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Posts Tagged ‘traditional’

A little while ago, there was a bit of K-blog discussion about the modern Korean wedding, sometimes known as the ‘Western-style’ (more like ‘North American style’) or ‘wedding hall wedding’ (here and here and here).  Of course I was in the last stages of planning my own Korean wedding, so I didn’t have time to make a more timely response to those discussions.  Now, I’ve already blogged about how there are distinct and definite differences between this type of wedding in Canada and Korea, but I’d like to address the issue of ‘authenticity’ with the modern Korean wedding.

Long ago, even before we were engaged, Mr. Lee and I decided that we would not be having a wedding hall wedding in Korea.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  A) They are mostly cookie-cutter weddings, and we are not cookie-cutter type of people B) Mr. Lee works for a large company where workers are ‘required’ to attend even remotely connected coworker’s cookie-cutter weddings, which means that these days few of his coworkers actually attend weddings.  They go – hand in their money…eat the meal during the ceremony…and then rush upstairs to get into the photo to ‘prove’ they were there. By having a contemporary traditional wedding, people were actually excited to attend the ceremony C) Even his parents had a wedding hall-esq wedding…meaning that nobody since his grandparents’ generation had participated in a ‘traditional’ wedding – making it a unique experience for all but strangely many of my friends as a larger-than-you-would-expect number of expats marrying Koreans actually opt for this ceremony.

But the overarching feeling that we both had was that we didn’t want a wedding hall wedding because we didn’t like it.  We didn’t want the bubble machines, motorized carriages, smoke machines, blaring music, people talking on their cell phones loudly through the ceremony, the magic shows, the feats of strength…the sword used to cut the fake cake…and I’m not kidding about this.  These things regularly occur in wedding hall weddings.  In other words, to us it did not seem like an authentic wedding. 

Now, notice that I said, ‘to us.’ 

Authenticity is a tricky issue, and certainly there is a whole lot of nationalism and perhaps at times even fanaticism attached to culture in many places in the world, and especially in Korea.  To say that culture is and has always been shared is a touchy subject with many people because everyone wants their culture to be ‘unique’..the first…the innovators…the alpha of any cultural form, symbol, or ritual.  But academically, the more you do objective research, and the more you expand your search, the more you realize that finding ‘authentic’ culture or even the origins or a cultural practice is no easy or possibly even possible matter.  Therefore, any kind of academic discussion saying the way Koreans celebrate Christmas is ‘inauthentic’ is a ridiculous discussion to have…because it’s true that Christmas barely resembles ‘Western Christmas’ with the exception of the public displays of lights and perhaps some nativity plays safe inside closed churches, but saying it is ‘inauthentic’ misses the fact that many Christmas symbols are pre-Christian, pre-modern West symbols.  Not to mention the fact that many American, Canadian, Kiwi, Aussie, South African etc. customs are from Europe….which have evolved over centuries in a different contexts from their ‘European’ roots…just as European customs in Europe have evolved and changed.  (Have you ever read David Sedaris’ Six to Eight Black Men? Do it….it is Santa as you’ve never seen him presented before).  And then we have to talk about the point in culture when something is indeed ‘authentic.’  Is it what is practiced now? What our grandparents practiced? What people did 200, 500, 1000, 5000 years ago which have now changed beyond recognition?  Certainly if I met my great great great great grandparents, they would consider the modern Canadian wedding as just as ‘inauthentic’ as I would consider their weddings.  All this means that from a rational point of view, ‘authentic’ should never be used with great seriousness when we talk about culture.  We can certainly note something that came earlier or later, or something that is closer or further away from an earlier manifestation, but we cannot say in an objective and rational way that culture is authentic or inauthentic.  It’s too loaded of a term.

