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How I Honor My Sister’s Memory by Refusing to Be a “Good Girl” (excerpt from Far From Home: Shattering the Myth of the Model Minority)

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I remember a photograph that was taken of my sister, brother, and me around 1972. We were on vacation somewhere in South Korea, holding hands and smiling for my father, who was taking the picture.

I was five years old then, not called Mary yet, but Chung Mi Kyung. My older sister, Bo Yoon never had an American name, because she did not immigrate to the United States with the rest of our family. That is because on January 1, 1980, at the precious age of seventeen, she took her own life.

As a young girl, I looked up to my oldest sister. She was my best friend. Growing up in the small town of Kwangju and later Seoul, I thought we were happy and close. When my family moved into a great big house in Seoul in 1978, I was ecstatic that I would get to share a room with her.

At the time, I wasn’t aware that she was having tremendous problems with depression. No one in our family knew that young, vibrant Bo Yoon was troubled. In our culture, mental health issues just weren’t talked about.

The morning of her suicide, she showed me an empty bottle of sleeping pills she had consumed the night before, and she alluded to some desperate act she was going to perform. But my twelve-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend her cry for help. So, instead of doing something to stop her, I left to visit my friend’s house.

Later that day, my cousin called to say I needed to come home. After making my way home in a daze, knowing that something terrible had happened, I learned that my older brother had found Bo Yoon hanging in our bedroom.

After her death by suicide, no one spoke of Bo Yoon again. That very day, all of her clothing and belongings were burned. Like the photograph, my parents and relatives tried to cut her memory from our family. There was never a funeral for Bo Yoon, and our family still doesn’t talk about her suicide or the mental illness that left her feeling so desperate.

When I was twelve, Bo Yoon was cut out of that photograph of my brother and me.

My siblings and I were left with nothing but our memories, which were hard to hold onto considering we had no objects or photos of her. My parents attempted to erase the fact that she even existed.

In hindsight, I understand that they didn’t have any other choice. At that time and in that place, there were no tools or resources for managing mental health issues or coping with a tragedy like teenage suicide. Instead, the fact that a family member committed such an act was viewed as a source of shame to be hidden, not a tragic incident to be understood and mourned. The only way forward for my parents was to sweep it under the rug and pretend that the whole ordeal — and my sister — never happened.

The “Good Girl” Trap

Bo Yoon had, knowingly or unknowingly, performed the greatest act of rebellion against the script that all the girls in my family had received — to be a “good girl.”

In traditional Korean culture, women are to be seen and not heard. We are each raised to be respectful “good girls,” to make an excellent marriage match, and then to raise children: a new generation of silent “good girls.” My father and his mother were committed to raising my sisters and me accordingly.

Being good meant keeping my thoughts and opinions to myself. Any direct communication — even direct eye contact — was discouraged, and avoiding conflict altogether was expected.

Unfortunately, that concept encourages girls and women to suffer in silence. Asking for help could be seen as a sign of weakness, and that weakness could bring shame to the family. Someone who was experiencing feelings of desperation or suicidal ideation, like Bo Yoon, had nowhere to go for help.

My sisters and I excelled at being “good girls,” and regular reports from the townspeople in my village stating so brought my parents great pride. I was happy to oblige. It felt good to please my parents and to have their approval. In our homogenous Korean culture, especially in our small farming village, I wasn’t exposed to any “other way of life. As a result, this limited “good girl” upbringing set barriers around my imagination.

That is, until we moved to America, and my eyes were opened.

Seeing a Different Future

Six months after Bo Yoon’s death, our parents decided to move us to America — they were mostly worried about the political unrest in South Korea. I was also one of only five non-white children at Hewes Junior High School in Orange County. I was entirely unable to communicate or develop genuine relationships of any kind. By that point in my life, my “good girl” training was firmly ingrained, so I chose to become invisible.

