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.
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.
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.
Every time we eat at Xiao Ming’s parents’ her mother tries to elicit a promise that we will eat there at least once a week. She believes that all the wai mai de fan, food we order from restaurants, is trash and unhealthy. She loves to spend hours preparing good meals for us, taking pains to include all the Chinese dishes that I enjoy–even skinless, leg less, headless shrimp and nearly boneless fish. It’s ridiculous, the amount of pleasure she derives from having us over.
She is a short, portly woman in her early sixties with a mind trained on family and any path that leads that family to wealth and health. The former is generally the focus of her attention. Absurdly practical and frugal, she simmers for days right after nearly every store purchase, lying in bed weighing the benefits and cost of buying even the simplest of household products. Face is important to her, and this cultural obsession with it hasn’t always made her the warmest of mothers to Xiao Ming. Performance, achievement, and filial piety are her virtues, making her a tough but simple woman.
Xiao Ming’s father, on the other hand, quietly helps boil, fry, or bake the dishes, never insisting on anything other than me studying more and more Chinese. Infinitely patient, he only ever shows his disappointment or concern by calling his daughter by her family nickname, his voice dropping low and grave as he says, “Ming Ming ah.” He is an incredibly unassuming man,full of limitless curiosity and interests that he discreetly pursues and cultivates without the slightest hint of ego or need to influence others. Unfortunately, none of his hobbies stand a chance of making him or his family rich, and his wife has spent years lamenting this fact not-so discreetly. Almost a complete Yang to his wife’s Yin, he seems to have resigned himself to a constant tug-of-war within his marriage.
In order to make sure they get all the ingredients, her parents wake up early on the days we’re expected and go to the markets together. I imagine their conversations are a series of grunts, criticisms about one another, and questions about what their wai guo de son-in-law will and will not eat.
Products of a generation that saw Chairman Mao as a savior and cruel task master, both of Xiao Ming’s parents felt the full effects of the Cultural Revolution. When the college entrance exam Gao Kao was suspended due to the chaos of the time, her mother and aunts were placed in reeducation camps in villages, and Xiao Ming’s father, unable to enter college the normal way, entered the citizen’s army where he did a lot of farming. Afterward, he received a recommendation for college and went, but by then his youthful ambition had been dulled, and only a meek persistence remained.
They didn’t have a whirlwind romance, but they shared a lot of love. Even after getting married and they had to live with relatives, Xiao Ming’s father doted on his young wife. He caught a lot of flak from cousin-in-laws for not being able to afford his own place, but eventually they moved out and had Xiao Ming. But by then the trend of criticism and let downs had already been established.
When Xiao Ming first began telling me about her family, it felt natural to see the dad as the hero and the mom as the bad guy. While the mean mom complained and demanded perfection, the gentle dad provided support and unconditional love. There were the stories about how the mom berated the dad for building a large birdhouse on their small balcony to take care of pigeons, the times the mom sided with her sisters against the dad, tales from when they slept on the large table at her dad’s work because they hadn’t found an apartment yet, and even when she yelled at Xiao Ming, complaining that her own daughter wasn’t being a good, filial daughter. These and so many more stories I heard prepared me for a formidable, frustrated old woman, but that is not the lady I’ve come to care about.
Likewise, the memories set Xiao Ming’s father up as some sort of unsung saint, but that was a bit exaggerated, too. Too quiet sometimes, he will slip in and out of the house without telling anyone where he’s going, and when asked, responds only, “out.” The pigeons that he loved so much and gave so much space to, took up serious amounts of real estate in a one-room apartment too small for two people let alone three and a flock of birds—and they stank. He bought the place they live now without consulting his wife at all, based solely on the fact that it was ground level and he could have a garden in the back yard. He repeated the move recently when he put 20,000 non-refundable RMB down on a 32nd floor apartment for Xiao Ming and me without telling anyone. We tried to be gracious, but in the end really could not make ourselves like it. After an inordinate amount of irritation that included meetings with landlords, agencies, and talks of getting lawyers involved, her folks decided to go all out and buy the place for themselves while giving us their big apartment in which they still currently live. After getting the details and looking at some of the stories objectively, I can see a bit more how Xiao Ming’s mother might feel that without constant supervision and redirection, her husband might do something illogical and costly.
