Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Min Legacy


I come from "live fast, die young" stock. My mom died at sixty-five after decades on and off prednisone. My father barely lived past seventy. Both my parents were the eldest of six in traditional, duty-bound Korean families. Both my parents were overachievers who graduated at the top of their high school classes.

My maternal grandfather, dean of a medical school, handpicked my father, his young star professor, to marry his eldest daughter. My father went on to a lauded career in science and academia; my mother, the dutiful wife, never worked outside the home despite her bachelor's degree in history and her master's degree in library science.

What killed my mom, Min Kyung Im, was not myasthenia gravis or the complications caused by long-term steroid use. I believe that what caused her physical decline was anger and resentment. It's the Min legacy: all the Min women are smart, capable, resourceful, and angry.

I come from a long line of justifiably angry women. We wear our anger like mantels and pass it on to our daughters. My maternal grandmother was betrothed to my grandfather years before they met. When they married, she gave birth to a son followed by two daughters. With the heir in place, she was determined to stop bearing children and be a "modern" woman. But her son died at age twelve. Four daughters later, she finally bore the necessary replacement son.

My mother, fourteen years older than her youngest sibling, became a second mother. She always had a baby tied to her back and a sister on each hand. At the same time, she was expected to excel in school, waking up at 4:30 each morning to study.

The Min legacy manifests as workaholism, pursuit of status, a sense of superiority over men, and resentment of men's privileges. The Min legacy thrives on a general state of victimhood, fueled by an us/them dichotomy. On a daily level, it reveals itself as annoyance, irritability, and impatience. We like to blame and judge others, be they the Bush administration, an uncooperative spouse, troublesome children, or bad drivers.

Ai-go, chukkeda! was my grandmother's signature complaint, which my mother adopted and I occasionally caricature, translating literally as "Oh my, I will die, " but really means something closer to "Shit, you're trying to kill me!"

I caught myself lapsing into ai-go chukkeda mode one Tuesday, my day off from teaching, when I enjoy a leisurely morning of yoga practice in my pajamas, followed by writing time. Instead of staying in my bathrobe, however, I had to drive my kids to school. My husband Ed, who usually drops them off on his way to the office, had overslept, and the kids weren't ready in time to walk. Grrrrrr.

Mother was always annoyed. Was it because she never pursued a meaningful career? Was it because she was overwhelmed with three kids born in three and a half years? Was it because, per Korean tradition, she had to care for her husband's extended family? Was it because my father cared about his research more than anything else in the world?

She became a Christian in her forties and devoted the last twenty years of her life to forgiveness, reconciliation, and inner peace. But too late: I had already internalized the Min legacy. When she died in 2001, I took on the legacy wholeheartedly. As the only daughter of the matriarch, I became the primary bearer of the family burden. You see, in a Confucianist society the guys inherit the property; the girls inherit the emotional baggage.

The confluence in 2001 of Bush's inauguration, my mother's death, and the 9/11 attack took me into full-blown asthmatic stress response. Since then, I've devoted myself to every treatment from acupuncture to Buteyko breathing to nutritional overhaul. But the final layer to wellness is the mantel of the matriarchal legacy.

So, a week before Christmas, after coming within one inch of rear-ending a blue-haired old lady in a Lincoln making a slooow left turn, I decided it was, once and for all, time to jettison my inheritance. I decided to stop being annoyed.

Annoyance, after all, is just anger in a crockpot, turned down to a long slow simmer. Both anger and annoyance translate physically into a state of siege, which triggers my fight/flight response, and begins a cycle of inflammation. Among the Min women, this becomes chronic illness, tumors, and auto-immune disorders.

So for this new year, I give up annoyance, complaining, and my fighting attitude. I give up bitterness. I'm taking a break from my beloved Democracy Now!, because it brings out the fighter in me. I've allowed George W. Bush and his oil cronies to make me physically ill. Now I take back that power and disable all my buttons so no one can push them. When I feel annoyance coming on, I replace that habitual thought with one of gratitude. I've even altered my yoga practice, doing more supported inversions to relax the nerves, and restorative poses to bring my organs into balance and quiet my mind. Sure enough, my chronic inflammatory symptoms are shrinking away.

I reserve my right to be angry once in a while. But I'm also determined to sail into my eighties and nineties and outlive my short-lived stock. I want to be a graceful, useful elder, and spare my daughters from the legacy. Happy new year!

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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I enjoy your column immensely--you have given me food for thought, inspiration, and also words for some of the things I have felt but not been able to explain/express well. Thanks for writing.
Great column! It's good to let go of annoyances for peace of mind.
Your family sounds like my family - halfway across the world in Australia. I am one of four daughters - all of us have inherited my mother's rage in one form or another. I am now a mother of two sons. I am hoping that our family's legacy of anger won't be inherited by my boys. After months of counselling and anger management - I am quietly getting there. Thanks to you all at Literary Mama - I am currently a SAHM slightly under duress, and this site provides safe harbour for me.
I'm sorry, Peggy, but this column made me laugh out LOUD! There's so much here I relate to; thanks so much for writing this column and sharing such a personal journey. Next time my temper flares at that little old lady making a slow turn, I'll think of you and smile, instead. Happy new year to you, too. K.
I just loved this. How you respond to your life is a choice, and so many of us are blindingly following the only role model that we know...our mother. Great piece, concise and funny!
Great column, Peggy. I definitely can relate, and I appreciate that you tell us what you're doing to stop and release the annoyance. That's helpful! Take care.
Not only are the anger and annoyance the author struggles with potential strengths, but I realize they're one of my favorite things about this column. My bet is that the next generation of daughters will find ever healithier and balanced ways to channel this sense of annoyance and injustice (because they are so powerful, it's not likely that they'll go away!).
My God!!! Your writing is fantastic!! Milwaukee has no idea how privileged it is to have such a significant artist in their midst. I had no idea, back when I was a snotnosed punk (i.e., at Columbia) that you even remotely held as much anger inside as I did. Speaking of which, I must take this opportunity now to apologize for the person I was then; drugs and the untimely death of my father were the excuses I used for being such a jerk, however we and most everyone else who knew me also knew that they were just excuses. I'm not proud of who I was then, but I guess I turned out okay. I'm currently working on my Master's in Education at Georgian Court; I'm teaching high school social studies in Brick, New Jersey, and my teaching style is modeled after my perception of how Eddie would be if he were a teacher (tell him, I'm sure he'll get a kick out of that.). I hope you and your family are well. Please send Eddie my love and take some for yourself. I wish you both as much happiness and success as you can stomach. And I would love to hear how you guys are doing. Fondest memories and best regards -0 Johnsin
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