happily ever after: a traditional Korean wedding…

Over the summer, I had the honor of attending an American friend’s traditional Korean wedding. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to a couple of weddings in Korea – both celebrations of love between a dual-Korean couple – but this was even more special, as the ceremony was steeped in history and tradition that is absent from the popular Westernized weddings in Korea today.

My friend, Nicole, was gracious enough to let me take photographs at her wedding and share some of the exciting moments with you, Reader. 

Contemporary Korean Weddings

Traditional Korean weddings are somewhat of a rarity in Korea today. Instead, Western-influence wedding halls seem to line the streets in popular areas of town and are sometimes even tucked away in unlikely places – like in my neighborhood, tucked behind a “Debec Mart,” a neighborhood mini-mart.

Korean weddings are interesting because even though they seem like they’re trying to imitate everything about Western-style weddings, they’re also totally different. What’s fascinating about Korean wedding halls is that they sell the bride and groom an entire package for their wedding, much like a wedding planner might do in a Western country.

It’s truly a mix-and-match situation: the couple is presented a list of all the offerings the hall has, and they choose from this proverbial buffet how their short ceremony will go.

Korean wedding hall

Lobby of the wedding hall where my co-worker, Emily, was married.

The Wedding Necessities

Everything, from the gown the bride wears to the photos, is provided by the hall. (That’s right, ladies! Korean women don’t buy their wedding dresses; they rent them from the hall. They choose one, wear it on their big day, and give it right back.)

Photos are shot before the wedding in street clothes (think “engagement session”), hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), and then in wedding attire (way before the wedding, gasp!).

These days, Koreans don’t typically send hundreds of paper invitations to their gatherings. Instead, they opt for the more efficient and less expensive route of sending e-invitations, often through apps like KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging app that’s similar to What’s App or Facebook Messenger.

Gifts Galore! (Or not so much…)

Couples also don’t register for gifts at their favorite stores or for their new life together, as we often do in Western countries. Learning about this made me a little sad. I mean, isn’t that part of the fun? Telling people about all the shit you want and then knowing when somebody buys it because it magically disappears from your registry?

(I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been married. Furthermore, I already have pretty much everything I’ll need, so when I tie the knot, I doubt I’ll be doing much registering… Sad day.)

Instead, guests bring gifts of money to the wedding for the newlyweds. This sounds pretty good to me in lieu of actually getting unwrappable presents. Money is good. My KBFF said that between the costs of the wedding, the gifts given to the couple, the honeymoon and other random expenses, family and guests of the bride and groom will spend upwards of 100 million won. That’s about $100,000 US. (BREATHE. Keep in mind, this isn’t just the bride’s parents, but everyone invited, attending, and involved with the wedding.)

When you attend a Korean wedding, you present your monetary gift to a table host and receive a ticket for the buffet reception, also to be held in a banquet area somewhere in the wedding hall. If you don’t present a gift, don’t expect to be invited to the reception!

The Ceremony

What might be most strange of all is how NOT QUIET it is during a Korean wedding. Everyone is talking during the entire short ceremony. EVERYONE. The first time I attended a wedding in Korea, I was totally shocked. I couldn’t believe everyone seemed so uninterested in what was happening with the bride and groom. It seemed totally rude and I found myself fighting the urge to “shush” people. I mean, honestly… You’re going to cackle that loud during a marriage ceremony?… Geez, lady. Pull yourself together.

Korean wedding hall

People sat at tables and were standing in the back. I stood with a ton of others.

After the ceremony, everyone sticks around to take photos with the newly married couple, and then heads out to the banquet area with their meal tickets.

Korean wedding hall

Married!

Korean wedding hall

Group photo time!

Reception Buffet

Receptions for Korean weddings are also very different in that you are dining with the guests of several different weddings. The hall plays host to dozens of weddings in a weekend and they are performed in different rooms at the same time, back to back with little time to reset inbetween. 

The banquet hall is a first-come-first-served atmosphere, so you may have to search to find free seats! It’s not uncommon to not see the bride and groom at this point. Just eat with your friends and celebrate their day.

