An American Wedding
We arrived in a packed van donning pressed shirts and slacks, colorful dresses and heels. My brothers and father shoved their way out of the car after the three-hour trip while I managed to wedge my feet into a pair of heels.
In the parking lot, the men all whipped their ties around their necks with near-expert skills. People stumbling out from other vehicles did the same.
“Carry me,” I urged one of my brothers as we walked past manicured lawns and gardens in a strange pseudo-colonial village dotted with white-washed buildings bearing cute names such as: the tavern and the restaurant. We made our way to the chapel.
A scant seventy-odd people packed their way into the pews of the tiny buildings. Some stood against the wall when it became clear no more seats were to be had.
The groom stood stock-still at the front of the room as guests shuffled in.
Everyone glanced around, waiting for the wedding march to start up. Nothing.
“It’s hot,” one of my brothers groaned as he played a game on his phone.
Finally, twenty minutes later, the cadence started up. The groomsmen escorted lilac-colored bridesmaids (the brides sisters and future daughter-in-law), up to the podium. The music changed, and the bride revealed herself at the double door opening.
As soon as she entered, everyone in the chapel stood to watch her pass by, a beautiful, tall model-type draped in white.
Together, the bride and groom stood together grinning as the presider over the wedding recited the vows and they repeated along.
A short 15-minute ceremony led the crowd onto the grass for rounds of group pictures in the dwindling sunlight. Family reunited with giant hugs and exclamations over how everyone looked while family friends lingered and mingled. A man dressed in a smart suit came out and announced it was time to move to the next location: a private room with a giant carousel with an open bar.
Everyone shuffled and wobbled on heels over to the room and grabbed a drink and h’ors dourves from passing waiters.
“Come on,” my mom said and pointed to the line of people waiting to get on the working carousel.
Reluctantly, I gave my drink to my brother, never to see it again and chose a horse to ride side-saddle with all the volume of my skirts.
With a kick, we were off, winding round and round in a circle. I giggled and pulled faces for my brothers, ready with their cameras. This, I thought, was definitely one of the the most interesting weddings I’d ever been to. It nearly beat out the one in a castle with wedding crashers, life-sized chess board, and a ukele-playing bridesmaid.
And the interest continued as we were ushered from the cocktail room into another building down the hallway, dimly lit with long tables brandishing sturdy hardware. Family style dishes were passed from person to person as gobs of food hit plates, a plethora of homemade breads, fish, stews, and vegetables.
A new open bar opened in one corner bearing Michigan craft beers while another stood opposite with classic drinks. The quiet room began to murmur as guests settled into their food and make conversation.
The maids of honor stood and made speeches about how much they loved their sister but were happy that she found the right man. The best man also stood, stumbled over a speech rift with sexual undertones that at once was funny and awkward for everyone involved.
Then the dance floor opened with the DJ blazing classic rock songs—“You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me”—along with recent pop songs.
Everyone hit the dance floor, showing off the best and worst of their moves for hours.
Finally, with throbbing feet, my family ushered me off the dance floor and to the car to head to the destination I would see my next wedding: Korea.
A Korean Wedding
One day, my boss asked if I would like to see a Korean wedding. After weighing the options in my head, I decided sure, for it would be a disappointment to me if I never partook in one during my time in the country.
So one Saturday, I found myself donning the same pair of heels and a nice, lacy green skater dress with a cardigan to suit Korean shoulder-modesty.
“It’s at a university,” my boss explained as she drove us in her sporty little car to a city thirty minutes away. “Most weddings are either in wedding halls or universities on weekends to fit everyone in. Don’t worry about giving them money, I’ve covered you as my guest.”
Gifts at Korean weddings are rarely given. Instead, each guest gives money to “pay for their meal” so to speak. After the wedding, the money is usually divided three ways: the bride gets her friend’s money, the groom gets his friend’s money, and the parents take what their friends gave since usually parents are the ones who pay for the wedding.
We arrived early as my boss was a close friend of the bride’s—they usually show up an hour or so early to see the bridge get ready and take pictures with the photographer. So we marched around the five-story building with a gorgeous ex-newscaster bride wearing a gown that looked like something from a cake-topper.
In an alcove off the side of the venue, the bride took pictures with her family, the groom, and her friends as they waited for the ceremony before theirs to wrap up. I sat on a plush, red settee off to the side watching people clamor for their own pictures and feeling unsure of what to do with myself, a picture of awkward in my own skin.
“Come on,” the bride—whom I had never met called to me in one group photo.
I stammered a no, but she refused to take no for an answer and made me get into pictures that included her four closest friends—all gorgeous women who in some way, shape, or form were involved in the TV industry.
Red-faced from embarrassment, I was happy to make my way into the venue, where tables were set up circling around a long, t-shape stage. My boss snagged a table with some of her childhood friends and I watched as they chatted about their lives in Korean before the lights dimmed and the ceremony started—but the talking did not.
