Monday, January 5, 2009

In Search of Redemption

I'm not the only Korean kid whose parents acted as if becoming a lawyer or a doctor were the only career options. For my parents, the doctor path was the first line of offense. Throughout high school, we were barraged by comments like, Don't you want to become a doctor? Dr. Rosenberg is such a gentleman. He always pays his bills on time. Look how well his wife dresses. Along with some downright dirty, guilt-tripping pleas like, Wouldn't it be nice to have a doctor in the family? Think of how you can help us when we grow old. Imagine if we developed heart problems... They found ways to weave these hints into any random occasion, bearing testimony to their faith in the Chinese water torture method. If you repeat it often enough, my mother once confessed, it will seep in.

Every time I tried to point out that I fainted at the sight of my own blood and that I hated chemistry, my parents dismissed me with a wave of the hand. You can become a doctor if you try hard enough. As if it were only a matter of effort. Their bombardment continued until I declared myself an English major in college. Soon, my parents began telling their customers that English was a perfect major for pre-law.

Their imposed career path hung like an albatross around my neck. Perhaps a common legacy for immigrant children, my life felt ransomed. As if it had already been paid for by my parents who worked fourteen to sixteen hour days, first at a hamburger joint, then at a dry cleaners. When they lifelessly dragged themselves to the store at the crack of dawn with the same packed lunch of rice and chicken they had eaten daily for years, bickered over the smallest cleaning mishaps, or snored heavily in front of the tv on their one day off, I felt responsible.

We moved to the States in 1979 when our dad was transferred to the NY office of Hyundai Heavy Industries. When Hyundai asked him to return to Korea after six years, my dad quit after weeks of hand-wringing. It was the first time we saw him cry. Our parents said that returning to Korea would jeopardize our futures, especially of my brother who was already a high school sophomore and would not have enough time to prepare for Korea's rigorous college entrance exams. Almost overnight, our father went from being a managing director of a Korean conglomerate who gloated in retelling the tales of his business trips to Scotland, India and Amsterdam to a guy who served strawberry shakes and french fries, from a father who steadfastly doled out extra homework to the man who sat alone in the corner and could muster no more than a few perfunctory words for his children.

It was our fall from middle class grace, where we left behind full service gas stations, Jordache jeans, and company picnics. The transition may have been less traumatic had the success come easily. But our father had paid for his success with defiance, loneliness, and hard work. For a boy who, through sheer persistence, had propelled himself from a life of rice paddies, manual labor, and flimsy plank outhouses above the pig's trough to scholarships to Masan High School and then to Seoul National University, it must have felt like waking from a dream.

When our family returned to Korea for a short visit in the late 80's, my dad's relatives looked at his haggard face and my mother's emaciated frame and interrogated, Why did you go to America? Was it worth it? Those questions must have seeped into my veins, because I found myself struggling to find a way out of this confounding riddle. The move that had beckoned with a promising future brought instead a crushing end to a cherished career and threatened to drown us in regret. The need to find a way to redeem the difficult lives we were living, to find a way out, felt pressurized, as if we were living in an underwater bubble about to burst. To my teenage mind, all the answers pointed to our career choices, and I wondered how to surface without suffocating myself in the process.

My career path started at a fork, leading to either redemption or rejection. On the one hand, I could choose a career that answered for my parents' difficult lives in the US. To the question Why did you move to America?, my life could supply the answer Why, for the children, of course. Look where they are now. It was all worth it. And my parents could smile at their relatives with some level of self-satisfaction. Alternatively, I could do what I wanted, answer to my inner desire, and fulfill my potential in a field that fed my urgings. But this choice would afford my parents no bragging rights, no sense of redemption. The first choice seemed misguidedly too old world, too self-sacrificing, and the latter childish and selfish, too American.

If only I had been inclined to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I found it a painful dilemma. I timidly wanted to write. My parents had invested in a future lawyer. My brother buckled under the pressure of being a first-born son and rebelled. The burden fell to me, the second born. I took my LSAT during my fourth year of college. When I scored in the 98th percentile, I bragged to a few close friends but hid the results from my parents. When I received my acceptance into Georgetown Law a couple of years later, I cried. I remember asking my mother, with all the angst of a 24 year-old, why I, and not my siblings, had to be the one to be sacrificed, why couldn't I be free to live my own life. And I self-pityingly mulled over the injustice that someone else's mere wish should shape my life.

For the past decade, I worked as an attorney without too much regret, but still wondered if this is all there is. When I lost my job in 2008, my parents surprisingly encouraged me not to look for work immediately. You need to rest your body to have your baby, they said. You can always look for some part time job later. Initially, I felt as if I had been betrayed for the past fifteen years, as if my career, which they were now dismissing so casually, never really meant that much to them. But then I started to realize that sometime during the past fifteen years, the pressures we used to have must have been released. Somewhere along the line, the wounds we had as a family healed, and we were no longer in such desperate need of a salve. We could now make room for other priorities. I felt as if I had been released, as if I had repaid my dues.