However, let me return to that phrase ‘to us.’  I do think that from an emotional, a personal, an individual point of view, that cultural can feel inauthentic.  I will never, no matter how much Mr. Lee begs, go to a rock concert and eat pasta on Christmas Eve.  For me that’s not an authentic way to spend Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve means candlelight service, Christmas hymns, family rural Canada style dinner, and preparing privately for a great religious and cultural holiday.  It is not for going on a date with your significant other and braving the crowds for a K-pop concert.  That doesn’t mean that the Korean customs are wrong and I am right…it just means that I would feel like I was compromising my religious and cultural beliefs to do something other than I was raised with.  Even this past Christmas, when I went to Hong Kong to visit my sister, we went to her uber low Anglican church where they had glow sticks…seriously…glow sticks…for candles.  Merry Christmas to you Hong Kong! But we went to church and sang our hymns and heard the Gospel readings and then went back to our tiny hotel room to reminisce about Christmases past and track Santa’s travels on the NORAD website…because despite the radically different cultural context we were in, for us, Christmas is for Jesus and Christmas is meant to be spent with family…so that’s what we did.

So when it comes to wedding hall weddings in Korea, I want to say that for me, it doesn’t seem like an ‘authentic wedding.’  The symbols are there – the rituals are there, but to me they are but shadows of what I consider ‘the real thing.’  And for Mr. Lee, although he does not have the Canadian mainstream wedding experience, the wedding hall wedding does not seem dignified.  That’s not saying that it isn’t dignified for some people, and that for many brides it isn’t the ritual they have always dreamed of…it’s just not the ritual we have dreamed of.  And considering the fact that we are having a Canadian wedding at home which is sort of traditional (in a goth-rock sort of way), we didn’t want to have what we feel is the less ‘authentic’ version of the North American wedding.

Now, some people may say that as a ‘foreigner’ that I do not have the right to comment on Korean rituals.  I’ve already dealt a bit about the issues of what constitutes ‘foreigner’ and what kinds of rights and responsibilities we might/should have.  But on this particular issue, I want to simply say that when culture affects my life…when it is about celebrating my life stages … or affects my work or family life…or infringes upon my body…I do get a voice and I do have an opinion.  Of course, much of this hinges on the way in which we speak about culture, and if we can phrase differences of opinion in respectful ways, but I do think that expats, especially expats getting married or thinking about married here, have just as much right as our spouses to like or hate or feel ambivalence about wedding hall weddings. 

I fully realize that there are many pros about getting married in the wedding hall (see Roboseyo’s post), and most definitely our wedding venue had some of the things we perceive of as problems with the wedding hall wedding system (rushed feeling, lack of choice, buffet where everyone eats together)…but there ceremony itself was to our liking, and seeing as it was our wedding, we felt that it was within our rights to make our own judgements about what we were and were not comfortable with.

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Last semester in a presentation class, I did a compare and contrast presentation for my students on mainstream ‘Western’ weddings vs. mainstream Korean weddings. It was a fun topic for them to learn compare and contrast from, and more importantly, it was a good way for me to explore the common belief that the modern-day Korean wedding is a ‘Western’ wedding.

When we talk about a ritual, we can talk about both its external form and its cultural meaning. Sometimes, similarity in appearance deceives us into thinking that meaning is the same across cultures or that one culture is but a simple imitation of another.

Contemporary Korean weddings certainly have many external similarities with weddings found in Canada. The bride wears a white dress, she is escorted down the aisle by her father, the couple declares their fidelity, and the bride throws her bouquet to her single friends.

This is a far cry from the hanbok clad bride and groom in the ‘traditional’ wedding who are carried into the ceremony on palanquins before physically demonstrating their commitment to each other by bowing, ritually cleansing their hands, and drinking ceremonial alcohol. Rather than the wedding march, traditional weddings also include a small orchestra with traditional instruments.

However, just because the physical elements of the ‘Western’ wedding are present in traditional ceremonies does not mean that Westerners feel at home while attending Korean weddings. The similarity in external appearance betrays vast differences in the cultural underpinnings of these symbols and rituals.

As often noted, Western cultures are characterized more by individualism while Korean culture is heavily informed by collectivism. For the most parts, contemporary Western couples want their weddings to reflect their own tastes, interests, and viewpoints. I have learned that Western wedding planning is a maddeningly complicated process of picking out themes, linens, chair covers, favours, centrepieces, music, ceremony decorations, guest book covers, place settings, menu choices, transportation options, boutonnieres, bouquets, photographers, photography styles, save the dates, invitation packages, colour schemes, cake flavours, icing, toppers, and styles. To be sure, there are package deals at venues which narrow down some of these choices, but even the process of choosing between vendors, venues, and packages is mindboggling. The whole point is that the choices are endless because the variety of brides and grooms is endless. The wedding is supposed to represent you and your personal style.

