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Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

When you’re a little girl, you dream of the proposal and the big-puffy-white-wedding-dress-day, but you never think about what comes in between. I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed being engaged. Of course it gives you license to plan a bigger-than-life party of proportions which few of us will ever do again unless we are socialites or event planners, but it also gives you a different social status. When you are pushing thirty, and your ‘boyfriend’ is inching ever closer to forty, it seems rather ridiculous to call him a ‘boyfriend.’ Not only that, in Korea, where living together before marriage – or even living by yourself before marriage is still a rarity, and where there actually are enormous social and legal benefits to gain from getting married, taking that step into married status means much more than just ‘signing a piece of paper.’

Being engaged has given me a very different status in Korea. If we were in Canada, Mr. Lee would have met my family loooong before we ever started discussing marriage. He would have met the folks early on, come to Christmas dinners, Father’s Day golf games, and cousin’s Christenings, and we would have been slowly recognized as a serious couple as we integrated into my family as a couple. I’m not saying that there isn’t a change in how people are treated in Canada when they get engaged, but in Korea I did not go to any family gatherings until we had already set the date. In fact, I ordered my Canadian cake and chosen my wedding menu before I met Mr. Lee’s siblings and extended family. The reasoning I have always been told for this is that ‘because family is important, we only introduce our partner when we want to marry,’ but of course in Canada, the sentiment goes, ‘because family is important, we introduce our partner long before we want to marry.’ We have had a few friends who have been introduced to their future in-laws much earlier in the dating process, but they are younger and essentially of a different ‘generation’ (even just by 5 years) to Mr. Lee.

But being engaged has also meant that I get all of the recognition of our engagement, but less of the responsibility of marriage…and…well that’s nice! I haven’t had to cook and clean for an extra person, I haven’t had to collect dirty-boy-underwear from around the house, and I have been able to spend my free time as I like it. Living with another person – no matter how enlightened or do-your-own-thing- they are, means more compromises in how you live…and I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ve also had time to think about what my vision of ‘wife’ is…and about the kind of wife I want to be, but I haven’t had to actually implement or work through the process of any of those changes yet.

However, this will all change in about 10 hours when I will legally become…a wife.

I woke up this morning with a glee-tinged panic attack. Until today I really didn’t get the concept of ‘cold feet.’ I love Mr. Lee, and I think I’ve found myself a pretty good catch. I’ve also made, what for me, is the ultimate commitment to him by deciding to renew my visa in Korea again and again and again so I can stay in his country and be with him. But there is something culturally or cosmically special about signing that piece of paper and legalizing a partnership, and it’s been hitting me in waves again and again and again throughout today that I am going to be a wife. It’s an awesome commitment in that old sense of the word – incredible and powerful, but also full of responsibility and meaning. I guess because I’m getting so close that I am now sensing sense the importance of marriage instead of just cognitively understanding the concept, that I also feel weighed by the enormity of the commitment I am about to make. I have the same feelings about divorce as I have for abortions: they should be legal, but I want to do everything in my power to avoid putting myself in the situation where either would ever be necessary.

I guess when you get married, there is also that spark of nostalgia for the ‘single’ life. I myself spent many many many years as a very very very single girl, and for the most part, I didn’t like it. But I did learn a hell of a lot about myself, and I did come to trust my understanding of who I am and what I need – and I think this tinge of sadness is about that difficult but enlightening process is officially morphing into a very different life path at this moment. When the future looks delightful but new, sometimes we still cling onto the tried and true old path simply because it is the known path.

But beyond the fear and the nervousness, I’m also excited to be starting a new chapter of life. It’s a chapter I’ve been wanting to open for a long time, and it’s a life stage I am ready for. I’ve heard so much about being a wife – I’ve heard so much about love that endures all things and all ages, and I’m anxious to be done with the waiting and try my hand at wifedom myself.

So, so long ‘single’ life. So long my fiancée status. On this day, I will be a wife.

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A Lack of Narrative

     I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I’ve heard that Canadians don’t have cultural traditions.  Okay – Chinese-Canadians are supposed to have traditions – French Canadians are supposed to have traditions – Muslim-Canadians are supposed to have traditions.  But your average white quasi-Christian the-motherland-is-somewhere-in-the-hazy-past Canadian is supposed to lack anything special or unique about their cultural traditions.  There is some truth to this claim.  In many cases it’s hard to compartmentalize traditions that sometimes span across the Canadian-American boarder, or across the Atlantic to those distant ancestral lands, or fall somewhere into ‘modern Western traditions’ – a category as broad and mythical as magical realism.  But the implication that people lack culture, expectations, or social boundaries dissipates the longer you live abroad.  And there is nothing more indicative of this, as the expectations that arise as soon as you start contemplating marriage.

     In my Canadian cultural milieu, the man buys a ring (I’ve heard on wedding boards that the new standard is nothing short of a 2 karat…seriously?!).  Then he plans an elaborate proposal…she agrees…they plan an elaborate way to announce their engagement…and then they are expected to pick a date and venue as soon as possible.  The first question always asked is ‘how did he propose,’ and the listener expects a thrilling narrative of romance, creativity, and emotional proclamations of love.  It is supposed to have a certain rhythm – stock characters – stock themes – perhaps a botched attempt or a moment where everything goes wrong but is then salvaged by the bride’s answer ‘yes.’  This narrative is ritually retold to adoring groups of women (and men) who might reciprocate with their own fantastical tales from the past. 

