Modern Love and Ancient Ceremony in the Heart of Shandong

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4:00 PM HKT, Wed June 14, 2017 9 mins read

“Is that a fucking chicken?”

The preparation for our wedding day, in Yanzhou, Shandong Province, would have been fascinating if it wasn’t my wedding day. My best man flew from Pittsburgh to Shanghai two days before the ceremony and my family was enjoying their first visit to anywhere that required a passport. Upon their arrival a week earlier at Beijing Capital International Airport, it took only three hours for them to have an authentic China experience, when they watched Liu Fang get hit by a car. “You need me to tune up this guy?” my dad asked. She shrugged it off like a champ.

I watched Liu Fang masterfully arrange the cigarettes and liquor, the banquet halls and the menus, the relatives and the master of ceremonies. Between the two of us we knew the names of about sixty of the guests. Final head count was three hundred and seventy plus a couple of wedding crashers and the old women who collect leftovers. Now, I’ve read a lot of stories about wedding ceremonies in China. I even ministered for my friend’s wedding in Shiyan, Hubei Province, years before. But Shandong is a different animal. Tradition in the land of Confucius is not easily forgotten.

The day of the wedding, before the roosters started crowing in the People’s Square, my mother, father, and best man followed me up a concrete stairwell to the fifth floor, where Liu Fang’s mother and stepfather lived with her stepbrother. It was a classic Soviet-style six-story walk-up in the heart of the city. We passed the plumber’s graffiti and telco wiring, the flattened cardboard boxes used as welcome mats, and scrunched our shoulders to avoid the flaking white plaster on the walls. About fifty people were packed inside a sixty-square-meter apartment. All I could make out was the Shandongese dialect of happy pirates.

I was led to Liu Fang’s makeshift dressing room to see my bride in her wedding dress, just glowing. We took pictures as her relatives encouraged me to “steal” her away and begin our new life together. Aunts, uncles, classmates, second cousins – we posed for what felt like an obscene number of photos. Looking back on that day, my biggest regret is how tired and frustrated I looked, which belied my actual enthusiasm.

The last picture meant the ceremonial passing out of cigarettes and handshakes. Halfway to the front door, a high-pitched cackle rose from the master bedroom. I looked at my best man and he looked me back in the face and said, “Is that a fucking chicken?” He wasn’t trying to be funny: upon investigation, yup, there was a rooster and a hen in a basket at the foot of my mother-in-law’s bed. I looked at Liu Fang and she said, “It’s for good luck, try not to laugh.” She took from our puzzled faces that “it’s for luck” wasn’t going to cut it: I needed to know what kind of luck we were getting into. She lovingly took my hand and said, “You’ll have to kill the rooster after the ceremony and give it to the first stranger you meet.”

Love. Only love could have put me in that exact moment.

“She can’t do anything. Are you sure you want her as a burden?”

Liu Fang was one of the first people I met on my first trip to China, to Hubei in 2004, at a friend’s apartment in the industrial mountain city of Shiyan. She was enrolled at the Yu Yang Medical College, specializing in insurance management systems. (This still comes up in health and wellness arguments: “I went to medical college!” wins less arguments once it’s pointed out what was actually studied there.) We were friends for about four and a half years before we started dating; we dated for six weeks before we got married. We haven’t looked back.

Before we get to the wedding itself, it’s worth mentioning the family structure I was entering into. Liu Fang is the daughter of Liu Yong and Tian Meiling. Their marriage was arranged. Her mother’s family, the Tians, thought the Lius were wealthy considering their location. It was an easy assumption, but one that undersells just how hard the Lius worked for all they achieved: Liu Shaozeng, the patriarch (and Liu Fang’s grandfather), worked his entire life to build a house inside Yanzhou’s city limits and run a small store selling cigarettes and instant noodles. He built his house with leftover scraps from miscellaneous construction projects, and from friends’ donations. He was a special man, a real George Bailey type.

