Living in the Hyphen – Shame

Is there anything “good” about growing up in a shame-based culture? What are gifts of our Asian culture that we bring into our Asian-American culture? And how is Asian American culture (with or without the hyphen) different than simply a mix of what is the “best” of Asian and American culture?

Those were just some of the questions that we weren’t able to fully answer but left me with a vague restlessness after a focus group on Asian American identity at the More Than Serving Tea conference at Seattle Pacific University a few weeks ago. (To those of you who attended, thank you for making the day such a wonderful experience!) There has been a great deal of study done on ethnic or racial identity formation, but our time wasn’t designed to be a seminar but more of a conversation. So we talked. Some were more quick to identify our bicultural experiences as blessings while others were still wondering.

We often look at developing a sense of bicultural identity as taking the best of both cultures and shedding the negative, but one woman pointed out that some of what can be considered as “negative” cultural values can also be a gift. Her example:  growing up in a shame-based culture keeps her attentive to her conscience.

Through the years of ministering to college students I have spent a great deal of time walking young adults through the weight of shame – feeling not “I made a bad mistake” but “I am bad”. When you feel guilty, you might choose to apologize for the wrong, but when you are shamed there is little to do to save face. Most of our energies have been pored into shedding the shame and embracing God’s forgiveness.

So I was a bit taken aback by the suggestion that shame could be redeemed and be a blessing, but isn’t that what God does? Doesn’t God take my junk and redeem it? Isn’t it possible that the same shame that can paralyze me can be a gentle reminder that there are consequences to sin, to the “bad” choices we make, and that sometimes the consequences are far-reaching?

Shame and I are good friends. For the past two years, I’ve spent a good portion of time wrestling with a sense of failure as a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and daughter as Peter and I have become part of the sandwich generation (caring for both young children and aging parents). When we invited my father-in-law to live with us after my mother-in-law’s death, it was out of a strong sense of duty, honor and love. But during his stay with us I constantly struggled with a sense of failure and shame that the level of care I was providing to everyone in the household fell miserably short.

When the decision was made to move my father-in-law to live with my sister-in-law and then later into an assisted care facility, there was still no relief from the sense of failure and shame. (I grew up hearing, “We (meaning Asians, and specifically Koreans) do not put our elderly into nursing homes like Americans. We take care of our elders.”)

Some of you won’t believe this, but there is a sense that people in the Korean American community here talk about us in hushed tones. “Oh, yes, I heard. They made their father/father-in-law go to a nursing home because they didn’t want to take care of him.”  Others of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So where in all of that was a sense of shame a gift? I’m still thinking about that one…Thank God I’m still learning…

Living Through My Children – Parent/Teacher Conferences

I’m so glad they’re over. Yesterday was our marathon day of parent/teacher conferences. As a child, I didn’t think much of these times. I just knew that the weeks prior to conferences our classrooms would be plastered with our very best work –  self-portraits, our best writing assignments and neat desks.

As a parent, I’ve learned that I need a balance of leaving my issues at the door,  being a learner in each new classroom, and being my child’s advocate and cultural translator.

My issues: When Peter and I had our first conference for Bethany’s preschool (!?!?) I realized how I connected her academic success to my parenting. Silly? Yes. Understandable? Yes. It was easy to take credit for her reading skills and social skills. I figured if I had to listen or watch people tsk, tsk me when the kids throw hissy fits in the middle of the cereal aisle I would take the credit for their better moments. Really, our kids are amazing…by the grace of God. I’m not saying they are perfect. They can use what little money is saved up for college or therapy. But as a parent I can’t take all the credit.

