Web Exclusives: Letter from Hong Kong
a PAW web exclusive column by Ed Finn ’02 edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu

October 9, 2002

A plan, a man, a marriage
When friends start getting hitched, the left-behinds begin to wonder

It must be a shock for anyone to see their first college classmate get hitched, but seeing it happen in Taiwan made it all exceptionally strange for me.

Yes, it's true, I was honored to be a guest at the wedding of Thomas Tso '02, prodigal roommate of four years standing. He was duly wed (before my own unbelieving eyes) to Chia Yu Shen '01, the lovely lady who has stolen him away from a reflective life of Confucian bachelordom.

Needless to say, watching those two stroll down the aisle caused some introspection, but perhaps not as much as the wedding's fabulous surroundings.

I arrived in Taipei the day before the wedding. Thomas met me at the airport and installed me at his parents' home, where I was very generously put up for the weekend and fed delicious food to within an inch of my life. I spent that evening and the next day seeing Taipei with Thomas and other college friends who had also made the pilgrimage to witness the awful majesty of someone our age getting married.

After wandering the crowded outdoor markets, the museums, the temples, and the alleyways, it became clear to me that Taiwan is an island overflowing with a weird intensity. A determined bustle permeates all levels of the island's society, from the roadside vendors of fish and other slimy things to cab drivers who trust their lives to well-honed brakes and little Buddha statues on the dashboard. The streets are always packed with locals hurtling onwards on motorcycles, and it seems like every square foot of available real estate is somehow harnessed for commercial enterprise.

The cultural point was driven home to me by Thomas's father, a gregarious Captain of Industry who peppered every conversation with business advice — now when my chance comes to buy a factory in mainland China, I'll be ready. All this gave me new insight into where Thomas is coming from — how the most laid-back guy I know is still heading to Harvard in the fall for his J.D. and a master's in East Asian studies.

The sheer energy level of Taipei and its citizens made me really curious to see the wedding itself. The event was to be held at the Grand Hotel, arguably the city's most fabulous nuptial venue. Originally built as an official reception building for foreign dignitaries, the Grand Hotel only later opened its doors to the public. It towers over the city, an elaborate square pagoda structure with huge red ornaments at each corner encasing hundreds of rooms in a vast filigree of traditional Chinese architecture. Its hundreds of rooms spawn out above a cavernous lobby.

On the appointed day we proceeded into this fantastic ornamental maw and met up with Thomas, who was busily marshalling squadrons of friends and relations to go hither and yon as the wedding hour drew nigh. We were instructed to sit at the "college friends of the groom's side" table, which included three or four of Thomas's friends and a slew of his father's old university buddies.

At last, the guests had filed in, the musical prelude was over, and the wedding ceremony was about to begin. The bride and groom walked down the aisle, with attendant parents and retainers in hot pursuit, where they encountered a raised dais bracketed by floral arrangements and twin ice sculptures. The ceremony was all Chinese to me, but it seemed to lack heavy religious content, focusing instead on the legal declaration of marriage and the witnessing of documents. A few speeches later, it was official, and the assembled guests began digging into their first course with enthusiasm.

The first course was replaced with another and then more and as the plates whirled before me with dizzying rapidity, I realized that Thomas was providing my first bona fide 12-course meal. There was shark-fin soup, fabulous dumplings, delectable fish, and all manner of traditional Chinese delicacies. Over the course of the meal, Chia Yu reappeared in no fewer than four different dresses, each more fabulous than the last. As the meal wound down Thomas, Chia Yu, and their parents made the rounds, toasting each table in turn.

Hours later, the remains of the feast were being rapidly cleared away even as the last of the banqueters staggered out the doors. Thomas looked like a man overjoyed in spite of being run over by a bus. Everything had gone smoothly; in the morning he and Chia Yu would be flying to Japan for a week's honeymoon before settling into grad school life. Marriage! It was impossible to believe.

Well, suffice to say I'm not planning on getting hitched anytime soon, but my little visit to Taiwan certainly made me think. Maybe we can take the hectic velocity of downtown Taipei as reason enough for Thomas's accelerated life plan. To be honest, though, it's the fact that Thomas has a life plan at all that makes him seem a world away from me. As I learned that weekend, Thomas grew up in a family with a firm belief in goal-oriented planning, and that's exactly what he's pursuing (after horrifying them with his undergraduate pursuit of philosophy). While most of us are floundering around for a new purpose after countless years of directed education, Thomas has a plan.

We last saw Thomas in the Grand Hotel's imperial deco lobby, harried but complete, ready for the next stage in his — their — life. We remaining bachelors spent the following morning wandering the streets of Taipei, where the motorcycles zoomed and tilted with the same intensity as before. But now I wondered if they really knew where they were going, and what they hoped to find there. I'm still on the lookout for my own plan of business.

Write to Ed Finn ’02 at edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu