I walked her home. Oh, how I wished there was more beneath that coarse exterior. For a while, I thought so, but in the end, her stories of wanting to spend a year in a different city, not getting along with other women, and the jaded heart just got pathetic and transparent.
Aggressive, worldly, and direct – Jess seemed like she could be fun to get to know. Turns out she just wanted a new wardrobe and her last victim had finished a contract with one of the multinationals around Dalian. Ah, so many of the women actually fit this mold. Sad, but true.
If you’re looking for a relationship you’re better off picking a coffee shop or even the cold approach in a mall. Go the Chinese route and have someone introduce you to a single friend, why don’t ya? Pepper in some Mandarin if you can, and good luck. Bars – though I technically met my wife in one – are not going to be harems of the best China has to offer. And likewise, if you’re always at the bar you’re putting yourself in the stereotypical foreigner category yourself. Been there, so I know. My life in China got so much better after my year of drinking five nights a week.
Brothels don’t really exist here like they may have back in the day, but there are of course a number of ways people get what they want. Shady massage joints litter every Chinese city. You know you’re in trouble when you walk by their front doors and a smiling face peaks out and says, “Massageeee.” The more discreet girls will doll themselves up and sit in one of the bars I mentioned above, waiting for their Mr. Tonight. They’re the ones at the corners, nursing a cocktail for hours or a hot water with a lemon in it just to keep them alert for business opportunities. Unfortunately, these ladies tend to pick up the lonely foreigner around midnight whereas the Chinese businessman will arrange his girl before even commencing on his night out. You can always tell. Much older man with a super young and flashy girl. They barely touch each other the whole time, but she never leaves his side. He ignores her completely, save for a place to rest his hand. She says not a word to him or his buddies, choosing instead to chat with the female bartenders. They leave together of course, but he’s so wasted it makes you wonder if he’s going to seal the deal or if it was all for show, for mian zi, in the first place.
The whole place is that way – one big show.
At night the lights come on, the actors assume their roles, and the performances begin. The cracks in the paint and the ramshackle jimmying of doors or tables is overlooked. Vomit on the street is sidestepped, and the sound of someone voiding their bladder on the side of a building is ignored. Lies are told and swallowed, conversations long memorized like bad scripts get recited, and the motto of every bar in the country rings out ad nauseum – gan bei!
For a long time Five Color City was my hangout. I’d work, hit Starbucks, and then grab a few drinks at one of the bars. Much of my Mandarin foundation came from bartenders or random Chinese drinking partners. Some of my strangest, most entertaining, and loneliest nights happened in FCC. Backflips off a dais at a dance club, cutting my hand open doing a roundoff in the street, bar fights, getting swept up in crowds of Japanese business men out for the night, feuding bars, and, of course, meeting my wife through the machinations of a mutual friend trying to set me up with another girl.
And Five Color almost ruined that relationship from day one. Walking down the main drag with Xiao Ming on our first date at least half a dozen bargirls leaned out their doors and called out to me using either my English name or my Chinese name at the time. Luckily Xiao Ming laughed it off and chose to think of me as a “Five Color City Star,” a reputation I’ve since tried my absolute best to squash and bury. With the turn-over rate of most places working to my advantage, I’ve almost succeeded.
That advice I got more than five years ago may not be the Gospel Truth – hell, even if it was, I wouldn’t have listened completely, who would? – but there is a lot that can be said about moderation and a set of standards. If I’d had either of those five years ago I’m sure I’d have bypassed a lot of trouble, but I’d also have nothing I can shake my head and smile about.
Being married to a Chinese woman isn’t exactly like those melodramatic TV shows or the ridiculously formulaic Korean dramas that people can’t seem to get enough of here.
Ever watch one?
Turn on the tube and chances are you’ll catch one of five types of show:
Dynastic China with subtle, watered-down undertones of political commentary, a World War II series that usually makes the Kuomintang out to be insufferable fools and the Japanese as subhuman monsters while the Communists are righteously wielding inferior weapons and still coming out on top, a medical drama with absurdly handsome and young people staring very sternly at one another, a game show where people just straight up do stupid shit for really nothing but the audience’s applause, or the Korean family drama.
Korean dramas usually follow the boy meets girl story, and then they throw a wammy of boy meets girl’s family and must win over the overbearing parents. Follow that up with boy marries girl. Then girl must win over the overbearing mother of the boy. Once they all like each other there is usually an issue with the pregnancy or stress put on the girl for a boy (the more desired). And in the midst of it all someone gets themselves tossed into the hospital because of a sickness or some stupid behavior that in the end brings to light that they all just love each other and want good things for the family. Yay – happily ever after.
I may have sidetracked myself.
My point is that being married to a Chinese woman isn’t always like that, but dealing with parents in this culture does require some flexibility. Xiao Ming’s mom and dad have always welcomed me, but man can they push my buttons, too.
