Monday, September 12, 2011

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Everything about a Taiwanese wedding

9/12/2011 Taiwan Explorer
Because in Taiwan you only marry once

I think you will hardly find a straight foreign guy, who visited Taiwan and wasn't impressed by the beauty and the charms of the female population. Taiwan is loaded with beautiful young women, that would make you fall for them instantly. It sounds broad and subjective you may say, but I would sign this statement any time. Once you visit, you will agree with me. You can argue about what real beauty is, but young women in Taiwan place great importance on how they look and how they carry themselves. Dressing tastefully, being graceful and polite, acting cute, a little sexy, but still remaining soft, sometimes even docile, are some of the social norms Taiwanese girls face, when they are growing into young women. And that has a certain indefinable charm that most non-Taiwanese men can't resist. I have to say I am one of them.

It's no wonder that many Taiwanese girls date foreigners, especially White guys, which is according to my subjective impression the most common combination in interracial relationships here. There is a certain mutual attraction, which would be an interesting topic for another post, so I won't go into that here. What oftentimes starts as a crush or romance, becomes deep love and eventually a decision has to be made: To marry and not to marry? And most of the time the answer is... marry!

If you are one of these foreign guys thinking about marrying a Taiwanese girl, this is the right post for you. I will tell you what to expect and what kind of organizational skills you will need to have in order to plan and pull through a Taiwanese wedding. I have so far been on 6 weddings in Taiwan and one of them was my own. In fact, it ended just yesterday, so I'm still very deeply involved in this topic. I will definitely need few weeks to shift my mind on other things, because you can't just erase few months of stressful planning and organizing something that is not really about you... but let's get back to the start.

So you've met the cutest girl in the world and she's from Taiwan, a country you have not really known well before, but suddenly you've become very interested. You Google information and of course come to my blog and see how beautiful it is here and you just can't resist dreaming about moving here and living happily ever after with your Taiwanese sweetheart. And after you make the decision to settle here for her, you will need to marry. At first you can register, to get the legal documentation (Alien Residence Certificate, read more in Chinese here), so they don't send you home, after your tourist visa expires. But right after that, you will need to start organizing the wedding. And that's the part where I'd like to share my experience with you and give you useful tips.

My dearest friend Cherry entering her wedding banquet.

1. IT'S NOT (ONLY) YOUR WEDDING

After extensive observations, I have come to these simple conclusions regarding an average modern Taiwanese wedding from a perspective of a foreigner, who took part in one:

- It's a gathering of many people, over 100 is very common
- It's a standardized 12-course lunch/dinner with exquisite/expensive Chinese food
- You will not know most of the invited people at your wedding
- Your in-laws will get involved in the planning, the less the better for you
- The wedding will not be about you, you will just play a side role
- Most of the attention will be diverted to the beautiful bride and her parents' "good face"

Of course all this depends on the character of your in-laws. There are some modern Taiwanese parents, who give their daughter and son-in-law the freedom to decide how their wedding should look like, but that's mostly an exception. The thing is: Most Taiwanese think they know, how a good wedding should be and going into deep discussions about that is a battle you can't win. I just hope that my Taiwanese friends allow me to see things with my own foreign eyes and accept my different views. One of the things I keep telling my wife is, that Taiwanese weddings are very standardized. Following things are more or less obligatory on every Taiwanese wedding banquet according to what I saw so far:

- Every guest will give you angpao 紅包 upon entering, it's a red envelope with money.
- In exchange for angpao, every guest will get xibing 喜餅 or wedding cookies.
- The bride usually changes her gown 3 times and you'll have to enter the hall with her.
- You'll sit at the main table next to the in-laws and other close relatives or persons of honor.
- You'll say ganbei 乾杯 (cheers in Chinese) a lot, then raise your glass and sip a little.
- Ganbei will usually be followed by lots of xiexie 謝謝, which means thank you.
- You will ganbei and xiexie at your main table, as well as tour all the other tables.
- A short clip of the bride's and groom's love story will be shown to everybody.
- Speeches will be made, either by the parents, by a person of honor or by you and the bride.
- At the end you greet every guest at the exit, give away candy and take a photo with them.

