Michelle Guo is a San Francisco native who’s been living in Beijing for the past four years. During her time in China, she met her Chinese husband, got married, and has been humbly building up her skills as a digital marketeer. One year on from her marriage in Henan, Michelle shares her wonderful experiences leading up to the event, the festivities and talks about the differences between a Chinese and Western wedding.
I woke up at 5am to get ready for my wedding. Then I woke up my hair stylist and makeup artist, who was sleeping beside me. After several attempts to wake her, my younger sister finally got out of bed. She did an amazing job doing my hair and makeup over the next couple of hours, and then took only 15 minutes to get ready herself (and still looked gorgeous!).
My mom and two of my good friends (my bridesmaids) were also there to get ready with me and take some wedding morning photos. You know, like those before and after pictures that show what a difference makeup makes. I asked my mom to help me with my dress, which was a strapless mermaid-style dress with a corset back by Aolisha HK. There are certain moments in life that you just want to freeze, and standing there with my mom as she laced up the corset part of my dress, while I looked in the mirror and thought of all the ways she took care of me while I was growing up and how she was doing so even up until my wedding day, was definitely one of those moments I wanted to freeze forever.
Typically in Chinese weddings, there’s only one bridesmaid. Since I was not a typical Chinese bride, I had three – my sister as my maid of honor, and then two other bridesmaids. Once we were all beautified and good to go, we met up with some other friends who had traveled from Beijing to Henan for my wedding. Alex had arranged for a van to pick us all up from the hotel in the city near his hometown, so we headed out around 8:30am. I remember that while we were in the van, blasting Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”, the driver commented to my mom and I, “Why didn’t you hire a BMW or Audi town car to pick you up and bring you to your husband’s home? That’s what people normally do.” I just responded, “I don’t want a ‘normal’ wedding.”
Months earlier, I had discussed with Alex whether or not to rent a car to pick me up from the hotel and bring me to his home, where the ceremony would be. I had refused, partly because I don’t like this whole “show face by renting a big, fancy, expensive car on your wedding day” attitude, which I think is fake and pretentious. Also, I wanted to show up to the ceremony in a super traditional huā jiào 花轿, a red bridal palanquin. I remember telling my grandpa that I wanted to ride in a palanquin on my wedding day, and he laughed and said it was so traditional that even in HIS generation, people didn’t ride them anymore
When the van arrived at Alex’s village, I felt like a celebrity. It was like the whole town had come out to watch us get married. The van dropped us off at the door of Alex’s old house. The plan was for the palanquin to take me from his old house to his new house, where he was waiting for me, but apparently I had something to do inside the house first. One thing I should mention, which is both amusing (to me) and horrifying (to type A control freaks) is that I literally showed up to my wedding with almost no idea of what was going on. Alex and I were supposed to meet with the emcee (yes, the stranger who hosted our wedding) the week leading up to the wedding, but she was never available. TIC. This Is China, and sometimes you just gotta roll with it.
So I showed up at the old house, and was ushered into one of the bedrooms, followed by my bridesmaids, friends, family, some random neighbors or possibly relatives, and the guy Alex’s family hired to film our wedding day. When we talked about getting a videographer for the day, I imagined a guy who would be there filming beautiful candid shots that would later be set to touching, romantic music. Instead, I stood in that room for a good 15 minutes, with everyone and their mom (literally) staring at me, as the guy stuck a camera in my face and gave me instructions like “Okay, play with your hair. Look right into the camera. Now touch your necklace. Smile playfully, okay look here! Now, ayi (motions to random relative), take this comb and pretend to brush her hair. Now look at the camera!” As he spoke and filmed me, there was complete silence in the room. So I literally stood there, going through all these cheesy fake motions and trying really, really hard not to burst out laughing at how ridiculous it was. I think it was one of the most hilariously awkward moments of my life. But looking back on it, the ridiculousness was part of what made my wedding day so special and unique…I never would have had the same experience in the US. Half the time I thought the video guy was taking photos or stills with his videocamera but apparently he really was filming that whole time…as I found out a few weeks later when we watched our awesomely EPIC wedding video.
