Thursday, December 18, 2008


The Korean-American Wedding Experience

The following is a special piece I'm contributing to the Paris Post-Intelligencer's spring wedding guide.

When I got myself a Korean girlfriend, many asked me how it would be different. Between the different customs, the different tastes in food and the staggering difference in height, there certainly were complications now and then. I learned early on that both of our backgrounds had some wisdom to offer.

But when it came time to ask my Korean girlfriend to marry me, I was determined to do it the American way.

Many men in Korea simply ask the parents’ permission, set a date and never have to get down on one knee, except when trying to convince their brides to buy a less expensive dress. I, on the other hand, told myself: This is a once (hopefully) in a lifetime event. The local way is so undramatic, and the American way is so … Hollywood.

And as any Korean could tell you, Hollywood is America.

So, on the one-year anniversary of when Catherine and I started seeing each other, I told her I wanted to go to the top of the mountain where we first ate instant noodles together (it’s not everyone’s idea of romance, but not everyone lives on a teacher’s salary) and looked out over the city of Chuncheon.

At the top of the mountain that night, I produced a small box, which I gave to her, and which she opened to find … another small box. After looking at it for some time to find out how it opened, she looked in to see the ring I’d spent a not-insignificant portion of my teacher’s salary on.

By now I was on one knee, and I asked her to marry me. Her response was swift.

“I … I got you this pen!” she said, and produce an ornate-looking writing utensil, probably an expensive one that is gifted to many an aspiring author. As pens go, it was nice.

“Oh, thanks,” I said.

“I’m gonna cry!” she replied, looking at the ring again.

“It would be good if you said yes now,” I advised. I didn’t doubt her reply, but figured it was best we be clear for sake of formality.

“Oh, okay … yes,” she answered, and I had myself a Korean fiancée. There would be no more questions about when we’d take the next step. No more doubts about how she’d respond to the freshly popped question. No more need to buy expensive jewelry, at least until a double-digit anniversary came around.

All of these are good things. But with them came the need to plan a wedding, a daunting task for a man in any country.

Wedding Practic

In the year that followed, I got a good look at all of the different wedding options available to us. My bride-to-be was, like me, 28, and in Korea members of the same high school or university class tend to be very tight knit. Twenty-eight happens to be a very popular age for marriage, and Catherine happens to have been the president of both her high school and university classes, meaning that she’d gotten to know a lot of people over the years.

All these ingredients added up to one recipe: We’d be invited to a lot of weddings that year. About weekly, in fact. Catherine always went, since they were all her friends, coworkers, family members or friends’ family members’ coworkers, and going with them would ensure that they attended our ceremony later. Occasionally I had to work weekends or got sick, but in instances when I couldn’t be that lucky I went along.

The positive aspect of this schedule is that it gave me an idea of the kind of wedding options available to us. The less-positive aspect is that near-weekly attendance at the weddings of people you don’t know very well is enough to give any man an allergy to carnations, organ music, flash photography and the color white.

But during the experience I came to understand something about Korea; namely, that weddings are a big business here. Anyone who can read the Korean language will spot an untold number of buildings in every municipality in the country with a sign that says “wedding hall.” (I don’t mean the Korean translation of “wedding hall”; I mean the Korean characters are used to form the sound “we-ding hol.”)

These are buildings which, unlike churches, cater specifically to weddings and their receptions afterwards. Every weekend, wedding processions may be seen at one of these halls, usually for a Western-style wedding. A framed picture of the new couple stands in the lobby for all to see prior to the ceremony. If one should venture outside into the lobby near the end of the ceremony, he or she is likely to see the framed picture of the even newer couple getting married in the next hour; it may be a once in a lifetime event for them, but for the wedding hall it’s not even once that afternoon.

Getting With the Program

I went to enough Western-style weddings during that year to eventually memorize the program: The groom would stand near the entrance of the room, then walk toward the front and bow to the minister. Then, the bridal march would play and she would join the groom at the front. The minister would then say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand, someone would sing a ballad I also couldn’t comprehend, and then the bride and groom would take pictures with everyone who bothered to show up.

I had these details committed to memory even though we didn’t always hang around to see them. Depending on the closeness of their relationship, there would be times when we’d stay just long enough for Catherine to get a beforehand pic with the bride and/or groom, donate some money to the Help the New Couple Pay off Their Wedding Debt Fund, and then we ate.

The fact that so many weddings are taking place here, and that so many guests are attending for no reason other than courtesy does not seem lost on wedding hall operators, most of who serve the reception dinner throughout the actual ceremony.

Though most of the weddings we attended were Western-style, there were a couple of other kinds. There was the traditional ceremony, in which the bride and groom underwent the traditional marriage rites of a royal couple during their country’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910 A.D.). There was also a Catholic ceremony, complete with Latin rites, which when taking place in Korea has the distinction of being in two languages I can’t understand.

Observing these different styles, Catherine and I decided that we’d go the Korean way – as the traditional Korean wedding. This, we decided, would be more memorable for us, unforgettable for those in attendance, and, most romantic of all, cost about one-tenth that of the Western style ceremony. My heart swells in reminiscence.

Tradition Dictates

The money that was spent was used to reserve our place in the venue of our choice – the courtyard of the Korean War Memorial in Seoul – on the Sunday afternoon of Aug. 31, acquire hanbok, or traditional Korean garb for us and my parents, pay for our honeymoon suite and then our honeymoon itself. The traditional wedding was the least expensive option available at the time (though I never did look into getting two plane tickets to Vegas) but it still took about 1 million won (a figure that was equivalent to $1,000 sometime before the word “bailout” became quite so popular) out of this English teacher’s salary every month from January to August.

But the money paid for an experience unlike any I could’ve gotten in America. We were both dressed in royal colors; black and red for me, red, blue and black for her. Fitting for a royal ceremony, attendants guided both of us onto carts, carried us across the courtyard and ushered us through our procedures (the last was especially helpful, as there had been no rehearsal). Every non-Korean in attendance, and a few of the natives, said they’d never seen anything like it.

And I had never felt anything like it. Yes, the shoes and the hat they gave me hurt like the dickens because they were designed for someone half a foot shorter than me, and sure I had to figure out what the attendants were telling me to do based on their hand gestures and facial expressions. But those things, along with special outfits, rites and the crowds of family, friends and complete strangers – those there to visit the memorial and happened to catch a wedding in the process – contributed toward making the experience more memorable.

And that’s how this American got a Korean wife. A lifetime of questions remain for us: Which country to live in later in life, which language to speak at home, which cultural identity we want for our kids, etc. Neither culture has all the answers, so we’ll respond to each one on a case-by-case basis.

I like our track record so far.

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