Inside this framework, you are more or less free to create some extra things such as funny games, lucky draws, speeches by people from your life, cutting of the cake or pouring the champagne or performances by hired musicians. The latter of course costs more and will usually be expected on wedding dinners, where the father of the bride is an important person.

Shark fin soup, although a controversial dish around the world, is considered a very rare and precious dish in Taiwan and is therefore served on many weddings.

2. WEDDING PREPARATIONS

The most stressful time is few months before the wedding, when you need to prepare tons of things, involve a lot of people and spend a lot of money. Below is the list of all the common things, that needs to be done in advance, if you want to have a smooth procedure on your big day:

Pre-wedding ceremonies and customs: There are a lot of various ceremonies prior to the banquet, some of religious nature, some just old traditions in honor of the parents or for good luck. In my case, I didn't need to follow any of them, so I can't share any experience in this regard. There are truly many of them and depend from one part of Taiwan to another and from family to family. I think unless they're not related to you paying money, it should be no problem for you to just follow what you're told. Some of these traditions are described here and here (in Chinese).

Betrothal money: Pinjin or 聘金 is actually comparable to the concept of the bridal price in old English traditions. This idea of paying your future wife's parents a substantial amount of money is shocking to many foreigners. Some would say "You want me to buy your daughter?". Luckily, it's a tradition, that is not obligatory and I myself didn't need to follow it. The custom says, that since the daughter will leave the family, she would not be able to take care of the parents when they are old, so they deserve a compensation. If you truly believe this and pay, then god bless you, you must be the perfect Taiwanese son in-law. But I would suggest you to ask your Taiwanese sweetheart about pinjin way before you even plan to propose to her. It can be a problem, if her parents insist on this, a big problem. Cost: Small pinjin may be 120.000 NTD, big one could reach the ridiculous number of 300.000 NTD! That's a range between 3000-7500 EUR/4000-10.000 USD!

Choose the date of your banquet: You would think that something like choosing a date is a simple thing in Taiwan. No way! Only certain dates can be chosen, the ones that are considered "good" or "lucky" in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar and old superstitions. The result is, that in a year certain dates are overbooked with wedding banquets and it's hard to find a free restaurant, while others are not booked at all. Our wedding banquet took place on a very popular day and in our restaurant many weddings were held at the same time, which resulted in random strangers passing by. One mistakenly sat at one of our tables, only to realize, that she's at the wrong wedding. But not only choosing a date is important. You also need to make a decision, whether to hold a wedding lunch or wedding dinner. Lunch starts between 12.00-13.00, dinner is scheduled for between 18.00 and 19.00. The duration of a common wedding is between 2 and 3 hours. Cost: None.

Finding and booking a restaurant: Taiwan is full of these generic restaurants, where wedding banquets are held. You could marry in a hotel, which is more expensive. I think most would go for the first option. These restaurants have standardized procedures and will have staff, that will take care of some things during your big day such as serving food, playing music and helping the bride. However, you need to pick a restaurant, that has good service reputation and good food. Your in-laws may go to the restaurant and try the food and if they like it, you get green light and can continue with other things. If they don't like it, you have a problem. Best is to book a restaurant 6 months ago. Cost: 10.000 NTD/250 EUR/340 USD (only the booking fee).

Deciding the number of tables: A small Taiwanese wedding will have around 10 tables, a medium-sized around 20 and a big one 30 or more. Each table is set for 10 people. It's not good to have five or less people at one table, in that case you better group them with other half-empty tables in order to save space, food and money. The food will be served in a traditional Chinese way, where it will be shared on a round table and passed from person to person, so efficiency in this regard is necessary. Cost: from 7000-15000NTD per table + 10% service charge, 175-376 EUR/240-513 USD, but you pay this after your wedding dinner with the red packages given to you by guests. Booking fee is deducted. If you have 10 tables per 10.000 NTD each, you will pay 110.000 NTD (2760 EUR/3770 USD).

Round tables with a smaller central platfom are an integral part of a Taiwanese wedding. Food is passed from person to person by turning that part in circles.

