Elizabeth Sweet stood in front of her mirror this past March, gazing at herself in the long billowy skirt and neatly wrapped top of the traditional Korean hanbok. She hadn’t worn a hanbok since she was 1 year old, shortly after she was adopted from Korea. Now, wearing a hanbok 20 years later, she felt empowered for the first time in weeks.
Three weeks earlier, eight people had been killed in a horrific mass shooting in Atlanta; six of the eight were Asian women, and amid a national rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, Sweet felt devastated and helpless.
Wearing the hanbok empowered her to feel like she could do something.
Nine days after the tragedy in Atlanta, California-based cosplayer and costumer (costume maker) Erika Kawaguchi reached out to Sweet. Kawaguchi invited Sweet to join a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander cosplayers, “sewists” and costumers who were reclaiming cultural pride by creating and wearing traditional cultural clothing.
This summer, eight of them met in person for the first time in San Francisco. Each wore traditional attire from their respective cultures. Together, the group represented Korean, Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Pacific Islander clothing.
The project is part of a larger trend of Asian American and Pacific Islander youth who are looking to tradition and fashion as a way to visibly show cultural pride and reclaim the cultural symbols their ancestors were shamed or even attacked for. For centuries in the U.S., Asian Americans have endured forced assimilation, anti-Asian attitudes and the shaming of Asian culture and traditions.
Now, after an alarming rise in violent attacks against Asian Americans over the last year and a half, more young people are wearing their cultural pride on their sleeves, literally, breaking with centuries of anti-Asian sentiment that has often relegated Asian culture to the shadows.
As soon as she received her coronavirus vaccine this year, Kawaguchi booked a trip to Hawaii to see her 95-year-old grandmother.
Over the past year, as part of the project she started to revive interest in traditional cultural dress and combat anti-Asian hate, Kawaguchi has acquired several kimonos, a traditional Japanese dress, and she wanted to show them to her grandmother.
When Kawaguchi revealed the kimono, her grandmother was elated. She hadn’t seen a kimono since the 1940s, she said.
During World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the kimonos that had been passed down through generations of her family disappeared, likely lost to looting and theft that resulted in the loss of many Japanese families’ belongings at the time.
As a child, when Kawaguchi asked her grandmother why they didn’t have any family heirlooms, her grandmother sadly apologized that there was nothing to pass on to her from the thousand-year-old history of their family. So when the idea arose among her costumer community to combat the rise in anti-Asian hate by proudly donning traditional cultural dress, Kawaguchi saw even more opportunity in the idea.
“I got attached to this idea of having a kimono and showing my grandmother that her ancient and dignified clan, the Miura clan, would live on and that her Japanese traditions wouldn’t die with her just because our family heirlooms were lost,” said Kawaguchi.
Of course, Kawaguchi didn’t always feel this way about her family’s traditions.
Of mixed Japanese, Chinese and Filipino heritage, Kawaguchi says she was about 11 when she told her parents she no longer wanted to wear a cheongsam (also known as qipao), a traditional Chinese dress, for Lunar New Year. She says she hated the way it made her feel different from her mostly white classmates.
Although they come from different Asian backgrounds, the costumers and sewists participating in the traditional dress project shared similar stories during their in-person meetup this year about once being ashamed of their families’ cultural traditions.
The embarrassment and shame they felt about their families’ traditions have deep roots in the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. Now, however, projects like this are examples of a renewed cultural pride and preservation of tradition that Kawaguchi says she’s seeing among her generation.
Young people are now incorporating elements of traditional clothing into their daily wardrobes and taking heritage trips to the countries of their families’ origins. Four years ago, the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions was founded to help preserve and pass on cultural traditions in and around Washington state.
“Just the visibility of seeing people who are interested in our cultures and seeing people who wear that proudly, especially over this past year where being Asian became such an unwelcome thing, it’s nice to see people owning who we are and where we come from, each in our own way,” said Kawaguchi.
Wearing cultural pride
Donning streetwear that features traditional cultural symbols is another way youth are wearing their cultural pride without fussing with the challenges of properly tying a kimono or without the large price tag of purchasing an authentic cheongsam.
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the surge in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, two Seattle lion dancers wanted to do something to bring people together and combat anti-Asian hate.
Royal Tan, the sifu (skilled master/teacher) of the Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon & Lion Dance Association, and Han Eckelberg, the assistant instructor, began selling clothing and accessories featuring Chinese cultural symbols, like an image of the head of a traditional lion dancing costume, or mahjong tiles.
