Julianne and I went to the wedding of a former co-worker and friend of mine a couple months ago.  It was Julianne’s first wedding hall experience (also known as a ‘wedding castle’) in Korea, and also her first exposure to Korean wedding hall culture.

I’ve been to 3 weddings now at Korean wedding halls, and I stand by my characterization of them: Las Vegas meets Disney World.

Let me explain . . . I think my general dislike of Korean wedding hall culture comes from the general lackadaisical treatment of English language and culture and how Korea assimilates aspects of English language and culture/s that it likes in a completely disconnected manner from the culture/s of origin.

Simply put, it’s jarring to see a wedding with isolated cultural elements reconstituted within a Korean context–yet at the same time the wedding has native English participants, especially the bride or groom, their family members and friends.

I think some readers will protest and criticize my point of view.  I imagine them saying that English language and culture has stolen, and is stealing, words/ideas/cultural rituals and activities from other languages and cultures all the time.  Also, that English language takes these words and mispronounces them, misuses them (at least in contrast with their language and culture of origin), and reconstitutes them according to how English native speakers  need, want, and desire to use them.  Alright, fair enough and point taken.  I’m sure millions of examples can be found of how English culture/s have stolen something from another language and culture, ripped out isolated aspects of the cultural thing, and then produced a horrible version of it.  Off the top of my head some examples might be: Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, and others.

Even within English there are patterns of cultural and linguistic thefts.  Just consider how ‘white’ culture (a problematic term but for the sake of my point one I’ll use here) steals from urban black culture and language.  “Wassup?”, “punk,” and “phat” . . . to name a few.

I would respond by saying that there are some cultural institutions, like a wedding for example, that deserve more careful research and consideration before ripping out isolated elements from the, in this case, wedding institution as a whole and then imitating them in a bizarre spectacle that makes a mockery of the original sacred ritual that is so completely disconnected from the original that it becomes something else . . .

All too often in Korea, when an English language and culture thing is integrated, there is a complete and utter disregard for the cultural rituals and taboos of the thing in question.  In the case of weddings it seems as though some Koreans who visited Disney World and Las Vegas came back to Korea and decided to re-create their own ideas of what a western wedding is through the Korisney aesthetic.  When I say Korisney aesthetic I mean the cultural phenomenon of using Disney narratives, characters, and common scenery.

I should briefly address a major issue underlying this topic: purity.  There is no such thing as ‘pure wedding culture.’  And for that matter ‘pure English culture’ and ‘pure English language.’  All too often native speakers of English become engaged in vociferously defending  conscious and probably more often unconscious norms and values based on the even more unconscious foundation of ‘pure’ culture which has many different masks: heritage, traditions, nation, and identity.

The problem is there needs to be some degree of continuity and integrity to a language and culture system–otherwise it dissolves into a fractured kaleidoscope of disconnected groups of people who cannot communicate and interact with each other with some degree of understanding based on shared experiences that have a high enough degree of similarity as to allow them to be a part of the same socio-linguistic category–in this case, English.

I imagine that if Canadians decided to bring back to Canada the Korean traditional wedding institution but we failed to learn everything about it, and how to perform it in all its many details, that Koreans would launch a massive protest about the destruction of one of Korean culture’s major institutions.

From wikipedia, “A wedding is the ceremony in which two people are united in marriage or a similar institution. Wedding traditions and customs vary greatly between cultures, ethnic groups, religions, countries, and social classes. Most wedding ceremonies involve an exchange of wedding vows by the couple, presentation of a gift (offering, ring(s), symbolic item, flowers, money), and a public proclamation of marriage by an authority figure or leader. Special wedding garments are often worn, and the ceremony is followed by a wedding reception. Music, poetry, prayers or readings from Scripture or literature also may be incorporated into the ceremony.”

Whether or not a person from Canada or America is religious there is a general sense of formality to a wedding, and usually people ‘go on their best behavior.’

1.  Formal dress.  Wearing a suit for men, or at minimum a shirt and tie.  Women wear a formal dress or business attire.

2. No talking during the wedding ceremony whether it is a religious one or secular.

3.  No talking on cell phones during the ceremony.

4. Wandering in and out of the room during the ceremony is generally frowned upon.

5.  Do not engage other people in conversations about things unrelated to the wedding ceremony–especially during the ceremony.

