HUANGJIAKOU, HUBEI — Last weekend, I went on a trip with a friend to see her friend get married. Since I haven’t written anything lately about what I’ve been doing, now’s a good time to tell you what I’ve been up since classes ended July 3.
Elektra (her English name) recently graduated from the Jishou Teachers College. Last summer, she worked in Guangzhou with a young man just three years older than she. He was getting married this month, and so invited Elektra to the wedding in Hubei. She knew I was planning on visiting Hubei this summer, and mentioned her trip there. I asked if I could go along. The couple was cool with the idea, so Elektra and I left last Thursday for Hubei.
Quick geography lesson: Hubei 湖北 is the province immediately north of Hunan 湖南. They get their names from proximity to Dongting Lake 洞庭湖, near the city of Yueyang 岳阳. “Hu” 湖 means “lake. “Bei” 北 is “north,” and “nan” 南 is “south.” Jishou is in the western part of Hunan, but we were going to the eastern part of Hubei, near Wuhan, the provincial capital.
In China, as in Wyoming, where I used to live, going anywhere is usually measured in hours. Since we were traveling by bus, the trip would likely be an all-day excursion under the best of circumstances.
First leg: Leave Jishou’s north bus station in an air-conditioned coach (with DVD movies and a toilet) for Yueyang, a city of 5 million in northeastern Hunan. Cost: ¥130. This part went flawlessly; the trip by expressway and two-laner via Changde took about 7 hours. We stopped at a rest area for a quick lunch around 12.
Second leg: Since neither of us had been to Yueyang before, Elektra asked for directions to get to Honghu 洪湖, in Hubei, the largest city near her friend’s home village. We needed to take a city bus to another intercity bus station to catch another air-conditioned bus to Honghu. Cost: ¥30. We were lucky to arrive just before the bus left as scheduled at 4:30 pm. So far, so good.
The most direct, quickest way from Yueyang to Honghu is to take a ferry across the Yangtze (Changjiang 长江) River, since there is no bridge across the river as yet. But after bouncing along a two-laner for about 90 minutes, we found the road to the ferry dock hopelessly in gridlock, for reasons unknown. Our resourceful driver and bus conductor (yes, they have bus conductors in China) together worked out an alternate route — another ferry crossing a few kilometers away.
On a road that was still being paved.
This part of the leg was not exactly smooth sailing. One lane was still mostly a dirt road; the other freshly poured concrete. So, we gingerly picked our away around dips and potholes until we finally reached the next ferry dock directly across from Luoshan 落山 in Hubei around 7:00. Here we snacked on lotus seeds while we waited for the ferry to depart.
Third leg: Our bus had broken down, so the bus company had arranged for another bus to meet us passengers on the Hubei side of the river. The actual crossing took about 15 minutes. The groom’s friends instead met us in their car in Luoshan, and drove us to Huangjiakou, the town nearest to the groom’s village, another two hours away. (Luoshan is on the southern end of Honghu Lake, about a half hour south of Honghu city. Huangjiakou is several kilometers north of the lake.)
We arrived at the groom’s home around 9:30 pm, and had a very late (but very tasty) dinner at 10:00. Shortly afterward, we were driven back to our hotel in Huangjiakou.
The next day, we were picked up in the morning. We switched cars, so the groom’s (borrowed) car — a Buick — could be decorated for the wedding. Buicks, incidentally, are considered almost as prestigious an automobile as a BMW or a Cadillac in China. The decorations were to include many red roses (plastic ones with attached magnets) and big double-xi 喜 window stickers, also red. Xi means good fortune and happiness.
Once back at the house, we basically did nothing until about 11, when the actual wedding was supposed to take place. The groom, Xiao Yi, is an up-and-coming businessman and has built a nice two-story home next to his parents’ house. The ground floor has a small bedroom, dining room/living room and small kitchen; the upstairs has an air-conditioned bedroom with satellite TV, an office with a computer and a bathroom large enough to park a small car in. Typical of Chinese construction methods, the house has concrete block walls, that are tiled on the outside and drywalled on the inside.
