My arms hurt. My neck hurts. My head is throbbing. My feet are aching and my back aches more.
I have a very specific kind of heartburn that comes from eating a lot of strange food that was prepared solely for the purpose of being as strange as possible.
I’m barely able to speak, left only with a deep, gravelly baritone thanks to all the shouting.
Getting married in Malaysia is hard work.
My friend Jin is now a married man and I like to think that it’s due – at least in part – to all the trials I had to endure over the course of one very, very long day.
His wedding day.
This was my first Chinese wedding, and definitely my first time being a part of a Chinese wedding. While most of the day was something that most of us would recognize, the morning was a time for traditions.
Jin had asked me to be one of his Heng Dai – brothers – a group of men the groom brings with him to the bride’s house to assist him in any way he might need. In many ancient cultures, it was customary to kidnap the bride; I’m not sure if that’s also true in this particular instance, but having a bunch of henchmen with you would seem like a good idea.
Today, most grooms need help passing a series of challenges set upon them by the Ji Muis, the sisters. This is the task that I (and several other friends) would be assisting with.
I had researched ahead of time to see just what was in store. Eating foods that are particularly salty, sweet, sour, or spicy. Having to sing and/or dance embarrassingly. Maybe having a heart waxed in your leg hair. This all seemed pretty okay to me.
To even be considered to be allowed through the front gate, we were asked to perform a dance. This is the “heng dai shenanigans” I referred to in my last post. Jin had found out ahead of time that they would ask us to dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, which goes more or less like this:
In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must disclose that the above is, of course, not us dancing.
There is a video somewhere of us performing the dance, but I swore an oath to never let it see the light of day. Especially the part where one of us accidentally kicks over a trash can.
Because of the trash can incident, we (Jin) had to pay a penalty in the form of a red envelope full of money.
Fortunately he had a lot of envelopes.
Next we were each given a wedge of lemon and told to start eating.
Man, I thought. We’re getting off easy! The Malaysians in the group made faces, but for the rest of us it was cake.
After some more deliberation on the part of the Ji Muis, the gate was open and we were let in.
Wow, that was fast. Maybe they came up with things that would be gross for locals to eat, like lemons and twinkies or something, we thought. I couldn’t believe it was over.
Next, we were told to line up, with Jin sitting at one end, next to a pile of balloons. The Ji Muis brought out a plate with a bunch of hearts cut out of dried seaweed. Our assignment was this: pass the hearts all the way down to Jin, using only your lips. Then Jin will put a balloon on his lap and you must pop it. By sitting on it.
We all looked to our left and our right, at our neighbors who were about to become much better friends very quickly.
So we passed, and passed, and each one of us had a turn passing the seaweed heart to Jin’s lips, and then plopping down on his lap to pop the balloon. It was awkward for all of us, but none so much as for Jin, who got pretty much a full-on mouth kiss from everyone, protected only by a millimeter or so of seaweed.
Remember, I thought as I grabbed Jin’s face to deposit another heart. You wanted this.
Eventually we ran out of hearts, but we’d dropped one, and that meant another penalty and another red envelope full of money. This was going to get expensive at this rate.
Fortunately, we were moving on to eating weird stuff.
A plate of four rice rolls was brought out, totally innocuous, we were assured. Four of the Heng Dais were chosen “at random” and told to eat one each, in one bite. I should mention that these were huge, and even if they were just rice, they’d be nearly impossible to fit in your mouth, much less keep it there.
Three did just fine, even when the salty/sour/sweet/spicy surprise was found. The fourth couldn’t eat it all in one bite, so naturally we were penalized again.
I didn’t get chosen for the eating – fine by me – so when the next challenge came up I jumped right in. We had to complete a set of yoga poses to move forward. One of the Ji Muis held up a picture of two people seated across from each other, holding hands, with their feet up in the air touching so that they made what resembled the letter ‘A’.
“Easy,” I said. “Who’s with me?”
I was already seated on the ground when somebody finally stepped forward. We grabbed hands, and pushed our feet together and up until we were more or less doing the pose.
