What Are You Worth?

No one likes to talk about money.

I mean we/I like to talk about it in the abstract. We can talk about it in terms of statistics (Women’s Equal Pay Day) or generalities (tax brackets) but there is a degree of taboo in talking about the nitty gritty. Because of what I do (work for a religious non-profit where I raise my entire salary through donations) many of my donors know about how much I could make and some ask how much I actually make.

Raising your own salary does a number on your soul. Some of it is messy in a “I know this is holy work” way and some of it is just plain gross. When people decline to give or stop giving to my support, I’m not supposed to take it personally but sometimes I do. I’m supposed to trust that it’s all in God’s hands. Some days I believe that. Some days I don’t because the bills are in my hands. There are also other layers because of gender and culture. If you grew up in the Church, think of the missionary families you or your church has supported. My husband is not the one called to vocational ministry; I am. Now, who supports the family? See? Layers.

I think many of us have a complicated relationship with money and how it isn’t supposed to be everything but we know it’s something. As Christians we are taught that we can’t have two masters, but personally the interpretation and application of that gets even messier when we remember America’s sinful relationship with slavery, mastery, and money – the Church included. As the child of immigrants, money was a means to stability and safety in a way I could not fully understand as a child. I can still sense that tenuous relationship between faith and security when my parents express their disappointment in how little my job currently pays. I have to actively remind myself they aren’t disappointed with me. They are disappointed in a system that doesn’t pay me what they think I am worth.

Which has gotten me thinking about my side-gig. I am a writer and speaker, and I often get paid for those opportunities because they are also jobs. It is work to write and/or speak/guest preach/present/teach/train. More often than not, I get paid very little or am asked to do it for free.

Corporate trainers, corporate editors, pastors, teachers all get paid. It’s fairly easy with a few keystrokes to find out the salary range in the school district my children attend. I can ask friends what their churches pay their pastors. My friends who are in the hiring loop in the business sector openly share starting salary ranges.

It’s a little more awkward in the Christian speakers circuit. Yes, there is a circuit -many circuits that overlap, run parallel, etc. And it’s a business, which is weird because it is also ministry and vocation and calling and all sorts of spiritual terms that make it that much more difficult to talk about MONEY.

So, I am going to do something awkward. I’m going to talk about money. My money. (This is where I am getting ready to duck and to read/hear comments about how I should be grateful, how that is too much, how nice it would be to make that kind of money, etc. Deep breath.)

I have already heard all of those things. I am tired of being asked to do what I do for free because it’s ministry, because I am a woman and not the one supporting my family, because it’s for a good cause, or because it’s a great opportunity to increase my platform. I have been told that my going rate is too high, that I should take what is offered, that organizers were surprised I would ask for money, that I am not well-known enough to have a rate, etc.

My going rate for a day is $1500 plus travel, lodging, meals. I fly coach. I will drink instant coffee. I don’t have to check in luggage. I won’t, however, guarantee I will be wearing something with a waistband, a collar, or pockets (male sound people often don’t know what to do with me).

I have never received my going rate. And in conversations with many other WOC who do what I do, we often are grossly underpaid.

YES, I KNOW THAT MANY PEOPLE ARE GROSSLY UNDERPAID. That is not my point. I am talking about Christian POC and specifically WOC who are being asked to lead, preach, speak, train, etc. and are being asked to work, to do what our white Christian counterparts can’t do, but not being paid for it and being told to be grateful.

I have been in vocational ministry for almost 20 years. I oversaw ministry involving 300+ students at a Big Ten university. My writing credits include a book, two devotionals, a contribution to a monograph, and five years of bylines as a newspaper reporter. As a 1.5 generation Korean American immigrant now in the sandwich generation who paid her and her husband’s student loans off so that we could now take on parent loans for our oldest child my lived experience may actually more “universal” than many white speakers.

Now, I set my initial going rate several years ago at $1,000/day at the advice of a mentor – an older, very learned, seminary professor, theologian, international speaker-type. He recommended no less because it isn’t just about the talk I’m being asked to give. He reminded me that it is my lived experience, expertise, time away from my day job and family, and preparation that needs to be considered. He told me, “Kathy, you are worth at least that per day.” He told me I might not get paid that much but that I needed to decide how much my time was worth. He also was honest and told me that as a woman of color I couldn’t be “good” like most white speakers, particularly male speakers. He told me that I had to be better than good because that is the unjust reality.

I knew the part about being better than good. That message was engrained in me by my grandmother and parents. The message was always “KyoungAh, you have to be better/smarter than Americans (translation: white people) because that is the only way they will see you almost as equal.

But the dollar amount? $1,000 a day? For doing something that I actually love doing? Something I’ve been told that I am fairly good (maybe better than good) at doing?

I was speechless.

