Dr. UeJin Kim 00:01
Hi, welcome to the It's Like This Podcast. Your common sense, mental, and spiritual talk show My name is Dr. UeJin Kim, a dual-board certified psychiatrist from Texas. In this podcast, I explain mental and spiritual concepts with fun analogies, real stories, and a positive message so you cannot just survive, but thrive. My goal for you is to gain understanding, acceptance, and healing so that you can know your worth and live the life that you were meant to live. If you want that as much as I do, hit that subscribe button. And let's listen to today's episode. In this episode, I'm having an authentic and genuine conversation with a friend and colleague, Jenny Lee. Jenny is a licensed family therapist and the owner of a private practice called Untangled Counseling in Texas. She specializes in cultural identity and cultural trauma. And she and I will be talking a lot about cultural norms that are harmful and unhealthy and how to rise above them. She and I are both Korean Americans who use our backgrounds to help us understand our own culture and the cultures around us. So, we'll be referring a lot to Asian cultures and things about Asian culture. But I believe that the truths that come from this conversation are universal and can definitely be applied to non-Asian listeners.
So, I hope you find comfort in this episode too, as Jenny and I share our own struggles. that therapists and psychiatrists need help and healing as much as anyone else. and that help is available. So, let's get started. All right, welcome to the It's Like This Podcast. My name is Dr. Kim, your host. And today, we have a special guest. It's like having a Korean sister from another mother. And her name is Jenny Lee. She's a therapist. And I just connected with her through networking and meeting other local therapists. But we're going to talk about an important topic today. And it's about how to navigate the cultural norms that could be harmful, abusive, and neglectful, and how to navigate that, especially when you're creating your own life and your own quality of life. So, we're just going to have a discussion, and I'm really excited to bring her on board. So, Jenny, thank you so much for coming.
Jenny Lee 02:36
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to do this. Super excited.
Dr. UeJin Kim 02:39
Yes. And when I met you, I loved your memes on your social media page. And I was like, "This girl knows how to utilize humor to the best of her ability." So, I knew that we were going to be friends, and I knew that we were going to talk about this. I kind of manifested as soon as I met you. So, I'm loving it. So, Jenny, tell me a little bit about you and what you're doing right now. and how you can bring your piece into the conversation.
Jenny Lee 03:18
So, I am based out of North Austin and Pflugerville, Texas, right now. I work in private practice part-time while also caring for my 10-month-old son.
03:30 Dr. UeJin Kim
It's a hard job.
Jenny Lee 03:32
It is, man. I finished my master's in family therapy. I did a couple of years of family therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and then I did a Master of Divinity at a biblical seminary in Hatfield. I'm a doctoral candidate with a couple of family therapists at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where I'm way behind on my dissertation but hoping to get in. So, I mainly see individuals and couples in their practice. Right now, I would estimate that about 80% of my Asian and Asian American clients are dealing with very similar issues in terms of family boundaries, communication with parents, and boundaries with their own children. They have a partner who is from a similar or different culture, or even from the same culture but raised differently, and they are attempting to navigate some of the subtle nuances between those. And so, I'm working with that. I also have some non-Asian American clients as well, of course. But overall, that's what I do and am doing. Mainly, just overall mood disorders or relationship issues—communication issues and relationships—and some family traumas are working there, too.
Dr. UeJin Kim 04:48
Yeah. And then you actually married somebody who's not in your culture as well.
Jenny Lee 04:52
I did. He is Russian. I suppose we could call him Russian-American because he is a US citizen, but he came here when he was eight years old. So, he speaks both Russian and English very fluently. And his family dates back to Bella Ros, and he did a lot of his genealogy using historical sources. So, it's really interesting. His family has a long history of involvement in vaccination-related medicine work in Russia. He is not Korean, but he enjoys kimchi. We'll eat it straight from the jar; we love it. And you're going to laugh at our daughter; she looks a bit Kazakhstani. She looks like a Korean Russian. Yeah. So, she's got the Russian first name and the Korean middle name. And we speak to her in a mix of all three, which I'm sure is a little confusing for her at times. But she's getting it, I think.
Dr. UeJin Kim 05:51
So, I can see you are navigating a clash of cultures, both in your personal life and in your professional life. And I do, and we gravitate toward culture and its effects, but I also believe that culture has many positive aspects as well as negative ones. And it creates issues, which is why you and I are mental health providers. So, how did that cultural interest fall into your lap?
Jenny Lee, 06:32
That's a good question. I'd have to say that this indicates that I'm dating myself. But even going way back to grad school, I remember applying to couple and family therapy programs. And when I got in, I called my parents to say, "Hey, I got into a couple of family therapy programs." My dad, whose English is pretty good, said to me, "Oh, therapy," and I said, "Yeah," and he went, "Oh, like physical therapy." No, not at all. and they're very supportive. My parents are very creative in some ways. In some ways, they're really not. But I remember even in graduate school discussing different parts of culture and a lot of my white classmates just not getting it, maybe. "Well, that's odd," I reasoned, "or that sounds really Ooh, that sounds like a measurement, that's really unhealthy. “And I remember thinking and feeling—I don't think so. I don't think it's unhealthy.
The way they are describing this And I definitely think other parts were—there are definitely some boundary things going on. But there are other parts where I said, "No, that's just cultural meaning and context." And the school I went to was very drilled in cultural competency and all different types of areas. Sexual orientation, economic status, and race colorism And so it was a great opportunity to dive in and look at some of that stuff. But it really started there, and I did an internship at the University of Pennsylvania's Hall Mercer, where we had an Asian American type of clientele. And, of course, I didn't see a single cream client there for the entire year. They did a lot of work in the church, and I saw that this is definitely a need. It's just something that's not really being utilized.
