When Your Breast (pump) Gets In The Way

Virgin Mary "lactans" , showing Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Painted in 1784. Byzantine

Virgin Mary “lactans” , showing Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Painted in 1784. Byzantine

Just like every other mother in the world, I am a working mother. I just happen to work for a regular paycheck outside of the home. If our family had to pay for the work I do in the house we would be broke-er than we are. Again, just like every other mother in the world.

Unlike most other mothers in the United States I returned to my full-time job with a key to an employee lactation room – a private, locked room with a refrigerator, sink, private toilet, recliner and HOSPITAL GRADE BREAST PUMP. All you needed to do was bring your own tubing and, what I liked to call, your personal pump trumpets.

Thank God for the liberal media.

But again, not everyone has that luxury (which, IMHO, should be a given here in the USA) so I went on the hunt for what is the best breast pump for because I also knew I would be traveling and needing something at home.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, I’m also on a private FB page of working minister mamas in the org I currently work for, and a national staff conference coming up means that working minister mamas with little children are wondering what will travel and being present at a meeting actually look like.

Will there be childcare? How will I hang out with people after the official programming ends? How will I talk with other adults during mealtimes? Will there be high chairs? Will rooms have mini-fridges for storing breastmilk? Does a breast pump count as a personal item? Is it worth it to go? What will I miss if I don’t?

It will look crazy but that is what working minister mamas do, right? We do the crazy. We actually are crazy. We defy stereotypes simply by occupying traditional male space and then we have the audacity to show up with the proof that we are not men. We bring our children – infants, toddlers, preschoolers. I used to even pull my school-age children before grades counted. (That was high school for us.) And then we ask questions like: Will I have time to pump during a break or is just easier to go in and nurse?

So, reading the posts by newer and younger minister mamas made me think about why there aren’t more public spaces for women to do something that ought to be considered natural but isn’t.

Because the patriarchy. Because if men had to breast feed we all know that pumps wouldn’t be so noisy or bulky. Because if men had to breast feed we all know that lactation rooms would be as commonplace as the line for the “ladies room”. Because if men had to breast feed we would see commercials about pumps instead of erectile dysfunction drugs. Because if men had to breast feed there would be more laws protecting lactation rights and enforcement.

Until then, we women Google. We ask our FB communities. We network. We do what we need to do to get the job done.

I’ll never forget sitting in the back of the church sanctuary nursing our infant daughter under a blanket (because back then you couldn’t buy a nursing shawl so you used a blanket) and a few men freaking out in their godly way. Wouldn’t I like to go somewhere else? No, I wouldn’t. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the foyer?  No, I wouldn’t. Do you really think you should feed her here? Yes, I do.

I think most of those men are now married and have their own children. I wonder if they wanted their wives to nurse out of sight, like maybe in the bathroom?

And of course, I can’t help but think of the infant Jesus and Mary. We don’t know if she had any help during labor. We don’t know if there was a doula or another woman from the area who came to help her and show her what to do after Jesus had been born. She had no other option but to breastfeed Jesus. Yes, being fully human and fully divine and born of a woman requires that kind of beautiful intimacy.

What are some of your favorite nursing stories? What are some of your questions about nursing? Was breastfeeding natural? Did you breastfeed? What made breastfeeding difficult? Easy? Natural? And, of course, what breast pump would you recommend?

 

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

Everyday Dismantling #4

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?

It has been one hell of a month – 11 days in Pacific and Eastern Standard Time and what feels like a relentless stream of violence against black people and examples of white supremacy, white privilege, and American racism. (I am using “American racism” because I am freaking tired of people pointing out there is racism in other countries. That’s fine, but like I often hear: WE ARE IN AMERICA!)

So to end this month there are three just two things, dear readers, I would like to suggest as practical, everyday ways to dismantle privilege:

1. Leverage your privilege in a mundane, boring, non-savior sort of way that doesn’t involve asking a PoC for anything. As a Korean-American woman who is in great health with reliable transportation, I have made a small, tiny commitment to donate blood.

