Survival Mechanisms

Content Warning: Suicide


In July of 2020, when I feared stepping outside and washed my hands until they peeled and cracked, my partner read that Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, was missing. His disappearance followed his secretary’s formal complaint against him of sexual harassment.

I knew the story’s end before it appeared in the news the next day. Of course: the mayor died by suicide. And then I thought, “How Korean.”

My family struggles to survive.

One family member died by suicide. Another attempted by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol PM. Another made comments like, “Laughing is the only thing that prevents me from killing myself.” Once, a dead tree fell near my father in our yard. Dad, who stood among its branches, shouted at my mother and me, “I should just die.” Another family member says every night, they pray for God to take them, and every morning, they ask why God did not take them.

When I paid closer attention to news events in Korea as a young adult, trying to determine the source of my discomfort as a Korean American, I realized the country, similar to my family and me, was experiencing a mental health crisis. South Korea holds one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The statistic haunted me. After all, this is the country of my ancestors, and the data laid forth the truth that people who look like me and share my genes are prone to believing they don’t deserve to live.

I was sixteen when I first researched suicide methods on the internet. I used my bulky IBM computer in my bedroom while my younger brothers played computer games in their rooms on either side of me, and my parents prepared for bed in the room above me. My older two brothers had already left for college and were living, what I assumed, were happier, independent lives at their respective Ivy League schools. The plain discussion threads, the late nineties’ version of Reddit, showed suggestions to lay on train tracks, ingest chemicals, jump from high windows and bridges, and swallow cocktails of over-the-counter pills. The users prescribed at great length: the position to take on the tracks, the number of stories necessary for a fatal fall, the dosage and timing of the pill ingestion. Like a doctor’s orders.

I never mentioned these internet searches to my parents, who, like many Koreans of their generation, have never been amenable to discussions of mental health. As an adult, I’ve tried without success. “Can’t you control your mind?” my mom asks. I thought the Korean pastor in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, might be more receptive. When I asked him for a recommendation of a Korean-speaking counselor for a family member, the pastor, who speaks to local Koreans about their hopes, fears, and pains, didn’t know any. “Koreans don’t do that,” he said. “Your family can push through.”

A pattern emerged in the stories I followed of Korean suicides: a famous person who is abused, bullied, exposed, or disgraced, goes missing. In 2008, the suicide of Choi Jin-sil, nicknamed “the nation’s actress” followed online rumors of her involvement in pressuring another actor to die by suicide. In 2009, former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was found dead after receiving millions of dollars in bribes. His note said, “The rest of my life would only be a burden for others.” Actors, K-Pop stars, executives, local government officials — all dead by suicide after receiving messages that their existence offered no value to the world. In the cases of those who committed crimes, death was preferable to living with accountability, imprisonment, and public scrutiny. In 2021, the suicide of actress Song Yoo-jung prompted more discussion about South Korean management companies, which pressure young entertainers to endure grueling schedules and cosmetic surgeries. The companies’ grooming leaves these young adults vulnerable to online bullying.

Thirty-six Koreans die by suicide every day. One every forty minutes.

If American media outlets show numerous deaths of Korean public figures, imagine those in the shadows — those without fame, wealth, or education. Those who do not identify as cisgender or heterosexual. The names, the shame, the scale. The age and career ranges. The common struggle of all these people from this land, on which my parents were born, to stay alive.

The pattern of these past suicides was too easy to recognize in Park Won-soon’s case. Ultimately, I feared recognizing it in myself.

I wanted to start at the beginning. What is the origin of South Koreans’ suffering? Why are they, and their descendants born in America and elsewhere, like me, wrestling with their lives in this manner? I hoped that understanding the origin would prevent this pattern from reaching me. I wanted to outsmart it. And to do so, I needed to research.

My parents rarely discuss their lives in Korea. They hardly speak of their childhoods and the times before my brothers and I were born. They mention disdain for the Japanese, but I didn’t learn of Japan’s occupation of Korea until I chose to research it after reading about the ways trauma is passed down in bodies through generations. During my readings, I reflected that when an occupier orders you to eradicate all sense of self, dictates that elements of your identity are shameful and punishable, you will listen because you want to survive. Over time, you may start to believe it, even when the occupier has left.

Japan tried to exert full control over the country’s landscape and culture from 1910 to 1945. They attempted to eradicate the Korean language. It even became criminal to teach Korean history, and “authorities burned over 200,000 Korean historical documents, essentially wiping out the historical memory of Korea.” My parents never described how Japan tore down historic Korean monuments or forced Koreans to take Japanese names. They didn’t speak of Koreans who were taken to Japanese colonies and driven into manual labor or prostitution. They never shared that Japan cultivated new plant species on Korean land, rendering the terrain unrecognizable to locals. Discussing this recalls painful memories, and when you’ve experienced so much pain, why would you want to experience any more?