In the front yard, which faces a small lake, the musicians had set up a small stage, where they performed modern and traditional love songs. Various relatives would from time to time set off fireworks, a traditional Chinese custom, to celebrate all kinds of events, including funerals, by warding off evil.
The shady side yard was full of relatives and friends chatting with each other, talking on their cell phones, playing majong or cards, and drinking a lot of water. It was about 93°F out by noon, so everyone was trying to stay cool.
The guests had brunch at 11, then Xiao Yi went to his uncle’s house to change clothes. (It is considered bad luck to change into your wedding duds in your own home, or your parents’.) Lu Lu, the bride, had already left for the bridal shop in Huangjiakou to get dressed.
We were told that tradition required Xiao Yi to go commando (no underwear) for the festivities. We were offered no explanation for this curious requirement, nor for the new package of red briefs Xiao Yi carried with him. Because of the heat, he wore no jacket, but his outfit included long dress pants, a crisp white shirt, necktie and a red rose buttoniere.
We followed the musicians to the uncle’s house to await Xiao Yi’s exit. As soon as he emerged, the musicians (two horn players and a drummer) started playing a traditional tune while we all walked back to Xiao Yi’s home for his last meal as a bachelor. He and his buddies joked around with each other, gave tips to the musicians walking around the table, ate a lot of food and drank a moderate amount of Hubei beer.
After their lunch, we piled into five cars, musicians included, to drive to town to meet the bride. The more cars in the procession, the better, we were told. More cars means more prestige. Bride and groom met at the bridal shop, and we all took a short march, with horns, drum, firecrackers and confetti cannons, down Huangjiakou’s short main street. Then we got back in the cars, and returned to the village.
[As best as I can tell, it was this short march that was the actual marriage ceremony. No one officiated the marriage, unless Xiao Yi and Lu Lu had taken care of that civil requirement earlier.]
Back at the house, the best men and bridesmaids joined the couple in the dining room, where earlier someone had posted a list of 10 things for the newly married couple to do. Here are three of the more interesting, and embarrassing, to-do’s.
Xiao Yi’s best man dropped a coin down the front of Lu Lu’s dress, telling the groom that if Xiao Yi did not reach in and retrieve the coin, the best man would take care of it himself. Xiao Yi, after some hesitation, managed to get the coin out of Lu Lu’s bodice without violating too much of her modesty.
Lu Lu’s turn came next. She had to work an egg up inside one of Xiao Yi’s pants legs, across his crotch, and down the other leg. Now we had the explanation for the no-underwear rule, although Xiao Yi fudged by wearing briefs!
[I kind of like this custom. It would be a suitable counterpart for the American custom of the groom reaching up under the bride’s skirts to pull off her garter to throw to his attendants. Why should he have all the fun?]
The couple also had to kiss for 30 seconds. For Westerners, such a requirement is no big deal, but Chinese do not kiss in public, even if they are married. So Xiao Yi and Lu Lu had trouble successfully smooching for the stipulated time, because one or the other would start laughing from embarrassment.
With the 10 to-dos out of the way, Lu Lu repaired upstairs to change into a more comfortable red lace dress, to complete one of her traditional roles as the new member of the groom’s family — to serve tea to all of the groom’s older relatives, who were in turn expected to throw money for the couple into a basket on the table. It was a lot; I lost count after about 30 100-yuan notes hit the pile.
Then we all ate dinner. All the meals were prepared by a small army of friends and relations working in the kitchen shed in the backyard. We ate fresh fish, crayfish and lotus stems from the lake, pork, duck, chicken, cabbage and other greens, fried peanuts and of course rice. Mercifully, baijiu (Chinese firewater) was not part of the menu.
Elektra and I chilled with Xiao Yi, Lu Lu and Lu Lu’s younger brother until about 7:30, then Xiao Yi took Elektra and me back to the hotel on his motorbike. His car-driving friends had already gone home to Wuhan or to take other guests to the bus and train stations.
The next day, we four visited the ecological park on Honghu Lake. Elektra and I left for Yueyang on Sunday, and returned to Jishou on Monday. I’ll report on those details later. Meanwhile, here’s the happy couple.