The Price of the American Dream

She looked tired, but she put on a smile as she greeted our table, apologizing for the delay. We were a party of eight on a busy Friday night. The staff was hustling – the woman and her son.

The woman seated people, went from table to table taking orders, ran to greet carry-out customers, answered the phone to take those orders; she was the mother of the young man who filled our cups with water, cleared the tables, did what needed to be done. On a Friday night.

I found myself periodically distracted from the dinner conversations, watching the woman, watching the son.

My father has often told stories of his job a a bus boy, one of his first jobs after arriving in Chicago with a master’s degree in engineering. I waited tables in college to pay for my books and expenses. Dad talked about bringing home leftovers from the kitchen to share a late-night meal beyond their budget. I remember putting in my tithe into the offering plate – a roll of singles. Our family never owned a restaurant, but watching the mother and son serving us reminded me of my family, my parents – the sacrifices they made out of the love and the gulf between us.

My parents owned a dry cleaners. It was a drop-off – the clothes were taken to a plant where the cleaning was done and returned to our storefront on hangers. The back room where the bagging, tagging, and detail work happened was where my sister and I used lint brushes to make the clothes look as new a possible. We worked when we weren’t in school, went in on weekends when we could. In my faded memory my parents closed the store only twice in the many years they owned that business – one Saturday in 1993 for my wedding and one Saturday in 1995 for my sister’s wedding. They may have closed the store to attend our college graduations, but I don’t remember. I do remember my mom talking with customers, reminding them in the weeks leading up to my wedding that they would be closed on April 24.

My mother’s ability to chit chat in English grew exponentially during those years of handling other people’s dirty laundry. She remembered customers’ names and milestones, their preferences for dress shirts – folded or hangers, starch or no starch, and usual drop-off and pick-up times. The woman at the Chinese restaurant recognized an order from our table as a carry-out regular. One couple in our group often dine in the restaurant, and the woman had memorized their favorites. I watched her son hover to refill our water, and I thought about my sister and I in the backroom listening to our mom make small talk with the steady stream of customers. A spontaneous night out with friends at a Chinese restaurant and suddenly I can’t get my family’s dry cleaning business out of my head.

A customer once asked my mother if she hoped to pass down the family business to her daughters. I couldn’t see my mom but I could hear her polite but insincere smile as she responded, “No. I do this so my daughters will graduate from college and not have to do this.”

We did. My sister and I both graduated from college. Neither of us do the kind of manual labor my parents took on to fund our middle class lives and college education. I can’t speak for my sister, but I have often wondered and grieved over the fact that my U.S.-based college education, my fluent English and broken Korean, my penchant to think in terms of “me” as often as I do “we,” my assimilation into a culture and country where I am forever a foreigner was too costly a price. Make no mistake. I love and deeply respect my parents. They did their best. Their English is better than my Korean. They recently shared that maybe they had been too hard on me, their first-born. They didn’t know how to raise an American child. But as a 48-year-old grown ass woman, I am living the cost of the American Dream, living and breathing the distance and disappointment between us. Good enough sometimes isn’t good enough. Is that ok? Will that be enough?

I think back to the woman and her son and imagine going to the restaurant to share some words of wisdom. I thought I would have some by now.



26 Things I’ve Learned During 26 Years of Marriage

We are sitting next to each other at the kitchen table planning another “this might be the last time we can vacation with all three kids” vacation. He is planning it because I spent the week prior figuring out how to maximize 160,000 frequent flyer miles between five of us, one of whom does not live at home. He wanted to me to help decide between the upper canyon or the lower canyon or both. I told him I can’t make any more decisions today.

Peter and I met in November 1992 in Appleton, WI. He was recently separated from the U.S. Air Force working on getting his dental license for Wisconsin. (No, the government didn’t pay for dental school.) I was a very green newspaper reporter in Green Bay, WI. Our friends Scott and Irene (who were my college friends and went to church with Peter) introduced us thinking Peter would make a nice oppa- older brother-type person. Awkward.

We met at the mall and he ate something from Taco Bell while we talked. I had eaten at a work function. He remembers me firmly shaking his hand. I remember he was eating Taco Bell.

We had our DTR (defining the relationship talk) two weeks later and defined our relationship as headed to marriage. We were young, though I was younger, and we were in love. We were engaged on December 26, 1992 with about 100 of our family and friends in attendance for a tradition Korean engagement ceremony. We got married on April 24, 1993 with about 1,000 friends, family, and strangers to us but connected to our parents. It was an intimate gathering.

We have moved three times, each time getting us closer to the Promised Lane – the north suburbs of Chicago. We moved into this home, our second house, almost 15 years ago. Elias decided to start potty training while we were still unpacking boxes. We have yet to remodel the kitchen. Maybe goldenrod laminate countertops and linoleum floors will make a comeback.

And here we are. We often look at each other, usually as we are getting ready to go to bed, and say how incredible this all is. It is.

The list

  1. The sooner you figure out how your strengths work together the better. He paints with the roller brush. I do all of the detail work without painter’s tape.
  2. The sooner you figure out your weaknesses the better. I recommend marriage counseling before and during marriage.
  3. Maintain your own friendships, aka you don’t always have to do things as a couple. Peter and I have been really #blessed having a group of friends where the wives became friends first and then set up play dates so that our husbands would get to know each other, and now the husbands are good friends who plan their own nights out
  4. Every stage of marriage and life will impact your sex life. It’s called stress, pregnancy, post-pregnancy, those long days and short years, menopause and whatever the male version of that is, etc.
  5. Over communicate. We are still working on this. It’s not just about talking a lot. It’s about communicating details and emotions and not just the number of words.
  6. Remember what you enjoyed doing before you were married and keep doing some of those things. For years Peter was in a fall bowling league (that started in the fall and ended around our anniversary, which also was the cause of some tension because of the lack of over communication). I went to the lanes once to stop in and say hi. I like to get lost in a book, alone in silence with coffee or wine and the option to fall asleep.
  7. Learn to enjoy things the other person enjoys. Peter still doesn’t enjoy coffee. I still don’t enjoy running. I have learned to enjoy basketball, baseball, and football. He pretends to enjoy gardening with me.
  8. Learn to say you are sorry, what you are sorry for, and how you are going to change your behavior moving forward, and then change.
  9. Spend some time getting your own shit together, aka staying emotionally healthy. No money for a therapist? Read or listen to some podcasts. There is a lot of information out there to help though a therapist or counselor if you can afford it is the way to go. Peter and I would’ve fought a lot less if he had figured out why he thought his parents were perfect and why I had stayed in an abusive relationship in college. Yup. Lots of fighting.
  10. Non-sexual touch can be very important. There were years when my body was all about gestation and lactation and then the needs of small people’s bodies. A back rub with no expectation it was going to lead to sex was important.
  11. Your marriage isn’t doomed if you can’t do weekly date nights. We didn’t have the money, the time, the energy, the babysitting, etc. We felt like marriage failures, and only the last few years did we understand that was some weird unrealistic BS that didn’t fit us. And how many times can you go out to eat if you don’t have amazing ethnic food close by??
  12. Instead of date nights figure out what will work so that you can connect on a regular basis and have time to laugh, talk, enjoy each other’s company. It’s a lot easier for us now that we only have one child at home but also easy to forgo because we have unrealistic expectations for what family time will look like. Monday night was date night. We went to yoga and had a beer. PERFECT!
  13. Learn to forgive each other. I can remember many of our biggest fights, and that memory is a problem when it’s not coupled with forgiveness. Yes, there are still things I am working on forgiving.
  14. Try to stay physically healthy. If you are reading this blog you can search your heart out for all the little things you can do to stay fit with or without exercise equipment, health insurance (but boy does that help), fancy fitness watches, etc.
  15. We are both Christians so we also work on our spiritual health. Find and develop a relationships with people who share or honor your faith, faith practices and rituals, etc.
  16. You will change. I used to make the bed every day, and it would drive me nuts that Peter didn’t. (I still refold the towels every now and then.)
  17. You won’t change. My shoes are in clear plastic boxes and labeled. The shirts are organized by color and sleeve length. I don’t even look in Peter’s closet any more.
  18. Money doesn’t buy you love, but that security doesn’t hurt. When you can’t pay the bills the stress can be overwhelming, and it strains even the strongest marriages. Don’t pretend money doesn’t matter. It isn’t everything, but it isn’t completely irrelevant.
  19. Problems and strengths in the marriage can spill into parenting. Becoming parents doesn’t fix your marriage. It amplifies the strengths and weaknesses in your relationship.
  20. Learn to celebrate each other in ways that are meaningful for the other person.
  21. Have sex. When you have kids you may have to plan for it or make it super quick. If you don’t have kids already just make it a habit to sleep with your door closed and maybe even locked so that when you do have kids and they get older everyone is used to having to knock. Teenagers sleep weird hours so there’s that, too.
  22. If you don’t enjoy or want sex or it becomes painful, talk to your spouse and maybe a doctor. Seriously. It’s not about procreating. Sex is meant to be fun and enjoyable, not that scary evangelical/fundamentalist stuff Peter and I grew up with. (I should probably write more about menopause. Yay.) If you’re both ok not having sex, carry on.
  23. Sometime you go to bed angry or annoyed but don’t be passive aggressive about it. Figure out when you’re going to pick up the fight/disagreement/conflict, but for goodness sake SLEEP. Most fights aren’t resolved by staying up all night. We’ve tried.
  24. Say “I love you” in as many different ways as often as you can. Variations include “I trust you,” “I am for you,” and ” I believe in you.” I love it when Peter takes my car and fills up the tank. Peter loves it when I make Elias take out the garbage. He knows my current favorite red wine. I buy him his special fancy pants chocolate bar.
  25. Make room for each other’s dreams, failures, growth, doubt, and changes. It isn’t perfect. It may not even come close to the plan, but talk about the crazy dreams and maybe you will find or make some space. I am an author and a yoga teacher. Those were some crazy dreams.
  26. Don’t just look back and remember what made you fall in love or what you loved about your spouse when you first met. Gratitude is a discipline and a daily practice. If I’m lucky I’ll get to write another list next year, but for now I am so grateful that despite being groggy and tired and probably running a little late, Peter will wake up and wash the dirty pots and pans in the sink.

Happy 26th anniversary to us, Peter. I love us!

Turning 21, Again

I am taking a trip of a lifetime next month. My daughter called me up and asked me if I would meet her in Paris and could we tack on Iceland.

“YES!” I screamed with no hesitation. “Oh, wait. Hold on. Let me talk with Dad (my husband, her dad, not my dad).”

I’ve never been to Europe. My miles and money went to Paris a few years ago for Bethany’s study abroad, and I have all sorts of ridiculous fantasies about traveling abroad and a clean bathroom and a perfect paper planner. Her question, while it could’ve waited for a few days, felt pressing, urgent, and important. I didn’t ask my husband. I told him. I told him our young adult daughter asked me, her mother, to meet her in the City of Lights, and I told him I wanted to go.

So we said yes.

But getting to yes also meant making some other decisions about how this almost empty nest stage of life would be, what needed to stay and what needed to be let go. Before deciding on this trip to Paris was one other decision to be made that had been hanging around like the last dumpling at an Asian gathering. I didn’t want to touch it. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Asian American/Canadian Lounge at Urbana18. Y’all know exactly what I am talking about.)

Before saying yes to Paris, I knew it was time to say yes to a different invitation into uncharted waters. I said yes to leaving InterVarsity. My last day will be February 15.

Milestones are a chance to shift

This month my staff career with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA turned 21 years old, barely legal and ready for new things. I sent out the following words in an email to a few colleagues after I had given official notice:

There has been a cost that I no longer want to carry, do not feel called to bear, or have the influence to change – a funding system that was designed for white men in a completely different cultural context, the human sexuality rollout that left our LGBTQ staff vulnerable and inconsistently asked for belief and behavior, and an affirmation of women in leadership that falls short of calling the Church to do the same. 

