When I invited my friends to my wedding, they were shocked. Not because I was marrying a Chinese man, but because I was getting married at all. I am Violeta, and this is the story of my not one, but three weddings (to the same man!), and my first post on WWAM Bam!
In Mexico, getting married is just what one is expected to do at a certain age, a bit like in China. However, despite growing up there, it was my Swiss mom who was in charge of my upbringing. Therefore, I was always very free-spirited, and the idea of marriage never really appealed to me. Little did I know that I was going to get married, not once but three times!
I would have never expected to get married to J when I first met him, either. But our love story is one for another post. Long story short, he proposed in Prague, during a trip to Europe in the summer of 2018, and I said yes. Upon returning to China, we started discussing our wedding ceremony. None of us had ever really thought of a wedding, so we were clueless, and decided that the civil ceremony (aka, getting the papers signed) would be more than enough. Maybe a nice dinner afterward.
However, as is often the case with Chinese in-laws, J’s parents had a very different idea. They had been looking forward to us getting married for quite a while, and when we told them the news of the engagement, they immediately started discussing the big wedding. There was no changing their minds. We decided there was no use fighting it; it was easier to just go with the flow. After all, all we had to do was attend our own ceremony, they would take care of the rest.
But planning a wedding ceremony in China isn’t just picking a date and starting to organize. My in-laws live in the countryside and are, in some senses, very traditional and superstitious. They believed that if the wedding date wasn’t auspicious, the marriage wouldn’t last or wouldn’t be a happy one. Hence, they went to a fortune teller who looked at our birth dates and times, our Chinese horoscope, and even our parents’ horoscopes, in the hopes of finding just the right date for our ceremony. It wasn’t easy. First, they picked a date that was way too soon for us to get anything ready. Then, everything auspicious ended up being months and months away, and they were not willing to wait for that long to see their only son get married! On the other hand, we wanted the ceremony to happen on a weekend, so our friends could also make it, which made it even trickier to find a date. After a very long search, they compromised on a Sunday that wasn’t “too bad” according to the fortune teller. The 12th of May, 2019.
As soon as the date for the ceremony was set, we started looking into the legal requirements for the marriage certificate. The Mexican embassy was straightforward enough, but it was still a painfully long and unnecessarily complicated process (the trickiest part was getting a paper stating my single status in Mexico, which needed five different stamps from three different cities in Mexico… I really hate bureaucracy!). After the Chinese New Year, we finally managed to get our papers together!
We booked an appointment at the Civil Affairs Office in Shijiazhuang on March 21st, 2019. That was our first wedding. It wasn’t an actual ceremony, just a procedure, but we made it special by getting matching T-Shirts for our “little-red-book” photos, and by taking a series of traditional 婚纱照 (wedding dress photos, aka fake staged photos in fancy dresses) beforehand. I even had a bachelorette! Although March the 21st wasn’t a big event, it is the date of our anniversary, the date on which I choose to celebrate our marriage every year. The date on which it all became official.
After the paperwork was done, the day of our Chinese wedding ceremony arrived fast. I had once been to a proper traditional Chinese wedding in southern China, many many years ago when I was an exchange student. Other than the fancy red dress the bride was wearing, I barely remember anything. Therefore, what our wedding would look like was a complete mystery to me. J is not the best communicator, and wouldn’t tell me much (of which, honestly, he probably didn’t understand much either), and my communication with my in-laws is severely limited by their limited ability to speak mandarin and my barely existing ability to speak their dialect. I was in for a surprise.
I decided that it was important to me that my parents were with me on that day. Hence, I invited them, and my sister (who flew in from Switzerland for the first time for all of 4 days and left her three kids with their dad!) to come to the ceremony. They, and my best Chinese friend, who was also my bridesmaid, were my only guests.
The whole preparation for the wedding was like watching a movie to me. All I did to take part in the process, was buy my wedding dresses. One for the ceremony, and one for the “party”. I decided to skip the westernized white dress and just get a custom-made qipao for the ceremony. For my second dress, I got another, more comfortable, qipao that I found at a market. Job done.
About a month before the wedding, the whole family jumped in to help with preparations. They put wallpaper on the walls of the living room, they bought new furniture and blankets, they decorated our bedroom, and they cleaned out the entire house. I just watched. My opinion was asked once or twice in regard to the wallpaper and furniture. I felt special for having so much done for just a wedding. We knew we weren’t going to live in the house, but it was important to “renovate” to show the preparations to all the guests that were coming to the ceremony.
