I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.
It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.
A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”
This year February 27 is er yue er, or 2 Month 2. The traditional name is much cooler, though. Dragon Raising its Head Festival, Long Tai Tou.
One of the traditions goes that for the entire month of the lunar January no one cuts their hair. It’s only after the Dragon has raised its head and the rains come that getting your ears lowered is recommended. Dunno why, and no one in my family can explain it sufficiently. Also, if you do cut your hair before the appointed time, your uncle dies. Yeah, I don’t think they can get much more random than that with these holidays.
As I’ve mentioned before, every Chinese holiday seems to also coincide with a family member’s birthday. No one appears to find this suspicious. Today was my San Yi’s. This is Xiao Ming’s middle aunt. Her new son-in-law, Long Hong Jiang, set the meal up, but San Yi paid. In Chinese culture it’s a custom for the birthday guest of honor to treat the family. In the West the birthday girl/boy pays for nothing, but here they foot the bill.
Every time we all get together for someone’s birthday, people give toasts. Apparently I’ve been voted the member best suited to represent XiaoMing, her dad, mom, and me. It hadn’t occurred to me until about ten minutes before I spoke that I’d have to give a toast. Due to my age and position in the family, XiaoMing and I, along with the other cousin and her husband, sat closest to the door (this is basically the lowest spot at a Chinese dinner table), and so that put me at exactly halfway through the toasts. Luckily, I’ve been through this before, and I sort of had something I could say.
“San Yi,” I began as I stood with my glass of wine. “Today is your birthday. But today is also LongTaiTou. I’m always learning about Chinese holidays. America doesn’t have so many fun holidays like this! Chinese people and their holidays are great! The most important part of the day, though, is that it’s your birthday. We are all together for it. I wish you a happy birthday!”
Not so much with the sentimentality, but it was understood by all – a big deal for me with my bad tones – and San Yi appreciated it. XiaoMing said it was good, and I tend to defer to her in all things Mandarin. Several others toasted, and we continued to eat. Eventually the individual toasts began. It wasn’t long before I spoke again, to Xiao Yi, this time. She’s the youngest aunt. Turns out that she just retired, for the second time, so that she can help the cousins raise their babies (two of them are pregnant). She posted this on WeChat, but apparently I was the only one who noticed. I mentioned it to XiaoMing earlier and she had no idea, so when Xiao Yi talked to the family, I actually knew what she was talking about.
As she stood next to me, I raised my glass and toasted her, saying “So many people post on WeChat, Xiao Yi, but I usually don’t even look at their posts. But when you posted, I wanted to know what was going on. You are family, and this is what family does: we care about each other and want to know what’s going on. That’s family.”
This moved her. She then proceeded, tears brimming her eyes, to toast me.
She said such nice things about me as a person, family member, man, and husband that I can’t repeat them here. Her sincerity and love radiated off her.
It’s daunting when others see such value and worth in you. Makes you want to be worthy of their praise.
And here you thought it was just a Monday in February.
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.
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.
Crossing China is no easy task. It’s simple, most of the time, but not always easy. Planes will do the job quickly, but they’re costly and get hung up by silly things like typhoons (We got delayed in Detroit and Shanghai recently because of three that decided to hangout along China’s coasts). On the international flights they feed you a bunch of times, you’ve got a bit more legroom, and more and more they’re getting better movies to watch. The shorter and the long flights can present the noisy child scenario, the angry old people scene, the hot-shot-above-the-law-of-avionics skit, and the militant flight attendant just looking for an excuse to use her self-defense skills to put you back in your seat with the tray in its upright and locked position.
Trains are cheaper, and can still make good time. You’ve got your seat tickets, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers to choose from. On the short trips, on the High Speed Train, seats are fine, but when we took trips to Lhasa, Xi’an, and Chengdu we opted for the sleepers. We even did the soft sleeper once.
