Wedding Bells in Hong Kong

My best friend here, Kai, was married at the end of March to her British love, Matthew. From beginning to end, the ceremony was this lovely blend of Hong Kong and UK tradition. Although I was battling a vicious case of food poisoning which decided to attack me the night before her wedding, that didn’t stop it from being one of the most beautiful and interesting ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

The bridesmaids all converged upon the bride’s parents’ home early in the morning of the wedding. The groom and groomsmen were there too, but they had to stay outside the house. Kai had just finished having her hair and makeup done, and she was enfolded in a traditional, red brocade Chinese gown with wide, flowing sleeves and a high neckline. Her hair was done up in intricate swoops and coils. Once she was ready, she was ensconced in her parents’ bedroom, where she was to sit with her father while the groom had to pass a series of obstacles to prove his worth as her future husband.

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The bridesmaids were in charge of doing their best to stop Matthew from winning Kai’s hand. He had to play several games, including passing an orange under his chin from one groomsmen to another without dropping it. He had to answer a series of difficult questions about Kai to show how well he knew her, and he also had to pay the bridesmaids a handsome sum of money before we would let him go inside the house.

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At that point, he retrieved Kai from her father, and they both came downstairs among cheering and clapping for the tea ceremony. During the tea ceremony, Kai’s parents and many aunts, uncles and cousins were each served tea in turn by both Kai and Matthew. In exchange, they showered the to-be-married couple with gifts of gold. Kai was laden with many necklaces, several watches, and various bracelets and other pieces of jewelry. Decked out in gold, the long tea ceremony over, everyone piled into a rented van to drive to the wedding registry wear the actual legal ceremony would take place.

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This portion of the day was very straightforward – both the groom’s and the bride’s family and friends all entered a small room lined with chairs with a table in the center. Matthew, tearing up (and making all the rest of us cry in the process), read the prescribed vows. Kai put her hand on Matthew’s arm and repeated her own vows. After signing the marriage certificate, they were wed!

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Many pictures were taken both inside and outside before some of the party headed back to Kai’s parents’ house for a lunch (and much-needed nap time for me and the bride, who had also been having trouble holding down food and water that day…) of roasted pork and various cakes.

Later, we got back into the vans to head to the banquet, which was held in a beautiful venue with many white tables with flowers and overlooked a river. Everyone who hadn’t come to the more intimate wedding ceremony of the morning was invited to the banquet. People milled about, chatting and laughing, waiting for the bride to appear. When she did, it was in a stunning Western style white gown, with exquisite beading and a short train trailing behind her. Kai and Matthew entered the room to great applause. The bridesmaids and groomsmen were introduced, speeches were given, and Kai and Matthew welcomed everyone to help celebrate their married life. We also watched a lovely video comprised of pictures of the two of them from the time they were infants to when they finally found each other.

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There was some dancing before the banquet, which was a never-ending parade of delicious Chinese dishes, including the traditional suckling pig and bird’s nest soup.

Hours later, at the end of a long, beautiful day, everyone piled into the vans to head back to their respective homes to finally give Mr. and Mrs. Matthew and Kai some much-deserved privacy!

The Truth, If I Could Tell Her

Marie,

    Hi,I miss you so much.

    Where are you?What do you do?Are you happy now?

    We have just finished the final exam,and I have time to write a letter to you.

    Many studentsin senior 3 in Pinggang failed their exams.They must be very sad.

    I regret that I didn’t choose arts.I really love painting.However,my parents disagree.I doesn’t mean that I don’t love my parents.In fact,I love them very much.I know they love me too.They gave me a best childhood in the world,I think.They have rights to ask me to do everything.It is my responsibility to obey their request,though I am unhappy.I hope that they can be happy when they live.

     Do you know?In China,‘孝’is important.It means ‘filial piety’.It may be different from that in America,right?

     Only two years can I prepare for the college  entrance exam.I must do my best.So I might have less time to write letters to you.I have been a little tired.I must insist.

     I still remember what you told us—-go and play.And I want to go to America to play.

     OK.I am going to go to bed.Bye.

                                                                                                                                                                               Pig

                                                                                                                                                                      2011.7.7

———————————————————————————————-

Pig,

Hi. I miss you too, even though, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember which exactly of my 600 students you are.

I’m in my home, on my bed, in northern Michigan with a computer on my lap. I’m worlds away from you. I do things–today, on a lazy Sunday–like fold clothes, clean my room, eat grilled chicken with rice and salad, do the dishes, and play with my new camera. No, I’m not very happy. But I’m working on it.

Congratulations on finishing your exam. The fact that you’re laboring to write me a letter in English after the completion of said exams fills me with pride. I’m lucky for knowing you.

My heart goes out to the Senior 3 students who failed their exams. Their lives are altered now in ways I can only imagine. For one, their chance to go to college–any college–has just gone out the window.