What does blood donation have to do with dismantling privilege? What did you think dismantling privilege was going to be? Saving poor people of color and being their saviors?    Nope. Jesus already has that spot in my life, thank you very much. Dismantling privilege in part is taking stock of where privilege lulls us into thinking our money, our platforms, our influence are the best and perhaps only ways of breaking down systems instead of considering how our entire embodied lives can impact the world and people around us. If I can’t do the little things, I have no business trying to do any heavy lifting of social injustice.

I don’t particularly like giving blood, and the finger prick, IMHO, is the worst. But I live in the “safe” suburbs where kids and adults don’t generally get pulled over for a missing license plate or arrested for drug dealing and abuse. But I also live within walking distance from a Level 1 trauma hospital where we regularly hear medical helicopters coming and going. Broken systems in a deeper sense mean we all experience death and brokenness in a way God did not originally intend. People are suffering and dying everyday, spiritually and physically, right in front of our eyes. It’s not just in the news. So as an act of worship I barely inconvenience myself to willingly shed blood for those who need it, because my health allows me to do it freely. That is part of dismantling – acting freely, without strings attached, to help right something that is wrong.

2. Care for the PoC around you. Now, this doesn’t mean going up to PoC you don’t know and giving them a hug and asking to get to know their story, and I say this because this was suggested at a conference I attended where the last thing I needed was another random white person asking to get to know me. I am assuming, dear readers, you have friends who are not white. Send your friends an actual note of encouragement or a text. Check in with them when the poo poo hits the fan. Tell them how their engagement and unofficial role as unpaid teachers of social justice has made an impact in your life. Treat them to coffee. Send them a care package or a gift certificate (I am not even kidding you on this!) and encourage the PoC, especially those who are deeply engaged in the work of dismantling privilege, to care for themselves. We are TIRED.

Honestly, I don’t know how some of my black friends walk out the front door anymore. Does the car have both license plates? Do I have my polite voice? Will I make eye contact but not too much eye contact? Will my friendliness be perceived as disrespect? Can I reach for my license and registration or do I need to point to my purse or wallet first? Again, to point out the obvious (maybe it isn’t that obvious since many of you don’t actually KNOW me), I am a Korean-American woman. I don’t think being pulled over by a police officer is a threat to my life. But life in America as a non-white person can be exhausting, a series of microaggressions – daily reminders of my otherness – that I choose to ignore or engage. Some examples of the “easier” ones:

  • The random stranger who greets me with a phrase in her/his choice of Asian language, usually a man saying “konichiwa” or “ni hao” because clearly all Asians speak all Asian languages and not English.
  • The “where are you from” line of questioning that is rarely satisfied by my answer: Chicago.
  • “Where did you learn your English? You speak it so well.” 
  • Conversations about “minorities” or “black people” but then being put at ease by being told, “but you’re not like that”.
  • Reading Yelp reviews about nail salons and the rudeness of employees speaking another language in front of customers (‘cuz you know the nail techs are always talking about you, lady) or the language barriers mono-language Americans face when ordering at their favorite authentic Asian restaurant.

We can only ignore things and let them roll off our backs for so long before we begin to pick up the message that we don’t fit the standard of American. This happens not just on the street but in our churches and places of worship, our schools, our favorite coffee shops. Turn on the tv or open up a magazine. Go to the movies. Look at the speaker line-up for conferences or at the attendees at the next conference or meeting you are at. Look at the list of recommended books. Glance at the patrons in your favorite restaurant. I usually make a scene when my family and I aren’t the only ones. Why do I pay attention? Well, because white people don’t have to. And because you don’t have to, your energy doesn’t go into managing all of the possibilities of every encounter, every post you put up on Facebook, etc. You aren’t tired the same way we are tired so care for your friends of color.

The Vitamin L Diary: It’s Not Hidden. It’s Ignored, Excused, Shameful, and Silenced. No More.

No more.

Jiwon Lee. Kevin Lee. Andrew Sun.

The 52-year-old Korean vice-principal of Danwon High School hung himself after more than 200 students remained missing after the tragic April ferry disaster.

University of Illinois student Hye Min Choi, 19, remains missing after his luggage arrived at its destination but he did not.

