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

75 Years a Slave & Why I Watch the Oscars

Lupita Nyong’o danced with Pharrel like the royalty she is. Her genuine joy, surprise, and awe after hearing her name announced as the winner of the Best Supporting Actress award made my heart swell. Her walk up the stairs, spreading the pleats of that incredible dress like a fan was the way to work that dress.

And it was an incredible moment in history.

It was 75 years since Hattie McDaniel, fondly or reluctantly remembered for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind, became the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She was barred from attending the movie premiere in 1939 in Atlanta, GA. McDaniel and her escort sat alone at a segregated table apart from the film’s other stars. Yes, she sat at the “coloreds only” table.

So, it didn’t escape notice during the conversation that ensued in our home that despite it being 75 years later, the role was that of a slave. Nyong’o understood the power of her role when she said, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” Her role doesn’t take away from her award or from the power and beauty of her performance (yes, I did watch the movie, and, yes, I recommend it).

Other Black female winners included Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (1990), Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball (2001), Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls (2006), Mo’Nique for Precious (2009) and Octavia Spencer for The Help (2011).

Hmmmmm.

Yes, these women voluntarily took these roles. Yes, McDaniels, Spencer, and Nyong’o knew they were playing slaves. Yes, Berry and Mo’Nique knew they were playing impoverished women. That leaves a ghost medium and a backup singer.

Seventy-five years between Mammy and Patsey, and the range of prime roles for Black women (never mind other women of color) seem rather, um, limited. What will it take, how long will it take for women of color to gain the experience, the networks, the audience to be offered the roles that so easily go to the likes all the women of non-color who dominate the awards circuit? How long before Asian and Asian American women are even up on the the big screen and littler screen in leading roles that are human beings? Please don’t name the five roles that are out there. Are there even five?

But why bother actually wasting five hours of my life when clearly I see and experience all of life as an Asian American woman and am going to notice these things anyway?

1. Because, despite a raging headache that pounded the back and sides of my brain, I am a sucker for fashion I can’t afford and would never buy even if I could afford some of it. I love the drape of a well-tailored dress or tux. I appreciate the aesthetic of fashion, and though I firmly believe the Fall of Humankind lead to all sorts of ick I am grateful we have moved beyond fig leaves, fur & leather.

2. Because the Oscars bring together the brokenness of this world together with the thing I believe God intended humankind to “do” – the creation of culture.

3. And because I also am an artist, the wife of an artist, and the mother of three artists. In my household five resides several writers, an aspiring screenplay writer/director, a dancer/choreographer, a seamstress/designer/styler, a photographer, a future master Lego builder, a satirist, and a comic book author. We are Christian home that continues to wrestle with what it looks like to be in this world but not of this world. We try to love our neighbors as ourselves by being neighbors who also watch things so we can have easy small talk and be neighbors who know what’s going on this world through a Christian lens, shaped by our Asian American immigrant experiences. We read (meaning two out of the five of us read without it being assigned) books, we get a paper newspaper and several magazines, we watch the news, etc. We shop at the mall, at the resale shops, and at all garage sales possible. We are first-world Christians desperately trying to live and be light by not hiding under a rock or bushel but by finding joy because we have the privilege and the opportunity to do so in incredibly easy but intentional ways.

So we sat together in the family room with the big screen tv and we watched, learned, and taught.

The five of us stayed up enjoying the likes of U2 (has anyone else noticed Bono can’t dance), Pink (I loved that dress!!), Idina Menzel (or Adele Menzeen, according to John Travolta, ugh), and Pharrel perform. (Pharrel, if you or your people are reading this, I have a daughter and two sons who can work it for your next multi-generational dance party.) We engaged them in critique and asked them about their observations. They noticed the plastic surgery and we talked about the world’s view and standard of beauty for men and women. We laughed when we all thought Jared Leto kind of looked like Jesus from the “Son of God” movie. We asked the kids which child would get the family to the Oscars. We cheered when the boys said they wanted to work their creative magic together. We cheered when our daughter mentioned choreographers can win Emmys. We all reacted to the Chevy commercial featuring Asian American children creating a movie by pointing at Peter, husband and dad, who made movies as a kid and still dreams about writing a screenplay. We noticed they cheered and recognized themselves and our family in a CHEVY COMMERCIAL but have never had that opportunity in an American sitcom or movie because obviously writers, casting directors, and producers don’t take race into consideration.

And in watching we continued to push ourselves and our children into the risky business of being in the world but not of the world. In many ways, it felt like an extension of Sunday worship as my heart, mind and soul continued to wrestle with the commandment to love my neighbor as myself when this world keeps telling me I am invisible.

 

How Many Pairs of Jeans Do You Have?

I know Sandy is bearing down on the East Coast (Prayers to all my friends out there. Don’t be stupid. When the powers that be say leave, leave.), and there are more pressing and important matters at hand.

But I’ve almost emptied my inbox, and the sun is shining. Which means I start to look around my office and notice all of the dust and clutter that cloudy days seem to hide so well. And I’m wondering how many pairs of jeans my readers and friends have.

