To Be a Gracious But Angry Christian Asian American Woman

I’m trying not to let all of this Deadly Viper stuff emotionally hijack me. Writing helps. Talking with “Kathy Khang husband” helps (btw, that is exactly the search engine term someone used). Praying helps.

I’m trying to muster up the courage to say something else about a situation that is already heated and complex without blind-siding anyone else, without derailing what could be a conversation in the making about the racial, ethnic and faith issues at hand, without sounding too angry, bitter, or in need of inner healing.

But can someone please tell me why pink frosted cupcakes, salads, Richard Simmons and pink Smart cars are girly which is code for “not manly” or akin to being wimps and wussies, which clearly are not adjectives any real man would want used to describe men?

Deadly Viper is NOT the first, last or only leadership development that uses what some would call a hyper-masculinity to appeal to men and their leadership. There are several male pastors who are calling out for men to be warriors, man-up, go to battle, etc. There is a shift in some circles arguing that the feminization of the Church is why men are failing to lead. Jesus as manly man.

But I make the connection here in the middle of all of this talk about culture, race, ethnicity and pain because it is in these conversations I often feel like I’m choosing first to be Christian Asian American and put the “Woman” on hold. It feels too complicated to simultaneously engage people across the divide in a conversation about racial stereotypes AND gender stereotypes. I don’t want my Asian American experience to be defined by ninja warriors, but the message here is so much more nuanced because there are parts of my Christian and Asian and American culture that try to silence my leadership.

Women and men are different. Yes! How can we speak respectfully of those differences, learn from one another and affirm one another without resorting to one of the worst insults a boy can throw at another boy at the playground: “You throw/hit/punch/run/laugh/cry like a girl”?

Just last week I heard a few men at the bowling alley ask me if I had a french maid costume for Halloween. Was that a man being a man in his public man-cave? If those men were just being stupid, isn’t it possible that all of this talk and imagery about real men versus chickified church boys could add unnecessary fuel to the fire?

I’m struggling here.  I am the mother of an amazing daughter and two amazing sons. This isn’t me ranting. I am feeling deeply the brokenness of our world as my kids sleep soundly tonight. How will the church lead in teaching both my daughter and my sons to be strong, effective, compassionate, gracious, courageous leaders? Can we do it without making fun of one another, without Kung Fu warriors fighting off pink cupcakes or salads?

Is anyone else bothered by this hyper-masculinity? Am I being too sensitive?

Saying Goodbye to the Green Card – Biometrics

I’ve received notice that the government is ready for me to be fingerprinted. The FBI will cross-check my prints against its databases while my paper documents are verified.

Fingerprinting has nothing but negative connotations for me. If you’re being fingerprinted, you did something bad, someone thinks you did something bad, or your parents are afraid you’ll be abducted so they have your fingerprints, recent photograph and physical description on hand for the police.

Some of you may be wondering if I’m being a wee bit over the top with my thoughts in this process. I hope not. I hope that thinking through what citizenship means is appropriate, needed and welcomed by those born into the privilege…because the fact of the matter is that even after I’m (hopefully) naturalized I’ll still be asked, “Where are you from?” 😉


When Your Star Shines Brighter

When the idea of a group of Asian American women writing a book about faith, gender and culture started out with a snowball’s chance in hell, I had one fleeting thought that unnerved and annoyed me: What if this book actually gets published? Will my husband be OK with my success?

Somewhere in quiet, indirect messages I grew up to understand that boys were preferred over girls and smart, successful girls are scary or, even worse, undesireable.

It’s not that I thought two chapters in a book would launch my New York Times Bestseller literary career. But I understood that in the ministry world I’m in being a published author opens up opportunities that may have taken a lot more to open in the past. This is no time for false humility. After spending five years in the marketplace and then nearly a decade in ministry part-time, loving and learning from college students while raising a young family, my star was rising.

It is no small feat to be able to write a statement like that. Culturally there is no place for self-promotion – self-effacing comments, maybe. And by culturally I mean having grown up with a certain brand of Korean-American spirituality/fundamentalist/evangelicalism that let me know that under no circumstances was I to take credit for anything that I happened to achieve or fail. 

Good grades? I was lucky, or God pulled through. A promotion at work? I was lucky, or God had a plan. A big project flops? Bummer, or it wasn’t God’s will. Oversimplified? Without a doubt.

I will say here that my husband has been very supportive, but even then the kind of comments he would field while I traveled hinted at the audacity of what I was doing – pursuing a rising career. Men and women would gush over his willingness to babysit the kids while I was away writing or speaking, as if he had granted me a favor. Men at church would joke about “letting” me have so much time away from him and the kids. Women would ask how I could spend so much time away from my family.

It was as if my rising star needed to be explained away as an anomaly or excused as a luxury.

I’m not sure if it’s the sudden change in weather that is making me a bit cranky these days. I’m pretty sure it’s because over the past few weeks I’ve talked with a few other women who have wrestled with being a supportive wife and present mother who has an opportunity to stretch her wings and fly a bit. And maybe my fuse for this internal conversation is growing short…I want to respond graciously when I’m asked about the toll of my travel schedule on my family (because I really do agonize over it). I want to respond confidently when I’m asked about my ability to speak to a large audience about matters of faith and life. But I know I’m cranky.

