In honor of bad food appropriation poetry

Dear white man writing about Chinese food,
Did someone wake up in a bad mood?
Why are you so afraid you are behind the trend
When all along you, my white friend,
Are actually behind?

Brand new provinces don’t simply appear.
Your ignorance and privilege is showing, I fear.
Because when you write about “we” and the songs that “we sung”
It’s obvious you aren’t including me or the flavors on my tongue.
You write blindly white to white,
Talking about another’s food as if it was your right.
It’s as if you discovered Chinese food in all its glory.
Oh, I’m sorry. That was Columbus’ story.

#Columbusing

I must disclose, before I write any more prose
I am not Chinese. Don’t worry.
I am friends with some of “those” people,
And I love their food, too.
So I am an expert like you.

So expert to expert, may I suggest
The next time you take a moment to rest
Your fingers before you type your clever thoughts
On food that isn’t yours – ma po and dumplings aren’t your props
To wax nostalgic. You actually sound like a jerk.
Did you run out of real work?
How does a white man’s food fantasy pass
As print-worthy? Print-worthy my a$$.

Of Skin Whiteners & Spam

These are two of my favorite things.

These are two of my favorite things.

I just bought several cans of low-sodium Spam, and last week I used a paper facial mask for skin brightening/whitening.

Yes. I eat gelatinous meat by-products and I want to be white. Not really. Not at all.

I don’t want to be white, though there was a time when I did. I’m just vain and human. I am heading into my mid-40s, getting ready to launch my firstborn, wondering where all that time I thought I had went, and wondering when all those freckles and sun spots appeared. When the melancholy settles into that sweet spot next to gratitude and hope, I like to sit down for some self-care – some nail polish and a facial mask – or with some comfort food – a bowl of rice, a piece of fried Spam, and some kimchee. Sometimes I will indulge in both in the same night.

The funny thing is that both skin whitening and Spam have similar complex roots in human nature, culture, and politics.

Vanity isn’t unique to Korea (my motherland), despite what we could infer from stories about a Korean golfer playing for Japan because she didn’t fit the beauty standards of her homeland or beauty ads asking women “Do you want to be white?”. I just think it’s easier for us Americans to look outside when it’s convenient. It’s called deflection. It’s easier to point out extreme examples in other countries and cultures than it is to look at our own culture’s jacked up standards of beauty and femininity because, face it, looking in the mirror metaphorically can be as frightening as it is to do it the morning after a rice and Spam bender.

Skin whitening exist here in America, but it is more often promoted as skin brightening – eliminating the freckles, sun spots, sun damage, and imperfections that actually come with being alive and aging. The whitening language is connected to class as well as race. I remember being told during my visits to Korea to carry an umbrella or parasol to keep the sun from damaging my skin; darker, tanned skin was associated with the lower-class farmers or outdoor shop owners. I suspect the stigma of darker skin only increased as Western culture influenced Korea. Oh the irony to be Korean & American where just 50 years ago the U.S. government passed and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the decades since then tanning beds, tanning lotions, and straight up “tanning” is part of looking healthy (by the way shades of orange does not equal tan nor does  it look healthy. It looks orange.). Think about it. We needed laws to protect and give full rights to women and people of color while white people want to be “tan”. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

American culture, in some ways, creates a level of dissonance as it could be construed as a collection of cultural appropriation with a dose of good old-fashioned creativity and varying degrees of separation and offense to the originating cultures. What isn’t American about celebrating our country’s birthday with fireworks?  Fusion kimchee taco trucks? Churches hosting Harvest Day celebrations? Communion wafers or chunks of white bread with grape juice?

It isn’t always clear to me what is the “right way” and how that is different than the “Christian way” or the “American way” of doing, being, eating, etc. In my experience, Spam was American (which meant “white” in my home) food tweaked to fit our family’s Korean sensibilities, served with rice and kimchee, rolled into kimbap, or thrown into kimchee stew. For goodness sakes you can buy it at chain grocery stores in the canned food aisle near canned stew and those little sausages NOT the “ethnic” food aisle! It slowly dawned on me in adulthood that Spam was American but not necessarily eaten by white Americans.