A Huffington Post article by Andrew Lam starts out declaring mental health issues and suicide in the Asian American community is a hidden tragedy.

It is not. It is out in the open. It’s on television, in the newspapers, in the stats. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Asian American women ages 15-24. Did you read that and let it sink in?

SUICIDE is the SECOND-LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH AMONG ASIAN AMERICAN WOMEN AGES 15-24.

Why and how is this hidden? When I look at my own life I cannot ignore the impact of mental illness and suicide among Asians and Asian Americans.

My cousins. My aunt. Me. A college girlfriend. A friend from my high school youth group. A freshman at Northwestern University during my years on staff with the Asian American InterVarsity chapter. Countless students struggling with depression and anxiety. They were not hidden even as some of them tried desperately tried to hide what they thought was failure, shameful, a burden, a sin.

I have written about my own life with depression and about being on an antidepressant. The decision to “go public” was not an easy one. My husband initially was reluctant about it for the same reasons I was as well. I waited a year, all the while under the care of doctors and taking Lexapro, before writing and speaking publicly about it because I wasn’t sure how my extended family and those connected to them would respond.

Asians and Asian Americans are communal and that value has its good days and its “need Jesus days” and when it comes to mental illness the Church needs to speak Jesus loudly and clearly. The fear is that a diagnosis of mental illness, made worse if it goes public, will not only reflect poorly on the individual but on the entire family. And if the family and the family’s network doesn’t understand the physiology and science behind the illness, fear drives people and their families into hiding.

I am writing this as a Christian who is deeply aware of my cultural lenses and privileges, and I’m willing to beat the drum on this. Asian and Asian American Christians, we need to get out heads out of our butts. We need to talk about mental illness, about our questions and fears. We need to pray and invite doctors into the conversations. We need to ask for help, and we need to get help for ourselves and for the ones we love. We need to stop talking about this in hushed tones and whispers because we live in the now and not yet – in the tension of cultures and brokenness and hope, and we cannot let the Enemy keep telling us lies and letting our brothers and sisters believe the lies.

We have to stop the insidious message that failing to be the perfect fill-in-the-blank means we are worthless, a burden, an embarrassment.

We must stop shoving God to the side and replacing faithfulness with GPAs, test scores, and academic achievement.

We must identify the brokenness in our families, stop the cycle of honoring the American Dream over following Jesus, become parents who fiercely love our children by naming our mistakes and apologizing for them when we are jerks.

We must learn to talk about mental illness like an illness and not a sin. I repeat. Mental illness is not a sin. And neither – mental illness OR sin – should be left hidden in our Christian communities.

We have to face the music. We have sinned by not identifying the broken patterns of parenting and relating to one another that fuel the false narrative that material and academic success=faithfulness and health.

We have to break the model minority stereotype because it isn’t a compliment. It isn’t positive. It doesn’t help our community or make it easier for us to be Americans. A stereotype is a broken image that is used by and against others to demean, degrade, and reduce others.

And I write this with the weight and fear that my depression could be genetic and that the many years I parented while untreated for my depression has already left a mark that will take equal measure of prayer and medical & psychological intervention. I worry and pray that my depression isn’t passed on to my daughter and sons. I do not want this kind of suffering for them, but I also cannot pray away suffering. The Christian life isn’t about running away from suffering, and I am afraid our silence has been exactly that.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month, and I have almost gotten away with not talking about it because frankly I’m a bit ambivalent about it for reasons I may blog about later. But this year the theme is #IAmBeyond and personally that evokes anger, strength, voice, hope, and action.

#IAmBeyond silence and stigmas

#IAmBeyond the lie that depression is a sin

#IAmBeyond hiding

#IAmBeyond keeping our stories silent to save face

#IAmBeyond the model minority myth

#IAmBeyond believing silence makes it go away

 

 

 

 

A Book Review: Streams Run Uphill


I can tell stories upon stories about the challenges of women of color face as they minister as a vocation. One of the difficulties hinges on the idea of story as being a legitimate teaching tool. My personal experience has been that my stories, woven into a sermon, often are received as something unique to me and not something from which listeners can draw life lessons about faith and faithfulness.

