Running from my Father’s War

One writer on why she might innately crave adventure.

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Jhung

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I inherited my father’s almond-shaped eyes, his tawny Korean skin tone, and legs that are stronger than they look. I also mirror certain parts of his personality, like his fierce competitiveness mixed with sappy sentimentalism, a deep obsession with  sports, and, unfortunately, a propensity for anxiety. Up until a few years ago, I thought the traits he passed on to me stopped at the ones we’re all used to talking about—physical similarities, personality traits, and mannerisms.

I didn’t grow up hiking or camping or adventuring. As a kid in North County San Diego, I played soccer and boogie boarded, hit tennis balls and volleyballs. My dad was my soccer coach, not my backpacking trip leader. So when I transitioned from triathlon to adventure racing in my 20s because the go-through-the-night, navigate-by-map-and-compass, running-through-the-woods nature of the sport made me feel like I’d found my life’s calling, it wasn’t because I was returning to familiar patterns of my youth.

I spent a decade adventure racing (think Eco-Challenge, Discovery Channel-type of stuff), sometimes carrying a mountain bike on my shoulder through dense sagebrush for hours on end, sometimes paddling a kayak through giant swells in the dark, always searching for the right trail and the next checkpoint. The sport satiated a deep-rooted need for strategizing and pushing my physical limits to the point of suffering. I’ve started to wonder if it also gave me a feeling of escape. 

My husband first made the connection between the fact that my dad fled from the Korean War when he was a boy and my unwavering need for adventure. He’d read an article in the New York Times about epigenetics—how, “trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which then is passed down to subsequent generations.” 

I started thinking about my dad and my racing. I thought that maybe my need for adventure was more nature than nurture. And then I started to dig some more.

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Inheriting the Need to Escape

A 2018 study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences journal found the offspring of abused U.S. Civil War prisoners were 10 percent more likely to die in middle age than their peers. A study published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2015 found mice who were exposed to trauma (tilted cages, bright lights) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine had baby mice who were “numbed” and “less reactive.” 

Another study, this one published in 2015  in Social Science & Medicine Journal, which I find the most relatable to my own situation and theory, found intergenerational transmission of trauma by interviewing first-generation survivors of the Holodomor genocide in the Ukraine, and their children and grandchildren. The interviews revealed “a constellation of emotions, inner states and trauma-based coping strategies emerged in the survivors during the genocide period and were subsequently transmitted into the second and third generations.”

Epigenetics is complicated scientific business, defined by the Centers for Disease Control as: “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” It has to do with gene expression—how our genes read DNA sequences, how our genes are turned “on” and “off.” The idea is that we inherit how our genes work (created by trauma, for instance) from our parents. The science isn’t definitive, but epigenetics is a growing field. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Jhung)

Thinking about epigenetics in terms of generational trauma—how a parents’ war-torn or survivalist life experiences pass traits down to their children—is a little easier to wrap my head around. My dad fled from war. I have nightmares about fleeing. I’m also good at going into emotional survival mode to deal with personal traumas, which is a positive thing. 

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 “I think intergenerational or generational trauma can absolutely influence an individual’s personality—their thoughts, feelings, behavior, and ways of interacting with others and the world around them,” says Dr. Jessica Yu, a clinical psychologist and Senior Director of Patient Experience at hims & hers. “What I find most interesting when it comes to intergenerational trauma among Asian American families, in particular,” she continues, “is how historical trauma (e.g., the experience of war) gets passed down.” She points to the American Psychological Association’s explanation of intergenerational trauma, and how the parental communication regarding the traumatic even plays a role in the transmission of trauma.   

So maybe it was my dad’s telling of what he called his “Escape from Korea” story that became, metaphorically speaking, part of my DNA. But I think it was more than that.

I feel like there has to be something deeper—genetic—that has me feeling most like myself when I’m hiding from other teams in the woods in the middle of the night so they don’t know we’re ahead of them, or running as fast as I can down a treacherous muddy mountain riddled with slick roots.

Reliving the Legacy

When my dad was a boy, the family housekeeper arrived at his school and told him to tell his teacher he was sick and had to go home. He, his sister, and two brothers found their parents packing up and were given 30 minutes to grab what they wanted to bring with them and shove it into a laundry bag. They were leaving their home in Seoul, South Korea, which was being invaded by communist North Korea.  

They loaded two cars, one driven by their housekeeper, and one by my grandfather. My dad remembered looking out the back window of the car as they drove away. Their neighbors, who were communist sympathizers, were pointing at him, at them, as they fled. They left behind the family dog. Their comfort. Their wealth. Their lives as they knew it.

It’s somewhere between 3 A.M. and 5 A.M. a.m., those horrible hours that are neither night or morning, where everything is eerily quiet and anyone in their right mind is sleeping. I’m sitting on the sidehill of a steep scree slope on a mountain in the Swiss Alps. I’m crying a little and starting to panic. The moon has given us some light to see the contours of the valley deep below us and the mountain on the other side, but not enough to show us the trail we should be following across this slope. I have a fear of bad things happening, yet I have gone through all sorts of hoops (gotten sponsors, trained for months, took time off) to be exactly where I am—in a five-day adventure race with three teammates, making our way night and day from St. Moritz to Zermatt, Switzerland, by foot, mountain bike, ropes, and raft. Sometimes shivering uncontrollably and dangerously close to hypothermia, sometimes riding a bike on a frighteningly narrow trail with a 200-foot drop-off. Barley sleeping. But always moving.

