“I Do” But Korean Style I Don’t

In The Social Fabric, Uncategorized on November 27, 2011 at 12:18 am

First off, I’ve been receiving some positive feedback lately for Inconseoulable, and I’d like to say a big thanks very muchly for the support.  It’s been a busy few months filled with job interviews and changing directions, but I have renewed commitment for what I started out to do.  Which is make sense of all things Korean.

One of the things taking up my time and mental space these days is the subject of weddings.  As I missed yet another friend’s wedding back home, I found myself attending a Korean wedding in its place.  This certainly wasn’t my first experience, having attended a few ceremonies over the years.  Yet as I took the time to select an appropriate outfit and got a little excited to be a part of a wedding, I was inevitably disappointed.  I should have known better.


Korean weddings, despite mimicking the hallmarks of western weddings, couldn’t be more different.    For starters, a great majority of modern weddings take place in custom designed Wedding Halls.  These are one-stop-shop buildings which house not only the wedding rooms, but also the buffet hall for the obligatory meal.  If you are expecting to feel special on your big day, these weddings halls are not well equipped to oblige.  There are often numerous weddings occurring simultaneously, with guests milling about in foyers, stairwells, and even peaking in on other weddings. This facilitates the need for a large army of ushers to get you to the right room, sign the right book (name only no message) and put money in the right envelope. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a seat if you’re not early or close to the family.  And if you’re a guest running late, you won’t be de-friended on facebook as it’s just as common as arriving on time.

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After the ceremony, which lasts usually in the ballpark of 20 to 30 minutes, family and guests take part in the coordinated photos or head straight upstairs with their meal ticket.  These halls are round-the-clock function rooms, and people from all manner of weddings are often jumbled together in the one cafeteria. No dancing, no speeches, no cake, but this is the closest thing to a reception.  The bridal party is usually too busy with traditional photo shoots or other obligations to join their guests, and people may eat and leave as they please.  At this recent wedding I watched as a young woman loaded up her plate and sat at a round table all by herself, and I couldn’t help but feel a little hollow.

As far as ceremonies go, a church wedding will give at least some of the sentimentality one would expect from a wedding.  There is a familiar sense of tradition and reverence that might be lacking in a wedding hall ceremony.  There is a quieter element of romance.  But churches also have electronic queue boards which direct you to the right room, and to their own inbuilt buffets.

At first I thought it was the speed and informality of Korean weddings which unnerved me so.  However I came to realize that it’s much more than that.  As I flicked over and over through the reception photos of my friend’s wedding, I had tears of jealousy at just how much fun they were all having.  Friends and family had come from all over to celebrate not just a couple, but also to be together. It’s a social event and guests get just as excited as the bridal party. We dress up, we buy gifts, we clear schedules. We put so much emphasis on having a unique and unforgettable time to remember with the people close to us.  Friends play an integral role in a western wedding.

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Korean marriages are not just between two people, they are between two families. Family is the central unit of Korean culture, so the focus is as much on the parents as it is on the kids taking the plunge.  It’s a big important day mostly only for the families, and it’s the culmination of months of preparation. The enjoyment and interaction of friends at the reception doesn’t seem to have the same importance, partly because there is no reception.  Friends and guests attend the wedding, but it doesn’t really involve them.  Following the white wedding upstairs, there may be a second traditional ceremony that only family may attend in another room. We all have our wedding styles and traditions, but Korean weddings are more about family and ceremony than friends and parties. There are also unending pre-wedding obligations and traditions which will no doubt be another article, when I have the strength to cover it adequately.  Suffice to say, it’s no easy thing to get hitched Korean style.

And so came my disappointment that I couldn’t feed off other peoples’ friends having the excuse to catch up and enjoy each other’s company.  Instead we arrived at 11:30am and were having coffee down the road by 12:20pm.  Perhaps if I were part of the family I would feel differently.  But the rituals and bonding we might experience at a western wedding had taken place well before the Korean wedding day, and I felt a little empty.

There may be white dresses, tuxedos and elaborate floral arrangements, but an absence of the essence of what I enjoy in a wedding. Intimacy, sociability and unique memories to last a lifetime.


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