By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
I recently sat down with Jung Won, LMFT, to talk about her book, We Are Family, But Strangers, and her life here in California as a Korean American immigrant, Marriage and Family Therapist, and mom.
One of the fundamental differences between Asian and American cultures is the role of the individual. In Korea, it’s the collective, the family that has the greatest importance. The reality that all individuals will make sacrifices for the benefit of the collective is taken for granted, so much so that when/if an individual doesn’t put their own interests in second place, they are widely vilified for being selfish, or even immoral. In America, the opposite is true. The individual is most important. Americans do make sacrifices for the greater good, but these actions are counted as noteworthy and laudable exceptions, not the rule.
Jung explains that another important cultural difference specifically for Koreans was created in part by the Korean War and its aftermath. Everyone in the generation which included Jung’s parents was tested by that war and by the extreme dangers and poverty it created. Survival became paramount. The only focus, the only thing that men could do to help the family was to earn money and the more the better. The only thing that women could do was to support the men in the family and bring in another man/earner by marrying well. Emotions were not important to this generation. Individual needs were not taken into account. No achievement was ever good enough. Obedience and sacrifice were absolutely expected and the whole collective reinforced that there was no other alternative.
And now, in the space of only one generation, radical change is occurring. Immigrants to the US see this quite starkly because their children, immersed in American culture, are fighting the values that once helped Korean families to survive. This leaves Korean American parents flummoxed! Why are their children suddenly so disobedient? Why don’t they want to visit their grandparents? Their kids complain that their teachers show more empathy for their emotions and more pride in their achievements than their own parents. But…where did they get the idea that their feelings and achievements were important? How could they be so…rude?!
I asked Jung about her advice for these parents. She said that the first step was for parents to begin to explore and name their own emotions. When you’ve been trained from childhood that it is shameful to have feelings, this can be quite difficult. There is just “a big emptiness” where feelings might have been. Or all feelings are translated into anger and come out as blaming or criticizing others. Jung says her training in psychology helped her to see that all feelings are normal, and it’s healthy to have them and to name them. Actions can be selfish or mean, emotions are just how the body works. For some parents, it can be helpful to get books about feelings and read them with their kids, or to read novels where people are highly emotional and to try to relate.
Another thing parents can do is to begin to practice letting their children know that they are good enough by acknowledging or even celebrating achievements. “I know you worked hard on this, and it turned out really well,” can be all kids need to feel validated and seen. Children also need to understand about cultural differences, and how a part of what they see in their parents and grandparents is cultural, not about them or their family in particular.
Jung explains that coming to grips with all of these issues as a mom and as a therapist was the inspiration for her book, which was published in South Korea last fall and has met critical acclaim. She’s dedicated to helping Asian American moms like her to continue to honor their original culture’s values at the same time they are adapting, and helping their children to adapt, to a changing world.
For those interested in buying Jung’s book you can click the button below. At this time, the book is only available in Korean.