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.

This is Our Story: InterVarsity’s National Asian American Ministries Staff Conference 2010

Here are some images from our national Asian American Ministries staff conference “This is Our Story“.

I’m still thinking about the conference and the significance of what we heard and saw and spoke of, and I’m still wrapping my brain around InterVarsity’s AAM history that began with Gwen Wong being hired in 1948.

1948.

I’m still thinking about the amazing legacy of women like Gwen Wong, Ada Lum, Jeanette Yep, Donna Dong and Brenda Wong who did more than blaze a trail for someone like me to follow decades later. Their legacy is clear and points in the direction I long for my legacy to follow.

I’m still thinking about how we label ourselves – Asian. American. Asian American. Indirect. Model Minority. Shame-based. Female. Working mom. Called. Leader. – and see ourselves through a different lens in order to see ourselves clearly.

I’m still thinking about the hymn that comes to mind when I think of the conference theme – Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance”. I learned that hymn in parts in Korean. And I’m thinking about how changing the lyrics from “my story” to “our story” makes so much sense in the Asian American context.

What is your story?

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?

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.

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.

What is Proper Attire For Becoming An American

This one is just for fun. Really. Fun.

At the bottom of my Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony is the following statement:

Proper attire should be worn

So, what do you think is proper attire? What would you wear if you were becoming an American citizen? Blue jeans – nice ones that look tailored? Jeggings, yay or nay? My hanbok might be over-the-top, right?

And yes, I will post a photo after the ceremony.

Saying Goodbye to the Green Card – The Pause After the Hyphen

My husband asked me this question last night: “Do you think you’ll feel different after you become a citizen?”

I can’t remember when I didn’t consider myself a hyphenated American. Asian-American, Korean-American. Always something-American. Sure, there are those who will argue that it should be just “American” but I don’t believe that “American” should be a melting pot or salad bowl. There are just too many cultural gifts we are able to bring freely when we come to America. However, knowing that legally I wasn’t an American I would often hesitate when describing myself. The pause after the hyphen.

Because in a land where  “American” can be defined along lines of culture, race, ethnicity and legal status, a green card didn’t always feel legal enough. My entire life minus eight months wasn’t American enough. Flawless English and paying taxes wasn’t American enough. It was obvious enough that I was Korean or Asian, but the American part if often questioned even though no one can actually see my legal status. For some, my legal status still won’t be enough, but to be honest, I think I will feel more “secure” knowing that my vote will count, if for nothing else to cancel out someone else’s. Ah, democracy.

But I am looking forward to the ceremony and the finality of the process – far more than I anticipated. It has been fun, and quite unexpected, to be congratulated by friends and readers who have followed my journey through my blogging or private conversations. I have been encouraged by hyphenated and non-hyphenated Americans who embrace and exercise the privileges of citizenship while acknowledging that there is so much more that can be done to welcome the “other”. I am humbled by the welcome – genuine and heartfelt.

I’m also thinking a lot about my parents, who did not come to America with dreams and hopes for a life of excess and materialism. They hoped for better, and isn’t that what most parents want at some level for their children? Many helped them along the way – the building super who fixed up an old lamp no one but my parents would want (I still have the lamp); “Grandma” Marianne and her sister Jane who helped my parents practice their English; family and friends who were like family who were a few steps ahead of the process who helped make this foreign land more familiar.

So, now that I’ve rambled and released the extrovert…yes, I think I will feel different. I will not pause after the hyphen.

Asian ≠ White

Articles like this make me want to celebrate and cringe. Change can be a very difficult, painful process. The desegregation of the church and a deeper and theologically rooted understanding of ethnicity, race and culture demands current systems, institutions and communities to change. I want to celebrate the steps taken at mega-churches like Willow Creek that acknowledge and recognize the world isn’t as White as their congregations have often been, but I can’t help but feel a teeeeeny bit annoyed.

Why? Well, maybe it’s because the arctic blast in the Midwest makes me annoyed at everything because I forget how fortunate I am to have heat in a house full of food and warm clothing. And, I’m a bit prickly. How does a congregation that is only 20% minority count as being integrated? (The Time magazine article cites 20% as “the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation”.) It feels like some odd application of the one-drop rule. Maybe someone out there can help me understand the significance of the numbers and specifically the 20% threshold.

And then if you read on in the article, there is this:

Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions “blows my mind,” says Emerson. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that “if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider” — and it could help smooth America’s transition into a truly rainbow nation.

Go back. I do hope I’m reading this incorrectly: “and a category containing whites and Asians”? Um. Are we, and I think Asian here means Asian American, lumped together in a category with whites?

I’m not White.

And my parents would argue I’m not Asian either.

Sometimes words and labels matter because assumptions are going to be made. Asians are not white. Asian Americans are not white. If we were, my answer to “Where are you from?” would never be followed by “No, I mean where are you really from? You know. Like where were you born?”

My prickly response here is to get us thinking, and to remind me to think, critically about the statistics, initiatives and innovations. What are we celebrating here? And how can we appropriately celebrate, re-group, look critically and then respond accordingly?

For example, if we stop too long in amazement over the racial make-up of the congregation we forget that the up front leadership at WC, by and large, according to the article remains white (the article does not mention gender). Where and from whom are the white leaders of churches like WC going to learn about the non-white experience? How will congregations that are 80% white experience multiethnic leadership if they never see it, hear it and submit to it at their own church?

Press “publish”. Holding breath…