As I’ve wrestled with those concerns I’ve also sensed that it’s simply time to leave and explore options to write and lead in another context. I do not have another job lined up except for the two yoga classes I teach on Thursdays. I am asking God what the invitation is for this next stage of leadership and life with the privilege of stepping away from IVCF without a plan.

I tell people I am a product of InterVarsity’s training and development – my deep love for scripture and manuscript Bible study, a commitment to mentoring and discipling, integrating my values into action. IVCF has been one of the few spaces in the Church that provided a Korean American married mother an opportunity to learn and be mentored by the likes of Jeanette Yep, Lisa Espinelli Chin, and Paul Tokunaga. I can only hope I will have left staff with a fraction of their wisdom.

I don’t know

That’s still my answer to the question, “So, what’s next?” I do not have a job lined up. I have not talked with an agent or a head hunter. I’m looking for a new spiritual director, preferably a WOC. I’m looking at the first three months as a sabbatical and, in some ways, a detox and untangling of my identity from an organization I’ve been a part of as a student, volunteer, and then employee for almost half of my life. I don’t know what’s next in terms of employment, but that’s OK.

For having worked most of my adult life in ministry I am finding that question funny because in it is an implicit request for certainty, and as a person of faith the older I get the less certain I am and the less certainty I require. My children are young adults. They have taught me that humility, failure, and uncertainty are essential and critical in parenting. My husband and I have been married for almost 26 years, and that friendship and relationship has taught me the same. We screw up on the daily, and more often than not I am not sure how we will fare the “till death do us part” part of our vows.

I don’t know what my next job will be. I know that uncertainty is a privilege and one I do not enter into or carry lightly, but I am carrying it.

Yes, I’m scared

No, I’m not totally OK with all of this uncertainty. Why do you think I am still searching for the perfect paper planner system (right now I’m loving my very basic bullet journal)?? I am a planner. I like making lists and checking off to-do items. I love setting goals. I love the friendships and community I have had the honor of being a part of on staff, and I will miss seeing colleagues who have become friends. I’m scared of losing friends and losing a sense of identity. I sat on making this decision for a LOOOOOOOOONG time, in part, because of the uncertainty and the privilege to say, “I’m quitting” without a plan to replace that income. It feels incredibly selfish, and as the daughter of immigrants all you know and are told is about the unselfish sacrifices our elders made/make for us to live better lives.

And just to drive the point home even my parents were worried about my non-plan even though for the past 21 years they haven’t been convinced that working in ministry where you are required to raise your own salary is a real job that one could really quit. How do you quit a job that isn’t a real job? See? It’s weird.

But I quit, with some financial planning because I’m not that selfish or stupid, and I’m scared. I’m scared my dreams are too old or faded. I’m scared I’ve become risk-averse and practical. I’m scared my imagination is too limited. So why did I quit? Because I’m scared of being stuck because of my fear.

My Dear Readers, are you stuck? Are you scared of staying stuck? If you could “do” anything or make a career change what would you do? If you’ve taken that scary leap of faith, what advice do you have for us newbies who are free falling?

Tidy Up, Dear Christians

For all the various takes on KonMari (Kondo Mariko is her Japanese name), I am left wondering about what we as Christians haven’t been taught well in our church buildings with multipurpose spaces, cafes, and bookstores that is coinciding with this cultural moment. Why do we have so much stuff? Why are we or people we know getting rid of garbage bags full of things from one room of my/their home I/they don’t need, I/they don’t fit into, and that don’t spark joy?

Lovers and haters note that Kondo has hit a nerve around our stuff and our preoccupation with stuff, the accumulation of it, and the purpose of the stuff we surround ourselves with. Christians are not immune from that preoccupation even though we say and have heard that we can’t take our stuff to heaven (or our church buildings, for that matter) and yet the Christian industrial complex pumps out stuff, most of it geared towards (white) women sold to us at (white) Christian women’s conferences by (white) Christian women. There are several (white) Christian women who have built lifestyle brands around shabby chic, reclaimed wood decor, and statement jewelry, none of which we can take with us to heaven, and even as I look around my home I wonder what if any of it is about bringing about joy let alone bringing about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven unless we think heaven will be a cross between Ikea and Magnolia.

And just in case someone is ready to pounce, I AM PART OF THE CHRISTIAN INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX. I am a published author promoting a book, side gigging sassy cross-stitching and bracelets. Part of my “brand” is that I often sport a t-shirt with a provoking message, and the other part of my brand can’t be copied because I bought the last blouse in the clearance section. I am writing because I am wrestling, and I hope my Dear Readers you are, too, whether or not you are KonMarie fan. I am also a neat freak but also a child of immigrants. There is no pretty way of drying my ziplock baggies that I have washed to reuse. There is no joyful way of saving every plastic container that can be reused rather than buying matching plastic food storage containers. Old towels don’t bring me joy but their stiffness and scratchiness help with exfoliation and absorption (I don’t use dryer sheets).

Kondo is Japanese. Her method is socially located in a country where space is limited and overcrowded spaces are giving way to tidiness, whereas here in the US an entire industry has emerged around people paying for additional storage to hold their extra stuff.  Haters go on about how ridiculous it is to pare down a book collection to 30 books, but as one who has several bookcases throughout my home full of books I will never read again how many of us are too afraid to admit the books make us feel accomplished, intelligent, and therefore safe and affirmed? No? Me neither. It’s not a judgment, but I will be honest. The books I surround myself with say as much about my intentions around reading as they do about how I perceive myself and how I want to be perceived. Who wants to talk with me about that and not just about how my bookcases look so much better having gotten rid of many of the books written by white men?