Anyone else cranky out there?

Does God Care I’m an Asian American Woman?

So my posts about becoming an American has been generating some great on- and off-line conversations and comments about citizenship, identity, etc.

My job involves engaging people into the conversation about multiethnicity/multiculturalism & Christianity. The conversations are always rich and often difficult. A question that “AS” brought up in her comment is one that often bubbles up to the surface:

What does it mean to say that “God doesn’t care if you’re black or white, male or female, rich or poor?”

What do you think? Does God care? Does it matter to God?

Thinking About Female Bonding Over Sweat and Jeers and the Etiquette of Exercise

Until last year, I exercised alone. My “routine” was easy: grab my water bottle, headphones and iPod, enter the gym and make as little eye contact as possible. Why smile at a stranger while I was willingly walking towards 60 minutes of torture on the elliptical? It was a great routine, which gave me just enough time to get through a single “This American Life” podcast.

Last fall a fellow mom asked me if I wanted to join her in a weights class. I hesitated, and managed to put the decision on hold for a week or so. As an extrovert, the idea of working out in community seemed like a logical move, but as the sometimes-insecure-woman-who-can’t-believe-she’s-still-struggling-with-moments-of-insecurity I wasn’t sure if walking into a room of women was a good idea because, let’s be honest, women can be a teeny bit catty.

As someone who is genetically predisposed to having a small, petite frame, I’ve found myself in dangerous female territory. I’ve had to explain why I exercise because certainly a thin woman doesn’t need to exercise. Right? Sure, there are plenty of reasons to exercise, but the media wants us to believe the reason to exercise is weight management. (Insert appropriate hate the skinny girl comment.) My polite comeback to the “you don’t need to exercise” comment is this: If we were looking at my 80+ y.o. grandmother and my 60+ y.o. mother (sorry, mom) I would agree with you. I don’t need to lose weight. But if you knew my mother and grandmother you would know that my mom had a heart attack before she turned 60, and both my mother and grandmother are on medication for bone density loss. Yes, I do need to exercise.

Add to that the entire exercise class sub-culture – barbells, hand weights, mats, steps & boards, exercise balls and bands, walls of mirrors and bad lighting combined with early hours and perky instructors all looked like a well-packaged means of torture. 

I was so wrong. It only took a few classes before I was hooked because I had taken a few negative personal experiences and my own prejudices and applied them to something I had never experienced. Muscle Max, Sculpting and Cardio-Mix turned out to be something that can be hard to come by – a fairer playing field where women spanning at least three decades are supportive of each other and their goals whether it’s losing a few inches or pounds, releasing some stress, or just making it through crazy push-ups (you should see this set of push-ups).

I’ve learned about parenting high schoolers and college-aged children. I’ve learned about diabetes. I’ve learned about what aging gracefully can look like. I’ve learned to laugh at myself when the voice inside wants me only to hear “you’re not doing it right” and keep moving even when I can’t figure out the step combo. I’ve learned that most of us can still name 5 things we would change about bodies, but I’ve also learned that in a room full of women we’re quicker than I thought to offer words of genuine encouragement to shed the lies that hurt our souls.

But that’s enough about me and my journey of discovery through sweat and squats. Anyone else out there finding that exercise is teaching you more than you expected? Anyone else learning to face their own prejudices and stereotypes of others through activity? Anyone else want to join me? (Bring some water and some Advil. Trust me.)

My American Name? My Married Name? My name.

A North Texas legislator suggested voter identification issues for Asian-descent voters could be simplified if they changed their names. You know, change their crazy Asian names into American names.

My American name is Kathy Khang. My parents gave me “Kathy” (just “Kathy”, not “Katherine” or “Kathleen”, and not “Kate” unless you happened to be my high school homecoming date who was the only one to ever call me “Kate”) because the “k” sound similar enough to the first sound of my Korean name – KyoungAh. They simplified my name when we immigrated because they figured that was one elementary/junior high/high school torment they could save me from. The whole “go back to where you came from” was beyond a name change.

My parents also took on “American” names. Sort of. My mom became “Helen” and my dad just took “Shin” (the first syllable of his Korean name)  when they bought a drycleaning business. Customers would come in and chat with “Helen” and “Shin”, but when they sold the store it became awkward to introduce my parents to anyone as “Helen” and “Shin”. In my world, adults didn’t have first names, and in my world as an Asian American I would never fully be an adult so long as my parents were around.

Many immigrant families also changed their names and made them more “American” by changing the order of their names. In Korean culture, your full name starts with your surname – identifying first your family line and then your individual name (which also carries a generational marker, historically if you are male). My male cousins all “Suk” as the second syllable to their name. Clearly, you can see why they might have wanted to changed their names had they immigrated to America.

