A Fantastic Fusion of Wedding Traditions: Charles Weds Tara in Shijiazhuang China

I have to say that when I told people I was going to China for a wedding I got many inquisitive looks and questions. I wasn’t planning to go to China this summer, by any means. I was opening a big batch of mail one day in my kitchen, and had the pleasure of receiving a wedding invitation to my friend Andrea’s daughter’s wedding in Shijiazhuang, China. I admired the invitation, and appreciated a sense of style about it. I remember thinking that the wedding will probably be as beautiful as the card, but it certainly didn’t occur to me that I would actually be going. Like who goes to China for a wedding, right?

Nevertheless, I sent a message to my friend Andrea that I had just received a wedding invitation, to which she asked me if I am going. In my mind I was thinking there’s no way on God’s green earth that I could go, but soon Andrea sent me an itinerary that Tara had prepared for their visit, and a few minutes later their flight information. I talked to a couple of my coworkers about it, and they insisted I should go. Well, it didn’t really take that much convincing before I booked my tickets. That’s how I am here now….an invitation….an itinerary….and good old fashioned encouragement from some friends.

I may have told you that Tara and Charles’ wedding here in Shijiazhuang is a perfect fusion of Chinese and western wedding traditions. After this morning’s incredibly beautiful and hilariously fun “fetch the bride” tradition, we are ready to witness as Charles and Tara exchange vows and commit themselves one to the other. If you did not see my blog posting about the bride fetching tradition, I would suggest that you take a look at it. While the “fetch the bride” tradition is purely Chinese, Tara has assured us that the wedding ceremony is definitely traditional western style. You may remember that I had a sneak preview of the dress two days before the wedding, and I kind of know what to expect. I find myself thinking that everyone else is in for a great surprise and treat!

I am not sure, however, if it’s Chinese or western tradition for the bride’s parents to almost be late to the wedding ceremony, but that is what is about to happen, unfortunately. After the bride fetching tradition we had taken all the belongings from the Hilton Hotel and moved here to the Guoyo Hotsprings Spa hotel. Tara wanted to have an outdoor wedding, which was not an option at the Hilton, and as a result had decided to have the wedding here on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang at this hotel instead. It took a little time to check in and find our rooms, which are way in the back of this huge hotel complex. While the wedding party goes to do a quick rehearsal, we stay behind in a hotel room to quickly make candy bags for the wedding reception. Katja has to rush off to the rehearsal, and that’s how baby Jules’ grandparents, Erkki and Andrea, become responsible for his care. Time kind of gets away from us and we rush to get ready.

It’s time for the wedding to begin, but we have a big problem. You may remember that Erkki has been hobbling around with crutches due to a severe back injury….and we are running late…..and this hotel grounds are huge…..and we take a wrong turn…..and the hotel staff show us to the wrong place! Poor Erkki is in a lot of pain trying to walk as fast as he can, the crutches tapping and clicking as he rushes along. I am worried that he will miss a step and injure himself more, or that he will sustain an even more debilitating injury from overuse.

The hotel staff probably noticed the panicked guests from overseas pushing a stroller and a man hobbling on crutches, for they send an electric golf cart to rescue us. We only have a couple minutes to spare for the start of the wedding. When we jump up onto the golf cart we don’t have time to think about taking the baby out of the stroller, and collapsing the stroller, and loading the stroller onto the cart. Instead we decide to tow the baby in the stroller behind the electric cart. Erkki and Andrea sit facing the back of the cart on the rear seat, and both of them hang on to the baby stroller. We give strict instructions to the driver in English not to drive too fast,  which he clearly does not understand. Every time that he speeds up too much the stroller starts to wobble, and then we yell and madly gesture for him to slow down, which he does. Somehow we make it to the wedding venue on time and in one piece. Now I recommend that you don’t tell Katja or her husband about what we did with her baby, because they may disown us all. I feel I would have a lot to lose, but can you imagine if I was the actual grandmother? Shhhhh….Erkki and Andrea don’t want to be disowned!

When we arrive at the wedding pavilion Andrea tenderly greets Charles’ mother. The color and classic style of her dress is in perfect coordination with the bride’s mother.

One must wonder what are the thoughts of Charles’ mother. What is written in her eyes? She is smiling, yet her eyes speak what her mouth doesn’t. What is she worried about?  My camera? My inquisitive gaze? Perhaps she has been longing for this wedding day for many years? Perhaps she is worried that her son will move across the ocean? What does a mother think and feel when her son is getting married? What dreams and hopes does she have for her only child?

