Fool’s Paradise


Back when my classmates were playing with blocks, I was stacking cartons. The glove compartment, as far as I know, might as well have been called the smokes compartment, because that’s all we kept in ours. I can visualize the plastic sealed, blanched white bodies, stacked in rows; I can still smell the unmistakeable insult of the ash that used to cling, like velcro on the lace of my shoes. He was going through two, three packs a day, habitually pounding cigarette after cigarette as if each puff was giving him life… when in fact, it was doing the opposite.

So, I’d draw family caricatures and bold, arching, colorful print that read something along the lines of “Please Stop Smoking DAD” and variations of. I’d sneak letters into his travel bag, and on the occasion I’d get to see him, I would beg him to quit. For us. For a healthier life. For, at only six years old, I was already afraid that the next time I’d see a plastic sealed, blanched white body, it’d be his.

What I had yet to learn was that the success of behavior change is determined by adherence, which can only be cultivated intrinsically. My father continued to smoke for many, many years, and despite positive behavior changes that renovated different aspects of his life, he could never fulfill the intricate web of physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and social health. Because wellness is a cumulative interaction between these six dimensions of health, behavior change that hinders the maintenance of this balance may –in consequence– be fleeting, inefficient, and even detrimental.

The film, “Fat Chance,” portrays the journey of behavior change intended for weight loss that is later redirected to self acceptance. Rick Zakowich is first introduced, thirty pounds lighter but not much happier since the start of his plan to lose weight. Feeling pressured by cultural standards of beauty and acceptance, he uses appearance-based motivation to take on behavior change involving diet and exercise. It is no surprise, considering how heavily our society weighs the significance of body image, to hear a even medical professional deviate from motivational interviewing. The physician advises, “Best way to make yourself feel better about yourself… is to lose weight so that your blood pressure improves, so that you look better.” Inherent in modern American thinking is that looking better equates to happiness.

As Rick finds support from those who are content with their obesity, he adapts to a new perspective that directly antagonizes fat shaming culture; he ends the documentary by saying, “The way you are is fine. Walk through this world in that way.” On a superficial perspective, one could argue that Rick achieves a step towards wellness by coming to self acceptance, increasing his self confidence, and joining an empowered community. However, despite it being a step in the right direction, Rick fails to recognize the danger of extremes. By orienting behavior change strictly towards emotional and social health, he completely neglects the other essential components, such as physical health. There is no doubt that self love, in the right context, is deserving of praise, but the fact that he is happier does not eliminate the risks of being overweight. By the summer of 2008, my father ended up in the ICU. If he, then, had settled on self acceptance and placed another cigarette between his lips, would you have applauded him, too?

Fat shaming and fat acceptance fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, and through understanding the crucial interplay of the six components of wellness, we unveil the importance of moderation. Had the medical professional taken a different approach, like educating the benefits of exercise, rather than implying blame or demonizing Rick’s body image, perhaps Rick would not have fallen victim to an illusory state of happiness that is likely evanescent. Increasing studies now indicate that cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activity can improve multiple aspects of wellness and reduce the comorbidities tied to obesity, with or without weight loss (Dallow). This outlook on exercise may be a better approach towards positive behavior change, than one that is based on appearance. Furthermore, it would be of a greater benefit to implement behavior change that caters to both fitness, confidence, community, and other aspects of wellness. With Dr. Lerner’s medical knowledge and morale amongst Rick’s new connections, the support group could potentially be the perfect medium for a wellness program. With less emphasis on weight loss, they could tackle multiple obstacles at once and find a more permanent solution. In contrast of what they have been told by others –they can have their cake and eat it too.

To ensure safety, longevity, and efficacy of such program, professional advisement to promote adherence is crucial. Though the responsibility of wellness falls on the shoulders of each individual, it is equally important to have health care providers take the lead on public education. Patients are more likely to adhere to behavior change if they understand risk and the gravity of their conditions, so medical professionals can play a key role here (Stonerock). Proper motivational interviewing along with professional, objective, and evidence-based opinions is essential to assist others, particularly in the transition from earlier to later stages of the Transtheoretical Model. In “Fat Chance,” Dr. Moe Lerner highlights that obesity is caused by metabolism and dieting. Not once does he mention the importance of physical health. Despite his sensible attitude, his perspective holds a very narrow, almost defensive, focus to justify obesity. By relying on rationalizations and believing his physical state is not a problem, he, along with Rick and the others in the support group, regress and sink deeper into the precontemplative stage (Dallow).

