Sailor keeps asking me if this is like an American wedding. In many ways it is similar but I do not know how to tell him American weddings usually, for the most part take place in churches and are not very much like game shows.
Sailor, as you may remember, talks like Yoda. He is a senior 2. I met him when I emceed the speech contest last spring. Lately, I have been helping him. He wants to go to college in America. He has SAT questions for me. We read through the study booklet together. Actually, that is not right. He brings me the problems that he cannot understand. Sometimes, I tell him some of them are very difficult. He is very smart. I tell him this. He says thank you and he sounds like Yoda. This is my own piece of Star Wars.
After one of these study sessions, he asked me if I would go to his brother’s wedding party with him. I was surprised. No one here has siblings, none of the young people that is. This is like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek, the Shatner variety, the planet of no siblings with the Theremin and ethereal voices in the background, maybe a harp and piccolo, Terry Garr guests.
He tells me it is his cousin who is getting married. Here cousins are siblings in many ways, I suppose. I tell him I will let him know if I can go.
When he text messaged me a few days ago, I told him I could go.
This evening at 5:15 I met him at the Orient Shopping Plaza, where we always meet if we are going somewhere together. From there, we board the metro. We take it to the Shanxi station. I do not pay attention. He is in command.
Sadly, I have not been all over the city. Every metro stop is a new adventure. Sometimes, I have been there, most of the time I have not. At the station, I see a sign for the City Market, the grocery store that sells American food. I have been here or at least I have been in the area. The exit we take to go to the wedding is new territory. This is always nice. Once we are on the street, I look around at my surroundings.
Shanghai constantly surprises me. Here, there are more shops, more of those urban renewal shops sprawling along the landscape with huge television screens advertising Lancôme, Clinique, Gucci, Samsung, whatever.
Sailor tells me he does not know where we are. He asks a passerby directions. He nods to them. We start walking. We walk a block and stop. He does not know where we are. This is all foreign to me naturally.
The whole time I am trying to imagine a Chinese wedding. Without a doubt, I assume there will be dancing dragons and fighting tigers, a band playing traditional Chinese instruments. The bride will be in some kimono type gown. The groom will wear a sarong. Maybe I am getting mixed up, that may be a Malaysian custom.
As we are walking, Sailor has a question. When he was reading he saw men’s apparel and women’s apparel. What is apparel he wants to know; is this the same as clothes? The best way I can explain apparel to him is that this is a word that he will absolutely never use. I try to explain it is more of a retail term.
At the street corner, he asks another passerby. She gives him directions. From her body language, the directions seem vague. We walk across the street and ask someone else. The two men we ask seem to know exactly where the place is. They seem to be giving Sailor explicit instructions.
We walk down the street, a narrow street, past a hotel, a very posh hotel. He tells me the wedding is at a hotel. We walk past this hotel. We walk into a gate. Sailor wants to know the difference between a door and a gate. Most of the time, I tell him, a gate opens to an outdoor space or separates outdoors spaces, a gate would be on a fence. He does come up with the best questions. He asks if I have a door or a gate at my apartment. This is tricky. Some people might call my back gate a door and others may call it a gate. Depending on how urbane I feel, I may call it both.
The gate opens into what looks like a country club, the sort of country club which Hyacinth from Keeping Up Appearances might try to sneak a dinner with a duke or earl, the sort of place where Edina might pick up the tab for Lulu, where Harrison might let his guitar gently weep.
We stroll the grounds in search of the wedding. We come to a large dining room with a sign welcoming wedding guests. I assume this is it. It is not. This is for another Friday night wedding. I ask Sailor if this is popular time for weddings. He tells me according to the lunar calendar this is a popular year for weddings. Weddings are good luck this year.
The grounds remind me somewhat of those bungalows in Hollywood for writers, those bungalows in those lavish old Hollywood movies about Hollywood.
Sailor asks me if this is Athens style architecture. I tell him it does have a Greek look to it but it is architecture which the British took as their own. Maybe we could call it mid-century. Really, I am not sure what to call it. The grounds are quite grand.
Frequently, Sailor asks the staff for directions to the wedding. We are told many different directions. The lane which we start to walk down several times but then we turn back each time turns out to be the lane that leads us to the wedding.
Finally, we arrive at the wedding. The wedding is on the backside of the lot which is another entrance from a different street. In the foyer is a magazine rack. Sailor grabs the Chinese Vogue. He asks about Chanel and Dior, the first two adverts in the magazine. He puts the magazine back. He tells me he will look at it again later.
Off of the foyer are two doorways that lead to two separate weddings. The wedding we will be attending is to our left. We walk down a short hallway to the table where the guests are signing in; we sign in. As we walk to the right, the bride and groom are placed in front of an arbor with a photographer on the ready. Sailor greets his cousin. Obviously, I think he will take a photo alone with them. They get into position. Sailor asks me to get into the photo. I am holding the gift I brought for the bride and groom – Casablanca on DVD with Chinese subtitles.
After we take the picture, one of the bride’s friends takes the gift from me to wherever gifts go. Maybe I should care that I did not sign the card or put anything on the card. Maybe they will know the gift is from the random foreign guest who came with Sailor.
As we walk into the hall, I am still puzzled by my surroundings. The bride and groom, dressed like bride and groom, were there to meet the guests. The Chinese must not know that it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding gown before the wedding. This is odd. Why I thought this was a universal superstition, I do not know.