Through the Mao era, their own poverty, personal differences that have nearly led to divorce, family emergencies like Xiao Ming’s mother getting stabbed by a serial killer, big family moves, and a lifetime of hardships, the two of them have remained husband and wife. They raised a brilliant daughter, love their family, and have even accepted into their midst a Lao wai like me.
Watching them as we sit at their small square table and eat together, I can’t help wonder how they see me. No, that’s not quite true. My curiosity isn’t that egotistical. I wonder how they, after living through all that they have, view the two of us–their daughter and an American–being married, what they think of their future grand babies being both Chinese and American, about what they’d like to say to me if I were totally fluent, and I wonder if they genuinely bless our union. I’ve been given answers to all of these questions and more, and they’re all overwhelmingly positive. My in-laws love me, or at least tolerate me in good spirits. But I always wonder what my difference, my not being Chinese, truly means to them.
Tonight we’re going over to have dinner with them, and I know the food will be great, the conversation will border ontopics I can contribute to and others that will pass me right on by, and I know that my mother-in-law will sit across from me and smile, ask me when I’m coming next, and pack all the left overs into a plastic tub for us to take. My father-in-law will try to include me in talks about cultural differences, offer me home-made Bai jiu, and encourage me to keep on studying so that I can become a Zhongguo Tong, a China Hand–expert on Chinese customs. For the Chinese, sharing a meal together as a family is one of the most important ways for them to spend time. I count myself immensely blessed that they have opened their kitchen, home, and hearts to me, expanding my family from all over America and reaching into the Far East.
The lack of sleep may be playing a part in it, or it could be the jet-lag. Either way, I’m back in my hometown and I feel a bit like Frodo after he returned to the Shire: bored, homesick for a home that no longer exists, and ready for something to happen.
The drive through the place that was home not so long ago felt vacant of meaning and alien as we cruised through empty streets at two am. Suburbs in NE Ohio are truly suburbs. Except for the shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities seemed almost too spaced out—a yard for everyone and plenty of room between the roads and the front doors.
For the last two and a half years I’ve been living in a culture that doesn’t really comprehend the idea of a suburban, or urban for that matter, area that has room enough for all its inhabitants. Parking lots are afterthoughts for building designers, and most cities are filled with residential complexes instead of individual homes. Unlike Japan, where the overcrowding has given rise to a very polite society, Chinese public interaction customs have evolved to exclude the words “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and even, “thank you,” in all but the most direct of situations.
That guy who stepped on your foot and hawked a loogie on the bus floor right next to you? Yeah, he ain’t wasting his breath apologizin’ for nothin’.
In stark contrast to the crowds I’ve gotten used to, we traveled back to my parents’ home without seeing barely a soul on the road for more than an hour. True, it was late, but even when places are closed down in Dalian, there are always people around. I honestly hadn’t realized that I liked that. It’s amazing what you can get used to.
Time is a tricky son of a gun. It’s not so Frostian as nothing gold sticking around for long, it’s just that there’s so much gold out there that once you see a hint of it you want to see more.
Going home is important. Two Christmases away called for a return home, but there is that part of me that just won’t go away. It’s what got me out of Ohio and what is digging at me now to keep moving. Someone once called me a wanderer, but I don’t think it’s as poetic as that. Nor is it as simple as being restless. I think I just can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long.
Christmas and this time of year, as it tends to do for others, puts me in a reflective mood, and I suppose that’s why I’m rambling now. I feel supremely blessed to be living the life that I want, and to have a family that supports that chosen life. It’s not every parent that would tolerate their oldest living on the other side of the globe for long periods at a time.
I’ve still got a lot of folks to see, so I better stop wasting time on here and get moving.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the last, oh, almost month or so I’ve been held hostage by radical fundamentalists that prey on English teachers abroad, or that I’ve been traipsing around the globe in search of the meaning of life, but I cannot. No, the simple truth of the matter is I’m horrible at commitment.
