Travelers tend to make friends quickly. A certain type of personality draws people abroad, and there is an almost instantaneous unspoken bond between strangers meeting in a strange land. My experiences have also led me to the conclusion that for Caucasian men in Asia, there is also a specific cultural tendency to place westerners on a pedestal which usually acts as a very efficient social lubricant among Asian male gen x’ers.
With time to waste in a city called Ningbo I decided to go bar hopping. Ningbo is a relatively large city in Eastern China about three hours from Shanghai by bus. As I wound my way through the nightlife of the city I didn’t go out of my way to talk to anybody. I was merely happy to observe, and drink, and dance occasionally. Around four AM I was leaving a club called G+, which is a Chinese staple now, and there seemed to be one club left alight with the oncoming dawn. Inside this bar I began talking in a combination of broken English and shattered Chinese to a twenty something and his friend, who spoke no English at all. When the bar closed at six I decided to go with them to get a massage rather than go straight to the morning train. Afterwords my new friends saw me to the bus station and we proclaimed our newfound brotherhood before I went back home to Shanghai.
A week later I received a text message from Xiao Meng, my little brother, the one with virtually no English fluency asking me to come to his brother’s wedding in a few weeks. Now, I had to weigh two possible reasons for this invitation: was I being invited merely as a Western showpiece; or was I being invited out of a genuine desire for Xiao Meng to have his new friend at an important family event? The Chinese have been fairly notorious for using their expatriate (expat) teachers to “liven up” their weddings and cast an air of importance for themselves in front of distant relations. However, the answer came down to a simple “who cares.” Even though I would cringe at the thought of going to another wedding back home, there is no reason to pass up first hand experience of a unique cultural event. So, after half a drunken night and morning with two total strangers, I was going to a wedding.
I arrived by bus in the city of Xiao Xing without fanfare. There is a perfectly good reason for the cold reception though. I was in the wrong city. After stumbling around aimlessly for a few minutes, puffing on the first cigarette of my pack of expensive Panda cigarettes I called the other “brother” whose name in my phone was “Iceman.” As it turns out I was over an hour away from Xiao Xing Zhu Ji, the actual city I was supposed to arrive in. A half empty bus ride later I was at the bus station of Xiao Xing Zhu Ji, a place that was remarkable only in its stark resemblance to every other small Chinese city on the Eastern seaboard. First impressions are usually difficult for any city though as most are not designed to awe tourists by the areas immediately surrounding bus stations or airports. Around me the trappings of Chinese urban life carried on at a pace I found frantic a year ago, but now blend into a dulled background noise. Awkward bicycles with their squared rear carriages carried sacks of recyclable debris as day laborers paced back and forth in dust covered suits spitting or smoking as the moment called for. A small woman pulled chicken feet out of a vacuum sealed plastic bag and gave them to her daughter as I focused my eyes on the traffic beyond the small fence, waiting to discover what form my wedding chariot would take.
I was mildly surprised when an expensive looking black sedan covered with red ribbons and flowers pulled in front of the station. I assumed that as the only foreigner standing anywhere near the station it would be pretty obvious that whoever was coming to pick me up would immediately recognize me. However, Xiao Meng’s uncle looked a little lost, so I approached the car. After some gesticulating we came to an agreement that I was the right passenger and he was the right driver so I got in the car and we drove off. As the car left the relative bustle of the city I let myself fade, eyes first, into the mountain topography that slowly dominated the windshield. I am always thankful for an abundance of beauty whenever the situation yields a dearth of words.
When we reached one of the townships outside of the city of Zhu Ji the car came rather abruptly to a halt. Here I was transferred to a bright blue Chinese pick-up truck. The trucks in China are for the most part much more practical looking than their Ford counterparts. As I understand it, this particular brighter than sky blue color is indicative of a diesel engine, and slightly more powerful engines. Sitting in the front of the truck was Xiao Meng’s father, who immediately gave me a sealed pack of very expensive cigarettes, and crammed in the backseat was my “little brother” Xiao Meng. After a very brief introduction the truck rumbled on to a third degree of separation from my original destination Xiao Xing. Xiao Xing was a medium sized city, Xiao Xing Zhu Ji a small city, Zhu Ji a township, and now a small village outside of Zhu Ji was our final destination.
