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?

Wrinkles on the Pages of a Catalogue

I love clothes. My guilty pleasure is “Project Runway” and I harbor not-so-secret dreams that my daughter’s love of fashion combined with her creative bent will someday produce our own family designer. This summer she spent a good chunk of time collecting empty juice bags to make a tote bag and lunch bag as well as designing shoes made out of duct tape. She’s been known to take scraps of fabric and create things like gloves and shrugs. Forget piano lessons. I am getting my sewing machine oiled up.

What I don’t love about fashion: the power thread, fabric and notions seem to have over people (if you don’t understand, watch an episode of “What Not To Wear” and how people react too the transformation), the skin and bones models,  the catalogues, magazines and runways full of airbrushed models who are still more often than not white/Caucasian,

There is something insidious about the half-truth images of women and the message they send to us: You can never be perfectly perfect, but we want you to keep trying. My brokenness becomes painfully obvious as I flip through the pages of a magazine as thoughts start with “Oh, that I like” and then move onto “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal trainer and hours to spend at the gym”  to “I don’t like what God gave me physically, and I’m not satisfied with my closet, my makeup, my jewelry, my life”. Overly dramatic for literary purposes? Maybe. Does it really slide down that far and that fast. Yes, it can.

So, I have to say that I was amused and rather surprised to see the latest Talbots catalogue featuring beautiful but overpriced red clothes on models WITH WRINKLES! OK, so some of the models are “mature” models meaning they are older than I but younger than my mother. But they clearly had not been airbrushed. On page after page I saw A-line dresses and crows’ feet, big beaded necklaces and laugh lines, scarves knotted into bows with brows minus Botox. If only there was an Asian American model…just sort of kidding.

My disbelief compelled me to stick the catalogue under Bethany and Peter’s noses and ask them what they saw. They both noticed right away that while the clothes were impeccably steam ironed the models themselves were not.

Has anyone seen other ads or catalogues with real faces?

Youth Group: Then and Now or Asian American + Christian youth group = Depressed?

I started this post out wanting to write about how my youth group experiences were different than what I experienced recently at my daughter’s youth group kick-off…and then I read this article I saw on Angry Asian Man about how participating in religion may make adolescents from certain races more depressed – Asian American girls topping the charts. My guess is that my observation #4 is part of how culture and faith collide.

Noodle fencing and marshmallow archery were for me the personal highlights of my first “majority culture” youth group experience.

Sunday night, Bethany and I went to the youth group kick-off meeting while Peter sacrificially stayed home to get the boys to bed, nearly missing the first quarter of the Bears-Colts game. In all honesty, the church is still a bit new to us after a year so I was looking forward to putting together names and faces and children and to see youth group in action.

I grew up in an immigrant church where Sunday School was taught by Moody Bible students, hymns were sung in Korean, Christmas or New Year’s Eve services were a bit like a family talent show, and the fellowship hall smelled of steamed rice, kimchee, sparerib soup and barley tea mixed with Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. If we played we played games like Mafia and Bunny-Bunny (which I know for a fact are still played with much enthusiasm).

Though it was a rare thing to live near other youth group friends, it was rarer still to attend the same school. Our families attended church less in allegiance to a denomination or physical community but to a cultural community that sometimes meant driving 45+ minutes to church. We were a rather homogenous group, but there was a comfort knowing that we understood each other and our families. There was competition and drama (so-and-so got a near perfect SAT score, so-and-so is going to Juliard, so-and-so speaks, reads and writes perfect Korean and cleans her room, so-and-so got asked to the prom) but I wonder if it was all easier to tolerate at youth group because there we were safe from the racial slurs and jokes and pressures to be something we never could be – white American.

Anyway, Sunday night both parents and students were present, and it was great to see the evening start with a birthday cake for one of the girls. We moved onto a rock-paper-scissors face-off/adult v. child. We were divided into teams (we were team Italy) and off we went to play and compete.

There were a few things that struck me Sunday evening:

  1. We started the year out together. I don’t recall my parents ever attending a meeting or being invited to one. They were still mastering the English language and American culture; anything they didn’t like they would correct at home until they could get the elders or pastor to deal with it.
  2. Parents and children competed, but there were no prizes or punishments. No “here are cookies for the winning team and oh, look we have enough for everyone” as my friends who grew up in the Chinese churches would describe. No winning team making the losing team do something embarrassing or no bundles of Ivory or Dial soap or Bounty paper towels as my fellow Korean Americans might recall.
  3. The entire evening was in English. I know that may sound strange, but again, having grown up in a Korean church youth group there was always a mix of English, Korean and Konglish (a mix of both language’s vocab, grammar, and pronunciation). I feel it even more now that we have been away from the 2nd generation Korean-American church and its subculture for the past few years.
  4. Not once did I feel guilty or ashamed. It’s hard to describe this, but I my spiritual formation is inextricably connected to an East Asian shame-based culture. So while we sang a few worship songs Sunday night, it “felt” different than what I recall youth group worship to be. The lights stayed on, there was more of a celebratory, upbeat tone, and the music set was short.

