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At Asian Weddings, Cash Is King

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When I received a wedding invitation from my friends Jiyeon Kim and Olof Norlander this year, I knew exactly where I would pick up their wedding present: the bank.

The two had already married in Uppsala, Sweden, where they live, but Ms. Kim’s father wanted the newlyweds to have a second ceremony in Changwon, South Korea, where he had spent years attending the weddings of his friends’ and colleagues’ children.

As is tradition, he gave the marrying couples envelopes of cash known in Korean as chug-ui-geum, or congratulatory money. Having a wedding in South Korea would allow him not only to share the joyous occasion with his family and friends, but also to offset the costs of the event with reciprocated cash gifts from attendees.

“We can’t deny that the surplus in money was one of the good outcomes of the wedding,” said Ms. Kim, 32, who held her second ceremony in May.

Weddings are peaking at this time of year, and in Asia, it has long been custom to congratulate marrying couples with cash instead of gifts from a registry. In South Korea, guests present their envelopes of cash to an appointed friend or family member of the newlywed couple upon arriving at the reception. In return, they are presented with a meal ticket that allows them entrance to the wedding banquet, and the amount given is discreetly written in a register. Guests who cannot attend are given the option to wire money to the newlyweds’ bank account number written on the invitation.

While it has become increasingly popular for couples in the United States to ask for cash when getting married, it is still rare for American couples to have a registry that is cash only, said Emily Forrest, director of communications for Zola, a wedding registry website.

Nobu Nakaguchi, a co-founder at Zola, said he noticed cultural differences in gift-giving when he got married in 2005. He had a Roman Catholic wedding in the United States and a Buddhist wedding in Japan. It was a fascinating experience to receive cash at his Japanese wedding, he said, since many Americans believe that giving cash is gauche.

“If you go to an Asian country like Japan or Korea, the expectation is to receive a cash gift,” Mr. Nakaguchi, 48, said. “I don’t think we’re fully there in the U.S.”

Despite long-held customs around giving cash, discussing expectations about money was considered a cultural taboo in Asian countries, said Lee Eun-hee, a consumer science professor at Inha University in South Korea.

“While money gifts are expected and desired, our culture forbids us to explicitly spell out what we want,” she said, pointing out that this is why etiquette dictates money be presented in envelopes.

This dichotomy has resulted in a rich conversation around the etiquette of giving cash at weddings in Asia. Should a gift reflect the cost of your banquet meal? How do you put a numerical value on a friendship? Here are some unwritten rules on how giving money works at Asian weddings.

Mengqi Wang, an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke Kunshan University who had two weddings in China, described both of her experiences as large affairs that did not try to reflect her and her husband’s relationship. She felt an obligation to have the ceremonies, largely because she knew they were important rituals for her parents.

“We don’t have that money,” she said of the cash gifts, which ultimately went to her parents. “I don’t even know how much money my parents got.”

While weddings in Asia are increasingly becoming less traditional, parents play a vital role in arranging the event and making financial decisions because they are often paying for it. It’s common for parents to determine how much of the congratulatory money the newlyweds keep.

This is why a parent at a Korean wedding is referred to as the hon-ju, or owner of the wedding. Many Korean couples work out a system with their parents in which they keep a specific portion of the money. However, when money may be a point of contention, some brides will appoint a gabang-sooni, or person in charge of your bag, to collect the money in private rather than at the reception.

Gift money is never meant to be physically seen. To work around this, many Asian cultures have special envelopes for the occasion. In South Korea, only crisp, new bills are to be presented — stacked front-first — in a white envelope with the giver’s name written vertically on it.

In Japan, the shugi-bukuro, or envelope for congratulatory money, was traditionally made by hand in red and white, but can now be bought in a variety of colors. In many Chinese cultures, the envelope most associated with the Lunar New Year, hong-bao, is famously red. Since money is given for a number of occasions, including funerals, Asian wedding attendees should make sure the correct envelope is given.

Recently, sending money through a bank transfer or electronically via digital envelopes on messaging apps like WeChat and KakaoTalk has also become acceptable.

