Homecoming Weekend

During the fall of 1985, a strange wind blew through my hometown. That wind carried me to the steps of the homecoming court, and then promptly dropped me on my behind just shy of the court. It was weird.

To this day I am convinced that it was some joke that never completely saw the light of day. Yes, I was on poms, but hardly a popular girl. Hmm.  How shall I put it? I was a geek. A geek who had rhythm and stage presence. Perhaps someone thought it would be funny if I actually made it on that float with the Homecoming Queen as a member of her court and threw my name in the hat. Whatever the reason, it didn’t make any sense to me, and to be honest it was a painful reminder of what I was not and what I would never be.

Instead of becoming a great punchline or strange photo in the yearbook, the nomination created a very awkward, difficult and sometimes tense situation at home. Why? My parents had never experienced “Homecoming”. My parents had experienced high school but that was decades prior in a country that at that time was often referred to as a third world or developing nation. As if high school isn’t tough enough, imagine going through high school trying to translate it in Korean.

“Um-mah, Ah-Bbah, (Mom and dad), would you please leave me alone and comfort me. I know this nomination is a nong-dam (joke) but there is a part of me that wants to ee-gyu (win) and there’s a part of me that knows it will never happen. Instead, come an-juh (sit) in the bleachers and wear a big ggote (corsage) with a button created out of a sah-jin (photo) of me in my poms uniform?  And then later that night you will need to snap sah-jin (pictures) of me and my nahm-ja-ching-goo (date) and my ching-go (friends) and their nahm-ja-ching-goos (dates) as we head out, this time I’m wearing the ggote (corsage), to juh-nyuk (dinner) and then a dance with a boy who calls me “Kate”. Oh, and did I mention that during the week leading up to your time in the bleachers and mine in a dress I borrowed from you, I will be gone decorating the hallways for spirit week. Oh, never mind. It’s OK. You don’t have to come.”

To the person who thought it was funny to put my name in the hat for sophomore attendant: I have almost forgiven you. 

It’s homecoming weekend here. The storefronts down “Main Street” are decorated in anticipation of the festivities, complete with a parade, football game and reunions. We have to get Bethany to the beginning of the parade route early so she can “march”. She lucked out this year. Being a member of last year’s poms squad she gets to “dance” in her poms uniform, which I must say is cuter than the band uniform she wore last year. She brought the uniform home today, and all I could think of is next year when she’s in high school this weekend has the potential to look and feel so different. She’ll know it. And I will so know it.

My parents did the best they could with a 15-year-old cultural interpreter. My hope is that through our experience together defining Korean American I am a better interpreter for my children.

Working Mommy=Unhealthier Kids? Work, Parenting, Calling & Roles

I’m always telling my children that they have the “meanest mommy in the whole wide world” but apparently I now have proof that they are pretty lucky kids.

According to a new study out of Britain, researchers have found that children of mothers who work full-time were the unhealthiest of the bunch. The second group of unhealthy kids belonged to part-time working moms.

Why? Because those kids ate more sweets, chips and sweetened drinks in between meals and spent more time than did their stay-at-home-mom-kids counterparts.

Hey, Bethany, Corban & Elias! Stop whining! You may have spending limits on clothing, and restrictions on the types of movies you are allowed to watch, but YOU get more sweets, chips, high fructose corn syrup enhanced drinks & tv/computer time than your friends whose moms do not work outside of the home. I have research to back this up!

I told you you were lucky to have the meanest mommy in the whole wide world!

Studies like this frustrate me to no end. Apparently fathers and their presence or lack thereof is irrelevant. Because their working trends have not changed significantly since the stone ages or so, it is obviously up to women to stay at home and raise healthy children. Razzle, frazzle.

