Maria Yoon is a first-generation Korean-American who, like many, felt pressure from her father to find an established Korean man to marry. The pressure led to a strain in her family, and to deal with the conflict, Maria took a very nontraditional leap. She packed up a videographer and traveled to all 50 states and got married 54 times to men, women, and inanimate objects. She started the journey as a way to challenge the convention of marriage. The result was a documentary called Maria: The Korean Bride.
Maria getting married in Alaska (Photo: Maria Yoon)
Name: Maria Yoon
Number of marriages: 54
Time Period: Nine years
Yahoo Travel: Tell us about your upbringing.
Maria Yoon: Coming from immigrant parents, they raised their kids in America with an American mentality. Still, they had their cultural heritage and background and didn’t want to let that go. I actually think that people who immigrate here are more strict than people who stayed in South Korea. They wanted me to marry a well-established Korean guy. I was the oldest of the three kids, and when I wasn’t getting engaged or married, I think my father started to worry. He started lecturing me about it, and those lectures got so unbearable that I stopped seeing my folks. Even on holidays I wouldn’t go because I didn’t want to be lectured. My brother and sister did the right thing by getting married and having children. But I think my father still feels like he didn’t do his duty because I’m not married. My mother is a lot more understanding and doesn’t see it that way.
When did you decide that getting married 50 times would be the solution?
The conflict with my father made me think outside the box. As a creative person, I wanted to think of how I could have this boring conversation that every culture deals with. I decided to create a calendar by finding random bachelors to propose to me and I would take a photo. Before I knew it, I had 50 guys knocking down my door and proposing because they wanted to be in the calendar. It was like Match.com coming alive. It was crazy! It started out as a way to provoke a conversation with my father but it quickly escalated.
When did the calendar turn into the documentary?
After the success of the calendar, I had a realization that I was doing this all wrong. Even though the calendar was selling, I didn’t like that it was reinforcing the idea that the guy had to propose. I said, “This is wrong, I should go make the proposal myself.”
At that time, my friend had won the $45 million lotto (random, I know!). He wanted to go to Las Vegas to celebrate and said that he would pay for me to go with. I thought, “Fine, I’m going to bring my traditional Korean garb and getting married there.”
A little backstory. In my culture, mothers buy a special garment for their daughter when there’s a special event in her life like a wedding — something big. So my mom was very strategic; she bought me the dress so I would feel pressure to get married. I thought, “What am I going to do with this outfit?” That’s why I decided to take it with me to Vegas. I decided to make a marriage proposal and see how many people would say yes.
Maria gets married to a Diana Ross impersonator in Las Vegas. (Photo: Maria Yoon)
How did you meet your first husband?
I decided that photos wouldn’t be enough and that I would have to hire someone to capture video and make this a performance piece. I wore my Korean outfit, I went to a restaurant, and I asked the waiter to marry me. He said yes. He ended up getting sick or something and couldn’t come, so he sent a friend who agreed to marry me without ever meeting me! We got married at The Little White Wedding Chapel.
Then I went to a drag show, and I fell in love with a Diana Ross impersonator. So I married her, too.
When did you decide to marry someone in every state?
After Vegas, my ego was up in the air. I didn’t realize it would be that easy. I couldn’t stop in Las Vegas. I had to go to all 50 states because what makes this country so great is that we are all so different, and I wanted to learn about as many different people as I could. I wanted to know if other had strict upbringings and the pressure to marry and recreate. This story isn’t just about me or my dad. It’s about America’s voice. They taught me a thing or two. It’s not about me or my dad, it’s about America’s voice.
Were these marriages legal?
No. Initially, I wanted to keep a collage of all of my wedding certificates as souvenirs, but it got complicated. Every state has different rules and regulations, so I decided not to go through the costly process every time. So no, the marriages aren’t legal. And that means I never had to get an annulment or divorce.
Hawaiian wedding. (Photo: Maria Yoon)
What were the weddings like?
