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Hyo

Originally posted in 2011

When I was in my late 20's, I left a lucrative position in the arctic of Alaska to move to Seoul, South Korea.

I had a few reasons for wanting to experience life in Korea, but the main one was that I wanted to be able to share more of my feelings with my parents.

If you and your parents don’t share the same native language, perhaps you understand what it feels like to be able to communicate on everyday things, but to feel hopeless about having your parents understand your thoughts and feelings on more intimate matters.

Well, I had a lot to tell my parents and I strongly felt that learning Korean well enough to fully spell out the ways in which they wronged me was the most important and pressing thing I could do with my life at the time.

Up until that point, I carried a lot of resentment because I felt that my parents put their expectations of me far ahead of encouraging me to figure out what I wanted from my life.

My parents seemed to view me as one of their possessions, a badge that reflected their social standing in the church and among their relatives. If you aren’t familiar with this type of family setting and are curious about it, I recommend that you view The Joy Luck Club. I bet millions of second generation Asian children have found this film to be as cathartic as I do.

When I got to Korea, I checked into a tiny room on the tenth floor of a dormitory. I spent the next six months going back and forth between the dormitory and a local library where I began writing, reading, and speaking Korean.

As I improved my vocabulary and became more fluent, I started writing my thoughts in Korean to send to my parents. I wrote about how disappointed and angry I was with them for having ridiculously high and unfair expectations of me. I told them how hurt I was that what others thought about our family seemed more important to my parents than the pressures and insecurities that my sisters and I felt on a daily basis when we were growing up. I scolded them for using me for their purposes, mainly to satiate their need for bragging rights among their church members and relatives.

I was feeling pretty good about my progress until the day I received my first phone bill. It took me a good hour and a half with a Korean-English dictionary to figure out that bill. I know that this doesn’t sound very exciting, but my struggle to understand that single document marked the beginning of a whole new way of seeing my parents.

Trying to make sense of that phone bill made me think about what my parents must have felt when they received their first phone bill from Bell Canada in 1972. That got me to think about what it was like for my mom to have English-speaking doctors and nurses deliver me while her parents were halfway around the world. And what were my parents feeling when they were asked to sign a stack of documents when they purchased their first home?

Spending that afternoon trying to figure out my phone bill woke me up to some of the struggles that my parents must have experienced as immigrants with children, looking to survive in Canada.

Chinese Character for Korean Word, HyoA short while later, I started reading about hyo, the Korean word for a Chinese character that means respect and reverence for one’s parents.

In reading about hyo and spending time with native Korean students staying in my dormitory, I began to see how most Koreans living in Korea view their parents. The best way I can describe the meaning of hyo is that it's a feeling that your parents are your sky.

It doesn’t matter if your sky is sunny or dark and ominous - your sky is still your sky. And the majority of Koreans believe that your sky must be respected at all times.

What if your sky hasn’t earned your respect? This is a question and mindset that I think is more natural to western culture. In old school Korean culture, the feeling of hyo is that your parents don’t need to earn your respect; they deserve your respect just for being your parents.

Hyo is reflected in the feelings that most people from all cultures have when their parents pass on from this world. Regardless of how much anger and bitterness people carry from their upbringings, with few exceptions, human beings experience a great sense of loss and sadness when their parents pass away. These feelings of loss and sadness can overpower feelings of anger that were seemingly impossible to overcome while one’s parents were alive. I see this as almost a form of evidence that it's natural and right for people to honour their parents at all times, regardless of their parents' mistakes and shortcomings.

Hyo takes into account the likelihood that our parents have experienced more pain and suffering than we have as a natural consequence of having lived longer than us. With this likelihood in mind, it makes sense that as much as we need for our parents to understand our most hurtful experiences, our parents probably have an even greater need for us to understand their deepest wounds.

Why have I written about this? Because I believe that the feelings that we carry for our parents and those closest to us have as much impact on our health as what we eat, how much we sleep, and how much we exercise. Learning about hyo was the beginning of a more peaceful season of my life.