I have worked outside of the home since Bethany was born (minus the first six months of her life when I was recovering from nearly bleeding to death, but that’s another story for another day). I may have been a career-driven 20-something, but when I was holding Bethany, and then Corban and Elias, in my arms I did not care whether or not I would see another byline again.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be a SAHM (stay at home mom) and to never feel that work gets the very best of me on some days while my children get the tired, worn out version of me. I have listened to SAHMs who refer rather wistfully to my “trips” away to exotic destinations like Madison, WI; Champaign-Urbana, IL; and Cedarville, MI. (OK, Seattle and SoCal are better!) What we’ve learned in living the journey together: the grass is always greener on the other side if all you’re doing is looking at the other side.

I’m in my 14th year of parenting with a lifetime to go and thousands of years of Korean American cultural baggage of guilt and shame with a splash of Christian fundamentalism to weigh me down. I do not have the energy nor the desire anymore to take on more false guilt or spend energy frustrated over things I cannot change. That is how I do it.

For those of you moms out there, what have you done to make it “work” for you and your family – whether you are a SAHM or a mom who works outside of the home? What about your situation has frustrated you or made you feel guilty or even envious of the other side and how have you dealt with it?

And out of curiosity, what do you think? Are kids with SAHMs better off?  Are kids with moms who work outside of the home better off? Does it have to be an either or?

Does PG-13 really mean 10?

My parents didn’t know half the stuff I was up to.

They did their best with their limited understanding of American culture and pop-culture. They emphasized academics, gave room for creative endeavors so long as those never translated into actual vocational aspirations, and Korean culture and language. They left the “don’t drink or do drugs” conversations to the schools and the youth group pastor. They never talked to me about sex, but they did leave a few books strategically hidden in their bookshelves that I’m convinced they had to know my sister and I would accidentally find.

They didn’t ban certain types of movies because I just don’t think they had the time to worry about that. They were trying to get to the American dream and for the most part my sister and I stayed out of the kind of trouble their radar would pick up.

But times change, as my parents learned with each grandchild and things like the Diaper Genie, seatbelt laws and strollers that required an engineering degree to fold and unfold.

I am the mom of a teenager and in a few days two tweens. I just don’t think having to wait to wear make-up or wait to play “T” video games or wait to see PG-13 movies is going to be the reason my kids need counseling later. There are so many things “out there” that I can’t control, but the few things I can I want to…wisely.

Do they have to grow up so fast? Real life is hard enough without speeding through the easier, carefree parts. I don’t want to be their best buddy. I want to be their mom, and sometimes that means being the heavy. Right?

We have rules and guidelines. Our stand was that the kids would not see PG-13 movies until they were at least 13. It seemed like an easy way out. We figured that by the time our oldest child was 13 we would have had “THE TALK” and allowing the chance to go see those PG-13 movies with friends would open up opportunities to talk later about language, innuendo, and values (YOU DON’T NEED A BOY/MAN TO MAKE YOU HAPPY OR AFFIRM YOU).

It has actually become more of an issue with our boys because we’re finding so many PG-13 movies are being marketed to boys – movies based on toys, super heroes, etc. Peter wanted to introduce the Star Wars series early for our boys so that meant bending the rule (and opening what I predicted was a can of worms – my blog so I get to say, “I TOLD YOU SO!”) We would either pre-screen the movie (a huge sacrifice on our part since Peter and I enjoy watching movies) or wait for the dvd and watch the movie together to pause & fast-forward through the inappropriate parts.

The other night our boys came home early from a party because they were going to be watching a PG-13 movie. The host parents were very gracious, honored our choices, and did exactly what we hoped for. Corban was angry, and all I could do in that moment of his anger was to hold him, tell him it was OK to be angry, and ask him, “Corban, don’t try to grow up too fast, OK?”

I know not all of you are parents, but some of you are. Some of you are teachers. Some of you are “aunties and uncles” to many kids, maybe even mine. But all of you are out there engaging and interacting with current culture. What have you done to protect the kids in your lives from the things you can protect them from? What have you allowed, against your better judgment, and found that perhaps your judgment was off? What are the things you aren’t going budge on?


Sunday? Sabbath?

