Ji-Young, KyoungAh, and the Assumption of Whiteness

I learned to speak English by watching The Electric Company, Zoom, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street. Mr. Rogers, Big Bird, Count von Count, and the Twiddlebug family were my first tutors teaching me about self-addressed stamped envelopes, grammar, numbers, and hints of “American” life where adults had first names – Maria, Luis, and Fred – and moved about the world with an ease my parents and I did not experience.

My parents and I immigrated to the US in the spring of 1971, joining thousands of Koreans leaving a then-developing nation that was still rebuilding after the Korean War had left the peninsula divided with a US military presence that remains to this day. My mom had a few dresses made out the fabric gifted to her by her in-laws – Jackie-O-esque silhouettes with hemlines right above the knee. The US was the land of opportunities and upward mobility. I never saw my mother wear any of those dresses. My dad bussed tables at a Japanese restaurant and rode a bike to and from work. I was eight months old, and when I started kindergarten my primary language was Korean. 

Dreams in Korean

It’s hard to imagine a time when I thought in Korean, dreamt in Korean. If you don’t speak a second language, you may have no idea what I’m talking about, but when you’re bi- or multi-lingual you may have the ability not only to translate language but also “think” and process the world in those languages. I am certain my parents do not dream in English, and at one point in my life my dreams were in Korean.

When I was in high school I spent part of a summer in Korea without my parents, and I remember navigating the streets of Seoul on my own without my cousins. There was a moment when I realized I was thinking in Korean instead of reading a sign and trying to translate it into English. I was THINKING and processing in Korean, even though the moment I opened my mouth to speak Korean my pronunciation would betray me. 

The chasm between my English dreams and my parents’ Korean dreams continues to grow, but every now and then I wonder what five-year-old me dreamt about. What did KyoungAh dream about in her Korean dreams?

The Default

My name is Khang KyoungAh – family name first, given name second. My sister, the only female cousin on my father’s side, and I share the second syllable – a generational marker that wasn’t traditional for girls. When my parents enrolled me in public school – Waters Elementary on the north side of Chicago – I became Kathy. Before we go on, my Dear Reader, I invite you string my names together.

Kathy KyoungAh Khang.

Wait for it.

Do you see it? Do you notice it?

A Black colleague of mine mentioned how he couldn’t understand why my parents would give me a name with THOSE initials. Is that what you were thinking?

My parents are Korean. They had a better grasp of the English language when they immigrated to the US than most US-born people will ever have of another language. But they are Korean. They gave me the name “Kathy” because the initial sound was similar to my real name. They gave me “Kathy” not to whitewash me. They gave me the name so I could survive in 1975. Sure, I wish that hadn’t been the case, but here in 2021 I’m still correcting people on the pronunciation (and spelling) of my last name while Timothée Hal Chalamet is totally ok. 

But back to my initials. I told my Black colleague that the world did not revolve around US history and that while I as an adult understood my initials, the assumption that Korean immigrants in 1975 should “know better” was equally offensive. The US is not the center of the world, but “American” history, “American” life is the default. I go back to this idea often in the anti-racism work that I do. Racism is not limited to the US, BUT as folx in the US we need to be humble and mindful about our own centering and assumptions.

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?

Ji-Young is Korean American and loves to play the electric guitar and skateboard. She is the first Asian American muppet, and I have a lot of feelings about this. I’ve watched the video over and over – Ji-Young talking to Ernie. I am tearing up just writing this, BUT….

WAIT. A. MINUTE. Some of you, My Dear Readers, may be excited and cheering this on AND wondering if any of the other “human” muppets had racial or ethnic identities.

They did. The default, even on Sesame Street, is that unless otherwise noted the human muppets are white because whiteness IS NOT JUST ABOUT SKIN COLOR. White supremacy isn’t just about skin color. People of color can perpetuate the lies of white supremacy that make US history and present day the center of the universe. It’s about the way people operate (particularly here in the US for the purposes of this blog post), how you are treated, what is assumed about you and your family and where you are from and where you learned your English. I do not speak English with an accent like my parents do and YET PEOPLE STILL ASK ME WHERE I LEARNED TO SPEAK ENGLISH. I learned to speak English here in America. Duh. 

Yes, Bert is yellow and Ernie is orange (too much self-tanner, methinks). How can they be white, you ask? Because they are American and the default in the US is always whiteness. Think about it. Before colorblindness there was the “I don’t care what color you are – Black, white, purple” type phrases. “American” by default is associated with whiteness. Even on Sesame Street.

That’s why it’s a complicated big deal. Ji-Young has more in common with my children who are third generation, born with both “American” and Korean names with meanings that are drilled into them because for them the default will be BOTH/AND because being Korean American with each generation brings another level of beauty, complexity, similarities, and differences. Ji-Young tells Ernie how she can’t wait to share about her food – banchan, kimchi, and jjigae. 

