Tag Archives: wedding planning

WeChat Wedding; Remote Wedding Planning

One major problem with this wedding is of course the fact that I live in Nanjing, which is on the other side of the country compared to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, my husband’s hometown, where the whole show will go down. He, on the other hand, was in Beijing and now is in Shenzhen, also far, far away from his place of birth. The only one who is on the ground is his mother, who owns a kindergarten, which from what I can tell means working 24/7. There is never a time I speak to her that she is not running about to sort something work-related.

So how on earth do you organise a wedding like this? With WeChat 微信.

The software that combines all the best features of chatting, tweeting and instagraming is a must for any person wanting to communicate with anyone in China.

After combing through Dianping to find the wedding company, I got in touch with them exclusively online. I have seen my planner once briefly when Mr.Li tried to video chat while he was at their headquarters to see her proposal.

Not being in one location also means it is a bit of a back and forth in terms of communication, since I am not paying for the wedding, I don’t feel comfortable making final decisions that involve finances. For example, the most recent question related to flowers. The planner told me that depending on how many flowers we want, it is quite likely that the flower bill will be over 3000 RMB.  Now I would enjoy flowers but they were not a must, and the cost is substantial. My next step in the process was to talk to Mr.Li, who unsurprisingly agreed that this was a lot of money and he was even less surprisingly not that bothered about having flowers there. As men are. I told him to talk to his mother though, since I knew she would have her own thoughts on the issue. Then he informed me that his mum wanted flowers, and that we should sort it out between us. However, she has been ill, so I haven’t felt comfortable pressing her about it. In the end, when I did mention it, she told me to make the decision together with the planner. As you can see even a simple question such as flowers involves a lot of back and forth, when everyone is in different locations.

However, that is the price you pay when you decide to be a “working bride”. According to Mr.Li it is very common for Chinese women to take time off work to organize their wedding, and my friend Cherry, at whose wedding I was a bridesmaid, actually spent over a year in Nanjing not working, instead focusing on wedding prep. These are very insightful examples of the attitude towards jobs and career in China,  an endlessly fascinating topic that I will certainly want to revisit more at a future point.

In the meantime, I remain glued to my phone as I discuss flowers, colours, themes and music with my planner, whose surname incidentally is 谢 as in thanks. Thank heaven for her!

wechat software conversation

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The Theme (Part I’ve Lost Count) – Wedding Planner Joys

Yes, you read correctly. For one time in my life I actually have something positive to say about wedding planners in Hohhot. Over the 1st May weekend Mr.Li was on a short stopover in his hometown, as he is currently moving to the Southern city of Shenzhen, with beaches and coconuts. I am so, so, so jealous!

During his stay he went to see the infamous wedding company for me, bless him. The company switched the wedding planner from my previous one, who would definitely have won the award for “most incompetent employee of the universe” to a new and energetic consultant.

She is simply and truly fabulous. Not only was she working on 1st May, technically a public holiday, afterwards I added her WeChat at 10pm at night and she promptly accepted and even started chatting with me until I told her to please stop working this late on a Friday. I had another message in my inbox on Saturday at 7am – no kidding! She polished off an entire proposal on Saturday, and sent me my bridal homework, a very detailed questionnaire about my relationship and my person, felt like I was back at high school having to do my homework, haha, luckily no grades for this one. On Sunday, she went to check out the wedding location and get a feel for it. I am not even sure whether she sleeps and eats, she just seems to be available and switched on constantly. She is the Duracell Wedding Planner Bunny. It is another example of how China is a country of extremes; either you get Ms Whoops-proposal-is-three-days-late, (and I am sorry dear, but you won’t be able to be three days late on the wedding), or you get this amazing girl, who obviously lives for her work. She is also not pushy at all, if I don’t contact her for a few days, she will leave me alone – motivated but not overboard.

In terms of the theme, things have also come together in the most incredible way. After aaaall of the drama with Mr.Li insisting we could not do the Old Shanghai Theme, guess what? We are doing an Old Shanghai Theme. Whooohooo, victory dance. I am ECSTATIC. A number of great coincidences came together to change his mind. For one, when we took the engagement photos a few weeks ago, he remarked on how he thought the Old Shanghai look suited me really well and was actually the look he preferred. Number two, after telling the wedding company the idea for our UK vintage theme (which was really Old Shanghai with some Union Jacks chucked in there for good measure) with a grey-blue and Bordeaux colour scheme, they came back to us saying they could do this colour scheme but it would cost us thousands and thousands of RMB because they did not have that colour in stock. They then sent us their colour palette, which was met with hysterical laughter on both my part and my friend’s who I was visiting at the time. Here it is in all its glory.