“Mom, can we take a break from church because I want to do something as a family for a day…like play outside?”

Elias apparently noticed that the sun is out this morning. My kids need some vitamin D after last week’s wave of clouds and rain. He wants to spend the day relaxing and resting…and even at his age he’s wrestling with something I’ve been wrestling with for years.

Sometimes our Sundays do not feel like a Sabbath. Sometimes going to church does not feel restful or restorative or even worshipful. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it. There. I said it. I’m struggling with identifying how big of a space “going to church” is supposed to take in my life. If going to church does not equal a Sabbath, what is the proper equation?

I grew up going to church. Even on family vacations my parents would try to find a local church to attend. During one of our week-long road-trips to see and appreciate the expanse of land known as AMERICA my father found a small countryside chapel. The pastor was the only one there, and my father explained in his choppy but not broken English that we were on vacation and couldn’t be at our home church. Could we pray and sing a hymn or two as a family here in these pews? I seem to remember the pastor joining us for the singing…

When Peter and I were in the painful process of leaving our home church of 10+ years, we did what we Christians call “church-shopping” which for me is a lot like bathing suit shopping – something I feel I must do but cringe at my self-loathing, over-critical, never-satisfied self. We church-shopped because we couldn’t imagine not going to church because that is what we were supposed to do, expected to do and wanted to do. We felt lost without that Sunday morning anchor, but somewhere along the line we gave ourselves permission to take a break and worship God together as a family by going to experience the Doctors Without Borders exhibit, by taking Sunday to prepare our vegetable garden, by meeting the neighbors and sharing a meal with them.

And then we “found” a church. And on this sunny Sunday, my youngest son is asking, “Can we take a break?”

So for those of you who are Christians, do you go to church? Why or why not? Do any of you practice the Sabbath? If so how?

When to hit “Remove From Friends”?

Has anyone hit “Remove From Friends” because someone has crossed the line between friend and frenemy?

So…Facebook is a major time suck. I know several hold-outs who don’t want to read that so-and-so is stuck in traffic and so-and-so is eating this amazing meal and so-and-so went to the U2 concert with her daughter and lost 2% of her hearing. 🙂

I kind of like it. I have to take my FB in small portions otherwise I get sucked in looking at photos (like my cousin posing with Ludacris is one of my favs), responding to funny status updates (like Jessica’s about “No one should be frozen in carbonite” still makes me laugh), etc. It’s like eating. Eat several small meals during the day instead of the big three which tend to make me veerrrryyyy sleeeepppyyy and in turn less productive.

For the most part I’ve figured it is his/her status and he/she can write whatever whenever. Whatever. But lately there has been quite a bit of chatter on FB by “friends” who are doing what I am doing right here – venting, and I’m feeling very conflicted.

Have you ever read someone’s status and thought, “This comment makes me uncomfortable.” Or better yet, “WHAAAT?! Are you kidding me?” 

So when you read something like that, do you engage or not? Do you ignore the status and maybe that person’s updates for awhile? If you see that person to you acknowledge the crazy status update? Or do you comment on the status?

Anyone out there unfriend a friend? If so, why? Did you think about it but decide against it? Why?

I’m looking for a few honest folks who aren’t just removing friends because they are no longer OK with not really knowing all 1,000 of their friends. I’m looking for the few folks who’ve had a bone to pick…and picked it.


My American Name? My Married Name? My name.

A North Texas legislator suggested voter identification issues for Asian-descent voters could be simplified if they changed their names. You know, change their crazy Asian names into American names.

My American name is Kathy Khang. My parents gave me “Kathy” (just “Kathy”, not “Katherine” or “Kathleen”, and not “Kate” unless you happened to be my high school homecoming date who was the only one to ever call me “Kate”) because the “k” sound similar enough to the first sound of my Korean name – KyoungAh. They simplified my name when we immigrated because they figured that was one elementary/junior high/high school torment they could save me from. The whole “go back to where you came from” was beyond a name change.