Spam arrived in my motherland through the Korean War and the U.S. military. Pre-cooked in a compact container, Spam was a fairly economical source of protein during wartime scarcity. My father has regaled us with stories about Spam, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and other wartime black market items. He probably thinks it’s funny his daughter still eats Spam but has gotten snotty about her chocolate. The kids can have s’mores with Hershey’s while I whip out the good stuff for mine. But my kids have had Spam musubi, and there is no shame. The blue can that releases its contents with a “splat” is iconic American though many of my white American friends have never had it because it wan’t necessarily good enough for home consumption but good enough to import elsewhere. Fine. I’ll take it. I am told that the Spam now produced in Korea uses higher quality ingredients and tastes differently but is just as prized as it once was. Tradition and nostalgia tied with grief, loss, scarcity, and displacement is a powerful force.

So how can I, as an Asian American woman wanting to dismantle and deconstruct the racial ties that try to define me use a skin whitening product? Because sometimes, I live into my privilege of not examining everything I touch, wear, eat, use, etc. to see whether or not the producers of everything around me were paid a fair wage, did not harm animals, did not contribute to an unjust war I did not agree with based on my religious beliefs. Sometimes I like a good bargain and the facial masks were buy four-get two free so I grabbed one of each kind. Sometimes I don’t want to fight every fight because there are so many things to be against and not enough time to be for something. Sometimes I just want to take care of myself with a facial mask and some comfort food and it not be a political or racial statement but rather a way of loving my family because a relaxed, centered, well-fed mommy and wife makes for a happy life.

Sometimes it’s more complicated and complex.

 

The Open Letter, How We Got Here & Where We Hope to Go

Sometimes we, meaning “I”, squash the little voice inside our heads and talk ourselves out of speaking up. Sometimes that is truly is the best thing or the right thing to do. But sometimes speaking up and speaking out is the very thing we need to do because in this case the little offenses are very much tied into the systemic issues that we are currently facing in our churches and in our country.

It’s easier to marginalize and ignore people if they aren’t one of “us.” It’s easier to welcome people into our sacred spaces but never allow them to have a voice in what actually happens in that space if they don’t have a voice or if that voice is foreign and strange. It’s easier to think we have all the right answers if we only surround ourselves with people who nod their heads in agreement.

Sometimes it’s easier, because there is a cost to speaking up and speaking out.

But in the long run there is a higher cost to pay by staying silent.

Anyway, somewhere in cyberspace I wanted to document some of the background and timeline behind the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church so after the weekend losses of my Chicago Bears and Northwestern Wildcats I figured now was as good a time as any because today, as we hunkered down at home with one child recovering from a bad cold and another child suffering through day four of the flu, I was feeling the need to ground myself again in why we started the letter.

Sometimes it’s an act of obedience.

On October 8, Christine Lee, assistant rector at All Angels Church, NYC, tagged me on a Facebook post about a skit at the Exponential Discipleshift Conference where two White men use fake Asian accents (which I refer to as speaking Ching-chong), mimicking Kung-fu or karate moves with “Oriental” music as the backdrop.

“Just had a Kathy Khang moment at Exponential conference. A humorous video abt church plant apprenticing ended in karate and Chinese accents. When I expressed my thots to one of the leaders, he explained it was a parody meant in good fun. When I said they would’ve never shown video of two white pastors pretending they were black “in good fun,” he shrugged and said, “maybe.” Sad that a good conference was dampened by this response.”

It’s important to note here that had it not been for Christine’s courage to find her voice in this situation and articulate her concerns both personally to a leader of Exponential and then publicly to others, that video may have made its way to yet another conference only to leave another group of attendees either laughing at the white guy speaking Ching-chong or others scratching their heads or, worse, feeling distance, frustration, pain, anger, or sadness because of the stereotypes used in communicating the content.

That same day Helen Lee and I exchange emails about what happened at the conference as we try to find others we know who might have been at the conference. Why find more witnesses? Why isn’t Christine’s story enough? Because I’ve learned from similar situations in the past that my intentions and credibility are questioned and scrutinized more than those of the alleged offender and his/her/their offense.  Many of the non-Asian American Christians connected to Rickshaw Rally, Youth Specialties, Deadly Viper, the Red Guard image and apology, and the skit at Exponential had people vouch for their sincere hearts, good intentions, and friendships with Asian Americans. Never mind that I may actually have more White friends than any of those people may have Asian American friends. The more proof I have the better. That’s the system, folks. It’s broken, but until we can really talk about the systems I try to play by some of the rules while I speak out.

