Chapter 11: Childhood Conditioning

Excerpt from “Diaries of My Older Sister”

The way your mind operates is largely conditioned by your past experiences as a child, when your brain was the most susceptible to influence and soaking up ideas like a sponge. A habit you developed at 7 years old can stay with you even at 30 years old. Having a near-death experience in a swimming pool when you are a kid can traumatize you for life and make you avoid water as a full-grown adult. That’s why looking back at the influences you received from your parents (and other authority figures in your childhood environment) may be crucial to understanding your current mentality. They impacted your brain and your mind’s stories in a major way through childhood conditioning. 

For example, in Asian cultures, filial piety or being respectful and obedient towards elders is the main virtue that parents teach their children. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with filial piety, but the darker side of this cultural norm comes to the fore when the elders start abusing their power to shame children into “proper” conduct. Pressure, punishment and guilt trips are the emotional tools often used by Asian parents to sculpt high-performing, over-achieving sons and daughters. Their lessons usually go along the lines of “Bring honor to your family through obedience and excellence. If you fail, you will bring dishonor. If you disobey, you will be punished. Succeeding is the only way to make us happy.” We are not talking treats for getting an A+ on an exam; it’s physical punishment over scoring anything less than an A or being grounded for months if you get caught hanging out with your boyfriend instead of studying. 

Back in the 90s, I remember being in some after-school program in Seoul where a Korean teacher in her early 30s literally beat my hands with the hard end of a wooden broom to discipline me whenever I incorrectly answered my math problems. Although hitting students is no longer allowed in South Korea, that’s just one example of an Asian culture that expects children to fear rules and elders to ingrain blind obedience toward authority in children. “You answered this algebra problem wrong? How could you be so stupid? Here’s some pain to make sure you don’t get it wrong again. I’m hitting you for your own good.” How thoughtful. 

I never questioned such Asian values growing up because I had internalized them as the “normal way” of living. Until my 20s, I seldom challenged my elders or parents and thought that obeying them and making them happy was always the “right” thing to do. Now that I’ve spent the last 20 years in the U.S., I feel very differently about those beliefs. It’s up to us to apply our learned thought patterns to situations only if they are relevant, and then discard them when they are not. It took me a very long time to break out of that traditional mold and to be able to look at my elders and parents objectively. You need to determine who and what they are, and especially, what their limitations are. 

I’m not saying that you should always disobey your parents and elders either. Of course there’s several situations where it’s best to follow their advice. However, sooner or later, you must learn how to do your own thinking. And when you do become a mature adult capable of making your own decisions, your parents who’ve raised you and led your decisions when you were a child are no longer the right people to continue forcing you in a certain direction. Like a pair of children’s shoes that no longer fit you because you’ve outgrown them, the childhood conditioning and rules set by your parents when you were just a kid need to be discarded as well. If our goal is to live a satisfying life as mature adults capable of making our own decisions, we cannot allow our parents or elders to order us around without questioning them—especially when the rules they have been asking you to blindly obey are based on their own personal limitations, biases and the imperfect childhood conditioning they inherited themselves. Then we would just be repeating the cycle. Somebody has to notice such cycles and stop them from repeating. 

The irony is that parents will continue to try to tell you what to do and how to live your life because they will always see their little baby when they look at you, often in the genuine belief that they know better than you. Your job as an independent adult is to filter their advice. The helpful advice stay. Ignore the rest. And it’s up to you to decide which is which. No more blind obedience or listening to them more than you listen to yourself. Look at them objectively. Is there a chance that their advice and comments are coming from their own inherited ideas of what’s right and wrong? 

Another example of what Asian cultures need to address is our story about how success is limited to a few prestigious professions based on social status and money. That is essentially a story fabricated by the previous generations and relayed to us through our parents and grandparents. And it’s completely understandable. The very first generations of Asian immigrants had almost zero career options in America and other countries abroad, except for manual labor or businesses like restaurants, laundromats and nail salons. Of course they wanted better lives for their children, and we cannot blame them for that. A life of stable income with a respected job title and high level of education is very different compared to a painful life of poverty with a job where nobody treats you with respect. Many of my Korean uncles and aunts suffered through that lower-class life and made sure to remind me often to learn from their hardship and study hard.

