I had the privilege of attending the wedding (as a groomsman, no less!) of my best friends, Monica and Fox! Here are some highlights of all the antics that went down, starting 24 hours before walking down the aisle:Fullscreen capture 632018 91949 PM.bmp

Mylar balloons:
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The gang thought they picked up golden mylar balloons that spelled “LOVE”… but opening the pack, the first couple letters were “H” “P” “D” “Y” and we freaked thinking that we got a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” set… but after blowing up and sorting out all the balloons it actually said “HAPPY WEDDING”, which was a bit funny but still thankfully relevant. Anyway the balloons were impossible to stick the wall, and letters kept falling off throughout the eveningFullscreen capture 622018 95854 AM.bmp

In a traditional Chinese wedding, the groom and his guests have to go to the bride’s home before the wedding, and beg for her hand in marriage. There are lots of games held to test the groom’s devotion before the bride is set free and can finally leave the house, and I got a taste of how some of this plays out. (on the car ride over I had heard horror stories where the groom was so frustrated/ humiliated with the situation that he leaves without the bride and cancels his own wedding- yikes!!)Fullscreen capture 632018 92119 PM.bmp

So it is a bit like a fantasy video game with a half dozen levels, combining both strength and wits to clear all the challenges and reach the bride. Except instead of demons and goblins we have in-laws, which, if relationships are not properly managed, could be worse than video game monsters 🙂 Fullscreen capture 632018 91450 PM.bmp

Level 1: As soon as the elevator door opens, we step out but realize the door leading to the hallways has been forced closed.. and the first challenge is to rip the door open. There’s a lot of heckling from both sides but the bride’s guests finally relent and we get through unscathed.Fullscreen capture 622018 95930 AM.bmp

Level 2: the apartment door is locked shut. We come prepared with red envelopes and “bribe” various in-laws to open the door for us. A guy pulls out his phone and demands Fox pay him via WeChat – but Fox cleverly says there’s no wifi in the building and he only has 3G, averting a costly showdown. Eventually we give enough money that the front door opens.Fullscreen capture 622018 95938 AM.bmp

Level 3: of course, the bedroom door (where the bride resides) is also locked shut. Monica is trapped in her castle tower with four bridesmaids, who also – not surprisingly – need some red envelopes before we are allowed in. The girls refused to budge for the longest time until the adults were nervous we would all be late for the wedding, and they finally relent.Fullscreen capture 622018 100025 AM.bmp

Level 4: now, things get tricky. Monica presents Fox with a napkin that has been kissed by the five girls, leaving five lipstick stains of various shades. He has to correctly guess which set of lips belongs to his future wife. He guesses incorrectly and the girls pull out a tray of sesame balls, normally a welcome treat, but these have been laced with mint toothpaste and Sichuan peppers.

The groomsmen are sacrificed and take turns eating the sesame balls as punishment. I suspect the game was rigged as Fox’s first four guesses were all – allegedly – incorrect (statistically unlikely), and we are forced to finish the tray of repulsive, stomach-churning snacks.

Level 5: we are presented with a loaf of sliced bread. By this point I was certain there was arsenic and laxatives baked into the crust, but no, it gets more interesting. Using our teeth we must bite the bread into pieces that can be assembled together to form Monica’s surname, Ge . Fullscreen capture 622018 95350 AM.bmpI didn’t even know her last name was Ge, and I have no idea what this character looks like, so I make a bunny with my bread.Fullscreen capture 622018 95957 AM.bmp

We failed! but the wedding was already paid for, so the games continue!

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FINAL LEVEL: Monica’s shoes have gone missing! She can’t possibly leave the house until we find her shoes! They are hidden somewhere in the room. I rip open the wardrobe doors and I’m ready to *TRASH* the closets much to Monica’s shock and horror, but the guys are fast and find a shoe under the bed and another behind the curtain. Yay! Game Over! We get to leave for the banquet, with the closets intact!

