Making New Friends

I’m not “new” to the neighborhood, but there have been many days where I have felt deeply the absence of good friends nearby. I spent way too much time in crisis-mode (work transitions and conflict, church transitions and conflict, MIL’s cancer and death, FIL’s transition, son’s brush with death, and too many problems with the house) to be bothered with making friends. There didn’t seem to be enough time to make new friends, but just enough time to know I needed some.

In college I was blessed, truly blessed, to have made several life-long friends. We have weathered life’s transitions and remain close, even when time and distance make intimate friendship inconvenient. When I think of friends who will be with me when my parents leave me and see Jesus or be with me when my kids get married I think of a special group of friends. They are all Christians. They are all Asian American. They are all now married and mothers. We have had shared experiences during college and common childhood/cultural experiences. Our value systems are the same. Our life stages currently are the same.

Making new friends and then nurturing those friendships into deeper friendships can be difficult. Why? Because I’m a sinner, broken, crooked-hearted and selfish. Just ask my husband. My insecurities get in the way, and then when someone else’s garbage meets mine it’s just a bigger pile of garbage, most days. Because I find being friends with people who are more like me in race, ethnicity, age, education, life-stage, etc. easier – less explaining and wondering about the big things and little things that make me who I am. The broader the common ground the easier it is to walk on together.

But as we’ve shed our college lives and expectations behind, my college girlfriends and I have realized that even with so many things in common maintaining and deepening friendships takes work. And at the end of the day, venting on a blog post isn’t nearly as fun as calling up a friend.

So what do you do to meet new people and deepen friendships?

I have learned to be honest. Honestly, I can be stand-offish and intimidating. To quote “Up In the Air” – I type with purpose. I walk with purpose. I talk with purpose. And just like in the movie it can look like I’m really angry. My mom has told me that I have a hardened look on my face and that I need to smile and soften the intensity. I was angry with her for a long time over that comment, and then I realized she was right. I hate that.

A little bit of honesty and lots of forgiveness, grace and love from others, especially Jesus, has allowed me to step into situations and create situations that make friendship possible.

I’m looking forward to an overnight with a group of women I’ve been slowly getting to know over the past two years. I’m excited to find out what we may have in common other than our children attending school together and our delightful personalities. I’m relieved to find out  I wasn’t the only one wondering what others were going to pack and wear, and I wasn’t the only one who was going to make a beeline to the hot tub. The only other times I’ve done something like this have been in safety with friends I’d known deeply for years. This is new.

Another thing I’m trying is to use my mad e-mail skills and gather people together. I had heard of some local neighborhood book clubs and felt sorry for myself that no one had ever invited me to join. Well, here in America if you can’t join them, throw your own party (hee, hee). I shared my book club fantasy – a room full of women with diverse viewpoints and experiences and sharing their interactions with a common book over a glass of wine and laughter. It was creating space for relationships to develop into friendships. I’m not expecting a room full of new best friends, but I am hopeful for the possibilities.

And I guess that is the third thing I’m trying. I’m trying to be hopeful for the possibilities.

So what has helped you make new friends and stay hopeful in friendships? What do you do together that has made your friendships richer and deeper? What are the roadblocks that you keep coming up against?

If You Only Had Four Years Left With Her

My daughter and I went shopping last night for her 8th grade graduation/confirmation dress. She was looking for fun, colorful and sparkly, and I was looking for my little girl.

I felt a bit scatter-brained, trying to focus on dress-shopping. Instead my mind kept racing ahead to high school and high school graduation, and then I found myself thinking about the next four years differently. Yes, academics and extracurriculars came to mind. And friends, boyfriends, and all the drama that comes along with high school came to mind. And college prep, exams, essays and application fees came to mind.

But what I kept going back to was that I might only have four years left.

When I left home for my freshman year at Northwestern, I had no idea that I would never really live at home again. I guess I thought that coming home for a few weeks in the summer meant living at home, but I didn’t factor in the internships, summer jobs and college friends who lived all over the country would change my time at home. And then I suppose I always kept the option of moving back home if there was a job change, etc. I never thought I would go from my first apartment and job to marriage and my first home. I always thought I’d go back home, I guess.

When I graduated I essentially moved from my apartment on campus to an apartment in Green Bay, WI. Some of my things stayed at my parents’ home for years, but eventually all of my personal belongings made their way in boxes and bags and large vehicles to wherever I was living. All three kids have read or been read to from my copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My daughter’s jewelry and makeup sit atop my childhood dresser. Her books and magazines are on my old desk.