My parents also took on “American” names. Sort of. My mom became “Helen” and my dad just took “Shin” (the first syllable of his Korean name)  when they bought a drycleaning business. Customers would come in and chat with “Helen” and “Shin”, but when they sold the store it became awkward to introduce my parents to anyone as “Helen” and “Shin”. In my world, adults didn’t have first names, and in my world as an Asian American I would never fully be an adult so long as my parents were around.

Many immigrant families also changed their names and made them more “American” by changing the order of their names. In Korean culture, your full name starts with your surname – identifying first your family line and then your individual name (which also carries a generational marker, historically if you are male). My male cousins all “Suk” as the second syllable to their name. Clearly, you can see why they might have wanted to changed their names had they immigrated to America.

I am not surprised at this politician’s suggestion. In her mind and personal experience it really may be that simple. Change your name and be an American who won’t get questioned when you want to vote. Right.

But I am a bit surprised at how this conversation so far is limited to race. I’ve blogged about this before. While it is becoming more and more prevalent, it is still generally assumed that the woman will change her name upon marriage. If anything, being progressive means asking the bride-to-be, “What are you planning on doing about your last name?” Rarely is it assumed that the woman would keep her name (unless you have a friend, and you just know she’s going to keep her name).

When I got married, the assumption was that I would change my last name and take my husband’s last name. I got all sorts of questions:

  • Don’t you want everyone to know you are married to your husband? Yes, what does my name have to do with it?
  • Don’t you want to be known as a married couple? Yes, but again what does my name have to do with it? I also want to be known as an individual who had a life that mattered to God before I got married.
  • Peter is going to let you do that? Is it Peter’s decision alone?
  • What will your family think? Actually, my parents were honored.
  • What will your inlaws think? At the time I didn’t stop to ask.
  • Don’t you think it will be confusing when you have children? Confusing for whom? Are you worried the children will be confused or others will be confused?
  • What will people call you? They will call me by my name.
  • Isn’t it just easier to change your name? Actually, from what I hear, no. There’s no paperwork involved in keeping my name.

Almost 16 years later I am still explaining the name thing, with less bite. The kids all have my name as part of their name. B, C & E go by what the Texas Rep. Betty Brown would call their “American” names, but they also have their “Korean” name, followed by my last name and then their “real” last name (my husband’s last name). I tinkered with the idea of pushing that the kids would have my last name, but when you’re struggling through months of nausea and exhaustion some things ceased to be critical. In the end, they each know their names and the significance and story behind why we chose B, C & E. They know why their grandfather chose their Korean names, why we wanted them to have Korean names and the meaning behind each syllable. They know why my last name is a part of their name, and they know that even though I have a different last name I am their mommy who knows them and loves them and is part of their family.

I agree with many of the frustrated comments being thrown about in response to Rep. Brown’s suggestion. Names matter, but I don’t want to read motive or intent into her comments because I don’t know her.

I do know that spelling “Brown” is easier than spelling “Khang”. I do know that when someone hears “Brown” there are different assumptions made than when you hear “Khang”. My sister often gets a surprised response when people have heard of her before they meet her because she goes by her married name – a more “American” name. I suspect Asian adoptees go through something similar. There are cultural connections that people still value and make in and through names while the definition of American is still changing and being challenged. There isn’t a whole lot that is easy about becoming or being an American, especially if you aren’t White. A name change won’t do it. Living in American for most of your life doesn’t do it. Citizenship does it in a legal sense but doesn’t cover the day-to-day nuances of American life and acceptance into America.

But as a married woman, my name, changed or not, matters as well. There is a cultural and family connection to my past that profoundly shaped me into the woman my husband married. There is nothing easy about being married, with or without children – joy doesn’t make everything easy. And when things get tough, a common name isn’t going to be what pulls you through.

As an Evangelical (insert lit match here), names matter. Why? Because in many evangelical circles it matters whether or not Junius was Junia. Name is not strictly race but also gender.