Since we weren’t legally getting married, the weddings were really focused on the ceremony. No two weddings were the same because I married different people from different parts of America. Sometimes there was a huge party and reception, and other times it was smaller and more intimate. But each one was special.
How did you get from city to city?
I traveled to all 50 states, so I obviously had to fly. But I ended up driving a lot. I rented a car and I did the New England area and I drove the Midwest. So I would visit, like, seven states in a chunk.
How did you meet your potential husbands?
In the beginning, I did a whole bunch of drinking at bars. I don’t know how I’m alive today. [Laughs] I had to hang out with the locals, so I hit the tiny little towns and asked bartenders who was single and adventurous. Sometimes I would wear my Korean garb to shock people, and sometimes I would dress normal. As the project grew, I realized that money was an issue, so I couldn’t stay in a city for too long. So before I went, I’d ask friends and people I knew if they knew anyone who would be interested in participating.
Who was your favorite husband?
Maria’s wedding in Wyoming (Photo: Maria Yoon)
Everyone was so special. Wyoming is the least populated state, and the people there are the nicest. The gathering of the community was heartwarming. I got married on a horse to a fifth-generation cowboy. I visit him every year, and his family sends me Christmas cards. His father checks in on my Facebook. It’s weird, but it’s a fun weird. They have nothing in common with me, but they loved my passion for art, and I respect their lifestyle as well.
Did any sparks fly during any of the marriages?
During the journey, I met someone. He and I had been friends before, and then we started dating, and then he became one of my husbands. We ended up being in a relationship for most of the nine years I was shooting this documentary. He was always very supportive of the project, but we broke up just last year.
And you didn’t marry only men, right?
During her journey, Maria also married two women, including this one in Massachusetts. (Photo: Maria Yoon)
No. I married women too. In 2002, I married a lesbian in Massachusetts because same-sex marriage had just become legal and I wanted to contribute to the conversation. I also married a woman in San Francisco when Prop. 8 was in the news. I changed my documentary to adjust to changing times.
People I married: 42 people total. Four of them are the Navajo Family at the Four Corners (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona). Thirty-six men and two women.
Objects and animals I married: 14 total. Miller Brewery T-shirt, River Gorge Bridge, Liberty Bell, maple tree, Confederate monument, Kelly Ingram Park, statue of Jesus, ghost town, thoroughbred horse, voodoo doll, Mississippi River, oil pump, Maine lobster trap, Angus bull (in Nebraska).
How long did it take to get married so many times?
It took me about nine years to complete. My last marriage was in 2011.
How did your parents react to the documentary?
My mom really loves it. She says that the documentary is like a rainbow with different people from different walks of life coming together to make this beautiful message. She’s actually in my documentary a lot, and without her voice, my project wouldn’t be as strong.
My dad still denies that I did this project. He has yet to see it.
So he didn’t get what you were trying to say about marriage?
No. I was told that my dad signed me up for the Korean Match.com. He was trying to impersonate me, but he gave up because the guys were really bad quality.
Maria marrying the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (Photo: Maria Yoon)
Did you have any negative interactions or reactions during your travels?
Some states were not very nice, and I learned that racism definitely still exists today. I was told to “go back” to my country, which was startling because I’m American. I carried my passport just in case. I was in Milwaukee, and the people there weren’t ever receptive to what I was doing. I didn’t want to leave empty-handed, so I married a Miller Brewery T-shirt just to represent the state. I also wanted to explore the idea of what it means to marry a corporate entity.
What advice do you have for others traveling across America?
I would encourage people to travel to small towns and cities. Meet the locals. I traveled to Buford, Wyo., which is known for having a population of just one guy. It’s just one guy, who runs a gas station and grocery store all in one. He loved his life, because he got to meet all of the awesome strangers who stopped by his gas station. He has since sold the town, but I’ll never forget that experience.Today, he and I are still good friends.
What did you learn from this experience?
I learned that love comes in many different packages. It’s amazing. People say that now I know about love, and I say that I don’t. Some of us are born to have a soulmate; some of us aren’t. But I learned how kind people are in America and how big the country is. Marriage is evolving according to the people, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.