In our lives, I see the Gift of the Magi, where a sacrifice is returned with another sacrifice. Where for the future of his children, a man gives up his dreams, and his children sacrifice some of their own to restore what he lost. Instead of a thwarted career smothering another, I've wondered if there could have been another way. I struggle to find some insight and wisdom admist the clutter of cultural rifts, unfulfilled dreams, and the painful lament that love should demand so much. But I remember what my mother told me a few years after I received my JD. You don't know what you have done for your father. You gave him his spirit back. And I fill with a quiet pride and whisper a silent thanks that all is not lost.


  1. I am not Korean, but I too was treated as though becoming a lawyer or a doctor were my only career options. This was especially true of the former; from the time I was a teenager, I was told what a tremendous lawyer I would be, as though my future was set in stone and there were no alternatives.

    I too entered law school at 24, a result of the pressure I felt from my family and from the community of which I lived. I survived the first year, then the next two, and finally the bar exam. After three years, mounds of debt, and months upon months worth of unnecessary stress, I came to the painful conclusion that I had no passion for practicing law.

    Sadly my case is anything but uncommon. I work with law students at various law schools and find the majority of them filled with indifference, disgust, and sadness. I've been out of law school for a little under three years, have barely practiced, and have yet to find a true direction.

    In some ways, I'm one of the lucky ones. I could have found myself sucked into big law life with all of its amenities but without much (if any) satisfaction. Yet at the same time, I find myself looking back on the past six plus years of my life and ask myself why I put myself through any of it in the first place.

    I read your blog often. This is the first time I've commented on any of your postings. I think its important for lawyers, practicing or otherwise, to have an open forum of which to trade notes and compare stories. Thank you everything you've done these past few months.

  2. You write beautifully, even what if what you write about is of things that are sad. I connect to what you're writing, and I think anyone who is emotive and has lived in the real world can connect, too. I am astounded and in awe by your ability to communicate in words.

  3. This post touched me. I am a 1.5 generation immigrant now working in biglaw, and while I took a somewhat different path getting here, I just wanted to say that I could relate.

  4. Thank you all for reading and for commenting. It helps tremendously to have an opportunity to air out my thoughts knowing that so many of you out there are reading. I was stunned to find out recently that this blog gets over a thousand hits a week. It also helps greatly to get your feedback and thoughts. I use the blog for my writing but also as a sounding board for my thoughts and to sort out what I am doing. In that context, hearing about your own experiences makes me think about my own. Thanks so much for reaching out.

  5. I think you have a gift of therapy. Your writing is therapeutic. This article and some of your Paul Hastings writings have been healing for me. I'm not an attorney but went the MBA track. For a long time I had an unhealthy relationship toward work. When you see your immigrant parents breaking their backs you think that should be your life too. In some weird way I felt that all my successes were giving them redemption too. I too had a Paul Hastings experience too and I was reading your first KimChi Mama posts at the 2nd anniversary of my departure from my Paul Hastings. The firm had huge turn over and I was working 17 hour days for 21 days straight assuming the roles of colleagues who left. I walked out because I felt miserable but felt miserable after-I felt like a quitter, a loser-and then the backlash...they said they would black ball me from working in the industry (HA). I realized, this year (I'm a slow healer), that the trauma, the upheaval had actually healed me and taught me better ways to live and actually "woke" me up to real living.

    It seems like you are seeing your experiences in context and emerging stronger and richer. Hope 2009 brings you many wonderful things! Alice

  6. Hi Shinyung,

    I too am in the legal field and met you once briefly while you were still at PH. When I heard about what happened to you, I realized I had actually met you before! (and was glad to meet an APA female attorney) It was great to find your blog through Kimchi Mamas, and I hope to find out more about your next steps in the new year! I particularly liked this post.

    Wishing you the best!

  7. Alice, I read your comment with great interest. I am so happy to hear that you are at a better place. I'd love to hear what you are now doing and what "better ways to live" means for you. And I can't believe your former colleagues threatened to blackball you. What assholes.

    C, I am so curious to know when we met. Hmmm. Drop me a personal email (it's on my profile page)!

    I am so excited about this new year. It'll be a good one.

  8. Your words probably are a form of therapy, maybe not just for yourself, but for others who question what they do, what they maybe should be doing, the influence parents play in career choices, the pressures to "succeed" that many of us feel, even if they prevent us from realizing all we could be, or put differently, perhaps realizing true (or truer or different) "success."

    I wish I had known you when I was at the U of C (but you were there a few years earlier than I was). I lived in Burton-Judson (Dodd-Mead), for what it's worth. If you want to disclose where you lived, I'd love to know out of pure curiosity, but no pressure to self-disclose anything more than you want.

    You are inspirational, and your words make me feel better about myself and my choices and my thoughts and my pondering.