Conversely, the Korean wedding is a master class in minor variations on the same theme. Yes, there are extraordinarily expensive hotel weddings, but the vast majority of nuptials are carried out in wedding halls which have the sole purpose of funnelling as many couples as possible through its doors as quickly as possible. Couples usually rent rooms for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, during which the ceremony, pictures, cake cutting, and congratulations all occur. The bride chooses her dress, officiant, and sometimes musical pieces, but the structure, decorations, and photography are cookie cutter versions of all the other weddings in that building and for the most part, the country. It’s all a little factory-esq. The venue decides on your cake, the use of bubble or dry ice machine, the exact ceremony structure and wording (not to mention the always present ‘Congratulations’ song Koreas are for some reason desperately devoted to).

Nobody wants to stray too far from the established norm. If someone else has already done it, it must be a good process or way. I was once told that there is no point putting together your own outfit and style when there is a perfectly good combination of pieces on the mannequin. If the store clerk has put the pieces together, then it must be the way they should be worn.

The other enormous difference is the length of time spent at the wedding itself. Western weddings tend to be long drawn out affairs. The ceremony at 1, two hours in between for pictures, a cocktail hour, sit down 5-course meal, dancing, and a late night candy buffet with mini sliders on the side. The emphasis is on community, fun, socializing, experiencing the entirely of the wedding in its fullness. It makes sense. If you are going to put 18 months into planning every single detail of an elaborate ceremony and reception, you want to draw out the length of the day as much as possible. If the wedding day is really ‘the bride’s day,’ she wants to be able to have the longest possible day and the most attention possible.

Oceans apart is the Korean wedding. I’ve never been to a ceremony lasting more than 30 minutes, and as mentioned before, the ceremony is the entire wedding minus a quick stop at the communal buffet and a short private ceremony (paebek) for only the couple and their families. When I first got to Korea, students would tell me they couldn’t come to class because they had 3 weddings to attend in one day! There is a reason for this quick in and out style of ceremony.

Korea is known for its bbali bbali or ‘quickly quickly’ culture. Buildings are constructed quickly, plumbers come minutes after a phone call, restaurants have your meal on the table within five minutes of ordering, buses hurl themselves through the streets oblivious to traffic rules or lights. People expect things to happen as quickly as possible when it comes to obtaining goods or services. And most importantly when it comes to weddings, nobody wants to spend longer than necessary on a wedding ceremony they have attended hundreds of times with only the couples’ faces and dress styles changing. The emphasis is on the couple and their families being seen going through the ritual motions, not on guests actually experiencing the event in any meaningful way. Mr. Lee has confessed that these days, many people appear in the ceremony room to show their face before heading down to the buffet and missing the ceremony entirely. After quickly eating, people rush up to join in for the obligatory photo before jetting off to the next event across town.

So do these two ceremonies have common symbols? Yes. Do they hit the same ceremonial points? For the most part, yes. But these two wedding ceremonies are also firmly rooted in two vastly different cultures with very different cultural views and expectations. I actually find it sad that Koreans often view this ceremony as a foreign ritual. Rather than being a shadowy mimicry of a foreign customs, I think that Koreans have taken physical symbols and found ways to situate them in the modern Korean reality. The contemporary wedding hall wedding is not the wedding I grew up with, but I do understand the meaning and role it places in Korean society today.

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Here’s an article about the traditional Korean wedding in today’s Korea Herald. It’s slightly annoying because although this is the ‘traditional traditional’ Korean wedding, it is not really the ‘traditional’ wedding that is practiced today(I’ve never seen an article on the contemporary traditional Korean wedding). We won’t be going through a matchmaker (too late for that), I don’t have a home courtyard to be married in, my FI won’t be coming in on a horse (not even in the ceremony itself), and many venues don’t have live chickens (ours does!). Still, this article has a lot of info on the symbolism of the traditional wedding.

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