Today I dusted off the old heels (quite literally since the last time I wore them was Halloween and I had to pull strings of cobweb decorations off them) and went to my first Korean wedding!
It was an item on my checklist that I truly didn’t think I’d get to cross off (after all, who, in a mere year or two, 1) encounters a domestic countryman/woman getting married, and 2) becomes such quick bosom buddies that they feel you deserve a place at the celebration of their nuptial bliss?). However, here I am, 2 and a half months later and just returned from satisfyingly striking off that very bucketlist item!
Korean weddings are, however, (and as is to be expected), very different. What makes them feel especially foreign though isn’t their differences but rather the similarities that are ever-so-skewed from Western traditions. But I’ll go through it systematically.
1) Korean weddings are not planned anywhere near the extravagant (dare I say overindulgent?) extent of Western weddings. Case in point: about two weeks ago, I received the invitation to come, translated to me by my co-teacher. None of this months-in-advance business; none of this meat/vegetarian/vegan meal choices business; none of this +1 find-a-date business. I wrote this off as the nationally understood tradition to do things last minute (which, while some find frustrating, I find kind of refreshing; makes for a very spontaneous way of life just going about things in a moment-to-moment basis).
2) Koreans don’t do wedding presents – instead they give envelopes with money to help pay for the expenses of the wedding. Depending if you’re close or not (aka family or not), you give less or more. For coworkers, we gave about 30, 000W – or a bit less than $30. Yesterday they handed out the envelopes at school to everyone attending (they made the effort to write my name in English! So sweet), to be collected at the ceremony hall today.
Again, this last minute-ness was very much along the lines of Korean culture, although I was starting to get a feel that weddings here are a lot different than home. Which leads me to my next point –
3) Korean weddings are extremely casual. This was probably the most apparent and bizarre difference for me. When asking what my coworkers were going to wear, they said,
“Oh, a skirt, maybe a nice top. Or a sweater. A coat. Something like this,” they added, with a gesture at their work clothes: pressed pants, fuzzy striped turtleneck, black peacoat.
Aha, I thought. Well that’s good, because I don’t have anything fancy!
I have a natural talent at overdressing, so this time I was going to make sure to keep it caj; black high waisted skirt from my Indigo days (my job before Korea), a long sleeve cream shirt (no cleavage of course, don’t worry, Korea!), and black line-up-the-back stockings. Fairly standard. I threw on some red lipstick and faux-pearl earrings just to keep it classy. The outfit was going to be hid underneath my green felt coat anyway.
Was picked up by my coworkers and immediately realized I’d once again shown my superstar powers of overdressing. Mostly the lipstick and the hair, though the latter was nothing more than a bun with the ends tucked in (picture a 2-minute cheat version of a french twist, but with only a hair elastic and 3 bobby pins). Alas, at least better to be overdressed than underdressed.
On the way to the ceremony I asked my coworkers about the nitty-gritty of weddings. In a primarily Confucianist/Buddhist culture, who officiates the union? Is it a state ceremony? Does religion enter into it, and of so how much?
The answer was very sweet and unexpected. While the ceremony can be conducted by a religious figure if the couple follows a particular religion, usually it’s done by a close friend of the couple or one who had an impact on their lives. As such, the wedding is more focused on being a gathering of family and friends than it is as an official ceremony. Later (or before), the couple goes to the city office to sign a contract and that’s the part wherein the legal husband/wife bonding comes to be, but no witnesses are needed. So when they have the wedding itself, it’s a purely symbolic union meant to celebrate the couple’s decision to commit themselves to each other.
Veering away from the sweetness though and back on the topic of the casual, we parked in the underground of the wedding hall and went to take the elevator up where the floors were listed as – and I shit you not:
1. Children’s Wear
2. Women’s Wear
3. Men’s Wear
4. Fashion goods
6. Food Zone
Coming from a culture where not only must you rent out an entire hall for you and you alone (god forbid another bride is within range to step on the train of your dress come your special day!), but said hall must be for the sole purpose of your wedding, to see that you’re sandwiched between a shopping centre, a food zone and a movie theatre…well let’s say North American brides would be pitching a fit! To seal the deal on this assumption, upon stepping out of the elevator there was a print-out sign of three different weddings happening in three adjacent halls. Definitely not the special day of one couple alone!
