It sounds like a stereotypical trope, but it really dishonored my mother's family, her name, the whole respectability of the family, for her to be impregnated by and married to (in that order) a white man. I was the second-born, and there would be 4 of us sources of shame total.
She came from a "good" family. My grandfather was a high-ranking government official. He spoke six languages. He sang classically as a tenor. He was a drunken asshole. He disowned my mother.
Obviously we immigrated to the US, and we had almost nothing to our name. No money, no family, no friends. And on my 4th birthday, my white father went to prison, and we were totally fucked financially. We got on a bus and moved to Tacoma, WA, where there were a lot of Korean immigrants, and my mother found support with other women like herself. We lived in the basement of her friend's house, destitute, and just glad to not be homeless.
I was rejected by my mother's family for being white, and then moved to a country that ironically never saw me or treated me like I was white. I was rejected by white America and was Korean, even though my community of Koreans made sure I knew I didn't count as one of them. I started to think that there was something fundamentally wrong with me for not fitting in.
In school, during standardized tests, we were obligated to fill in a checkbox for our race. I stared at my options and realized that none of them were 100% accurate, but I chose "Asian" (because that's where I'm from). My teacher took my pencil out of my hand, erased my choice in front of me, and marked "White". I didn't know how to respond. It stung.
Years later, I was once again forced to check a box for my race on yet another standardized test. I checked "White". This time a different teacher changed it to "Asian". That stung too.
I was being taught that my own view of myself was just inherently wrong. In high school, when I was 15, a teacher actually asked me, "So are you Korean pretending to be white, or white pretending to be Korean?" I was shocked to know that I was viewed as fake and pretending and inauthentic, on the very basis of being biracial.
Later, there was another choice added to the list of races-that-I-wasn't... "Other".
I was "Other". I was just this blank, nondescript, NOTHING of a person. I fit nowhere.
I dragged all my feelings of rejection from Korea across an entire ocean, to find even more rejection. I didn't have much to bring from my first country, only have a handful of photos of myself as a baby or child, as most stayed in South Korea. One of those photos is my passport. Other than that, I just have memories of Seoul and of my Korean family members.
And I had a dress. A hanbok. This one.
During all the moving from moldy damp apartment to different moldy damp apartment, my dress was lost. I don't know when or where exactly. I just remember realizing it was gone, and being so beyond sad about it. I felt like my only connection to my Korean side, to my culture, had been lost.
I always wanted another one. But there were so many other bills to be paid, other things to spend the money on, more PRACTICAL things.
This year, at age 34, I had a hanbok imported. As the date for the I Love My Life event approached, I knew and I agonized over my outfit choices, it hit me like a strike of lightening: Wear a hanbok. I ordered it, I rushed delivery, I drove all the way back out to Tacoma, WA to get the accessories I needed.
And I was terrified of wearing the dress. Was I even allowed to? Am I Korean enough? Is this culture still mine?
So many people, white, Asian, black, hispanic... have told me that I'm not allowed to identify in any way that I have ever tried to identify. If I say White, no I'm not white because I'm Asian. If I'm Asian, no, because I'm half-white. If I say I'm biracial, no, I look too white to say I'm biracial. It was a neverending bullshit circle of everyone else's damn opinion on something as personal as MY IDENTITY. My very existence was disturbing to people because I didn't fit into a damn checkbox. I mean, how would they know what set of stereotypes or assumptions to make about me if I don't fit in a box?
I put on that dress in my hotel room and despaired over it. I brought a back up plain black ensemble to wear just in case because it was that scary for me. But I did it. I put it on and walked down the hall to the elevator, where I stood in there, alone. It was the longest elevator ride. I panicked the whole time. I could still go back to my room, unseen.
And then the doors opened, and the first person I saw was a speechless, stunned Type 1 DYT expert, Marcy, who gushed about my dress and told me how beautiful I was.
I knew right then that I knew I made the right choice, and that was enough to make me put one foot in front of the other, smile, and enter the main ballroom. People literally stopped what they were doing to stare. I felt that energy all shift toward me. I was beautiful that night.
And when Stephanie, another Type 1 expert, came up to me afterwards and spoke to me IN KOREAN, I was shocked in the best way. I can literally count on one hand how many times a Korean person in this country has addressed me in my first language, and one of those times was at Uwajimaya when the woman told me my total for groceries. I was definitely seen that night, and seen as Korean. There was no ambiguity or erasure of my identity. Just acknowledgement in the most authentic way possible. I cried in bed later that night, and it felt so good. 34 years of catharsis.
I'm sure there were people who thought my dress was over-the-top. That I was attention-seeking. That it was just a strange choice for the event. And I care 0% about their views. That little girl dancing barefoot in her too-small dress, grew up and upgraded to a better dress, and she sure as fuck is going to dance in it.
I am Korean. I am American. I am Tracy. I am Jit-Ji. I am a wife, mother, unnie, dongsang, sister, emo, aunt, friend, neighbor, volunteer. I was never half-anything, I AM WHOLE, and I am everything I have ever wanted to be.
That dress is my birthright. I am a bridge between two cultures, and like that bridge, my roots and foundation are on BOTH sides, and I can skip across that bridge anytime I want because it is mine, it is me, and I own it. No one can tell me who I am. No one can take my own identity from me. Putting on that dress was coming home to myself, full-circle. It was tossing all that rejection, all that baggage, back into the ocean instead of taking it with me.
It was 30 years in the making, but I HAVE ARRIVED. And I am accepted. The second I accepted myself, everyone else followed suit. I needed to stand up for myself first, and I did it.
Don't ever let anyone tell you fashion is shallow or clothing has no power. It was never just a dress.