Like A Sore Thumb

Double happiness We were invited to attend a wedding reception held at a large and popular restaurant chain.

Nothing is more conspicuous than a big white guy at a Chinese wedding. Try blending in among 150 Chinese people when you're the only Caucasian in the room.

It was fruitless to try to blend in; everything I did drew attention.

It began with our arrival. The first thing to do was sign the guest register. Chinese tradition has guests write their names on a large swatch of red silk with a special brush. For this occasion it was a felt-tipped pen and a big red card. As I haven't perfected my Chinese writing skills (yes, I have a Chinese name; no, I won't tell you what it is, so don't ask.), I was forced to sign in English.

"Nothing is more conspicuous than a big white guy at a Chinese wedding."

After signing, we found our assigned table. The room contained 15 round tables which seated 10 persons each. On the far wall was the traditional hei, a huge circular emblem on which the word happiness is written twice in gold. Taken literally, it means double happiness. The hei was flanked by a huge phoenix — representing the woman — on the left and an equally huge dragon — representing the man — on the right, both in gleaming gold.

Draped behind this display was a large red curtain. In front stood the bride and groom, posing for photographs with guests. When we had our photographs taken with the happy couple, I could almost hear their friends asking: Who the heck is that?

Several Mah Jong tables were off to one side. It's common practice for people to play for a few hours, as entertainment prior to dinner. Only two tables had games in progress, as people were still arriving. I started a game with some friends. We'd been seated less than a minute when everyone in the room stared in amazement. It's a safe bet to say they'd never seen a gwai lo playing Mah Jong.

When dinner was announced, we packed up the game and made way for the bemused service staff.

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The Chinese wedding feast offers little opportunity for me to be inconspicuous, because of chopsticks. In moments, someone will comment on my ability to use them. Using them in my left hand never fails to elicit remarks.

The meal is composed of ten courses, most of which is seafood. I can't eat it because of allergies; either I explain the situation to the other guests, or I appear a fussy eater. Neither option is appealing.

That there is little I can eat isn't an issue; I'm used to the Chinese banquet. It was the same at my own wedding; I came prepared to go hungry.

However, there was beer: good old liquid bread. I drained a glass while waiting to see what would be served first. Westerners are sometimes put off by Chinese cuisine in both substance and presentation. When confronted with culinary horror, I keep my opinions to myself, lest I offend someone.

"Babe: Pig On A Platter."

A piglet was served. It's skin had been dried, flattened and fried, then cut into squares that covered sections of pork underneath. Even the head was there, with two halves of a candied cherry covering the eyelids. The first thought that popped out of my mouth before I could hold it back was: Babe: Pig On A Platter. Mabel was mortified, but she was the only one who heard it.

My next thought, contained this time, was it might taste like a deep-fried football. Since I'd never had this particular dish, I tried a piece. It was greasy, but tasty. After that came several courses of vegetables and seafood, slathered in oyster sauce. I sat wishing for more 'Babe'.

The music on the night got me in trouble. During the two hours we ate, the restaurant played a single traditional song, over and over and over again. It was as though the sound system had been taken hostage by a three-year-old.

The music consisted of a single tuneless instrument followed by the sound of firecrackers. By the second loop it was driving me insane. Parents of children who have Barney videos know what I'm talking about. I wondered aloud: When are they going to change the tape?

Instead I distracted myself with the games going on at the head table. I orchestrated one no one had ever seen. Curious people watched as I lined up eight chairs side by side. I tied a blindfold on the bride, while my wife had eight men, including the groom, sit down. I then had the men roll up their right pants leg to the knee and push down their sock.

The bride then had to feel each leg in sequence to determine which belonged to her husband. Unsure on her first pass, she nailed it on the second. Applause and cheers greeted her success.

At the close of the evening, everyone queued on the way out to congratulate the bride and groom and their families. We were last in line.

Conspicuous to the end, I made the bride's mother laugh as I expressed my good wishes to her in Cantonese.

Try as I may, I can't escape notice.

Good thing I'm not a criminal, huh?

March 31, 2000

Next Tale: Taking the Nestea Plunge