interview with a stranger

Written on Feb. 25, 2010.

The air here in Da Nang is cool this afternoon, and the shade inside the dusty, cream-coloured offices of the Justice Department is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. I tap my thoughts and reflections out onto an iPhone as I wait for Quynh to finish her interview upstairs. We’re scheduled to be married in just over a week, and this set of interviews is the last legal hurdle to jump for our union to be recognized by the state – at least, besides signing a bunch more documents in triplicate.

I went under the scope first, and they brought in a translator to talk with me so they could make sense of my strange moon-language. The questions they asked were… bizarre. What’s her phone number? Her date of birth? Her email address? I guess I was expecting relevant questions, you know, like something besides what you’d put on a credit card application. But in retrospect, remembering what Quynh and I had discussed about the nature of the interview process, these banal questions make sense. They’re apparently intended to weed out arranged marriages, ones brokered through agents– proverbial “mail-order brides”.

I guess I always thought of the business of “mail-order marriages” as a big joke. I’d heard of stories regarding the practice and found them to be too unbelievable to be true. How could two people become so desperate– or morally directionless– as to reduce marriage to a mere transaction, to reduce a human being to a mere commodity? When Quynh explained to me that such “agency marriages” were a well-known (though strongly condemned) practice among Vietnamese women, I was filled with incalculable rage, so much so that I nearly fell off a speeding motorbike. it seemed to violate everything I’d ever believed about love, marriage, and human relationships.

supposedly the phenomenon is mainly driven by despair, on both sides. Quynh explained to me that many of the prospective husbands– the word “customers” brings my blood to a boil, although most are indeed customers– would be considered “past their prime”, and perhaps feel impotent to attract women in their own country. As a side note, some of Quynh’s neighbours have expressed astonished at how young I look– perhaps expecting her North American husband to be in his 50s. On the prospective bride’s side weighs the burden of percieved “marriageability”, or, in the case of a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s, the steadily dwindling levels thereof. In short, an unmarried woman over 30 years old is widely viewed as a failure. Such a perception isn’t unique to Vietnamese culture, but it’s much more pronounced here.

not so forbidding

game overAfter the Great Wall (and the outlying Not-So-Great Wall, aka the Mediocre Wall) we decided we’d sleep in the next morning and catch the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City wasn’t so forbidden—they all let us in as long as we bought tickets. In fact, the only thing that was forbidden was going back in after you went out the back door. Attached is a photo of the brilliant commentary on the signage at the North Gate (tours go from south to north). All in all, we were amazed at how huge, er, how extreme the place was in all respects. We had a little game of “guess whether there’s another palace past this one”. I always lost, all the way to the end. The palaces kept on becoming more and more beautiful the further we went north—that is, the further we came to the emperor’s private dwelling—yet somehow, more and more lonely as well. You really get the feeling of being locked away in the proverbial ivory tower in there. I’m pretty sure there was an ivory tower somewhere, too.

After we finished walking through the Not-So-Forbidden City, we walked northwest of the grounds and ended up walking through Beihai Park (no, not Baha’i Park) at sunset, then making our way back to our hotel/hostel via Yoshinoya, a fast food restaurant with chicken-and-rice bowls, and Three Trees Coffee (see below). We found a pho restaurant not far from where we’re staying; we took a picture for the novelty, but we didn’t go in. We can get all the pho we need when we get back to Vietnam, we figure.  Today, we’re waking up early to see the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. That means more excitement for us and more photos for you, when you wake up tomorrow.

Miss you all, and, as the postcards say, wish you were here.

first day in beijing

from emails sent on march 15th.

we are in our nice and simple accommodations at the hutong inn in beijing. it’s not very fancy but it is very interesting. needless to say it is enough for the time being. it’s cold here – there’s even snow covering the ground, and the roofs. Quynh is not impressed because we also have “white sand” in Da Nang. 😛

the train ride up from Guangzhou was long, but comfortable; we both managed to get a good sleep, despite our doorless, six-up bunk bed accommodations. the landscape was bleak and industrial for most of the time—not quite the China we’ve been accustomed to seeing in pictures.

[… later …]

First day in Beijing is done; we went out to a hot pot restaurant, which Quynh recognized from having been to one in Malacca. It was pretty amazing. I thought it was filling, but Quynh insisted on going to pick up instant noodles afterwards. She jokes that she’s pregnant but I think she’s just Malaysian. […]

We spent some time walking around through the hutongs (alleys) in the area of our hotel; it really is a neat place. We walked down one that was much like a pedestrian mall, lined with chic, eclectic cafés and shops, and they weren’t (all) pretentious. […we explored] a Tibet-themed shop, much like the “3 Trees” shop on Main St. back in Ottawa. In a strange coincidence, we stopped in a place called Three Trees Coffee—we found out from their wifi. Most people can’t speak much English here, but we end up communicating well enough with our few words of broken Mandarin and the new Chinese-English dictionary on my iPhone.