Colour scheme wedding Inner Mongolia company

Luckily I was just coming from a Chinese massage, all relaxed, otherwise I would have had another mental breakdown. As it was, my friend and me just exploded into giggle fits, and I was glad she was there and not Mr.Li, who once again might not have understood what I was being so fussy about. As it stands, my three-year old self could have come up with a more professional colour palette than that.

The girl previously known as my wedding planner had at least managed to copy the proposal for the Old Shanghai wedding they had organised three months earlier and sent it through, all in red and white. China and Western traditional wedding colours combined. It was perfect! And when Mr.Li realised this theme meant we did not have to pay extra, he was so on board. So now, in an unbelievable twist of luck and fate, I get my Old Shanghai wedding after all. I’m such a lucky b*¥;P.

hohhot inner mongolia old shanghai style wedding

The Theme – The North-south Divide, DIY and Professionalism

China style

One of the reasons I love China is because it is tacky. The great irony is that the discourse of East vs West in my countries of origin is always one of communism and conformity vs freedom and individuality, yet when it comes to fashion and accessorising I find China much more accepting of funky, crazy and downright eccentric choices. Take my phone cover; it has a cutefied version of Donald Duck on the back. In relief. I could never imagine strutting into my former London office with a cover as ridiculous as this (at the time I was already pushing my luck with a black cover with Hello Kitty ears). Yet in China I get countless excited compliments for my “cool phone cover”. That is probably the one aspect of contemporary Chinese culture I appreciate the most. While back home most my friends would generously accept my tacky taste for quirky eccentricity, in China no one bats an eyelid when I walk onto the street in my teddy-bear-specked boots.

The same over-the-top tastes to be found in mobile phone covers and clothing apply to weddings. Purple or pink are common colour schemes for weddings; I am not talking about lavender or rose but full-blown in your face shades that almost singe off your eyebrows with their vibrancy. In terms of themes, more and more one finds the Pan-European romantic cocktail including Eiffel Tower, bird cages and a British Telephone box all in one decor.

As a bit of an artsy person myself (part of my work in Nanjing includes designing the spreads of our magazine and I am also one of those geeks who will voluntarily go look at an art exhibition), the theme of my wedding is of major importance to me. Therefore, I have been trying to find the right theme ever since the split second Mr. Li and I made the decision to tie the knot. That is eight months of attempting to figure out the perfect amount of tackiness for our wedding, much to the despair of Mr. Li, who if it were up to him would probably go dig out those roses he gave me when he proposed five months ago, plop them next to the entrance and proudly call it our wedding display.

The wedding display is the most important decorative element in a Chinese wedding; it is a bit like an exhibition of the couple and also reflects the theme of the wedding. As such it will often include a table full of the engagement pictures of the couple, small items such as the aforementioned European mementos with a romantic and continental flair and in recent times increasingly a collection of themed little cakes, often cupcakes and macaroons.

Now, I am currently on the third iteration of our wedding theme, and by no means certain it will be the last. In the very first instance I simply wanted a lavender colour scheme and no defined theme as such; that was before I found out that Mr. Li’s cousin and his bride went for exactly that same idea. This was just an unlucky coincidence but suffice it to say that cousin’s wife and I have a rather complicated relationship and I was not keen to give the impression I was just copying her wedding.

Slightly lost for what to do, another coincidence brought me to the fabulous Peace Hotel in Shanghai, an institution for the old style of 1930s and 40s Shanghai, Republican China and Jazz. I instantly fell in love with the decor, the elegance of the vintage style and the overall feel of it all. Watching their Old Jazz Band, I felt incredibly overwhelmed, especially since my granddad used to play the clarinet in a band for the Americans after the war. This was it, I felt this has to be the wedding theme. Elegant, reminiscent of the past, a fusion of East and West. I was ready to throw myself into the planning.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that once again I had underestimated the complexities of my country of residence. As is the case in many countries, China has the North-South divide, with plenty stereotypes to be found in each side with relation to the other part of China. However, this divide in China extends into reality in so far that when I tried to find a wedding company in Hohhot to do an Old Shanghai wedding theme, I usually got one out of two answers. Reply a) was “That’s a Southern theme, we can’t do a Southern theme. No one does that.” Reply b) unsurprisingly went “Oh yes, we can do such a theme but it will be 5 times more expensive than any regular theme because we have to buy all the items from scratch.” I was not about to pay 50 000 RMB just so some greedy wedding company could order 1 000 RMB worth of decorations off Taobao.

