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.

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

Grief & Gratitude

Sometimes the expression of an emotion has to catch up to the spiritual disruption. Grief is a very strange, powerful, exhausting emotion, and it didn’t really hit me until I opened my mouth and said the words on the phone.

“Someone very important to me died this morning. He has been my pastor since I was 15,” I said, requesting to be excused from a retreat I was to have attended addressing the connection between body and soul.

How appropriate that in finally saying the words I burst out in tears over the home-going of Rev. Robert D. Goette, good and faithful servant, pastor, husband, father, son, brother, uncle, spiritual father, lover of peanut butter, Bears fan married to a Packers fan, church planter, evangelist, leader, and friend.

Someone said Robert may now find himself bored because there is no one in heaven to share the Good News of Jesus with, but he is healed from the ALS that took him physically away from his family and friends bit by bit over the past 5 1/2 years. He lived longer than doctors initially expected, but that’s Robert.

Robert was a missionary kid to parents called to South Korea. By the time I met him (I was in high school) he was gathering groups of Asian American kids in the Chicago suburbs – mostly but not exclusively Korean Americans – for Bible study and fellowship. He and sometimes a few volunteers would pick up these kids to meet in the basement of a family’s home and meet Jesus in the form of a tall, lanky, blonde, soft-spoken white dude. Yes, Jesus was white in those years but strangely Korean because of his missionary kid experience. Robert had a unique perspective on and personal connection with the spiritual formation of Korean American children and youth – children of Korean immigrants caught somewhere between being the first and second generation in the U.S. also known as the 1.5 generation.

Me.

Robert understood that a generation of kids were growing up in the abundance of America with parents who had just experienced the aftermath of a war – the Korean War – and the political and social turmoil that followed. Robert knew that the language and cultural gaps  would widen, that Western churches were ill-equipped to welcome us (they were happy to rent their spaces so long as we didn’t smell them up too much with our food, which really was superior to donuts and coffee IMHO), and that Korean churches would lose us because of the very gaps caused by chasing the American Dream.

Korean pastors thought he was stealing sheep even though most of us sheep weren’t thrilled to sit in the pews listening to pastors preaching in Korean, couldn’t (or didn’t want to or were never invited to) go to the white church youth groups, or weren’t going to church at all. And I have no idea what his white pastor-peers were thinking as he slowly built the foundation of a church with a bunch of junior high and high school kids.

Surely some people thought he was crazy because junior high and high school kids are not the group church planters are going after. That is not the demographic strategic, trained church planters necessarily go after when dreaming of a strong core. Kids are flaky and unreliable. We don’t have an income let alone our own modes of transportation. We bring and create drama (we were K-drama before it was a thing). We are immature in ways our non-Korean peers were not because we also did not have parents who understood America.

Yup. Robert was crazy.

I’m so grateful Robert was crazy. His investment in my spiritual formation and the formation of a generation of Korean American kids is immense. He understood that my experience as a Korean American child of immigrants was going to mean life and a journey with God would have different turns and curves and bumps and that I would need a place with peers who spoke and understood my heart language – not Korean, necessarily, but a way of understanding and connecting and expressing what our non-Korean American peers could not understand, would never experience, but at some point would benefit from our articulation and expression of it. Robert knew the Kingdom of God needed my generation before most of us cared, and his faithfulness in investing, discipling, mentoring, pastoring, and evangelizing…well, even though it had been a long time since Robert could speak on his own I knew he was still Robert. Even when he ceased to be the senior pastor at Grace Baptist and then Grace Community Church. Even when Peter and I left the church. Even as we stopped seeing Robert and Julie, his wife, on any basis. Even as ALS took away more than Robert’s balance. Robert was still Robert. He was still a missionary, a church planter and trainer of planters, a husband to Julie and father to Jennifer, Emily, and Robbie.

And because Robert was faithful I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Before I knew what ethnic-specific ministry was, Robert and those who believe in Robert did it. They invested in a bunch of kids who grew up to become doctors, lawyers, pastors, investment bankers, traders, and designers. He followed us to Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago – Circle Campus; bible studies on those campuses eventually became Asian American Christian Fellowship chapters connected to JEMS – Japanese Evangelical Missions Society and then later affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Yes, the very organization I work with. See?