But the world is changing faster today than ever before. There are new occupations now that have more responsibility and future potential than the traditional paths that were held sacred before. There’s entrepreneurs, artists and innovators who are creating extraordinary value for the people around them while being completely unbound by a job title. In this age of rapid change and innovation, the best blueprint for success may not be the one that was fixed 50 years ago by our parents and grandparents. We are the ones who must adapt to and steer the world. We have to change it, so we can make it better than the world in which our parents lived before, not succeed solely based on their old rules. 

I’m not advocating that you quit med school, law school, graduate program or whatever career path you are actively involved in. If it’s a path that motivates you to live a purpose-driven life, then by all means, go study what inspires you and throw yourself 100% into your profession. I am advocating however that the decision to choose your life path come from you, and you only. And if that decision turns out to be a bad fit for you, then you have every right and responsibility to change your course at any point in your life. Granted, you must give enough time to a chosen career path before you make a major switch; otherwise you will be wasting time and money jumping back and forth between different paths, never deciding on anything in particular. But limiting yourself to a few career choices, just because of your parents’ wishes, I feel is completely illogical. You must choose for yourself and find out for yourself what is best for you. 

I do want to emphasize one thing: Our parents are not the problem. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I owe so much to both my parents. My mother is a strong single mother who raised my sister and me as the sole breadwinner of the family in a foreign country. We do have to recognize that our parents are not perfect, but we must still love, forgive and respect them. They did their best with whatever they knew and had at the time. Challenging the mindset of our community and developing a healthy mindset has less to do with disobeying our parents and more to do with identifying and fighting for what’s best for everyone. Be aware that faulty stories can seep into your mind through your childhood influences from your parents and family members, but do not blame them needlessly. Now that we recognize those influences as adults, it’s time to let go of past issues and move toward a better direction together. 

If you are currently a college or high school student who’s grown up with the traditional Asian mindset and are afraid of challenging your parents, I urge you to start learning how to think for yourself. It doesn’t mean disobey your parents every chance you get, but it does mean you start developing your own internal compass for how you want to navigate your own life. At the end of the day, if you let anybody else including your parents dictate your life, the one who will suffer the most, if they turn out to be wrong, is you. If you do not start this process of thinking for yourself early on, then you may end up as a full-grown adult who’s completely directionless while still toiling away in the same hamster wheel set up by your parents who may no longer be alive. By taking control of your own life decisions, you can start learning today how to be more responsible. It’s scary but liberating at the same time. If you are wrong, it’s on you. And if you are right, that’s on you as well. 

Rather than just blindly assuming that your parents are the best equipped to make your career decisions, start by choosing your own major and classes. Rely on mentors and peers around you to gather the most accurate information; I even encourage you to find different mentors for different reasons. For example, find a mentor you can rely on for career advice, and then find another mentor for relationship advice. The possibilities are endless if you keep your eyes open. Base your decisions on facts, latest information and your personal strengths and then be ready to experiment and change course if something doesn’t feel like the right fit. When it comes to choosing a career path, research what kind of topics you are naturally curious about learning, what kind of problems you are naturally good at solving, what kind of mentors you would like to learn from and what kind of projects inspire you. 

Don’t be discouraged because you can’t seem to figure out everything on your own right away. You are not supposed to. Take your time, learn from trial and error and experiment again and again while asking for mentorship from others. You will get to where you want to be in small steps. Trust the process and work patiently on figuring out your unique self-potential.  

(Above is a venn diagram of a model to find your career “happy place.” It highlights the intersection of the three overlapping circles: the problems and needs of the world, things that inspire and empower you (i.e., your passions and inspirations), and your skill sets (i.e. your personal talents). This was created by Scott McGregor, one of my professional mentors from Cisco Systems in North Carolina) 

I also don’t recommend you blindly follow the “follow your passion” advice, which is often misunderstood by people who think that following their passion allows them to do whatever they want without thinking about the consequences, like impulsively setting up a dessert shop in a town that’s already saturated with dessert options, or trying to make a living as an exotic dancer in a town that could care less about exotic dancing. You wanting to do what makes you happy is important, but you must be willing to put in the effort necessary to ensure that you are providing something valuable to the people around you and endure the consequences when things don’t turn out to be as rosy as you initially imagined. In business terms, you must achieve the right “product-market fit” with the world around you. Whatever service, product or value you want to offer to the world to make an impact, you must gauge its potential by how well you will be able to serve the people in that community as well as how much demand it will generate. A better advice in my opinion may be “follow your passion responsibly under a few conditions.” We might want to encourage the next generation to follow their passions and pursue what they are inspired by as long as (and this caveat is crucial) they also satisfy certain criteria similar to below: 

  1. Stand on your own two feet while following your passion. Don’t completely rely on other people, such as your parents, to carry your financial burden during the pursuit of your dreams. 
  2. Be mature enough to persevere for years to make your dream come true and accept failure when it doesn’t.
  3. Make sure that the success of your passion actually results in providing concrete value to the community around you. 

