Winner of the Sonora Review Issue 80 Nonfiction Contest, selected by Melissa Faliveno
“My first reaction to most things is, ‘Fuck this, fuck you, this is bullshit,’” I said. My therapist blinked.
“You don’t seem like an angry person to me,” she said.
You don’t seem like a good therapist to me, I thought, but instead said, “Oh?”
I don’t get angry, as far as other people know. I seem to have, as one roommate said, the patience of a saint. Though sometimes my days are spent in silent seething, a quiet rage so intense that my lungs feel sucked of air, I never let it show. This is what women in my family do: absorb the fury until it comes out of our follicles like oil, slicking down our thick Scandinavian hair. But I tell no one. Anger is a form of vulnerability.
According to my family’s unspoken standards, rationality is the ultimate emotional currency—which is to say that to gain social wealth, or to win any debate, one must remain utterly emotionless. Pointing out oppression just means you’re naive. Yes, of course women are sexually harassed at work—that’s just how it is, sweetheart, and getting upset doesn’t help you get ahead. It’s horrible how much impoverished people are forced to struggle, but, capitalism is inevitable. The only way to deal with these things is to accept them. Anger will do nothing but make your life worse.
Often when I become ripe with rage, my insides feel like they’re pickling in vinegar. There is an actual word for this in Korean: hwa-byung. “Hwa (火) in hwa-byung means anger and fire in Korean, and byung (病) means disease or illness; accordingly, hwa-byung literally means ‘anger disorder’ or ‘fire disease,’” writes Sung Kil Min. This disease is believed to most affect the heart and liver, and causes sensations of heat, gastrointestinal problems, and constriction of the airways—much like a fire in the stomach that sends smoke up the throat.
The people who have the highest rates of hwa-byung are middle-aged Korean women, and it’s even higher in those who have immigrated to the United States. In a literature review of hwa-byung, the authors write, “religion, especially shamanism or Christianity, can become a source of social support and comfort for Hwa-Byung patients. This tendency is more apparent for Korean immigrant women as they often feel isolated from the mainstream community due to language difficulties and cultural differences when they immigrate to the U.S.”
Studies have revealed that the most common factor among women suffering from hwa-byung is conflicts with their families, particularly husbands and mothers-in-law, which often includes domestic abuse. They are unable, they say, to express these feelings, for fear of disrupting familial harmony.
In her book Rage Becomes Her, media analyst and activist Soraya Chemaly provides medical studies that resonate with the symptoms and causes of hwa-byung. “Clinicians now understand anger as a mediator between the perception of injustice and the intensity of pain,” Chemaly writes. “People who perceive injustice experience greater pain, both mental and physical, and those who experience the most chronic pain have the highest rates of inhibited anger and depression.”
So hwa-byung, then, becomes a self-feeding cycle, a horrible ouroboros: a woman experiences injustices at the hands of her husband and his family and becomes distraught, but keeps her smile on straight to avoid causing more conflict that will ultimately be blamed on her. Her pain deepens, and so too does her capacity to hide it. To act on anger that no one else can see would just prove that she’s lost it.
I can remember very clearly scenes from my childhood when I looked at my brother, two years younger than me and weaker, with thick, bug-eyed glasses, and thought, “I’m going to slap him.” He had done nothing to provoke me, and I knew I’d get in trouble. Yet the thought was so, so seductive. I would smack him across the face, he would cry, and my mother would grab my wrist and ask, “What’s gotten into you?” I could never say.
Joey was a bratty child and, in retrospect, I can think of many reasons why I’d want to slap him: I was expected to help with family dinners, while he played outside with friends. He got away with things that, had I done them, would have meant the end of my social life for weeks. Occasionally, I even got in trouble for things he did, because I was his older sister, and should be demonstrating responsibility. At some point in high school, I was given language to finally voice what I’d felt since childhood: “Mom, you hold Joey and I to a double standard.”
“Of course I do,” my mother said, continuing to heave groceries out of the trunk of her car, no hint of the shame in her voice I believed should be there.