Culturally it was inappropriate for my parents to brag about me and my sister. If someone said they thought my sister was pretty or I was smart, my parents would smile, thank them and go on to tell the person at least one fault of ours – “Yes, she’s pretty except she’s not very tall. And, yes, she does well on her tests but not as good as I hear your child does.” The parenting theory of many 1st generation Korean immigrants was that compliments would only make our heads bigger but not in the brain cell/rote memorization sort of way. The result is my personal inability to receive compliments graciously. It’s always very awkward and a bit stilted because it feels so odd. Even though I think the world of my children, it is with trepidation I enter parent/teacher conferences because I never know how to receive compliments about my own children. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Yes, she/he loves reading, but she/he doesn’t want to read more challenging books.”

And then when I do hear the compliment and manage to acknowledge it, I have another overwhelming urge to find out how my child ranks against other children. I can’t help it. I think it’s genetic.

Being a learner: Each teacher has their strategies, goals, dreams, issues. Each grade level has its challenges. If I expect my child’s teacher to understand my child then I need to put in a little effort to learn about each classroom. I’ve also learned that the many teachers who influence my children are human. Some of them are just as anxious about meeting me as I am about meeting them. They have just a few minutes with each parent to communicate authority, expertise, understanding, insight, etc. It feels a bit like what I imagine speed dating might feel like.

I don’t think my parents ever considered themselves partners with my teachers, but that is how I have come to understand my relationship with my kids’ teachers. I’ve learned that if I don’t learn how to work well with the teacher’s style, curriculum, and expectations the only one who loses out is my child.

Being an advocate and cultural translator: This is what shouldn’t have surprised me but did. I know that I am Asian American, but being a parent I’m fascinated with watching and influencing how my children will develop an ethnic/cultural identity. I don’t recall every telling any of the children to be quiet in the classroom, but I was floored when teacher after teacher commented on my daughter’s “quietness”. They would say how she was a good, solid student, but without fail one of the first things each teacher would mention was that she didn’t often raise her hand to offer up her opinions.

I asked if we could look at a photo of my daughter just to make sure we were talking about the same child.

After about the third teacher I jumped in by asking why they were telling me how quiet she was. I asked if participating was part of the grade, and, if so, how participation was being evaluated. Don’t worry. I asked all of these questions with a motherly smile. 😉

It turns out that all three of my children do not raise their hands in class and only answer when called upon. Their teachers call them “respectful” and “considerate of his/her classmates”. I’m not saying that those traits are Asian, but respecting elders and honoring community are high values the kids have learned in very Asian ways. The boys don’t call their older sister by her name. And I’ve even seen Bethany do a slight bow when she meets “an adult”.

In the end, I come home wondering if I’ve done enough as a parent to help each of my children do as well academically and socially as possible. (Funny side note: the other night Peter and I were out at dinner with the boys and while we were waiting we whipped out math flash cards to pass the time. I had a “oh, my god, I can’t believe we have become our parents” moment as other diners stared at us like we were crazy or their child’s worst nightmare.) And then I wonder if I praise my children enough or too much. And then I wonder what the teachers really think about our kids and maybe even us? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

What I Loved About High School

Peter asked me the other day if I was feeling a bit nostalgic after my 20th high school reunion. It’s not so much nostalgia…I’m not wishing life was what it used to be because I would never want to be 17-20 years old and in high school again. I’ve already begun praying over my daughter’s high school experience, which should begin in a mere 22 months.

What I’m feeling is…just…weird. Clearly seeing people I haven’t seen in 20-some-odd years did quite a number on me. There is a lot about high school that I disliked. I hated being one of the few Asian Americans in a graduating class of 600+ (and yes, I remember the name and face of the girl who would stand behind my in the line at the cafeteria and repeatedly say things like, “Hey, gook. Go back to where you came from chink!”). I envied the few geeks who could, at least from my vantage point, easily navigate their way through multiple cliques. They made the grade and went to the parties. (Let’s not try to deny that there were cliques, ok?) And I hated and envied my high school’s version of the mean girls. They wore and carried everything my family could not afford while simultaneously represented what my parents in the material sense were working towards, and they seemed, again from my vantage point, untouchable.

But what I am left with is this weird feeling because it has taken this much time to be able to look back and see God’s hand and say truthfully that there were things I not only learned from high school but loved about high school.

