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.

Biking in Shanghai

Exact Portrayal

From Google

Unearth all of the repressed memories of learning how to drive a car – the speeding up and the slowing down, the parental yelling and writhing in the periphery, and the nerve-racking first time experience of getting on the interstate – and you will understand all emotions that accompany riding a bike in Shanghai. Although many may speak disparagingly of riding in this city, I’ve concluded that it’s liberating, beneficial and by emerging yourself on the streets with one, you start to gain a holistic impression of what it means to be Chinese. I am still amazed by the plethora of bikes that ”orderly overcrowd” the sidewalks and streets in the city and I am still seeking (to understand) its place in Chinese culture. On the surface, I’ve concluded that bicycling in Shanghai (more, the greater China area) is more than a commodity, it’s a commonality; its more than an characteristic, it’s the quintessence of China. Having one is an absolute must in the city, but caveat riding one in this city really gives life to the new age adage “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!”

One would think that at the frequency that Chinese people fancy bikes, they would have created the bicycle (or at least have promoted it as a patriotic symbol). However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, just an understood reality that Chinese people love bikes (or perhaps appreciate them more). The culture implication of the “bike” is different in China than in the U.S. Here, it’s a means of cheap, inexpensive transportation. This idea of using a bike to get from point A to point B is engrained in this culture, so much that it has presented itself in our latest Chinese chapter.

Tonghe Bikes

In this chapter, Wan Xiao Yun attempts to convince her mom that she needs to buy a car, but her mother was nonetheless supportive. She continues, “Not only do you get to exercise, but you get to save money, too! Your father his whole life did this, why can’t you follow him?” (NPCR, 166). Although the market on automobiles is on the rise, the simple truth is that everyone rides bicycles here – mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma and grandpa, aunt, uncles and the entire extended family. It is not an odd occurrence to see students sharing bikes to class and a professional businessman (or woman) in a suit pass within 20 seconds of each other.

Despite the fact that the majority of our Davidson in Shanghai group has not adopted this Chinese biking tradition, I have and I adore my sleek black and metallic grey bicycle. I admit that traveling in Shanghai has been difficult to adjust to – safe and secure walking is undoubtedly an extreme challenge – but adding extra velocity (without protective equipment) to the equation makes it that much more difficult. I’ve had to learn two main tenets for the road: 1) I share the same road, and 2) I am not the same vehicle. I’ve become more bold and abrasive with general traffic, but I still let major vehicles (i.e. the 713 bus) whiz past me. Still, I am glad that I bought one and can travel with the rest of the natives, but maybe not like the natives. I feel that they are too uptight in the way that they ride the bike – two hands, slow paces and all in straight lines. I ride with no hands, fast paces and I constantly receive scrutiny from my peers for riding in winding shapes. I think… “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!” and that’s how I’m living.

Yikes.. Y.O.L.O.?

My Dance Audition

I had an amazing time getting to know some Chinese dancers/students when I auditioned for Fudan’s on-campus hip-hop/street dance group. Here’s the story of my experience!

So I had heard about the hip-hop/street dance group on campus called FUDANSO from a friend I met in my Chinese Marketplace class. She said they had a free introductory class that Wednesday, so we both went over to the studio on campus around 8pm. There were about fifty Chinese students there from Fudan, mostly dressed in jeans and still wearing their backpacks. The instructors were from a studio called Caster Dance in Shanghai, and they showed off their moves for us before teaching us all some very basic introductory steps.

After the teaching session, there was a long speech given by the organizer of the group. It was all in Chinese, so I had to talk to my new Chinese friend “Jennifer” to find out what she was saying. She said that there would be an audition tomorrow night for anyone who wants to perform with the group in their November show. You needed to prepare a minute long piece of choreography to perform. I instantly knew I was going to go.

When I got there the next night I was about 30 minutes early. I heard music coming from the studio and was worried I had missed the beginning of the audition, but some fellow auditioners told me that that was the FUDANSO dancers who were already in the group. There was about 40 of them, and it turns out they were all going to stay to watch the audition!

Once it was our turn to start, we first learned a piece of choreography from  the breakdancing instructor as a group. It took me a bit to get it, but it turned out to be really fun. I assumed we would perform it in smaller groups for them to see, but we just went straight to individual auditons. All the FUDANSO members sat against the mirror and the rest of us stood on the other end of the room. One by one they called us up to perform. I was nervous, but less so because I met guy from Virginia who told me, “Don’t worry, they love foreigners. You’ll get in.”

