I come from “live fast, die young” stock. My mom died at sixty-five after decades on and off prednisone. My father barely lived past seventy. Both my parents were the eldest of six in traditional, duty-bound Korean families. Both my parents were overachievers who graduated at the top of their high school classes.
My maternal grandfather, dean of a medical school, handpicked my father, his young star professor, to marry his eldest daughter. My father went on to a lauded career in science and academia; my mother, the dutiful wife, never worked outside the home despite her bachelor’s degree in history and her master’s degree in library science.
What killed my mom, Min Kyung Im, was not myasthenia gravis or the complications caused by long-term steroid use. I believe that what caused her physical decline was anger and resentment. It’s the Min legacy: all the Min women are smart, capable, resourceful, and angry.
I come from a long line of justifiably angry women. We wear our anger like mantels and pass it on to our daughters. My maternal grandmother was betrothed to my grandfather years before they met. When they married, she gave birth to a son followed by two daughters. With the heir in place, she was determined to stop bearing children and be a “modern” woman. But her son died at age twelve. Four daughters later, she finally bore the necessary replacement son.
My mother, fourteen years older than her youngest sibling, became a second mother. She always had a baby tied to her back and a sister on each hand. At the same time, she was expected to excel in school, waking up at 4:30 each morning to study.
The Min legacy manifests as workaholism, pursuit of status, a sense of superiority over men, and resentment of men’s privileges. The Min legacy thrives on a general state of victimhood, fueled by an us/them dichotomy. On a daily level, it reveals itself as annoyance, irritability, and impatience. We like to blame and judge others, be they the Bush administration, an uncooperative spouse, troublesome children, or bad drivers.
Ai-go, chukkeda! was my grandmother’s signature complaint, which my mother adopted and I occasionally caricature, translating literally as “Oh my, I will die, ” but really means something closer to “Shit, you’re trying to kill me!”
I caught myself lapsing into ai-go chukkeda mode one Tuesday, my day off from teaching, when I enjoy a leisurely morning of yoga practice in my pajamas, followed by writing time. Instead of staying in my bathrobe, however, I had to drive my kids to school. My husband Ed, who usually drops them off on his way to the office, had overslept, and the kids weren’t ready in time to walk. Grrrrrr.
Mother was always annoyed. Was it because she never pursued a meaningful career? Was it because she was overwhelmed with three kids born in three and a half years? Was it because, per Korean tradition, she had to care for her husband’s extended family? Was it because my father cared about his research more than anything else in the world?
She became a Christian in her forties and devoted the last twenty years of her life to forgiveness, reconciliation, and inner peace. But too late: I had already internalized the Min legacy. When she died in 2001, I took on the legacy wholeheartedly. As the only daughter of the matriarch, I became the primary bearer of the family burden. You see, in a Confucianist society the guys inherit the property; the girls inherit the emotional baggage.
The confluence in 2001 of Bush’s inauguration, my mother’s death, and the 9/11 attack took me into full-blown asthmatic stress response. Since then, I’ve devoted myself to every treatment from acupuncture to Buteyko breathing to nutritional overhaul. But the final layer to wellness is the mantel of the matriarchal legacy.
So, a week before Christmas, after coming within one inch of rear-ending a blue-haired old lady in a Lincoln making a slooow left turn, I decided it was, once and for all, time to jettison my inheritance. I decided to stop being annoyed.
Annoyance, after all, is just anger in a crockpot, turned down to a long slow simmer. Both anger and annoyance translate physically into a state of siege, which triggers my fight/flight response, and begins a cycle of inflammation. Among the Min women, this becomes chronic illness, tumors, and auto-immune disorders.
So for this new year, I give up annoyance, complaining, and my fighting attitude. I give up bitterness. I’m taking a break from my beloved Democracy Now!, because it brings out the fighter in me. I’ve allowed George W. Bush and his oil cronies to make me physically ill. Now I take back that power and disable all my buttons so no one can push them. When I feel annoyance coming on, I replace that habitual thought with one of gratitude. I’ve even altered my yoga practice, doing more supported inversions to relax the nerves, and restorative poses to bring my organs into balance and quiet my mind. Sure enough, my chronic inflammatory symptoms are shrinking away.
I reserve my right to be angry once in a while. But I’m also determined to sail into my eighties and nineties and outlive my short-lived stock. I want to be a graceful, useful elder, and spare my daughters from the legacy. Happy new year!