Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Korean Wedding Cultural Differences

Here is a summary of the main differences between getting engaged and married in Korea and Australia. Customs are changing and traditions are fading in both Korea and Australia, but I am going focus on the main stream cultural differences between the two countries. 

Will you marry me?
Before you pop this question in Korea you should have arranged an "official" meeting with her father to basically get his OK on your relationship with his daughter and give him the opportunity to ask you some big questions (you can read my blog post <here>). Traditionally in Korea the boyfriend and the girlfriend won't meet their respective parents unless things get to ultra serious (i.e. serious discussion of marriage). I upset the apple cart a little when dating my girlfriend (now wife). I met him before orgianizing an "official" meeting and committing to marrying his daughter. He never treated me badly, but he was very stanoffish and not really that friendly. All that changed after I committed to marrying his daughter. 

In Australia on the other hand things are a lot different. It is not unusual for people to meet their partners parents at the very early stages of their dating relationship and the days of having to get the fathers permission to marry his daughter are largely gone. 

The engagement ring.
Normally in Korea, there is no engagement ring. They have what is called "couple rings". I did a blog post about this a while back, which you can find <here>

Korean couple ring or Korean engagement ring

In Australia on the other hand there is an engagement ring, and the man is often under a lot of pressure (thanks to successful marketing campaigns by the diamond industry) to spend big, really big, on a diamond ring.

Engagement party
Do Koreans have engagement parties? They kind of do, but they don't. A couple might go out for dinner with their closest friends, but that's about it. 

Korean engagement party

Korean engagement party

Korean engagement party

Korean engagement party

In Australia engagement parties can be huge. Normally the people who would be invited to the wedding would be invited to the engagement party as you might expect. But people who don't make the wedding cut are also invited to engagement parties. This can make for quite a large celebration. 

Best man and maid of honor. 
Best men and maid's of honor don't exist in Korea. Many of the jobs that these two people would do are filled by staff at the wedding hall on the big day. 

In Australia there is a best man and maid of honor (a very good friend of the groom and the bride respectively) who's job it is to do things like organize the bucks/hens night and help the couple get ready on the wedding day. 

Groomsmen and bridesmaids.
Again, these don't exist in Korea and the jobs fall to the staff at the wedding hall. 

In Australia there is normally an equal number of groomsmen and bridesmaids and they too will assist on the big day and help things to go smoothly. 

Bucks and hen night. 
This is an interesting tradition that has not been picked up by Korea. Not all bucks nights are the same, but they are often used as a (bad) excuse for guys to get drunk and do things the otherwise would not normally do. As with bucks nights, not all hen nights are the same either. Some are wild, while others focus on just having a really girly time together and doing what women love to do... talk. 
Drinking too much soju in Korea

Wedding Gifts
In Australia this is fairly straight forward. Once upon a time (back in the olden days... lol) people got married very young and moved out of home. They had nothing to furnish their house, so people would give things the couple would need for their home. These days, since people get married much later in life, they often have everything they need. Guests will commonly now give gifts of money to the newly wed couple. Typically gusts would give a gift of between $50 and $100, and family will often give more (between $200 and $300). The big cultural difference here is that in Australia the newly wed couple get ALL the gifts and money. 

In Korea there is  vicious cycle in place that throws everything out of whack and was a source of culture shock for me. Part of the gift money will go to the parents so they can recoup all of the gift money they have been forced to shell out over years of attending other peoples weddings. 

Korean wedding gift money

Typically only gift money from close friends will go to the happy couple. In Korea status is important, and one way for a person to improve their status (and show their success) is to invite lots of people to their wedding (or the wedding of their children). The guests will then invite anyone who's wedding they ever attended to their own wedding to show how successful they are, while also getting their hard earned dollars back. You can see how it became a vicious cycle. The amount of gift money is also crucially important and you can actually upset people by giving too much money! Here are some basic guidelines.
  1. The amount of money given should be a multiple of 10. Giving an odd amount is actually seen as disrespectful. 
  2. If the amount of money is less than 100,000 won (~$100), then the first number should be an odd number. i.e. $30, $50, $70. 
  3. Don't give less than 30,000 won (~$30). This is the absolute minimum.
  4. 30,000 won - This is what you should give if you don't know the couple well and have been invited out of courtesy. 
  5. 50,000 won - This is what you should give if you know them well (maybe a work colleague), but you are not super close drinking buddies.
  6. 70,000 won - If you know them well and you socalise on a regular basis, but you are not best of best friends. 
  7. 100,000 won or more - This is for long term very good friends or best friends. If you fall into this category you will know what is an appropriate amount to give.
  8. A house - If you are the parents of the groom, traditionally (and even in modern Korea) you are expected to give the couple a house/apartment. You also should buy gifts for the bride and her parents (jewelry, clothes (see pictures below), etc).
  9. Furnishings for the house. - If you are the parents of the bride, you will have to go shopping with your daughter and let her pick out all the stuff to furnish your house. You also should buy gifts for the groom and his parents (jewlery, clothes (see pictures below), etc). 
traditional Korean Hanbok shopping in Iksan city South Korea

traditional Korean Hanbok shopping in Iksan city South Korea

traditional Korean Hanbok shopping in Iksan city South Korea - selecting colours and style

traditional Korean Hanbok shopping in Iksan city South Korea - selecting colours and style

traditional Korean Hanbok shopping in Iksan city South Korea - selecting colours and style

Who pays for the wedding
In Australia this depends on the financial situation of each family, but increasingly it is common for the couple to pay for their own wedding with parents chipping in to help with the cost of the food and drinks. 