I belong to about half a dozen forums ranging in topics from writing to natural sciences, and I’ve lost touch with all of them because I can’t seem to just adhere to a routine. I’m sure I could say that I’m just a serial non-joiner, but that’s not really true, either…I mean, I suppose it’s almost true. I like taking a look at the perks membership brings, but when anything more than a cursory glance every now and then is expected of me I get the shakes. I’ve even joined a few gyms over the years and then consequently rediscovered the great outdoors. I just got no follow-through.
Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to have a pen pal, but then I realize that I’d probably end up writing the greeting letter and then fake my own death after a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry on the correspondence. My “pal” would feel obligated to return a heart-felt—handwritten—missive expressing his condolences to whatever fabricated family member’s name I scribbled in the preceding epistle’s signature line and I’d feel like a royal pain. All because I can’t commit.
Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic? Never!
If you’ve established a routine of checking this blog each week over the course of the last month, hoping for some tell-tale sign that we are in fact alive, I’m sorry. If you’ve stumbled upon this blog in hopes of learning something new…goodluck!
When we last saw our heroes they were just settling into their new jobs as English teachers on the east coast of China in a city by a bay called Dalian…The city not the bay is called Dalian…Ok, I’m done referring to myself in the third person. Creeps me out.
It’s perplexingly odd how normal and commonplace living in a different country can become. Our schedule has solidified into something that is steady and even our daily habits are becoming truly habitual. Nope, pretty sure that wasn’t redundant. Even having to mop the bathroom floor following every shower isn’t as annoying as it was those first few weeks. We’ve managed to pin down a bus schedule that saves us from having to walk the mile and a half to and from work every day, which is nice since winter decidedly kicked fall in the back of the head and told him to get outta here this past week.
Anymore, our on-going battle seems to be with procuring food enough for our snacking proclivities and balancing that with mildly nutritious meals. There are a bunch of restaurants around to choose from, but when you’re attempting to cut back on the monthly expenses frugality is a must. We’ve stumbled upon a few cheap places that definitely offer authentic Chinese cuisine, but, honestly, there’s only so much you can do with rice before you’re just refusing to call it rice. I’m not too keen on sea food, and Noelle is beginning to draw lines in the sand with those mom and pop shops that all look and taste the same. Luckily, when our dedication to authenticity is running thin and the old taste buds want something familiar we have a local import store called Sunny’s. Although their prices are comparable to American stores Sunny’s is significantly more expensive than many other places around us, so we try to “tough” it out until we just don’t care about price anymore. We’re learning to branch out and try different things in other places, but one thing I won’t budge on is milk. Even though it’s from France, the 1% half gallon I pay 17 rmb for is so much better tasting than the tepid stuff they sell in boxes at the markets in town.
We’ve been taking Chinese lessons twice a week for a few weeks now, and every once in a while I can understand one word out of a hundred when some of our Eastern staff chat in Mandarin. Rumor has it that our pronunciation is actually pretty good, but I dunno about that. I’ve managed to pick up some polite phrases and even some bargaining skills, but I still doubt I’m ready to carry on a conversation with even a two year old. I’m loving everything involved with learning the language, but it’s a bit disconcerting when the students laugh uncontrollably when they hear you say even the simplest word in Chinese. I kid you not, to make a point I said the Chinese word for apple and the class burst into fits of riotous laughter. Apparently I said it right and had the tone correct. They just thought it was hilarious that their English teacher said a word in Chinese.
Our staff has been amazing this whole time. The other Western teachers and the Eastern teachers have been unconditionally helpful with everything from the mundane to the particular. Even ordering water is taken out of our hands. We just ask a staff member if she can call the water place and have a jug delivered and she does it right away. What’s more interesting is the fact that, for more than two months now, the water guy has never been a minute late. He says 9 am, by God it’s 8:58-8:59 exactly. Not a minute after. Pretty impressive actually, considering he has to carry the heavy jug up four flights of stairs to get it to us.
Sending money home is just one of the many other details of our emerging life we have needed assistance with. On his day off, the curriculum director—our immediate supervisor—went with us to the bank to set up our accounts and go through the process of getting money sent across the pond back to the good old U S of A. It was a two plus hour ordeal that he didn’t balk at or complain about. Like I said, the staff is great.