October 9 – Helen Lee and DJ Chuang are reaching out to contacts they have with Exponential. In the meantime, Helen and I are emailing about the idea of a letter, a possible website to host the letter, names for a potential group to help draft the letter, and a brainstorming a list of contacts as potential signatories on a finalized letter while juggling homeschooling responsibilities (Helen), other work responsibilities, and family needs.

October 10 – A draft of the Open Letter is circulated amongst the grassroots committee. The committee also begins compiling a list of AA Christian leaders it would like to invite to be the initial signatories on the letter.

Exponential, with the help of DJ Chuang, also gathers some of its key leaders and invites Daniel and Jeya So to share their thoughts about the video and speak candidly about the power of stereotypes. It’s worth noting that in a room full of men, God used Jeya’s voice and story to speak powerfully to many present in the room. 

October 11 – Exponential issues an apology for the skit. The decision is made to continue with the Open Letter because it is less about addressing a single event but rather bringing attention to what has become an ongoing problem with the Evangelical church stereotyping Asian Americans.

October 14 – The Open Letter goes live on nextgenerasianchurch.com

October 15 – All sorts of social media and traditional media madness ensues and continues. Much of it is good groundwork being laid down for deeper conversations that are so needed.

We, meaning the Open Letter coordinating committee, have been asked if the letter is accomplishing anything along the lines of what we had hoped for.  My personal answer is YES. There have been many conversations with non-Asian American Christian evangelical leaders and the letter coordinating committee, as well as conversations happening all around the country (perhaps the world) about what God is stirring up. I am hopeful that the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Associated Baptist News coverage about the letter will continue to push the conversations deeper. Very, very, very early-stage brainstorming has begun about a possible gathering of the committee and other white evangelical leaders. I am hopeful.

While some may be uncomfortable with the very public nature of the letter, I believe it was necessary and the correct way to address what have been very public offenses and examples of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. These were not well-intentioned mistakes in a private conversation. These situations, regardless of intent, point to systemic and leadership blindspots. Private channels of connecting were being leveraged while at the same time the letter drew attention to repeated marginalization and many Asian American Christians are tired of being the punchline. And despite some of the harsh comments, I am hopeful.

And just in case you, here are some more voices who have joined in on the conversation about the Open Letter.

Elder J on his bi-racial (multi-racial?) children

Dora – I especially love her last paragraph

Bruce is not an Evangelical

Rachel Held Evans who usually doesn’t like open letters

NPR’s Code Switch

The Orange County Register

No Candy for You If You Come Dressed Like This

Ignore the fact that Christmas displays are popping up all over the place. Keep your eyes on the prize, my dear readers.

Candy. Free candy.

Halloween is not my favorite holiday, not because of its pagan roots and dark images but because it wreaks havoc with the kids’ schedules when it falls on a weeknight conflicting with homework, extracurriculars and dinner. And because it brings out a kind of crazy and lack of wisdom in adults, that does tend to trickle down.

The candy is free so long as you make an attempt at dressing up, but that is where the crazy comes out to play. God help the kid who shows up at my door dressed up in a sombrero, or as a “pimp” or “thug”, or a geisha, or in an “Indian” headdress. It is not respectful (why do you get to choose what is respectful to my culture without asking me?). I’m not accusing the parents or the child of racism or of being a racist. I won’t actually refuse to give you candy. I won’t yell at you or the kid. I am simply asking people to reconsider their choice of Halloween costumes, whether it’s for themselves or for a loved one.

The taking a piece or part of a minority group’s culture by the majority culture is known as cultural appropriation. Some examples would be Chief Illiniwek – the University of Illinois’ former mascot and dress-up/theme parties. There are plenty more out there. Chinese character tattoos on the arms of people who think it “looks cool”.  Just Google “Deadly Viper controversy”. There are plenty of folks who don’t think it’s that big of a deal. That’s fine. I think it’s a big deal.

And while we are at it, dear female readers. Please encourage our sisters, young at older, to avoid Halloween costumes that focus on our sexuality. No holiday is an excuse for grown women to wear bloomers with thigh highs or for young girls and young women to mistake dressing sassy=sexy. If you have to ask if something crosses the line, it probably already did. And male readers, keep your shirts on and pants pulled up. You know what I’m talking about.

