Photographs by Elizabeth Kim
On April 6, 2006, Binna Kim woke up in a pool of her own blood. It would later turn out that she would be the only survivor in a mass infanticide and matricide committed by her own father. After writing a suicide note to his church pastor, Sang In Kim shot his own family members with a .25-calibre semiautomatic, and took his own life afterwards. Kim survived the shooting because the bullet in her head had hit a thick bone right behind her ear instead of entering deeper into her brain. During her recovery, the whole story of her family's tragedy was kept from her in fear of hindering her recovery, only to be cruelly exposed to her by an investigating police officer.
But this story does not end in tragedy. Binna, who was told by doctors she would never be able to walk again, is slowly conquering her limp. She's finishing up college with good grades. She even has found it in her heart to "forgive her father," as she tells KoreAm magazine.
Recently, South Korea has garnered some notoriety in Western media as a suicide capital of the developed world.Kim's tragedy was paired with 5 other cases of murder-suicides in Korean-American homes in southern California at the same time. Men who are faced with debt they cannot pay (or legal scrutiny, as was the case for the former president Roh Mu-Hyun) see suicide as an "honourable" option.
The brutality of Binna's story also highlights the differing cultural pressures, and the lack of support for first-generation immigrants, especially the men. Sang In Kim left the suicide note to his church pastor, but how intimate was this relationship? Could he confide in him about his money troubles? It seems unlikely he ever sought (or could seek) professional counselling, especially as someone who entered the U.S. with an illegally obtained visa. Health care is still a contentious issue for the U.S., and access to mental health resources remain scarce due to its often exorbitant costs. Places like the Korean American Family Service Centre exist to build the bridge between the newly arrived immigrant families and their new surroundings.
On top of that, seeking counselling is still seen as a sign of weakness in Korean society, where confessing to having troubles is seen as worse than taking one's own life. Binna Kim describes her father's attitude as often withdrawn and "constantly stressed."
There needs to be a culture change, where discussion - and seeking help where you need it most - is no longer stigmatized as weak, but as a necessary step for rebuilding one's roots in a foreign land. Binna's courage to tell her story should serve as a reminder, and the beginning of that change.
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