There is so much to be thankful for, so much to remember.

Grief is a very strange and powerful emotion. I’m looking forward to being on the other side of it someday.

IMG_1684

Robert was one of three pastors we had presiding at our wedding. He also was the only one who spoke in English, the only one Peter could understand, and the only one who knew me. Robert didn’t mind being one of three. He understood the Korean family/church politics involved in planning the wedding of two firstborns and the son of founding elders of a church. Peter and I have been married 22 years, and we still remember the gist of what Robert said to us about respecting and cherishing each other.

Everyday Dismantling #3

 

 

 

This has been one heck of a week. Confederate flags. SCOTUS decisions on health care, fair housing, marriage equality. Funerals. I am exhausted and as usual sitting in the tension. Dear Readers, do not run away from the tension. Sit in it. Wait it in. Rest in it. That is where Jesus has always been.

So, we return to the question:

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?

The beauty and challenge of the internet and social media is the access and our ability to choose and filter the voices we listen to and learn from. One simple way to begin working on dismantling privilege is to listen to PoC who are voluntarily being your unpaid teachers. We blog. We tweet. We post things on Facebook. We write things that challenge you. We write things that challenge one another. We do not always agree with one another. That is part of the process of dismantling privilege: we must recognize the echo chamber we have created for ourselves. I’m all for being in the company of like-minded people. I find life there. But there is also life and learning by listening to a variety of voices.

This is not a complete list. It’s a start. If you, dear readers, have other PoC to add to this list of Twitter handles, please do so in the comments! Are you, dear reader, a person of color who tweets? Please add your handle to the comments! (And thanks to Judy Wu Dominick for the start of this list, @judydominick.)

twitter

@CSCleve (Christena Cleveland)
@trillianewbell (Trillia Newbell)
@JohnMPerkins (John Perkins)
@NoelCCDA (Noel Castellanos)
@LeroyBarber (Leroy Barber)
@JennyYang (Jenny Yang)
@lisasharper (Lisa Sharon Harper)
@efremsmith (Efrem Smith)
@tanehisicoates (Ta Nehisi Coates)
@DruHart (Drew Hart)
@austinchanning (Austin Channing Brown)
@breyeschow (Bruce Reyes Chow)
@WEB_Ture (Dominique Gilliard)
@eji_org (Equal Justice Initiative)
@profrah (Soong-Chan Rah)
@shaunking (Shaun King)
@thabitianyabwil (Thabiti Anyabwile)
@asistasjourney (Natasha Robinson)
@wirelesshogan (Mark Charles)
@sandravanopstal (Sandra Van Opstal)
@revdocbrenda (Brenda Salter McNeil)
@drchanequa (Chanequa Walkers-Barnes)
@themelvinbray (Melvin Bray)
@seanisfearless (Sean Watkins)
@jeffchu (Jeff Chu)
@foreverfocused (Jonathan Walton)
@iammickyjones (Micky ScottBey Jones)
@nativechristian (Native Christian)
@sepiamutiny (Sepia Mutiny)
@latinotheology (Latina/o Theology)
@latashamorrison (Tasha Morrison)
@zakiyanaemajack (Zakiya Naema Jackson)

Everyday Dismantling #2

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?

Well, it’s been a long week. The news doesn’t get better. I don’t know why we’re surprised. The confederate flag flies freely with no shame in South Carolina. When a symbol of racism, slavery, and hatred stands alongside the U.S. flag what does that say? I don’t know what you hear but I hear “F-U”.

So today’s suggestion is simple and a repeat of something mentioned last week.

BE YOUR OWN BEST RESEARCHER.

If you are reading this post, you are technologically savvy and connected enough to do this extremely well.

For example, today is Juneteenth. If you don’t know what that is, what it means, what it symbolizes, please start by looking it up in whichever search engine you prefer. Go to the library. Read a book or a magazine article. You do not need to depend on your friends of color to teach you about everything you do not know about history.

Today also marks 33 years since Vincent Chin was bludgeoned into a coma. He died four days later. If you’ve never heard of Chin, look him up in Wikipedia. Click on the links. Again, do not depend on your friends of color to be your only unpaid teachers.

