The Hanbok Story

Thursday morning I arrived at work, a day as usual, or so I thought. My boss called me into his office during the first class period and said, “Sally. We go to Dangjin.”

I asked when. He said now.

I said okay.

I didn’t ask why. Even if I had asked why, I may not have understood his answer. Even if I had understand the answer, I would have never been mentally prepared. Mental preparation just isn’t possible, when you’re taken to a traditional Hanbok shop and told to try on outfits.

The shop keeper held up one option. The skirt reached the ground and the shoulders were boxy. She asked, “Do you like this?” I thought it all looked very… traditional. But the sleeves were beautifully embroidered. I said yes.

She placed the dress over my clothes and zipped up the back. She slid on the jacket and buttoned the front for me. I felt like a doll. Bewildered and clueless, I did I as I was told. Sure. I like it. A poofy layer for underneath? Okay. Shoes? Okay. Headpiece? Okay. She pulled my hair into a ponytail for me. My boss examined the look. She stood back and clasped her hands in front of her body, a goofy smile across her face. “Beautiful.”

Beautiful. I felt like an imposter. Who puts an American in traditional Korean garb and thinks it looks good? Am I not insulting the clothes with my lack of Korean heritage? It felt like dress up, like Halloween had come early and I’d no choice but go along with it.

I felt self-conscious. This was a strange scenario; Korean clothing with a foreigner stuck inside. As if people don’t stare at me enough.

But still, this was a gift. My boss wanted to do something kind and nice for me. He wanted me to own traditional Korean clothing and to understand a little piece of the culture. He had taken time out of his schedule to bring me here, let me try on dresses and make sure I walked out with something I liked. Something I would keep forever. His gift.

He paid at the register and when I began to unbutton the jacket, prepared to pack it all up, he looked at me and said, “no!”

My heart sank a little bit. We walked out of the shop and the parade began; I was the centerpiece. Older Korean ladies kept their eyes glued to me as I merely walked down the street, like any person might do. Except that I was a foreigner wearing Hanbok. And I could feel their eyes. My face turned red.

While we drove back, thoughts raced back and forth through my mind. Do I have to walk into work wearing this? Are the kids going to see me? My boss clarified, without me asking, and said only two words, “fashion show.”

My thoughts then ran on repeat: for the love of all things holy, this can’t be happening.

But it happened. Happy Thursday, everyone, and enjoy the photo of me sporting Hanbok and some humiliation-tinged gratitude hiding behind that smile.

About Hanbok:

Hanbok is traditional Korean clothing, which is worn specifically on special holidays such as the one coming up, Thanksgiving (Chuseok / 추석). It’s also traditionally worn during wedding ceremonies and important birthdays, and also some funerals. I was told that maybe half of Koreans own Hanbok, and half don’t.

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