(A long-ish rant-esque entry from one your Korean-American colleagues)
By Wonyoung L. Cho
When I am working with first- and second-generation immigrant families, there are these nebulous concepts of “cultural traditions” and “how things were back home” often used to describe the cultural and generational gaps within the family. These concepts also emerge when I am working with individuals who straddle multiple cultural contexts. These individuals are often 1.5 and second-generation hyphenated-Americans (i.e. Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Mexican-Americans to name a few) who are working through their identity and relational issues. I refer to these concepts as nebulous because the meanings that are conjured up by these words are subjective and contextual, connected deeply to a specific time and place in socio-political histories. Yet, we often use these words as though it means something objective and constant, disconnected and dislocated from our sociopolitical and cultural locations. And I think this linguistic practice locks us into deeply problematic dynamics in our work.
Let me try to explain what I mean with a story.
In my previous life as a young working professional in a different field, I had female co-workers who were also Korean-American like me. I spent my early- and mid-twenties with them, and we worked hard and played hard together. Our after-work conversations over dinner and drinks often involved complaining about work and commiserating on the complexities of life as Korean-American young women–especially in trying to figure out how to balance being “good daughters” to our parents while enjoying the independent and individualistic culture of the mainstream US. In these conversations, my co-workers spoke about the patriarchal gender dynamics in their families, of sons being valued over daughters, and curfews for the daughters that were different than the sons–perhaps family and gender dynamics that are stereotypical of an Asian American narrative. My co-workers often attributed these patriarchal values to being Korean, and blamed the “traditional Korean” ways of their parents.
If I had been a therapist then and was tasked to support the work of my co-workers’ family dynamics and identity as Korean-American daughters, I might find myself problematizing the Korean culture and having to split their identities. Perhaps I might work to “free” my hypothetical clients by suggesting that they give up their “cultural traditions” and embrace assimilation to become more “American.” Perhaps I might be inclined to problematize the parents and their “Korean” ways, identify Korean culture as oppressive, and encourage my co-workers to “differentiate” and detach from their “toxic” families. Perhaps these may serve as solutions for my hypothetical clients. But perhaps it may also invite further complications–of deeper conflicts within the Asian American identity, and having to split and choose a side.
I have to say, my definition of “traditional” gender dynamics of South Korea was (and is) different. Due to my unusual and somewhat nerdy interest in Korean history, I knew that the Korean peninsula had queens reigning over it as early as the seventh century (e.g. Shilla dynasty), and Korea was not always patriarchal in the way they organized society (e.g. Goryeo dynasty). My parents also did not reflect these patriarchal norms. My parents moved to the US in the early 90’s, after having been through a cultural shift propelled by the slogan “잘 키운 딸 하나 열 아들 안부럽다 (a well-raised daughter is better than ten sons)” in mid-80’s South Korea. This slogan is perhaps a manifestation of what we in the US name feminism in the cultural history of South Korea; and if we are going to call this movement a kind of feminism, then my parents were feminists. They believed in providing equal education and access for their daughters–and they fought for my education and access on my behalf when I was younger. Granted, their idea of equality and equity between the sexes and genders differ from the current trends of feminism, but my parents were intentional and careful in the way they loved and supported their daughters.
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that patriarchal gender dynamics is not innate and traditional to being Korean or to being Asian. And this is just an example. There are many other social customs and relational norms that we have come to name as “traditional” to being Asian or to whatever country or culture of our heritage. But if we reach back into the cultural and historical narratives of our homelands, they too have complex stories that illustrate the ebbs and flows of different values and customs, different social values and relational ethics.
We need to be careful of what we mean when we refer to traditions and what we attribute to our heritage cultures. It is a misnomer to name problematic family dynamics and relational patterns to a culture without locating its socio-political and cultural history. It may lead us to villainize our ancestors and our parents. It may tempt us to deny or dissociate from our histories and our roots. Furthermore, it creates a narrative that requires us hyphenated-Americans to have to split our identities and think in binary frameworks (e.g. American and not-American, Korean and not-Korean). Ultimately, it may lead our clinical practice to also perpetuate some of these problematic thinking in our clients.
I’m sharing these reflections with you because I want to be accountable. Locating our traditions in their complex and nuanced socio-political histories goes against our knee-jerk impulses to categorize and simplify. It requires more work, effort, and time. It requires emotional labor to a certain degree, and I am often lazy. But I want to think complexly when I’m working with my clients, and I don’t want to participate in perpetuating problematic narratives of what it means to be a hyphenated-American.
Let us be careful when we name things as practitioners, scholars, and researchers, especially when we are going to link them to a certain culture. Let us make sure we are locating ourselves, our work, and our traditions to the rich, complex, and nuanced socio-political and cultural histories.
Wonyoung L. Cho, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist and a clinical supervisor currently based in San Diego, California. She will be graduating with a PhD in Education in May 2019, and headed to Portland, OR in the fall to start as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Marriage, Couples, and Family Therapy (MCFT) program in Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling.