I stepped off a plane in Chengdu, China, and within minutes was crashing a wedding. Well, not exactly crashing. It was more of a matrimonial hit-and-run. My friend Bill’s friend Daniel had a Chinese girlfriend whose cousin was the bride. In China, apparently, this made me family—or, at the very least, an honored guest for the occasion.
Daniel led me through a door and instantaneously the Sichuan heat gave way to the Arctic air of a large, über-modern restaurant. The place was brash, confident, and more than a little over-the-top, much like China itself. People who didn’t know me were happy—no, thrilled—to see me, embracing me like some long-lost American cousin. Someone offered me cigarettes, arranged neatly on a plate like canapés. I took one, even though I don’t smoke. It seemed like the right thing to do. That was also my rationale for accepting the glass someone handed me containing a murky liquid—the Chinese call it “white wine,” though it is neither white nor wine. Whatever it was, it boosted my mood considerably.
Sichuan food is among the spiciest in the world, and I suspect the chef added some extra kick to help make this day truly unforgettable. Daniel and I took our seats and confronted two pots of boiling sauce.
“One is spicy,” said Daniel.
“And the other one?” I asked.
“You don’t want to eat the other one,” he said. “Trust me.”
Above the hot pots was a conveyor belt on which all manner of food circled before our eyes: chunky tofu and fresh mushrooms the size of my head, as well as a menagerie of internal organs: chicken hearts, pig brains, and sundry unidentified viscera. I stuck with the tofu and mushrooms.
I barely had to time to eat, though. Everybody wanted to have their picture taken with me. I graciously mugged for the cameras, thinking, This is what it’s like to be famous. The fawning, the blind adoration, which, if you’re willing to overlook its complete and utter insincerity, is quite pleasant indeed. I smiled easily, knowing that long after the last cigarette was smoked, the last glass of white wine chugged, the wedding guests would pore over the photo albums, wondering, Who is the glassy-eyed foreigner in all the pictures? I didn’t invite him, did you?
They will not be alone in their head-scratching. I am, you see, the Zelig of international weddings. I’ve attended perhaps a dozen, from Jerusalem to Tokyo—sometimes by formal invitation, sometimes not so formal, and occasionally not so invited. As far as I’m concerned, there is no better way to get to know a country than to attend a wedding. All the cultural touchstones are present: food, music, booze, native dress, religion, more booze, family, friends, and yet more booze. The presence of an interloper like myself only amplifies the happiness. I am another attraction, no different from the band or the rented elephant, only less expensive than the former and, I like to think, not as messy as the latter.
Everyone at a wedding is in a forgiving mood. This, I discovered, comes in handy. When I was invited to a friend’s wedding in Israel, she asked me to recite a short blessing during the ceremony. I don’t speak Hebrew, but this didn’t dissuade her. The blessing was only 10 words long, she assured me. I spent hours memorizing and stepped up to the chuppah confident. The rabbi, though, flubbed the order and asked me to read a different piece, a passage as long as a Fidel Castro speech. I’ll spare you the details, but on that spring day, with sunlight glinting off the Mediterranean, I did unmentionable things to the Hebrew language.
A few years later, I attended a Muslim wedding in Ladakh, a mountainous region in India’s far north. There was no booze at this wedding, but at an elevation of 13,000 feet, everyone was giddy anyway. The wedding stretched over three days—a blur of meat, Tibetan butter tea, and henna. At some point, the bride and groom became husband and wife. As is customary, the wedding guests were segregated by gender. We foreigners, though, constituted our own category, a sort of third sex. We were treated like royalty—that is, publicly admired, privately ridiculed. I didn’t mind. While the other guests shivered in the cold, we were ushered into a heated room and served warm chai and biscuits.
In addition to the weddings I’ve actually attended, there are many more that I watched from the sidelines. In Las Vegas, where wedding chapels are nearly as ubiquitous as slot machines and equally dangerous, I watched three or four weddings at my hotel. I couldn’t help it. They took place in a small chapel—more of a tiki hut, actually—next to the swimming pool, and I’d pass it every time I walked from my room to the lobby. I’d stop to watch the invariably young bride and groom take their McVows, close enough to touch them. At one wedding, I may have inadvertently served as best man. I’m not sure.
In Tokyo, where I lived for years, I always enjoyed watching the wedding parties in Yoyogi Park, a short walk from my apartment. I’d marvel at the brides, dressed impeccably in Christian white, paying their respects at a Shinto shrine. (Nobody covers their religious bases like the Japanese.) I would watch from a discreet distance, zeroing in on the smiles, gauging their authenticity. Would this one last, I’d wonder?
When we attend a wedding, we invest some small stake in its outcome. We want it to work, or we want to be right about it not working. I once attended a wedding in New York where guests surreptitiously took bets on how long the improbable match would last. (Three years, as it turned out.) Overall, though, the ceremonies I’ve seen have a pretty good track record. True, one marriage ended in divorce, another in the untimely death of the groom. But most have worked out.
I so enjoy foreign weddings that I decided to have one myself. My fiancée and I had lived in India, and Bombay (as it was still called then) seemed the perfect place to tie the knot. We had it all figured out. The guests would fly to India from across the globe. We’d have a white horse and garlands of marigolds. We’d walk around the fire, Hindu style. There would be sushi, and maybe bagels. Yes, it would be the ultimate international wedding. Then reality, in the avatar of parents and grandparents, intervened, and our exotic Big Fat Bombay Wedding was transformed into a considerably thinner, less exotic, but no less lovely Baltimore wedding. Our Sikh friend Harbaksh was among the guests. He wore his finest Punjabi silk kurta and his most flamboyant turban—a bright red affair that delighted everyone.
Remembering Harbaksh in his turban dancing up a storm with my stiff Baltimore relatives, I now understand for the first time why all those Indians, Chinese, and Israelis liked having me at their weddings. The purpose of a wedding is not necessarily the vows themselves, but rather the witnessing of those vows. Marriages, even modern ones, are social contracts between clans, and a wedding ceremony is where that contract is sealed. The presence of others makes the nuptials real, or at least creates the illusion of realness. That’s especially true when the “other” is a foreigner like myself. Since I stand outside the clan, my witnessing carries added significance. Thus my role at all these far-flung weddings was not merely to provide some unintended entertainment (though I supplied plenty of that) but, in some small way, to validate the ritual.
Curiously, I experienced this same dynamic when I found myself attending a funeral service for a complete stranger. I happened upon the ceremony as I walked among the ghats that line the Yamuna river in Delhi. As family members recited Hindu prayers and the eldest son lit the funeral pyre, nobody questioned what a middle-aged American was doing there. The dead man, it turned out, taught Hindi at a local university. People assumed I was one of his students. When they found out I wasn’t, they were no less grateful. “I’m glad you were here,” said one relative. He didn’t say exactly why he was glad. He didn’t need to.
Travel, at its most elemental, is the act of “being here.” Journeying to the world’s villages and metropolises, crashing its weddings and funerals, we have nothing to offer but this raw, unadorned presence. Flesh and bone. Nothing more. Unexpectedly, happily, that turns out to be more than enough. A
Illustration by Stuart Bradford. This essay appeared in the November/December 2010 issue.