You may find yourself wondering, “But Kathy, I am asking you to teach me because I trust you and you said to learn so I’m asking. Why won’t you just tell me what you know instead of directing me to an impersonal website or book?”

BECAUSE PEOPLE OF COLOR GET TIRED. We get tired of being your only sources of information, especially if you are looking for information. We’ve all heard the phrase “wait for the facts” in relation to every. single. violent. incident. involving police and the black community. Well, there are some facts you do not need to wait for. You can look them up and learn.

And if you are a bit taken aback at my tone or feel dismissed by my suggestion to do some research do not put your discomfort on me or your friends of color. I don’t like to look stupid or caught off guard (unless it’s surprise party & then I had at least have some lipstick on). I like to be prepared. But part of this journey is that we actually DO NOT KNOW IT ALL. If you feel stupid, embarrassed, ignorant consider what is going on deeper in your soul. Take a moment and reflect:

  • Why am I feeling embarrassed about not knowing this piece of information?
  • Why does it create dissonance in me?
  • What do I think this ignorance says about me? Is it true? Is this how God sees me? If not, what might the Enemy be trying to do in my heart?
  • What is God’s invitation in this for me?

And if you’re willing to consider another suggestion, Rev. Michael McBride, the director of Live Free and Urban Strategies with the PICO National Network, has invited people to join in sending notes of support and prayers to our brothers and sisters at “Mother Emmanuel” AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Click here to send in your prayer and encouragement today.

 

Everyday Dismantling

This may have to be a regular “feature” once I figure out a blogging/writing rhythm/schedule. In the meantime, I thought I would compile my responses to my FB friend Preston’s question:

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?

Note: When I read privilege in this context I assumed “white privilege” which in it of itself causes some people to walk away or disengage because this is the land of opportunity, bootstraps, and immigrants.

  1. Pay us. I cannot tell you how many times my friends and I have sat on panels to talk about our experiences and expertise and not get paid. We sometimes have to ask if our conference fee will be covered or if meals are covered. (I was a panelist at The Justice Conference last weekend and was not paid. Why did I do it? Because sometimes we (as in ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR) realize there are so few of us being represented at said conferences that we do it, at cost to ourselves and families, to make a point.
  2. Spend a year, or a month, reading only authors of color. Double down and read only women of color authors.
  3. Take a closer look at those conference line-ups and consider how many platform speakers are PoC. The same goes for the list of bloggers, writers contributors to communal blogging sites, major Christian on-line and print magazines.
  4. Let your $$ dismantle privilege by not going to those conferences that only feature PoC as panelists. Instead, go somewhere PoC are leading and speaking…if you can find them.
  5. If you make decisions at church, invite and pay POC, particularly WOMEN. And if you don’t make those decisions, considering joining the board that does.
  6. Use your influence to spread the word about non-white speakers, bloggers, writers, preachers, speakers, trainers. I love my white Christian writer friends but you and I have to go way back before I’ll promote you because there are so many more white Christians being published for many systemic reasons that also are difficult to break down.
  7. Support businesses owned and run by PoC. My parents’ dry cleaning business helped me and my sister through college and helped pay for my big, fat, Korean wedding and made dry cleaning super cheap for me and a select group of friends.
  8. Engage your crazy, prejudiced, racist friends (especially the ones who also love Jesus) and call them out on their crap. I will say that I tend to extend a ton of grace to my elders of all colors and stripes. My older relatives still refer to “us” as “Orientals” but if one of you, dear readers, said that I would remind you that I am not a rug. When people say things at the family gathering or post something on social media, remember it’s an invitation to engage and dismantle. Why? Because white people in conversation with white people aren’t pulling out the race card. The what? You know. The race card – the thing people of color pull out whenever we try to dismantle privilege. We make it about race. Anyone have extras? I’m out.
  9. Read about this country’s messed up history. Not the pretty version we all learned in school that mentions slavery and war but the deep stuff that reminds all Americans – birthright Americans like my kids or naturalized ones like me and my parents – that America has a pattern of genocide, colonization, taxation without representation, internment camps. Read about the wars America fought on foreign lands and how privilege carried over in places like Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. Do you know the story of the Hmong? No? Google it. LEARN! You don’t even need to love Vietnamese food or a Korean friend to go to the library and read.
  10. Consider your own language and defense mechanisms critically. I do not like being called out on my stuff because I like to be right. I get it. What I am realizing is that my white friends are seriously afraid of being called a racist. Being afraid of being a racist and being called a racist are serious. Being afraid you will be (and you will be) profiled because of your skin color or your family name, being afraid that “obeying” the police and running will still put you physically in danger? That’s serious serious. When someone calls you out on something, listen before you start defending and excusing yourself.
  11. Don’t assume what you do and how you do it is normal for everyone. That is how everyday privilege shows up. What does that mean? When you go to someone’s house for the first time do you bring a gift? Do you take off your shoes? When  you host guests do you prepare just enough food or enough food for others to take home a plate? When your church hosts a potluck what are the key dishes you think everyone will know and love? (My kids had never seen deviled eggs until 7 years ago. They thought I said, “devil eggs.”) Do you assume July 4 and Memorial Day are big picnic weekends? What does a “normal” New Year’s Day look like for you?
  12. Listen and be observant. Sometimes the POC around you, especially your friends, are dropping freebies left and right. A sigh. Suddenly scribbling notes in church or during a movie. Going silent during a conversation when she is normally or was just fully engaged. Or speaking up. You don’t have to ask her right then and there what is going on. Do your friend thing and if that is appropriate do it. Otherwise, wait and bring it up later. The point is, there are many everyday moments you can be aware of how white privilege can impact POC.

