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Lions Roar : May 2018
tions of wartime starvation only to be met with a new kind of food deprivation, this time chosen. She starved herself for beauty and acceptance. In my mother’s eyes, Twiggy, the fright- eningly thin British supermodel, represented the American ideal of feminine beauty. “Don’t even think about trying to get out of your chair until you’ve finished all of it,” my mother quietly warns me. “And fin- ish the milk too.” From my high chair, I try to avert my eyes from the huge mound of steaming white rice flanked by an equally tall heap of bulgogi, a sweet and savory Korean grilled beef. A small pile of chopped up kimchi rinsed in water to nullify its spiciness rests by its side. Each evening my mother ritually arranges the dinner plate on the high chair’s removable table. She reaches for the enor- mous glass of milk and places it exactly at the top front of the plate and sets a spoon and fork on each side. A soft plastic bib is secured around my neck and the plastic tray of my high chair clicks into place. I am once again locked in for the rite of eating. I know the drill. Eat until I can’t eat anymore. Eat because I have no choice. Eat even if I am not hungry, and don’t even bother telling anyone I am already full. It won’t do any good. I pick up my fork and begin. I know it is too much for my tod- dler body to handle, yet I keep at it. My face reddens in shame and my stomach hurts, but I know the consequences of not clearing my plate. So I keep silent, hop- ing that I won’t be punished. Good Korean daughters do what their mothers tell them, after all. A few hours have passed, I am sick of sitting still, and I still can’t finish the rice. My head bobs to the side as I grow tired, but I cannot go to sleep. I must stay awake, fork in hand, and eat until all the food on my plate is gone or at least until my father gets home from work. As soon as I hear the car come up the drive and the car door shut, I feel relief, knowing I will soon be set free from this chair until it’s time to return to it in the morning. When that front door opens and my dad walks in with his briefcase, my mother doesn’t skip a beat. She says, as if it were just a coincidence, “Oh, she just finished eating.” She throws me that familiar warning look to keep quiet and says in exasperation, “at least finish your milk,” implying I am the cause of wasted food. I comply and she finally unlocks the small tray. I squirm uncomfortably out of the chair and greet my father with a meek “hello.” I am well trained in keeping secrets. And he never asks. These memories of being fed beyond my body’s capacity return to me with fierce clarity as I sit in meditation. In Korean households, children are under the rule of the parents. Rebel- lion is not an option. We never talked back to our parents, and we kept quiet about negative things in order to save face. By forcing me to eat beyond what my body could contain, my Can I inhabit my body and feel it from the inside out? In her soft, calm voice, Dee Dee, another practice leader, instructs participants to explore how we feel in our bodies in the present moment. I perk up from my slumping posture as she guides us in the practice of sitting, paying attention, and turning our senses inward. “Because we tend to neglect the body, we should pay atten- tion to it through careful and deep listening,” she says. Instead of being encouraged to let go of our attachment to our bodies, we are invited to treat them as beloved friends. This is the first time meditation has been presented to me as the rad- ical act of taking up space and appreciating myself as a woman with a body and a complex history surrounding it. Asha encourages us to do the same—to use the body as an object of meditation to gain awareness of what’s happening inside of ourselves. Doing so, she said, will allow us to disengage from reactivity and from the endless stories we create about ourselves and our supposed shortcomings. While I understand the value of this teaching, I struggle to follow it, not because I’m intent on ignoring my body, but because I have long been obsessed with it. Observing my body has never been an act of mindfulness, nor has it ever brought me freedom from desire or discontent. I often perform a body scan each day, but not the kind the Buddha recommended. Rather than exploring and focusing on how my body feels in this moment, I continually monitor and evaluate how it looks. For most of my life, the act of scanning my body has been entirely ensnarled with negative judgments that inevitably fueled desire—the desire to change the way my body looked and felt. I had learned from an early age to view every feature of my body (and thus to view myself ) negatively, as though the body I inhabited were a reflection of my worth. I scan, and I judge—puffy, overly soft, weak, unattractive, fat, undisci- plined... I wonder if Asha or Dee Dee have ever engaged in this form of self-abuse, or if meditation has cured them of it. My struggle to feel my body and to discern whether I am hun- gry or full began quite young. I grew up in the 1970s, a second- generation Korean American in New York with a mentally ill mother who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. Throughout my formative years, she projected her body dysmorphia onto me, shaming me for my weight and my Asian features. I was never allowed to act on my own hunger or satiation because my mother always decided when I ate, how much I ate, and when I could stop. I was under her constant surveillance. My mother had come of age during the Korean War, where starvation loomed large. After the war, she moved to the United States, where food was abundant. Eating as much as possible was necessary for survival in Korea, but here in her new home, thinness was a way to accumulate social capital. She left condi- LION’S ROAR | MAY 2018 62