Success, Trauma, and Healing

I am a third generation North Korean. My grandparents lived through Japanese colonial rule and lost their country when the Korean War divided the Korean peninsula. My parents left South Korea and built a new life in Chile following the fall of Pak Chung Hee’s dictatorship. I witnessed Chile’s transition from Pinochet’s military regime to democracy as a child. When I came to New York at the age of 17, my dream was to become an artist. Witnessing 9/11 and the War on Terror, my world-view was shaped by the intergenerational impact of violence and war.

My artistic response was to create a culture of peace and to live a life I can only imagine. What happened once I achieved success was both painful and liberating. I recognized that I am a survivor of trauma and that I’ve made many decisions to run away from my past until there was no where else left to run. My pursuits were a distraction from the real pain and suffering I had to endure. Once I sat down to process my pain, and to understand it, I began to heal.

I am an over-achiever. Scholastic distinction, public recognition, leadership positions have always been part of my life. I think these portraits of success hide deep inferiority complexes of never being good enough, of always needing to work harder, to prove myself, and to others, that I was the best. It’s some engrained, toxic, competitive, masculine behavior engrained in me as a child. I was taught to believe that the world is competitive; that to rise from the poverty, and second-class citizenry I was born into, I had to work much harder than anyone else I knew.

I overcompensated for my poverty stigma and lack of appropriate social skills through an insane amount of higher education, which provided me access to privileged circles of society, and living, which revealed to me the possibilities that exist across the other side of the river. Of course, this access was momentary and for educational purposes only—the truth is that I sit far more comfortably in my own social alienation and marginalization, after the many times I have been shown that the world wasn’t necessarily designed to be in service of someone like me. And that in fact, I was invited to be an object of labor–labor which I became addicted to accomplish.

The do-it-yourself animus of my work also came out of necessity—of having reached a certain limit to how far I could advance as a queer, immigrant, theater artist of color. I had no access to financial and professional opportunities before I obtained my Greencard. The form and subject matter of my work was not deemed commercial until I built my own company and audience. I, like my work, stemmed from the side of the losers in society—the opposite of the mainstream, American narratives, that might include stories like mine, only in the form of stereotypes, secondary, minor characters—perhaps the punch line of a joke or the fulfilling of a diversity quota.

The saddest discovery I made is that after eighteen years living in New York, the racist, classist, personal sense of lack taught me to expect nothing more than to lose. I never planned for success. Working from a place of survival, I only anticipated failure. So when success came, I was unprepared. My coping mechanisms were useless and my self-perception needed to change. I worked with the belief that I would only be given one chance and that this was the moment for me to step up and save nothing for the return.

This assumption was reinforced by my experience growing our organizational capacity to support myself, and the artists, working in our company. While we have raised our profile, received consecutive, positive reviews, doubled our artist pay, and received national and international attention, all I can think about is how we are still considered too small of an organization, unqualified for institutional funding, incapable of proper fiscal management, one of too many requiring “start up” funding to become a real organization. Why is it so easy to dismiss our accomplishments? To negate our achievements? To feel invalid?

The most common answer would be to assume that the poor will always stay poor. That funding will not be allocated for artists like me, who may not be able to keep going once the funding is gone. To perpetuate the reality that the industry weeds out the poor. That artists cannot manage their own money. I have financially faced the greatest highs, and lowest lows in the past fifteen months, learning how to operate free of debt, compliant with taxation, professionalizing what could be considered merely a hobby, and selling our work. Even in a market where I am subsidizing my work because the market can’t afford it, I am the one told that I can’t afford to stay in the field.

I went from being a “problematic artist” to a “master artist” to a “crazy artist” for speaking my truth. The truth is that I have burned the candle on both ends, working passionately, and for free, to advance the work and a mission no one would have believed was possible. When I launched Kyoung’s Pacific Beat, starting a theater company was considered a big mistake in the current economy, but being a playwright was even more foolish of a decision, when it’s a known fact that only an anointed few make any earnings from working in the theater. The fact that we’ve persevered is strong enough of a cause for me to believe that what we are doing has merit, and now that our work has received a certain level of critical distinction, the question is: what’s to become of us next?

The answer lies in my ability to institutionalize. To operationalize what I’ve done and raise a budget that will allow us to staff, properly compensate, and regularly produce, the work that’s ready to go in our company. I have enough artistic material to continue working for the next six years, but do I have the will to become a professional fundraiser and basically, build an institution to keep doing the work? Speaking with founders of other artistic organizations, I have been told stories of how building an institution will detract the artist from his work for decades. My mentor has told me that after fifty years in the field, one could also accept the fact that the artist will live and die poor. I have sat in conference rooms with peers a few years ahead of me, absorbed to do the work I’m doing for predominantly white institutions, as they were unable to institute a sustainable model to maintain independence.

This is when the deepest of truths and fears collide. When I realize I have run away from the scarcity mentality I was born into by becoming an artist, only to realize that an artist may thrive and succeed, but never overcome this place of scarcity. That a most educated mind would and should realize that this scarcity is a statistical fact. That the fear and pain I seek to avoid is real. That this cognitive dissonance is traumatizing and that dreaming hurts.

This negativity is the burden that must be undone. It is the work I am trying to get rid of. I know I am healing because I can articulate, for the first time, how incredibly futile and pessimistic I am about my own self. How much I abused myself to overachieve by neglecting myself, and my feelings. Ever since we finished PILLOWTALK I have felt permission to focus almost exclusively on my needs. To quit smoking, which I’ve failed to quit for seven years. To address my physical and mental health. To acknowledge I am my own worst enemy. To accept the fact that I am emotionally volatile, and that my mind wanders, and that I am addicted to my own work to distract myself from experiencing my life in a way that is present and authentic to my actual needs.

The healing comes from the fact that I’ve left the day job that hired me as undervalued labor. The healing comes from the fact that I am working on my art full-time. The healing comes from finding people who believe in me, and are supporting me in making this happen. The healing comes from knowing I need meaningful financial resources to thrive beyond scarcity and survival. The healing comes from believing the safety nets will announce themselves and that what I need will show up.

I have been offered help to clarify my values and strategic planning. I have been offered help to fundraise and budget and manage our accounts. I have been suggested to “think like a mediocre white man and fail up.”

For my self-neglecting, abandoned, alienated, ostracized, marginalized, Otherized, traumatized, inner self, I’d rather: claim my power, discipline my mind and body, grant myself permission and approval to love what I love, express gratitude for the present moment, and listen and follow to my own voice.

This writing voice has been the voice that revealed itself to me when I was a fifth grader, abused and bullied into silence and invisibility. This writing voice spoke the words I am still too shy and incapable of articulating in person. And as a writer, my service to these words is my bond. My vocation. My tools for personal transformation and liberation.

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