I come home one day a few weeks back and ol’ mom and pop are there hanging out with Xiao Ming. Her dad motions for me to follow him into my office, so I do. We stand in front of the dresser and he points to it, saying that he fixed it. I open the drawers and sure enough they slide open and shut seamlessly. The flimsy bottoms had begun to bow and made those motions difficult. Great! Fixed. Thanks, Dad.
Except the second thing I noticed was that everything in the drawers were now somehow reorganized. I don’t just have a dresser of clothes. I use three drawers for other things like nik-naks, notebooks, etc. Nothing too crazy personal, but still, personal. To fix the dresser he had to take everything out and then to put it back the way he did, he had to carefully think about how to put items where. So he just went through all my stuff.
If you’re thinking to yourself, Jordan, he fixed the dresser. You’re right. Absolutely. If I were a better person, I’d see that and stop there. I’m not, and I didn’t.
I pulled Xiao Ming to the side, told her I appreciated the help. I didn’t ask for it, but, sure, thanks.
Side note – I grew up working on most weekends helping my stepdad maintain our rentals. I know how to do home maintenance. And, yes, it does bother me to have someone in my home doing things I can do myself. That make me a small man? Fine. I own that.
So I tell Xiao Ming that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all went down. They pop over all the time unannounced, and even come in and fiddle around when we’re not home from time to time. Whatever. No issues. But going through my dresser, even to fix it, was something I’m not okay with.
Xiao Ming gets it. She even admits that she told her father not to do it because I wouldn’t like it. Love her. She knows me. But I’m still seeing red. I have to say something, I tell her. To him. Right now. No, no, she says, but I don’t give in.
I greet him in the living room – damn he’s a small guy – and I very politely thank him for helping with the dresser. But, I add, next time – oh no, he senses my tone and is bowing his head with that uncomfortable smile – I’d like to fix something like that myself. He nods and I walk back to my office like a horrible troll that’s collected a tax for walking over his bridge. Immediately I feel crappy. He does, too, and I can hear him talking to Xiao Ming about it.
What should I have done? That was my line.
In the end, it blows over. After all, we’re family!
And today I come home to a house with a few lights on that I know I turned off. Strange. I go into the bathroom to wash my face and get a shower since I’m sweaty from the gym. Can’t do that. The handle for the bathroom sink is missing.
And the drawers under the sink are sitting oddly. I pull on one and it falls out. The tracks it’s supposed to be on are sticking out of the trash, all rusted and old looking. Obviously Xiao Ming’s father has been here.
So apparently he plans to fix the bathroom sink and the drawers. True, both are due for an upgrade, but they were manageable. A call to Xiao Ming to see if she knows anything. Nope. Her dad has just pulled one of his ninja moves. So now instead of having a sink that works and one that I can fix on the weekend, I have no sink and I have to wait until he feels like finishing what he’s started in case I upset him like I did last time when I asked him to stop fixing things.
As I typed this he sent a message to Xiao Ming –
Tell Jordan, the bathroom’s sink head is broken.
I’ll buy a new one and put it on tomorrow.
Yup, I’m a rotten person.
Xiao Ming has her own battles with her mother, though. She gets on Xiao Ming for everything from our habit of getting delivery most nights to driving habits. She’s always giving Xiao Ming grief about not cooking a lot, about how the apartment could be cleaner (It’s pretty damn clean!), and making Xiao Ming call her everyday just so her mother knows she made it home from work. We eat with them usually once every two weeks, sometimes less. I don’t know, but for me that seems like a good amount for most adult children. Of course her mother makes her feel bad that we don’t eat over there most nights like her cousins eat with their parents. The fact that the cousins still live with their parents and don’t work the same hours as we do doesn’t seem to affect this sentiment at all.
I couldn’t imagine life here without the whole Liu Clan. Everyone from the quiet, meddling father and nagging but caring mother to the fussy aunts and noisy uncles makes life here richer and more meaningful.
Along the coast in Kai Fa Qu there are a series of ramshackle properties that look like they’ve just come through a rough storm. Maybe at some point in the past the paint was fresh and the awnings didn’t flap in the wind…
The Liu clan pulled up in front of the one open and well-maintained restaurant there while Xiao Ming and I stood along the shoreline looking out at the dark water. We tried to imagine the potential of such a naturally pretty area. Couldn’t tell if it was a lack of money or ambition that had let that whole stretch of coast go belly up.
We greeted each other and commented on our surroundings, wondering out loud if we’d all come to the right place. This was the meal where the whole family would meet my other cousin-in-law’s new husband (not the same couple from the previous entry).