A few days before the actual ceremony, they started preparing everything else. A pig was butchered, and lots of cooking utensils and tables and chairs were borrowed. Friends and family from the town came in to help for two or three days in a row. They made noodles, they made fresh tofu, and they always seemed to have something specific to do in preparation for the great event. I never really understood what was going on, and neither did my family, but we got to enjoy tons of fresh and delicious food and treats while watching (because again, I felt like an outside observer the whole time) all these traditional preparations take place.
The day of the ceremony is a blur. I had to get up at 3 a.m. to get my makeup and hair done (despite my arguing that I wanted to look natural because I am not used to wearing makeup, I ended up looking ten years older with plaster cracking on my face). I was taken to an auntie’s house, because, traditionally, the groom has to go pick up the bride at her home. For obvious reasons, that wouldn’t have been feasible, so I was put in the house the furthest away within the town. After a painful four hours of getting ready, my husband came to the auntie’s house to pick me up at 7 a.m. The time of the ceremony and of the pick-up was also carefully calculated by the fortune teller.
If you’ve ever attended or read about a traditional Chinese wedding, you might also know that in order for the groom to “earn the right” to get his bride, he has to overcome a series of hurdles. Technically speaking, he had to pass through my family’s challenges, until they were satisfied and agreed for him to “take me”. However, as I had a meager total of three family members attending the wedding, I was allowed to “borrow” some of J’s family to act as my defenders. He also came accompanied by some of the young people in his family.
First, he had to pass the main gate, which was fiercely guarded by two of J’s nieces, who didn’t allow him in until they had received half a dozen fat hongbao. Then, he had to make it through the house door where, once again, he lost a few hundred in hongbao. When he finally made it to the bedroom door, and after passing a couple more, bigger, hongbao under the door, he was allowed in only to be faced with a series of challenges before being allowed to “take me”.
A poorly written poem, a dance in a skirt, an awfully out-of-tune song, and some bad jokes later he finally earned the right to go “shoe hunting”. He and his family had to work hard to find my golden shoes, which were carefully hidden in some corner of the wardrobe. Once the shoes were retrieved, it was time for him to carry me home. Literally, CARRY ME. Luckily he didn’t have to take me all the way home, just to the car. There was a parade of six cars parked outside, waiting. The first and last were white (because of an analogy to a Chinese saying referring to becoming old and white-haired together), the rest black.
In front of the cars, a group of old men from the town was playing traditional songs, and firecrackers were fired left and right. We must have caused the dogs in town some ever-lasting trauma! Back in town, I was carried up the hill to the house, where the wedding ceremony was being prepared and the guests were waiting. I was brought to the “hunfang 婚房”, the wedding room, which is basically our bedroom (at my in-laws’ house), and which was decorated for the occasion. There, my husband had to remove my red veil to see my face for the first time. He had to use the arm of a steelyard balance to remove it (again, due to an analogy to a Chinese saying, this time one referring to having kids soon into the marriage). I believe traditionally this didn’t happen until after the wedding ceremony and was the first time the bride and groom saw each other. I am happy we live in the 21st century!
In the room, I was fed some breakfast and got to spend some time with my parents and husband, while everything was being set up outside for the ceremony. That day is a real blur, I was so tired, but I think the ceremony must have started around 9 a.m. (let’s not forget I had been up since 3 a.m.!). There was an MC who led us through a rather standard series of events, from having my father hand me to the groom, to pouring champagne and asking J to kiss his bride. The most interesting moment of the ceremony for me, as a foreigner, was the parents’ exchange of hongbao. My mom and dad each handed J a fat red packet, in exchange for him to call them “mom” and “dad” for the first time. My in-laws did the same with me. From that day on, I was no longer to call them shushu and ayi, they were now only to be referred to as ba and ma. Although nowadays it comes naturally to me, back then it was hard and took me a long time to get used to!
After the ceremony, I changed into my second attire, a couple of family photos were taken, and then it was time for us to show our respect to our elders. Again, this was a part of the event that I had no idea would happen, so I just played along whatever I was told to do. We had to kneel in front of each pair of elders and call them by their 辈分 beifen or level of seniority (the position they occupy in the family in relation to ours). I can’t even remember who to call shushu or jiujiu, so for me it was just repeating whatever J said. After we “kotow’d” for each one of them, we got a bill in return to add into our collection of hongbao money.