Lastly, I want to mention that a degree from an Ivy League university is not always synonymous with lifelong success, like Asian parents often believe. In fact, in his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell specifically mentions the dangers of the “small fish in a big pond” scenario where being in an environment full of people seemingly more accomplished than yourself can actually make you less motivated to try your best due to relative deprivation and feelings of inferiority. We have more than enough examples in history where a person from humble origins ended up becoming the best, most highly regarded leader of his or her respective discipline, even though they didn’t have the most prestigious academic background (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs come to mind). The typical Asian parents’ focus on an Ivy League education is overhyped and disproportionate compared to their lack of focus in teaching children how to think independently and outside the box—the very qualities that are essential for future leadership, creativity and imagination. And it was Albert Einstein who said, “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

2020 Protests

To believe in nonviolence does not mean that violence will not be inflicted upon you. The believer in nonviolence is the person who will willingly allow himself to be the victim of violence but will never inflict violence upon another. He lives by the conviction that through his suffering and cross bearing, the social situation may be redeemed.”


My heart goes out to suffering African-American people. I want to support as best as I can, however limited I am. To disseminate the kind of helpful information that will propel the movement forward might be one thing I can help with. One thing that has helped me the most gain perspective is to go back to history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past but rather learn from the greats who achieved justice in the past.

One heated debate lately is around looting and violence. My belief is that the seed of violence used to achieve a certain goal reflects itself in the results that come out of it, perhaps not right away but eventually and surely slowly eroding the culture of the people engaged in it. The means used to achieve an end have a direct impact on the end itself, per Gandhi many years ago. Justice achieved through violence have a tendency to fall back to injustice through violence that proceeds it.

What makes the matter even more complicated is that most looters may not actually be passionately involved with BLM at all. There seem to be subgroups of people who, disguised as BLM protesters, are seriously looting stores down in Soho for their own profit, and then when people question their behavior, they lash back out to the questioners and call them “racists.” There needs to be much more clarity around who’s actually causing the looting because it’s a whole another debate if it’s a symbolic gesture from BLM leaders to target only racist businesses or slaver statues and etc. (rightful targets.) Or if it’s really just people, not caring about BLM at all, causing chaos.

When people say I should be caring more about black lives than property damage, I care about both: black lives and destruction in neighborhoods. Small property damage itself is not what I’m concerned about. But the unintended consequences to BLM from looting are far more important than minimal property damage. It carries so many negative consequences. Votes, for one. Votes that we need to create actual change with.

I’ve learned a lot and changed my positions on various things over the past few weeks of protests. But when it comes to looting, even George Floyd’s family condemns the looters saying the family is a God-fearing family that will never condone the looters.

When people jump to it saying that “we don’t get to judge how African-American grieve over Floyd” or “we should just be listening,” we are not actively engaged in bringing justice and fighting injustice. We should be more actively engaged in bringing justice while actually fighting the forces and behaviors that will amplify injustice or slow down justice. Looting will slow down justice and keep protests off-focus. “We will disobey the law unless you give us what we want.” is short-term thinking at best when there’s so many other tools and actions in our disposal. It’s a mild form of “the end justifies the means.” That path may hold very bad less obvious consequences down the line, that we might not be able to realize right away. Most importantly, we haven’t exhausted all options before going down that path. With civil war comes more innocent deaths and a cycle of vengeance and hatred. It doesn’t have to come to that.

Per Dr. King’s autobiography, he was inspired by Gandhi who mobilized the highest number of people in the history of mankind at 230 million to fight for independence of India. He told us a good seed bears a good tree. A good tree cannot come from a bad seed. Therefore, when violence and rage are used to incite looting and riots to fight oppressors, the same kind of violence and rage will continue to ensue even after the fighting has stopped, destroying future moral code for younger generations.

