伴娘 bànniáng (bridesmaid)
This post is merely an account of my experience as a bridesmaid at a Chinese wedding in Eastern China. I have only cursory knowledge of the traditions in weddings, and this is therefore in no way an educational or informative account on the thousands of years of history and varying cultures that are prevalent in weddings across China today. I would therefore be extremely grateful if anyone has any extra insight to educate both myself and others on the many weddings that happen throughout China, or who can highlight something that I definitely will not have noticed or was ignorant to as an outside observer.
“No, not again!” croaked Head Bridesmaid as the rusted carcass of the air conditioner spluttered into silence.
With all the grace of an old sandwich found at the bottom of a humid school bag, I peeled myself off the beige bed and walked across the beige floor to the beige AC unit and sadly plucked the beige plug from the white socket. It was the fifth time the unit had given out, depriving us of a nostril’s exhalation-strength of cool air. I’d been nobly reviving it the only way I knew how – turning it off and on again.
“-an honour I felt I, as a newbie befriended just nine months prior, definitely didn’t deserve nor was qualified for.”
We’d arrived in this small two-road town that night, just before Anhui’s baking evening heat had set in. I’d been extremely grateful to have been picked up straight from work by beautiful Head Bridesmaid and Best Man to set off for the small town in the Chinese countryside where our mutual friend was to be married the next morning. I had been rather overwhelmed to have been selected as one of just two bridesmaids, an honour I felt I, as a newbie befriended just nine months prior, definitely didn’t deserve nor was qualified for. However I’d set myself to the task, resolute to perform whatever was required of me in the least obtrusive manner, and causing minimum hassle for my friend on the most important day of his life. Fortunately I was lucky to be under the instruction of Head Bridesmaid and Best Man, who were (and still are) kind enough to put up with me, and who also have a habit of speaking about me in the third person.
“So she’s got a new job-”
“I thought she was going to Beijing?”
“Me too. Well, I hope she gets a good house.”
“Yeah. She’s not good at cleaning though.”
I was tucked into the back seat of Best Man’s 4×4 like a teenager having their disappointing GCSEs being discussed at the kitchen table.
“Almost instantly, the town felt more homey than my clinical white-tiled apartment.”
We pulled off the motorway that snaked into the countryside and zigzagged between balding grass hills until a glitzy restaurant signalled our arrival, neon lights winking in the dark. The Groom (our friend) was from this small market town, demarcated by two tarmac roads. One was a bare thoroughfare, allowing heaving coal trucks and and sputtering three-wheelers loaded with watermelons and dragon fruit to take to and from nearby villages. The other ran perpendicular, with boxy two-story shops, homes and stalls crammed on either side like a concrete tide creeping up a shoreline. Small crooked chimneys sprouted out of the uneven roofs, gently puffing smoke despite the 30 degree heat.
We pulled up outside an inflatable red archway where The Groom’s sister sat on a stool to welcome guests. Almost instantly, the town felt more homey than my clinical white-tiled apartment back in the city.
Fortunately Head Bridesmaid had taken me under her wing for the evening meal at a local restaurant, generously poking the Lazy Susan to allow me to take full and grateful advantage of the sizzling cauliflower dish I was picking at way too often. The Groom, our fantastic, exuberant friend, had entered to a forest of congratulatory raised glasses of baijiu, before regaling us with stories of his youth and newly-opened business, complete with physical acting and climactic pauses to refill his dish. Soon cigarette smoke had filled the room, drifting between the satin chairs and shatter-proof tumblers of Tsingtao beer. The groom’s friends, some of whom I recognised, didn’t hesitate to ask me some questions. My hope to not cause a scene was slightly scuppered by the fact that I was the only one with at the table who spoke broken Mandarin and had bleached (and what felt like starched) hair, but once I’d answered the usual initiation questions (Where are you from? How old are you? Is your hair colour real?), attention rightly turned back to the wedding at hand. Only when the remains of the steaming dishes of fried potato and seasoned meat had long started to congeal did the guests slowly wander out of the restaurant to their respective accommodation.