In addition, I was feeling increasingly depressed by the fact that there was seemingly no wedding company in Hohhot with a professional attitude. Most of the images of glamorous wedding decor on their websites were just stolen from other websites and when MiL visited the company their marketing materials barely extended to a shabby A4 paper printout. Both MiL and Mr. Li only confirmed my worries by constantly stating “Hohhot is too small, there are no good wedding companies here, they are all unprofessional.”

A while later Mr.Li suggested I do the decoration myself, in an attempt to save money and make sure I got exactly what I wanted. While both the big pieces of cloth that are often draped on 2m tall cardboard printouts with the couple’s personal logo and proclamations of everlasting love and the latter are decoration elements I would never dare to attempt on my own, I did feel fairly certain I could cook up a decent little themed table. So I found myself on a weekend in February scrolling through endless items on Taobao putting together a list of all those little items for my Old Shanghai wedding.

Then, through a third coincidence my MiL found the “phallic cake company”. Through the almighty god of soft wares that is WeChat she discovered pictures if a fabulously tacky wedding and managed to out me in touch with said company. They do custom weddings and of course their prices were horrendous, although they did promise me that they could work with any budget. I was incredibly relieved and starting to feel excited; it seems there are capable wedding companies in Inner Mongolia after all.

The Venue (Part 1) – Hijackers and Hostages

Inner Mongolia wedding venue
As mentioned earlier, my German self was struggling considerably with the Chinese approach to organising, yet through persistent nagging I finally managed to convince Mr. Li and MiL that we needed to find a wedding venue.

Truth be told, the main holdup was a rather personal issue surrounding the attendance of Mr.Li’s father; since the parents are divorced and Mr.Li’s relationship with Mr. Li senior is frosty to say the least, this was a whole other can of worms. But that is for another post.

Once MiL got down to it, there were three wedding venue contenders, the Shangri-La Chinese luxury hotel chain, the Sheraton Western hotel and the Inner Mongolia hotel (the Chinese concept of face dictates that we have to get married in the most expensive location possible to impress the wife of the boss of the cousin twice removed, or something or other). Mr. Li and I initially both agreed on the Inner Mongolia hotel as our favourite option, since it has character with Mongolian elements in the decoration. We felt that particularly our guests from abroad would enjoy the “local flavour”. Great, wedding venue settled. Or so I thought. I even got so cocky as to design and send out wedding invitations to all and sundry proudly announcing our special day at the Inner Mongolia hotel. What a fool. I never learn.

I had not taken into account that this is a five-star hotel, which obviously feels it is above everyone else and therefore can make its own rules. When my poor MiL went back to book the venue last week, the hotel manager informed her that if we wanted to have the wedding in their hotel, we would HAVE TO use their in-house wedding company. She insisted that we could not bring in an external wedding company.

Now this did not go down well with me at all for two reasons; a) my MiL had through careful WeChat watching of a local wedding photographer’s account found an absolutely fabulous wedding company (their décor was just the right mix of tacky and class in my eyes, but what sold me where the penis cakes that were randomly draped on the middle of the wedding display, oh how I would have loved to seen the guests reaction), so the thought of my being forced to give up said great company was not one I enjoyed, and b) I generally think it is scandalous for a wedding location to hijack someone’s wedding like that. I would like decide on my own what company shall get the task of decorating my wedding, thank you very much. I personally absolutely despise people trying to tell me what to do, ask my Mum or Mr.Li and they will tell you that if you order me to do something I will most probably not do it just out of principle. I’m such a grown up. Hence you can imagine how the Inner Mongolia Hotel’s policy resonated with my anti-authoritarian self.

Now I thought that I should at least give it a try. After all it would be silly to lose the venue if the wedding company was good. So I got in touch with them; and it all just went downhill from there. After repeatedly asking the manager whether they could do an Old Shanghai Theme, which I had my heart set on, he sent me a few images off the internet and I confirmed this was the style I wanted, yet he still did not answer my question. Once more I asked: “So can you do this style?” You will not believe the reply I received.

