Sunday, September 6, 2009

My First Korean Wedding

The wedding was actually a very small portion of my weekend, so let's take it one eventful event at a time. Sorry, this is really long. But, it's funny! So your efforts will be rewarded!

Step 1: The Car Ride

At 4pm on Friday, we packed into the family Hyundai Santa Fe (the gold edition, of course) and headed out for Seoul! Seoul is a solid 4 hour drive, but it took us around 5 due to pretty intense traffic. Boy, I'm pretty sure I reached a new level of patience. The boys slept for the first hour or so, but then were up and loud for the rest of the trip. I'm not going to lie, sitting next to those two for an hour in 5 mph-traffic was NOT easy. There was a point when I literally thought I would completely lose my cool. Thankfully, some last shred of sanity and perhaps teacher-ness told me, "If you can't beat them, join them." So I joined in their rough housing and yelling, all while sitting three to the back seat. I was really proud of myself after that trip. And really looking forward to quiet time and sleeping!

Step 2: Uncle Kong's

I guess it makes sense, but it never occurred to me before, that we would stay with relatives. So, I was a little surprised when my dad put the car into park outside of a seedy looking restaurant. "This," he said, "Is my brother's restaurant." (For the record, it was a nice restaurant, just in a not-so-pretty-to-the-eye place) The family - Mom, Dad, 5-year old son - lived above the restaurant in a one-room apartment. Hoh boy. There was one bed in the apartment - for the prodigal first son, of course - and that night I slept in it. I felt really bad, but the boy didn't seem to mind. It was really strange to be sleeping in a bed with seven people sleeping on the floor around you. But I slept like a baby and woke up fresh and happy the next day.

Step 3: Getting Ready
The shower in this apartment was a shower head hose and a sink. To be perfectly honest, I thought it was kind of fun - trying to find the optimal way to bend so as the most amount of water possible went into the sink instead of the floor drain. The best part was when I was drying my hair, but we'll get to that in a second.

I walked out wearing a nice blouse and dress pants, but my mom shook her head and went digging through my bag. She pulled out some jeans, gave them a brief inspection and told me to change into those. That's right, folks. I went to a wedding wearing blue jeans. Americans.

Onto the hair drying. The dryer was in the bathroom. Also in the bathroom, besides the infamous sink+shower combo and toilet, was the washing machine. Yeah, it was a tight squeeze. Anyways, I was drying my hair when I felt water rush around my ankles. I gave a yelp and leaped out of the bathroom. A load of laundry had finished and the water was exiting to the drain on the floor, flooding the room in the process. Sometimes all you can do is shrug and laugh.

Step 4: The Wedding

The wedding was a combination of traditional and western wedding practices. But, really, it reminded me of something that happens in Las Vegas. The entire thing took place in a wedding center, which consists of open ceremony rooms and lots of buffet restaurants. The ceremony room was really glittery and had spotlights and a projector screen at the front near the alter. I'm not really sure what the relation was that was getting married, but I do know that I had to sit at the very front; directly behind the grooms' parents.

The ceremony was short and sweet. There was some religious stuff, but it was mostly traditional Korean. The mothers entered first dressed in traditional hanboks and did some bowing. Then came the groom. Followed by father and bride. No flower girls or best men, just the important people straight up. The bride and groom were dressed western wedding style. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom performed the most formal of the bows to each set of parents.

My reflection: The whole thing was just different. The bride did not look happy at all. I'm nearly positive she didn't smile during the whole thing. She just looked at the floor wearing a very serious expression. I think she was just really nervous and very overwhelmed. Looking back on the whole thing, I think the main difference was that the wedding was not her/his day. The day wasn't for them, it was for the family. It was like the bride and groom were a TV show for everyone to watch. I don't pretend to be a cultural expert after one wedding. I have no idea if this is how all weddings worked. I'm just stating what I saw at this wedding.

Step 5: Pictures
At the end of the ceremony, both sides of the family took pictures at the front of the alter. Despite firm protests on my part, my family dragged me up there. These poor newlyweds. I can just see it now. A month down the line they'll be looking through their wedding pictures and come to the family shot. They'll see this smiling blond girl front and center (I tried to hide in the back corner SOOOOOO hard) among a huge crowd of unsmiling Koreans and think, "Who the hell is that?" Oh well, that's my legacy I guess. The American Wedding Crasher.

