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?

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…

The Friends We Are & the Friends We Have

As a child I remember the most jarring part of moving was saying goodbye to Serge, Vikram, and Evangelia. They were the friends that made recess at Waters Elementary worth the wait and gave each of us someone else to blame when the walk home took longer than it should because we stopped at the little store to buy a piece of candy. We were the best of friends and having to find new friends was scary. It still is.

I suppose that is partly why after reading The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow, all I want to do is get together with some of my closest college girlfriends to catch up, cry, laugh, drink some wine and eat. K, P and C are not the childhood or young adulthood friends that are chronicled in the book, but they represent the closest I have come to the deep and enduring friendships I have just read about.

My husband said that though we hadn’t known each other for very long before our marriage, meeting my friends, watching us, and hearing us taught him so much about me. He was watching both the kind of friend I was as well as the kind of friends I had, and he continues to watch as some of my friendships enter a third decade while others are just starting out.

There was a season in my life when there was little space for new friendships. I craved connection to other new moms, but the demands of motherhood when life was full of infants and toddlers and preschoolers made establishing new friendships seem impossible. But God surprised me with new friends, some of them women I had known of or known years ago.

So now that there is a different pace to motherhood I find myself longing for friends like K, P and C to be both near and far.

To maintain the friendships from far away we have used technology to help us connect through three time zones. We have made celebrations and professional conferences as perfect excuses to get together. We will see how crisis and death in the future play into our reunions.

And to build new friendships I am simply trying – trying to set aside my own insecurities, competitiveness, and other character traits that desperately need God’s redemption and trying to be the kind of friend I have been so blessed by. Trying to be open to new things, but I’m really not sure I have the time for scrapbooking. (If any of you are reading this you know who you are 😉 Thank you for reminding me that I am still invited even though I joke about it being a cult.) Trying not just because I’m an extrovert but because we aren’t meant to do real life all alone. Trying because my daughter is watching and hopefully learning how girls and their friendships grow into women and their friendships. Trying because friendships have been good for my soul, made us more into the image of God we were created to be. Trying because laughing and crying and coffee and wine and a good book or a bad argument are always better with a friend.

How old are some of your most precious friendships and how have you weathered life’s transitions? How have you nurtured new acquaintances into deeper friendships? How have your friendships changed you?

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.

Passing Up A Chance of a Lifetime For A Chance of a Lifetime

I am an expert in kicking myself in the butt. For those of you who live life without regrets, this is not the blog post for you, friend. My life has been messy and beautiful and full of poor choices and better choices shaded by the inability to make decisions. I am grateful for the moments of perfect clarity and timing, but those are few and far between.

Some of those decisions rank low in the “change my life” category, like the beautiful red coat I spotted on the rack, tried on, considered buying and then decided against it hoping it would go on sale. The coat went on sale but out of stock in my size. That was more than 20 years ago, and every now and then I’ll kick myself in the butt for being practical to a fault (how many coats does a girl need?).

Other decisions are weightier . Will I stay home and put my career on hold when we start having children? How will we care for aging parents? How will we choose a church?

So when two opportunities of a lifetime vied for prime real estate on my calendar this fall I found myself in a familiar place – full of gratitude and momentarily full of whining.

Opportunity #1: to be home to see our children (and myself) through a major transition. This fall our oldest child is headed to high school. (Yes, I know. I don’t look old enough to have a child in high school. Yes, time has gone by quickly. Yes, she is nervous and Peter and I are too.)  This fall our second child is headed to middle school. (Yes, we’re a little nervous. We’re not sure if he’s nervous, but neither is he.) And, our youngest, will be in 3rd grade and not have an older sibling at school. (Yes, he is excited and nervous, and so are we.)

Opportunity #2: to be one of 4,000 leaders from around the world to attend the Third Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010.

I know. Poor me.

I was honored & humbled to be invited to participate, and amazed at the opportunity to be a part of an international discussion on the critical issues we are facing and how they relate to the future of the Church. This was never in the career plans.

But after the thrill came the realities of the opportunity, the largest hurdle was time. Saying “yes” to #1 meant seeing my family through a once-in-a-lifetime transition, with the possibilities ranging from full of drama to smooth as butter. Saying “yes” to #2 meant being a part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a learn from international leaders and be a part of conversations that have a global impact. Raising money to attend and travel was one thing, but no one was going to be able to give me my time back.

All parents have to make choices weighing the pros and cons, comparing time and money against opportunities gained and lost. I have never been able to separate my statuses as Asian American Christian working mom and wife from one another, and this decision pulled on me in all directions and pushed all the right buttons.

