An #importedAsians POV: 양 천식 (Yang Cheon-Shik) aka Jeff Van Damme
I sat down recently for a virtual chat with 양 천식 (Yang Cheon-Shik), who is also known by his adopted name, Jeff. He was seated comfortably on the floor of his home in NYC, dressed in a beautiful wine-colored modern hanbok with a plaid pattern made from 12 yards of silk and taffeta. There was also a 망건 (manggeon) adorning his head, a headband traditionally topped with a Korean hat known as a 갓 (gat).
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your childhood, how you came to the U.S., whatever you want to share.
“My Korean name is Jeff, or my Korean name is Cheon-Shik. I am a Korean American adoptee. According to the birth adoption records that I have at my disposal (whether or not those are valid is to be determined), I was pre-arranged for adoption by a single mother, a factory worker in Korea. I came over [to the U.S.] at six months old, was adopted by a white family, and grew up in upstate New York in an idyllic, country town. For the most part, the only other Asians I knew were adopted kids, and all of us were within a year or two of each other in age. I played oboe in school. In music classes, there were always other Asians kids, which I didn’t think was unusual; it was almost…expected. I continued to pursue music through conservatory, and found a new community in the musical theatre circles of NYC.”
That road to various creative communities eventually led Jeff into Asian design. He is known for designing and wearing modern hanbok every day. He owns a few t-shirts, a pair of jeans, and an emergency back up suit, but says he primarily dresses in 19th century (1800s) Joseon Dynasty–inspired hanbok. Jeff commonly puts on the traditional amount of layers and wears the garments everywhere—to work, to Starbucks, to pick up lunch, and anywhere else he goes in the city.
I want to touch on something I heard you say in your introduction; you mentioned “Asian,” “Korean,” and “adopted.” Can you tell me more about whether you agree with, or use these sort of categorizations, given the way the world can sometimes use them as labels?
“I use specific labels at certain times now, because [before], I didn’t know what they meant. I used to sort of go with it, like an ‘indifference mentality’ in order to survive. But now, as I am almost forced to explain it [wearing daily hanbok], my current self image is a product of being an adoptee in America embracing my Korean heritage, but also being a part of the ‘monolith’ of Asian-Americans in the West.
I know the link between ‘adopted’ and ‘Korean’ is intertwined. I identify so strongly as Korean, that ‘-American’ is almost an afterthought—used only because I am in this environment. I was born in Korea. I was adopted from Korea. I am the immigrant. I am the first one to cross, so in my mind, I have always thought of myself as a Korean, contrary to what purists and gatekeepers may say. I was born to a Korean family with generations of Korean ancestors on Korean soil. I was the last person with any choice in where I was brought. My Korean-ness is an undisputed fact. Being adopted leads me to be as aggressively Korean as I am now.”
Your social media bio includes that phrase you just used, “aggressively Korean.” Can you go into more detail about that?
“My Hanbok twin, as I call my friend, shared that sentiment once, and I liked it. This journey is solely for me, and furthering my relationship with Korea. I’ve been trying to build that separate from my search for my birth family. I didn’t want how I feel about being Korean, my Korean identity, and my self [identity], to be affected by whatever outcome might happen. I am entitled to every hurt, rage, and anger from that outcome, but I want to still love Korea and who I am at the end of the day.”
As fellow adoptees, we went on to talk about the idea that we do not need permission to be what we are: Korean. Jeff went on to share that native Koreans, and maybe some Korean Americans may not understand the adoptee lens we look through. He articulated that many of them simply do not know what it’s like to not be surrounded by Korean culture, customs, and norms. He did not eat kimchi until his 20s, nor meet a Korean elder until his 30s. He often wonders if the relationships he has with elder Korean mentors and friends are projections of what it might be like to have a Korean father or mother.
Let’s talk about your journey into studying about and wearing hanbok.
“I stumbled across others on YouTube living their daily lives in historical wear, and I wondered what the Korean version of that was. So, I bought a used hanbok set and learned how to use a sewing machine. I copied the exact pattern off of the one I bought and also started with a few pieces from various modern hanbok outlets in Korea.”
Jeff uses traditional patterns and garment types that are traditionally layered with the proper accessories and silhouettes, but he makes them with Western fabric and execution due to availability, cost, and personal design preference. He purchases fabric from his connections in the garment district of NYC. For example, instead of sheer silk, he might use organza. His patterning is not the same as those that are more traditional to Korea, but his designs are inspired by the Joseon Dynasty era. He finds modern inspiration that sometimes has nothing to do with Korea, but then looks at that through the lens of hanbok, such as a Sherlock Holmes look he completed a few months ago.
You are someone who really appreciates the details of hanbok. What are your favorite details or components about traditional wear that impress you most?
“The sheer genius of how they do not waste fabric is what fascinates me. Traditionally, a bolt of fabric would be much thinner, so the patterns are based on how wide that bolt is. Everything [in hanbok] is long rectangles; the front is one long rectangle and the second is stilted at an angle. My sleeves are giant rectangles and curves are sewn into it. Traditionally, they wouldn’t cut any fabric. If a sleeve got dirty, they would flip it inside out and use the non-sun-dyed side. Historical stitching is hand done, and so [it is] light and non-permanent. If it’s a nice silk, they’ll undo that, clean it, and stitch it back up. If the sleeves of a garment are too tattered to be worn, maybe they cut them off, and refashion it into a vest. That is a common thing for men’s robes. The scraps can make their way down to being baby diapers.
In terms of textile use, and the Korean process of that, the garments are also so free (moveable). The pants are drawstrings so they can grow and be comfortable with the body, like when we eat a big meal. The seven layers were made to not feel like any pressure on the person. For women’s wear, the empire waist is often thought to not be flattering by Western perception, but the Korean historical silhouette is beautiful regardless of one’s accurate body shape. We are essentially crafting body silhouettes from the garmenture, rather than being self conscious about what our body actually looks like.”
Are there any other exciting, upcoming projects that you are excited about?
“With the return of 'Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon,' and the almost complete lack of East Asian representation in that show, I love the idea of a Targaryen hanbok. Leather, fur, and heavy embroidery. I also think [I’ll work on] a more simplified black linen with white peek-out underskirt (based on Chanel inspiration) to wear over my louder outfits while I’m in transit.”
Is there any advice you would give from your own experiences (you’ve mentioned identity in music communities, connection with Korea through everyday hanbok, etc.) that might help others to begin embracing culture, heritage, or identity?
“We are universally visually inspired people, so [use] whatever means you have. In my case, I searched for ‘Hanbok Fashion’ or ‘Asian Modern Style’ on Instagram. I also think visibility is helpful, universally in itself. To look more, to see yourself more…to be inspired. You won’t know you need or want it until you see it being done.
Maybe it’s reading a book on history or tradition. Learning more, taking peeks into where you come from. It may ground you and enhance what is already inside. One question can take you somewhere even further. Be curious, I guess. Universally, we can all tap into that curiosity of where we come from. In my case, it’s Korean, but really, [we can do that] from any background.”
A few years ago, Jeff purchased a Leesle brand modern hanbok jacket and paired it with jeans, thinking it was scandalous and new. Now, he is unabashedly afraid to embrace fully-inspired Korean hanbok wear as a part of his daily life.