May 26, 2009

Enmeshment and the KA

One of the issues I’ve been exploring in my writing is enmeshment. The thing I trip on is that the idea is Western, with a base ideal that we are individuals first and foremost. Enmeshment is the problem between two individuals who can’t separate, hence “co-dependency”.

It’s an easy thing to see in the case of say, drug addicts, or enabling spouses, think Sid & Nancy, or women who can’t leave their abusive husbands. It’s more elusive in the long running genre of writing about daughters and their mothers, where it is often a battle of wills and daughters struggling to emancipate. It’s hard though to find this in Asian cultures – where the base ideal is the group, and the individual serves the family. The idea of teenage rebellion and departure from the family home at eighteen or twenty-one, esp. for a young woman, is foreign in Asian cultures where the idea of harmony is supremely valued, and ideally, a daughter is so cherished and valued there would be nothing for her to rebel against. (I know, this is an idealized example.)

As a KA I’ve seen a lot of conflict over this, where the Korean selves war against the Western parts of ourselves. KA families are torn apart by this, esp. by children who bitterly resent the Confucian authority of their parents ending in years of silence and anger. In Korea, this problem doesn’t exist in the same way. Anger of course is always a Korean issue, but the way KA’s, being born and raised here, internalize the Western values of being unique, independent naturally sparks wild against traditional Korean mores leading to a very real threat for KA’s who feel stifled, then oppressed, before in a sense fleeing for their lives.

I often think this is the true divide between the KA community as well. Korean-Koreans who are more comfortable in community with other KA’s have less conflict about being group or family oriented. Those who have found themselves early concerned with their ‘voice’, drawn early to images of folks who became known for their individuality – artists namely – and found themselves often unwelcome in Korean Korean circles for reasons invisible at the time – these are the ones who go on to be more KA or almost completely ‘American’. These are extremes of course.

Back to the point though. Western psychology to me often has geographical boundaries. And the compelling themes for me in family relationships are the ways individuals find meaning and fulfillment by acceding to what’s best for the group. Korean mothers are famous for the way they mother, and part of that is they way they sacrifice, and throw themselves wholly into their children. I’m not wording this well but I think you know what I mean. And because it’s so close to this ideal of unconditional love I find Koreans in large parts of their inner selves in utter defiance of Western mores, and that is where they are also at odds with their daily life in the States. But these are the happy moments, the ones where it is easy to switch from being traditional at home, with your parents, to a different mode in your work place or with friends, and so it is okay to say there are huge grey unknowable areas outside the reach of Psychology.

On the flip side: An acquaintance once recounted the story of her brother who moved away to another state after college and fell in love with a Korean girl. For whatever reason, his family completely opposed the marriage and gave him as close to an ultimatum as possible. He broke up with the girl, moved back home and cut his hair. The sister while telling this story still felt along the lines of the emotions from that time. I was surprised to learn much later, through a third party, that the brother soon after cut off all his ties to the family.
This same conflict happens all the time in my own home, at my mother’s. My sister and brother struggle constantly with their own individuality and yet loving the traditional Korean structure of our home. That they happened to be born into a family with especially strong female personalities adds another complication, that their tradition steeped father died while they were four and five, adds another. But at core I see this everywhere with KA’s, this war within over what I call the Eastern parts of their souls versus the West.

And so I see the case for a unique pathology, unique to KA’s. Maybe even a case for one body having two souls; it gets crowded. I don’t think it is enmeshment, after all. I think it’s bigger than that, an impossible attempt to integrate two equal and opposite ways of being.

posted at 02:37 PM by jenn

Filed under: general


06/07/09 09:20 PM


Thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate your efforts to integrate western thinking with your own culture. I can see the challenge where the Eastern culture tends to lean more toward interdependence, whereas the Western culture (America esp) leans heavily towards interdependence. I think the balance between independence and connectedness is a struggle many american and immigrants to america (such as myself) feel.

I think the issue of eneshment may differ in some respects. I would point to the difference in the case where one party expresses independence. In some cultures, I could immagine how they might be shunned. In the case of enmeshment, the other party seems to cave or callapse under the perception of abandonment and aloneness. Thus the individual wanting independence, while may facing shame in becoming independent from his culture, experiences and something quite different in the situations of enmeshement. Just my thoughts...

Keep up the great work on integrating western thought with other cultural considertations

06/12/09 08:52 AM

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06/30/09 01:53 AM

Great post here. I've learned a new term also. Well, all I can say is, we all have the right to live the life we wanted it to be. Be it a copy from other culture our own. Thanks for sharing.

08/01/09 11:41 PM

I enjoyed your post. What about Asian parents, however, who use the ideas of culture, tradition, and respect for elders to manipulate their children into doing everything their way? Especially the children who are born in the States? There is tremendous difference b/w the beliefs of my eldest sister and the other three of us, even though there is only 5 years b/w the youngest and eldest. She believes, for example, that I am incredibly selfish to not consult the family before moving across the country for a wonderful career opportunity. I am 34 years old and not sure why I needed to consult the family before making this decision. She also believes that my younger sister, who is 33, should have consulted the family on what color car she bought, as "we don't like black cars" and felt insulted that the family was not consulted since my sister bought a black car. There are no healthy boundaries in my family. I understand and do respect my elders, but this sounds a bit like enmeshment to me. Thanks for your musings and is incredibly refreshing to see more writings from Asian Americans.

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