The vice principal of the school where I work has taken particular interest in the Native English Teachers that pass through over the years. My coteacher whispered to me that Jonathan, the last NET, was always “invited” to (read: required to attend) many of the VP’s events; and I am no exception. A few weeks ago I attended his wife’s art gallery reception (which was quite nice–they even had cheese! REAL brie cheese!) and last weekend it was his son’s wedding. To be fair, the entire school was invited and most of my coworkers attended the event on Sunday evening.
I was excited to be a guest at a Korean wedding and get a glimpse of a different culture’s way of tying the knot. I’m not sure what I expected–maybe some colorful hanbok dresses and traditional singing–but I certainly didn’t anticipate the theatrical production it turned out to be.
We arrived at 4:30pm and convened in a lobby area where everyone made their donations. At Korean weddings, the guests generally don’t buy gifts and instead they donate money; my coworkers and I had agreed we would all donate W30,000 (about $30). We made our way upstairs to a foyer where the bride and groom’s parents greeted the guests. The walls were lined with a pageantry of fresh flowers that filled the air with a sweet scent.
After standing around for a bit, we stepped into the wedding room. It was a large banquet hall filled with round tables and chairs and lined with more flowers. A catwalk style runway divided the room and lead to a stage up front; to the right of the stage sat an orchestra, and above the stage on each side were large television screens to play video being taken by the cameramen throughout the room.
The tables were already filled when we entered, so about 50 people wound up lingering in the back of the room. Suddenly, the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play an upbeat tune. Spotlights shined on the catwalk and danced about like it was the opening of a game show; the groom stepped up and began strutting down the runway while the audience clapped. He reached the end and began bowing and waving to everyone like a prince greeting his royal subjects.
Next, the mothers of the bride and groom strolled down the runway, dressed in traditional Korean hanboks. They did a series of bows, the audience clapped, and then the event directors ushered them off the stage.
The lights dimmed again and this time the bride stepped onto the catwalk. The orchestra played a more reverent tune and the blushing bride slowly glided down the aisle in a beautiful white dress. At the end she greeted her groom and they turned to face a priest.
At this point the wedding would have felt relatively normal and comparable to a western wedding, but there was one noticeable difference: the entire time the bride and groom stood respectfully listening to the priest speak, a woman dressed in black and wearing a headset like a backstage manager fluffed the bride’s dress, rearranged her veil, primped her hair, and buzzed around her as if readying her for a scene on camera–not as if this were a real wedding in progress. I’m pretty sure she may have even cleaned the bride’s ears. A photographer also darted back and forth around them, sticking his lens inches from their faces and snapping photos from every possible angle.
When the priest was done speaking, the couple turned to face the audience and the orchestra began to play a tune that must have been from a Disney movie. The bride and groom stared ahead apathetically, almost mournfully even, while the music played and played and played. Just when the song had finally ended and I hoped it would all be over and we could head off to eat, the band struck up again, this time with a singer belting a ballad reminiscent of a 90s R&B song. Again, the couple stared straight ahead.
The crowd in the back hung about, idly fanning themselves from the stuffy air and whispering about their weekends; the atmosphere was decidedly casual as the wedding proceedings took place up front. Eventually, my coworkers–the remaining ones who hadn’t already snuck out– decided it was time to go. The bride and groom had now begun the arduous process of greeting and bowing to their family and guests, and we meanwhile headed to the buffet hall where we stuffed ourselves with food and called it a day.
I’m told that at that point the wedding ceremony actually takes a more traditional turn, and the wedded couple change into traditional Korean clothes and partake in a series of ceremonies. They must greet each of their family members with deep bows and then the parents do things like toss nuts onto the bride’s skirt in hopes that she’ll “have lots of babies”. Don’t worry, the hilarious symbolism of that isn’t lost on me.
Overall, the wedding was unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. Although it’s not my place to judge and every culture has their own way of doing things, I couldn’t help but wonder about the authenticity of it all. So much of the ceremony seemed contrived to create the perfect pictures and portray the perfect appearance. It was not the formal and intimate affair that many western weddings are, and to me did not seem to focus on celebrating the love of these two people. But the fact that I couldn’t understand anything being said probably affected my impression of the event and there were segments of the wedding that I wasn’t present for, so it’s not fair for me to criticize something that I don’t fully understand.
Regardless, it was an interesting cultural experience and I was glad to have the opportunity to be a part of it! And the food was pretty darn delicious, too.