I believe in the way of truth that is modeling Jesus, Gandhi, MLK. Jr. They knew the incredible longevity and perseverance of nonviolent resistance that garners public unity slowly but surely. What most young people seem to be confused about is how to choose whom to follow. Whether they will follow the charismatic “rage” types who are screaming from the top of their lungs condoning violence and arousing everyone emotionally. Or if they will listen to the words of truth and love that Jesus, Gandhi and Dr. King taught, being able to think about the long-term consequences of the means of protest. I pray that God will show us the answer.

Mandela’s absolute determination to keep moving forward on a peaceful path, in the face of intolerable provocations, rather than resort to revenge or violence, was unheard of at the time. I recall two USA diplomats commenting that if the multi-party negotiation process succeeded, it would be a world first.There’s no doubt in my mind, it was Mandela’s unique and leading role in seeking a peaceful and negotiated constitutional settlement that prevented the country slipping into civil war.

Ethnic Identity is your Special Fusion

People say weird things to you when you are an Asian-American. One thing I realize is that for many Korean people, I will never be a true Korean to them. And for many American people, I will never seem a true American to them. Many times in life, people have put me in a ‘box’ which made me question myself: ‘What am I?’

I’ve spent life in the States for the past 20 years. It still hasn’t made me fully American though. I never forget my Korean side. I appreciate my Korean side. Whenever people mention my Korean-ness, it’s a source of pride. Same with my American-ness. When I go to South Korea, I often stand out based on my open-mindedness, frankness and the American-ness engrained in me now. I appreciate my American upbringing as much as I appreciate my Korean upbringing. I’ve had more American mentors of multiple ethnicities than Korean mentors in my life.

The problem is, there’s many “pure” Korean people who don’t seem to get along with me very well. Granted their life arc is very different from me, based on military service, having spent their entire life in Korea and having problems confidently speaking English and so forth. I must rub them the wrong way, or maybe they have trouble relating to me. In the beginning, I felt hurt because they wouldn’t always consider me their own. Eventually I realized something. I don’t have to belong to them to be happy with myself.

On the bright side, There are Koreans who appreciate me. Not all Koreans are close-minded against Korean-Americans. For those people, I’m a unique, special blend. They don’t relate to me just because I’m Korean but because I can offer them a new possibility. By being true to me. Not having to be somebody else. It goes to show that you cannot please all people all the time. Some of the people will accept you all the time for no reason. All the people will accept you at some of the times for no particular reason. But you cannot make all the people accept you all the time.

In a way, many Korean-Americans and Asian-Americans are operating on a scale system, not a binary system. You are not just completely American or completely Korean. Oftentimes, you are an amalgamation of both to a varying degree. You might have spent 1o years of your life in Korea and then 20 years of your life in Connecticut, North Carolina and New York. So Are you Korean now? Are you a New Yorker now? I don’t know. I would say mathematically speaking, 34% Korean, 66% American. In that manner, we retain a piece of the environment around us wherever we grew up in. I know Koreans who spent most of their childhood growing up in Germany, India, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, France or the Philippines. It doesn’t make them any less lovable or less respectable. They have their own valuable identity, which is separate from the pure Korean identity. And yet, we share that commonality, as the ‘in-betweeners’ which is also important. That alone is a unique identity in its own way. Being a precious hybrid.

For those of you who might be suffering from identity issues, believe me, it’s not an easy puzzle to solve. Especially if you are half-Asian or multi-racial, I can only imagine how much tougher it is for the outside world to consider you one way and then your internal world trying to express another. In a really funny way, I suffered from color discrimination from my own people based on my unusually dark skin tone growing up in South Korea. I was made fun of, along with my mom and sister growing up.

At the end of the day, the path I believe is “self-acceptance.” Not all Koreans will accept me, and that’s okay. Not all Americans will accept me, and that’s okay. But that doesn’t make you a watered down version of a Korean or a watered down version of an American. I am both of those identities and none of those things. Some people understand this better than anybody, especially those in America who call themselves ‘mutts,’ whose identity is so mixed from several generations of ethnic intermixing. Some people just like to disregard issues surrounding race and ethnicity altogether because it’s much easier to live that way in America.