I was the third one up, and gave them my iPod to play “Starships.” The dancers immediately started clapping and I knew it was going to be a good time. I just danced a combination I half learned half made-up beforehand, and they screamed and clapped at the good parts. It was so fun to hear them applaud at the end; I think they liked me a lot. Afterwards they made me stand there and introduce myself, which I did in Chinese. I wasn’t able to say too much, but they were thoroughly impressed with the four complete sentences I was able to pant out. When I sat back with the other people auditioning they told me how great I was and it was just a really awesome feeling.

The other auditions were really fun to watch as well. There was another guy who did a really cool robot-esque routine, and then there was a string of girls who just danced to Britney Spears in a way that was intending to be sexy but ended up more like an awkward high school talent show. They were always on beat, though! To the point where the musicality was almost lost in some ways because of how on count the movements were. In any case, I always love watching people do their thing!

They told us they would text us about who got in that night, and when I got back to the dorm I got the good news! The robot guy got in as well. They said we rehearse every Wednesday night, and I assume I’ll have more rehearsals once we figure out who is dancing in what pieces for the November show.

So that’s my dance audition story! I’m so excited and happy I tried out. I’ll definitely have a lot more stories and a lot more Chinese friends once I’m done!

A Taste of Central Perk in Shanghai

Central Perk is a small coffee shop hidden behind a plain white storefront on Ha’erbin Road in the Hongkuo district. Some customers may instantly recognize the café’s logo from the hit series Friends, a popular American television sitcom (1994-2004). As a long-time fan of the show, I enthusiastically accepted my roommate’s invitation to visit Shanghai’s Central Perk this weekend.

Shanghai’s Central Perk is a replica of the Central Perk café featured in almost every episode of Friends. Although Jennifer Anniston isn’t the barista on staff, this café has the ambiance of Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Rachel and Joey’s favorite hangout spot. The signature orange couch, green marble café counter and black-and-white tiled floors made me feel like an extra on set. On the wall is a television playing commercial-free Friends episodes, with Mandarin subtitles of course. Additionally, drinks are served in plain mugs decorated with the show’s most famous quotations and sayings.

Before entering Central Perk, I was expecting a coffee shop full of westerners sipping lattes and cappuccinos. But, the café was packed with youthful Chinese locals socializing, reading and watching the screening episode. The café was completely full, and we had to wait around twenty minutes to find an empty table. Despite the unexpected wait, the time we spent in Central Perk was cozy and enjoyable.

Later during our stay, Ali, Charlotte and I asked the manager, Steven, what day of the week we should return. We were hoping to avoid the large crowd during our next visit. He informed us that Shanghai’s Central Perk has only been opened for about a month and has yet to experience a slow business day.

So, what makes Central Perk so appealing to Chinese consumers? Is it the Friends inspiration or delicious coffee attracting customers? Have the customers even watched an episode of Friends before visiting this western influenced café? These were just a few of the questions running through my mind as I sipped my iced mocha and observed the bustling shop.

During a lecture I attended at the Harvard Career Discovery program in 2010, one architect credited Friends for making setting an important trend for urban living. According to her, the hit series made moving to the city “cool and hip” in the eyes of America’s young adult population. Along the same lines, young adults, college graduates, and minorities in China are moving to large cities, like Shanghai, with hopes for economic success and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. China’s population is in the midst of a massive rural-to-urban migration. It is estimated that “more than 120 million internal migrants have headed into Chinese cities” in the last twenty years (Wasserstrom 2010: 122). It would not surprise me to learn that Chinese mass media and popular culture promote the ideal big city life.

Additionally, Central Perk displayed the young urban generation’s obsession of technology, social networks and communication. Although western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, have yet to permeate through the “Great Firewall of China,” the continuous sounds of IPhone cameras snapping photos suggested that the Chinese customers were, indeed, recording and sharing their daily events online. Of the ten tables inside, at least one picture was taken at every table during my stay. Customers happily posed with their drinks, desserts and a duplicate of Joey’s favorite stuffed animal, a penguin named Hugsy.

As the world’s people, information and ideas become more connected through globalization, the east and west will continue to share cultural sensations. One example of this exchange is PSY’s hit song and music video “Gangam style.” This Korean pop song gained international fame through YouTube, and PSY appearance on last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live is a clear illustration of eastern and western world interactions.

As for Friends in Shanghai, I will be back to Central Perk before the end of the semester. I was envious of the customers seated at the iconic orange couch this weekend. In my opinion, that seat is symbolic of living the city life with your best friends.  I just hope “the” orange couch is open during my next visit.