Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here Comes the (Korean) Bride (15 January)

As the previous wedding’s guests leave and the new guests sit down, I can’t help but agree with my co-teacher’s statement that this is basically just a ‘wedding factory’.  NZ2 describes this popular style of Korean wedding as the McDonalds’ of weddings as people are ushered in and out in succession.  People are settled and the wedding’s about to start when my co-teacher suddenly appears by my side – I am sitting on the wrong side of the room.  She takes me by the hand and leads me quietly around the back of the room while softly explaining the start of the ceremony.  I feel slightly self-conscious as we walk past the bride, groom and their parents who are all waiting to walk down the aisle.  A side note about the aisle: This is not just a carpeted passage down the middle of the room; it’s a slightly elevated structure that resembles a runway and has usherettes dressed in cinema type outfits standing on either side of the runway.
Here Comes the...Mothers, Groom and Finally the Bride

Seated on the correct side of the venue, I watch in interest as the mothers of the bride and groom walk down the aisle to the altar-like structure where they light the ‘candles’ (traditionally they would have been candles; today, they’re electric lights) that symbolise the joining of the two families.  With the candles lit, they are guided to armchairs at the front of the room where the parents of the couple sit for the ceremony.  Then, the usherettes gather their swords (seriously!) and prepare their positions for the groom’s entrance.  A trumpet fanfare plays as the grooms strides down the runway, through the Arch of Swords (sabres) in a type of Sword Ceremony, and to the altar where he bows to the person conducting the ceremony and then to the guests who applaud.  There’s a slight theatrical feel to the ceremony and clearly a wedding day is an important occasion in Korea.

The bride then proceeds down the runway on the arm of her father which is a more Westernized approach it seems.  Both the bride and groom are dressed in Western style wedding attire – ie. A tuxedo for him and a white dress for her.  The Arch of Swords remains in place for the bride and her father but swiftly disappears as soon as they have exited it.  At the head of the aisle, the groom is waiting where he bows to both the bride and her father before leading the bride to the altar to begin the ceremony.  Korean weddings don’t include bridesmaids or groomsmen but a guest, usually the bride’s best friend, ensures the train of the dress is beautifully displayed at all times which, in all honesty, is a bit distracting. 

A Few Cultural Differences

Since the couple have the backs to the guests, the venue kindly provides a projector screen at the front of the room and is fitted with a camera at the very front and the very back of the room so that guests need not turn around to see the aisle and the couple’s faces can be seen during the ceremony.  The person conducting the ceremony, who I think may have been a priest/pastor since my co-teacher is a Christian, then starts to speak.  What is said, I have no idea.  However, during the ceremony, there is a lot of (loud) talking from the guests which is very strange considering most guests are very quiet and respectful during Western ceremonies and only get loud during the reception.  Apparently, the spoken part of weddings is almost always the same so people don’t really listen to what is being said.  It’s more important that you are seen attending the wedding than what you actually do during the wedding itself.  The more people who attend the wedding, the more important it appears to be.

Once the spoken parts are over, I work out that this means that the couple are now married.  They move first to the bride’s parents where the bride does a half bow and the groom does a full bow (this means that his head touches the floor).  The couple then proceed to the groom’s parents where they again bow and the groom’s mother hugs the bride to welcome her to the family.  Each time the bride moves, her friend is behind her to straighten the train of her dress which, quite frankly, seems somewhat redundant considering how often they move in this part!  With the bows done, the couple then turn to the side where someone sings what sounds like a love ballade.  After the ballade, they turn to the other side and we all watch a three minute slide show of the couple’s wedding photos. 

This slide show is not a reflection of Koreans’ excellent organisation skills in that they are showing wedding photos taken on the actual wedding day.  Rather, these are the studio photos that are taken a month before the wedding!  Where Westerners consider it bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before the actual ceremony, Koreans seem to have no such superstition.  The wedding photos are apparently a big event and couples usually spend a day having various photos taken and change outfits up to five times.  Fortunately, I already know this since my co-teacher explained it to me in mid-December when I commented on a wedding photo of her and her husband. 

As the newlyweds bow to their guests, I can’t help but feel a flicker of irritation at the level of noise both inside and outside of the hall.  There are no doors to close off the rooms during the ceremonies and people tend to congregate outside of the wedding halls where they talk loudly while watching random ceremonies. At one point, I can even hear Mendelssohn’s Wedding March playing to indicate the end of the wedding in the room across the reception area.  It seems absurd to be able to hear what it happening in another wedding venue in addition to what is happening in this venue.