And then I started asking around and realized I am worth that. Good grief. I am worth more than that, but again a good Christian Korean American with a uterus and breasts does not talk about worth in connection to money. The message, direct and indirect, is that I should be grateful for whatever comes my way like the birds of the air. The message is that I should be grateful to speak from my unique lived experience as a Korean American woman in ministry to speak/preach/train/teach/share from that unique lens because other speakers cannot because they speak from a universal lens.

I and many, if not most, of my sisters of color who do this work are now being told by the Church our stories and perspectives are needed because they are sorely and obviously lacking but we aren’t worth the same money.

Maybe if I hired an agent my agent could do the dirty/awkward work of negotiating speakers fees. Yes, many of your beloved Christian speakers have agents and there are agencies that represent many beloved Christian speakers. Most of those speakers are white men and women. #NotAllAreWhiteChristians but many of them are, and, yes, that is changing. And, yes, I have thought about hiring an agent (so if any of you agents are out there, feel free to contact me though I have also been doing some homework).

But that isn’t the magic wand to drive change. Change will only happen when several things start happening in different spheres at the same time with enough frequency to start forcing, encouraging, inviting change particularly as the Church and Christian conferences wake up to the racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity that exists in the world is rarely reflected on the big and smaller stages, platforms, podiums, and pulpits of our Christian world.

So let me offer a few questions for conference planners, folks who invite guest speakers to preach in their churches or at the church events, etc. to consider as they invite people like me, especially as they are looking to diversify the line-up:

1. What do you pay and offer to your “big name” speakers and consider what it means to pay fairly and justly? Do you negotiate honoraria the same with all of your speakers and worship leaders?
2. Consider what is the person’s expertise and experience worth because that is also what you are investing in and paying for. Many times I get asked to speak on the difficult topics of race and faith. There is a cost to being that person. If you don’t understand that, ask other POC, particularly women of color who speak, preach, lead worship and ask them.
3. If you are inviting someone to be a guest preacher: your church’s preaching teacher’s salary/# of weeks she/he preaches = a good starting point for a guest preacher.
4. Many conferences put a lot of good time, energy, and money into pulling off a “professional” event. Are you paying your professionals accordingly? If you are inviting them to be on the main stage, aren’t they all main stage speakers? Do you think of them as equally important but not pay them equally? Why not?
5. If you lack the skills to fix a leak in your home or building, would you ask a plumber to fix your bathroom for free and tell her/him to be grateful for the opportunity and chance to build her/his reputation? Then why are you asking an entire worship team to do something you can’t do for free?

And for my dear readers who are worship leaders, writers, or speakers, what other questions or suggestions do you have for those who hire, invite, and plan these conferences?

23 Things I Learned in 23 Years of Marriage

Sometime ago I saw a post about how married people shouldn’t be congratulated for staying married. I tried to read it and couldn’t track with it. Perhaps it was because I have now been married for as long as I have been single, and being single between the ages of birth-22 isn’t the same as being single for those same years, nor is it legal to be married for most of the former.

I’m all for self-congratulating and celebrating every year of marriage. There is something to be said about the honeymoon period of any relationship, but in marriage the end of the greeting card images shot with a hazy filter and perfect light can be a rude awakening. It is the moment or moments when two people learn that love is a verb, a choice. Marriage is serious work in close quarters until death if I am to take my vows literally and seriously.  When we hit 20 years I wrote a list of things I had learned, and I am still learning. Neither of us are dead yet.

So, here are 23 things I am still learning in no particular order. Some of them might be repeats. I don’t know. I just linked the blog post from three years ago. I didn’t re-read it. I’m too busy learning about marriage, love, and being a perfectly broken human.

  1. I like things my way. He likes things his way. My way is still right and better. He is still learning.
  2. My way isn’t always better, but when it is, and he admits it, things go a lot smoother.
  3. When his way is better, and I tell him so things go a lot smoother.
  4. I can simultaneously miss my husband and not want to go home and listen to his c-pap machine.
  5. Speaking of c-pap machines, love isn’t blind nor is it deaf.
  6. Sex with young children is tough because you are so sleep-deprived. Sex with teenagers is tough because teenagers stay up later and know things and we are still tired.
  7. Sometimes scheduling sex is as necessary as scheduling date nights.
  8. Sometimes #loveiscold, and it’s perfectly normal to do the happy dance together in the middle of the kitchen because the new refrigerator is quiet, big, cold, and clean.
  9. Fighting fair still eludes us.
  10. I can’t always read his mind, but it sure is funny when I can complete his sentences.
  11. I love being married to a feminist who also understands when I have had it with shoveling the snow or moving furniture.
  12. He is perfectly happy pointing out the large spiders for me to kill.
  13. The concept of generational sin becomes clearer to me the longer I am alive and the older our children and families of origin get.
  14. I have worn my traditional Korean dress (which I didn’t pick out nor know what it would look like until it arrived from Korea) more than I have my western white wedding dress (that I ended up choosing because it was the middle ground between what my I would wear and what my MIL and mother wanted), and my daughter most-likely will wear neither of them. I’m still figuring out how I feel about that.
  15. I love that no one laughs as hard at my jokes as Peter does. And I love that.
  16. It drives me crazy when he reads my blog posts and his first comments are about grammar or punctuation, but then I remember grammar and punctuation are love languages.
  17. Speaking of love languages, others include empty dishwashers, folded laundry, new running shoes, the library book sale on bag day, and encouragement to go see movies with other people who share one’s enthusiasm and fandom over such movies. And we both love high-quality pens.
  18. It is hard to teach an oldish dog new tricks. It also is harder to unlearn old tricks regardless of the age of said dog(s).
  19. Don’t judge the quality or character of your spouse’s heart based on your dating story, proposal story, etc. Creativity for a one-shot deal is great, but sustainability is another thing entirely.
  20. I regret how my value for frugality killed some of Peter’s attempts at loving me and made him feel foolish because I know now that sometimes lovers are stupid and foolish when in love.
  21. When life gives you lemons, find some other citrus and maybe some strawberries and make sangria. Lemonade isn’t going to cut it.
  22. Making only my side of the bed doesn’t look as weird to me as it used to.
  23. You can never say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or “I bought you some wine and dark chocolate” or “Have a great night bowling” enough.

