21 Shoeboxes and Alternative Church Sundays

I live in the suburbs where we desperately need Jesus. Teaching our children about the world through the lens of our privileged world is difficult to say the least.

During our church homeless period, we periodically took Sundays to “home” church with lessons from various news clippings to spur on the conversation. Over the summer a colleague on InterVarsity staff alerted us to an exhibit downtown. Doctors Without Borders was setting up a refugee camp in the heart of the city, and we took the kids to do church at the exhibit. Instead of sitting in pews that Sunday, we stood in line talking to the kids about starvation, war and basic needs. It was one of our best Sunday experiences yet.

Last year the kids each filled a shoebox for Operation Christmas child, and having the kids help purchase and collect things for three shoeboxes was a good experience. We bought things they would want (I kept saying, “If you think it’s a junky toy and you wouldn’t play with it why would you give it to someone else?”) and then talked about how we probably would have had more shoeboxes had we planned ahead.

So for the past year we collected the shoeboxes from every pair of shoes we bought – 21 boxes to fill. (Even though Bethany’s feet grew two full sizes I was still horrified.) We brought along a friend and the kids thoughtfully selected flashlights, hair pins, small toys, soap, etc. and we filled and wrapped and talked. It’s not the solution. It’s a step.

We live in the suburbs where many of our neighbors never have to worry about having enough toys or soap for their children. We live in the suburbs where many neighbors are working like crazy to keep up with their neighbors, living paycheck-to-paycheck with a smile on the outside. We desperately need Jesus more than we know it.

What are some of the things other suburbanites are doing to connect their families with God’s heart for the world?

Trick or Treat

Halloween was never a pagan holiday for me and my sister. The Korean church I grew up attending did not have discussions about sponsoring an alternative Halloween event. It was an American holiday, and we were going to do our best to fit in. Never mind that it seemed like a huge waste of money to be giving away candy to strangers. Celebrating Halloween became part of the bi-cultural fabric of our family.

I remember long nights walking the streets of what is now the edges of Chicago’s Koreatown wearing plastic masks that are now banned in many schools and eating candy along the route. This before needles and razor blades in chocolates, before the Tylenol scare, before hospitals offered to x-ray bags of candy, before trick-or-treating became a daytime event.

My favorite costume was my Jeanie costume – as in “I Dream of Jeanie”. It was a plastic costume with a plastic mask. I thought I was Jeanie who died and woke up in Candyland. Perfect. The icing on the cake was getting to the best three-flat in the neighborhood. You know, the one that gave out chocolates or packs of gum. (I actually didn’t mind the pennies because 10 pennies meant a stop at the corner store on the way home from school. I never did like the popcorn balls, though.)

What was your favorite Halloween costume? And what was the best door in the neighborhood to knock on?

Reflections on a Weekend as Queen

Stepping into leadership was easier for me in high school. I’ll have to psycho-analyze myself some other time, but it seemed appropriate to run for student and class council, to put myself in the ring for section editor, to try out for the pom pon squad.

But stepping into leadership as an adult involves a lot more second-guessing, more internal conversations between the voices that say, “You can’t do it! You shouldn’t do it! You should do it!” It’s very loud in my head sometimes.

So when the women’s conference planning committee members were asked to consider what we might enjoy doing I sat silently. It doesn’t seem appropriate to volunteer myself for this or that, or to say, “Hey, I think I’d really do a great job doing such and such.” It’s more appropriate to simply sit, listen to what others want to do, and do what no one else wants to do.

There were some thoughts, some louder than others, running through my head during that meeting. I think Sharon might have noticed me sitting there making funny faces as I struggled with this internal conversation and she threw my name in the hat for emcee.

I felt my response to her invitation to lead later required a written note of apology and thanks – sorry for sounding like an idiot as I dismissed her suggestion, and thanks for seeing something in me that I wouldn’t dare consider.

So I spent this weekend as the self-appointed queen/emcee for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Midwest Cluster Women’s Conference. I shared from upfront how when I and others in IVCF think of an emcee we think of Greg Jao – a dear friend and mentor of mine, and how that terrifies me. And I shared about the anxiety I was experiencing as I stepped into that upfront role. Seriously, who wants to be compared to a Greg Jao or an Auntie Jeanette? Because honestly I didn’t like how I was comparing myself to them so how I could I bear being compared to them by others.