So, in no particular order are a few of those things…I’d love to know what you learned from and loved about high school (and if you’re not there yet feel free to share what you hated and what hurt).

  • I learned just enough about photography, music, history and literature to whet a life-long appetite for more.
  • I loved being in a real high school musical. There was something strangely powerful and addicting about taking on the persona of a dancer in “Guys and Dolls” and prancing around in a VERY PINK leotard and fishnet stockings and singing “Take back your mink”. Being a part of the cast and crew family was amazing. (Secret: I still have my stage shoes.)
  • I learned that I loved words – written and spoken. I also learned that I wasn’t much of an actor but that I could learn a lot by being in the company of those who were.
  • I loved being on the pom-pom squad because I loved to move, but I learned that being on a team didn’t mean you were necessarily part of the team. I kind of felt bad for the varsity squad member who ended up with me as her “little sister” when I was on the jv squad because it almost said as much about her as it did about me in a strange high school-ish sort of way.
  • I learned that I could be just as mean and cruel.
  • I loved spirit week (until senior year) and decorating the halls.
  • I learned that I had a tendency to have very high expectations of myself and then projected those onto others. (Many apologies to the Perspective staff who felt my wrath as we published the school newspaper.)
  • I loved finding my locker decorated by my friends on my birthday.
  • I learned that some teachers really do have an incredible influence on students’ lives. Thanks to Mrs. U, Mr. C, Mr. W, Ms. R, Mr. S and Ms. S.
OK, that’s it. I really need to move on…but wait. High School Musical 3 comes out next week!!!!

20 Years After High School – Reunion Recap

I’m glad that I went. It was a long night-early morning of reconnecting, reminiscing, laughter, and gratitude mixed in with a few moments of absolute amazement, horror, awkwardness and high school.

Things I had forgotten:

  1. Going to homecoming with D. Apparently we sat on opposite ends of the table at dinner, and after all these years he wanted to know why. Honestly, I had forgotten about homecoming and dinner, but thankfully someone remembered and remembered why I was incredibly annoyed at my sincere but rather energetic date. D, thank you for the rose in my locker and for being both endearing and annoying by calling me Kate and Kathryn all those years.
  2. The party at P’s house where someone ran outside and onto the roof of my parent’s Honda. D says that I blamed him but that it was really B who did it. I honestly don’t remember D or B being at P’s house, but I do remember the dent on the roof of that maroon Accord that I could parallel park like nobody’s business.
  3. All through school my last name was mispronounced simply because I had grown tired of trying to correct people. It was very strange hearing people scream my name out in recognition, “Kathy Kang” (as in rhymes with hang, Tang, rang, etc.). I made a promise that once I hit the college campus that I would go by the proper pronunciation of my last name.
  4. How weird it was to be a Lancette (a pom-pom girl). One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong…
  5. How difficult and confusing it was to be what my parents wanted me to be against the pressures of majority culture high school life.
Awkward and funny moments:
  1. Trying to remember the name of a classmate before said classmate made it over to me and T.
  2. D telling me in all sincerity that I was the reason he had to carry a big eraser around in school our senior year because he would try to erase the nasty things people would write on my “Kathy for Senior Class Council President” signs. (That election had to be one of the worst memories of high school for me, and it taught me how easily people could be manipulated, how mean people could be, and what courage in high school looked like.)
  3. A classmate appearing to have a wardrobe malfunction. I just cringed.
  4. How so many of us recognized a certain classmate, but then had nothing to say. I think I finally said what we were all thinking. I’d like to think that I’m a better person after 20 years, but some memories  were clearly seared into our minds.
  5. Realizing that T (one of my best friends from jr high/high school) and I had been crossing paths for years. The craziest thing? She is related to someone in my small group. Phyllis, are you reading this?
  6. The dance floor with 80s music playing and a 4-hour open bar.
This morning my sister was doing her best impression of a supportive sister by telling me that I was a dorky looking geek in high school, which was why so many classmates were surprised by my ugly duckling transformation. I know my perm was bad, and my glasses were really big and round, but was it really that bad? Really?
All in all a great night of catching up. Life has not been 20 years of coasting and fun for anyone, but it was great to hear how people were enjoying their careers and families. And as I drove home I thanked God for not leaving me as that 17-year-old in Roselle, for the tough lessons learned during and after high school, for my family and for my full, rich life.