Though I'm still not immune to getting frustrated with my parents from time to time, at this point in my life, I'm grateful to say that they do feel like my sky. And because they are my sky, it brings me peace to honour them as well as I am able to.

 
 

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Comments

Dear Dr. Kim,
While I wholeheartedly agree that our parents must be respected and understood, I feel that children are precious and fragile and that parents no matter what their frustrations must understand their children first not the other way around. Children should be revered also. We are all from God. And the adult in a family having attained adulthood and having lived longer no matter how tremendously hard it was must be the adult and caress the child with discipline of course. I understand your point but it seems you are describing and comparing black and white and there is a middle ground. If adults cannot be adults then they should not have children to teach about life. And really teaching children how to live a life with love must be one of the most important jobs of a parent....no excuses... thank-you.,.

Dear Dr. Kim, I think the article was a good one. I think families are so important. Children are a wonderful blessing. With that blessing comes great responsibility. I feel honoring parents is important because we owe gratitude to them for life itself. Honoring them is a commandment from God, also. None of us have the same life experiences. We can't judge them harshly because we cannot totally understand why they did things. They usually meant to help us be our best. I do, also, believe there is a higher plane where love can abound freely and that the family can be a refuge from the trials of life and the world. I am from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and believe that families can be forever. It is the one unit of society that can continue in the next life through righteous living and exemplary love on the part of both parents and children. I liked your article showing how compassion can cross many barriers. We are blessed when we replace anger with love and gratitude. Please look at lds.org to see more about eternal families.

Dr. Kim-

What many Orientals do not understand about the West and the U.S. in particular is that for them, their country is like the sky. The liberties, opportunities provided by our country are something we are always grateful for. The feeling of gratitude for ones parents has eroded, it is true and this is something to be learned from the Korean and Oriental culture.

What we can never forget is that the U.S. and many foreign nations paid a terrible price to liberate the world from the terror of Imperial Japan and Germany and then did the same for Korea. And what happened after the U.S. lost close to 700,000 killed and countless more wounded? They rebuilt Japan, Germany and have helped protect and nurture Korea for close to 60 years. Is there any nation, upon victory that has then rebuilt those nations they had won victory over and helped make them into equal partners in the world?

I have a never ending respect for my parents and their generation because they volunteered to face this terrible time in history. Most never considered their work or lives heroic, yet without their sacrifice, the East (Orient) and the West (Europe) would be much different than it is now. Consider for a moment, what a Hitler dominated Europe and an Imperial Japan dominated Orient would be like.

They did it because of the "sky" their country provided then. In the U.S., there is no Chinese character for patriotism, it was and is visible in the faces of those millions who served to protect our "sky" and provide a larger "sky" of liberty for the world. Knowing these simple, courageous and honorable people have enriched my life beyond measure.

Anonymous - it's 6 of one and 1/2 a dozen of the other as far as the results of World War II are concerned. You make it sound as if we are now living in heaven because the "enemy" was defeated. Not so fast, now.

By going to war against socalled enemies on the other side of the world, what did your precious ancestors do? They made the world safe for Bolshevism, Trotskyism, communism - all the varieties of this evil ideology you can think of; and because of their actions, America and the rest of the western world is now soft totalitarian, and getting hard fast. Look around you.

Whatever a Japanese and German victory would have done for the world cannot be any worse than what's slowly happening to us.

Dr. Kim was talking about family, about parents and children, not some abstract "sky".

Parents are your parents no matter what. There is no gray. Even the abused, the immature, the simple-minded, the wonderful parents, these are all subject to ones perceptions and to ones own personality. Offering respect to our parents for simply providing the gift of life is the extint of their responsibility. Life is what YOU make it. We honor them because of the gift, if nothing else be due them. The act of honoring someone who is not deserving in our eyes is a mirror of the hurt that we have stored in our heart. If we hold onto this we are the ones who lose out. I wish beyond wish, that I had done what Dr. Kim suggested when he said that we need to consider that our parents need us to understand them sometimes more that we need them to understand us. What a gift I could have received for myself had I taken hold of this ideaology when my father was alive. So many opportunities lost to offer this misunderstood man, the grace, the love, the compassion, the kind look in the eye, the heartfelt physical touch of a hand on the arm or a gentle hug. I wish I could have approached him with the foundational belief that I have now that everyone wants compassionate communication....not just me. It's a selfish agenda and a sad one. Honor your father and mother for the gift of life, it is theirs to have and if you are a parent, it be yours as well. I LOVED your article Dr. Kim. It seared my heart, brought tears to my eyes and made me love more. Thank you!