The same goes with the rest of our stuff. Does a tidy home say something about our interior lives? Do we believe a tidy home is inherently better and therefore a reflection of my interior life being…better? Tidier? Closer to an ideal? What does this love/hate around Kondo say to us Christians about our relationship to the physical world and its connection to our interior lives? Or does it? Instead of Christians bragging about the number of books they have gotten rid of or kept, I want to wrestle with our relationship to the physical. I think that is in part what Kondo is doing and that’s why it’s hitting a nerve, for better and for worse. I am afraid that once again the Church has abdicated some degree of responsibility to the “culture out there” as if we can’t taste a bit of our own hypocrisy as we sip our fair trade coffee in church-branded mugs.

The Last First. #eliasneedsahashtag

Tomorrow our youngest child starts school. Again. This time it’s the last first day of high school. The light at the end of the child-rearing tunnel is shining brighter and bittersweet. I’m not crying. I’m more tired but also sleepless. I’ve been on edge for the past two weeks, and it’s because tomorrow our youngest child goes to his last first day of high school.

I find myself staring at him. I can still see his baby face, but it means looking up and past the facial hair. His laugh makes my heart smile. He’s been busy enjoying the final days of summer freedom, before he and his friends head back to classes, daily reminders that college applications are due, essays need to be completed, important decisions need to be made. He planned a night of s’mores at our fire pit. He had a dozen boys over for a LAN party. He helped organize a night of playing “hostage” and I bribed them inside after curfew with pizza. “Can my friends come over and….” Yes. Yes, your friends can come over because this is the last first day.

In many ways he has always been in a hurry. Even his birth story is one of hurry. He barely waited for my doctor to show up. I didn’t have time to change into a hospital gown or sign all the papers and get admitted before he was born. There are photos of me, breathing through my contractions, braiding our oldest child’s hair with #2 at my side, and hours later I’m in the same shirt holding #3.

The build-up to the last first day snuck up on me. Getting ready for the first day of high school doesn’t involve the same rush as elementary school. In our community the kids can go to the high school to pick up their own schedules, and smart phones make sharing your schedule a matter of a few thumb movements.

There are no lists of school supplies. There are no discussions about why you don’t get a new box of crayons every year, no search for the specific brand of watercolors (Prang), no required supplies actually except for the expensive calculator to do things that don’t factor into most people’s daily lives. In our home we don’t buy new clothes for back-to-school until the old clothes don’t fit, and I still have a shelf of folders and notebooks that can be reused. July came and went and suddenly August was here. We are so ready for this day that it snuck up and surprised us.

When he started kindergarten I was the parent with a big smile ready to sing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” because it had been a long summer with a job, three kids, a husband working long hours. I was ready for his first day of kindergarten with an inappropriate level of giddiness, but he had other plans.

My sweet boy wrapped himself around my legs like a koala bear. It would take a teacher and the principal to slowly unwrap his limbs from mine and take him inside. I knew what to do and I did it. I turned around and walked away with the biggest lump in my throat and tears hot in my eyes. The eyes of less experienced mothers glared with judgment and horror as I walked away without turning back and while those of my peers looked with understanding, urging me to take a deep breath.

The principal gave him a magic penny and told him when he touched the penny it would magically signal to me to think of him. He knows now that I can’t help but think of him. As I steel myself for tomorrow I’m thinking I need that magic penny that will signal him to think of me.

I’m Sorry: A Story

A screenshot of the email I received April 15, 2019.

My Dear Readers,

Many of you have reached out over the past two months with words of encouragement, prayers, funny memes, and lovely tangible gifts of wine, chocolate, sheet masks, and pottery. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

There wasn’t much to update you with until last week, and I’ve been trying to decide and discern what to write about the apology I received. I know I should be grateful and gracious but to be brutally honest I am tired. It took two months for the institutional wheels of a Christian university to issue an apology that is worded in the first person, carefully avoiding institutional culpability but acknowledging some proximity to the situation.

In other words, the apology is a first step and because this involved an institution it took more than a heart-to-heart “do you hear what I’m saying” conversation. Allies and advocates inside the institution worked hard to get the administration’s attention, and I am deeply grateful for the students, staff, and faculty who contacted various administrators to let them know that they/we were waiting and watching to see how a Christian institution would respond.

A timeline

February 18 – I preach/speak/talk at Baylor chapel, by invitation. Chapel is a required class and runs back for three class periods. That morning, after the first chapel, I posted a vague book request for prayer on my author FB page because a student interrupted me as I was wrapping up my time, unnerving me for a split second as I tried to figure out what to do. The student objected my example of an 11-year-old arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. You can do your own Google search and see how headlines covered this story, etc. A university administrator asked me to consider rephrasing my description of the news story despite the fact that multiple news outlets connect the arrest to the child’s refusal to stand for the pledge. I removed the example all together because it’s clear the administrator wasn’t comfortable with the example, and I don’t want to worry about students interrupting me. My focus is on calming down for the next two chapel services. Chapel staff told me crisis protocols were in place and that someone had considered removing me from the stage, the student had been removed quickly from the auditorium, and that I was not the only adult in the room who was concerned that the situation could’ve escalated.

February 25 – I write and publish my blog post with little to no public reaction from Baylor students, parents of students, alumni, etc. No one from the university follows up with me, despite having acknowledged that other university employees also had made split second decisions and were ready to remove me from stage, etc.

When I wrote this post about what had happened to me in February I did not name the university or the student involved. The blog post wasn’t about a single incident but how that one incident, which I do describe, got me thinking about safety, risks, etc.

March 4 – A university-recognized student organization publicly posts a YouTube video where the young man who interrupted my chapel talk names me and challenges me and the university to respond. Now it’s not just about me thinking about safety (and the university’s failure to follow-up with me about what happened during chapel). It’s about the university in a far more public way because a Baylor student organization decided to make it about me against them and Baylor and invited supporters to raise their voice. Very clever. (Next time, dear young conservatives, please learn how to pronounce my name and cite my book correctly.)

Comments on my original blog post and on my Twitter feed get, um, interesting and are an example of the pros and cons of communication in the 21st century – anonymity, gaslighting, gentleness, openness, name-calling, humility, etc. (Note: I have since closed the comments on that post. My blog, my rules.)