Bride Wars: Spring is wedding season in Lanzhou, and it’s impossible for a bride and groom to find a venue just for themselves on the weekends here. There will be multiple weddings going on at once, and this was the scenario we faced as well. Both brides were standing across from each other in the grand foyer greeting their guests; more than once a little kid ran up to greet the wrong bride 🙂 Fullscreen capture 622018 100116 AM.bmp

The wedding planner is meticulous in his plans, and at the start of the banquet the groomsmen and bridesmaids must walk onto the catwalk in unison, paired together by height. Monica and Fox follow and they look so thrilled in the moment – Fox in particular is overwhelmed with emotion. I couldn’t be happier for them, and it was a real treat to see two of my best friends in Lanzhou get married… aww!Fullscreen capture 5312018 11921 PM.bmp.jpg

As groomsmen, its our job to circulate throughout the banquet and force everyone at each table to take a shot of baijiu with the groom. Obviously Fox would be dead if he took 200+ shots, so the responsibility is shared amongst the guys. I was initially looking forward to taking part in these antics, as the tables have *finally* turned, and I could get my revenge and shout at everyone “DRINK YOU WORTHLESS SCUM!” “TAKE A SHOT!!” “AWW, DON’T TELL ME YOUR ON ANTIBIOTICS!” “ARE YOU SICK? DO YOU HAVE A DOCTOR’S NOTE?” after having this happen to me so many times already at other weddings.

But, I would of course be required to drink my share of liquor in return, and – unlike Carey Elwes killing off Vizzini with iocaine powder in The Princess Bride – I haven’t been working on my alcohol tolerance at all these past two years…BattleOfWits…and no one wanted to see a groomsman puking mid-wedding, or worse – drunkenly snatching food off other people’s plates, or throwing a glass of Sprite in a kid’s face, etc – so I was relieved of my duties early and was able to enjoy the rest of the banquet as a mere commoner.

The bridesmaids and groomsmen initially planned to throw a big KTV party later that evening, but we were all so exhausted from the past two days of chaos that we postponed the karaoke madness for another weekend… stay tuned!


Huashan 华山

Huashan (Mount Hua) is one of many historically significant peaks in China. It is grouped as part of the Five Great Mountains (representing four directions/ seasons plus a central anchoring point) – not to be confused with the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, which is different from the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism!  (China is huge and its history stretches for 5,000+ years; there’s something for everyone, as far as mountain ranges and ancient capitals are concerned)Fullscreen capture 5292018 111901 PM.bmp

Tim, Denver and I set out on a weekend trip to Xi’An to take the HSK Mandarin Exam, and decided to throw in a trip to Huashan as a sweet bonus for all our hard studying 🙂 Huashan is one of those places that’s probably best done in an overnight trip- the logistics of getting in and out can be time consuming, despite the superfast bullet trains.

In Xi’An we woke up before 5 AM to get a cab to the train station for a 6:30 train- and once arriving near Huashan, it was another cab ride, a detour to purchase tickets, getting through the main ticketing area, and then another 40 minute bus ride from the main entrance to the cable car access point. By the time we actually stepped onto the mountain it was close to 9 AM!

Initially I was bummed at what seemed to be poor weather – the morning was cloudy and slightly drizzly, and I feared we spent all that money for nothing. But halfway into our costly cable car ride, we rose above the clouds and were rewarded with a stunning view of the mountains peeking through the mist:Fullscreen capture 5292018 104544 PM.bmp

The moment called for a sleep-deprived, but excited, selfieFullscreen capture 5292018 104926 PM.bmp

I don’t think I’ve ever been on a more dramatic or beautiful cable car ride up a mountain – the landscape was ever-changing, and as the clouds drifted to and fro, hidden peaks emerged just as visible peaks disappeared into dense fog. It’s easy to see why ancient Daoists believed the gods lived under the mountains, and elixirs of immortality could be produced in this realmFullscreen capture 5292018 104859 PM.bmp

Due to poor planning on my part, I only had maybe 4 hours total on the mountain (I realized it took an hour longer than anticipated to get onto the mountain, so I needed an extra hour getting back down). But I was still able to visit the West and South peaks, climbing thousands of slippery, wet steps up and down steep hills, clinging to rusty iron chain fences for support.Fullscreen capture 5292018 110428 PM.bmp

These chains are burdened with locks and red ribbons that were sold everywhere on the mountain- for 20 or 30 RMB you could have your name engraved on a lock and fastened anywhere on the mountain, as proof of your adventure. cute, but now instead of gripping onto a solid chain of iron, I’m gingerly grasping at flimsy locks and shreds of red fabric… dangerous…

