Keeping Korean

We Need to Talk

Mug of Olivia Rhee

Content warning: discussion of mental health

My grandparents thought a melon would cure my depression.

Food is a common love language in Korean culture. Growing up in a Korean family, it’s uncommon for elders to provide displays of affection. Instead, they often spend hours a day preparing food without complaint, showing their devotion with sustenance rather than words.

I was raised in large part by my grandparents, both of whom are Korean immigrants. While they rarely paid me compliments or held me in a hug, they expressed their love by buying me fruit. Every week when they went to the grocery store, they returned home with hands full of Asian pears, lychees and Kyoho grapes. Hours later, they called me downstairs, armed with platters of freshly cut fruit. From childhood, I understood this as a sign that they cared.

It was never a secret to my family that I was struggling with my mental health. That being said, my mental state was never outwardly discussed. Avoiding this sensitive topic is a hallmark of the Korean experience.

Throughout the beginning of high school, my depression was palpable. I often spent weeks lying in bed with the lights turned off, leaving my room only to journey to and from school. On the weekends, I sacrificed time with my family in favor of sleeping all day, seeing this as the only way to escape my dark moods and racing thoughts. 

I knew from the whispers I overheard late at night that my family was concerned. They noticed my increasing reluctance to talk about the future. They saw the pill bottles piling up on my desk, the weight disappearing from my body. I may not have spoken much Korean, but I understood enough to know that my descending mental health terrified them.

And yet, as my mood declined, my grandparents continued delivering plates of fruit to my door, now with increasing frequency, but still from the outside — never asking how I was doing. 

Conversations like these were foreign to them. When the silence surrounding my health became routine, so did my disdain for this aspect of Korean culture. I was used to racial resentment, having attended a predominantly white private school in Tennessee. Here, my race alienated me from my peers. My grandparents’ heavy accents and the food they cooked for dinner guests made me privy to unending microaggressions.

I had always found refuge from racial isolation at home. When I was with my family, I felt proud to be Korean, despite the difficulties this brought to my social life. But as my mental health worsened, I felt as though they, too, were unable to understand me. My family’s ignorance to my depression caused me to feel like an outsider in my own culture like the bedroom door separating me from my grandparents. I started to question what it meant to be Korean when my connection to my family was so strained.

It was a simple plate of sliced melon that pushed my disillusionment with my heritage to a breaking point. Midway through my junior year of high school, I was consumed by stress, knee-deep in ACT practice tests and APUSH study guides. On one of the worst nights, I heard a knock on my door while finishing my homework. When I opened it, I was not met with a shoulder to cry on nor a comforting embrace. Instead, my gaze shifted downwards to the lifeless plate of chamoe on the floor.

The chamoe, in all of its innocence, was unwelcomed. I was furious that my grandparents, despite being aware of the anxiety I was experiencing, had once again brought me fruit instead of comfort. This appeared to be the ultimate sign of a terrible relationship.

The next day at school, I approached one of my only Korean friends, angrily asking her whether the melon was an acceptable reaction to my mental distress. She laughed out loud, telling me that her parents often did the exact same thing. From her perspective, this was emblematic of Korean families. Rather than seeing it as a slight, as I did, she thought it was kind of my grandparents to reach out in their own way.

American society demands assimilation. Growing up around white Americans, I believed that my family needed to be as Westernized as possible, and this included speaking candidly about our emotions. To me, my grandparents’ refusal to adhere to American expectations of communication around mental health meant that they didn’t care. I neglected to notice their deep concern for my wellness, simply because their love came in different packaging.

When I came to Berkeley, I was finally surrounded by classmates who were raised like me. Connecting with them made me able to appreciate my family’s cultural distinctions, rather than resent them. Now, when I return home bogged down by stress, I eagerly await the piles of pomelo and persimmon that arrive at my door.

There’s something beautiful about a plate of fruit as a symbol of support. It represents strength in my heritage and love from my culture. A Korean melon may not have solved my depression, but it wasn’t meant to in the first place — it was intended to remind me that, through the days I spent hiding away in a dark room, my family would remain quietly by my side.

Olivia Rhee writes the Wednesday column on navigating mental wellness. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.