It will take me more time to figure out and name all of these feelings but for now I can’t wait for Ji-Young to share some kimchi with Bert and Ernie. 

 

So You Want to Write a Book.

Get ready to die a little.

Last week I received my annual royalties check from my portion of “More Than Serving Tea” (MTST from here on out) and from “Raise Your Voice” (RYV). I cannot tell you how MTST changed my life with deep friendships, an ocean of tears, and a mission to see Asian American Christian women’s voices to shape and influence the world. I am still in touch with most of the other authors, and four of us are part of a women’s group that met annually until the pandemic. We still marvel at the book that I kept as a desktop file titled “Project Snowball”. Why a snowball? We were told in so many words the book had a snowball’s chance in hell to make it to print and even then there was a question of how long it would stay in print. I still remember a male colleague, Asian American male (younger because in my culture that’s also important), told me the book would be irrelevant in a few years. 

The book was published in 2006, and last week I received a small royalty check.

But becoming a published Christian author killed my soul a bit. My Dear Readers, it’s a business. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s only a calling, an invitation from God. Yes, I have felt “called” to write, which is why I first became a newspaper reporter. I have kept a journal since the first or second grade. I have journals I have kept for each of my children since they were in utero. They are now 25, 22, and 20 and will receive those journals when I’m ready. Yes, I will write another book eventually some day in the future perhaps maybe. But Christian publishing is still a business.

Why are you telling us this, Kathy?

The royalty check last week and the signing of a new contract this week has me all in my feelings. (I have gotten very good at burying the lede.) I thought about the work put into both MTST and RYV – the emotional work before, during, and after, and the hours spent outlining, writing, editing, more editing, more editing, crying, apologizing for missing deadlines, and promoting. I thought about a recent thread on Twitter about the hurdles to getting published, and I wanted to thank all of you for your encouragement through the years when I blogged about my middle school children and being a Korean American Christian woman navigating ministry and evangelical/evangelical adjacent spaces. I wanted to thank all of you for SHOWING UP when it came time to promote and launch RYV. I wanted to remind myself that I didn’t do it for the money.

I really didn’t. Part of the problem with publishing as a whole, and I think Christian publishing specifically because it’s supposed to be Christian but it’s capitalism, is the lack of transparency. For example, I know my life looks super glamorous and amazing. I mean #jamvent and #snowglobe life on IG is pretty amazing, and my family is freaking beautiful. Writing and getting paid for my words is an honor, but it’s also work. For RYV I wrote about 30,000 in the final copy. I actually wrote many more words but many were wisely edited out, and there were several versions of every chapter. At the end of the day I earned about 18 cents per word. 

I’ll wait for you to do the math.

My new contract involves an amazing co-author and that person’s agent so the math is better because it’s half of a book, but again this is capitalism, My Dear Readers. I’ll be sure to share more details when we are ready.

But God’s economy, Kathy.

Publishers are still companies and corporations, and they don’t actually operate in God’s economy. I guess that’s why I’m writing this. To remind all of us that we need to keep imagining better, doing better when we can, and be aware of the reality. We can say God’s economy has room for all the books, but the reality is only so many books will be published “traditionally”. Publishers can only publish so many books (and with the current paper shortage it’s gotten even more complicated and frustrating), and they can only afford to lose so much money. 

And this is again where I thank you, My Dear Readers, for making sure RYV didn’t lose money!!!! Getting a royalty check means the book sold enough copies to cover the advance and get me royalties. That was what every single pre-order and sale since 2018 did. That is exactly what you want to happen as an author. It gives you a leg up when you pitch your next book because we all need to have numbers and followers and a platform. Again, Jesus doesn’t talk about platform. He talks a lot about loving our neighbors and enemies and the widows and orphans but he says squat about the number of followers and mailing lists (many of you have signed up for my non-existent email updates and that is why I keep your email, btw). 

As a Christian writer I keep God’s economy in mind, but I also need to pay the bills involving three kids who went or are currently attending college on student and parent loans. I keep in mind the privilege of writing and teaching yoga for a living and the cost of that privilege as an Asian American woman who recently was named in an email sent to my place of employment. Racism is everywhere including in Christian writing and publishing. Just ask any Christian publishers how many editors and decision makers are POC.

I can wait again.

But I still want to write a book.

So if you want to write a book and get it published traditionally you will need a few things. You will need a platform – followers on several social media platforms, an email list of people who willingly shared their emails with you for, in my case, non-existent additional material, and influencers who already have all of that who will vouch for you. If you are a POC you will need influential POC and influential non-POC who will promise to write endorsements, help promote you, etc. 

I don’t share this for pity. It was exhausting, but I LOVED promoting my book and getting my launch team together. I made maybe 100 bracelets and wrote notes. Every time I saw someone on my launch team post a photo, I cheered in gratitude and prayed for that person. 

