Gift money: the evil tax we hateIt sounds terrible, but wedding invitations can be bad news for many Koreans.
Not because the love of their lives has decided to marry someone else, or because they get green with envy. It is because of bujogeum, literally “the helping hand of money,” that everyone is expected to give the happy couple before entering the ceremony room.
The tradition goes back a long way. Northeast Asian countries maintain this as a public moral to help the organizers of big and merry gatherings. It sounds reasonable enough. But the little contributions add up to a huge sum when one figures that just this month, there could be invitations to a friend’s wedding, a coworker’s wedding and an old schoolmate’s wedding. Not to mention the notification from a relative that a great-grand aunt of a remote cousin just passed away (bujogeum works the same way for funerals also).
So how much do Koreans actually pay each time? Or the question should be how much should one pay without feeling chintzy?
Well, many people say 50,000 won ($48) is an appropriate amount. According to a survey of 861 adults conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo and the matchmaking agency Duo, many Koreans agonized between 30,000 won ($29) and 50,000 won. But 66 percent of respondents said they usually paid 50,000 won every time they go to a wedding or a funeral. Thirty percent said they paid 30,000 won. The affluent 4 percent said they give 100,000 won.
An amusing finding was that unmarried adults tended to pay 30,000 won more often (38 percent) than the married ones. Only 20 percent of the married ones said they pay 30,000 won as bujogeum. When the majority of your guests are bachelors, you can figure the wedding won’t be very ― um, profitable.
A lot of people feel a heap of stress also. Take Kim In-geol, for example. The 41-year-old PR department head at a medium-sized firm said that he felt strangely offended when he greeted a co-worker who returned from his honeymoon. Probably, it was just in his head, but he felt a pang of guilt for paying a “mere 30,000 won” at the man’s wedding.
“That’s enough, isn’t it? I mean, we weren’t even that close before and he is not in my department,” said Mr. Kim defensively.
To be very very honest, Mr. Kim said, wedding invitations give him the shudders. He married quite early ― before finishing school. So he did not expect to receive much bujogeum from his friends who were also students back then. But these “friends,” who are now grown-ups with jobs seemed to have forgotten those lean days. At their weddings they say, “Pal, I trust you to put more cash in the bujogeum envelope” or “You guys can pool your money and get me a television set instead.” But Mr. Kim doesn’t think it’s funny. Rather, it’s a nightmare.
It did not take long for the regular wedding invitation cards to feel like a tax bill for Mr. Kim. Korea’s culture of congratulations and condolences has a “more-the-merrier” ethic, so he was soon receiving invitations from clients and people he barely knew from other offices.
“I would look at the invitation card, and automatically think, hmm, I wonder how much they expect me to pay for this?” he said glumly.
Mr. Kim isn’t the only one to feel pressured. More than 87 percent of those surveyed said they felt stressed by the pile of invitation cards in the spring and fall season, when most people get married.
Still, people believe the bujogeum culture should go on. Just 30 percent of respondents said the custom should be eradicated. But 52 percent liked the custom, saying it should be maintained because “it will soon be your turn anyway when you really need the help.” The remaining 14 percent agreed that it should be kept “just because it’s a tradition.”
If the bujogeum culture must live on, some suggested exchanging practical gifts instead ― like a rice cooker or a toaster. You would need to shop for one anyway.
Kim Jeong-hui, 30, a soon-to-be bride, said she is making a list of home appliances that she wants to get from her friends.
“I don’t want cash,” Ms. Kim said. “But my friends insist, because that was what we were used to. So I ask them to buy me what I need.”
The numerology of gift inflation
Many complained that bujogeum inflation has recently reached 50,000 won. Just a few years ago, 30,000 won was considered more than enough to show a little courtesy.
For those wondering why people avoided giving 10,000 won or 20,000 won as bujogeum, it was more than the fear of looking cheap.
“Koreans are fond of number three,” said Joo Gang-hyeon, head of the Korea Folk Study Institute.
True. Many Korean myths include stories about sam-buin (three wives) or sam-sin (three gods). Samjoko, or a bird with three claws, was a mythical creature symbolizing Goguryeo, an ancient Korean kingdom. There was also the legendary Samdumae (hawk with three heads) that defeated evil fate.
“It was natural for Koreans to consider 30,000 won an appropriate amount to congratulate a person,” he said.
But as bojogeum rises, the trend has been to either 50,000 won or even 100,000 won. What ever had happened to the idea of giving somewhere between 40,000 won, or 70,000 won?
It is an easy guess that number four is avoided because it is a homonym for the Chinese word for “death.”
But Mr. Ju explains it’s the Northeast Asian habit of considering odd numbers to be good numbers. May 5, July 7 and September 9 are propitious days in this culture.
As Koreans are fond of the number three, Chinese viewed number five as fortunate. But explanations for avoiding 70,000 won are a bit lame.
“Koreans also favor the decimal system,” Mr. Ju said.
Sure, we never see people giving away 80,000 won or 90,000 won because it looks like they pulled a few bills from the envelope at the last minute.
by Namkoong Wook
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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