When you say “no” to something, you are leaving open space to say “yes” to other things. That is what I tell other ministry colleagues, friends and even my family. In a culture and society that often screams “more is better”, saying “yes” to every good opportunity makes sense. Seize the moment. Carpe diem. No regrets. The phrases sound good and are wonderfully inspiring, perfect for a bumper sticker or status update.

But reality, at least the whole, big picture of reality, doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker. Saying “no” can feel foolish. Saying “yes” can feel selfish. It’s all so messy, isn’t it?

So, I thought I knew within a week which opportunity to say “yes” to because I saw once-in-a-lifetime one way. It wasn’t wrong, but a month later it didn’t feel right. I needed to let go of some angst, deal with ambition and self-image issues, figure out what space I was going to leave in my life and how to draw the margins.

This fall 4,000 leaders from around the world will gather in Cape Town, South Africa and I will watch Bethany become a high schooler, Corban become a middle schooler, and Elias become a third grader. I will not be discussing issues facing the Church, but I will be discussing scheduling challenges facing a family headed in five different directions. I will not be with thousands of international leaders, but I will be with three future leaders who will probably be running a little late or needing a little help and teaching me a few things about life in the process.

It is a once in a lifetime opportunity I could not pass up.

Do You or Don’t You: Valentine’s Day?

This will be the 18th Valentine’s Day sort-of-but-not-really-celebrated. Early in our marriage we were giddy-in-love and wrote notes and kept the local florist busy. One could fairly say we’ve become less romantic and increasingly practical. We are less giddy, more in love, write notes about getting the car’s oil changed and remember that cut flowers die but nothing says, “I love you” like getting one step closer to being debt free.

But if you must do cut flowers the $20 bunch at the grocery store placed in one of the many vases we received 17 years ago from our wedding will suffice. 😉

I grew up knowing my parents loved each other, but it wasn’t until college or so when I noticed my father making more of an effort to show my mother his love and affection. One year I remember he hung a little box containing a piece of jewelry on the gear shift of her car, and another year I remember he bought her a new watch and left it near her bathroom sink. The point is, I remember.

So every now and then Peter and I remember. We remember that our children are watching us and learning about marriage, commitment, honor, respect, faith, fighting fair and not so fair and…about love. We hug and kiss in front of the children. We argue with and apologize to one another in front of the children. We exchange gifts in front of the children.

But as a mother  I find myself looking far more critically at the messages around Valentine’s Day, and I get a bit weirded out. Commercials about men frantically trying to find the perfect sparkly something, floral arrangement, chocolates, lingerie, fragrance, etc. and print ads showing women wearing sparkly somethings or lingerie all for that special someone who isn’t necessarily their spouse until death is commercialized romance on drugs. I’m not sure it’s all that romantic let alone about love. Maybe it’s about “luv” – a generic imposter that looks like the real thing but falls terribly short?

I’m really not that cynical, but it’s a little crazy out there. Be careful. Seriously.

So this Valentine’s Day Peter and I will do what we’ve been trying to do for 17 years and lowering the pressure to compete with the commercials and celebrate our love. We will try to love our children and be kind and patient with them (and leave a little note and some chocolates for each of them), and we will try to love one another and be kind and patient with one another. We are hoping to have dinner with a young couple on the staring line of what will hopefully be a long running, long loving marriage. We can’t think of a more perfect Valentine’s Day.

What are your plans?

How Much Power Does Money Have

I’ve been thinking a lot about money, specifically about my personal finances (if there is really such a thing) and the power money has on my life. Last week I was part of a panel discussing following Jesus while simultaneously honoring our parents. The discussion had a few light moments, but overall it was a serious conversation as conversations about life and death should be.

The panelists were all staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and we all had disappointed our parents in our choice to go into vocational ministry. For many of us, our parents’ love for us flowed into concern that giving up “real” jobs to go into full-time ministry would require a suffering and life lacking in the very security our immigrant parents had worked so hard to achieve.

One young man in the front broke down in tears as he shared with the entire room of his desire to go into ministry and how utterly disappointed, heartbroken and perhaps angry his parents would be. He was their future in so many ways. We asked the audience how many of them were also their parents’ retirement funds. Most of the room raised their hands.

There are no easy answers to that kind of decision. None.

I struggle with money, and talking about money in some circles requires my inside voice because in some circles we don’t talk about such things. We talk in vague phrases or words like “stewardship” and “blessing” and “giving God what is God’s”. We don’t really talk about salaries (I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours) or budget details (I give myself an allowance every month). Let’s put it this way. I’ve been asked to speak about sex and sexuality more than a dozen times in a given year. I have yet to be asked to speak about money, which is kind of funny considering I have more money than I have sex. Sorry. I could not resist.