We signed up for a trip to the Great Wall at Simatai tomorrow, so we’ll be gone the whole day. Simatai is the “Old West” of the Great Wall, although it’s to the northeast of Beijing. It’s billed as one of the most “unspoiled” parts of the Wall, probably because next to none of it has been restored or reconstructed. I don’t think “unspoiled” means “free from hawkers selling overpriced goods” though, since we were warned by our tour guide to stock up on cheap water and snacks here in Beijing before going. It’ll be a whole day trip, with a three-hour bus ride there and back. We leave at 6:20 AM from our hotel and return at around 5:30 PM. Phew. The rest of our stay here we’ll probably be visiting on our own, via the subway—which goes just about everywhere, except, oddly enough, for the train station we arrived from…

together in guangzhou

Quynh and I checked in to Hotel Elan in Guangzhou around an hour ago, after paying a quick visit to a friend at work. We’ll be going out for dinner soon—supposedly to a nice noodle place (“yellow noodles”, to be precise) somewhere. The hotel is nice, small, and cute. A bit salty around the edges, but for the (low) price we’re paying, it’s actually quite a good place. We left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 8:20 in the morning and got in to Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport at around 12:00 local time, for roughly 2h30 worth of flight time. Arriving was a bit confusing, what with very little English posted anywhere, but thanks to my previous experience coming to Guangzhou, we boarded a shuttle bus to the Guangzhou West railway station for only 16 yuan apiece and walked (with only light luggage) the rest of the way to our destination, saving us about 70-80 yuan over taking a taxi from the airport.

China’s cold, compared to Ho Chi Minh City. And it’ll only get colder in Beijing. Quynh is complaining about this but she’s very happy to be in a city with so many shoes. More on that later, of course. Now we’re off to dinner. 回头见。

wedding ceremony overview

just marriedWhen Quynh and I broadcasted our engagement ceremony over the internet, we neglected to provide an explanation (or translation!) of what was happening, and most people felt a little lost watching the ceremony take place. “What are they doing? They’ve got rings… is this a wedding? I thought it was an engagement.” “There’s a lot of talking, and I can’t understand what they’re saying… when are they married?” To avoid that this time, here’s a brief overview of what we expect to happen during the wedding ceremony, that’ll be broadcast live as it happens, right here on doberman pizza (be sure to find your local time for the event so you don’t miss it—it’ll be 9 PM Eastern Time on March 5th, which is 9 AM on March 6th in Vietnam time).

Wedding programme

  1. Introduction of the wedding ceremony’s program.

“Cultural” Vietnamese ceremony

  1. Introduction of the two families.
  2. A representative from the groom’s family presents gifts to the bride’s family.—These gifts, colloquially referred to as “red boxes”, contain traditional items—such as candles, tea, betel nuts, and so on—given to the bride’s family as a bride price, a long-standing custom in many Asian cultures.
  3. A representative from the bride’s family receives and accepts the red boxes.—A running joke during our engagement was that the bride’s family had the option to refuse the gifts, meaning the groom would have to leave and come back another time with better gifts before he could receive his future bride.
  4. The groom and bride present their two families.
  5. The groom gives the bride the wedding bouquet.
  6. Praying for ancestors.—Ancestor worship is a strongly rooted custom in many Asian cultures. In the Vietnamese custom, this includes burning candles and incense, offering fruit and flowers, and displays of veneration and respect such as bowing towards the altar, which is decorated with photos of the deceased. In a Baha’i ceremony, prayers are also offered.

Baha’i ceremony

  1. Reading the opening prayer.
  2. The groom offers a prayer and recites the Baha’i wedding vow.
  3. The bride offers a prayer and recites the Baha’i wedding vow.—The Baha’i wedding vow is a verse revealed by Baha’u’llah: “We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God.”
  4. The bride and groom exchange wedding rings.
  5. An excerpt from the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha on marriage is read.
  6. A representative from the groom’s family confirms their acceptance of the bride as their daughter-in-law.
  7. A representative from the bride’s family confirms their acceptance of the groom as their son-in-law.
  8. The Chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Hải Châu, Da Nang, confirms the marriage.—A Baha’i marriage must be accepted as valid by the local Spiritual Assembly.
  9. Gifts from the two families, relatives and friends are offered.—Gifts (usually red envelopes) are given to the new couple at this point by those assembled.
  10. Either the bride or groom thanks those assembled.
  11. Reading the closing prayer.
  12. Break; the bride’s family gets ready to send the bride off.

that next step

i’ve felt so tired these past few weeks—probably a combination of work, planning for the wedding in Vietnam (including scrambling around trying to collect documents and ferry them from one office to the next, like one of those bad video games), participating in the latest cycle of the Baha’i community’s intensive program of growth, and uhhhh being too lazy to go to the gym and get some exercise like I should be. Less than one month remain now before I fly back to Vietnam to be married—a story some of you may remember reading a few months ago. Planning a wedding is definitely serious business, and it seems like it’s a strong test of a couple’s ability to work together—which, so far, Quynh and I seem to be doing quite well. Although strongly aware of the cultural and temperamental differences between us, we’ve been getting along in a constructive spirit of unity and fellowship. I love it, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the joy and the challenge of married life, of building that “fortress for well-being”. It definitely feels like leaving a certain phase of my life behind—that phase where I felt I only had to consider myself and what I wanted to do—and beginning a new phase of life which, while it closes some doors, opens up so many more possibilities.

OK I’m hungry now. off to dinner. Please leave wise comments if you wish.