Felix smiled at Mei. The young Asian woman's face remained impassive, but her fiancées grin finally brought a sly smirk to it which in turn helped eased his own nervousness. It wasn't every day that he asked a woman's parents for their permission to marry their daughter.
Felix saw that their glances did not go unnoticed. Mei's father Lei, glared at the pair. Lei was a small man, with a thin impassive face, framed with grey hair; a stark contrast to his own tall build. Despite his small stature Felix felt dwarfed by the man.
Felix flinched from his stare and turned his attention to Mei's mother Jing instead. Jing was a short plump woman, with a wrinkled face and an oddly disturbing perpetual smile. Felix wondered in jest if his beautiful Mei would end up looking like her. It didn't matter though, his love for her was more than just based on appearances. Besides, Mei's parents grew up in China , while Mei grew up in North America. The differences in diet and could already be seen in their daughter , who towered above her parents.
"So you wish to marry our daughter? ", began Mei's father .
Felix breathed deeply and nodded. The interrogation was about to begin. Thankfully it would be in English, since his Cantonese was horrendous, and Mei's family's native tongue was Mandarin.
"Do you observe our honored Chinese holidays and traditions?"
Felix's paused and felt unsure how to answer. Though he was Chinese, his family had been in America for over a century. Despite his racial heritage, his family practiced few Chinese customs, but he tried to recall the ones he knew. There was of course Chinese New Years, spring grave sweeping and its counterpart autumn grave sweeping. He recalled something about a celebration involving tasty sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and another involving calorie tipping moon cakes, but could not remember their exact name or significance. Felix simply nodded his head to Mei's father's question and hoped that he would not have to elaborate.
Having answered the most difficult question in his mind, Felix felt more confident as more simple and mild questions were then asked.
"Do you have a degree?"
"I have an Engineering degree as well as professional certification."
"Felix. That isn't a Chinese name is it?" asked Lei.
"No sir. My family has been in Canada since the head tax" replied Felix. " When in Rome , do as the Romans do " he added with a smile. Mei chuckled at his small joke but was silenced by her mother's Jing disapproving eyes.
"How many siblings do you have, and what do they do?"
"One sister, she's a graphic designer."
"Do you have life insurance? Term or whole?"
"Yes and whole."
"Do you regularly contribute to investment funds, RRSPs, TSFAs?"
"No , yes, and yes."
"Do you own or rent?"
The questions about his financial stability, background and character continued to be directed his way. Felix thought most of his answers were good or at least passable and hoped the grilling would end.
"Your last name is Wong is it? "
"Yes sir, " replied Felix cautiously sensing a change in the direction of questions. Wong was a fairly common Chinese last name and he couldn't see the significance in asking it. Though the other questions were trivial as well, at least he could understand her parent's concern about them. He did not see the reasoning behind asking it, save perhaps that Mei's parents were running out of questions.
Felix looked at both of Mei's parents. The questions had indeed stopped, and Felix hoped that was the end of that. He had already made a dinner reservation in China Town and hoped to disrupt any remaining doubts they had of him there. He enjoyed eating at Chinese restaurants, especially with Mei as his guide. As long as she ordered something from the English menu like sweet and sour chicken balls or ginger beef, not anything weird like hundred year old duck eggs, pickled jelly fish, or his personal nemesis bird's nest soup. He was ashamed to admit it, but he was as gwei loo at heart.
Just as Felix was about to suggest leaving for the restaurant, Lei had one final unexpected question.
"Do you believe in …incest?" he asked sternly , with his impassive face.
"Excuse me. I heard that wrong ", he asked. He thought he heard him asking about incest, but that could not be the case.
"Do you believe in …incest? " Lei asked again.
Felix blinked in confusion. He looked at Mei who also gave puzzled looks to both her father and mother.
"No..of course not," stated Felix. For a second he wondered if there was some relationship between Mei and himself that he was not aware of , but he quickly dispelled the notion. His family came to Canada from southern China, specifically Hong Kong. The area was ceded to Britian as a colony in the 19th century, while Mei's family came from the north. There could be no possible bloodline connection between him and his fiancée.
Lei sighed and leaned back in his chair. "During World War 2 , when the Japanese occupied large strips of China, it was a time of great poverty and suffering, " began the old man.
Felix did not see what the great war had to do with incest or his marriage with Mei, but attempted to appear interested in the story. He knew that many Chinese that lived through the horror of the war , bore grudges to the Japanese but did not see how this would relate to him.
"Many children died from malnutrition and disease, and even more were stillborn due to the conditions they were in. In my village, my brother was stillborn and it cause my mother great grief. Not only because she lost her child, but it is our belief that my departed brother would spend eternity alone."