Dear Dr. Kim,
For sometime now I have received your emails and am so grateful to you and all that you have shared with us. Thank for this posting on "Hyo." First, I want to thank you for sharing your heart on a subject that is, well, very close to the heart. I believe this article has been and will continue to be very encouraging to many. As a non-asian person (although married to a wonderful Korean woman), I know that this concept of Hyo is not easily understood by most in the west, so I expect some readers to not fully understand its meaning. After reading your article I talked with my wife about it. I know that every culture has its positive and negative points and that even the good things can be abused. Having said that, I consider Hyo to be one of the strengths of Korean culture. I have visited that country many times and I am so thankful for the way children treat their parents (for the most part, of course, as there are always exceptions). The sense of honoring one another above oneself is such a beautiful part of the culture. For those readers with a Christian background, the culture teaches something very central to the Bible: to honor your father and mother. I asked my wife, "How is this taught?" because I don't think I know yet how to do this. We talked about the example set in our own home and marriage. I know that is at least a beginning. Hyo is a lesson of love. It is teaching our children to make the choice to love and respect those who gave them life. It does not lessen the responsibility for parental love. Much to the contrary, it makes it even more real. For myself, I believe that I can only be responsible for my own heart and I cannot control someone else's. So, whether or not my parents succeed or fail to love and respect me as I would desire, I, like you, choose to honor and respect them. As best as I can.
Thank you.

Thank you so much for this insight. I am 62 ~ my father and mother have been gone 35 and 17 yrs, respectively, and I've had so many unresolved issues about them. Especially about my mother who was an alcoholic so there was a huge lack of respect for her on my part growing up. My father was very Victorian and was just doing the best he could in regards to showing any form of emotion at all. But they were good parents, provided for me well in terms of schooling and material welfare, and otherwise parented as best they knew how. My heart has needed to soften about them and this helped me very much. More so, really, than any therapy I've experienced and certainly more than parent-bashing which I fell prey to for a few years. I loved them, but think my progress has been slow @ softening to them because I did not have children of my own hence could not relate except from the perspective of a child. Thank you for helping me today--and yes, they were my sky.

Appreciated your comments on "hyo", it was the same for me growing up with Swedish immigrant parents in the USA.
I'm trying to learn Chinese: can you tell me the pinyin for the character which is "hyo" in Korean? (I often visit my daughter who lives in Taiwan). Am I right that the top part of the character is "lao"=old, and underneath is "zi"=child or son?

Hi Claire,

The pingyin for the character should be "Xiao". And, yes, you are right that the top part of the character is "lao(old)", and underneath is "zi(son)" which pictorize a child carrying his own parent. :)

For those of us lucky enough to have parents (as some are adopted and never know them) we must remember that WE CHOSE THEM. We chose them to
learn certain lessons and experiences, positive or negative. We become the adult people we are based on many experiences in our childhood, including those with our parents.
Every child has anger/issues with their parents, and every parent has anger/issues with their children. There are things both my parents would like to change about me, and those I would change about them. Only when WE become parents do we tend to have a better understanding of things including what our parents must have gone through with us.
For me, I do not remember my childhood before the age of 7 or so. I blocked out the missing years because of some kind of abuse I do not have memories of. Growing up I always thought this was strange that some of my years were missing, but I realized there was a meaning to it and I would know someday. With the help of some intuitives I started to understand this several years ago. It was simple for me to forgive what happened because the events were over, and I also understand the abuse came from somewhere. The perpetrator(s) must have had their own similar experience to lead them in this direction. It is however SO important to stop childhood abuse so it does not continue through generation to generation.
Dr. Kim, thank you for sharing. namaste, rachel