The wedding venue is set up beautifully. Tara wanted an outdoor wedding, which was not an option at the Hilton Hotel in Shijiazhuang. For this reason they chose to hold the wedding at the Guoyu Hotspring Hotel which is on the outskirts of the city. The canopy covering the bench seating area is great, as the day is very warm.

The flowers are stunning! Now I do have to say that Tara wanted all white flowers for the wedding, however in China that is not how things are done. The colors of flowers have special meanings, which I guess all white is not right for a wedding. The flower arrangements had all been made containing some pink and/or red colors, which was not what the bride had ordered. Tara found out about it just this morning, and had asked that they comply with her wishes. It looks like they decided to listen to her request, but they still left a few colored flowers in the bouquets. Tara decides that it’s okay to keep a splash of the colored flowers in the arrangements.

There are these beautiful golden chairs set up out in front of the bench seating. The benches are under the canopy and it is much cooler in the shade. On the other hand, the golden chairs are made of metal and are super hot after they have baked in the sun. The problem is that the metal chairs are meant for family members and guests from overseas. So if earlier this week I didn’t get my skin scrubbed off at the spa, or scorched off on the hot rocks, or rubbed off by the massage therapist, then surely my skin will become fused with my dress as I sit on the hot metal seat. I sit down gingerly on the hot seat, but my travel friends do not follow suit. My Finnish friends have a huge heat aversion, and trust me, it is plenty warm today. They have picked their spots in the shade and are refusing to move. It takes a lot of coaxing to get them to move into the golden chairs, but they eventually comply. Andrea doesn’t need any coaxing.

Instead of a corsage, Andrea has a gorgeous flower bracelet.

The other problem that we have pertains to baby Jules. He is delightful, just sitting in his stroller like the perfect angel that he is. That’s the problem. He is so delightful that people swarm around him everywhere we go and try to touch him and hold him, and stroke his hands, and touch his face. I am in charge of the baby during the wedding ceremony since Katja is a bridesmaid, but I also want to take pictures. I turn my gaze from the baby stroller to the main stage every few seconds. Every once in a while I have to retreat back to the baby to tell people not to touch him, please.

Some random people who were not a part of the wedding guests, as far as I could tell, hover over Jules. They admire him with true happiness written all over their faces. The thought occurs to me later that on this trip Jules is indeed in potential danger. Someone could snatch him at any time! I wonder if there are baby snatchers around here. I should like to think not, but one can never be too sure. I just noticed…..this young uninvited wedding guest has no pants on….

There are other random observers as well.

The groom and the officiator wait for the wedding to start.

And the wedding guests are ready…..the ones under the canopy are happy for the shade…..the ones on the really cute but hot metal seats are used to the temperature by now….maybe even enjoying catching a few rays and working on their tans….

The wedding party is about to march down the aisle. I try to snap photos at every opportunity, while keeping half an eye on Jules off to my right. I enlist Reija to help keep an eye on the baby, too.

Here comes the bridesmaids and groomsmen! And it’s beautiful Lisen of Sweden……such poise and grace…..and genuine happiness written on her face…..

And Katja, Tara’s sister….

And Suvi, the bride’s sister as well…..

Bridesmaids three…..

And the flower girl…..

And the groomsmen….

And the ring bearer…..

The bride and groom are coming down the aisle. Make room! Ummmm….can we keep the aisle clear for the bride and groom…..

The gorgeous couple steps confidently up to the wedding altar. Tara’s dress is stunning in every way. Her hair has been restyled for the wedding, the traditional Chinese hairdo forgone.

Charles shows his tender heart as he fights back tears of joy. It is very touching indeed.

Exchanging rings and vows…..

Now you may kiss the bride….

It’s a done deal!

Group photos are taken after the ceremony.

Baby Jules is safe again in his mother’s arms after the wedding. There were no baby snatchers around here, I guess. He was so good throughout the whole wedding. We didn’t hear a peep out of him until the music volume increased at the end of the  wedding ceremony.

The reception is being held inside the Guoyu Hotsprings Hotel. Before we can enter the reception hall we stop by the gift table. While the actual wedding ceremony is very traditional western, the gift table is definitely in Chinese style. It is traditional in China to use a “red envelope” system. Rather than give gifts, the guests place money inside these red envelopes and give them to the newly wed couple.

For this wedding Charles’ father has arranged a gift service. Those in charge of the gifts collect the red envelopes outside the door of the reception venue. The guest writes their name and the amount of their gift into a ledger, and after the money is counted the gift giver receives a ticket to enter the reception venue. As it happens Tara’s father does not have an envelope to give at the desk since he will be giving his red envelope during the upcoming tea ceremony. When he attempts to get in the door into the reception hall he meets resistance from the door attendant. He needs a ticket to get in. I don’t think the attendant understands when Erkki says that he is the bride’s father, but he does not resist when Erkki keeps on walking in through the doorway into what is an incredibly beautiful reception hall. Every detail is incredible.