Stories of Liu Shaozeng’s kindness are numerous, like the time he bought a collection of week-old newspapers from a blind beggar because it was Chinese New Year and everyone deserves to smoke a cigarette, eat dumplings, and feel like a human being. Or the time after Liu Yong passed that Liu Fang cried because her uncle’s girlfriend wouldn’t let the “orphan” sit in front of the TV in their room, so Grandpa collected every coin in the neighborhood and bought her a black-and-white TV from the electronics repair shop. (Liu Yong, before he passed away, outperformed most of the other miners in Yanzhou and made enough to buy the village’s first television set. I’ll save this story for another time.)

After the marriage, Tian Meiling’s family became angered to discover that the Liu’s home was built through (what they considered to be) panhandling and contrivance. Tian Meiling’s father hired outsiders to throw rocks at Liu Shaozeng’s windows and intimidate his customers, but the love that the neighborhood had for Grandpa beat back the thuggery.

Seven years into their marriage, Liu Yong, who was born during the Great Leap Forward and grew up with an undiagnosed heart condition agitated by physical labor and the poor conditions of the Shandong mining industry, discovered he needed open-heart surgery. His death during the operation triggered a lifetime of animosity between the two families. This animosity lay dormant for years, because Liu Fang is a good daughter who kept everyone happy. And then she met me.

At the time we discovered that our friendship was something more, her mother was in the process of arranging a relationship between her and a divorced police officer. When I asked Tian Meiling for her daughter’s hand in marriage, she cried tears of anger and sadness. When I asked Liu Shaozeng, both he and his wife, Li Shidong, replied with fear: fear that I didn’t know Liu Fang couldn’t clean or cook. “She’s can’t do anything,” he said. “Are you sure you want her as a burden?” His jovial face and speech patterns always made me laugh. I told him that it would be an honor, and not to worry, my mother taught me how to do all of those things.

When we went to get our marriage license on Thanksgiving Day 2008, the family hierarchy was beginning to become very clear. Grandpa and Grandma came as our witnesses, while Liu Fang didn’t tell her mother for another week. When the notary stamped our certificates, both grandparents breathed what can only be described as a sigh of relief. For the entire car ride from Yanzhou to Jining, they didn’t say a word. While we had our photo taken for our license, they didn’t say a word. When we waited for the official to return from lunch to officiate the ceremony, they didn’t say a word. But the minute I handed the stamped certificates to them, Grandma immediately said, “Oh, he’s two years older than you, that’s great!” I asked them why they were so quiet; they replied that they were afraid I would change my mind. I told them my only fear was that Liu Fang would change hers.

“No one’s going to take your food away, slow down.”

Our wedding was planned for April. It’s not just T.S. Eliot who thinks April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs. April is what the Chinese consider the month of the dead, and Liu Fang’s mother, Meiling, happened to be superstitious. Oh well, she never cared much for me to begin with.

Because I was foreign, Liu Fang, as bride, was the only entity of value, so of course her family would be setting the rules. During the planning process, I kept noticing that my family wasn’t included in the ceremony, because, you know, they can’t speak Chinese. But at least they were invited. Liu Fang and I had recently been to two weddings of colleagues in which the bride’s family was shut out completely.

According to tradition – one that devalues women, as befitting a place this deep in the Confucian heartland – the groom must abscond with the bride. As a result, I got to fireman-carry Liu Fang down five flights of stairs, less concerned at this point about the dusty plaster. I rushed her into a caravan of Audis through what can be described as a nontrivial amount of fireworks.

We arrived at the hotel in time to help usher some of the older guests from the charter buses that brought them from Qufu, Yanzhou, and everywhere in between. I boarded a bus and asked if everyone was attending Liu Fang’s wedding. Half of the bus nodded, while the other half looked confused. I of course assumed my Chinese was shit. I repeated myself and someone in the back piped up, “This isn’t Wang Fang’s wedding?” An old man that had the strong chin and kind eyes of a Liu responded that no, this is Liu Fang’s bus. There was the response of, “Oh, OK,” that rural Chinese have mastered, and everyone disembarked.

