Maria Yoon’s wedding invitation details are quite precise. The nuptials will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, at Times Square in New York City, near the Walgreens, on the sidewalk. As she has learned from her previous 49 ceremonies, it’s best to leave little to chance.
Yoon, 39, is a first generation Korean-American. Calling herself “the voice of the unmarried Asian-American woman,” she bridled against the pressure her parents put on her to get hitched at a young age. So she became Maria the Korean Bride, and set out to hold a wedding in all 50 states to amplify and explore the ostracism that she feels, as well as examine how getting married is seen in other cultures.
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Along the way she discovered a lot of different attitudes, anxieties and anguish about what a wedding — and the institution of marriage — really means. But, mostly, she got really good at on-the-fly wedding planning. New York, her home state, is her last (fake) espousal. “It was important to me to finish the project before I officially became 40 on May 25,” she says.
Each wedding is an art project, and thus requires a commitment from a guy only to show up and read the vows Yoon writes for each occasion (“I promise to love, honor and cherish you until the end of the ceremony…”). Nevertheless, it’s no simple matter to find grooms. In one state (Nebraska) she married a 700-lb. Angus bull. In another (Wisconsin) she married an embroidered shirt.
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Still, she has standards. Since it’s art, she has to approve of the way the groom looks. She married a dog musher in Alaska and a cowboy in Wyoming (his girlfriend took a dim view). In New York, she held a lottery to find grooms, with vying suitors paying $5 each for a ticket. But even in a city where unusual art happenings are a daily occurrence, the first two grooms bailed and she had to go with No. 3. Another lesson she learned from 49 weddings: have a backup for everything.
Some have told her she’s desecrating what’s supposed to be a sacred ceremony. (Others might note that ship sailed long ago.) But she disagrees. “I take marriage so seriously, I needed to explore what it really means,” she says. And while the weddings don’t represent a lifetime commitment, they still require almost as much work as the ones that are supposed to be permanent.
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Yoon wears a hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, for each occasion (though the white hanbok she usually wears is traditionally worn at funerals, not weddings), with an elaborate headdress and dots on her face. And she has to find celebrants, book a venue and get people to show up. Plus, unlike for many young brides, her parents aren’t footing any of the bill.
Yoon takes the ceremonies very seriously; she never smiles, out of deference, she says, to her forebears. And some grooms have remarked that she’s so intent on getting everything right, they’re glad the marriage is over quickly.
Her parents, who probably rue the day they started to ask her why she wasn’t married yet, are coming to the wedding in Times Square. It’s their first. While her family has come around to (more or less) supporting her project, says Yoon, “my dad is thrilled that this is the last and final one.”
Does Yoon ever want to get married for real? “Yes, I think so,” she says. “However after years of interviewing couples and singles about marriage, maybe my expectations are a little more muted than most.”