The reception hall is set up absolutely beautifully. There is so much attention to detail.

No wedding in China is complete without a tea ceremony. During this ceremony the bride and groom’s parents are both seated. Charles serves tea to his new in-laws, who accept and invite him into their family. Then Tara in turn serves tea to her new in-laws, who accept and invite her into their family. Unfortunately from my vantage point I do not get very good photos of this awesome Chinese tradition.

If you are observant you will notice that Tara has changed her gown for the reception. She is now wearing a stunning gold gown. That makes for the third gown of the day, the first being the traditional Chinese gown for the “bride fetching” ceremony, then the beautiful western wedding gown, and now this incredible gold gown for the reception.

Prior to the wedding Andrea had prepared a speech for the reception. It had been translated into Chinese before the wedding, and as Andrea speaks another woman intermittently translates. The speech is incredibly touching. Andrea speaks about her joy in becoming a parent. Tara is her firstborn. She tells about Tara as a young girl, her independence, her boldness, her ability to accept anything that comes her way, and how she would face frightening situations with courage. Andrea relates of how when Tara broke her neck in a skiing accident she had an incredible ability to accept whatever the outcome might be, and to bring her mother peace and courage through the whole ordeal. She talks about her brave daughter leaving home to go live in China, taking on new challenges, starting a new life so far away. She talks about her deep love for her beautiful and compassionate daughter, how she misses her when she is so far away.

I can assure you, there is not a dry eye in the room. Later we find out that the Chinese written version of the speech has been passed around by almost all of Chinese guests on their equivalent of Whatsapp before the wedding is over. There is a lot to think about. There is a lot to process. There are a lot of people here from different backgrounds, and different life situations, but none of that matters. We are all the same. We each experience joys and sorrows in our lives, and we can all relate to Andrea’s message. It is one of unconditional love and acceptance, of hopes and dreams and best wishes for her very dear, dear daughter and her new husband.

The food is served as a buffet. I don’t even know how to describe it. There is just an enormous variety of food and goodies. Each dish is more delicious than the previous, that’s all I can say. To finish off there is a traditional western style cake cutting.

And so it is that we all have just experienced an incredibly beautiful wedding, perfectly orchestrated, every detail having been attended to with the keenest of diligence. And would you like to know the most amazing thing of all? This couple pulled off this gorgeous wedding ceremony flawlessly, despite having been personal tour guides for our group of 9 travelers for the entire week leading up to this moment – including this very day! If you can find another couple that can pull this off, let me know! There was not a moment that either of them appeared stressed about attending to the details of their special day as they lugged our group of non-Chinese speakers around Beijing and Shijiazhuang, cities with tens of millions of inhabitants.

As I reflect upon this wedding and this couple, I acknowledge in my heart their great love for one another. It is written in their every move. It’s the way they work together. It’s the way they plan together. It’s the way they act together, and think together. It’s written in their eyes when they look at each other. It’s in the tears of joy that Charles shed at the wedding ceremony, in his joyful smile when he was finally able to “fetch” the bride, in the way his face lights up when he sees her. It’s written in the way she holds herself, her calm composure, her steady gaze, her soft smile, her patience and gentle touch, and the way she navigates touchy situations or topics. It’s written in the way that she has assimilated into his culture, and embraced their customs and traditions, and incorporated them into her special day. It’s written in the way she loves his parents. It’s written in the way they have built their life together here in this far away place, in the way they made their special day so fairytale perfect.

I know I speak for all of us in our group of wedding guests, Tara’s mom and dad, her aunt and uncle, her godmother and godfather, her sisters and myself. I speak for all of us when I say that in our hearts we extend Charles and Tara our deepest wishes for a blessed and happy life together, a union of mutual love and respect. We have all seen and felt and acknowledged that this couple is meant for one another, that their lives have been brought together for a greater purpose, that theirs is a love that will transcend and withstand through any storms that life may bring their way. I know in my heart that Tara’s mother, Andrea, has a new peace within her after being able to see and experience where it is that her daughter has established her life, to have familiarized herself with the traditions and customs here, to have seen that her daughter and new son-in-law have joined into a spiritual union as husband and wife. I know that Andrea has also been able to sense the love that this couple shares, and that must bring her much comfort as her daughter is married. Their future together is very promising indeed.

When the wedding festivities are over we have the opportunity to stop to enjoy the hotsprings for which this Guoyu hotel is famous. We change out of our wedding finery and put on our lovely Kung Fu gowns, and off to the spa we go for a fabulous end to a magical day.