This past Saturday we spent our evening as spectators at the wedding of our old landlady’s youngest son. Only it wasn’t a wedding – it was a live televised show, a product for viewer consumption.
We took a taxi to Versal, one of many giant wedding boxes scattered through Bishkek. We walked up the long granite steps, were ushered through the tall glass doors by doormen in red velvet vests – and stepped into a TV set.
The foyer was modeled after a [small] French palace. White mock-marble floors, curving staircases painted in white, a long table covered in a white tablecloth and pastel colored
macaroons in carved glass dishes (along with welcome drinks of Kyrgyz vodka). The grand doors into the banquet hall were white with swirling gold trim, fake gold leaf vases stocked with fake pink flowers, mirrors on every wall. Women sat on faux-silver chaises on the sides, judging each other’s dresses and nibbling on rose-colored macaroons. Men in perfectly patted suits stood around downing their first toasts of vodka and addressing each other in affected, self-important tones, hair slicked and shoulders thrown back. I first though I’d walked into a room full of politicians, but our hostess is a simple sixty-something Kyrgyz women of slight middle-class standing. The men – all of them – were cloaked in their own fragile importance, acting.
Inside those double doors two banks of tables flanked a gleaming white floor that shimmered under a giant fake chandelier and custom purple ceiling lights shaped like a lotus. On one end of the reception floor stood a elevated platform covered in lavender and plum drapery – the newlywed’s table. Across from them stood a performance platform backed by a giant screen awash in waves of fluorescent colors. A boom camera stood in the middle to capture every moment. Over each bank of tables perched a live screen two meters high and three meters across. Bright white lights lit up the room from every angle, eliminating every shadow, along with all warmth (my photos though oddly ended up a little dark). White. Silver. Purple. A shell of cold colors.
The tables groaned with food. Kyrgyz candies that I wouldn’t touch even after a twelve-hour journey (somehow Kyrgyz packaged sweets often manage to be both disastrously unhealthy and completely distasteful) stacked on high spindle glass bowls, mushroom salad frozen in mayonnaise, picture perfect chunks of golden grilled tough-as-leather chicken, boorcok ( Kyrgyz deep fried dough), an array of whitesweet pastry puffs, slices of smoked salmon and white fish (thankfully it’s hard to mess those up), a chicken salad drowning in cream sauce, unseasonable cucumbers and waxy tomatoes, and the requisite platter of horse sausages. Everything looked beautiful – vibrant, rich in color, perfectly placed. But like other weddings I’ve attended, almost every dish actually tasted awful. The gold-decorated wedding cookies tastes like sugar-caked sawdust cakes. Like the imitation gold leaf decour, the food was just for show, to be consumed by eyes and pictures (as the hungry photographers began roving among the tables taking shots of couples to sell back for 300 som).
The show proceeded. We watched the couple arrive in the wedding car and walk up the long stone steps. They entered the reception, a small skinny man who had the innocence of a college-aged youth and a slight plump Kyrgyz girl with her hair swept up in a perfect bow, face lost behind a mirror of makeup and buried somewhere between a giant western veil and fairy tale wedding dress, soullessly white.
The MC conducted them onto the floor, where they lined up as if to pose for a portrait. They posed on one side, facing the parents. At the MC’s urging, the parents went down the line each giving their blessings while the couple stood stiff, little girls in pink tulle playing with their fake flowers and a toddler in a tuxedo fidgeting with his lapels. The couple themselves barely moved as speeches were made, photographs shot, and a traditional headscarf placed over the bride’s head before they were moved up to their wedding platform.
The MC conducted the rest of the show, alternating between telling jokes with arms widespread as the boom camera followed him around the room, introducing music and dance acts, calling tables down to the floor where long lines of distance relatives gave different versions of the same well-wishes, and conducting the ‘lottery’ that seems to be a feature of Bishkek weddings. We were just spectators. I felt like we had stumbled into a game show, or a popular variety show where the audience is both viewer and viewed.
Each of us had a “lottery number” at our plate. After each act or round of well-wishes the MC would go around the room and have older aunts pick a number from a plate. His bob-haired attendent would then shimmer across the floor in her sequined gown to present the lucky winner with a prize taken from a table stacked with bazaar glassware – sugar bowels and serving dishes – in bright pink, yellow and green boxes.
To keep us entertained there were music and dance acts: one semi-famous Russian singer who looked nothing like her stylized music video playing on the back screen, two traditional Kyrgyz musicians singing to stringed instruments, a troupe of young Kyrgyz dancers, the same dancers doing Bollywood moves while wearing Thai headdresses (?), a pack of traditionally-dressed Korean-Kyrgyz girls who performed a drum set, and a team of Russian gymnasts that we didn’t stick around to see.