My dad and his family drove out of the city. He explained how American GIs were “packing something” on the bridge over the Han River as they drove across it, and later learned that the “something” were bombs. They blew out the bridge to try to keep enemy tanks from crossing the bridge.

He recalled hearing the “boom, boom, boom,” as he’d say, of battle entering Seoul from the north. They drove south. 

After long days in the car they’d park behind dignitaries’ houses, because, as my dad told me, they figured they’d know if the dignitaries fled, and they’d flee further, too. They were headed toward Pusan Harbor where they hoped to board a ship to leave their country behind for the United States.

We turn off our headlamps so the other teams can’t see what route we’ve taken, or how far ahead or behind them we are. In California’s Santa Monica mountains, we run up singletrack that I know will give me a terrible case of poison oak. It’s raining. We’d taken a wrong turn on bikes, ending up at the bottom of Topanga Canyon, and so we’re hours behind. My two teammates want to drop out of the race, to not head off on foot into the woods in the pouring rain where we’re tasked with orienteering through sage brush and sandy mud. I resist dropping out. 

“We’re here to race,” I say. “What do we have to lose?” I wanted to keep playing. We did.

Hours later, after remounting bikes and reaching the final stretch of the 24-hour race, my two teammates and I run next to the lapping waves of Santa Monica beach, the lights of the pier calling us from miles away. It’s dark; we’re filthy. House lights glow on the hills above us, some partially covered, disappearing and reappearing with the wind and the swaying of the trees. After we cross the finish line, I jump in the ocean. I feel alive.

At Pusan Harbor, my grandfather went to the embassy to lobby for him and his family to get on a boat out of Korea. At one point, they put all their belongings they had with them—which is all that they had—on a wooden ship carrying 50 people. But for some reason, they got off before that ship left. It turns out that the passengers of that boat were taken to a deserted island to die, their belongings stolen from them.

After what my dad said was “two or three weeks,” the embassy granted his family space on an American military ship that had transported U.S. soldiers to Korea to fight the war. “Ten or 12 days later,” he told me, they landed in Elliot Bay in the Puget Sound with nothing.

I’m roughly six miles into my favorite trail running race of all time, the Dipsea, between Mill Valley, California, and Stinson Beach. I’ve summitted the brutal 1,100-foot climb where the Pacific Ocean finally appears as a beacon hinting at the finish line. I duck back into the woods after a short section across open meadows and take the barely visible break between sagebrush. It’s a shortcut, only open on race day. It’s not really a trail—a rut cuts deep down the center of it, requiring a wild sort of stemming step and razor-sharp focus. When the section connects back to the main trail and the other runners who’d taken the more gradual, safer, smoother route, I’m giddy from my deepest depths. 

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  • Strategy: check. 
  • Outwitting: check. 
  • Racing/Competition: check.
  • Adventure: check. 
  • Escaping and surviving: check

Creating Adventures of My Own

I don’t think me running around in the woods is the same as my dad—or anyone—narrowly escaping war. I am very aware that being a refugee isn’t at all adventure racing, and I feel privileged that I can adventure freely and at my own will. I know that other people have a deep-rooted need for adventure that isn’t an outcome of a parents’ trauma. But I find the potential connection between my father’s experiences and my wiring fascinating.

(Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Jhung)

When I was no longer adventure racing and channeling all sorts of energy into a sport where anxious planning, constant problem-solving, and physical suffering pays, I started to experience more day-to-day anxiety. I’d fuel it, or maybe, redirect it by creating “exciting” scenarios for myself: “Maybe I can make it out of the mountains on an eighth of a tank of gas.” I obsessively plan camping trips and low-grade adventures. I think I need to channel my survivor instincts into something to feel a sort of equilibrium. 

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These days, that comes in the form of mountain runs and family camping and returns to my favorite race and its shortcuts. Is it in my genes to feel like I’m escaping something? To creep around in the middle of the night? To constantly feel like I need to outsmart someone or something, in order to succeed, whatever that may look like at any given moment? (Nailing a day at Disneyland by successfully strategizing to find the shortest lines and best routes, for instance.)

There may be some nurture to the nature. I grew up seeing my dad constantly strategizing, outwitting everything and everyone. He had anxiety that went undiagnosed until his 70s. He didn’t sleep well. He worried excessively. That part, I inherited in spades.

 “I take the perspective that it’s rarely a matter of nature versus nurture, that’s it most often both,” says Dr. Yu. In my case, it might have been my dad modeling behavior that was the nurture part.  

As Dr. Yu explains, epigenetic changes are reversible. I’ve gotten a handle on my anxiety—the excessive worrying that gives me nightmares about escaping terror situations and that can present itself in physical pain and ailments. I’m thankful to have shed that inheritance, but do I want to “reverse” all the traits I may have inherited through epigenetics, or inherited trauma? No. I’ll keep the competitiveness, the strategic thinking, and the deep-rooted need for adventure that will continue to get me out there, parts of me that keep me feeling alive and which make me my father’s daughter. 

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