Noona’s Noonchi is a column for Best of Korea by Jeanie Chang, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
Dear Noona’s Noonchi,
I just saw the movie, “Umma,” and it got me thinking about the relationship with my own mom. There’s a scene near the end of the movie that made me realize that perhaps my mom had her own trauma while raising me and my younger brother here in the U.S. We came to the States when I was around three years old and my brother was born here.
Just like Sandra Oh’s character in the film, I recall my mom being super strict and scary, so much so that the movie triggered me. She would yell all the time, I would get spanked repeatedly for things I can’t remember and I was never allowed to hang out with friends or do anything fun. It’s why I chose to go far away for college and distance myself from my mom. My dad was always busy working so he wasn’t around very much. I’m wondering if this is what’s called generational trauma. Am I suffering from it and is it something I can overcome?
-Korean American mom in California
Thank you for sharing your experience of watching “Umma.” I also recently watched it and can relate to what you said, both as a licensed family therapist and as a fellow Korean American mom of four kids. There’s a lot I have to say about this.
Mirroring real life
What I see in “Umma”, mirrors what I see in real life. Intergenerational trauma is distressful and all too often, leaves a mark on our Korean and Asian families. It is unfathomable to think of how parents can abuse or neglect their children.
However, as pointed out in the film, it sometimes cannot be helped– especially when the pain is immense and unprocessed. Traumatized immigrant parents like Umma have little to no support to ease the pain. They also may have low to no tolerance for complaining children (or a child who disobeys) because their unprocessed trauma clouds judgment and sound decision-making. This is true for all traumas. But there’s always hope that we can break the cycle of trauma.
Defining intergenerational trauma
Yes, I do believe the movie “Umma” is an example of what generational trauma can look like. Intergenerational or transgenerational trauma refers to the trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience it to the following generations. The trauma begins with an incident or event that affects an individual or multiple family members.
As we see in “Umma” the immigrant experience in and of itself is traumatic and the effects of acculturation are passed from those immigrants (trauma survivors) to their children. Acculturation is the psychological, social, and cultural change that happens in the process of leaving your country of origin to a host country. This process involves balancing both cultures while having to adapt to the host culture which, if you’re a second-generation Korean American, is our parents’ experience.
Understanding intergenerational trauma
I’m a second-generation Korean American family therapist, and much of my work is looking at the effects of intergenerational trauma stemming from acculturation in individuals, families, and couples. This directly impacts and intersects with our Asian identity. Because of the prevalence of mental health stigma in our Asian community and the lack of research surrounding Asian mental health, a lot of what I do is psychoeducation.
Immigrants can experience what’s referred to as unprocessed trauma. They know nothing about how to identify their trauma and how they have endured it. This is then passed down through their parenting. Some examples of intergenerational trauma include domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, as well as substance abuse and addiction. Parents (immigrant survivors) can also struggle to form healthy emotional attachments with their children. The effects on their children, for example second-generation Korean Americans, are directly impacted by this model of behavior. Many immigrant families are not aware of any of this, so the cycle of intergenerational trauma continues undetected and unabated down the line.
Connecting the dots
**Spoiler alert! Plot points from “Umma” are revealed below to illustrate how intergenerational trauma can occur and how it can be addressed.**
The 2021 Oscar-winning movie, “Minari“, is an excellent example of acculturation trauma. What we don’t get to see is the experience of the second generation (the kids). This is shown in “Umma”, told from Sandra Oh’s perspective as the daughter of immigrants. Oh is also a single mom of a 16-year-old girl. She’s haunted by nightmares of her dead mother, whose ashes are in an urn inside her house, and the traumatic memories of her mother’s abuse.
Viewers realize early on that Amanda, as a little girl, was punished by her mother who burned her palm with electric shocks sent through an exposed lamp wire. It may be triggering to hear Amanda’s screams and those electric shocks. Also disturbing is listening to the mother’s voice speaking in Korean telling Amanda that she’s a bad girl for trying to run away.