“But,” I sputtered, “that’s not fair!”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “But that’s what being a woman is. Grab the milk on your way in, will ya?”
People with hwa-byung sometimes just go, hopping on buses and riding them around town, or setting off on a walk with no real destination, perhaps to quell their rising anger and, as the saying goes, let off some steam. I’ve seen this behavior from people I love before, though it really looks a lot like avoidance. My boyfriend does this sometimes, driving to the grocery store after an argument. He needs time, he says, to stop feeling angry, so we can have a rational conversation—and, he insists, he just remembered he’s out of cardamom.
I am no stranger to avoidance, which feels as familiar to me as a parent’s smile. I was sixteen when I watched my mother smoke cigarettes out the window of her car, stuck in rush-hour traffic. My friend Sisi was driving us home from a class in her parents’ minivan, slogging down the freeway with all of the commuters returning to the suburbs from the Twin Cities, when my mother appeared in the lane to our right, casually exhaling grimy lines of smoke, as if it were normal. Suddenly, details that never needed explaining had a clear purpose: the reason her car windows were always open, even in negative-degree weather. How tense she could get, just before remembering she had to take the dog for a walk or put gas in her car or something else that took her outside and away from her family. Once, while on a Wal-Mart run, she asked me to grab her a new bottle of Wind Song. I had never understood why my mother, who collects glass perfume bottles and prides herself on her well-crafted taste, would purchase the cheapest generic fragrance. I plucked one of the robin’s-egg-blue bottles from the shelf and removed the cap. I smelled the fragrance, stared at the birds chirping around the logo, then sniffed again; this didn’t smell like the perfume my mother used in her bathroom. It smelled less complex, like it was missing something: the chewed-up, decaying-foliage smell of cigarette smoke.
“Your mom smokes?” Sisi asked. She and I had grown up together, best friends since the fourth grade.
“Apparently!” I yelled. “Slow down, we have to make sure she doesn’t see us!”
Sisi slowed as much as she could, but my mother’s lane got backed up, and soon we were window-to-window—so Sisi sped up, and then our lane stopped—and we played this slapstick routine until Sisi eventually pulled off at an early exit, so we could avoid my mother as we all drove towards the same house.
Not once did Sisi or I feel the need to explain to each other what we were doing. Though we lived in different households, Sisi’s thrumming with Chinese culture and social norms while mine maintained the stoic labor and dark humor of Scandinavians, we both lived in Minnesota, and we were both girls—which meant that to discuss a problem was a social affront, and that we were responsible for making the cover-up a pretty one. We hid problems behind silk curtains, then entertained our audience until they forgot even the curtains existed.
If you love K-dramas, as I do, then I hardly need to mention the prevalence of possession, which pops up casually in plot lines. The first K-drama that really got me hooked, which I’ve now watched in its entirety four times, is “Oh My Ghost.” The 2015 TV show’s first episode presents a ridiculous, delightful premise: Soon-ae, a young ghost, is trapped on Earth. She can’t remember any details of how she died, but she does know that she died a virgin. In order to pass on to the spirit realm, she believes, she needs to possess a woman’s body and finally have sex with a man.
The woman she possesses, Bong-sun, is a timid woman at risk of losing her job as a dishwasher at a famous restaurant because she can see ghosts, and stays up all night watching them scream through the walls of her closet-sized apartment. Soon-ae and Bong-sun strike a deal: Soon-ae, who is much more confident and assertive, will possess Bong-sun in order to seduce her crush, the hot celebrity chef who is Bong-sun’s boss. Soon-ae will finally have sex, and Bong-sun will…well, also have sex. Win-win! That is, unless Seobinggo, the shaman who has been trying to expel Soon-ae from this earthly plane, manages to catch her first.