But part-time marketing is not what I had in mind when I imagined being a published author. Even as I sit in the exciting privilege of having signed another contract, I am humbled and terrified.

I am a little hopeful because between 2018 and now there are MANY more POC and specifically WOC in the Christian writing sphere who have gotten agents, become agents, and signed bigger deals and sold more books! BRING IT ALL ON!!!! Just remember, and this is for me as much as it for you, not all of us will receive the five-figure deal with one of the big three houses. Many of us are happy and honored and smiling all silly while I type this to get what I/we get, but I will be honest. A part of me died with RYV. It’s humbling work. Thank you for being a part of it, My Dear Readers.

Parenting in Paris

She has always used my body to support hers. Here I am, her footstool.

There was a time when I knew everything about my children. I knew their due dates before they were born, remembered their birth weights and lengths. Two were born in the morning. One arrived at 12:02 pm just to be special. I knew what they ate, when they ate it, which side they had last nursed, when their diaper had last been changed.

Do you remember the fear and shock when the hospital just sent you home with your newborn? We did it three times and couldn’t believe no one asked any real questions except about a car seat and then double-checked the hospital security bands, which we thought was funny because our kids are all Cheeseheads (born in Wisconsin) so they were the only Asian babies – a full head of dark hair that caused nurses and doctor to gasp each time.

So 8,451 long days that were also 23 short years later my daughter and I traveled through Paris and Iceland in what felt like a dream and master class in parenting a young adult child.

Some things never change

We shared a bed through the entire trip, and I couldn’t help but listen to her breathing settle into sleep, watch her move around until she relaxed. She was the same. The infant, baby, toddler, preschooler, little girl, pre-teen, teenager and now young woman all wrapped up in one – still sleeping deeply enough to have once slept through a microburst that tore through our neighborhood. My instinct to cover her and brush her hair away from her face remained.

But so did her instinct to brush away my hand and look at me ever so briefly with a mix of annoyance and familiarity. I want to push away anything and everything, even if it’s a wayward cowlick, to make her way easier, more open, better, and her instinct is to push for autonomy and discern her own preferences. It is her journey and story she will perhaps one day tell but of which I am a beneficiary of. After all, her learning to push away is what got us to Paris. She had been planning her own trip to Europe when she asked me if I would join her in Paris.

Parenting a young adult means knowing when to push even if it means getting that look and when to wait for that invitation to join in. It’s so much less about the kind of directing I did as the parent of a young child. We were the parents who didn’t ask where our children wanted to eat. They ate where we ate. We didn’t ask them where they wanted to go on vacation. They went where we took them. We involve them much more now because our children are older with preferences, limitations, interests that are more defined, but it’s still so hard to figure out where that line is and how to draw it. But being in Paris with our daughter I knew that these were lines she had drawn to include me as both mother and guest and what an honor and privilege that was.

Some things have to change

I love my own mother very much, but our relationship is different from that of mine with my own daughter. My mother and I still have language and cultural barriers, while my daughter and I have the advantage of having both grown up in the Midwest. I could never quite get my parents to understand the concept of school dances, and I’m still trying to explain to them what a prom-posal is. (Can someone tell me why this is a thing???) The impact of assimilation is palpable in my parenting. My daughter was my Snapchat tutor and helped me find a great deal on my flight to Paris with a different search engine. In my parents’ generation and culture of parenting the parent is always the parent, the advice-giver.

My daughter has spaces where she is the expert, the lead, and it was exhilarating, freeing, and unnerving to live it out in Paris. She had spent part of a summer in Paris as a student so she had a sense of the city, the subway, the places she wanted to revisit. She had a plan, and she asked me about my preferences and expectations. More often than not she was the one leading the way through the streets and subway transfers. It was disorienting enough to be in a foreign city, but to see my daughter as the one leading the way was beautiful. Mothers of little ones, hang on. The babies grow up into grown adults who will forever be your babies. Your babies change and have opinions and questions, preferences (thank goodness we both love baguettes, cheese, and red wine) that you cannot dictate. The time is coming. It’s amazing.

It’s also scary. I’m sure none of my Dear Readers have control issues when it comes to parenting, but I do. I thought it would be easy to let go my tendency to pick up after my child when she was 23 but when you’re sharing a small space that messy suitcase spilling out over the floor is as annoying as the messy bedroom at home she will never sleep in permanently ever again. I thought I would know how to read the silence in our time together as intuitively as I learned to interpret her cries. Just kidding. I never could tell the difference between her hungry cry and her diaper cry.

But the chatterbox toddler who asked a million questions doesn’t always grow up to be the extrovert. Instead of wishing the questions would stop, I’m learning how to ask questions after I decide what it is I really want to know and understand about her young adult life.

It’s not easier. It’s different.

A wise older friend once told me, when I was in the thick of diapers and sippy cups, that parenting never gets easier. It just changes.

