I made a trip outside of Seoul yesterday for a good friend of mine’s wedding. I’ve been to a few wedding’s in Korea before, but this one was a bit different, being the first international wedding I’ve ever attended. My friend’s Korean and his wife American. I met them both through teaching at another friend of mine’s English Cafe/private school. Despite having been formally married for 3 years, they hadn’t yet done the official wedding celebration. Having met my friend for dinner and drinks from time to time the past few months, it was clear they were both working hard to finish all the wedding preparation and feeling some of the stress from it. As Americans, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Wedding’s in America can be long, stressful ordeals for the bride and groom, particularly the bride and her family. Yet, the average Korean wedding is in a category of it’s own. This stress is typically avoided by couples by hiring an agency to arrange/set up all aspects of the wedding and hosting it in a wedding hall, a commercial space devoted to hosting weddings, where one couple celebrates, quickly followed by another, in short hour intervals.
That’s another thing. The average Korean wedding isn’t an extended ordeal. It’s designed for speed an convenience, so guests can come and go without having to put aside there entire day plans to attend. A typical wedding lasts between 30 minutes to an hour, after which guests are free to leave. It’s not a slow, meandering exit, either. Oftentimes, as soon as the event’s time is up, people start packing up quickly, and in a wedding hall, if the time is exceeded, often the staff usher people out to make room for the following event. To an American, it can seem rushed and impersonal, yet it’s undeniably simple and straightforward. My friends, being an international couple, had to decide how to approach their wedding – in American style or Korean. The result was a wedding half-way in between both worlds, held in a beautiful complex of Hanok living quarters (traditional Korean homes), in the countryside outside of Seoul, with the service led by a Buddhist monk. Yet, nonetheless, it followed the traditional procession of an American wedding and was followed by a dance party…or rather, an attempted one. Korean’s aren’t as eager to dance as us Americans, so what started out with dancing eventually shifted to Jenga tournaments and games of Apples to Apples. A few notable differences were my friend, as the Korean male, paying respects to his mother in law by offering a full bow, with head and knees on the ground, and a friend’s vocal surprise, exclaiming, “We can’t image this in Korea!” when the bridge and groom took turns throwing pieces of cake at each other after cutting it.
It was a bit surreal for me watching the event, as the officiant spoke in Korean about the challenges and values of an international marriage, about the courage it must take to live overseas and settle into a new culture, about the significance of such a union, etc. It was hard, watching it, not to reflect on my own experience here as an expat…Starting out completely lost in Korea, unable to comprehend a word said around me, and flash forward to now where I can communicate with people, make jokes in Korean, and navigate somewhat well cross-culturally between my roots as an American and my new-identity here as foreigner. I guess I saw myself through both of them, understanding the choice they had to make is a large one, one that takes courage. Having dealt with all the complexities of a cross-cultural relationship, the language and culture differences and the unique challenges of being far from home, gave the event a greater significance for me. Above all, I was happy to see my friends, who seem so fit for each other, go through this passage, alongside friends and family. Unfortunately, as is the case with most Korean weddings, neither the bride nor groom were able to eat any of the food served, for a reason I don’t quite understand. They’re required to greet guests while everyone’s eating, followed by more photo shoots, allowing no extra time to sit down and eat. This still strikes me as something completely avoidable, and a somewhat ridiculous aspect of Korean weddings. Yet, I guess there’s some parts of tradition that are more easily avoided than others. As for me, I’d at the very least, find a way to sneak in a few bites.