Right from the beginning we wanted to have a traditional Korean wedding. We had already had a western wedding in Australia but we were yet to marry in Korea and in the traditional Korean way. We thought it would be a good experience and I wanted to respect my husband’s culture by doing it. We knew we’d have to have at least two weddings anyway because our families live in different countries.
However, Koreans don’t really have these type of weddings anymore. They have a version of a western wedding (though still quite different to what we expect in western countries) and then if they do anything traditional all they do is dress in traditional costume and do a quick ceremony in a room after their wedding.
Our wedding however, went for over two hours! Because Koreans don’t really do this traditional wedding anymore even my husband’s family weren’t sure exactly what was supposed to happen. Most of my Korean friends said they had never attended a traditional wedding before.
The day started quite similar to my Australian wedding day with hours of hair and makeup. Things started to seem different though when the woman from the traditional wedding company put makeup on my husband! And I don’t just mean a bit of concealer… he had pink lipstick and mascara too.
We knew we were already running late but I was horrified to see that when we got to Jinju Castle that all the guests were already there. The woman from the company wasn’t even sure where to go. I had friends calling out to me as I was rushed to a van and I felt that it was so strange that they were seeing me in jeans and a shirt because I thought shouldn’t they first see me when I’m in traditional wedding hanbok?
I was rushed to a bathroom and was dressed quickly in my hanbok and then taken back to the van parked near where the outside ceremony would be and my head pieces were put on. While this is happening many of the guests gathered around and took photos. This was bizarre to me because in western weddings you are in hidden from guests (and get ready in a nice hotel or house usually, not at the back of a van) and there is the big reveal as you walk down the isle. That is also why I’m not really a fan of the Korean way of western weddings where before the actual wedding they do a photoshoot in their wedding clothes or sometimes a bunch of hired ones and these photos of them already in wedding attire is put on invitations. I’ve grown up knowing that the moment when a bride enters the church or venue in her wedding dress is an important moment. It’s a big reveal and when everyone gets to see the dress for the first time.
I tried to remind myself that this is a different culture as flashes went off in my face and a large stick was forced through my hair. I could feel the stress rising in me- which my husband could see and he held my hand and reassured me.
Because this type of traditional wedding is not really done much these days people weren’t really sure what was supposed to happen. Only the few people from the wedding company knew. There had not been any rehearsal or instructions given prior. Directions were barked at me in fast paced Korean and I really could not understand. One of my friends was close by translating but it was still so difficult.
I knew I was going to be carried in by four guys in a box. Actually it is a litter or called a gama in Korea I think. I was so happy to see the guys who were to carry me as they were friends (and some have been in some of my comics). But then I was told to get into the gama by the wedding company woman. I thought the top of the box opened or something but actually I had to squeeze backwards through the opening! The wedding company woman demonstrated and instructed me in Korean. I clumsily managed to get in. My hands were hidden in my sleeves with a long piece of fabric over them. As I sat in the box not being able to use my hands I felt my nose getting runny! In a panic I racked my brain for the Korean words for “tissue” and “nose” and luckily I was understood and the woman wiped my nose for me. (Poor her!)
The photos I have are just snapshot friends took as don’t have official photos yet. In the above photo I’m smiling but inside I was terrified.
I could hear the drums playing and soon the gama was lifted into the air and we followed the musicians and my husband in a chair gama which was also carried by four guys. It was very surreal. I knew I was supposed to keep my hands in the sleeves and somewhat covering my face, but I wasn’t sure how much. The box rocked back and forth and felt unstable but luckily I trusted these guys to not drop me.
When the procession stops I’m helped out and down the steps to where the wedding takes place. The gown is difficult to walk in and luckily two women who know my husband’s mother have been enlisted to help me.
Things then became very difficult. The sun was hot and I felt sure it was melting away my makeup, fake eyelashes and red dots. The ceremony starts and I understand nothing. The two women sit by me and help me but they speak no English so my friend is behind us trying to translate. I can see my husband on the other side of the table as we are made to drink from little cups and hold up things for the ritual. The biggest problem was the big bow. I’ve never had to do this before but during the ceremony I had to do it many times. The women were there to help but I felt so clumsy.
There were so many people crowded around and there was no sense of seating- people stood so close to the front. Because it’s a public area there were tourists too. I think some did not realise this was a real wedding ceremony and not a reenactment! At one point I look up from where I was seated and see a man right at the front answer his phone and loudly saying “YA! YA! YA!” I remember looking at him in disbelief. I wasn’t sure if he was a family member or a random person but later when I’d met all extended family I realised he was not someone we knew. I didn’t mind tourists watching but I found that to be incredibly rude and if I didn’t have to be the docile bride I would have given him a piece of my mind!
Once we had completed the ceremony and things were read, my mother had given my husband’s mother a wooden duck, we had bowed low to both sets of parents and two live chickens were tossed (and luckily caught) we thought things were over.
We were wrong. Then the photos had started. The sun was hot and I had not drunk anything except sips of alcohol for hours. The photos seemed to go on forever and the photographers were so particular about how we stood or sat. My husband whispered to me several times about how difficult it was. I think he was having a worse time than I was. At least as a woman I’ve been made to stand still in elaborate clothing before. I could endure it. He was dying from the heat in his clothes and his hat kept falling back. Our clothes had to be constantly fixed to look good in the photos.
After many many photos we thought surely this must be over now. No, there was more ceremony! Things luckily got a bit easier though, or maybe I was just getting used to it. We poured alcohol for family members and bowed low to the ground. They then put money on the little table for us. There were some more funny things like passing jujube to each other with our mouths and then my husband carrying me around on his back.
The whole time I had no idea how I actually looked. I had not seen myself in a mirror. I felt hot and sweaty and so exhausted. I was sure that I must look terrible. But when it was all over and we went to a restaurant with guests for lunch I saw some of the photos and realised how bright and colourful it looked! It looked wonderful. We haven’t even seen the official photos yet but even the snapshots look amazing. I had no idea. Though my husband thinks he looks like an idiot. He does look very not like himself. Maybe modern clothes suit him more.
I would never go through it all again but now I feel like it was worth it. I wish more Koreans had weddings like this too. If you are marrying a Korean I recommend doing it. In hindsight it was amazing and I’m really happy to have that cultural experience.