Korean House slippers (실내화)

For this month’s post I am revisiting the topic of house slippers and the culture of taking shoes off when indoors. This was a topic I had written about back in October 2012.

Taking shoes off while indoors is the norm in many countries, such as Japan, Korea and in countries across South East Asia. I grew up in Malaysia where it’s hot, and everyone goes barefooted at home. In countries where the climate is colder, such as in Japan or South Korea, people may wear socks or house slippers in the house, instead of having bare feet. In South Korea, houses have a special area just inside the front door where people take off their shoes. This area is called a ‘hyeon gwan’ (현관).

Every time when I cross the threshold from outdoors to indoors, I will feel funny if I don’t take my shoes off. I will feel like I need to ask the host if it’s okay to keep my shoes on. And I always feel like cringing when someone wearing outdoor shoes puts their feet up on the furniture.

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Shih Yen’s new pair of Korean house slippers.

I felt like revisiting the topic of house slippers as I have been given a pair of Korean house slippers. They are called ‘sil nae hwa’  (실내화) in Korean, and literally translates as ‘room indoor shoes’.

Korean house slippers are a bit like ankle socks. They are soft and can be rolled up just like a pair of socks. They don’t look big enough to fit me, but they have elastic all around the sides, so I was surprised when they stretched to fit me. On the soles of the Korean house slippers, there are little dots that give them better grip on a smooth floor. Korean house slippers are comfortable and help keep the floors clean.

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Shih Yen wears Korean house slippers.

Traditional Korean shoes and Beosun (버선) socks

If your only exposure to Korean culture so far has been ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY, look very, very closely at the group dance scene towards the end of the Gangnam Style music video. There’s a female dancer in the background on the right wearing a reddish-pink hanbok, the Korean traditional costume. Hanbok translates literally as ‘Korean clothing.’

Some time ago, I took a trip to South Korea. The only thing that I knew I really wanted to buy in Korea was a hanbok. The traditional hanbok for women consists of a short shirt with long sleeves called a ‘jeoguri’ and a long skirt called a ‘chima’. There’s also a special petticoat-dress called a ‘sokchima’ that goes under the hanbok and helps give it shape.

These days, the traditional hanbok is usually worn at weddings, special birthdays, and traditional Korean festivals like the lunar new year. I bought my hanbok in a little shop near the sea in the port city of Busan, South Korea. The choice of shop was random. The small shop looked friendlier than other big, faceless shops.

In general, people have their hanbok tailor-made. They don’t try and buy it off the rack, like I did. Buying a hanbok when you don’t speak Korean is an interesting experience. Imagine trying to buy a wedding dress in a language that you don’t speak and you’ll kind of get the idea. It involved me pointing at a calendar and miming an aeroplane to convey the idea that I wasn’t going to be in the country long enough to have a hanbok made to measure.

Despite the language difficulties, I managed to buy a pink and red traditional Korean hanbok made of silk with beautiful embroidery of flowers on the ‘jeoguri’. The price was … well, let’s just say a hand-embroidered silk hanbok costs the same as the average white wedding dress. Despite the picture of a credit card on the shop door, the sales lady insisted I pay in cash. We may not speak the same language, but the sales lady sure speaks the language of commerce – probably scared that I was going to flee the country with a hanbok in a trail of bad debt! A short (and bank balance-decimating) trip to an ATM later and I was the proud owner of a Korean hanbok.

Shih Yen wears her hand-embroidered silk hanbok from South Korea (Photo by Paul Wheeler).

My hanbok was packed into a box with a pair of 버선 beosun (pronounced bo-sun) socks. These are traditional Korean socks that are worn with hanbok. Beosun socks are pointy at the end and usually white. My pair of beosun socks also had some hand embroidery on it. My beosun socks are too small for me. When I tried them on in the shop, I mimed to the sales lady that they were too small. In return, she mimed back forcibly pulling them on! I understand that beosun socks should be worn a bit tight, but I’m sorry lady, I have big feet! There are no photos of me wearing my beosun socks as I have never been able to get my feet into them no matter how forcibly I pull.

Shih Yen’s pair of too-small traditional Korean beosun socks with hand-embroidery.

The correct footwear when wearing hanbok are beosun socks with traditional Korean shoes. Like the beosun socks, traditional Korean shoes also curl up at the end. These shoes are called ‘flower shoes’ because they look like flower petals. Traditionally, these shoes were made of leather or silk. The modern version of these shoes have a low heel and have embroidery on it – generally of flowers. Because of the upturned toe, it is better to buy these shoes a size larger than your usual shoe size so that they fit comfortably. Because of the curled-up toe, these shoes can also make large feet look smaller. Good for people like me 🙂

Traditional Korean shoes

House slippers and the culture of taking shoes off indoors

Last month I wrote about taking part in a biomechanics research study where the researcher complimented my footprints, saying that they were beautiful because all my toes could be clearly seen and were not squashed together. I have my own theory on why my toes have formed in this manner, and my theory is that it’s because I grew up in a country where everyone takes their shoes off when they are inside the house. Growing up, I was always barefooted at home, and I think this allowed my feet to grow freely and naturally. My feet were not crammed into tight shoes. Even at school, especially at lower primary school level, we took our shoes off before entering the classroom. This was probably because there’s a lot of sitting on the floor at primary school.

Taking shoes off indoors is not uncommon. It is the culture in Japan, Korea and all across South East Asia. You know a culture is serious about removing shoes indoors when there’s a special area in a house or building just for taking shoes off. In Japan, it is called ‘genkan’ (玄関) while in South Korea this area is called ‘hyeon gwan’ (현관) It’s a small area just inside the front door where people take their shoes off before entering the house or building. There may also be a shoe box or rack in this area to put shoes in. In Japan, this box is called ‘geta bako’ (下駄箱) which literally translates as geta-box, because in the past it was the traditional Japanese geta that would have been placed inside the box.

Even now, I feel a kind of psychological barrier at the front door of any house, and if I wear my shoes inside a house, I have to mentally make myself cross that barrier. When my friends from other cultures put their feet up on their bed or other furniture while wearing outdoor shoes, I cringe internally. And picture them stepping on dog poo or something and then smearing it on the bedspread or sofa!

After removing shoes at the door, there are a few options when indoors- going barefoot, wearing socks or wearing house slippers. Traditional Japanese houses have tatami mats on the floor, and these days some Japanese houses may still have a tatami room. Even house slippers are not allowed on tatami mats because they can spoil the mat. So bare feet or socks only when entering a tatami room.

It was the start of ‘chu seok’ (추석) yesterday. This is a Korean harvest festival, kind of like a Korean thanksgiving. It is celebrated at mid-autumn on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Since it is ‘chu seok’, I thought I would write about Korean house slippers, which are also called ‘sil nae hwa’ (실내화) or literally ‘room indoor shoes’.

Shih Yen wears Korean house slippers

These house slippers were a gift from a South Korean friend and they are made in Korea. They look a bit like short socks, and at first they look way too small for me. But to my surprise, they stretched to fit me. These slippers are comfortable to wear around the house, and house slippers help keep the floor clean.