By Hayne Kim
I’d headed to the States as a 3-month-old, and, while I’d maintained my language skills, I had apparently slacked off on the cultural ones. I assumed that as an English speaker, jobs would be easy to come by and that this would be some sort of job haven but I was repeatedly told that I needed U.S. citizenship and my permanent residency meant jack squat. As each month passed by—September, October, November—my annual fall despondency began to settle on me. I worked temporary hakwon jobs and they suck the soul out of any normal healthy person. I have a history of depression and I suspect that both my parents were undiagnosed for depression, but I wouldn’t just give into it so I received counseling all throughout high school and college. Now back in Korea, there was no professional I could go to.
I relied heavily on talking with my fiancé, spending more and more time in front of the laptop, Skyping. The autumn is here and the job offers are crap; every day I spend more time in front of the computer screen than I do interacting with physically present people. And from this my relationship began deteriorating. My fiancé broke up with me for a weekend then we got back together. My mental state was up and down and back to front. Finally, things began looking up job-wise—I started a more permanent job but the stress of adjusting to the new job atmosphere affected all of my relationships. It got to the point where I was fighting with my fiancé more days out of the week than we were happy.
I called one of the Seoul Mental Health hotlines, where they tentatively confirmed my depression and urged me to seek therapy at one of the centers. I made the appointment but never went. I needed closer support than a stranger, even a professional, could offer. I was living with my family and that is who I turned to. My family, I was living with, my maternal grandmother, aunt, and uncle. They told me it’s normal and everybody is normal, it’s probably not depression, “Everyone feels ‘sad’ every so often.” I repeated that I had a history of depression but no one took me or the idea of depression very seriously. I called my mom back in the States and she repeated that I’m simply going through cultural shock, not depression, that I’m, “Still getting used to things in Korea.”
My number one supporter was having issues of his own. Last Spring my fiancé was visiting Korea and decided to completely break off our engagement (not due to my depression accordingly but due to his own emotional issues). To be completely cliché, yes, my world crumbled. The one person who believed in me was having issues believing himself, which confirmed my own worthlessness. And my family? Instead of listening to me and considering the break-up as an event triggering deep depression were all melodrama and according to them now my life now just, “A heartbreak.” I spent weeks in that toxic environment until I realized, No one else is doing this for me; I need to get out. And after a few more stress-filled weeks, I did.
If it was a choice between no support at all and support under the pretense that this was just “heartbreak” and not a more serious problem, well, I’d rather have the privacy of my own place. Maybe the lack of privacy is also cultural shock. It was ironic how there was this juxtaposition, this lack of privacy and my family wanting at all times to be very much involved with my life except when it involved my mental / emotional issues. Then again, looking at our family history… my grandmother was, I suspect, an undiagnosed alcoholic who beat my mother. I don’t think I could ever forgive her for that, despite the fact that she suffered a brain hemorrhage a few years ago that erased all her memory of that abuse. Despite the fact that my mom was trained as a psychiatric nurse, she never made the connection that her moody teenager was, in fact, a depressed one who grew up into a depressed young adult. This alone made me occasionally angry and more frequently annoyed at her, unable to forgive her lack of observation. I always felt the need to confront conflict head-on but, now, I feel that some things need to be let go, especially the irreversible ones from the past. Even if they do affect the present.
Now, I am living on my “own,” in a housing situation with three other roommates. I have adopted a dog, and in my own personal situation, she has proven to be a bigger blessing than any choice I have made or anyone I have met since I came to Korea. Caring for her has helped me. She is a formerly abused dog, having been chained outside to the ground of a giant cement block of an apartment for her entire life. Coaxing her to throw off the cloak of mistrust, getting her to go down the stairs and come outside has helped me get outside of my various ‘moods’. I still have them. I understand that my depression might never go away, even with treatment. But being in Korea is okay now. Not because my family accepted and supported me, not because anyone else made it okay but because I made certain choices of my own.
Hayne Kim is currently a global business consultant at a clothing brand in Seoul. While she originally started out with the same English-teacher-make-money-do-good plan at one year, tops, she has decided to stay on as a consultant (there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the rest of you folks! really!). She would like to think she is well on her way to the jet-setting lifestyle but also maintains a healthy dose of good ol’ dark humor. Her hobbies include webcamming her dog at work, photography, finding and eating delicious foods, writing poetry + non-fiction + short short novelettes, reading a copious amount of respectable and not-so-respectable books, and is currently studying the art of becoming enamored/glued to her new smartphone. She speaks Korean, English, some French and German and one of her favorite writers is Rainer Maria Rilke.