Tuesday, May 11, 2010

not seeing Korean weddings

The science research school office worker girl invited me to her wedding last Saturday. I'd heard horrific things about Korean weddings, so I was half excited and half dreading going to it.

It was held at the Sun Town wedding hall in town. It already looked like a madhouse while Lindsey and I were walking up. Luckily I had called Elvis to get some pointers on how to deal with the wedding gift and everything and he ended up waiting in the parking lot for us amidst the crowds. Koreans don't do wedding gifts usually, just cash. 30 thousand won minimum. Although I've heard with the new 50 thousand won bills in circulation, the minimum is soon to raise. Apparently the cash makes the wedding double as a bit of a fundraising event, depending on the wealth of the couple tying the knot I suppose. The cash helps pay for the cost of having the wedding. This idea of fundraising was pretty much the only part of the event I liked. I think big weddings are a total waste of resources for families that aren't wealthy already, and cash seems to be just as impersonal as choosing something off a wedding gift registry at Bed Bath and Beyond, but seems more useful to the couple getting married. And it definitely helps better to counteract the exorbitant cost of having one's sacred union in love made into a massive public spectacle.

Once Elvis led the way for us through the shoving crowds and up the stairs we put our 30 thousand won into an envelope which the wedding hall provides, had Elvis mark it with the appropriate information (since there's multiple weddings going on simultaneously), and gave it to one of the people manning the cash donation desks. Upon giving the money, we each got a ticket for the buffet.

People's attire ran the gamut from formal wear similar to what you would see at weddings in the States to traditional Korean hanboks to just a hoodie, sneakers and jeans. It seemed like none of the children were dressed up for the occasion. I also liked that part of the wedding.

There were at least three weddings going on simultaneously that day, maybe more, but the mass of people and lack of time made if difficult to tell. I can only imagine what train wrecks transpire in those 5 storey monster wedding halls I've seen in Seoul. And all the people from all the weddings were eating off the same food at the buffet. All things considered the food wasn't that bad, and they had cold king crab legs.

After about 25 minutes or so of sitting awkwardly at the table that my elementary school staff had occupied and not really talking to anyone but Lindsey, I asked her what she thought the bride and groom were doing during the buffet, since it was going on before the wedding and it seemed like it was taking the place of the wedding reception, since there wasn't going to be any social event after the ceremony.

Finally, Elvis got my attention and asked if we wanted to go view the ceremony. All the teachers left at the table and Lindsey and I got up and followed him up the stairs to the room where the ceremony was happening and I saw the bride standing on the platform with her husband and around 20 other people, posing for a group photo. Elvis said something in Korean to some of the school staff, they all nodded, then he turned to me and told me, with his usual slight half-embarrassed grin, that the ceremony was finished.

Apparently Lindsey and I, along with the entire school staff attending had missed the ceremony because we were eating too long at the buffet. And they didn't seem concerned about it in the least. At least I had an answer to my question about where the bride and groom were while everyone was eating: they were getting married.

Judging from what time it was at that point, the entire ceremony had lasted less than 15 minutes. And they were taking group photos of different combinations of family and friends for around 20 or 30 minutes. They even staged the throwing of the wedding bouquet by choosing which woman was going to catch it, so they could capture the perfect "looking" moment for the photo album to be filled with other documentations of fabricated moments that had never been truly lived, from an event that had hardly even taken place, past the appearance of it. Everyone spilled outside, past the display of a long row of identical rental bridal gowns, and into the parking lot, and then we all dispersed and went home, all in just under an hour. I remember feeling like I'd been spit out of a tube of some sort, not even really sure what kind of event I'd witnessed (or not witnessed, for that matter). I asked where they were going for their honeymoon and only one person present seemed to know that they were going to Jeju Island. A teacher asked why they weren't going abroad, and another teacher gestured a hand across her belly and said it was because the bride was so pregnant.

It dawned on me that many Koreans are satisfied with having the "appearance" of having a wedding ceremony and having the images of having a wedding ceremony, and seemingly unconcerned with the emotional value and actual quality of the content of the ceremony itself that they actually have. Although, I'm assuming this only applies to the majority of Western style weddings in Korea, which unfortunately is the norm. I've never attended a traditional Korean wedding ceremony, but from what I've read or been told they seem a lot more involved. And some couples have a smaller traditional wedding ceremony after the larger Western one finishes.

I've been reading a lot of Marshal Mcluhan lately and he once defined the word tradition as "the sense of the total past as now." If that is the case, then maybe it makes sense that Korean Western style weddings seem so impersonal and devoid of many of the emotional subtleties and gestures one would expect in a wedding if they grew up in the States. What I mean is that Koreans have borrowed this style of wedding ceremony from the traditions of a different culture that lives across an ocean. Perhaps if they attempted to fill in all those subtleties and parts of the ritual that are missing, the wedding ceremony would seem a lot more phony than it already does, because they would be attempting to live out the sense of a total past that they themselves have never lived. I'm sure it would look just as silly or awkward for an American couple to be sitting on the floor in Korean traditional robes trying to mimic the gestures that take place during a traditional Korean wedding.

The wedding photography really fascinated me as well. Mostly the fact that documenting the event in photographs took a good deal longer than the actual event itself. The girl who was married had even shown me wedding pictures of just her and her husband in wedding outfits that she had had taken a couple of weeks before the wedding. In that case, it would be visual documentation of an event that had not yet even taken place.

More emphasis seemed to be placed on the images of the event than the event itself. They staged the throwing of the bouquet (they had the bride practice a couple of times before they took the final shot), and had groups of extended family and friends posing together with the bride and groom for pictures on the same platform that the marriage had just transpired on. But those groups of friends and family had just been an audience, and it was not a documentation of any interactions they were having or had just had with the newly married couple. In other words, the photograph was their interaction, by being the catalyst for them all to be standing next to each other, and at the same time, acting as a documentation for their togetherness. Yet, due to the sheer brevity of that wedding, it's very possible that had those people not been urged to stand close together for the group photo, they never would have interacted that much in the first place.

Wedding photography in the States displays many of the same oddities, just to different degrees. I've seen wedding photographs of the wedding ring on the bride's finger and wondered why they didn't just use the magazine advertisement image of the ring for their wedding album. I've never understood why so many people are happy with their wedding photographs looking like staged commercial advertisements for an idealized wedding which didn't actually happen in real life. It may be the fault of the education system, which is not required to make people fully image-literate that partly causes this general lack of concern about the way images represent them.

A good analogy would be to imagine a couple who is getting married and is really into reading books a lot more than photography, so they decide to have one of their professional writer friends create a written description of their wedding instead of hiring any photographers. But then their friend shows up two weeks before the wedding is going to take place and hands them the finished work. When the couple asks how that's possible, the friend says that he simply observed one of the rehearsals, and decided to adapt that to a description of the most ideal wedding they could ever possibly have in real life, with all the bells and whistles, so when they look back on it, it'll always be perfect. Of course the couple would be offended by such a gesture because it seems almost psychotic to have a mostly fictional written description of their own wedding for posterity. But on the other hand, most people will not even bat an eye at a set of obviously staged or exaggerated photographs that show idealized moments that function more like a series of wedding cliches than actual wedding moments. Many people will not think twice about having fictional photographs, because images don't have to represent the same continuous and consistent idea of reality as the written word does. Even a wedding videographer would have to be much more casual and unedited in his or her approach than a wedding photographer. Viewing a staged or overly exaggerated video of one's wedding will come across as fabricated and uncomfortable as a fictional account of it in text.

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