There was an odd mechanical sound that permeated the air of the village. At the time I thought it had to have been printing presses and maybe the town was involved in some kind of local or regional distribution. As Xiao Meng and I walked through the small roads and alleyways crowded with caddy-cornered farm houses I couldn’t help but imagine villages like this one sheltering the remnants of communist armies and filled with the banners of red guards as heirlooms were sacrificed to the fickle gods of Chinese revolution.
As we walked past an old man sleepily tending a corner store I noticed a massive weaving machine inside his house. The same machine seemed to be operating in all the houses we passed. The longer we walked around the village the more immersed I became in the sound of the looms spinning white strands into sheets and table cloths. The whole village seemed pre-occupied with a single task, house to house, factory to factory. The trucks that rumbled by were either piled with finished textiles or towing huge metal pipes wrapped with the raw white string. As these white lines and sheets rolled through my mind Xiao Meng informed me that the quasi-English speaking member of our one night triumvirate would not be joining us. Thus, without a translator we carried on into the wedding dusk.
Past a massive factory the perpetual motion of the weaving machines became the soundtrack for the rest of the night. We ambled down a long street straddled by the mountains on one side and curious fields of green crops of the left. Xiao Meng put his hands together and bowed in a caricature of prayer as we passed the sprawling complex of a run down monastery. The monks ran to the gate to shout hello as we passed. I would imagine pious people have more need for small distractions than the rest of us.
Eventually we reached a narrow lane overhung with balloons and filled with the squat cubes of Chinese fireworks. Xiao Meng’s family greeted me with the wide eyes and gaping jaws typical of people in a situation where a foreigner appears unexpectedly. It seems a large swathe of the town was devoted to the wedding feast. The alleys between homes were filled with food in various states of completion, from live chickens to boiling soups. As I paced my immediate surroundings the Chinese character for “love” like a graffiti tag followed me through multiple courtyards. In a village consumed by the creation of tablecloths there were none on the tables for dinner, but the setting sun reflected an orange glow from the thin plastic sheets that covered the two dozen tables. After an hour of aimless wandering and being a kung fu practice dummy for a half dozen children the wedding procession began.
Two men started at opposite ends of the two dozen “rocket boxes” that lined the side of the street. The fireworks began their noisy colorless explosions against the backdrop of the cyan sky. As the colossal booms of the rockets drowned out the sound of the weaving machines, chunks of orange sulfur began landing among the crowd, and a large chunk physically moved me when it crashed into my shoulder. After a minute or so the two men in charge of the fireworks dashed back into the fray, with what seems to me like a total disregard for their own safety, to light five or six of the boxes that never fired, as the others shot their cache within six inches of their faces.
The smoke that filled the street created a mesmerizing haze as the blurry black and white figures of the bride and groom approached the crowd from a few hundred meters down the street. Men and women formed in two lines at either side of the bride. They held long red rods which peppered the air with purple confetti as the bride and groom passed beneath them. The procession was reminiscent of medieval knights raising their swords for the monarch to pass beneath them.
This seemed to be the official beginning of the festivities, which coincide with the beginning of chain smoking. As the bride and groom passed by Xiao Meng ushered me up the stairs to the bridal chamber with another few dozen people. In the bedroom men, women and children clambered around the bride and groom as huge dolls, stuffed bears, blankets, pillows, kitchenware, and other gifts were carried in by the family. Smoke filled the air and every person I passed offered me another cigarette. For the rest of the night every picture taken of me would show a cigarette behind each ear, one dangling from my mouth, and me accepting another one anyway.
