Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Matrimony, with Chinese Characteristics

Dec. 18, 2011

By Tom Fearon

Everything seemed in order. The proposal had been made (and more importantly, accepted). The weekends had been sacrificed for wedding expos, an experience that involved being dragged from stall-to-stall with everything newlyweds need (even if they didn't know it yet), from multi-tier cakes to colorful candy bags for guests. In keeping with Chinese tradition, our wedding photos had been taken months ahead of the planned ceremony against the idyllic backdrop of Yunnan's rolling mountainside. We even had portrait photos taken together for our wedding certificate, suitably against an auspicious, red background and dressed in matching t-shirts bearing the character xi for double happiness. What little free time my fiancé and I seemed to have during the week was quickly consumed by a litany of other loose ends that needed to be taken care of ahead of actually tying the knot.

Among these was getting legally hitched.

If there's one thing a foreigner quickly learns from life in China, it's how challenging it is to stay afloat in the day-to-day sea of bureaucracy. The difference is that when it comes to getting married in China, the bureaucracy shifts to the other side. Instead of finding yourself in mind-numbing boredom waiting at a Chinese bank, you're in the queue of your own embassy filling out forms and paying exorbitant fees to your home country, just to double-check that you didn't accidentally get married in the blur of your past life.

In China, marriages are handled by the municipal Civil Affairs Bureau. The "marriage factory" is a delightful place located in your fiancé's hometown, where the two of you must visit to humbly request permission to marriage.

When my soon-to-be-wed wife informed me of our date to legally register for marriage, a weekday no less, I was skeptical. "I'll take a half-day off work," she confidently assured. "Don't forget to buy some fruit on the way home and wash the clothes." Disney and Hans Christian Anderson never wrote about this in their wedding fairytales. We set out for the subway, before boarding a pedicab from Tuanjiehu for the 15-minute ride to the Civil Affairs Bureau in Chaoyang district.

Fortunately, my bride-to-be was a Beijinger. Aside from possessing a highly coveted hukou (residency permit) and adding "er" to so many words it'd make a pirate blush, her locality spared me an hours-long train journey to an icy, barren corner of China better spoken of than seen.

Unintentionally, it turned out to be a lucky day given that there was the number eight in the date. When we arrived at the bureau early in the morning, it was empty bar a woman behind a desk waiting for the day's first couple.

Stony-faced, she beckoned us into her office and asked us to sit. She studied my fiance's hukou then my passport, eyeing me up and down. What the day lacked in romance, it made up for in efficiency. A few questions, a couple of signatures and nine yuan ($1.40) later, China had officially pronounced us man and wife. There was even the hint of a smile as the clerk handed over our wedding certificates, suitably resembling little red passports bearing our couple portrait photo inside.

Of course, this has all been the easy part. What follows next is the real fun of a wedding with Chinese characteristics, specifically wearing a stiff, white tuxedo and parading in front of friends and family on a day that, though no doubt romantic, will stretch well beyond the 10 minutes at the Civil Affairs Bureau.

See the original article here.