At one point in the show, the chef takes Bong-sun to a psychiatrist because he’s troubled by her wild personality swings (which happen when she goes from being possessed to being herself, and back again). The psychologist determines that Bong-sun must be bipolar—a diagnosis that he delivers to the chef instead of Bong-sun, for some patriarchal reason?—and administers medication. The chef asks Bong-sun whether she’s taking her medication a few times after this, but we, the audience, know this is just dramatic irony, something rational for this foolish chef to cling to in the face of supernatural forces.
“Oh My Ghost” was very popular when it aired, winning several awards, but I wanted to know how much of the show’s depictions of possession reflected common ideas on ghosts, the afterlife, and mental health, or whether these were solely part of the world-building of the show. This research would eventually lead me to hwa-byung, but first, I’d learn about japshin.
In traditional Korean shamanism, spirits are responsible for both positive and negative life occurrences and attitudes. Mental illness, injuries, failure, and disobedience may all be consequences of possession by a shamanic deity or spirit. These spirits, which include japshin, the mischievous spirits known to create chaos and general unpleasantness for the living, have the same hedonistic desires as humans, and can throw the same temper tantrums: if they don’t get what they want, they’ll take it out on you. And as researcher Kyung Hong writes, these desires “are mostly related to the relational loyalty and filial piety” of Korean society’s “conventional moral ethos”—an ethos that includes the principle namjon yeobi: “men are superior to women.” Within this cultural tradition, women were also meant to adhere to samjong jideog, “obedience to father; obedience to husband; obedience to son.”
Did you talk back to your husband? Refuse to cook dinner? Well, the only reason you might act out would be japshin. They must be released.
Charismatic Korean Christianity has adopted elements of Korean shamanism and taken them to their extremes, particularly when it comes to exorcisms. The anchal gido is a purifying ritual, meant to literally force the spirits (which, in their Christianized version, are demons) from the body. The spirit-demons are thought to live in the stomach, and the only way to force them out is by beating them out, up through the throat, like rising smoke.
Between 1996 and 2015, there were at least four instances of Korean exorcisms performed in the United States, all on women, three of whom died. Kyung-Ja Chung died in Los Angeles during an exorcism performed by her husband and their priest. Among her fatal injuries were 16 broken ribs, and a crushed heart.
The woman who survived an anchal gido ceremony, Mrs. Yeom, said she submitted to the exorcism in order to “satisfy” her husband, a committed evangelical Christian. Kyung-Ja Chung reportedly agreed to her own exorcism because, as a priest informed the couple, “demons were making her arrogant and disobedient to her husband.”
Her husband, Jae-Whoa Chung, and their priest were tried for Kyung-Ja’s death. During their trial, the defense attorney asked Chung’s son whether he believed his father should go to prison for murder. “No,” the teenager replied. “All he did was love my mother.”
One doctor who ran a a mental health program for Asians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, Dr. Cho Man-Chul, associated recent events in the city with hwa-byung among Korean-Americans. He told a reporter in 2012 that:
Korean immigrants who called themselves as hwa-byung patients held on to their
experiences of the Los Angeles Riot on April 29 1992. Showing a range of
symptoms, such as paranoia, delusion, depression, and anger,
Korean immigrants have accumulated their unexplained resentment and
anxiety for dozens of years. Instead of moving on, they turned their
anger inward, made it a part of their narrative for mundane, and
continued calling it hwa-byung.
Sucking their anger inward, inhaling the vitriol that should be released, like swallowing fire.
My father hates smoking. His mother smoked all her long life, until she died of lung cancer well into her 80s. So when my mother was admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack five years ago, he finally broke the familial seal of silence and told her she had to quit. He used my mother’s phone to text me from the ER, saying she was ready to be released after being held overnight. He texted again a short while later, saying she’d been transferred to the ICU.
“What? Why?” I texted.
“For a test”
“What kind of test?”
“Shouldn’t they be able to tell if she’s breathing??”
Hours later, after she’d gone through her tests and regained control of her phone, my mother texted simply, “LOL!”
She told me later that the oxygen mask they’d put on her to regulate her breathing had made her feel claustrophobic, and too much like Darth Vader, so she simply took it off.
