Last week I put on a traditional Chinese costume and sat beside my ex-husband in an obscure city in China, waiting for our son, Andrew, to come riding up on a horse with his bride in a sedan chair and ask us to accept her as our daughter.
Our children can take strange tacks and end up in places we never would have predicted. A friend’s daughter grew up to be a trapeze artist in Cirque du Soleil. “It was not a career path I ever envisioned for her,” the father said. Another friend had a son who partied and slacked his way through school but went on to earn $30 million in the tech business. The mother shook her head. “I never would have predicted that.”
So it was for me. I never imagined my son would go to China and jump headlong into the culture, start two businesses and marry a Chinese woman. I’ve searched my memory for clues in his childhood that might have predicted this, but I’ve come up empty. I mean, he liked Chinese food, but he also liked Japanese, Mexican and Italian.
After earning a computer science degree at U.C. San Diego, he decided it would be useful in his career to spend a year learning Mandarin. He picked out a language school cold on the Internet, in a city he couldn’t pronounce—Shijiazhuang—170 miles south of Beijing. He chose it because the school offered four hours of private instruction a day, and total immersion in a city that had ten million people but only a hundred foreigners. The natives spoke a pure Mandarin and almost no one spoke English. It would be sink or swim, and I worried he would be lonely.
Instead, he became like a rock star in the city. At 6’3,” he stood out and people would follow him shouting, “Hello! Hello!”—the only English word they knew. Businessmen wanted to befriend him and a beautiful young TV host wanted to interview him because she’d never met a foreigner.
Fast forward eight years. Thirteen of Andy’s family and friends have made the long trip to Shijiazhuang, and are checking out the apartment he and his bride, Yang Fei, have decorated for the wedding.
Everything is red red red: streamers, balloons on the ceiling, red satin bedspread and pillows, and decals on the walls with characters that say “happiness” and “good fortune.”
The wedding begins at six in the morning. That’s right, six fucking a.m., which means getting up at five. We make our way, bleary eyed, to Andrew’s place and find him wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt. “My clothes aren’t here yet,” he says. “Where they are?” I ask. He grins and shrugs.
A few minutes later, the wedding master and costume people arrive and I watch Andrew be transformed from a hip expat to a medieval nobleman. They slip a gown over him that’s red, of course, and tie a long cummerbund around his waist. “I’m nervous,” he says as they put a hat on him that has red balls, red tassels and what look like propellers of blue fabric sticking out from his head.
In another room, two women dress me in a teal skirt and green tunic with kimono-like sleeves. My ex, Glen, has the same costume plus a hat that’s almost as outrageous as Andy’s. Thank God I don’t have a hat.
By the time we’re all dressed, the apartment is jammed with Andy’s Chinese friends, TV cameramen and reporters, who’re covering the wedding because this kind is rarely done these days. Most young people opt for a Western wedding with the bride in a white gown. Andy tells us it was his idea to have a traditional wedding. “I saw one when I first got here. It looked lively and unique and I knew I wanted to do it.”
The wedding master herds everyone into the living room and asks them to applaud and cheer. I sit down on the couch with Glen and his father, Jerry. As Andrew bows to the three of us, he seems to be shaking slightly. Then he rises to his full height and announces: “I’m going to get my bride. Do you have any wishes you want to give me?” People cheer and call, “Go get her,” as I hug him and wish him well.
We follow him down to the street where a procession of forty people in red or gold costumes are waiting: two men with a giant gong; two men with flags for double happiness; a jester; two red dragons (powered, we will learn, by 80-year-old women hunched inside); musicians with horns and drums; a horse festooned with red ribbons, saddled and ready for Andrew; and an ornate gold sedan chair born by eight men and accompanied by two hand-maidens, my daughter, Rachel, and the bride’s maid of honor.
Andy climbs on the horse and, putting his left hand over his right fist, punches the air in each direction. It looks like a victory salute, but it’s to thank the spirits for good fortune. “Thank you, thank you,” Andy calls, shooting out his fist.