What, dear readers, would you add to the list because certainly there are more than a dozen ways to break down and dismantle a system that goes back 200 years.

 

 

 

Don’t call me Fresh Off the Boat

If you haven’t already heard, a new family is hitting the airwaves tomorrow (Wednesday 8:30|7:30c on ABC), and I am excited, nervous, curious, and afraid. It’s not every decade you get to see an Asian American family featured in an episode of a television show, let alone an ENTIRE television series, but that’s what we’re going to get with “Fresh Off the Boat.”

Did I mention I am excited and afraid?

The show is based on Chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same title, and you can read all about the show here. It is the story of an immigrant family experiencing culture shock as they chase after the American dream. I haven’t gotten a sneak peek; I’ve seen what the general public has seen.

And I am hopeful but I am holding my breath.

Eddie’s family looks like mine in the way all East Asians can get lumped together under the umbrella of Asian Americans. We look alike without actually looking alike. The family featured on the show has roots in Taiwan, which actually is an entirely different country than the one my family and I immigrated from (South Korea, which is different than North Korea). But for all intents and purposes, Eddie and his family are my family.

Why? BECAUSE WE ARE NEVER ON TELEVISION. Yes, Lucy Liu has a role. Yes, John Cho had a leading role in a romantic comedy that was canceled (Selfie, if you didn’t know). Yes, we Asian Americans can also claim Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead. Yes, there are other Asian American actors currently on network television but I would have to Google them in order to name them. If you are white, Anglo, or can pass as either you have just about everyone else. Seriously.

Even growing up in the church, God, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all depicted as white. Think Sistine Chapel. Think felt story boards. I hear Burl Ives’ voice in the Bible story audio cassettes my parents bought me and my sister. The only time God wasn’t white was when He was Black, thanks to Bill Cosby.

No one sounded or looked like me because the underlying message I got was that no one wanted to sound like or look like me. It wasn’t all that underlying. I may be 44 years old, but the teasing, bullying, and physical harassment were memories formed well into my 20s. Classmates making fun of my name, my eyes, and my nose, and laughing at what they thought I might be eating or the way they thought my family might speak. Boys in the form of grown men driving pick up trucks slowing down screaming racial slurs at me as I walked the neighborhood, driving back around just in case I didn’t understand the first time.

“Go back to where you came from, Chink! Gook! This is America! Learn to speak English. Did you hear me? Love me long time.”

