Sun-duk got some most extraordinary news on the phone, this evening: her eldest sister, Sun-ok, is getting married in three weeks!
At 36, she was already considered unmarriageable by Korean standards. Fortunately, the ancient profession of matchmaking is still very much alive in this part of the world, thanks largely to people like Sun-ok and the stigma of bachelorhood. One elderly woman was called upon to find her a husband, and introduced Sun-ok to a small businessman from Kwangyang, about 90 minutes away from Mokp'o. They met, they talked. A deal was struck, a wedding day chosen: two weeks before our own.
This, of course, sort of knocks the wind out of our sails. It had to be done, though, because Sun-ok is older. The Confucian principal of primogeniture is still mostly adhered to in Korea, and it would look bad if third-born Sun-duk beat out her sister at marriage. (The fact that Sun-hwa, the youngest of the four girls, got married two years ago doesn't really count, since she was four months' pregnant at the time.)
Sun-ok's husband is very... short. And quiet. It wasn't just the fact that he hardly knew his bride and future in-laws; he seems naturally reluctant to speak. Maybe being single for so long does that to some men.
The wedding was another typical, Western-style ceremony where guests chatted, chewed gum, twiddled thumbs, and let small children run wild. These weddings resemble nothing so much as a Las Vegas kitsch-fest. The room is usually decked out with bunting and garish flowers, and decorated with a dozen fake chandeliers, wood-and-plaster columns, pseudo-neo-classical wall architecture, and huge faux-Renaissance paintings of cherubs, saints and lovers on the ceiling. When the lucky couple, fifteen minutes later, is pronounced man and wife, vapour from a dry-ice machine wafts upward from the floor and envelopes the "altar". Then thousands of bubbles come floating down, putting one in mind of the Lawrence Welk show! The bride tosses her bouquet to a single girl picked out among friends, group photographs are taken, then there's a quick one-hour buffet before everyone calls it a day.
The Koreans have managed to slip in a few native customs: the bride and groom must bow to each other's parents near the end (they sit in front and to the side, apart from the rest of the guests); the couple does not kiss at any time; and they must change into hanboks afterwards for P'yebaek, a private and traditional ceremony which only the couple and their parents perform. This last part consists of bows and blessings, a ritual exchange of rice wine, and the bride's mother throwing figs and chestnuts into a long piece of cloth held at both ends by the couple in order to ensure fertility.
I met Ji-young and her friend at the university gate at 10:30. I had promised them the week before that we could go to the office and tape simulated conversations for a religious show (parable? passion play?) they plan to stage in New York later this summer.
I thought they just needed some background noise, but as it turned out, the other teachers and I actually had to act! We pretended we were attending the exhibition of a successful young artist friend, admiring her work, yes, but mostly just socializing at relatively high decibel levels. Kirstie, Matthew, James and Randy joined me as we improvised five minutes of gaiety and revelry. We had three separate conversations going on at once, making one another laugh outloud with the silliest comments and responses. Ji-young was quite pleased with the results!
We were married in Korea, this afternoon, at the Dongdaemun District Office! That's one down, one to go.
First, we had to go to the Canadian embassy to get our papers stamped, then we went over to the DO. It took over an hour, because Sun-duk had to fill out a mess of forms in Korean. Now we just have to bring the Korean papers back to the embassy for final approval, and we'll be married in Canada, as well.
We were late getting up to go the embassy, which is only open from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Fridays. We took a taxi instead of the subway at 10:30, hoping a mad dash would save us. Traffic soon slowed to a crawl, however, and we realised we would be a few minutes late. I called the embassy and asked that the person in charge of registering marriages stay on duty just a little while longer, but her secretary told me that she, along with most other employees, had taken the day off in preparation for the Canada Day celebrations tomorrow!
Sun-duk was crestfallen! She wanted to be married as soon as possible, and we had to wait until Monday, July 3 - too close to Independence Day, if you ask me. Well, we had no choice in the matter, so we'll just have to wait out the weekend.