So, do names matter to you? Why is changing your name for the ease of others offensive or not? What is the story behind your name? And, would you change your name to change the story?

The Stigma of Suicide

Aquan Lewis was found hanging in a bathroom stall at his elementary school. He was 10 years old.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide, but Lewis’ mother, Angel Marshall, openly shared her disbelief and distrust of the ruling.

“My baby did not kill himself,” she said. “You all need to get in that school and look at that stall.”

A police investigation into Lewis’ death continues, but the local news coverage is now focusing on the broader issue of suicide. The front page of the newspaper, countless websites, the news radio programs, afternoon news – suicide spoken of out loud in the same segment as the economy and weather. Does that mean the stigma is gone or is it something else?

As a campus minister, I have walked staff and students through two suicides. The first one was a freshman I vaguely remembered meeting at a new student week event. I got the call in the middle of the night from a frantic student leader. The second one was an upperclassman I did not know. I was out of town at a staff training event (ironically being trained for a new job supervising staff teams) when I was quietly pulled out of a meeting and given the news.

As an adult suicide has touched me several times, but only once was I told up front what had happened. A college friend had gone home for break and did not come back to campus. She had hung herself, perhaps in an attempt to silence the darkness that she had been fighting for sometime.

The other two times were just family deaths until years later when the secret of suicide emerged. A family member who had died decades before I was born died in the midst of familial turmoil, but it was never clear how this person had died. I once heard someone come close. “— died because — was so sad. — died because of the sadness.” It was almost as if the cause of death could be erased the demons would never come back.

Decades later those demons did come back. This time involving the other side of my immediate family. I was simply told that this relative, who was years younger than I, died. No other explanation given despite my obvious question – “How did — die?”

I was pregnant at the time, and I later learned that relatives were concerned that telling me this person had died of suicide would lead to either problems in my pregnancy or somehow adversely affect my child. You see, there are cultural taboos and then there are cultural taboos. There’s eating and drinking cold things after birth taboos and then there are the taboos that follow through the generations. The problem with hiding those family stories and addressing the taboos straight on is that we never really know what we’re running from and where we need to run to. 

I started thinking about my family’s relationship and understanding of suicide because the story of a 10-year-old boy’s suicide reminded me that suicide is never expected. It never makes perfect sense, if any sense at all. Yes, my family members may have struggled with undiagnosed depression. Yes, there might have been “signs” and “cries for help”. But at the end of the day those things never neatly lead us to think “Yes, that makes sense.”

The story also reminded me that those who have come closer to suicide than others in some strange way carry a responsibility to break the stigma around suicide, to continue breaking down the cultural barriers to openly talking about death and depression and how the two really can come together. One day I imagine it would be important for me and my sister and my parents and my children to sit down and talk about how depression runs in the family. About how I struggled with thoughts of suicide. About I feared depression was rearing its ugly head in my own children. About how we’ve sought both prayer and counseling therapy. About how the only taboo is believing that not acknowledging suicide will erase it from existence.

So as I glance at the clock and head out to pick up my young boys from school I’m saying a prayer for Angel Marshall and her son’s family and friends. I don’t know what the death investigation will turn up, but hopefully it’s gotten some people talking about suicide and bringing to light that which cannot remain in the dark.

Have any of you been affected by suicide? How have you (or your families) talked about suicide (or not talked about it)? Does a stigma remain on suicide? depression? mental illness? And how does faith or religious beliefs help or cloud the issue?

There are a number of good resources out there, but one I’ve used over and over is Grieving a Suicide by Albert Y. Hsu.

“…I didn’t do enough…”

I feel the weight of familial guilt, shame and expectations heavily. The older daughter married to a first-born son can’t get away with “I don’t feel like it” or “I can’t fit that into my schedule”. I try. Believe me. I try. But the danger of living a bicultural existence relatively detached on a daily basis from the direct implication of said existence is that I begin to think I am the only one in my family who feels the weight. I may think and experience life a bit differently but most mornings when I rushing out the door to work or to drop the kids off, life is less bicultural and more chaotic.