“I will tell you once you have booked the Inner Mongolia hotel.” This was the response. I was FUMING. Lucky for this man I was talking to him through a virtual channel; had I been in the same room, who knows what would have happened. So, not only is the hotel blackmailing me into using their internal company, now the wedding company is holding my theme hostage? That was the moment I knew the Inner Mongolia hotel had just lost my custom henceforth and until the end of time.

Ironically, I spoke to the wedding company that I liked and told them of my plight, and their immediate response was that this rule was nonsense and that they had already organised weddings in the Inner Mongolia hotel. However, this is another interesting Chinese business model that some high-end hotels including the Shangri-La and now the IM Hotel employ. You can use an external wedding agency, but you have to pay an extra service charge to do so. The wedding company also takes a cut from the fee and so everyone except the happy couple wins. By telling us that we were not allowed to use an external company, the IM Hotel was pushing up the stakes, making sure we would be so desperate as to pay any fee they asked for if we wanted to use an external planner. However, they forgot to consider the fact that I am a thick-headed German who would rather celebrate her wedding in McDonalds before bowing down to such shameful schemes. So the search for a new wedding venue continued…

…and ended the next morning when MiL went to check out the botanical gardens. The location is absolutely stunning, with plants everywhere and glass ceilings for natural lighting. What more could you want in a venue? Even objectively speaking I would have preferred this location to the IM hotel but in light of their behaviour and the fact that the gardens allow external wedding companies without additional fee, this victory is even sweeter.

After deciding on the botanical gardens, I was incredibly elated. I immediately thought of a Chinese motto that Mr. Li often recites in hard times. There is a balance in the universe. If you are experiencing a lot of bad luck, some time in the future you will have a lot of good luck to make up for it, so you can take solace in hard times. When you are experiencing incredibly good luck, you should treasure it and be aware that it won’t last forever, as there is always the balance. I find this saying very encouraging. It sums up the calm that I have experienced among many Chinese people in the face of problems. Where I get upset and very quickly work myself into a frenzy about external circumstances, Mr. Li and MiL are particularly calm and composed, even optimistic. I envy them a lot for that ability. In the meantime though I am enjoying my minor venue victory. Cheers to that!

Culture Clash: Wedding Planning – China vs Germany

Calendar august wedding China

I wanted to scream, I wanted to bang my head against a wall, I wanted to explode. The six month mark to the date of my wedding had just passed and I was freaking out. You see, for all the interesting, bemusing and incredible cultural aspects of China I get to experience by being in an intercultural relationship, there is the dark side; some aspects of local culture my German-wired brain simply cannot wrap its head around. One of them is organising. We love organising, us Germans. Ask anyone anywhere who has ever worked with a German, and they will respond in a fashion similar to the following: “What, oh Germans? Yeah, yeah, great cars. Very organised people.” As I said to Mr. Li in one of our conversation in which I was trying to explain my rather sudden bouts of bridezilla syndrome: “Germans love organising so much they want to have babies with it, little organising babies.” Incidentally, he found that image rather comical, which helped to deflect the approaching conflict. But there it is. Organising and Germans, the greatest love story since Kate & Leo.

Now, I am a bit of peculiarity, which I blame on my English heritage (though Mr.Li I am sure would hold my scatter brain responsible). When it comes to organising I seem to have slight schizophrenic tendencies. If my brain deems something only minorly important or can justify procrastination on getting it organised, I will for the life of me not get my s…tuff together. However, if anything shows up on my priority radar, then I kick into über-organising mode, which in all honesty is probably a speck scary. I will get obsessed with organising a task and want to complete it immediately. Yes, in elementary school I was that loser who finished her homework for the entire week on the first day when we had our so-called “weekly task plans”. Later on, though, my split organising personality appeared. As soon as any science except math was involved, organising monster would mysteriously crawl into a cave only to be seen again when the next art project began.

As I mentioned right at the beginning of this blog, this Chinese wedding was initially not something me nor Mr. Li wanted but against gentle nudging from mother-in-law no one really stands a chance. She just wraps you right around her little finger. So after it was decided, I told myself there was no point in moping about it. If we are doing this wedding, we are doing it right! (Another one of those mottos I am sure was invented by a German). Hence, the Über-mode.

