After we got engaged and the hustle and bustle of the proposal settled down, I realized exactly why I didn’t ever want to get married. Despite having proclaimed that I “didn’t believe in marriage” in the past—mostly as an opposition to the (then) “officially unrecognizable” nature of my same-sex unions by the government—the thing that I really didn’t believe in, I realized, wasn’t marriage after all.
It was weddings.
I had seen friends and family members go through the inevitable flurry of weddings and come out the other side with torn hems in their familial relationships and dents in the steel of their friendships. “Wedding weary” is a look I’ve seen on people’s faces and I suddenly began to dread mine.
The in-laws chose the date of our main event: October 4th. Apparently that was “吉利 jili” or “auspicious” according to the lunar calendar, yet it seems here that all dates and numbers are considered to be oracles of sorts. There was no question that they were the ones to choose the date either. I didn’t mind either way. We then chose the 10th of October, a week later, to host a smaller event in Beijing where Guo Jian had been living for over a decade.
My parents started to make arrangements for coming to China for the first time. I hadn’t expected it but when they said they wouldn’t miss the event, I cried tears of relief that I didn’t even know I’d needed. What followed was a scuttle of messages and Skype calls and the back and forth between the in-laws and my folks regarding the timing of everything like their arrival, travel between cities, some plans for tourism, etc. When it was all sorted out, I had a sense of completion.
I still had this strange anxiety like the nagging feeling of having forgotten to do something important, like turn off the stove before leaving the house.
As the nights started to get cooler and autumn was closing in on me. I realized that the wedding was a month away and we had done nothing but organize my parents’ arrival and book a space for our Beijing event. I didn’t even have a dress!
Guo Jian, on the other hand, was completely at ease. “What are you worried about?” he asked me, irritated by my tight energy about it all. “My Mother has it under control. This is their wedding, not ours!”
Even in another language, the meaning of this sentence shocked me. It took me awhile to let it sink in. Shouldn’t I be indignant? It seemed we were having a wedding for his parents and his extended family, not to mention a series of demanding cultural expectations. While the marriage is about us, the wedding is about them, he explained. “Isn’t that the way it is in the West?” he asked innocently.
Apparently, all the arrangements had long been underway by his mother and I was just expected to show up on the 4th of October. She was heading into Beijing to see us that week, as well, and I admit feeling great relief to know that part of her task was to get me fitted for a 旗袍 qipao, or a traditional Chinese wedding dress, my preference as opposed to a fluffy white gown. She was also coming into town to do a regular maintenance visit as her son’s primary caregiver, as per Chinese tradition. (See this blog for that story!)
All of this was a bit much for me. I started to fear I was walking into a circus without having signed up to be the tamed tiger leaping through hoops of fire. His mother was the ringleader. Was this what I was to look forward to in our marriage—that his mother would organize everything, sweep into town to do her son’s laundry, and I was just the 养媳妇 yangxifu （foreign wife) whose abdomen everyone would be monitoring for impending growth?
Somehow I felt that the absence of control may result in more “wedding weariness” for me than having to do it all would…
He assured me that this was how weddings in China were done, punctuated with an exasperated, “Relax!” Even he would barely know the order of things, the invitees, the plans (etc.) And, wasn’t it better that it wasn’t my job? It didn’t have to be a big deal, he said. Our job was to show up. Period.
I felt a bit relieved by this too, I must admit, not unlike the way I feel when his mother does his laundry. At least I don’t have to do it, I thought. But that relief was a sticky, guilty, anxious one. Was I burning the house down? Shouldn’t I go back to check on the stove?
I assured myself that I knew that the wedding would stand for and represent something important, but that I really didn’t care about the event itself. At least, I didn’t think I did. It’s a marriage I’ve agreed to, in the end, the wedding would be just one day, right?
Here’s what I had already learned that would make it so different from a Western wedding:
- The guests at the main event in his home city wouldn’t be ours to choose, with the exception of a few of Guo Jian’s friends that were still living there.
- The event wasn’t ours to pay for. As there would be no wedding gifts, the guests would bring money in a red envelope or “红包 hong bao,” which would then be collected by his parents and not us. The money would go into paying for the event and any extra would go back to them, presumably for raising and supporting their son all those years.
- The menu wasn’t ours to determine. It was going to be standard wedding fare as per Chinese custom: 8 courses as 8 is another auspicious number. It would not be vegetarian.
- They would hire an MC and there’d be lights, almost like a stage show, but there was no religion involved and so no vows needed to be pre-written. The legal part was already over. The MC would learn a bit about us, but that was it. He was strictly there to direct the “entertainment.”
And then, suddenly, I did care. I wanted to have some say. I wanted some of my Western traditions to be included in the event.
So, when his Mother arrived in early September, after having done some research about Chinese weddings, I started asking questions. For instance, there are two possible ceremonies and often people don’t do the morning one anymore, but it sounded like the most interesting component. Over lunch, I asked if we could do add that part and a surprised soon-to-be mother-in-law and her son both looked at me with the identical expression of curiosity on their faces. “Sure,” they said, “But we didn’t think you’d want to do the traditional stuff.”
“Your cultural traditions interest me,” I explained, “I’d just like to understand each element first” (so that I’m in the loop (of fire?), otherwise, this wedding would be reduced to just a banquet with an MC and some spotlights, wouldn’t it?)
I had dealt myself in.
Time to step into some fire-retardant fabric, FAST!