The endless or eternal knot is one of the eight ancient auspicious symbols in Buddhism. Here in China, one can see them just about everywhere from fancy household decorations worth hundreds of dollars to cheap, dime-store souvenirs hanging from rearview mirrors and keychains. The ‘knot’ is a pretty well-known symbol in modern-day Asia.
And I’ve officially tied mine.
As you’ve no doubt read on countless occasions, my life as an American ex-pat living abroad has been a series of adventures (or misadventures) for a few years – usually one directly following another. Getting married and arranging a wedding were no different. Thank God we had a ‘team’ to help us get this one as right as humanly possible.
Nothing is ever as quick, easy, or cheap as you expect it to be. Add to that a communication barrier and you may find yourself bashing your head against a concrete wall. The process of planning our Chinese wedding began months ago (not just the research) when we took a translator wedding dress shopping in a retail section of Suzhou that prominently featured dress shops.
Two full days later (with no result) we opted to have a 100% Chinese silk dress custom-made for Jen by an old Chinese tailor. The dress cost a fraction of what we would have paid in the States and would take a month before its completion (we were instructed to return once for a fitting at the halfway point before the tailor would finish the dress).
With the dress purchased, we moved onto other matters. A different friend and translator took us to the ancient Chinese Watertown of Zhouzhuang where we asked around about locations to stage our ceremony. We knew from our research that we wanted to incorporate a ‘tea ceremony’ aspect, so tea houses were our first choice, however, we were also interested in utilizing the town’s Buddhist temple – Quanfu Temple – and one of the monks who lives there to perform the ceremony (an idea eventually laughed out of contention by the monks themselves; they don’t marry people).
To make a long story short, we found the Chijiang Tea House, negotiated prices, set one of the auspicious – or lucky – days, therefore checking another item off of our list. Over the coming months, we did more planning: designing the ceremony which wouldn’t be exactly like the Chinese traditional ones, obtaining more of our outfits (shoes, jackets, hairpiece), booking the hotel and transportation, and hiring the photographer.
His English name is Stone (not sure exactly why) and he’s a very friendly and open-minded guy. He had us both over to his apartment to share in a home-cooked meal that he and his equally friendly wife prepared (but they had an annoying dog that wouldn’t leave us alone). We perused some of his recent photographic work. We even laughed a bit. After the meal, we shook hands, agreed on a price, and he marked the date in his calendar. We were just about ready to go.
And that’s when the proverbial wheels fall off the rails. It would have been easy to simply go through the motions of a wedding in China – the ceremony, the dress, the meal, anything we wanted really. But we wanted our big day to be legal in the eyes of both the Chinese and American governments. Therefore, we set out on our grandest misadventure yet… the paperwork.
Initially, we noticed a few major discrepancies in what the various offices were telling us we needed to accomplish prior to registering our marriage. The US Embassy website for Beijing had different information than the US Consulate in Shanghai. Both had different information than the Wujiang Marriage Office that we called over the phone. Finally, it was determined that we need to contact the marriage office in a completely different city – Nanjing.
Huh? Where? What?
Apparently, most marriage offices do not often (or ever) deal with marriages between two foreign residents of China. Rarely do they even deal with one foreigner marrying a Chinese National. Yet here we were, two foreigners attempting the virtually impossible and therefore instructed to go to Nanjing.
Here is a bullet list of the documents we were expected to obtain before they would even schedule an appointment (and God-forbid we get to said appointment with anything missing, incomplete, or incorrect):
- A valid passport with a valid Chinese residence permit (showing at least 6 months having lived in China – one office wanted at least a two-year validity on said permit)
- Three marriage photos of the couple taken together with a red background (think passport photos, only with two instead of one person)
- A wedding application form without any errors and/or omissions
- The fee
- A notarized “Affidavit of Marriageability” proving that we are both single and legally permitted to marry by our home country (this document is a sworn statement in front of a consulate or embassy notary who stamps it with the seal of the United States, some are valid for 6 months, others only for 3 months)
All of our documents then needed to be taken to an officially, government sanctioned translator who would then prepare second copies in Chinese so the marriage office in Nanjing could read and use them appropriately. We were worried that because each office gave us differing requirements, at the end of our appointment, we would ultimately be denied the right to legalize our marriage in China.
So… we took a trip to Nanjing and received our certificates without a single hitch! It was unbelievable and we were dumbstruck. We had no idea it would be so easy on the actual day.