I decided that Greg’s santa hat was a great idea, but that while I would gladly borrow the idea I would need to make it my own. I look better in a tiara than a santa hat.

I decided about two minutes into the conference that I was more afraid of what God might say to me than what I might say from up front.

I realized that I still stumble for a response when someone asks me to step into leadership, but that I’ve also learned how to accept compliments with more grace and gratitude than before.

I was reminded that being open to what God is doing in my life is both hard and amazing. My body still aches from exhaustion. My heart and soul are still restless and eager to process what God was revealing this past weekend.

And my tiara will have a special place in my happy green office to remind me to be open, sensitive and courageous for such a time as this.

What a cute baby! Guess who it is. Duh.

Apparently it’s the tradition at school for 3rd graders (and now 6th graders at the middle school) to get to know their classmates by sharing some facts about themselves posted alongside a baby picture.

The assignment goes something like this: Did you cry a lot as a baby? Did you sleep a lot as a baby? What was your favorite baby toy? etc, etc. Please bring a baby picture sealed in an envelope with your name on the envelope. Photos will be returned when we are done with the classroom project.

The photos are posted alongside the blurb of information, but there are no names. The idea is that each child must guess at the identity of the baby based on the baby picture and the information.

When my daughter did this in 3rd grade she was the only Asian American in the class; she is the only AA in her 6th grade life skills class. From what I can tell so far, my son is the only one in his class this year.

So I don’t want to be hyper-sensitive and find racism in everything. There are not many redheads in my son’s class so that would be an easy one, unless the redheaded child didn’t have much hair as a baby. My daughter didn’t come home traumatized that everyone identified her photograph with little to no discussion. And my son is the one who still doesn’t understand why a classmate would come up to him at the playground yelling “Chinese eyes” since he isn’t Chinese.

Yet the fact remains we live in a highly racialized society and culture.

There is a part of me that cringes at the assignment and some of the messages it may send unintentionally. There is an underlying assumption that the baby pictures will look similar enough that there is an element of surprise and competition. There is also an element of competition and pride for the kids – “It took the class “x” minutes to figure out which picture was mine.”

For my daughter, her friend “E” from Kenya, and my son there is no element of surprise.

Unless the photo I send is the one where they are so bundled up you can barely make out a face.

Here’s the kicker for me. My daughter is doing this assignment for her life skills class. Personally, I can think of several other life skills these new 6th graders need to learn.

Rice & Seaweed in the Thermos

I love my children. I am just very grateful for the local public school system.

All three kids are off to school (though Elias shed a few tears today, causing a few other moms to cry for him), and we are trying to get into a new rhythm. The boys and I walk to the elementary school, and Bethany rides off on her bike to the middle school. Depending on the morning, Peter joins us or waves as he drives off.

And when we’re lucky, everyone has remembered their backpacks, homework, and lunch boxes.

The novelty of the school lunch wore off fairly quickly, so we’ve had to get creative. What will they joyfully eat in the 20 minutes (!) they get for lunch? Bethany and Corban got smart. They asked for leftovers in a Thermos. Every now and then the leftovers are recognizable to friends – meatloaf, mac & cheese, spaghetti. But more often than not, leftovers involve sticky white rice and some sort of marinated meat or fish. Even better are the fragrant soups full of oxtails, seaweed or radishes.

Having been the brunt of much teasing and ridicule during my childhood (we were the 1st Asian American family to move into our suburban school district), I must admit that I worry a bit that bringing seaweed soup would create some social difficulties for my children. One might argue (and believe me I have tried) that cheese has a pretty pungent smell. But kids know cheese. They even get processed cheese food in a can. But seaweed?

Why God why? Maybe it’s the four weeks of seaweed soup I ate post-partum with each of my children to help my recovery and breastmilk production (thanks, Mom!) that they love it so. Maybe they like the shades of green and the opacity of the broth against the glimmer of the Thermos.

The first few times Bethany or Corban take something “new” for lunch I try to be cool. I don’t ask them whether or not their friends wanted to know what was in their lunch. I don’t ask them if anyone commented on the odors released when said Thermos is opened. I just closely monitor the contents of the Thermos when I do the dishes.

I was genuinely surprised when the Thermoses would come home empty. Maybe some rice (sorry, Mom) stuck to the bottom, but pretty close to empty.