Chinese Organising Style

What this meant was that when we had decided this wedding was going to happen sometime in August last year, I would have loved to get the organising underway within a week. Alas, I had not considered the big, unmentionable C-word…cultural difference.
I am now going to drift into sweeping generalisations here. I apologise in advance. I would like to argue that a majority of Chinese people I have met are not into timely organising. I have come to this conclusion through countless interactions with Chinese clients, including government employees, all of which looked something like this: half a year in advance the project is discussed and broadly agreed upon. Then nothing happens. No necessary material is provided, no steps taken, in fact not one sound is made to suggest the project will come into fruition. Until about a week before the deadline, when you suddenly get a bunch of stuff thrown at your face plus the expectation that a project that should have been three months in the making will be completed within the next seven days. I am not saying this is terrible; I have actually observed quite a few interesting results from this way of doing business, the main one being that Chinese people are incredibly reactive. They are able to produce acceptable results in the shortest humanly possible amount of time. Hence, it is no surprise that the country is currently making headlines for building a 57-floor sky scraper from scratch in 19 days in Changsha, Hunan province. That should give you an impression of just how quickly Chinese people can come together to create something enormous.

Clash of the Titans

When this cultural trait does present a problem is the moment you combine it with the German über-organising mode. This will without fail turn into an explosive mixture. Both heads and tears will roll as these two very opposite worlds meet. I wanted to decide on a definite wedding location asap, after all wedding invitations could not go out without a wedding location and all my friends and family abroad needed to book their flights as soon as possible. Hence I turned into a really pushy bridezilla, while my Chinese family thought I had gone mad, after all there was still so much time to book the venue!

As if that was not enough friction, I almost had a heart attack, when MiL informed me that we should find a wedding planner only six weeks before the wedding. I almost passed out. Who on earth could arrange a wedding in such a short time?! Let me tell you who; Chinese people.

The additional problem that we face is the fact that I am not physically present in Hohhot, if I were, then I could swing my backside down to all those hotels, wedding planning companies and whatever party involved I have forgotten. However, since I am not around, my poor MiL has been schlepping herself around the city from one location to the other in search of the best place. And because she is such a nice person, she will of course check out every possible wedding location. I’m a terrible person.

However, I am happy to announce that despite the odd bit of drama, surprisingly through bouts of über-organising mode, it seems everything is slowly coming together; and there are still five months to go to the wedding. Touch wood!

The Dates (Part 3) – The Chinese Wedding

Calendar august wedding China

So after a lot of back and forth with regards to the Chinese wedding, involving certain Chinese superstitions, we had originally planned to keep it simple and set the date for 1st October. Although not a very auspicious date by any means (not an unlucky one either though), it is a very popular choice for weddings in China since it marks the first day of the national holiday, when everyone is off work and free to come. The temperature at this time of year in Hohhot is just about bearable and I had already made my peace with an Autumn wedding, when to my utter delight Laolao retracted her original statement.

“Since the two boys are cousins, not actual brothers, it is ok for them to be married within a year of each other”, she informed her daughter.

And so, once again, the date of the wedding was wide open. I knew instantly that it had to be August, since eight is an auspicious number in China but more importantly it would be warm in Hohhot (despite the hair-raising cold in winter, which is no stranger to averages of -20 degrees, summers can still climb up to 35 degrees). Since some of my best friends and family are making the long trip from China for this occasion, I then thought how great it would be if we could have the celebration sometime around my birthday, so I could get to spend it with everyone.

Since people will be arriving and leaving at different times, I quickly realized that if I wanted to make sure that everyone was there for my birthday, there was one sure-fire way to make it happen; have the wedding on that same day. So, in another example of German efficiency, I decided to combine the two (I sure hope I won’t regret that one day, this marriage better last!). This is only made better by the fact that my birthday includes not just one but two eights and to top it all off it will be my 28th birthday. Well if that isn’t enough auspiciousness to last a lifetime, nothing will help!

Fake Wedding (Part 2) – Blondes, Old Jazz Bands and Chinese Media

Shanghai Fairmont Peace Hotel Wedding ShowAfter an action packed day of eating and visiting the hotels stunning presidential and nine nations’s suites (the latter costs about £700 – 800 per night, while the former is ¥88,888 or almost £9000 per stay), finally it was time for the wedding show. It was indeed all staged, and this being Shanghai the female was a tall, stunning blonde model, as opposed to a regular local employee. If ever we needed a reminder that Nanjing is just a second tier city, haha.