I read that Korean parents see paying for their child's wedding as their final duty as a parents, but I think this custom is changing to be more in line with what it is in Australia. For my wife and I we payed for the service, photos and honeymoon while the food and drinks were paid for by my wife's parents. When we return to Australia and renew our vows, my parents will cover the cost of the food and drink there. 

Buying a wedding dress

In Australia brides will buy their wedding dress and spend thousands of dollars on it. In Korea on the other hand, the bride rents the wedding dress and will sometimes wear 3 different wedding dresses in total! Before getting married in Korea you go for pre-wedding photos in a professional photo studio. While there they will take a bunch of happy snaps while both the bride and groom change into a bunch of different outfits. 

Korean wedding dress shopping

When to put on the wedding ring
In Australia once the I do's are done, just before they kiss they will put the wedding rings on each other's fingers. In Korea (and this is something I was really surprised by) we put our wedding rings on BEFORE the ceremony even started. Weird.

Korean wedding ring - not a couple ring

EDIT: Actually. I was just told by my wife that we were meant to put the rings on during the ceremony, but there was confusion and the wedding hall and the staff were new and didn't know what we were meant to do.... WTF. 바보 (stupid). Talk about armature hour....

The kiss

After the rings are on the finger, in Australia you will seal the deal with a kiss in front of everyone. Not so in Korea. The ceremony was over and we had walked down the aisle to the back of the hall before I realised we had missed the kiss. What the hell! I stopped my wife and kissed her in front of everyone. Wooo. Go Philby! 

Korean wedding bride and groom kiss

Arriving at the wedding
In Australia the bride will arrive in a expensive luxury or history car before walking down the aisle. No time for that in Korea! The couple will arrive at the wedding hall long before the wedding is scheduled to start to get their hair done and dressed and then wait patiently for their turn while another 2 or 3 couples are married before them. Just before the wedding ceremony the happy couple are busy getting photos taken with their guests. They then stand at the end of the aisle and walk down. Mothers hand in hand first, then the groom, then the bride and her father. 
Korean wedding day

Korean wedding day

Seeing each other
There is a silly superstition in western countries that letting the groom see the bride before the wedding is bad luck. Not the case in Korea. I spent about 4 hours with Jihyeon before we got married. We arrived at the wedding hall early in the morning had our hair done, got dressed, and then took a bunch of photos together. 

Korean wedding day

Who walks down the aisle?
In Australia often the first people to walk down the aisle will be flower girls, who throw flowers for the bride (escorted by her father) to walk on as she goes down the aisle. 

In Korea first the mothers will walk down the aisle and light candles at the front, then the groom will walk down, then finally the bride will be escorted down the aisle with her father. 

Korean wedding day - walking down the aisle

Korean wedding day - walking down the aisle

Korean wedding day - walking down the aisle

Traditional ceremony
After the main event in Korea, many couples choose to have a traditional ceremony in a private room. This is typically a family only event. You can read more about the traditional ceremony <here>.

Traditional Korean wedding ceremony

Traditional Korean wedding ceremony

In Australia after the wedding ceremony, invited guests will move to a new location (sometimes up to 30 minutes drive away) to eat a formal 3 course meal and spend the evening socializing with other guests and dancing. 

In Korea on the other hand, many people will skip the wedding ceremony and go straight to eating the meal. At the wedding hall there will be a large dining hall with a large buffet of food. You load up your plate (while jostling with guests from other weddings in the same building) and then try your luck at finding an empty table to sit at. It's very bali bali (빨리 빨리), meaning quick quick. If you play your cards right, you can show your face, greet the bride and groom, pay your gift money, eat a meal and be out in under 30 minutes.

Korean wedding reception

Korean wedding reception - food

Other oddities
In Korea is is quite common for one of the couples friends to serenade them with a song in front of everyone. 

Also, it is common for the couples friends to dare them to do or say something silly in front of all the guests once the ceremony is done. For example, at my wedding they dared me to do push-ups while saying I love my wife. Don't believe me? Here is the photographic evidence.

Korean wedding strange tradition


  1. Funny post,very entertaining. Best wishes for you and your wife

  2. This is cute - I will marry an Indian guy and the wedding comparing with latin America is super different but funny.

  3. May I ask of your opinion of this?

    1. TLDR; The article sound reasonable.

      The actual ceremony part is pretty reasonable (at least compared to a wedding in Australia). I think the expensive part in Korea are the gifts. I believe historically, the grooms parents would buy (or at the very least provide a considerable down payment) the couple a house, while the brides parents would buy all the furnishings for the house. There was some pressure for exchanging of expensive gifts, but I managed to keep it to a minimum. But even so, in the end i think the value of gifts exchanged totalled around $10k or $15k. Here parents were insistant on exchanging gifts (for tradition), but I think they were happy they didn't have to fork out a huge amount.