March 7 – The Baylor Lariat publishes a letter to the editor from the Coalition of Asian Students asking the university to respond to the February 18 incident and publishes an article about the video and interviews the student who interrupted me.

March 8 – A university administrator emails me for the first time. Staff, faculty, and students reach out to my privately. Comments on my blog continue, along with tweets and subtweets. My favorites include Christian students and parents of students calling me a racist, coward, and false prophet. For the record, I have never claimed to be a prophet, I am afraid when people get very close to threatening me, and reverse racism isn’t a thing no matter how many times people try to make it a thing.

While some commenters refer to chapel speakers being more liberal than what they would prefer at a Christian university, no one I have talked to at the university can name another speaker who has been dragged on social media or interrupted. Commenters would call it keeping me accountable.

April 2 – I have a one-hour call with Driskell, two other university administrators, and a faculty of color.

April 15 – Robyn Driskell emails me with an apology.

A reflection

Just because an organization or institution is lead by Christians or calls itself Christian doesn’t mean the systems and structures reflect and act with those values. Many of us have seen this in our churches, and close friends of mine have brought to light similar institutional and leadership failures in Christian publishing and conferencing.

Sometimes the failures are blatantly racist and other times they are “racially charged” which is a longer way of saying racist. Sometimes the apology and “fix” don’t ever come, not in a way that actually brings about learning and restoration. Sometimes an apology comes a decade later, but it can’t undo the damage nor are tangible steps taken to ensure those same mistakes won’t happen again.

In the past I have offered suggestions, ideas, and feedback only to find that nothing will change. Having the conversation and listening is mistaken for repentance and change.

Not this time

This time I refused to offer those suggestions and resources as a free will offering.

If an institution like Baylor wants its administrators, faculty and staff to grow in cross-cultural communication and is committed to learning how to better host diverse speakers and prepare the Baylor community to not only tolerate but welcome and learn from and with those speakers, Baylor can do more than issue an apology. It can invest in diversity and inclusion training at all levels (think Revelation 7:9-10 and no, not everyone is crying out in English), communicate institutional failures and lessons learned to its internal and external constituency, and because it is an institution of higher education it can decide on learning outcomes and design programs around those goals.

This is my blog, but the ending to this story isn’t mine to write. I accept the apology but if Baylor has truly learned valuable lessons from this experience, as Driskell writes in her apology, we will have to wait to see what changes come as a result. The Coalition of Asian students has a few ideas I bet, and to those students I say #sicem.

Parenting in Paris

She has always used my body to support hers. Here I am, her footstool.

There was a time when I knew everything about my children. I knew their due dates before they were born, remembered their birth weights and lengths. Two were born in the morning. One arrived at 12:02 pm just to be special. I knew what they ate, when they ate it, which side they had last nursed, when their diaper had last been changed.

Do you remember the fear and shock when the hospital just sent you home with your newborn? We did it three times and couldn’t believe no one asked any real questions except about a car seat and then double-checked the hospital security bands, which we thought was funny because our kids are all Cheeseheads (born in Wisconsin) so they were the only Asian babies – a full head of dark hair that caused nurses and doctor to gasp each time.

So 8,451 long days that were also 23 short years later my daughter and I traveled through Paris and Iceland in what felt like a dream and master class in parenting a young adult child.

Some things never change

We shared a bed through the entire trip, and I couldn’t help but listen to her breathing settle into sleep, watch her move around until she relaxed. She was the same. The infant, baby, toddler, preschooler, little girl, pre-teen, teenager and now young woman all wrapped up in one – still sleeping deeply enough to have once slept through a microburst that tore through our neighborhood. My instinct to cover her and brush her hair away from her face remained.

But so did her instinct to brush away my hand and look at me ever so briefly with a mix of annoyance and familiarity. I want to push away anything and everything, even if it’s a wayward cowlick, to make her way easier, more open, better, and her instinct is to push for autonomy and discern her own preferences. It is her journey and story she will perhaps one day tell but of which I am a beneficiary of. After all, her learning to push away is what got us to Paris. She had been planning her own trip to Europe when she asked me if I would join her in Paris.

Parenting a young adult means knowing when to push even if it means getting that look and when to wait for that invitation to join in. It’s so much less about the kind of directing I did as the parent of a young child. We were the parents who didn’t ask where our children wanted to eat. They ate where we ate. We didn’t ask them where they wanted to go on vacation. They went where we took them. We involve them much more now because our children are older with preferences, limitations, interests that are more defined, but it’s still so hard to figure out where that line is and how to draw it. But being in Paris with our daughter I knew that these were lines she had drawn to include me as both mother and guest and what an honor and privilege that was.

Some things have to change

I love my own mother very much, but our relationship is different from that of mine with my own daughter. My mother and I still have language and cultural barriers, while my daughter and I have the advantage of having both grown up in the Midwest. I could never quite get my parents to understand the concept of school dances, and I’m still trying to explain to them what a prom-posal is. (Can someone tell me why this is a thing???) The impact of assimilation is palpable in my parenting. My daughter was my Snapchat tutor and helped me find a great deal on my flight to Paris with a different search engine. In my parents’ generation and culture of parenting the parent is always the parent, the advice-giver.

My daughter has spaces where she is the expert, the lead, and it was exhilarating, freeing, and unnerving to live it out in Paris. She had spent part of a summer in Paris as a student so she had a sense of the city, the subway, the places she wanted to revisit. She had a plan, and she asked me about my preferences and expectations. More often than not she was the one leading the way through the streets and subway transfers. It was disorienting enough to be in a foreign city, but to see my daughter as the one leading the way was beautiful. Mothers of little ones, hang on. The babies grow up into grown adults who will forever be your babies. Your babies change and have opinions and questions, preferences (thank goodness we both love baguettes, cheese, and red wine) that you cannot dictate. The time is coming. It’s amazing.