Dr. UeJin Kim 08:24
Yeah. And, man, I just know that our discussion is going to be a difficult one because of the nature of teasing out what is normal in a culture and at what degree does it become inappropriate or harmful? That's so hard. So, I'm just really excited. I'm just very curious. So, what makes you think this is a loaded question? But you and I are from Korean culture, and I moved to the States when I was 10. And I don't know when you were born here.
Jenny Lee 09:04
I was born and raised in the United States. My parents met and married in Korea. And then, shortly after, my mom's side came here. My dad's side is pretty much all still there.
Dr. UeJin Kim 09:16
Yeah. And I think what I'm learning through studying my culture and just living my life in a mix of American values, Korean values, and Asian values is that culture is generational, and when it stays in a country and everybody's doing the same thing, it just becomes so normalized that there are no checks and balances within that culture. And being an immigrant, I think it was a really good opportunity for me to provide that check and balance for my own cultural values and be like, "Wait, that's not helpful or that's not appropriate." And I believe that one thing that is so prevalent in Korean culture, and perhaps it is reversed on the other side of the world, is that parents can do no wrong. It was like—you know what I mean? Like, I'm just doing this, even though it's harmful, because I love you. So, because of my intentions, all wrongs are righted. There's a lot of that. And I think that when I was younger, I was like, "There is a lack of accountability," which harmed and spun the generational stuff." And so I think coming to America, where it's on the flip side, is like, parents do everything wrong. That kind of burden on parents is just really hard. But I don't know, if you have any thoughts on that, like the point of immigration, it's actually a really good opportunity to evaluate both cultures, I think.
Jenny Lee 10:56
Yeah, I think it's tricky because I've worked within the Korean church and I've seen a really big, diverse mix of parenting. Maybe that's a good way to say it. My parents were not like that in terms of being able to do no wrong. I do remember, and I have a lot of memories of my parents at different points sitting down and apologizing for here and there.
Dr. UeJin Kim 11:22
Yes, that's good.
Jenny Lee 11:22
And by no means am I saying they're perfect. I wouldn't say that's one of my strong memories—that they could do no wrong. I've worked with a lot of families and kids who did a lot of youth group stuff, and their communication with their parents was just so fractured, to put it mildly. Because of all of this, as well as the cultural norm of never speaking back to your parents, if you do, it's extremely disrespectful. Anyway, that kind of thing makes it very difficult for kids and teens to truly speak to their parents about an issue that is very concerning, that is very serious, that they require assistance, and that they do not seek assistance from their parents. Because not only is there no talking back, but there's also this level of expectation and this level of, not necessarily, performance, but of how it's going to look to other people. And what would other people think if they knew this about us or the family?
Dr. UeJin Kim 12:35
Jenny Lee 12:36
Yeah, I think a lot of it becomes really difficult, especially when you're born and/or raised in the United States, and what you see on TV, at school, and in the books, you read, and then what you experience at home, is really just clashing and creating that disconnect within yourself, wanting different communication with your family but not necessarily being able to have it because of cultural differences.
Dr. UeJin Kim 13:02
And I think you made a good point because what could be shoved under a cultural norm is not necessarily the case for everyone in that culture. I think there are different levels of insight, reflection, and security within a parent and that culture. So, one Korean kid could have a drastically different experience, even living in Korea, versus another kid and the kid next door, and they could all say, "This is what Koreans do," but it could not have been that experience.
Jenny Lee 13:36
Absolutely. I went to school with her as an older sister, and I call her [inaudible]. She's very close to her sibling and very close to her parents. And I'd say she's more like 1.5; your first language is English, and she obviously speaks English. And she graduated, and she has her PhD now. And she has a very close relationship with her parents. very, very close. And she definitely communicates with them in a very different way than I would communicate with mine. And again, at the same time, there are so many unspoken things between us that we just get about each other, which is really nice and kind of a comfort. But absolutely, there's so much diversity, even within that. I had a family I worked with many, many years ago whose parents are actually from North Korea. As a result, that was very distinct. And so, their view of even American politics was so different from the typical Korean family that only had it. Good thing. Even within that, and because there aren't many North Koreans in America, they frequently felt stigmatized by Koreans.
Dr. UeJin Kim 14:52
Yeah. And like you mentioned, I work with the youth and the Korean church in America. Not only is Korean culture in Korea so different from Korean culture in America as an immigrant status, but I think when I talk to my friends who are Nigerian, like immigrants, or like European immigrants, the immigrant status also adds a lot of pressure on the parents to maintain that image of, "Hey, we came here for the American dream, we're killing it, we're crushing it, look at my kids, they're XYZ." As a result, I believe there is a lot more pressure on parents to keep quiet and focus on their own struggles in this new country.
Jenny Lee 15:40
Yeah, you say, it's so funny because a lot of the Asian clients I'm seeing right now are struggling with boundaries. And this idea that I have to do everything to keep myself small and not be noticed And so I'm not doing anything; I'm not going to speak out for myself; I'm not going to advocate for myself, because I need to be as small as possible. So, no one notices me, and no one sees me. That's a really big thing I'm seeing right now. and I really do think a lot of that is cultural. It is told and taught to trust your elders, to trust people in positions of authority, to respect them and not speak back, and to keep your head down. Don't make a lot of waves, don't stick out, don't be a troublemaker; just excel academically, do really well, but keep your head down and blend, in a way. As a result, as an adult who frequently fails to state their needs and has a difficult thing to say or thinks, "Hey, this person, my partner, should just know what it is with them and what it is I need," It's a really interesting dynamic that you see morph and evolve.