Step 6: The Reception ... ?
The reception consists of the guests eating at one of the buffets in the building. There is no designated buffet and the guests have to purchase their meal tickets. The buffet was the happiest meal I've had in a long time. They had random bits of American food along with my favorite Korean food and interesting Korean-American salads. I ate very well.

While the guests are gorging themselves (eat more! it's a buffet! expensive ticket!) the bride and groom de-dressed and re-dressed into traditional hanboks and had a tea ceremony/photo shoot with anyone who wanted to drink tea with them. Once again, it's not about them, it's about the family.

After the photo shoot/reception, the two hopped in a limo and the family hopped into a bus. Together they travel to the after party.

That's where my wedding experience stops. My family continued on to the after party, but I was dropped off at the train station where I caught the 4:16 p.m. to Daejeon to meet my friends. Two hours later I was having dinner with the greatest, most American group of friends in the world (of Korea). Gosh, what a breath of fresh air! Talking fast, using slang, NOT using hand motions! Ah, fantastic!

And what wedding is not complete without a hookup? At lunch I was introduced to Kong Byeong Cheol. He's single, I'm single and we were born in the same year. Match made in heaven according to my family. Exchange numbers, now! Haha, weddings....

Here are a few pictures from the weekend. Since this is so long, I won't go into too much detail. Thanks for reading, you are a champ for finishing! Yay!

Cornelius, Kelly and Dave at the restaurant.

I took the train back to Gurye. This is the south gate. It says "Welcome to Gurye." It was a 4 mile walk. Had I known that, I would have grabbed a taxi. Oh well, live and learn.


  1. What a fantastic cultural experience for you and hysterical to me. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Long Distance Labor Day!! Miss you. Momma

  2. You spoke of having a cultural experience for 1 years in Korea and I would say attending a Korean wedding would be a cultural experience not many of your friends are having. You certainly getting around in that small country, even by train or walking the roads. We wondered if you have come across a "stable" or what ever to see if your horse riding interests can be expanded. We enjoy your writings and how you see your new experiences. The family you live with sure seems to enjoy you, THANKS --

  3. The weddings vary depending on how "westernized" the families are. In most cases, though, I do not remember seeing the brides smile much at any of them. All my sisters' wedding pictures show somber faces. It is a formal therefore "serious" occasion.

    The traditional ceremony is more jovial with some goofy customs such as bridegroom giving the new mother-in-law a piggyback rides and such, once the bride survives the elaborate bowing-to-just-about-everybody-in-the-world part. Lots of different things in the traditional ceremony also depend on the family tradition and the region. My nephew married a Korean girl in the states a few years ago, and they had the tea and bowing ceremony in full Korean gear afterwards.

    I think your observation that it is a family matter is spot on. Pretty much everything is a family matter. The individualism is a foreign concept and although the more convenient western style wedding ceremony might have been adopted and simplified, marriage is essentially between two families. I guess that's good and bad - one can expect support as well as many nosy relatives. Not better or worse but different. However, the conflict arises when the foreign customs are imported without the supporting infrastructure in terms of customs and philosophy. For example, dating is part of the culture now, but the marriage still is a family matter which means the parents feel that they have the right to "veto" a candidate while the son or daughter may not share the same idea. Not that this type of conflict is limited to Korea, but this makes up a good portion of soap Korean opera material - at least it used to be a very popular story line.

    That was sort of odd that your host mom wanted you to wear blue jeans to the wedding. The only reason I can think of is that she thought you'd be uncomfortable taking the train to go to Deajun to see your friends in dress pants? Or maybe she considers the blue jeans more formal wear? I don't believe that would be the case. Anyway, you got away with jeans at a wedding - that's great.

    If you could get a good night's sleep with 7 people around your bed, I think you can do anything. You are a real trooper!

  4. You had a true experience and keen observation for Korean culture through wedding. It is really true that wedding ceremoney itself is all for family - mainly parents. I always think of that they put up a puppet show for their parents and relatives.

    There are some superstition(?) that happy & smily brides at the wedding will have the first daughter. Because Korean people still prefer to boys too much(at least one), I think this supersition still works. Nowadays people don't care that much but I heard of this from senior peple at the weddings many times.. Like "this bride smiles too much at her wedding, she will have first daugher.."

    It's good to hear that you had a chance to hang out with your own Amerian friends and release the stress/anxiety a little bit last weekend. I do remember that I was craving to talk in Korean with my friends in my Korean church during the first year when I was graduate student. Being around foreign language daily and living in different country is very stressful(I do know that). :-) You are doing so great!