In a society that strongly antagonizes fat and with a disproportionately increasing prevalence of obesity, there is a strong need for leadership towards fitness in all populations, especially obese individuals. The fact that Dr. Lerner’s personal stake in the issue does not take a backseat to his obligation to the public, and that another medical provider advises Rick “just do it” as a plan for losing weight reveal how the medical care system has ample room for improvement. Physical therapists, and all medical providers, can and should “provide key elements of effective behavioral change interventions” so that the general public can adhere to wholesome decisions about wellness (Rhodes). Even the most effective interventions whittle down to scraps, in the absence of patient adherence.

It is easy to believe a person is well when one aspect of wellness has been satisfied. One might say being fat and happy is better than being skinny and unhappy; one might argue the opposite. During an interview, supermodel Kate Moss was quoted saying, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” When we fall victim to such paradigms that cater to one aspect of wellness, such as emotional health, we neglect all else. The temporary contentment that follows blinds us from seeing the short-lived nature of it, and the resulting imbalance may put an us in a worse position than we started from. Fooling ourselves about our well-being is like sipping on a pina colada, floating comfortably above a circle of sharks. In shallow waters, it becomes more clear that a fool’s paradise –though paradise– thrives only in the minds of fools.



Bezner JR. Promoting health and wellness: implications for physical therapist practice. Phys Ther. 2015;95:1433-1444.

Dallow CB, Anderson J. Using self-efficacy and a transtheoretical model to develop a physical activity intervention for obese women. American Journal of Health Promotion, 2003;17(6):373-381.

Fat Chance. Dir. Jeff McKay. Perf. Rick Zakowich. YouTube. NFB, 17 May 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Rhodes RE, Fiala B. Building motivation and sustainability into the prescription and recommendations for physical activity and exercise therapy: the evidence. Physiother Theory Pract. 2009;25:424- 441.

Stonerock GL., Blumenthal JA. Role of Counseling to Promote Adherence in Healthy Lifestyle Medicine: Strategies to Improve Exercise Adherence and Enhance Physical Activity. Prog Cardiovasc Dis (2016),

Don’t Need A Wish Today 

It’s been many, many years since I decided to include in my daily ritual: a question of reflection. A means of checks and balances that is commonly absent, without the extra effort. With so much going on around us, it can be difficult to… pause… and think about WHY it is you do the things you do.

My question for the day has always been: “What are you grateful for today?”

Some days, it’s easy to come up with an answer. Some days, it’s not. And often times, I have to inquire if, by repeating the same answers, I am dulling the top coat from its shine. Like the twenty thousandth time you’ve told your significant other “I love you” you realize the words, though true, have lost true sentiment behind it — how impressively quickly novel turns to casual.

Upon waking this morning, I stared at the post-it stuck on my bathroom wall and came to the same conclusion that I am frequently led to. But no matter how many times I respond with this same answer, it still find it –to put it eloquently– really freaking shiny.

Today, I am grateful that all things I want, I already have. It is unmistakably empowering to feel satisfied. I am so lucky for this unpredictable life and the ability to comprehend how and why I’m here.

The Three Most Important Things

Somewhere out there, there is an inked chest that regretfully reads “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

What the proverb doesn’t mention is that if you teach a man to fish in our modern day society, he’s going to fish religiously for a couple of months until he discovers Seamless. Our culture continues in a pursuit for convenience, and ultimately, through this progression, we lose our vision for sustainability. 

It is not enough to achieve; we must maintain what we’ve earned. 

I realize that I am going places, I am going to be somebody, and one day, I am going to keep someone very happy, because of three fundamental beliefs that bring out the best in me. In fact, I have never been a better version of me than the person I am today. What I’m doing now is a bit of maintenance, wiping the trail of footprints behind me.