I guess the thing that I feared most – that their friends would make fun of them and their food choices – doesn’t matter to them because it hasn’t turned out that way? I know friends have asked, and made a comment here and there. Maybe Bethany and Corban are so hungry that rice and seaweed soup is better than cardboard pizza with fruit cocktail cups? Maybe they don’t care what other people think? Maybe they are more comfortable in their own skin than I give them credit for?

Having children forces me to deal with my stuff, the old stuff from years ago that has spilled into my 30s. Their worldview and understanding of being Asian American forces me to deal with my understanding of Asian American so that I don’t freeze myself in time much like my parents’ generation did.

Next time: Thoughts on the “Guess whose baby picture this is” game.

Is this how West is different from East?

When you get caught doing something wrong, really, really, hurt other people wrong, what do you do? How do you respond, and how do you feel about yourself?

Here in America a car salesman gets caught sending flowers to his girlfriend because the florist sends the bill to the house…where the salesman’s wife sees the receipt. His reaction? He sues.

In China, the head of a Chinese manufacturer linked to the lead-tainted Sesame Street toys kills himself.

Again, I know that these are extreme examples that are complicated, but I think it was my own reaction that was rather unsettling.

When I heard about the company CEO’s suicide, I could understand it. I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps, but I could see how his train of thought might have gone.

It’s not just guilt. It’s not just the financial hit. It’s the shame. My cousin, “Denise”, and “Chris” – they all felt the shame and couldn’t silence the demons.

When I heard about the salesman suing the florist, I couldn’t understand it at all.

Is there something redeeming or worth redeeming in such shame? Is there something redeeming or worth redeeming in personal rights and entitlement?

Lord have mercy on us all.

Yellow at the pool

Are you what you read? Or better yet, does the book you’re reading say something about you?

I realized I must have looked rather unfriendly, or at the very least a bit too serious to be sitting at the pool smelling of sunscreen, with this summer’s collection of titles: Yellow, Living on the Boundaries, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, Crucial Confrontations, The Opposite of Fate, The Woman Warrior and Grace Eventually.

Now some of you are wondering how in the world I had time to read as much as I did. Well, I read at night and in the afternoon I get to read at the pool.

Now some of you are wondering why at the pool. Thanks to my frugal parents, I hate running the a/c during the peak hours of 12-4, which means I feed the kids lunch and we head out to the pool so I can maximize the benefits of having an annual pool pass. (It really is cheaper than running the a/c.) I get there early, grab a seat under the big umbrella, and because my kids are older it’s safe to watch them from the concrete pool deck as they spend vast amounts of time submurged in chlorinated water.

I’ve made a few very unscientific observations:
Most days I’m the only “yellow” person around. Tans not included.
People are more likely to talk to me when I am not holding a bright yellow book titled “YELLOW”, even if I am reading the book with a smile.
People are most likely to talk to me when I am struggling to keep the sunscreen from ruining my copy of Real Simple or People magazine.
My books are too serious for the pool.

Well, the pool season is almost over, but I still have a few good weeks of reading left.

Any recommendations? What are you all reading? What does the book say about you?

Making Right a Wrong or Going Green With a Touch of Rebellion

What would you do if someone in authority told you couldn’t do what you knew to be the right thing? Is it better to obey the authority or disobey the authority and do the right thing?

My daughter considered the options and opted for the latter.

She’s grown up with computers, cellphones and recycling. The first two have become necessary evils in my world, but recycling has become a practical way for the entire family to care for creation. We started composting last year and recycle everything we can. The schools have recycling bins, and encourage the staff and students to recycle as well.

But when there are special lunch days (when you can order a sub sandwich from a local shop), you are not allowed to carry anything out of the lunchroom unless it’s in their lunchbox (which they don’t have since they ordered their lunch for special lunch day). So on those days, hundreds of recyclable bottles get tossed away.

Except one bottle. Bethany said she asked the lunchroom monitor if she could carefully carry the bottle to the bathroom to dump it out to recycle in class. She was told she couldn’t even though she explained why she wanted to do what she wanted to do. She told me she thought about it and figured it was better to sneak the bottle out the lunchroom and recycle it.

