The following is the last of 4 guest posts on China by Lei Zhao, who continues to contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures time and time again.
Lei Zhao and I have been close friends since 7th grade of middle school. Saying that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. And he’s probably one of the most gifted artists and smartest human beings I have ever known.
Here is his story.
What’s better than getting married to my sweetheart once? Doing it a second time, in China, and according to the traditions of my people, a minority tribe called the Bai that live in Dali, Yunnan. Calvin asked me to contribute this piece as a unique travel experience.
Though you readers probably won’t be able to experience this exact trip as I’m about to describe it, there are lessons for all travelers within that we can all bear to contemplate, because shortly after the wedding, my wife developed acute appendicitis and had to get emergency surgery in Dali. Also, if you’re ever invited to participate in a local ritual of any kind, anywhere, I say take it, even if you feel uncomfortable intruding. The experience will be well worth it. Seeing the sights and the places is one thing; you don’t scratch the surface of where you’re traveling until you truly develop an appreciation for the way people live.
In Bai tradition, the process of getting married is rather involved. First off, the groom or bride of Bai descent has the duty of visiting the local temple, reporting the marriage to the local gods, and making offerings to secure their blessing. Bai villages each have their own local temple and local god, generally a revered ancestor who accomplished greatness in life. Outside each temple is a temple tree, which symbolizes the vitality of the village. It is a bad omen if your village tree dies or gets sick. I spent the better part of 3 hours on the day before the wedding kowtowing and burning incense to the ancestral gods, along with my father and a village elder who recited blessings.
The night before the wedding, the bride and groom are not allowed to sleep together, but neither can sleep alone, meaning one of your bridesmaids or groomsmen will spend the night with you. That news was broken to me about 4 hours before bedtime.
The next morning, I woke up to a drenching rain. The plans we’d made were for me to pull my wife on a rickshaw around the village in accordance with custom. So, while the family hastily made alternate arrangements for a car, we played the waiting game. And we played it for a long time. A very long time. We finally got under way, more than 4 hours late, starting with me bowing to my parents and to the gods. Then, our entourage started making its way down to where my wife was staying. Along the way, two musicians playing the traditional Chinese suona, a trumpet-like instrument with a piercing and nasal pitch, accompanied us. Not surprisingly, we drew plenty of long glances from onlookers in the village.
As we were walking to the my wife’s erstwhile domicile, I was informed (in the theme of not letting me know about things until just before they happen) that I would be required to sing to be allowed into the place.
In these traditional weddings, the bride’s family puts the groom through the wringer in order to test his worthiness. In addition to singing (I chose Bob Marley’s “Is this Love?”), I had to hand over some red envelopes with cash as a payment to the gatekeepers to let me in. I was given a handful of coins to toss over the wall of the courtyard, too.
Once inside, the groom’s party is invited to drink two teas, one sweet and one bitter, to be symbolic of life’s ups and downs. We were then treated to a ceremonial meal, which was to provide me with the strength to carry my wife down from her room on my back!
We got into our bridal caravan afterwards and cruised around town, with the musicians playing along the way. Once we got back to my family’s house, we completed a few more ritual kowtow, and then entered the bridal chamber where we exchanged drinks with arms locked, thus signifying our union. We had a delicious banquet reception to top it all off.
That was the fun part. Throughout the few days leading up to the ceremony, my wife had been complaining of chronic stomach pain, which she suspected might be appendicitis. We had originally planned to go to Thailand for a few days, but opted instead to consult with a doctor while we were in Dali. We actually called up Calvin, owner of this fine blog, to consult with him and get his medical opinion.
Chinese hospitals, especially those in provincial cities, are not at all what you’re used to in the States.
First off, if you don’t have connections to the hospital (which we were lucky enough to have), you have no choice but to sit and wait for who knows how long to see a doctor. The cleanliness standards are also, shall we say, not like those of the hyper-sanitized U.S. of A. Men are smoking cigarettes in the hallways of the wards, stains are visible on the walls, and there are no Western style toilets. Furthermore, no meals are provided while you’re in hospital, based on the assumption that you will have family looking after you and bringing you meals.
The kicker was that the IV bags didn’t have monitors on them, so you’d have to keep vigil and page a nurse when the bag runs low, otherwise your loved one will get air bubbles in their blood.
It’s a good thing my wife opted to consult a doctor before we headed out for Thailand. An ultrasound revealed a very swollen appendix, and the doctor rushed her into emergency surgery. We were lucky that the appendix hadn’t already burst, and the procedure was an easy and straightforward one. Recovery time was a full 5 days.
My wife is fine now, thank goodness! But I am grateful she was the one who advocated for purchasing travel insurance for the trip. Had we not done so, we would’ve had to fork over a few thousand dollars to cover medical expenses, not even including the money lost on bookings we had no choice but to cancel at the very last minute.
I would strongly encourage you adventurers out there to consider purchasing travel insurance for your next trip, especially if it’s a long one, and if it is to a remote and isolated region of the world. The Chinese have a saying: “不管一万，只管万一。”, (bu guan yi wan, zhi guan wan yi), which roughly translates to “Don’t worry so much about spending $10,000, worry instead about the possibility of something going wrong.” Better safe than sorry.
There is a plethora of providers out there, and they are affordable. For the two of us, travel insurance for one month cost $200 through Global Alert. This policy covered all medical procedures up to $1 million, including emergency airlift, as well as reimbursement for cancellations due to medical emergencies.
Take my word for it, as a person who has survived a car crashing into me and breaking my femur, and this, you’re young but you’re far from invulnerable. Don’t play games with your own life while you’re out there trekking the world.
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