“Are you washing your hair tomorrow?”
And then there we were, Head Bridesmaid and I, fighting our dusty shell of an air conditioner at 2am in our hotel room overlooking the thoroughfare. We had a kettle. We had a bathroom. We had our shared jokes. It was absolutely and totally great.
“Are you washing your hair tomorrow?” asked Head Bridesmaid suddenly, fanning herself.
“What? My hair? I don’t know. Maybe not? It’ll get too dry,” I replied, startled.
“You’re not washing your hair?”
“I don’t know, should I? Are you?”
“I don’t know either.”
I like to think the phrase I don’t know was rather overused during this time. It was also Head Bridesmaid’s first time being a bridesmaid, but I entrusted myself completely to her local cultural knowledge. I had nothing to bring to the table besides a functional understanding of Mandarin and a desperate longing not to embarrass my friend during his sacrosanct rite of passage.
Anyway, I sweatily fretted over the unknown significance of the hair washing/unwashing until morning. The issue was, I wasn’t clear whether the Mandarin, structured entirely differently to English, had meant “Are you washing your hair tomorrow?” or “Are you accompanying me to the salon on the high street at 6am tomorrow morning to have your hair washed, conditioned and blow dried by a professional stylist?” It turned out it was the latter.
“The wedding wasn’t just a family affair, it was a whole-town affair.”
Generously, the hairdressers in the town had offered to do our hair for the occasion. The wedding wasn’t just a family affair, it was a whole-town affair. Even at 6am, the chimneys belched smoke and the high street teamed with townspeople and workers of every profession lining up at makeshift food stalls for breakfast. Radio chatter blared out from the speakers of a small cafe where we sat sipping rice porridge and hugging flasks of tea, and like many small towns in China, the shops seemed to have no front, allowing them to spill out onto the streets until they almost touched the passing traffic. A young man sitting squarely in orange overalls flicked a glance in our direction (naturally, who else has breakfast in a small cafe wearing formal dresses, stilettos and hair quaffed into ice cream?), before turning back to the more important matter of munching through his fried shaobing youtiao.
However, the greatest excitement of all was yet to be unveiled. Behind the bustle of the kitchens, the scream of the salon hairdryers and the gentle put put of the tractors, we found The Bride cosied away in a loft having her make up applied. She was resplendent in a glittering wedding gown and earrings like swollen diamond raindrops rolling down her ears, and we bunched together around her meringue skirts as a cardigan-ed stylist patiently curled her hair.
“-we’d settled on a wardrobe and the bottom of a laundry bag.”
The bride was younger than me (which didn’t help stem the flow of Why aren’t you married? questions) and remained remarkably calm despite the whirlwind around her. Even when we sat in a hotel room waiting with her family and friends for the fated arrival of The Groom, her ease made us feel at home. I’d been more nervous waiting for the number 138 bus.
And now, for the starter of traditional Chinese wedding proceedings. A rumble from below revealed the arrival of several black luxury vehicles pulling into the car park. The unmistakable bellow of excited men, the friends and escorts of The Groom, echoed through the lobby doors and up the stairwell until Head Bridesmaid yelled:
“Quick! The door!”
Five of us hurled ourselves at the maroon door and bolted it shut just in time for a chorus of thunderous footsteps to arrive at the other side. The door shook as the men on the other side walloped their fists against it in an attempt to gain entry. Despite the scene this description may conjure, everyone was laughing.
“Now, don’t forget, we need to ask for money!” Head Bridesmaid reminded us before crouching and calling through the keyhole, “Give us some money!”
Almost immediately, traditional red envelopes stuffed with 5, 10 and 20 kuai notes began shooting under the door. I scrambled, my efforts earning me a nearly ripped skirt and a crumpled 5 kuai (about 60p well-earned, thank you very much).
“Honestly, there’s no more left, you have to let us in now!” called Best Man through the wood. We obliged. And honestly, about 100 men spilled into the room. I feared the floor might collapse and retreated into a corner by and window in case a quick escape was needed.