As far as I’m concerned, the job of parenting won’t end. In Asian culture, your parents continue to play a strong, active role in your adult life until you or your parents die. In America, you’re an adult and on your own at 18. At least, that’s how I remember the difference. In my Asian American existence, the influence of parents and ultimately of culture is somewhere in the tension of the two sometimes polar opposite views.

Which is why I keep thinking about the next four years, wanting to be a combination of guide/cheerleader/coach/drill sergeant having had a driver’s seat view of the transition from high school to college with parents who did their very best but didn’t know the systems or even what to expect. We picked colleges based on reputation. I did one college visit alone – my interview at NU. We talked about the future, but I guess we never talked about home.

So I’m thinking about home, and how my daughter will always be welcome here in this house, my home, but sooner than either of us may think or know or want this may not be her home. I’m thinking about how to love my daughter, to delight in her and her drama, and to simultaneously trust God and steward the gift of parenting well because we may only have four years left to fold laundry together while watching some guilty pleasure on tv, harvest tomatoes and lettuce, wash cars and paint walls, raid my closet when I’m out of town and be home together in this way.

She tried on a nice pink dress that looked better on her than it did on the hanger, but it wasn’t the dress. I half-jokingly suggested she wear one of the flower girl/junior bridesmaid dresses she wore a few years ago, and she looked at me with that look. She’s not a little girl anymore, but we have four years together at home and at all the places we will be together and apart to discover the young woman she is becoming.

Move Over Santa. The Bunny Has Arrived.

As if Christmas in December and Christmas in July isn’t enough (though I don’t really know anyone who celebrates Christmas in July) we now have Christmas in the spring. Apparently it’s called Easter. Watch out Santa. There’s a target on your back and a bunny armed with eggs. You better hope they’re of the chocolate kind.

I’ve been reading my share of Lenten devotionals and posts from friends and favorite bloggers about the observation of Lent, fasting and feasting, but it was Sunday’s article and the increasingly larger Easter/”Spring” display at various stores that caught my eye.

Apparently the Easter Bunny is gaining popularity in the malls. It isn’t enough to take your kids dressed up in their holiday best to the mall to sit on some strange man’s lap, sorry, I mean Santa’s lap. Now you can do it with a different color palette and a big, giant bunny rabbit. Do you think they cry less for the bunny?

As a parent, this whole Easter basket turned bigger first hit my radar before my youngest was even born. A very kind neighbor dropped of a huge Easter basket for my two kids. It was taller than my son was at the time, and maybe I’m exaggerating, but it was big and full of candy and little toys.

On some level we deserve this. Peter and I lied to our kids and played along with Santa. For the record Santa gives one little gift and Mom & Dad give the other gifts and fill the stockings. And we told them about the Tooth Fairy. Apparently some Tooth Fairies give out $5s and $10s. Not here. $1 even if they pull the tooth out on their own. That actually happens quite a bit here.

Now my parents over time adopted what we knew as “American” traditions, including the tooth fairy, celebrating our Sweet 16th and “golden” birthdays, and the gift of a small treat of Easter chocolate and jelly beans in a small basket with plastic grass that disappeared and then reappeared most years. The point is that the basket of chocolate eggs and the Sweet 16 party were the same for me and my parents – American traditions not Christian traditions.

Anyway, about two years ago one of the kids came home to ask if the Easter bunny was going to leave them a gift just like their some of his friends’ Easter bunny does. The boys’ playmates would talk about what they were hoping to get on Easter, and each year what I see in the stores sets the pace – bigger displays and advertisements in the Sunday paper about Easter baskets and toys for Easter.

So I suppose it was only time before the bunny came a hopping for a piece of our consumer pie. Right? But is it right? Does it matter? How many more holidays – religious, pagan, religious made pagan and vice versa and simply made up become all about creating memories and buying stuff for our kids or for one another? How have you or where have you drawn the line in terms of Santa and the Easter Bunny?

I’ll write more later on why the Easter Bunny and the Christmas tree are important in our understanding of culture and a Western/American Christianity…I know you’re at the edge of your seats…

Toyota, Women’s Figure Skating and Cultural Lessons

When the Toyota recalls made headline news my husband asked me one question: “You don’t think someone will commit suicide over this, do you?”

Absurd or plausible? How many of you understand where this question comes from or can’t believe Peter would ask such a thing?

When Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, criticized Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s apology for not showing enough remorse did you nod in agreement or get defensive? If you nodded in agreement, what would have demonstrated an appropriate show of remorse? If you got defensive what did you see or hear that might not have been as obvious or direct?

Last night’s women’s figure skating finals was beautiful and stressful to watch: Mao Asada v. Kim Yu-Na = Japan v. South Korea = two women carrying the weight of their respective countries. The entire country.

Overly dramatic sports commentators telling a story? Or did you feel the weight too? Did you feel relief for Kim Yu-Na and simultaneously feel the weight of a second place finish or did you wonder when America would once again be on the podium?

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that getting a ‘B’ or not getting into a top university or quitting every instrument I ever picked up brought shame and disgrace to my country, but I certainly understood that my family (and by family I mean those alive and dead) would forever be a part of each success and failure.

My father asked me to play the piano at the inaugural Sunday service of the church plant he was pastoring. I told him I really wasn’t sure because I’m not that strong of an accompanist. Practice may make perfect, but I really didn’t think I could practice close enough to perfect. My parents insisted in direct and indirect ways about how important this was and what it would mean for me to play the piano. I gave in. Big mistake. I was horrible. I was so embarrassed, but more for my parents than anyone else. We carried each other’s disappointment and embarrassment. We never talked about it. (Dad, if you’re reading this we still don’t have to talk about it.)

Multiply that by, um, infinity, and that might be what Kim Yu-Na and Koreans and Mao Asada and Japanese everywhere were experiencing – the weight of a nation carried by two women and their nations. (And I can’t even get into the historic animosity between these two nations…)

You could almost see that weight come off of Kim Yu-Na as she finished her long program and hit that final pose. We all saw it – it was obvious and indirect at the same time. Kim Yu-Na couldn’t explain in post-performance interviews why she uncharacteristically started crying, but the sports commentators filled in the blanks. They may not have felt a nation’s pressure on them, but they saw it and understood it enough to translate the indirect and subtle.

That’s what Rep. Kaptur missed during the congressional hearings. Perhaps she and the other politicians were expecting tears but what they missed was the indirect weight of a nation losing face and issuing apologies and testimony in both English and Japanese. Maybe they need a lesson in cross-cultural awareness, and watch some tape of last night’s figure skating performances. Maybe our politicians need cultural interpreters as well as language interpreters?

So what did you catch or miss or learn or find yourself explaining as an automotive giant was held accountable and an ice queen held court?

To Dye or Not to Dye and Questions About Aging Gracefully

I had never noticed them before. I’m sure I would have noticed them if they had been there just a few weeks ago. Without a doubt these were new, unwelcomed and unwanted – several white hairs peeking through my fashionably coiffed look. Maybe they were lost and on their way to someone else?

I had no problem with turning 30. By the time I celebrated my 30th I had been married 7 years, had two children and made a career change. It seemed right.

Turning 40. Well, I’m having a tougher time with that because friends who are telling me not to worry because 40 is the new 30 also had a tough time and are probably in denial as well. I don’t feel like I’m falling apart, but the warning signs are there. The knees actually call an audible when I’m headed up and down the stairs. Late nights require more and more recovery time. And I’m just waiting for the day when the words on the page make me wonder if it’s a lighting issue or if the copy is actually blurry.

But seeing those white hairs in the midst of my brown roots and reddish dyed hair made me stop to think about aging and what it means to age gracefully. So much of what I imagined has been internal – a growing and deep winsome wisdom akin to Erma Bombeck and Madeleine L’Engle mixed in with a touch of Obi Wan.

Our culture’s emphasis on external beauty is extremely unforgiving and unfair, especially but not exclusively to women (those “Just For Men” beard and mustache dye kit commercials are horrible). But I think we can agree that the scales are tipped against women more often than not. An older man on television communicates trustworthiness. An older woman on television is Betty White in a commercial. HD technology makes certain TV shows and movies come to life, but it has also meant that then evening newscasters will never look quite as glamourous. A nip and tuck or a chemical peel to the face in HD – well, you get my point.

But the crazy tension I find myself in is that Asian culture honors its elders. We have a thing about age. Now, I realize that Asia proper is changing and, the way I see it, not all for good. Women in parts of Asia have a thing for cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams, and the market for men is increasing as well. Eyelid surgery. Nose surgery. Chin implants. Nothing is off limits. But there is still a reverence that is reserved for our elders, and that value came in the hearts and souls of Asian immigrants. When my extended family and I sit down for a meal, my parents or father-in-law will always be seated and served first. On New Year’s Day we bow to them, acknowledging their place and the roads they continue to pave for us. We defer to them.