Overall, it was a great way to start out the week as Bethany and I chatted on the way home about the 7th grade girls and about how she understood the theme of remaining in a relationship with Christ plays out in her life as a middle school girl. Peter and I are hoping that our family will benefit from being a church with a strong youth and children’s ministry, but I can’t say that we don’t have moments when we ask ourselves if we should consider returning to our Asian American roots. Our church looks much like our community – predominantly Caucasian. Our children are growing up far more “American” than I ever did, but keeping them connected and aware of how culture and ethnicity connects with faith has become more complex with more choices and opportunities. How ironic. And now, reading about depression, ethnicity/race and faith the picture and choices become far more complex.

How will participating in a majority culture youth group impact my Asian American children or my biracial nieces and nephews? How will not being part of an Asian American community – Christian or otherwise – outside of immediate family impact them? 

What do you think? Did being in youth group help you through adolescence or make it more painful?

The Gender Politics of Motherhood

I haven’t written anything in a few days because Sarah Palin put me in a funk on many levels – as a Christian, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman I do not understand the conservative love-fest over Palin.

Today I’m scratching my head over the working mom debate Palin’s candidacy has sparked. The conversation crosses the liberal-conservative spectrum because folks on the extremes and every where in the middle are asking what was never asked of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and countless other men with young children who have run for public office: “Can you be a parent and be the (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)? Does your family or ambition come first? Do you think you can be the best parent you can be and still be the best (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)?”

I am a “working mom” (that is, working a paid job outside of the home). I always thought I would be, and then I gave myself permission to always ask if the decisions Peter and I were both making about our careers were best for our family (which included ourselves as well).

I was a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee when I was pregnant with Bethany 13 years ago. I remember doing phone interviews and filing a few stories from home lying on my side because of sciatica during the final weeks of my pregnancy, running out to the cop shop at 5 a.m. so that I could file police briefs and get back home before Peter left for the office so that I could stay home with Bethany when she was sick, or rushing back to get Bethany from daycare only to find that she was the last one to be picked up. 

Newspaper deadlines were then replaced with campus ministry, and we found college students who would babysit Bethany, Corban and then Elias while I met with other students for discipleship or planning meetings (thank God for Patrick, Christine, Tina and Joy as well as Jess, Hannah and the other amazing sisters at Delta Zeta!). Other times I would simply wait for Peter to come home, and I would schedule all my meetings according to College Time – 9 pm-2 am. We’ve had other campus staff come stay in our home so that I could travel to meetings, and friends and family who have provided our patchwork of childcare until all three reached school-age.

It has never been easy, so I take offense at comments questioning Palin or any other working mother’s commitment to her family. Working in ministry has made me a better parent and wife, and being a parent and wife has made me a better campus minister. I know many stay-at-home moms who love being home every morning and every afternoon for their kids; some long for a little more adult interaction, a little more in the bank each month, etc. I know many working moms who love their jobs and are a blessing to their employers and colleagues; some long for the hugs and kisses after the school bus arrives, the financial ability to stay at home, etc. The grass is always greener on the other side, but it isn’t fair to pick up the fence and start stabbing it into the neighbor’s yard.

So why is it OK to ask if Palin can be a mom, wife and VP but no one asked the same questions of Biden? Is it really because his children are older? Do we not ask the same type of questions of Obama because he’s running for the top office?

I find it rather vexing that conservatives like Dr. James Dobson think Palin is an “outstanding choice” for VP. How so? The fact that Palin is a working mother cannot have been overlooked by the Republicans. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor. She is governor of Alaska. But there is no doubt that gender and the ability to both field dress a moose and breastfeed her infant son crossed someone’s mind as a helpful narrative. In many ways, her ability balance roles is what women across the political spectrum want. But for conservatives the feminist movement is “hurtful to women” because it encourages them to give up their natural roles as mothers, homemakers and nurturers, according to a top staff member with Focus on the Family. So why the love-fest? Does it really just come down to abortion? Please tell me it doesn’t. Explain to me how conservatives who for so long have promoted family values in seemingly narrow terms see this mother of five, soon-to-be-grandmother the best choice as the VP when in many church contexts she could not lead or hold authority over adult men? Does it really make sense to say she can lead the country but not lead in a church?

More Than Serving Tea in Seattle

I know that coffee is the official drink of Seattle, but More Than Serving Tea heads out to the beautiful Pacific Northwest Saturday, October 18 for a one-day gathering “for Asian American women to be inspired, encouraged, connected and empowered” at Seattle Pacific University.

The event is sponsored by Seattle Pacific University, Japanese Evangelical Missions Society, and International Students Inc., in partnership with local churches.

