I haven’t mentioned my “girlfriend” in a long time. This is not only because I don’t like to talk about certain aspects of my private life here; it’s also because I’m not sure what to call her anymore. This is all due to the peculiar features of getting married in China.
You see, we are already legally married, but we have not yet had a “proper wedding.” To her and her family, that means a proper Chinese wedding banquet. To me and my family, that means a proper wedding in a Catholic church. All that will happen next year.
Furthermore, we are not living together. She still lives with her parents as before, and I live with my roommate Lenny. Our lives after becoming legally married remain almost exactly as they were when we were just “engaged.”
(So why did we get legally married so early? It’s largely to simplify the breaucratic headaches that arise from my nationality and her employer, and to save me from having to make another trip back to the States right before the wedding next year.)
I can call her my 老婆 in Chinese and this isn’t strange at all… Many Chinese couples here call each other 老婆 and 老公 long before they’re married (which really kind of annoys me for some reason). But calling her my wife–in English–feels wrong to me, because my whole life my idea of my “wife” has been the woman I spend the rest of my life with after we go through that sacred ceremony in church. And we haven’t done that yet.
In China, the wedding banquet has tremendous social significance for both families, but no legal standing. I know a Chinese couple who waited for years for the wedding banquet because they wanted to be legally married but couldn’t yet afford a nice reception. I also heard of a couple that had the wedding banquet but then split up and were never legally married in the first place. In the US, saying “I do” in a ceremony in front of a priest and other witnesses is a part of the legal process (in addition to the marriage registration).
So basically the feeling I get is that we’re taking that minute or so when the man and woman each say “I do” and the priest pronounces them husband and wife, and stretching it out to about a year. It’s a little strange, but I don’t think it’s all bad. Marriage is, after all, a big adjustment.
Update: Dan Washburn recently had a similar marriage experience.