1. Attitude:

As much as I wish good things would always happen to good people, it isn’t always the case. Life is riddled with sadness and injustice. And in the rock bottom moments where it hurts to even breathe, as if you swallowed your heart whole and it’s stuck halfway down your chest, when you can’t understand why and how, or why now, and nothing feels real but the unrelenting pain — what makes the biggest difference is the attitude we choose to wear as our coat.

“Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character” has always been my favorite quote, because how we choose to react to the things around us are a direct reflection of who are, as people. A positive attitude not only adds a shine to good events, it dulls the blade of bad events. We can’t avoid getting hurt. So, the next best thing is to accept that though the wound will take time to heal, it will heal. Sulking alone doesn’t change what’s happened already; it only keeps you from patching yourself up sooner, rather than later. 

If life gives you lemons, you don’t make lemonade. You man up and shove that bad baby in your mouth–the first shock of the sour taste will fade with time–and just remember that life will eventually give you ice cream. The practice of optimism directly manipulates our very being; how we perceive the world changes, how we digest bad news changes, how we behave changes, and in turn, how the world perceives us changes, as well. 

2. Gratitude:

I’m starting a new job, with a new boss (that I absolutely adore); I have a beautiful new home ten blocks from Columbia, my new school (which has secretly been my dream school all these years); I’m starting a new DPT program, which has solely become possible through the newly solidified relationships in my immediate family; the new class is full of amazing intellectuals (who actually know how to socialize), and I have new clusters of friends in cities across the country that make me feel at home, wherever I go.  

I’m blessed with more than I am entitled to. What appreciation does for me, as it might for you, is it gives more worth to the ordinary and the routine. Everything tastes better. It even feels better. Gratitude establishes the foundation for humility; to truly sustain what we have already accomplished, we must appreciate what it’s worth and what it took to get there. 

3. Fear of failure:

Fear has a functional use. It motivates our bodies to react when stressed. Why I value the fear of failure is because it suggests that no job is ever complete. An achieved goal is merely a stepping stone towards something even greater, and when we have a moderate, controlled fear to disappoint, it ignites a kind of desperation that can benefit us. 

Despite the significance of attitude and gratitude, if we get complacent with what we have, we risk becoming apathetic, and rather, too comfortable with mediocrity. There is no greater waste than potential wasted. Just as you need fear to motivate you when a bear is chasing you down, you need that kind of inspiring fear to be great. Excellence doesn’t present itself to you; it is chased, through desperation. 
Ultimately, these thoughts have been relishing my mind for a reason: in order to sustain our progression, we ought to keep in mind the very principles that brought us there. Attitude, gratitude, and fear of failure keeps me focused. What about you?

You Son of a Kitchen

Elbows in, I reminded myself, watching in the mirror the course of my knees tracing the length of my body. I squatted as low as I could, tucking the 70lb dumbbell into my chest, as the metronome of J. Cole and Kendrick kept pace with my steady heart. 

I was simply putting some work in at the gym, isolated in a decent radius and minding my own (as per usual) when a neighboring beefhead got up from his bench to wave a pair of massive Russian banana hands into my field of view. I turned to him, removing a headphone from the right ear just in time to make out “–fucking space.”

“Excuse me?” I said, pulling the other plug from my left, “What was that? I couldn’t hear you.”

He tensed his eyebrows tightly together and repeated, “I SAID, you’re in my fucking space. I need my space.”

Say what?

In the past decade of lifting, the only times I have ever been interrupted mid-set were when men wanted to ask for the number of sets I had left on the bar, or for the number they’d have to call to get me TO a bar. So, you can imagine why I, without processing his message, instinctively reacted to his hostility with a “My bad, I’m sorry,” and consequently shifted my belongings further away. 

Only after he resumed pumping his weights into the air did it occur to me that I had been standing, at the very least, a good 3 feet away from his bench. I wanted to stomp about 6 large steps away, to sarcastically curtsy and say, I’m sorry, Nancy, is that enough space for you? 

But I didn’t. 

One, because I often find it difficult to be an outright dick, but mostly two, because I thought of the quip a tad too late and it would’ve been weird for me to say it after that much time had passed. Eh, you win some, you lose some. Half of wit is timing.