I may share or give talks, but there often is a moment of hesitation before someone – and that someone may even be myself – will say I teach or preach.

But story is what scripture is. It is truth told through story – narrative, historic, poetic, and prophetic. Jesus tells stories as he tests the patience of the Pharisees, the crowds, and the disciples. We learn about Ruth, Esther, and Mary through their stories.

When teachers and preachers get up to do their thing in front of the congregation or in front of the conference, they use and tell stories to invite people into a relationship with God.

In doing so, in being faithful to the call to be vocational ministers, women of color face having to validate their story and their place in the bigger narrative in unique ways. Personally, I have not chosen that path fully as I have not felt the call to complete an advanced degree in theology or pursue ordination and a formal call to serve in the church. But I know intimately many of the stories I read in “Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with young women of color,” by Mihee Kim-Kort, Judson Press, 2014.

In fact the first page of the foreword made me stop with these words:

“The uphill struggle is not the result of their swimming against the will of the Holy Spirit. Rather, they swim uphill as they struggle to overcome the sexism, racism and ageism that are thrown before them as obstacles to God’s calling,” writes Marvin A. McMickle, PhD, president and professor of church leadership at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

It’s an important word, perhaps for the many women who will pick up this book because they are drawn to the familiar stories, but more importantly for those who aren’t naturally drawn by kinship but because they personally have either thrown down the obstacles or have done nothing to remove them.

This book doesn’t need to be read by the women who are already living different parts of the stories in the pages. Those women, I suspect, are the primary audience for this book, which in its accessible format could be used as a guided reflection. Yes, those readers will find much-needed inspiration, encouragement, and advocacy. Yes, those readers will find their stories validated in a way only similarity can provide. Yes, those readers should read this book because so very few are written specifically to this audience.

However, if only those women who are already looking for inspiration, encouragement, and advocacy read the book, the obstacles will not be removed fast enough, in my opinion, for the need of another version of this book in the future. We women need more than validity. We need new advocates who are willing to read a book they personally are not drawn to, wrestle with their own complicity or apathy, and take small and big specific action steps to dismantle, destroy, and permanently remove the obstacles that force streams uphill.

This isn’t a book arguing for the ordination of women. This book presupposes clergywomen, but just because a denomination or church allow clergywomen doesn’t mean there actually are any. This book needs to get into the hands of church leaders who say, “We welcome any women (and women of color) to apply. Our doors are open.” This book needs to get into the hands of congregants who think similarly, even if it is about the diversity in their pews. Why? Because an open door doesn’t mean there aren’t any other obstacles to get through and feel like the door was open not by accident but as an intentional way of welcoming new leaders with new stories.

*Disclosure: I received a free preview copy of the book from the publisher for this review. No monetary gifts were offered in exchange for this very, very overdue review of “Streams Run Uphill”.

Beauty Pageants & Bible Stories

A former Navy reservist killed 12 and then turned the gun on himself yesterday, so why on earth am I still  blogging about racist comments directed at Miss America 2013 Nina Davuluri?

Because even things that don’t seem to matter can give me an opportunity to pause, learn, reflect, and apply to life. And everything I learned about beauty pageants I learned from the Bible before I watched my first Miss America pageant.

Felt-board Queen Esther became queen because her predecessor, Queen Vashti, refused her very drunk husband’s order to display her beauty to all the people, despite the fact that she was busy doing her own thing (Esther 1:11). King Xerxes and his wingmen/wise men decide she must be punished because if the queen can refuse to prance around in front of his drunk highness and his drunk friends then all women in the kingdom would assume they too could refuse their drunk husband’s requests. In order to put all women back in their place, a proclamation announcing the queen would be replaced and that every man should be ruler over his household (Esther 1:22) is sent to the entire kingdom “to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language”.

Esther becomes queen because she is beautiful and because she keeps her family background and nationality a secret. I don’t know what the Persian beauty standards were at the time, but Esther isn’t Persian. She is Jewish, and she hides it. And because she is beautiful she is rewarded. Sort of.

