Getting married in China

I wrote the blog below at the end of 2012 on the day I married Sun Hui. A Dutch version of this article can be found here. Getting married in China turned out to be a remarkable experience…

Sun Hui and I are standing in the elevator of a building which houses the Marriage Registration Office of Civil Affairs Department in Shaanxi Province. This small office we are heading for is the place where Chinese who want to marry a laowai, a foreigner, should report. Ironically, it is located in a new building where, besides the registration office, only government agencies dealing with disaster relief seem to operate. 

It is 12-12-2012, a date that we have deliberately chosen because of the repeating numbers. What’s more, I tell myself, the numbers 1 and 2 can be pronounced as yao and er, which according to Chinese internet slang could mean ‘want love’. Despite this special date we are the only ones at the registration office on this early morning. As such, our plan to get married at exactly 12 minutes past 12 doesn’t quite work out, despite our attempts to delay things. At 10 AM the ceremony is over and we continue our tour for a series of administrative actions through Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province best known for its Terracotta Army. Hand in hand, like lao gong and lao po, husband and wife.

Time for an explanation. After all, wasn’t I the one who always said he didn’t really see much added value in marriage? Yes, and if I’m being honest I still think so, especially in Dutch circumstances. Many couples I know have been together for decades without having ever married. It’s not really considered a necessity here in The Netherlands, where many people just arrange the legalities in a simple cohabitation contract.

But circumstances change. When Sun Hui and I got into a serious relationship, one of her conditions was commitment. She didn’t want to end up in a relationship with someone who would leave her after a year, going back to his home country. Of course I also wanted us to stay together, although at the time it was not clear exactly how or where. But Sun Hui wanted more reassurance and it soon became clear to me that in China much more importance is attached to marriage than in The Netherlands.

Are you rich?

The idea of ​​a Chinese wedding and all the associated rituals – more on those in future articles – gave me the chills. But I also understood this was important to Sun Hui and her family. Living together without being married was not really an option (at least at the time) and in a society where getting married becomes a primary goal as soon as one leaves university it was unthinkable that one would not get married. It would be an embarrassment to many Chinese and would not be appreciated even in a relatively open-minded family like Sun Hui’s.

One night I was having a few beers with Daemon, one of my friends in Xi’an, discussing the matter with him. Daemon was married to a Chinese woman and had just become a father. If anyone had experience with such intercultural long-term relationships, it was him. I discussed my reservations and distaste for some of the Chinese wedding rituals and it soon became clear that it would be extremely selfish of me to refuse. We had already decided to go to the Netherlands and Sun Hui was working hard to learn the Dutch language. Considering that effort and the fact that she would leave her country and family behind, my necessary sacrifice was insignificant. “Are you rich?” Daemon asked. “No man,” I laughed: “If that were her motivation, would she choose an international volunteer from The Netherlands, with its horrendous integration procedure?” “Stop whining then, marry her!” Daemon said firmly. He was right, of course, and the text message reading “Marry Sun Hui!” he sent me the next morning was no longer necessary to convince me.

Moreover, the Dutch government had made the choice whether to get married very easy. Legislation for family reunification, including situations in which you wanted to bring your partner to The Netherlands, had been tightened on October 1st  2012. From that moment on, reunification was only possible if you were married ‘in the country of origin’. In effect, that meant that not only did we have to get married in China, but also had to do this before we could submit the application for Sun Hui’s temporary residence permit. We estimated at which time she would take the required language exam, when I would go back to The Netherlands and when we might be able to submit the application. December seemed like the best month to get married and we chose 12-12-2012. A special date (and easy to remember!).

But before we could arrange things administratively, some preparation was needed. First of all, we had to submit a declaration showing I was unmarried. For that declaration I had to request a document of proof from the town hall in my place of residence in The Netherlands. Next, I had to send that document to the Dutch embassy in Beijing, who would then send me their official statement by post. 

But that wasn’t all of it. The document, together with my passport, then had to be translated into Chinese by an authorised agency. A job that took no more than 10 minutes but cost 400 RMB (at the time 20% of an average monthly income in Xi’an). And if the ‘marriage registration agency’ explicitly tells you that one specific agency “is the best translation agency” (read: ‘it’s run by a relative’) and that they “regularly have problems with other agencies” (read: ’we’ll reject the translation if you use a different one’), then you pick your battles and don’t take unnecessary risks.

