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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: December 14, 2009 NO. 50 DECEMBER 17, 2009
My First Chinese Wedding
An outsider's view: matrimony on the mainland



The blushing young bride is a surgeon who works the night shift at a local hospital. Her strikingly handsome groom is also a doctor and surgeon at the same hospital. It is quite evident that they are deeply in love. The young professionals join hands as they enter the grand banquet hall together. Cue the music, start the cameras, light the fireworks and let the wedding festivities commence. As they cross the threshold, the bride looked quite elegant in her gorgeous chantilly lace strapless one-piece red wedding gown with a chiffon overlay and pearl beading on the fully-boned bodice with a lace up back and flowing train. Yes, you read that right-red wedding gown. Bright red. Welcome to your first Chinese wedding on the Chinese mainland where ancient Chinese customs and modern Western ways collide for endlessly fascinating results.

This is my fourth year working and living in China and my very first traditional Chinese wedding. The wedding reception was held in a ballroom attached to the Overseas Chinese Hotel, a fitting location since the young Chinese doctor spent a year of her medical training overseas in the United States. Actually the bride began the wedding in a white wedding dress and later stitched to a red wedding gown. When I think of red and white together with heart-shaped balloons, the first thing that comes to mind is Valentine's Day not wedding bells and exchanging vows. Perhaps the young bride and groom have brought an additional skill set to bring to today's ceremony: doctors of Love. Maybe the lovey-dovey doctors are also skilled at matchmaking, melding and mending affairs of the heart…all with "surgical precision," of course.

Bridal gown costume changes were just one of the many cultural differences I was to experience on this day of matrimonial bliss in the Middle Kingdom. It started to dawn on me that this displaced American and laowai (foreigner in China) was in over his head. For one, all of the guests dressed in a relaxed casual manner. Tuxedos, top hats and tails? Out of the question! As the only guest wearing a proper suit and conservative tie among 500 guests, I felt like a secret service agent who showed up at a college frat party. It is quite possible that I was at the right wedding and placed in the wrong room—one banquet hall was specifically for guests and one banquet hall was specifically for "VIPs." My tailor-made suit might have fit in a little better in the adjoining VIP room with all the other "suits."

This wedding featured a red lace wedding dress and a red rubber arch. Interestingly enough, a rather large rubber inflatable red arch stood above the entrance of the wedding banquet hall. Perched midway on the left side of the red arch is a phoenix. The imposing figure on the right side of the red arch is a dragon. At the apex is the symbol, Chinese character and pictogram for "double happiness." The phoenix, dragon and double happiness symbol signify good luck and good health for the bride and groom and their families.

Prior to my arrival in the Middle Kingdom almost four years ago, the only arch I was familiar with was the towering steel structure on the banks of the Mississippi River in the United States (and no, I'm not counting the Golden Arches of McDonald's). In the United States, the St. Louis Arch is nicknamed "Gateway to the West" in remembrance of America's westward territorial expansion of the 1800's. While America has one solitary arch standing alone like a proud silver cowboy in the sunset, China features ubiquitous arches adorning most every corner, doorway and building frame from Shanghai to Sichuan. In China, the ever-present red arches could all very well be called the "Gateway to the East." Today's red arch is specially on display for matrimony. I guess the cheery red arch could be called the "Gateway to Eternal Happiness."

As I struggled to find a commonality between an Eastern and Western wedding, I find none. No priests, no rabbis, no church, no flower girl and no bridal party. (I surely didn't pick up a gift from a bridal registry at Macy's or Bloomingdales either.) And as I found out the hard way, even with the drinks flowing, mirrored disco balls going, slide shows, performing acts, singers and dance music blaring does not mean that there is going to be any dancing to follow. A table of on-lookers glared my way in shock and disgust as I swung a girl around and tried out a couple of dance moves. I made the decision to stop very suddenly. As the stares of 500 strangers burned into the back of my head I knew that—this would be the longest 10-second dance in my life. Someone should have warned me about this! Jeff's "faux pas"…right on schedule. I have read a couple of books on Chinese etiquette—looks like I must have skipped a page somewhere.

The author is an American working in Taian, Shandong Province

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