November 25, 2009 11:26
In a lengthy article published last week the New York Times examined the Korean tradition of collecting cash gifts at weddings, describing how some families send out thousands of invitations to weddings where "guests normally line up to hand their offerings to a cashier." "The practice is such a given that wedding invitations sometimes include bank account numbers so people who cannot attend can still send money," the article said.
"Every year roughly 330,000 Korean couples spend an average of $13,000 to $17,000 each on weddings," the story said. "The cost can exceed $40,000 for hotel weddings," much of which is "usually covered by the cash gifts."
"But the problem with the tradition," the NYT noted, is that it is often difficult "to tell the difference between bribes and genuine gifts." When a senior government official decided not to accept cash gifts at his daughter's wedding in June, the decision was such an oddity that it "made news."
The newspaper covered the custom as a curiosity, but the reality of the practice is very serious. The inclusion of bank account numbers in wedding invitations boils down to a simple statement: "It's time for us to be repaid for all the money we gave out before." The implied demand for cash is so clear that recipients view many invitations like tax bills.
Prominent families fill up expensive hotel ballrooms with wreaths and spend tens of millions of won on banquets to feed armies of guests and on decorations that will be torn down the next day. This wasteful and decadent custom has spread like an infectious disease throughout all classes of Korean society. Parents send out wedding invitations for their children so that they can collect an amount worthy of their social status. Invitations are even sent to business acquaintances like IOUs.
At many weddings only a small number of guests actually know the couple that is tying the knot. Most guests just drop off their cash-filled envelopes, say hello to the parents and leave.
Recently, one high-ranking government official grabbed headlines by sending no invitations, declining cash gifts and refusing to accept congratulatory wreaths for his child's wedding. If we are to stop being ridiculed for a tradition that has become so extreme that we see bank accounts in wedding invitations, the leading members of our society must set the example and scale down their weddings. When smaller weddings become commonplace then Korean brides and grooms will be able to invite people they really care about, who will sincerely congratulate them on their new beginning.
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