Wednesday, July 17, 2013

weddings, part I: poke fun of the foreigner

I spoke with a friend last night who mentioned a last-minute change in her son’s wedding date.  When I asked about this, she said her son’s future mother-in-law had consulted fortunetellers and other givers-of-wisdom regarding the most auspicious date for the wedding.  Apparently another luckier day was found.  My friend shrugged and said the new schedule worked better for her anyway.

More discussion of her son’s wedding plans followed: the future mother-in-law would rent a special hotel room with space for the all-important tea ceremony—a tradition in which the new couple bows before the bride’s parents and serves tea to them on bended knee.  The bride’s parents bestow a gift on the couple, along with blessings for a profitable future.  Later, a similar ritual takes place with the groom’s parents.  My friend, a more Western-minded and practical thinking woman, said her son and his fiancĂ© had asked her where she wanted her tea ceremony to take place. “I’ll greet my new daughter-in-law with a hug and a gift, and we’ll sit and have coffee together,” she stated matter-of-factly.

Wedding ceremonies are perhaps the most tradition-laden rites that take place in any culture.  An understanding of the marital customs gives great insight to the beliefs, practices, and rituals of a people group.

Hong Kongers consider the wedding banquet of supreme importance, much more so than the actual exchange of vows.  I’ve heard stories of Asian families incurring great debt, or even going broke, in an effort to provide a lavish gala for their family and friends, considering it—ironically—a way of showing off their wealth and prosperity.  Throughout my time in Hong Kong, I have attended several Christian wedding ceremonies held in a church, which closely resemble an American wedding, followed by the extravagant banquet that adheres to the local traditions.  Two such banquets stand out in my mind, one of which is the following:

Several years ago on a warm September evening, I found myself in a crowded Chinese restaurant banquet hall celebrating the nuptials of two friends (who, incidentally, had met in an accordion band).  This banquet was a typical Hong Kong affair: loud, colorful and packed with tradition.  The room was filled with round tables, each one containing a lazy susan, a decorative centerpiece and a printed list of the dinner courses to be served; this one had twelve.  I was grateful to be seated at a table filled with English-speakers.

As guests enter, they are expected to—one by one—have their photograph taken with the happy couple onstage.  For the photo, the bride wore a fancy red dress, which looked like something fit for a royal ball, yet which greatly inhibited movement.  Throughout the evening, the bride and groom intermittently left and re-entered the banquet hall, dressed in different outfits, as is customary.

Partway through the evening, the ceremonial wedding cake was cut by the newlyweds… only the cake was actually a plastic replica with a special slot hidden in the back.  Obligatory photos were taken as the cake knife fit into the slot; and then the rented “cake” was rolled off stage to make room for the emcees.  Dessert would be served later, but it would not consist of wedding cake.

Prior to dinner, waiters and waitresses milled around with drink offerings, which included hot water, wine or orange juice.  Juicy-Juice, to be exact.  They actually carried plastic jugs of Juicy-Juice around, pouring it into fancy wine glasses for the thirsty teetotaler guests.

Once the courses began, there was much discussion about the various foods.  Five minutes passed in which everyone at my table weighed in with his or her idea of what a “fish maw” is.   (“I think it’s the mouth of the fish,” said one.  “The fish’s cheek?” asked another.  “I thought it was akin to a paw.  But fish don’t have paws…”  “Could it just be a mistranslation of some other body part?”)*

The pinnacle of any Chinese banquet with multiple courses is the pig.  No need to label it pork; it’s a whole pig, head and all, delivered to the table.  The pigs were marched into the room, waiters parading in one after the other, as the “Mickey Mouse March” blared over the PA system.  A startlingly sprightly tune to signal the end of the life of a barbecued swine.

The crowning touch of the evening came when I—along with two other non-Chinese-speaking gweilos [foreigners]—was invited onstage for an audience participatory game.  We each took a turn to put on earphones to an MP3 player, on which was played a Canto-pop love song.  While listening to the song, we had to sing what we heard into a microphone to a large, slightly-intoxicated, Cantonese-speaking audience.  The goal was for an audience member to correctly name the song being sung, thereby winning a prize.  They called it “guess that tune.”  My dad referred to this game as “karaoke-charades.”  I prefer to call it “let’s-make-fun-of-the-stupid-American” game.

Following the ordeal, one of the other unfortunate players and I returned to our table to open our gifts (as thanks for participation, not necessarily for a job well done).  I received a key-chain with a toy doll attached to the end.  The other player was given a PlayStation2 desktop dock…even though he doesn’t own a PS2.  White elephant gag gift or was this for real?

I was grateful that my ride wanted to leave the banquet around course number ten…three hours after the banquet began.

*I looked up this term when I arrived home and found it could mean (1) the mouth, throat, or gullet of an animal, (2) the crop or craw of a fowl, (3) the stomach, especially that of an animal, (4) a cavernous opening that resembles the open jaws of an animal: the gaping maw of hell.  I still have no idea what we ate.