Attending Weddings Abroad, I Was Reminded That a Ceremony Can Be Anything You Choose

Image may contain Human Person Clothing Apparel Suit Coat Overcoat People Tuxedo and Dress
Photo: Courtesy of Hyejin Oh

No one knows this, but I actually got married in 2014. It took place in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Soweto (South Africa’s largest Black township and a symbol of resistance to apartheid), during a break in our bike tour. At the prompting of our bemused teenage guides (who, upon hearing that we lived in New York City, earnestly asked if we personally knew Jay Z), my partner and I gamely donned garlands of antelope fur and beaded collars and sealed the union by kneeling and sipping homemade maize beer from a gourd. “I now pronounce you husband and wife!” the guides grinned.

All weddings comprise a set of traditions, specific to place and culture and rooted in practices of the past. But a lot of customs, including those to which many blindly adhere, can be downright archaic when you consider their roots: Fathers walk brides down the aisle as a remnant of when daughters were deemed property to be traded. The garter and bouquet tosses stem from the practice of whisking newlyweds straight from the altar to the consummation bed. Traditions we think are de rigueur are actually anything but—remember, brides only began wearing white dresses after Queen Victoria wore one at her 1840 wedding.

That was one of the years we attended some two dozen weddings between the two of us, and by then the wedding-guest experience had frankly lost a good amount of charm. There was a rote quality, a well-trod path not to be deviated from, a script strictly adhered to—the polite rehearsal dinners, the scenic wineries or exposed-brick once-industrial spaces, the cocktail-hour lukewarm hors d’oeuvres, the interminable speeches, the heels to the side of the dance floor, the boozy after-parties, the tasteful day-after brunches, and so much “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Don’t get me wrong: I was certainly honored to be invited onto these wedding hamster wheels. And I get it: Figuring out how to make a wedding feel fresh is understandably low on couples’ wedding checklists, with many pairs choosing to uphold traditions or at least not to question them, often for the sake of older generations in their family.

But I was thrilled to be asked to the wedding of two new friends, one of whom was a Jeju Island native, in no small part to spend time in a land whose culture (music! food! dramas!) everyone had been buzzing about. The weekend started off with a chartered bus tour around the island for the couple, their families, and the dozen American guests. We made stops at an enormous seaside bowl crater, at the foot of which halmonis served up platters of sea-fresh mollusks; a museum dedicated to the island’s rich history of women free divers (haenyeo); and an atmospheric trek through one of the world’s largest lava tunnels. We walked the spectacular hexagonal columns of volcanic rock at Jusangjeolli Cliffs, passing by droves of teen schoolgirls on class trips, all with the same tint of maraschino-cherry lips.

Our not-so-legally-binding wedding in Soweto preceded two friends’ splashy, very real nuptials at a luxury private game reserve near Kruger National Park, with animals in the wild I never dreamed I’d see so close, curious monkeys peeping into our outdoor shower, and a massive braai in the bush around a roaring bonfire, surrounded by the couples’ lawyer and I-banker friends. It was an unforgettable experience. But it was a comparatively humble ceremony the following year in Jeju Island, off the southern tip of South Korea, that completely changed how I thought of weddings.