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Wedding ‘gastropolitics’ – what’s going on?

Wedding ‘gastropolitics’ – what’s going on? Posted on 19 December, 2016

Our trip to Hong Kong culminated at a relation’s wedding banquet, which spanned over two days at a 5-star hotel hosted by the groom’s side, to be continued at the bride’s hometown on mainland China for another two days. This relation is a younger cousin of mine, son of my mother’s brother, whom I have not interacted much in recent  years. By affiliation, the extended family has all been invited at the celebrations, hence the Mister and I too.

Weddings are occasions which can manifest plenty of ‘gastropolitics’, a term which I first encountered through Appadurai’s text (1981) on South Asian eating, especially on his comments on the marriage feast: what types of food are served, in which particular order, which guests are invited and how they are seated… it all matters. A familiar scene is enacted at Chinese wedding banquets, where the parents of the couple typically take charge and invite their own guests – a way to tell their social circle and family relations that their son or daughter is getting married – failure of which is considered a disgrace.

Just over the past two days, we were put through a series of family-related functions, which included plenty of eating around the table – I will spare the details on other wedding rituals such as tea-pouring in reciprocation for gold or money. But what happens when ‘blood’ relations, who are meant to be close but far from in reality, are arranged to sit together? They exchange a couple of pleasantries (or none), and spend the rest of the evening starring at their phones, exchanging whispers with their partners, or finding excuses to leave rather early –  sometimes as soon as halfway through. There’s little interaction between the guests, which as the Chinese saying sums up: 同枱食飯各自收, an idiom which literally says: people eating together at the same table will all end up with their own fate, implying that despite crossing paths in life, you are responsible for what you do in the end.

And if one is all ears, most comments about each other would go no further than complimenting how pretty one looks or how the food tastes, nothing deeper than superficial remarks, and often rather insincere. How does eating together help celebrate the happiness of a couple’s union, or complicate family relationships? Are we ready to challenge this ritual, or being too comfortable to spend our time at the table? Not least on the issue of food waste as plenty of leftovers are typically generated at Chinese wedding banquets due to the excessive provision – can we all play a part to mitigate this?