The number one question that international couples need to ask themselves when it comes to weddings is where to hold the ceremony; in cases where both countries are so far apart as to require an 8-hour flight the dilemma is even more serious as you cannot expect that friend you have not seen in a year to pay hundreds of Euros/thousands of RMB simply to fly to your wedding.
So, China Or Germany? Neither or both? In my personal case the matter was even further complicated due to my dual nationality, also throwing the UK into the mix.
Apart from financial decisions to be made, there are practical and emotional ones too.
In terms of practicality, there is the visa issue to be acknowledged. A marriage certificate is most useful for a visa application if it stems from the country you want to stay in, unless you are keen on going through all the bureaucratic bull**** (pardon my language) in order to get it recognised by the authorities of another country. Hence, it makes practical sense to marry in the country you and your partner would like to stay in to save yourselves the time and effort of convincing the surly-looking woman behind the counter that, yes this document with words or characters you cannot read does mean we are legally man and wife.
On the emotional side, if you have a wedding in one country, in my case China, maybe some of your closest friends cannot attend. In my case, I might also find that the wedding follows Chinese customs, which, while fascinating to someone whose life profession is writing about Chinese culture, might not feel like “my wedding” since some of my own traditions will not have any place in a local ceremony. Finally, there is just that sentimental side to me, a desire to have a wedding in my native place, a way of paying tribute to the country I grew up in. The thought of not having that stung a little. My parents moved close to the Black Forest a few years ago, to a small town (I was instructed to steer clear from the word village, as this constitutes an offense of supreme magnitude), where we used to go on holiday every year since I was born. To me, this place is magical, a remainder of my carefree childhood days, an incredibly idyllic location in the way German villages are that seems to have been built for the sole purpose of having a romantic wedding (okay, I admit that is a little overboard, let’s settle on it being an outstandingly beautiful location).
So, all these considerations meant that I wanted to have a German wedding; for my friends, my sentimentality and the added bonus that if we decide to move to Germany, there is only a little less bureaucratic hassle (anyone who has experience in dealing with visas will appreciate that any ounce of hassle saved is a bunch of grey hairs less on your head).
When Mr. Li and me had a discussion about where to get married, our decision was surprisingly unanimous; after having recently attended a lavish Chinese wedding with iPhones being handed out as prize-draws, the entire ceremony being one big show and the over 800 guests running off the minute the last phone had found its new owner, we were scarred. We did not want all the pomp and circumstance of the Chinese wedding, spending this special day of our lives with people we barely new, who were really just there for a nice dinner and possibly a new phone; we wanted an intimate ceremony. So, off we went our separate ways, I with a feeling that everything was falling into place and the weight of a looming Chinese wedding lifted off my shoulders; or so I thought.
The next day, the inofficial fiancé, Mr. Li, caught me on Skype at a most inopportune moment, waking me from an early evening nap after a busy week, to tell me that he had changed his mind; we had to have a Chinese wedding. Those of you, dear readers, who know me personally realise that sleepy, hungry and stressed were are not really frames of mind during which you want to break any news to me that is not sensationally good. There is a reason my zodiac is Leo, I will turn into a lion in my private life if the moment of telling me big stuff is not acutely timed. You have been warned.
Mr. Li, however, has recently become a lot smarter in terms of dealing with me and so, when he saw the onset of what he has nicknamed my “German Face” (when I look grumpy, I really look grumpy, people), he immediately dragged his mother on screen.
“Talk to my mum about it”, he said.
But first, a little bit of background information. While in Western countries there might be some disappointment and guilt from some relatives such as the grandparents if a couple decides not to get married in their hometown, non-traditional wedding locales and weddings in a different country are nowadays more or less accepted. Not so in China. The idea that one does not hold a lavish ceremony in one’s hometown is pretty much as ludicrous to more traditionally minded Chinese – as people in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, where Mr.Li is from, would be – as England winning the FIFA World Cup again (there, I said it, sorry folks). Due to the Chinese concept of “face”, and the gain of face that comes with an expensive, luxurious wedding ceremony, but also due to the close-knit ties of the Chinese family, there is little understanding for people going off and having their weddings elsewhere.
Which is not to say that this does not happen.
“If you really don’t want a Chinese wedding, we can just tell people here that you got married while traveling; young people in China do that nowadays, it is becoming quite common”,
said my future mother-in-law, after Mr. Li had put her on the Skype call. Yet, I could hear the slight tinge of disappointment in her voice. She would not communicate to me directly that she wanted this ceremony, her son’s big day as all his close relatives gathered around him to celebrate, and once again I felt immeasurable gratitude that she did not force her opinions on me, as some Chinese mother in laws might.
But as I saw her sweet face, I felt a wave of guilt crashing down on me. How could I deny this lovely woman, who had been nothing but kind to me, had treated me like her own daughter and always took my side when her son was being silly (which I don’t even imagine many German mothers-in-law do), the opportunity of seeing her only son get married in his hometown? How could I subject her to the criticisms and incomprehension she would have to face from the wider family and the local community. You see, while Hohhot is a city of almost 3 million people, its set-up is not that of a metropolis, but rather it consists of a multitude of urban villages, little communal districts, where everyone knows everyone and rumours spread at lightning speed. Being a fierce opponent of malevolent small town gossip, I felt I could not with a good conscience subject her to this odious practice through my actions.
Moreover, I always placed so much importance on our two cultures being equal in our relationship; if I now insisted on not having a Chinese wedding, that would make me a hypocrite and fraud, if ever there was one. So I decided to practice what I preach and go through with the Chinese wedding; to make my future Chinese mum happy, which in turn makes my fiancé happy, which makes me happy. Plus, I get to see the Chinese wedding from the unique perspective of the foreign bride; if that’s not something to write about, then what is?