The South Peak in particular had astonishing views of several thin, Stegosaurus plate-like mountains that were bathed in a dreamy, white cloud bath.Fullscreen capture 5292018 111604 PM.bmp

My elementary school teachers would be proud that I connected land formations to dinosaur fossils, but I do think that’s the most fitting description for these jagged, pressed cliffs:Fullscreen capture 5292018 111545 PM.bmp

After enjoying the view I bid farewell to Denver and Tim, and head back on my very early train back to Xi’An. I’m sure they had time to visit the remaining East and North Peaks… but I’ll pretend they saw nothing but fog from those vantage points, to keep myself from being too jealous 🙂 Fullscreen capture 5292018 111552 PM.bmp

Side note: Huashan was also shockingly expensive, close to Disney World prices. Between the park entrance ticket, roundtrip park bus tickets, roundtrip cable car tickets, etc I spent almost $100 USD. It’s hard to fathom how middle class Chinese families could casually do a trip to Huashan; nature, it seems, is a luxury in the Middle Kingdom.

Constructive Criticism

I taught a lesson on how to give constructive criticism, because it’s never easy to tell people what they don’t want to hear. Plenty of adults I know have no tact when it comes to giving and receiving anything other than glowing reviews of their existence – in fact, there are a handful of young PC volunteers that come to mind and could use a lesson or two in (receiving) constructive criticism!

So I draw out a sandwich/ hamburger, with the bread being positive qualities, and a negative trait sandwiched in between. This way, by slipping in a “needs improvement” between two “YOUR’E DOING GREAT!”s, the other person won’t feel under attack, and should be more receptive to your thoughts.Fullscreen capture 5232018 102558 AM.bmp.jpg

Sounds easy enough right? I let the students write constructive criticisms of their roommates, and wait to see the results. My first peek at their writings was a bit horrifying:

“Nancy is very sweet. But she is too short. If she was taller, she would be better!”

What?! Chinese people have a very forward way of talking about a person’s appearance that we would never do in America. We might think they are super rude, or maybe they think Americans are fake by hiding our thoughts behind “Well, I’m sure she has a good personality

In this case, Nancy is being scolded for something she absolutely cannot change about herself, so this isn’t really constructive criticism. (actually height in China can be changed; there was a dangerous [now illegal] surgery where metal rods were inserted into a person’s legs and lengthened by 1mm a day to the desired height. Many customer-facing jobs in China list required height minimums in the job postings.)

But I tell the students to focus on personality traits, or features that they can actually change with hard work and dedication.

“Michelle, you always wake up on time. You should try to lose your weight from 55kg to 45kg. You are clever and like to laugh”

“Jack. You are friendly to our classmates, but you shouldn’t make many girlfriends, deceive their feelings. Of course, have so many girlfriends prove you are handsome”

“Emily, you look lovely. But your hair is kind of oily, so you should wash your hair.”

“Vivian, you are quick and tidy in your daily life. But you have a big temper. However, you take learning seriously”

This was a little better- in general, we can lose weight if we try. We can cut down on the number of girlfriends we have. We can wash our hair if we make an effort to, and we can learn to control our temper over time. (I also forgot to tell them to make the compliments and criticisms related; it does seem strange to sandwich “bad temper” between “being tidy” and “having good study habits”)

I tell them that it is ok to give the teacher constructive criticism. I was curious to see what they had to say about me, and here was their chance! They did not disappoint:

“Harrison, you are tall. But, you are very black. If you turn white you be handsome”

And then this:

“Teacher is smart. But his class has no point”

Family Affair: a Wedding, the Afterparty

At the end of April I attended the wedding of Ma Jian, the brother in law of my half- first cousin, once removed. He sits on a distant branch of the extended family tree, but we always enjoy running into each other in and around Lanzhou at a relative’s home, or at dinner.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105809 PM.bmp.jpg

Ma Jian’s wedding took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a fancy halal restaurant biking distance from my school. It’s the same restaurant where I met all my relatives for the first time back in September 2016, so it’s only fitting that I’m here again for a final celebration, as my services draws to a close.