“Where’s the shoe?” about twenty men cried, like a crowd of frantic Prince Charmings. “Where’s the shoe?!” Even under this intense interrogation, and even when plied with steadily increasing offers of money, I kept my mouth zipped. Prior to this raucous invasion, The Bride’s red shoes had been secreted away into separate hiding places somewhere in the hotel room. Only when The Groom found the shoes was The Bride permitted to leave. As the tallest, I’d even been precariously balanced on a headboard, dress hitched to my meaty knees, Head Bridesmaid bravely ready to break my fall, trying to stow one of the Dorothy-esque ruby heels away in a roof tile. In the end, we’d settled on a wardrobe and the bottom of a laundry bag.
“Got it!” cried one man with a handsome haircut and a cigarette stowed behind one ear as he produced a spangly shoe.
“Yes!” The Groom held the remaining shoe aloft in jubilation. It was time to go. Downstairs, we squeezed into a brown Bentley before peeling out of the car park in a fanfare of fire crackers, thudding rap music underscoring the chorus of our entourage. Just a few shop fronts down from the salon and The Groom’s family’s hardware store, a function room lay in wait, silky curtains from ceiling to floor, blooms of flowers and pristine white catwalk scoring through the crowd. The room was dotted with almost 50 tables and buzzing with family from babies to great grandparents. I was seized by children for selfies.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
It seemed however that my plan to cause as little bother as possible was to be slightly derailed by the plans of the wedding planner cum host cum adjudicator.
“-and so after 10 seconds, not five, you will deliver the rings with the open, not closed, jewellery box in your hands, and stand behind them, definitely not in front, and slowly leave. Not too quickly! About 10 seconds later. No sooner. But not too long. Good. You take these [extremely expensive, important, symbolically priceless] rings to look after. Ok. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Oh dear. I could see it now. Me messing up. The Groom shaking his head in eternal regret at his choice to entrust me with facilitating this most memorable and irreplaceable day. Videos circulating on WeChat. The Bride recounting the story to her appalled grandchildren. I sucked it up. Today was not about my habit of over thinking. I took my place at the foot of the catwalk, standing bolt upright with the ferocity of Presidential security agent, waiting for the tug on my sleeve from the Best Man to confirm it was time for me to deliver the rings.
What an immense privilege to see their wedding day.
After the host, complete with designer belt buckle and shades, had flew around the stage, welcomed the beaming Bride and Groom, and poetically narrated the proceedings, it was time.
“-And now for the rings, I’d like to call on our lovely…foreign friend, to bring the rings to the couple.” I, Foreign Friend, and Head Bridesmaid, herself carrying a silver tray with two small glasses of alcohol, made our way up the catwalk towards The Bride and The Groom-
“Slowly!” cautioned the host, raising his hand in alarm. Dammit.
I don’t actually remember seeing anything during this 20 seconds but one thing I do remember is smiling uncontrollably at my two friends. What an immense privilege to see their wedding day. All of the months of their excitement and meals and toasting had culminated in this moment. They looked stunning. The rings were delivered. No faces were planted. Satisfied, the host donned his shades, moved his hips to signal a blast of fresh music before bursting into song.
In my experience, Chinese weddings have the knack of making you throw caution to the wind and just enjoying yourself. While English weddings can be stiff-backed, quiet affairs, the weddings I’ve attended in China have been nothing short of a party, with everyone and their mothers (and grandmothers) invited. While there are often plenty of invites to go around, I was immensely grateful to be invited to take part in my friend’s wedding, particularly as I had only known him for such a short time. The experience was one I will never forget. Especially when excited guests fell into the decorative curtains. I only hope that I didn’t lapse into ignorant territory and commit any faux pas. I also hope that this account of my experience can encourage others to participate as much as possible in local life and friendships, as I know all too well how easy it is to remain in the expat bubble. Myself, I plan to try and do much more in the coming years. And book that host for my own wedding.