The Most Important Lesson I Learned in Korea

By Dr. Ben Kim

When I was in my late 20s, I left a lucrative professional position in the arctic of Alaska to move to Seoul, South Korea.

I had plenty of reasons for wanting to experience life in Korea, but the main one was that I wanted to be able to speak and write Korean fluently. A part of me thought that it might be possible to start a fasting clinic somewhere in the countryside of Korea, where I could live out the rest of my days, helping people fast for health recovery. But my main reason for wanting to become fluent in Korean was that I had a lot to say to my parents.

If you and your parents don’t share the same native language, perhaps you understand what it feels like to be able to communicate with your parents on basic, everyday matters, but to feel utterly hopeless about having your parents truly understand your deepest feelings. Heck, maybe you and your parents share the same native language and you still feel this way. Point is, I had a lot to communicate to my parents and I was determined to make it happen.

I think it’s safe to say that up until that point in my life, I felt that my parents put their expectations of me far ahead of encouraging me to find my own place in this world. They seemed to view my life as one of their possessions, a badge that reflected their social standing in the church and among their relatives. If you aren’t familiar with this type of atmosphere and are curious about it, I recommend that you watch The Joy Luck Club. I bet millions of second generation Asian children have welled up while watching this exquisite movie.

When I got to Korea, I found myself a tiny room on the tenth floor of a dormitory. I spent the next six months going back and forth between this dormitory and a local library, where I began writing, reading, and speaking Korean.

As I improved, I started writing my thoughts in Korean to send to my parents. I wrote about how disappointed and angry I was with them for having ridiculously high and unfair expectations of me. I wrote about how hurt I was that what others thought about our family seemed more important to my parents than the pressures and insecurities that my sisters and I felt on a daily basis when we were growing up.

I was feeling pretty darn good about my progress when, one day, I received my first phone bill. I remember to this day that it took me a good hour and a half with a Korean-English dictionary to figure out that phone bill. I know that it doesn’t sound very exciting, but that one event marked the beginning of a whole new way of thinking about my parents.

Trying to understand that phone bill made me think about what it was like for my parents when they received their first phone bill from Bell Canada a few decades ago. That got me to think about what it was like for my mom to have a bunch of English-speaking doctors and nurses deliver her babies. And what were my parents feeling when a fast-talking real estate agent and a lawyer were selling and closing their first house?

Spending an afternoon trying to figure out my phone bill woke me up to just the surface of some of the struggles that my parents faced as immigrants looking to survive in Canada.

A short while later, I started reading about hyo, a Korean word that means respect and reverence for one’s parents. In reading about hyo and spending time with native Korean students staying in my dormitory, I began to see a big difference in the way that eastern and western cultures view parents.

In Korea, the concept of hyo can be felt in almost every family. Hyo is a feeling that your parents are your sky. It doesn’t matter if your sky is bright, cloudy, or downright dangerous looking - your sky is still your sky. And the majority of Koreans believe that your sky must be respected at all times.

What if your sky hasn’t earned your respect? This is a question and mindset that comes from western culture. The feeling of hyo is that your parents don’t need to earn your respect. They deserve your respect, just for being your parents.

Hyo captures the feelings that people from all cultures have when their parents pass on from this world. Regardless of how much anger and bitterness people have towards their parents, with few exceptions, people experience great loss and sadness when their parents pass away. These feelings of loss and sadness can easily overpower feelings of anger that were seemingly impossible to overcome while one’s parents were alive. I see this as almost a form of evidence that it is natural and right for people to honour their parents at all times, regardless of their parents' shortcomings.

Hyo takes into account the reality that our parents have experienced more pain and suffering than we have, as a natural consequence of having lived longer than us. With this reality in mind, it makes sense that as much as we need for our parents to understand our deepest feelings and most hurtful experiences, our parents have an even greater need for us to understand their deepest feelings and most hurtful experiences.

Why have I written about this? Because I believe that the attitudes and feelings that we hold towards our parents and those closest to us have far greater impact on our health and lives than what we eat, how much we sleep, and how much we exercise. Learning about hyo brought me a lot of peace of mind. I no longer need for my parents to apologize for their shortcomings and to understand how angry I was with them. If anything, I feel the need to apologize to them for not recognizing their place in my life at an earlier age.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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