We recently had a garage sale, and did some major purging of a household that I thought was fairly purged. But when you start thinking that someone will pay you money for things around your house I am more apt to make quick decisions. The extra rug that we might need just in case? Garage sale. The shoes that I bought at rummage/bag sale that I wore a few times resulting in vanity pain? Garage sale. The bath bomb that went unused because I don’t take baths? Garage sale.

I am an organizing freak. I don’t like clutter. I have a list of personal projects, home maintenance projects, Pinterest projects, etc. I don’t scrapbook, but I have a binder system to keep each child’s important papers from each school year. My shoes are in clear plastic boxes with labels. My shirts are hung according to sleeve length and color.

I told you I am a freak. (Local friends, I don’t judge you and your homes. I’m only a freak about my own space.)

But the battle is never won. One of the bigger battles (minus the color, sleeve-length, shoe box thing) happens to be my closet. I enjoy shopping and finding a great deal. My favorite places to shop are not the outlet stores but the resale shops and garage sales. Yesterday I stopped at an estate sale and nabbed two great glass dishes, four cans of spray paint, three vintage ties, a pair of pjs, a paint roller, and a beautiful old copy of the Book of Common Prayer for $8. I’ve learned to buy with purpose, each item, even the vintage ties, are going to be put to use within the next month.

But when it comes to clothes, I have a more difficult time (I know, first world problems) discerning what is a good range of “stuff” to have. I also keep clothes for a long time (my favorite and only Benetton sweater from high school is now in my daughter’s closet!). I am mindful of the family budget. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on external beauty, but I like being put together.

So I am curious, how many pairs of jeans do you own? I think my husband owns three pairs. He spends most days in scrubs and then another chunk of time in running gear in prep or recovery. I own six.

Again, no judging. How many pairs of jeans do you own?

What is Proper Attire For Becoming An American

This one is just for fun. Really. Fun.

At the bottom of my Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony is the following statement:

Proper attire should be worn

So, what do you think is proper attire? What would you wear if you were becoming an American citizen? Blue jeans – nice ones that look tailored? Jeggings, yay or nay? My hanbok might be over-the-top, right?

And yes, I will post a photo after the ceremony.

WWJW or What Would Jesus Wear (if Jesus Was a Tween/Teen Girl)?

A friend’s post about fashion and leggings got me thinking about how my daughter and I are navigating the scary yet vaguely familiar world of teenage fashion.

Life was a lot easier when I could go to just about any store and buy a few things for Bethany, stick them in the closet, and pull them out for her to wear with little to no objections. But I don’t know if it was as fun. Life now means going to the mall or Goodwill together and trying to out-do each other’s best buys.

But starting around age 9 finding “appropriate” clothing and avoiding exposed midriffs and butt crack became priority #1. I remember walking into a tween girls’ clothing store and horrified at their underwear display – bikini and low-rise underwear for tweens. What does a 9-year-old need low-rise underwear for? Apparently to make sure her underwear doesn’t show too much under those cute low-rise jeans. Duh.

Bethany isn’t 9 anymore. She’ll be 14 the day after Christmas. And when she tries on a pair of jeans I ask her to sit down in them before I’ll pay for them. When she tries on a shirt I ask her to raise her hands in the air because I care about whether or not the shirt rides up and shows off the spot where she was once tethered to me for sustenance.

But fashion and appropriateness can feel like a moving target. I don’t have big issue with her wearing a bikini, but I may change my mind on that this summer. I think she looks great in those low-cut skinny jeans, but I don’t want boys or men googling her. I want her to see herself as God (and Peter and I) see her – beautiful inside and out. But I also remember what it’s like to be a teenager, and I’m still the kind of woman who likes to look good in what she wears. And I want her to understand that what she wears isn’t as important as her heart, but that it’s OK to appreciate her physical beauty as well as a fabulous fitting pair of jeans. Clothes don’t make the woman, but we all know that at one point or another we’ve judged another woman for what she was or was not wearing.

See? Moving target.

A few nights ago Peter and I were watching ABC’s Nightline when a segment on tween/teen fashion came up. A national program called Pure Fashion was promoting modest fashion for teens. Pure Fashion’s creator and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman says, “The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural.” She goes on to explain that the program is for girls with courage, and that is extends beyond fashion to cover proper behavior and actions for Christian girls who wish to remain virtuous until marriage.

But something about that segment bothered me, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Perhaps it’s knowing what it’s like to be judged based on appearances and not wanting my daughter or her friends to be judged that harshly…or for them to judge others based on their fashion choices. Maybe it’s because I want to believe that what I wear isn’t all that important but I hold in tension the reality that what I choose to wear can communicate messages I intend or don’t intend to communicate. There’s a reason we call the power suit the “power” suit.

So, should we even be asking the question, “What would Jesus wear if he were a tween/teen girl?”? What have you seen in fashion trends that make you cringe? (Why are shoulder pads coming back? At least they cover the shoulders, right?) What are the lines you have drawn for your daughter or for yourselves as you shop and get dressed? (No belly button or butt crack exposure. That goes for both of us. And I refuse to let her shop at a particular store that insists on dimming the lights and assaulting potential customers’ sense of smell and hearing, but we’ve bought a few of those label’s items at rummage sales.)