Han describes the collective feelings of bitterness, grief and shame that Korean nationals harbour as a result of their long history with colonialism. It is so deeply internalized by its people that this affect is often passed down intergenerationally. In “Minor Feelings,” Cathy Park Hong (CPH) points out that this range of emotions can be felt by any marginalized group that has a shared history with imperialism. For the Asian diaspora in North America, these negative emotions interact with what CPH calls “American optimism,” leaving us to navigate unrelenting tensions in “a static of cognitive dissonance.” She writes:
“You are told ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase feelings of dysphoria.”
Just like han, these “minor feelings” are “non-cathartic” and deeply internalized. So much so, that to experience these minor feelings is like laughing along without acknowledging the joke’s on you. Minor feelings manifest in our quietly enduring prejudice, while simultaneously questioning the validity of our experiences. It has manifested in my exoskeleton of “okayness,” beneath which a storm of negative emotions churn.
But, we all reach a breaking point. And I think I’ve reached mine. As I watch all the gut wrenching violence against members of our marginalized communities, I feel all my rage and grief fracture and burst through my armored exterior. It’s taken me many years to realize there’s great power in sitting with these huge feelings and giving them the respect they deserve. But, the longer I sit with them, the more all-consuming they become. Until the violence is all I can think about. Until the rage and grief is all I can feel. And I don’t want to be consumed. So, I’m going to transform my han, my minor feelings, into my power. I will no longer silently endure.
Every night for the past two weeks, I’ve read my son “A Boy Like You” by Frank Murphy. In it, there are two lines that always make me pause.
“Fear and bravery are partners. You can’t be brave without first being afraid.”
The very definition of bravery incorporates fear: “the ability to do something that frightens one.” And here’s where I need to be vulnerable. Because, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m harbouring so much fear. Fear of saying or asking the wrong thing. Fear of rejection. Fear of judgement. Fear of threatening my relationships. Fear of damaging my reputation. Fear of disappointing others. The choice to be brave is not the easy path. As Brené Brown puts it:
“You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life.”
My journey to living bravely will thus be inextricably linked to vulnerability. Evolving past my han, shedding my exoskeleton, breaking my silence. All this makes me feel extremely vulnerable. But it has to be done, no matter how safe my defenses make me feel. The stakes are too high, not just because of what is happening in our communities now, but because I look toward my son’s future. In the same way han can be passed from my mother to her daughter, courage can be passed from this mother to her son. If I don’t choose courage over comfort now, how will I teach my son to do the same later?
Amazing reflection with lots of pause for thoughts for those who read it. A brave and open dialogue. Xoxo
Esther, thank you for sharing this. Even the writing and publishing of this post is an act of bravery and vulnerability. I’m so sorry for what you have and continue to experience and feel as an Asian Canadian witnessing this recent violence and hatred. But your words are powerful (I got goosebumps) and courageous – thank you.
Ester, this is such a beautiful post! Both of the quotes you shared really resonated with me. It is sometimes hard to remember that when I see other people being brave that they also harbour fears. Your son and your students are lucky to have you sharing both sides of this coin with them.
There have been so many things in the past year (in particular) that have felt so overwhelming. I love the mental image you created of breaking through your exoskeleton (kinda wish I was an artist who could draw that!) I am really looking forward to hearing more about your always inspiring thoughts, fears and ideas about living bravely.
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