Dr. UeJin Kim 16:53
That reminds me of the story. I have a friend who was in this research, like, pharmacology thing. And this 40-year-old Asian American man applied for the job and was very candid, saying, "No, I'm not interested in jobs, but I just did it to please my parents." And my friend was like, "He's 40." And why is this the case? And then I was like, "It breaks my heart." But then I'm like, "I totally get it." And it's so sad, right? And I think this is where cultural norms get unhealthy. Yeah. Oh, my, I hope that this could be realized before you're 40 and apply for a job that you're not interested in. But I think maybe you can speak on this, like this idea of trusting your elders; you just don't have a voice and don't talk back. That is really rooted in the insecurity of the parent. Don't make me feel bad that I'm not doing my best or whatever. And I think it creates a parent-child dynamic where a child is now comforting a parent's insecurities by being smaller and by putting their needs first.
Jenny Lee 17:12
Dr. UeJin Kim 17:50
Talk to me about that. You're nodding your head.
Jenny Lee 18:20
No, it evokes several thoughts. So, one thing I talk a lot about is pontification. Besides the point, it goes back to this guy, Ivan Nahj, and his theory of contextual theory. And he calls it the "1000 bases of pontification" because pontification can look so many different ways. That's one way to look at it. Is this how I parented my adult parents as a child? They are also intrigued by what happens when you raise a child to, unfortunately, blindly trust adults and not speak up. That leads to the adult at work who never advocates for a raise, never talks to the boss, and is sexually harassed but says nothing. Because you're also blindly taught to trust your elders or anyone in authority, and then it turns into almost having a big fear of authority. And then we have some work anxiety about that, too. But unfortunately, that is one of those dynamics that perpetuates an adult who has some of those fears and becomes very anxious and scared at work. And then it also turns into an adult who was a child who was unknowingly parenting their parent in that type of way and has adult pontification issues as well about how some unknowingly caretake in a very subtle, unspoken agreement. So, how do I parent my partner? So, how am I parenting everyone else? And am I going to be the parent as well? I never grieved for that, so now I'm just doing the same thing to my own child.
Dr. UeJin Kim 19:55
Yeah, I think that's exactly how generational trauma happens. Is it true that we all want to be defined, protected, provided for, and guided? But when we had to grow up and comfort the older one, who was supposed to take care of us, then there was this stupid confusion. Because they are older, they are telling you what to do. So, then, there's this weird way of saying, "Oh, telling me what to do and telling me to shut up, tell me to excel, and just push through is actually love." And I think that is also, like, a secondary problem of this dynamic because we misunderstand what love and being cared for are. I think we naturally gravitate toward friends who are "more real" and call your bluff. "To the point" is sometimes considered rude. But we are like, "Oh, she's saying that because she loves me." I think [inaudible] told me that. I think that's why he married me. I just like to call him out on things, and he's like, "Oh, she loves me."
Jenny Lee 21:06
That's so funny. "That's funny, because even with my own clients, I'm always real with you." Allow me to throw your truth into the mix. That's so funny. They are really true. Yeah, that's funny. Yeah, it is. It's interesting, too, with a lot of dynamics. It's just so funny, too. Because I think of man as very different from a lot of other cultures, it's just that many of these things are unique to Asian culture. And yeah, this idea of keeping your head down and doing these things And, here's the interesting thing, too. I always think a lot of Asian cultures are very geared towards acts of service. Because growing up, your dad may not have said, "I love you," but he always asked you if you ate dinner. You know what I mean? that kind of thing.
Dr. UeJin Kim 22:00
We're like, "There's no way we do that." But he goes to work every day. So, he's working hard for you behind the scenes.
Jenny Lee 22:05
Right. It's funny; I actually remember telling my husband this early on. I used to think my dad was a workaholic until I had my own kid and I realized, "Oh my god, he was never a workaholic." He was simply trying to provide for us and help us thrive and succeed.
Dr. UeJin Kim 22:24
Well, that could be something that we can explore too. because I think you could work. I'm not trashing your dad at all. But, like, I hear a lot of stories of almost emotionally absent Asian parents. Working parents, like my [inaudible] dad, who's sometimes in a different country, And, there's a fine line between working hard because you care about your children and working hard because you have to. And plus, or minus, you want to connect with your kid. versus working hard to provide because you think this is what you're supposed to do. without any uncertainty or insecurity about wanting to connect with your child. So, for example, a good tattletale part is, "What does he do when you're present with your kids?" You're working, which is excellent. But when you're not working and your kids are around you, how do you connect with them? You know what I mean?
Jenny Lee 23:27
Yeah. And I also find that it just blows my mind sometimes thinking of these Asian immigrant families that go to a country, don't know the language, and don't know anyone. And it's as if you've just been clocked. I don't know anything. And I'll survive, and they'll make it. and I think that was my dad. He was well educated, and he did well for himself. Korea moved here and began learning the language from the ground up. That's off, which is great. And I see that in a lot of Asian families where it's like, "These parents will do anything to scrape $2 together to make it I remember having an Uber driver once a couple months ago. I can't remember where she came from. From Africa. I know. This sounds ignorant to me because I can't remember it.
Dr. UeJin Kim 24:10
There are a lot of countries in Africa.