Even more interestingly the male model seemed to be mixed Asian-Western, yet another indication of how the local society sees AMWF couples as something to strive for.

While the actors were trying their best to be convincing, they did spend most of the ceremony in conversation or giggling, and it was difficult to tell whether this was meant to be part of the show or whether they were just being disinterested in doing their jobs properly. After the MC gave a far too lengthy and even more sappy speech (am I the only one who gets severely irritated by Chinese MCs and their way too flowery language?), they exchanged the rings and kissed. It became clear at this point that Mr Handsome had been looking forward to this moment as he began to devour the poor girls face; his “kissing style” was positively violent. Yet, the young beauty managed a brilliant smile and even laughed heartily as they poured Champagne over a tower of glasses and tried with minor success to cut the cake. Her dress was beautiful I have to say, and I very much enjoyed the French Renaissance type wedding display.

I did indeed stumble upon something useful for the wedding; the flower bouquets in the decoration used a fabulous mixture of flowers and colours, so I am hoping against hope that the dear Hohotians (is that what they are called? Well, it is now…) will be able to imitate the splendour of Shanghainese decoration companies. I have faith in them, so they better not disappoint me.

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Following the fake wedding there was a small surprise, a not so fake proposal. A suspiciously beautiful and perfectly clothed young girl, who looked no day older than 20, got a romantic proposal in the circle of “all of her friends” as the dear MC put it (and 30 strangers give or take) on the roof top of the hotel with the Pearl Tower as the backdrop inside a transparent tent due to the torrential rain that had been raging all day. That’s what I call a grand proposal (not to worry, Mr Li, I still think mine was way better!).

A Trip To The Past – Peace Hotel’s Old Jazz Band

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The undisputed highlight of my stay at the Peace Hotel, aside from a fascinating history lesson and a bathtub with feet fashioned into silver mer-creature heads, was the Old Jazz Band, famous in Shanghai and beyond for quite literally being old and rocking, or rather jazzing it up. The band has been playing at the hotel for over 30 years, their oldest member (94 years) having founded the band in 1980. Every night they play the greatest classics of the past century, keeping alive the infamous Shanghai style of the 1920’s. This style was effectively American culture imported and given a local Chinese twist, e.g. Rose,Rose,I Love You 玫瑰玫瑰我爱你. This and many songs I had grown up with such as Que Sera Sera, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the general MGM repertoire filled the bar with memories from days past.

It was almost as if I stepped into another time, the band were in their element nodding their heads and swaying with the music, the bar man shaking his cocktails along to the beat and my heart was breaking for those days that are over and the people that have left us. My grandfather was in a Jazz band in Germany at one of the numerous American bases in the Frankfurt area. As a handsome young man he played the clarinet and the sax. It really tugged at my heart strings that I had travelled so far in time and space, from Germany to China and from my childhood to my Tweens, and still the culture is there, the classics are there, and so is the feeling. Say what you want about Americans, but they sure know how to bring the world together with their music.

Reflections on Chinese media

Aside from giving me a weekend I shall probably remember for the rest of my life, it was once again a highly interesting and educational experience to interact with fellow Chinese journalists and those who know them well. I ended up getting a private tour of the aforementioned nine nations suites because every one else ran off to their rooms after they had been fed, massaged and shown the hotel’s most expensive quarters. My host and tour guide Belle, a lovely young woman from the Beijing area, commented with tangible frustration that this behaviour is very typical amongst Chinese media. Indeed I have often heard criticism of the way local journalists do their work, enjoying free stays at high-level hotels, but not actually wanting to do any work for it in return. It was not until the next day, and to the utmost surprise of dear Belle, that one of my Chinese colleagues enquired about some historical aspects of the hotel and asked to be shown the hotel museum (a tour I of course promptly joined). It is generally lamented that the quality of journalism in the country is beyond help due to a combination of government control, government funding, abominably low pay (I met a TV reporter who after 10 years of working for the same company earns ¥2000 a month, often less since her expenses do not get reimbursed) and the fact that many who enter the profession do so for the social prestige (or gain of face) that comes with it and not from a passion for reporting or digging for stories.