I’ve recently been reading Professor Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s Book “When Half is Whole” which is an amazing read written by a leading scholar on the subject of identity. It’s been one of the best recent books I’ve discovered. He mentions that the 3 steps to living with your multi-ethnic identity is 1) Knowing and feeling different from those around you often in a negative way + 2) Struggle to belong, social pressure to conform and loneliness + 3) ultimate self-acceptance through self-definition of your own identity.

The ‘tweeners are a weird, special bunch. I truly believe that.

In marine biology, there’s a term called “Biodiversity.” Researchers say the most diverse, creative forms of marine life can be seen at the point where two completely different types of ocean currents collide. In that way, multiethnic individuals are like the meeting point where those two ocean currents collide. Throughout history, it is those multiethnic individuals who have given us amazing innovation and creativity only possible through cultural fusion. Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Asian-Americans just to name a few.

We can think different from those of our origins who are set in their ways. What will you choose to create with your own fusion? The world is your oyster.

What were we trying to achieve with Crazy Rich Asians?

“The actors, the producers and the director, all shared the same sense of pride and responsibility to properly represent Asians in mainstream media with this monumental opportunity. This was our chance to show the world that we are just as brilliant, just as good looking and just as funny as everyone else in Hollywood. This was our key to open the doors for all the amazing Asian talents in cinema.”

Yang, Jimmy O.. How to American (p. 213).

I recently read Jimmy Yang’s book and was very impressed by his life story (ended up writing an Amazon book review 5.0/5.0 stars) But this one part kinda gnawed at me.

In Jimmy Yang’s book, he mentions his experience in the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, as above. As proud as I was to see more Asian representation in the media, it wasn’t that clear to me what this movie was trying to achieve.

A couple years ago, one of my Caucasian co-workers told me that she wasn’t impressed after seeing the movie, I had actually been a little upset at her and thought, ‘Oh, another Asian hater.’ Then I saw the movie and was like “Huh…..maybe she wasn’t being mean. Just honest.”

Here’s the thing. Is making a lot of noise around crazy, rich good-looking Asians of the world going to change people’s perceptions? Is it for the kids? Is it for the future generations? It seemed very much “in your face.” (Like the whole scene with a 3-minute sequence of the male lead actor’s naked body in the shower) It was like an Asian kid in a predominantly white elementary school’s playground posing for the camera in a tuxedo with combed hair and saying “hey I can be good-looking and classy too!” It felt a little forced, self-celebratory, with a hint of backlash toward the existing Hollywood community.

Granted, Hollywood currently sucks in its Asian representation, so maybe this movie was a natural reaction from creative, artistic Asian-American moviemakers who wanted to desperately get other Asians out there. In a way, a step forward (the fact that this movie even exists). In another perspective, Asian-Americans still have a long way to go, not just in the amount of representation in the media, but the consensus we need to achieve to say “WHAT stereotypes do we want to challenge? What image should we communicate to the world?” Projecting “Hey! we can be rich, crazy and good-looking too!” is not enough. There’s no depth there. Nowhere to go from there.

If we really wanted to change people’s perception of the race, or the Asian-American community or the global Asian community in general, we can’t do that by just putting up good-looking Asian faces in Hollywood movies alone. Yes, it’s important for Asian children in the fact that they get to see more representation of role-models who look like them. But that’s missing the larger context. A movie with funny jokes and aesthetically pleasing images of Asian people alone isn’t enough to make other racial communities think “Oh yes, this movie changed my entire outlook on how I should perceive Asians. They are so much better than I thought they were.” You have to win people over. Slowly. Through values that we live by that will actually touch and help the world regardless of race. Just touting from the top of our throats about how cool we are is going to backfire. Asian people have so much history, culture, philosophy, legacy just being ourselves. That’s probably something we should highlight more.

Hollywood shouldn’t be a petty competition-land where people from different ethnic communities try to out-muscle each other in terms of better representation. Media is important yes, that’s why we are fighting for it in the first place. However, more we fight for a louder voice here, more we miss the point of winning the actual bigger war of “correct representation.” Just like Michelle Obama used to say, “When they go low, we go high.” No matter how badly we are depicted in the media, we don’t just fire back by trying to get louder with more media. We are certainly taking positive baby steps in media. But at the end of the day, we need to do more than just pushing media to change people’s real perceptions. It will be hard. But I sure hope we get there.