Wedding Undergraduate: On (Not) Planning Our Korean Wedding

by Annie

“How’s the wedding planning going?” I freeze, afraid of disappointing my friends and acquaintances at yet another stage of the pre-wedding. (Ask me about our proposal story and hear the matter-of-fact calculation that we had no good reason to torture our respective sets of parents any longer, and anyway, his mom totally tricked us into moving up the wedding date.)

“You must be busy with all the preparations?”
“Er, not really…?”

We are getting married in a Korean wedding hall. In Korea. In two weeks. Korean wedding halls are characterized by the speediest weddings outside of actual shotgun weddings and Las Vegas elopements; the average is one hour total for ceremony and reception/meal but I’ve gotten out of weddings in under forty minutes. In Korean wedding halls, the most gaudy parts of a “Western-style, fairy-tale” white wedding (dry ice fog included) are overlaid atop a fundamentally Korean structure—your parents and your resume are the star of the show. Seriously, the wedding speech is usually given by your professor or boss and the most fun you’ll have is dodging the chestnuts and dates your parents throw at you in an attempt to encourage you to procreate.

The best insight I can share into the Westernized East Asian wedding is a description of the cake cutting ceremony as interpreted in 1970s Japan. The towering wedding cake is turned into a fake plastic simulacrum, with a slot in which the bride and groom place their knife and pose smiling. The platform they are standing on rotates 180 degrees so attendees can take photos of them from convenient angles. It is a photo op, no bones about it. As such, the Western white wedding in East Asia is at least another puzzling level removed from whatever these symbols (cake, veil, etc.) have traditionally meant in the UK or the US. It is a performance of a wedding.

For a while I mourned the fact that holding our wedding in a Korean wedding hall in Korea leaves little room for individuality and personality. This means the predominant meaning attached to our wedding will be “we’re getting married.” There will be no quirky centerpieces that illustrate some inside joke from our courtship. There are no letterpressed invitations or cleverly upcycled RSVP cards, just a bilingual invitation ordered from the nearest print shop in my parents’ Seoul neighborhood. No one will walk into the reception and think, “Oh, that’s so them!” when they see the decorations. Oh sure, it’s on the campus of the university we met at eight years ago, and the venue is not one of those ten-story wedding hall behemoths that have thirty ceremonies conducted simultaneously in fifteen-minute increments. But our wedding will definitely come with cookie-cutter edges.

A Korean wedding is a buffet wedding (don’t get me started on the increasing popularity of the sit-down hotel wedding in Seoul). There are no tastings to decide exactly what combination of meat-and-veg we want to feed to our friends and family. At the venue we’ve picked, there are eighty-eight items in the most expensive version of the wedding buffet (including salad dressings and several varieties of kimchi) and there are no substitutions. There is no agonizing over guest lists and seating charts because there are no RSVPs necessary for a wedding hall wedding. It’s free-for-all seating and some guests never bother to come to the ceremony and just head straight for the buffet and chitchat.

There will be a rented wedding dress and a rented tux and a photographer who will make sure that all of our relatives are smashed into one giant group shot, but that photographer will not take any atmospheric shots of me gazing through gauzy windows, nor will he take any close-ups of my stiletto sandals. There will be no stiletto sandals, in fact. Also there will be no veil and no tiara, but that might be the only “I want this to represent me” hill I am willing to die on. I am not a princess, no matter what my loving father calls his only child.

We don’t get to embody our values in the sustainably sourced guest favors, exercise our design aesthetic in floral and fried chicken arrangements, or even indulge in the opportunity to bring beautiful objects into our lives because, “Hey, it’s a wedding.” I don’t get to binge on Pinterest or spend a weekend looking at every single item tagged “bridal” on Etsy—well maybe I did spend a Saturday, or two looking. Our wedding won’t be memorable for its visuals or victuals. Our theme is “we’re lazy.” But I got to spend the months leading up to my wedding not worrying about anything more substantive than making sure we emailed all our friends who aren’t on Facebook the link to our wedding site.

Now that it’s two weeks out and we have yet to resize the rings (“With this high-five, I thee wed?”) or plan an after-party (we’ll probably order some Korean fried chicken for delivery) I worry a bit that we took too much of a lackadaisical approach. And then I think nah, this is my dream wedding. Because it’s fourteen days out and my biggest worry is if I’ll finish my grad school homework before we get on the plane to Seoul.

Photo: Gabriel Harber

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  • May

    I know that this isn’t what I was meant to take away from this blog but I do solemnly maintain that Korean fried chicken is the best fried chicken in the whole world. It’s a controversial stance, I know, but there it is.

    Having said that, you say that your wedding isn’t “you” but from what I have read in these few paragraphs, it may turn out to be much more “you” than many weddings filled to the brim with personalised whatnots. I’ve heard many people say “that wedding felt so personal” but never have I heard someone say “that wedding LOOKED so personal.” When everything else looks the same, your own personalities and love will express themselves even more clearly than if you had lovingly sterilised and hand painted a hundred mason jars filled with organic kimchi.

