Hundreds of guests were seated inside the Golden Royal Hall. From where I stood though, it looked like the entire city of Nanjing was present. I felt dizzy, then fainted in my itchy cheongsam and torturously heavy headpiece.
For the past week, I was subjected to eating snake hot pot (a Chinese custom to increase sexual virility), dog meat (though my cousins said it was chicken to coax me into eating), and a host of ambiguous looking dishes. Over snake wine, I tried to drown out the sounds of relatives re-hashing old grudges, familial disputes, and the cold war waging among the in-laws. To make matters worse, my fiancé’s parents were vegetarian, to which my relatives advised them to “ru jing sui su,” a Chinese saying essentially meaning “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Father demanded the nuptials take place near my parents’ hometown. Mother assumed the position as wedding planner, and invited every remote relative alive. Though I was born in Nanjing, the closest connection I had to China was the Chinese restaurant father owned in Delaware, where I was raised since the age of two. The most exotic thing father has ever served was duck neck. My Chinese language skills were limited to greetings, and I have never travelled across the Pacific until the week leading up to the wedding.
Joel and I were ignorant of Nanjing’s long-standing animosity with Japan, where Joel’s great-grandparents were born. Upon meeting Joel’s parents, my relatives interrogated them on World War Two history, specifically “the rape of Nanjing” incident. Joel’s parents reminded them that their family was herded into internment camps in Arizona during the war. This discussion launched into a full-blown competition on “whose family suffered more.” My relatives’ bright idea to win the final word was a forced visit to the historical Nanjing Massacre Memorial. With graphic exhibitions including a building housing the skeletal bones of Chinese killed during the Japanese invasion, this museum is not for the faint of heart, which is exactly what Joel’s mother had.
My cousin, Lai Wei, insisted on throwing Joel a bachelor party. We tried to resist, but Lai Wei reassured me: “we are just going to sing at a nice club.” Joel reminded me that he hated singing, to which Lai Wei responded that karaoke was a popular local pastime. Later, I learned that the “nice club” was actually one of the city’s infamous hostess bars, where scantily-clad girls as young as fifteen years old, drank and sang with guests for exorbitant prices, and goaded guests to buy as much alcohol as possible.
The next morning, Lai Wei called me to visit the local hospital, where Joel was recovering from alcohol poisoning. Apparently he had consumed too much “baijiu,” the Chinese white wine commonly drank by locals, which is distilled liquor about 60% alcohol by volume.
While he was getting intoxicated, I was at another family reunion, which entailed more strange dishes among the shouting matches. As the eldest, father was left with the majority of family inheritance by my deceased grandmother. Although father was not even at grandmother’s deathbed, the Chinese tradition of valuing sons over daughters left father with considerable inheritance, which did not sit well with father’s younger sisters. Over the mystery meat, my aunts threatened to sue father if he did not split the inheritance evenly. On the subject of missing grandmother’s funeral, my aunts screamed: “Don’t you know anything about filial piety?” referencing the Confucian virtue of respecting ancestors. Mother responded that she was now officially divorced and is no longer their family, to which my aunts reacted with even more disdain. I was concerned that our table’s discord would be disturbing neighboring tables in the restaurant, but looked around and found that we fit right in among all the other tables of people yelling and gesticulating wildly.
Mother insisted that we get the wedding dress from Suzhou, which was a short train ride away from Nanjing. She dragged me to her childhood tailor, whose shop was located in Suzhou’s renowned wedding market. The hunched seamstress pinched my waist hard and took out her measuring tape. Even through my broken Chinese, I understood her commenting about my “fat waistline” which would look horrible in a cheongsam—the form-fitting, traditional Chinese wedding dress.
The finished product was a neon scarlet dress that hugged my curves too tightly, and left me devoid of breath. I felt like a stop sign about to be toppled over at any minute.