Finally, the close-up filming stopped, and I was escorted out by Alex’s groomsmen to the front of the house, where my tradional, red, bridal palanquin was waiting for me. There was a bit of a flurry at first because apparently I was supposed to be riding in it wearing only green-colored shoes. But of course, nobody had told me ahead of time, and it was too late to find a pair that would fit my giant American feet, so they just said to forget it and I got in with my pretty, nude-colored wedding shoes. Technically, I should have also been wearing a traditional red Chinese wedding outfit, but I wanted to wear my white wedding dress. Partly because I didn’t want to have to change into my wedding dress for the ceremony, and then change into a qípáo 旗袍 for the reception, and partly because it was the middle of June and scorching hot. Alex’s brother handed me a handful of máo 毛, or a bunch of Chinese dimes, wrapped in red paper. He told me that every time I went over some water on the road, I was supposed to toss a coin. There were quite a few puddles on the road, so I tossed a coin in each one, just in case. Turns out my brother-in-law was supposed to instruct me to toss a coin every time we went over a bridge. Oops.
The palanquin was carried by about eight older ladies. The way they positioned the sticks to support the chair was a really cool way to distribute the weight, but I still felt bad because we walked around that village for a good 40 minutes. At least, that’s how long it felt. The chair swayed a bit, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who gets motion sickness easily, but all in all it was an unforgettable experience. Finally, we reached Alex’s new home (or our new home, I should say), and he came down to get me and bring me into the house.
The ceremony and reception!
In the US, many weddings last the entire day, with the ceremony in the morning or early afternoon, and then a break in the afternoon before the reception or banquet at night. Chinese wedding customs vary from place to place, but it’s pretty common for the ceremony to be sometime in the mid-morning, followed by a banquet-style lunch, and then it’s over. My wedding day started around 9am with a ride in a traditional bridal palanquin, which took me to the house where my husband was waiting for me. Our wedding venue was actually our newly renovated home in Henan, and the ceremony was held in the courtyard.
Chinese wedding customs
When Alex and I got inside the new house, we went into one of the bedrooms for some traditional Chinese wedding customs. I had asked Alex prior to the wedding what the customs were so I could figure out what I was supposed to do, but apparently he didn’t know either. I don’t remember the exact order, but one of the first things we had to do was wash our hands. His godmother’s 3 year-old granddaughter, the cutest little girl ever, brought out a basin with some water in it, and we dipped our fingers in to “wash” them. Not quite sure what that was about, but confusion just seemed to be one of the themes of the day. Then, the little girl and another girl brought out two bowls of dumplings, which were slightly uncooked, or shēng 生. Before the girls left, Alex and I gave them each a red envelope, which had maybe one RMB in each, and was part of the custom. We then took turns feeding each other a dumpling, and then someone called out to me, “生不生?” which has a double meaning. The word shēng means “uncooked”, but the same word is also used for “give birth”. So in this particular custom, when they ask me “Shēng bù shēng?”, they’re actually asking me whether or not I’m going to have babies (lot’s of them and very soon, I presume, is the hidden follow-up). I answered, “Shēng!” (although I’m curious as to what would happen if someone said no babies…I bet that’s never been the answer before) Then someone asked in Chinese, “How many?” So I responded without hesitation (for now) “Three!” Haha
Next, everyone was ushered out of the room and the emcee came in. In most Chinese weddings, there is a hired emcee who hosts the wedding. They’re a bit of a mix between a host and the American equivalent of a priest, since they are the ones prompting the wedding promises and moving the wedding along. I find it slightly strange since this person doesn’t know you and we didn’t actually meet her until the day of our wedding. As I mentioned in my previous post, we had planned on meeting with the emcee earlier in the week to get an idea of how the ceremony was supposed to go, what we needed to say, etc. But that never happened, so we found out the plan for the ceremony literally 5 minutes before it started. This was truly a test of my Chinese, as the woman explained super quickly what she would say, then how we each would respond. It gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like to be educated in China. Teacher asks you a question, you respond with a rote response, rather than thinking of your own. But that’s another post for another day.