Finally, it was lunchtime. Lots of round tables were put out, and rounds of people were served a humongous amount of dishes per table. Each table also got at least one bottle of my most dreaded baijiu, a spirit I swear should be forbidden. People ate and chatted, and meanwhile, we had to do a round walking to each table with a bottle to cheer with each guest. Kindly, someone in the family had filled a bottle of baijiu with Sprite earlier, so the whole thing was just a show. And when the show was over, we finally got to sit down at our table and enjoy some food ourselves! The abstract film that was my wedding, was coming to an end. The rest of the day is a blur in my memories.
The wedding was, to me, as if I was observing it as a spectator. And not only because I didn’t know much of what was going on, but also because it never felt like it was about us. And it wasn’t. A wedding in China is about the guests, about the mianzi, about the tradition. It has nothing to do with the bride and the groom themselves. We were just playing our parts.
Right before our Chinese wedding happened, I decided that I also wanted to organize a wedding back in Mexico someday. On the one hand, because I wanted my husband to experience a Mexican wedding too, and on the other, because so many of my friends were ready to hop on a plane and come to my wedding in China, I had to find a way to avoid that (Can you imagine a troop of foreigners in a tiny little town up in the mountains of China, who speak no word of Chinese, and would have had to stay at a stranger’s house on a hard-ass bed and without running water?).
The Mexican wedding was planned for February 2020, which was the only time J had a long enough vacation to justify a trip to the other side of the globe. Since I wasn’t in Mexico myself, my parents had to help out a lot with the planning, and we hired a local wedding planner to help us with the details. It wasn’t going to be a traditional Mexican wedding, just an intimate ceremony with a few dozen of my closest friends. It would also be the first time J visited Mexico. I was very excited.
We traveled to Mexico right before COVID appeared on the radars, how lucky! After a few days of exploring the big city, we went to my hometown and spent some quality time with my family. Then, it was time to adjust all the details for the big day, like food tasting and flower picking. I had bought my dress in a cheap market in China (as I knew I was wearing it only once and wouldn’t have time to go find one in Mexico), and everything else was being taken care of by our lovely wedding planner. It was really a lot less stressful than I expected.
The day before the wedding, my friends started flying in to my parents’ cabins. We sat together and planned out the ceremony one day before it happened! I asked one of my best friends to host it, and some of my other good friends to say a few words during the ceremony. We also put together a huge Spotify playlist instead of hiring a DJ, which ended up being the best money I have ever saved since we had music we all loved all night long!
On the day of the event, I had someone do my hair and makeup (it only took about an hour this time!). My friends and family, as well as my husband, had already gathered at the beach site where the ceremony would be hosted. It was beautifully decorated, in a romantic yet rustic fashion. My father walked me down “the aisle”, we joined two separate flasks with sand into one, representing our union, and then poured it into the ocean. We read each other our vows, and our friends shared some beautiful wishes for our marriage. It was simple, romantic, moving, and intimate. It was the first time, ever, I saw J tear up and choke. I didn’t know he had it in him to get emotional. What a nice surprise.
After the ceremony, we enjoyed a lovely dinner. A good friend played some songs on his guitar and sang for us while we ate, and everyone was relaxing and enjoying the beach vibes. During dinner, a friend started passing around a huge bottle of mezcal, and with that, the party officially started. We drank, we danced, we sang, we had fun. We included some traditional elements from Mexican folklore, like dancing “La víbora de la mar”, where J barely escaped being thrown into the ocean. We stayed up until 4 a.m., dancing. Some of our friends went on to watch the sunrise at the beach. J danced for hours (probably the only time I have ever seen him dance). He definitely had the time of his life. And so did I. And so did all of our guests, who still think back on our party as one of the best weddings they have attended.
My Mexican wedding was all I had hoped for. It was the perfect contrast to our Chinese wedding. One very traditional and elaborate, but impersonal. The other was very simple and non-traditional, but extremely intimate. It was, to me, the perfect way to round up our union and celebrate both our cultures and background. And, most importantly, it changed both my and J’s perception and understanding of each others’ culture and background.
I do wonder, should I start planning a Swiss wedding, too? (JK)
If you have any questions about my marriage or tips on what you would like me to write about next, please feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for staying with me all the way to the end of this story!