I felt that intensely as we tried to strike a good balance between being tourists and simply enjoying being in Paris. There were moments vaguely similar to those long days as I wondered if her silence was simply exhaustion, a need for introvert time, frustration with me, or hangriness. And then I had to remember that being the parent of a young adult means your child now has the vocabulary and capacity to answer questions. To be an adult. “I’m not ready for a meal, but I could use a snack. Do you want to keep exploring or join me for a snack?” “I’m fine staying here for another hour or so. Would you like to go ahead to the apartment?” Those were questions we asked each other. Mother to daughter. Daughter to mother.

And then came the goodbye. Somehow nine days that looked like more than enough time to spend together in Paris and Iceland snuck up on us, just like the long days sneak up into years that vaporize. The first day of school is both the best and worst day of the year for me as a mom who has had the privilege of working from a home office. The silence in the home after a long summer of a never-ending revolving door of children and their friends and their toys, electronics (my youngest son’s friends are known to bring their gaming PCs over for a night of gaming), socks, hoodies, keys, cars, drama, and heartbreak is both welcomed and lonely.

But when your child no longer lives at home, no longer has clothes in her bedroom dresser or closet the goodbye doesn’t get easier. It changes. I thought saying a mutual goodbye at the airport, where we were both headed to our respective homes would be fine.

It wasn’t easier. The tears welled up, and I took a deep breath. We both took a deep breath and said goodbye.

Resistance Requires Sacrifice and the #RubyWooPilgrimage

I have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving today for the #RubyWooPilgrimage. It’s not that I’m not excited. I am. I am excited about being with an incredible group of diverse women from across the country to journey and learn together about the road women before us have traveled in order for us to be able to do this together. It’s an honor and privilege to take the time away from work and home while staying connected to both through technology.

But being a woman also means many roles with conflicting schedules and demands on my time. My emotions pull in opposite directions. This trip is no exception. Every time I leave my family there is a moment of hesitation.

Is this the invitation God has for me today?

Today also is my husband’s birthday. Birthdays are medium deals for us. We exchange gifts, go out to eat, share funny stories, and then eat some more. The celebrations tend to be a bigger deal for the kids, but even as they have gotten older the celebrations are more subdued. But they are important, and it seems so odd to be sitting in the airport (where, of course, the flight is delayed) instead of eating dim sum with Peter. And, right now, knowing that the plane I am supposed to be on hasn’t arrived at the gate doesn’t make the thought of Peter and our youngest sitting there, ordering shumai, sticky rice and pork, and egg custard tarts, make me wonder if this is worth it.

Today, God’s invitation is to be sad about missing my family and to hope for the journey to come.

I don’t know many of the women I am joining in Syracuse. Some of the women I “know” only through our interactions on Facebook and through one another’s blogs. This will be a reunion of sorts for many of us, and I am looking forward to connections made in real life. Others are complete strangers, only known to by their email addresses, and I am looking forward to connecting with more like-minded women.

But God’s invitation also is to be honest. I am tired. I am not sure about my capacity to build new relationships in the midst of what will surely be an emotional and spiritual deep dive into women’s history in the United States – and how our histories have sometimes meant oppressing one another. I am not sure how I am going to trust more white women and more non-Asian American women into my circle.

The white pundits and pastors keep saying that our world is more divided than ever, as if they are surprised. I am not surprised. I feel it everyday, as my own willingness to code switch dies. Four days on a bus traveling with a diverse group of women could be a little part of the solution, the beginning to bridging the gaps.

But in order to bridge the gaps we must be willing to name the gaps, the canyons that separate us as well as the reasons why those divisions were created.

We must be willing to name how they are being sustained, and honestly talk about what is at stake if we are truly committed to unity and healing.

Healing sounds lovely but it’s not easy.

Think about cancer. Chemotherapy kills the cancer, including some of the good cells. I’m not always sure if even I want to do that kind of all out attack on racism and patriarchy. What are the things I have come to benefit from in a broken system that may have to die in order for all of us to live?

But, I’m here (even though the plane still hasn’t arrived). I’m here because sometimes birthday dim sum can wait. The revolution may not be televised but I certainly want to be a part of it. So I’m here with my red lipstick, and all the hope and honesty I could pack.

This article was originally published by Freedom Road.



Come Sit With Me In The Darkness

It has been dark since 5 pm this evening. Thanks a lot Daylight Savings.

I am sitting in what feels like a wave of darkness. I know. I know. Morning will come. The sun will rise. Jesus is Lord.

But right now I am sitting in the darkness and as a woman of color, an immigrant, an alien, I am intimately familiar with this space.

When Jesus breathed his final breath on that cross “many women were there watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.”

Women sat and waited opposite the tomb. I do not need the text to tell me they cried. I know. Women, we know. We know they cried. We know they wanted to hope while they processed their grief and fear. We know because we do this emotional and spiritual heavy-lifting often in silence. Often in darkness. Waiting.