20 Years After High School

In about two hours I should be about ready to take off for my 20th high school reunion. Yup. Twenty years since I graduated from high school and ran as fast I as could to college. Do the math. 

It has been fun reconnecting with folks I haven’t seen in years via Facebook – some were at my wedding, but most of them dropped off my radar as diapers gave way to time-outs and then spelling lists. We have tried to do brief recaps of the last 20 years – school, jobs, marriage, careers, children with a few photos. I can’t wait to find out how a drama crowd acquaintance became a pastor. I can’t wait to see my grade-school best friend and find out what she’s been up to. 

But the build up to this has been 20 years in the making because high school was quite an experience. I don’t know about you, but there are huge chunks of time that make me cringe, and not just because my hair was big or my glasses were even bigger. No, high school was four years of AWKWARD mixed in with moments of self-assurance and confidence, a huge dose of teenage angst and a dash of “no you didn’t”. I had a close group of friends, but we all had different interests. I was on the school newspaper, speech team, student council and pom-pom squad. I learned the art of toilet papering, and experienced the horror of having someone screaming nasty things while throw rocks through our windows. I learned how I could be simultaneously incredibly smart and stupid. I learned a little about a lot of things – photography, music, dance, physics, American history and trigonometry. I learned a lot about a few things – trust, image, cliques and the power of words.

I wasn’t ready to go to the 10th reunion. It felt too soon. Years ago a friend from church was so excited about his reunion. He was a popular football player, and he couldn’t wait to tell people about what God had been up to in his life. I remember sitting there thinking that as a “never popular newspaper geek” I wouldn’t know what to tell people.

So another 10 years later, and it feels right. I needed 20 years to allow God to chisel away at my judgmental tendencies and bring out much more grace and graciousness. I needed 20 years to live a bit more of the life I fantasized about and have reality soften the rough edges and give me a reality check. I needed more time to see how lessons learned about the power of words would run its course. And I needed more time to leave behind the restlessness of high school and sit in my own imperfect, beautiful skin.

But there is a little bit of high school still in me…I just did my nails, and I’m wondering what to wear that is “party casual”.

I ran into some new friends in town earlier today, and they all said the same thing:

“Have a great time tonight! And good luck!”

Peter isn’t coming. When I was in high school he was finishing dental school. Going that far back in our uncrossed paths gets a little creepy, don’t you think?

Wish me luck!

Birthday Traditions Made and Broken

Are birthdays a big deal in your family? 

In our home birthdays are a bunch of little things throughout the day for the kids. On their birthday, our birthday child gets a candle at breakfast (so far pancakes have been the trickiest because they aren’t thick enough to hold a candle upright for very long) and our version of the “Happy Birthday” song. They get their present from Mom and Dad in the morning, and then we send a small treat to school for their classmates. Dinner plans are up to the birthday child.

Yesterday was Elias’ 7th birthday, and it was the first birthday we missed the morning candles. I was in Indiana at staff meetings, and Peter held down the fort wonderfully. He picked up donuts for the class treat, presented Elias with his wrapped birthday gift. Peter even managed to get the kids to pose for a birthday morning photo. But, in the rush of the morning, the candles had to wait.

Elias reminded me as we were wrapping up the evening that he had not had his birthday morning candles. “Why weren’t you here to remind Daddy about my candles?”  It nearly sent me over the edge. I feel so incredibly blessed to have this amazing life – marriage, children, home, career. But this amazing life often feels like it’s perched on a very sensitive scale where the constant demands are weighed against the blissful moments. 