Every time I re-encountered a glimpse of his smug face in the wall reflection, I could feel myself growing a tiny bit angrier. I removed myself from the dumbbells to the power rack, so I could put the negative energy behind me.

I finished up, then I left the facility shortly after to hop on the green line. Little did I know, as luck would have it, he was trailing right behind me. 

I caught the subway train as the doors were about to close, wedging my body into a pocket of commuters, and when I turned to face the other way, I saw him running to fill the last bit of space by my feet.

I couldn’t help but immediately think of Elaine with no toilet paper, when her stall neighbor does her dirty by saying she doesn’t have “a square to spare.” And how, at the end of the episode, Elaine steals all the TP from the bathroom before the chick walks in so that she can taunt the infamous line back to her.

Karma isn’t a bitch; people are.

Now, what I could’ve done in that moment is step forward a couple inches, and say as the doors closed on his face: “Nope, take the next train; I need my space.” How deliciously sweet would that have been — well, I’m not all that sure, because I didn’t do it.

If an eye for an eye makes the world blind, I don’t want to forget that I have another to spare. The unnecessarily rude can take out my eye, but at least I have sight, and that’ll do more for me in the long run than petty revenge. 

Although that would have been pretty fucking fun, too. 

How To Lose Fat By Being Fat


Recent studies reveal: fat cells burn fat. I read it on the internet, so it must be true, right?

Bear with me — I can explain.

In an Animal Histology course, one of the simplest tasks you are taught to tackle is in distinguishing between white and brown adipose tissue. In other words, you learn how to microscopically differentiate what society has trained us to dread: Fat. However, most of us concerned about the amount of pudge spilling over our waistbands don’t even realize that fat exist in different forms. Fat is not the enemy; ignorance is.

White fat cells — easily identified as large, circular blobs — accumulate under the skin and around organs as a predominant source of stored energy. Your muffin top? Blame it on white fat. On the other hand, brown fat cells look more dense under the microscope. They appear “brown” because they contain far more mitochondria; their main purpose is to produce heat. That’s right, you heard me. Brown fat burns calories.

One might ask, then how come fat people are… still fat?

Though brown fat initiates fat consumption, it does not exist in abundance within the adult human body. Most of our jiggle is from white fat; brown fat is found in odd areas like behind the neck. In fact, scientists were previously led to believe brown fat is only found in infants and animals who cannot shiver to produce adequate body heat. We now know it is present in the adult human anatomy, but the percentage of brown fat in relation to white fat is predominantly lower in obese individuals. Whereas “fat people” have plenty of fat, they don’t have the right kind.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could convert our white fat to brown fat?

Well, we can.

Prolonged cold exposure causes notable changes in the body – specifically, in this case, activates brown fat, increases insulin sensitivity, and alters levels of metabolic hormones. In a controlled study led by Dr. Celi and Dr. Lee, five healthy 21 year old males were subjected to different environmental temperatures for three 1-month periods. When exposed to a colder setting for a minimum of 10 hours per night, the subjects revealed a “42% increase in brown fat volume and a 10% increase in fat metabolic activity” (Torgan, “Cool Temperature”).

It makes sense. If your body notices that it is cold, it will try to make up for the difference by burning stored energy (white fat) and producing it as heat! Since brown fat is efficient at this, the body accommodates by increasing its brown fat content. Researchers have discovered the presence of beige–or “brite” aka brown in white– fat cells that hold the same metabolic characteristics of brown fat (Torgan, “Insights”). One could potentially infer that the mixed appearance results from white converting to brown, one cell at a time.


Can it be as simple as sitting in a cold room for 10 hours to get the beach body we want? And is it worth it?

Typically, a cell converts chemical energy from fatty acids into a fuel called ATP. The process is called oxidative phosphorylation; a gradient of electric potential prompts a cascade of events which convert food into energy. Simply put, it’s how we survive. In brown fat, there are specific protein molecules called Uncoupling Protein 1 (UCP1) that are embedded along the surfaces of mitochondria. They “dissipate the mitochondrial electrical potential and drive the consumption of fat and its conversion to heat, not ATP” (Norris).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, hang in there. I’ll explain in layman’s terms.