    • Ariel

      Glad I wasn’t the only one thinking, “damn, I love me some Korean fried chicken”

      • meg

        Ok. Hold the phone. Now I’m all distracted because I’ve never had Korean fried chicken. I mean, I TOTALLY agree with the sentiment about weddings feeling personal vs. looking personal but damn it now I want to eat.

        • FYI, the latest Korean fried chicken to take Korea itself by storm is a small chain called Kkanbu chicken. (Review by Seoul Eats: Their garlic chicken comes with a giant scoop of raw grated garlic on top. Like ice cream scoop scoop.

          Our ostensible wedding theme ended up being Hot Cheetos and Takis (for the super adorable Minnesota youth rap viral video) but our wedding definitely minored in fried chicken. I think in one 12-hour period we fed out of town guests three different kinds of Korean fried chicken…

        • May

          Oh Meg. Korean fried chicken + beer + a group of friends = utter utter happiness. Get yourself to the asian part of town and have a chicken party ASAP.

  • Molly

    Reading your post, all I could think was “Man, I would love to be in your shoes!” I don’t know whether this makes me a lazy person, but I’m 9 months out and I absolutely am not enjoying this planning process. I would love to not have to worry about centerpieces and all the other nit-picky details that come with wedding planning. i really do not care about making my wedding super personalized.. I just want to be married. So I have decided on things but I’m not spending hours deciding on centerpiece designs and color combinations and there will be no food tastings involved. I like it better that way, too. :)

    • M.E.

      I was so surprised that the first week after I got engaged, all my pre-engaged love of wedding planning evaporated (or exploded, really), and I couldn’t be bothered any more. Sometimes I feel like it’s lazy (read: I judge myself for not super caring about planning), but really I think that the “officialness” of the engagement just revealed my priorities to me, which include spending the next 8 months as stress-free as possible. For me, that means not a lot of attention to wedding planning details. We booked the venues and caterer with no visits and no tastings, and switching from sit-down to cocktail-style so we don’t have to make seating charts, place cards, table numbers, etc. I really thought I’d approach all of this differently, but alas! Life is funny like that.

      • Molly

        Hah! I was the same way about it BEFORE I got engaged. Now I don’t think I could care less about this whole thing. Funny how that happens. :)

      • Lisa

        I am SO glad to hear I am not the only who feels this way. I obsessively watched TLC’s Bride Day and other wedding shows prior to my engagement, and now all I want is a church and a stress-free reception where I can hang out with my family and friends, talk, and eat good food. All of the little details that I used to think would be so important to the day have become more like chores than fun aspects to plan. I would kind of love to have a wedding where I could just show up the day of and get married like this lady!

    • moe

      I felt bad for kinda of thinking the same thing. If I had the money to buy a pre-packaged wedding I might have done it. After a while I just got sick of staying up at night agonizing over the budget for flowers. Who stays awake over flowers??!?!!

      As commercialized and pre-packaged as it is, your wedding will be unique because the two of you getting married is once-in-a-lifetime, one-of-a-kind, and very special.

      • Yeah, I still feel bad for not “caring enough.” If I could afford to pay someone to plan it for me, I would totally do that! Our wedding is already stacking up to be somewhat unusual (courthouse wedding followed by reception/party the next day) so I feel like that gives me a bit of an excuse to be a little more relaxed about the whole thing. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m using. Ha.

  • I put a ton of time and work into our wedding, but everything I loved about it had to do with having so many of our people together in one place to celebrate with us. That’s what turns out to be the memorable part. (Though it’ll be a long time before we forget about the hand-stamped favor bags, what with so very many of them still in the pantry waiting for me to take my lunch in them when school starts. My husband says the Marines will beat him up if he brings his lunch in a white bag with a seahorse and our initials on it.) Sounds to me like you’re getting the good stuff without all of the crazy.

  • Jennifer

    I have to say, when I saw a video on Weddings in Korea (on Eat Your Kimchi) I was flabbergasted about how weddings are done. Almost every culture has a super elaborate wedding ceremony, except in Korea. Sure there is the traditional ceremony, but I am not sure how many people actually have them anymore. Dealing with the lack of options is one thing, but having my wedding in an one hour ceremony, seems odd.

  • Shari

    Please, oh please, post pictures!

    • meg

      PLEAZE, love, the staff.

  • Paranoid Libra

    Anyone else wondering what a floral and fried chicken arrangement would look like?

    I can’t lie since I was on decision overload and in a bit of depression for things unrelated to wedding world a good part of me wishes I didn’t have to make so many decisions and could have been lazy. However something my mom decided caused a lot of stress and freaking out because she was being stubborn about going along with something the venue already provided.