Normally I wouldn’t dream of going to see a horror film. But when the title is “Umma” (and starring Sandra Oh), my interest as a second-generation Korean American, and mental health expert, was piqued. It’s the first time I got to see intergenerational trauma from an Asian American perspective, and a Korean American one at that!
Effects of intergenerational trauma
Although graphic in content, the movie portrays the effect of intergenerational trauma on children. Children experience the world through their direct caregivers. They then use that experience to navigate their own life and relationships. This includes having coping mechanisms that stem from avoiding or trying to fix their parents’ unprocessed trauma that they witnessed growing up. Whether it’s abuse or other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression or substance use.
In “Umma”, Amanda is unable to live with electricity due to her childhood trauma. She and her daughter, Chrissy, live on a secluded farm as beekeepers using only candles and oil lamps. Cars and cell phones are forbidden. Amanda seeks to have some semblance of control by putting all the wires and electric devices from the home locked in the basement. Power switches are also disabled. This is how she’s been able to cope.
Showing empathy and compassion
Let’s go back to the column’s initial question. That pivotal scene in “Umma” near the end was too short for me because I wanted to see a critical conversation play out longer for myself as a therapist, a Korean American mom and as a viewer. But however short it was, it was still emotionally riveting. We could experience and see Umma’s pain.
Here’s what I want to point out about the scene that is critical in addressing intergenerational trauma. Sandra Oh’s character validated her mother’s trauma by empathizing with her pain and showing compassion for how her life ended up. For the first time, perhaps in Amanda’s life, she’s able to face her mother with resolve because she knows where she stands with her own trauma. It has to do with her mother’s unprocessed trauma.
Amanda looks at her Umma and says she knows how hard it must have been to leave a successful career as a tailor in Korea. She had to follow her husband as a dutiful wife because he wanted to pursue the American dream. However, as Amanda says, it wasn’t a dream for Umma who struggled and felt trapped by trying to adapt to her new life. She became very unhappy, and Amanda’s father left the family because of it. Amanda points out that this left her, as the daughter, to “bear Umma’s burden.” Hence, the trauma got passed down.
Healing from intergenerational trauma
“I vowed never to be like my mother,” Amanda says those words in the movie and it’s quite telling of how we are aware of the trauma cycle and want to break it. I’ve said those words myself, especially when I was a teen and as a young adult before I had kids. After having kids, though, it’s a whole new ballgame!
It’s because you do find yourself, even with the best of intentions, repeating family patterns and behaviors. This is the modeling of behavior I was talking about that we’re exposed to growing up. As a family therapist, and an AAPI mental health expert, I instill hope all the time that we can unlearn these behaviors and break unhealthy family patterns. However, it’s not one and done. It’s a continual process of unlearning what’s already embedded in the family over previous generations and learning about your relationship to trauma.
The film begins and ends on a hopeful note that the intergenerational trauma cycle can indeed be broken. Amanda’s parenting is drastically different than what we imagine was Umma’s parenting. Amanda is quite close to her daughter and we see a close-knit relationship. The conflict comes when her daughter wants to leave the farm to attend college, which Amanda did not see coming.
However, after that pivotal scene, we see an artistic portrayal of Amanda giving herself permission to not bear the burden of her mother’s pain. By validating her Umma’s trauma, she in turn, validates her own trauma. Hence, shortly after the scene we see the fruits of that validation and the freedom it brings. We are left feeling hopeful that Amanda is finally facing her own fears and healing from her childhood trauma, thus breaking the intergenerational trauma cycle for herself and her daughter.
Trauma recovery is a journey. Healing is a process of feeling and being whole. Breaking the cycle is about unlearning family patterns and learning new ones. To answer your question, Korean American mom in California: We can indeed do it as we see from the film “Umma”.
Jeanie Chang is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional, specializing in grief and trauma. Jeanie is an AAPI mental health expert, executive coach, and a global speaker who talks about the intersectionality of mental health and identity in the workplace. Jeanie hosts the YouTube Channel, Noona’s Noonchi, where she deep dives into Korean dramas from a mental health perspective. In March 2021, she published a memoir called “A is for Authentic: Not for Anxieties or for Straight A’s” which outlines her childhood experience as a second-generation Korean American.