Think of mitochondria as machines that produce energy. Their job is to change food to ATP. These machines require an electric charge to do work. The proteins on the brown machines (UCP1) act like little hands that grab onto fatty acids, which transport positively charges (hydrogen ions) to the machine’s surface (membrane). When you have too many protons, it disrupts the normal charge across the membrane, so the machine can’t work properly. To return things back to normal,  the cell has to burn fat and produce heat!

The point is… An entirely different point.


The common consumer of knowledge will use this information and produce the take-home message along the lines of: cold temperatures will make me slimmer. Brown fat is the new brown rice. 

The take-home message is actually something drastically different: you, my dear, are too fucking gullible.

Blind acceptance of recruited knowledge leads to widespread ignorance.


There are things I didn’t tell you, things you assumed, and things you failed to challenge before drawing a conclusion. And this is why the internet has become a double edged sword.

Earlier I said, “in a controlled study led by Dr. Celi and Dr. Lee, five healthy 21 year old males were subjected to different environmental temperatures for three 1-month periods.” This study only considered five individuals. Of the five individuals, 100% of them were male and 21 years old. With a sample size this small and specific, we cannot conclude this applies to a 35 year old woman, a 21 year old male with diabetes, or even you and me.

What I didn’t mention is that when the five were placed in prolonged neutral temp environment, their fat levels returned to baseline levels of brown fat. And at warmer temperatures, there was a complete reversal effect (Torgan, “Cool Temperature”). As a diet fad only produces temporary results, prolonged cold exposure triggered brown fat activation but failed to keep the protein “on” for a lasting effect. Therefore, research is now devoted to bringing the actual science behind it closer to application; once we figure out how to manipulate the UCP1, it may be an invaluable weapon to combat adult obesity.

Also, if you haven’t read these particular studies yourself, chances are: you have no idea who Dr.Celi and Dr. Lee are. How can you assume credibility without having any reference as to who they are and what they study? They could be the names of a physical therapist and a psychiatrist. A prefix doesn’t imply accuracy. Had I quoted Dr. Pepper and Dr. Phil would you have even noticed?

What I presented isn’t bunk science –in fact, it’s potentially revolutionary– but it was skewed in the sense that a lot of information often gets left out while being transferred from person A to person B. There are so many unsupported articles that people post on Facebook… so many protein powders and waist trainers and juice cleanses that people promote on Instagram… And so many false claims floating around by word of mouth that we blindly accept.


My point is, WAKE UP.

Unless the source is presenting all sides relevant to the topic at hand, it falls victim to a bias. Truth and logic are at the convenience of the teller, so be aware. Question things. Research. Be an educated skeptic about everything you read and consider what you aren’t being given a chance to read.

Life is more variable than it seems on the Internet.

Do you believe me?


Works Cited

Norris, Jeffrey. “Researchers Identify Lynchpin to Activating Brown Fat Cells.” UCSF. University of California San Francisco, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.

Torgan, Carol. “Cool Temperature Alters Human Fat and Metabolism |National Institutes of Health (NIH).” NIH Research Matters. National Institutes of Health, 28 July 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <>.

Torgan, Carol. “Insights into Energy-Burning Fat Cells |National Institutes of Health (NIH).” NIH Research Matters. National Institutes of Health, 15 April 2015. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.

We Need To Talk


Nothing creates a state of anticipation like the words: “We need to talk.” These four words trigger something in the adult human body that drag to surface all associated memories of dread, rejection, and shock. It forces the mind to gear itself in orientation with constructed possibilities, preparing for an impact that may be even greater than the one about to be presented. The reason why we prepare is because the novelty of bad news –like plunging unexpectedly into a pool of ice water– can be as difficult to endure than the news itself.

We commonly mistake the sensation of alarm for anger (i.e. almost swerving into a car accident followed by road rage). Shock, in combination of a negative emotion, creates an additive effect of unpleasant physiological and mental effects.