She wasn’t crowned Miss America. Miss America gets scholarship money, a national platform for a year for the cause of her choice, and the support and scorn of a country that worships and destroys all forms of beauty. Esther was crowned queen in title with no power, no platform. Would it be too crude to say she was a sex slave who was called into the king’s presence whenever it pleased him to see her? Or should I write “see” her? The kind had a type – beautiful virgins – and he liked to keep several around and name one queen. One day it’s Vashti, and then the next it’s Esther. It’s a man’s world, and it’s rolling with  beautiful women.

And that was part of the lesson I learned growing up – Queen Esther and Queen Vashti were beautiful, and there is a great deal of power and danger in that. You are set apart if you are beautiful. You are desirable if you are beautiful. And sometimes you have to hide who you really are to be considered beautiful. And then I learned all of that from the world around me, except that there were too many things I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t hide my “almond eyes” or flat nose. I couldn’t hide my un-American last name or the smells from my home. I couldn’t hide my brown hair and brown eyes. And as a little girl I played with dolls and watched beauty pageants – faces that never, ever looked like me or my mother or sister or aunt or anyone in my family. I was a chink and a gook and a jap. I was told to back to China, Japan, Viet Nam, but never Korea because most of my classmates had not yet learned of the Korean conflict. Even in high school I heard those words coupled with other profanity and saw words written on posters when I ran for class president. Some things you never forget because it’s important to remember. Kids are kids, but kids grow up to be adults to are examples to others…

Fortunately God does a lot of redeeming in my story and in Esther’s story. For Esther to find real power in her God-given identity she has to claim what she has hidden and denied. Her uncle, who once told her to hide her identity as a Jew asks Esther to use whatever power and access she has to speak out for her people, to speak out for what is right. Her uncle never says he was wrong, but he is asking to behave differently. She has to side with her people who are under threat of genocide, by defying the rules. She must risk death by approaching the king without being invited and hope he welcomes her, recognizes her (because it’s been more than a month since the king has seen this particular queen). She finds her voice, her identity, her power, and she speaks out against genocide, against the racist hate mongering, and she does it with strength and conviction and grace.

I’m still writing about the racist comments that may have disappeared in the constant flow of tweets, FB statuses and 24-7 news outlets because the Miss America pageant, as outdated, bizarre and sexist as it seems, the idea is as old as time. It’s as irrelevant and sexist as it relevant and sexist, which is to say I have no idea how God might redeem the Miss America pageant, but it’s not beyond God to do such a crazy thing. I’m not particularly fond of nor a fan of the pageant, but honestly if I could have won thousands of dollars in scholarship money because of my beauty I would not have thumbed my nose at that chance. And according to a PBS documentary on the Miss America pageant, someone like me or Ms. Davuluri or Vanessa Williams couldn’t have participated in the pageant in its heyday anyway.

But now we are a post-racial society with a lame duck, second term African American president and a Miss America of Indian descent.

The racist comments thrown at a beauty pageant winner matter because even if the laws say we belong, our neighbors, the ones I as a Christian am supposed to love, are spewing hate. My neighbors, who may even claim faith in the same God and Jesus I do, are the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors, of people who are using violent, ugly, racist language to remind me and millions of other Americans we don’t belong, are not welcome, are less than. Some of my neighbors are wondering why I’m spending so much time on Miss America when 12 people lost their lives in a shooting in Washington, DC.

It’s not either or.

You may not be on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist. There are racist tweets about the shooting in DC just like there were about the new Miss America. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the shooting and hope, “Please, don’t let the gunman be White.”? (If you don’t understand the question, just trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who were hoping that the gunman wasn’t Black, Brown or Yellow.) The gunman, the murderer? He was Black. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the new Miss America and think, “It won’t be long before the racist comments hit the airwaves.”? (Are you thinking, “Why would anyone think that?” Trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who knew this racist stuff was going to happen.) The pageant winner? She is Brown. You can be the beauty or the beast but in America neither is safe from the vicious words and hearts of some of my racist neighbors. You can’t win.

