The Asian American Sidekick

Bethany doesn’t play with dolls anymore, but every now and then I’ll talk with a mom of  a younger girl who happens to still be very much in the AG doll phase. I don’t know what came over me tonight. Maybe it was thinking about culture in preparation for a Sunday School series I’ll be teaching at church later this month? Maybe.

I went on the AG website and was reminded why I was grateful when Bethany announced she had grown out of that phase of childhood.

Currently AG, from what I can tell, has two Asian American dolls. And both dolls are the sidekicks to a “main” doll. Again, finding affordable, quality, multicultural dolls is not the most pressing issue in the world, but it is a pretty typical parenting dilemma for many of us. Our kids want dolls, and while they might not immediately care whether or not its a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll, some of us parents do care for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, these two dolls are the sidekicks, and of course I have my theory. (I’d love to hear yours if you have one.) My theory? They haven’t figured out how to create and then market an entire line of historical fiction-based matching outfits and accessories for girls and dolls based on the Japanese internment or the immigration/resettling patterns of East, South East and South Asians.

Oversimplifying Asian American history? Yes. And really, isn’t that what the line of dolls is? It makes history (or historical fiction) accessible for those who can afford it, but it isn’t without its share of stereotypes which in the hands of young girls can be a bit tricky.

“Sidekick!” – it makes me think of the movie “Sky High” where new students attending this special school for super hero-type kids had to show off their super hero skills. Cool skills like super-duper strength mean you go to the super hero classes. Other skills like turning into a rodent mean you are a “Sidekick!”

My favorite doll growing up was a little “rag” doll my mom made out of a pattern. She cut out two pieces – the front and the back – sewed and stuffed. Voila! The other doll I remember loving was my “life-sized Barbie-like doll”; she was a black doll! My parents couldn’t find an Asian doll so they figured better black than blonde I guess. I can’t say I remember noticing or caring. The dolls were mine, and that was all that mattered.

Is it always that simple?

Homecoming Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does PG-13 really mean 10?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help.

Sunday? Sabbath?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stigma of Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I didn’t do enough…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…