On a plane to Japan in 2014, I got into a conversation with a fellow English teacher who lived in Korea. She’d worked in Japan with JET—basically the Japanese equivalent of EPIK—and was currently teaching in an area outside of Seoul. We compared life in the countryside to that in the city, and the amount of national pride that went along with them. In rural Japan, her colleagues had invited her to events that would allow her to experience traditional Japanese culture. In Seoul, she and her co-teachers mostly hung out in Gangnam, eating Western food and shopping.
My experience has been similar. Living in Donghae, my co-teachers invited me out to hike with their clubs or join their families on vacation so that I could better get to know Korea and its culture. In Gangneung, my co-teachers are busier. When we get together, we go to a trendy coffee shop or eat Italian food for our department dinners. There’s a different meaning for younger generations when it comes to defining Korean culture.
Then there’s Mr. Shin, one of the senior teachers at my school. Earlier this month, he invited me to the wedding of his friend’s daughter, and—just like two years ago—my tangential connection to the bride allowed me to attend her big day.
The ceremony was held at the Gangneung Confucian School, which is right next to Myeongryun High School in the center of town. The first part of the wedding ceremony happened in the parking lot outside of the complex, where a traditional Korean marching band (for lack of a better term) led the bride’s procession. The bride was carried in a gama, a kind of wheel-less carriage, to the entrance, where she met her husband and the band played around her. I was almost struck breathless as I saw the bride go past. The guests were pretty impressed with it, too, and crowded around the couple with their phones and cameras.
(The bride is in red hanbok with the black headdress, next to the tall man in the blue-green robe at the center of this picture. Out of respect for the privacy of the guests, I’ve tried to avoid showing people’s faces.)
After that we went into the courtyard at the center of the complex, where the bride and groom met and performed the ceremony. The bride’s parents sat on one side while the groom’s parents sat on the other. In the middle was a table filled with common offerings—dried persimmons, dates, and rice cakes. Two people held the ceremony. One, the man in the white robe, announced the steps of the ceremony in the an Korean language, which is based on Chinese characters, while the woman next to him explained it in modern Korean. I suppose it’s kind of like a priest giving a ceremony in Latin and having someone speak the translation in English. Note the very traditional plastic tarp to fend off the possible rain.
The table in the middle was half-red, and half-blue. The red symbolized the bride—also marked by her red robe—while the blue represented the groom. Mr. Shin explained during the ceremony that the red and blue motifs express a balance or harmony that should be attained from the union, rather like the concept of yin and yang.
I tried to keep track of the steps of the ceremony so that I could properly explain it, but I might have mixed up some of the details. The gist of it went like this:
First, the bride and groom wash their hands in a small bowl, to symbolize how they are washing off their old lives. Each of them lights a candle on their side of the table. The bride’s candle is red, while the groom’s is blue.
Then the two of them bow to each other three times to show their respect. At every step in the process, the bride, who was wearing an elaborate headpiece, was assisted in the bowing process by two older women who stood to either side of her. The groom, who was a foreigner, didn’t bow as deeply, but that might have been because his traditional hat kept falling off.
The last section of the ceremony that I can remember is, ironically, the part with the alcohol. As part of a traditional ceremony, the bride drinks makgeolli, a kind of Korean rice wine, from two cups. One is her own, covered with a red braid, and the other is the groom’s, covered with a blue braid. Then the groom drinks from his cup and the bride’s. Mr. Shin said that alcohol is typically served at major ceremonies like weddings or funerals.
He also told me that the spoon typically used to serve makgeolli was originally made out of a gourd that had been cut in half and hollowed. The significance of the makgeolli ladles at a Korean wedding ceremony is that the two halves of the gourd will again be united in the couple’s marriage.
A bowl of makgeolli with a typical serving spoon. Image source here.
Once the makgeolli has been consumed, the bride and groom stand together and bow before both the bride’s and groom’s parents. Then they turn and bow to the guests, and the ceremony concludes. The whole thing took about 30 or 40 minutes. Mr. Shin and I delayed our trip to the dining room to chat with some of the other guests, and the courtyard cleared almost immediately. The guests were already piling into the hall for lunch by that point.
We had pretty traditional Korean food for lunch, all of which was delicious. The only oddities were the bell peppers, broccoli, and grapes, which probably wouldn’t have been available in ancient Korea at the time. (Not that you see me complaining.) The main course was noodle soup, which was also symbolic. At the end of a person’s birthday in Korea, it’s traditional to eat noodle soup, because noodles are long and imply a long life. And apparently, if you eat noodles at a Korean wedding, it means you’ll get married, too.
By the time we’d finished eating, most of the guests had left and the cars had disappeared from the parking lot outside the complex. We took a moment to look around the school, since I had never seen it before. Apparently this is one of the best-preserved Confucian schools in Korea, and many Confucian scholars from China come to Gangneung to visit this place. After Mao Zedong brought the Communist Party to power in China, he erased most traces of Confucianism from the country. As a result, Korea, which had taken on Confucianism as a result of its long relationship with China, is now more Confucian than China, where Confucius was born.
Before we left, I had a chance to meet the bride and groom and congratulate them. They looked a little tired, but very happy. Although I don’t know them well, I wish them happiness and a bright future together. Thanks for letting me crash your wedding, you two.
The bride’s carriage, set aside after the start of the ceremony.