We talked about her taking the issue up with her teachers and principal and finding ways to make special lunch days fun for the kids and better for the earth. We talked about how she felt unheard and dismissed by the lunch monitor. We talked about trying to honor God, and I told her how it’s exciting to hear how thoughtful she is about the day-to-day things (we’ll ignore the state of her room right now),

But was she right to sneak the bottle out of the room for the sake of going green? What rules have you broken in order to do what you thought was right?

Four Eyes and No Bridge

So where is a girl to get a hip pair of glasses with nose pads?!

My daughter is beautiful – inside and out. She has these crazy dimples that look like we poked her with a pencil and this infectious giggle. She also has great hair that takes a day to dry.

And she was genetically doomed as both Peter and I are nearsighted. She finally failed the school eye exam so we went to get a full exam done having already predicted the end result – glasses.

She tried on half the store’s inventory, vogueing every step of the way, and finally picked these very fun pink plastic frames. After about 30 seconds she realized they weren’t going to work because they kept sliding down because the frames were designed with some other kind of face in mind.

Undeterred she finally found a cute black and red pair of glasses with nosepads – which after two hours of adjusting still don’t sit correctly on her face.

The eyeglass tech person seemed rather annoyed and tried to end things by saying, “Well, she doesn’t have much of a bridge now does she?”

Fortunately my filter worked because the thoughts didn’t come out of my mouth but simply hung in the air in the invisible thought bubble: “And your point is?”

So, Bethany likes the glasses (and thankfully her nose) but hates that they don’t actually fit well. We can’t be the only ones. What have you all done to keep myopia from cramping your style?

Resident Alien

I am a resident alien. My port of entry was Seattle, and my family was headed to Philadelphia. Our visit with extended family and friends in Chicago lasted a lifetime. But, I am still not an American.

Initially it was because of a misunderstanding. My parents had mistakenly been told that their application for citizenship would automatically include their child. Instead of citizenship I was issued a green card (which actually isn’t green, FYI) and retained Korean citizenship.

But no one knew. Resident aliens aren’t green. Resident aliens don’t look a certain way, sound a certain way, act a certain way. However, I learned that Americans must look a certain way, sound a certain way because telling people over the years that I was from Chicago rarely sufficed.

Asian American sisters and brothers, you know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the “Where are you from” conversation that must include an explanation of where you, your parents, grandparents, etc. are from since “Name your all-American city, town, village” couldn’t possibly be the simple answer. Even though I had no recollection of being in Korea (I was 8 months old when I immigrated to the states), America couldn’t possibly be my home.

The lesson was reviewed after the VTech massacre. Seung-Hui Cho was identified as a resident alien, an immigrant. He was not American. In very few instances was he even Asian or Korean American. Korean government officials apologized and sent their condolences. Even though Cho had left Korea more than a decade before, he was still Korean. Even though Cho had lived longer in America than he had in Korea, it seemed that America wanted nothing to do with him, his isolation, his darkness.

Well, apparently Pat Buchanan wants others to believe that Cho and my Korean American brothers and sisters are part of an invasion. His op ed piece scares me, angers me, exhausts me:

“Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that Cho Seung-Hui was not an American at all, but an immigrant, an alien. Had this deranged young man who secretly hated us never come here, 32 people would heading home from Blacksburg for summer vacation.
What was Cho doing here? How did he get in?
Cho was among the 864,000 Koreans here as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, which threw the nation’s doors open to the greatest invasion in history, an invasion opposed by a majority of our people. Thirty-six million, almost all from countries whose peoples have never fully assimilated in any Western country, now live in our midst.
Cho was one of them.” Pat Buchanan, May 1, 2007

I am one of THEM. I am one of those 864,000 Koreans who have invaded this country.

Days after the shootings, I downloaded the INS application for naturalization. I began to fill it out, and I cried. I’ve waited years, hoping that South Korea and the US would offer dual citizenship because I am a daughter of both countries. My father strongly recommended I complete the application as soon as possible, but I couldn’t. Maybe in the days or weeks to come I will…

I’ve had lengthy conversations over the years about how our identity as Christ-followers should or should not be qualified by our ethnic or racial identities, how loving Jesus means it does or doesn’t matter that we are gendered beings. I am first a Christian, a Christ-follower, a sinner. I am a resident alien to this country and to this world.

But does it matter that I am a Korean American woman?