Jenny Lee 24:12
She said the same thing. Because the rent in Walston is so high, she and her husband both work three jobs. She made a comment. She said, "I'm doing all of this in the hopes that my kids can have a different life, and even though I'm never home because I'm working all the time, I hope they can understand that I'm doing this so that they can thrive and do well." which is so sad if you think about it. You learn one day, and when you're much older, you kind of put two and two together and get it. This person arrived in this country with no knowledge of the language or the system. I started over just so that I could live a little bit easier than them. So, it's crazy to think that, and at the same time, when you say that parents aren't as emotionally connected to their children in terms of Asian culture, I see that a lot in practice too, and I also think a lot of that is because these are parents who themselves were never taught how to emotionally connect to their own parents. And so, the cycle continues.
And it becomes very cultural in the sense that it's not something you openly talk about. Your feelings, your emotions, and how you're really doing are just things that in Korean families and Asian families you don't really discuss. see you later. Sometimes it's just not really discussed at all. And when I see my clients who are this way, why couldn't my parents have taught me this? Why can't it be this way? But part of it is because they don't know how to either. Talking about a 67-year-old adult who never had to do that, culturally, it's just not normal. Now you're trying to do that. And I will give lots of credit to my clients. So, some of them will push through, and they say, "It's uncomfortable and awkward," but I want that type of relationship for my parents, so I'm going to keep at it. And to their credit, they do, and I think that's amazing. And it feels very awkward to do that.
Dr. UeJin Kim 26:16
What do you say to those clients—the child figure and also maybe the parent figure—like you're paving an unpaved road and it's going to be an uphill battle? But what kind of encouragement do you give them? I'm not suggesting that we all act like a white American family, crying together or whatever. But it's like, how do you push through? And what makes it worth it?
Jenny Lee 26:47
That's a great question. I always tell them that initially it's going to be really awkward. It is, because it's different. And it differs from how you were raised and how you have always done things. but that's not going to be a surprise. You're going to start, and it's going to be awkward, so almost lean into that. Let's just radically accept that it is going to be awkward. It is. Rather than trying to make it less awkward because it happens all the time, it gets more anxiety-provoking when we're like, "I don't want it to be awkward, but it's going to be." Just lean into the awkwardness. As a result, understand that the first few times will be awkward, but after a while, it won't be; it'll become second nature, and then it'll be fine.
Growing up, my own dad never really said, "I love you." He always said, "Did you eat?" My mom, my aunts, and I always hung up the phone, leaving at the door, "Bye, I love you." And so, I kept doing it with my dad. This is early in college. I kept doing it. And now it's easy to say that when he hangs up the phone, he always says, "Bye, I love." I remember early on when he wouldn't really say it back. It was awkward at first, and he no longer feels that way. Initially, it is going to be uncomfortable and awkward. And in the end, if that's the relationship you really want with your parents, that's what you want. Keep at it. You may even—I hate to say this—get rejected a couple of times. They may even be like, "Why, what are you doing?" But again, if you're consistent and you keep at it, that is something you can have. The downside of this is that, unfortunately, it's you as the child again. I tell my clients this: Your mom and dad are 60–70 years old; they're not going to one day wake up and all of a sudden want to have this connection with you. or even know how to have a connection like that with someone. This is what you really want. It must be your responsibility to lead and initiate that type of relationship with them.
Dr. UeJin Kim 28:50
Yeah. And I think I tell that to my clients too—that, especially if they had an abusive relationship with their parents, I say, whatever happened to you when you were a minor, that should not have happened, but don't stay there. You are now an adult, and you can do more legally, emotionally, physically, or ape-like things. But there's a tricky thing too. I think we talked about this; even within the culture, everybody's experience in that culture will be very different because maybe the emotional maturity level, willingness, or intentionality inside is so different from every parent figure doing that, and I think your dad is a perfect example where he loves you. He communicated in his way, but it wasn't exactly the lingo that you're used to and want to use. And that was just the missing piece, but I'm sure there are other parents who put their ego first and say, "If you don't do it my way, screw you."
There are a lot of clients who faced pure rejection and pure abuse because of their parents' insecurity, and when people experience that, I say, "But now you're an adult." That doesn't mean you have to forgive them because of the cultural norm. But it also doesn't mean that you have to live in the cycle of parenthood to find your parents and keep doing it until you get bitter. So, let's talk about that. Let's talk about that group of people who legitimate God—the crappiest end of the cultural norm. Try their best to advocate, forgive, or understand. But it crosses the line in that this was not just one missing piece; there's a chance of a missing piece. How do you encourage them to be like, "This is time to leave and cleave?"
Jenny Lee 31:03
It's a great question. And I think what makes it so hard is that whenever we add in that layer of abuse, even if you're 40 years old, it's so easy to instantly become an eight-year-old. And that's part of why, I think, it becomes so scary to talk to them, because it's like, but they did. And how can you [inaudible], and it's so in your bones that that's how you respond—you respond out of that eight-year-old fear? They stay with you forever. And so, it doesn't feel like both of you are 40 years old; just speak to them like an adult. No, it's impossible, which is what makes it so hard. So, I do have some clients for whom things at home or with their family or with whoever and their family are to that level that it would not be a right or good decision to engage in that type of relationship with their parent, or an uncle, or a grandparent, or whoever, because of his abuse or because of whatever else. And I think what's really hard is that it's kind of a process. I believe that one of the first things to do is to grieve the relationship that you are unlikely to have with the relationship that you desired—the parent, the grandparent, the childhood—and that you did not receive. If you are truly willing to acknowledge, validate, and grieve that, I believe it is critical to acknowledge that it is very real.