Another trumpet fanfare blasts over the sound system as the newlyweds slowly make their way back down the aisle and through the Arch of Swords.  I watch the usherettes curiously as two of them stand in front of the altar with trumpets which they then proceed to aim in the couple’s direction and, just as I start thinking that it looks like the usherettes are going to shoot the couple as they walk away, a loud bang erupts and streamers spring forward and over the couple who seem to have been anticipating them.  A congratulatory song, Chuka Hamnida, accompanies the streamers and the couple’s exit.  They reach the exit of the room only to turn around and come back to the front of the room to take group photos with guests. 

Photo Time

As with Western weddings, there seems to be a certain protocol to the photos that are taken and in which order.  There are the obligatory photos of the couple with each set of parents, all of the parents together and the immediate family.  Then there is a group photo of the couple with the groom’s friends and one with the bride’s friends.  Each photo take approximately five minutes to set up and it’s interesting to note that the order of the photos in addition to the poses in which the photographer places people are all identical to those I saw of the previous wedding.  It really reinforces my co-teacher’s criticism of this being a type of wedding factory and I realise just how westernized my co-teacher is in many thoughts. 

One of the photos that is taken with the bride’s friends includes the throwing of the bouquet.  Unlike Western weddings where all unmarried women attempt to catch the bouquet, there is only one person (usually the bride’s best friend) who catches it in a Korean wedding and even then, it’s just for the photos more than anything else.  While the bride throws the bouquet, all of the guests in the photo smile and applaud as the best friend scrambles to catch the bouquet before it hits the ground.

It’s interesting to note that the guests leave as soon as they’ve had photos taken with the couple.  They independently go to the cafeteria with their meal vouchers, have lunch and go home; there’s no reception, no dancing, no chatting to the happy couple – the entire wedding is over within an hour unless you happen to be immediate family members.  My co-teacher is worried that I’m bored by the ceremony’s events since, obviously, I don’t understand what is being said.  When I assure her that I actually found the process very interesting, she asks if I’d like to see traditional Korean wedding attire and I immediately seize upon this opportunity to witness a more traditional wedding that hasn’t been assaulted with bawdy Western components.

Pyae Baek

She leads me downstairs with her husband and ushers me to a small room next to the stairs where a traditional Korean meal has been set up.  I’m encouraged to take lots of photos and, as I look around me, I start to realise that the only people at this part of the ceremony are all immediate family members.  As a foreigner, I’m clearly not related to anyone here and I suspect that being invited to this part of the wedding is truly an honour for which I’m very grateful. 

As the bride and groom change into the traditional wedding attire, my co-teacher explains that this part of the ceremony is called pyae baek and is traditionally the first meal that the bride makes for her new family.  She also explains a few other traditions that are no longer followed and, when her brother emerges dressed in the traditional Korean wedding attire, she laughs happily while telling me to take pictures of him.  He already looks uncomfortable as it is so I take surreptitious photos rather than maximise his discomfort.  It’s clear that this part of the ceremony is more of a photo opportunity than anything else and there are numerous photos taken of the couple by themselves and with various family members pretending to be enjoying a meal together.  Traditionally, this meal would have been held in the groom’s home (if he was the eldest or only son) or the couple’s new home and the family really would have shared a meal together.  Now, it’s little more than a chance to take commemorative photos showing the family eating together and the parents throwing chestnuts and red dates at the couple to wish them success with fertility and lots of children.   

I’m told to take a photo with the couple too but over the course of the past hour, I’ve realised just how much of a family event this part really is so I decline the photo as gracefully and politely as possible.  They then move onto the final part of the ceremony: The groom gives the bride a piggy back ride around the room as a reminder of his obligations and duty to his wife.  I’m later told by some foreign friends that being invited to this traditional ceremony is an honour and shows how highly I’m thought of by the people who invited me so I must have done something right this afternoon.  With the traditional part over, we head to the cafeteria to have lunch together.  It’s been a busy three hours and I’m actually quite tired but very grateful to my co-teacher for thinking of me and giving me the opportunity to attend this wedding.  Part of me suspects that I’ve just witnessed a side of Korean culture that few foreigners are privileged to see and I think that my co-teacher is secretly very pleased that I travelled to Jeonju, on the coldest winter day thus far, to share this special family occasion. 

She escorts me out of the wedding hall and down to the road where she hails a taxi for me, gives the driver instructions on where to take me and then bids me a good weekend and goodbye .  The trip back to Gunsan seems to pass very quickly as I think of everything that I’ve learnt and experienced in the past four hours.  I can’t wait to share this experience with Catfish!

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