hanbok outgrown

Hanbok Outgrown by Sara Lee

I don’t remember when I stopped being Korean, or if I ever was at all. Whatever happened, it must have happened when I wasn’t looking. It must have happened when I was born in the United States or when my father gave me his last name. It must have happened when my mother was too busy to teach me Korean or when I was too young to care. It must have happened when someone said I’m not “pure,” not “whole,” that there’s a stain on my identity that will never wash out.

I may not be Korean enough, but I can count years passed in hanbok outgrown.

When I was two, my mother dressed me in a red hanbok with rainbow sleeves and a bright green hat. My father held me against his chest with one arm and walked outside into the drifting snow. I looked nothing like him, with his white t-shirt and gray sweatpants, his curly hair and green eyes. My mother took a photo. The snowflakes look like ghosts.

When I was seven, I wore a pink hanbok with metallic gold emblems along the hem and sash. I held hands with my sister, her red hanbok trailing well past her feet. My mother often fed me kimchi, rinsed in a tall glass of water. I watched the red pepper flakes float to the bottom. I wonder if she washed it because I was too young, or because I wasn’t Korean enough.

When I was twelve, my uncle sent me a gauzy blue hanbok with a matching beaded headdress, all the way from South Korea. There were birds embroidered over the closure and along the bottom of the skirt, and the beads danced when I moved. It was my favorite hanbok. I didn’t know it would be the last one to fit me.

When I was seventeen, I found a sheer hanbok in a forgotten box, as white and airy as a blanket of snow. I held it up to my body, holding my breath, and my mother said, “It might fit.” She helped me into the layers and braided my hair down my back. I twirled, grinned, felt like I belonged to my heritage again, until my mother said, “Still too tall.” The hem fell just shy of my ankles. My giant feet poked out awkwardly.

When I was twenty-two, my mother, sister, and I visited South Korea for the first time together. I met family members I had never even heard of before, like snowflakes drifting into focus. I wanted to buy a hanbok that would fit me, but my mother said it would have to be custom-made. I thought about whether a tailor could stitch me into the seams of Korean culture.

When I was twenty-seven, my mother picked up a photo of me and declared, “You look just like my grandmother when she was young.” Although she passed long before I was born, my great-grandmother lived on in my eyes, my brows, the shape of my face—even the part in my hair. She smiled back at me from the corners of my lips. I wondered what else I carried with me, things that make me belong, things I can’t see: stories, gestures, thoughts.

I’m twenty-nine years old now (thirty-one in Korea). I still don’t own a hanbok that fits, but that’s okay. I'm enough.