Marryin’ Joseph! OMG! You should have been here. Was this an operation. I played my role as a minister, but I swear, I was more popular than the bride and groom. No kidding!
You may recall from my April 16 post, “An Unusual Request,” that I was asked to play a minister for a young Chinese couple who wanted to have as part of their wedding theme an enactment of a western wedding. Well, it happened this weekend. But not before we met a couple of times with the wedding event planner, William Zhong, and his assistant, Lin Dan, whose English name is Hellen. (Hellen is also William’s sister-in-law.)
My emotions were all over the place on this. At first, it seemed like great fun. The request came through a teacher who teaches with Char at Hangzhou Foreign Language School. Of course, I wanted to help. Sounded like fun. But then we had our first meeting with Hellen and William. Hellen came along because of her English skills, but they weren’t all that good. So we all struggled through that first meeting. Then there was the matter of the script, which I ultimately provided. But there was also the matter of the robes and dress clothes, of which I had none or very few.
We met for a second time THE DAY BEFORE THE WEDDING. William did not have the robe with him. The plan was for me to try it on ON THE DAY OF THE WEDDING. Oh, and we would rehearse an hour before the event. And I hadn’t seen the final script yet. Yikes! I went home that Saturday with a bad feeling nagging me. But as I thought through it, with the help of Char’s counsel, I decided that the event would come off one way or another. I decided to do my best with what I had, with what I had been given so far, and the rest was up to William and Hellen and 507, which is the name of William’s company.
What I did not understand at this time was that William is a very talented and smart event planner. He’s only 26, but he is extremely sharp. He is a master of detail. He thinks on the fly, and on several occasions I saw him pause as he worked through his decision tree. I take as evidence that he is talented and successful by the fact that he picked us up Sunday morning in his BMW sedan. (I want that car!)
All Chinese are small. I am big. The Chinese do not understand big. We arrived about 11 a.m. Sunday morning at a very, very swanky hotel somewhere on the outskirts of Hangzhou. I try on the robe. William had quite astutely asked me for my measurements during our first meeting, and when I told him I could not produce a robe, he had one made. It was a tight fit. It had velcro fasteners. Fortunately, they held against my pressing girth.
This was to be an outdoor event. It was raining. The weather forecast called for rain in the morning, sun in the afternoon. Right. I asked William about it, whether we would go out on the plaza as intended, or stay under the shelter. He had all of the tables, chairs, podium, sound equipment–everything ready to go. He hadn’t yet made a final decision; he was giving the weather a chance to break. But he was quite prepared to move the event under roof, which is ultimately what he did.
So as we waited for the bride and groom and wedding party to arrive and the two o’clock hour for rehearsal, Hellen was assigned to take the minister and his wife for a walk. This turned out to be interesting, in a couple of ways.
First, Lin Dan (at this point I decided to call Hellen by her Chinese name, which, to me, is ever so more charming than Hellen. And also, as a guest in her country, the least I could do is call her by her proper name.) led us to a nearby ancient city from the Song Dynasty (roughly 900 to 1200 CE). Hangzhou had grown up around this city while it fell into ruins. But someone decided to renovate it and make it a tourist attraction. So Lin Dan proceeded to take us into the city. It was really quite interesting, but regrettably, it was a Sunday and the grounds were absolutely packed with Chinese tourists, complete with group hats and group leaders with flags. Bummer. If you have a chance to go, make it on a weekday. You will find it quite interesting. The sponsors do a good job of portraying life from that period. (Here is an interesting aside: Lin Dan went to buy tickets for us, only to discover she didn’t have enough money. :-) So she asked me for 400 yuan ($65) so we could get into the city. Kind of like, not only are you the guest, but you also get to pay. Not to worry; William covered it.)
Second, we set out about noon in the slightest of drizzles, so I did not take my umbrella. Of course, you know what I am going to say now. As we progressed through our tour, the rain increased from almost no drizzle to a rather intense drizzle. Char, of course, had brought HER umbrella, which was just big enough for her and Lin Dan. The result was that I returned to the hotel somewhat wet.
When we returned to the hotel, the bride and groom had arrived, as evidenced by the limousine that looked like it would stretch from someplace in St. Paul to someplace in Minneapolis. Rehearsal ensued. It was a little rocky the first time. Second time was better. By the third time, all of the adjustments to the text had been made, and we were ready to go. Let it be known that Char, owing to our past experience from the late 70s (OMG!) as wedding photographers, contributed considerably to how the ceremony would proceed and how the bridesmaid and bride would walk down the aisle. William had no idea about this and took due notice to the detail that Char provided.
I, of course, was occupied with being the minister. Oh, I was such a great minister. Black robe. White stole. Shaved head. White goatee. Six-foot-two, 285 pounds. I towered over the tiny Chinese. This is not a statement of conceit, but I am a very imposing figure for the Chinese when bedecked as a minister. In fact, I am so even in my street clothes. Char often comments to me when we arrive here or there that I am the tourist attraction.
By the time the actual ceremony was about to begin, I was quite comfortable. Lin Dan had been helping me with the pronunciation of the bride’s and groom’s names, although no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get it right. As far as I could tell, I was saying exactly the same words that Lin Dan was saying, but the Chinese didn’t think so. I cannot hear the tones in Chinese, and there are four of them. Lin Dan would say the name, I would repeat it–I thought, perfectly, only to be greeted with laughter from the listening Chinese. But this was not an issue for me; I made considerable effort to practice their names, and Lin Dan knew it, and whatever came out of my mouth during the ceremony I figured would be dismissed by the Chinese as a westerner’s best attempt. I left it at that.
After the ceremony, however, is when the excitement began. I had predicted to Char that everyone would want to have their picture taken with me–and was I right! Egads! The wedding party, the 507 staff, the young women–one after another they came up to me and grabbed my arm and the cell phones and soap-bar cameras clicked away.
Oh, man. I am coming back to China soon.
The take-away here is that the Chinese are, in many cases, very interested in and enamored with western culture. The Chinese watch what we do in the United States. It’s not that they want to be like us, but more that they are intrigued with our culture and our lifestyle. Of course, many Chinese do want iPhones and blue jeans. But I think we Americans are a real curiosity to them.
As I write this, Char and I reflect on our experiences here. In every instance, for every experience, it is the Chinese people with whom we interact that add so much richness to our escapades. Without them, we would be tourists going here or there, stopping to see this or that; with them, we are drawn into their lives and their culture. They reveal themselves at street level, far away from any political rhetoric, and they are as curious about us as we are of them.
Enough said for now. Here are some photos. I hope you enjoy them. And a final note: the title of this piece, “Marryin’ Joseph,” is a delightful pun borrowed from an earlier comment by the quick-witted Barb Geier.