“…I didn’t do enough…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ink in my Veins, and a Tug in my Heart

I paused for just a split second and glanced at the hotel lobby TV – CNN covering the Madoff case. I didn’t even realize my eyes darted towards the glowing screen, but my friend HL did.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

Many moons ago I was a beat reporter for papers in Green Bay and Milwaukee, covering the mundane (City Council passes ordinance) to the insane (substitute teacher hires student to kill her husband). There was something exciting about being in a newsroom, writing on deadline, deciding which facts to report and which words to use. There was pride in seeing my byline, and there was humility knowing that byline would end up in the recycling bin by the end of the day.

Whenever there are major news events I wonder what it would be like to be back in the newsroom, but lately the ink my veins has run a bit thicker as I’ve thought about my parents. While I currently am in the enviable position of having job security and a job I love, I am not in the position to support my parents. The American Dream is not the one I chased, but the child of immigrants dream still wakes me up in the middle of the day. Prescription drugs, retirement, Medicare, Social Security, subsidized housing,pre-existing conditions, etc. – “Mom. Dad. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you. We’ll take care of the bills,” I say in my dreams, but the words are trapped in a thought bubble hanging over the “journalist” version of me.

But somewhere between 1995 and 1997 the tug in my heart – the tug that longs to honor my parents and follow Jesus – meant shifting gears into ministry to college students. Phrases like “throwing away your college degree” and “it’s not a real job” were thrown about for years. We’re in a much better place now, a better understanding of what I do and why I do it, but the tug in my heart never goes away. 

My parents would say they never expected me or my sister to support them in their older age. But straight out of “Joy Luck Club” they would have to admit that their hope for such a future was and continues to be a powerful force on my life. “No expect. Only hope. Nothing wrong with hope.”

Sometimes I try to ease the the tug and tension between expectations and hope by doing this funny dance with my parents. They watch my kids. I leave money for them to “treat” the kids for dinner. They don’t take the money because they want us to save the money. I try to give them the money by buying them groceries the next time I visit. My mom never turns down groceries.

I suppose the tug is there to remind me that love and honoring and hope take many forms this side of heaven?

Where did I put that 2008?

Sae-hae-bok mahn-ee bah-deh-say-yoh! And, no, I don’t hand out sae-bae dohn to anyone but my own children, but if you are younger than I am you are welcome to bow and wish me well in the new year.

Where in the world did I put last year? The end of 2008 ending in a crash of an unexpected snow day, birthday celebrations (for my daughter and Jesus), family and friends, roles and calling, and met and unmet expectations.

Our holiday celebrations are a delightful, if not complicated, jumble of traditions. Christmas Eve at my sister’s with a gift exchange. My parents come over for breakfast on Christmas morning. This year we spent the afternoon/evening with dear friends K and D – eating, playing Wii, eating, sledding, eating, watching Lost, eating, laughing, talking about family, eating. The day after Christmas is Bethany’s birthday so we have breakfast as a family with candles in whatever she orders (this year it was a french toast “cake”) and then extended family join us for an early dinner. New Year’s Day we head out to my parent’s house where we still observe a more traditional Korean New Year’s – rice cake and dumpling soup and bowing to the elders of the family (my kids, niece and nephews still receive money). Three years ago my mother-in-law died on New Year’s morning so the tradition of marking her death has been woven into our holidays. This year we had a short service at the grave site with a dinner afterwards.

I haven’t written in awhile because I’ve been recovering from the holidays. Family dynamics, cultural traditions, and cold weather compressed into two weeks was intense. And I know I’m not alone. How do you find rest during the rush of the holidays?

I enjoy reading everyone’s holiday updates, but I enjoy more the unexpected visits and phone conversations we were blessed with this break. I enjoy watching the kids open their gifts Christmas morning (“Mom and Dad, we can’t believe you wasted your money on the Wii!” – Corban), but I find their enthusiasm for bowing and receiving money on New Year’s Day touches me deeply as they bless their grandparents and tackle them with hugs and kisses. They expect Christmas morning, but to this day the Korean tradition of New Year’s seems to be a special bonus to them. I enjoy listening to Christmas music (after Thanksgiving), but I am sad when it all stops on the 26th as if the message of Christ and the songs that welcome in the season are no longer relevant the day after.

There was a lot to enjoy, but I was craving rest and restoration. May we all experience peace and rest and restoration this new year.

