My paternal grandfather (huge guy holding the shovel) at the groundbreaking for Inchon’s School for Chinese. This is where my dad and his siblings, my brother and I all went to school. It is still running to this day.
As a teenager no longer able to bear being another mouth to feed, my grandfather left behind his hometown and the famine in Shandong, China. He was illiterate and homeless. On his own, doing what he could to get by. He crossed the Yellow Sea and landed in what is now Inchon, South Korea in the early 1900’s. There he made his fortune. Working tirelessly, building little by little, from bottling soybean oil to constructing buildings. By the time I was born in the 1980s, he owned a noodle factory, a bathhouse, and one of the largest banquet hall Chinese restaurants in the city. He was a true self-made man and a leader in the Chinese community.
What the success story hides is the trauma my grandfather must have endured. He traded his life as a penniless teenager wasting away with his family, only to live through the violent invasion and occupation by the Japanese (1910-1945) and the tumultuous Korean War (1950-1953).
After the war, the government seized much of his land because he was not a Korean citizen. But he continued building his successful and varied businesses and thrived as the patriarch of a prominent family with seven children.
My father was the youngest. Charismatic and funny, he inherited my grandfather’s strength and determination. He doesn’t often speak of his childhood though, only that he didn’t have a good one and wished better for my brother and me.
Regretfully, by the time I came along, Alzheimer’s disease laid claim to my grandfather’s mind. He was never able to recognize who we were or answer my questions. I collect and treasure the stories about him, both beautiful and marred, as bits of wisdom to help me understand my world.
My maternal grandfather told me stories of the air raids in the Korean War that sent him and other school children scattering and screaming. Though always a kind and doting grandfather to me, he was a challenge for his five children, unwavering in his ways.
My Little Uncle was my favorite. As my mom’s youngest brother, he was the baby of the family and only about ten years older than me. Little Uncle was so much fun, he could make up games out of anything. I giggled uncontrollably at his silly faces. He was also the most patient grown-up I knew. Little Uncle taught me how to swim and how to wrap a present in the short summers we were able to spend together.
When I was older, he told me why his eldest brother left home at age seventeen to make his own way in America:
“You must kill the monkey to scare the chickens,” he muttered.
“What does that mean?” I asked, completely puzzled by this odd image.
“That is what your grandfather believed. To make the younger children stay in line, he beat his oldest son brutally. Kicking him repeatedly even after he fell to the ground, while the rest of us watched.” His eyes were sunken and faraway.
I only got to know my eldest uncle after we immigrated. He struggled with severe depression and was often withdrawn. Drowning in sadness, he once called my grandfather in Korea in the middle of the night to confront him, “Why did you give birth to me?”
Nevertheless, they broke the cycle. My little and eldest uncles never laid a hand on their children.
My grandmother’s sister was married to a violent alcoholic. He beat her badly. I heard hushed stories of how my great-aunt came to hide in her sister’s house, only to be eventually turned over to her husband. The family could not hide her from him. No matter what he did, she belonged to him. “Mei ban fa. Tha de ming ku,” they would say. “There’s nothing to be done. Her life is bitter.”
He eventually killed my great-aunt and died himself soon after. For years, after they were orphaned, their five young children, the youngest just a newborn, lived with my grandparents and their five kids.
When my father, giddy with love, asked for mother’s hand in marriage, my grandfather asked him somberly to make a promise. “You can yell at her all you want,” he said, “but you must never hit her.”
He kept his promise.
Studies show Asian Americans are the least likely among different ethnic groups to seek treatment for a mental health condition. For many, including my parents, the awareness of mental health as an issue did not exist. Naturally, the possibility of seeking mental health treatment never occurred to them.
My mother never handled stress well. When the restaurant we ran got busy, she would panic and her voice would become shrill, unable to breathe. My father had a violent, uncontrollable temper. We were always on eggshells around him. Unlike my uncles, he was unable to break the cycle.
Whether trauma can be inherited is debated, but how one reacts to stress is affected by our families and our environment. Due to our family history, the “fight or flight” reaction is triggered more quickly and more exaggeratedly.
I wonder about how much my family’s past trauma contribute to my own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Why if unmedicated, I am susceptible to psychosis. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the cause, I can’t change that I live with my condition. But having more context about the past helps me better understand my parents, why they are the way they are and why they raised me the way they did. It helps with the daunting task of healing our relationship from a place of love and compassion, and to better understand myself.