My Korean Therapist by Joan Sung

with Featured Artwork by Elisa Peterson

Dr. Joy is the best therapist I could have ever asked for. She empowers me to speak my mind and to advocate for myself when speaking to my umma. She validates my feelings around the generational trauma that has been passed onto me from my mother. And more importantly, due to her credentials, my umma listens to what she has to say.

But Dr. Joy does not exist.

The first time I mentioned Dr. Joy to my umma, I was having a conversation with her and growing overwhelmingly frustrated because she refused to listen to me while I tried to express my feelings. I was trying to explain to my umma that she caused trauma, as many other Tiger Moms had inflicted upon their children, and how I could see her repeating the same patterns with my nine-year-old son. Given that my umma had escaped from North Korea on foot with her mother, my umma’s trauma was very real and it was understandable that she carried unresolved emotional baggage throughout my life. But regardless, it had to be addressed.

Umma, Dr. Joy is my new therapist and she says you need to acknowledge my feelings.” She looked surprised.

“Dr. Joy Korean?”

“Yes, Umma,” I answered quickly, knowing that this would make Dr. Joy appear more credible in my umma’s eyes.

In a culture where elders are respected and hold the ultimate trump card over youth, your mother is always right. A dutiful daughter accepts everything her mother has to say as universal truth. My mother used to tell me as a child, “I have forty years life experience. You know nothing.” Now that I am in my mid-thirties and approaching forty, her argument has been replaced with another fallacy. But what this means is that no matter what I tell her, no matter what literature exists that confirms the existence immigrant trauma and the trauma that children of immigrants experience, my words mean nothing. Because I am her daughter, and too young to know more than her. The only exception to this rule is if there is someone Korean who holds respect and authority with a prestigious title, such as a doctor or a teacher. So, in that moment when I introduced my mother to the idea of Dr. Joy, I invented a Korean woman who had a PhD to trump my umma’s authority in our mother-daughter relationship.

Now, my umma listens to what I have to say. But only if it comes from Dr. Joy.

Today, my umma feels regret around how she spoke with her fists rather than her words when I was an adolescent. She feels regret about holding me up to an impossible standard which contributed to my anxiety and my drinking problem. Our relationship is slowly healing. And it’s all thanks to Dr. Joy.

Like I said: Dr. Joy is the best therapist ever. She acknowledges my feelings around generational trauma and my fractured relationship with my Korean Tiger Mom. She has helped me find my voice. She is well-read on Korean relationship dynamics and is extremely well-informed on immigrant trauma. I can’t recommend her enough.



A staff writer for Mochi Magazine (a magazine that amplifies Asian American women) and director of an AANAPISI grant, Joan is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Willamette Writers Organization, and the National Women of Color Network. She has a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, an MA in English, and a Doctorate in Education. Her articles regarding AAPI voices in literature appeared on the teacher blogs BuildingBookLove and TeachNouvelle and have also been published in, the United States Air Force Arctic Warrior, and the Seattle Times. She has received the United States Air Force Medal of Achievement. Find her at

Elisa Peterson is a maker, memoir essayist, illustrator, and recycle artist. Her mixed media art has been published in Prometheus Dreaming and her writing has been featured at Creative Colloquy in Tacoma WA. Kings Books carries two of her illustrated chapbooks and her charming graphic zine collections "Ask Your Grandma" and others are available through Etsy.

1 Comment

  1. This essay has me smiling and speechless. What does it take to interrupt or heal unbroken and intergenerational cycles or communication? The element that surprises me is that Joan may be proving a certain “kind” of “magical thinking” that may actually influence the real world. The writer has me double questioning what a lie is; I’m going to say a trivial lie now, but~ A healing, daring, trickster, puckish fib, but most importantly, created to do more than simply protect or deflect. I imagine Dr. Joy has plans to restore and heal all those who know of her. And when the day comes for her to terminate sessions with Joan there will be tears. I want to be there to see what blueprint for healing Joan has discovered. Joan is taking a risk, and is also doing what she must to break down very high and strong ancient walls.

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