Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

China & Wedding(s)

Second Reception in the East

Night Market. Ping Xiang — Nexus.

I am in China. Getting married a second time. To the same woman. I’ve known her for 4–5 years. Time flies. So far from what I know and what I’ve grown up with. I am strange land yet I feel oddly at home. Sure I am a curiosity for a foreign land with dark eyes and a darker skin tone. Sure I have more facial hair than anyone in the entire country. Sure people stare at me.

But people are warm, welcoming and curiously curious in this small town by the Vietnam border.

My parents and family couldn’t be here and I feel oddly alone. I don’t speak the language so I keep to myself. Trying to pick up on some words around the dinner table or context of the conversation. But they keep switching between Mandarin and Vietnamese. I give up till I hear something familiar.

Sophie’s parents were born and raised in Vietnam for the early part of their lives. Her dad’s side of the family still lives there. It’s a complex history but during the Chinese-Vietnamese war, a lot of the Chinese families from Vietnam moved to China. They were all settled by the Chinese government in a small village close by. Her parents worked at a factory and lived in government housing. That home is still there, for now. What was the village is now an industrial zone, littered with factories making pharmaceuticals to motorcycles.

The wedding customs are similar to a Pakistani wedding. The groom (me) is driven to the bride’s house in a caravan of cars decorated with flowers. Her cousins and neighbours are my groomsmen. They pick me up at the hotel at 8am and we start driving in formation. Its a quick ride and we’re too early, so we turn around and grab some breakfast. I stand out like a sore thumb, dressed in a suit with a big red flower but I am getting used to it. A middle-aged lady gives me the thumbs up. I imagine she’s telling me ‘You look good!”. I smile and return the favour.

As I make my way into the house after the firecrackers are all done, Sophie’s bridesmaid demand ‘lucky money’. Her cousin. Vivian, who speaks English is my interpreter as I try to figure out what is going on. I am nervous and I am not really good at hiding it, I am not sure what to expect.

The groomsmen point to my jacket pocket. I take out a package of red envolopes they handed me earlier. Vivian tells me that’s the lucky money and I should bribe the bridesmaids with it so they clear our way as I make my way up to Sophie’s room. My groomsmen really have my back.

There’s a tea ceremony upstairs after I find Sophie’s missing shoes. We serve tea to each family member. It signifies their blessing for our union and myself becoming part of the family. One at a time, a pair, starting with her mom and dad sit on the chairs in front of us and we serve them tea. Soph teaches me what to say, so I don’t mumble too much.

There’s a break before the evening reception. Sophie’s bridesmaid arrive at the hotel to help her change out of her red traditional Chinese dress and into a white western grown. I only have the one suit for the entire day, how many wardrobes can a man change into? I read and laze around till its time to get the show back on the road.

400 or so odd people start arriving at the banquet hall at a local hotel. We’re standing outside greeting each one. There’s a big LED screen at the back of the stage showing our wedding video & pictures from Toronto. I look different when I had a beard.

Sophie wrote a speech for me in Chinese, that I have been practicing for two days. It’s ping ying so I can pronounce the words correctly even though I don’t really know what each word means. I am nervous as Sophie’s dad hands me the mike after making a speech in Vietnamese.

I pull out the papers from my jacket and start. There’s a huge applause in the room, I stop and laugh nervously. Constantly stopping to whisper to my wife next to me “ am I saying this right?” — she nods. I go ahead and don’t stop till I reach the end, probably mutilating the language and missing all the stops and pauses. I hope enough of it makes sense. There’s another applause. I bow and hand over the mike to Sophie. She later tells me no one really understood anything I said, except for a word here and there, but they appreciated the effort. Sheesh. It must have been my desi accent.

Sophie changes into her desi dress. Sakun, our friend from Malaysia who we met in Montreal lent it to her. The dress traveled from Malaysia to Montreal to Toronto and now to Ping Xiang. We have hardly had the chance to eat but not now. We go around to each of the table, cheering the guests and drinking our beverage of choice (water in this case). Smile and laughter all around.

We took a trip to Sichuan. My culinary spirit land and home to Panda’s.