So, dear sisters. Let’s sit together and cry and grieve and tell stories and wait and laugh and get angry and give language to our confusion and sorrow. Let’s sit together and wait for the angels to give us our next steps because we know in the morning whether it’s tomorrow or down the road the angels will tell us to come and see and go quickly.

It’s not over. But I’m OK sitting here tonight in tears and darkness.

A Guest Post by Leroy Barber: My Dad to Me

Father’s Day is winding down here in the Central Time Zone, but I’m grateful today also falls on the summer solstice. It is the longest day of the year so lots of sun & vitamin D.

From here on out the darkness comes just a little sooner…Kind of like this past week.

Dear Readers, I’m grateful to turn over this little space of the blogosphere to a mentor and friend, Leroy Barber. He has a great story of how two black men, one Latino, and one white man found me wandering the woods near Appalachia.

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I don’t know what Father’s Day is like for you but for me it’s been a place of hurt when I reflect on my dad. It also has become a place of joy as my children encourage and honor me. I am learning to balance the two places and learn. I am the kid who on Father’s Day bought cards for my mom. I am now the guy whose wife and kids lavish me with love.

I have documented well my lack of relationship and anger with my dad, but today as I reflect the anger has subsided, only a twinge here and there remains, which clear the thoughts. The power of forgiveness washes over me, fills my heart, and flows from my eyes as I thank God for relieving me. Thoughts in this space are precious and cleansing.

My dad did two things I can clearly remember. He taught me to work; he would force me up Saturday mornings and daily during the summer to go with him on his construction jobs. Up at 6am to load the truck while he ate breakfast. These mornings helped me acquire a work habit by the age 11 that I would not have had if it were not for him. The other thing that’s clear to me today is kinda weird, but my dad was a tough guy. He had a rule: if someone hits, you hit them back. He meant this. Anytime I found myself in a fight and dad was there watching, I had to defend myself. This made me a pretty dirty fighter, picking up things to hit people so I could end the fight as soon as possible. Two lessons – work and fight – are clear in my head. Dad drove those deep into my consciousness, and both over time have served well.

My present life calls for crazy hours, long weeks, and little time off. I work, and I work hard. I have to work at being balanced in life so that work doesn’t own me but is used to bring honor to my family and to God.

My current life calls for me to fight with and for people who may be vulnerable for one reason or another. I fight for justice, and I fight hard. I have to constantly check motives in this space to make sure I am not reacting to people because they “hit” me. The streets can ruse up fast in me sometimes and picking up the preverbal stick is a temptation to avoid.

So for kids like me, whose dads disappoint, there is hope that one day small lessons, even the ones that are quite dysfunctional, can be turned into something beautiful in your life. My dad left when I was 11 or 12 years old,  and I am now 50, still recovering. Have grace for yourself and others in the process. I am the first to admit it’s not easy, quite confusing and may take a long time to process.

But the road towards healing, starts with forgiveness.

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Leroy1Leroy Barber has dedicated more than 25 years to eradicating poverty, confronting homelessness, restoring local neighborhoods, healing racism, and living what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”
In 1989, burdened by the plight of Philadelphia’s homeless population, he and his wife Donna founded Restoration Ministries, a non-profit created to serve homeless families and children living on the streets. Licensed and ordained at Mt Zion Baptist Church, he served as the youth director with Donna, and as the associate minister of evangelism.
In 2007 Leroy became president of Mission Year and led the organization until 2013. He also served as co-executive director of FCS Urban Ministries from 2009 to 2013.
Leroy is currently the Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an international, incarnational mission among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He serves on the boards of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), The Simple Way and EEN, the Evangelical Environmental Network. He is the author of New Neighbor: An Invitation to Join Beloved Community, Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Can Change the World, (IVP) and Red, Yellow, Brown, Black and White (Jericho).
Leroy has been married to Donna for the past 30 years and together they have five children – Jessica, Joshua, Joel, Asha and Jonathan.

In Times of Dire Distress

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“The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” The United States Flag Code

Maybe I am the only one wondering “What can I do?” as I watch and read the news. I have a lot of excuses. I can’t go to the protests tonight because my son has a concert. I don’t coordinate the church service and announcements so I can’t control what will and won’t be said. I’m on sabbatical so I won’t be a part of the conversations that I hope will happen between colleagues at meetings next week. But I hope I am not the only one wondering what can be, needs to be, ought to be done.

The videos are chilling – Eric Garner’s life is being choked out of him until he goes limp on the sidewalk and Tamir Rice being gunned down, the police squad door barely opening as the officer drives by. The images of protests and protesters being tear gasses and throwing canisters back at police armed in riot gear remind me of the summer I spent in Korea, marching in protests against US military presence. That was the summer I learned about wearing damp handkerchiefs near my eyes to help with the sting of tear gas and how to wet the wick of a homemade Molotov cocktail before lighting and lobbing. A few years later in a hotel room in Indiana after a job interview I watched protests and riots take over Los Angeles. Living with, wrestling with injustice day in and day out is a bit like a kettle of water just about to hit boiling. At some point, the water boils, the steam is released.