6. Do not clap and cheer for the bride and groom during the ceremony . . . maybe a little bit of polite clapping after the announcement that the bride and groom are married is okay, but usually not before.

I’m sure I could think of several more “Do’s and Don’ts” for western cultural weddings but I think the 6 I’ve mentioned are relevant to this post.

At the wedding a couple months ago, most of the attendees were in formal wear, so that’s not something that stuck out for Julianne’s first Korean wedding hall experience.  There were, however, other things that shocked her.

The first was probably the architecture of the building–though it’s important to stress that the building in the picture below is not really castle-like compared to the more typical wedding halls you’ll see all over Korea.  The giant-sized photo of a bridge and groom is one of the trademark features, though, and the palatial pillars are also a standard stylistic feature.

I don’t have any good quality close-up shots of a wedding castle in Korea, but here’s one I took when Julianne and I were on a train going down to Busan for a vacation.  When the word “castle” is used it is NOT an exaggeration, lol.

As wedding halls go this one was pretty high end.  I also heard other people commenting on how nice the layout was–but part of me still couldn’t help feeling like I was in a hybrid Las Vegas-Disney stage set on some futuristic movie about wedding culture’s evolution, or something like that . . .

The black shiny pathway, or rather, ‘super model runway’–I refuse to call it an “aisle” because that fails to describe its essence–is what the bride and groom walk down.

This little guy was playing on it before the ceremony began.  Oh yeah, you have to love the trees with flower balls and plastic balls with faux gems hanging from them that line the runway!

Flower ball with faux gems.

Back left corner of the hall.

Back right corner standing next to the entrance to the hall.

Here’s a shot of the trees . . . just in case you want to see a close-up, and come on, you know you want to, lol.

Here’s a shot of the podium behind which the ‘official’ stands who is presiding over the ceremony.  I’ve never thought to ask a Korean teacher, or other Koreans I know, about what criteria is legally required for the Korean who officiates at weddings.  At this wedding, the ‘president’ of the foreign language training center where the groom works, and I used to work, was the person who did the ceremony.  This struck me as unusual because in North America it generally has to be a priest/pastor or Justice of the Peace (or some kind of government official) . . . maybe the president of the training center also has other titles or a position with the government that allowed him to do the job–I really don’t know.

If you take another look at the picture (above) you should take special note of the two small hole-shaped things on either side of the black runway on the top step . . . they’re SMOKE MACHINES, lol.  Yes, smoke machines . . . like I said, Las Vegas meets Disney World.  I’ve heard from other expats in Korea that there are wedding halls that use bubble machines (I guess instead of smoke machines, lol) but I’ve never had the good fortune to see that–yet, lol.

Here are the thrones, err, chairs that the bride and groom’s parents sit in.  Depending on how traditional a wedding the foreign person getting married to a Korean wants (or vice versa), a traditional bow is performed during the ceremony where the groom gets down on his knees and bows his head all way to the ground.  My friend did this for the bride’s parents, and I was really impressed.  I wondered if he would do this for his own parents, lol, but he shook his father’s hand and gave him a hug all the while having a huge happy grin on his face.

The second thing, and probably the biggest shock to most foreigners when they go to their first Korean wedding hall event, was the lack of formality in Korean wedding hall culture.  Wikipedia says,

“In busier wedding halls, formality (except for the couple and their families) is typically relaxed compared to Western standards” (from wikipedia’s “marriage in South Korea“).

Basically, people standing at the back of the wedding hall ceremony room talk at almost regular conversation volume to maybe a little quieter than regular, the middle of the hall ranges from whispered conversation to near regular conversation volume, and the people at the front nearest the ceremonial podium (I won’t use the word ‘altar’ because the space is NOT religious in any sense of the word) whisper and occasionally forget and speak loudly enough for others nearby to hear them talking.