Wedding pictures: This is one of the almost unavoidable things, if you want to marry a Taiwanese girl, as this is one of things she will be most likely nonnegotiable on. Taking wedding photos for the sake of memory is called 拍婚紗照 (pāi hūnshā zhào or lit. taking wedding dress pictures). These photos will be shared online (like Facebook or blog) and in a printed album, on small cards, a poster at the entrance of your wedding and finally in a clip, that will be running nonstop during your banquet. These photos are an integral part of modern Taiwanese culture (photographers are making very good money in Taiwan, that's for sure). A photo shoot will usually take all day, especially in summer is brutal, because it will commonly be shot outside. Couples would decide for three beautiful settings, of which are most common old historic houses from Qing dynasty, natural backgrounds such as a beach and a modern building, such as Taipei 101 and others. I can tell you that posing for tons of photos all day under the hot sun was one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life so far. But we men just need to make our wives happy, right? :-) On the wedding photo shoot day it's all about the bride, who desires to be a beautiful princes in a dreamy background and if the photos turn out really beautiful, she will proudly share them with all her female friends, who will give her tons of compliments. You would not wanna take that joy away from your wife just because the price could be ridiculously high, wouldn't you? Cost: Most common number is 30.000 NTD/750 EUR/1030 USD for a shoot, but if you have a friend as a photographer you can get them for below 20.000 NTD/500 EUR/685 USD, however I know some people, who payed 70.000/1750 EUR/2400 USD or more. Keep in mind, that you will usually only get 20 to 30 photos, in the latter case, that would make 80 USD per one single photo.

Taking wedding photos is considered one of the most romantic things in a Taiwanese woman's life. If you start to argue about the cost, you'll have trouble.

Wedding cookie: The wedding cookie is one of these things I could not understand since the beginning. You may need to buy over 100 wedding cookies and give every of your guest one box of them, after they give you the money in the angpao (or red envelope). You can also give two less expensive boxes of cookies, if you want, as long as the sum of both together reaches the expected norm. This things will of course cost you, at least 1000 EUR for 100 people. It's expected by an unwritten Taiwanese cultural norm, that a box wedding cookies should be between 400-500 NTD (10-12 EUR), but some even pay over 700 NTD per box (17 EUR/24 USD). Multiply that by for example 150 people and you will get the cost of 105.000 NTD/2630 EUR/3600 USD. That's of course ridiculously high for someone like me, who just doesn't understand this concept. Just remember: If someone gives you angpao, you need to give him the wedding cookie. Cost: Usually for a small wedding 100 cookies is the norm, the cost can vary from 40.000 NTD to over 70.000 NTD (from 1000 EUR/1370 USD on).

Wedding cookies can be traditional or modern, both is acceptable.

Invitation cards: The invitation cards are also one of the things you will need to pick together with your future wife. You will need to make a choice and ask a certain number of people you'd like to invite and add the number of the people your in-laws will force you to invite. Once you have the number of all the people that confirmed their attendance, you will need to print out the wedding invitation cards and give them in person or send by mail. The card will include a small message for your guests, together with the name of your and your wife-to-be's parents and the address of the restaurant, where your wedding will take place. Usually a small business card of the restaurant with a map, that leads to the restaurant, will be added. Cost: If you print 100 invitation cards, you will pay between 20-60 NTD for a card. If you pay 30, your cost will be 3000 NTD (75 EUR/100 USD).

There are thousands of wedding invitation designs to choose from.

