November 09, 2011

traditionally prepared for a modern world...

Marriage as a concept is very important in Korea. While I'm not exactly sure why the pressure exists, it is a very noticeable presence among the populous. The reasons why, of which I'm not exactly sure, could be a mix of traditional culture, and the fact that children often live at home until they get married. I supplant the secondary idea because perhaps the pressure is created by the parents who subconsciously want more living space (Korean houses are often small). Or perhaps it's a bottom up (economics, not sex, mind out of the gutter) system with adults who finally want to live on their own. As you can tell I'm really clueless as to where the importance comes from. However, just know that the pressure exists and the age of 30 seems to be a deadline more than a milestone in Korea.

I was recently invited to a co-workers wedding, and came with high expectations. I figured it should be a celebration of accomplishment, or at the very least an obligatorily lavish demonstration of completion. After all I have been pestered by my students repeatedly about not being married. Yes, even elementary school kids are contributors of the social pressure to get married, they start 'em young! I've decided not to include a paragraph about the courtship, and romance of the couple. Not because I'm not fully aware of it (which I'm not) but because a short introduction is all that seems fitting for a couple that met only a few months ago. While this may draw some gasps for those of you reading in western hemispheres, it's not an uncommon thing when Koreans float above the mystical age of 30 (I'm aware of 4 Korean marriages that are based upon extremely short courtships).

The ceremony was slated to start at 5 o'clock at a marriage hall not far from where I work. I was aware that I was going to be late, as I found myself leaving from work (an unfortunate reality on weekends lately). I arrived 20 minutes late, and to a wedding hall with fewer than 25% of the guests still in attendance. Upon entry I was quickly thrust towards the stage for a photograph, then lassoed into the lobby where I had to part with money, that served as both a gift and admission cost (I couldn't eat at the buffet unless I paid, booth pictured right). In the midst of the whirlwind I was informed that the wedding finished after 10 minutes, and they were already into overtime on the photos.

It was also around this time that I started to believe that the wedding hall I had ventured into wasn't really a hall. It was instead more like a conveyor belt. The place was littered with boards posted with the wedding times of numerous couples, each 'wedding hall' off the main hallway was equipped with coloured mood lighting and cheesy decor. I felt like I was in a theme park ride that included a marriage not as the main act, but as a sideshow. There was so much missing, it appeared that while marriage is highly regarded, and highly pressured in this country, the actual act of getting married means very little.

I talked with some Koreans at my table during the buffet, and my feelings were reflected in their answers. They didn't agree with my theme park comparison, mostly because I kept those thoughts to myself. What they did agree with though, is that weddings here aren't that important. I was informed that my experience was typical of a Korean wedding, and that Koreans often won't attend weddings that take longer that a couple of hours. The reason as it was explained to me was rather simple. Koreans work hard, and they don't want to spend a lot of time at weddings because they feel that rest is more important.

What I expected to take all night, and include gratuitous amounts of soju, concluded after 2 hours. I also ended up being a part of a table that consumed more ice cream than soju. Standing on the front steps of the hall I pondered what is and what could have been. Even with a brief explanation of rest, with several friends of mine corroborating the explanation, the numbers didn't add up. I couldn't (and still can't) get my head around this thought. How can something with so much social pressure placed upon it culminate in something with so little substance? Perhaps I have fallen victim to romanticism, or it's a cultural tradition that finally met modern circumstances.

The citizens of Korea are constantly exposed to this high social pressure to get married (student example above). It's also a country where it's citizens are becoming more exposed to the western world. Much like the western world the divorce rates have been increasing in recent years. The Korean divorce rate has still not reached NA levels, but it has shot up dramatically, and rests under 50% (according to the few sources I could find).

Perhaps it's not such a bad thing that there is so little invested into weddings here. Why spend all day at a wedding, when you could be resting? Clearly marriage can be valued as important without having a lavish ceremony. If chances are the marriage won't stick, it's not such a bad idea to heavily understate the occasion. While I know the idea won't catch on in N/A, I find it interesting that Korean culture seems to have traditionally prepared for this eventuality.


  1. Great post...put in my blog: