Makeup as Spiritual Formation

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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.

 

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.

 

A Quick Primer on #codeswitching

Dear Readers,

Have you heard about the crazy that went down on the Napa Valley Wine Train over the weekend?

So the wine train is a real thing, and my husband and I were on it about 21 years ago for our anniversary, about a decade too early for my tastebuds to fully appreciate what I could’ve been drinking. It’s literally a train that goes through Napa Valley, and you can eat and drink your way through it. It is a bar on wheels. How loud do you have to be to be too loud on a bar on wheels, especially if you are with a group of your reading besties enjoying a good book discussion?

Well, apparently it’s not about being loud. It’s about WHO is being loud and WHO thinks you are too loud. This is not surprising to some of us, but that doesn’t make it any less humiliating, wrong, and racist.

The CEO has issued an apology, and here is where I brought in my love for manuscript Bible study and intersected it with … my life as a Korean American woman of color who pays attention to what happens to other women of color. I looked at the apology and started marking it up with comments, questions, observations. I’m sorry for the quality of the photo, and you may see that the text didn’t fully print on the right margin – user error. But you can get the gist of it. Public relations folks might call it spin. I call it #codeswitching  – where otherwise neutral words are used to describe a situation where more precise language connected to race, gender, sexuality, etc. could be used.

For example, when a group of women of color are referred to as “those people” as a way of minimizing the negative racial/ethnic implications of the comment without actually pointing out the obvious.

So that apology to the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club? There is a lot of code-switching going on.

  • “…you would be loud, fun-loving and boisterous…”
  • “…a particularly vibrant group…”
  • “…we were acutely insensitive…”

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I haven’t figured out my emotions in response to this situation and to the apology. What I know is that growing up as one of the few Asian Americans in my community I had a different standard of behavior I needed to live up to – for my parents and my Korean American community and for the white community. I had to behave and respect the norm in whichever situation I was in, aka respectability politics. Many times I still believe this is true.

Such was the case for the Sistahs of the Reading Edge.

As you read the apology, what do you read? What are the underlying, unspoken messages that stand out to you? What are the questions you have about my manuscript?

 

Everyday Dismantling #4

What are some practical, everyday ways we can work to dismantle privilege that both are simple, clear things to do and don’t burden PoC (people of color) with the expectation they be our (unpaid) teachers?

It has been one hell of a month – 11 days in Pacific and Eastern Standard Time and what feels like a relentless stream of violence against black people and examples of white supremacy, white privilege, and American racism. (I am using “American racism” because I am freaking tired of people pointing out there is racism in other countries. That’s fine, but like I often hear: WE ARE IN AMERICA!)

So to end this month there are three just two things, dear readers, I would like to suggest as practical, everyday ways to dismantle privilege:

1. Leverage your privilege in a mundane, boring, non-savior sort of way that doesn’t involve asking a PoC for anything. As a Korean-American woman who is in great health with reliable transportation, I have made a small, tiny commitment to donate blood.

What does blood donation have to do with dismantling privilege? What did you think dismantling privilege was going to be? Saving poor people of color and being their saviors?    Nope. Jesus already has that spot in my life, thank you very much. Dismantling privilege in part is taking stock of where privilege lulls us into thinking our money, our platforms, our influence are the best and perhaps only ways of breaking down systems instead of considering how our entire embodied lives can impact the world and people around us. If I can’t do the little things, I have no business trying to do any heavy lifting of social injustice.

I don’t particularly like giving blood, and the finger prick, IMHO, is the worst. But I live in the “safe” suburbs where kids and adults don’t generally get pulled over for a missing license plate or arrested for drug dealing and abuse. But I also live within walking distance from a Level 1 trauma hospital where we regularly hear medical helicopters coming and going. Broken systems in a deeper sense mean we all experience death and brokenness in a way God did not originally intend. People are suffering and dying everyday, spiritually and physically, right in front of our eyes. It’s not just in the news. So as an act of worship I barely inconvenience myself to willingly shed blood for those who need it, because my health allows me to do it freely. That is part of dismantling – acting freely, without strings attached, to help right something that is wrong.

2. Care for the PoC around you. Now, this doesn’t mean going up to PoC you don’t know and giving them a hug and asking to get to know their story, and I say this because this was suggested at a conference I attended where the last thing I needed was another random white person asking to get to know me. I am assuming, dear readers, you have friends who are not white. Send your friends an actual note of encouragement or a text. Check in with them when the poo poo hits the fan. Tell them how their engagement and unofficial role as unpaid teachers of social justice has made an impact in your life. Treat them to coffee. Send them a care package or a gift certificate (I am not even kidding you on this!) and encourage the PoC, especially those who are deeply engaged in the work of dismantling privilege, to care for themselves. We are TIRED.

Honestly, I don’t know how some of my black friends walk out the front door anymore. Does the car have both license plates? Do I have my polite voice? Will I make eye contact but not too much eye contact? Will my friendliness be perceived as disrespect? Can I reach for my license and registration or do I need to point to my purse or wallet first? Again, to point out the obvious (maybe it isn’t that obvious since many of you don’t actually KNOW me), I am a Korean-American woman. I don’t think being pulled over by a police officer is a threat to my life. But life in America as a non-white person can be exhausting, a series of microaggressions – daily reminders of my otherness – that I choose to ignore or engage. Some examples of the “easier” ones:

  • The random stranger who greets me with a phrase in her/his choice of Asian language, usually a man saying “konichiwa” or “ni hao” because clearly all Asians speak all Asian languages and not English.
  • The “where are you from” line of questioning that is rarely satisfied by my answer: Chicago.
  • “Where did you learn your English? You speak it so well.” 
  • Conversations about “minorities” or “black people” but then being put at ease by being told, “but you’re not like that”.
  • Reading Yelp reviews about nail salons and the rudeness of employees speaking another language in front of customers (‘cuz you know the nail techs are always talking about you, lady) or the language barriers mono-language Americans face when ordering at their favorite authentic Asian restaurant.

We can only ignore things and let them roll off our backs for so long before we begin to pick up the message that we don’t fit the standard of American. This happens not just on the street but in our churches and places of worship, our schools, our favorite coffee shops. Turn on the tv or open up a magazine. Go to the movies. Look at the speaker line-up for conferences or at the attendees at the next conference or meeting you are at. Look at the list of recommended books. Glance at the patrons in your favorite restaurant. I usually make a scene when my family and I aren’t the only ones. Why do I pay attention? Well, because white people don’t have to. And because you don’t have to, your energy doesn’t go into managing all of the possibilities of every encounter, every post you put up on Facebook, etc. You aren’t tired the same way we are tired so care for your friends of color.

Racism is Uncomfortable, Dangerous, Evil

These are uncomfortable times.

Racism, whether it is named or whispered or danced around like the elephant in the room, makes it uncomfortable mainly for white, majority culture people. It also makes some of my kin – highly assimilated, low-identity Asian Americans who do not care to rock the boat at all because a boat that doesn’t rock suits their American dream – uncomfortable. Racism forces the hand of people who want to live in a colorblind world while enjoying the benefits of a racist society. It looks you in the eye and asks, “Are you a racist?”

I am tired of making people feel comfortable.

I didn’t go to my majority white, majority culture church on Sunday because I didn’t want to sit and wonder if the Charleston massacre would be mentioned. I didn’t want to sit silently if the evil of racism wasn’t addressed. I couldn’t bear making other people comfortable by sitting through a service when in my heart I wanted to walk out (that’s how I felt after each of the non-indictment announcements). I didn’t find the nearest AME church to attend in a show of solidarity because I couldn’t bear seeing white people making themselves comfortable by showing up at a black church. These are not comfortable times.

Dear readers, please stay. Sit in the discomfort, even if it is not familiar to you. Sit and don’t wait for someone of color to make you feel comfortable. We are tired.

And read the following piece. It’s worth the time to invest in a little truth.

Dispatch from Charleston: The Cost of White Comfort

“I have reached across the aisle. I have broken bread. I fully believe we all need healing in these moments, and that night, the symbolism was clear: a white person and a black person holding hands in the face of horrific racial violence, singing songs of freedom. What could be more comforting?

But thanks to something I experienced the previous night in Charleston, I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.”

When My Heart & Body Bleed

11403502_10155810085305651_2271394680427765294_nMy dear black sisters, I am mourning with you. I am angry with you. I am angry for you. My heart and my body? Bleeding with you.

Last night my husband once again urged me to get some rest. News of the massacre in Charleston was just gaining traction, and the news junkie in me runs deep. Peter knows it. He married me knowing this was part of my DNA but that was before wi-fi, Twitter and iPhones.

I went to bed heartbroken, angry, and numb.

I woke up bleeding.

I am almost 45 years old, and I haven’t menstruated in years. I can’t actually remember the last time I had a period because I am on birth control to avoid getting pregnant and to manage my endometriosis, which ironically made it difficult to have a second child. I grew up like many women – a bit ashamed of what our bodies did. The bleeding woman was an outcast for her entire life. Menstruating women were unclean in biblical times. Our bodies were our shame. But finally, as a grown up woman, I love my female body. Admittedly I don’t miss having my period, but I am not ashamed of what my female body can and is capable of doing. When I think about Jesus talking about his body broken for us & blood shed for us, I think about my sisters whose bodies are broken and sometimes bleed monthly because of our bodies’ ability to bring forth life. Men can’t do that. They can bleed when injured, but never to bring forth life. Lord knows I do not understand it all but I do know that as a Korean American woman I am created in God’s image.

And though for almost a decade this body created in God’s image has not bled, today it is doing just that.

I’m sure my doctor might have a different explanation, but this afternoon after a second dose of pain killers and some time in prayer, mourning, and silence,  I came to this understanding. My body is doing what my soul is doing. We are bleeding. This latest act of violence, this homegrown terrorism rooted in white supremacy and our country’s sin of racism that started not with slavery but with the theft of a land that didn’t belong to “Americans” is making me bleed. Nine beautiful black people, six women and three men, created in God’s image, who gathered to worship and invited not an angel but a racist and killer in their midst, bled and died. He walked in unafraid because white people in this country aren’t the ones in danger in the streets, in the pools, in the churches. No one questioned his presence, and then he opened fire telling victims he was there to kill black people.

We should all be sick to our stomachs and bleeding.

This is not some weird “I am black in my soul” thing like some other woman we have given way too much time to. I don’t feel black. I feel very Korean American. I have felt the privilege of not being black. I also have felt the threat of not being white, of always being just outside of being fully American, fully human. I didn’t grow up in a historic black church but a historic Korean immigrant church where our loudest moments were in prayer meetings at the wee hours of the morning. This isn’t me being black. This is me knowing that the model minority myth is my people’s lie to survive as well as deny the racist reality in this country. This is me knowing when one part of the body hurts, grieves, screams out for justice my body does hurt if I allow myself to feel it, know it. This is me watching the news, reading Twitter, managing a kind of physical pain that has often sent me to the hospital, wondering what must be going on in the bodies of my black sisters who are experiencing the pain of the Charleston massacre in a different way.

My mother and grandmother taught me my body, my mind, and my heart are connected in ways American culture and Western medicine do not understand. Many Eastern cultures teach that our bodies can manifest emotional pain and trauma and so the value of swallowing our suffering for the sake of harmony and peace can also damage our bodies. My mother and grandmother made sure I ate beautifully-formed fruits when I was pregnant with my three children so that I would see and experience beauty during my pregnancy for my sake and for the souls of my children. When I would cry out of frustration and anger about one thing or another during pregnancy or while nursing my babies, my mother would tell me my anger and heartache would make my milk “bad” and hurt my baby’s digestion and temperament. Mom would say the taste of her food depended on how she was feeling or what she was thinking while she was preparing the meal.

My mother and my grandmother were right. They were right to teach me to know and name what is going on in my heart and soul and how the world around me was impacting me and my children. They were right to teach me to not numb the pain or the anger or the sorrow but to know how it will impact myself and others.

So for the first time in a long time I am bleeding because my body, mind, and heart have caught up with one another and know something I have tried to ignore for too long – in a country built on white supremacy no one is safe.

Invisibility. Once Again.

11393618_10152914895818372_3855429072813440040_oI wanted to really like Pitch Perfect 2, and I didn’t want to start analyzing the casting of the musical “Once.” But I have eyeballs and vision/astigmatism correcting contact lenses, and my hearing is pretty awesome when it comes to racist and sexist subtext.

I have a vested interest in the arts – music, movies, visual art, dance, literature, etc. My daughter is a dancer. My husband not so secretly hopes to write a screenplay.  My sons aspire to be professional gamers, which in my book requires some ability to design visually pleasing platforms that do not objectify women or bring more unnecessary violence into the world.

So I can’t seem to not pay attention to the names, credits and faces on stage or screen. Call me sensitive. Or, I dare you to accuse me of playing the race card. I’m wearing yoga pants. I have no pockets for a race card.

But I have eyeballs and vision/astigmatism correcting contact lenses. Why did they ruin Pitch Perfect 2 with those horrible racist jokes that I think were supposed to help put the “international” context of the movie into the humor but failed. Why did it fail? Because this is not a post-racial America. Yes, I know Germans were stereotyped with accents, black clothing, and blonde hair. I don’t have the energy to explain fully why those still support a white dominant culture that affirms all things “white” (aka white supremacy, but that may feel too harsh or scary), but those clothes, except for the man-skirts, were “cool” while the blonde hair and accents do not separate them from being white or accepted in America.

However, Latino or Asian accents, fake or real, mean you’re stupid. They mean you need to learn proper English. They mean you don’t belong here, that you must be the landscapers or the nail techs, are you are the nanny or do you love me long time, where are you from, no where are you really from, I mean where were you born, or maybe your parents or grandparents, that’s amazing because you almost speak perfect English, you are not what I thought you were, saw you as.

We code switch. We assimilate. We change our names, our faces, our accents. We melt.

When I am visible in those ways I want to be invisible. It’s not a super power as in a hero. It’s wanting to disappear for self-preservation.

But then last week my husband and I saw the musical “Once,”  and I scribbled notes in my Playbill in the dark as I watched an all-white cast…again.

  • Why were people of color invisible?
  • Are there no people of color in Ireland?
  • Or were there no qualified actors of color who could fake an accent and/or play the piano, guitar, Cajón, mandolin, and/or sing?
  • No one on stage actually spoke Gaelic or Czech. The entire play is in English with native English speakers, some with what sounded like faux accents. (Well, I don’t actually know but the accents faded in and out very unlike my grandmother’s and my parents’ accents.)
  • Why is Billy saying “hi-ya!” and karate chopping, saying “comprende” and fist bumping while referring to CSI?
  • Why is “American” culture being integrated into the show if the all-white cast is supposed to be Irish and Czech and Ireland?

Why were people of color invisible?

“My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.”  Psalm 139:15, 16a

I don’t want to be invisible. I don’t want who I am to disappear into a stereotype or into generalities. I want to be seen as fully human, embodied.

Thank God I am seen.

Playing the Critic: A Review/Reflection on Keys of the Kingdom

photo credit: "T"eresa

photo credit: “T”eresa

What happens when the pastor of a evangelical megachurch in Iowa commissions a mural from a lesbian artist from New York City?

Well? What do you think will happen? Is it a doomed binary between conservatism and liberalism? Is the scenario too contrived and limited to stereotypes? Does religion win? Or fail? Or both? Or does it sound like a bad joke?

Sometimes those are the questions that make for an unexpected date night for me and the husband so despite a blizzard warning set to go in effect around the second act we headed out to see Keys of the Kingdom (now playing at Stage Left Theatre in association with Theater Wit, Chicago, through February 15). If you’re local, you want to support the arts, you like proposing different endings or changes to plays/movies/books, and you have a little cash and time to spare this is one of those shows you might want to catch.

It’s not The Book of Mormon kind of laugh out loud irreverence (actually I am going on hearsay because we have not yet seen that musical) but I appreciated that playwright Penny Penniston thought enough of evangelicals and lesbians to create characters instead of caricatures. Ed, the evangelical megachurch pastor came across utterly sincere if not a little weird in his conviction and faith while being open to the possibility that God would ask him to do something that seemed outside of the rules of conservative behavior. Christians can be weird because some of the stuff we say and say we believe in and do in the name of beliefs can come across as weird. Irene was an artist who also happened to be a married lesbian. Her sexual identity and marriage are important to her personhood but are part of an integrated whole just like I am not “just” Asian American or a woman.

The evangelical v. the lesbian is what I would call low-lying fruit for misunderstandings, politicizing, and proselytizing; thankfully that was not what this play was about. I walked away appreciating that there were things Ed and Irene could not fully explain but believed in deeply enough that they were open to new possibilities, relationships, and risks. If only we could reproduce that in real life a thousand-fold. Imagine what could happen.

The story also touched on how even good intentions can fail miserably, and my mind automatically went to the missteps taken by fellow evangelicals and allies who echo Irene’s line and say, “I was trying to help.”

The response (and sometimes my response)? “That’s what a child says when they make a mess of things.”

In the myriad of misunderstandings, good intentions with bad results, and disagreements we agree will never be bridged but by a work of God, there is grace. I was thankful it made an appearance in this play. I’m hoping to make more room for it in my heart, my words, and my actions.

The play was a wee bit long for my taste, and you could hear noise through the walls (two other plays were running at the same time in this multi-stage theater. I would’ve changed the ending, shortened the play, and allowed for some time for the audience and the actors to interact because I kept wondering if Peter and I were the only evangelical Christians in the audience. What was everyone else thinking?