The result is sub-par journalism that makes me want to laugh and cry and pull my hair out simultaneously, except that I can’t handle so many complex motorical tasks at one time.

Probably one of the most obvious indicators is a conversation I partook in during breakfast with an employee of the hotel and a bunch of the local journalists who were accompanying me on this tour. The employee criticized the government as only protecting cultural heritage sites such as the Peace Hotel if they see the gain and profit in doing so. They would never, unlike the West, protect cultural relics for the sake of preserving past culture, because they are ignorant, stated said employee. The fact they were making this statement in front of a group of journalists truly surprised me; yet, upon second thought it clearly illustrates the difference between ours and the Chinese media. Where people in the West often fear us and feel unsafe about talking to us because they worry we might turn everything into a story, here it is such an unlikely possibility that people even feel safe criticizing the government. More importantly, as an employee of the hotel which is offering these people a free stay worth thousands of RMB, because of this common practice, they needn’t worry, since saying anything bad would be like shooting oneself in one’s own foot. After all, why would you be thorough, if you don’t need to be?

In this context I have to mention one of the few positive things to have come out of Mr. Xi’s rule; his war on corruption has now extended to a crackdown on media and the very common practice of companies paying for stories. It is common that journalists who attend any form of press conference receive a little red envelope for their “efforts”. While the crackdown, if effective at all, as these declarations often go ignored, might result in my not being able to enjoy as many lavish weekends in grand hotels anymore, it will hopefully do something for the quality of local journalism. After all, isn’t the bigger picture more important?

The Rings (Part 2)

So, my parents arrived safe and sound from Germany and brought with them a certain engagement ring. With China’s reputation and the additional factor that my parents had recently watched an episode of a German TV show, where a reporter managed to get the hotel staff to open the safe door simply by asking, they felt unsafe about leaving the ring in the room. After all, it would be pretty annoying to put it lightly, if it got lost now.

I am very easily swayed into mild paranoia when it comes to theft, even more so in China, where petty crimes are incredibly common and no one is safe. According to official numbers issued by the Chinese People’s Court in 2012, 22 2078 cases or an equivalent of 22.51 percent of their total case number, were related to theft crimes. In actual fact, the petty theft crime rate is infinitely higher as many cases do not even make it into court for a number of reasons. A substantial factor is that in smaller cities, where corruption is rampant, the police and thieves actually know each other and often cooperate, the “man of the law” receiving a little sum from the lowly criminal as protection money, and hence there is often no point in contacting the police if your things were stolen.

Sometimes, this can lead to interesting situations, such as in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in 2010, when we were traveling with a large group of students from our university (I had not met Mr. Li at this point yet). On what was meant to be a short break at a certain fast food chain with golden arches, one of the girls hung her handbag from the chair behind her, a rookie mistake to which many foreigners new to these realms fall victim… Long story short, her bag including Iphone, wallet but most importantly passport, were stolen. The police were called and after a four-hour wait, the bag miraculously appeared in a bin in the vicinity and was brought into the police. While all material valuables had been removed, the passport was still there.

After telling this story to Mr. Li a few years later (I often teased him with the fact that my main memory from his home city was the bag theft and our being stranded at Macci’s for four hours before embarking on what would turn into a 24-hour bus trip back to Beijing; but that is another story), he informed me that obviously the police and the thief were in cohorts, explaining that the policemen had probably informed their contacts to return the passport as this case involved a foreigner. Now, I do not want to be cynical, but one thing one has to admit in China is that no good deed goes unpunished and hence many Chinese people are not very willing to help strangers.

The classic example are the many cases where people run over by a car received help from a third party, but would suddenly turn on their helper, accusing them of being the one who ran them over in the first place; otherwise, why would they be helping them? According to reports some of the “victims” even got away with this shameless strategy; as a result an innocent person, who only wanted to help, could find themselves paying damages for an accident they never caused. These incidents are the reason many Chinese have a fear of altruistically helping people, since it might cause them suffering and in the worst case financial loss. The most tragic example was the death of the Chinese toddler a few years ago, who was killed in a hit and run, because for 20 minutes people walked by the dying two-year old pretending not to see her.