I don’t know how Eddie’s story pans out in the series, but I found solace, courage, and healing in a group of Asian American Christians as an undergrad. This thoughtful group of college students from all over the country understood me in a way other friends had not. They understood my faith in Jesus and the complicated experiences of growing up as an immigrant or as the child of immigrants. Our collective pain and our collective joys became our inside jokes. We had lived through common experiences that set us apart from the white students (and the black students), and we shared words in our mother tongues, food from our mother’s kitchens, and lecture notes and study guides when we could. We knew what it was like to be the foreigner, the stranger. We understood the enormous pressure to succeed because of the great cost our parents had paid. We understood no one wanted to be like us (unless they thought we all set the curve in the classes); that was going to be up to us. We had to learn to love ourselves as God had created us. Imago Dei. In His image.

So those jokes, those were the jokes we made about ourselves for ourselves. FOB or “fresh off the boat” was a label we applied to ourselves even after so many others had been forced upon us.

Those were our jokes, our jokes to tell ourselves in the safety and loyalty of one another.

I’m hopeful non-Asian American America will finally learn to laugh with us and stop laughing at us, but I’m still holding my breath.

#Ferguson is More Than a Hashtag

I’ve been silent in this space because I do not yet have the words. The death of Michael Brown is still rattling in my heart in part because he was days away from college. My daughter is days away from college. She does not face the same daily threats to her humanity as young black men. We all live in a broken world. I get tired knowing it often seems more broken for some than others. And honestly, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around dropping off my baby in a dorm and not seeing her at home until Christmas…and knowing Michael Brown’s mother and I shared some basic hopes and dreams for our babies.

But some of my colleagues have found the words, and I wanted to use this space for others I minister with through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who have found the words that are still forming and fighting in my heart. I’m watching the news, following Twitter, and staying as informed as I can. I am trying to stay open, teachable, hopeful. Please come read with me, share with me words you are reading and struggling with. This isn’t about a hashtag.

“’When does something become true?’ When a black person says it, or when I white person says it or sees it?”

“Within 7 minutes of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I could go on facebook, google, twitter, cnn.com, and have all kinds of information available at my finger tips. Police statements and interviews releasing the name of the person responsible, what he was wearing, what weapon he fired, how many bullets were released. That was within 7 minutes. Within 7 days (10,080 minutes) of the death of Michael Brown, the only information available is the name of the police officer who fired the shot (and mind you, this was not released until 5 or 6 days later) and irrelevant video footage from an entirely separate incident involving stolen cigars and a frightened store clerk. This is a problem because information is power. And while the American public might not be entitled to full or even partial disclosure, I have to believe that the mother who lost her son deserves to have access to the information that will give her a picture of the final 20 minutes of her son’s life.”

Three Ways To Engage with Ferguson

“So to my non-black Christian brothers and sisters – maybe the point of honest confession and repentance is where we need to start. What’s the point of pretending to be better than we are. We are far more broken, yet far more loved by the God of Justice, than we know.”

“I got a text today from a White friend looking to understand more about the anger expressed as a result of the killing ofMichael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After getting into a pretty lengthy text response, I decided to reply via Facebook messenger so I could type the rest on my laptop. Halfway through that, I decided to share my response to him on my blog.”

As a white man, this begins with accepting one statement: “This is not right.”

“So, here are my thoughts for my Asian American Christian community. There is so much that needs to be addressed to correct for the sinful and broken ways in which we have essentially adopted a broken White evangelical view of race and justice. But these are a few starting points.”

“Confession: I am terrified of all conversations surrounding race and culture.”

“Prayer seems not enough. The problems are too big. In this tension, we become discouraged and wind up neither praying nor acting. Maybe we’ll “like” a Facebook post or retweet a compelling tweet. But without prayer or action, these well-intentioned yet vapid shows of support are meaningless.”

 

What posts have moved you? Challenged you? Made you angry? Made you cry? Made you reconsider your opinion or your actions?

Of Skin Whiteners & Spam

These are two of my favorite things.

These are two of my favorite things.

I just bought several cans of low-sodium Spam, and last week I used a paper facial mask for skin brightening/whitening.

Yes. I eat gelatinous meat by-products and I want to be white. Not really. Not at all.

