Thoughts on “The Making of Asian America” & What I Didn’t Learn in School

It’s still May, the month of my people, and I am late to the game with my thoughts after reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America.

If you are Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of Asian, American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t and what our family stories couldn’t due to gaps in language, culture, information, and access.

If you aren’t Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t, mainly that Asian Americans have been a part of U.S. history since the 1500s.

For example things I didn’t learn in school:

  1. During the Japanese internment the government enacted a loyalty review program where draft-age males were asked if they would be willing to serve in combat duty with the US armed forces and if they would be willing to “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America.” (p. 238) Our government incarcerated them and then asks them to prove their loyalty by using them in combat. (Oh, and why weren’t Germans rounded up and incarcerated?)
  2. U.S. Census data confirms Asian Americans are overrepresented on both ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum of privilege AND poverty. (p. 376)
  3. Did you learn about the Black Panthers in school? How about I Wor Kuen, the largest revolutionary organization aligned with the Black Panther movement.
  4. African Americans weren’t the only ones who were prohibited from giving testimony in cases involving a white person. Chinese immigrants and Native Americans also could not be believed. (p. 92)
  5. South Asians who had been naturalized citizens were also denaturalized in the 1920s. (p. 172)

I recall learning a little bit about the Korean Conflict, the Japanese Internment, and the Vietnam War. I don’t know about you but those were the units that made me a bit uncomfortable as one of the few if not only Asian American in the classroom when these were being discussed because when you’re one of a few if not the only one in the classroom people look at you like you were the reason America went to war when really America’s best interests were to go to war which included everyone in that room. And it was as if those history units gave the racist classmates permission to say ugly, unAmerican things to me.

The book made me stop to think about what I knew and thought I knew about my family’s immigration story and how that has impacted my understanding of who I am, uniquely and powerfully created in God’s image. It made me consider how I have too often been quick to judge my parents’ generation for a litany of wrongs without fully understanding the context of their journeys both here in the U.S. and “home” in the motherland. It made me think about how their stories and they themselves too are created in God’s image. Lee’s book reminded me that I ought to be quick to listen and slow to speak, especially when it comes to understanding how my parents’ and earlier generations’ stories are also part of God’s story.

The book was also published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the very piece of legislation that made it possible for me and my family to immigrate to the U.S. in 1971. History I had not learned in school is what made it possible for me to read this book and write this blog in English while still connecting to my Korean roots knowing what it means to be an alien, a stranger in a foreign land even when I am “home.”

Towards the end of the book there were two quotes that comfort and challenge me as one who sits in the tension of privilege as a college-educated upper middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, married, and documented & naturalized citizen and racism and sexism I experience as a Korean American woman in Christian/evangelical circles.

“Historian Franklin Odo argues that the model minority label ‘encourages Asian Americans to endure contemporary forms of racism without complaint and to provide brave and loyal service above and beyond that required of other Americans.’…

Musician Vijay Iyer goes further: privileged and unquestioning Asian Americans have become ‘complicit’ in their acceptance of ongoing American inequality.” The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee p. 380.

For my dear Asian American readers, what are your stories of enduring, swallowing, dismissing, forgetting racism and how has that impacted the way you engage with contemporary justice movements? Do you see yourself as complicit in the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

For my dear non-Asian American readers, what behaviors and beliefs might you need to reconsider as you learn about Asian American history and the ways in which the United States’ past greatness was built on racism? How might you also be complicit in the the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

And for my readers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who share the intersection of Christian faith, how does Jesus challenge our understanding of persecution, persecuting, and systemic injustice?

 

 

Mental Health, AAPI Awareness Month, and Being All of Me

My college kid is home resuming a vampire’s sleep schedule for another week-ish and then off to her study abroad program in Paris. My high schooler is getting ready for his junior prom, which really translates into using my credit card and acting like I don’t understand the significance of this social event. He also has finals wrapped around Memorial Day weekend, which makes me want to swear. My middle schooler has checked out of school because he is “graduating” from 8th grade, and we made the mistake of telling him that 8th grade didn’t really count as a way to help him cope with all the talk about high school expectations.

I am so done.

But May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and May 10 was AAPI Mental Health Awareness Day. May is also host to Mother’s Day, which for some of you is Instagram worthy and for the rest of us requires deep breathing. May is my month. All of me. #intersectionality

I live in the Midwest so May being  the month of my people is cruel. May should be the peak of spring, but here it’s frost advisories, overcast days upon overcast days, rain that carried over from April, and a few days of glorious spring and “sprummer” – days that start like spring but then heat up to the 80s causing all tulips to bloom and wilt within a 24-hour period. I don’t know why May was selected for AAPI Heritage Month, but I’m not actually going to share any tidbits about AAPIs because we have Google.