Aging in the Asian American community brings a special status of honoring and responsibility. Next week I head off to our national Asian American staff conference and what I hear over and over again is that I am one of the senior Asian American staff. Instead of waiting for an invitation to lead we are extending the invitations. Living in the tension of Asian and American I’m finding that with age comes experience and opportunity.

What does it mean to age gracefully? So much of my life was drawn out between absolutes – Christians do this and not that. Success looks like this and not that. Children should be like this and not that. Americans do this, but Koreans do that. I suppose that is why my knee-jerk reaction is to make a list of do’s and don’ts. Aging gracefully means letting my hair grow out in shades of gray and white and redirect my DIY hair dyeing skills to my daughter’s locks. Maybe? Maybe not?

What Would You Do If You Won Olympic Gold?

There is something about the medal ceremony that gets me all choked up. It doesn’t matter who is getting the gold, which flag goes highest and which national anthem is played. My heart goes weak in the knees.

Maybe if I knew how to cross-country ski I might still have a shot at becoming an Olympian. I bet Korea would take me back if I trained for the women’s biathlon. I think the oldest female biathlon competitor in Vancouver is 34 and the oldest male biathlete is 39. My husband is laughing at me right now.

Anyway, if I won the gold I would sing at the medal ceremony. I would hold that bouquet in my left hand and awkwardly try to figure out how to hold it like a bridesmaid tries to figure out how to hold her overpriced flowers, put my right hand over my heart and belt out “Oh, say can you see…” knowing I’m not wearing a mic and grateful they aren’t playing that song they played at the naturalization ceremony.

But I’m wondering. If you won Olympic gold, would you stand on the podium and silently watch our flag be raised or would you sing along?

Rooting for Gold, and Waving Taegukki and Old Glory

The Olympics are fun. We see great sportsmanship and whiny losers. We see patriotism is not unique to America, and apparently neither is the practice of covering your face/balding head/body in your country’s/team’s colors with face paint. We test the kids on their limited knowledge of national flags. We dream, even for a moment, that our kids will be inspired to try something new but not something as crazy as the skeleton. And we pick our favorites and cheer for, root for, celebrate with or shake our heads in defeat for our team.

But in some families like my extended family, it’s complicated and fun because of who we are – Americans, Korean-Americans, Koreans. My parents and I had an interesting and momentarily tense conversation over Apolo Ohno, and we probably sounded a bit like a version of the Korean and American press. And then we settled down to a barbecue feast for dinner. My dad said grace in Korean (which my husband and children cannot understand, but I told the kids their grandfather asked God to remind the kids to obey their parents) and then we passed around the baked beans, brisket and ribs, and then turned on the television to watch more speed skating.

What has been so interesting to me has been my older son’s reaction to the Olympics. During one of the speed skating events, he was quick to notice that there was a Korean skater competing against an American skater. His reaction? “Hey, look! There’s a Korean and an American! Cool! Who do we root for?”

I swear I  have never whispered in his ears, “You are Korean first.” (I remember hearing those well-intentioned words and walking away deeply confused and conflicted because wasn’t I both Korean and American equally, at the same time?)

We’ve explained to him and our other two children they are Americans whose cultural and ethnic roots are originally from Korea. We’ve explained in different ways as each of them mature and experience life what the term Asian-American or Korean-American can mean and why I identify myself that way. We’ve explained to them why we bow to our elders on New Year’s Day and the significance of the rice cake soup, and they simply lord over their non-culturally Korean friends that they get gifts for Christmas and cash for New Year’s.

It bothered me a bit that he would feel like he had to choose, but then I had to stop. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that he proudly and delightfully identifies with both even though none of our children have stepped foot in South Korea and could one day become the President of the United States.

His pride in his Korean ethnic and cultural roots are not a result of being rejected by Americans (which was the case for me), and his pride in his birthright as an American isn’t born out of a jingoistic arrogance about America’s superiority (which I have often been on the receiving end). My journey, thankfully, is not his, and I am learning so much from his.

He asked this morning how the Americans and Koreans finished after last night’s events.

Corban, we all did well.

How Many Times Have You Sworn This Year?

I have raised my right hand and promised so many things so many times this year – to be truthful, that I am really me, that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law…So help me God.