I have changed my profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook to a black and white depiction of the US flag hanging upside down. I chose that image after a friend posted a similar image with the flag code explaining the symbolism.

I became a US citizen in January 2010 after decades of wrestling with the idea of belonging. I immigrated the US in 1971. I was eight months old. I grew up identifying myself as a Korean American even though the American part continues to be questioned most often by white people. It isn’t enought to say I am from Libertyville or Chicago. How could that be when I don’t look “American” is the unspoken, underlying question. I finally decided to act upon the privilege to apply for citizenship and took the oath, pledging allegiance to the flag.

So as people marched in protest, I watched and read. And the image popped up on my Facebook feed. I changed my profile picture because as an American who at some level has chosen allegiance I wanted to show other Americans and Christians who know the power of symbolism that I am utterly disappointed and disgusted by a justice system picks and choses to define and apply justice. I changed my profile picture because the flag is something we see on a daily basis – in front of fast food restaurants and sometimes in our churches, but I don’t often think about the code governing its display. I changed the picture because if your world doesn’t feel like it has been or is turning upside down maybe you aren’t watching carefully enough.

We are in a time of dire distress. The lives of our black brothers and sisters remain in extreme danger.

Of Skin Whiteners & Spam

These are two of my favorite things.

These are two of my favorite things.

I just bought several cans of low-sodium Spam, and last week I used a paper facial mask for skin brightening/whitening.

Yes. I eat gelatinous meat by-products and I want to be white. Not really. Not at all.

I don’t want to be white, though there was a time when I did. I’m just vain and human. I am heading into my mid-40s, getting ready to launch my firstborn, wondering where all that time I thought I had went, and wondering when all those freckles and sun spots appeared. When the melancholy settles into that sweet spot next to gratitude and hope, I like to sit down for some self-care – some nail polish and a facial mask – or with some comfort food – a bowl of rice, a piece of fried Spam, and some kimchee. Sometimes I will indulge in both in the same night.

The funny thing is that both skin whitening and Spam have similar complex roots in human nature, culture, and politics.

Vanity isn’t unique to Korea (my motherland), despite what we could infer from stories about a Korean golfer playing for Japan because she didn’t fit the beauty standards of her homeland or beauty ads asking women “Do you want to be white?”. I just think it’s easier for us Americans to look outside when it’s convenient. It’s called deflection. It’s easier to point out extreme examples in other countries and cultures than it is to look at our own culture’s jacked up standards of beauty and femininity because, face it, looking in the mirror metaphorically can be as frightening as it is to do it the morning after a rice and Spam bender.

Skin whitening exist here in America, but it is more often promoted as skin brightening – eliminating the freckles, sun spots, sun damage, and imperfections that actually come with being alive and aging. The whitening language is connected to class as well as race. I remember being told during my visits to Korea to carry an umbrella or parasol to keep the sun from damaging my skin; darker, tanned skin was associated with the lower-class farmers or outdoor shop owners. I suspect the stigma of darker skin only increased as Western culture influenced Korea. Oh the irony to be Korean & American where just 50 years ago the U.S. government passed and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the decades since then tanning beds, tanning lotions, and straight up “tanning” is part of looking healthy (by the way shades of orange does not equal tan nor does  it look healthy. It looks orange.). Think about it. We needed laws to protect and give full rights to women and people of color while white people want to be “tan”. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

American culture, in some ways, creates a level of dissonance as it could be construed as a collection of cultural appropriation with a dose of good old-fashioned creativity and varying degrees of separation and offense to the originating cultures. What isn’t American about celebrating our country’s birthday with fireworks?  Fusion kimchee taco trucks? Churches hosting Harvest Day celebrations? Communion wafers or chunks of white bread with grape juice?

It isn’t always clear to me what is the “right way” and how that is different than the “Christian way” or the “American way” of doing, being, eating, etc. In my experience, Spam was American (which meant “white” in my home) food tweaked to fit our family’s Korean sensibilities, served with rice and kimchee, rolled into kimbap, or thrown into kimchee stew. For goodness sakes you can buy it at chain grocery stores in the canned food aisle near canned stew and those little sausages NOT the “ethnic” food aisle! It slowly dawned on me in adulthood that Spam was American but not necessarily eaten by white Americans.

