Thursday, May 22, 2008

Going to the chapel

Many areas of Seoul offer a menagerie of architectural designs. The tall concrete apartment buildings are everywhere, of course, but tucked in between them it’s not uncommon to see humble brick structures, modern high-rises with glass facades, or even a gaudy imitation of a fairytale castle. It’s no surprise the random castle-looking ones have caught my eye. They’re wedding halls, and many of them are adorned with massive banners with photos of larger than life couples in Western wedding attire looking blissfully happy. Think titivated Las Vegas chapel nuzzled between city banks, Starbucks, and fitness centers. Some wedding halls are less flamboyant, but they’re also easy to miss among other nondescript structures. After noticing a wide variety of these establishments, I started to wonder how wedding culture in Korea differs from what I’ve experienced in the Western world. It’s obvious based on the advertisements that many Koreans are at least dressing like Westerners when they say, “I do,” but how did the wedding convention centers become the standard venue for matrimony? Unfortunately, I haven’t done the research necessary to answer that question, but I’d venture to guess the blending of cultural traditions, often calling for two weddings in one, has something to do with it. It takes a lot of work to pull off a fancy, Western-style wedding piggybacked by a detailed Korean ceremony, but in a convention center environment staffed with quick, efficient, walkie-talkie carrying wedding professionals, it runs like clockwork. Last weekend I had a chance to feed my curiosity when my KBS co-host, Matt, invited me as his guest to a wedding. The event took place in the affluent Seoul district of Gangnam, so the wedding convention hall looked more like a convention center and less like the fortresses of love that can be seen near my neighborhood. We arrived late, but probably only missed one of three or four walks down the aisle by the happy couple. The bride and groom were wearing Western wedding wear when we showed up, and we either missed the exchange of vows or there never was one. Rather than pews or seating you’d find in a church, the big, square room was set up like a reception hall with round tables for eight crowded with serving ware, bottles of various beverages, and Korean candies. Running down the center of the room was an aisle covered in white fabric and slightly elevated. As the bride and groom took one jaunt after another up and down the aisle, smoke machines and colored lights surrounded them and short snippets of popular love songs played back-to-back through the sound system. I confirmed later that the bride and groom specifically chose the Celine Dion number, a non-Beatles version of “All You Need is Love” and one other catchy, sappy tune. As the earnestly methodical wedding hall staff guided the couple through a series of ceremony musts—cutting the cake, pouring a champagne fountain, greeting guests—Matt pointed out that the entire system seemed set up to accommodate the corresponding photo shoot. As the bride and groom were ushered from the cake station to the champagne station to the arch of love, professional photographers and videographers were right there, capturing every Kodak moment this wedding factory cranked out. Wedding guests chomped away on a multi-course meal while the staff put the couple and their parents through the paces. Once the couple had shown off both their Western and traditional Korean outfits (hanbok) and personally greeted every guest (see picture above), the place cleared out and family and close friends (and me) joined the couple in a cozier room where they conducted Korean wedding rituals. Matt and I couldn’t help but comment to one another about how exhausting the whole process seemed, but once the Korean ritual photo shoot was over, around 7:00pm, it appeared the festivities were complete. From a Western perspective, I’d say the fast tempo of the event, coupled with the wedding factory feel, diminished the warm and fuzzy feelings most weddings leave illicit. That’s probably just my impression, however, and there were certainly many people there who seemed to be experiencing something along the spectrum of warm and fuzzy. Now I’m anxious to see what kind of celebration goes down in the castle-like structures. According to Matt, I just might see wedding hall employees dressed like circus stagehands, blowing confetti from the bells of trumpets as the newlywed couple exits the hall (description based on true events!).


The newlyweds (photo credit: Matt Kelley)

In traditional Korean hanbok

Matt and I pose with the proud mother of the groom

1 comment:

Sara Kim said...

Is that really Matt at the bottom? Those glasses are like a disguise! And, yeah, the wedding sounds like an exhausting parade for the couple...