I am from Western culture and feel my parents are my sky... I am still lucky enough at 47 to have both of them in my life - yes I feel quite lucky and fortunate - even when on the occassion they frustrate me. They are my sky, my life and I hope to have them as long as I can. I have 3 children who respect me and I hope that I am their sky... I have one adopted son and I know I am very important in his life. My children are my air - I breath them deeply and would feel breathless without them. I wish more families could understand how important you are to each other. Thank you for sharing this. No matter the culture - we look at the same sky and breath the same air. :)

Very well put!

Dear Dr. Kim,
Thank you for writing on a topic that until now was so difficult for me to express. My relationship with my own children is probably like your relationship with your parents. Yes, I pushed my children hard and they resented me. I want them to understand that I did what I thought was best for them, for their future. It doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong, because we all have our own opinions. What matters is this understanding of the essense of Hyo or sky. This will not only bring peace to their lives but mine as well. Bless you for sharing your personal life with us.

Dear Dr Kim,
I agree with you that our relationships with those close to us are probably just as important to our health as our food etc.
And I think coming to understand our parents and accept them, foibles and all, is part of 'growing up'. Not until I had my first baby, with my mother being close and supportive, did I realise a little or even think of how hard it must have been for her, recently immigrated, to have her baby far from home and family. Not till I had toddlers and sleepless nights and blah blah blah, did I realise how much of her own life she gave up for us. Not till I found out a little of what my grandfather had been like did I understand why my father has such difficulty showing affection. And realised that he's really done pretty well, considering his upbringing.
I think as we grow up and experience some of the things our parents might have experienced, then we understand them better, and in understanding them better, respect them more.
Thank you for sharing your experience.

Peace too comes with the forgiving.

Dear Dr. Ben,
You are an inspiration to me. Every time I check your website, every day, I am surprised: almost every time what you post speaks directly to an event or thought in my life for that specific day. We are in synch to a pretty high level, except that you are much more self actualized than I. That is why I follow you. Your post about hyo is perfect for Father's Day. It would have been perfect for Mother's Day here in the U.S. as well. I thank you so much for your wonderful insights about respect for parenthood. I was a person until I read this post who believed that parents had to earn respect. You have given me much to reconsider. I am going to show your insights about hyo to my 84 year old mother who still harbors much resentment to her mother who died in 2003. I think that my mother could be healed by what you wrote. I pray that she is. I am going to share this article with many people.

Dear Dr. Kim, My mom passed away May 4,2005.I wish that I would have had access to this article before she died. I never disrespected my mom to her face but behind her back my siblings and I would berate her for hours about the things that she was doing or the things that she didn't do. We didn't discuss the things that she did do for us. She was a single mother who left a very abusive husband and raised 6 children.She would bail her sons out of jail. When her daughters would give birth to her grandchildren she would clean their apartments, wash their clothes and stock their pantries with food before they returned home from the hospital.I took care of my mom for awhile before she died but because of division in the family, I wasn't there when she passed away.I never got to tell her how much I appreciated her and all of the things that she did for me.She was my Sky.I am now reaping through my children the seeds that I sowed with my mother.So, we have to be very careful because what goes around does come back around.

Your parents' experiences and struggles being immigrants to North America only serves to indicate that people who go to live in a truly different culture are only running away from their problems. My people are from eastern Europe and I curse the whole bunch of them that they did not stay there and deal with their problems.

Everyone knows that you cannot escape your problems by travelling far away; you take them with you. And now we are all reaping the whirlwind.

Sincerely,
Henri.

Dear Barbara Johnson,

I'm sorry about your mother, but everyone doesn't live until the end.

How did you mother die?/What could of caused her to die? Can you tell me?
When did she die?
Where was she when she died, if you don't know where she was don't answer.

Any other details or anything you know about you mom, add them to your reply.

Thanks,
Dr. Ben Kim.

