The fireworks started just after midnight. The four of us – me, Andy, Rebecca, and Eric (their English names) – stood outside, waiting for them to go off. A large, red papercutting hung on the front door of the apartment complex, its Chinese characters signifying “double happiness” – two stick figures joined in an embrace, the perfect pictographic embodiment of marriage.
An archway composed of pink and red balloons swayed in front of the weather-beaten doorway. Staring up, I counted at least seven stories, the lights either dimmed or absent in every window. Nothing about this scene struck my companions as unusual—they had partaken in multiple weddings as guests, but I was attending my first. It would take place in the northern city of Taiyuan, fifty miles from the rural Chinese university where I taught English.
Taiyuan served during the 19th century as the center of the Chinese banking industry. It is now better known as a seat of heavy industry dominated by coal barons. The region produces a quarter of China’s coal, which is used primarily to fuel the country’s bustling steel industry, currently the biggest in the world. Coal also transformed Taiyuan into one of the ten most polluted cities in the world and a boomtown home to the triumvirate of Western globalization: Walmart, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like all get-rich-quick cities in China, Taiyuan was prone to its share of ostentation.
When the fireworks went off, they sounded like an artillery shell exploding, and I had to cover my ears. A light rain began to fall in neat symmetry with the combusted paper. No one seemed concerned that the noise might wake up the other residents – they knew they could get away with it. The fireworks, I learned, warded off evil spirits before the wedding day; it would have been bad luck for anyone to protest.
The display felt both familiar and foreign. As a half-Chinese American, I had spent all my life cognizant of Chinese culture but had few chances to engage with it directly. The decision to teach in China, conceived partly as an effort to better understand my identity, ended up only obscuring it further. I was seen not as Chinese but as a Westerner, a harbinger of American culture. It didn’t matter what traditions I professed to know; cultural rituals appeared rooted firmly in place.
Weddings are perhaps the most enduring cultural ritual of all, a rite of passage celebrated in one form or another by practically every culture in the world. As strange as it felt to be the only American, it was also exhilarating, like I was party to a secret. I wanted to understand what it meant to be both Chinese and American, where one ended and the other began.
Something about that image – standing, as an anomaly, amidst the fireworks – came to mind again, nearly five years later, on the eve of my first American wedding – my sister’s – in a suburb of Philadelphia.
Allentown, Pennsylvania might rightly be called the Taiyuan of the American Industrial Revolution. Located firmly in the Rust Belt, the city was once a hulking industrial powerhouse, home to the largest known deposits of anthracite coal found in the Americas and the second-largest steel producer in the country. But it was a city already in decline for decades due to the rise of automation and deindustrialization. On the commute to the hotel, I passed a neighborhood housing office, two police precincts, a Western Union, and a 24-hour laundromat across the street from a cemetery.
I drove to Allentown with my girlfriend, my Chinese American mom, and my mom’s boyfriend. For the better part of a week, my mom and I had debated the merits of conducting a Chinese tea ceremony as part of the wedding. The tea ceremony is usually the centerpiece of a Chinese wedding. The bride and groom pay respects to their elders by serving them tea, often in exchange for money-filled envelopes. In so doing, they are welcomed into their spouse’s family and – because in China weddings are not typically presided over by a minister – become symbolically married.
The plan was to stage the tea ceremony at the rehearsal dinner on Friday, the evening before the wedding day. The Italian restaurant had been notified, and the bride and groom had already purchased matching red and yellow changshan and qipao. But at the last minute, my mom backed out.
“It just wouldn’t feel right,” she said, by way of explanation. Our extended family arrived Saturday, and thus would miss the ceremony.
“Wouldn’t it be more respectful doing it partway than not doing it at all?” I countered. The majority of my younger Chinese relatives had, like my sister, married outside of their race. Almost none chose to have a tea ceremony. “I just think having something celebrating our heritage should be at the wedding,” I persisted.
All of John’s, my sister’s fiancée’s, family was white; Allentown, as of the 2010 census, was 2% Asian. The absence of the tea ceremony felt to me like a loss – both to my heritage and to the wedding. The sum total of Chinese culture could be boiled down to the sugar-dipped fortune cookies sitting beside our name cards at the restaurant.
“Some things about tradition can change,” my mom replied to stave off the conversation. We both agreed on this point, only in different ways. Change for me meant altering the guest list for the tea ceremony; change for her meant doing away with it entirely. I was the only one who had lived in China, but I could never claim to have two Chinese parents. Between place and identity, what, in the end, should be the greater arbiter for culture?
Rebecca and Eric’s apartment was both newly renovated and almost completely empty, save for a big screen TV (a wedding gift) and a gigantic wedding portrait that spanned nearly one full wall of the living room. In the photo, they were wearing all white – Eric in a tuxedo and bowtie and Rebecca in a tiered wedding dress topped with a veil – and standing in a bright green field beset with palm trees. The whole scene looked patently un-Chinese, a feature I would continue to ponder throughout the wedding.
Rebecca was one of my most competent graduate students. In a class of 35, she easily outpaced her peers in English. When Rebecca invited me to the wedding, she insisted on a “Western” ceremony, uttering the word like Marco Polo might have spoken about “The Orient.” Traditional Chinese elements would remain, she told me, but she wanted to be married to Eric the way she saw it done on “Friends” and “Gossip Girl” – with a priest. The priest, naturally, had to be a foreigner. As the only foreigner Rebecca knew, I was quickly enlisted.