So they also never mentioned the Korean War, during which they were infants, that followed the Japanese occupation. No references either to America’s role in the war’s escalation or the civilian massacre and martial law initiated by President Syngman Rhee. Later, I learned from another family member about my grandfather’s destroyed business and the extent of the poverty in which my father was raised. I never heard about the mass graves and the land’s destruction from my parents, only from a page in my high school U.S. history textbook. The War killed at least one million Korean civilians and decimated the country’s economy.

My research showed me the Japanese occupation and the War caused conditions that made life insufferable. How did the country respond? What mechanisms did it use to survive?

After the war, President Park Chung-hee emphasized productivity in the rebuilding. The increased focus on labor and manufacturing paid off: the country shifted from severe poverty to its current ranking of twelfth strongest Gross Domestic Product in the world. South Korea is touted as an economic success story or “Miracle on the Han River.”

What is the cost of this higher yield of goods and financial stabilization? South Koreans have extensive work schedules. The country has one of the highest averages of hours worked per laborer per year. Currently, the average South Korean works 2,069 hours per year. In contrast, the average United States’ laborer works 1,783 hours per year. Even with South Korea’s recent reduction in the maximum weekly hours of an employee from sixty-eight to fifty-two (mostly for manufacturing jobs), the amount is high. A fifty-two hour-week is about ten hours and fifteen minutes per day in a five-day week.

My father, a seventy-three year-old man, never wants to retire.

When I was a child, he worked twelve hours per day, six days per week. He is a doctor. Today, he only maintains a private practice, but he used to also work at Martha Jefferson Hospital, visit patients at a nursing home, perform check-ups on prisoners at a nearby jail, and serve in the U.S. Army.

He constantly reminded the family of all expenses, down to the cent. After all, the livelihoods of a wife and five children rested on his shoulders. He continued to wire his mother in Korea a monthly sum until the day she died. Though his five children are grown, his mother has passed, his stocks and bonds have flourished, and his expenses are reduced, he never wants to stop working and pursue hobbies or other interests. Only his declining health has forced him to reduce his work schedule. He sees retirement as idleness, which he loathes. And fears. He shuns a life without work because work is what he knows.

Similarly, my mother seeks to keep herself busy, as her job of caring for five children no longer exists with the children grown and living elsewhere. She was burdened with the labor of cleaning and cooking during my childhood, but now that we moved away, she has spoken of adopting a child. She is lonely and unsure of her purpose, even though she followed societal pressures to marry and have several children. She deserves to prioritize herself and be happy, but she is unsure how to do so. She has never exercised these skills.

My parents expected my brothers and me to pursue our education with the same fixation they applied to their jobs. They said school was our job. Since they felt any spare hour should be devoted to strengthening our grades, we resorted to sneaking out of the house to see friends. But even though I am an adult, control my schedule, and live apart from my parents, I am still shaped by their view that my job, what pays me, should absorb most of my energy and time. I struggle to define myself by my dreams instead of by my jobs. This was my parents’ way, our people’s way, of finding food, building a home, and ensuring they could withstand another day.

My parents, like others of their generation, devoted themselves to their education after the War, and this dogged pursuit of academic achievement became an additional recovery method that bolstered Korea’s post-war infrastructure. It was not only seen as a way to benefit the country, but also seen as in line with the prevalent Confucian belief that education reflected a family’s status. Similar to the country’s fixation on labor, its post-war emphasis on education provided dramatic results:

[South Korea’s] almost myopic, even maniacal, focus on education helped transform the country in a single generation. In 1945, the country’s literacy rate was 22 percent. It now hovers around 99 percent, one of the highest literacy rates in the world… South Koreans commonly assert that education is the reason their country has grown from one of the poorest in the world to the 12th largest economy, and increased the average lifespan of its citizens from 35 years in 1950 to 83 years today.

Korean youth have an eleven-month school year and spend an average of sixteen hours per day on their education. My parents never mentioned the War, but they discussed at length their studies by candlelight into the early hours of the morning. Korean students fixate on admission to one of the country’s top three universities, and failure to do so ripples throughout the family.

Anything except academic perfection from my brothers and me outraged my parents, for whom education was a key mechanism that had helped them not only survive, but also enabled them to travel to America when America prioritized the entry of educated Asians. It helped them shift from poverty to financial security.

