You Came to Shanghai Single…

This past Tuesday night Benito and I attended a Chinese wedding; contrary to popular belief we weren’t the wedding.  The cousin of the kid he tutors was getting married and the family invited him to come along.  He did not want to go alone and I thought it would be a great opportunity to observe the differences between American and Chinese weddings so I agreed to go with him.  Five o’clock rolled around and Benito and I were outside in our wedding attire waiting on his family to come pick us up.  When they got there we all piled in the car and headed into the city.  The first difference I noticed occurred before we even pulled away from the dorms.  The family was not dressed up that much and Benito and I looked as if we were attending a pretty upscale event.  We secretly worried about being over dressed but there was nothing we could do about it at that point so we sat back and enjoyed the ride to the wedding.

When we got there the bride and groom were taking pictures with the guests as people arrived.  The family we were with shoved us in front of the camera with the happy couple, yet did not take a photo themselves.  The bride and groom looked at us as if to ask who we were and what we were doing at their wedding but did not say anything.  We proceeded into the seating area and took a seat at the table that was set out for our family.  Upon being introduced to the other family members at the table one couple got up and left, I guess they did not want to sit with the foreigners.  During my whole time in China thus far, that evening was the first time that I was the only white person in the room.  As I stated earlier it was a truly a humbling experience.  I got lots of looks from the other guests as if to ask who I was and what I was doing there, but no one said anything to me and they all seemed to be okay with my presence. Once the bride entered I knew that I would no longer be the topic of conversation anyway, so I was okay with the added attention for a little bit.  After a few minutes of small talk and lots of puzzled looks from the people around us the ceremony began.  The ceremony was unlike anything I had seen before.  Rather than the traditional Western practice of the father walking his daughter down the aisle to the waiting groom, the lights went out and the groom began to sing to his bride lit only by a spotlight.  After a few verses the bride came in escorted by her father and met the groom in the middle of the aisle.  The groom kept singing, knelt down on one knee and seemed to propose again.  Her father gave his daughter’s hand to the groom and then the two proceeded to the stage.

The rings were brought down the aisle by the maid of honor and then the emcee for the evening read the vows as the two attempted to put the rings on each other.  I say attempted, because the groom reached for the bride’s right hand first and tried to put the ring on the wrong finger before she pulled her hand away and everyone burst into laughter.  Once the rings were successfully on the correct fingers the two kissed and then walked back down the aisle to clapping and cheers.  At this point everyone returned to their tables and began to eat dinner.  Throughout the evening the bride and groom returned multiple times to the stage to pour a wine waterfall, share a glass of champagne, cut the cake, and toss the bouquet.  The later of which I was forced to participate in.  Being one of the few unmarried girls at the wedding I was told I had to go on stage to try and catch the bouquet.  As I stood on stage I fervently prayed that the bouquet would not come in my direction, as I did not want the bride to have to say that some random foreign girl caught the bouquet at her wedding.  Thankfully the girl next to me caught it, but what followed was even more nerve wracking.  The boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet was called on stage and had to propose to her in front of everyone.  I can only imagine what would have happened if I caught it and Benito was forced on stage.  We joked about how we would have broken the news to Fuji if it had happened as one of his favorite phrases from this trip has been “You came to China single, you will leave China single.”

Compared to the bouquet scare, the rest of the evening was fairly calm.  We watched and laughed as the guests participated in trivia and drinking games.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time.  The newlywed couple came around to every table and toasted with the guests while the bride lit cigarettes for all the men.  When the bride reached our table she did ask “你是谁?”  After the mother explained that Benito was her son’s English tutor and I was his classmate, however, she seemed happy with the answer and greeted me warmly before moving on to the next table.  The family was a ton of fun to be with.  The son won multiple prizes from the trivia game section of the evening and the grandfather won one of the drinking games.  The guys filming the wedding joined us for dinner and were very interested in what we were doing in China and if we were having a good time. The grandparents kept trying to have conversations with us in Chinese and most of them worked out well.  After we regretfully informed our table that we had class the next day, Benito and I were able to get away with only a few celebratory bijiu shots.  The family we were with was great and I had tons of fun at the wedding.   They were very helpful in explaining who everyone was and what was going on.  The wedding was not only a fun and relaxing evening, but also an exciting cultural experience and one that I am not soon to forget.

Good, Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

When I’m feeling blue, there’s nothing as bittersweet as remembering (and recreating) my rosy, perfect childhood. In my memories, life is never so sweet and perfect as it was then. A similar dose of nostalgia seems to permeate throughout Chinese culture. Although the future is embraced, the past is lived in many ways. A past that is idealized and glorified. Beyond a simple Confucian ancestral reverence, there is a living appreciation and regeneration of China’s long history.

