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.

What in the world??

What a week:

Elias went to first grade.

Michelle Obama rocks. I don’t care what she’s wearing (ok, I admit, she does have style), and I wish the media would stop wasting my time on that. She was amazing, and listening to her brought tears to my eyes.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton thanking “the sisterhood of the traveling pants suits” was a great line. No matter what she said the critics were going to find something wrong or lacking in her speech. She did a wonderful job of saving face, towing the party line, and being a leader who finally understood it was not her time to lead.

As of this morning, the Cubs’ magic number is 23.

Yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination. He is the first African American to be a major party’s presidential nominee. Amazing. Hopeful. It was a great evening shared with Peter and Bethany as we watched history unfold and talked about the Civil Rights movement and the 19th Amendment. And again, what about his wife Michelle? Can we vote for her?

And now I’m watching Sen. John McCain announce his running mate –  Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin.

The first things I’ve heard about her:

  1. She is a mother of a child with Down Syndrome.
  2. She was the runner-up in the Miss Alaska.
  3. “Is this a person who can take on the war against terror?”

The pundits are talking their heads off about McCain’s “bold move”. Personally, my initial reaction is a bit more visceral. Why should it surprise anyone that a man is using a woman to gain power? But this does make it all the more interesting. What do you think?

I’m am literally typing while watching CNN. The music is a bit overly dramatic, and what’s with the audio?

What a crazy week.

Sub-par English won’t be allowed on LPGA Tour

Sorry. I couldn’t help it. Bad pun, I know, but I just wanted to show off my effective English. Read on.

Apparently being a great golfer is not enough to keep you on the LPGA Tour. Now you need to learn English.

I don’t golf. I don’t hate golf. My husband golfs (or is it “plays golf”?). Some of my best friends’ husbands play golf. I may even learn how to golf someday.

But this isn’t really about golf, but I’m really not sure what it’s about. The LPGA is still working through exact wording of the rules (maybe they are still learning English?), but the gist is that all LPGA Tour members must be able to speak English “effectively” so they can interact with pro-am partners, give media interviews and deliver a winner’s acceptance speech. Currently, there are 45 players from South Korea on tour and 121 international players representing 26 countries. The LPGA’s spin is that the players who are affected by this change understand and agree with it because, after all, it is for their professional development and in their best interests to learn English.

So if it’s that important for professional athletes to learn “effective” English, why hasn’t MLB, the NBA and the PGA jumped on board? There are plenty of professional athletes (and coaches and fans, for that matter) whose comments are peppered with “um”, “er” and “uh” and grammatical errors to make any English teacher cry. Is this really an issue of communication? Why not continue to allow translators? 

The LPGA is feeling a little bit of heat:

“We have been puzzled, if not surprised, by some of the reactions,” said deputy commissioner Libba Galloway, who previously was the LPGA’s top attorney. “We see this as a pro-international move.”

How is making professional women’s golf English-only a “pro-international move”? Can someone please help me understand this line of reasoning?

I read this snippet on ESPN.com about K.J. Choi, a Korean player on the PGA Tour:

A few months ago, Choi had finished a brief interview when a reporter tried to say, “Thank you” in Korean, but told him he forgot the word. Choi laughed and playfully shared this thought with his agent.

“I taught him one word seven years ago and he still doesn’t remember,” he said. “And he expects me to learn his entire language?”

As someone who will never be on the LPGA Tour but speaks fluent English and broken Korean I resonate with Choi. Fluency in English is one of the golden rings children of immigrants must reach for. Many of my Korean-American peers have “lost” their ability to speak Korean because assimilation was the stepping stone to the ultimate goal – the American Dream.

The harsh reality is that even as we achieve some degree of the American Dream, many of us hyphenated Americans are still reminded that we are “other” or outsiders to what is truly American. So while I hope the LPGA Tour revisits this decision, my fear is that even if these golfers perfect their game and work on their English it won’t be enough to make them acceptable to those who are thinking to themselves, “What’s the big deal? You’re in America. Learn English”.

And it’s “Gahm-sah-hahm-nee-dah, you bah-boh.”


“The Talk”

I’m not really sure how it happened, but over the past few years I have become the “sex talk” speaker. One month last year I was speaking to four different college groups – all four talks were on the subject of sexuality. By the third talk I was working completely without notes, and by the end of the fourth talk I was tired of talking about sex.