And then, knowing that it's not going to happen with them at this point, I need to set boundaries rather than try to connect. Boundaries always get so tricky. Because it's not a way of you punishing that person; it's really a way of you taking care of yourself. You can take care of yourself and take care of them at the same time. because the other thing is, if I do that, I'll feel so bad. I'll feel so bad for them. because even though all of that happened, they're still your parents. They're still whatever. So, I would just feel bad. And that's fine; you can't take care of them and yourself at the same time. The analogy I use a lot in networking is dumping trash on your lawn. So, having boundaries is for the person dumping trash on your lawn. And if they're doing it every day and you finally say, "I don't want you to dump trash on my lawn," you're going to feel bad because you've let them dump trash on your lawn every day. It is going to be uncomfortable. It is going to be awkward. And the more you do it, the more empowering and better it's going to feel for you. And the more you can take care of yourself and understand why, rather than being too lax and allowing them to appear on your lawn without your knowledge and then becoming upset and resentful that they are, but you let them, the better. And if that type of connection isn't going to work with your parents, I believe it's important to set boundaries. And I do think it's important to know that you are going to feel bad when you first do it because you've never really done it with them before. and that doesn't mean it's wrong. That's not okay with you, and that's uncomfortable.
Dr. UeJin Kim 33:56
And you mentioned it as well: grieving the potential loss of a parent-child relationship. And when I say it aloud, it sounds sad, like a potential loss. And I believe it's because I'm such an idealist; for example, I want everyone to have a good parent-child relationship, but that doesn't always happen. And you need to grieve the potential loss of being born on earth. And being born, you have two biological parents, and not having that connection with the biological parents is really sad, and I think you have to adequately grieve that. But I think the second part of it, as an adult when you're recovering, is that it was never your responsibility to sustain that parent-child relationship. You feel liberated. Like parents, it is your job to not make them feel insecure and reject you. It is not your responsibility as an eight-year-old or a child, but as an adult, to simply continue that thin thread or connection. And I believe that's where people feel guilty because they've been feeling responsible for taking everyone else's trash onto your lawn for so long. And then it's like, "Oh, but I thought I was responsible to just have a landfill as my lawn." Is it like, "no," actually, that's not your responsibility? It should have never been your responsibility.
Jenny Lee (35:20)
Yes. Funny, I work with a lot of my clients on this right now. And getting to a point where we're able to say, "Yeah, that's not my responsibility." That wasn't my response; that should never have been my responsibility. And then, I think, this is the part where it's difficult: for those that still want to maintain that connection with their parents, still want to have that, but yet don't want this responsibility anymore.
Dr. UeJin Kim (35:49)
Jenny Lee 35:50
Yeah, not allowing that and still insisting No, this is the type of relationship we're going to have. And again, individual learning and knowing are like, "That's not no." And again, that's where I think a lot of the boundaries come in. But that's where it gets so tricky, because I think I have some clients where it's not as extreme, it's milder, and for them, a lot of it means, "Okay, how am I going to learn to navigate this relationship in a way where I am protecting myself and I can still preserve the relationship?" It gets very tricky. I think, again, for someone that's working with them to not be cued into some of the subtle nuances within Asian culture, it can just look completely pathological rather than actually being within a cultural context and ideal or perfect, and this is how we're going to work within that.
Dr. UeJin Kim 36:47
Yeah. I think you made a good point about the struggle to establish boundaries and finally saying, "OK, this is where my fence is." That's going to look different for every family in every culture. And because it takes two to tango, it takes two to party. And sometimes I will advise against contact with white American culture because it is so toxic and no one agrees with it; that is where the line should be drawn. The first aspect is Asian culture. It could be like when you set the fence, and some Asian parents would be like, "Okay, I get it." It's not to say that culture in itself is different, but there's definitely a different flavor, a different language, something different, like, what is the next-door neighbor doing? What are they doing? I guess that's how culture plays into these kinds of relationship dynamics.
Jenny Lee 37:46
Yeah, very true. And I will say that a lot of my clients have come to me and said, "Oh, you're Asian; you're an Asian therapist; let me start seeing you," to which I replied, "Cool; let's do it." A lot of them tell me that their previous therapist was white. And they felt judged by that aspect of family dynamics. So, as a trained couple of family therapists, I always begin every first session with every client I'm working with by gathering all of their family history information, relationship history, blah, blah, blah, all of that, and really getting a sense of what we're looking at here. And they've told me, "Well, I started working on this with these other therapists, but I felt like they were judging me, or they didn't understand, or they didn't really get it." which is a shame. Because, obviously, that is not what therapists want to do. We don't want to judge anyone. And I think sometimes we're not as culturally competent or informed.
It's easy to do that in really simple ways. We make suggestions like, "Well, oh, do you think that's a mesh?" based on the questions we ask, the facial features we have, and the facial expressions we make. Does that sound like a mesh to you? Yeah, that sounds like a judgment. You're judging that relationship or family, and of course, clients aren't going to be as comfortable speaking up about this or trying to win this, and the therapist obviously doesn't fully get some of the nuances within it. I do have a lot of clients that come in for that. And some of the cultural pieces I asked about I don't know about. And for the most part, I'm like, "Yeah, I get it." That's not weird. That's just within the culture.
Dr. UeJin Kim 39:26
I think a good example might be in Asian culture, where, after you give birth, I think your mother-in-law or other mothers are supposed to take care of the postpartum mom. Like, do everything. And I think another culture will be like, "Whoa, that's a lot of intimacy with your relatives." But that's normal, and it could go badly or really well. You know?