I bike there dressed in khakis, a blue short-sleeve polo, and Onitsuka sneakers (the ‘Peace Corps look’ is also the perfect ‘wedding guest look’ in China)! Soon the calm of the morning is scattered by the roaring engines of several rented luxury cars arriving at the restaurant, including a black Range Rover (which ferries the high-spirited 2 year old Ali and his mom Fay), and a black S-class Benz, which Ma Jian and his beautiful wife step out of.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105241 PM.bmp

Two rows of firecrackers leading from the street to the restaurant are set ablaze, and incredibly loud, sizzling popping sounds fill the air. Confetti and glitter are shot into the air from all directions. It’s an entirely noisy affair and we are slowly ushered upstairs to the banquet. I’m tasked with keeping an eye on Ali…Fullscreen capture 5102018 105317 PM.bmp

…as Fay will be busy with her four-month old baby Alara!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105302 PM.bmp

Ma Jian has an enormous family – both of his parents each had seven or eight siblings (his grandparents really took Mao’s words to heart, to go forth and multiply for the strength of the nation), so immediate uncles/ aunts alone make up 15 people, plus spouses, plus kids and grandkids… and it’s a crazy family reunion. There are kids everywhere running around, and I find it hard to keep track of Ali as his cousins and aunts beckon him to play.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105350 PM.bmp

We get settled in, select seats at random, and begin to pick at the dried fruits and sunflower seeds set at each table. Tea is served, along with orange soda and Sprite- following tradition, there is no alcohol on the premise (I’m grateful I don’t have to fight off a token baijiu guy this time around).

Soon the Imam comes and takes the stage, blessing the new couple with his wisdom and words. He talks a bit about the meaning of Islam, says several lines in Arabic, and then ceremoniously knocks over a massive metallic bowl of walnuts and red dates to the ground. The guests rush over and grasp at the dried fruits; I managed to pick up a walnut. Fay tells me these are tokens of fertility and good fortune.  Fullscreen capture 5102018 105255 PM.bmp

The entire ceremony is short, and after just under two hours, guests have finished lunch and head home. I ride back to Fay and Ma Qiang’s home, play with baby Alara, and make plans for the after-party: KTV!!!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105345 PM.bmp

There’s nothing in the world Chinese people love more than singing at KTV, except maybe eating hotpot, huoguo 火锅. Select KTV parlors also serve individual sized huoguo, where each guest receives a small pot of spicy broth over a kerosene burner to dunk raw foods into, to enjoy throughout the night while singing. This is naturally where we ended up – a heaven on earth in downtown Lanzhou – and here we dwelled for the next six hours (3x longer than the wedding banquet itself!)Fullscreen capture 5102018 105331 PM.bmp

The afternoon ceremony may have been a dry wedding, but the KTV afterparty was a completely different story – crates of beer were wheeled in, and a pack of cigarettes was placed next to each hotpot. A wedding is (hopefully) a once in life time experience, and therefore deserves to be celebrated in a monstrous smoky, boozy inferno of camaraderie with like-minded friends and family.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105339 PM.bmp

The guys are playing drinking games, shouting numbers and throwing finger gestures (representing numbers) at one another. Other guests are texting on their phones and making small talk between bites of hotpot. As the sole American and English speaker, I’m busy standing in the corner of the room on a small stage with the mic, checking off a list of songs I was requested to sing: Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Shakira’s Waka Waka, and more…shakira-wakawaka759

…my face gets redder and redder after each song- from the beer, from the lack of breath, from the fumes of chili oil broth and all the cigarette smoke… my eyes are burning and watering, and yet I’m having a wonderful time, drunkenly screaming these song lyrics in a language no one else understands but everyone seems to enjoy immensely, blurrily watching Lanzhou-ren humiliate the newly wed couple with all sorts of hilarious, marginally-sadistic post-wedding drinking games that seem to be the rites-of-passage for a bride and groom to test their love and bond…

…five hours in, no one is speaking Mandarin anymore, and everyone has switched to a Lanzhou dialect I can’t understand… and I’m all for it, knowing I’m likely the only PCV that has gotten this treatment in the 23 years Peace Corps has been stationed in China.