ith an engagement ring behind my back, I urged my live-in girlfriend Xin to join me in the cold clear pool of water by a waterfall in a mountain stream.
This was my favorite spot in the world.
“Hold my hand and come in the water,” I urged.
“No. It’s too cold.”
A wave of annoyance washed over me.
I left the water, and started to put on my clothes. Who would want to marry such a stubborn goat anyway, I thought to myself.
In the end, she went in, and I dropped on one knee in the freezing water. Some men can’t remember the moment they asked their wife to marry them, or why they did it. At least I will remember it was cold.
As far as I was concerned, Xin and I were married the moment she quit her job and moved from Beijing to a leaky, traditional wooden courtyard home on the foot of a mountain in Dali, southwestern China’s Yunnan Province.
But to get legally married, she needed to return to her registered hometown, Beijing.
The best part was getting an official wedding photo taken against a celebratory red backdrop. The image is inserted in a passport-like marriage certificate. This photo might end up at the top of an ancestor tree hanging on the wall of our great-great grandchildren.
The photo studio had a makeup artist and a full wardrobe of clothes. I settled on an austere black Mao jacket. Xin wore a modest blue traditional top. She put her hair in pigtails. A friend later asked if we had gone to North Korea to get married.
The marriage office we visited the next day was in the middle of a beautifully landscaped park, full of blooming flowers, next to a statue of an embracing couple.
“The governor of this district must be a romantic,” Xin remarked.
“You have a pleasant job,” I said to the clerk. It turns out she also gets rotated regularly to the divorce department.
After we completed the paperwork, we were directed downstairs, to a beautiful hall with a podium. A videographer gave us a vow to read, which included a promise to take care of her parents in their old age.
We exchanged rings on camera, and a kiss. The government sent us a copy of the video.
We then traveled to visit Xin’s parents in Shenyang, Northeast China, to attend her cousin’s wedding.
A Canadian friend of mine recently mentioned what a disappointment his Chinese wife found her first Christmas dinner – only a turkey, mashed potatoes, and a few vegetables, compared to a typical Chinese feast with fish, seafood, chicken, lamb, pork, beef, vegetables and dumplings.
Westerners attending a Chinese wedding may feel a similar disappointment. The weddings are generally held over lunch time.
The cousin’s ceremony was held in a purpose built wedding hall, complete with a combination unicorn-pegasus on stage, a catwalk, giant video screens and hundreds of Broadway stage lights.
A touching short film about the couple was broadcast. A professional MC did all the talking. The highlight was the couple going to each table and toasting everyone. There was no chance to meet and mingle with the other side of the family, no speeches, no music, and no dancing.
The next day, I discussed our wedding ceremony with our in-laws. I hate the standard lunchtime banquet format and wanted to do anything to avoid it.
I suggested having the wedding at my father-in-law’s beautiful farm, but he said it was too inconvenient for other people.
I suggested my place in Dali, but that was even more out of the way. People expect to be in and out before the end of lunchtime.
I suggested a church, and they enthusiastically agreed.
We visited several and picked a beautiful old one – the officials were friendly and booking it was easy.
As the plan took form, my father-in-law said, “We’ll have the ceremony in the morning and invite just a few close friends, then have a banquet at noon that everyone attends.”
The bottom line, I suppose, is money. In China envelopes of red cash are given at weddings, rather than presents.
It was time for my in-laws to get back all the money they had paid out over the years. Not having a banquet would be a horrible loss of face, and certainly stem the flow of cash.
So the final compromise was that they would arrange the Shenyang wedding.
We will have the “real” wedding (in my eyes, not theirs) at our home in Dali, with a ceremony, dinner, reception and dance.
And we will use money from the red envelopes from the Shenyang wedding to fly her parents in as the guests of honor.