It’s a big deal because we are all made it God’s image, and God sees inherent value in both our sameness and our uniqueness. God knows each one of us (Psalm 139). And even in John’s revelation he writes of seeing unity and diversity (Rev. 7). So it’s a big deal when we create a caricature of another culture for our benefit, entertainment, amusement and abuse.

So please, don’t come to my door dressed up to honor my Asian, Latino, Black, First Nations friends. I’d rather you put on a Cubs hat and come as an insufferable optimist.

 

 

White Privilege & Accidentally Playing in a Public Sandbox

Depending on the circles in which you spin around, you may have come across Gavin McInnes’ piece about Asian American privilege. I won’t link to it. You can find it on your own. (Privilege is misspelled in the blogpost title on one of the websites, btw.)

I don’t know the intent behind the piece. Some say it was an attempt at satire. Others say that’s just McInnes’ style. The godfather of hipsterdom wrote a piece using Asian American privilege as the centerpiece. The piece discusses race, and some people thought it though-provoking; others feel provoked.

“Tackling Asian Privilege” on one website has garnered more than 600 comments. It’s been linked several times throughout the day by my some of my Facebook friends. And then there is Twitter.

Yikes.

Yikes.

I have learned that the rules in the social media/interweb/everyone-is-a-writer public sandbox are slightly different for me. And by me I mean a non-White American. McInnes can use Asians (I prefer Asian American.) as a tongue-in-cheek example in his clever, original take on race dynamics in America so long as Asians don’t get upset. We don’t get to be upset. We just get to be the example. And if we get upset, we are told to grow a thicker skin, get a grip, learn to read, etc. We get ALL CAPS AND TOLD THAT WE DON’T GET IT.

Get it?

It’s because McInnes’ audience, his public sandbox if you will, actually didn’t include me and a host of my other non-White American friends because we aren’t his target audience. He would never say that. At least I don’t think he would. We may read his stuff, and we may even appreciate his cleverness and humor until it smells a bit like appropriation. That is what ought to make “us”, the non-target audience, uncomfortable. We are fine in the sandbox until we realize we are being allowed to stay. We weren’t necessarily invited.

This has happened before. Poorly designed t-shirts or advertising campaigns. Poorly written and designed Vacation Bible School curriculum. Poorly written and designed Christian leadership books. Poorly conceived fraternity parties. Poorly conceived team mascots. White privilege means you get to tell me that I don’t get it. That I misunderstood your intentions. That I should be honored that “my culture” is being represented in such a way. That it’s all in good fun. That I’m being politically correct. That I need to stop taking everything so seriously.

No. White privilege may be and mean a lot of things, but it does not get to determine how I respond or feel.

Mr. McInnes, I’m not humorless. I actually find a lot of things funny, and I am told that I am pretty funny. I just didn’t think your writing was particularly funny. And I didn’t get the point you were trying to make, but because a bunch of people seemed to like what you wrote and followed up with some comments I found offensive and racist I guess I didn’t get the inside joke.

It’s ok. ALL CAPS ARE NOT NEEDED.

 

 

Identity Formation & Barbie

I grew up with Barbie and her knock-off cousins. My sister and I had the townhouse with the elevator. The pool. The dream house. With all of the furniture. The remote-controlled Corvette.

The collection finally made complete after a family trip to the Motherland where, in the Itaewon shopping district, we found the perfect outfit for our blonde, blue-eyed and busty dolls – a Barbie-sized hanbok (traditional Korean dress). All Barbie needed was some major surgery, hair dye and contact lenses and she would look just like me and my sister on New Year’s Day.

So when my firstborn came of age I vowed to never buy her a Barbie. She received them as gifts and we did let her keep a few, including Mulan Barbie, and I even broke out my vintage Barbie Dream house and furniture.

I still have the dream house and furniture in the basement, as well as the Barbie hanbok. But hen again, there is a lot of other garbage in my basement.

Admittedly it is a love-hate relationship with Barbie because for all of objectification and stereotyping, she was a part of my childhood which included more friends who looked more and lived more like Barbie. And I wanted friends. I wanted to belong.

I still want to belong. Somewhere.