The dimmed lights darkened complete except for the ones focused on the stage. Then, in the back, a spotlight shone on a hand-built tower with a stairwell leading down to the main stage. The bride appeared in one of the open windows of the tower, smiling brightly to her guests before elegantly descending the stairs and making her way across the quite long stage.
In the US, I was used to the focus being on the bride, but this took the cake for me. Every eye and light in the room was focused on her as she slowly walked to her groom. When she finally got to him, they stopped and listened to the commencer—a very famous Korean judge—began to speak on love and the joining together of two people.
“Isn’t she so much prettier than him?” My boss leaned over from her conversation with her friends to ask me. “He’s a lawyer and rich.”
“Oh,” I said, connecting mental dots in her mind, “Is that why she’s marrying him?”
My boss shrugged. “She used to be a newscaster before she was let go for a younger, prettier girl.” My mouth dropped because the bride was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. “But her family has money—they bought her a new sports car. Her brother—he’s handsome but jobless. She doesn’t need the money but… being a lawyer has some weight to it here because it’s so difficult to pass the exam.”
If any thought of money and status ran through the bride’s own head, though, I couldn’t tell. She looked happy to be joining together with this man. It reminded me of jokes I would make with my friends of trying to hang out in the law school on campus to meet future lawyers, but I didn’t want to ascribe the enchanting bride this hidden agenda.
People continued to talk and play games as the rings were exchanged. The maid of honor came forward to catch the bouquet—an interesting twist on the throwing of it in Korea is that only the maid of honor comes forward to catch the bouquet. Usually a girl who is in a very serious relationship or is engaged is chosen as the maid of honor because there is a superstition that one must get married in six months after catching it or they’ll never get married at all.
The husband’s band came forward and sang them a cute song about love before the lights blinked back on and everyone made their way downstairs for the meal so the next wedding party could have their ceremony.
People sat at banquet-style tables with an array of fish, meats, and drinks already in place before them. People already sitting dug straight into the food.
“People judge a wedding by how good the food is,” my boss told me as we ate. “The older people tend to get angry if the food isn’t good because, in their minds, they paid for it with the wedding gift.”
Luckily for this couple, the food was good. By the time the wedding couple made their entrances—changed from wedding outfits into a smart suit and a cocktail dress—most of the older guests already ate their fill and left. Another wedding party waited at the entrance of the restaurant to be let in.
We thanked the couple, cooed over how beautiful the bride looked, before heading to grab a coffee and go home for the night— a far cry from the nights of dancing I was used to.
An Indian Wedding
“You should wear a sari,” my friend—the bride—told me over message, “You would look good in pink, red or orange.”
Buying the sari was a struggle in itself, finding the right colors and getting blouses made, story enough for another time. Finally, my friend and I landed on hot pink and a pale yellow. But the saris wouldn’t come until later.
By the time we arrived in Kolkata, various wedding festivities had been held over the course of the week, from nights where close friends performed for the bride and groom to informal receptions. We arrived in time for the main festivities, beginning on the bride’s side.
On Friday morning, we were woken from our extremely late flight and dinner to don casual clothes—jeans and blouses for both of us—to make our way to the wedding venue. Girls clad in yellow saris ran around shooting pictures and getting things ready. Old friends and new ones came to greet us in a swarm. No less than three photographers paced the inside of a room with red couches surrounding it and two thrones on a stage in the middle. Later, this would be where the wedding couple received their guests.
For now, it was just some family and close friends. Outside in the courtyard, men worked hard to string up lights and flowers as caterers rushed around to figure out where to put pots and pans. White chairs circled large tables, all centered around a brightly-draped gazebo.
During this two-hour interlude, we chatted and talked until finally a vehicle arrive. Inside were fancily-wrapped gifts for the bride’s family from the groom’s family, including saris, shoes, suits, and a fish. All the girls in their bright yellow saris dashed to help unload the car and tuck the gifts in a safe spot. Then, we had a light brunch provided by the family.
Almost immediately after, in the courtyard, four short poles were propped up with string wrapped around them. We watched in wonder as the bride stepped inside.
“It’s supposed to represent breaking free of her parents house,” one of the guests informed us as the bride crashed through them, “or something like that.”
Everyone yelled and laughed as turmeric powder was dashed across everyone’s faces.
“It’s supposed to be good luck for getting a husband,” one girl said as she approached me with fingers poised to brush the spice across my face.
“Then I think I’m going to need more,” I told her, half-joking, half-serious as she touched it to my forehead, chin, and nose.
She laughed and danced away to cover the next person.
My friend and I exchanged grins and posed for selfies before being ushered for a multi-course lunch despite our complete lack of appetite—the family must provide food for those in attendance to the ceremonies.