    why yes, we do appear to be floating in a dirty champagne glass lacking champagne…

In honor of bad food appropriation poetry

Dear white man writing about Chinese food,
Did someone wake up in a bad mood?
Why are you so afraid you are behind the trend
When all along you, my white friend,
Are actually behind?

Brand new provinces don’t simply appear.
Your ignorance and privilege is showing, I fear.
Because when you write about “we” and the songs that “we sung”
It’s obvious you aren’t including me or the flavors on my tongue.
You write blindly white to white,
Talking about another’s food as if it was your right.
It’s as if you discovered Chinese food in all its glory.
Oh, I’m sorry. That was Columbus’ story.

#Columbusing

I must disclose, before I write any more prose
I am not Chinese. Don’t worry.
I am friends with some of “those” people,
And I love their food, too.
So I am an expert like you.

So expert to expert, may I suggest
The next time you take a moment to rest
Your fingers before you type your clever thoughts
On food that isn’t yours – ma po and dumplings aren’t your props
To wax nostalgic. You actually sound like a jerk.
Did you run out of real work?
How does a white man’s food fantasy pass
As print-worthy? Print-worthy my a$$.

Before the Book Launch Comes a Million Waves of Doubt

  This is a rushed blog post because I don’t want it to run tomorrow. You know. April Fool’s. Or is it Fools’? Whatever. I don’t want to publish something tomorrow because publishing and getting a book published is no joke.

There are many avenues to self-publishing available and viable to those who choose that route. I am actually a co-author of a devotional that was self-published, and you are more than welcome to let me know if you are interested in buying a copy God’s Graffiti Devotional from me.

But the other book I co-authored with four other amazing women just entered its 8th printing. More Than Serving Tea is not going to be a NY Times best seller, though IMHO has more wisdom in it that some of the self-help stuff that makes that list, but as I posted a photo celebrating the fact that the book is still in print I was engaged in a short FB conversation with a friend about the lack of writers of color in the recent InterVarsity Press catalogue – the same publishing house that took a risk on and supported More Than Serving Tea.

The road to getting a book published is longer for some than others, and it is connected to privilege as much as it is connected to actual writing talent. It drives me berserkoid when Christian authors say things like, “God opened the door” because it’s weird how many more doors are opened for white authors. Just sayin’. I’m pretty sure God isn’t sitting in heaven waiting for more authors of color to pray, “Lord, open those publishing doors for me.” I am not saying that all white authors have those connections. #notallwhiteauthors I am saying that Christian publishers are still set up within the cultural norms that were established for and by white authors and readers and for their success and reading pleasure.

This post isn’t about all that needs to happen to dismantle that mess. I can’t do that in one post just like we can’t dismantle white supremacy in one post.

This post is about full disclosure, authenticity, honesty, vulnerability so that you, my truly dear readers and folks joining me on this ride, get the whole story, which is more than a lovely IG post celebrating the 8th printing of a book that came out 10 years ago. In the publishing world that isn’t even a drop in the bucket. But I contributed to that drop and it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

So I’m writing this post to share with you a secret I have been keeping because this will help people who are dreaming to keep dreaming, others to start dreaming, and maybe others to support us dreamers.

I have a book proposal.

It’s public now. Usually authors don’t share that part. We share the reprint notices. We post photos of our contracts. We invite you to be a part of the launch team. I’m here to invite you into one of the scariest parts: rejection. I just sent the FOURTH version of my proposal to my editor today, the same day I got the 8th printing notice. I won’t lie. I’m hoping that was a good omen. But I won’t lie. I didn’t think I’d be on my fourth version of a proposal when I started the first version in OCTOBER. At this rate, my daughter will graduate from college before I publish another book. Before the launch is a million waves of doubt. Do I have enough for an entire book? Will I get a contract? Will anyone read the book? Will anyone actually LIKE the book?

