Originally published Sunday, April 5, 2009 in The China Post
By Trista di Genova
For the Huang family, it was the marriage of a decade. Last Saturday, the track area of a junior high school in eastern Taitung County was turned into a mega-reception area, hosting over 1,000. One of the aunties of bride Kimi Huang had taught there for years, and was able to rent it for the family for NT$4,000.
The guests trickled, then flooded in. Each of the hundred tables were served mostly seafood dishes, one of the few signs that this is a modern-day family of the Amis tribe, who have long survived on harvesting the sea. Kimi’s father is a fisherman. His father was an influential and well-respected politician, which partially explains why Taitung mayors past and present were making the rounds today. Phil, the groom, jokes that all of Taitung County was invited; most of neighboring Pingtung, too. He estimates 90 percent of the guests are aboriginal, but as the event plays out, it becomes clear this is ‘The History of Taiwan,” as he puts it, a contemporary mish-mash of the many influences that today make up Taiwan’s culture — Aboriginal, Japanese, Chinese, Fujianese and now Caucasian: in fact, the only guests dressed in obviously “aboriginal” gear are two women in orange. The xiao mi jiu, millet wine that I looked forward to at such an event was conspicuously absent. One of these women, Ah jen, seems pleased I ask, and promises to secure me some.
Otherwise, a six-foot high stack of Taiwan Beer is distributed by the bottle; guests poured it for each other into plastic cups. The sake flows like water (evidence of Japanese influence; a family elder tells me aboriginals were better treated under their 50-year colonization in Taiwan). An uncle, “Shushu,” or “Fagi” in Amis, unceremoniously presses a betelnut into Phil’s palm.
Betelnut as a wedding gift: it is an ancient custom in Taiwan that dates back since time memorial. Betelnut stains were found on the teeth of people buried in Beinan 3,600 years ago; the site is not far from this modern-day wedding.
Despite being asked by an auntie to refrain that day from chewing the nut — ostensibly for aesthetic purposes — Phil had already started in on it. “Do you chew?” he is asked. In response, he gives a stained, toothy grin.
His hair is coiffed in an early Bob Dylan style, his suit impeccable as usual — even in his leisure time he looks fresh from the office. Kimi is stunningly dressed in a purple gown and painstakingly made up, with earrings which she says in the dressing room pains her. Phil says it’s all worth it to see her dressed like this, since it is her habit to dress down, way down. She will change gowns at least three times today. When they spent NT$35,000 on pre-wedding photography at the Lin Family Gardens in Banciao, the Taiwanese there assumed they were both foreigners. The thousand guests are almost all on the bride’s side of the family; only Zach Touzin and I are representing the groom’s — I am the groom’s maid. A woman in blue silk begins to entertain us on the stage, singing old-fashioned Taiwanese songs, the ones that sound like they were all composed on a Casio organ; she is locally famous. After a time, Phil, Kimi, Kimi’s father, Zach and I are summoned to the stage while a few men make speeches. They talk about the fine weather on this beautiful day, about Phil’s background, how he was born in Belgium and grew up in Australia, and he was a TEACHER! And so is Kimi!
Eventually, we can leave the stage. A few laowai friends invited by the lady in blue talk with us. We soon get back to the banquet, which is quite delicious. Zach is encouraged to regale the crowd with some free-style wedding-inspired hiphop; that definitely creates a buzz of excitement. Then begins the round of congratulations. Phil is up for the drive-by toasting marathon, people drinking to their health at all 100 tables of 10 guests. Kimi must pace herself. She must sip.
Two hours later, promptly, everyone leaves. Soup and scraps are tied up in plastic bags, everything is stacked and put away. We — the immediate family — return to Kimi’s father’s home, for a more intimate reception of about 50. The patio has been covered with a multi-colored tarp, the banquet is again spread out and the beer and sake flow again. At last, some of the elders begin singing beautiful things around the table; I have been waiting for this music and record it. They don’t mind.
Ah jen hands me a bottle of white, opaque liquid. It is the millet wine I have anxiously awaited. At first, I drink to the ladies and share some. Then I am told by a cousin that this is my bottle of xiao mijiu and I am not to share it. The guests are impressed that I drink it, straight out of the bottle. I finish it up, and soon afterward pass out upstairs in somebody’s bed.