Working Mom Angst – Asian American style

Honestly, I haven’t thought this through. I don’t know how or if my culture has impacted the way I experience working mom angst…I’ve been sitting at my desk trying to get through e-mails, file expense reports, start and finish a prayer letter and listen for the dryer to finish when I realized I forgot to go to school to see my daughter’s gym class dance performance.

Now, before I am absolved of any guilt for not taking 15-minutes out of my work day to run over to the middle school by justifying my absence with the simple fact that my daughter is in MIDDLE SCHOOL and seeing her mother armed with a video camera AND a 35-mm waving from the bleachers isn’t her idea of fun,  I can’t shake the fact that she handed me the note from the teacher inviting parents to view the performance.

My daughter is practicing her “Mom, puhlease” look of slight disdain, embarrassment and awkward separation from her parents. But she gave the me the note and asked if I was going to a meeting or working from home. She still likes me.

I have the blessing, and I really do mean blessing, of a home office and the flexibility to the administrative portion of my job within earshot of my washer and dryer and steps from my espresso maker. My mother (and most of the world) can’t imagine an easier balancing act.

So maybe here is where the Asian American guilt and shame and sorrow (and the swallowing of it all) come into play. In a mere 15 seconds I am wrestling with all of it – wishing I could support my parents, wishing I was actually SuperMom who could remember to run over to the middle school (God, help me remember I’m supposed to be at the grade school at 12:30 to be the reading parent!), wondering if my daughter noticed my absence and wasn’t relieved but sad, hoping that my mistake doesn’t make my parents sad that I don’t take advantage of the luxuries of time that they didn’t have.

Please, I can’t be the only slightly neurotic Asian American working mom, right?

Living in the Hyphen – Shame

Is there anything “good” about growing up in a shame-based culture? What are gifts of our Asian culture that we bring into our Asian-American culture? And how is Asian American culture (with or without the hyphen) different than simply a mix of what is the “best” of Asian and American culture?

Those were just some of the questions that we weren’t able to fully answer but left me with a vague restlessness after a focus group on Asian American identity at the More Than Serving Tea conference at Seattle Pacific University a few weeks ago. (To those of you who attended, thank you for making the day such a wonderful experience!) There has been a great deal of study done on ethnic or racial identity formation, but our time wasn’t designed to be a seminar but more of a conversation. So we talked. Some were more quick to identify our bicultural experiences as blessings while others were still wondering.

We often look at developing a sense of bicultural identity as taking the best of both cultures and shedding the negative, but one woman pointed out that some of what can be considered as “negative” cultural values can also be a gift. Her example:  growing up in a shame-based culture keeps her attentive to her conscience.

Through the years of ministering to college students I have spent a great deal of time walking young adults through the weight of shame – feeling not “I made a bad mistake” but “I am bad”. When you feel guilty, you might choose to apologize for the wrong, but when you are shamed there is little to do to save face. Most of our energies have been pored into shedding the shame and embracing God’s forgiveness.

So I was a bit taken aback by the suggestion that shame could be redeemed and be a blessing, but isn’t that what God does? Doesn’t God take my junk and redeem it? Isn’t it possible that the same shame that can paralyze me can be a gentle reminder that there are consequences to sin, to the “bad” choices we make, and that sometimes the consequences are far-reaching?

Shame and I are good friends. For the past two years, I’ve spent a good portion of time wrestling with a sense of failure as a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and daughter as Peter and I have become part of the sandwich generation (caring for both young children and aging parents). When we invited my father-in-law to live with us after my mother-in-law’s death, it was out of a strong sense of duty, honor and love. But during his stay with us I constantly struggled with a sense of failure and shame that the level of care I was providing to everyone in the household fell miserably short.

When the decision was made to move my father-in-law to live with my sister-in-law and then later into an assisted care facility, there was still no relief from the sense of failure and shame. (I grew up hearing, “We (meaning Asians, and specifically Koreans) do not put our elderly into nursing homes like Americans. We take care of our elders.”)

Some of you won’t believe this, but there is a sense that people in the Korean American community here talk about us in hushed tones. “Oh, yes, I heard. They made their father/father-in-law go to a nursing home because they didn’t want to take care of him.”  Others of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So where in all of that was a sense of shame a gift? I’m still thinking about that one…Thank God I’m still learning…