My Family Is Broken. But Whose Isn’t?

“Did your mom say your brother was high?”

I asked my boyfriend when he got off a video call with his family in Canada. It was a weekend morning in Korea and some time in the afternoon in a place called St. Catharines where his family lived.

Paul’s older brother, Marc, had moved in with his parents during the pandemic. He was a big pot smoker, Paul told me. He couldn’t afford to live by himself and had to live with his parents. There must have been a lot of adjustments and conflicts between them, like smoking, for example. I heard Canada was liberal about the use of marijuana and other drugs but didn’t expect a mother would say her son’s busy getting high. There wasn’t a condemning tone to her voice. Just a statement. I imagined a comedy movie where Jamie Lee Curtis played the put-upon suburban mother (who my boyfriend’s mom had more than a passing resemblance to).

After the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holidays finished, my parents came to Seoul to see me. We couldn’t gather for a celebration during the holidays even though we all were fully vaccinated. My parents were traveling. A few times a year they would pack up their camping gear and drive to wherever they desired. They could sleep just about anywhere as long as they had a tent, could shower in public showers, fish in the ocean, and cook with groceries they bought from local markets. This may sound exciting, but they were hardcore travelers who could survive with the minimum comforts. They were closer to nomads than to campers. They wanted to live their late years this way.

They came to Seoul to buy some second-hand CDs in Dongmyo, one of the biggest flea markets in Korea. Knickknacks of all kinds are spread out on the ground and if you pick something up and ask for the price, the seller would say any imagined number on the spot: “Oh that! It’s… 10,000 won.”

I managed to stop myself from laughing at them for buying CDs in this day and age, but they only felt comfortable with this obsolete media and the radio. I had helped my mom connect her phone to the car with BlueTooth a few times, but if something small changes or stops working, she becomes clueless. And they liked the sentimental aspect of it. When I was a kid, we used to take a summer holiday to the mountains and beaches, and listen to a lot of music in the car. It was mostly the CDs my dad had scavenged from closing sales. We listened to all kinds of music — classical music, opera. pop. Songs like “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, and “Love Of My Life” by Queen still bring me back to those hot summer days and endless hours on highways.

Dad was stuffing his backpack with a plastic bag full of CDs at one of the stalls. The marketplace was very busy, despite it being a weekday and the coronavirus cases were at an all-time high. The people were mostly senior citizens dressed in fishing jackets and hiking pants of the most colorless colors and shapeless shapes. The ubiquitous “old people” look. Although my parents were just a little younger than the crowd, they took a great dislike towards them. “Denture clackers,” they liked to say, a derogatory remark towards this older, conservative demographic. Those people could easily be seen on the streets, screaming death to the left-leaning president and to “the communist government” under him that they accused of conspiring with North Korea.

We had sushi for lunch and went to a cafe. It was late September, perfect weather for a little coffee outside. We found a place with a courtyard. We could put camping chairs and tables on the grass. The colorful drapes over our heads shed pleasant, soft shadows like canopies.

‘You should read this book,’ Dad said to me as we were sipping on our ice americanos. Books and movies were some of the few interests we had in common and could talk about. ‘It’s called DNA Is Not Your Owner.’’

He summarized the book to me with great enthusiasm. It was about how DNA doesn’t dictate our lives, but rather we shape our own with the power of will. It sounded no more than the centuries-old nature vs nurture idea. We all had heard of it, thought about it, and debated it at some point in school, always to the same conclusion: it’s a bit of both. Just like everything else in life. Which new take did this book have? I asked him. He said it’s our willpower that could change our body and rambled on about something about quantum physics. I looked up the book and grew widely skeptical. When people say not to judge the book by its cover, they are not talking about this kind of book: There was a woman’s face, eyes closed in serenity, around her head were little human silhouettes dancing around. Some DNA double-helices were scattered around haphazardly, not blended with the background, like someone cut and pasted PowerPoint clip art. It was crude, and anyone could tell this book was not to be taken seriously. Written by an American, the book’s original title was The Biology of Belief. So when I saw the real title and skimmed the table of contents, I knew this was one of the many texts that claimed positive thinking could make anything happen. If you believe hard enough, you pull all the good things towards you. The whole universe works for you. This, on the flip side, also made you the cause for the misfortunes in your life, because you either didn’t believe wholeheartedly or pulled in the bad energy. “The law of attraction”. I had recently learned the umbrella term for this new age movement. There were books, lectures, podcasts, and movies dedicated to this idea, and dare I say, “science”, which used very little science or so-called “new science” to back their agenda. They loosely used quantum physics to sound legitimate or to deliberately confuse the public. I was alarmed and told him my concern.

