The Season for Vows and Cash

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The Season for Vows and Cash

With the arrival of spring, the wedding invitations have been piling up on her dressing table, and Kim Ok-ja, 55, must decide which ceremonies she will attend this Saturday. "There are three weddings on Saturday, all at 12:30," she sighs, saying that her own daughter has set her wedding date in May. "I can't possibly go to all three but it would be incredibly rude not to attend because soon I will be sending out invitations myself," she said. After consulting with her husband, she decides to go to two weddings in the southern part of Seoul; her husband will attend the one being held downtown.

How is she going to attend two weddings at the same time? Well, she will go to the less important one first, arrive a bit early, drop off the wedding gift of cash, say hello to the bride's parents and then rush off to the second wedding. By the time she arrives at the second wedding, she will be too late to see the ceremony but she will be able to hand over her white envelope stuffed with cash and join other guests at the wedding banquet. "It is absolutely crazy, with the notorious Saturday afternoon traffic, but it has got to be done," she said.

A typical wedding in Korea is the "Western-style ceremony," with the bride in a white gown and the groom in a tuxedo. However, that is probably where the similarity ends, as wedding ceremonies in Korea are a hodgepodge of practices of unknown origin.

Weddings are usually held at baroque-style wedding halls adorned with cream and gold decor, flower arrangements, red carpets and chandeliers. Before you enter the gilded hall, which is rented by the hour, you pass a booth where you sign the guest book and are expected to present your wedding gift - cash only, thank-you. In exchange for your gift, you are sometimes given a little ticket that entitles you to a meal at the wedding banquet that actually begins as soon as the wedding ceremony gets underway.

Perhaps as a reminder of who the hosts of the ceremony are, the mothers from both families march down the aisle first and light two candles, a blue one and a red one, representing the groom and the bride, respectively.

The groom marches in next, followed by the bride and her father. Once the couple is standing in front of the gathering, the person officiating the ceremony, usually a notable person, who may not be familiar with the couple at all, begins introducing the couple by reading what sounds like their curriculum vitae.

After the exchange of vows, the person conducting the wedding offers some quick advice on how to live happily ever after, a message that is usually lost on the couple, who are more preoccupied with how they look on camera as a photographer and cameraman hover around them. "Since you will not remember a word I am saying now, review your wedding tape when you get back from your honeymoon," advised a well-known minister during a wedding a few months ago.

When the ceremony ends, the couple runs toward the back of the hall amid bubbles sprouting from a small gadget at the end of the aisle, supplanting the traditional rice. The dash is fitting in part because of their exhilaration to have finally tied the knot and in part because of the time constraint. In Korea, where everything is usually done quickly, even the wedding ceremony usually lasts no more than 30 minutes.

The newlyweds pose for pictures with friends and family, and then move on to a traditional ceremony where the new couple pay respects to the groom's extended family. The guests can be found crowded into a huge hall eating the wedding meal. You have to present your meal coupon to a waiter before you are served, a practice that prevents gate-crashers from dining free.

Most of the guests eat quickly and leave. They were the smart ones. To avoid the crowd, they popped into the wedding hall to catch a glimpse of the bride and came straight to the dining room. This explains the puzzle of empty wedding hall and the packed dining hall. So much for attending the wedding! In fact, for many of the guests, the highlight of the wedding is the wedding banquet, not the ceremony, according to a 1999 survey by the Korea Consumer Protection Board. The survey found that 44.8 percent of wedding guests either attended only the banquet or simply dropped off the cash gift and left.

Although the couple and the families spend days agonizing over choices and, according to last year's survey by Sunoo, a wedding consulting firm, spend an average of 6.67 million won ($5,250) on the wedding ceremony and the wedding banquet, the wedding ceremony is really anticlimactic, taking half an hour or less. Perhaps that is why people spend 1 million won or more on outdoor video shots and studio photos starring themselves.

"The wedding is really for the parents and my opinions do not count much," complained Jeannie, 30, who is preparing for her early June wedding. For example, the parents wanted a buffet dinner because they thought it would be impolite to require the guests to sit through the whole wedding ceremony before serving the meal. "We are having a sit-down dinner only because I really insisted on it," said Jeannie.

Jeannie's parents' preoccupation with the convenience of their guests is because, in a way, the guests are paying for the wedding. In fact, if you play your cards right, you could pay for the entire occasion with the cash gifts and still have a tidy sum left over. The same Sunoo survey found that the average total of cash gifts received is 13.12 million won per wedding.

"When we get an invitation, it means money," said Kim Ok-ja, who said that if she cannot be at the wedding in person, she will make sure the money is delivered, either through a mutual friend or even a bank transfer. As tacky as it may seem, some invitations actually have bank account numbers printed on them so that the recipient may be spared the inconvenience of actually attending the wedding.

While some people feel that this practice of giving and receiving cash is part of the Korean tradition of helping neighbors in times of need, in expectation that the same will be done for them, the vast majority feel that it has become excessive. The Korea Consumer Protection Board found, for instance, that 94.9 percent of the population felt the cash gifts were an economic burden. "Sometimes I get invitations from people I barely know. I would gladly attend weddings of close friends and relatives and give 100,000 won or more but feel that most of the smaller payments that I make for people I know only slightly is quite unnecessary, but something I feel obligated to do," said Kim Ok-ja, who receives about 20 invitations each spring, the traditional wedding season. In fact, the same survey by the Korea Consumer Protection Board found that 49.1 percent of guests had attended weddings reluctantly, showing up to "save face."

For her daughter's wedding, Kim Ok-ja is planning to limit the number of invitations. "It is the second wedding in the family so we will not be sending out as many as we did for the first one," she said, adding, "Perhaps 200-300."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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