The gong sounds, the musicians start playing their brassy horns and everyone takes off for the hotel where Yang Fei has spent the night.
Glen and I were not allowed to go along. We had to wait in Andy’s apartment for him to collect Yang Fei and bring her back to us. As we ate breakfast of fried rice, I thought about the contrast between this wedding and ours. I had gone to a mikvah the day before, the first time ever. The rabbi had suggested I go and it felt right to do the ritual cleansing and purification before the ceremony. The next day, I circled my husband seven times, he stomped on the glass and everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov.”
There would be no breaking of the glass at Andy’s wedding, but there would be an equivalent of the mikvah. The day before, we’d all gone with Andy to a mineral hot springs. Exchanging our shoes for Chinese sandals, we soaked in a chain of pools that had different water temperatures and names, like “Happy Woman” and “Green Tea.” Then there was a special pool that charged extra and was named, “Fish Therapy.” We stuck our arms in the water and in seconds, hundreds of tiny fish attached themselves to our hands, nibbling off the dead skin. It was shocking and thrilling, a weird mixture of tickling, sucking and scrubbing. One woman screamed.
The fish, common in Thailand, are a variety of Turkish toothless carp. We were reluctant to put our whole bodies in the pool—who could stand it?—but we told Andy we’d treat him for a pre-wedding bath.
Before Andy could get in, his 86-year-old grandpa, Jerry, said, “I’ll try it,” and slid himself under until his whole body was covered with fish.
On the wedding day, although I had to wait in the apartment, I later saw on video what happened when Andy reached Yang Fei’s hotel. He walked to the door of her suite, followed by his retinue, and had to knock, battle and cajole his way in. Female voices behind the door peppered him with questions, like, “Why do you love Yang Fei?” They asked him to sing and slide money under the door. At length they opened it, but she wasn’t there! She was behind a second door in the bedroom. Again he pleaded and bargained until he was admitted.
Yang Fei was sitting on the bed with a red satin cloth over her head—it looked like a lamp shade, blocking everything out. It was hard to tell there was a human under all that red cloth. One of her close friends demanded, “Why should we let her go with you?”
Andy said, in Chinese, “I will treat her well the rest of her life, because I love her more than anyone and want to be with her forever. She is the love of my life.”
But that wasn’t enough. The women made him stomp on and break all the red balloons covering the floor. “Yang Fei needs her shoes,” one said. “You have to find them.” He searched and had to pay for clues, and on finding them, kissed his bride’s feet and put on the slippers. She extended her hand from under the red folds and he led her to where her parents and grandparents were sitting.
This was the centerpiece, the soul of the ceremony. He called her parents “mama” and “ba,” and they called him “erzi,” Chinese for “son.” Then the parents, as customary, handed their new son red envelopes filled with money. Andrew had explained that because of the one-child rule set in China in 1979, families are small and “what you call people is important. When you get married, you’re taken into your partner’s family. You’ll call her other relatives ‘grandmother’ and ‘aunt,’ but the most important are ‘mother’ and ‘father.’”
Mounting his horse, he led the procession back to his apartment, where he shot three arrows from a bow: one to the heavens to alert the gods, one to the ground to alert the earth and one in the direction of Yang Fei.
Then he helped her out of the carriage and she stepped over a saddle and a mock fire pit to simulate walking over coals.
Finally, standing before his own parents and grandfather, he said, “This is my wife. Please take care of her and love her because I love her.”
Yang Fei said to us, “You are my closest family now. Please accept me. Help me. Love me.” As she fixed her large warm eyes on mine, tears rolled down my cheeks.
Afterward there was a duplication of the ceremony and a banquet for 350 people. But the most powerful moment for me was the ritual in Andy’s living room. There had been no breaking of the glass, no praying to God or the couple making promises to one another. The ceremony was all about transmuting two families, as if by alchemy, into one. Uniting them by name, economics and heart.
The expansion of our family was truly palpable. Years ago, I had mused about having another child but never did. I can’t begin to tell you what joy it gave and continues to give me to call Yang Fei “nuer”—my daughter.
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