Monday, October 17, 2011

A Modern Traditional Korean Wedding

Today, an American female friend married her Korean soulmate at the famous Korea House, which they had to book several months in advance for. At the reception afterwards, she was laughing with several of her friends about her choice of wedding hall: three of her couple-friends in attendance had gotten married there and there were a lot of memories stirred up by the group gathering.

Korea House

Korea House (한국의집) is popular for both Koreans and foreigners as a wedding hall. Korea House provides a traditional cultural setting, food, performance and cultural goods. Originally as a private residence of Park Paeng-nyeon, a scholar during King Sejong's rule (4th king of the Joseon Dynasty), after the establishment of the South Korean government the hall was used as a guest hall for domestic and overseas VIPs, and then in 1980 finally became managed by the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation for the development and preservation of traditional Korean culture. The design of the building is regarded as an important intangible cultural asset. With such a historic background and the traditional ambience located in the heart of Seoul, popularity as a traditional wedding hall is guaranteed, especially for Koreans marrying non-Koreans who want their visiting family members to experience the Korean culture they are marrying into.

In the courtyard the family members assemble in a line [well, traditionally the groom's family would be on one side of the courtyward and the bride's family on the other, but this non-traditional seating is to facilitate photography.] The court musician play their ensemble and await the coming of the groom, who is escorted by a senior or highly respected friend.

The groom humbly enters, and bows to the assisting honorable friend and groom are exchanged. This is a formality of acceptance and the groom is then escorted to his awaiting bride, who becomingly must hide her face from the groom and submissively follow him, tailed by her consenting mother. [Heather's mother was visiting Korea for the first time so her trailing behind was just an act of ritual whereas traditionally the mother would assist her daughter to the marriage table, set with fertility symbols, such as chestnuts, jujubes, rice cakes, eggs, a chicken wrapped in cloth. etc -- only chestnuts were on this simplified table, however.]

The bride bows deeply to the groom. He bows in return. Then [I've never seen this before] he performs ritualistic absolutions of cleansing his face and hands with ceremonial water on his side of the table, and then she does the same on her side. [It is important to note that a sharp delineation of gender roles and rituals for gender are apparent in any traditional ceremony ... a book could be written on just the Korean marriage ceremony!]

After ritualistic cleansing, once again they bow; this time deep genuflections are solemnly performed three times with foreheads touching hands which are placed decorously on the straw mat. These deep genuflections from the bride are symbolic of her subserviant attitude to be performed throughout marriage, and his accepting her subservience as his bride ... [traditional thinking].

Then, maintaining gender segregation the groom on his side and the bride on hers are assisted with eating their "first meal together", symbolic of future meals to be shared as husband and wife, although in the Korean language frequently when people talk about a couple they refer to them as the "groom and the bride"; only with more and more exposure to western thinking has this been changing to "husband and wife".

With the eating of their "first meal" together, the bride is ready to say farewell to her family and enter her in-laws household. [Traditionally, she entered as household drudge as the new bride was to serve her husband and his extended family. She would only get relief in household work as her groom's younger brothers got married and brought their wives into the household and the youngest female to enter the household would be the one to do the hardest labor.] To saw farewell, the bride turns to her parents and bows her farewell. [In many other ceremonies I've seen, the bows have been genuflection to the floor, three times with hands held in polite decorum. Our bride here was directed that the single bow from the waist would be sufficiently polite and convey the honor necessary to both her parents and in-laws. Otherwise, the ceremony would have been long. She (perhaps including her husband) would have had to genuflect to the floor three times in farewell to her parents, and then genuflect three times to the groom's parents as she was now to be registered under their 촉포, family registry.]

I really don't get it. In Korea when a ceremony is over, people jump up and rush out. The bow was barely concluded and over a third and maybe half of the people were gone, not even waiting for the bride and groom to make an exit to the door which the bride had entered by. The reason for this rush in Korea is shameful I think: people are anxious to eat the good food at the reception. I've even known (many times!) people who take a quick peak at the bride and groom in the ceremony and head for the dining hall before "the rush" gets there. But because the majority bolted or went to the front to take pictures of the newly wed couple, I could get a shot of the elegant display of flower arrangments traditionally present at weddings (colorful), funerals (white), and in front of shops at shop openings (colorful). Each tiered flower bouquet must cost at least ₩200,000, but the Korea House package deal includes these background arrangeents, which are shaped by the several weddings held on that day.

The Reception

I was a bit surprised by the reception at Korea House. In their glorious colored brochures advertising their splendid facilities and ceremonies, low reception tables are spread elegantly with chopstick and spoon sets, a spreading centerpiece of appetising side dishes, and steaming bowls of soups or meat dishes are served to people who are sitting on mats at the table. We, on the other hand, were directed to the "new dining hall" and it was inelegant buffet style. The food was varied but the decorum was lost. Buffet style is the new rage in Korea for speed and efficiency in serving the most people. It does not require many attendants, the tables are east to set and clean up afterwards, and an eating time limit is enforced for laggers, which we were. Another wedding party was expected within half an hour and we were politely asked to depart. Though the atmosphere didn't signify anything special, the food itself was delicious and there were many meat and seafood dishes, which is considered important for food events in the present-day.

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