“Okay, good enough, now do this one.” The Ji Mui flipped the picture over and now the duo each had one hand behind their head. My partner and I looked at each other, knowing what was about to happen, and let go to put our hands back.
We both rolled to one side and fell over.
“Fail! You must pay the penalty now.” Oh no, more envelopes. “Ten pushups.”
One of the other Heng Dais stepped forward and did the pushups. “Okay, next one,” we said.
“You still haven’t finished this one!”
And so we tried again and again, two Heng Dais failing the yoga pose and a third doing pushups (I even did ten, that was the level of our desperation) until finally two guys got very, very close and we seized on it and wouldn’t let go.
“That’s it! That’s the pose! Let us do the next one!”
“I am a yoga instructor and that is not the pose. More pushups.” A freakin’ yoga instructor, are you kidding me?
“HOW CAN THAT NOT BE THE POSE? THEY TOOK THIS PICTURE, OF THEM, DOING THIS POSE! This is the same picture. They just photoshopped different faces on!”
Admittedly, that last argument was ridiculous, but they did finally let us move on. Two more ridiculous poses that ended up being easy by comparison.
And then came the mystery drinks.
We were handed a large die, on each side said a different flavor: Salty, Sweet, Sour, Spicy, Bitter, and It’s Your Lucky Day. On a table, eighteen cups were set out, what must have been three of each flavor.
In turn, each of us rolled the die. I went third and got bitter. It wasn’t too bad, and even had a sprig of mint as a chaser.
The last Heng Dai rolled, and got spicy. Nobody had rolled It’s Your Lucky Day. We all sighed a sigh of relief, because we sure didn’t want to find out what that concoction was. Then the die was handed back to the first persion.
“Wait, we all went! That’s it. No more.”
Looks like we’re finishing these drinks after all. The first two rolls came up It’s Your Lucky Day and I felt very badly (yet somehow still grateful) that I wasn’t them. They both choked it down, whatever it was. It looked like yogurt but smelled like durian.
We found out later that it was bleu cheese and creamy durian. Gross.
The rest of us worked our way through another round of drinks (I got sour the second time and gladly drank some very sour lemonade) and moved on to the next challenge: melting stuff with our bodies.
The gate on the front door had a lock on it, and several keys were frozen in a block of ice. We had to melt the ice to find the right key; breaking it would incur a huge penalty (80 red envelopes!), and we weren’t allowed to use water.
By now it was unbelievably hot, so this wasn’t too bad. We took turns holding and rubbing the ice block, slowly melting it away. As our hands got too cold to use anymore, we handed the block on to the next couple guys and cooled ourselves off using our frozen hands. Slowly, we finally freed a key and tried it in the lock.
Mercifully, it worked.
The rest of the morning was up to Jin. He had a number of his own challenges to do, and we all tagged along, cheering him on and staying as far away as possible from the guys who had to eat the durian yogurt. Eventually, the bride said “okay” and Jin (and his entourage) were let in, cheering and hollering.
Later, I asked an auntie at what point they would traditionally be considered married. She replied that they were married as soon as she agreed to go home with him after the “games”. So right then, at that moment, according to tradition, they were husband and wife. Cool.
From here we moved on to tea ceremonies for their families, and in the evening, a more Western ceremony and reception with at least 300 people in attendance. Our responsibilities as Heng Dais by that point were to give speeches and toast the bride and groom by shouting “yam seng” – basically “drink to success” – as loud as possible for as long as possible before shotgunning whatever drink you were holding. I lost my ability to talk (and mostly stand) by around the seventh Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam Seng!!!!! Jin’s dad made at least one stop at every table, as did the bride and groom, so they were all pretty plastered by the end. Thirty tables of yam seng will do that to you.
Towards the end of the evening, Jin’s Malaysian Heng Dais came by and thanked us for coming, especially because the Ji Muis took it easy on us Americans.
Easy!? Didn’t feel that way to me. Worth it? Absolutely. That was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
A very special thanks is in order to Erica Vang, who was very kind to share her fantastic photographs of the “games” with me (and you)! These photos are all hers, and are used here with her permission. Thanks, Erica!