But this isn’t about winning anymore than Esther’s story is about winning. What I also learned in the Bible is that God invites the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances to do the most unlikely things. So who knows what is to become of the Miss America pageant or Twitter or who will be the heroes and the villains in the next tragedy. Esther’s story is about speaking truth, stepping out in faith, fighting for justice, finding your voice, leaning on others, owning your power and space, even if you think it’s crazy, or not your place, or something you’re really not interested in getting involved in right now because it isn’t your thing like risking your life or your reputation or your time on something as little as few hateful, vicious words written in English about someone who is my neighbor.

Book Club: Lean In With a Men’s Book Club

My problem with Sandberg’s “Lean In” is that men who should read the book, who need to read the book, may not pick it up because it’s for women.

Most of the leadership books I’ve read are men’s books – leadership seen and practiced through the lens of men & masculinity in a business world developed by and and for men. I read, interpret, contextualize, and adapt the material through my lens as a Christian Asian American woman. But I read them. Lencioni. Maxwell. Depree. Covey. Rath & Conchie. Collins. Gladwell. Their books aren’t touted as men’s leadership development books, but they are written through that lens. Any personal stories included in the text reflect it. Sometimes their acknowledgements reflect it. And if I wanted to get really nit picky about it I would say most of these business leadership books (and even the Christian leadership books) are written through the lens of White majority male culture, even as our country’s population makes a shift away from a single majority.

My experience as an author for “More Than Serving Tea” only confirmed what I had suspected for years. The book was written by women for women, but never meant to be exclusively for women. Male pastors told me they had recommended the book to the women in their churches though they themselves had never read the book! Why not? Because why would a male pastor need to read a book that might minister and connect with more than half of their congregation?

So it came as a bit of a surprise to be asked to be a part of a book club discussion on “Lean In” with a group of Christian men. Deep respect for Fred Mok, English pastor at Chinese Church in Christ – South Valley in San Jose, CA, who cold-contact emailed me.

“I found your blog through your book and noticed you’ve been reading through ‘Lean In’.

 Our church men’s group  (4-5 guys) is going to be reading “Lean In” as our next book and would love to have a phone or Skype interview with you about the book as part of our club. This would be a great opportunity to get a prominent Asian American Christian woman’s perspective on some important issues.”
We set a time, and the men sent me the following set of questions to get me thinking about what they were wondering.
1) One of your recent blog posts mentions self-promotion. This is a value vital to success in Western society. But as Asian American Christians, we are not subject to those values. What might it look like to honor our Asian American communal and self-effacing heritage and lead in Western society without the arrogance of self-promotion?
2) Based on your blog post about “If I wasn’t Afraid?” you talked about Sandberg’s motivation “comes in to nudge me back”. What does that mean? What do you need to be nudged back from? Did you mean nudged forward, since Sandberg’s emphasis is to motivate women to be more aggressive in their approach to getting ahead in the workforce? But, if you did mean “nudged back”, then what conflicts as a Christian women and mother is nudging you back?
3)  In chapter 1, Sandberg discusses gender stereotypes and how this starts with children. (For example, bottom of page 20 and following.) Certainly it has been cited for many years, the types of toys given to boys versus girls, and the examples of wood or metal shop versus cooking classes. What is your ‘take’ on this?  To what degree is nature versus nurture playing a role?
4) To what degree does the church cast women into stereotypic roles? Can you discuss any personal examples?
5) How does being married to an Asian American man make it more difficult or easier to take a seat at the table? [does being married to an Asian American man put you at a disadvantage from someone like Sandberg? Do we, as Asian American men, have more expectations for our wives]
6) If you were to give advice to your daughter about pursuing a career, how close would you hew to Sandberg’s party line to “lean in”?
7) What’s it worth from a kingdom of God perspective for women to experience increased corporate advancement [Sandberg’s goal]? 
8) In chapter 4, Sandberg writes about careers are more like a jungle gym than a ladder – but what’s driving jumping from one job to another? From this chapter, it seems like money. Get in early and get rich. She says she joined Google because she believed deeply in their missions. What’s that? How did that change when she jumped to Facebook?
Easy. Right?
What I walked away with was a deep sense that our time on Skype was an example of iron sharpening iron. It’s easy for me to pontificate and then pat myself on the back after I blog. I don’t do this for a living. I have a limited readership. It’s a platform but not really. I have some skin in the game, but I can disappear for the summer like I did.
But when one of the men asked me why women needed a voice at the table, why did it matter that women aren’t equally represented in various public and private arenas I had to stay engaged and talk with him. He was being honest and sincere, not belligerent or snarky in the way a tweet or blogpost could be construed. He thought it was good for women to be in politics and business, but he really wanted to understand why this book and the issue of gender equality was so important to me as a sister in faith.
And I had to take a quick breath and not put up my guard, not go on the offensive and charge into the conversation like I had been attacked, because I hadn’t. I had to remind myself this wasn’t a debate, but I could learn to lean in by listening to his question and his tone of voice and responded honestly and openly.
I said women may have more opportunities open to them now, but because we haven’t legally been allowed in the game as long as men there was some catching up to do. I mentioned that women’s suffrage had been legally secured less than a century ago, that women have not had the same access to education, and that women are still paid less for the doing the same jobs men do. I talked about the challenges women of color face – the ugly complexity of racism combined with sexism. And that I stressed that because we women experience the world differently we bring a unique voice, leadership, and influence.
I also had space to explain that there is a time and place for men’s groups, just like the very book club these men had formed, but that even in that space there was a missing piece as they delved into a book written through a lens with which they were unfamiliar – a woman’s voice and experience.
And right then and there I think there was a moment of understanding. We may not fully understand each other, and we may not even fully agree with one another. But we can really hear, listen to, and learn from one another.