Jenny Lee 39:54
Yeah, that's so funny because that's exactly what we did. When I had the baby, my mother-in-law stayed for three to four weeks. and it was amazing. She cleans as well as she cooks; it was wonderful. I actually told some of my American friends out there, like, "Oh my gosh, you're so lucky." I wish my mom would do that.
Dr. UeJin Kim 40:15
Or I heard something like, "Well, how did you do that?" "Because I didn't even let my mom be in the delivery room because she's so stressful." So that's another whole flip side that we can understand.
Jenny Lee 40:28
So, one of the things I'll tell my clients is that it's a cultural norm that I believe many non-Asians are unfamiliar with. So, for Asian people, there's really no period of young adulthood. as if you were a child, married, and then became an adult. But if you don't actually get married, you're still a kid in your parents' eyes. You know how in white American culture there's that "young adult" period? You graduate from college—
Dr. UeJin Kim 40:53
You can explore or major.
Jenny Lee 40:55
Yeah. But in Asian culture, there's really no such thing. You're married, and now you're an adult. And so, part of that involves setting boundaries with parents, which can look very different in a white American family. And I can see how some therapists who aren't well-versed in this could interpret it as a boundary issue, a measurement, or something else and think, "What?" "That's really toxic." Again, to me, it's very cultural. Culturally, there's not, like, that young adult piece. And yet, if you're 35 years old, single, and your dad is still talking to you a certain way, I'm sure to an outsider, it would look really weird and dysfunctional, as within the culture, it's like, "Well, yeah, but that's because there's not really that period." As a result, you're still a child.
Dr. UeJin Kim 41:42
Do you think that's healthy, though?
Jenny Lee 41:44
Sometimes, sometimes not. I will say that I have some clients who can work within that framework. Others, I will say, where the parents have come around and are like, "Okay," then engage with the person differently. And I have some clients for whom that's exactly why they're in therapy. Despite the fact that they are years old, their parents still speak to them as if they are 10 years old. They're buying a house for the first time, and it's a grown-up decision they're making with their own grown-up money and grown-up job, but they still need mom and dad's approval.
Dr. UeJin Kim 42:26
What do you think is different about all the cases? I believe we are dissecting each thing, such as cultural norms, but when is one healthy and when is it not? in that kind of way, like how parents talk to you and still see you as a kid, and stuff like that. For example, where do you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy?
Jenny Lee 42:50
It's all about how it affects you, in my opinion. Does it feel good? Is everything all right? I will say that I do have some clients who are more tolerant. And that's just my mom being that way. and they're able to hold it and almost let it slide off their backs. And I have clients where it's like, "Man, every time they get off the phone with their parent, they cry." That's not okay. If you leave that conversation or interaction feeling depleted, rejected, scared, anxious, or any combination of these emotions, someone just dumped trash on your lawn. Like, that's not okay. And it's okay in those instances, and it wouldn't be appropriate to set a boundary.
Dr. UeJin Kim 43:36
That's a great point. Because I think whatever the cultural norm is, the most important piece to bring it back to a final point is you. Is your maturity, health, and self-care level high? And I was just thinking about this when we were talking about grieving and accepting your responsibility for not sustaining this relationship. And I think the third part that I was thinking about, as you were saying, is your responsibility to take care of yourself. It's not other people's responsibility to take care of you anymore. And I think that is, like, the final piece. And I think you brought it forward too. It's like, this depends on how you feel because you're taking care of yourself and you're secure within yourself.
Jenny Lee 44:25
And to me, the one who doesn't do that is the 40-year-old who's applying for the job. So, my heart goes out to them. Because if you're not working on that, it will literally become a lifelong struggle for you to always get your parents' approval. You'll be 50–60 years old and still thinking, "Would my parents have been, okay?" I still enjoy [inaudible].
Dr. UeJin Kim 44:53
Oh, yeah, hyper-aroused.
Jenny Lee 44:55
Yes. And it's like, "Man, what an exhausting way to live your life."
Dr. UeJin Kim 44:59
Oh, I just get tired and sad.
Jenny Lee 45:02
This whole other thing about, like, "Well, who am I, then?" Who am I apart from what my parents wanted and expected of me and what I had to be? Then there are those between the ages of 25 and 40 who are experiencing identity crises. They don't know who they are. because they always tried to live up to their parents' expectations.
Dr. UeJin Kim 45:24
And sometimes there are unspoken expectations.
Jenny Lee 45:26
Oh, my goodness, unsaid expectations Not that your parents had to tell you to become a doctor or a lawyer. I don't know. Perhaps I'll become a computer technician instead, and they'll [inaudible]. So, it's like, okay, I'm definitely applying to medical school now.
Dr. UeJin Kim 45:46
And you know, this level of hyperarousal and confusion continues until your parents die. and maybe even after.
Jenny Lee 45:56
It's similar to the internalized image of our parents and the internalized conversations we have. So, you're constantly looking for approval from your parents until you're well into adulthood. And then, to really push it, it's like, if you are still subconsciously doing that, then I have to wonder how that is impacting your parenting with your child.
Dr. UeJin Kim 46:22
You and I both have kids.
Jenny Lee 46:23
Dr. UeJin Kim 46:24
You are getting a person.
Jenny Lee 46:25
I think doing some of that work is so important because there are so many spots that we all have. And I tell this to my clients, too: if it's going to make you a better parent, it's going to make you a better partner, and it's going to make you a better human, learning some of this stuff and doing some of this work And, it's uncomfortable—really uncomfortable and really painful. You should do something to examine some of this stuff. And to realize, like, "Oh, man, I am just like my mom in the way I really didn't want to be." I'm doing that stuff, which is a lot of work. And, once again, I am a better parent, a better partner, and a better person.