It’s also scary. I’m sure none of my Dear Readers have control issues when it comes to parenting, but I do. I thought it would be easy to let go my tendency to pick up after my child when she was 23 but when you’re sharing a small space that messy suitcase spilling out over the floor is as annoying as the messy bedroom at home she will never sleep in permanently ever again. I thought I would know how to read the silence in our time together as intuitively as I learned to interpret her cries. Just kidding. I never could tell the difference between her hungry cry and her diaper cry.

But the chatterbox toddler who asked a million questions doesn’t always grow up to be the extrovert. Instead of wishing the questions would stop, I’m learning how to ask questions after I decide what it is I really want to know and understand about her young adult life.

It’s not easier. It’s different.

A wise older friend once told me, when I was in the thick of diapers and sippy cups, that parenting never gets easier. It just changes.

I felt that intensely as we tried to strike a good balance between being tourists and simply enjoying being in Paris. There were moments vaguely similar to those long days as I wondered if her silence was simply exhaustion, a need for introvert time, frustration with me, or hangriness. And then I had to remember that being the parent of a young adult means your child now has the vocabulary and capacity to answer questions. To be an adult. “I’m not ready for a meal, but I could use a snack. Do you want to keep exploring or join me for a snack?” “I’m fine staying here for another hour or so. Would you like to go ahead to the apartment?” Those were questions we asked each other. Mother to daughter. Daughter to mother.

And then came the goodbye. Somehow nine days that looked like more than enough time to spend together in Paris and Iceland snuck up on us, just like the long days sneak up into years that vaporize. The first day of school is both the best and worst day of the year for me as a mom who has had the privilege of working from a home office. The silence in the home after a long summer of a never-ending revolving door of children and their friends and their toys, electronics (my youngest son’s friends are known to bring their gaming PCs over for a night of gaming), socks, hoodies, keys, cars, drama, and heartbreak is both welcomed and lonely.

But when your child no longer lives at home, no longer has clothes in her bedroom dresser or closet the goodbye doesn’t get easier. It changes. I thought saying a mutual goodbye at the airport, where we were both headed to our respective homes would be fine.

It wasn’t easier. The tears welled up, and I took a deep breath. We both took a deep breath and said goodbye.

Split Second Decisions

Last week I posted a vaguebook request on my author Facebook page:

My Dear Readers,
I’d love your prayers. I am speaking two more times at chapel… I had something that happened at the first chapel that has shaken me up a bit….

There wasn’t enough time to elaborate but as a Christian brought up to believe prayer and the covering of prayer by your community is important I asked for prayer. I couldn’t type more. I couldn’t think about it too much because I wanted to cry, vomit, and scream.

Last week I was speaking on a Christian campus at the morning chapel services. I was preaching/speaking/talking using Mark 5: 21-33 as my text. I love this passage about Jairus and his 12-year-old daughter and the bleeding woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.  I have part of the passage tattooed on my right forearm as a reminder of what Jesus does for this woman.

I used the words menstruation and menstrual blood because that why the woman was bleeding. As a woman who was taught to be ashamed of her body and the things it did in order to one day bring forth life just like Mary did for Jesus, I believe it’s important to be beautifully explicit. I joked that it was probably the first time a chapel speaker talked about periods. I didn’t get much of a laugh. Whatever, I thought I was funny.

But the call to prayer was because as I was wrapping up I talked about a few things that are broken in this country, things that break my heart and make me desperate for Jesus. I mentioned the mass shooting that had just occurred in Aurora, IL and the arrest of an 11-year-old boy in FL who had refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

That’s a lie!

That’s when things got tense.

I believe my wording was along the lines of: “An 11-year-old was arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. I don’t know what you thought about Colin Kaepernick, but an 11-year-old being arrested breaks my heart.”

And then a male voice from the audience yelled back: “That’s a lie. He made terrorist threats!”

I have never felt so unsafe as I did in that moment.

In a split second I had to:

  • decide if I would respond to the man. I did not. I paused, caught myself and went on.
  • decide if I felt safe enough to stay on stage or trust the school would remove me from stage if someone else felt like I was in danger. I stayed but learned someone had moved quickly to get to me just in case.

Two more times

And then I went back up and did that same talk two more times. But I did it differently because after the first time I was asked about the Florida boy’s arrest. I was asked how I was feeling and if I was ok, but the conversation quickly shifted to the news story and one response was to point out that technically the boy was not arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge. No, technically no one can be arrested for that because it isn’t illegal to sit during the pledge. But the point was indirectly made clear that the particular example was now in question.

I just wrote a book about raising your voice and speaking up about the things we are most passionate about, and I am writing this as an example of when I chose to back off. I decided that for the next two talks I would not use the example of the 11-year-old being arrested, in part because his refusal to stand for the pledge angered the substitute teacher. I decided that I could not count on the school supporting me, a paid outside speaker, if and when concerned students, parents of students, and alumni emailed the school.

I decided that even though the man yelling at me was lying (the boy in Florida did not make terrorist threats) I didn’t want or need to put myself in that situation.

But it got me thinking

I’m not sure what I said the next two times I got up to preach/speak/talk. I did not feel great or even good about what I said and how I said it. I was unnerved, shaken, and scared. I did not know where the voice was coming from or if that young man was going to approach the stage. It didn’t matter which school it was, which state I was in, what the laws are. I didn’t know.

As a woman of color who talks publicly about things that are considered political (Jesus should get under everyone’s law and order skin because he didn’t care the woman broke the law by being in public while she was bleeding and unclean), I am not new to controversy. For all of the public speaking events I have done I have never once asked about crisis protocol, but this experience got me thinking about what I need to be asking event planners in the future.