I wish you’d chosen the Arts major, despite your parents. Pig, I hope you’re painting right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a Humanities degree it’s that your passion can thrive right alongside your day job. It’s just a shame it has to take a back seat to the Science major your parents are pushing you–a high school student–into. I did know about 孝 (xiao4), and no, it’s not the same in the United States. Filial piety is an important concept and a good basis for a family, but here it is manifested in different ways. My parents, for example, are proud of me for chasing the things that make me happy, not for obeying their every whim and becoming a mini-clone of their own forgotten hopes and dreams, nor a ticket to their future financial stability. I hope your parents can be happy while they live, too, but your unhappiness should not be the price of their contentment.

You only have two years to prepare for the college entrance exam that a bunch of Senior 3’s just failed. Good luck. You must do your best because the social pressures on you are greater than on anyone else in the history of humankind. Females in China have the highest suicide rate in the world at about 15 in every 100,000 women and you’re dealing with that every day. You’ll “insist” because you “must.” You’ll strike those frail little fists against every exam and application and every all night study session where you’re so tired your head drops onto the stacks of books open on your desk. You’ll stop eating and sleeping and you’ll punish yourself brutally for every wrong answer. For what? The infinitesimal chance of going somewhere else. I wish you didn’t have to work so hard, but at least there’s this: it’s worth it. Going somewhere else is worth it.

Go and play, Pig.

Love,

Marie

just a few things I’ll miss

The way children are adored here, the more precious because there is only ever one per family, their little bare bottoms peeking from the split bottom pants, the way they freely urinate in public.

The food, the variety of it, the vegetables, the fish, the eggplant and rice noodles and dumplings and ricericericerice and teateateatea and green beans and meat with all the fat and bones intact and chicken feet and tofu that smells like a sewer and tofu that tastes sweet as sugar, and lotus, and the sauces that transform normal garden produce into something exotic and intensely flavorful, the spice, the little black balls of spice that numb your mouth, and the fruit–mangoes, mangosteen, durian, dragonfruit, pears–sweet, cheap, abundant.

The vibrant vegetation, the way the tree at the end of the road of my apartment complex burst into flower over the weekend without anyone noticing. After the heavy day-long rain this tree had a sunset painted over its fern-like leaves, small red flowers catching the daylight and tossing it this way and that. Under the tree red petals littered the ground and caught in bushes nearby like snow in hair and my, how lovely.

The freedom to travel, the rush of joy at a new city, how they’re all so different and all the same.

The lived-in feeling of public transportation, the relative ease with which I can cross a city–this city, my city–as big as a state.

The way when you meet someone there’s no preamble. Immediately phone numbers are exchanged, immediately someone says to you, “I hope we can be friends,” immediately you are a part of their life.

The way students disobey and sleep during class and ignore your questions and still love you fiercely as one of their own, as someone to be proud of, as a member of their community.

Solidarity

Carole and Jenny, best friends and Senior II girls who like to talk with me during English Corner, dropped by my office to say hello one day last week instead. To my usual question of “How are you?” they both answered, “Not wery well. Our boyfriends broke up with us.”

“Both of you?” I almost laughed. Solidarity. I minimized my gmail screen and welcomed them further into my cubicle. “Tell me all about it.”

Carole had been forced to break up with her boyfriend because her parents found out about him. Her parents are divorced and so they are both, she says, overprotective. I remembered during the New Year’s festival, Carole had found me as I waited for my turn to perform. Her class had already chanted poetry while stamping their feet in formation. As she ran up to me, boys with swords were tumbling around the stage and slashing at the air. They were all wearing red except for one large boy in yellow. “That’s my boyfriend,” she had whispered, smiling, pointing to the leader. I had teased her. “I thought you couldn’t have a boyfriend!” She shrugged, half coy, half shy.

When her parents found out, they called the school, sic’ed two security guards on her, confiscated her cell phone, and forced the split. “Because this is China,” Carole sighed. “We’re not supposed to–” she paused.

“Be distracted from school?” I offered.

“Yes. But–” she sounded outraged for a moment, as if about to launch into a tirade against that particular system of thought. Instead she changed her mind, and the subject. “But for Jenny it is worse,” she said instead.

I looked now at Jenny, who was smiling from her round face as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “My boyfriend is, how you say, gossip about me.”

“Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “That’s not good.”

“No,” Carole agreed. “He is saying things and giving her a bad character.”

“That’s awful!” I was half out of my chair, ready to hunt the dude down.

“Yes, but it is okay.”

“No, it’s not,” I interrupted. “He shouldn’t say things, and you shouldn’t listen to him. It’s not fair and it’s not true.”

“No, he is wrong. But it is okay. Because we have our friends and our study.”

I eyed them suspiciously. I mean, it’s true, of course, but it’s still propaganda. And teens should not be that self-controlled. It’s eerie.

“That’s a very good attitude to have,” I said lamely. They knew it was. We all know exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking in these situations. I thought about sharing with them my theory that the human race will eventually evolve to the point where the few young males left in existence are kept in cages as exotic pets and the females reproduce spontaneously–if they feel like it–after reaching biological maturity, but I didn’t think it would translate well.

Apologies to my male readership–but control your own, eh? Then I wouldn’t have to get sassy.