I wasn’t home because on this birthday, some traditions were more important than others. I wasn’t home because I had a work commitment I chose to honor, knowing I would be home to pick you up after school. I wasn’t home because I want you to know you are loved and cherished, but I also want you to know you are not the center of the universe.

And just so that I could work out my working mommy guilt, I took him to Target to spend some of the birthday money his aunt sent him.

What am I Eating? My Korean American Garden Revealed

Growing up eating a variety of foods is one of the gifts of a bi-cultural childhood. There was always steamed white rice in the rice cooker and a large jar of kimchee in the fridge, but it wasn’t unusual to have the rice and kimchee on the table with the bucket of KFC original recipe. When my parents hosted Thanksgiving we would have turkey with all the trimmings, which for us meant dressing and japchae, mashed potatoes and kimchee, gravy and daenjang jigae. The trick was I never really knew the English names of the some of the ingredients. It didn’t matter. I rarely had friends over for dinner unless it was pizza night. Asian food didn’t hold as much social and cultural currency back then as it does now. 

But knowing started to matter. For school potlucks we became the go-to family for all things Asian – potstickers, spring rolls, futomaki, fried rice, etc. Depending on the level of exposure to Asian foods and the prevalence of food allergies, it became more important to know what we were eating and serving.

So what does that have to do with my garden? I’m getting there…We have a small vegetable garden in the back. I can’t seem to keep plants growing indoors, but it turns out that when applying my efforts outside I may have inherited a bit of my mother’s green thumb. Each year we try to add something new, and if that fails we move on. Tomatoes, peppers, basil and carrots are always there. This year we added cantaloupe (we are waiting for three to ripen) and green onions.

Two years ago my mother brought some green stuff and planted in the garden. We would cut the young green stalks, chop them up and put them into soups or Korean-style crepes. I had no idea what “boo-chu” was called in English. Thanks to the Google search engine and “Korean vegetable pancake” the mystery has been revealed. She planted leeks. The best part of this discovery? Knowing that my kids eat leeks and they don’t even know it! I didn’t have to steam, puree and hide it into a clever dish (I tried that with broccoli and Corban figured it out a mile away). I just told them it was a Korean pancake! Leeks!

Last year my mother planted a few more plants with large green leaves. We pick the leaves and wrap them around rice, red pepper paste and some grilled meat, preferably kalbi (marinated short ribs) or bulgogi (marinated sliced beef). When the season is about to end, we pick the remaining leaves and put them in some soy sauce, garlic, sugar, red chili flakes and sesame seeds to essentially pickle them. Again, I had no idea what “ggaen-neep” was called in English. A literal translation would be sesame leaves, but again thanks to Google and “Korean sesame leaves” I can rest. She planted perilla – a member of the mint family.

Now I can rest knowing my kids will eat two three vegetables – carrots, corn and LEEKS! No one else seems to like the perilla leaves, though.

Funny Mommy Moments – Magic Pennies

Last year my youngest started kindergarten and temporarily transformed into a koala bear. We would get to the school playground and his smiling face and ants-in-his-pants body would crunch up with furrowed brow, desperate pleas for help, and an uncanny ability to wrap himself around my leg or torso. If I had eucalyptus leaves growing out of my head we would have made a great zoo exhibit.

The school principal pulled him off of me and took her to the office to give him a magic penny. He was told that when he rubbed this magic penny, no matter where I was, I would stop and think about him. It took a few days, but he eventually left me the magic penny just in case I missed him.

I thought we were over that.

This morning he was tired and saying he didn’t feel well. No fever so no chance. But he insisted he wasn’t feeling well and then melted down into a sad puddle of tears and heart-wrenching pleas: “I don’t want to go, Mommy. I don’t feel good. I want to go home with you and rest”. He used his koala-morphing abilities, and again the principal came to my rescue, extracting my child from my body as other mothers either passed by giving me a knowing look in solidarity or passed by avoiding eye contact for fear the koala-morphing abilities would be transferred onto their childreen. He was fine. I was a bit rattled, but I was eventually fine.