One of the reasons this female author of color hasn’t been published again is because I am afraid. Rejection is part of the process, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys repeated rejection. Writing and all other art requires a degree of confidence, ambition, humility, and a sense of humor. It requires more things, but those were the first things that come up for me. As a soon-to-be graduating college student applying for reporting jobs, I kept my rejection letters on the apartment refrigerator numbered and complete with corrections in red ink. That was my sense of humor. But I kept applying and that is where confidence, ambition, and humility come together. You keep trying even though it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. You keep writing because you did get some good feedback. You write because that is what you know to do.

So I’m sharing the secret of my yet-to-be-accepted book proposal to invite more of you into this journey, so that more of us can silence the fear of rejection a little bit, just enough to sit down and write and put together a proposal that has to be revised. I’m letting you know that I’m trying because I think it’s in my DNA, the way God created me, and I’m not going to wait as if the immaculate conception could take book contract form. It’s not glamorous. It’s rather tedious. It’s not waiting for inspiration to hit. It’s sitting at a blank screen day after day after day.

I’m letting you know because some of you need to know you are not alone. Tomorrow is another day in front of a blank screen, and we will love most minutes of it.

The Stories We Embody

I knew what I was going to wear before I knew all what I would actually say from the stage. I knew I was going to wear the green dress.

A few weeks ago I asked you, my dear readers, via my FB page to pray and send good, healing thoughts as I lay in bed with a fever and a stomach bug the night before/morning of a speaking engagement. I had thought about posting an update but there was so much swirling in my heart and head. I wanted to breathe a bit, sit down, and then write about that gig.

The speaking opportunity was a first for me – to speak in front of 250-ish colleagues of mine at our triennial Asian American Ministries staff conference. I’ve been with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for almost 20 years, many of those were part-time on paper years as my husband and I made choices about childcare and careers. My career trajectory has been a slow and steady one, though based on recent years on social media it might look like I’ve “suddenly appeared” to receive invitations to speak and write. Well, I was here long before the internet. Seriously. I was a newspaper reporter before I was a blogger so writing has always been a part of who I am and what I do, long before blogging, FB, and Twitter. I am THAT old. Which is why this chance to speak in front of my colleagues was special. It was a first.

My talk was on extending our influence as Asian American women and men, beyond the student leaders we develop, beyond the campuses or spaces we work within. And as I spent time preparing and praying for that talk I kept coming back to what my presence would communicate as much as, and in conjunction with, my words. What would my physical body communicate and how does that connect with what my words would be?

If you are a woman of color, you may already have a sense of where I was going with this. There are so few positive images of us in the world, even fewer in certain spaces within the evangelical world I sit within. We are often the token, the one or two people of color featured alongside a slate of white speakers. One or two of us is usually enough, which can make it feel like a competition. I’m just being real. It can get hard to cheer one another on when it feels like there are so few opportunities for people of color, fewer for women of color.

So I kept thinking about what it meant to be the one asked to speak on extending our influence, and I kept thinking about my parents and the expectations, hopes, and dreams of success and stability they had/have for their now adult daughters. I thought about how it’s easy for me to slam their hopes for stability and The American Dream as a defense mechanism for adopting the privileges while condemning their motives. I thought about how it is easy for me and my generation to talk about the impact of white supremacy and the empire and assimilation to distance ourselves from the privilege we live in and embody.

And I thought of my mother’s green dress. She had the dress made from fabric she received as a wedding gift. She had different pieces made in anticipation of moving to America, party clothes for the life of milk and honey promised in America. The green dress and matching jacket sat in a silver trunk in my mom’s closet for years untouched. I never saw her wear it, and there are no photos of her wearing the party dress. America, it turns out, isn’t a party.

I took the green dress and have worn it over the years to the parties my parents’ sacrifices and “selling out” to the American Dream afforded me. I’ve worn it to friends’ weddings and to my swearing-in as a citizen of the United States.

I knew I was going to wear the green dress before I knew all of the words I would speak that night. I knew the story of the dress and my wearing the dress would do what words alone could not. Extending my influence never started with me. It started with the dreams and hopes my parents and ancestors carried and passed on, imperfectly but with love, to me. I knew wearing the dress meant expressing my femininity in a way that was completely authentic to who I am as an immigrant Korean woman. I knew wearing the dress would allow me to embody past generations, an opportunity to allow my mother’s story to extend beyond my memories. I knew wearing the dress gave me an opportunity to remind the men in the audience even invitations to speak are still designed for men because where in the world does a woman wearing a dress hide the mic pack?

Words are important, sisters, but so are the ways we embody those words.

thanks to Greg Hsu for the photo

Everyday Dismantling #5 – Voting

Six years ago I became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I left my green card, which wasn’t green, on a stack of other “identification of legal status” cards and walked in to my swearing-in ceremony.