Getting into the swing of lesson planning here has taken some effort, though. Because it’s not a public school, our school is run much like a high-standards after school program, complete with a competitive curriculum based on a very good series of EFL books and many different courses. Each week I write eleven lesson plans for nine 90 minute classes. Noelle’s course load is about the same. The classes have up to six students in them that have been pre-tested to gauge their English levels. Our curriculum is supplemented with an EFL reading and phonics website that helps complement the weekly classes with added context and cultural elements. Meshing the two resources so that it seems fluid and natural has been a challenge as well. As a teacher, I feel that my growth is going to come in the form of making lesson plans that are more student-centered and geared toward activities that focus on kinesthetic and experiential learning. That may sound exactly the same as an American teacher’s growth opportunities—and to a large extent it is—but when it comes to EFL it’s all about those foundational skills, which are the ones most American HS teachers never have to worry about at their grade level. In a big way, I’m learning the skills needed to teach students the foundation of what they will need when they get to my actual area of concentration. When we get back to the states and begin teaching again I will hopefully have a better understanding of the smaller building blocks my students are bringing to the HS classroom. In that way I can direct lessons that stem from and build on what they’ve learned over the years more easily than I have in the past.
Beyond the classroom, the last month or so has had some ups and downs. A huge up was our Halloween party at the school and after. The whole staff set the school up with fun activities on the top floors and a haunted house and apple bobbing station in the basement. Yes, I was one of the people wearing a mask and scaring the children as they walked through the haunted house. THAT made my night. Demented, I know. Everyone had a blast and when it was all done the staff hung out for a bit and took a bunch of pictures. Then, still in our garb, the Western staff took two cabs to Five Color City.
In this region of China there is a serious drinking culture that doesn’t just include alcoholics and bums but white collar business men and professionals having meetings. It’s not uncommon for a business meeting in the afternoon to include several beers for each participant. It’s more than a social lubricant, too. It acts as a buffer for serious occasions and creates an atmosphere where everyone is open and “honest” with one another. Great way to do business, eh? Anyway, I digress. Five Color City is Kaifa Qu’s resident “area” for that cultural gem.
We all went out to FCC and it’s safe to say that most of us got some curious glances. The theme for the Western staff’s outfits was Willy Wonka. We had a Willy, Mike Teevee, Varuca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Agustus Gloop, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and even an Oompa Loompa. Noelle and I were late to the preparations since we got to Dalian so late, but we managed to find some matching candy-oriented shirts and some bright colors to deck ourselves out in. The consensus was that we were Ever-lasting Gobstoppers. It worked.
The night went late into the evening and the following morning was more like early afternoon. We had a recouping day at the apartment of two other staff members where we watched Halloween movies all day and ate pizza. Good times.
And then November showed up and along with it my month-long cold. Since November first I’ve basically been sick. Low energy, cough, sneezes, runny nose, headaches! Blah. Despite that inconvenience, I’ve managed to make it out to hike through the trails twice and I haven’t missed a day of work. This week we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner as a staff at a restaurant in town. I love that we’re doing something for the holiday, but by this time back home all the stores and even some of the streets are already decorated and ready for Christmas. Here there’s nothing but the chilled wind to remind you that the winter holidays are around the corner. Makes me a bit nostalgic for things I always thought I didn’t care for. Soon December will be here and Christmas and New Years will come and go. This time of the year is difficult for traveler’s abroad, but it’s that shared feeling of the winter blues that brings us closer. We make the holidays special ourselves by keeping up with some of our traditions from home and even by playing Christmas music throughout the apartments (Noelle is currently playing Trans Siberian Orchestra). Hopefully Skype works on Christmas, because I’m sure that there will be many people testing out the limits of the service.
I can’t really mope, though. We still count ourselves supremely lucky to be doing something so extreme. We wanted to go abroad and now we’re here. We wanted to get jobs right out of school and now we have them. We wanted to see the world and now we are. We wanted stories to tell and now we most definitely have some. Everyday we’re adjusting to life here more and more. Some days China kicks our faces into the dirt and other days we outsmart her enough to secure the Win. With the help of our curriculum director, I’ve begun writing again and even have someone to talk to about my passion, and Noelle has joined a gym that she feels comfortable with. We’re walking a tightrope, but I think there’s a net down there now…
One of my adult students sent me this flash video about China. If it works for those back in the states it’s worth a look. Pretty interesting and accurate.