Felix felt goose bumps, and wondered if this was some ghost story or fable meant to serve as a cautionary tale of some sort. Despite their difference in culture, it seemed highly inappropriate to him that Mei's parents would discuss a stillborn baby on a day such as today.
"As fate would have it, another family in a neighboring village was also struck by similar circumstances. This was not seen as a mutual tragedy however, but seen as a blessing."
Felix was really confused now. He looked at Mei and saw she had no idea what her father was talking about as well. One stillborn baby was bad enough , and he wondered how two was seen as a blessing.
"Although not universally practiced, many follow the tradition that to ease and comfort a family's pain in such an event, it was customary to have a wedding for these two departed children so they could have company in heaven. Though the family in the neighboring village was mostly unknown to my family , a marriage was arranged between the dead ."
Felix felt a chill. Perhaps this was a ghost story after all, why else would someone mention something as morbid as a dead baby marriage at this time. He knew people needed some form of solace or outlet when children died, often it was the form of teddy bear memorials or something of that sort, but the thought of marrying dead fetuses together seemed over the top.
"I was young back then and recalled little. The marriage was simple, and was like a typical wedding save for the size and scope of it," continued Lei.
Also the fact that the bride and groom were dead babies, thought Felix as he still cringed from the thought.
"Though we knew little of the bride's family , we pledged our eternal friendship and loyalty to them. Unfortunately for all of us, the Japanese offensive at the time scattered their village and like many people those days, we lost track of each other."
Lei paused and Felix nodded while hoping that it was the end of the story. He wasn't sure what the point of this story was but guessed it was some sort of cultural thing to spook the groom with a strange tale of the past. Felix wondered if he had to tell one of his own. He didn't have anything prepared but he could tell the story of how his father won the county tractor pull, that was a good story but not as bizarre as the dead baby marriage story.
Mei's mother broke the silence, as Lei stopped. Felix noted that she had spoken very little since the beginning of the interrogation. "The bride's family name was Wong, just like yours. Since we do not know the fate of our neighbors, we cannot take the chance that multiple marriages would occur between our families. That's …that's incest," she declared.
Felix could not believe his ears, but one glance at Mei's parents , he could tell that they were serious.
"But..but….you can't hold this against me. This is ridiculous," pleaded Felix in confusion but Lei ignored him and shook his head.
"Our decision is final. We will not disgrace our ancestors by ignoring this glaring blot on your union," stated Lei. "We forbid Mei and yourself from marrying."
With that , both Lei and Jing rose abruptly and left the room. Mei followed to argue her case with them, but the pair met her vocal protests with silence.
Felix sat in the room , his world was shattered. The parents of the woman he loved had outright rejected him over a ridiculous medieval tradition.
Wong was one of the most common surnames amongst Chinese, and he could not believe that Mei's family could draw a relationship between himself and Lei's dead brother's bride; especially since his family was in Canada since the late 19th century building the railroad. He felt outrage and confusion at this rejection. It seemed ludicrous to think that in the 21st century people who lived in Canada would still abide by such a foreign concept. If you lived in Canada , you adopted Canadian traditions right? It might be ok to bring some of your own beliefs and merge them with North American ones, but some traditions should be left in the past and in the old world. If the old ways and the old country were so good, why did they come here? Even if such a strange custom was followed, would Lei's brother want his niece to be troubled by his marriage? Or maybe this was just something they made up to reject him.
Felix sat stunned with his thoughts for almost an hour. He guessed Mei's parents expected him to leave, but he guessed they were too polite to directly ask him. He would have left himself but he felt too drained from the ordeal and humiliation he had just been through. He could hear Mei from the other room. He had seldom heard her raise her voice so loud, and felt a bit of pride at her fighting to change her parent's minds. It seemed like he should be in that room yelling , but he knew it would just make matters worse.
Felix wasn't sure what to do at this point. He loved Mei and wouldn't know how to continue his life without her. If he had fallen in love with a more western girl, they could ignore her parent's wishes, but he wasn't sure if traditional minded Mei could make that sacrifice. Honoring your parent's wishes was a big thing amongst most Chinese.
Finally Mei stormed into the room and sat next to Felix. He saw tears streaming down her face, but she wiped them off, and attempted to compose herself . Mei forcefully grabbed his hand and stared into his eyes. After suffering the last sucker punch and the emotional roller coaster in its wake, Felix was not sure what to expect.
"Elope?" she asked timidly.
Felix grinned and nodded at his fiancée.