In the Family Way

The ride arrived on time. But its proud gait, gleaming mane and the big red bow tied to its reins at a jaunty angle could hardly disguise the fact that it was a couple of hands short of being a horse. My brother was preparing to ride through a rural Chinese town, headed by flag-bearing heralds, trailed by well wishers, flanked by marching bands and dressed in Macdonald of Sleat tartan, to collect the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. On a pony. Lined up outside the hotel, we smiled politely. My mother told him to hitch up his legs so his feet wouldn’t drag.

Since Thomas had telephoned each of my parents in turn with his usual absent-minded idealism – ‘It just feels right. It’s fate.’ – surprise had faded to resignation. Aware that their son was bullishly stubborn and too distant to sway, the strategy they devised was unilateral support bolstered by a hope that it would all just go away.

I could tell there was, for my father, an uncomfortable sense of history repeating. News of an unplanned pregnancy in 80s New York had sent his own mother into a flurry of disapproval. In Paris, his future mother-in-law had received a letter from Inverness outlining why exactly such an alliance was unholy. Not understanding a word, my grandmother blithely continued her rounds of the cocktail parties of the 16th arrondissement. For the following three decades, my Scottish grandmother feigned incomprehension when faced with my mother’s fur of a French accent. Although repetition blunted this into a family joke, trips north became rare.

A few months before Thomas’s news, my father had in part blamed the disintegration of his 30-year marriage on this intolerance. His son’s impending union with an ‘unknown cultural quantity’ thus provoked a conciliatory attempt to learn from past experience: ‘She’s got pregnant and trapped the poor fool…but we must do everything not to alienate them.’

It became clear in the Skype conferences that followed that Thomas had developed his own mythology of family history. In marrying my mother, my father had done the right thing; by accepting his own twist of fate, he had secured all of ours. My mother opted for faux jollity. For her, China was the antithesis of France: her only concessions to the superiority of the Orient being gunpowder and Ming pottery. She put her son’s Sinophilia down to a relatively harmless example of his oddity.

A month later Thomas’s fiancée Ju booked our flights. The wedding was actually a celebration of a done deal. In China a proposal is swiftly followed by an HIV test for the foreigner, parental consent for the Chinese spouse and a trip to the registry office. They were already married. The 10th of April had been chosen as an auspicious day and soon enough to avoid, as Ju put it, ‘any embarrassment’. Only her parents had been told about the baby. A single mother may be acceptable in Shanghai but not in Qian Jiang. Her hometown is deep in ‘the belly of China’, as she put it proudly.

The wedding had been organised as a package – fireworks, brass bands, planner and catering for 150 guests – and Ju had whittled down the price to 20,000 Yuan (around £2000). Some people, Ju told me, can spend up to 10,000 on photographs. The real financial drain is the dowry. Having a son is a stressful investment: the groom’s family is expected to set up the couple comfortably. On visiting my nephew Euan for the first time a year later, I was told his nanny Xia had been forced to leave her hometown for work in Shanghai to pay for her own son’s future wedding and flat.

After a two-hour flight from Shanghai, we met the rest of the wedding party and were all bundled into vans for the three-hour drive to the happy couple. Marcus, the best man, was an old friend of my brother. After public school and university, he had veered away from the well-trodden path to the City; instead, he had taken too many drugs and embarked on the equally conventional route towards addled recovery. Another friend, Sirus, whose bulging eyes resembled spawn pickled in rice wine, was currently busy opening a café in a village so remote that it made our eventual destination look glamorous. Beside him lurked Richard, a grizzly Yorkshire Buddha who planned to export cheddar to China with my brother as the middleman. If that didn’t take off, he was looking at introducing fudge. He spent the trip handing out tasters, mostly to my mother, to whom he’d taken a fancy.

On our arrival, we were greeted by a beaming Mr and Mrs Wu. But they couldn’t disguise the reflection of our unease in their rictus grins. Mr Wu was a small, squat man with a very firm handshake. He patted us all on the back and nodded with a cheerful ‘Ni-hao! Ni-hao!’ His black hair clasped his head like a rectangular helmet. A colourless mole nestled below his left nostril. Faced with this mismatched assortment of expats and foreigners, Mrs Wu was more distant. She looked like Ju but smaller and more square. ‘Typical Han,’ my mother sniffed and, as if to prove even her racism discerning, added ‘If only she were a Mongol. They are so elegant, tall and gentle.’

Promptly ushered to the local restaurant for the wedding-eve banquet, we were engulfed and back-slapped by the five uncles, identified in order of birth. The only aunt sat quietly. Throughout the trip she became my mother’s neighbour of choice: their befuddled smiles matched. The room heaved with shouts and smells as glasses were tipped back and chopsticks darted forward.

My father, though he doesn’t drink, had thrown himself into the festivities, clinking glasses with the various uncles, interlocking elbows and glugging the clear wine with lips pursed shut. For a man who likes to be centre of attention with minimum effort, this family-in-law was a godsend. He could smile, pat backs and revel in being different without the added bother of pleasantries.