I am not surprised at this politician’s suggestion. In her mind and personal experience it really may be that simple. Change your name and be an American who won’t get questioned when you want to vote. Right.

But I am a bit surprised at how this conversation so far is limited to race. I’ve blogged about this before. While it is becoming more and more prevalent, it is still generally assumed that the woman will change her name upon marriage. If anything, being progressive means asking the bride-to-be, “What are you planning on doing about your last name?” Rarely is it assumed that the woman would keep her name (unless you have a friend, and you just know she’s going to keep her name).

When I got married, the assumption was that I would change my last name and take my husband’s last name. I got all sorts of questions:

  • Don’t you want everyone to know you are married to your husband? Yes, what does my name have to do with it?
  • Don’t you want to be known as a married couple? Yes, but again what does my name have to do with it? I also want to be known as an individual who had a life that mattered to God before I got married.
  • Peter is going to let you do that? Is it Peter’s decision alone?
  • What will your family think? Actually, my parents were honored.
  • What will your inlaws think? At the time I didn’t stop to ask.
  • Don’t you think it will be confusing when you have children? Confusing for whom? Are you worried the children will be confused or others will be confused?
  • What will people call you? They will call me by my name.
  • Isn’t it just easier to change your name? Actually, from what I hear, no. There’s no paperwork involved in keeping my name.

Almost 16 years later I am still explaining the name thing, with less bite. The kids all have my name as part of their name. B, C & E go by what the Texas Rep. Betty Brown would call their “American” names, but they also have their “Korean” name, followed by my last name and then their “real” last name (my husband’s last name). I tinkered with the idea of pushing that the kids would have my last name, but when you’re struggling through months of nausea and exhaustion some things ceased to be critical. In the end, they each know their names and the significance and story behind why we chose B, C & E. They know why their grandfather chose their Korean names, why we wanted them to have Korean names and the meaning behind each syllable. They know why my last name is a part of their name, and they know that even though I have a different last name I am their mommy who knows them and loves them and is part of their family.

I agree with many of the frustrated comments being thrown about in response to Rep. Brown’s suggestion. Names matter, but I don’t want to read motive or intent into her comments because I don’t know her.

I do know that spelling “Brown” is easier than spelling “Khang”. I do know that when someone hears “Brown” there are different assumptions made than when you hear “Khang”. My sister often gets a surprised response when people have heard of her before they meet her because she goes by her married name – a more “American” name. I suspect Asian adoptees go through something similar. There are cultural connections that people still value and make in and through names while the definition of American is still changing and being challenged. There isn’t a whole lot that is easy about becoming or being an American, especially if you aren’t White. A name change won’t do it. Living in American for most of your life doesn’t do it. Citizenship does it in a legal sense but doesn’t cover the day-to-day nuances of American life and acceptance into America.

But as a married woman, my name, changed or not, matters as well. There is a cultural and family connection to my past that profoundly shaped me into the woman my husband married. There is nothing easy about being married, with or without children – joy doesn’t make everything easy. And when things get tough, a common name isn’t going to be what pulls you through.

As an Evangelical (insert lit match here), names matter. Why? Because in many evangelical circles it matters whether or not Junius was Junia. Name is not strictly race but also gender.

So, do names matter to you? Why is changing your name for the ease of others offensive or not? What is the story behind your name? And, would you change your name to change the story?

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?

Virginia Tech

This morning, the phone woke me. “Did you hear the Virginia Tech shooter was Asian?”

The first phone call I received in my office this morning, “Let’s pray for Virginia Tech, but
also that there will be no backlash against Asians.”

As I read the newsposts, its striking to me. I was searching more facts about what happened,
explanations, analysis. But I also felt a bit nervous about how race would be brought up, and what it would be used to support.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that most of the journalists mentioned that the man from South Korea was a resident alien. It might just be accuracy from a journalistic perspective. But as a man who immigrated to the US in the mid-90s, I wonder what they were trying to say.

I was a bit upset that several of the articles went to the Department of Homeland Security and cited their data as “His point of entry in the US was…” It felt like they were tracking the port of entry for a terrorist–as if “people from this country don’t do these types of things.” Somehow, I felt like a stranger in my own country. Perhaps I’m being a bit sensitive–but I feel a strange identification with the young man. It’s the whole, “What will they think of us (Asians)?” mentality.

The JACL and the Asian American Association of Journalists have highlighted this. Here’s a statement from the journalists.

“As coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting continues to unfold, AAJA urges all media to avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason. There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.

“The effect of mentioning race can be powerfully harmful. It can subject people to unfair treatment based simply on skin color and heritage. “

This morning, I’m filled with sadness for this young troubled man. I’m also grieving for the students on the campus who went to bed not knowing that was their last night. I’m grieving for the parents who cannot get the information and answers that they need. And for a campus that is stirred up, cloudy, and soaked in this violence.

But I’m also very sad for Asian American men on the campus. And I wonder what it is that they go through. If I were to walk, for one day, in their shoes, would I be strong enough to absorb what they go through on a daily basis?

Lord, have mercy on us all.