While South Korea’s intense academic environment provides opportunities, it is related to the country’s high suicide rate. The data shows the correlation between this stifling environment and this country’s well-being. For children ages ten to nineteen, South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world. Most of these cases are from education-related stress.

Because my parents believed their children’s academic rank and college admission impacted the family’s dignity, they insisted that my brothers and I apply the study habits of their generation. My mother dictated my future as a Harvard-educated doctor when I was in fifth grade. I was enrolled in test prep courses, given heaps of AP exam books, and registered for the SAT four times. All the results disappointed her.

I fought with them because I did not have the grades to attend a school with the reputation of Seoul National University, my father’s alma mater, as my older brothers did. They both attended Ivy League schools, earning the seal of my parents’ approval. In addition to my subpar academics, I was not interested in law, engineering, or medicine, as my parents hoped.

In fact, I was unsure of my general purpose or desires. I didn’t look like the students around me, yet I didn’t speak Korean, only the colonizing tongue of English. I had little knowledge of Korea though others expected me to hold expertise. Nobody else’s family felt like mine, and none of the books assigned to me carried much resemblance to my life. I didn’t fit into the white culture and didn’t meet the standards my Korean family said equated to a life worth living.

The consequences of failing to meet my parents’ standards were, in the short-term, a beating, and, in the long-term, the message that I was bringing shame upon the family, including my ancestors, and setting myself up for a life of ruin. They saw questioning my identity as irrelevant. Instead, I should disregard my true thoughts. Mold myself to someone else’s expectations. Suppress my real desires. Hide.

When I was twenty-six, I gave myself a deadline: if I was not happy by thirty-five, I would die by suicide.

“You wrote your own death certificate,” my therapist said when I met with her at thirty-six years-old.

We spoke about the trauma of my parents and myself, and how it can fester in silence. We discussed cultural isolation, white supremacy, agency, and shame. I felt like I had little control over my life, and death by my own hands seemed like one of the few decisions fully mine.

“You’re here,” she said. “You’re speaking about it. That is in your control too.”

Therapy has been fundamental to my existence, and this practice counters my parents’ belief in the Confucian idea of suppressing one’s struggles. South Korea might be considered the most Confucian country on Earth, and Confucius saw filial piety, a collective mindset, and a harmonious image as guiding principles. Honor your family. Follow the crowd. When you are outside the home, act as if everything is agreeable.

With a stronger economy, does South Korea still need to prioritize the productivity and education that bolstered the country’s post-war recovery? Do these factors, which elevated the country in a period of destitution, now contribute to the country’s high suicide rate? What new mechanisms can the country use to address this different struggle to survive?

I hesitated to write this essay because I didn’t want to reinforce any negative stereotypes of Koreans. I worried the essay would portray Koreans as miserable and angry. Why don’t I write about Korean greatness — our artists, innovators, and activists? Why focus on the negative?

Because I am afraid that if I don’t explore this shadow, if I maintain silence around it, I empower it. I want to catch it before it catches me. I wonder what I can do to alter its presence. Because writing about this has become one of my survival mechanisms.

Park Won-soon left a note: “I apologize to everyone. I thank everyone who was with me in my lifetime. I am so sorry to my family, to whom I have only caused pain. Please cremate my body and scatter the ashes at my parents’ grave. Goodbye everyone.”

This outcome didn’t satisfy those who wanted the mayor to be held liable for his actions. It didn’t satisfy the secretary either. After Park Won-soon was found, the secretary made a statement: “I ask myself how I am going to continue to live.”



Cartographies of Heartache

I have been visiting prisons as long as I can remember and have lost count of the number of times my picture may have been taped to the wall of a cell. Visits Upstate meant early morning departures on the weekends. Trips to the County meant mostly middle of the day and evenings. Geography lessons of heartache experienced through small towns and cartographies of captivity. Same waiting spaces. Same security wanding and invasions. Folding your arms over your underwire is supposed to silence the screeching of the hand-held metal detector. Some correctional officers invested in showing that you are just another number attached to the number of someone deemed less than human.


We Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice

The doctor shows me cross-sections of my breasts on her computer screen. The images look like something from the Weather Channel, a satellite tracking a monochrome storm.

“You see here,” the doctor says, pointing out a line of tiny white spots, innocent as grains of rice. “And also here.”

***

At New York City street fairs, there’s always a booth claiming: We will write your name on a grain of rice.

Why write someone’s name so tiny it can’t be seen without a magnifying glass?

Who perfects an art like that?

When the doctor shows me the cross-section of my breasts, the grains inside, the microscopic tears that beckon my death, I think: Oh they’re pretty.