Since the Cultural Revolution’s end, values on history have shifted. There is a return to traditional beliefs and morality, albeit often with a twist or relabeling. Chinese historical-esque knickknacks are commodified and sold to tourists. Traditional Chinese philosophies are back on the rise. One prime example of a shift in perception is Kongzi. The Chinese Communist Party now hails Confucian principles as eternally valuable, even though Confucius was previously condemned as an obstacle to the Marxist ideas of equity. History is cool again. The concept of ancient China is still very much present in modern Chinese culture.

The generalization of China’s long history is problematic, though. As Jeff Wasserstrom describes in his book China in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know, the presentation of a continuous 5000-year Chinese civilization is a myth. Chinese culture has frequently changed and adapted throughout history, but performances and attractions simply play on a basic nostalgia for old China.

The distinct dress of these opera characters is a tribute to the past. Even the  Tongli boats serve to romanticize an older, simpler time.

Parks imbue the environment with the same sense of longing for the past. Visitors are drawn to remember the days before urbanization when China’s air was cleaner and unpolluted water was plentiful. There’s a strong feeling of finiteness. The rose-colored past is gone. The environment is fleeting, but the park is a preservation of the precious past. During Golden Week at Park, preservation of nature mixes with preservation of Chinese culture.

Of course, preservation and nostalgia is performed throughout the U.S., too. I live an hour from Williamsburg, so I’m no stranger to the historical myths we generate and believe. Still, there’s something unique about Chinese preservation. China is very much on the fence between the past and the present. China is both futuristic and nostalgic, often even at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see which wins out as the country grows.

 

A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

Wedding in Shanghai

On the third day of Golden Week, I attended a wedding in Shanghai with my friend Katie Wells. The parents of the kid I tutor, Harry Cao, asked me on the first Sunday of Golden Week if I had time and could attend a cousin’s wedding on Tuesday. I checked my schedule and told them I could while also asking if I could bring a friend so that I would not be alone at the wedding.

We both had no idea what to expect at this wedding. I was wondering if it would be a traditional Chinese wedding with a bunch of rituals or a Western style wedding where a pastor or priest would have them take their vows and a reception would be held after. Let me say that the wedding is like none that I have been to.

The wedding took place in a high rise building that held reception rooms. The family took Katie and I up an elevator and as we entered the 3rd floor we saw the wedding couple. They were taking pictures with the guests that were entering. So, I assumed the wedding had ended and this was the reception. As we walked forward, Katie and I were roped into taking pictures with the wedding couple before proceeding to the room where everyone was seated. We were seated with the grandparents and extended family members of the boy I tutor. They offered us drinks ranging from soft drinks to alcohol. We talked a little with them and waited, not knowing what was supposed to happen next.

All of a sudden a camera crew materialized with a lighting crew and the room was darkened. The spotlights were trained on the groom who appeared at the front and he started singing as the bride walked down the aisle with her father. She was wearing a white dress and the groom met her halfway as he sang. He stopped before and kneeled on one knee as he finished his song and then walked her to the front where the stage was. Then the Master of Ceremonies (MC) took over the rest of the proceedings. There was only one bridesmaid who brought the rings for both the bride and groom. They put the rings on each other’s finger, although the groom made everyone laugh when he put the ring on the bride’s wrong finger. Then they kissed and proceeded to pour wine into a wine glass pyramid.  They drank a glass of wine with their arms crossed and everyone cheered to them and their new life.After everyone cheered, they walked down the aisle as newlyweds. 

The room then brightened again and everyone in the room started to eat. The dinner was Chinese banquet style, which consists of a revolving center piece that has food and everyone shares the food. The family we sat with was very hospitable and offered Katie and I every dish to us first before taking some. After a couple of minutes, the room darkened again as the bride walked with the groom in a new dress, this time cream colored. They went to a second table on the stage and proceeded to light candles with a fencing foil that had a candle on the tip. After lighting all the candles they then held the foil together and prayed to what I assume was their ancestors. Then the in-laws came on stage and gave a speech on how they had come a long way and wished them a happy life. The family walked down the aisle, the room brightened again and everyone went back to eating.

There were so many dishes being served at the table. There were at least five different types of meat dishes, like chicken, duck, beef, crabs, and pork. There were also many different vegetable dishes and big bowls of soup that everyone shared from. During the dinner, the family asked Katie many questions about America and complimented her on her Mandarin. The boy, Harry, actually said he thought that Katie’s Mandarin was better than mine. Everyone had two wine glasses, a large one and a smaller one. Harry’s grandfather poured Katie and I a cup of baijiu, which is Chinese white liquor, although it is distilled. The baijiu had a nice smell but burned like hell when drinking it. I was forced to cheer with baijiu every time the grandfather cheered Katie and I because I was a male. In both of our smaller glasses we had Tsingtao beer to help us with the baijiu.

