Bubbles, laser, money, "I do"

The fourth instalment in a five part series by Riann Arkinstall on life in Korea.

Bubbles, laser lights and money: The Korean wedding

by Riann Arkinstall

Marriage is big industry in Korea. It is still usual for couples to meet each other through a blind date (arranged by family or friends) or, even more ‘blind’, through a couples matching agency (but this is less common). Depending on the social ‘rank’ of the marriage partner one is interested in, the cost for arranging such a potential mate will run in excess of $4,000.

There are numerous wedding halls (or, as I term them, ‘factories’), which churn out a marriage every 30 minutes on weekends. Most of these wedding halls have some type of glitzy theme ranging from a laser light show or bubbles being blown as the bride walks down the aisle to the bride descending in a glass elevator from the ceiling.  

The wedding is a time to have friends and relatives celebrate the new couple, but more than anything, it is a chance to gather the wedding money. Wedding gifts are not the norm.

The bride and groom have separate tables at the wedding hall entrance. Guests provide an envelope of money with the monetary gift ranging from a minimum of $30, if the guest is a student (i.e. no job yet), to $50, if one is a friend or colleague. 

As a relative, the gift should be at least $100, and if the guest is successful, around $1,000. It is important to note that this money is usually NOT for the couple, but rather for the couple’s parents. 

Curiously, after the ceremony, the value of each guest’s gift can be interpreted as a compliment or an insult.  

For example, I attended a close expat friend’s wedding, and knew that my friend didn’t have a car. As a joke, I only put enough money in the envelope for bus fare. This caused quite a controversy, which my friend had to explain at length to his in-laws.

The couple’s parents get the money because they traditionally have two distinct support roles. The groom’s parents should provide a new residence. The bride’s side provides all the furnishings, including appliances. The honeymoon cost is split between both families. 

This trend is changing, with more couples independently organizing and funding their wedding and new life, but it is still dictated by the couples parents. Not surprisingly, this can result in some massive arguments both leading up to, and following, the ceremony.

For our wedding ceremony, my wife and I decided to combine some traditional Korean customs with western ones. This was partly because my family would be attending from Canada (i.e. Korean customs), and we thought the Korean guests would enjoy a more Canadian style wedding ceremony with a reception party, which is not part of a Korean wedding.

The first part of a traditional Korean wedding is termed the ‘ham’. This is along the lines of a stag party, but totally different. The groom and his close friends gather together in the bride’s neighbourhood. In this group are the groom, and two important friends who have designated jobs. One is the ham horse that carries the ham box. The ham box is filled with some gifts such as nicely decorated fruit and snacks, expensive jewelry, good fabric for the bride’s family to make a new hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), an ancestral lineage document, and money. The other member is the ham horse driver. He decides how and when the ham proceeds.

Fuelled with alcohol and a sense of mischief, the ham procession roams through the neighbourhood, exclaiming loudly and publicly that a wedding is planned. As they go, they tease the bride and her family that they are on their way, and that to get this good man as a husband (and the accompanying ham box) the bride and her family need to make some good offerings.  

The entire village now knows of this event, and comes out to watch, or watches through windows. To quiet down this public spectacle, the bride’s parents will come to meet the ham to encourage them, by offering money, drinks and suggestions of good entertainment, to come quietly to the house of the bride.

Along the way, the bride’s side will continue to entice the ham procession, and must provide better and better offerings, otherwise the horse driver will stop the procession until he is satisfied with the offerings. Eventually they will make it to the bride’s home. Once in the home, the ham box is opened and a nice party ensues.

Another important part of the ham party is getting the groom ready for his new life. He must have good stamina for the honeymoon (and to make the honeymoon baby).  

In order to help him, the party attendees will smack the bottom of his feet. This is an oriental medicine concept that striking the soles of the feet builds one’s internal energy. Each turn at the striking stick costs a fee. This money is taken by the groom’s friends to pay for more festivities later in the evening.

The wedding day comes. Both bride and groom get totally made up. The bride walks the aisle herself. After a short ceremony, generally commenced by a close and well-respected friend of the groom, the attendees gather in the wedding hall buffet area for a short meal. The new couple will come around to each table to say hello. 

After that, they are off to their honeymoon to enjoy their first nights together as a married couple.

To be continued . . . Making the honeymoon baby


First instalment: Moving to Korea, eh?

Second instalment: “Teacher should hit me”

Third instalment: Hits from the Norae bong

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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