Anyway, the other day I was on the phone with my mother talking about my grandmother. She is 86 and still lives on her own. As one who has helped care for an aging parent, I was trying to sensitively give my mother advice on how to best care for her mother. About two minutes into the conversation I remembered there really is no culturally sensitive way to give one’s own mother advice (if any of you have figured it out, please let me know…).

Instead I tried to listen, but I was so sad and disturbed at the weight of the guilt my mother carried that I wanted to hang up the phone lest the weight take me down too. My mother was wondering out loud why her own mother is choosing not to move closer to her adult children, and after she had run out of what seemed to be the most logical and legitimate reasons (grandma likes her independence, she doesn’t want to leave her friends, etc,) my mother went “there”.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to move in with me because I didn’t do enough for her. Maybe she doesn’t think I will really take care of her,” mom said.

One of the things I find most difficult about adulthood is navigating the cultural divide with my parents. As a child/teenager/young adult my response was often one of detachment or simple resentment. “They don’t understand” was the path of least mental and emotional resistance. The older I get the more I begin to understand and appreciate that they understand as much as they can given the circumstances. They have spent their lives as parents bending in an attempt to understand America and its culture and trying to bend their lives to fit and be “American” enough for their neighbors, coworkers, children. My guess is that they understand my bicultural journey more than I know.

What I still don’t know is how best to respond when my mother goes “there” with her guilt and expectations.

What in the World?!? Free Makeup and “My People”

I enjoy a good deal. The only thing I enjoy more is a great deal. That being said, I learned the value from my parents. These same parents called me Tuesday night to tell me that they had been to several department stores after dinner to stand in line and claim their one free product per customer (albeit at multiple department stores and at multiple shopping malls). Seriously, they were downright giddy.

The makeup giveaway is part of a class-action lawsuit. The settlement included a mass distribution of high-end cosmetics to customers. No proof of purchase necessary. Just sign your name on a piece of a paper and decide if you want the cream, perfume, mascara, etc.

I figured I would stop by the mall the next morning and get my free makeup if the wait wasn’t long. The wait was short, but what I couldn’t help but notice was the demographics. I would have to guess that 85% were Asian/Asian American (the remaining 15% was mostly Latinos and Europeans based on the conversations going on). I have never seen that many Asians/Asian Americans at that mall in the four years we’ve lived here. Many of them were couples, just like my mom and dad, each getting their free sample.

Initially I did an internal giggle, called up my sister (who happened to be at Macy’s), and told her to pick up some free makeup.

But the line at the second department store was a bit more uncomfortable. There were two lines snaking through the cosmetics and jewelry departments, and one of the women staffing the giveaway table started addressing us in a tone I have often used when my children were younger. She spoke loudly (ok, so there were a lot of people there so I’ll give her that) and deliberately (though when I got closer she chattered much faster with her coworkers).

“Now remember, you can only have one item. Just one. No two. You can only come once. You can’t come tomorrow. It’s not fair. See, we’re having you write your names. We have to collect the names so we’ll have your names. We’ll know you came back.”

Again, I know there are bigger fish to fry. I’m not trying to fry any fish here. It was just one of those uncomfortable moments where I found myself wondering if this woman would have said the same things in the same tone had the crowd not been 85% Asian/Asian American and 15% Latino and Europeans. I found myself wanting my free moisturizer but a bit embarrassed for an unknown reason that I was in the company of “my people”. So what if I came back? On my honor I took my one sample, but seriously did she think she was going to be the voice of conscience or implying something by stressing the fact that they were taking down names?

I should have signed my name Jane Austen or Amy Tan or Michelle Obama. 😉

For those of you wondering about the free makeup, here’s the info. It’s until supplies last so run. My mom and her friends have been working the phones so who knows if there is anything left out here.