South Korea really does bamboozle me sometimes. I thought I was accustomed to the eccentricities and disregard for common logic but then I was invited to a wedding in Miryang.
My old friend Dave extended the invite to his Korean friend’s big day a few months ago. Note that Dave is relatively young; the friendship is what is old having become fast friends back at University in England, long before he made Korea his new home.
Anyhow, in spite of my initial concerns that I would be labelled a gatecrasher and tarred and feathered at the gate, I gave into to Dave’s reassurances that nobody would care and that everyone does it.
Dave & I – this was not our wedding attire. Sadly I was too perplexed by the strange proceedings to get a lot of great photos of the actual event.
Traditional Korean weddings are a smaller, family affair for the lucky chosen ones, but the done thing in the country nowadays is to precede the ancient ways with a glitzy affair at a local wedding hall, most commonly found inside large shopping malls. As it turns out, Dave was right in that it is incredibly easy to attend a random wedding here in Korea.
Indeed, some dishonest Koreans (a rare breed) have crashed weddings and collected the cash-laden envelopes that many guests leave as gifts for the newly-weds. The mysterious yet confident assistant greeting the guests and relieving them of their envelopes in the wedding hall entrance will then vanish in a puff of smoke. As such, hanging around wedding halls for an entire afternoon’s worth of random weddings is bound to draw suspicion from staff who recognize the progressively tipsy, ever-present guests at every wedding as the day rolls on.
So, there I am, on the floor above the home living department, one below electronic goods, suited up and rolling out my best smile-and-nod-like-you-belong act as I wander through throngs of well-dressed Korean strangers, trying not to lose Dave and his wife as he presses the flesh with acquaintances and former associates – apparently he’s quite the celebrity in Miryang.
The hall and adjacent rooms are a hive of chatter and we make it inside the wedding room just before the show kicks off.
Immediately, I can see this is a far cry from a church or even a registry office affair. An elevated catwalk commands the centre of the room, leading to a flashy, illuminated stage at the far end where a dapper presenter holds the mic and the attention of the several dozen people inside. Flanking the runway are large, circular tables, each encompassed by a ring of chairs.
Taking a pew at a sparse table in the centre left of the room, I absorbed the ambience of the sparkly ceiling, the flashing lights and the constant humdrum of voices and laughter from the back of the room. The doors remained open to the hall as people moved to and fro, cameras snapping furiously as the spiffy MC cracked the jokes. It turns out that he was the superintendent of the education board and volunteered his services to not only present the ceremony but to actually legally marry the couple.
This is quite common in Korea. When Dave got married a couple of years ago, he had to dodge a bullet when a superior made a similar preposition to him, instead choosing to go the more traditional route of having a member of the clergy doing the wedding instead of his boss.
The events that transpired in the thirty minutes sitting in that room were quite surreal and left me wondering was it really just a big act, like a reality television show or impromptu comedy film shoot.
The speeches flashed by in a blur of which I understood little and before I knew it we moved on to the entertainment.
The newly-weds stood on the catwalk and we all watched as a projector screen rolled down and gushy music flowed to an inspired romantic walk down memory lane through a well-edited series of childhood photos and video clips charting the couples history until this special moment.
After that, we were treated to a mini-talent competition. Aside from the superintendent and some speeches ribbing the groom, we had performances by an opera singer, a saxophonist and then the groom himself grabbed the mic and bust out a song on stage.
Some more traditional ceremonial practices were observed, one in which the bride and groom paid a show of respect to their partner’s parents sitting at the front, on opposite sides of the stage. The mothers both wore traditional Korean hanbok dress and the fathers wore white gloves.
A particularly amusing moment was when a huge-tiered cake was rolled in on a trolley. Dave pointed out that only the top tier was actually real. The couple stood by, the groom held the knife, cameras were ready, snaps were taken, the cake was cut and then the trolley was immediately wheeled off to the side again without anyone taking so much as sniff of it.
Suddenly, it was all over bar the shouting, which by the way never ceased once as the back of the room near the doorway was like a rowdy pub throughout the whole event.
Cue the Katy Perry music and the couple marched the length of the catwalk to rapturous applause and flashing cameras, streamers popped and glitter rained from the ceiling among the flashing lights and thumping bass.
At that point I thought it was time to go, but then it got really bizarre. Taking the camera from Dave’s better half, I watched them meander to the stage with the couples’ nearest and dearest, who were being arranged for a spectacular, school yearbook-style photograph.
I hung back with others from the congregation, taking snaps over the professional photographer’s shoulder as I watched the couple stand in front of the stoic group, rushing through a series of western traditions for the camera.
First, the groom dropped to one knee and held the pose as if he was proposing and the group behind gushed. For the next shot, the groom kissed the bride. The group grimaced in horror – it seems that even newly-weds can’t kiss in public without it being too awkward a situation for Koreans to handle.
After that, the bride stood away from the group, holding a bouquet of flowers, waiting mid-action pose for the photo to be taken. A few snaps later, the photographer gave the thumbs up and then the bride tossed the bouquet over her shoulder to the same staff member who handed it to her ten seconds prior.
When it was all done, we retired to the busy floor below, joining the buffet lines and helping ourselves to the unlimited supply of international fare. Several weddings were on the go and we had no sooner cleared our plates than the staff were chasing us to the door, already preparing for the next party.
Bish, bash, bosh, done!