After six months of merely surviving, my math teacher sent me to the school’s office. I had struggled to explain math problems on the blackboard, as she had directed. I understood the math, of course, but I needed a better command of English to present my thoughts. At the office, another Korean boy came to translate for me, and I finally had a chance to make myself heard. I poured my heart out to the poor boy, who kindly translated my distress to the school’s staff.

Fortunately, the school responded by appointing an English tutor for me, and things became more accessible. Still, I downplayed and even hid most of this from my parents. They viewed a need for assistance as a sign of weakness — the same reason they hadn’t proactively secured help for me to learn English in the first place.

However, I now knew that there were resources available to me, and the possibility that there was another way to live in the world took root in my mind. As my English improved and I assimilated more into American culture, I was exposed to Asian American subculture and began to see Asian Americans, women in particular, in different roles.

For example, I idolized Connie Chung and her regular appearances on the evening news. Here was a woman who looked like me yet was doing more than simply marrying and raising children. She was educated, articulate, and, as far as I could tell, quite powerful. The barrier around my imagination was lifting, and I was starting to see new options for myself.

After a few more years of assimilation, I was a full-blown American girl. In high school, I wore makeup (that I put on at school so my parents wouldn’t see), tried (and failed) to dye my hair blonde, and even went to prom. While my father desperately continued trying to impose our Korean culture, traditions, and values, he could see that I was far more American than Korean.

Breaking Free

In 1986, I was a college freshman at California State University, Long Beach, and Women’s Empowerment was at a peak. Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” was number one on Billboard’s charts, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale hit bookshelves everywhere, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman candidate for Vice President of the United States, and EMILY’s List was founded, with the strategic mission to see more pro-choice women elected to political office.

As a young college student, I wasn’t overly aware of the advancement of women happening all around me; I was focused instead on forging my independence from my parents. They had decided to move back to South Korea with my younger siblings because of my father’s concerns about our family losing its Korean roots. At that time, I was nineteen years old and a US citizen. I convinced my parents to let me remain in Southern California, where I lived alone in the house they kept.

But my parents maintained a firm hold on me, even from the other side of the world. During my first trip home to visit, they introduced me to a young man whom my father had arranged for me to marry. I was twenty years old, and the man — who we called by his American name, Hunter — was twenty-seven years old. The “good girl” in me went along with the plan for several months, unsure whether I could or even wanted to push back.

At the same time, I signed up for a Women’s Studies class, thinking that I would be studying how to be a “good woman,” just as I had learned how to be a “good girl.” Instead, I read countless stories about fiercely independent women written by great feminists like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. After years of being a “good girl,” of being “raised with the notion that I would be nothing more than a wife and mother, and after assimilating to a new culture where women were allowed to have their own lives and pursue careers, it finally dawned on me: I didn’t have to marry Hunter. I didn’t have to clean my parents’ house every night when I got home from classes as if they were still living there. Most importantly, I realized I could make a career for myself and make a difference for others.

Following My Conviction

In 1990, at twenty-three years old, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, in an eight hundred square foot apartment that became my sanctuary. There, finally out from under my parents’ rule, Bo Yoon’s memory was at the forefront of my mind and the top of my heart. I never stopped wondering why she made the choice that she did.

During that time, I attended the University of San Francisco in the evenings to complete my bachelor’s degree. I worked at the Asian Law Caucus, a national civil rights legal organization. I also became involved in numerous organizations working to advance women’s rights. With my newfound freedom and a clear view of my potential, I decided to dedicate myself to making a difference and empowering others to do the same.

In the early 1990s, there was a great void in the Asian American community concerning women’s health advocacy. Not only did I need to learn more about why Bo Yoon couldn’t ask for help, I also wanted to do something to help others who were similarly struggling with mental illness. I refused to forget those who were suffering, and I wasn’t going to let others forget about them, either. It was the beginning of my lifelong advocacy for mental health and my passion for improving the overall health of Asian women in America.

My involvement in public service grew organically out of my innate desire to fight for those who were falling behind, being forgotten, or were unable to advocate for themselves — for people just like my sister.

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