It also got me thinking about imposter syndrome because in that moment of fear was also the fear that I had failed and couldn’t do the whole speaking in public thing even though that was exactly what I was doing. I told a friend of mine later that I felt like a failure, that as a WOC I can’t just be good enough or average. I have to be better than my best because so few of us get invited to preach/speak/talk that I feel like if I mess up event planners will be less likely to invite me again AND less likely to take a chance inviting another WOC they do not know or are less familiar with than, say, a white man or woman who has more platform than I. Does that sound absurd? This is what imposter syndrome operating in white supremacy sounds like. It tells me and other WOC that we have to actually be better than the average white woman or man to have a chance because we don’t get the same chances to build platform and audience.

It also made me angry. I have been asking for the past 10 years for an additional plane ticket to public speaking events so that I do not have to travel alone. I would’ve loved having a friend or my husband with me to pray with and cry with after this was all over. There were good people on campus with whom I could talk with, but no one I could just be completely honest and vulnerable with. I held it together like a professional Christian and waited until my husband greeted me at the curb and then I cried.

For all the conservative values around women and ministry and marriage, etc. you’d think I would’ve gotten at least one additional plane ticket in 10 years but maybe it’s because I’m a woman or a WOC with a smaller platform and less pull? Whatever. I’m still mad.

Welcome to the Christian Industrial Complex.

What’s next

The man was removed from the auditorium. I was told that it was swift, and I didn’t hear or see a commotion. I’m grateful. Rumor has it he was told that he should know better than to use the words “terrorist threats” these days in an auditorium, but the young man most likely would never be considered a terrorist, maybe a lone wolf at worst.

I’m grateful I’m safe and that he was removed without incident. I’m grateful he didn’t have a gun. I’m angry that I have to worry about this. I’m angry that I felt like my choice of words were in question and would not be supported. I’m angry that people may think this happened because of the specific campus or state. Nope. It’s all broken, it’s heart breaking, and it makes me desperate for Jesus.

This all came on the heels of my leaving InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after 21 years of ministry. This chapel talk that shook me to the core was on the Monday after my last day with an organization that helped shape my leadership and confidence. The devil is a liar but a sneaky one at that.

I’m not sure what’s next. I do know there aren’t any chapel talks or public events until May. There is time to cry some more, rest some more, pray some more.

My Dear Readers, thank you for praying, for the messages, for the texts. Thank you to the students who reached out via IG. No, that man doesn’t represent the whole of your community but he does represent a part of your community. His community patted him on the back and will use it as an example. What will you do with that knowledge? How will you love and correct siblings like that? And for that matter, that man isn’t just on a college campus. He’s in our churches and communities. My Dear Readers, how will be love and correct them when some of us are put in risky situations? How will thoughts and prayers cover us?

Photographs, Microaggressions & Choosing Silence

“Take a picture. It lasts longer.”

I don’t remember saying this to the white strangers, but my younger sister swears up and down that this was my response to white strangers staring at us while we were on a family vacation somewhere in the U.S. There were so many times our family of four would pull up in the Oldsmobile to find ourselves clearly out of place. We were Americans but we mine as well have been purple because we always saw people stare as if they, the white Americans, have never seen people who looked like we did. And apparently during one of those stare-downs I made eye contact  and said, “Why don’t you take a picture. It lasts longer.”

My parents couldn’t afford plane tickets but they could drive us anywhere and so we did – Florida, Vancouver, Maine, and so many national parks. That also meant finding ourselves in places even less diverse than “home,” and decades before I would hear the word “microaggression” I had already cataloged a lifetime of them through the Smokey Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, and even Wall Drug. Maybe it was because my parents were stunning (and still are because Asian don’t raisin, which if you aren’t Asian you might not want to say out loud because some jokes and phrases and words aren’t yours to use) or because my sister and I were and still are stunning. But POC’s know when were are “the first” or one of the few. We know that look, that stare as if we ought to be caged animals in a zoo up for display.

It has happened when my spouse and I walk into a predominantly white space. It happened when my spouse and I were actually at a zoo and the white woman near us mentioned how interesting the Japanese snow monkeys were while trying to engage us in conversation by repeating, “Japanese snow monkeys” in slightly slower speed. It happened when we first moved into our current home. It happened yesterday when my friends and I were visiting the Quad Cities visiting one of “the kids” at college.

There were five of us, and we had just read on a historical marker about a public swimming pool in the area that would be opened to African Americans only to be drained and cleaned before being reopened to whites. All of this in the 1960s. It made me mad and sad and we talked about how things had changed and hadn’t and walked on at some point noticing that several people – white people – were staring at us, us meaning the two of us Asian Americans. M and I both knew it. We both saw it. We both looked at each other and finished each other’s thoughts out loud about being stared at, and we were both thinking about that phrase: Take a picture. It lasts longer. And we both knew it wasn’t safe to engage those people.

We chose silence for survival.

We did mention what was happening to the others. T asked if we would point it out if it happened as we retraced our steps to the car, and we said it wasn’t worth it because who knows what could happen.

I chose silence because I am not a brazen child but a grown woman in 2018 fully aware that one of the few things that have changed in the past few years is that there is permission and acceptance of public displays of racism and violence against POC. I am aware that engaging someone for a microaggression could actually put me and my friends in danger and in the public eye at fault if violence erupted.

We chose silence for survival, but as I wrote in Raise Your Voice there are other ways than your physical voice to raise your voice. So here I am back at the blog to remind my Dear Readers to keep fighting the good fight, open your eyes and remember when you get stared at like a caged animal in a zoo on display choose love. The older white couple, the younger white woman, the white man sitting alone all staring at me like you’d never seen beautiful, confident, strong Asian American women – you also are made in God’s image. I see you even though you cannot yet see me.

 

When a White Girl Wears Vintage “Chinese” Dress to Prom

There was a white girl from Utah who wore a “vintage Chinese dress” for prom. There was no indication on her post that she knew it was a qipao (Mandarin) or cheongsam (Cantonese). She wrote (and no, I will not link it here) that she found it at a vintage clothing store, was told by the store owner that it was vintage, and bought it because she liked it. She comments that it was an act of appreciation of the Chinese culture.