I don’t want to be white, though there was a time when I did. I’m just vain and human. I am heading into my mid-40s, getting ready to launch my firstborn, wondering where all that time I thought I had went, and wondering when all those freckles and sun spots appeared. When the melancholy settles into that sweet spot next to gratitude and hope, I like to sit down for some self-care – some nail polish and a facial mask – or with some comfort food – a bowl of rice, a piece of fried Spam, and some kimchee. Sometimes I will indulge in both in the same night.

The funny thing is that both skin whitening and Spam have similar complex roots in human nature, culture, and politics.

Vanity isn’t unique to Korea (my motherland), despite what we could infer from stories about a Korean golfer playing for Japan because she didn’t fit the beauty standards of her homeland or beauty ads asking women “Do you want to be white?”. I just think it’s easier for us Americans to look outside when it’s convenient. It’s called deflection. It’s easier to point out extreme examples in other countries and cultures than it is to look at our own culture’s jacked up standards of beauty and femininity because, face it, looking in the mirror metaphorically can be as frightening as it is to do it the morning after a rice and Spam bender.

Skin whitening exist here in America, but it is more often promoted as skin brightening – eliminating the freckles, sun spots, sun damage, and imperfections that actually come with being alive and aging. The whitening language is connected to class as well as race. I remember being told during my visits to Korea to carry an umbrella or parasol to keep the sun from damaging my skin; darker, tanned skin was associated with the lower-class farmers or outdoor shop owners. I suspect the stigma of darker skin only increased as Western culture influenced Korea. Oh the irony to be Korean & American where just 50 years ago the U.S. government passed and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the decades since then tanning beds, tanning lotions, and straight up “tanning” is part of looking healthy (by the way shades of orange does not equal tan nor does  it look healthy. It looks orange.). Think about it. We needed laws to protect and give full rights to women and people of color while white people want to be “tan”. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

American culture, in some ways, creates a level of dissonance as it could be construed as a collection of cultural appropriation with a dose of good old-fashioned creativity and varying degrees of separation and offense to the originating cultures. What isn’t American about celebrating our country’s birthday with fireworks?  Fusion kimchee taco trucks? Churches hosting Harvest Day celebrations? Communion wafers or chunks of white bread with grape juice?

It isn’t always clear to me what is the “right way” and how that is different than the “Christian way” or the “American way” of doing, being, eating, etc. In my experience, Spam was American (which meant “white” in my home) food tweaked to fit our family’s Korean sensibilities, served with rice and kimchee, rolled into kimbap, or thrown into kimchee stew. For goodness sakes you can buy it at chain grocery stores in the canned food aisle near canned stew and those little sausages NOT the “ethnic” food aisle! It slowly dawned on me in adulthood that Spam was American but not necessarily eaten by white Americans.

Spam arrived in my motherland through the Korean War and the U.S. military. Pre-cooked in a compact container, Spam was a fairly economical source of protein during wartime scarcity. My father has regaled us with stories about Spam, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and other wartime black market items. He probably thinks it’s funny his daughter still eats Spam but has gotten snotty about her chocolate. The kids can have s’mores with Hershey’s while I whip out the good stuff for mine. But my kids have had Spam musubi, and there is no shame. The blue can that releases its contents with a “splat” is iconic American though many of my white American friends have never had it because it wan’t necessarily good enough for home consumption but good enough to import elsewhere. Fine. I’ll take it. I am told that the Spam now produced in Korea uses higher quality ingredients and tastes differently but is just as prized as it once was. Tradition and nostalgia tied with grief, loss, scarcity, and displacement is a powerful force.

So how can I, as an Asian American woman wanting to dismantle and deconstruct the racial ties that try to define me use a skin whitening product? Because sometimes, I live into my privilege of not examining everything I touch, wear, eat, use, etc. to see whether or not the producers of everything around me were paid a fair wage, did not harm animals, did not contribute to an unjust war I did not agree with based on my religious beliefs. Sometimes I like a good bargain and the facial masks were buy four-get two free so I grabbed one of each kind. Sometimes I don’t want to fight every fight because there are so many things to be against and not enough time to be for something. Sometimes I just want to take care of myself with a facial mask and some comfort food and it not be a political or racial statement but rather a way of loving my family because a relaxed, centered, well-fed mommy and wife makes for a happy life.

Sometimes it’s more complicated and complex.

 

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