Finally, we were ready to start. Alex went out first, and then he waited outside while the emcee introduced the bride, at which point I was to walk outside and wait under a giant, heart-shaped arch. This part was one of my favorite parts of my wedding. My entrance was big. It was dramatic. It was EPIC. As soon as my foot stepped outside the door to the courtyard, in perfect synchronicity, confetti exploded, bubbles blasted, and my grandiose entrance was accompanied brilliantly by the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. Every time I hear that song, I think of my wedding day. I’m obviously biased, but seriously…Best. Wedding. Ever.
What followed was a lot of talking, agreeing to love each other forever and ever, linking arms to drink water out of a champagne glass, saying something about our wedding certificates. Then came the tea ceremony. The emcee gave each of our parents a chance to give us well-wishes for our marriage, something I wish I had known earlier to tell them, but luckily, my mom and dad each prepared a little something to say in Mandarin. Then came the really funny part. So Alex and I took turns calling the other’s parents “Mom” and “Dad”, after which the parents were supposed to respond. Having not known this was going to happen, I hadn’t told my parents how they were supposed to respond because I didn’t even know (which is my bad for not finding out). My mom was first. Alex stood in front of her, gave her a cup of tea, and said, “mā 妈“. My mom took the tea but didn’t realize she was supposed to respond. So when the emcee put the microphone in front of her, she said, “What?” The emcee explained that she was supposed to dāyìng 答应, or respond. Alex called her Mom again, and this time, my mom endearingly replied, “Respond! (dāyìng)” The “correct” response, which we would have no way of knowing unless one of Alex’s parents had gone first, was to say “Eyyyyyy”. We all had a good-natured laugh about it afterwards, and it makes for a really good wedding story
When the ceremony finished, we took a break to take some group photos. During the morning, Alex’s uncle and his neighbor had been cooking up a storm. Our wedding banquet was held in the courtyards of Alex’s old and new home. In total, we had about 20 tables, which is about 200 people. I knew maybe 1/4 of those people. Lunch was pretty casual in that we didn’t have a separate table for the wedding party. Alex and I actually sat at different tables: he sat with his friends and I sat with mine, but we also got up later to mingle together with other people.
Food came first, though I hadn’t eaten breakfast since the morning had been so hectic, and I finally slowed down long enough to realize that I was starving. Our table was soon full of at least ten different dishes. We emptied the plates and then sat back to rest. But people kept bringing food. There was so much food in the first course that my friends, family and I thought that was it. We didn’t realize that we had only been served the cold dishes/appetizers! Each table got insane amounts of food, including an entire chicken, a whole fish, a big bowl of soup with a turtle staring up at us, and more. Plenty of beer was brought out, and somewhere around the middle of lunch, bottles of bái jiǔ 白酒 (Chinese white wine) were opened. In some regions in China, the point of the banquet is to get the bride and groom completely wasted on bái jiǔ. Fortunately for me and Alex, our guests were the ones expected to drink three shots each of bái jiǔ, and we went around to each table to make sure they did.
By the time our guests finished lunch and started heading home, it was around 3pm. Most of my friends and family were passed out in the living room, a combination of the summer humidity and the never-ending amount of food we had just consumed. One thing I’m certain that Chinese brides and American brides have in common is that by the end of the wedding, they are absolutely exhausted. I tried to help with the aftermath clean-up as much as possible, but I ended up falling asleep on the bed. It was an amazing experience. Though I’ve never been one to grow up dreaming of my wedding day, there’s no way I would have imagined it to be like this. But as fun and special as that day was, one wedding is enough to last me a lifetime.
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