“And they transferred you to the ICU just for that?” I asked.
“You know how nurses are,” she said, perhaps referencing her siblings who are nurses. “They freak out over every little thing.”
Even after a visit to the ICU, it felt wrong for us to be discussing her smoking habit as a family. While visiting my parents the following Christmas, my father waited until my mother’s soft clicking heels faded around the corner of the house before he said, lowly, “Do you know what it was like, to see my wife like that?” His faded loafers shuffled to a halt as he held up one of his ruddy, chapped hands while the other stroked the back of a sick animal. “She was kneeling on her bed, bent over, you know? I walked in, and—it was just awful. I’m thinking, Where’s the woman I married? I don’t recognize this person.” Even telling the story a year after it happened, his eyes looked as filled with urgency as I’ve ever seen them—skittery, untethered. But we would never talk about this with my mother. Part of me feels that bringing it up would in itself be a judgment, implicit moralizing. But more than that, she puts so much effort into hiding her smoking habit that pulling the curtain back feels like a violation of privacy.
Women develop hwa-byung, I think, for the same reasons my mother smokes, her reverse fire disorder: life dangled promises in their adolescence that it never planned to fulfill, but the impossible standards they’re held by never changed. Demand outpaces supply by a mile. This is the case with my mother, who was an award-winning interior designer before it became unsustainable for both her and my father to keep working outside the home. She quit to run a home daycare, so she could be around as me and my brother started school.
Smoking is, obviously, addictive. And the reason she started smoking as a teenager was because she thought it would make her skinnier—another method of feeding the beauty beast—but these are not the reasons that she hides it. Just a year or two before I saw her smoking, I saw my mother without makeup. I had lived with her for nearly fifteen years before I knew what she looked like without any foundation, cover-up, eyeshadow or mascara on, and it felt like the opposite—like I was seeing her with extensive special effects make-up, meant to render someone familiar into a slightly unrecognizable version of themselves. Which I think is, for my mother, the point: people should believe that she is naturally thin, she is naturally flawless and shining every morning, and she is effortlessly, joyfully, put together. She has been taught that it is feminine to put in work that no one ever sees.
Smoking takes my mother on long strolls around the block, or on drives throughout the suburbs, with no real purpose other than the act of being outside and exhaling deeply, her breath smeared across a freezing night, or ash tipping onto an autumn wind. I think it’s the only time she allows herself to be ugly.
Who gets to own their rage? Or, a better question: If a woman expresses anger but no one understands her, is she angry at all?
Psychologist Kang Yong-wŏn believes it was the colonization of language in Korea that makes it impossible for medical professionals to truly understand their patients. The elites of Korea, Kang argues, have attempted since at least the 17th century to control the population by dominating the written language. Any slang or colloquialisms that could not be transformed into the language used by elites—formerly classical Chinese, now English—simply didn’t exist.
In fact, though hwa-byung is found in court records dating back to 1603, it was not recognized in medical texts until much later. Yi Shi-Hyung, a popular author and psychiatrist in Korea, was the first to suggest that Korean culture itself is a key factor in the origination of hwa-byung. In 1977, he published a paper based on his clinical encounters with female patients which outlines hwa-byung as “the sickness of an oppressed society in which marginalized women find few means to express their desires and resentment,” writes Soyoung Suh. Another Korean psychiatrist, Min Sung-kil, a well-known specialist in hwa-byung, has published dozens of articles and a book about the disease since the 1980s, and many Korean medical journals rely on his definition of hwa-byung. But Min admits that reading an article published on hwa-byung in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1983 spurred him into writing about the disease for a global audience. (“How come an American psychiatrist is reporting about Korean hwa-byung?” he recalls thinking.) If this really was a “Korean disease,” then he was going to make sure Koreans were at the forefront of researching it.