Spam arrived in my motherland through the Korean War and the U.S. military. Pre-cooked in a compact container, Spam was a fairly economical source of protein during wartime scarcity. My father has regaled us with stories about Spam, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and other wartime black market items. He probably thinks it’s funny his daughter still eats Spam but has gotten snotty about her chocolate. The kids can have s’mores with Hershey’s while I whip out the good stuff for mine. But my kids have had Spam musubi, and there is no shame. The blue can that releases its contents with a “splat” is iconic American though many of my white American friends have never had it because it wan’t necessarily good enough for home consumption but good enough to import elsewhere. Fine. I’ll take it. I am told that the Spam now produced in Korea uses higher quality ingredients and tastes differently but is just as prized as it once was. Tradition and nostalgia tied with grief, loss, scarcity, and displacement is a powerful force.

So how can I, as an Asian American woman wanting to dismantle and deconstruct the racial ties that try to define me use a skin whitening product? Because sometimes, I live into my privilege of not examining everything I touch, wear, eat, use, etc. to see whether or not the producers of everything around me were paid a fair wage, did not harm animals, did not contribute to an unjust war I did not agree with based on my religious beliefs. Sometimes I like a good bargain and the facial masks were buy four-get two free so I grabbed one of each kind. Sometimes I don’t want to fight every fight because there are so many things to be against and not enough time to be for something. Sometimes I just want to take care of myself with a facial mask and some comfort food and it not be a political or racial statement but rather a way of loving my family because a relaxed, centered, well-fed mommy and wife makes for a happy life.

Sometimes it’s more complicated and complex.

 

Camping and Crossing Cultures

I’m heading out Thursday to speak and learn at The Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC.

I’m not sure what I’m getting into.

I’ve been told by past attendees that I am in for a great experience – community, learning, sharing, faith, and so much more. I have no reason to not believe them, but let’s be honest. When I first heard about “the Goose” two years ago, I imagined a bunch of white faith-y, hipster-ish, slightly granola folks camping and enjoying it. For those of you who know me, you see where I’m headed with this. For those of you who are still getting to know me, I’ve been known to take my mani/pedi supplies with me to the Upper Peninsula when traveling there for student leadership training, and I once drove to Madison for staff training with my paraffin wax bath to treat some friends to a little pampering.  I was a Girl Scout up until junior high school, and I did go camping as recently as 1995. I sent my kids “camping” as in bible camp. And for some unknown reason we have a camping mess kit, which also in on my packing list for the Goose.

So is a headlamp (shout out goes to Sabrina who introduced me to the headlamp and has been known to be my twin).

Now, I do want to clear the air here. I am a suburbanite with a conscience. I make my own granola and pancake mix because it tastes better. I love resale shops, garage sales, and my church rummage sale. I repainted furniture and frames before there was Pinterest. I have a veggie/herb garden, and I don’t plant annuals. We have three rain barrels and two compost bins cooking up earthy perfection. We recycle like nobody’s business with more recycling than actual garbage that we cut back our garbage pick-ups. My parents taught me about reuse/recycle/repurpose before it was a thing. She used cloth diapers before there were pick-up services and before she owned her own washer and dryer. My dad could store just about anything in a Hills Bros. coffee can so he did. We used every page of every spiral notebook, and showers were taken military style. My mother gardened or foraged in the forest preserves because we couldn’t find certain vegetables and herbs in the “American” grocery stores and those were the days before HMart. And they still find paper towels extremely wasteful.

So I’m not completely outside of some creation care practices and homesteading because that actually comes natural to me from a different vantage point. It wasn’t a choice of luxury/stewardship but of survival. But there is something I don’t exactly know how to describe that makes the idea of being out in a more rural part of the country uncomfortable for me. Deeply unsettling and uncomfortable.

My parents wanted me and my sister to see and experience as much of America as we could on a budget so we drove. “We” meaning mostly my father, hopped up on caffeine (instant coffee made in the car with water we carried in jugs and thermoses). One summer we drove from Chicago all the way to Vancouver, Canada and back. Everyone in the car made it back alive. Through the years we saw Pikes Peak, Mt. Rushmore, Old Faithful, the Grand Tetons, the Smoky Mountains, Acadia National Park, Wall Drug and Disney World. They exposed me to more of America than all my history classes combined. And they were right when they drilled into my head that one day I would look back and appreciate those trips because I do, which is why we road trip with our three kids as well. We, too, are creating gilded memories, my dear readers, one mile at a time.

But another thing I remember, which is probably why the Goose is making me feel a bit uneasy, is that along every stop our family would get stared at. Not looked at. Not a glance. Not a friendly “oh, you’re a tourist let me help you” look. People of all ages would stare at us like we were monkeys at their circus. It didn’t matter where – in restaurants, gas stations, national parks, the motel pool, or the local grocery store. It happened much less on our trips to Niagara Falls (Canadian side) and New York City, but outside of those two trips I remember the looks we got.

My sister recalls the two of us roaming the aisles of a grocery store on one of our family road trips when I caught someone staring at us. Apparently, I looked over and said “Why don’t you take a picture. It lasts longer.” I do not recall this specific incident, but it sounds like something I would do. And while I know in my heart the Goose isn’t going to be a repeat of that, there is also a part of me that isn’t exactly sure or convinced it won’t happen.