    Anon Jan 5 10:14 PM

  9. Hi, Anon, at 10:14,

    It's great to hear from a fellow U of C'er. I lived in Woodward Court, which no longer exists, as well as MacLean Hall. I was also a resident assistant at Shoreland (in Hale House).

    Too bad our paths didn't overlap at Chicago, but great to hear from you here. Don't you miss U of C? I know I do...

  10. "Don't you miss U of C? I know I do..."

    Not be a bummer, but loved it and hated it, which I've heard from a lot of people. Didn't love the Core - too many science and math classes I didn't learn a thing from ("the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell!" - at least I think so) and hated taking. People: some were great, but there was also a lot of pressure, I think, on and between people (included but not limited to the House system).

    But I'd give anything to be 18-21 again, though, and I wouldn't mind being *there* again at that age at all. As a prof there once said to me when he was debating whether to stay at U of C, or go to Stanford or Harvad, and I said "Damn! Nice options," he replied, essentially, "I envy YOU! Nothing beats youth." I'd know this comment has been a lot of equivocation, but I'd add, there's not that many things which beat youth at the U of C.

    Spent a bit of time in Compton House in the Shoreland, BTW. Nice place and some great rooms.


    Anon 10:14

  11. I do want to add, the more time that elapses since I was there, the more I appreciate the institution. It might not be sui generis, but it's probably damn close.

    Anon 10:14

  12. Wow! You're living my life, but are maybe a couple of years ahead of me. I, too, am Asian American (1st generation). My parents are both doctors and knew practically from infancy that that is what they wanted to be. That is all they wanted me to be too. I was complicit in their desires until high school when I realized I was terrible at Chemistry and had no desire to spend the next 15 years of my life in school. So, my only other school. I graduated from law school; joined Biglaw; practiced for about 3 years before I had my first child. Up until that point, I had stellar reviews. The review after my maternity leave was a complete reversal and it was downhill from there. I left that firm 1 year before being up for partner because I had heard they weren't going to make me partner. I'm at another Biglaw firm, but have come to the realization that I'm just not cut out for this. I'm actually hoping to get laid off just to force my hand, which, by the way, I think is pretty cowardly on my part. I'd like to just leave it all behind, but like you, I have know idea what I would do otherwise. It's as if all of the expectations of my parents stripped me of my ability to have my own dreams.

  13. i really liked this post. the final paragraph was especially moving. thank you.

  14. Hello, unni (I would like to call you this way:))

    I am not an immigrant, but I am a Korean student in a law school. I have been studying in the US for almost 6 years leaving my family in Korea. My dad graduated from Masan Highschool too, but he told me that he was not courageous enough to leave Korea. My parents have never been to the U.S.. I really liked your post, and I have no doubt that you can be a wonderful writer. I wish I can write like you. I wish my best luck to you.

  15. Hi, T, 2:07 and Jiyeon,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. It means a lot that you can relate. And thanks for the encouragement.

  16. I just wanted to say thanks. I don't even know how I found your blog, but I'm in the middle of my own (modest) mid-life crisis. You very eloquently crystallized some thoughts regarding family and career and parental dreams I have been contemplating of late. Maybe all the sacrifices I made for my family provided some validation for decisions and sacrifices made by others a long time ago.
    I wish you well in your search for a new career and for meaning in this life.
    My 3.5 year old is screaming his head off so I will take my leave.
    Thanks again for your wonderful writing and deep thoughts. Please keep writing.

  17. oh btw (just finished the post above)

    Take this time to heal from the emotional and physical stresses you have been subjected to. we had several miscarriages and a full-term stillborn that just crushed us. We are lucky enough to have a beautiful baby boy now that I am leaving to attend to. You are not alone, believe me, until something terrible happens you have no idea how common pregancy issues are. Best of luck to you!

  18. dear shinyung
    i read this post on kimchi mamas first, and i can honestly say that my breath was literally taken away once i finished it. you have a gift for writing, and im so happy you are using it to move your many readers, such as myself :) im a
    2nd generation KA who is soon going to pharmacy school, a choice i made reluctantly because of my parents. ive come to peace with my choice for the most part, though i have some lingering resentment that occasionally hits me. i dont feel so lost and alone after reading this post because i feel as if there IS a silver lining, that maybe i will look back when im older and be able to smile. thank you so much. you totally made my entire month!

  19. I totally relate. I'm Filipino American, but had same/similar pressures. I had not done nearly as well on my LSAT, but I did work in biglaw for a short time and absolutely hated it.

    I'm on the path searching for new meaning as well. Thanks for sharing your inspiration!

  20. I came across your blog and this post really resonated with me. I'm the daughter of Indian immigrants to Canada. Your post is like a reflection of my own experience. Like you, my older sister rebelled and it was left to me to "do right" by my parents and make their sacrifices worth it. I too could not stand the sight of blood so the first choice-a doctor was not possible. So instead of pursuing English literature, I did the practical thing and went to law school. Like you, I know what it has meant to my parents. It is nice to know that I am not alone in my experience. Thanks for the post. You write beautifully!