This past weekend, I attended my first Korean wedding. If you’ve been an ex-pat in Korea long enough and haven’t been to one of these yet, you start to hear stories. There are certain customs connected to the wedding in Korea that are very different than those for weddings back in the States. Here’s one example: Koreans don’t propose. The idea of the man getting down on one knee while a string quartet plays softly in the background just doesn’t really exist here. Instead Koreans are more practical about deciding to get married; they have a discussion, make a decision, and that is usually the end of it. However, classic “western-style” proposals are starting to catch on in small pockets, mostly in Seoul. In fact, an entire industry has recently popped up catering solely to organizing the most romantic proposal possible. For me, paying some random company a boat-load of money to arrange a fancy proposal for you isn’t what I’d call “romantic,” but I’m no marriage expert, so I won’t pass judgment.
Anyway, on to the wedding! The person getting married was one of my girlfriend’s friends from middle school. The wedding was held a one of many large “Wedding Halls” in Gangnam, one of the more chic neighborhoods of Seoul. We walked into the building, and I was immediately blown away by the sheer volume of people flooding the main entranceway. It’s the beginning of wedding season, and there were one or two weddings taking place on each of the six floors of the building, simultaneously. There was a big screen with all the information for each of the weddings, instructing the hundreds of guests which floor and room they should make their way to. We literally had to wait in line just to ride the elevator up to the top floor where our friend’s nuptials were being celebrated. The atmosphere bared closer resemblance to a rush-hour subway car than my idea of what a wedding setting should look like.
Expats may have the opportunity to experience a Korean wedding and traditions that are unique to South Korea!
When we arrived on the right floor, we proceeded with what I will call “The Exchange.” Aside from the possible name of a future action thriller featuring Liam Neeson, “The Exchange” is what happens when every guest for a wedding arrives at the door. Rather than formal gifts, Koreans give cash-money to the bride and groom. However, who that money goes to is very important. If you’re invited by the bride, your cash has to go to her collection. The same is true for guests of the groom. There are actually different collectors for each side of the new family. You are handed a white envelope and expected to fill it with an appropriate amount of cash, write your name on it, and then hand it to the appropriate collector. In exchange for your gift, you are then given tickets to the buffet that accompanies the wedding ceremony. Without those, there will be No Soup (or salad, or kimchi, for that matter) For You!
My girlfriend executed the exchange flawlessly, and we took our seats in the room where the ceremony would be held. Here is where things get interesting. In Korea, the actual ceremony is perhaps the least important part of the wedding, at least for the guests. There aren’t enough chairs set up in the room for everyone who is invited to have a seat. Luckily, this isn’t a problem, since many guests don’t even bother staying put for the whole service. Plus, standing around at the back or along the side walls is standard operating procedure. So is talking loudly and snapping camera phone pictures throughout the service. Aside from the UCC photos and videos, there is also an entire crew of three or four photographers and videographers who are literally up in the bride and grooms faces, snapping away while the Minister presumably speaks about the purity and non-commerciality of marriage. Along with the photographers, the “wedding set” includes a makeup lady who stands next to the bride to adjust her dress and fix her makeup throughout the ceremony, especially if the bride does anything outrageously unexpected, like shed a tear of joy.
Overall, I was glad to have finally experienced one of these infamous Korean weddings on my own. Would I want my own wedding (when that day comes) to resemble this one? Certainly not. Will the bride and groom end up with a damn good photo album? Probably.
Mark Rudnick is a proud product of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who found himself moving to Korea to teach English in 2009. He obtained his first teaching role at ChungDahm Learning after being recruited by Aclipse. He then moved on to work at the R&D office at Chungdahm in Seoul, after spending a year as a teacher at the Pyeongchon Branch. Mark finds Korea a fascinating place to live and work--there really is something new to learn each day (for example: did you know that before the popularity of cell phones, all Koreans carried beepers?).