Having lived in America for almost 25 years, I am getting more and more unacquainted with the Chinese way of thinking and doing things especially due to the rapid changes that the country has been going through over the last two decades. 

I flew to Shanghai last week to attend my cousin Catherine’s wedding, the first Chinese wedding I have been to since leaving Shanghai many years ago.  Catherine is the only daughter of my oldest uncle.  For some reason, big uncle hasn’t made an effort to stay close to his side of the family and he and his wife left the rest of my family in the guessing by not officially inviting them to the big event until three weeks before the ceremony.  My two cousins who live in Australia and Singapore weren’t informed at all.  Catherine asked me to purchase a diamond ring for her in the U.S. and therefore I had the honor of receiving the formal invitation six months ahead.

Catherine attended a technical school after high school and to my knowledge has never worked a single day in her life.  Her new husband’s family resides in Mexico and sells small merchandises made in China.  As far as I know he doesn’t have a real job either.   The wedding banquet was hosted at a European style clubhouse in Shanghai Xijiao with about one hundred guests. 

Shortly after we arrived at big uncle’s home after an hour ride in the taxi, his wife directed the guests waiting there to get on a hired tour bus that would take us to the clubhouse.  Another hour later, we reached the destination. 

We were led to the top floor of the 4-story clubhouse.  Pinkish fresh flower arrangements were placed along the hallway leading to the banquet hall.  Inside the hall, there were stained glass windows on both sides and European style paintings on the domed ceiling.  A couple of chandeliers dazzled magnificently adding a glow to everything underneath: the silver chopsticks and spoons, the chopstick holders, the round golden candy boxes, the flower vases on each table, the flower stands by the tables, the golden bows wrapped around the back of the chairs with the white cover.  The scene from the balcony was lovely further complimented by the unusually mild October weather in Shanghai. 

I saw the bride standing outside the banquet hall when I came down the stairs from the balcony.  She looked absolutely stunning in a white embroidered wedding gown with a delicate flower edge floor length veil.  Her big diamond ring sparkled brightly and she had a gold bracelet on each wrist.  I hugged Catherine and she thanked me for coming all the way from America to attend her wedding. 

The whole ceremony was a not so natural mixture of Eastern and Western traditions.  I wasn’t sure if the handsome MC was a family friend or a professional.  When he had to look at a small piece of paper to pronounce the groom’s name, I realized he must be hired.  The lights were dimmed when the bride walked in with her dad in the dancing spotlights manually controlled by two young men.  There were vow exchanges, speeches from the father of the bride, the bride and the groom, games and prize drawing.  It was surprising that the parents of the groom couldn’t make it to the ceremony, only two representatives from his side of the family were present.   The bride and groom weren’t in the banquet hall most of the evening.  They disappeared after the symbolic kiss and reappeared briefly after half of the dozen main dishes had been served.  This time the bride changed into a red ballroom gown.  They cut the cake and thanked their parents for raising and supporting them.  Catherine burst into tears as she and her mother hugged each other.

The games played in the absence of the bride and groom had nothing to do with them.  It was just for fun like guessing the name of the song or dancing spontaneously to the music.  I didn’t find out how Catherine met and fell in love with her husband or hear any stories told by their friends.  No slide show was presented and no wedding dance.  The food kept on coming and was good by my standard but everyone else thought it wasn’t very fresh.  The whole ceremony/banquet lasted for about three hours.  The MC was also a singer who performed for the guests.

The new couple came back again towards the end to go around each table and show gratitude to every guest.  This time Catherine wore a yellow night gown.  This was typically the time when the bride and groom were challenged to drink and ganbei (bottom up). 

My third uncle revealed his other side after having a few more drinks than he should have and was going around the tables making bold comments.
“Ganbei, ganbei!” He lifted his glass.  “What!?  This table is running out of wine?  It’s my brother’s fault.  He’s the big lawyer.  He makes a ton of money out of the plaintiffs and then turns around to make more from the defendants.  He can afford more alcohol for his daughter’s wedding.  Ha-ha-ha…”

Third uncle approached the honorary table seated by the bride’s parents and close family members. “There is something I don’t understand.  Where are the groom’s parents?  My niece came all the way back from America to attend this wedding.  Which country are they at that they can’t get back here today?”

Big uncle’s wife was getting uncomfortable.  She whispered to third uncle’s wife to get her husband under control who in turn pulled third uncle away and brought him back to his own table.

The wedding appeared well rehearsed and controlled but somehow lacked the elements of fun and the free spirit of celebration and joy of two lives merging together.  The groom looked handsome and happy, but in his speeches, he was almost apologetic for not being as successful as he was supposed to be and promised that he would try harder to offer a prosperous life for Catherine.

I am glad I made the trip back for Catherine’s big day.  I had the opportunity to reconnect with many relatives I hadn’t seen for a very long time.  Some still remembered me as a baby or toddler.

I have a big family and so does my husband.  There will be more weddings down the road and I plan to go to all of them.  As the Chinese are copying the western ways of doing things, I hope they will start to focus more on essence rather than just style and appearance.