It’d been a quick relationship so far; one could even use words like shotgun or wedlock to describe it. Everything with this cousin, though, tends to be extreme or unorthodox. Her past is more than a bit spotty, full of secrets only Xiao Ming (and now I) knows. I could do an entire entry on her particular version of Buddhism – the one that can convince you your body is indwelt with spirits that wish you ill intent. She has a shrine with their names written on parchment.
Anyway – it is the right place. We go in and are ushered to room 307. A small room with a big round table. The guests have arrived before the hosts, everyone exclaims when we enter and no one is there. A bit rude, but not too unacceptable.
As we stand around, Ni Ji, starts asking me how tall I am. I forget, I tell him, so he asks me to stand back-to-back with him. He’s slightly taller. People are obsessed with your Shen Gao, height. There are set standards for desirable men and women – 175cm and taller for guys, 165-170cm for ladies. At 5’9, I’m at the threshold of passable, a mere 175.2 cm.
And then they arrive.
The cousin, Zhao Jing, her husband, Hong Jiang, and his mother walk in. Zhao Jing hides her face behind a pink scarf for a few minutes and then removes it to reveal puffy, splotchy cheeks, some sort of allergic reaction they haven’t identified. Hong Jiang, a tall, barrel-chested guy with a large head and skinny arms shakes everyone’s hands and tells me in English that he’s happy to meet me. His mother, a woman who looks almost too young to have a son his age, is tentative but polite as she talks to all present in turn.
With the arrival of Lao Jiu – the loud uncle who runs the local industrial zone – his wife – a local government official with some clout of her own – and his son our dinner party is topped off with 17 adults and two children.
We all stared at the table.
As with everything in this country, there is an etiquette to observe. One’s place at the table is a matter of importance, not just vague guesstimation. Basically, the rules are that the eldest or guest of honor (GoH) sits farthest from the doorway, and the youngest or guest with the lowest status takes the place closest to it. Spreading out from the GoH, on either side of him or her, the status of the individual goes down incrementally until the two sides meet. I’ve been on either sides of the table before, but for that meal, Xiao Ming and I, Ni Ji and Lulu, and Dong Dong (Ge, the male cousin) were on the end nearest the door. The token Lao Wai doesn’t always get preferential treatment.
But the “adults” had a hell of a time figuring it all out. Xiao Ming’s dad sat on the “low” side, the aunts didn’t know how close to the GoH to sit, and the two kids just kept leaping from one chair to the next. Hong Jiang’s mother kept telling everyone to sit, but of course they didn’t – couldn’t for fear of a committing a faux paux. Then we realized there weren’t enough chairs anyway and three more had to be brought in. What do I do in this situation? Nothing. I wait until Xiao Ming tells me where to sit. It’s the safest play.
We do, finally, sit. I’m to the right of Xiao Ming and to the left of my Xiao Yi, the youngest aunt – Lulu’s mother. The first courses are brought out, all unfortunately selections of seafood that scare me. I picked at some of the vegetables and listen to as much of the conversations as possible until some of the main dishes arrive. These are your meats and big vegies. Shrimp, huge fish, and pork. I dig in.
And then the toasts began.
Hong Jiang welcomed everyone, gave compliments to the oldest present, and then commented on being a part of the family. Bai jiu! In hindsight, Xiao Ming told me, it was quite a vague speech. Then directly to his left Lao Jiu stood and spoke. Holiday, family, happiness – and a lot of vocal inflections pretty much sums his up. Bai jiu! When Lao Jiu sat down we all continued eating. Then, after a few more minutes Zhao Jing’s father, my San Yi Fu, stood. I began to get nervous. A pattern had emerged. He toasted to the family, the holiday, and his new son and happy daughter. Gan bei!
At this point, I leaned over and asked Xiao Ming if everyone – of particular interest: me – would have to make a toast. No, she said. I almost believed her. Six people sat between San Yi Fu and me. The next one to give a toast, San Yi, lifted her glass of Bai Jiu and issued a short speech that at times dropped to almost a whisper. He eyes, as usual, looked heavy and she seemed half ready to sleep, but then she smiled and bid us all gan bei. At this point those drinking the rice liquor had to top off their second or third glass of the stuff. If you haven’t had, just know it’s potent enough to get a rocket into space. My Xiao Yi leaned over then and asked me if her face was red. It wasn’t, yet. She was sweating, she said. I wondered if she was nervous.
San Yi Fu’s mother, the oldest present, didn’t toast. Hong Jiang’s mother, though, did. She played it safe with the warm wishes and the happiness. Eating, eating, eati—another toast! My mother-in-law stood and lifted her glass. She wore a bright blue blazer with a silver pin that Ge’s wife, my Sao Zi, had to reposition from the right side to the more appropriate left side before we walked into the restaurant. Xiao Ming and I can’t recall what she said at all. Characteristically, my father-in-law didn’t speak. Standoffish to the point of rudeness sometimes, he is a frugal, timid, quiet man who is known for showing up for food and then disappearing before the real drinking starts or the bull-shitting (ba xia – to peel shrimp) gets underway. No one even remarked on his silence.