So why did I agree to go? Because some of us need to keep building those bridges and crossing cultures even if it means packing a mess kit, your own linens, staying at a hostel, reconsidering footwear, and bringing a headlamp. Sometimes living out the Gospel and truly living into my identity as a Christian means being the object of a stranger’s stare, being asked “No, where do you really come from?” or simply going to a campground. I am also going because I want to challenge the many sisters and brothers of all shades who find that environment and culture home to consider what bridges they ought to consider building or cultures they ought to cross and what “traditions” are actually uninviting, unwelcoming to those of us who are too often reminded we don’t belong unless we conform or assimilate. I am going to see how open-hearted I can be and how open-hearted others are as well.

I’m just not sure what I’m getting into.

 

Make Good Choices: The Parent Edition

This weekend marks my first prom as a parent.

Dress shopping for my daughter was easier than expected. I will take full credit for spotting the dress and encouraging her to try it on back in February and then ordering the correct size on the spot. It was thrilling and bittersweet to see my 18-year-old baby girl coming out of the dressing room with the confidence, grace, and beauty of a young woman.

Hopefully there will be no ogling by men. Grown men.

Now, I’ve been searching the inter webs for comments or a response from the young woman’s parents or the prom organizers addressing the specific allegations – that the young woman’s dress was cause for concern and she was dancing in a provocative manner. If, dear readers, you find something, please let me know.

But in the meantime, let’s take our blindfolds off. Shall we? The young girl isn’t the problem. Her dress isn’t the problem. Her dancing isn’t the problem.

We grown-ups are the problem. Why?

When other grownups need to write policies that regulate the length or style of clothing that generally apply to girls there are some of us who think some of those policies ought to be common sense. And then we realize if it were truly common, written policies wouldn’t be in school handbooks and then require signatures. Take the following excerpt for example:

School Dress Code and Student Appearance

Student dress and grooming are basically the responsibility of the student and parent. While respectful of individuality, the staff and administration of — feel certain guidelines are necessary for the successful operation of the school. Under the guidelines of promoting a positive educational setting, the following rules of dress and grooming have been established:

  1. Dress which is extreme, exhibitionist, or of immodest fit or style to the extent that it interferes with the instructional process will not be allowed. Fishnet shirts, see-through blouses, spaghetti strap tops, and clothing that expose a bare back or midriff cannot be worn to school.
  2. Coats, jackets and snow boots are not appropriate classroom attire.
  3. Headwear is not to be worn inside the building unless it is a “Hat Day”.
  1. Articles of clothing with suggestive or inappropriate slogans, weaponry or acts of violence, and/or depictions of drug and/or alcohol use are not allowed in school.

I’ve not recently seen fishnet shirts, but it was a style in the 80s so don’t be surprised. And that bare midriff thing keeps coming back (and it didnt look good then so why would it look good now?).

When we grownups think that regulating clothing choices is a solution we need to remember objectification of girls happens across the globe, even in cultures and countries that require women to be fully covered from head to toe. We grownups forget that excusing boys for being boys tends to allow those boys to age but never mature. We grownups add to the complicated message when we cross that line between staying in shape and being fashionable and trying to go back to our gilded youth and live vicariously through the vocabulary or closet of our teenagers.

MILF and DILF are not compliments. It’s the other side of the same coin as the ogling dads, people. And it’s gross and INAPPROPRIATE.

We grownups are the problem when we make decisions that put other children in danger. What kinds of decisions?

We would also like to alert parents to a law that states, adults who rent hotel or motel rooms for underage drinking parties risk fines and possible jail sentences. Parents arranging such parties are also liable for any accidents caused by students as a result of attending this type of party. (From a note to prom parents at a certain high school but certainly not the only school needing to remind parents to be parents.)

I’m not dumb. I know teenagers drink. I tried it in high school. I didn’t have the tolerance for it like I do now, and I was far more terrified of the consequences. I think the fear and respect for authority my parents instilled in me kept me out of some fun but definitely out of more trouble than was worth that missed fun. I just don’t think adults – PARENTS – should be turning a blind eye or allowing this to happen because it isn’t better that your kids and their friends get smashed in your house. No. It’s illegal.

So, as I head into this prom weekend as a first-time prom parent I find myself back in high school with the same mindset that made high school miserable but got me to a healthy adulthood.

Make good choices, parents. Make good choices.

I had to go to prom because I was the junior class president. I'm sure I told you that I was that over-achieving kid in high school. I wasn't lying. Tea-length teal dress. A geek, but a stylish one. Got it from my mom, pictured here with me.

I had to go to prom because I was the junior class president. I’m sure I told you that I was that over-achieving kid in high school. I wasn’t lying. Tea-length teal dress. A geek, but a stylish one. Got it from my mom, pictured here with me.

 

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