I’ve been asked all sorts of questions by college students who want honest answers about sex and sexuality. Yes, many of these students are Christians. No, not all college students are having sex. Yes, many are or at least towing a very fine line. Yes, some of “those” students are Christians. There is a hunger and need out there for biblical teaching that goes beyond “don’t have premarital sex” or “stay pure until marriage”. Scaring people into chastity doesn’t work because not everyone feels guilty enough to stop having premarital sex. Guilt shouldn’t be the basis for the Church teaching chastity. Truth, discipline and worship should be the basis.

So, I really don’t have a problem talking about sex, sexuality, dating, relationships, etc. The challenge is now it’s time to talk with my own daughter. She has become a young woman before my own eyes. She has long shed the cute little summer dresses I picked out for layered tank tops and shorts that are almost too short she has picked out and bought with her own money. And when I look at her walk off with her friends what I really want to say is, “Don’t have sex. Don’t date until you’re at least a junior in high school. Don’t waste your time pining over boys until they are closer to being men. And mommy and daddy really love you so that’s why we’re locking you up in this tower until you’re 21.”

My parents never had the sex talk with me…unless you count the brief conversation I had with my mother after I returned from my honeymoon. (I wrote about this in More Than Serving Tea.) My mother spoke to me in Korean, just in case Peter happened to wander by, and gave me one piece of advice for the boudoir: KyoungAh, men and women are different. Men need it more. 

Yup. That was it. 

My sister, my father and I were having lunch a few months ago, and my dad swore that he and my mom had given us a set of books to teach us about the birds and the bees. My sister and I couldn’t stop laughing. We knew about the books only because we had found them in a bookcase we weren’t supposed to be looking through.  We were never given the books but we did look through them. I can’t say the books cleared up any questions we may have had, but thanks to time in the junior high locker room I heard a lot more than I really wanted to.

So, I feel a bit like a family pioneer charting new territory. Anyone out there have any sage advice or book suggestions? I’m being very serious here. I do not want to abdicate responsibility for these conversations to the school health curriculum. I want my children will have a healthier, fuller understanding of God’s gift of sexuality and sex than I did. What do you wish you had heard from your parents or understood about sex and sexuality?

On The First Day

They are all in school, and the house is strangely quiet.

I did not cry, though I did feel quite a pang in my heart as the boys lined up with their classmates and headed into school through the red doors. I felt gratefulness wash over me as I watched my daughter come with to say goodbye to her brothers and greet a former teacher. I felt a sense of amazement as the kids headed off to school for a new year of discovery.

This is my first day, too, and I’m not sure what to expect. For years the next step were outlined for me in “What to Expect” books. This is new and exciting and slightly horrifying. Why? Because for years I couldn’t get into a regular quiet time routine/exercise routine/self-care and management routine because the kids needed more of me. I’m sure I’m not alone. What are the things you couldn’t get done – big and little – because there were naps, diaper changes, playdates, preschool, mommy and me classes, etc.? For me the excuses, as amazing and cute as they were (and still are), are now in school for a good chunk of the day.

Lord, may I be open to the ways in which You are refining my understanding of You and of myself as I enter what feels like a new season. May we all feel Your presence today as we step out on this first day. Amen.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Monday is the first day of 1st grade for my youngest. After 13 years, all three children will be in school all day long.

Last year when I sent him off to his first day of kindergarten I took photos, shot video, and felt a little pang in my heart that the baby of the family was now responsible for his gym shoes getting into the cubby. “First time Moms” were crying as they watched their first or only child walk through the red doors. But I didn’t shed a tear. Instead, I couldn’t stop smiling. I think I went home and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee in one sitting, and then had to turn right back around to pick him up since kindergarten here is only 2 1/2 hours long.

(The second day was another story – imagine child wrapped around my body like a koala bear hugging a eucalyptus tree with wonderful principal extricating said koala child from my body while he cries. I was so glad the “first time moms” were still carrying kleenex, and all the more grateful the wonderful principal called an hour later to tell me koala child was smiling and doing just fine.)

On Monday I’ll walk my boys to school (my daughter is in middle school so we’ll take photos at home and say goodbye in the kitchen), take some photos, shoot some video, and feel a pang in my heart. I don’t know if I’ll cry…

“Kathy, what are you going to do with all of that time?”