Ms. Kim, who has attended weddings in Europe and Asia, said it was much harder for her to decide how much to contribute to a wedding in Sweden, since the customs are different.

While a gift anywhere is a consideration of your relationship and the social situation, there is often a socially accepted formula to gift-giving in Asia that takes into account a variety of factors, including beliefs about auspicious numbers and power in relationships.

In Japan, where the average goshugi, or envelope of cash given at an auspicious occasion, is somewhere from 30,000 yen ($211) to 50,000 yen ($350), it is generally understood that a younger adult or college student should contribute ¥10,000 ($70), while workplace superiors and older relatives should aim for the higher end of that range or more.

General advice from Korean blogs and society reporting recommends asking yourself these questions to understand what constitutes a close relationship: Is the person inviting you a work colleague? Did you receive a mobile invitation only? Does your mother know this person’s name? Would your mother’s response to hearing the person’s name be “Oh, right, that person’s daughter”? Any answer pointing to closeness would add to the appropriate amount — typically resulting in a payment from 50,000 won ($39) to 100,000 won ($77), according to a survey of South Korean singles in 2022.

Ms. Wang, the anthropology professor, said the money given at weddings was also used to establish a stronger bond, or guanxi.

“The wedding is one of those occasions where you get to give a gift to someone,” she said. “Without a special occasion, it would look out of context. To give a gift — a good one — is also a way to cement relationships.”

It’s not just a monetary exchange but an exchange of credit and debt, she added.

As such, the wedding gift giving system has been abused by people in power, and governments in Asia have even tried to regulate gifts to prevent bribery and corruption. In South Korea, an anti-graft law, the Kim Young-ran Act, was put into place limiting how much public servants could be given on various occasions — capping cash gifts at 100,000 won at weddings. But the act has been difficult to enforce because a separate entity would have to audit each gift presented at the ceremonies.

In addition to social position and proximity, conventional wisdom in Asia says the cost of the banquet meal should be factored in. This idea is so widespread in Singapore that dozens of websites lay out how much a table costs at most major hotels in the country.

Michelle Tay, an editor at Singapore Brides, says that while she encourages readers to pay as much ang bao (Hokkien for red envelope) as they can, many people like to have a rough estimate of how much others are paying by first looking at the prices listed on the venue.

“Every half a year or so, venues will adjust their banquet prices according to rising costs,” Ms. Tay said. “This indirectly causes people to feel pressured to pay more when they check the ang bao guides that are updated with the new rates.”

Ms. Lee, the consumer science professor, is often contacted by Korean media organizations for advice on how much to pay at a wedding. She said her rule of thumb was always: “Look up the venue where the couple is getting married. See how much a meal there costs. And if you will not cover the price of your plate, it’s better not to go and send them an electronic transfer of 50,000 won instead.”

Since many Asian cultures have superstitions around money, it may be wise to look up which numbers are considered lucky at the wedding in question. In South Korea, the number four is considered unlucky because of its resemblance to the character for death. In Japan, be wary of any sum that is divisible by two, because it is easily separated. In China, values ending in eight are preferred for their association with wealth and prosperity.

Ms. Wang said her mother’s principle was always: “You have to remember how much the person gave you, and you reciprocate, but never the equal amount of value. It shouldn’t feel like a market transaction. Reciprocate by adding a little more to indicate you want to continue to have a relationship with that person.”

Her mother’s advice also came with a warning: “If you pay too much more, it can come across as arrogance.”

In China, when she is unsure of how much to pay, Ms. Wang calls her friends to compare notes.

“If we lived in a perfectly closed community, everybody would know their positions and they would know how much to give, but the reality is that we’re always mobile,” she said. This is true whether a person is trying to put a figure on a wedding gift, sending condolences to a funeral (also a cash gift in many Asian countries) or trying to pick out a gift for a baby shower.

In some ways, “it’s no different than what happens in America,” Mr. Nakaguchi said. People remember what guests spent at their wedding and try to reciprocate equal or higher values.

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