The idea for this event came from Bo Lim, scripture prof at Seattle Pacific University. He and his wife Sarah Han Lim, are friends of mine from their days in Chicago. We attended the same church and were in the same small group that was a source of life during the early-parenting days. Two years ago I invited Bo and Sarah to the More Than Serving Tea book launch party, but by then they were already in Seattle. They couldn’t make it down to LA, but Bo asked if I would come out to Seattle and the rest was a lot of networking, advocating and coordinating – on Bo’s part.

I’m not personally connected with SPU or International Students Inc. but the fact that JEMS is sponsoring the event is personal. As a freshmen at Northwestern University, I wanted a Christian community that spoke my heart language. I found it in Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF), which at the time was affiliated with JEMS. It was there I heard the gospel preached and taught by a woman who loved God and believed the campus could be changed by Christ. My experience with AACF stuck with me and shaped my journey of faith in ways I could not have imagined at that time. AACF eventually affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the end of my junior year. Six years later I went into ministry with IVCF and AACF at Northwestern.

The other personal part is that this event started out in Bo’s mind.

Bo and his wife Sarah Han Lim are friends from their Chicago days. We attended the same church and were in the same small group during our early parenting season.

Two years ago I invited them to attend a book launch event in LA, but by then they were already in Seattle. Bo asked if I would be open to coming out to Seattle, and then he ran with it being the advocate and champion so many of us long for and often need. Why? Because self-promotion goes against every grain in my being. As an Asian American, the Asian part kicks in whispering “do not put yourself before others”. As a woman, I am not often in the places or positions of influence to promote others (though I do recognize this is beginning to change a bit for me, and even writing that feels a bit uncomfortable and self-promoting. ugh). As an Asian American Christian woman, all of that gets mixed up for me as I wrestle with being humble but being a good steward of my gifts.

All that to say it really is an honor to be invited to speak at this event, and I am looking forward to learning from and walking with my fellow Asian American women on this journey. You can go here to register or for more information.

I hope to see you there!

Labor Day

“Happy Labor Day, Mom!” was how Corban greeted me this morning. He asked us last night what Labor Day was all about, and we proceeded to explain how the day was intended as a day off for working folks. He lost interest before we could get to the part about trade and labor organizations.

Nowadays, Labor Day seems much more a marker of the end of summer, even though many schools in the area have already begun. Sunday service yesterday was down with many trying to get a final long-weekend trip in somewhere. The public pool closes today. The days have been hot, but the evenings have a touch of cool fall weather. The summer garden once lush with tomatoes is slowing down as I wait for the last few to ripen and for the early fall harvest to begin.

But it struck me that as I sheepishly asked my husband if he would be interested in spending Labor Day morning cleaning out the garage that I so often forget that work – whether it be the paid sort or not – is a gift from God. Yes, the fall messed things up quite a bit, but nonetheless, the work of creating and rest from that work is a rhythm and a gift God established for us at the dawn of earth’s time. I was grateful for my husband’s enthusiasm in joining me for a bit of work on a day set aside for rest. We cleaned out the garage, set aside a few things for a hypothetical garage sale, and delighted as we found refreshment in our work.

Growing up as a child of immigrants, work was not viewed as a gift but as a necessary means to an end. Without work there was no food, no electricity, no phone, no apartment. More work meant more money to get us closer to where we wanted to be, which was not where we were. There was a sense of anticipation of what achieving the American Dream could bring, but there was also a hint of futility that no matter how hard my parents worked there would never be enough to give them what they were hoping for us.

Many of my Asian American peers walk in this tension with me. We remember not having enough, but boy are we enjoying living in plenty. We are deeply grateful for the sacrifices our parents’ generation made in order to give us the opportunities they did not. My father was a busboy, worked multiple shifts, accepted a rewired lamp from our building super to light the room and a bike to ride to work, bought cheeseburgers for me and my sister as a special treat. It was no wonder he cried at my college graduation party, and it is no wonder that he and my mother can’t believe at our wastefulness and comparatively carefree spending. As the beneficiaries to the past generation’s sacrifices I see so many of us continue to pursue the American Dream but much more for ourselves, I am afraid. And before I am accused of throwing rocks at glass houses (or whatever that phrase is), I am the first to admit that I enjoy a cushy life. My children most likely will enjoy a similar lifestyle unless they intentionally choose otherwise or there is a failure to launch. I make choices and some sacrifices for my children, but nothing like what my parents had to do.

I don’t think my consumer mentality is linked to my Asian American DNA, but I do think there is a link. Hearing my grandmother tell me that how I do academically and how I present myself will prove to “Americans” that I am just as good or even better than they are at their own game – whatever that game may in the end prove to be – is now a part of me, whispers knit into my bones.

So on this Labor Day I sit here waiting for my parents to arrive, wondering how my life’s work will be more intentionally for God’s Kingdom come, and for God’s work to be done on earth as it is in heaven.