After dinner, Ju, her parents and the battalion of uncles unexpectedly followed us into the hotel. My father had booked a twin bedroom with cot to share with his ex-wife and 26-year-old daughter: a prime example of Scottish practicality. Ju told us to sit down as she ran through the next day’s line-up. We sat on one of the room’s sofas, while Ju sat between her parents on the other, the uncles lurking behind. ‘Have you got the envelopes?’ she demanded brusquely. We looked at each other. We had been asked to bring five pound notes to dispense to well wishers in red envelopes as a sign of British generosity. It seemed like an awful lot of money to give to people who would never spend it. ‘It would be better if you gave it to charity,’ I shit-stirred.  Ju explained shrilly the importance of giving in Chinese culture. ‘What about Scottish tradition?’ my mother quipped from the sofa, eager to claim a racial propensity for avarice despite only benefiting from it through marriage. Mrs Wu stood up and started talking to Uncle Three in a tone that didn’t need translation. Mr Wu thumped his fist on the glass. My brother responded in Mandarin.

For the first time, we thought he might be defending us. Otherwise Thomas was entirely absorbed in the wedding and customs. His usual wry perspective had vanished. Even his English sounded skewed. He said later that he was part of their family now and they were more important to placate.

Mrs Wu carried on shouting. My mother then cut the tension by placing Ju’s specially requested (Chinese models being too small) maternity bra on the table, the deflated cups like two drooping peace flags. Calm was somewhat restored. The money was put in the red envelopes. The day was set for tomorrow.

In a traditional Chinese wedding, the husband and his family and friends progress through the centre of the town to pick up the bride from her parents’ home. They make a racket to scare away ghosts. Accompanied by his band of revellers, the groom charges through his in-laws’ door, handing out envelopes to gain admittance. Traditionally, he reads out a list of his possessions and wealth. Then he takes his bride back to his parents’ home. Until the bride reaches the threshold and they step over a plate of fire, she is entirely cloaked. Stories circulate of the groom lifting up his betrothed’s veil to find the ugly sister in her place.

Thomas and his cohort bounded up the concrete stairs towards the Wus’ flat. The Western guests were formal but the Chinese guests hadn’t changed; only Ju’s mother was wearing a powder pink power jacket. They crowded into the Wus’ sparsely furnished home. Electrical wires dangled from walls; like most of the buildings in the town, the block appeared unfinished. Ju had in fact rented a smart new flat for her parents but they were reluctant to move.  

Looking up demurely, she cowered on the bed in her traditional red and embroidered blue robes. Her headdress looked like a bejewelled sea urchin. Her skin was pale with powder. She tottered on her heels downstairs, my brother holding her hand, and ushered into a sedan cage carried by four men. Onlookers rattled the bars to congratulate. More envelopes were handed out. The procession inched back to the hotel.

In the hall, tables of ten fanned out from the stage and the central catwalk, which was crowned by a bower of white flowers. The walls were plastered with photographs of the couple, each more than six feet high, so that extended family and friends could recognize Ju and the man she had married. They had posed in a kilt and white wedding dress in front of a country house, in thick-rimmed glasses and neon stripes in a golden field of corn and finally in sailor outfits, posturing on deck chairs in front of a serene computer-generated ocean vista. ‘I didn’t know your brother had joined the Chinese navy,’ my father repeated every time we passed the strip in the hallway.

A ticker tape above the stage congratulated them in English and Chinese. Ju reappeared in a white dress, a white fur stole shielding her belly, and walked down the aisle to the stage while ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ boomed out. My brother then bounded down to ‘Paradise City’.

My mother eventually slunk off. The presence of Richard, the absence of Scotch and the sight of steaming plates of unidentifiable floating grizzle and bone – turtle soup – had dampened any spirits she might have retained. Attempts had been made to dress my parents in traditional costume. My father was almost cajoled into painting his face red and attaching a balloon to his head. It was meant to symbolise his delight at welcoming a nubile young woman into the family. My mother was urged to string a vinegar bottle around her neck: a sign of jealousy. They both managed to duck out of the clowning. The next day, Ju told us she had had a surprise. Thomas had given his kilt to Mr Wu to take to the drycleaner. Ju had entered her parents’ room to find her father wearing it, dancing in front of the mirror.

Euan was born five and a half months later, his name a nod both to his Scottish heritage and Chinese vowels. On seeing him, my mother likened his chubby baldness to the Dalai Lama. Ju was outraged by the comparison of her little prince to a Chinese dissident. He is now getting ready for school in September. Ju had to pay a bribe of 3000 Yuan, in three separate envelopes, to get him into one of the best primary schools in Shanghai. His father will not be able to set foot in the school grounds. Non-Chinese nationals aren’t allowed; the school is only for offspring of officials of the People’s Liberation Army. Thomas is his father’s son; he mostly seems relieved he won’t be forced to attend parents’ evenings.