Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Formal Engagement

They called us "coffee and cream"

In traditional, patriarchal Chinese families, mothers can approve of future sons-in-law, but the fathers and brothers are the ones to hammer out the details of the formal engagement and wedding agreements. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, traditional Chinese marriage is more like a business contract between two family enterprises than a love affair. Since the church elders had given the okay for a formal engagement, Mr. Liu and I began to make our preparations. The first thing I had to do was get my Dad and brother out for the ceremony. They made their reservations, we set a date, and then he went to make his arrangements while I went to make mine.

I asked around, and my friends (who were single girls in their twenties) told me that I would have to serve tea to Liu Yuni’s parents and uncles, and that the engagement ceremony should be held in my home. Our living room was very small, but an elderly couple in the church lived around the corner from us. They had a spacious flat in an upscale apartment building, and they graciously offered to host my engagement ceremony. Next I tried to find an appropriate dress. I thought I would get a silk dress with a traditional high collar. I found a lucky red silk dress with hand painted flowers on the shoulders. It fit very nicely, so I purchased it. When I got it home and showed my friends, they told me that I couldn’t wear anything with both red and green on it for engagements or weddings. It was supposed to be bad luck. The flowers had green leaves done in appliqué across the shoulders of the dress, making it definitely red and green. I loved the dress and had spent more money than I could afford on it, so I had to make do with what was in my closet. My graduation dress from university was white, and the girls thought that it looked best. I wore faux pearls from my grandmother, and one of my roommates lent me a pink sash to give it some “wedding” color. My hair dresser got into the planning and decided to braid pink roses and white baby’s breath flowers into my hair. I made reservations for an engagement luncheon at my friends’ restaurant. I thought I was all set.

Liu Yuni and I had decided that there would be no bride price/dowry exchange. We wanted a minimal no-fuss engagement. My friends from church would set up chairs, his relatives would come, I would meet them and serve tea, and the elders from church would be there. We would sing two hymns, one of the elders would speak a word of blessing, Liu Yuni would put his mother’s gold necklace around my neck and an engagement ring on my finger, and we would all head to our friends’ restaurant two doors down from the apartment complex for the engagement feast. According to traditional Chinese customs, the girl’s family plans the engagement. What could go wrong?

At first, Mr. Liu agreed to our minimalist engagement program. He thought it reasonable that the engagement be done in modified Western style and the wedding more Chinese style since we were making a union of two totally different cultures. We had our date set, my father and brother had their plane tickets, and we were down to two days before the engagement. I was just about to leave for the airport to pick up my dad and brother when one of Liu Yuni’s sisters called to tell me that the uncles and aunts would not come unless there was more pomp to the ceremony. They said I had to give Liu Yuni nine gifts including a suit and dress shirt. I didn’t have time to deal with it then, so I told the Lius I would call them when I got back from the airport.

On the way to the airport, I told some of my Chinese friends, who immediately got up in arms and threatened to not attend the ceremony either because the Liu family was not being fair. So I had a luncheon for thirty ordered, and now no one was planning to attend. Plus I had to host my dad and brother and show them around Taipei to help them get over jet lag. I went back and forth and back and forth about what I would and would not do. I had purchased Liu Yuni’s suit that he was going to wear for the engagement ceremony because the family was so broke they didn’t have the money. His parents knew how much of my own money I had put out for the ceremony, and they felt that the relatives were being unfair, but they didn’t know what to do. Finally, Liu Yuni came home on leave the day before the ceremony and called me. I told him what was going on, and he called all his aunts and uncles. The upshot was, his sisters made up a tray of nine items that I had already given him with little red “double happiness” stickers on them. These were just laid out on a table as the guests walked into my friends’ living room. Since the Lius were not giving me a bride price, there would be no formal exchange of gifts and money. Liu Yuni told his aunts and uncles that we were doing it Western church style, so things would be a little different. Finally, the reason behind their strike came out—according to tradition no more than twelve of the groom’s relatives can accompany him to the engagement ceremony. But they all wanted to come. So I called the restaurant and my friends. We added an extra table, and a number of my friends from Taipei came to a make-up dinner party at a later date, so we were able to accommodate all thirty of the people in the Liu party. Fortunately, my friends had a very large living room.

After settling the matter of whether or not the ceremony was even going to occur, I dashed off to have my hair done. I came back with just twenty minutes to spare and couldn’t find my white dress. I had ironed it and left it hanging on my bed. None of my roommates knew what had happened to it. Just as I was about to have a panic attack, Mercy, the roommate from the bunk above mine, came waltzing in with my dress all done up in plastic. She had taken it to have it professionally ironed and had had to fight for a taxi to get back in time. I quickly jumped into my dress and dashed off to my engagement.

The ceremony itself went off without a hitch. I didn’t spill tea on any of Liu Yuni’s relatives, more of my friends came than I had expected, and they all stood around the back of the living room. The entire place was packed to overflowing. Liu Yuni was tanned almost black because he had been out in the sun doing military drills all day every day for his NCO training class. Everyone said that we looked like coffee with cream. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except that I got through it without a problem, and everyone was happy.

The Lius and their relatives enjoyed the dinner, and my friends at the restaurant gave us a few extra special dishes as their present to me. There was a lot of toasting and well-wishing. A friend of mine from work did the translation, so I was able to just eat and enjoy myself. My brother was put forward as the drinker of the family, and he began what was to be his job for the rest of his time in Taiwan: drink Liu Yuni’s uncles, cousins, and brother-in-law under the table. He was quite good at it.


murat11 said...

Teresa: A lovely picture of both of you. That What could go wrong? certainly had "land-shark" music around it when you laid it down. Funny how the family's initial concern was that you were not honoring tradition, when in fact the issue ultimately involved their not honoring tradition. I'm glad all was resolved, that all had a good time, and that your dress arrived just in the nick...

Teresa said...

Hi Murat: I may be one of the few people in the world to have had a hair-raising engagement party. But it was fun in the end.

Barrie said...

Love the smiles in the photo !

Teresa said...

It's one of our favorite pictures.

Cloudia said...

What a story!

Teresa said...

It was memorable!!!