Meeting the Suns

In the meantime, I had met Sun Hui’s parents for the first time. They lived in her hometown of Datong, in northern Shanxi province, and came to Xi’an for a few weeks from August to October. Those familiar with Chinese customs understand what meeting her parents really meant. In China, such a meeting is equivalent to the announcement of a marriage and a kind of request for parental approval. You will understand that I was quite nervous that evening. I didn’t even know how to address them, and when I asked Sun Hui if I should shake hands, she said, “No, that’s way too formal.” So, I kept my hands to myself. Sure enough, as soon as Sun Hui’s father saw me, he grabbed my hand and kept shaking it until it almost fell off.

The dinner, with Peking Duck on the menu, went well. I tried to speak as much Mandarin as possible. I had apparently made a good first impression. Their initial concern for the well-being of their daughter and sadness when she had told them she was moving to The Netherlands seemed to have disappeared. The morning before I left to travel along the Silk Road with a friend, her parents came to cook at our apartment. Before I went to the airport I quickly showed them some pictures of the volunteer work I did in Xi’an and my house in The Netherlands. They seemed a lot more reassured when I told them that Sun Hui was a very likeable person and smart enough to make friends and find work in The Netherlands.

Forms and rubber stamps

And so 12-12-12 arrived. A number of people in the Netherlands who knew that we were getting married wished us good luck and a nice day. They obviously didn’t know what kind of day it was going to be. In China, the day of marriage and the festivities of the wedding are not celebrated on the same day. There can sometimes be months or even years between the marriage date and the date of the wedding party. Many local customs play a role in determining the wedding party date. For example, it seemingly brings bad luck when two children from one family celebrate their wedding in the same year. Since Sun Hui’s brother would have his wedding in 2013, it automatically meant that ours would be ‘postponed’ to a later date.

What remained was a day of administrative formalities. At the ‘marriage registration office’ we had to fill in another declaration that we were both unmarried, had no terminal illnesses and were not related to each other up to the 4th degree. We filled in our personal details and Sun Hui had to read the statement aloud. Then the official attached the special wedding certificate photo, which we had taken a few weeks earlier against the obligatory red background, in the ‘marriage booklets’ of which we both received one copy. The cost was 69 RMB ($9), but after Sun Hui said we weren’t interested in the “special storage box” for the certificates, it dropped to 21 RMB ($2.50). 

It was all very different from a marriage ceremony we normally have in a Dutch town hall. No speech from a civil registrar, no family or friends present, no “you may now kiss the bride”. No, just some forms and rubber stamps and we were outside again at 10 o’clock. We had to descend from the 20th floor of this new building down the stairwell. The elevator had broken down and people were already trapped in it. I wondered if there was a hidden message about our marriage in all of this. And if so, if it was a positive or negative omen…

More formalities followed. We had to go to an office of the PSB (Public Security Bureau) where Sun Hui  had to change the marital status in her hukou, a kind of household registration document. After lunch, the last stop on our administrative tour was the notary’s office. To apply for the Dutch residence permit, the marriage certificate and Sun Hui’s hukou had to be translated and legalized by a notary. A week later we had to collect the deed and submit it to the Foreign Affairs Bureau, which would verify it together with the Dutch embassy. If all went according to plan, before the end of the year we would have all documents together to submit the application for Sun Hui’s MVV (authorization for temporary Residence) during another visit to the Dutch embassy in Beijing.

I can’t really make this story of our marriage day more romantic than it is. At that time, the marriage was just a series of administrative acts on a freezing day in Xi’an. But it was a necessary step needed to give ourselves the future we wanted.

Having said that, I can still vividly remember many details of that nevertheless special day. I remember how we lined up to get a jian bing (a Chinese breakfast pancake) at the stall in our xiao qu (residential community) in the morning. I remember the enormous Christmas tree outside one of the shopping malls we passed. And I still remember what we had for lunch at a great restaurant in Xi’an’s famous Muslim quarter, the only truly festive moment of the day: sugar-glaced potatoes, yu xiang qiezi (fish-fragrant aubergine) and tang cu li ji (sweet and sour pork – although this being a Muslim restaurant it was probably chicken). It’s these moments that we still reminisce after being exactly ten years happily married on the day I publish this article.