Generations Loving Your Immigrant Parents, Superstitions and All
There’s a distinct kind of relationship that privileged first-generation children have with their immigrant parents.
There’s a popular superstition in Korea called “fan death” that goes like this: If you fall asleep with the electric fan or air-conditioning on, you’ll die overnight. How it became a sensation is a cultural mystery — there’s speculation it was a propaganda launched by the government to cut down on electricity. There had also been news articles dating back to 1927 alluding to deaths by cool air at the advent of electrical fans. The fan death claim is that fans circulate so much hot air in an enclosed room that it will eventually suffocate anyone breathing it in. With air-conditioning, it’s been said that cold air in an enclosed room causes hypothermia. Fan death is such a widely-known and believed superstition that companies like Samsung sell A/Cs with automatic timers.
Fan death was passed down to me as a child by my immigrant parents—it’s something they wholly believe in. My dad has even told me that air-conditioning blowing onto a specific body part (such as a leg) could make it so cold and numb that amputation would be needed. But the myths didn’t stop there. My mom also instilled in me a slew of other Korean superstitions: Don’t write your name in red ink or you’ll die; don’t accept shoes or clocks/watches as gifts or you’ll die; don’t whistle at night because the snakes will come out to attack and you’ll die. My parents’ method of raising me and my brother was telling us that we could literally die at any moment, seemingly from activities and objects that are otherwise inconsequential and harmless. They didn’t participate in the American childhood traditions of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy—I guess these fantasy figures weren’t priority for Korean Buddhists to follow—but they did make sure that I never did things like scribble my name with a red marker. I believed everything my parents told me as Ultimate Truths; why wouldn’t I have?
As innocuous as the superstition may seem, the fear had nonetheless stuck with me well until my teenage years. It makes me think about the any number of other untrue beliefs that parents tell their kids whether they’re out of bias, bigotry, religious creeds, or just because—and the harms that can cause down the line. When children are too young to distinguish truths from the untruths, it’s plausible they would simply take on their parents’ words. That is, until the ideas are challenged by the virtues of growing up, getting educated, and having the ability to form new Ultimate Truths to believe in.
Throughout my youth, I had fantasized about using the air-conditioner after-hours. I was lucky enough to be the only person in the family to have one in my bedroom because my large bedroom also doubled as a living room (it was the only room in the apartment with A/C, after all). But come nightfall, I would crawl into my futon bed sweating profusely and barely getting any sleep through 90-degree temperatures. I felt particularly sensitive to the heat; my brother and my parents seemed to tolerate the heat better than I ever did. The temptation to reach over and turn on the A/C was always there, but I resisted for fear that I’d be dead by sunrise if I did.
At some point in high school, after my family and I had moved from our Queens apartment to a bungalow in New Jersey, I made a friend who invited me over to her house for a summertime sleepover. The steady hum of the air-conditioner lulled us to sleep, and it was cold enough in the bedroom that we were actually under blankets and comforters—what a world!—all while raging triple-digit temperatures waited for us outside. I was too timid to ask my friend if she had forgotten to turn off her A/C, so I did what I had always done in situations where all my friends were casually doing something that was seemingly dangerous or edgy: I played it cool (this time, quite literally). I told myself that if I died overnight, at least I wouldn’t die alone. The next morning, we were greeted with breakfast foods. Nothing and everything had happened in the course of a night.
The incident sent me off on a mental headspin. What else had my parents lied to me about? Did I really unnecessarily suffer through years of torture for nothing? Was I actually dumb or just embarrassingly gullible? This revelation didn’t change much in the end, primarily because my parents still held onto the notion of fan death. In hindsight, of course they did. It’s a myth they inherited from their own parents (and their Korean culture), and fan death is one of the many Korean oddities that had seeped into my American upbringing.
There’s a distinct kind of relationship that many privileged first-generation children have with their immigrant parents; it’s an understanding that one day the child will be far more educated than their parents, but there still exists a sensitivity and respect that parents should never feel any lesser than. They will have always already done so much.
In these stretches of unbearable and drawn-out heat waves, I can’t believe I’m now an adult who voluntarily chooses not to have an air-conditioner in her bedroom (I do, however, have a standing fan). My reasons are practical: I want to save money on the electric bill, and my small bedroom only has one window which barely gets any sunlight. Sticking an A/C in it would mean a season of trapped darkness, which is far more depressing to me than manufactured chilled air. So instead, at night before I hop into bed I rinse in a very cold shower, towel off a tad, and let the rest of my damp nude body air dry in the breeze of my fan. I sometimes place an iced headband around my neck. This is not the greatest solution but it’s fine enough.
On the hottest days, when I think I might sweat myself to dehydration in Brooklyn, I call my mom to see how she’s doing over in New Jersey. She has devised her own system: She sets her alarm that wakes her up at various times during the night so she can turn the A/C on and off at intervals. That seems really annoying, I tell her. This is the only way, she responds. She must know that at this point in my life, I would freely blast the A/C every night if I could, and that I’ve survived many sleeps with the fan on. It doesn’t matter because she will believe what she wants to believe. Even though I’m more concerned about her well-being, she’ll be the one to tell me to stay safe. I tell her I will.