We ate some more. At this point I began running over possible lines in my head. So far only the oldest and the most eccentric got a pass. I’d given up on the hope that I could secure a bye myself. And then Xiao Yi stood, her face now a rosy tint, and held up her glass. Totally consumed by the prospect of yet another toast, I didn’t catch much of this one, either. Except the end – gan bei!
A few more bites taken. My heart beat kicked it up just a bit.
Hong Jiang and Lao Jiu both said something that sounded too much like a request for my toast. I ignored them, focusing instead on helping Xiao Yi refill her glass. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, said that I’d already given a good speech at Lulu and Ni Ji’s party that summer. Xiao Ming concurred. No give. Then Xiao Yi nudged me on. Betrayal!
I smiled, grabbed my glass, and stood.
“Let me think,” I begged with a tight grin, glancing off to the side as if the words had been stashed there for me to find. Think, think! Despite my instincts being right about the toast, my preparation had yielded only a theme—dining etiquette. Around and around in my mind a phrase revolved, and then finally it was out. “In China finding a place to sit when you eat is hard.”
They nodded, agreeing hesitantly with this observation. So far so good. One or two repeated the line back under their breath, no doubt adding the appropriate tones.
“This is also a part of Chinese culture, right?” Agreement. “Today we came in and had a hard time finding a seat, but I’ve noticed that once we finally do sit and begin eating and talking, the seat isn’t that important anymore. What’s more important is the family that’s together.” A turn toward Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang. Glass raised. “And now I’m very happy because my family keeps getting bigger and bigger. Gan bei!”
Even with the Bai Jiu sprinting up to my head, my hands still shook. My heartrate pushed the alcohol through my system quicker and quicker so that added to the mix was a not-unpleasant dizziness. Xiao Ming loved it, she said. Everyone “Hao, Hao-ed” me – Good, good. Jiu Ma, Lao Jiu’s wife (also a woman worthy of her own entry) stared at me with a suddenly very serious look and complimented my Mandarin. Said something about me going on this game show where foreigners speak Mandarin. I thanked her, but demurred at the notion I could hang with those on that show.
Ni Ji got up next, but he also played it safe with a vague rendition and a bit too much distance between him and those around the table, Xiao Ming later told me. Ge represented his father, he told the family. Happiness, family, holidays! And then Jiu Ma’s turn came round.
Everything she said was good. If it’d come from anyone else, there wouldn’t be any issue. But Jiu Ma is a 38 year-old PhD government official who, fifteen years ago while still a college student, developed an affair with Lao Jiu that ended his first marriage. Lao Jiu even likes to joke that her PhD is a fake! Condescending and ultra-task-oriented, she tends to only smile after she’s gotten something she wants from someone. Her four-year-old, Lele, is constantly in the care of the aunts (mostly Xiao Ming’s mom), and yet she loves to wax poetically about a mother’s responsibility to her child. And so her toast took on the form of a lecture. Familial piety was her message. Taking care of mom and dad above all else, even the marriage! She even observed that two years ago none of the cousins even had boyfriends. Wrong! Xiao Ming and I have been together more than three years, thank you! Who knows if this was deliberate. Well, she got tears in her eyes, leaned over and clinked glasses with Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang (She sat close enough to them to do so), and ended her toast.
Nothing about this woman surprises me anymore, and so I just continued on eating and drinking. Xiao Ming balled her fists and punched my thigh. She and I both dislike Jiu Ma’s practical, manipulative personality, but because neither of us have ever needed any help from Lao Jiu or Jiu Ma or their guan xi, she doesn’t make requests of us. It’s a consolation we content ourselves with.
The round of toasts complete, we ate uninterrupted for a while. My father-in-law leaves around this time, slipping out of the room like a ninja.
The second round of gan bei(s) have little responsibility attached. You simply call out to a family member, raise your glass, and tell them how much to drink. It’s usually the whole damn shot glass of Bai Jiu. You can tell when people begin to get winded because they start saying “just a sip” or “half.” At that point in the drinking festivities, every time I pick up my glass it gets set down empty. When the Bai Jiu is gone, we switch to Snow Beer.
I ate and ate, drank and drank. To quote Forest Gump, “When I had to, you know, I went.” I got in on some of the conversations – Chicago verse New York, teaching, fishing. Hong Jiang made a toast to Xiao Ming (pretty sure he kept staring at her throughout the meal). The two kids ran around the table jabbering away at the tops of their lungs. Smokes were smoked. More glasses of beer!
And then it is time to leave.
It’s just about 1 pm and I spend the rest of the day hungover.
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.