Uprooted Korean, curious monk: a common story of resilience

She was the carefree one. Regardless of extreme weather, she endured the walk to school while entertaining her childhood friend, making the long walk more bearable. The harsh schooling system and expectations didn’t burn out her positivity. Little did she know that she would be the first among her close friends to wed and the only one to immigrate to the United States at the age of 23, uncertain whether she would ever return to Seoul.

Besides acclimating to a new culture and learning the language, she faced strong barriers. Her husband, who had immigrated to the States from South Korea five years before her, was doing his PhD – a long, tedious journey as he navigated the challenges of immigration as well as the degree. They were two uprooted Koreans starting a new partnership in a foreign world, and new lives. Within a decade, they had three daughters.

Her husband’s job eventually took them to Idaho – a state lacking much diversity. They raised their daughters speaking to them in Korean while they responded in English. She cooked Korean food for family dinners every night. With her first daughter, she implemented familiar practices despite a strong resistance: additional workbooks to stay ahead in school, music lessons, and limited play time.

As a stranger in a foreign world, was this her way of facing the cultural nuances that seemed to test her resilience every day? I wondered.

It took 18 years, right before her daughter left for Emory University, for both to compromise and find common ground. The pain of letting her first one move across the country was soothed by a promise her daughter made: to speak only Korean to her from that day forward.

And I’ve kept that promise.

I sat in the lecture hall silently berating myself for listening to my father and enrolling in General Biology, which wasn’t at all my forte. Before I could carry out my escape plan, our professor announced that the course work is only case studies and our exams would also be case studies; we would work in groups, there isn’t one right answer but there are wrong answers. Great.

I walked over to where the rest of my group had congregated and did a slight double take. With his burgundy red robe, shaved head, and ear-to-ear smile, one of my group members didn’t fail to stand out amongst the sea of students dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

Sherab had flown over from India for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, created with the Dalai Lama to integrate Western sciences into the monastic education system. He was one of six monks selected for this program, spoke little English, and was fascinated by biology.

We both struggled to follow the pace of the group. Thus meeting after class to puzzle together over the case at hand seemed only natural.

Sherab, a stranger in a foreign world just like my mother, also faced cultural barriers. Our meeting catalysed several unexpected events: weekly meetings, a merging of wildly different cultures, and a swivel in my career aspirations from law to neuroscience.

As I continued to explore my identity, the challenges my mother and Sherab faced and conquered made me wonder: could resilience have two distinguishable facets, emotional as well as cognitive, identifiable by distinct neurophysiological networks – ones that we can tangibly map and test?

In neuroscience, resilience remains hard to define but is often referred to as our ability to positively adapt to adversity. “Positively adapting” is key for resilience and my own background offered an excellent window into that.

I’d had a taste of the pressure the Korean education system puts on students from a very early age. If we were to measure resilience through academic success, with class rank or test scores as metrics for example, then students may be doing well academically, which is a reflection of their cognitive functioning. However, we can’t be sure that we’re mapping out their emotional resilience, which reflects their mental health.

By investigating resilience at neural level through brain imaging as well as behavioural levels with various assessments, we may find that there are different target points underlying resilience. That was my hypothesis.

I am now investigating this hypothesis with functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow to tap into both emotional and cognitive processing. My research investigates potential underpinnings of resilience in children growing up in poverty, as part of my PhD in Cambridge at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Understanding the neurophysiological and external factors that underlie this crucial trait will provide much hope for our global endeavours to preserve wellbeing in children from all backgrounds.

It is with gratitude to Sherab and to my parents that I investigate a trait they have all exhibited in their own ways. I reflect on the complex adaptations they made while I face my own cultural challenges as a Korean American living in the UK. Their strengths inspire me as I pursue this route in the hope of finding ways not only to understand resilience from a research standpoint but also to embody it as a multicultural woman in science.

The story is edited by Ghina M. Halabi and the illustration is by Martha Rosas Vilchis.