I’m dancing to “Gangnam Style” in 4-inch heels on a stage in front of more than 200 people, 95-percent of whom I don’t know, can’t understand and, thankfully, will never see again. The music is blaring and lights are flashing blue and pink and yellow. The audience is silently staring as I attempt to do the I’m-riding-a-horse-and-waving-an-arm-in-the-air move of PSY’s hit song. My only consolation is that my sister is next to me. She urgently whispers in my ear, “Ohmigod, I’m going to pee myself!” And the chorus starts, “Heyyyy, sexayyyy ladayyyy!”
I have two coherent thoughts: “Please make this stop,” and “How the hell did we get here?”
To answer that question, we have to go back a year prior, to the winter of 2011. My cousin, the son of my mother’s oldest sister, has gotten engaged. It’s the first engagement of all the cousins on my mom’s side — granted, there are only two cousins outside of myself, my brother and my sister. Still, it’s enough to be hot, hot family news and send us into a collective, year-long planning mode: How do we get to the wedding, what do we wear to the wedding, where do we stay for the wedding, what do we do before and after the wedding? The wedding becomes what we plan our lives around.
It’s not that we’re crazy, wedding-obsessed people. It’s that my cousin’s wedding is in Shanghai, China.
Both of my parents are from Shanghai. Most of my mom’s family is still in Shanghai, and my cousin who is getting married lives with my aunt and my uncle and my grandmother in the same house that my mother grew up in as a child. My family also lived in Shanghai for nearly two years when I was around 8 and 9 years old, and visited again a year later. But I had not been back since. And not only had I not been back, but in that 13-year separation, I had forgotten the bulk of Chinese I had ever known how to speak. Instead of focusing on re-learning the language in the year I had, I shoved it to the bottom of my mental to-do list. By the time December 2012 rolled around, I was no better at remembering how to say “Where is the bathroom?” than 12 months earlier.
When we finally arrived in Shanghai, the reality of being in China’s largest city began to settle in. On the streets, taxis weaved in and out of lanes, miraculously avoiding crashes by near inches. People crowded the sidewalks, pushing others to get by and rushing across busy streets, also miraculously avoiding getting hit by cars. Buses honked. Street vendors hollered.
We spent a day getting over the jet lag before the wedding. We saw my cousin and the rest of the family. We ate a lot of food in a short amount of time. And to be honest, by the morning of the wedding day, I wasn’t too worried about not being able to speak Chinese. My family had been assigned a big table together, and we could enjoy the wedding with each other. My main concern was my boyfriend, who not only couldn’t understand a word of Chinese, but was also going to be the only white person at the wedding. “Is that going to be weird?” he asked. “Uh… people will probably stare at you,” I told him. At the very least, I could blend in, I thought.
The wedding took place in a ballroom of a big hotel. We walked down a long hallway, unsure of what to expect. My mom had told us the wedding would be fairly modern. The Chinese wedding industry has grown significantly in the last decade — around $80 billion a year is spent on weddings — thanks to the adoption of Western traditions like getting a wedding dress (or two), buying diamond rings, hiring photographers and videographers, and having a DJ.
“So, is there going to be dancing?” I asked.
“No. Chinese people don’t dance at weddings,” my mom answered.
The ballroom was set up with 20 round tables, ten people assigned to each one. There was a stage at the back of the room. A long runway, much like a fashion show runway, came down the center of the stage and led to a small, gazebo with purple and white drapes. A red carpet went from the door of the room to that gazebo.
We sat down at our table where wine and beer and cigarettes and appetizers sat atop the Lazy Susan. As we were chatting and taking in the scene, the lights dimmed and a mix of hip hop and dance music started playing. This wasn’t Chinese music. This was Kanye West and The Black Eyed Peas and Drake and Rihanna blasting through the speakers as strobe lights assaulted the wedding attendees. An MC came on stage to announce that the bride and groom were entering the room, walking down the path from door to gazebo to runway, set up for them to come on stage and pronounce their love.
I could barely understand a thing and I was in shock at the theatrics. The wedding came in various parts. All of the guests sat at their tables eating while the bride and groom said their “I do”s. Later, the couple arrived to sing a love song on stage. There was another part where they poured glowing liquid into a sculpture that said “Our Love” and drank champagne with their arms intertwined. And another part where parents from both sides of the family went up and made speeches. And another part where they showed a video of my cousin proposing to his then-girlfriend. My cousin’s wife changed three times during the wedding, a different, gorgeous, sparkling dress for each major part.
Finally, the lights turned back on and the whole spectacle was seemingly over. But then, my cousin took the stage with the MCs and announced that it was time for the guests to get involved. The MC asked that all of the unattached, single people come on stage. Since I was there with my boyfriend Jeff, I thought we were safe. But my cousin was flailing his arms, trying to wave us over, until finally the MC pointed at the table and said something to the effect of, “Hey you guys, get on stage!” I guess if you aren’t married, you’re single.
My brother, my sister, Jeff and I walked reluctantly down the runway. We couldn’t understand the words the MC enthusiastically yelled into his microphone, so we stayed glued to my Australian cousin Jennifer who could understand Chinese and attempt to translate for us. She told us we were going to play a game, where the winners get a prize.
“Just get us off stage,” my brother said.
The MC said something, and pointed to two sides of the stage. We stared and giggled and gripped each other’s arms in confusion. He looked over at Jeff, of course, and explained, “I ask yes or no question. You answer by moving to yes or no side of stage. This side yes. This side no.”
What proceeded was 20 excruciatingly long minutes. The MC invited non-single people on stage. He asked more questions. Jennifer tried to save us, tried to understand what the MC was saying — he was speaking too fast for her to understand — and yet, somehow, we answered question after question correctly. We stared enviously as the people who stood on the “wrong” side of the stage got sent off, to go sit comfortably at their tables.
“The groom proposed to the bride more than once. Yes or no?” The MC asked. “I don’t think he asked more than once,” Jennifer said. “We’re definitely getting off,” her voice suddenly high-pitched with excitement. She didn’t want to be there either.
My cousin proposed twice.
Now, the 60 or so people who had graced the stage had been whittled down to ten. We had a perfect record following Jennifer’s instruction, but then again, the rest of us couldn’t understand a thing without her. She was the only person we could trust up there, the only chance we had of losing this game.
Another question. We stood still, together, on the same side of the stage. And then Jeff looked at me, and walked across to the other side, leaving me behind. I laughed and said, “You’ll be stuck up here alone!” A few seconds later, the MC shooed him and three others away. Jeff cheered for himself.
Ten became six. There were three prizes to be had. Another question. More words I couldn’t understand. My brother, at the last moment, decided to cross to the other side of the stage, so it’s an even three-three split with my sister, Jennifer and I on one side and him and two people we don’t know on the other. “You’re going to be up here without us!” I warned him.
The MC told him and his companions they could leave the stage. My brother laughed the whole way back to our table.
“Congratulations! You win!” The MC announces in English, having picked up on the fact that my sister and I don’t know what’s going on.
“And now, we dance!”
Gangnam Style starts playing. My sister starts laughing and crying, and I am laughing and crying next to her. We dance.
And I tell myself, I need to learn Chinese.