When we arrived, we gave in our envelopes of money – which were exchanged immediately for a ticket. Which leads me to systematic observation of Korean weddings #4:
4) A ticket for a wedding?! Hey, I’ll roll with it.
5) The bride isn’t hidden away in isolation before her big reveal down the aisle: rather she’s on display as if in a museum.
So we got to step into the viewing room to see her…
She’d always been beautiful when I’d seen her at work, but I’ll say that it’s one of the few times I’ve been genuinely stunned by how beautiful someone looks. Taken away, my breath was. And yes, she is sitting on a moon. To be honest, the whole affair felt like something between being in an anime and an amusement park. People were posing for pictures with her, ogling, giggling, fawning – and it would have felt strange if not for the serene joy radiating off her.
And I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe being with so many people right before the long nerve-wracking walk isn’t just what a bride needs. Alone there’s so much time to worry and build anxiety, but instead you’re surrounded by the people you love, who love you, and who support this decision you’re making. (For statistics purpose, I wonder if fewer Korean weddings are cancelled than Western by a bride leaving a groom at the altar?)
After the viewing, most of my coworkers proceeded straight to the dining hall. And for the next observation, I realized:
6) Koreans are only there for the food. Well, not entirely true – there are *some* people who watch the ceremony, but for the most part, after you see the bride, you just have lunch.
The two coworkers I came with though were really sweet and despite being extremely hungry, stayed with me to watch the ceremony.
“It’s a big event for you,” they said.
First we traded in our tickets to drop off our bags at the dining hall, and on the way out we got our hands stamped to come back in (again, serious feeling of being in an amusement park).
The ceremony turned out to be of the Christian variety, and proceeded something like this:
– Groom walks down the aisle, passing under two sets of raised and crossed swords; he then awaits his bride.
– Bride walks down the aisle (to the classic here-comes-the-bride theme), arm in arm with her father.
– Beneath to raised and crossed swords, the groom walks forward to meet them and her father gives her away.
– The bride and groom face the minister and everyone sings Christian hymns for a bit.
– Vows are exchanged, much the same as in Western culture.
– Songs are sung to the newlyweds (in this case by a church group and by the bride’s sister).
– Minister pronounces them man and wife – but it’s not sealed with a kiss!!
– Groom does a deep bow to the brides parents on right side; bride does a deep bow to groom’s parents on left side.
And that was that! Barely 20 minutes long in total.
Then it was time for the food hall – and holy shit the buffet was incredible. Pork cutlets, spare ribs, sushi, jellyfish, porridges, soups, duck, sausages – and oysters so silky fresh it felt like I was drinking the St. Lawrence. Stuffed myself to such full capacity I couldn’t even have ice cream for dessert.
So, a mere two hours after arriving, my experience of a Korean wedding was complete. No reception, no first dance, no speeches – although some of that possibly comes later, and is just for a smaller crowd of close friends and family, because there was supposed to be a bouquet toss and I don’t think it had happened yet (although maybe it was right after we left the ceremony room to dive into platters of food).
I should disclaim that my coworkers emphasized many times that their wedding was by no means a traditional Korean wedding, which is very different and far more complex. I won’t get much into it here since it warrants its own post, but it involves the parents throwing chestnuts and the bride trying to catch them in her hanbok (traditional formal Korean dress); the total number caught predicts how many children they will have.
There was no chestnut throwing, but I did see the bride changed from her white threads into a hanbok for the meet and greets.
I have to say they looked like the happiest couple ever. I wish them all the luck, but according to Korean superstition they seem to be off to a good start; as she pulled out of the underground parking, my coworker told me, “I heard that if a couple gets married when it snows they will live happily together forever. And this morning it was snowing so I think they will be happy.”