D/Ophy: Where's my suit?
In South Korea, tying the knot has plenty of strings attached In South Korea, tying the knot has plenty of strings attached
By Norimitsu Onishi
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
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SEOUL: When two young television stars called it quits only 12 days after their recent wedding, their very public and acrimonious divorce shone a rare spotlight on the underside of marriage in South Korea.
Lying in a hospital bed with a broken nose, Lee Min Young accused her husband, Lee Chan, of domestic violence, causing much hand-wringing in the country's media and blogosphere. But as accusations and counteraccusations flew, an equally heated debate arose over another reason cited for the breakup: wedding gifts.
According to accounts in the South Korean media, the bridegroom's father said he received a gold-plated spoon among the gifts from the bride's family, but said he merited at least a silver spoon. The bride's mother, in turn, complained bitterly that her daughter deserved to live in a more spacious apartment than the one chosen by the bridegroom.
The divorce showed how, perhaps more than ever, choosing the right wedding gifts for the new in-laws is fraught with pitfalls in South Korea. Shop for a plasma television set that is too small, and the bride's family risks offending the bridegroom's family. Other misjudgments can lead to strained relations between the two families or, at its extreme, a premature divorce.
Traditionally, the bridegroom or his family was expected to provide the newlyweds with a home that the bride and her family were expected to furnish. A bride's dowry was compensation for being taken care of for the rest of her life. Nowadays, changes like the rising status of women, the country's growing wealth and, not least, skyrocketing real estate prices have complicated matters.
"In the past, simple and useful gifts were given," said Han Gyoung Hae, a professor of family studies at Seoul National University. "But now the price of the gifts has become more and more important, especially among the country's new rich.
"If, traditionally, the gifts were meant to tie families together, now they are meant to show off how rich you are. The phenomenon is an expression of how materialistic South Korean society has become."
Gifts started becoming lavish along with South Korea's rising economy in the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, families of brides began giving sums of money outright, said Kim Joo Hee, a professor of family culture at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul.
"But it's become customary for the bridegroom's family to return half of the money," Kim said. "If they don't, it could lead to confrontation."
The anguish over choosing the right wedding gifts, though perhaps most intense among the wealthy, is shared by all social classes, Kim said.
"A woman from a poor family may have to work and save for her marriage, instead of relying on her family, but she will face similar problems over gifts," Kim said.
What underlies the gift exchanges is that, despite South Korea's high-tech exterior, marriages are still unions between families, and parents remain deeply involved in the final selection of their children's spouses.
"Marriage is a whole family thing," said Lee Hyo Yon, 28, an official at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency who married recently. "And gifts are such an important part of it that some couples even break up before they ever get married. The family of one friend of mine gave $30,000 to the bridegroom's family, but they said that wasn't enough."
Lee said she was lucky because the family of her husband, Kim Young Seok, an engineer at Hyundai Motors, was extremely easygoing. The couple's courtship followed a common course among members of their generation. They were set up by a mutual friend who, according to custom, will now be presented with a suit, or the equivalent, in gratitude.
Their first date was at an Italian restaurant in Kangnam, a fashionable district in southern Seoul, and Kim later impressed her by going to pick her up at the airport at 2 a.m. after a business trip. Like many men here, he proposed on their 100-day anniversary.
The young couple will live with the bridegroom's parents for the time being. But his parents have already bought an apartment for their son and his future wife. "We're three brothers in my family," Kim said. "So my parents bought each son an apartment years ago for their future marriages."
As for Lee, she is bringing over a new king-sized bed. Unlike many other mothers-in-law, hers was not interested in receiving any gifts.
"That in itself caused my mother and me to worry," said Lee, who earned a master's degree in management from New York University. "Maybe we really weren't doing enough. One day we even took my future mother-in-law to a fur coat store and asked her to let us choose one for her. But she refused."
Experts say that the rising status and income of professional women, like Lee, has also led to the recalibration of gift-giving. For instance, in the case of the television stars, the actress was doing better than her husband.
"Women are more educated, sometimes more so than their husbands, and are working," Han said.
"That gives her side of the family a bigger voice in the marriage, and it complicates gift-giving."
The current real estate boom in Seoul, as well as South Korea's particular rental system, has also increased the burden on today's bridegroom. The selection of an apartment that is not up to the standards the bride or her family had expected, as was the case with the actress's mother, can lead to recriminations.
"If the bridegroom's family is affluent but does not buy an apartment for the newlyweds and just rents one instead, that can cause problems," said Kim, the professor of family culture. "That means they chose not to buy one, and gifts from the bride's family must be adjusted accordingly."
Renting is not cheap, either. In South Korea, instead of monthly rents, landlords usually demand a lump sum of money, which they typically invest, returning it at the end of a two-year lease.
In Sanbon, a suburb of Seoul popular among newlyweds, renting a typical apartment of less than 65 square meters, or 700 square feet, requires a $75,000 initial payment for a two-year lease, said Kim Won Jong, a real estate agent there.
The apartment chosen by Lee Chan, the actor, for his wife was more than 90 square meters and located in a more fashionable neighborhood. But the actress's mother said her daughter was worth a 170-square-meter apartment.
"That," said Kim, the agent, "is a palace."