Our First Chinese Wedding

Attending a Chinese wedding for the first time was no small feat for us, especially because our son was also asked to participate (read below of Leo’s stint as a flowerboy). We were delighted to be invited to Du’s wedding. She was my student last year, and has had us over to her house to spend time with her family several times. JM and I shared our first Chinese New Year’s meal of dumplings at her parent’s house last February. They are a great family – super warm and outgoing and very quick to laugh. Du is also a twin, and her brother is equally as welcoming and warm.

However, we still had very little idea of how to behave or what to expect. What we found out:

1) You give money, not gifts, to the newly married couple. It needs to be in the right amount, a lucky Chinese number. How much you give truly indicates your guanxi (or relationship) with the couple – it’s important that it’s not too little, and much better if it’s too much. This is called your ‘hongbao’ or red envelope. We asked around a lot about this, and the rules are still more complicated than we can understand. We made our best guess.

2) All the rules online for dressing for Chinese weddings are truly off base, except maybe in the very upper echelons of Chinese formal society. There are all these rules about colors that no one follows. I read everywhere not to wear black (much to my dismay, as black is a big pregnant lady’s best friend) or white (the color of mourning) or red (because the bride will eventually wear red). That left me pretty much without anything to wear, and I eventually decided to take a pregnant exception and wore black dress pants. We arrived to find about 80% of the crowd wearing black or dark grey, and many many people wearing jeans (including the mother of the bride). Not many wearing red or white though, so at least we made the right call on which rule to break! It was very comfortable to be there though, and the atmosphere wasn’t stuffy or dressy at all. Everyone knew that this evening was really about the bride and groom.

3) You must pace yourself at the banquet, because there are at least 8-12 courses coming. And lots of toasting and drinking. LOTS.

4) The reason pregnant women in China should hesitate before attending a Chinese wedding: The second hand smoke was utterly overwhelming – worse than any bar I’ve ever been to in my entire life combined. I’m glad Leo left early, and just praying my baby girl forgives me for that level of exposure. We were so overwhelmed by it that we contemplated leaving early, but decided we just couldn’t do that.

5) There is no dance party. There is a ceremony, there was a huge banquet, and at this wedding, there was also a super fun game for the kids. The Chinese live for their kids, and love to make them do cute things. So at this wedding, they gave each child a piece of cake, and told them that the more frosting they shoved onto their faces, the more red envelopes they would receive (every Chinese child is motivated by the thought of more red envelopes). Watching the children eagerly douse themselves in cake frosting was a riot, but it got even better. After the children were finished, the MC told the children that the more frosting they could get onto their mother’s faces, the more red envelopes they would receive. The moms were really good sports, and showed their kids how it was done.

6) The bride is the center of the show, just like in the US, but the wedding itself is hosted by the groom’s parents. She changes clothing 3 times during the evening ceremony – she arrives in a Western white wedding gown, changes to a ball gown, and ends the evening in a traditional red Chinese dress. Her hair also changes every time. I loved this part!

7) Both fathers give toasts, and their toasts were really wonderful. Du and Gao both obviously come from great families, and it was heartwarming to see how much their parents supported and loved them. Unfortunately, the MC decided to come and ask the ONLY foreigners (that would be us) to offer our well wishes to the couple over the microphone, in Chinese. After having gotten Leo through a few rough hours and consuming mind altering levels of second-hand smoke, we were not quite prepared with a formal toast. So we told everybody, "We are so happy for the newly married couple." It was short, to the point, and served the purpose. Next time, we will be more prepared to be singled out and we probably should have known better!

There’s so much more we could share, but overall we were just so glad to be a part of their day. We just about collapsed after we got home though. Doing anything new here has it’s challenges and rewards, and this experience was no exception. Congratulations to Du and Gao and may you live a long and happy life together!


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December 2009
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