Deciding who to invite: That will be a tough choice, believe me. First of all, approximately half of the tables will be filled with people your in-laws will invite. These will be various relatives and friends, who's weddings your parents have attended in the past and many of them had to came to return the angpao... with interest. Of course they're also there to honor the proud father, who's daughter is getting married. This event is one of the highlights of every Taiwanese elder and the more people see his happiness (even, if in reality he's still not sure, if he can trust you), the better. It is possible that the parents will collect the angpao money received from their guests and that may be the part of your wedding where you will feel it's not really your wedding. The other visitors will be related to your wife, such as old school mates and coworkers and other friends. Most of them will come, because they are really happy for your wife and won't feel that they were forced to come, because of the cultural norms. A few of them might, though. It's always a tricky thing who to invite, because the amount of money in the red envelope matters a lot for Taiwanese people. For example, if in the past you have attended your friend's wedding and given him 2400 NTD in the angpao, he needs to attend your wedding and give you at least 200 NTD more, that means 2600 NTD. That is all reasonable (in Taiwanese eyes), but you have a big problem, if someone attends your wedding and gives you 10.000 NTD (250 EUR/340 USD), which is considered a big angpao. Some elders will do that in order to impress your proud father-in-law. You will need to say thank you many times after the wedding, however you will need to pay this money back... with interest. Next time his son or daughter marry, you will need to give at least 10200 NTD to them. That of course is beyond my Western common sense, but I would say getting big angpao from one person is not really good. Taiwanese even keep a book of how much who payed, so that they remember to pay back with interest in the future. If they don't great shame will come over the family, people will gossip and face will be lost. That of course is a disaster for most Taiwanese elders and you would not want that to happen. Keep all that in mind, when you are pondering over who to invite. 
Cost: A lot of nerves.

Princess from Taiwan
Wedding gowns and the tuxedo: It's a custom, that the tuxedo is bought by your Taiwanese mother-in-law (I blogged about it here), which is one of the few things you as the groom can enjoy. The cost of a good quality tuxedo together with a customized shirt would be around 10.000 NTD (250 EUR/340 USD). When it comes to the bride, things are more complicated. She will want to have at least 3 new dresses, a white one, then usually a colored one and a traditional Chinese qipao 旗袍. There are several shops that offer borrowing the gowns, which is cheaper than buying them. There's also the option, that you order from an online shop in China, it will be a good cheap alternative. In Taipei, there are several wedding streets, one near Zhongshan MRT, one in Xinyi and one near MiramarCost: Three wedding gowns together with accessories may cost you around 10.000 NTD (250 EUR/340 USD).

Wine and liquor: There are several wine shops in Taiwan, that import good wine from all over the world, but France, Italy, Chile and America seem to be very common. Almost most Taiwanese prefer red wine, so it's a kind of a norm (interestingly, in my country white wine is more common). Aside from the wine, you will also be suggested by your in-laws to buy few bottles of liquor, whiskey will be preferred. Taiwanese, unlike my countrymen, don't take alcohol too well. If they drink a glass (usually 1 dcl only), they might get tipsy, if two or three glasses, they might get drunk. Few shots of whiskey will speed up the process even faster. That's good, because you don't need to buy a lot of wine, 1-2 bottles per table should be enough. So if you have 10 tables, 12-15 red wine bottles should suffice and maybe 3-5 whiskeys. Cost: It can cost you between 3000-5000 NTD ( from 75 EUR/100 USD on).

The helpers: During your wedding you will need several people to manage various things for you. A friend or a close relative will need to welcome every guest at the entrance, where they will sign their names, give angpao and receive the wedding cookie in exchange. The make-up stylist will take care of your, your mother-in-law's and your wife's make-up, hair and help her with the changing of the clothes. A moderator will  manage some of the event preparations, announce you and your wife prior to your entering into the main hall and moderate the event for you. For that each of them will get an angpao at the end of the wedding. And to my surprise, the auntie, who works for the restaurant and "helps" you with some small things during the wedding such as pressing the button of the lift will claim an angpao, too. Cost: A friend or sibling might get 1200-2400 NTD for managing your receivedangpaos, while a make-up stylist might cost you around 8000 NTD (200 EUR/275 USD) on average, a moderator from 6000-8000 NTD. And you will need to give around 2000 NTD to an auntie, who works for the restaurant.

Wedding photographer and camera operator: You will have no time to take photos or shoot videos, since you will be constantly following a protocol. Sadly, you will barely have time to eat and talk to your friends. So if you wanna remember all your embarrassing and all your wife's glorious moments, you will need to hire a guy, who will walk around and take photos of the "happy" guests and another one, who will make video clips and later put them together into a short movie. Cost: Photographer may cost you at least 8000 NTD, the movie will cost you at least 8000 NTD as well. That's a proud sum of 16.000 NTD or 400 EUR/550 USD.

