Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Get Me to the Church…I Mean, the Wedding Hall (15 January)

Usually, I’m not really a fan of weddings and I tend to attend them more out of obligation and the fact that it’s a special day for my friends more than any true girly desire to be at such an event.  Today, however, I’m a bundle of excited energy as I contemplate the wedding that I’ve been invited to this afternoon.  I’ve never even met my co-teacher’s husband or any members of her family so it’s a little awkward, from a Western perspective, attending the wedding of someone I’ve never met and who hasn’t personally invited me.  I feel a bit like a wedding crasher but, in Korea, it’s actually unusual to be invited by the couple themselves as this is seen as a direct request for money which is a major social faux pas.

What To Wear?

My morning is fairly relaxed and I take my time getting ready while debating what to wear.  When I asked my co-teacher what the appropriate dress would be, she told me that the outfit I’d worn the previous day to school would be appropriate.  Really? A black pant suit is appropriate wedding attire in Korea?  This seems rather sombre so I quickly text KiwiKat and rely on her eight and a half years of living in Korea experience and advice. Her response? As a foreigner, I can wear jeans and a t-shirt if I’d like.  Not very helpful since it’s family of my co-teacher and I don’t want to offend anyone by being dressed inappropriately.  I’ve read that red and green are traditional wedding colours so I’m not sure if this means guests should afford wearing red as we would avoid wearing white for Western weddings.  Eventually, KiwiKat tells me that most people do actually wear black to a wedding which creates a funeral-like atmosphere in dress.  I decide on a black dress, jacket and heels and attempt to navigate the very windy and ice-covered (read: treacherous) road between my apartment and the main road to find a taxi.

My co-teacher has texted me the address of the wedding hall in Korean and tells me that it will probably take about 20 minutes by taxi to get from the bus terminal to the wedding hall.  On top of the 45 minute bus trip to Jeonju itself, this means I need to leave Gunsan by 11:00 am in order to get to the venue by around 12:30.  The wedding starts at 13:00 but my co-teacher and her family will be there an hour earlier and I’m told that I’m welcome to arrive anytime from 12:00.  Unfortunately, I only manage to get to the bus station at 11:10 and so am on the 11:20 bus to Jeonju instead of the 11:00am bus.  Hopefully this delay won’t have a ripple effect in Jeonju. 

Where Do I Go From Here?

I arrive in Jeonju at 12:00, find a taxi and happily show him the text message on my phone before settling back to enjoy the passing sights of Jeonju anticipating a 20 minute journey. Within five minutes, and having only made one turn from the bus terminal, the driver surprises me by pulling over in front of what appears to be a wedding hall where he also stops the metre.  This can’t be the right venue and mild-panic and confusion begin to take over as I frantically try to think of the best course of action.  I get out of the taxi, find as sheltered a spot as possible on the windy sidewalk and try to phone my co-teacher to describe my location – she doesn’t answer.  I then decide to compare the text in her message to that on the building in front of me: We-ed-ding – Hall-ugh is all that is written on the building.  Great. Five minutes in the cold and all that I’ve established is that I’m standing outside of a wedding hall but I’m still not certain that this is the wedding hall that I am looking for. 

I must have the confused-and-upset-waegook­-about-to-cry expression on my face because, as I look helplessly around me trying to think of who to approach for help, a cute Korean guy approaches me and asks if he can help me with anything.  Relieved, I thrust my mobile phone with the open text message in his direction, point at the address in Korean and ask, “Yeogi?” while pointing to the wedding hall in front of me.  His face lights up as he says, “Ah, a wedding! Yes, this one” and points to the same building at which I’m pointing.  I thank him profusely wishing I had time to chat to him a bit more and make my way inside the venue. 

Inside, while warmer, the venue is a hum of activity unlike anything I’d anticipated.  There are so many people and it suddenly occurs to me that I never thought to ask my co-teacher where, exactly, in this large venue I need to go; I’d only asked about getting to the general venue.  Trying not to be overwhelmed, I attempt to think calmly and rationally.  There is more than one wedding venue inside this building which is something that I should have anticipated.  I can’t try to ask anyone where my particular wedding is being held because I don’t know the names of the couple getting married.  I once again whip out my phone and half-heartedly try to phone my co-teacher who probably won’t be able to hear her phone over this noise anyway.  It’s then that I see a schedule board directly ahead of me with the details of five weddings between two rooms.  Each wedding has names and times attached to it and there appears to be only one wedding at 13:00 which must be mine. 

As my eyes slide down the rest of the writing, I remember my co-teacher telling me that “Oh” is her maiden name which, logically (always a dangerous way of thinking in Korea!), would mean her brother would have the same last name.  I’m grinning from ear to ear as I see that the family name of the wedding at 13:00 is, indeed, “Oh” so I only need to work out the location of the room now.  The room is on the second floor (thanks to numbers being written identically in Korean and English) and I try to sound out the name of the room which is written in Korean: Me-jik Hall-ugh.  I repeat this to myself several times as I try to commit it to memory when it suddenly hits me: Magic Hall! It’s Konglish written in Hangeul. I can’t help thinking Oh Korea as I head upstairs to the second floor where the next part of the “guest eligibility test” is waiting.