The point I am making is that the story that someone found the bag with the passport in the trash and then decided to bring it to the police sounds rather unlikely, as sad and cynical as that might be, and with Mr. Li’s local knowledge and explanation, it seems rather likely that the bag was handed over by the thief to a police officer instead. Admittedly, though, at least the girl got her passport back; a true silver lining, since getting a new passport and visa while in China is sheer hell.

So, in conclusion, this experience has scarred me into paranoia when it comes to theft in the Middle Kingdom. My father’s suggestion was that I simply wear the engagement ring although there had been no proposal. As we all know, better safe than sorry!

“Don’t be so superstitious! It is the safest option”,

he said when he saw my mum and my exasperated faces. While I agree with him on that particular point, I did decide to wear the ring on my right hand ring finger instead of my left (the customary engagement ring finger in Germany since it runs along the love vein). After all, despite the fact that I shake my head at most Chinese superstitions, I am in truth a rather superstitious person myself.

Upon arrival back in Nanjing, the circular piece of jewelry returned to its little red box and was picked up by Mr.Li. Now it has traveled to Beijing with him, waiting for the big moment. Let’s hope it needn’t wait too long!

The Venues

Another tricky one.

Initially Mr. Li’s father announced that he would be in charge of booking the venue in Inner Mongolia; this to me sounded like I was not going to be given much choice on my wedding venue in China, but would just have to go with what the future father-in-law deemed appropriate; almost certainly a room in the best hotel money could buy in Hohhot. Comments from my side directed at my future mother-in-law that it really needn’t be a very flashy hotel were met with

“Of course it needs to be a top hotel! For our son’s 12th birthday we booked the best available hotel in the city, naturally your wedding is no different!”

Again, mainly a question of face to impress; I thought the matter was sorted.

Then the German venue happened. Initially it looked like there was going to be a show-down between amazingly romantic and historic castle ruins in a village a twenty-minute drive from my parent’s town, and a restaurant just a five minute walk from the registry office. My parent’s place of residency being rather quaint to put it politely, options are slightly more limited than in big cities, so it all came down to these two places. The castle requiring a lot more work , time and money in terms of organizing decoration, catering and transport, and the restaurant being an incredibly beautiful location that embodies the feel of the little German town perfectly, on top of serving delicious cuisine, I thought the choice was made.

Especially since Mr. Li, upon hearing this, said:

“Oh we don’t need an expensive castle in Germany, we can just choose an imperial summer residency in Hohhot; my mother knows someone.”

This was very promising indeed; the Chinese guanxi (a form of networking and connections that is so much more powerful than in the west, as it dictates one’s entire life from getting a wedding venue at a discount to finding a job) could help us obtain a fair price. But before I could get too excited, it turned out that the acquaintance had fallen victim to a certain anti-corruption purge currently raging on in our realm, and so there went my China dream (harr harr) out of the window.

Back in Germany, the restaurant also fell through, due to a 10.30 pm curfew for their spacious outside winter garden, the limited space in the interior which would not even have allowed for 35 guests and a buffet to fit in, and cobblestones plastering the aforementioned outside, which mixed with high heels would have not been very beneficiary for dancing. After all, we don’t want the “something blue” to be the ladies’ ankles. Back to the castle ruins, then.

The current difficulty is that, being removed from both wedding locales, I am unable to go see any venues for myself, which is quite a frustration considering how deceptive professional photography can be. Working in the media business I learned that early on…

Plans of my flying home for Christmas are also turning out to be tricky due to ludicrous costs of plane tickets these days; an equivalent of 1.5 month’s salary will only get me as far as Frankfurt, another 2 hour train ride from my actual destination, and while my parents are offering to pay the bulk, I feel very uncomfortable about this, as a presumably independent grown-up individual.

Where I stand now, I think it will be the castle after all, as I definitely want a location where we can dance. The reason for this is that it is not customary to dance at Chinese weddings, as opposed to eating heaps of food and “d2d”, or drinking to death, as I like to call it; a predominantly Northern Chinese custom. Therefore, having a dancefloor at my German wedding is one of my top priorities (especially since part of my deal with Mr.Li as previously mentioned is me accepting unimaginable superstitions and him learning to dance for our first dance).

As for the Chinese venue, as much as I would love an imperial summer residency, I am finding that struggling with one wedding venue is already enough to keep me up until 3am in the morning pulling my hair out and writing blog posts; so I think I will leave the second one to the pros.

The Wedding Location(s)

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?