The idea, Eckelberg said, is to “bring Asian American pride, cultural items and the meanings of Asian American culture into clothing.”
On the back of one of their T-shirts, lettered tiles spell out “PRSVRNC,” shorthand for “perseverance” and the name of the streetwear company founded by Tan and Eckelberg.
Most people raised in Chinese or Chinese American households will instantly recognize the tiles depicted on the shirt as pieces in the traditional Chinese game mahjong. And that’s the idea behind the streetwear company’s designs — to proudly wear symbols of Chinese culture.
In previous generations, anti-Asian racism often caused Asian Americans to avoid such shows of cultural pride, but Eckelberg says that’s changing.
When Tan first started lion dancing, for example, he was just hoping to keep the tradition alive, but “it wasn’t something you talked about,” said Eckelberg. Now, he’s seeing several of his friends start up cultural brands like PRSVRNC Clothing to celebrate other Asian heritages.
“The culture’s changed for sure,” he said. “Now I feel like, because of social media, because of reconnecting with your history, it’s super cool to know where you come from and to have pride in it. Young people today are definitely into it.”
Connie So, a teaching professor in the American ethnic studies department at the University of Washington, has also seen more young people eager to reclaim their heritage and show their cultural pride.
Before the pandemic hit, So had been taking students to South China for nearly six years as part of the Finding Roots program. In that time, she’s noticed that her students have become increasingly interested in bringing traditional clothing back to wear in the U.S. to express and demonstrate pride in their ethnic heritage.
She credits some of this increased interest to “an increasingly influential Asia” and the global popularity of cultural phenomena like K-pop, Korean and Chinese dramas, Japanese anime, video games and Bollywood.
“Many of my students have become much more reintegrated with their Chinese/Chinese American identity,” So said. “It’s about the resurgence of pride. When there’s a lot of anti-Asian commentary, there are the people who will say, ‘No, we are very proud. Even though people don’t like us, we’re really proud.’ And there are those of course who will want to assimilate and shy away from it. I think you have that in all communities.”
Gateway to cultural reconnection
As a transracial or transcultural adoptee, Sweet says she felt “a sense of disconnect and even displacement from her Korean identity” because she had little exposure to Korean food, language or traditions, and even actively tried to blend in and conceal her “Asian-ness” when she was growing up. (A transracial or transcultural adoption is when a child is adopted into a family of a racial or cultural background different from their own.)
It was through clothing that Sweet first found a way to reconnect with her Korean identity. She was 12 when she first saw a strong-willed, powerful woman of color leading an animated TV series in “The Legend of Korra.”
Two years later, when she heard that the voice actress who plays the lead character Korra would be at Emerald City Comic Con, she persuaded her parents to buy her a ticket and created a Korra costume.
“For me, it was really an empowerment of embodying a character who was a woman of color, who was from this world where I drew some of my only sources of Asian visibility,” she said.
Now, several years later, being part of the traditional cultural clothing project has allowed Sweet to translate the power she finds in clothing into a gateway to learn more about her Korean heritage.
But her two worlds of cosplay (creating and wearing costumes from fictional sources) and the traditional dress project have sometimes collided in infuriating ways. At a Goodwill in her hometown of Sequim, Sweet recently found part of a hanbok in the Halloween costume section of the store.
She bought the hanbok to prevent someone else from buying it and wearing it as a costume.
“Culture is never a costume,” she said. “That doesn’t mean, necessarily, people not of that specific culture can’t wear something. In general, if you’re not Asian, maybe you should listen to what Asian folks say about it. You won’t get one answer because we’re not a monolith, but I think that’s a critical first step.”
The project has connected her with other Asian Americans interested in preserving cultural traditions and showing cultural pride — including other transracial Asian American adoptees.
Seeing the diversity of cultural dress present at the in-person San Francisco meetup this year, Sweet felt a sense of solidarity.
“The solidarity is so key, especially as we understand Asian Americans viewed as under the same umbrella in the American context and against the construct of whiteness,” said Sweet. “There is a power in that kind of cross-cultural listening and recognizing that we are all Asian with a shared experience in the American context. It’s been a great thing for me personally.”
Stepping into the flowing skirt and neatly wrapped top of the traditional hanbok 20 years after she last wore one was transformative for Sweet.
“I definitely got emotional over something so simple, just a thing, just a piece of clothing, but it has a lot more personal connotations, cultural connections for me as an adoptee,” said Sweet. “There’s a majestic feeling to it, a sense of levity.
“Looking in the mirror was another step of me internalizing that I am Asian and I am deserving to go through this journey.”