I’ve co-taught a class about U.S. culture this semester; recently, I gave a lesson about weddings. At the beginning of the lecture, I gave a disclaimer that I haven’t been to many weddings in the U.S. – in fact, I’ve seen more Kyrgyz wedding ceremonies than American ones. They were stunned; my students say they attend 3 or 4 weddings a month (even more in the fall, when weddings are popular because food is cheap and people are riding on a wave of cash from harvest season).
The other night, my site-mate Nicole invited me to her student’s wedding. It was one of those last minute things, where it probably would have been fine to decline the invitation – but where’s the fun in that? Nicole’s department head, Nurbek Agai, picked us up from her house and together with her counterpart, Kamardin, and another teacher in her department, we set out for the Chyngyzkhan restaurant. Restaurant doesn’t quite describe the buildings where wedding receptions take place… Sometimes called a “toikhana,” or “party place,” there are massive reception halls all over the country that basically have one function: host weddings. They all look kind of similar; tons of round tables, bright lights, a shiny dais with a big table, and ceiling decorations in the shape of a tunduk (you can see it in the first picture below; it’s the design of the piece of the yurt that sits on top).
Weddings here are huge – 400 guests is normal, 200 guests is on the light side. When I told my students it’s not weird if there are only 80 or 100 guests at an American wedding, that that’s actually more normal, they were concerned about American wedding parties being boring. That’s probably not true (I wouldn’t know), but Kyrgyz weddings are quite a hoot.
When you show up to the party, the table is already set with piles of bread and borsook (fried dough nuggets), salads, fruit plates, and candy. After snacking a little and listening to some speeches from the bride and grooms’ families, the celebration bounces between rounds of heavy eating (first course: sheep broth, second course: meat, third course: meat, fourth course: plov) and dancing. They turn all the lights off for dancing, but it’s not too dark – a super bright light from the official photographer’s videocamera blinds the dance circle it’s documenting. While people eat, there are games and speeches – at every wedding I’ve been to, I’ve had to give a speech in Kyrgyz (despite never having met any of the people getting married). The speech goes the same way every time:, wishing the couple happiness, a long life, and many children.
The games sort of resemble those played at American weddings (I think). My favorite one gets all the jenges, the wives of brothers and uncles in the couple’s families, to dance for money or run around the reception hall begging tables for money. The jenges get to keep the cash, and the one who collects the most money gets an additional prize.
At this week’s wedding, I witnessed a game I had never seen before. One man (don’t know who, probably the groom’s dad?) was deemed the “Sultan,” and four women (don’t know who, probably relatives of the bride?) were tasked with seducing him. They had 30 seconds to do whatever it took to capture the Sultan’s heart. The pictures below show the four contestants in various degrees of successful seduction:
This last lady won (obviously), buuuuuut her husband stormed the stage and demanded she sit back down at her table. Oops. But, I admire her dedication to the game.
I’ve been here seven months and seen four weddings; at that rate, I’ll attend the equivalent of a lifetime of American weddings in just two years. Here’s to hoping all of them are as fun as Akjol and Apal’s wedding.