The whole performance followed a set protocol, with everything planned in sequence. Guest arrive and appraise, bride and groom walk in as everyone watches live footage on the screens, parents speak, the bride and groom sit , the MC speaks and the audience laughs, one table of twenty stands in a line and each offer similar congratulations, an entertainment piece is introduced, another table comes to the floor, the MC does a lottery round, the next table of relatives steps down, another entertainment piece comes up. Very little was said by the couple themselves – while celebrated, they were but observers.
The show also seemed to follow a set script, with almost each relative sticking to the same phrases. As the groom just returned from Moscow (where he had been working in a company for some six years) last month, none of them can be too currently familiar with him. And so I wondered: are these honest and spontaneous, or are these ritual sayings on a set script? Especially the older relatives must go to a wedding a month – and I wonder if they say the same words at all weddings? If their words chosen are reflective less of the individual couple and more of what is tried and expected.
Like a variety TV show, the focus seemed to be not on the personalities of the individual contestants as much as it was on the proceedings and the audience entertainment. It didn’t feel like an honest celebration authenticating their life together.
Last August we attended the wedding of E’s old friend (whom he hadn’t seen in 6 months; and yet there were few other friends there). The place was less posh (comparatively – it was still in a gold brocade-cloaked ballroom in the Golden Dragon Hotel), but there I witnessed the same ritual, the same sayings, the same over-the-top MC, the same beautiful-but-terrible wedding food (only a lot more horse meat), the same attention to perfection and presentation. A perfectly-executed wedding, a perfectly pretty bride in another cupcakecream ballgown.
And yet now he’s talking about divorce.
Which is not unusual – Kyrgyzstan has a regionally high divorce rate, even in (comparatively more conservative) rural communities.
What does this say about wedding culture (and changing social values) in Kyrgyzstan?
First, it would seem that there is great emphasis on show, but not necessarily on substance (like the food); there’s a need for glam, a need to exude power and wealth, to show happiness and prosperity. Everything needs to be white and light – and adhere to this streamlined magazine shoot idea of a wedding. There are either traditional rural weddings (shunned by those who have enough city money), or these scripted wedding shows held in the impersonalized spaces of banquet halls equipped with vaulted ceilings and fake chandeliers sparkling with a thousand cold lights. There is no in-between, at least not yet, at least not for the Kyrgyz. To be modern, to be middle class, there must be this show. (As a random sidenote, either our upstairs neighbor has opened a daycare in the past week, or their family suddenly has nine small sugar-fueled children stuffed into a two-bedroom apartment. Or their small sugar-fueled child pulled a Calvin&Hobbs and cloned himself. I guess this isn’t so unrelated – as we live in a modern [Korean] apartment complex, and yet some residents squeeze entire extended families into Seoul-sized apartments and roll out sleeping mats on the floor – under their fake chandeliers and LCD TVs – rather than rent a more sizable, but older, soviet flat)
This need to exude the trappings of middle class modernity is paired with a pressure to marry by a certain age and a culture that does not traditionally value marrying for compatibility. One must marry. One must put on this presence.
And yet, behind all this show, when the groom dropped off the invitation at E’s office last week, he asked about a job, for he is unemployed in Bishkek. He’s asking about a job that might pay $600-1000 a month (as Kyrgyz workers get paid less), and yet his family put on a wedding that exudes wealth.
I’m comparing these two weddings with one I attended in the summer of 2013, for a Uyghur-Uzbek friend and former colleague of E. Daniyar is still contentedly married, he and his wife joke comfortably, and cherish their blue-eyed baby. While Daniyar’s wedding to Malika was a weeklong affair (Part 1, Part 2), I doubt they flung out so much cash. This is because throughout the whole process their was full and intensive family involvement. Their two extended families were both participants and creators – and not observers or the entertained. Between all the house visits and extended family feasts (family here was 500 people), there was one wedding lunch at a local (Chinese…) restaurant. However, it wasn’t the same stiff affair. After lunch everyone started dancing (Uzbek grandmas swiveling their hips to ‘Gangnam Style’ along with more traditional fare), and friends took turns tossing the groom up into the air. People were immersed in the event. The great differences seem to be – the surrounded themselves with people who knew and supported them, their whole family was directly involved in the creation of this event, and they celebrated with rituals that had particular cultural or familiar significance to them, with rites that were comfortable and assuring. Another difference – the couple isn’t Kyrgyz, and thus I don’t think they feel the same cultural stress and obligation as urbanite Kyrgyz.
(also, apologies for all of the really bad photos on this post. I really need to go back to using an actual camera.)