And then the internet blew up. She got a ton of followers. White woke people called her out. Asians thanked her. Asians told her, “BOOOOOO!” Asian Americans said they don’t care. Asian Americans said, “BOOOOOOOOO!” White people said people of color look for things to be offended by.

Good golly. It’s only Tuesday. Fullish moon anyone?

I have a lot of thoughts because cultural appropriation is complicated because it cannot be discussed separate from the social construct of race and how non-white bodies are policed, commodified, objectified, and regulated. Cultural appropriation also cannot be discussed without addressing the impact of colonization (historic and present-day), internalized racism, and social location.

Again, I’m not going to provide all of the definitions because I blog for free and you can Google it.

This is not an exhaustive post, but here my thoughts after a morning yoga practice (where I am also having lots of conversations about cultural appropriation) and half a cup of coffee.

“She can wear whatever she wants!” screams of, wait for it, western white privilege. Yup. There are many of you who are upset that people are upset. There are many people out there in the interwebs upset that people are upset. You believe no one has the right to be upset about what an individual white girl chooses as an individual to her prom let alone face the public consequences and backlash should she choose to post it publicly on Twitter. There are so many people telling me I have no right to be annoyed because it’s her right to wear what she wants. What? She posted the picture on TWITTER. Yes, she can wear whatever she wants AND be prepared for the consequences.

The consequences for a white girl wearing a qipao to prom are different than when an Asian or Asian American woman/girl wears a qipao in public. (Notice, Asian is not the same as Asian American.) Again, the girls writes that she found the dress liked it, so dammit she was going to wear it. Do you know what happened when I, as a teenager, wore my hanbok (tradition Korean dress)? I didn’t even have to post it on the internet because it didn’t exist back then. People to my face and to my back and called me lots of names and none of them were, “Hey, she looked beautiful in that dress that honors HER OWN CULTURAL HERITAGE!”

And, as my wise friend Cindy Wang Brandt wrote on a mutual friend’s FB post: “If I went to prom wearing a qipao, I would experience racism – Asian women are fetishized and stereotyped. The high cut on the thighs would make me subject to perverse associations because of that fetish. A white woman wearing it is just a cute schtick.”

I’m also reading comments from white people who have family or friends or some connection to ASIA or China (y’all know Asia is a continent and not a country, right? Just like Africa is a continent and not a country.) and that’s why it’s ok to wear a qipao. Sure, your family lived as expats (also a privileged term) and you love the culture. Cool. Take note that you are also consumers of the culture and do not have to pay the price and face the racism when you wear that qipao here in the US. Yes, it’s getting better, but no it’s not really that much better. It doesn’t matter whether or not I ever wear a hanbok to honor my own cultural heritage. I still get asked where I learned my English and where I am really from because even though I am a US citizen who wears yoga pants religiously I am not seen or approached as an American.

Non-Asian and non-Asian Americans say they wear clothing or eat food or collect art or cultural kitsch in appreciation but get all defensive when asked how exactly is eating at Panda Express or the local Chinese restaurant appreciating culture? I actually asked  the white girl who wore the qipoa to prom on her Twitter feed if she knew anything about the style of the dress (Don’t forget fashion is often political.) or what her Chinese or Chinese American friends thought about her dress choice. If you are going to claim appreciation, you better do some homework. Don’t throw “cultural appreciation” out there as if to equate consumerism as the same. It isn’t the same thing though related.

Don’t forget colonialism. I am always amazed and amused at how the US education system fails its people on the daily. One commenter (never read comments, never read comments) wrote about her grandparents living overseas, etc. My grandparents could not just come over to the US to live here for a bit for work and then go back. Immigration laws and restrictions actually limited the number of people from Asia because we weren’t desirable until the flow from eastern European nations slowed down. White business people, heck even missionaries, can go into another country with limited understanding or fluency of the language and still manage because of the economic and political force the US traditionally has wielded. My grandmother? She was told to learn English. I’ve been told to stop speaking my foreign language in public.

And then there is the “if people in other countries are wearing jeans is that cultural appropriation?” line of commenting. No, it’s not. Appropriation involves power. When my cousins in Seoul wore western-style clothing it was considered modernization. Why? Because only backwards people don’t wear western clothing. Again, it’s the impact of colonization. Non-western countries adopt western cultural practices, adopt new technologies, westernized clothing, learn English on top of their mother tongue, in order to compete globally. Think about the recent summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-Un. They wore suits. Kim’s suit had a Mandarin-style collar, again politically-influenced fashion, but they both wore suits. For those of you who watched beyond the handshakes and crossing of the border, you saw men wearing traditional clothing specific to the type of occasion. As if people in the US don’t make fun of Kim as some sort of emasculated communist puppet, imagine if he and President Moon appeared wearing hanbok. No, most of you wouldn’t have had a cultural appreciation moment.

Things are slowly shifting with more school districts adopting language immersion programs alongside ESL programs, but we here in the US generally don’t see a need to change and learn. We just take what we want and call it appreciation.

Also, and this is another blog post entirely but sometimes POC will fall in line and say stuff like this ok because of internalized racism. It happens in all communities of color. We approximate whiteness in different, destructive ways.

Michael Eric Dyson writes in Tears We Cannot Stop,“The ventriloquist effect of whiteness has worked brilliantly; black mouths moving, white ideas flowing. What your vast incuriosity about black life keeps you from knowing, and this is heartbreaking to admit, is that we black folk often see ourselves the same way you see us.”

And I have to add that this is a young woman wearing a dress with a slit that rides up to her boy-short panty line. I like to think I am all for female empowerment and feminism, but many of us know that if a black or brown girl (heck, even an Asian American girl) wore a dress with a slit that high people would be calling her names that rhyme with bow and thut because issues around race and ethnicity intersect with gender.

So, what do you think? Have you ever worn a qipao or thrown a Cinco de Mayo party? Have you ever dressed up as a geisha or though Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles was hilarious? Is there anything you’ve done that you now see as cultural appropriation? What made it shift from appreciation to appropriation? Or maybe vice versa?

 

 

 

 

 

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