When I feel depressed, it's hard to tell the cause: is it stress in my life, my mood disorder, or merely because I am Korean?
Talk to any Korean person of my parents' generation about depression, and most likely they will equate it with laziness ("When we don't want to get out of bed or work hard, we don't call it depressed"), privilege ("They don't have to worry about anything else"), or insanity ("Are you going to tear up your clothes and put flowers in your hair?"). They just don't view it as a real chronic illness.
But yet, it obviously exists, even for Korean people. Domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide are major societal problems, and those often are side effects of mood disorders.
I'm starting to wonder if the problem lies in the usual criteria for diagnosis. If you look at the normal list of symptoms for depression and you knew Korean people at all, it seems like we are ALL depressed!
According to the Mayo Clinic, depression symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
- Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Crying spells for no apparent reason
In Korea, these are all considered normal. We even have a word for it: han. An excellent article in the LA Times on han can be found here. We all carry around a sadness and trauma that is so ingrained it might as well be part of our genome. Suffering and death are recurring themes in our art, our folklore, our history. Hell, it's even the main philosophy of kimchi: preserve everything you can for the day -- and that day definitely will come -- when there is nothing. It is the reason why when you piss off your mom, she says things like "Do you want me to die now? Will that make you happy?" Sigh.
- Reduced sex drive
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself when things aren't going right
- Changes in appetite — depression often causes decreased appetite and weight loss, but in some people it causes increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
These things are also very common...but these I put the blame squarely on nurture, not nature. I am still convinced that my parents had sex only two times in their lives: that is why my sister and I exist. And Korean parents are the kings of the extreme guilt complex, unconstructive criticism, harsh-ass punishments, mysterious aches and pains, the neverending war against dust and hair on the floor, and equating food with love...which take care of the rest. Again, a Korean would look at that list and think, "Yeah, so what?"
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
- Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy — even small tasks may seem to require a lot of effort
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
These might be real bellweathers for us, but then again if I told my Korean doctor that I felt these symptoms, he would probably give me some nasty Chinese herbal potion to flush out my liver and reprimand me for being fat (in all seriousness, my childhood doctor's nickname for me was "Cow" and would constantly nag me to take diet pills. He was a friend of my dad's.). Maybe some Korean-specific research needs to be done, so we can get an idea of what depression looks like for us, or maybe we are indeed all afflicted with it.