Even though I have difficulty picturing myself getting married (any time soon at least) I am a huge fan of weddings. The excitement, the romance, and most important of all, the cake. So when I was invited to the wedding of a Korean friend, there was no way I could say no.
If you want to learn about traditional Korean weddings, this is a really interesting post by a western woman who married a Korean man in a traditional ceremony. However, like most Korean couples these days, my friend had a Koreanised version of a western wedding, so that’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.
It might strike you as a bit impersonal, but most Korean couples choose to marry in a wedding hall that can cater to several weddings in one day, often with more than one wedding sharing the same buffet dinner. If you consider the population density, and therefore the amount of couples getting married, it’s not surprising that using the facilities of a hotel or a country house for the day isn’t within the price range of most couples.
The turn around between getting engaged and getting married is also much faster in Korea. While Irish couples usually have to book their venue at least a year in advance, my Korean friend got married less than four months after getting engaged.
In Ireland it’s pretty standard to be sent a wedding invitation that will tell you whether you’re invited to the full shebang or just the afters, and whether you can bring a guest. You then RSVP so the bride and groom can have an accurate idea of numbers.
My friend told myself and another Korean friend about her impeding nuptials over a Vietnamese dinner one day. After all the initial congratulations and excited noises, my friend said ‘Clare, we can go together!’ I was mortified, and wanted to say ‘Would you hold your horses, we haven’t been invited yet!’ However it turns out that in Korea merely telling someone you are getting married is as good as inviting them. A head count isn’t required and Korean couples like to have a lot of people at their wedding, for reasons that will become clear later in this post.
My friend later sent me an online wedding announcement which included the time and location of the wedding, and the wedding photographs. Yes, the wedding photographs were on the announcement. Korean couples have a wedding photo shoot well in advance of the wedding. My friend told me that this is so there is plenty of time to Photoshop the pictures and use them in the online announcement, as well as displaying enlarged photographs at the wedding itself.
The photos were taken in a studio and also infront of the Gwangalli Bridge, a famous Busan landmark and a popular background for wedding photo shoots. My friend wore five different wedding dresses (all white), while her husband rocked the same tuxedo in each picture. There was also one photograph featuring traditional Korean dress known as Hanbok, as well as some shots of the bride and groom in casual but well coordinated outfits, looking like a pair of models in a fashion catalogue.
The automatically translated invitation also contained this beautiful verse:
Pulkkot profound fragrance under the spring sunshine
to parties signed a pair of young love ties.
Two people close to starting a new life
highs, please bless this bliss.
In Ireland you don your fanciest clothes, go to the location of the service (usually a Catholic church) and settle in for a solemn but happy affair. The groom stands at the top with his groomsmen and then the bride (usually fashionably late) walks down the aisle with her father, followed by the bridesmaids. There is music, poems and readings, they exchange vows, throw the rings on and sign the marriage document. Everyone listens quietly and patiently, and a few happy tears might be shed.
Pretty much everything was different at the Korean service I attended. It was a non-religious service and took place on the 23rd floor of a building in town.
As for attire, there wasn’t a fascinator or a six inch heel in sight. Some people were a bit fancy, but most people were dressed smart casual. There were even few people in jeans and t-shirts.
Just outside the room where the service was going on, there was a desk with lots of white envelopes. In Korea people generally don’t give wedding gifts, just cash. There are different recommended amounts that depend on your relationship with the person getting married. You simply put your cash in the envelope and then write your own name (not theirs!) on the outside; you don’t even include a card. You then stand in a queue to hand in your envelope of cash, and in return you are handed a ticket for the buffet. So essentially you are paying for your meal. I know this whole idea will horrify a lot of people but it does ease the financial burden on the bride and groom and it means no stressing about what to buy the couple.
In another room my friend was sitting on a beautiful ornate couch in her white dress, looking like the queen of everything. We joined another queue, this time to have our picture taken with the bride.
The first people to walk up the aisle were the mothers of the bride and groom, and they were also the only people wearing Korean Hanbok. The groom followed behind them, and the bride came in a few minutes later. The whole ceremony lasted less than 30 minutes, and the only very Korean element I noticed was when the bride and groom bowed to both sets of parents.
There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen, and I’ve heard it just isn’t something they do in Korea. Sitting quietly and listening are also not big traits of Korean culture, and everyone was just talking loudly throughout the entire thing.
Along with the loud chatter, there were also many fancy things going on with spotlights. Altogether it feel a bit more like a disco than the lifelong commitment of two people. But that’s the way they do it in Korea and it works for them so forgive me if I sound like a Judgemental Judy!
One thing that really surprised me in a good way was that the groom’s high school students were not only in attendance at the ceremony, but also part of it, as they performed a very cute little song and dance. The groom happens to be in a rock band, and they also performed a song. Then there was the cutting of the cake, with an enormous knife that looked more like a samurai sword. I was surprised that all of these things took place at the ceremony, as in Ireland those kinds of things take place at the reception. However since the ceremony is the only part of the wedding that exclusively for the guests of that particular wedding, it makes practical sense to have those personal touches at the ceremony itself.
In Ireland the bride and groom go off to have their photo shoot in some nice scenic location while the guests go to the reception (usually at a hotel), to have a few drinks and socialise. When the bride and groom come back everyone has dinner, followed by a live band, followed by a DJ until the early hours.
By very stark contrast, the afters at my friends’ wedding was a lunch in a massive buffet hall in the basement of the building. I’ve been to quite a few staff dinners at buffets and the wedding buffet wasn’t much different to those. There was an enormous variety of food, from pizza and potato wedges to sushi. We loaded up our plates and found a space to sit down. The drinks on the table were Soju (a Korean liquor similar to vodka), Cass (the cheapest Korean beer) and ‘Cider’ (essentially Sprite).
There was a distinct lack of any wedding cake and when I asked my friend about this, she said the cutting of the cake is actually just for show. Honest to God. I’m not sure if they go and patch up the cake and then use if for the next couple, but there is definitely no wedding cake for the guests.
Short, sweet, efficient
Attending a wedding in Ireland usually takes up your entire day, and the next day will probably be a write off too because of the hangover. In Korea you can attend a full wedding in about two hours, and then go about the rest of your day.
When you’ve only experienced those long, grandiose Irish weddings, a Korean wedding can feel a bit contrived and impersonal. There’s the cash gift, the noisy ceremony, the pretend cake cutting and the sharing a buffet with other weddings. But Irish couples spend massive sums of money on getting married, while I would hazard a guess that it’s possible to actually make money at Korean wedding, if you invite enough people and get enough of those white envelopes. And it definitely is possible to give a Korean wedding some nice personal touches, like the students’ performance at my friends’ wedding.
Everyone is different, and everyone wants different things from their wedding, so I don’t think it’s fair to say any one type of wedding is the best. I’ve never fantasised about my dream wedding, but I do know one thing for sure – If I ever do get married and someone decides to talk through the ceremony, they will be promptly asked to get out!