But, before this boom in the production of knowledge around hwa-byung, it was still an anecdotal, almost folkloric condition. So imagine a woman, middle-aged and with very little formal education, perhaps because she was prevented from completing secondary school—the most frequent hwa-byung patient for Korean psychiatrists in the 1970s—attempting in informal Korean to tell a doctor her symptoms: a burning sensation in her stomach and throat. She sighs heavily and often. Sometimes she slips on her sandals, feeling she must leave immediately, and simply wanders through the gloaming until catching the last bus back to her neighborhood. The doctor does not know how to translate his patient’s symptoms (if they are indeed symptoms at all!) into an identifiable condition, and struggles to diagnose her.
Doctors in Europe and the United States faced a similar problem with female patients, once, for centuries. And before they finally invented hysteria, a beautiful sieve to filter out their doubts of professional failure, there were plenty of other explanations: their patients were women afflicted by demons, weak to temptation, ears bent by the devil and mouths full of lies. Their accounts could not be trusted, their bodies were out of their control—they may as well have been possessed.
Another syndrome, haan, is associated with hwa-byung, though it’s more like an epic, historical condition than pent-up rage. The waves of brutality in the wake of foreign invasions, poverty, and other societal oppression have created, psychologists have argued, trauma specific to Koreans. Korean history used to be referred to as “a history of haan,” and sufferers use haan both to their advantage and dismay: creative energy, ennui, and general distress are all said to be symptoms.
Given that hwa-byung and haan are not always recognized diagnoses by medical professionals, it is unsurprising that many sufferers turn to shamanism for relief. “Inquiries into Korean shamanism never fail to point out that han became the indispensable cause and result of being drawn to shamanism,” writes Soyoung Suh. Perhaps it is even less surprising that shamanism has long been treated as women’s work; Christianity is a widespread male-dominated religion in Korea, while women are allowed to play at communicating with spirits. Shamans, who often act as both a religious guide and health consultant for people seeking healing, use “folk” medicine and methods of dispelling spirits that are seen as backwards or old-fashioned in Korea today, even as Charismatic Christianity has subsumed many of their practices and beliefs, as Christianity is wont to do. (It’s hard for me not to think of “Oh My Ghost” here, since the chef and his superstitious mother often argue about her visits to Seobinggo for advice. His dismissal of shamanism makes it all the more difficult for him to accept that he has fallen in love with the ghost inside of his dishwasher.) In recent years, though, as young Koreans move more and more from the countryside into cities, they have sought out things that remind them of home—including shamans. So these outdated, feminized diseases, which seem to hit socially vulnerable people the hardest, are often diagnosed and treated by female shamans, who are not always taken seriously, even when they’re in fashion.
Dr. Cho, the psychologist in Los Angeles, suggested curing hwa-byung not through shamanism, exorcism, or any type of allopathic medicine—his suggestion was, simply, making sure that his patients felt like they were being heard, and “establishing a long-term and reliable relationship of talking and listening.” If hwa-byung comes from being made to feel that your pain is not only invisible, but inevitable, then the way to treat it is by saying, I see the ghost inside you, and she’s in pain, too.
Suppressing anger is, obviously, not a phenomenon specific to Korean women. Women the world over are asked to calm down, to ask politely for what they want, to smile more. The physical symptoms, of gastrointestinal irritation and respiratory issues, are also not specific to Korean women, but are now recognized as somatic manifestations of lingering anger, a smoldering coal hidden somewhere along the vocal chords.
What may be unique is that, while expressing dissatisfaction with one’s lot in patriarchal life is generally not allowed, hwa-byung is a well-known and socially-accepted diagnosis. The same man who raises a paddle to a woman who disobeys him would not bat an eye when she complains about her hwa-byung. Women somatize to survive.
I don’t know that any of the Korean women who were killed during exorcisms in the United States would say they had hwa-byung, or experienced other types of pain before being murdered. But from their own words and those of their would-be exorcists, and from living as a woman inside of a patriarchy, what I can say is this: our suffering writes its claims all over the inside of our bodies, just as men lay claim to the outside, but to demonstrate that pain is to invite more violence. To say, “I suffer,” can sometimes be enough proof that your condition—your self-awareness—must be exorcised.
