Our life in Urumqi

Thus far we’ve been invited to two weddings in Urumqi: one Han and the other Uyghur. As examples of comparative anthropolgy they’ve been very interesting.

Take, for example, a Han Chinese wedding. The one I attended (Ange couldn’t make it) was the wedding of our supervisor and it was a wet affair. The common drink to dish out here is a clear liquid death called baijiu (sounds a bit like bye, Jo) which (in the more expensive cases) comes in porcelain containers and is served in shot glasses. Typically, the stuff ranges from 50%-85% proof and just one leaves a taste of nailpolish remover in your mouth for hours afterwards. It’s fairly minging. Does the job though, no mistake about that! And it’s not a good idea to have one when you’ve a class later that day. ‘You smell like Daddy’ is not something you want your students telling you of a weekday afternoon. Packets of cigarettes are left on all the tables for people to help themselves.

For a Chinese wedding, it is expected that you give a financial gift of around 100-200RMB per person, sealed in red envelopes (a very auspicious colour). After that, and assuming you can find the correct wedding party as multiple weddings are going on simultaneously, you’re seated at a large round table and plates upon plates of food are brought out. It’s a sign of hospitality and a display of prosperity to supply so much food that famnine in Africa could be avoided forevermore. However, you can’t eat yet, the vows must be said first. This is all done rather unceremoniously and to awful canned music. Then you eat. Very little dancing goes on and people head off home.

Barring the bride and groom, who wear styles imported from the West, nobody dresses up for the occasion. Normal everyday clothing is entirely the norm, which makes the whole thing feel rather unlike a wedding back home. There really is a lack of ceremony, that’s probably the most surprising thing. Various people have put this down to marriage being less of an institution in China and more of a mutual agreement to pool resources. Love, if it happens, is expected to grow over time. Romantic, hey?

A Uyghur wedding is something else entirely. We didn’t get to see the wedding ceremony itself, but were invited to the reception. Vows are taken at the local mosque, followed by the groom being whisked away by the menfolk to do manly things in macho ways. I think this translates to getting him drunk (devout the Uyghurs ain’t). The bride is similarly swept off by her girls for the afternoon.

The evening reception begins with a dazzling array of elegant looking women all trying to out coutre one another and men all suited and booted for the occasion. Nobody gets a packet of cigarettes, there’s no entrance fee and it is decidedly dry; tea being the drink of choice. The bride and groom are ushered in after everyone else is seated (and just after all their friends burst into the room like a cyclone) and they do a dance to live music before family pics are taken. Food is then served. It’s similar to the Han Chinese way of doing things, but lacking the requirement to keep African famine in business. A much more conservative number of dishes are brought out, all of which are delicious and easy to identify. Intermittently, a new song is announced and either the women will dance, the men, or both together.

Traditional Uyghur dancing is beautiful. The men wave their arms at about waist height, clap their hands and stamp their feet like bulls preparing to charge. It takes dad-dancing to a whole new level of artistic ability. And it’s easy to learn. The women tend to hold their arms in the air and rotate their hands in complicated patterns, circling the dancefloor and deftly spinning in slow motion on their feet. It’s all very beguiling, alluring and rather erotic. Made even more so by the fact that touching appears to be prohibited in every dance except the waltz.

After dinner and group dancing the bride and groom dance again, ending with the new husband being thrown into the air a number of times (and then dropped heavily in this particular case). All in all, there’s a real buzz to a Uyghur wedding and if you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to one don’t forget to wear your bling!

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