Thus, we protect our own. When we witness an arm cock back, we tense for the sharp sting of a slap, because the impact of swinging flesh wouldn’t subjectively hurt as much than if we were to experience it out of the blue. In a parallel analogy, when we hear the words “we need to talk,” the brain conjures the possibility of the most serious news, because most often, we use and hear those words in the most serious of settings. We subconsciously brace ourselves because the actual news of “your cat died” in comparison to the anticipated news of “your mom died” may, ironically, provide a bit of ease and relief.

Imagination alone is an instinctive phenomena, but with memory recollection and sensual reconstruction, it becomes a tool of self defense. Nevertheless, tools –though useful and effective– can be just as harmful when not in our direct control. When we over-anticipate, we may construct more anxiety and worry than the situation requires. So, for his or her sake, don’t tell someone you guys “need to talk” because the milk needs to be replaced in the fridge. Now, that’s just wrong — where is your heart, you empty, soulless drone?

In summary, we can take away the concept that the mind is as powerful as the user who controls it. It’s mind boggling. We can actually manipulate unreal scenarios to ward off the mere potential of vicious blows. Simply put, we are the heroes, and our psyches are the damsels we keep from distress. You hunk. Give yourself a pat on the back.

How fascinating is it that four simple words can be this far from simple, like all things in life. Días y ollas, what will be will be.

Why the Asian Kid With A Trophy Didn’t Actually Win

“I’m happy for you,” she smiles, swiveling in her seat to face me. It skids to a stop as her small toes drag in circumference across the hardwood floor. “I didn’t want to say anything before you made up your mind, but I was hoping you’d pick Columbia.”

Quickly nodding an eyebrow in acknowledgement, I say, “I’m just glad it’s over. Weighing professors and comparing curriculums, it was driving me crazy. I was more stressed about making the right decision than going on the interviews. Once I settled on a choice, it seemed so obvious, like I only had one option all along.”

An incoherent jumble of Korean voices drone from the computer speakers behind her. This is how our conversations usually happen – abruptly, at odd dusk hours if and when our time at home coincides, and usually in the midst of her melodramatic soap operas (the inevitable obsession of tiny, little Korean women across the globe).

“Your Dad wanted Columbia, too.”

A sigh leaves my chest. “Dad knows nothing about the programs. He doesn’t even know what I do for a living. He’s only about Columbia,” I joke, knowing every joke has a bit of truth to it, “because it’s Columbia. Because he gets to tell people it’s Ivy League. Is it really that big of a deal? Don’t you think if I were going for the name, I’d be going for the wrong reason?”

In a lowered voice, my mother mutters, “Do you want to know something, though? It is that big of a deal.

“Look at how prideful Asians are. We push our children harder than most to get the best grades, to get into the best schools. Do you know the real reason? It’s a competition. It has been engrained in our minds to measure success through our children. If your child doesn’t excel, the whole community views it as a reflection of your own capabilities.”

In a sudden flashback, I think back to all the times my grandparents favored my brother and me over our cousins, who — despite being smart, charming, and well spoken — weren’t as academically “successful.” One of my last vivid memories of my grandpa is of him crying and chasing after us in a car, repeating, “You’re all I have. You’re all I have.” He had a wife, 6 kids (as far as I know), and even more grandkids — so what did he mean by that? We didn’t necessarily bond with him any more than the other grandchildren did, yet he elevated us to a higher pedestal. It was later explained that since we had the most potential (on a scale of A through F), we stood out as his pride and joy.

“Why do you even care?” I shake my head, and a disgruntled noise slips from my lips. “You know, there are so many things I can’t stand about the our traditional outlook. There are a lot of people, but the community is so small. It feeds off of bragging rights, gossip, and judgement. At family reunions, for example, why do we greet each other with comments like, ‘You’ve gained weight?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ We take excessive pride in beauty and academics; the nation’s standard of success is twisted. You are a good mother. If I fail, it is because I let myself fail. It’s not on you.”

She clears her throat, ridding a shaky voice. “When Koreans look at me, they assume I do what I do because I am stupid. When I was a nurse, I was highly regarded. Now, they see me differently. They look down on me, because the bigger wallet gets you a higher seat, and I am silent about it. But when I get to say I have a daughter who attends Columbia, it’s like I’ve made it. I get respected. I’m no longer bottom of the totem pole. They think — wow, she raised such a smart daughter. She must be somebody.”