With an influx of money pouring into second and third-tier cities like Taiyuan, China had undergone a cultural transformation. Westernization, once viewed as a foreign scourge under Mao, was embraced during the period of opening up and reform as a metric to compare the development of one Chinese city from another. This attitude was no more prevalent than in Taiyuan, desperate to elevate its status from a provincial mining town to an exemplar of China’s new role on the world stage.
It didn’t matter to the couple that I grew up in an areligious household and never attended church; my identity as an American superseded my cultural allegiance. Nor did it matter that the ritual felt completely incongruous with place or that I had no authority to marry. But like the city of Taiyuan itself, I latched onto the quixotic notion that I could be anyone. I borrowed my roommate’s Chinese-English bible and downloaded a set of vows from a wedding company based in Toledo, Ohio.
On the morning of the wedding, an armada of white and red BMWs picked the wedding party up from the hotel. Rebecca wore curls in her brown-highlighted hair and a large hoop dress – her first of four outfit changes of the day. We drove in a caravan across the city, Rebecca and Eric’s car in front, a small fleet following dutifully behind.
Outside of the wedding hall, a band of red and yellow-clad performers chanted, beating on drums and crashing cymbals. The ground was still wet from the night before, and firework confetti stuck to the concrete. The venue would host four weddings simultaneously that morning; a photo of each bride and groom, blown up to billboard-size, towered at the entrance.
Guests seated themselves banquet-style by table, each with a bottle of good baijiu and a tablecloth adorned with traditional wedding sayings. The food arrived, all of it Chinese dishes I recognized—dumplings, cold meat, fish, green beans, dried tofu.
The ceremony started when Eric and Rebecca – newly minted in a frilly light blue dress – rode in on a Jeep. The master of ceremonies gathered them up front on a stage bedecked with a giant LED screen. He had perfect skin and bangs so neatly coiffed that he could have passed as a Korean popstar. There was something oddly incongruous about the whole thing, a Western-style ceremony but in a fundamentally Chinese place.
When my name was called, in both English and Chinese, I introduced the couple and had each recite their vows. Eric, in English, struggled with the line, “I give you this ring, as a symbol of my love,” despite all the times we had practiced it beforehand. I realized he had done it just to appease Rebecca. They said, “I do,” resoundingly, as if declaring a campaign victory rather than a covenant of love. I was reminded of the skits my class performed to practice English vocabulary – students and teacher playing the role of husband, wife, and priest.
Americans, whether we like to admit or not, find comfort in aspects of our culture projected abroad. Whether it’s Starbucks in Beijing or Coca-Cola in Laos, we like to see ourselves in everything. But at the wedding, the Chinese fascination with the West appeared more like imitation than homage. Taiyuan could afford to create its own traditions in an era of unprecedented economic boom. I couldn’t help feeling that China’s rise, in its quest for reinvention and Western validation, came partly at the expense of its own culture.
When the ceremony ended, I exited to find the street sweepers cleaning up the paper confetti and preparing to usher in the next four couples.
John refused to see my sister, Hannah, on the morning of the wedding. He wanted to stick to tradition.
“I’m not going to see her until she’s walking down the aisle,” he said, raising a glass. The decision, like so much of the ceremony, intended to preserve the stalwart, if stodgy, rituals passed down by generations of Americans. I found it oddly charming. Raised by a Chinese mom in New York City, I was enthralled with the idea of participating in my first American wedding.
At 5:30 in the afternoon, we gathered on the second floor of Allentown Brew Works, a downtown restaurant and brewery part of the city’s larger effort to reinvent itself and attract a young, creative class. The redeveloped central business district includes a one-block “Arts Walk,” though it features more juice bars than galleries. Neighboring cities have tried other strategies for revival; Bethlehem converted its foreclosed steel mill into a casino. Reinvention in the Rust Belt is slow and has taken decades. Allentown suffers from double-digit unemployment and a shrinking population. Even if the Chinese tea ceremony did go off as planned, there was still something too affected about it. Unlike Taiyuan’s slick, modernist facelift, Allentown still clings to its old world sensibilities, a relic of a bygone era.
I watched my little sister walk down the aisle to a keyboard rendering of “Canon in D Major.” We were crowded around two small aisles, John’s family on one side and Hannah’s on the other. Standing at the center of the stage: a genuine ordained minister. She wore long, gray flowing robes and possessed a voice like liquid silver. The bridesmaids wore strapless purple dresses, a nod to my sister’s favorite color. The groomsmen sported purple bowties paired with dove-gray suits that gave us the vague appearance of small-time criminals.
After the exchange of vows, we shifted upstairs for the reception. The dinner menu offered a choice of crab cakes or filet mignon – neither particularly memorable, but I was comforted by their appearance. I thought an American wedding would never come across as authentic to my Chinese roots, but my family’s presence proved me wrong. At the end of the day, we were all American, no matter the “place” we had come from, the languages we spoke, or the cultures we held dear.
Couples started getting up to dance. My Asian American relatives swarmed the photo booth, forcing the DJ to make a special announcement to corral them when the couple cut the cake. As I watched them with amusement, I came to a realization: my sister and my married cousins had neither foregone nor forgotten their Chinese culture – they’d simply adapted it. Chinese culture is a part of the fabric of America in a way that American culture is only starting to develop in China. Even this manifestly American-style wedding had become a part of our tradition, too.
I spotted my mom, standing near a crowded table.
“Isn’t this just great?” she said, throwing her arms around me.
“It is,” I shouted back over the din of Justin Bieber. “But for my wedding, I’m still having the tea ceremony."
Originally published in Sage Magazine.