‘So you don’t believe things you don’t know much about?’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t be so close-minded as a writer.’

It was uncalled for. It hurt my feelings. He had this way of criticizing my character, disguised in advice. He was a little drunk. He had had a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine) with lunch. When he got drunk he said hurtful things. His alcohol addiction adversely affected his relationship with the rest of the family. I came to realize that it’s impossible to hold a normal conversation with him while we eat because he always drinks. The longer we sat, the more he drank. Dinners were the worst because those were when he let himself go. He’d had fights with Mom, me, and my brother many times he didn’t remember. His new thing was asking me what I was using my film degree for, knowing that the answer was ‘not much’. He picked on me for wasting time and money, pointing out why my stories were flawed by citing the screenwriting book he liked to live by and asking me how much I write and read a day (which to him was never enough). He would ask me which books I was reading these days, (Mariah Carey’s autobiography) only to dismiss it rather than take an interest. (‘Isn’t that a singer? Why would you read that?’) More and more, I grew defensive and apprehensive about what to say and how to behave around him. I’d been a closed-off kid to my parents due to my sexual identity, but this added another wall between me and Dad.

He also liked to buy books for us and other relatives when we got family gatherings. He would take out a book, read the title out loud, and present it to whoever he thought needed to read that particular one. It was a whole thing that he put on like a little segment. First I thought it was sweet of him to have spent time and money buying presents. I could even see him differently that he was respected by other family members as a scholar, an artist, someone who still reads, though his career might have been unsuccessful.

Then it started to seem pretentious. I could see his elitism. He gave life advice to people he didn’t know the lives of. It’s like meeting the type of person who just read an article about the broken modern medical system or watched a Netflix documentary about veganism, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. It’s tiresome. Not that I don’t agree with them, but telling others what to do and how to think made little impact, or even puts off.

I am sick of this, I thought. ‘I don’t want to hear these things from you anymore’, I said. ‘The books I must read, the skills I must learn. You’ve always been like this. You like something and suddenly everything is about that. That’s how I started Maum meditation, remember?’

Even my dad had to acknowledge the mistake he made there. My parents had joined a cult and convinced me to do so, too, years ago. I went to one of their meditation centers close to my apartment and met the head of the branch. She seemed a few years older than me. I sat with her in the room and followed her instructions. Maum meditation goes something like this: you close your eyes and imagine killing yourself. Any means is fine, but it’s better when it’s more visual and brutal. The method she suggested was to imagine a giant who would squeeze me flat. Or a horrible car accident that would tear me into pieces. By getting rid of the ‘photos’ of yourself in your Maum (mind), you get rid of ‘the false world’ which brings us pain. Then you can finally become ‘the universe mind’, which means we become one. I sat there and did this meditation from 30 minutes to an hour each time I visited. When I did enough hours, she asked me some questions to see if I was eligible to go to the next stage. From the beginner’s stage of 7, I went up to 6. She told me I had to spend some time at headquarters to proceed to stage 5. I was reluctant, but she convinced me. I spent a few days at the headquarters with people who came from all over the country, some from overseas, and did meditation. But soon after this, I stopped practicing. A few years later, I came across a book written by a survivor of Scientology and was horrified by the similarities between these cults: different stages, the inquiry process between a higher and a lower ranks, physical labor required along the way, and breaking down the sense of oneself to be able to manipulate. But most of all, it was the promise that you will learn all the secrets of the universe and gain all the wealth you dreamed of when you get to the top. When I told this to my dad, he hadn’t even heard of Scientology.

My mom, a devout Christian, was a big Maum meditation follower, too. Churches would have cursed and prayed against it because that’s what churches do best, but she seemed to have found a way to get only good parts from both. She saw religions as not mutually exclusive and wasn’t single-minded enough to exclaim Christianity was the only way, but the church was still a huge part of her life. When I was in high school, she forced me to go to a bible camp during my winter break. I’d been to many bible schools as a kid, but this one was more like a training camp where I had to do all the usuals: singing, praying, sitting through long sermons, and playing Jesus-themed games and activities, only with the three times of intensity. During the sermons, the pastor always made us stand up and pray out loud. He wanted us to speak in tongues and turn the place into a fanatical house of worship. But we were teenagers with too much self-consciousness. When we wouldn’t do as he ordered, he singled each one of us out. Then we would sheepishly get up and murmur something biblical sounding. There was one sentence we all said in our confessions as if we had planned it ahead of time, which was along the lines of: ‘Forgive me for believing in only my head, not in my heart.’ We all knew that we were being brainwashed. We weren’t buying this nonsense. After an excruciating week passed, my mom came to pick me up. She wanted to have lunch at the cafeteria before we left but I couldn’t stand a single more second.

