Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why I Dislike Chinese Weddings (And How I Fell Back In Love With Them)

I tend to get invited to a lot of Chinese weddings. After all, I am Chinese, as are the majority of my family and friends. I don't exactly keep track of the amount of such weddings I have attended, nor the amount of invitations I have turned down. On a rough guess, for my entire life, I have attended 10 to 15 Chinese weddings out of a total 40-50 invitations received.

Yes, the numbers don't lie. Clearly, I'm someone who is picky about weddings. There are a few reasons for my lack of exuberance. True, I do have a warped, cynical view about relationships (likening them to a social contract), but that's not the real reason at all.

Fact of the matter is, I generally dislike Chinese weddings. I usually won't attend one, unless I'm fairly close to the bride or groom, or I have reasons to believe it will be an enjoyable affair.

Why do I dislike Chinese weddings so much? Let me break it down into three main aspects. And in the process, lest I am accused of being obsessed only with bursting balloons, I'll also suggest how things can be improved for the better - for the lovely couple, and the appreciative audience.

1. The Guest-List

Marriage is the merging of two souls. The happy ending for two star-crossed lovers. A wedding is the climatic celebration of a marriage. The moment where the bride and groom stand before the whole world, and openly profess their undying affections for each other.

Who or what does the term 'whole world' refer to? This is where weddings get messy. Most couples prefer to construe the term narrowly as 'close family and friends'. But to the proud, doting parents of the couple, the term includes 'family and friends, far and wide, across three generations and the seven seas' and such like.

It's one thing to share the joy of love with others, like passing around slices of a wedding cake. It's quite another to slice and dice one's love into thin, tiny slivers, and making sure the flavour is vanilla enough so that it's not too sweet, not too fattening. Whilst this makes the cake edible for everyone, it may not tantalise the taste-buds of the persons who ought to matter the most - the bride and groom.

Often times, I see weddings suffer from lack of direction, impact and above all, soul. And it's simply because it's far too large, stretching the couples too thin and tired. They need to constantly move from table to table, smiling and making small chat with people, half of whom they hardly know and would hardly cross paths with ever again. 

The solution is simple. A wedding guest-list should only include people who the couple wants to spend their wedding with, and not those who they are socially obligated to invite. Distant relatives, long-lost friends, co-workers you barely speak to outside work - just cut them out. Why give a damn whether they feel offended? It's your wedding, it's your day. Once in a lifetime, one night only. The only feelings that matter are your own.

Alternatively, you could separate and spread out your wedding parties. There's already precedence for this - some Chinese couples throw one party for the groom side, another for the bride side. Instead of that, why not throw a large, ceremonial wedding party for the masses, and a smaller but more intimate one with your close family and friends?

And when choosing the wedding venue, don't make compromises because of other people's wants and expectations. Don't worry if it's too far and hard to reach. Any guest who cares about you will find a way to attend it. Feel free to have it in a house, on a garden, on the beach. Do whatever at wherever you please. 

Point is, a wedding should always be about the couple, and never about the crowd. The lovebirds are the stars. Let the rest of the planets and moons orbit around them.

Me, a groomsman at a good friend's wedding, looking swag in suspenders.

2. The Ang-Pow

For a typical Chinese wedding party - whether it's dinner or lunch, whether it's in a restaurant or hotel - there's always a reception table at the front. And on the table, there's a box wrapped up in bright, sparkly paper, with a long, narrow slit at the top. Guests are required to deposit their 'ang-pows' inside the box, as soon as they arrive. 

The amount of money inside the 'ang-pow' depends on the individuals. Yet, there is an unspoken rule that every guest should at the bare minimum bear the cost of one's meal, which can roughly be ascertained based on the choice of venue. There was even one wedding - so I'm told by a friend - that had the price of the banquet table shamelessly stated in one of the wedding announcements on the couple's wedding online portal (Facebook being the typical medium, these days).

Seriously, what's up with that? Why throw a lavish party to begin with, if you require monetary assistance to fund it? Why does it feel like I'm paying cover-charge to enter a night-club? If I'm invited to any other party - birthday, baby shower, graduation, etc. - I'm not expected to pay money at the door. So why is a wedding any different? 

Sure, I am happy for your wedding, and more than happy to buy you gifts. If you're really close, I will gladly make some small contribution, like how I bought some of the liquor for my brother's wedding. Let it be natural. Let it be out of good-will.

