By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- A foreign resident of South Korea posted a tricky question on a website where users share information on local culture and life.
Titled, "Most appropriate amount of congratulatory money," it was about a company colleague who was getting married.
"We are close enough to say hi when we see each other. ... We have never met outside of work. What do you think is the most appropriate amount to pay?" it reads.
One reply stood out.
"30,000 won (US$25) if you don't go (to a wedding) and not so close (to him); 50,000 won if you go but not so close; 50,000 won if you don't go and close; 70,000 won if you go and close; 100,000 won if you go, bring someone and close."
Foreigners aren't the only ones grappling with these questions. Many South Koreans often face the same dilemma, especially in the spring wedding season. As it gets colder and there are more funerals, cash envelopes are also given to bereaved families.
Salaried workers in South Korea spend an average of 1.4 million won a year on congratulatory and condolence money, according to a survey conducted in April by Saramin, a Seoul-based online recruitment firm.
Nearly 75 percent of the 435 respondents said they feel financially burdened by such cash expenditure.
"I think it reflects a kind of 'euiri' culture in Korea," Yuji Hosaka, a Sejong University professor, said in a phone interview.
He was referring to a way of behaving in people-to-people relations that is analogous to loyalty, faithfulness or even manliness.
Actor Kim Bo-sung, an euiri icon, is known to have attended almost all of his friends' celebratory and mourning ceremonies.
"Japanese people also bring cash gifts to weddings. A guest delivers an average of 30,000 yen (326,000 won)," Hosaka, a naturalized South Korean from Japan, said. "But a far smaller number of guests are invited, compared with South Korea. The list of attendees is fixed in advance for the preparation of course meals."
In contrast, South Koreans distribute invitation cards to hundreds or even thousands of people. They do not know who will actually come to their wedding. But this is not a problem as a buffet is usually provided.
Funerals are similar, though an exception is the main dish: a hot spicy meat stew called "yukgaejang."
For many, particularly salaried workers, it's a frequent nuisance to have to decide on whether to be present at such ceremonies and how much to pay.
The No.1 guideline is the level of relationship with the hosts, and the second is if it would be of help to one's career, either directly or indirectly.
"I'm willing to pay 300,000 won when my best friend gets married," Lee Jie-yeon, a hotelier in Seoul, said. "Not long ago, a senior co-worker at our hotel had the funeral of his mother-in-law. It was hard to decide."
In the end, she chose to skip a visit to the funeral home and instead asked a colleague who was planning to attend to convey 50,000 won in condolence money.
It's unclear when the cash-giving tradition here came into being. It apparently originates from the time-honored community practice of sharing labor in a give-and-take manner when holding big family events.
Handing over cash in white envelopes en masse can be seen as idiosyncratic by foreigners.
In the United States, for instance, people give gifts to the bride and groom. Often, the couple will provide a list of all the gifts they want and people choose one they will give.
For elderly Koreans, exchanging congratulatory and condolence money has been very important in lessening the cost of major family events and maintaining social networks.
They have followed the give-and-take tradition, in which saving face is important, quite strictly.
But people in their 20s or 30s here are more practical, as a growing number think marriage is not a must but an option.
"Nonetheless, I don't think the cash-gift culture here itself will disappear," Hosaka said. "Weddings are costly and also serve as a good chance to introduce spouses to relatives and friends at once."
He agreed that wedding invitations in South Korea are likely to be scaled down, probably in a transition to the Japanese style, amid generational shifts and changing social trends.
His view is backed by research by economists here who published a paper recently titled "An Empirical Analysis of the Relationship between the Expenditure and the Revenue of Family Events in South Korea using the National Survey of Tax and Benefit."
It was based on a survey of more than 3,488 households that had held weddings or funerals over the past decade.
The study by Song Heon-jae and Son Hye-rim, professors of economics at the University of Seoul, showed that the give-and-take practice is a sort of "full insurance" via "risk pooling." For example, if a family spent a total of 100,000 won in congratulatory and condolence money throughout the surveyed period, it collected 98,800 won, the study found.
The authors said the culture of exchanging cash wedding gifts and condolence money itself won't change for the time being, although the number of invitations could shrink.
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