November 3, 2008

Nehbok is Love


At night I've taken to wearing these men's nehbok my mom got the last time she was in Korea. They are just so comfortable I relax the instant I start putting them on. It's the same feeling I get when I come home and know that I won't be going out again - I usually put on 'home' clothes, something super comfy but incredibly dorky, and probably from the eighties. And before I got my hair chopped off, my hair would find it's way into whatever was at hand - a giant, bedazzled hair clip from mom, possibly a scrunchy, and definitely a bobby pin for the little stray hairs in front. All of which would come off in a second if the doorbell ever rang (as much for my vanity as for the fact that I might scare someone)

I'd read once in Korea that the idea of 'home clothes' was a practical tradition. That because Koreans dressed in their best to go out, they kept a change or two of clothes just to wear at home in order to preserve their more formal clothing. I'd add to that the clothes, almost like uniforms, also helped delineate roles - putting on one's best for interacting socially, and being plain and practical in solitude. This practice was very much a part of my growing up as well. As soon as we got home especially from church, we'd all head straight for our rooms and Mom would often emerge wearing neh-bok, usually with the waist high up over her stomach or her shirt hiked up while she scratched luxuriously at her girdle or bra marks.

At this time I was not so much a fan of nehbok as Mom would force them on me during winter days. I couldn't count the times I'd have to wear a full puffy set of nehbok under my cool jeans and fitted tops, and how I'd have to wait until I got to the bus stop or school bathroom before taking them off and stuffing them into my backpack. It wasn't until I went away to college and began to experience home coming as something to look forward to, a vacation, a place to relax that I started wearing nehbok on my own. I'd often come home to just be, and would pad around in nehbok, looking at pictures, reminiscing about family often joined by cousins who were also home from school. And yes, she'd borrow nehbok, or at least some sweats, and we'd sit around in our cocoon laughing and catching up.

This association has turned into even more as a married adult with children. My husband intones soon after we arrive at my mom's, usually my sister and I for some event, at the moment when she and I both dive into my mom's pajama drawer, " And now the big clothing comes out". My sister and I laugh because it's true, the nehbok and all of the pajamas are usually extra large, or at least the nehbok gives the impression of large since they're so full-body. These become our uniform for the time we are home and until recently my sister would even wear her giant glasses rather than her contacts, making us look at least ten years younger.

As a mom, I've developed an even deeper attachment to nehbok because I suddenly understood why my mother would get so frantic about my wearing them as a kid. I knew vaguely Korean moms had this fear of cold and attributed to it all sorts of evil but I never got past the literal nehbok to see what she was really saying and doing. The nehbok were her way to warding off the cold and the evil, of bundling me as thickly as she could before sending me out into the cold. It was her way of layering me, as much of home as possible, thickly against my skin, my only protection against the world when she could not be there.

posted at 11:08 AM by jenn

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11/03/08 12:20 PM

OK, whatever, I'll stick to mud baths....

11/03/08 12:25 PM

O, Do something more useful like finding me more NK videos!

11/03/08 02:59 PM

I started wearing nehbok while teaching English in Korea. It's really good for standing in the cold, waiting for public transportation. My children wear them, too. If the grandparents are around, they're mandatory, whatever the weather. But I know that feeling of getting home and relaxing. It's not even something to talk about, it's so automatic. I just never knew it was cultural.

11/03/08 04:46 PM

oh yes. did the exact same thing.
was forced to wear naebok before leaving the house for school. my attitude at the time was, "i'd rather die in cold than look like a micheline tire!!!"
so i would shiver like a leaf with my naebok packed in my bag.

fastforward to winters recently...
after two kids and after my shares of suffering for i-gotta-look-good syndrome, i put naebok unpromoted by my mother and became just like her making my own family wear one when it gets cold. and, get this. i even freaking double layer when it's freezing. it's all about i'd rather look like a cow than feel an ounce of coldness.. oh i'm getting old.

11/04/08 11:47 AM

ahhh.. cannot separate my korean identity with neh-boks. until my sister and I married chinese and found out they have even a stronger love for neh-bok (as though it is a competition). they make most of their neh-boks in red b/c it is their lucky color; I think red underwear brings in luck also.
and also I think I wear neh-boks when I visit my parents' house because they are so readily available. I like to wear my pants neh-bok with a more loose shirt on top for pj's. nothing more comforting.

(btw, korean babies in korea LIVE in neh-boks. hiked up to cover their bellies)

11/08/08 03:02 AM

My mom always used to force us to wear neh-bok even when it wasn't that cold. I hated them, they added pounds and stuck out under my jeans or worse under my skirts. I used to wear this huge coat and then when i was in the back of the bus I would disappear under the coat and take off the neh-bok and stuff them in my backpack. It was only years later that i would learn that I was known as the weird girl who would undress under my coat in the bus. Much more embarrassing than wearing neh-bok in the first place!

I used to never let my boyfriend see me in neh-bok but then it turns out he wears neh-bok too! We were both hiding our 'dirty secret' from each other.

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