The idea of giving 'ang pow' is even more mind-boggling, when I'm invited to a wedding of someone I'm not close to (see Point 1 above). Right, after years of not keeping in touch, and bam, suddenly a wedding invite via Facebook out of the blue with the implicit request for financing? Oh wait, the wedding is just three months away? I see, that means I'm on the backup list, and you're scrambling to fill up the tables already booked for guests who backed out last-minutely. Right? RIGHT?

And when my friends joke about exceeding their 'wedding quotas' and 'wedding budget' for the year, their smiles betray exasperation. Me? I don't have a quota or a budget. I go to weddings as I please, and put in as much money in each wedding 'ang-pow' as I please (by only attending meaningful weddings, I naturally can afford to give more). I get annoyed when fellow guests ask me how much 'ang-pow' I am giving. It's a wedding, not a contest nor a cartel.

Someone, somewhere, is probably keeping count of the 'ang pows' at the end of every marriage - who give how much. I don't care if they think I'm too cheap or too generous. All I care about is what the host thinks about me. And I'm pretty sure all he or she cares about is that I made it to the wedding. 

At the end of my brother's wedding party, only two of my white, grape-flavoured 'ang pows' remained - none of the red ones survived. 

3. The Program

For every wedding, there are some basic steps to follow - kissing the bride, exchanging of vows and rings, speeches by the father and best man, cutting the cake, toasting drinks, and so on. Chinese weddings tend to follow the same, rigid standard operating procedure, to the exact format and timing. You've seen one, you've seen them all. How boring.  

The gate-crashing ceremony ('chip san leong') - where the groom and his loyal groomsmen ('heng tai') have to pass grueling challenges concocted by the bridesmaids ('ji mui') before making their way to the bride's room. The tea ceremony - where the families take turn serving each other drinks, in exchange of 'ang pows' (ang-pow... again!). Then comes the climax - the wedding party, which consist of finer things like the couples' childhood-to-adulthood slideshow and the toasting brigade (the couple and a few close followers go to every table, yelling 'Yam Seng' with its occupants as long as their breaths can hold, then everyone downs their drinks).

Some things, like the tea ceremony, are important tradition, so it's understandable to have them. But some of them, like the gate-crashing ceremony, slideshow and toasting brigade, are modern creations supposedly intended to add excitement to the wedding party. Supposedly, that is, because they really don't.

Almost every gate-crashing ceremony involve physically exhausting challenges like doing yoga poses, eating disgusting 'Fear Factor'-style food (wasabi, wasabi, everywhere!) and giving 'ang pow' to the bridesmaid (ang pow... again!). How about some ingenuity for a change? None of the challenges I have personally experienced as a heng tai were exciting and enduring, but for a few rare exceptions. Recently, at a close friend's wedding, I was made to bite through a flavoured condom wrapped around the open mouth of a bottle of vodka wedged between the knees of another heng tai, then suck the bottle dry. Kudos, ji muis - I now have a fresh perspective on blowjobs. Traumatic, but enlightening.

As for the slideshow, there's not much to say, except that watching a person's life through the years make me feel like I'm at a funeral, rather than a wedding. The toasting brigade? Why move from table to table in a long-drawn queue list, when you can just ask everyone to down their drinks at the same time, and move on with more exciting things.

A wedding party doesn't have to feel like a performance - the crowd obediently watching the couple do their thing, and giving applause and screaming "Yammmmmmmmmm Seng!" on cue. There should be no rules, no taboos. C'mon people, love is in the air! Free your hearts, free your minds! It's a party, for crying out loud. Let there be music! Let there be dancing!

The best wedding I have ever attended was just last week, at an island, by the beach. The formal ceremony was short, less than an hour. For the rest of the night, people were just taking turns jamming and singing on stage, whilst the half-inebriated audience danced the night away on the soft sand. It was a truly a memorable night for me - vividly for the earlier parts, vaguely for the later parts.

At this point of the night, consciousness has failed me. But who needs consciousness, when you've got soul?

Falling In Love With Your Wedding

It's not the venue nor the cost of a wedding that makes it great. Rather, it's all about the style and soul.

So lovebirds, infuse your wedding with your own style and soul. Only then, will you fall in love with your wedding, as will your guests.

(Special thanks to Fung & Charlotte - for hosting the best wedding ever at Langkawi, inspiring me to do things I never thought I had it in me, and making me fall in love with weddings all over again)


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