I asked him during dinner how long he needed to cry before he felt better. He said he stopped crying right away because the principal had given him a magic penny. I thought the magic penny was to help him get over homesickness and missing me. For a moment there I thought he was still missing me. Maybe I was hoping he was still missing me.

“But I thought the magic penny was to help you when you missed me? This morning you said you weren’t feeling well. Did you miss me?”

“No, mommy. I told you I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Well then how did the magic penny work if you were feeling sick?

“Mom, it’s a MAGIC penny.”

I guess I’m still getting used to having all three at school all day. Maybe I need a magic penny.

What in the World?!

The magic number is 6.

I did not grow up with America’s pastime. My dad grew up with soccer, and he desperately tried to teach me and my sister the art of soccer. I have fond memories of watching games with my cousins in Korea on my first trip there – sometimes 13 of us around a small television screaming “GOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLL!”

But soccer didn’t stick so out came the softball. And then came badminton. Somewhere in there was volleyball. “A” for effort, Dad! My sister was by far the more athletically inclined one, which actually doesn’t say much. Except for the Super Bowl Shuffle and the Olympics in Los Angeles and Korea, I was completely oblivious to sports.

But then girl who was living in Green Bay and was sent to cover tailgating at a Packers game because they heard I was from Chicago met boy and fell in love with boy who thankfully fell in love with girl. Girl and boy got married. Our “courtship” got us through football season and a good chunk of the basketball season. But I didn’t know that because boy never turned on the television or sports radio during said courtship. Girl found out about basketball season (and the playoffs) while trying to get “thank you cards” completed. Girl thought she had married a man who had a limited interest in sports. Girl was so very, very wrong. 

So through 15 years of marriage I have learned much from my husband who is a sports fan. Thankfully, he doesn’t paint his chest or face or any other body part for that matter. (We did paint a big purple and white “N” on our front window for our neighbor’s viewing when Northwestern beat highly favored Michigan State. I have since asked both God and our neighbor for forgiveness.) Peter really enjoys sports and is a great teacher. He can both watch a game and patiently explain to me what just happened. And just to show that I married a man like my father he, too, tried to teach me sand volleyball and racquetball. Again, “A” for effort, Peter!

Anyway, where was I? Thanks to Peter, the importance of last night’s no-hitter (thanks Milwaukee for being such good hosts to the Cubs and Astros!) and this afternoon’s win is not going unnoticed in this home. Corban is wondering if he can stay up to watch the playoffs. What in the world is going on? 


Playing with a Full Deck

Does Obama’s race and possibly gender play into his place in politics? Does the fact that there has been a surge of support from white women for the McCain/Palin ticket have anything to do with race or gender?

I saw this post discussing racism and sexism, and maybe if I weren’t so annoyed with the fact that there is a major leak in the garage roof and several leaks in the basement I would put my thoughts together. 

There’s only time for rambling.

The question is an interesting one because personally I am tired of being asked to separate my ethnicity/race from my gender. I am an Asian American woman. You can’t take the Asian or the American or the woman out of me like you would pick the tomatoes or onions out of a salad. I can’t pick the race card or the gender card because both form my identity. I prefer to play with a full deck because that is how God created us – with race and ethnicity and gender. (Though as a mother of three a full deck seems like a rather high goal.)

I don’t fully understand Obama’s personal journey as a biracial African American man. When I walk down the street or drive through the neighborhood, no one is going to look twice at me. No one assumes I don’t belong. And I really don’t understand Sarah Palin’s personal journey as a white woman from a small town in Alaska. When my family went on our summer road trips, the small town stops were always the most unsettling for me. It was very clear to us that we didn’t belong.

But that’s me. How about you? Does sexism trump racism? Can there really be a separation of the two? Should there be a separation?