I immigrated to the U.S. as an eight-month-old baby, so when people tell me I should go back to where I came from if I don’t like it here I like to point out that I actually didn’t choose to come here any more than “they” did AND that their response to my dissatisfaction is just plain ignorant.

But that type of ignorant response along with years of reminders from Dad, especially after 9/11, got me thinking: I actually had the privilege and “right” to pursue naturalization and then to vote as well as serve on a jury.

Now, I haven’t had my name come up for jury duty, and I know it’s not all “Making of a Murderer” or the OJ trial. (How do I really know? I was a journalist before I was a campus minister/mom/blogger/Instagrammer, and I covered a murder-for-hire trial that may be made into a bad tv movie, which I refused to be a part of much to the dismay of my family.) I often see tweets and FB posts from folks about dreading jury selection, asking for advice on how to be relieved of jury duty, etc. And until this year have stood at arms-length in the political poop-slinging also known as the presidential primaries.

But here’s the thing. I can write, speak, advocate, make space, elevate, etc. all the things in my piece of the platform, but there is this other space where things get changed, voted into law, funded, etc. and many of you, dear readers, can do that without having to go through the fingerprinting, money-shelling, time-off-of-work-thing I did to follow my path to citizenship.

You were born into the privilege. You were born into citizenship with the birthright of voting in an imperfect system, yes, that has the potential to shape and change policies, vote candidates and politicians in or out, show support in a non-binding referendum, etc.

You were born into the system with the privilege to have a teeny, tiny say in how to build or dismantle the system, and it didn’t cost you a second or a penny. Giving up that privilege, that power, doesn’t give anyone else your vote.

I grew up in the Church where we can incorrectly talk a lot about our citizenship in heaven as if being here on earth was a waste of time. Salvation and following Jesus was all about making sure I got to heaven and feel really bad for friends and family who were headed to hell. I accepted Jesus into my heart at every retreat and revival meeting just in case. But, now that I’m finally in my sometimes-wiser, slightly more theologically grounded 40s, it’s not about hedging my bets for a seat in heaven. My take follows Jesus’ prayer: May Your Kingdom, Your will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven. It’s not about waiting until death and resurrection. It is living embodied, not souls floating around like sunbeams and snowflakes, and that also means what we do to our bodies, with our bodies, through our bodies are part of bringing God’s kingdom come on earth. Not just on Sundays. Especially not just on Sundays.

So, back to the voting thing. There are too many people who cannot vote because the paths are not available, have been taken away, or have been shut down. I’m not here to argue whether that’s all right or wrong, but if you’re a long-time reader, you probably can figure out what I think. 😉 I’m writing to ask you, dear readers, to consider how your vote can either support the systems that need supporting or dismantle the systems that need to be done with. Your one vote may not count, but what if it is the small step to helping you think about what it means to live into the fullness of your values every single day? How do you decide what voting “pro-life” look like and how will you do it at the ballot and in your daily life? How do you decide what voting “like a Christian” looks like and how will you live into that when you don’t agree with the laws or the politicians?

Maybe I am just too new of a citizen and, if it’s even possible, not jaded enough by political pundits and the media. So be it. I don’t believe God will be angry or disappointed if you don’t vote. I do believe it is a strange privilege I have, and I don’t want to treat it like it’s become an entitlement.

 

The Vitamin L Diary: My Happy Light Isn’t Enough

In October I shared with you, my dear readers, how I had not been feeling quite up to the task of life, having trouble sleeping (night sweats, which means waking up drenched despite the fact that the house is 60-degrees because we should all be SLEEPING), and wondering if this was what being in my mid-40s was going to be or if this was the depression trying to get some more of me. I had a good chat with my PCP (primary care physician) who took a blood draw before upping any meds. Lo and behold, I was anemic. THAT WAS IT! No more giving blood for a few months and iron supplements, which mess with your bowels so there was all that, but I was relieved and hopeful that I wasn’t crazier.

But the anemia is being managed and the iron is back up so I can donate blood. I’m still not feeling quite up to the task of life. I exercise. I drink lots of water and one (fine, maybe two) cups of coffee. But lately it has been HARD to get out of bed or to stay out of bed. Thanks to my cellphone I can answer lots of email in bed, but that, in addition to the inexplicable weightiness in my soul and mind, has been messing with my sleep. Migraines. Forgetfulness. Anxiety over big and little things.

Those of you who have bouts of depression or are clinically depressed know what this “feels” like. It’s not always a sadness or a dark cloud. Sometimes it’s a numbness or an irritability. Sometimes it’s all of it.

My happy light isn’t helping. Yoga isn’t helping. Praying isn’t helping. Sleeping isn’t helping. The wine I drank during a weeknight isn’t helping. Journaling isn’t helping.

And then this inexplicable sadness that makes you want to stay in bed, cry for no reason or for all the reasons, the sadness you wouldn’t want anyone you love to have to carry, hit my own child. So of course I know the truth and the lies about genetics and blame. Nature and nurture. Freedom and stigma. I know it. I live it. Please let this cup pass from my children, God. Please. I would take a double dose if it meant we could make it skip all the generations.

