Awkward Lavender

Trapped in a wedding photo – by Jesse Field


"Looking at the flowers” – kan hua'r – was what I was told we'd be doing Saturday afternoon, in a field of lavender up in Huairou, north of Beijing. My newly installed "second year in China" mentality in place, I felt surprise without any real anticipation. I was ready to be jaded. In a sedan with two of YK's friends – a boy and girl his age, Li Ning and Yang Yang, silly in love with each other – I didn’t attempt to make conversation, though I followed theirs well enough, and answered cheerfully any questions they asked. I've learned that coming on strong only makes young Beijingers more nervous when they meet a foreigner. The two of them seemed nice but unremarkable, so I kept to my book.

YK uniquely combined backseat driving (Oh, let's do drive faster! You can pass there! Go on through! Look at that, a construction vehicle is going faster than us. Come on! come on!), sassiness (To Yang Yang: Here, hand me your make-up and the swab. YY: Uhm, why? YK: I'm looking too dark. I need to lay down lightening foundation. YY: Are you a boy or a girl? YK: Whatever you want me to be, babe), and just plain whininess (This is taking so long! Why do you have coca cola in the back seat? The right hand side is getting too much sun! I'm uncomfortable! I'm feeling a little nauseous!). This annoyed, then amused, the three of us by turns. Which only brought us closer together.

Out at the lavender field, YK griped, full of the disappointment I was feeling but holding in. It was only a couple of acres, and quite pretty in its own way, but already a hundred or so people were mulling around the grounds – all in bright wedding costumes and fully made-up, and most trailed by professional photographers who cooed at them in the soft, indulgent imperatives of that profession. “Ok, ok, yessss. Now, pretty lady, get a little closer to your beau, right. Ah! Good shot! Now crouch down lower. Tilt your face towards me. Nope, too far! Back the other way! Tilt again! Back! Yesssss, there! And now..."

There was one of these groups every few yards, and the field was scattered with props for the occasion – a fake white piano, a platform set up like a bridal bed with swishy sections of silk, a set of big white letters set up on metal frames, LOVE, like the HOLLYWOOD sign in LA. I felt awkward trailing the young couple, who had obviously come here as part of a very serious date indeed – among the newlyweds, the smaller number of engaged couples wore less formal costumes. Yang Yang had made wreaths of flowers, and matching felt shoes in the shape of cute dogs for her and her beau. She and Li Ning had brought a Canon SLR, and took pictures in the field for the next two hours.

I tried to make the best of it by wandering off on my own, observing the various lovers, and found a little farmhouse and garden at the north end of the property. At the farmhouse, red peppers dried in the sun, enormous winter melons hung off the vine, and a small coop of chickens clucked quietly. Turning my head back towards the lavender field, I realised that this was a bee-keeping operation. The bees were the people. At some 20 or 30 yuan per car, I would guess, they were a honey-sweet cash crop for this tiny farm. It all made sense, and I was glad to have seen it.

After some time I heard the unique sound of the name "Jesse" as pronounced by YK. Oddly enough, it reminds me most of the way my Grandma used to say it, her Gulf-coast Mississippi accent pushing the middle "e" towards a long "a." But Grandma always put the word at the end of sentences. "My favourite grandson has always been my little Jesse." For YK, it is a call to attention. "Jesse! Jayssee! What are you doing? Come on!" "Oh hi, I was just ... thinking." He frowned, hurt. He knows perfectly well that I've grown cooler towards him, that I'm mulling over my situation, and that I'm likely to leave him any day. "I was afraid you'd be bored, so I came over here to take pictures with you. Get your camera out." The Audrey-Hepburn pushiness that was once so alluring now angers. "I was fine, really. It's taking pictures that makes me bored."

That came off too harsh. I don't want to fight with him. I take his hand, and we take some pictures, mostly of him in various poses, looking at the lavender, smelling the lavender, laying in the lavender, and of course jumping straight up out of the lavender with arms in the air like some kind of ad for soap. I've long since become adept at capturing the form of leaping Chinese boy in my shutter. "Am I handsome?" "I'm hot, right? I think I'm hot." I wondered if any of the couples and photographers all around, who only seemed to notice us to ask us to move out of their frames, ever thought that we two might be a couple with as much history and intimacy – likely more – than any of the brides and grooms stomping around in formal wear, in bright, unfortunate colours.

Jesse Field lives in the hutongs and teaches at Peking University Associated High School