When my matronly neighbour tapped on my front door one evening to hand me an invitation to her daughter’s wedding, I felt I had truly arrived in Seoul. I had moved to the South Korean capital a year before and, determined to shun its foreigner ghettos, had defiantly plumped for a flat in a charming older district. It was so peaceful and hidden away that taxi drivers barrelling me home uniformly assured me, on hearing its name, that it did not exist.
I was delighted finally to be joining in an intimate Korean festivity. As I read the invitation, I began to muse on the colours I would choose for my hanbok, a traditional silk dress worn on ceremonial occasions, which I was dying to wear. I would make chitchat with the Korean guests over a leisurely lunch. Who knew, I might even catch the bride’s bouquet.
First, I needed some advice on the delicate question of the gift. You are expected to bring money – freshly minted bills in a pristine envelope – and hand it in at a desk manned by relatives of the bride and groom. A friend explained that the sum you give depends on your relationship to the couple, and sometimes on your age too, ranging from a civil 30,000 won ($26) to 200,000 won for very close friends or family members. Wary of jeopardising my budding neighbourly relationship, I checked my initial computations with two more friends and settled for 50,000 won.
Sadly, the hanbok, I soon discovered, was out. Those were exclusively reserved for the mothers of the bride and groom and close family. Mortification averted, I thought. As in the West, a white dress was best avoided, so I went in a cheerful, jonquil-yellow one. Inoffensive, I thought. It was the first of my nuptial blunders.
I arrived at the address on the invitation: a “wedding hall” in the basement of a high-rise tower. Venues like this are favoured in South Korea, despite the abundance of Christian churches: the large halls can accommodate the hundreds of people that are typically invited. They also offer all-in matrimonial packages, covering everything from the towering floral backdrops used in the wedding photos to the lunch (buffet, always). As I found out, the South Korean wedding industry is founded on speed: choreographed productions to impress guests but to avoid wearying them. At popular times of the year, in spring and autumn, they might have another wedding to attend on the same day. So most are done and dusted in two hours.
Hundreds of dark suits, dark ties and dark dresses met me; there was a clear preference for black. I might have been at a funeral, except for the loud chatter. (Sober clothes, friends later suggested, are an effort to avoid detracting attention from the bride.) I queued to greet and have my picture taken with her, ensconced in a frou-frou bridal chamber, heady with the scent of flowers.
As I got closer to the front of the queue, I noticed that she was getting ready to walk down the aisle. Worried at the prospect of missing her entrance, I hurried into the noisy hall, slid into one of the pews and waited for the room to fall silent. It didn’t. Guests – friends, acquaintances, fellow church-goers, old classmates, the families of co-workers and many strangers, invited not by the bride and groom but by their parents – came and went.
Weddings are not only an opportunity to display wealth and connections (in South Korea, specialised agencies offer actors to sit in on the day to boost numbers, and so help families save face); the more guests you invite, the more likely you are to are break even on the event’s exorbitant cost. Some joked loudly together outside, never once entering the hall. The ceremony, a mix of vows and head-to-floor bows to in-laws (the real stars of the show), was over in 30 minutes.
As the guests raced to have lunch, I made my way to the desks outside the hall to sign the guestbook and hand over my envelope of cash, in return for a precious buffet coupon. Everyone’s gift is logged on a spreadsheet, so the bride and groom match the sum at guests’ future weddings. In effect, everybody pays for everybody else’s do (with hosts judged, first and foremost, on the quality of the buffet).
I began to write my name confidently in the open guestbook – to the bemused looks of relatives, who, I suddenly realised, belonged to another bride and groom, due be married in precisely 15 minutes. My couple’s guestbook had been whisked away, and ushers were already steering laggards out of the hall and clearing the runway for the next passage.
I was starting to get worried: my wedding lunch depended on the safe transfer of this envelope. There was only one thing for it: I made my way to the bride to hand her the cash directly, congratulating her as I did so. Was this rude? Did it show the transaction for what it really was? The bride did not seem put out, but kindly explained that because I was not Korean, I did not need to give her what was, strictly speaking, a deposit for my wedding.
When I politely insisted, she gratefully handed it to her mother, a coupon was found for me and I joined the throng, queuing for an eclectic spread of steak, fried rice, sweet spaghetti and kimchi.
Two things filled me with anticipation: getting to take a slice of the wedding cake home, and the chance of catching that coveted bouquet.
About the cake: it was sliced by bride and groom then wheeled away, never to be seen again. As for the bouquet-throwing, it was rigged, with the bride deliberately aiming for the arms of a chosen lucky friend. As if that weren’t cruel enough, the throw had to be repeated multiple times so the photographer could get the perfect shot of the bouquet plopping into the woman’s outstretched arms as we, mere onlookers, clapped for the camera.
None of it, of course, diminished my excitement at being part of a local celebration. My lovely neighbour returned to my front door a few weeks later to show me the album: there was the fated bouquet, there the uneaten cake and there, in a photograph of the happy couple surrounded by row-upon-row of their friends, was a yellow speck among sombre suits.