Last Sunday the first friend I made in Korea, Heeran, got married. Having become complacent in my comfortableness here, I didn’t realise Korea still held the opportunity for me to feel uncertain and out of place.

It took place, as nearly all Korean weddings do, in a hall designed for that purpose. Heeran had asked her Aunt to look out for me (as the only westerner I wasn’t too hard to spot) and I was kindly greeted and ushered in to the right room. The weddings are quick. Everybody arrives and donates money to the bride and groom – usually about $50, more if they’re close family – at a designated donation desk, and are given a lunch token in return. Then people watch the ceremony while milling about, chatting, greeting friends and checking their phones.

Photos are prime, of course. Sometimes I wonder at the rate with which proof of an experience has become the experience itself, particularly in Korea. Two of the staff at the hall were in charge of adjusting Heeran’s fairytale dress around her as she moved into various elegant positions for the cameras.
I was involved in the friend photo, girls on the bride’s side and boys with the groom. Cross gender friendships aren’t the norm, and certainly not for wedding photos.Aside from the talking, the style of ceremony was pretty westernised – a walk down the aisle, an exchanging of rings. But there were some differences. At the end of the ceremony the couple bowed deeply, first to the bride’s family and then to the groom’s. This order is deliberate I believe, representing the new allegiance of the woman to the man’s household – an old tradition but still present in Korean social structure today.

 

After the ceremony everybody ate, buffet style, at a restaurant on the floor below the hall. An extensive array of foods and drinks, endlessly refillable. I ate with the parents of one of my favourite students, grateful for the familiar faces amidst the vast sea of strangers.

I saw Heeran once more before she left for her honeymoon to Jejudo, and she thanked me for coming. I wanted to say so much –  how happy I was to witness such a huge step in her life, how privileged I felt to be there, and how proud I was of how serene and graceful and beautiful she’d been.  But it was the time just to squeeze her hand and smile.
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