Distrust for my parents mounted. Things they said I must do didn’t bring me a better life. My dad’s decades of screenwriting never saw the light of the world, and my mom’s commitment to religion didn’t make her any more free from all the earthly sufferings than anyone else. The pattern would repeat until I realized that they were as clueless about life as I was and wanted to know the answers as much as I did. How to be happy, how not to be in pain, how to be out of poverty. No amount of books and meditation could give them that. My parents were not an authority anymore, but more like equals.

But I couldn’t ignore that profound influence that my parents had instilled in me. Like many of us, my artistic taste was established by my parents at an early age. It was mostly Dad in my case. He was once a promising screenwriter after all. In 1988, his screenplay won one of the biggest screenwriting contests in the country and was made into a TV movie. But he had little success after that. He kept on writing but nothing worked. Still, seeing him work and spending our after-school hours watching the VHS movies that filled the shelves wall to wall, my brother and I grew up thinking that the film industry was the place to be. We were convinced ever since we were little. Although my brother went in a different direction, I went to study film at university. Because my dad liked serious movies, I had a preconception of what good movies should look like and pretended I liked heavy and heady stuff. But in reality, I watched ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Sister Act 2’, ‘Green Card’, and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ more times than anything else. Something that children or common people would like, from my dad’s point of view. It took me a long time to stop trying so hard to impress others and come to terms with how I really felt inside. I loved funny movies. I wanted to see them, I wanted to make them, so I wrote some. It was my way of becoming an independent adult who could think for himself.

Between the heated discussion between me and Dad at the cafe, Mom tried to be a mediator. She rephrased what we were saying with her best intentions, but only to put her own words into our mouths. She also chimed in from time to time with a perspective of the Bible. ‘How God lets me explore Maum meditation and other things, and makes me come back to Him, it’s His blessing.’ Then we lost our words. Thrown off by my mom’s comment, we forgot what to say and became quiet for a few moments. That cooled us down, so her job was done.

Looking around, I was embarrassed to see ourselves sitting in a peaceful cafe, quarreling over art, science, and religion. We always had this tension, the line that, if we crossed it, all the wrongdoings and accusations from the past would explode. We knew we had to keep our conversation light, but after the initial niceties, we tended to slip into deeper discussions, the real talk. Sometimes that meant intellectual dialogue on the latest movies and books, and sometimes it was reliving the fights and traumas we thought we had put behind us.

When I got back home, sitting in the dark with my overwhelming emotions and a laptop glaring at my face, Paul came home from work and asked me what happened. We had similar family issues. His dad had been unemployed ever since he’d lost his law license a long time ago so Paul’s mother, a nurse, had been providing for the family. His father sometimes would get mad at him unreasonably. Like how sometimes he tells Paul some business ideas that he thinks are guaranteed to be successful, but Paul wouldn’t pursue them. His father is obsessed with books that have just about anything to do with World War 2, but he’s unworldly otherwise. When Paul was a kid his father used to take him to a Japanese restaurant where Paul acquired a taste for sushi and learned to use chopsticks. His dad was cultured, ahead of his time in that sense. When Paul and I visited the War Memorial of Korea, he talked about his father and how much he would like the place. He wanted to show him around Seoul, where his home is now. The markets and food that he would enjoy, too. Paul talks to his family about once a month. When I was living in another country, I texted my parents maybe twice a year.

We know we don’t live up to our parents’ expectations, but we try to find happiness in our ways. We acknowledge that they did their best. They had us when they were younger than we are now. No parent is perfect, nor child either. Children will keep blaming their parents for the past and parents will keep finding things to be disappointed by their children. Mothers will keep wanting to get a reward for raising successful children and to jump up the social ladder, and sons will always be desperate for their fathers’ approval while hating them at the same time. In movies, books, podcasts, a celebrity’s autobiography, and my boyfriend’s family, I see the same families. Then I have a little peace of mind. To think that I’m above it, how wrong that is.

As much as he likes to complain about his family, Paul gets excited as the Christmas holiday nears and the possibility of flying to see his family seems more optimistic. I would get to see his family dynamics. After a joyous reunion, he might soon go crazy. He is already bracing himself. I might see the opposite side of him, the worst version of oneself that only the family can bring out. Then he will be happy to know that my family is no better.

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I write in Korean and English. Sometimes screenplays, sometimes essays. Live in Seoul. Hi!

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Jeehoon Choi

Jeehoon Choi

I write in Korean and English. Sometimes screenplays, sometimes essays. Live in Seoul. Hi!

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