    • Caitlin

      My mind immediately jumped to some sort of tower of fried chicken and flowers, kinda like a tower of chicken wings but with flowers instead of celery…hmmm…

  • LILY

    Our wedding is in 13 days, and I have to say–I would much rather be focusing on grad school homework (or my actual work, for that matter) than all of the last minute errands, emails, and phone calls that have taken over my life. So good for you! Enjoy every stress-free minute :)

    • Amber

      August 31st? Us too!! It’s fast approaching!

  • amigacara

    We did something (a little bit) similar! We had our wedding at a South Asian reception hall on Long Island (my husband’s family is from Bangladesh) and while there were a lot of other elements of the wedding that did involve a lot of work and planning (interfaith ceremony, family stuff!) the actual reception was really easy because they handled it all. I’ve always felt kind of ashamed that it was not more personal in some way, but it was wonderful not having to make any decisions about place settings. And honestly, I had enough other things going on and enough other decisions to make. The venue was a little weird and cheesy and definitely NOT my style (statues of mermaids by the entrance, life size Santa Clause in the front hall) but whatever. Those things do not define us or our relationship! The food was good anyway, so everyone was happy. :)

  • TeaforTwo

    This means the predominant meaning attached to our wedding will be “we’re getting married.”

    I loved this. Before we got engaged, I was convinced that I was going to be the most practical bride there was. Quiet ceremony followed by dinner with our immediate families? Sign me up. For the first week of our engagement, I told everyone that the theme of our wedding was going to be “don’t stress out about it.”

    …and then wedding planning set in. And while I still KNOW that the point is to get married, not to have a wedding, and that the important part is that we are going to be married at the end of it, I am also thinking about things like what our instagram hashtag for the reception should be, and how I can ask people nicely not take any photos of the processional or ceremony, and how to find a brass quintet and all the rest of it. I am even having fights (small ones! disagreements, really) with my fiance about these things that I never imagined would matter to me.

    So, while I am enjoying some of the details of wedding planning (and hating others) I think there is something really refreshing and sensible about the fact that what you are doing is getting married, and that the point is that at the end of it you will be a married couple. The marriage is personal; the wedding maybe doesn’t need to be.

    • MDBethann

      If you have a program, you can ask people to refrain from photographs once the music starts and until you have recessed. If you are getting married in a house of worship, most locations won’t allow flash photography during the service anyway (mine didn’t, though non-flash photography was allowed & we didn’t mind as long as people weren’t in the way of the professional photographer). You can also ask your officiant to make an announcement about no photography during the ceremony, that there will be plenty of opportunities for that afterwards (though you may have to re-enact your “first married kiss” so people can get their shots in).

    • “The marriage is personal; the wedding maybe doesn’t need to be”

      That is a message that I think all of us would like to go tell our newly engaged selves and fiancés.

  • I am legit jealous of your wedding planning experience.


    Please, please submit 48 pictures of you cutting the cake on a rotating platform from 48 different angles. Only. As a Wordless Wedding.

    • Cleo

      Yes!!!!! And make it into a gif!!!!

    • meg

      I was gonna say. You can be the first gif Wordless Wedding EVAR. How can you pass that up???

  • Gillian

    This is fantastically no-nonsense. How’s that for personal touch?

  • I’m glad people are a) thinking about Korean fried chicken (and how to incorporate such into floral centerpieces) and b) seeing the upside of a cookie-cutter wedding much more quickly than I originally did!

    Here’s a photo taken after the chestnut fertility rite

    And here’s a shot of the cake-cutting ceremony. Sadly no rotating platform but almost as good (even better?) because they gave us a cavalry saber or something suspiciously like it to cut the cake with. We spent about five minutes staring at the thing while the rest of the room shouted “woohoo!”

    You can see our professor presiding over the whole ridiculousness and the two sets of parents (my parents from behind, his parents also gazing on with amusement).

    • ferrous

      That chestnut pic is ADORABLE. You guys are too cute.

      I’m half Korean; after my first wedding my mother threw us a Korean shindig. All I had to do was show up and bow when they cued me. It was neat.

  • Helen

    It’s not my first wedding, but it IS hers. So when the budget starts to creep up and the guest list inches up and we discover yet another crucial element to be included it was very hard for me not to become the Grinch That Stole Her Dream Wedding. BUT joy of joys, we have a plan. We’re HALVING our budget and running away to get married in Sri Lanka. It’s bloody ages away (we’re in New Zealand), but it suddenly takes away all the pressure, expectations, detail fussing, obligatory invites, feeling bad about her family not coming on account of the gayness, deciding on food/venue/atmosphere, spending-money-on-annoying-things and general misery. Because we’ll turn up and the frangipani will be flowering, the white beach will be crashing, the crab will be barbecuing, everything will smell like cinnamon, and only our very dearest will be there.

  • Crayfish Kate

    I love this, thank you so much for sharing! I’m also Korean, but adopted, and it was just so. cool. to see a modern Korean wedding. Also, I LOVE the fact that you two were able to wear the traditional Korean wedding clothes for part of it!