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Thứ Hai, 7 tháng 1, 2013

or the Standardization of weddings

Wedding is the occasion when a couple make their life-time commitment in front of people who matter to them. I don't know about weddings in other provinces, but here in Ha Noi, I have attended enough weddings to know by heart all the proceedings. First, the bride and the groom and their parents stand at the door to greet coming guests. These guests shake hands, say congratulations, put their envelope in 2 red, heart-shaped boxes depending on whether they are associated with the bride or the groom. All movements take a few seconds, or half a minutes at most, because if they don't move continuously, they will block many others behind . After entering the hall, the guesses will be shuffled to tables by the couple's relatives based on one unspoken rule: only when a table is completely filled will people be arranged to sit at the next one and no seat should be left empty because price is per-determined and paid upon the number of tables, not people. As soon as people sit down, they will start eating. After all expected guests have arrived, a MC will start the ceremony. Then music fills the air, 2 sets of parents enter on a red carpet. Next come the couple themselves. Meanwhile people keep eating and chatting with each other.The couple will exchange rings (or in most cases, the groom puts his ring on the bride's finger), then they open a bottle of champagne, pour the champagne on a set of cups, present the cups to their respective parents to thank them for having raised the couple. Afterwards, this same group of 6 people slowly move around the hall to toast with each table as someone would sing love songs on the stage. Not everyone at a table know each other, and no one really has time to exchange words with the bride and the groom. When the group has finished its round, some guests have finished eating too. They stand out to leave, and the couple and their parents again stand at the door to thank and say goodbye to people. Close friends and relatives can stay behind to take pictures with the couple but most will leave promptly. The whole event takes about one hour.

No minute is left bare. Everyone involved knows what they are supposed to do and when to do it. There is no space for confusion or spontaneous decision making. Guests know they need to bring envelops, the content depends on various things: how close they are to the families, how much the couple or the couple's parents give at their or their children's wedding, how subordinate they are to the couple or their parents, how big a favour they have received or want to ask from the concerned group, or even how much they want to show off or compete with the latter. Couple know they need to smile all the time, appear pleasant, not complain about tired legs or hungry stomachs. All emotions are closely monitored. The general atmosphere is that of a cheerful mode, but it is also crystal clear that there is a strong sense of social obligation. Guests know clearly why they are there, even though they neither know the name or age of the couple. But they still come, because they are tied with the families by different bonding. Kinship is one, they may be related by blood, which compels them to be present. Social responsibility is another, they are friends or colleagues of any person in the group of six (couple and 4 parents). Very few, indeed, come to a wedding to celebrate love between two people. And I doubt if anyone thinks of it as a scared ceremony. You come, give the money, eat quickly, talk to someone you know or sit quiet, pay attention to no one else and leave as soon as you finish. What is the difference between a wedding and the transaction taking place at a fast food restaurant?

Weddings in Ha Noi adopts half-way the traditional ceremony held by Christian couples. The parents and the couples do enter the hall in music. They do stand in front of everyone for a little bit. They do exchange rings, although no kisses. What they leave out is the vow, the kiss, and most importantly the attention and the sincere feelings. When a couple enter a church and say their vow in front of a candle and a priest, they are making their commitment not only official but holy. And everyone watches them in silence, wishing the best for them. I have seen tears in eyes of people who are moved by love and devotion of lovers for each other. But here, as a couple stand on the stage, everyone keeps on eating, drinking, as if the most cherished people of the night are no more than mere entertainment. The music that goes after serves to fill in any gaps brought about by awkward moments when guests are seated with people they don't know, have nothing in common, and are not familiar with the basic facts about the couple to really feel happy for them. Deafened by loud music, everyone just focuses on the dishes right within the reach, pay hardly enough attention to the surrounding until the couple and their parents approach with cups of wine to toast. After a brief interval of standing up, cheers, and smile, they are back to the business of shoving food down their throats and clearing out plates.

It is time-efficient, no doubt. A wedding can be conveniently wrapped up within the hour of a lunch break, and all guests hurry back to their offices with a filled stomach. It is worry-free, because the families run small risks of unexpected incidents. It buffers and offsets social awkwardness when a large group of people (several hundreds) who have little in common come together and share a meal. It makes it easier for everyone because unnecessary interactions are eliminated to maximum. Guests present their wish by the cash inside envelops, and families present their thank by the food on tables. Fair game for all.

Yet, this standardization of an important life-event such as wedding leaves an impact on all parties involved. Everyone becomes a little less humane because they are one layer removed from interpersonal connections. Even if guests are sincerely happy for the couple, they have no chance to say so, because no time is allowed for intimate conversations. Both the hosts and the guests are constantly  pushed by a fixed line of tasks that need to be done. No one can go astray, otherwise all others will run into a mess. If the bride's feet all of sudden get too sore and she is in too much pain to stand and greet the guests, or the singer can't sing all the songs she has been contracted to perform, holes will appear and that will leave everyone at a loss. Couple feel less grateful for guest's presence, because they either will face with a notebook filled with names so they know whose weddings or whose children's weddings they need to attend later, or mentally note faces so they can return the favour another  time. For the guests, it is just another wedding, where they pay a great amount to eat a meal.

The food is served fast, exactly alike or with little variation from one wedding to another, music is played in the background, you pay in advance and then leave as soon as you stop chewing. I came out of a wedding and wondered why it matters if McDonald's request to enter Vietnam has been repeatedly rejected, since its much treasured backbone principle of standardization has penetrated so deep into Vietnamese cultural life (at least in big cities) and is attacking its very root.

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