When my mother’s dad died, a few days after Christmas, I happened to be visiting from college. I was sipping coffee with a friend in the spacious, musty, beautiful house she and nine friends occupied on Dayton Avenue in St. Paul, when my mother called and said, “I don’t want to disturb you, I know you’re hanging out with Megan, but…I just wanted to let you know that Grandpa Bill died.”
I drove home immediately, arriving twenty minutes later to find my mother in front of the computer, calmly planting crops in her virtual farm. Years before, my grandfather had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but had quickly and successfully sent it into remission. Apparently it had returned, and, within a few weeks, killed him. My mother was pissed.
“He didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “Why wouldn’t he tell his own children?” She shook her head. “Well, I’m sure he didn’t want us to worry. It is what it is.” She swiveled the computer chair back towards the screen.
“Mom,” I said.
“What?” she asked, her voice brittle, cracking.
“Do you, uh…want to chat?”
“About what?” she asked. She glanced at me, my arms hanging over the back of the pleather recliner to face her, and said, “There’s nothing to say. And you can stop looking at me like I’m some sort of pitiful creature. I’m not going to disintegrate.”
“I mean…your dad just passed away,” I said, at a loss for how to communicate the weight of something I was sure she felt.
“Yes, he did. But, so does everyone. You should go out, go see your friends. Instead of just sitting here and staring at me all day. I’m fine.”
I did not, in fact, want to see my friends—I wanted to be at home to, brutally, see my mother grieve. I had seen her cry, many times, at things like Hallmark commercials and children’s movies, but I had never seen her grieve. My mother has a thyroid disorder that, in my childhood, made her moods erratic and extreme, so that I had seen her burst into tears and scream at us over things like socks left on the dining room floor. She discovered kelp supplements—and, I think, a better physician—in my early teens, which kept her at the hyper-pragmatic level of emotional engagement she normally practiced. Familial harmony restored.
On a recent Christmas Eve, my parents and I finished opening our gifts, as we had done every Christmas Eve since I could remember, and I was snuggling into that blissful holiday moment of comfort and hedonism with a glass of wine, joking with my dad about another sappy holiday movie rerun. My mother called me from the next room.
“What’s up?” I asked, standing in the doorway, swirling cheap white wine in my glass.
“Come clean this up, and take all these things to your room,” she said, picking spent ribbons from the floor.
“Aw Mom, but it’s Christmas!” I whined, half-joking.
“Women don’t get to celebrate Christmas,” she said, handing me a garbage bag.
I chortled, waiting for her to acknowledge the punchline. She walked past me with an armful of new possessions, face set. I put down my wine, and cleaned up the rest.
I am never sure, in moments like these, if she is angry at the state of things that make her feel like women don’t get holidays, or angry at my father for not helping, or angry at me for not suffering alongside her. I often think that all she wants from her daughter is solidarity.
One of the lessons I most wish to take from my mother, second only to her easy compassion, is her fortitude in the face of injustice. She does not always stand up for herself, which always pains me to see, but when she does—ooh, she is fierce. I have seen her insult more condescending men to their faces than any mundane sitcom heroine, listened to her recount stories of bad dates, bad board meetings, bad jobs, that she simply walked away from, because she knew she didn’t need to suffer any bullshit.
Which makes the times she is taken advantage of all the more nerve-wracking to me, who once wanted her to be a heroine and now just wants her to be respected. That same Christmas—which was, I think not coincidentally, the Christmas after the #MeToo movement unveiled the elephants sitting in every room—was when she told me that during her pregnancy with me, when she was attending classes on childrearing and how to breathe while giving birth, my father was hanging out with his friends at their local haunts.
“Not once, not a single time, did he come with me,” she said.
Regretting it even as it slipped off of my tongue, I said, “You let him get away with that?”
“Your father got away with a lot back then,” she said, staring at me like, Now do you see? Do you feel that, in your stomach—like hot coals popping?