Hello Barbie

Before I proceed with what happens upstairs, I must first share my latest ‘identity’ story: While standing in the lobby of the wedding venue, trying to phone my co-teacher while studying the notice board intently and trying to decipher the information, a gorgeous little Korean girl in a black dress and fluffy pink jacket turns away from the same board her parents are studying and faces me.  Her eyes light up when she sees me and I notice her looking me up and down in wonder as she quickly moves closer until she is standing toe to toe with me.  I suddenly feel very tall towering over this little girl of four or five years of age who has her head tilted back as far as it can go while she smiles, waves and looks at me in wonder and awe.  I wave down at her and say “Hi” a couple of times as I listen to the ringing of my co-teacher’s unanswered phone.  This only lasts for about a minute before her mother sees us, smiles and walks over to fetch her daughter who excitedly says something to her in Korean which makes her mother laugh. Fortunately, her mother is able to speak enough English to translate her daughter’s excited message: “She says you look like Barbie” and then they’re gone.  I’ve heard that Koreans will often tell most Westerners that the resemble celebrities with whom they are familiar – usually George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and so on – but this is the first time I’ve been compared to Barbie!

Searching For Magic

Back on the second floor, I’m faced with the next challenge and starting to wonder if I have to pass some sort of test before I’m truly allowed to attend my first Korean wedding.  I can see a room that is not called Me-jik Hall-ugh and there are so many people standing around outside of the venue that I’m starting to feel a little despondent.  It’s only 12:30 but somehow it feels like I’ve been at this venue much longer than a mere 10 minutes.  I’m just about to look for my trusty phone once more when my co-teacher suddenly appears in front of me dressed beautifully in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing).  She takes me by the hand and leads me around the corner from where I’ve been standing where I see the second room.  Relieved to have finally found the correct venue, I am now faced with the reality of meeting her entire family and not only her husband.  I feel somewhat awkward as she introduces me to her parents and her brother who are all busy welcoming guests. 

Her brother seems somewhat bemused that I’m attending his wedding and tells his sister (in Korean, of course), “There’s nothing special to see here.” She’s quick to tell him that Korean weddings are different to Western ones and this is my first Korean wedding so it’s all very new for me.  She then points out her husband to me. He is collecting the wedding gifts from guests so I ask my co-teacher if that’s where I need to go.  She tells me that it’s not necessary for me to give a gift but I insist and tell her that I would really like to do so and she semi-reluctantly leads me to the counter to collect an envelope and then over to a seat to write my congratulatory message on the envelope – no cards, no fuss, just practical. 

Korean weddings are very expensive and particularly if they follow a traditional wedding.  Over and above the cost of the venue hire, the bride’s dress, photographs and meals, there is the cost of the traditional Korean wedding attire for the second ceremony and all of the pre-wedding traditions that quickly add up.  Consequently, wedding gifts in Korea are usually money which is usually given to the family of the couple to help pay for the wedding costs.  This is a far more practical approach than the Western concept of buying random gifts from a registry or racking one’s brains for a unique gift if there is no registry.  However, the amount given seems rather low.  The minimum respectable amount to give is only 30 000 won (approximately US$30) while up to 100 000 won (approximately US$100) is permissible in exceptional circumstances – presumably when it’s a relative or a best friend’s wedding. 

Meet the Bride

As I hand over my gift, I’m given a meal voucher for the cafeteria and told to please enjoy the lunch.  This gesture takes me by surprise since Western weddings are generally a private affair with a venue and reception for individual weddings.  Once again, Korea shows just how collectivist it is: lunch is served buffet style in a cafeteria similar to the one at school but with smarter tables and chairs. I thank them as my co-teacher leads me away once again and asks if I’d like to see the bride.  This is another significant difference between Western and Korean weddings.  The groom and his family stand outside the wedding hall to greet all of the guests while the bride sits on a velveteen couch in a side room and has photos taken with all of the guests – including me. 

After photos with the bride, my co-teacher shows me to the wedding room and tells me that the previous wedding is over so I should please take a seat.  She points me in a direction and assures me that if it’s the wrong side, she’ll come and get me before excusing herself to resume familial obligations.  I confidently stride towards a seat thinking it very odd that the chairs have not yet been straightened and guests are starting to arrive.  As I’m about to start straightening chairs myself, I realise that the previous wedding is not actually over as they’re still busy taking group photos.  I’m the only foreigner in the crowd so everyone notices me as I try to shrink back to the furthest corner of the room much to the amusement of several guests.  From my new vantage point, I watch the photo session with vivid interest as I wait for my wedding to start….

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