Love to my dear ones at home and elsewhere, as always! Just over two months before I fly into DTW.

Sixteen

On a Monday in mid-November I showed my advanced class scenes from the movie High School Musical to go along with the lesson on high school culture in America that I had prepared. As the movie played, I sat in the back of the classroom in an empty desk, in a unique position to observe the dynamics of the classroom. The minimal laughing and talking that occurred went unchecked, since Class 1 is my best-behaved class and most of them were avidly watching the movie and trying to understand the English. High School Musical is one of my favorites, too (it nursed me through a wretched freshman year at Grand Valley State University), so I was busy rooting for Gabriella and Troy and hoping the Wildcats would, indeed, “get their heads in the game.” But soon my attention began to wander to the top girl in the class, Eleven, and the boy sitting next to her, Steven.  The classroom is set up in three rows of about ten pairs of students, amounting to nearly sixty students per class. Eleven and Steven were on the far left of the classroom, the middle pair of students.

Last week, something odd happened during my lesson on mood, feelings, and emotions that should have tipped me off. When I called on Steven to answer the question, “What makes you happy?” the rest of the class took it upon themselves to answer the question for him with a chorused roar of, “When he gets to sit by Eleven!” And then they all laughed. Steven had acknowledged this with a small smile, but he otherwise kept his composure except for the usual nervous look on his face whenever I ask a question, so instead of pinpointing the reason for the good-natured teasing, I pressed on with my questions and the lesson.

The students do not sit in the same seats every week. I have a few classes where the same big, sleepy boys sit in the back of the classroom and try to nap while I teach, but for the most part, the students change seats every week. I think this is a good practice, even if it makes learning names nearly impossible. I have six hundred students, though—learning all their names already was an impossible challenge, since many of them don’t know their English names, either.

The light was dim in the classroom except for the big projector screen as the movie played. I found myself watching Steven and Eleven more and more rather than HSM. Eleven was the most excited of the students, singing along to some of the songs and laughing uproariously at the right moments. She would occasionally turn to Steven and murmur something to him. He’d laugh, but as soon as Eleven turned back to the screen, his face would turn all business again.

He was preoccupied with touching her.

Chinese students are not allowed to date. I don’t know if this is an actual, written rule, but if it isn’t, it is a very strictly enforced unwritten one. Schooling is only compulsory in China up until the ninth grade (the end of junior high), so students who make it into high school based on their test scores from junior high are generally the more motivated ones. Focusing on schoolwork or basketball or whatever it is that you’re good at is considered the one important factor in your life. After high school, if you have performed well on the big test, the gao kao, you may go to college. Your scores on the gao kao determine which college or university you’re allowed to attend. There are so many children in China, and so few opportunities for success. To get anywhere you have to be dedicated, severe, naturally talented, and willing to give up the idea of a childhood.  For example, Fishes, another Class 1 student, came up to me and proudly proclaimed she’d gotten her “hairs cut.” I said it looked nice, and did she like it? “It is like a boy,” she said. I couldn’t argue with that. “But it is good for my study.” Ah. “I think long hair is beautiful though,” she said, looking wistfully at my hair.

The students are up every day in time for breakfast at 7:00am, and they have classes, study time, chores, and exercises all day until, I kid you not, 10:00pm. Their jaws dropped when I told them American students are done at 4pm every day, with optional extracurriculars and a few hours of homework. The Chinese students’ homework is done after 10:00pm or during their two-hour lunch break, which, for the senior ones, must be spent studying in the library. It is not an easy life. These students, especially around exam time, are more overworked and exhausted than most American adults I know.

And somehow, in the midst of this, there is time for Steven to be preoccupied with touching Eleven. He took it very seriously. He edged ever so slightly closer to her. When she laughed, her body would convulse to bring her that much nearer to him, and he’d take advantage of that movement to touch her shoulder or upper arm or, if he grew daring, her upper back, with the palm of his hand, as if admonishing her for her laughter. He was careful not to look at her while he did this. His face grew redder and redder. Sometimes he sat back in his chair so he could look at the small expanse of brown skin exposed between her red t-shirt and high-rising uniform pants.

This week’s assigned-seat rotation has Eleven and Steven on opposite ends of the classroom. Karen, Class 1’s headteacher, told me that if the headmaster knew, he would be very unhappy with them. She said, “I do not interfere. I don’t tell them what to do outside of class, no one is going to stop them. But I can make sure they don’t sit by each other. Their test scores this time were very bad.” I’m not sure what to think. Distractions here can’t be tolerated: there’s too much at stake. Karen is one of the sweetest women at my school, and still she knows that test scores are more important than teenage romance.

But there it was: the painful redness of his face, the brief touches of his hand, her overzealous laughter, the way she spoke to him quickly and quietly, the bright smile on her face, and the deadly serious, intent look on his: they were sixteen, they were falling in love, and I was watching it from the back of the classroom, remembering all too clearly what it felt like to be in Eleven’s seat as a student and thinking that the world ‘round, sixteen is sixteen is sixteen.