I was introduced to the bride and groom, and the miscommunication dance began anew. I managed to compliment the bride and shake hands and the groom, quickly assessing my Chinese ability smiled and said only, “everybody happy happy.” This was probably the most successful communication of the night, but managed nonetheless to relax me tremendously.
As the rush of well-wishers ambled up the narrow wooden stairs Xiao Meng and I went over to the dinner tables. The large, circular wooden tables sat about ten people each, and soon after we sat down the three rooms filled with guests. The groom walked around passing out packs of Liquor cigarettes, a brand local to the province. Each male guest would in turn wander around passing out cigarettes from the packs. I do not remember any period of longer than five minutes during the night when I was not offered or smoking a cigarette.
Men and women brought food to the tables at a staggering pace. It was my first time eating turtle, and snake, but the old favorites of pork, chicken, duck, and dog also made an appearance along with various fish, tofu, and vegetable dishes. The father of the groom sat at our table so I was obliged to try every dish before the other diners at our table. We drank beer out of porcelain bowls as well as Bai Jiu, the Chinese firewater. After a dozen individual bowls of food had been cleared from the table the groom arrived at our table. The groom is typically required to drink a bowl of beer or Bai Jiu with every table, but he also is allowed to appoint a “wing-man” to drink for him if he becomes too intoxicated to continue. The groom had visited at least a dozen tables before he came to ours, cigarettes spilled all over the table from the boxes he held, and after the bride poured our beers he immediately bowed and passed his bowl to his best man.
The detritus of dinner littered the floors and tables everywhere; spit out bones, shrimp shells, turtle parts, fish cartilage. The dinner was reaching its climax, and various relations to the groom came to raise a cup to me and of course offer a cigarette. After this dance had ended, when the music had stopped, and I’d no more partners left to share the floor Xiao Meng asked me, “Do you want to dance?”
Of course I did, but I had no idea what to expect. Could there be a low class club around here somewhere, some space where the rural kids went to dance off dreams of the city? As we left the family’s matriarchs to clean up after us the music of the looms slowly came back into the foreground. I felt as if the hum of these machines was something that could slide, mercurially into my subconscious and drive my steps as I dreamt. Stepping outside again for the first time since the sun set, the stars were an assault on the senses. After spending so much time in Shanghai they felt like childhood friends reappearing from an old photo album.
After a short walk we straddle the village’s largest building, it appears to be ground zero for the weaving machines. There are no lights on in the building, but a collection of noises break through the glass and concrete barriers and enter the night. In the parking lot people gather. Though upon closer inspection, females gather. In the flat space behind the factory over a hundred women over 40 and girls under 12 are slowly spacing themselves out in lines. Speakers are wired to the second floor balcony of the building and a monolithic cd player is plugged into an unknown power source on the ground floor. While the preparations for the “dancing” were underway Xiao Meng brought me to a room filled with sewing machines. The walls were filled with children’s drawings, the windows were so covered with dust that it blocked out the light of the stars, and the workstations stretched for what seemed like an impossible distance in both directions. But while I only thought of Nike documentaries and Cathy Lee Gifford scandals the eyes of Xiao Meng and his father beamed with pride. When I listened closely I could almost hear the heartbeat of an entire village filling this room.
To that beat music was soon added and we crept outside to the sound of crackling speakers. The girls and women were now in full swing. All of them danced in an ecstatic choreography to a Zhu Ji opera. A hundred of them spaced a meter apart stepping lightly back and forth and swinging their arms. I was reminded of the old folks doing Tai Ji at dawn in the Shanghai parks. Xiao Meng and I joined for a few fleeting moments but it quickly became clear that this was not our music, not our dance. So we sat down at the edge of the parking lot, among the barrels and weeds.
We leaned in opposite directions, like bookends, and stared up at the stars. After struggling for so long and failing to communicate we sat with all the accumulated knowledge of these eastern and western worlds between us. But here, we faltered, and looked away, neither uttering a word in our mother tongues because we were afraid of falling into the space between words.