I’d also like to point out that the food at these buffets isn’t anything super special (I mean, c’mon, we’re talking about a buffet here, and they don’t seem to be better in foreign countries). They’re all very Korean-y foods, some of which have been semi-Westernized, thus resulting in some off-the-wall concoctions.

Despite this fact, you’ll probably still stuff your face with the stuff you can stomach anyway because let’s face it, you just paid a minimum of $30 to eat at this shitty buffet with 200 random Koreans who are already half drunk on soju. Be on the lookout for forks because apparently, everyone likes their chopsticks here and you’ll have to go on a hunt for your preferred cutlery.

 

Traditional Korean Weddings

Nicole’s wedding was nothing like what I described above.

Guests met at a hanggyeo (향교) near downtown Daegu. A hanggyeo is a traditional Korean Confucian school, complete with internal buildings and a beautiful courtyard. This particular hanggyeo (and incidentally, the only one in Daegu) is over 600 years old and, on other days, open to tourists.

traditional Korean wedding hanggyeo

Steps leading into the hanggyeo

A large tent was pitched off to one side of the courtyard, where the ceremony would take place. Before the main event, traditional Korean dancers performed drum dances and a fan dance.

traditional Korean wedding hanggyeo

Tent for the ceremony

traditional Korean wedding hanggyeo

The courtyard

traditional Korean wedding

Traditional dancer

Then, the bride and groom entered separately, carried in big wooden “boxes” to the wedding tent. Both bride and groom wore traditional hanbok for the ceremony, as well as some special pieces for wedding ceremonies.

Another big difference between Western and Korean weddings – there’s no rehearsal beforehand, so no one knows what they’re supposed to be doing or when they’re supposed to be doing it! This was more obvious at Nicole’s wedding because both she and her now husband, Byung Hyuk, were being led around like children by Korean helpers at all times and instructed in real time what to do during the ceremony. It was less apparent at the other two contemporary weddings I had attended, though there was definitely a seemingly bossy wedding coordinator barking orders from the side at both ceremonies.

Nicole and Byung Hyuk were kind enough to hire a translator to explain what was happening during the ceremony. While their intentions were pure, I think the officiant got pissed about this. He wasn’t pausing often enough to let the translator explain in English what was happening and as a result, the translator ended up interrupting a lot. Eventually, he just gave up.  

It’s hard to know exactly what was going on every moment of the ceremony or the historical background surrounding it, but there was a lot of bowing, sipping of alcohol, and then more bowing.

Nicole’s father presented Byung Hyuk’s parents with a wooden duck, an important part of the tradition. Historically, those birds would have been real, but now, wooden replacements are used. I have no idea what the point of this was, but it happened.

Later, Nicole told me the funniest part of the ceremony for her and Byung Hyuk happened at the ceremonial table. Unbeknownst to many of the wedding guests (me, included) there were actual, live birds on the ceremony table. A hen and a rooster were bound and laid on the table and the rooster continually kept moving himself closer to some ceremonial rice. At one point, he fell off the table and had to be picked up and replaced by one of the wedding entourage! I missed this excitement, sadly.

All in all, it was a wonderful cultural experience. If you ever are extended an opportunity to attend a Korean wedding, traditional or Westernized, go! It’s a cool opportunity to see some of the many differences between our melded cultures.

6 Comments

  1. Dan Antion says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s interesting to learn a bit about other cultures. Given some of the weddings I’ve been to, the idea of eating with friends or people attending other weddings has a funny kind of appeal.

    • Thanks for reading, Dan!

      Yes, it’s quite an interesting experience. So many things are absent: speeches, throwing of the bouquet and garter, dancing. It’s different, but was quite eye opening!

  2. emily_kim says:

    Hi
    I just found this blog while searching
    Thank you for your interesting post
    If you have the opportunity to participate in the wedding of another Korean
    If you pay attention to observation
    You can see a small traditional ceremony after shooting groups
    Its name is pyebaek
    Event to greet both families and is usually conducted in the traditional manner
    It can be watching it from the outside because the room is open
    The bride and groom wore clothes progress thereafter
    It is an important part of the wedding Korea
    If you want really to see if the marriage culture of mixed Korea
    I recommend pyebaek is an event you should not miss

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