Dr. UeJin Kim 46:57
Yeah. And it goes back down to culture. Generational trauma and abusive norms are passed down. And I believe that is why it is so important to work on yourself. And not in a way that Instagram makes it sound like, "Oh, go get yourself a pedicure." like a spa day every day. That's not what we're talking about. Working on yourself is like digging deep into the grass and letting go of what isn't yours and accepting responsibility for what is. This is how you stop generational trauma. I think generational trauma is such a hot topic right now. because, hopefully, you will continue to do it. And this is how you stop it.
Jenny Lee 47:41
Yes. and it's uncomfortable.
Dr. UeJin Kim 47:44
Its uncomfortable. Some of it I've done. I think I have a long way to go. But I say stuff to my kids. Like there's a four-year-old poor kid that I had growing up, and my husband is like, "Did you just really say that?" I'm like I was. And I need to go and apologize.
Jenny Lee 47:59
Yes. I completely understand. So, it's funny, because I've been working on that for a long time with my therapist, too. And I know my therapist is a therapist.
Dr. UeJin Kim 48:08
We need them just like anyone else.
Jenny Lee 48:12
I will say personally that for me, it was stuff that was very painful and uncomfortable to look at. and parts that I never even knew existed. That was like, "Oh my gosh, that is there." That kind of thing, I can't believe I've gone almost my entire life without noticing it.
Dr. UeJin Kim 48:32
Wow. And you're a therapist. So you're educated and everything.
Jenny Lee 48:37
We truly do everything, including how to think; we truly do have blind spots. And if we're not aware and looking at that stuff, to me, it's like, "Man, almost guaranteed," you're going to pass that on to your kid. And, once again, there are things that my parents did that I absolutely want to replicate. And there's stuff that I definitely don't want to do. None of us will ever be perfect parents. But again, in my own way, just like my parents wanted me to have better in America, I want my kids to have better than I did.
Dr. UeJin Kim 49:13
And that being said, I think being a first-generation immigrant is hard because you forget emotional needs. as if you're providing physical needs and legal status by residing in another country, which may result in a higher income. So, I believe there is more tangible stress, but I believe this is something for which I am grateful that I am not the first generation but rather the second generation, owing to the sacrifices made by previous generations. Now I can work on my emotional needs. Generational trauma can be stopped at different levels. And I think I want to just encourage everybody who's struggling like I am. You might not get rid of all the generational trauma trickling down to your kids, but there are some things that you will be able to stop. And that is enough.
Jenny Lee 50:03
Yeah, I so agree with that. It's interesting that you say that because we think of hierarchy and needs. As a result, we consider our parents' presence. And they didn't have the luxury of thinking, "Oh, like, what emotional baggage am I throwing onto my kids?" Because they're trying to survive? They're trying to learn a new language. They're trying to learn the system, trying to navigate, and doing it entirely in a country where almost no one looks like them. Because, to me, a big key piece that's so important is when we realize, ouch, my parents did prettify me, or ouch, it happened. How do I then go a step further and learn to forgive them?
Dr. UeJin Kim 50:43
I was just going to get there.
Jenny Lee 50:45
How do we get to that point where, instead of having and carrying the anger, bitterness, and resentment and just saying, "Man, look what they did," we then go a step further and say, "Okay, I do forgive them?" To me, it is understanding; it is taken in context. Again, you're picked out of the country you live in and brought to a new land where everyone looks different, smells different, and eats different food. Everything is different. And they're looking at you and judging you, and you're just trying to survive. And so, as you can see, I do believe our parents did the best they could with what they had. So, how do we go a step further and say, "Okay, I do forgive my parents as well," because I believe that's a key component to stopping the side?
Dr. UeJin Kim 51:27
Jenny Lee 51:29
We forgive them, too.
Dr. UeJin Kim 51:32
Man, like, forgiveness—that's a whole other topic. I'll definitely bring you on for that. But I believe my short response to being asked for forgiveness was to act as if nothing had happened. Just accept me for who I am. act like nothing happened. And I just have a habit of dumping trash on other people's lawns and just accepting it. And I used to believe, and still believe, that grieving, validating your grief, not knowing responsibility that is not yours, taking responsibility for yourself, and locating a parent were all good concrete steps when I was growing up. But I think how I now translate forgiveness is that you don't owe me anything, and I don't owe you anything.
Jenny Lee 52:18
Yeah. Wow, I like that. I've always thought that healing and forgiveness have occurred because you can tell the same story without feeling the same pain.
Dr. UeJin Kim 52:31
Yeah. That's a symptom of, like, "Oh, you're ready to forgive or you have forgiven because you and I are in a place, and of course, we got generational trauma dumped on us too." We can, however, appreciate without being duped. And be like, "There are some things that you can be very objective about." That, I believe, is very fertile ground for forgiveness. But I think the statement that I always like to make to other people is, "You don't owe me anything," and "I don't owe you anything," because you don't. I don't owe you anything, like lending you my lawn to dump your trash on. I'm not going to do that to you. And I'm not going to say to my grave that I'm like this because my parents are fighting. That's a good statement to make, like, "I'm not going to blame you for anything." I get it. But I'm not going to let you dump trash on my lawn. I don't owe you this lawn.