Today is about being all of me. All of you. And how that can be simultaneously empowering and exhausting because when you are integrated and whole, you also have a sense of when things aren’t working, aren’t in sync, aren’t “right.” Right?

Today I was supposed to be somewhere else training great people to do important things that I am passionate about. But I’m not there. I’m here in my home office, in my pajamas because they are comfy and I don’t have to leave the house quite yet. I’m here because all of me – the Jesus-loving recovering Korean American child of immigrants perfectionist who swears and drinks a lot more than she ever did in her “younger” years, working mother of three who doesn’t have it all but has a lot, writer, speaker, coffee drinker – was given the permission to opt out.

So I did. I felt like a failure because the model minority myth is a tough one to remove. I felt like a failure because my own inability to manage my anxiety was getting in the way. I felt like a failure because aspiring Christian speaker writer types do not decline/back out of speaking invitations. I felt like a failure.

And then I didn’t. I woke up today looking forward to seeing updates from friends doing their thing and grateful I could do mine, unshowered in my pjs. And I want to let some of you, dear readers, know it’s OK. You can opt out of good opportunities. You can even opt out of great opportunities. Yes, some of them truly are once in a lifetime, while others may come around again.

Be you.

Be.

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$$.

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

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.

image

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

hands-620

“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.

 

Read Between the Polls, What Will We Remember?

Dear Readers,

Where were you 14 years ago?

I was 37 weeks pregnant with my youngest child. I had dropped off my oldest at kindergarten and returned home with the toddler. I can’t remember if my father called me before or after I had already turned on the television only to catch video of the second plane crashing into the north tower. I remember standing there on the cold white ceramic tile in the kitchen wondering if we were going to go to war, wondering if I should go pick up my daughter, wondering if friends in New York City were alive.

Within hours I would hear the deafening silence of the skies – not a single plane in the sky – and the eerie stillness as businesses and offices closed early.

My father called again.

“KyoungAh, you didn’t apply for citizenship yet did you. You should get your citizenship,” he said. “You don’t know what will happen now.”

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Friends and strangers, pundits and the average Joan need to stop saying the polls don’t matter. Polls matter. If they didn’t matter, even this early in the election cycle, no one would conduct polls, report on polls, try to interpret polls, try to predict the future based on polls. We need to stop pretending that a certain candidate’s bluster is just for show and his growing popularity is a sideshow.

It’s not. I think we want to dismiss it because it’s easier to avoid the truth rather than dealing with reality.

Racism and sexism, and a particularly insidious variety of both, is what is popular and resonating with the average American voter of a particular political party’s persuasion. We can keep trying to ignore it, pretend that what he says is just “him” and not a reflection of what real people are actually thinking. His numbers have grown despite the fact that his foreign policy amounts to nothing more than “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”

Read between the polls. I don’t believe his supporters are stupid. I believe they hold racist and sexist beliefs and values, and as a Korean American woman I am not surprised at his growing popularity because we have a history of pretending our racism and sexism isn’t really racism and sexism.

Sometimes we call it patriotism.

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Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11. It was pouring rain earlier this morning, and now through the billowing clouds the sun is shining through. My social media streams are full of #NeverForget along with somber, thoughtful accounts of where people were when they heard the news. There are images of the two towers, the new tower, and flags.

It’s important to remember. As a Christian, a person of faith and religion, it is important to remember, to know not just history for facts but for themes, story arc, tradition, and lessons learned. Sometimes the facts point to something bigger, usually a pattern of how God is present and His faithfulness is beyond what we see or saw in the moment.

We cannot be people who forget but today I am wondering what do we remember from the aftermath of 9/11 and what do we need to remember. Have we remembered some of the details and forgotten (perhaps conveniently) others? Have we forgotten how in our fear and anger protecting America and Americans and “our way of life” also meant turning our backs and sometimes turning against some of our fellow Americans even here in America? Have we remembered only being attacked, and forgotten attacking a country we would later find had nothing to do with 9/11?

I had forgotten about my father’s request I apply for citizenship in the weeks following 9/11 when planes returned to the skies and shopping malls reopened so that we could show those terrorists they hadn’t won by shopping. I had forgotten because as a Korean American woman with fair skin and flawless English-speaking skills (I’m still learning to speak American, though) I rarely get pulled aside by the TSA. I had forgotten because my husband also is a lighter-skinned Korean American with flawless English-speaking skills, and we attended (and still do) a Christian church.

But I think my father called me, specifically to talk to me about becoming an American citizen, because he remembered something I did not, saw something in between the political posturing and patriotism. He saw how America was defining itself again. We might never be a “real” American but papers can’t hurt.

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As we remind one another, particularly on this day, to #NeverForget I want to encourage us, my dear readers, to remember. History has a way of repeating itself.