We are not defeated. We are tired. I am tired. I am clinging tightly to Psalm 139, and I’m headed back into therapy. I am tired, but I refuse to let this define me, stigmatize me. Even if it means being tired. I am grateful for a network of friends and, even better, friends who are colleagues, with whom I have been honest with.

So I’m writing this to encourage and remind any of my dear readers who are feeling an inexplicable sadness that you are not alone.

YOU
ARE
NOT
ALONE

Don’t be afraid. Reach out. Tell someone. Anyone. Call your doctor. Your pastor. Your friend. Your neighbor. You are not alone.

Makeup as Spiritual Formation

filtered face of mine

I have a habit I cannot break. I actually don’t want to break it.

I cannot walk past a cosmetics display without a cursory glance. Sephora stores are my weakness because of their willingness to feed my craving for free samples. A few years ago when money got tight I took on a seasonal job selling cosmetics at a department store and thorougly took advantage of free makeovers during slow parts of the day as well as sampling everything and anything the counter manager was looking to test out. My nail polish collection is amazing but leans towards bright colors with limited neutrals. I have started to ease up on collecting samples because I don’t want to be a hoarder. Koreans are serious about their skincare, and as a Korean American I want to honor my motherland by caring for my skin with the occasional sauna, facial, and massage as well as frequent paper facial masks. And the last straw was when the manager at the local mall’s Sephora store heard me rave about a product another customer was trying out; the manager suggested I should apply for a job because of my soft but enthusiastic sell.

Applying makeup is an act of spiritual formation.

If you’re laughing, don’t judge. If you aren’t laughing we might be kindred spirits.

Being a woman of color poses unique challenges to identifying, rejecting, and fulfilling American beauty standards as well as creating new standards and definitions. How many of us have been told that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? Or “beauty comes from the inside”?

Then why did God give us physical bodies? Why not just make us spirits that float around and whoosh past one another instead of giving us eyeballs that give each other the once over?

I don’t think it’s actually Christ-like to ignore our bodies nor poo poo the spiritual work that goes into reconciling our own insecurities with our creativity and expression of that creativity and cultural norms and pressures. I don’t feel the pleasure of God when I run. I feel like I am running out of oxygen. I feel the pleasure of God when I put on clothing, makeup, shoes, and jewelry that expresses the way I feel I am made – strong and beautiful (though some days I am made of lycra and cotton – stretchy with a tendency to absorb too much). It’s not the only time I feel God’s pleasure, but darn it if on a day I don’t feel like much of anyone or doing anything a bit of lipstick (a shade of red) and a sweep of brow pencil doesn’t pick me up.

Superficial? Yes. Spiritual? Yes.

I look in the mirror and have to admit, even for a moment, and even if I might not believe it an hour later: God, you did good. Thank you for today, for this day, for this body, for my health, for my smile. I love who you’ve made me, and that includes my face. Weird? I hope not. Our faces are part of our bodies, connected to our souls. We praise God with our lips and raise our eyes to the heavens. Even if we cannot speak or see, our faces are part of our worship.

It’s a privilege. I have some extra money I will spend on paper facial masks that get thrown out. I’m not stupid. I get that what I can do in the name of self-care is a privilege of my socioeconomic status and geography. I also carry the voices from as far back as I can remember that to this day in American culture that say my eyes are too small and look like almonds or are hooded, that say my nose is flat just like my chest, my face is round like the moon because Asians are all about almonds and moons.

In the quiet moments even in my 40s it is an ongoing conversation with God about being created as an image bearer and being beautiful rather than exotic – beautiful inside and out – because that is what women of color of all ages have had to fight against. Why is it that women of color, particularly the Christian ones,  are supposed to be satisfied with being beautiful on the inside while the white girls and women get to define beauty – outside and inside.

NO.

So why these thoughts now? My Dear Readers from the beginning know that I am able to cry buckets and not have makeup running down my cheeks. What is this sorcery you ask? What kind of eyeliner do I use that does not run down my face with every wave of sadness, extreme laughter or the Holy Spirit?

It’s a tattoo. My first tattoos were on my eyelids, top and bottom, done not only with the blessing but with full participation of my mother AND grandmother. The three of us, plus Bethany as a nursing infant, went to see a tattoo artist (and that is what he was, Dear Readers – a true artist proud of his craft) to have our eyeliner tattooed. My mother and grandmother went one step further and had their eyebrows filled in. My grandmother whose face-washing ritual was like a ballet, joked that the tattoos were necessary with age because her hands were shakier, and she wanted the mortician to know exactly she wore her makeup so it had to be on when she died. (She has since passed away, and my mother, aunts, and I had a poignant moment at her casket talking about how good my grandmother looked in her casket.)

