Growing up as a first-generation Korean American in the Korean church, I was taught to think of others first: take care of the younger ones in our community, be on standby to help my parents whenever needed, don’t start eating until the eldest at the table takes the first bite. In my family, love was often, and almost always, sacrificial. And while I am incredibly grateful for my background and recognize the character and values it has instilled in me, I think it also gradually conditioned me to disregard myself and my own needs. I quietly taught myself I never needed to be at the center. Seeking help was unnecessary, self-indulgence was never the answer and the extent of my daily productivity was a measure of my internal strength. I grew up never allowing myself to be “that person” who needed to take a day off at work or gratify their whims, and I remember thinking as a child that the last thing I should even do was ask my mom to buy me a candy bar or some other trinket displayed on the sides of the cashier line.
So when the term “self-care” resurfaced in popular media several years ago, I naturally scoffed and brushed it aside as just a trend for the privileged — those who could afford to splurge on Lush bath bombs, essential oil diffusers or ten-step skincare routines. In my mind, self-care was just another way for rich people to make excuses for themselves, and to be honest, I regarded it as an activity only white people participated in because I had only seen it as such. But especially after attending the teach-in hosted by United Asian American Organizations (UAAO) for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month on March 31 about burnout and anti-capitalist self-care, I have come to understand that self-care is not for the privileged but, in fact, for all — and it is especially for the marginalized, for those who cannot afford to think twice about their self-preservation.
As explained in UAAO’s presentation, though self-care has been commodified into a ten-million dollar industry by U.S. capitalism, the origins of self-care actually stem from anti-capitalist roots in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. The Black Panther Party championed this idea during the Civil Rights Movement, with legendary leaders Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins utilizing mindfulness techniques like yoga and meditation while in prison. For these organizers, often Black queer women, the idea of maintaining their health and preserving their existence was not only a means of survival but an act of political warfare.
Self-care quickly became community care, a term illustrated by Deanna Zandt that describes larger methods of maintaining the health and safety of one’s community and collectively resisting the oppressive nature of our capitalist society. In 1972, the Black Community Survival Conference held in Oakland, Ca. provided resources about the Party’s free community-service programs, such as healthcare clinics, local transportation and free breakfast programs that became a means of survival and support against the harassment and violence inflicted upon Black people by the police and federal government. In a white-dominated, capitalist society where leaders, institutions and systems failed to protect and fulfill their needs, active self-care translated to caring for one’s community in a way that would ultimately lead to structural change.
While I used to roll my eyes at the phrase “self-care” and only throw the term around lightly, I realized the weight of what true self-care for me meant when I could no longer afford to dismiss it— when I physically could not breathe under the immeasurable distress caused by the reality of our society. When I heard about the Atlanta shootings on March 16, I needed to stop whatever I was working on and do something, anything, that would offer me some semblance of solace and healing. That night, my roommates and I had a long discussion about the news and talked for several hours. All of us were at a loss of words and still processing what had happened, and I think we all knew we needed to simply be together in that space.
In the days following the shooting, as more news sources started revealing the names of the victims and social media exploded with threads of who and what was responsible and which organizations to support, the weight of what had happened continued to steadily creep into my being. I had an online interview for a summer internship scheduled two days after the event, and I remember the coordinator reaching out to the applicants the morning of March 17 to give us the option to reschedule in case we were not in the right headspace for an interview. While I genuinely appreciated the email and recognized that it would be helpful for many, I told her I was fine. I could handle it, I thought to myself. There was no need for the hassle of altering this other person’s schedule for my own convenience.
The night of, I reserved a study space on campus to get some work done and practice for my interview a few hours before its scheduled time. After I had rehearsed a few times with a little over an hour or so left until my time slot, one of my friends texted me about a vigil held by Red Canary Song, a grassroots organization of Asian and migrant sex workers based in New York City. I decided to join the livestream for as long as I could before my interview. In the vigil, activists, students and massage workers spoke against the anti-Asian violence that had occurred and the larger intersectional issues that the incident was borne from. In the last segment I saw, Yuh-line Niou from the New York State Assembly wept as she spoke about her mothers, sisters and aunties that could have filled those names.
And then I started bawling. There I was, uncontrollably shaking and sobbing in that empty room, ten minutes before my interview. I can’t remember many times in my life that I have felt this level of emotion and grief — it completely seized me. I took a few deep breaths and slowly proceeded with the interview, and I was fortunately able to carry an honest and genuine conversation with the interviewer, a fellow Asian woman who told me she had been grieving as well. After I got home that night, I quickly went to my room and wrote down everything I could remember from how I had felt during the vigil and past several days. I listed the names of the victims, which I will not share here as not all families have consented for these names to be publicly circulated. I wrote about the wave of grief and sorrow I had felt, thinking about the unimaginable pain endured by the victims’ families every waking second. I wrote about the genuine fear I felt for my own mother and other Asian women in my life — how these victims could be my middle-aged neighbor, my family friend who has recently become a parent, even the three-year-old girl I babysat last summer.
I am not saying that I should have rescheduled my interview or that there was, or is, always a correct route to making one choice or the other. But what I am saying is that grief is real and self-care is absolutely essential. Through having conversations with my roommates, journaling my feelings and prioritizing my mental health in the days and weeks following, self-care was more than merely a beneficial leisure activity — it became something that was demanded from my body and mind. And I have since understood that the discipline of preserving myself and my well-being is something that I, as an Asian woman, need to actively and consciously practice — if not solely for my well-being, then for the sake of resisting the white-dominated patriarchy that we live in.
On March 26, UAAO held a vigil — in person and via livestream — for the victims of this anti-Asian violence, and I played a small role in helping organize it. On the steps of Angell Hall, we shared a moment of silence to honor the victims and had numerous student organizers and other activists from the community speak about issues such as the destigmatization of sex work and the need for global solidarity. We lit over two hundred candles, listened to several resonant poems of Carlina Duan’s and closed out the night with a poignant performance of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” by two students. At our final debriefing meeting after the event, our check-in question was to simply share about how the vigil was for us and how we were feeling in its aftermath. I watched as, one by one, every person in the room spoke about how planning and attending the vigil had brought them a sense of peace and healing, almost catharsis.
In light of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes this past year and the devastation of the eight lives taken in Atlanta, I, and countless others, have grieved. We have taken the time to drop what we were doing, take care of ourselves and simply, breathe. And in that same breath, we have checked in on our loved ones and processed through our emotions as a collective, deciding how to move forward and organizing community-based efforts to counteract this violence and its predacious systems. And it is in these moments that I realize that true self-care and community care often go hand in hand, necessitating one another out of shared love and solidarity. When an entire community is confronted with an enormity of grief and faces even the daily manifestations of our oppressive society, we recognize that we must try to take care of ourselves, as an individual and inherently as a community.
In a typical week, self-care for me looks like intentionally setting aside time to maintain my mental health, whether I feel like I need it at the moment or not. It looks like journaling, reading a poem (or two) before bed or simply making myself a cup of tea to start my morning. It looks like prioritizing the time to cook healthy meals for myself and making sure I get adequate sleep. It looks like being honest with my emotions and communicating with others my boundaries and capacity, in the words of Zandt, saying “yes” or “no” when I really mean it. And it looks like recognizing that even, and especially, in the day-to-day, we must choose to preserve ourselves for our own sake and for others’. “Our existence is resistance,” as is famously said, and I believe this to be true.
Columnist Yoon Kim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org