Ever hear of culture-bound syndromes? They’re exactly what they sound like—a type of affliction specific to a cultural group. They can help to provide a context for why an individual experiences certain behaviors or symptoms. The first culture-bound syndrome that I ever learned about was hwabyung, a Korean syndrome generally associated with a suppression of anger. I don’t even remember how I came across it, but ever since the discovery, I have wondered if it’s even possible for me, a Korean American adoptee, to experience a Korean culture-bound syndrome. Us transracial and transnational adoptees are such a nature vs. nurture experiment. I don’t know if having Korean blood in your veins is enough to be considered part of that cultural group.
What I do know is that, lately, I am angry. A few days ago I had my first ever panic attack, one reported symptom of hwabyung. I should also mention that hwabyung is linked to han. Han is a kind of amorphous Korean concept encompassing anger, vengeance, sadness, despair.. Some say han is an ingrained part of all Koreans due to Korea’s lengthy history of oppression. The resulting emotion is convoluted—angry at being oppressed, yet also saddened by the inevitability of it. I am sure someone else could add more to my description of han. For me, it’s still not the easiest of ideas to pin down, perhaps because there is no literal English translation of the word. And yet, something about it clicks. The lingering sadness of it is familiar.
I had the panic attack following a phone conversation with my mom. She mentioned that one of my aunts thought I was angry with her. I had no idea what they were talking about. This aunt and I had chatted recently online, but I thought it was amiable. I told my mom I was fine and that I had nothing to be angry about. Then I got off the phone and knew that wasn’t true at all. In combing back through that talk with my aunt, she made a comment about wishing I was back home to find a job there. Like maybe I made a mistake by leaving. And that touched on a very sensitive spot. Between her and my mom, I made the sinking realization that they don’t understand the real reason why I left home.
My family thinks I’m choosing to live away from them simply because of job availability. And now that there are openings in my field there, my aunt wishes I would come back home. As if it’s that simple. As if my employment is all that matters right now. Don’t get me wrong—the job search is stressful and of course I want to have a career. But you know what the truth is? I would rather be unemployed and struggling here than living comfortably back in that sheltered little white suburb. To my relatives, that place is home. Do they even realize how small that world is? And how profoundly lonely it is for me? I don’t think they see any fault in my upbringing. Summer culture camp and adoption group parties at major holidays were deemed adequate. Bottom line: it wasn’t enough. But they weren’t taught this. And I, as a child, didn’t know any better. And it all infuriates me. It infuriates me that, deep down, I feel as though I have to choose between my family and affirming the Korean part of my identity. Both are important, but it seems I cannot have both in the same place.
It is what it is. No one can go back in time and infuse more of Korea into my history or my hometown. Or rewrite the adoption education my parents were given before bringing me home. There is no one specific person or source to blame. So, what I’m left with is anger and a lasting bruise that still hurts when pressed. It aches for all those forces beyond your control; for all that never happened, but should have.