I led them to the third-floor banquet hall and was amazed at what three hundred and seventy people look like in one room. Amongst them were our mutual friends from Hubei, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chengdu, and America. I had prepared a surprise for Liu Fang: after the initial round of greetings and a short religious invocation from our Canadian Protestant friend, we did a goldfish and a candle thing and then I called up my friend from Shanghai and had him play “I Found a Reason” on his guitar. (I wish I could say it was because of my love of The Velvet Underground, but it was because of the Cat Power cover.) I then nervously sang a Lou Reed cover to a room full of confused but polite Qufu farmers and coal miners. Bucket list. Liu Fang melted. Nailed it. Moving on. We did the “I do’s” and, despite me not being Jewish, I insisted we break china under our feet to seal the deal. Mazel Tov!

Then shit got weird. We had an overflow crowd of – in Northeast Ohio parlance – wedding crashers. The hotel was cool about it, they just charged us the normal rate per extra table. I wrote that off. Then it dawned on me: “Wang Fang.” I kept toasting. Smiling. Once Liu Fang and I got a moment, I asked her who was collecting the red envelopes. She said her grandpa collected for his family and guests, her mom for hers, and her stepdad for his. I confirmed that her stepdad’s family name was Wang. I sat on that for a while. I had a couple more baijiu shots to go. My helper wolf was worthless. He hated baijiu.

We went to toast her father’s best friend, and that’s when it got emotional. I’ve always wondered if Liu Fang and I would be married if her father hadn’t passed away when she was a kid. Would she still have grown into a woman that would love a person like me? Sometimes it’s easy to idolize a memory. Up until that moment I had never met one of Liu Fang’s father’s friends. At that moment I was able to see a middle-aged man shed a tear for the loss of his friend, and the happiness he was sure Liu Yong would’ve felt that moment. Liu Fang and I both broke down crying. I toasted him and thanked him for his words.

By this time every table had about thirty-five courses of food weighing down the lazy susans. My mother and father were in shock. The foreigner table saw food literally piling up. Before we knew it, elderly women were walking around with plastic bags freshly pulled from their purses to collect the leftovers. How silly my dad’s once-upon-a-time admonishment now sounds: “No one’s going to take your food away, slow down.” Unopened bottles of wine and Coca-Cola were quickly tucked away. But they left the foreigner table be. Untouched baijiu and cigarettes, pristine fish and pork knuckle, and a lot of confusion and embarrassment were left there that day.

Ninety minutes to the second, the hall cleared out. I walked Grandma and Grandpa back to their bus to say goodbye to their brothers and sisters and extended family. It was at that moment that I heard a crunching sound that I will never forget. Off to the side at the curb, between the parking lot to the hotel and the public sidewalk, was Liu Fang’s uncle, Liu Guohua. He had just broken the neck of a rooster and was handing it to a thirtysomething man and his wife. I told Liu Fang I thought I had agreed to perform this sacrifice. She said her uncle appreciated the gesture but was happy to have done the honor.

Liu Fang was quiet and content after the last bus pulled away. On the way home I asked her why a large contingent at the wedding was seemingly unaware that her name was Liu Fang and not Wang Fang. She quietly responded that her stepfather was collecting our wedding presents with the intent of buying a car and starting a taxi service. She looked at me and her eyes said everything: weddings are not about winning arguments. Later in the day, Liu Fang got a text: “Ask your stepbrother to return my wallet, including my ID card, thanks.” She didn’t look surprised. Her stepbrother had picked several pockets in the coat area. Fuck. I asked Liu Fang if I was allowed to be upset. She said not this time. She would handle it.

Back at her house at the edge of Yanzhou, where she lived with her grandfather, we packed up our gifts and said our goodbyes. He sat and ate wedding leftovers in front of the color TV that we bought him so he could watch the news. He refused to take the sales sticker off the screen. “I might have to return it,” he said. Liu Shaozeng was the kind of man who knew the value of a television. He wasn’t sold on this one. Had to break it in, he said. I thanked him for walking Liu Fang down the aisle and said I considered it an added pleasure that he insisted on wearing the Cleveland Indians hat I gifted him for Chinese New Year. He laughed and said it was an all right hat. High praise.

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