Chengdu is an odd city. Half modern, one leg still in its historical roots. The air smells of chilli’s and oil.

By far the noiset city I’ve been too, including Lahore and Karachi(which comes close). It probably has the most honks per capita. Between the sprawling condos and historical buildings and temples are the restaurants. Neither of us is local but we find a hot pot place that’s a local favorite. The wait in around 2 hours so we walk around the shopping district and neon lit designer shops. We grab some snacks. If you want to get a feel for the city, trying the local street food is a must. My Pakistani stomach isn’t bothered by the conditions in the kitchen. The food is heavy in chilli oil and I love it.

The hot pot is spicy enough to make me light headed. First experience ever. I am not ready for this culinary spiritual experience. The locals on the tables around us don’t seem bothered while I drink a whole pitcher of orange juice to stop myself from fainting. I thought I could handle spicy but this I am not ready for. It’s hard to stop though. I make my way through enough food without exploding.

Back in Ping Xiang, I am munching on sand worms at Sophie’s parents house. They taste and look like chips. Like you’d get from a bag, except for the sand you can taste from the beach they came from. Thousands of sand worms, caught by hand and cleaned. They’re worth their weight in gold. But I think about sustainability and the ecosystem. The unassuming sand worm that needed up in the bowl in front of me played a vital role in the ecosystem but now they’re but over farmed. As the supply diminishes the demand goes up. Somewhere on a village beach is a family that makes its living by catching, cleaning and selling these sand worms. But they’re only so many left.

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The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s not a particularly pleasant smell nor is it unpleasant. It simply is. It’s the post industrialization; factories and gasoline, it’s sharp and it pinches the throat like a cheap cigarette.

The second thing is the scale. Just the sheer size of the city itself even as your stuck in the traffic after a 12 hour flight. Your cab driver decides it’s a good time to trim his nails. Neon lights blazing at your from the numerous banks dotted around the 4 lane road.

Motorcycles are not allowed within the city confines of Beijing so the electric scooter rules. Walking down one of the side streets, I notice a big box that looks like a generator. Sophie points out its a public charging station for electric scooters. I flash back to Better Place for a second, perhaps not a fair comparison but the band aid solution is functional for all intents and purposes.

The lack of my language skills in Mandarin and Cantonese have left me being a passive observer trying to guess at what the conversation is about. It is a game that I am not very good at. We meet Sophie’s friend for dinner. The restaurant is empty but its noisy. A lady pushes a cart selling pickled vegetables. Her friend is politely curious about me. Do you eat alot of lamb in Pakistan? I nod in affirmation and smile. It’s a interesting dinner with limited conversation from me. The pattern continues as we meet friends and family for dinners and lunches.

I am a curiosity from a foreign land.

Beijing interweaves with old world and new world. The Forbidden City is a enormous complex of 980 buildings that sprawls across a chunk of the city. While strolling through, it’s hard not to be intimidated by the power and influence this place accumulated through its 500 year history. Even with thousands of tourists trotting through it a day, its clean, well restored and clearly preserved with great care. It pains me to think about some of the cultural & historic sites in Pakistan and the gross negligence they are suffering from at the hands of our elected officials. The Forbidden City has its modern counterparts, imposing government buildings that always seem to be omni present in every corner.

Sophie is spending a day with her friend from Shanghai, so I take it upon myself to play the brown tourist. I walk through malls and an seemingly endless street shadowed by giant Audi, Prada and Gucci stores. Clearly with the new economic reforms, some people have enough disposable income to splurge on luxuries. Yet others are not so fortunate; the majority of people working in Beijing come from smaller rural towns in the suburbs, the rent here is to steep.

I wonder if I can manage to buy a coke without saying a word. It’s a hot day and I’ve been walking on strange crowded streets for hours. When my turn comes at the Mcdolands counter, I hear the woman at the other end saying something. I assume she’s asking me what I want, so I point at the coke machine at her back. She blankly looks at me. I splutter out ‘Coke’! She grins, ‘Coca Cola’? As I walk out with the Coke in hand, I am amused at how some things transcend language and cultural barriers — even for a mid aged Chinese woman at a McDonald’s.

Thanks to my family and especially my dad for always reviewing my drafts.

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