3. THE BIG DAY: YOUR BIG FAT TAIWANESE WEDDING

The big day will be hectic. If you have chosen to have a wedding lunch, even more, because you have only few hours of preparation time. We came to the restaurant at 9.30 and my wife's make-up and hair still wasn't ready by 12.30! The basic procedure of a wedding day is standardized, but you still have to plan some arrangements, such as how many times do you want to enter the hall with the bride, when will you play the wedding clip, who will speak when, what games will be played etc. But most likely it will be like this: Few hours before the wedding starts, in our case lunch, you will just sit next to your wife in the small make-up room, where her hair and make-up will being done. As you well know, Taiwanese women need a lot of time to make themselves look pretty and before a wedding they're even more peculiar, so it really takes time. Taiwanese visitors are always late, so if you said that the wedding starts at 12, most of the hall will be filled by 12.45 and that's the best time to start the banquet and enter the event with your wife. An hour before her friends and relatives will keep on coming inside the make-up room to greet her and wish her gongxi 恭喜, which means congratulations. When the bride is finally done, she will wear the huge white dress and head with you towards the main hall. Someone will need to help her with the dress and you will need to walk very slowly with her. Next to the entrance point, you will need to wait for the announcer to say few words and the lights will be dimmed. After she's finished, you will finally enter together with her and people will look at you two with great interest, take photos, in the best case cheer and clap. After that you will be seated at the main table and the moderator will ask a person of honor to say few words about you and your wife. After that the first few courses will be served, it will be ganbei'd, gonxi'd and xiexie'd at the main table. But you won't have a lot of time to eat, as you and your wife will need to leave the table soon in order for her to change clothes and re-enter with you again. This will be repeated twice and after the last time the wedding will end very soon. In between, speeches can be held and games can be played, where you give away small gifts. Some of the obligatory things is the bride's giving away of the wedding bouquet to the unwed female friends and the wedding clip will be played for the whole audience, where you and your wife show excerpts of your lives and add snippets from your love story to the mix. The feast ends, when you tour around all the tables with your parents and ganbei with everybody. After that, the guests start to eat the dessert and you move to the exit, where you hold a basket of candies and wait for the guests to finish eating. Everyone will pass by and gongxi you in exchange for a small gift, candy and taking a photo with you. Once you finish this with all of the guests, your wedding officially ends.

Enjoy some photos of my friends' wedding, the wedding of Cherry and Jackie:

At the entrance photos of the couple will be shown and offered on cards.

Friends will help you to collect angpao.

First entering of the banquet is considered as one of the most important parts of the wedding. The bride will usually enter with a long white gown.

Taiwanese weddings usually start 30-45 minutes late, as Taiwanese are not really punctual. You begin, when 80% of the tables are full.

Most weddings start with raw fish, which are dipped in wasabi.

Sea food is considered special, because it's expensive. It means you treat your guests well.

A moderator will connect the dots on your special day.

Speeches will be held in the parents' and couple's honor.

You may pour the champagne together with your husband.

People will ask the couple to drink like this.

Some couples exchange sweet words with each other. In this case Jacky made Cherry smile and surely must have said something very sweet.

You will ganbei and ganbei until you can't anymore.

Every Taiwanese wedding ends with taking of the photos with the couple.

4. HOW MUCH DOES A TAIWANESE WEDDING COST?

To know, how much an average Taiwanese wedding costs click here>>

You will get information in New Taiwanese Dollars, Euros, US Dollars, Singaporean Dollars, Hong Kong Dollars and Malaysian Ringgit. This is just for your reference, if you wanna do it in Taiwan ;-)