So when friends posted this link about an ‘adoption Barbie’ I needed a few days to digest it all. The doll has been around for a few years, but the conversations around adoption, identity, desire, broken cultural systems, cultural appropriation, family, assimilation, gender preferences, and citizenship are ancient. Take a look at the Bible and read about Ruth, Esther, the Samaritan Woman, the Bleeding Woman, and a host of other Sunday School classics with grown-up eyes. In many ways, as we
Americans open our eyes to human trafficking, we can see how the world has not changed in how it sees women and girls. We are a commodity that can be dispensed of or used for the benefit of others.

But our genuine desire to find ways to connect our personal stories and experiences can make the adoption Barbie seem rather innocuous of even helpful as a way to commemorate an adoptive child’s “gotcha day”.

My husband and I have been a part of three adoptions, vouching for our friends and writing letters for their case files. We have celebrated with many more friends who have journeyed years through adoption, some with unconditional support of their families and some with reserved support.

And as a mother of American-born Korean children I notice the abundance of blonde dolls and Caucasian role models.

Seriously. Why do you think I went out and bought a copy of Sports Illustrated?! Sports Illustrated?

JEREMY LIN!!!

Years ago I cried with a friend as I told the story of how my daughter wanted a doll with ‘pretty hair’, which I learned was code for blonde hair. I’m still waiting for an Asian American American Girl historical doll. I just don’t know how they would market Jade – the Japanese internment doll. (In my mind, Ivy doesn’t cut it. She’s just Julie’s best friend.)

So the adoption Barbie doll makes me a bit uneasy and leaves me confused. What do you think? Great idea? Weird idea? Savvy marketing? Opportunistic?

And how many of you still have a Barbie or one of her accessories from childhood?

No judging.

Geishas, Wampanoag Indians and Rasta Hats With Dreadlocks. Why?

Would you let your teenaged daughter dance around dressed up like a geisha?

Or would you, as an adult, show up at a pilgrim feast dressed up in a generic Halloween “Indian” costume and let your “interpreter” speak stilted English to help portray a version of the first Thanksgiving feast?

Or would you be OK with your kid putting on a rasta hat complete with dreadlocks and say, “Give me all your money!” in an attempt to win a goofy group ice breaker?

These are the things Peter and I are discussing tonight as we have no stake in any of the amazing football games that were played earlier today. These are the things that keep me up at night because these are our realities as parents who are trying to raise three children in what some describe as a “post-racial” world.

Last week I saw a high school poms squad compete with all of their heart and dance skills dressed up like geishas. I snapped a photo, which I promptly posted on FB, and I sat there shaking my head. Their final pose was “hands meet at your heart in prayer” and bow. I expected a gong. They weren’t honoring the artistic skills and training of the geisha. They were demonstrating their modern dance team skills while perpetuating stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

But it wasn’t my daughter’s squad at the high school where my taxes go so what does it matter, right? Let it go, I tell myself. But I can’t. Or, I don’t think I should.

It made me think of our elementary school’s traditional pilgrim feast. I sat through two of those cringing at the construction paper feathered headbands the children had made for us parents, wishing I had the courage to say something appropriate after having experienced the first one, extending the benefit of the doubt and then having an even worse experience the second time. The man dressed up as the Wampanoag chief Massasoit wasn’t dressed as a Wampanoag chief. He was wearing a very nice Halloween costume. But I didn’t know what to say. I know it’s hard to believe I didn’t walk myself into the principal’s office two years ago, but it’s true. I don’t always know what or how to say things, especially when it’s clear this tradition was very, very old.

Let it go, I tell myself. Don’t ruin the tradition. But I’m having a tough time sitting here with myself.

And then Peter comes home after a fairly good weekend away at a retreat with our second child when he shares about an incident. The kids were asked to create commercials to promote their candidate (playing off this exciting election season), and one child put on a rasta hat with fake dreads and yelled out, “Give me all your money!” It was just enough to make Peter wince and talk to me about it at home…and show me the photo that he snapped.

Let it go, I tell myself. But maybe Peter and I shouldn’t.

Surely we aren’t the only ones who have seen things like this in our children’s schools and surrounding communities. What have you seen that made you uncomfortable, left you baffled, or made you angry?

What did you do or say?

Or, did you

just

let

it

go

?