The banquet hall is the size of a Golden Corral Steakhouse and Smorgasbord. Most of the tables in room are not yet filled. Hardly anyone has arrived yet. We walk the length of the room to where the ceremony will be. Actually, I am not sure if we stay in the banquet hall for the ceremony. I ask Sailor. Yes, we stay here for the ceremony. The ceremony is first and then we will be served dinner.
We make our way to a table. Various relatives are sitting at the table. Sailor introduces me to his cousin. I assume this is a second cousin because he is quite a bit older than Sailor. He looks as if he is Sailor’s parents’ age. Sailor tells me his mom and dad have not made it yet.
Two bottles of Heineken, random appetizers, a liter of Sprite, a liter of Coke, two packs of cigarettes – Chunghwa (Chinese) and Davidoff (German), a pack of wooden matches, and two pint cartons of milk are on the table. Sailor and I sit for a few moments in silence.
“Would you like to walk around outside?” Sailor asks me channeling Yoda as he speaks.
“Yeah,” I jump at the chance like a kid at church.
We walk back to the foyer. Sailor again picks up the Chinese Vogue. He tells me he will look at it more in depth when we come back in. I tell him that is a good idea.
As we are going out the door, his mother is coming in the door. His mother is young. She thanks me for helping Sailor study for the SAT. She tells me her English is not very good. Sailor has to translate what she says to me.
She asks me if I think it is a good idea for Sailor to go to America to study. I tell her he should if that is what he wants to do. Why should he go now? Why? At this, I am at a loss. I tell her there is no time like the present. He should do it while he has the opportunity. I think he is mature enough to handle it. She nods her head but I do not know if she agrees.
While we are talking, Sailor’s father arrives. The four of us go back into the banquet hall. As we pass the magazine rack Sailor takes the Vogue into the banquet hall. Again, we take our seats. I sit in a chair in between Sailor and his mother. Again, I am introduced to some of the same relatives.
Sailor asks if I would like something to drink. He pours me a Coke. He pours himself a Sprite. His dad pours himself a half of a glass of milk. His cousins and mother pour Sprites.
Sailor asks me about the designers in Vogue. Armani is Italian he asks? Yes, I tell him and Christian Dior is French. Dunhill is English Sailor tells me; so is Burberry I add. After we discuss designer geographic locations, bored, Sailor takes the magazine back to the magazine rack in the foyer which is at least a five minute walk away.
As the only foreigner in this wedding party of over 100 guests, I try not to attract attention. Sailor’s cousin, who is really sweet, talks to me in broken English. I tell him I am fine about five times in a row. Yes, Shanghai women are very beautiful I tell him.
When Sailor returns, the ceremony begins. In a traditional Chinese wedding, or at least in this traditional Chinese wedding, the bride and groom walk through the cluster of tables together with an entourage following them shooting graffiti out of graffiti guns.
The minister has a microphone at the front. He tells jokes in Chinese as the couple approaches. The crowd laughs. Yes, this is like no American wedding that I have been. Sailor tells me the ceremony will last about fifteen minutes.
Once the bride and groom make it to the front, the minister leads them through the vows. After each of them say the Chinese equivalent to I do, the entourage shoot the graffiti guns. In the background soft Chinese pop plays with gangsta rappers calling ‘niggaz in the house’ in the background. Yes, this is not like weddings in America. The Baptists would be appalled.
Then, there are 99 roses. This is for the ring exchange.
Sailor has his phone out. I ask why. Now, there is a text message raffle. Five people are called to the podium. Sailor is one of them. Everyone called says something. Sailor says something when it is his turn. He returns to the table with a gift that he won in the raffle. The gift is a necklace and earring set. This reminds me of something that would have been a possible daughter stocking stuffer in 1972 - in the time of Kress, Woolworth, Ben Franklin’s.
After the raffle, the single women are called to the front by the reverend emcee. Now it is time for the bridal bouquet to be thrown. The single women, and a few little boys, and one older man (NO NOT ME!) leave with one red ribbon each. Sailor tells me they will raffle the bouquet. Oh.
The ceremony is over. Dinner is served. Sailor tells me I drink too much. He is probably right. This is perhaps the 4th or 5th highball glass of Coke that I have drunk this evening. It would taste even better if it had some of my surly friend Evan Williams lining it but we know how that goes.
This evening, really, the only arrival that makes me pause is what looks like grilled dismembered baby chicks. Other than that, all is well. Nevertheless, at one point, I scoop out some rice from a rice dish with some unknown element that looks like bone, cartilage, tissue, membrane. I ask Sailor if this is edible or if it is bone. He tells me yes it is edible. It is a cousin to the turtle.
“Snail?” – I ask.
“No, like a turtle,” he tells me
I decide to not try it. This looks less appetizing than the squirrel stew that my huntsman brother Bill served to me in his trailer park days.
After dinner, Sailor discusses something with his parents. They will walk me back to the metro. I tell him I think I will just take a cab back to my apartment. If he could help me get a cab and make sure the cab knows where I live I would appreciate that.
We all get up from the table. I tell the cousins it was nice to meet them. We make our way through the crowd to the foyer. In the foyer, Sailor’s dad shakes my hand. He goes back into the ceremony. Sailor and his mom and I walk through the grounds to get a cab. A concierge gets a cab for us. Sailor puts me into the cab and explains to the cab where to take me. Although, I am sober, this is like my drunken days in that I do not know where I am.
The cab weaves in and out of traffic in the Shanghai night. We wind through the brightly lit commercial section of Shanghai. Sometimes, yes, sometimes, life offers us – if we let it – intangible magic.