Midway through dinner, the MC started two different games. One was drinking game where a person would bid how many cups of soda they could drink. If they were able to accomplish it, they won 1000 yuan. Our family bid 18 cups of Sprite and won 1000 yuan. They bid 60 cups of Coke later but could not pull it off and a different side of the family chugged the whole bottle and won. The second game was for the children to name the song that the DJ would play and if they guessed it right, they won a towel. The parents of the children would tell them the answer and the kids would race each other to tell the MC. Our family was very competitive and won at least 10 towels. The atmosphere was filled with laughter and fun. The bride and groom were going around to each table during the games and were toasting all the guests. The bride would also offer a cigarette, usually to males, and light it for them as part of tradition.

The bride and groom then disappeared again after toasting everyone. Harry’s mother explained to Katie and I that in some Chinese weddings, the wedding feast took 3 days! Thankfully for us, the wedding we were at was only one. She also explained that in Chinese tradition, the bride would have either 3 or 4 dresses to change into. As she said this, the bride and groom came out again and this time the bride was in a red dress. They went up on stage and cut the cake which was the sign that the wedding was coming to an end. After cutting the cake, the MC told all the single people to come up on stage. The bride was getting ready to throw the bouquet. The family and I forced Katie to go up on stage where three other girls and children were all lining up. The bride looked backwards and then threw the bouquet. A little boy caught it, but gave it back to the bride because he did not want to get married yet. The bride then threw the bouquet again and the girl on Katie’s right caught it. As everyone proceeded to leave the stage, the boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet got on stage, kneeled on one knee and asked her to marry him! Apparently there is an unsaid tradition in Chinese culture that the boyfriend of the girl who catches the bouquet will go and propose to her after she catches the bouquet, and she says yes. When I heard this from Harry’s mother I was glad that Katie did not catch the bouquet. I apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Wells. Not that I would not propose to her if she caught it, but I would not know how to explain to Fuji and Mr. and Mrs. Wells how I ended up accidentally engaged to their daughter 1 month into the trip.

But it did not happen and the bullet was dodged. Slices of cake were passed around to each table and everyone started to wind down. To say the least, the wedding turned out to be very interesting. China has started to adapt to Western culture immensely. The clothes the bride and groom wore were all Western style and the cake was also Western style. However, Chinese culture is still strong as the food, the tradition of greeting all the guests and wearing of three different dresses still happened. China is opening up to the rest of the world while still keeping its own culture. It is starting to fuse itself with Western ideals and it will be interesting to see how it will look in a couple of decades. Will it start to look more like America and Western Europe in the name of modernization or will it become a more fused Chinese/Western culture?  I believe that the Chinese identity will not disappear because what I am seeing is Shanghai, China. Shanghai does not represent the rest of China, but the place where most of the modernization is taking place. I know that the rest of China is still waiting for modernization like Shanghai but are not receiving it because they are further inland. The people of China will make the decision when they reach that fork, but until then, China’s culture is still stronger than the Western influences that are constantly moving in.

Illuminated Cultures

With the Golden Week right around the corner, a group of students and I went to see the annual Shanghai International Lantern Festival (上海国际灯会) at Lu Xun Park. We arrived in the late afternoon and explored the front portion of the park. Named after a famous 20th century writer, Lu Xun Park provides a large, calming space for people of all generations to enjoy. The trees, curved paths and ponds offer a sanctuary away from the loud, bustling city of Shanghai. While walking around the park, I observed children playing with their friends, locals practicing t’ai qi and groups of retired residents playing cards.

After an hour or so of walking, our group left the park to eat dinner and wait for the sun to set. We knew the Lantern Festival’s lights turned on at 6:30pm sharp, so we hurried back around that time. We used our Fudan University student cards to enter at a discounted rate of 35 Yuan, and the fee was well worth the sight!

Lu Xun Park transformed entirely. The daytime’s natural, calming atmosphere disappeared and the park became a colorful, exciting spectacle. Hundreds of red lanterns lined the paths filled with groups of friends and families. At the entrance, the Oriental Giant Dragon, a 200.2-meter long handmade dragon sculpture, was glowing, moving and breathing smoke. Near the center of the park, vendors, entertainers and food booths provided another layer of entertainment. Mal and Charlotte courageously ordered some stinky tofu (臭豆腐). The bland taste did not live up to the dreadful smell, but it was still exciting to try a bite.

My favorite part of the Lantern Festival was the large light displays positioned alongside the paths. These displays highlighted important symbols and representations of Chinese culture. Additionally, displays of icons from cultures outside of China existed further into the park. My favorite light displays included The Journey to the West, Korean drums, Disney princesses, the London Olympics and the Indian elephants. Although the Shanghai International Lantern Festival is linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday, it includes displays representing non-Chinese societies and histories. For instance, the Great Wall display was placed next to the Egyptian pyramids display. The juxtaposition of eastern and western images throughout the park parallels other signs globalization throughout Shanghai and China. With modernization the barriers among cultures dissolve and the exchange among cultures increase.

Even after more than two hours of sightseeing, there was still more to see and do. The Lantern Festival is only on display during the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week. Since lights will be taken down in the near future, the festival is something to be treasured. I look forward to seeing what other special events Shanghai has in stored for China’s weeklong celebration.

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