Hi Dr. Kim, I'm so glad I recently found your site. This post is spot on with how I feel and I've been really searching for people to connect with who also share this complicated dynamic with their Korean parents. Most of my friends are non-Koreans and it's hard to have this dialogue with them. My mom was born and raised in Korea, but I immigrated to the U.S. at a young age and we've always had language and cultural barriers. My solution to this when I was a kid, then a teenager, then a college student was to just spend as little with her as possible. Now that I'm in my 30s and I'm more patient and I value my mom in my life far more than I've ever before, I see just how much words get lost in translation. Good grief, just trying to explain "anti-inflammatory" the other day was pretty interesting. That's really been interesting - is trying to explain health words as I try to get her to eat healthier, take a more natural approach to health and healing. A year ago, I started a sort of log/journal of some of our phone calls, words that I assume she understands but has no idea what the meanings are. I've learned to become much more patient. Your phone bill example is something I completely relate with. And I can't expect my mom to mold herself into my image of what my perfect mom is, just like she can't mold me. I would really like to continue to explore this topic more with other Koreans/children of immigrant parents.

Beautiful essay! These words 'Our parents probably have an even greater need for us to understand their deepest wounds' are so very powerful and healing. Do you not think that as we grow older there is a subtle power change and the child becomes the understanding parent thus allowing the older person to have their 'wounds' understood and ultimately healed? I believe that is why our souls choose our parents....especially when we are given the gift of having them live until we ourselves reach adulthood. By freeing our parents we will come to know ourselves and become better parents to our own children. This could be applied to any members of a previous generation that inhabit our lives, not just our parents...
Many blessings to you and your family, your newsletter never fails to educate.
Happy Father's Day!! Enjoy the great weather our beautiful province is experiencing.
Allison

Your article was very impressive. I wish every person, dad/mother or son/daughter, would read it. It is absolutely true how many people of the Western Hemisphere disrespect their parents; it is sad. They are not perfect, but they are our parents and deserve respect, consideration, love, and empathy, on many ocassions. And God is watching us, for He says in the Bible in Exodus 20: 3-17, "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days on this earth will last longer." Amen. Thanks, Doctor Ben Kim, for sharing these words with us.

Frances
Moca, Puerto Rico

I lost my Father three weeks ago. I lost my Mother 7 years ago. I took care of both of them at the end of their days and for some time before. My “hyo“ journey with them developed at first level during my 20’s, due to seeing and finally internalizing the circumstances of where they came from and how tough they’d had it. I actually felt ashamed of how I’d acted towards them in my younger years. In my 50’s, when I’d helped them through their illnesses and eventual departure from this life, I’d developed another level of hyo, one with a deeper humility and more appreciation. They were not perfect. There were many things I’d wished they’d done differently. I think the phrase “They did the best they could with the knowledge they had” gave me the most ability to forgive their shortcomings from my perspective. I miss them. If your parents are still alive, find a way to see them anew and you will grow in respect for them, yourself, your family’ and humanity. At face value, the concept of honor your parents or hyo seems contrived to make a case for slavish child obedience, but there’s much more value in it. Understanding your parents is the beginning of the path to honoring them, and that effort will greatly benefit you also.

Beautifully expressed - thank you so much for sharing. Wishing you comfort as you remember your parents. - Ben

Hi Dr. Kim: I could understand your parent's not knowing English, which they probably learned the hard way or went to school to learn the language. It would have been nice if they could have taught you the Korean language and how so speak, read and write it as well as the English. You learned Korean the hard way and doing that could understand your parents frustration when they came here because you could see how hard they had it to learn. All parent's are there children's who they look up to learn about everything and really are your best friends in life, not everyone will agree with that but its true. This is why children should listen to their parent's and later in life realize they were always right. If parent's l
know more than one language they should teach their children whatever languages they know to the children from birth up on how to speak, read and write the language or languages. No matter what you want to learn it never hurts to learn something new. It is always good to be on good terms with your parents and help them if they need help because when they pass even though your heart broken and will grieve you will be happy that you got along so well and did everything you could do to help them and with that you will be at peace with yourself and them.