Doubling back to the actual wedding day and ceremony, Jen’s father flew in from New Jersey to join us for our special occasion. We began the day with a hair-combing ceremony as the bride’s hair and makeup were prepared. Traditionally, the hair-combing is done by the mother (or grandmother) of the bride, or a ‘lucky lady’ – an older woman who has lived a long and healthy life, full of love and children. Since we had none of those, I performed the hair-combing myself using a special ox horn comb (meant to prevent static) customary of the ritual.
The four combings represent four promises or wishes for the future. The first is that we will continuously be together from the beginning to the end of our lives. The second is a wish for closeness and harmony in our marriage. The third hopes for children and grandchildren. The fourth (and final) invites us to enjoy a long life together until our hair and our eyebrows turn white.
Following our hair and makeup preparations, we all headed out toward Zhouzhuang where we spent the better part of the day traipsing from place to place, taking photographs. Stone was great at his job and we were super-happy to have hired him. He ushered people out of our way (sometimes even yelling at them). He allowed us to take some goofy shots, but also ensured that he got the traditional Chinese wedding poses that he knew we also wanted. He managed to get a variety of town scenery in the background as well as some of the bride on her own (I can’t wait to see them, she looked beautiful).
As expected, two foreigners walking around an ancient Chinese Watertown in traditional wedding attire (and accompanied by a professional photographer) garnered the attention of the general public. There were times we posed for Stone to snap a photo and were greeted by no less than a dozen other Chinese strangers taking pics of us using their cell phone cameras. It was sometimes hectic and sometimes crazy, but all in all, we had a fun time. Following the photo shoot, we made our way to the tea house for our ceremony.
Jen’s father opened with a welcome message for our guests, there weren’t many, only a few coworkers – her Chinese in-laws up in Huai’an couldn’t make the trip down. After the introduction, everyone was served tea, including the happy couple. Our tea was slightly different than that of our guests. After doing a little research we learned of all the symbolism inherent in the choice of wedding tea. Typically, sweeter, fruitier teas are selected because they wish the newlyweds a sweet life. Oolongs are preferable, and the one we picked is called Dan Cong Oolong (Mount Phoenix) and ended up tasting very delicious.
Additionally, two dates are placed into the tea. These two dates are meant to represent fertility and the coming together of two people to produced offspring. To begin, Jen poured a cup of tea for me and then I drank it. Then, I poured a cup for her and she drank it. Finally, we poured a third cup and both drank from it. During the tea portion of our ceremony, a nice old man (88 years old) played us a good luck wedding song that had been played for him on the day of his marriage, a long time ago.
Usually, the tea ceremony is meant to honor the family. First, the couple serves their own parents and then grandparents and any older relations. The tea moves down the line until young children are served. Once all the guests and family have received their tea, the couple then drinks themselves. Since we had very little family present, Jen’s father re-emerged to honor our families in a new yet still traditional way.
First, he lit two candles: a dragon and a phoenix. The dragon and phoenix are the yin and yang, the positive and negative, the male and female of ancient Chinese symbolism. We used these candles to represent those who could not be present. In his speech, her dad specifically mentioned Jen’s mom and my parents. Next, he presented us with one of the gifts my parents sent from home: a Tibetan Khata, or ceremonial prayer shawl, which is given on a variety of occasions to bring luck to the receiver (weddings, graduations, and other life celebrations).
Following the presentation of gifts and the lighting of the candles, it was our time to shine. Jen and I exchanged our vows and our rings and the kiss sealed the deal. We were married.
Overall, the ceremony was lovely, though a bit odd. I felt a curious lightness to the event (I later learned how uncommon it is to have a wedding ceremony in a tea house, in spite of the tea ceremony – most couples elect to use hotel ballrooms or meeting halls for their wedding day festivities). Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered in other cultures as well, the traditions of China are eroding rapidly, paving the way for much more Westernized customs. More often than not, Chinese brides choose a white dress rather than the ‘lucky’ red color. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As much as I’m proud to be an American, I truly wish our influence didn’t permeate other cultures quite so deeply. It would be nice to travel from country to country and witness people who didn’t strive to be more and more like the Caucasians they see depicted in the films and television programs they watch. Thankfully, Chinese people still respect and revere the endless knot and it is given as a gift to many people. So far, we’ve been given at least a half dozen (and will probably receive more before our time in this country is through). When we arrive home this summer, we will continue the celebration of our union with our family and friends there.
I know the tying of our knot will last forever, in China or anywhere else we end up living. I love you, Jen.
Until Next Time (more photos to come)…