Recently, my daughter turned one. We decided to throw a small party for her, including the traditional ``doljabi’’ ceremony, where items are laid out for the baby to choose that would determine her lot in life. My mom bought a hanbok for her. It was a beautiful light green silk blouse with a maroon bow and a crimson skirt, along with matching shoes and a hat. My dad went to Namdaemun Market to buy the doljabi items. And he got a red and blue silk cloth to cover the doljabi table. They had to do all the legwork on my behalf since I didn’t know the first thing about throwing a doljabi and generally don’t ever rise to such occasions.
Of course, I was present at my own doljabi and my younger sister’s, but they were before I was a sentient being. Photographic evidence reveals that I despised the hat (witness the many pictures of me bawling and tugging the hat over my eyes) and apparently thought my sister’s doljabi was all about me (I grin broadly in every picture and kindly demonstrate to my sister what she has to do). I did attend my youngest cousin’s doljabi when I was around 10 or 11. All I remember is standing at the back of the room with my cousins, giggling, as the baby looked around in confusion before lunging for the decorative apple stack near the front of the table. He did this twice, undeterred by his mother’s mortified efforts to get him to focus on something more appropriate. We thought it was hilarious: Is he going to be an apple farmer? On the third try, he managed to choose something else, but the details escape me.
My parents told me it was important for the baby to have this ritual; if nothing else, she’d like to see the pictures and hear the stories. I agreed, but only on the condition that it did not require exerting too much energy. We would dress her in the hanbok and let her grab something, but I wouldn’t bother with the decorative fruit or cook or wear a hanbok myself. Luckily for me, none of the invited family members and friends were Korean, so I could operate under lowered expectations. My dad was the only member of the Korean side of the family in attendance. As the Ambassador of Korean Traditions, he flew from Korea, armed with instructions.
On the day of the party, we laid out a small table with rice, noodles, calligraphy brush, book, cash, yarn, stethoscope, computer mouse, and jujubes. My mother-in-law asked what the jujubes signified. I thought it was just decoration, but the Ambassador of Korean Traditions clarified that it gave you many children. As modern life can be very challenging with 15 children, we spirited away most of the jujubes. We dressed the baby in the hanbok. Unfortunately, as someone who has always detested wearing hanbok, I don’t think I’ve ever once tied the bow myself in my life, and even though my dad had practiced at home before his trip, we couldn’t stop it from pointing straight up.
With 20 adults crowding around, I sat the baby down in front of the squat wood table. My dad told me the baby had to crawl there on her own so I moved her back and we all waited patiently for the baby to stop looking around and get inspired to pick her future. She eventually reached the table, pointed directly at the pile of cash, and slid some bills to the floor. I looked at my dad and raised my eyebrows, silently asking him if that counted as a “grab.” My dad thought she should perhaps approach again, so we put her down on the other side of the table. This time, she crawled up to poke at the rice. It looked like this could go on forever. My dad and I conferred quickly, and then with great fanfare, I announced that she had picked both cash and rice. It was later revealed that the Ambassador of Korean Traditions hadn’t been to many doljabi either, as they were often conducted during the day while the men were at work.
Although our doljabi was more a case of the blind leading the blind and probably as untraditional as it can get, all of the family and friends who had gathered told me how meaningful it had been for them to bear witness to this important traditional ceremony. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it had all gone down like an episode of “Seinfeld.”
When my elderly grandmother received a full report from the Ambassador of Korean Traditions, she expressed disappointment and embarrassment. Not because we didn’t display a sumptuous doljabi table, or because the baby looked like she had been breakdancing in her hanbok, or because pizza was served. My grandmother was appalled that we put her in a hanbok. As someone who grew up wearing hanbok every day and considered Western clothing as the height of sophistication, she thought wearing hanbok for one’s first birthday was unbelievably unfashionable and passe.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.