Korean-American Wedding Guide for Hire: Me

Have you ever been to a wedding and wondered why the father of the bride didn’t crack a smile or why the bride and groom genuflected before the parents? Did you think it was strange if not out right rude for 1/4 of the guests to leave right after dinner? Or what were the parents throwing at the bride and groom? And what was in those envelopes on the table set up with food and dates and sake?

If you are invited to a Korean-American wedding in Chicagoland I’m available to serve as a cultural guide of sorts. I figure I’m some sort of expert on Korean-American weddings since Peter and I had one almost 18 years ago, back before you could rent a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing – ours were custom-made and sent to us from Korea by my aunt and uncle) and all the fixings for full on pae-baek ceremony (a Korean wedding ceremony, which we did after the “American” ceremony) or find a make-up artist who specialized in Asian American bridal makeup (btw, Grace, you are beautiful – your amazing make-up artist, who I would hire if I were getting married, had the perfect canvass to work her magic on) or find wedding planners, venues and catering companies that will work with brides who want to cut a wedding cake, take amazing and creative photos and serve up a mean buffet of white rice, braised short ribs, kimchee and wine. Yummy.

This past weekend Peter and I had the honor and joy of attending the wedding of two Northwestern University Asian American InterVarsity alumni, Grace and Nate, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of many other IV alumni and friends as we discussed different wedding traditions – cultural and generational.

For example, it’s an unwritten rule/a guideline/strongly suggested at Korean-American/Asian-American weddings that the extended family is introduced in some manner. Sure, the wedding party and bride and groom often make their way into the reception to some fun music, but aunts and uncles, grandparents and sometimes cousins get a mention and applause. Why? Because they are FAMILY. The wedding is about the bride and groom…and their families being joined together. Some have travelled cross-country, others cross-countries, not just to be in the pictures but to be a present reminder to the bride and groom of the depth and history of their family, and their presence is a blessing, sometimes out of obligation, but usually out of a deep sense of tradition. You are there for your family in the good times and in the hard times. The people who are there for the weddings will be there for the funerals, too.

Another thing we pointed out was the generational mass exodus that usually occurs after the meal has been served and before the dancing begins. I remember many years ago at another Korean-American wedding reception, the “older” guests ate, thanked the parents of the bride and groom, and then promptly left, leaving several tables empty and lots of extra cake. A non-Asian American wedding guest commented on the rude departure, and I said to her what I write now: it wasn’t rude. Didn’t anyone teach you manners?

Don’t overstay. For the older generation, they are there out of respect for their friends – the parents of the bride and groom, and they leave to make plenty of space for the younger generation to have their fun out from under the glare and perhaps confusion of the older generation.

When Peter and I got married, logistics limited our options for a reception so my parents offered to pay for a second reception of sorts at the nearby Holiday Inn so that our friends – julmu-nee-deuhl – could dance and laugh and celebrate on our own.

As we watched Grace dance with her father and Nate dance with his mother, the talk at our table turned to the pros and cons of having such a private and sometimes slightly awkward moment in such a public way. And we talked about about the future and how I couldn’t imagine Peter and Bethany sharing a “traditional” father/daughter dance. I imagine something that starts out to “Butterfly Kisses” and quickly devolves into the history of dance. Peter’s and my parents came to our second reception and tried the whole father-daughter/mother-son dance and fortunately it quickly evolved into a wedding party free-for-all and bridal party cry fest. My father and Peter’s mother loved us, respectively, but dancing was never going to be their thing so we moved on to Bizarre Love Triangle. I suspect Peter reviving the Cabbage Patch will be a perfect moment for him to share with Bethany.

Over the years we’ve seen a handful of older family and friends stick around and dance as I suspect they too have been to more and more wedding receptions and learned to cross the generational boundaries brought here to America. There was a very awkward moment this weekend when a few aunties were out on the dance floor with one lone single guy…

It has been fun to be on the guest-side of weddings and to learn about groom’s cakes, dollar dances, breaking glasses, jumping the broom and wedding sponsors – fun because we’ve so often had friends or gracious guests who have helped us navigate the cultural waters.

And though it’s a few weeks before the wedding season is in full force, I love a good wedding story. What are some of the cultural traditions and twists you added to your own wedding or have seen others incorporate into their special day? What are some things you’ve seen at other weddings that needed explanation and taught you something about your friends you didn’t know?



  1. Nick L. March 31, 2011

    Very nicely written, Kathy! It seems like there a decent number of cultural similarities between Korean-American and Taiwanese-American weddings. And I LOVE that the “older” folks know when to leave. 😉

  2. Lisa April 1, 2011

    The summer before I got married, I worked at a nice banquet hall and saw some different cultural weddings.

    There was a polish wedding with an accordion where everyone linked arms and followed the accordion player in a dance around the hall with the bride and groom leading the way.

    There was also a Taiwanese wedding. A combination plate of lobster and prime rib was served–this is considered a huge splurge from the regular choices so they obviously cared a lot about feeding their guests luxuriously. There was karaoke–it involved aunties singing and giggling.

    My friend Katie is Irish by heritage and she married the son of Irish immigrants from Chicago with ten kids. There were about 15 bridesmaids and 15 groomsmen. There was dancing and drinking for hours. Reportedly, the whole family, even the 80 year old Irish granny was in the wedding suite all hours of the night for an after-party. It was quite the party and the bride’s sister, a state recognized Irish dancer did a performance at the reception.

    At our friend Christine and John’s wedding, Christine’s Chinese heritage was celebrated with not just the tea ceremony, but a Chinese drum and dragon show as well!

    I think my friend Carmen, from Singapore, did four wardrobe changes at her wedding–from a white gown, to a red qi pao, to another traditional outfit for the tea ceremony, to a honeymoon dress!

    Ok, I think I’ve been to too many weddings. The more I write about, the more I remember 🙂

  3. V.E.G. June 26, 2011

    One Korean man, a Greek Orthodox priest was married to a woman from Finland was married for 30 years. Strangely enough, he speaks perfect Greek!

  4. soniaroselli February 24, 2012

    I had stumbled upon this post and I just want to say THANK YOU so much for such a wonderful compliment! Grace is stunning and she was so fun to be with!

    Please, make a connection with me on Facebook or email me!

    Thanks again for your lovely words.


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