Book Club: Lean In & the Dirty “A” Word

Ambition.

Good Christians usually don’t talk about ambition. Maybe we call it “holy ambition” because if we add “holy” it makes it OK. I’ve read some of the Christian response to “Lean In”, and in a nutshell my take is that we Christians are uncomfortable with ambition. I’m afraid, however, that perhaps we have mistaken humility as the antithesis of ambition. 

And as a result Christian women maybe even more uncomfortable with ambition. I’m uncomfortable talking about it with Christian women until we’ve established some level of safety. I need to know they won’t judge me. That they won’t think I don’t love my children or my husband or my gender because I am considering applying for a promotion.

Sheryl Sandberg is in your face about it.

“This book makes the case for leaning in for being ambitious in any pursuit,” p. 10 (see, still in the intro!)

Any pursuit. Hmmmm. 

As Christian woman I have found it much more acceptable to be ambitious on the home front. Live for your kids and husband, perhaps in that order, because your husband isn’t around during the day and part of the evening, but that’s another chapter. Keep a clean and orderly home. Buy, make, grow, or raise the best, healthiest what-would-Jesus-eat food for your family. Be crafty and a wise steward of money. Be a godly wife and mother.

And that works well, particularly if you are married with children, and that life is something you want and you and your husband willingly agree to.

But not all of us Christian women want that. I want some of that, but I also want to work outside of my home. I enjoy teaching, preaching, speaking, and training. I love it, really. I enjoy writing, and I want to do more of it because (and I say this in a hushed voice) I think I’m good at it.  I enjoy developing those skills as much as I enjoy hearing my husband unload the dishwasher (he really is doing that right now) after I’ve whipped up an amazing meal (that I didn’t do tonight). 

My Christian Asian American parents helped me pay for college, and I enjoy stewarding that gift by also stewarding my gifts of leadership outside of the home. But I know that they have mixed feelings about my sister being a stay-at-home mom after getting a degree in business and about the amount of travel I choose to take on even though I have a husband. 

I just don’t know if it’s OK to say that I have ambitions outside of my home. My home life ambitions have been affirmed in Church. My professional ones? Not so much.

 

Is it OK to tell people I have ambitions? Do you tell people you have ambitions? Would you describe yourself as ambitious? 

Book Club: Lean In & the Dilemma of Self-promoting

“A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.” Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean In” p. 8.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to get past the introduction.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t understand the real world in high school though I was desperate to get there. High school can be/was a difficult place for those not in the “in” crowd (though not even some of the cool kids back then would be able to fit into Abercrombie’s sizing, IMHO). But I had a few teachers (and a few friends) who saw this late-bloomer for what she was – full of potential.