5. AFTER THE WEDDING: COUNTING MONEY AND FEELING RELEASED

After your wedding ends, you will feel very released. The restaurant will clean the tables, all you need to do is take your things back home, such as the left over wedding cookies, the poster, the small name cards, gifts and various things from clothes, make up and other accessories. And then you'll need to pay the restaurant with the angpao you got, which will be like two thirds of the whole money. The rest is yours. But it might well happen, that you'll realize that you spend more than what you got. One of the things couples hope is that the money will cover the honeymoon. That's possible on weddings, where the couple is Taiwanese. But if you're a foreigner, who can't invite 100 people from his own circle of friends and relatives, the cost might well be over the received angpao money. Trust me, I'm speaking from my own experience. Nevertheless, you will be glad it's over. These are the things that might await you the following days: The parents will have tons of questions about the feedback of your guests: "Did everybody like the food?" or "Did they think everything was ok?" or "Were there any complaints?" will be the most common questions. If your answer is yes, they will be happy and you can move on with your life. If not, they will be anxious and in worst case, they might call the unsatisfied guests and try to explain themselves in order to save face. You will also be asked about the amount of angpao, that was paid by the individual guests. The in-laws will want to keep the book, that holds this information in order to repay with a bigger angpao at some of the future weddings. After all this is over, you can slowly move on to the hardest part: Your marriage. The Taiwanese wedding, although challenging and stressful, will be nothing compared to that. Being married to a Taiwanese wife surely has many rewards, but it can be very challenging as well, especially if you live in Taiwan, but that's stuff for the movies... or for another blog post.

Counting the angpao money will be your highlight of the day. But you may soon realize, that you spent much more than you got in return. However, blessings are priceless, right?

5. MY THOUGHTS, TIPS AND CONCLUSIONS AFTER THE WEDDING

It's for me very hard to give useful tips to other foreigners who might or will marry a Taiwanese girl. It all depends on what type of person you are (careful or careless, shy or outgoing...). It also depends how traditional your in-laws are and how involved they want to be. And don't forget to meet your wife's and guest's expectations, that can be very tough as well. In my case, I tried to comply and follow as best as I could, be it before or during the wedding. I felt like I'm in a movie, where the character is a bit lost. The first entering was very stressful for me, because I was very nervous and stiff and worried about many things. After the second time, I felt better, because I drank a little and eased up. When we entered for the third time, most people were focused on eating and drinking and I was happy to see that some tables were having a good time. But there were other tables, where everyone was quietly eating their rice with very serious faces. Fact is, you can't have a perfect wedding and you can't make everybody happy and joyful, some are there for the sake of face, some are there to tag along with a friend. You just have to focus on your and your wife's friends, those are the people, that might matter in your life in Taiwan. And of course your in-laws. I have to say that my wedding in Taiwan was so far one of the most challenging things I've ever experienced, but it was also very rewarding, especially the sight of my beautiful wife in all these dresses: She was probably the most beautiful since I've met her and she was truly the princess she deserved to be. I'm so happy for her and very released, that the feedback was mostly positive. Even the often very critical in-laws have not said a word. For you all this might be a lot to digest and you might feel intimidated, after reading my post. But hey, it can only get worse! Or better! How could I know? This was my story and now I'm a real man in Taiwan. If you want to be like me, get your act together and put on the best show of your life! For your wife, for your in-laws and for everybody else. Because that's what they want and that's what you gotta give in exchange for a life in Taiwan with your sweetest Taiwanese darling.

Can you really disappoint these beautiful puppy eyes?

Bonus! Vocabulary of common Chinese wedding blessings:

恭喜, 恭喜! Gōngxǐ, gōngxǐ! - Congratulations!
白頭偕老! Bái tóu xié lǎo! - Grow old together until you get white hair!
永浴愛河! Yǒng yù ài hé! - Bathe together in the river of love!
百年好合! Bǎi nián hǎo hé! - Good match for 100 years!
幸福美滿! Xìng fú měi mǎn! - Good fulfillment!

Another bonus! Some common Taiwanese wedding superstitions:

You can't marry, if you're 19, 29, 39: Problem is the number 9, which is seen as bad.
You can't get married during the ghost month 鬼月: You can't be happy that month.
Pregnant women should not attend weddings: Her happiness might clash with yours.
You can't eat your own wedding cookie: You will eat your own happiness. (Duh!)
After you are married, you can't attend other people's weddings for 3 months: Bad luck.

Related Taiwanese wedding posts:

Lily murmurs in English: Attending my friend's wedding dinner
Hipper: 銷空耶家庭的第一場婚禮~1.前傳 and 銷空耶家庭的第一場婚禮~2.正傳

[First photo 林志玲 of with courtesy of Longines, other photos by MKL, 2011 ]