By Manuela Yim, 16, Fairfax HS (Los Angeles)
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Manuela believes that overall, Korean culture instills many positive values.

This Korea Times photo shows people grieving over recent deaths of a family.

I always thought that family was supposed to look out for you. When I was young, my grandma raised me and my three younger brothers while my parents worked. She gave us old-fashioned Korean advice, like "If you don’t need it, don’t buy it." Our dad gave us rides and our mom took care of us when we were sick. Family was where I felt safe. But recently something happened to make me question my basic assumptions about family.

On April 10, my mom came home from work and called me into the hallway. She asked me if I remembered a family we used to be close to when I was in elementary school. She told me they had died. I assumed it must have been a car accident. How else could a whole family die?

I could not have imagined what really happened. My mom teared up and had a hard time telling me that the father shot and killed his wife, 8-year-old son and himself. He also shot his 16-year-old daughter, who I had gone to school with, and by some miracle she survived and was in the hospital.

I was shocked. It was so unreal. Then I felt guilty because I was more intrigued than emotional like my mom was, maybe because I hadn’t seen my friend in years. I wondered, what situation would push a family to such an unthinkable end? What was wrong with her father? Was he drunk? Crazy? They had been so normal.

I tried to get back to my art project for school, but I couldn’t help but think about my friend. I remembered playing all day at her apartment and begging our moms to let me sleep over at her house. I remembered the time we shared an apple at school. We lost contact in third grade when my family moved to Glendale. A year later we moved back to Koreatown, but we went to different schools.

I thought of how her brother never got the chance to grow up and graduate from high school, how her mother never got to see her children become adults and get married. I wondered how my friend was going to live without a family. It all just seemed so unfair.

Why did her dad fall apart?

Many questions were going through my head so I talked to my mom that night. She said the family had financial problems. I said, "I thought every family had problems," but she said it’s the way they deal with them that makes the difference.

My mom said they were active in church. I go to church, too, and we’re always taught that God will provide a way out and your church members are there to help you. Shouldn’t their church have noticed that something was wrong? She said that even if a family goes to church, in Korean culture it’s taboo to talk about your problems.

I was still confused. How could her father do this? Then the next day, my mom told me that this was not the only incident. In March and April, there had been three other cases in the Los Angeles area in which a Korean parent took the lives of his or her own children and themselves.

I remembered that a few days before in English class, a student said a Korean father had lit his sports utility vehicle on fire with his 10-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter in it because he had financial problems and gambling debt. I didn’t give it much thought at first, since these sort of twisted cases occur in the news every year. But it was more personal when I connected it to the tragedy that happened to my former classmate and I realized it was a pattern in the Korean community.

The cases were the center of attention in the Korean community. The news on Channel 18 asked psychologists what it was about Korean families that drove them to do this. The media told families how to get counseling if they are having problems, and reported that churches were questioning whether they should place less emphasis on increasing church attendance and pay more attention to those in need.

That week during dinner my mom and I talked about the cases. My mom, who isn’t as traditional as other Korean parents, blamed Korean culture. Korean males traditionally take on the role as head figure of the family. When things don’t go right, they feel they have to solve it on their own.

She told me that if one family member does something bad, then it shames the whole family. The fathers felt they had failed their job as providers so there was no point in their children living.  

The pressure to succeed

She said another reason was that our culture cares a lot about pride and status. A good education, successful career and a Lexus means a lot. This made a lot of sense to me because my parents and my friends’ parents put a lot of pressure on us to do well in school and study hard. My Korean friends and I joke about how if we bring home a C or get 2000 or below on our SATs, we’ll get disowned.

But I never expected this side of Korean culture to cause such tragedies. Sometimes these values annoyed me but I knew it was for my own good because they are the reason why a lot of Korean families are successful. I was angry and disappointed that this is part of who I am. Could this happen to other Korean families?

But then I thought about my own family and how my parents aren’t as traditional (they don’t push me to go to an Ivy League college). Culture only goes so far in influencing who you are. Your experiences influence you, too. Any family that struggles with opening up could fall apart. In a way it reassured me that any family is vulnerable, it wasn’t just a Korean issue.

I didn’t use to worry about my parents’ problems, I thought it was their responsibility to look out for me. If there was tension at the dinner table I would assume my parents could deal with the problem on their own because they’re adults. But now I know I share responsibility. Now I would talk to my mom to make sure everything is all right. I think that if we talk and listen more to our family members, our families will be less vulnerable when things get bad.