In the morning, we were both excited for our big day. We’d got good directions for the registry office in Chengdu and we ploughed through a great Western style breakfast in the Kempinski without really stopping to taste it. My wife may be Chinese but unlike many of her country folk she’s in full agreement that sausage, egg and toast beats congee and noodles any day of the week.
Then it was off to the registry office, we jumped in a taxi and set off for the back streets of Chengdu. It was only five minutes from the hotel and when we arrived, I wasn’t overly impressed. The office is in a grim, communist style building with all the warmth and joy of a morgue. Inside there were two or three other couples waiting to get hitched as well. One of the strange things about weddings in China is that absolutely no-one attends the ceremony apart from the bride and groom, so there were no joyous parties of well-wishers just nervous pairs of people sitting and waiting.
I was also, as my wife had made quite clear that morning, completely over dressed for getting hitched here. I was the only person in a suit, which had seemed the appropriate choice and everyone else was in jeans and t-shirts. I would be receiving a lecture on my fashion faux pas at some length later that evening but for now Zhang Min was as excited and nervous as I was and we both waited quietly on a bench next to everyone else.
Looking around it was clear that despite the surroundings, somebody had once tried to spruce up the interior for the occasion but now the wedding hangings were clearly 20 years old or more and covered in dust and cobwebs.
You have to admire Chinese efficiency and as the whole process takes about 5 minutes, unless you have an idiot laowai in tow we were into the marriage office very quickly. And then it all began to go wrong.
The usual process is that you arrive, have your photograph taken together (for the marriage certificates) and then go fill in the paperwork. Because I was foreign however the office wanted to check out our paperwork before they’d let us have our photos taken.
The smiling and extraordinarily helpful lady behind the counter reviewed my papers first, and she announced happily that my papers were just fine and could they just check my bride’s to make sure?
Then disaster struck, a quick glance through Zhang Min’s stuff and there was a lot of head shaking and then an apology that we couldn’t in fact get married today. I don’t mind telling you that I went through a state of inner panic – while the wedding itself was going to be cheap and cheerful the preparations surely were not and if you don’t get married within a couple of months of doing the whole notary thing – you have to start again.
What was wrong? Well it turns out that though Zhang Min had brought her National ID and her divorce papers, she hadn’t her ID updated to reflect the divorce. My heart sank, I was expecting the rectification to take days or even weeks and we hadn’t got the time. The evening before, we’d had a phone call from Zhang Min’s father – her mother was in hospital and he could only stay with her a couple of days before he had to get back to their farm to make sure it kept running. This meant Zhang Min needed to return to her home city, a smaller Tier 3 place about 4 hours from Chengdu, to look after her. So we’d already had to cancel plans for a honeymoon, but did this mean that we also weren’t going to get married.
The nice lady in the registry office urgently explained that this wasn’t any reason to panic, I think she must have seen my eyes start swimming with anxiety. All my wife had to do was go back to her hometown, go into the police station and get it changed and this could be done today.
So with sinking heart we left the registry office, took a cab to Starbucks where I was left outside sipping coffee alone as my wife jumped in a shared taxi and headed back to her hometown…