So these thoughts have rushed back into my heart and mind as I head off tomorrow afternoon to have my eyebrows done with my mother coming along. My mother and I this morning talked about making sure my eyebrows softened my face because I have a tendency to look too harsh. I used to take offense to that but over the years have understood her comments are about knowing who I am inside and finding ways to express that authentically and genuinely on the outside. Older Asian Americans will understand. My mom “sees me” and is reminding me to brush off what others may think or say and ask the tattoo artist to use her skills to express what over-plucking my eyebrows has failed to do.

It’s complicated. I’d be lying, and you would know it and call me out on it, if I said figuring this stuff is easy. But let’s be real. Being women and being women of color specifically is not easy. You’re dammed if you do and if you’re dammed if you don’t. If you don’t “take care of yourself” you won’t get a man or keep a man, even if men aren’t your thing or a priority. If you take too much care of yourself you are vain. If you are flat-chested, you’re outta luck. Padded and push-up bras. If you get a boob job you are trying to please men because what woman could possibly want any of her clothes to actually fit or not want to look like a boy or could maybe just MAYBE want boobs because SHE WANTS BOOBS?! If you wear makeup you’re vain. If you don’t wear makeup you don’t care how you look. See. It’s not easy. Add to that the whole race and ethnicity piece and you’ve got a whole lot of levels.

But bring it on.

If you’ve heard me speak publicly, you know that I love being a woman. I love that our bodies can do something that NO MAN can do. Our bodies are designed to carry, nurture, and sustain life, and with modern technology (or, in Mary’s case the Holy Spirit) we don’t even need a man. How crazy is that?! We intimately know what it means to bleed as a part of giving life, even when we haven’t given birth. We know about fear and hope and joy and dread and waiting in Advent in a way men physically never understand. (And for those of us who have given birth, how come the Virgin Mary always looks as amazing as Princess Kate did postpartum?) I love being a woman.

So, Dear Readers who also are Dear Sisters, in this time of waiting and darkness that has been rather difficult, if not truly life-threatening and draining, be kind and be strong for yourself as an image-bearer of God.

And if that means throwing on some fabulous lipstick or mascara, I’m with you in body and  spirit.

Amen!

And here is the before, during, and after.

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Becoming Asian American

Dear Readers,

This isn’t a well-thought out post. Think of it as a blogger’s version of James Joyce’s Ulysses – a book I read and studied in college in a class I almost failed.

It wasn’t until college I had ever considered myself an Asian American. I grew up Korean American. Some days more Korean than others, some days resenting the Korean I wore on my face, carried in my name, emitted from the smells of my home. Some days I was American when I allowed people to mispronounce my last name up until I headed off to college, when I argued with my parents for the privilege to attend a school dance, when I embraced my teenage angst that was more foreign to my parents than the English language.

I was Korean. I waited in school to learn about the Korean War during U.S. History and was confused when it was a passing mention as a “conflict.” I knew my grandmother had a Japanese name because she was alive during the Japanese occupation of Korea. I knew the significance of the Chinese characters used in my Korean name. I was not “Asian” because the common thread of geography and religion did not trump the distinct histories and culture.

I don’t actually have a great analogy, but the closest I could come up with has to do with friends who grew up in different parts of the country. You aren’t “just” a Californian. You are from LA or San Diego or Orange County, and friends have explained the importance of the distinctions. You aren’t “just” from New York because the boroughs are unique and distinct, and don’t get me started with upstate. I was a Chicago northsider until I moved to the burbs. And anything south of Chicago was southern Illinois, aka farmland.

But I got to college and “we” were lumped together, which was actually strangely comforting because there were so few of “us” with no spaces for us, no classes for us, and maybe no awareness we could be an “us” or “we” to request, expect, demand a say and a presence though that did come later. Everyone complained about the Asian teaching assistants and professors who spoke with heavy accents and were tough graders. I never actually interacted with any of those TAs or profs because I was a journalism major. Instead, I had journalism professors ask me where I learned my English, comment on my “almost” accent-free English (what?!), and ask me where I was from. “No, really, where are you from?”  

My freshman year roommate asked me if she could borrow some of my clothes for rush and asked me if I was going to go Greek. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. It wasn’t until she explained sororities and fraternities did I laugh in her face and tell her to wash whatever she borrowed and return it in the same condition as she found it in my closet. She didn’t understand that system wasn’t set up for people like me. She didn’t see it as a racialized system. Never mind the black sororities and fraternities on campus, which again I had to learn were a different system entirely. And being in the Midwest the Asian American Greek houses had not yet made their way over.

I’ve said this before. It’s difficult to “see” things as racist or racialized when the systems have always been designed and created for the success and flourishing of white people – even as the category of “white” evolves.

And in the evolution of whiteness, “Asian America” is also not included. We are perpetual foreigners, lumped together for the convenience of a culture and country that doesn’t want to bother with uniqueness even as we Americans revel in our unique place in history. The term Asian American erases the need to explain the difference between East Asian and South Asian and Southeast Asian. It means a false narrative to success and erasure. Why learn about the Japanese internment during WWII when it didn’t really impact all Asian Americans? Why learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act because Chinese aren’t Americans, right? Why talk about Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong refugees to America because that doesn’t fit into the Model Minority label? Why complicate things? Even the label of “Model Minority” reminds me of my “otherness” and our success in relationship to our behavior that is measured by the majority culture’s standards – white culture standards.