If you happen to luck out and get the bottom bunk, good for you. You’ve got the most coveted spot on the train. The middle bed is Okay, but you’re unable to sit up like a normal human. The top bunk, forget about it. Most people with those spots just visit them to sleep. Otherwise they’re the ones hogging the few spring-loaded seats by the windows, leaning over the limited outlets like Shmeegle and his Precious. There’s basically nothing to do on a train but eat, sleep, read, look out the windows, and play on any tech toy you’ve charged up. The Chinese tend to put all their chips in the eating basket. Chances are high that if they’re awake they’re eating. They gorge themselves on Instant Noodles, dry tofu, rancid smelling meat sticks, boiled tea eggs, and a dozen other aromatic treats that will singe your nose hairs.
Often on the longer route trains there are few western foreigners, so I’ve gotten plenty of attention riding them. On the way to Chengdu we had 40+ hours on the train, and for the first 15 I was a curiosity to the others in our car, but the last 25-30 hours I was the honorary uncle of three kids. The youngest, a 6 year-old boy, thought of me as his hairy, foreigner jungle gym. He climbed into my lap, onto my shoulders, and pulled on my arm hair constantly. They taught me a new card game, and I showed them one I learned as a kid. And then they wanted me to play with them for hours. I always like talking with Chinese kids when they’re not shy. My sense of humor in Chinese is comparable to a child’s, so we usually get along well. Also, they almost always understand my bad tones whereas adults sometimes get hung up on a phrase I utter incorrectly.
Traveling out into China’s rural areas by train is also a unique way to see a land that is truly stuck between the old and new world. Miles and miles (or kilometers if you’re, you know, the rest of the world) of land seems to have barely been touched by civilization, other stretches just by villages, and even the cities you pass that have aspirations of full-on urbanization are still only just developing. Out west, many roads are still being constructed; the concrete bases that will bare the weight of the highways portend coming changes to the villages and towns, mountains and rivers they traverse.
Nighttime on a train can be gorgeous. When we went to Lhasa we stargazed like we never had before anywhere in China. Pristine, virgin land gives way to breathtaking mountains and lakes that make you pray humanity just sort of goes away.
Buses, now. These are always packed with colorful people that make you wonder how we justify calling ourselves the top of the food chain. Right now as I write this, we’re on our way to Kang Ding, a Chinese city close to the Tibetan border. However, this trip, which, taking a direct westerly route, should take only about 4-5 hours, is going to take about 10 because the ONE ROAD that goes to Kang Ding is impassable right now. So we’re taking a mountain-hugging road that looks like it’s just been finished way south toward Yunnan, then taking (we’re guessing at this point) the only other road this far out of the way toward Kang Ding.
Behind me are three people who I swear to God I wouldn’t mind dangling out the window. One, the grandpa, intermittently juggles screaming into his phone with an incomprehensible dialect of Mandarin so hard on the ears that Xiao Ming and I cringe when we hear it and singing songs that were probably only around during the Cultural Revolution, loudly. The adult son is second. Mostly a complaint-free individual, but pair him with the grandson and you have a duo I’d like to kick into the DaDu River we just passed. The boy hollers like an insane child that he is Spider-Man while his dad goads him on by fake fighting him. They kick, slam, and crash into our seats like they’re staring in a Jet Li flick while the grandpa, seemingly oblivious to them both, sings or assaults his phone’s receiver and our ears with his brand of gibberish. The incessant honking, jostling, and sudden changes of speed that make up the physical bus are second on how awesome buses can be. I’m not a mechanic, but some of the noises I’ve heard while riding buses make me wonder if they’ve got caged animals beneath our feet. The cloth seat covers are sometimes a nice thought, except when you notice the booger, gum, or dried blood that very likely could have been on them longer than I’ve been alive.
Oh, look at that. We are turning back toward Kang Ding now. Xiao Ming called it. I thought we’d have to abandon ship and just hang out in Kunming for a few days before heading back to Dalian. Now that’s one way I haven’t traveled here—a ship. With the unfortunate capsizing stories lately, I’m not sure I even want to.
Right now I just want to listen to some Kang Ding Qing Ge—Kang Ding Love Song—and tune out Spider-Man and the Chinese Barry Manalow. Coincidentally, the Kang Ding Love Song was recently featured in Netflix’s Daredevil, so it’s getting a lot of attention now. It’s cool actually seeing the place in person.