Jenny Lee 53:25
That is something like, "What happened to you wasn't your fault, but what you do with it will be," or something like that. I like getting into that quote, but that's so true. Because living your whole life while still holding your parents responsible for something when you're a fully grown adult is not healthy, and it's not going to work. It's not fixing anything, healing you, or solving anything. And at that point, you're right; it is up to us. It is up to you, as an adult and an individual, to figure out how to heal and repair that.
Dr. UeJin Kim 53:58
I think that's true freedom.
Jenny Lee 54:00
Dr. UeJin Kim 54:01
I told my patient the other day that I think he grew up with a lot of abuse. He's a white American, but some of the stuff I was like, "Oh, my goodness." And I told him, you know, the reason you're struggling is because you're carrying a burden that's not yours, and you must be tired. And I said, "What we're going to do here is open up your bag, and we're going to say, "Oh, this is the burden for my parents that I've been carrying my whole life," and then you're going to do that. But, as I said, some of the rocks in your bag are going to have your name on them. It will be your responsibility to transport it. I bet you that even if you have to carry your own load, it is going to be 100 times lighter than the burden that you are carrying. So, you're going to be prancing along for the rest of your life because now you're carrying your own burden. And I told them that there's something beautiful about being responsible for things that you're supposed to be responsible for.
Jenny Lee 55:00
Dr. UeJin Kim 55:02
I'm preaching. This is all from my therapy session.
Jenny Lee 55:05
It's true, though, and that, to me, is right where the pontification and boundaries thing all comes into play. I constantly hear that too, but I feel bad for them. Well, I let them dump trash on me because I just felt bad. They don't have anyone else. They don't have anyone else's lawn to dump trash on. Yeah, that's sad and not your responsibility. Like your parents, you are an adult. They'll figure it out. They'll be okay.
Dr. UeJin Kim 55:33
No, they'll find another lawn to trash their dump on if they have to.
Jenny Lee 55:36
And I get that it's uncomfortable. Another analogy I use is if you had a neighbor who every day asked you to borrow $5, and you gave it to them, but they never paid you back. And then one day they asked, "Can I borrow $5?" And you said, "No, I don't want to." You're going to feel bad. They're going to blame you.
Dr. UeJin Kim 55:53
Yeah, they are.
Jenny Lee 55:55
And then you're going to think that it's your responsibility, but it's still not. It's so tricky. You're right.
Dr. UeJin Kim 56:03
Yeah. Man, I wish we could talk forever. But I think there has to be a second episode of this.
Jenny Lee (56:11)
I would love that. I would be so down. I think you and I are learning stuff.
Dr. UeJin Kim 56:15
Yeah. We are all inspecting our own [Inaudible].
Jenny Lee 56:20
Really. I think that's important. I'm a firm believer in having therapists. to have someone who could do this type of work and not also do this type of work. You're going to meet again.
Dr. UeJin Kim 56:33
So, Jenny, as we discussed, tell me what you want the listeners to remember. You're an expert on generational trauma and cultural trauma. And it doesn't have to be Asian Americans; I believe it could be any type of immigrant or even white Americans who have experienced trauma, generational trauma, because it happens everywhere. What do you want the listeners to know? At the end of the day, I think there are a lot of nuggets. But this is kind of like, "Hey, I just want you to remember this."
Jenny Lee 57:09
That's such a good point. It's tricky because some of us have kids and some of us don't. And so, for those of us that don't have kids, it's like, "Well, it doesn't matter, because I'm not going to pass them off as kids." Again, to me, it's not about that. Again, if you are a parent, it's going to make you a better parent, a better partner, and a better person. And if you're not a parent, it's still going to make you a better partner and a better person. It's almost like if you've ever been to a chiropractor, again, for a massage, and afterwards, you're like, "Oh, wow, that thing in my neck that I didn't even know was there is gone." And that's what this reminds me of—I'm doing the work. You may think it doesn't affect you. But you don't know because you've always carried it. And if it is affecting you, then why aren't you getting help? And why aren't you doing the work? And, even if it feels and appears scary, I guarantee there will be someone out there who can assist you with this journey. I'll say that I believe different strokes are appropriate for different folks. And I understand that one size does not fit all. So, some therapists are great for some people but not for others. And I do think finding a therapist is like dating. You've got to find someone with the right chemistry. Did I say that? And so if you're ready to do the work, then do the work. And if you haven't done the work yet and you know that the crook is in your neck and it's bugging you, then get it taken care of. And if you know that you have trauma and you think it doesn't affect you at all, go ahead and get an adjustment done for you that you didn't even know was there.
Dr. UeJin Kim 58:43
And I think some people live with back pain or a crick in their neck their whole life. But, as I was thinking, you don't know what your potential is without that crick in your neck.
Jenny Lee 58:57
Dr. UeJin Kim 58:58
You might be an NFL player. You don't even know your potential as long as you live with that back pain your whole life. So, I just encourage everybody to get it checked out.
Jenny Lee 59:09
Dr. UeJin Kim 59:10
It won't hurt.
Jenny Lee 59:12
Dr. UeJin Kim 59:13
We're confessing to psychiatrists and therapists that we have problems we didn't even know we had. Wow. So, this was amazing.
Jenny Lee 59:23
This is great.
Dr. UeJin Kim 59:24
Yeah, this was so much fun.
Jenny Lee 59:25
I liked this a lot. This podcast experience was simply enjoyable for me. But I will totally, absolutely do it again.
Dr. UeJin Kim 59:31
Thank you so much, Jenny, for being here. And thank you for listening; I hope and believe you learned something. So, stay tuned for the next episode. Thank you.