Afterwards, we were dashed back home for a brief period of rest before being draped in our saris and scampering through the city of Kolkata to pick up friends and family.
By the time our car arrived, the wedding already started. People gathered around the gateway entering into the courtyard and throne room dancing in a circle—most of them young people who came early. The wedding would go well into the night, so some people chose to come much later.
Something cut off the celebration and ushered everyone inside, where a friend grabbed my friend to lead me into a back room where the bride put the finishing touches on her gown.
“She’s so unusual, in a good way,” a cousin whispered to me. “Usually the family picks out the bride’s sari, but she designed hers herself. The whole family was very supportive.”
And the bride looked resplendent in a shining blue blouse perfectly offset with the red sari and a purple underskirt. The gold of her layers of jewelry shone brightly against her skin and the material, her eyes were lined with alluring black kohl.
Earlier, the bride had confessed to me that so far she felt nothing different but hoped the ceremony would add weight to this big change in her life. Looking at her confident stature as she moved her bridesmaids around like a commander weilding an army, I thought that even if she felt nothing, she would be fine. She looked happy.
Somehow, we all ended up ushered outside into the courtyard to mingle with guests as the bride and groom went through ceremonies on the stage involving the elders of the bride’s family. On the night of the bride’s wedding, it is only the bride’s family and friends. The groom is allowed to invite his immediate family and closest friends only to the ceremony and vice versa for the night at his home.
Waiters walked around bearing trays with food—brothy soups, friend chicken and vegetables, coffees and teas. No alcohol inside—it was explained that for drinking, once the ceremonies were finished, people would head outside to set up drinks near their cars in makeshift bars.
The bride’s younger sister reserved a verbal lashing to any waiter getting the details wrong. “I’m making sure everything is right,” she said. She was young, not even out of high school yet, but began to show some of that inner confidence that marked her sister apart.
At certain points of the ceremony, people gathered around to take pictures, at others people milled about in groups talking and catching up on life. Many were high school friends of the bride’s and it was like a reunion. The ceremonies stretched hours of bowing and talking.
“It’s hard,” my friend and I lamented at one point as we tried to catch a moment of sitting. “Talking to people for so long.”
Indeed, it was the most social event I had ever been to. I couldn’t imagine ever having to network in India—the amount of talking involved would have been astronomical.
I grabbed a piece of chicken just as the bride and groom were ushered into chairs and lifted up by a few brave groomsmen and toted in a circle. The bride clutched at her chair both laughing and terrified until they had to lei each other with a flower garland. Everyone gathered around to watch the jilting movements with trepidation: would one of them fall?
“I saw someone fall once,” a guy told me with a wince, “No one was gathered around that side, either, so she just hit the ground.”
This bride was lucky. People gathered in a complete circle around her, ready to catch her if she slipped. Finally they managed the feat of circling a flower garland around their necks and the robust male friends lowered them to the ground, each slick with sweat.
A few more ceremonies, and the bride and groom went inside to take their places on the thrones and to greet each guest who came to them with a smile and a glamorous photograph while accepting gifts from each one.
Exhausted, I clutched my friend for a hug behind and congratulated her very lucky husband before being whisked back off home.
The next day was a day of rest as the bride and groom settled into their home, but the following day brought another flurry of activity.
My friend returned home on a late flight and I was ushered to the bride’s home to witness the last of the presents for the groom’s family being wrapped and found from various nooks and crannies around the house. A detailed list of more than eighty names and exactly what gift should be included kept everything in line.
As soon as the last of the gifts was loaded into the vehicle, we set off again, this time to the newlyweds home to eat snacks and chat before the next ceremonies. Everyone lounged around lazily as I took the opportunity to catch up a bit on the life of my friend.
Soon, we were ushered again to the courtyard of the groom’s ceremonies. This time, for the ceremony, the bride made a plate for the elders in the family to eat before everyone dined on fish, dal, and rice.
Another evening ceremony would follow, but for me, I had to catch a late flight back to work.
There were a lot of differences between the three weddings. Each one had pagantry and traditions of its own that are hard to compare.
American Wedding Tips
-For a gift, you can bring either a gift or give money
-Be prepared to dance in comfy shoes
-Dress code varies, but a nice dress or slacks never hurt anyone
Korean Wedding Tips
-Gifts are uncommon. Usually you would give money to “pay for your meal”—and give it directly to whoever is collecting the bride or groom’s money because otherwise it’ll go straight to the parents.
-The way people dress varies—usually smart casual
Indian Wedding Tips
-A gift is more common to give than money
-Most of the wedding is a social event—be prepared to talk
-Dress glam. Everyone will be in their best saris and you don’t want to be the odd one out
Unfortunately, I lost my photos from the last American wedding (it’s been almost 3 years since I’ve been in America) and Korean wedding I went to about a year ago.
Do you have any interesting cultural wedding experiences? Or any more tips?