My heart hurts a little from hearing this. I feel an undeniable shame. So, I pick up my pen and write the following words that encase my incomplete grasp of the culture that raised me:

It seems to me that pride and respect are two of the few core principles that hold the most weight in many Asian cultures. I can speak, through experience, of a Korean viewpoint: my viewpoint. There is an installment of a social hierarchy, as implied through diction and mannerisms. Formally, we rank people by age, dishing out a gradience of respect that begins with utmost respect for the highest elder. There are obvious distinctions in speech formality, and our physical etiquette extends even into casual settings.

For instance, with alcohol use being introduced and encouraged at a younger age than the Western culture, elders teach the young how to drink while the young show respect in return. The younger person must receive drinks with two hands, pour with one arm supporting the other, and consume while facing away from the elder. There are clear behavioral and lingual displays that insinuate: age demands respect. I remember being told to bow before I even knew what bowing was.

In more traditional homes, displays of affection are nearly absent. The first time, post childhood, that I hugged my family and said the words ‘I love you’ was in my second year of college. For my brother’s graduation, I could see other families hugging and laughing, but all that was going through my head was, “So… do I give the guy a handshake or what?”

For a period of time, it felt so natural to fall into formality, but so awkward to express love, yet I never acted that way around my friends. It was as if (and sometimes I still feel this way), I am wearing a mask around Korean adults. The more traditional the person is, the more guarded I stand. I’m not one to care too much what others think of me, but I have such a vivid subconscious recall of the conservative Asian perspective that I cannot let go of my tendencies. We aren’t subject to becoming the product of the environment we are raised in, but we sure are heavily influenced, as reflected in our unconscious conduct.

Less formally, judgment is passed based upon financial status, personal affairs, self presentation, physical appearance, and as my mother mentioned, the success of the offspring. There’s this superficial expectation to look a certain way (which is why plastic surgery is a staple rather than a luxury), dress a certain way, behave a certain way, etc. The shallow judgment is surely not unique to the Asian culture, but it is heightened to a point where it is cringe-worthy noticeable.

I actually fear returning to Korea, because I look fully korean but my tongue is not. If a Caucasian spoke as fluently than I, it would be impressive. But if I converse at my level (I don’t have an accent, but my vocab is limited), the more traditional folks give looks of disgust and disapproval. Back when I was serving at an Asian restaurant, I overheard people referring to me as “whitewashed” or “embarrassing.” What’s embarrassing –I wanted to say– is the fact that you’re a grown adult and you tip like you have the allowance of a 16 year old. But through conditioning, respect is given to strangers and elders even when it isn’t due, so I would bow and walk away with my tail between my legs. Even in times of impulsive fury, I am bound by cultural habits that reflect the peachy pale hues of my skin. 

I, of course, wouldn’t say this extends to every Asian home, just as the All-American white-picket fence doesn’t reach every house in America. It’s a  matter of parental choice on what is included in upbringing; like corporal punishment and summer camps, there is no conclusive evidence on what is right for a child. However, I bring attention to the principles many Asian families adhere to that promote critical judgement, tough love, and competition.  It pushes us to our potential and helps us succeed the same way it hinders us from addressing emotions and conflicts in what is supposed to be the most intimate and open setting: our own homes.

I don’t feel shame for being Korean. I feel ashamed for the way the critical outlook within our own community gives excess value to superficiality and materialism. I feel let down by the racist and sexist attitudes that have yet to recede the front lines of our culture. And most of all, I think we could do more, as new generations take heed of upbringing, to understand respect can coexist with affection. My parents love us more than anything in the world, but it took me over 20 years to realize that. And it took just as long to understand that the criticism amongst Asians isn’t derived from hatred, but rather the influence of cultural paradigms that shape our being.

The culture we are born into gives us a foundation. The culture we are raised in shapes the exterior. But the culture we determine, through combining our formed beliefs with the ones we encounter, is what gets passed to the generations beyond us. Let’s make it a good one.