I’m a 21 year-old college student living in the Midwest. As the number of years I’ve spent in the States started to catch up to the number of years I’ve lived in Korea, my Korean-ness began to blur. Friends brought me questions about Korean politics, and students in my Korean language class asked me about Korean history, to which I responded with hesitation and uncertainty. Since I left Korea during middle school, I’ve taken my Korean identity for granted as I strove to adjust to American culture. The 6,600 miles of distance widened the psychological gap between me and my mother country as I didn’t seek to learn about the history, politics, culture, and philosophies of Korea. So, then, what did it mean to be a Korean if I didn’t know the history of my country?
At the end of my third semester in college, I bought a one-way ticket to Incheon, determined to refine my Korean identity. For 8 months, I took an online Korean history class, went grocery shopping to shijang (street markets) and cooked with my aunt and grandma, studied calligraphy and hanja (Chinese characters). I took a bus to my internship at 6:30am and got back home after 9pm like many other Seoulites, and I went to book clubs and cafes on my days off. I strove to live the life of a Korean, defying the societal expectation that I was a foreigner in my mother land. I hope to experience the culture underneath touristic sights.
One of my favorite parts about my internship was the location of the office building. Sitting at the heart of Gwanghwamun Square, it was a perfect place to watch people roam around in Korean national garment, hanbok, with their selfie sticks. For me, the people in hanbok exemplified the harmonious coexistence of the traditional and modern values in Seoul. This co-existing beauty of the traditional and modernity complimented the harmonious historic buildings with neighboring skyscrapers in the city. Every morning and afternoon for 8 months, I was awe-struck by the bursts of elegant colors and lines in hanboks. During my 8 years in the US, I rarely saw anyone wearing their national clothes in Chicago nor Grinnell, Iowa, where I attend college with students from over 25 countries.
The images of people in hanbok were engraved in my head after I returned to my college campus. When I realized that what I eat and what I wear are reflective of the dominant American culture, not necessarily representing multiculturalism that I seek to embrace, I decided to make a conscious effort to raise the visibility of my ethnic, cultural, and political identities as a Korean American.
Early last fall, I designed a project called Hankook in Hanbok. The project name is interpreted in two ways: Korean Hanbok (한국인 한복) and Korea in Hanbok (한국 in 한복). I want to represent Korean culture and history in my daily life and invite others to celebrate its beauty. As the political and social atmosphere in Korea and the States intensified, I worried whether it was a right time to execute my project, but I became convinced that right now is the perfect time for this project to remind Korean American about the rich values that our ancestors have passed onto us, to celebrate and raise visibility of the diversity within the Asian American community, and to educate the wider community about Korean culture and history in a more approachable and inviting manner.
For the next 4 months of my Spring semester in college, I hope to go beyond simply wearing hanbok, passively expecting others to approach me with questions about my outfits. As I cherish the traditional beauty of Korea through its modernized fashion, I am determined to proactively educate others about hanbok, as well as Korean culture, history and customs. My goal is to propel hanbok from its stereotyped image of being a costume or a relic, to an iconic representation of Korean culture that sustains and renews our sense of national pride and ethnic identity. I will become a hanbokin.