The third cultural difference in wedding hall culture relates closely to number two–cell phones.  I saw one member of, I won’t say whether it was the bride or groom’s family party, answer her cell phone at her table which was all of 10 feet away from the bride and groom exchanging rings . . . and she had a conversation for about a minute.  I happened to be only 2 feet away squatting on the floor trying to keep out of peoples’ sight lines while taking pictures, and when I kind of gave her a ‘look’ for talking too loudly on her cell she had the decency to lower her voice and cover her mouth and cell phone with her hand to try and shield the noise . . . what I don’t get is why she answered her phone at all DURING THE RING EXCHANGE!

The fourth cultural difference revolves around being on time for a wedding ceremony and not walking in and out of the ceremony at any and all times throughout its duration.  Yet this is exactly what happens at a wedding hall ceremony.  People were wandering in and out through the entire ceremony.  The really puzzling thing to me is that no one seemed to be doing the skulking-crouch-low-to-the-ground-looking-embarrassed-that-they’re-late-and-having-an-apologetic-smile-grimace-on-their-face similar to what Korean students do when they walk into class late (that is, if they have good attitudes, the bad attitude kids just waltz in like being late means nothing–but that’s a whole other blog topic).

Since I have a strong dislike of people wandering around, and in and out of the ceremony, a couple days ago I emailed my friend/the groom and I specifically asked if it’d be okay if I took pictures of the wedding–he gave me permission, and I did my best during the ceremony to be as unobtrusive as possible . . .the only thing I can make sense of why people think it’s okay to walk in and out, and be late, is that ‘out of sight out of mind’ excuses their behavior–after all nobody from the wedding party can see what  you’re doing at the back of the room, right?  Oh, and I imagine the money-gifts that everyone who goes to a wedding gives probably excuses lateness cause you know that the more people who come the more money you’ll be getting later, lol.

The fifth item on my list involves having conversations during the wedding ceremony about things not related to the ceremony.

The shocking thing for me was that two of my former Korean co-workers from the training center I worked at with the groom wanted to have full on conversations with me DURING THE CEREMONY.  If they’d wanted to talk quietly about the bride and groom, or the wedding itself in some manner big or small, I MIGHT have been open-minded about whispering with them (since that’s apparently the ‘Korean way’–and if you’re a Korean reader and disagree with me about this, I’d ask you to consider this fact: the MAJORITY of Koreans at weddings do this, and in my mind that makes it fair to describe it as a Korean cultural behavior pattern) . . .

Anyways, getting back to Koreans wanting to chat me up about how I’ve been, where I’m working, and various other banalities while my friend is GETTING MARRIED . . . I tried to politely disengage myself from their insisting on talking and when they missed my polite hint to stop talking I just told them very directly that I’d talk to them AFTER THE CEREMONY.  They didn’t like this, but frankly speaking I just didn’t care–I wanted to be respectful to the bride and groom, their families and friends, and to continue participating in the wedding as a friend and witness to the ceremony.

To illuminate, pun intended, my point about the Las Vegas aspects of a Korean wedding hall ceremony I’ll use the following picture,

In the above picture you can see that red and green lasers are used during the ceremony.  Some of the pictures I took of my friend had red and green lines on his face, and the bride’s face, and I had to retouch them to erase these odd colors off of their faces.

This next pictures shows you the smoke machines I mentioned earlier.  These were used to create a carpet of smoke/fog for the moment when the bride’s father escorts her up to the podium to her waiting groom.

Later in the ceremony the lights were turned down to produce this effect . . . as a lead-in to the next ‘act’ in the ceremony . . .

Wow, somebody has cloned and made a hybrid Elvis-Kenny G!  LOL! Oh my god!  I really should have gotten a picture of Julianne’s face during this part of the wedding . . . I do have shots of the bride and grooms’ reactions, and let me tell you they’re priceless!

I’ll wrap up with this shot of the wedding cake . . . which was a multi-level affair.  The newly wed couple then cut it with a small sword, lol.

It was awesome to see my friend get married to a Korean woman who I know can handle his beer and hockey loving way of life.  I was really happy for them, and wish them the best for the future.

Oh, and to the many many MANY Koreans at the wedding who kept asking and then commanding, “Jason, when are you [and Julianne] getting married? You should get married.”

We’ll get married when we want to, and not a day before.