It’s always worth mentioning. Asian Americans are not white. Even when we don’t appear in stats. Even when we are called, or call ourselves, the model minority. Even when the conversations about race don’t include us, Latinos, or Native Americans. Why does that matter? Because right now #blacklivesmatter and I support the need to focus attention on what has been ignored because, quite frankly, I know as a Korean American who became Asian American, I know what it’s like to be ignored, erased, silenced.

The Vitamin L Diary: Words We Are Afraid To Speak

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“Sweetness, the only thing that has power over you is what you can’t say, even to yourself.”

—Hyacinth to Phaedra in The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Every six months I am supposed to see my doctor to make sure I’m doing OK, that nothing in my medical history has changed, and to give voice to things that I am afraid to think about and talk about out loud. She asks me about my mood, my sleep, my level of activity. I tell her I am doing great, that I am fine, that nothing in my medical history has changed. “Can I get my flu shot while I’m here?” I ask.

And then she asks again how I’m doing with the Vitamin L – my daily dose of Lexapro. It has been six years.  Six year since I was able to release the words, the pain, the confusion, and the power of fear by saying out loud what I couldn’t imagine saying even to myself.

“I think I am depressed.”

So on this particularly dreary October afternoon my doctor waits for me to answer honestly, to say to myself and to her what I’ve been afraid to even think about.

“I’m afraid the depression is getting worse.”

I’ve been so tired. Tired like I could sleep the afternoon away tired. Tired like maybe the back and neck spasms I was having for weeks tired. Tired like maybe my high pain tolerance is catching up to me tired (and by high pain tolerance I’m talking waiting to go to the hospital until I was about 8 cm dilated with Child #1 and #3 because I thought it would get worse). Tired like that migraine knocked me out tired but not just that day tired. Tired like I might not get out of bed tired.

The weird thing about depression is that most days I am not wandering around my house looking like there is a cloud hanging over me or hunched over as if the weight of a heavy robe has engulfed me. Depression doesn’t always look like those pharmaceutical commercials that always involved drawings and the color blue. I work out 3-5 days/wk. I get together with friends. I read books for two book clubs. I try to spend quality time with my sons but I really suck at video games. My husband and I have sex if and when we aren’t falling asleep the minute we hit the bed, which isn’t often but also none of your business how often. I smile. I laugh. I make myself laugh. I write. I laugh at what I write. That doesn’t look like depression. But, yes, I am feeling exceptionally tired these days despite, or maybe because of, the fact that I have a child in college contemplating her career in the arts, a child in his junior year of high school who is just starting to understand why we’ve been so parental about grades, and a child finishing middle school who doesn’t need to worry because it’s middle school. Yes, there are unexplained aches and pains that won’t go away and maybe that’s just because I turned 45. Yes, I may spend my days wearing varying combinations of my yoga pants and three sweatshirts because I work from home and I actually do go to yoga class, but that isn’t the depression. None of that is the depression.

Unless it is.

And that is what I am often afraid to think about, afraid to say. Which is probably why that appointment every six months is a good idea instead of an endless supply of Vitamin L with no check-in, no one waiting for me to be honest or at least give me a chance to be honest.

Every six months I have to remind myself that the truth will set me free only if I am willing to walk in the truth. Even if people judge, even if my sisters and brothers in faith judge or don’t know what to do with my truth, Jesus doesn’t judge. He says to me, “Daughter, your faith and trust and courage and Vitamin L have set you free. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

So earlier this week I went to see my doctor, got my flu shot, told her I was fine, and then once again broke the power depression has over me and told her the truth.

The truth is that very few people around me understand this Vitamin L thing and the depression and the anxiety. I don’t want people tiptoeing around me. I want people to ask me how I am doing but not in that weird “How ARE you doing?” sort of way, but I also know that the stigma is complex, deep, and ingrained. Depressed people aren’t supposed to be normal, right? How could I possibly go to power yoga, write, and bake cookies if I am depressed, right? Depression is a mental illness, and people with mental illnesses do horrible things like gun down innocent people (well, actually it’s usually younger white men who go on shooting sprees and are then casually labeled “mentally ill” so I’m off the hook). People with a mental illness are crazy, right? How can a Christian be depressed and take medication for it, right?

I told my doctor what I was afraid to say to myself.

“I’m tired, and maybe it’s that I’m 45 and the cumulative exhaustion of life is catching up to me but maybe it’s not. Maybe the depression is getting worse?”

Maybe. Maybe not. But every day I take my Vitamin L, every six months I see my doctor; each time I have the chance to say words I’m afraid to say but know in my heart are true.

My faith has healed me. I go in peace. I am freed from my suffering.

 

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