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Bridging the Gap: Korean-American Families in Therapy (A Client's Perspective)

A large portion of work in my private practice is providing family therapy for 1st and 2nd generation Korean-American children (both adolescents and adults) and their less assimilated (most of the time monolingual) Korean immigrant parents. Being able to navigate the two worlds--linguistically, culturally and therapeutically is an intricate process.

The following is an anonymous unsolicited endorsement from a past Korean-American client who reached out wanting to share their experience with the larger public:

"I am a Korean-American - first generation. My parents were from Korea. I speak Korean, but very oddly. My father was abusive - to me and to my mother. This mutual trauma was decades unresolved, and a couple years ago it came to a head. I was at my wits end; my mother and I could not resolve any of our conflicts - minor ones or major ones. And I was ready to kick her out of my house. We needed help. Aileen has those important qualities you want in a good therapist. She's a good listener. She's thoughtful and gentle in what she says. She's well trained and well educated. These qualities alone are enough to recommend her. Those are the qualities of Aileen that got my mother and myself past the anger, pain, shouting, crying. Those are the qualities that got us to listening, understanding, processing, thinking, learning. Things are much better between my mother and myself now. But beyond those qualities needed for any good therapist, for a Korean-American seeking help, Aileen (as a Korean-American, also) brings the cultural competence necessary to understand the cultural double-binds that can confuse and hamper someone who straddles both Korean and American cultures. She gets what it's like being Korean-American. She gets the experience of Korean culture being in tension with American culture. This was invaluable to me as a client. And doubly so for me and my mother as we went through family therapy together. And she speaks Korean. Aileen's ability to bridge the language barrier was essential to help my mother and I. I can't speak for my mother, but I witnessed Aileen say things that helped bring American ideas and cultural norms into relevance for my mother in her mostly Korean frame of reference. And that helped me since I had been unable to do so myself. As for myself, it helped that Aileen understood that the sense of self for a Korean-American is caught between the more strongly self-effacing collectivist sense of self from Korean culture and the more strongly individualistic sense of self from American culture. In more ordinary language: she gets the pull/tension/confusion between "us"/uli/우리 and "I"/na/나 that we Korean-Americans experience - especially with our parents. I'm still in individual therapy for my own individual issues, and my therapist is not Korean-American. And perhaps for my personal issues I would describe them as more American style issues than Korean. Because of this I can confidently say you do not have to have a Korean-American therapist to make progress healing; I have made great progress with my non-Korean-American therapist. It was this progress that in part convinced me that my mother and I could fix things - if we got help. Aileen was that help - especially since my mother doesn't speak emotionally well in English, and I don't speak emotionally well in Korean, and since Koreans are reserved about emotions generally, and all the other issues my mother and I had with Korean culture, American culture, English, and Korean mixed together. She helped untangle family dynamics, Korean/American cultural dynamics, and interpersonal dynamics, and she helped find culturally resonant, personally concordant, and family relevant solutions. So, if what you are facing has elements that reach into the Korean-American experience, I can't recommend Aileen enough to you. It really helps to know you are not alone - that we Korean-Americans are not alone. And that we do not have to face the complexities of that alone. Aileen will be there to help you."

~ P.K. (San Francisco, CA)

Thank you for voluntarily sharing about your experience! I, too, am appreciative of the work we were able to accomplish together.

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