Monday the cold medication was working remarkably well so I took the kids to our local library so they could check out books, video games and a movie while I took another oath. Actually, the plan was to register to vote…which required documents and another oath.

So there I stood with my kids at my side and with lookers-on looking quite confused as I again raised my right hand and repeated the words, which I can’t remember. I think I swore that I was who the documents said they were and that I lived where they said I lived. I don’t remember…

Which is a bit troubling to me. For all the oaths I’ve taken this year in my American journey, I can’t say that I remember many of those promises and allegiances. Hmm…

Do You Exercise…Your Right to Vote?

February 2nd is the season premiere of my favorite show on network television.

It is also Election Day –  the reason why there has been so much hot air on the radio, tv spots with staged handshakes and conversations in cafes and automated “messages” from the candidates who really want to get to know my voicemail!

Unfortunately I did not become a US citizen in time to vote for the primaries so I will register to vote on Thursday and get ready for the next round. I’m excited and very new to the process as a voter. During my former life as a newspaper reporter I spent hours covering campaigns, and election day/night/early next morning was always a long, caffeinated, adrenaline-pumping or mind-numbing time. But I was definitely an observer, watching the process unfold and fascinated by the many choices people made or simply ignored.

The 15th Amendment gave African American men the right to vote. The 19th Amendment gave women of all races the right to vote.

But I know plenty of Americans out there who don’t exercise their right to vote. Are you jaded? Are you not casting a vote in defiance or protest? Are you lazy or indifferent? Why don’t you vote?

And then there are those of you who will be out there tomorrow staring at the ballot. What wins your vote or what makes you want to vote for the other candidate? What issues are closest to you? Do you vote straight party or do you go seat by seat?

And what tips would you give a newbie?

I am genuinely curious. For me, becoming an American, in part, has been an intentional decision to become more involved in the conversations and process. I may not make policy, but I want to be informed and inform policy-makers. Am I being naive and idealistic?

Saying Goodbye to the Green Card – Goodbye

It’s final. I am naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I am an American – a Korean-American to be specific.

We filed in after having our identities checked against records and confirmed twice and then giving up our green cards. I wish federal law allowed me to snap a photo but we were in the foyer and not in the auditorium. There was something beautiful and poignant in that stack of green cards – so many stories to be told.

The ceremony was a mix of corny and genuine. The couple in front of me held hands and glanced several times at their 8-year-old-ish daughter who was presumably American-born and their photographer for the day. The couple and the woman to my right shed a few tears as 121 of us stood up as the names of the 44 countries we represented were called out. Lucky for them I always carry kleenex.

The immigration officer spoke about the sacrifices immigrants through the generations have made to make this country their adopted home – leaving behind lives to start anew, sometimes leaving behind everything for nothing more than hope.

My mind wandered a bit because I was eight months old when I left Seoul. I’m not sure what I left behind. The only story that tugs at my heart is that of my great-grandmother wandering the neighborhood, calling out for me long after we had left the country. I left her behind, and we never knew each other long enough to perhaps say a proper goodbye.

The ceremony also included recognizing the men and women currently serving in the armed forces, including the story of one man who was commended for his bravery and service in the Viet Nam War. Even before he was an American he fought for America.

Honestly, the well-scripted ceremony had me ready to pull out the kleenex for myself and then they played a music video complete with karaoke style lyrics of “I’m Proud to Be An American” on the three large screens. My apologies to those of you who love that song. Personally, it makes me cringe. The song rings a bit jingoistic, and if you’re going to showcase a song to welcome Americans let’s showcase the very best of what America has to offer. Or at the very least, play the national anthem recorded by a quality vocalist and orchestration. Ugh.

And before I knew it we were free to linger, take pictures by the stage or downstairs in the foyer  between the two flags, and leave the building as Americans. The security officer who had so humorously helped me and Peter through the security check-point congratulated me. We rushed off to pick up the kids from school after an equally rushed celebratory lunch – Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dogs.

As for my choice of proper attire, I dressed up. I paid way too much money to not take this day as a reason to dress up – a little black dress with a beautiful emerald green silk coat of my mother’s. She once told me that she had taken the fabric given to her by her in-laws as part of their wedding gift to her to have party dresses and matching coats made. She had imagined her life in America being full of parties and celebrations, but the dresses hung in her closet, dusty and unused.

I thought it appropriate that on the day I said goodbye to my green card I would wear my mother’s unused green party clothes to celebrate. Thank you, Mom and Dad for giving me your dreams, and thanks to all of you who joined me on this journey.