     I don’t mean to trivialize or ridicule this tradition.  In fact, I also love to indulge in these stories. But it really is interesting that in addition to knowing where you were when you found out Kennedy had been shot (my father was buying shoes), or when OJ had been acquitted (my 11th grade history class watched the verdict together), everyone is supposed to have a proposal story. 

     On the other hand, my engagement was upside down.  Around May we discussed getting married at some point 2010.  Around June we decided to get married in Korea spring 2010 and Canada summer 2010.  Around July we set the Korean date.  Around the beginning of August my mum accidently found out we were engaged.  So we just started telling random friends when we bumped into them that we were getting married.  In the middle of August we made a semi-official ‘surprise’ announcement to Canadian family and friends although about half of the people already knew about our decision (thanks to a Facebook mishap).  And at the end of August, I bought my own ring with my mother…not Mr. Lee.  Part of the reason for this ‘backward’ approach was that A) Mr. Lee…while being an incredibly thoughtful person who really does strive to make me happy, does not have a romantic bone in his body.  I gave up on ever getting flowers years ago…so a romantic proposal was never in the cards.  B) While there are, on occasion, romantic proposals complete with diamond rings in Korea, a spectacular over-the-top proposal is relatively uncommon.  Therefore, Mr. Lee had little cultural reference or cultural pressure to make such a proposal.  C) I got sick of waiting.^^

     Now, from a feminist perspective, this seems like a good engagement.  It was a mutual decision…reached rationally after much discussion…dates picked according to the pre-scheduled family flight schedules…and the ring bought by the person who was actually going to wear it forever.  A nice rational decision by two mutually agreeing parties without the intervention of sappy love songs or even 궁합 (kunghap), the Korean pseudo-scientific method of determining if two people are a proper match. 

     In reality, it was fascinating to see the general public’s reaction to our unorthodox approach.  Previous to our big announcement, the acquaintances and coworkers I told seemed a bit confused.  With the absence of a proposal narrative…the absence of a large rock…I got tentative nods…veiled confused looks…and my mother’s initial reaction was…’oh that’s nice.’  In fact, apart from a very small number of very close friends, the first outburst of joy that I experienced about our engagement came when we made the official big announcement in Canada, which was followed with screams and even some tears.  It was only when we followed an engagement protocol – the big reveal – that our engagement was taken seriously.  In fact, just last night when I was out with friends, I was asked to relate my proposal story.  When I couldn’t produce one, a dear manly-man friend quickly moved to another friend’s uber romantic narrative which was then discussed and dissected at great length by the group.  In the absence of my story, another’s was needed to fill the void. 

     I’m not relating this story to complain about the initial lack of enthusiasm at our engagement, but rather to wonder at the necessity of following the established engagement rituals.  In fact…the greatest outpouring of excitement was when we changed our Facebook statuses.  My aunt Facebooked me to scold me for not changing my status from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘engaged.’  When we did, I was astounded by the enthusiasm our virtual announcement generated.  It seemed like for many people, we were only officially or publically engaged when we put it on Facebook.  In other words, there is not only an unspoken sense of what people should traditionally do, but also a modern virtual component.

     In all honesty, I myself had some misgivings about our chosen process.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted a romantic story or a ring to show off…but other’s reactions validated or invalidated my own sense of a new stage of life.  With the absence of their validation, it seemed as if no decisions had been made – no life change had occurred.  I was surprised by my own need to have others recognize our engagement, and by my doubts that we had maybe gone about committing ourselves in the ‘right way.’

     Interestingly, Koreans had a much different reaction to our engagement.  The first question I am always asked is ‘do his parents approve?’ (Issues of interracial and intercultural marriage in Korea are topics that I will attack at great length in the future).  The second question is always if we are going to live with his parents and/or if our future children will live full time with his parents! (Another long post forthcoming).  And a common question from older people is always ‘did you do 궁합?’ No Korean has ever asked to see my ring or hear my proposal story.  There is no expectation or a grand announcement. Our engagement is much more about his family’s reaction to me than about our personal story. 

     It’s interesting to experience this cultural divide: to have one set of questions, always asked in the same order from one group, and another entirely predetermined set from another group.  And it’s also been interesting to see how personally I take the one set and how flippantly I answer the second.  I am a creature of my own cultural expectations, regardless of the years I have lived abroad, or the cultural traditions I have straddled.  It’s also interesting to note that despite our unorthodox engagement and unorthodox personalities, we have decided to have a very ‘proper’ Korean traditional wedding and a very ‘proper’ WASPish Canadian wedding. (Discussions about ‘propriety’ also forthcoming).

     I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘it’s YOUR wedding.  Do WHATEVER you want.’  But that’s not really true is it?  Apart from religious or legal reasons, the main reason people have a public ceremony is so that they are socially recognized as spouses within their social group.  And the way they are recognized by society as ‘married’ is by a set of prescribed rituals, so that even if they seek to change the outward appearance of the ritual, they still must retain the form and structure in order to be recognized.  So, therefore…I now have my ring.  I have my wedding dates.  And I’ve posted e-ring pics on Facebook.  I am now officially a ­ modern Canadian bride-to-be.  Whether or not that makes me a proper Korean bride-to-be is entirely another matter.

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