Today was my haam ceremony. As a bridegroom, I was required to announce my intentions to the bride and her family by parading through the streets with an ornately wrapped box filled with wedding rings and other gifts. This box, or haam, is a ticket of entrance, but also a bargaining chip for the bridegroom and his fellow waiting men, as they ask for enticements and gifts from the women of the household for bringing such a gift and worthy suitor into the bride's home.
My waiting men consisted of So Gee's uncles, cousins, and the fearless, David Kalinowski, who wore a mask made of dried squid as was required by the chief negotiator, or so we were told.
"He must wear it!" my Aunts commanded.
"Okay," David smirked. "I'll wear squid on my face."
"You are a brave man," I said.
"Well, when am I ever going to get to wear squid on my face?" he asked.
"That's true," I agreed. "I wonder why you do it."
"Probably to save face or something."
"Like because I have to ask for money or something."
We weren't sure about why there was a requirement. We were actually pretty clueless about the whole affair. That made it so much fun though. It was like being on a roller coaster.
Before the calling of the haam could begin, I had to be dressed in a hanbok - a traditional Korean dress worn at weddings and other special occasions. This was done to me - and I literally mean to me - as I was dressed head to toe by So Gee's aunts who made fun of my hairy chest and pinched my nipples to make them come out; I have the hidden and shy kind.
David also had to be dressed appropriately as my negotiating squid man. We believe the mask serves a dual purpose in the saving face department: first, it prevents embarrassment for people who shout up and down the streets or ask for money and gifts from the bride and her family; second, it literally disguises a person with a tentacle goatee. Need we say more on the selling points of a squid mask?
As it was the beginning of the Lunar New Year, I was required to carry the haam box from the front gate (the beginning) of the apartment complex, while shouting out my intentions with the phrase "Ham sa sayo!" which translates roughly as "I got a gift box for sale!"
As David and I made our journey into the home, we were to resist going into the home by requesting more money, food, and drinks in return for our movement forward.
"Ham sa sayo!" we called. "Haaaam saaa saaaayoooo!"
"We are thirsty," David said in Korean. "We need to quench our thirst before we continue."
Drinks were provided, until my aunts decided David was too good of a negotiator and pulled out toothpicks and sewing needles to prod him into the apartment.
Once the bridegroom gets to the door of the bride's home, and before entering, the bridegroom is required to break an earthen bowl to signal a connection with Mother Earth and to ward off evil spirits from the marriage union and home.
"Ohhhhh!" everyone shouted when I shattered the bowl.
People were impressed that I could shatter what seemed like impenetrable tupperware.
"Oh, baby," So Gee said later. "I am so impressed."
"Me too," David said. "How did you break it?"
"I don't know," I said. "I just heard 'ward off evil spirits', so I hit the thing with everything I had."
Once I entered the home, So Gee and I bowed to her parents. Then I presented them with the haam. Here I am unwrapping it. Moments after this picture was taken, the haam was lifted and put on a pot of sticky rice. I only found out later that the rice's texture and the way it cooked would be representative of So Gee and my union.
"It was very sticky," So Gee explained later.
"There was lots of smoke," So Gee's mother said in Korean.
"That's very good," So Gee smiled.
"Oh," I smiled back. "We got game."
Inside the haam box were gifts for the bride. They included a bridal dress, wedding rings, and a poem by yours truly.
"A poem is the greatest treasure one could give in the Persian culture," I explained to my new Korean family.
"Ahhh," they replied and nodded their heads.
After the haam was presented, I thought the ceremony was over. I was wrong though. It was just beginning. I was clued into this by my brother-in-law who simply said, "It is time for your punishment."
"Yes," my uncle agreed. "We will test you."
Apparently, every male who helped me bring in the haam box was required to pay a fee for their services to the bridegroom's family. I am not sure what the original tradition was, but in the Kwon family, one is required to give a speech and drink bomb alcohol shots. Do I need to say that I have not had an Irish Car Bomb (drink) since I was in college? Did my father-in-law just say to do it in par three?
Before I forget, the drinking challenge was to do the bomb alcohol shots without letting your adam's apple move more than three times, or "Par three!" as my father-in-law explained. "One-two-three!"
I tried to explain that I was not ever a drinker to explain any poor showing that might result, and that I had been drinking more in Korea than I had ever done in my entire life - which is still not much - but my gripes were met with confused, blank stares. I looked into each chasm of nothingness. Then one aunt shouted in a sarcastic bravado: "So Korea has been a bad influence!"
I felt much like Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves when he had to eat the liver of a buffalo he had just killed. I couldn't explain my way out of the situation gracefully and I didn't want to disrespect anyone. So I just did it.
David was also challenged to drink in less than three gurgles. He failed the first time and was required to do it a second time. Poor guy! At least that's what I thought, until I failed as well.
The next series of punishments were strictly for yours truly. First, I was told to do five push-ups with just my fingers. Then the ante was raised in quick succession as I progressed downward from five to three.
When I couldn't do it with two or one, I was quickly showed up by my father-in-law.
Later, I was advised to avoid physical challenges by a gracious aunt.
"Don't do it!" she said gravely and with concern. The way she warned me hinted at a possible non-egoic responsibility to decline to let my elders keep face and remain healthy. I smiled and nodded my assent. If there is one thing I've learned in Korea, it's to go with what's easiest and allow for things to be as they are without changing them. If someone says do a push-up, I do it. If someone says don't do one, I don't.
Then I was lifted into the air for the entire family to take shots at hitting the balls of my feet with a fish and - after the fish exploded - a wooden rod. I was told this was to create healthy circulation for the bride and bridegroom's wedding night.
After being put through each test and passing, my father-in-law was very happy. At least that's what I thought when he stood on his head and clapped his feet after three or four bomb shots. In fact, I would say I get along very well with my father-in-law. We are both entertainers, like climbing mountains, and can dance at request. Who could ask for more?
As the evening took its dip past merriment into stillness, my mother-in-law took So Gee and I for a walk through her courtyard. None of us spoke for a bit. Then my mother pointed to the stars. It was definitely rare to see so many in a city as polluted as Seoul.
"Look at them all," So Gee's mother admired in Korean. "Unbelievable!"
"It is beautiful," So Gee agreed.
"They must have come out after I did so much yelling," I laughed.
My mother smiled. Then So Gee and her spoke about the dream I had. She thought it was fortuitous that I saw the earth being born. It reminded her of a dream she had on her wedding night.
"That night," she explained in Korean, "I saw four mountains in every direction - north, south, east, and west. On each of them was a golden palace. I knew that my marriage would be strong after that. Now I know yours will be as well."
So Gee and I had a fun time with the haam experience. We both got to laugh a lot. Mostly, at myself. Getting married in Korea is definitely better than a big, fat Greek wedding any day!