The speech team coach asked me to stop by after school to talk with me about my future. He told me there was no future for me if I kept trying the Dramatic Duet event, but he had an idea. He heard me give a class council speech, and he wanted me to compete. I needed a lot of help, but he saw potential. And I drank that forensics punch like it was water in a desert. Where did that get me? Scholarship money and the confidence and skills to speak in front of a crowd…and get paid to do it.

Potential worked fine in high school, but in the real world women need more than potential to get that promotion. Women need deeds done.

Apparently I start a step behind by being a woman.

And for fun I will throw down the race card. I suspect in many places I take another step back because I am an American of Asian descent. (SPOILER ALERT: Sandberg does not directly address race and ethnicity in her book.)

Having a mentor, advocate, and sponsor will help, but all of those are easier to come by if you are a man. And once a woman has managed her potential, connected with a mentor, advocate, and/or sponsor, and started accomplishing things you finally have a chance.

See?! I’m already feeling internal tension, and I’m just writing about the introduction?!?!

Because somewhere along the journey where we all, men and women, need to self-promote. How else will anyone know what you are doing, what your accomplishments are? But what do you do when you’ve been taught and told to do the exact opposite? Christians need to be humble. Asians are taught not to put yourself above others. Modern women grew up being told all sorts of things, often conflicting things about what makes you a “good” woman. Asian American women may not be valued as much as men within their own families as well as within the culture. Asian Americans are told not to stick out, stand out, brag, or boast. As a Christian Asian American woman, any combination draws a short stick.

So…what say you, fine readers? How have you experienced this in your professional life? Have you known men to be promoted on potential while you need to wait to accomplish? How have you developed your potential into accomplishments?

I’ll add more, but you go first.

 

 

Book Club: A Knee-jerk Reaction to Lean In

There will be a handful of women with whom I will be able to discuss Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” in person, but it’s worth hoping I can engage a few readers of her book in this safe space of mine. I’m willing to risk the safety for what I believe is an important conversation for men and women.

The target audience no doubt is women, but as I woman I found myself having to check my own gender biases as I scribbled notes and marked up the book for future conversations and processing. I wondered about her childcare arrangements. I asked a friend if she thought Sandberg cleaned her own house. I couldn’t relate to many of her examples because I am not a senior executive in a for-profit corporation. And I found myself internally critiquing the book in a way I reserve for other female authors.

You see, I’ve read Patrick Lencioni, Tom Rath, Barry Conchie, Noel Tichy, and Marcus Buckingham.  And never did I dismiss things they wrote simply because they had a nanny. In fact, I don’t even know if those men are married, have children, or hire a nanny. I’ve worked on teams where we’ve all read their books and discussed leadership development strategies without ever considering whether or not their advice is worth its weight based on their childcare arrangements. By and large, those authors write about leadership never mentioning lactation rooms, maternity leave, or “having it all” because they are men.

So why should I (or any of us) dismiss anything Sandberg has to say about leadership, self-managment or ambition because she might one day watch her children ask for their nanny instead of her? Doesn’t the fact that she includes personal illustrations about parking while pregnant give her more credibility?

Personally, I think it should. No, I do not have a nanny. But there are many times I wish I did. My kids are now all in school, but in the past I have used full-time infant daycare. Does that mean I am less of a leader at work? I have paid someone to watch and care for my child. Does that mean my experiences as a supervisor are less valuable than that of a male colleagues? I have had friends question my devotion to the children God gave me without ever questioning my husband’s devotion. Does that mean I shouldn’t write about motherhood? I have left my children at home while I travel overnight for several nights on my own, and I have listened to men and women pat Peter on the back for “babysitting” the kids “letting” me have some time away – usually time away to steward well my gifts and skills in leadership and speaking. Does that mean I am a parent, and he is a babysitter?

I’m working. And so is he. I am a parent, and so is he.

So, if you haven’t picked up the book, please put your name on the library wait-list, borrow a copy, or buy it. It’s worth the read, minus our own gender biases.

Who wants to talk more “Lean In” with me?