My husband and I are both white-collar “professionals” living in a fairly affluent suburb. His check is based on production. Mine is based on a combination of seniority, position, performance and money raised. Yes, I ask people to donate their money so that I can do a job I love and get paid for it. Crazy.

But I’m beginning to understand that is where it all gets so messy for me. I know colleagues who have made very judgmental comments about people like me who live in zip codes like mine. I know I have judged people for those very same reasons. I also know that I get judged for what I do and the way I do it. Asking people for money to minister to the elite (college students) does not sound like much of a mission field when we here in the West have painted missions to be about serving the poor. There are poor college students, but if you can get to college in the U.S. you are already way ahead of the curve. We are setting the curve for the world in terms of education, money, access and power.

And because that is part of the American dream, immigrant parents should not be judged the way some of us have judged them. At that same panel discussion one student spoke of his disdain for some of the first generation congregants at his church who were too materialistic and because of that could not, perhaps, support his decision to go into ministry.

I didn’t have a chance to comment, but my response would have been something like this – our parents and their generation did not all come to America to accumulate wealth for wealth’s sake. They were looking for security and certainty, not all too unlike the certainty you are looking for in a calling on your life. Be careful in your quick judgment of the generation you not only stand on but will have to lead.

And the real danger is that we, as the beneficiaries of the money and power of previous generations, turn around and carte blanche denounce the systems we have benefitted from. I’m not so sure I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it weren’t for that great college degree that my greedy parents worked so hard for. Right? The so-called materialism of my parents has allowed me to be where I am. Money does not define me, but I am not embarrassed or ashamed at my parents’ wise budgeting and rare splurges. Their choices, though they may not be my own when I’m faced with the same decisions, have allowed me so many opportunities.

But perhaps that is the power of money. We spend so much time focusing on the damage and injustice money and the unequal distribution of it that it is the inheritance and then division between two generations’ understanding of blessing. Perhaps if the focus was first on the spiritual inheritance our parents have given us through their sacrifice and material wealth we would have a better understanding of money?

How can we as the beneficiaries be grateful and gracious as we look to lead our lives and to lead in different ways?

Christmas Traditions New and Old

It’s two weeks away from Christmas. Are you feeling anticipation and excitement or is there a sense of panic, anxiety and dread?

Usually about this time I want to run away or let the kids run around the house to find the presents so we can enjoy them as their winter break starts and so I don’t have to waste wrapping paper. We live in America, and this is not Christmas. This is the holiday season, and the holidays make people crazy. I just saw a lady get out of her car to scream at another driver in the parking lot. Crazy scream with arms flailing. Happy holidays, lady.

I love Christmas, and the older I get the more I cling to traditions, new and old. I have faint memories of decorating the tree. My hope is that my kids will have much more vivid memories of decorating the house and the tree. Decorating the tree together is a must. Each child has a set of “their” ornaments – their baby ornaments, the homemade ornaments, the school photo in a frame ornaments. Bethany has an ornament that looks like a pair of pointe shoes. Corban has a few Star Wars ornaments. Elias has a few Star Wars ornaments. Peter has a few Star Wars ornaments. I have one of a cup of coffee, and Elias just bought me one with my name on it.

I’ve told the kids that when they grow up and move out they will get to take their ornaments to their new home to decorate their first Christmas tree with while I cry buckets. There is a pang in my heart even as I write this.

A few years ago when I was serving as the worship director at a church I introduced the church to Advent. Congregation, meet Advent. It helped us as a contemporary worship service kind of church and me as a selfish, working out my personal issues through my parenting person remember that waiting for Christmas and our Christ invites us to do just that – to wait, to hope, to anticipate, to see.

Last year we asked the kids to wait to open their presents until we had a short family devotion and then lit the center candle – the Christ candle. There was some grumbling, but it was worth the wait. This year we will do the same, except this year I will remember to blow out the four tapers before we open gifts because purple and pink wax all over the artificial wreath is messy.

I’d love to hear from all of you…what are some of the traditions you keep during this blessed season?

Do You Watch What You Eat?

My two oldest children have forsaken their Korean roots by letting me know of their disdain for kimchee in all its forms. For those of you who are not familiar with the staple of Korean cuisine, kimchee is a fermented, spicy cabbage side dish. It has a strong smell and unique taste, which varies depending on what your family recipe adds to the kimchee, how long it has fermented, and what type of cabbage or radish that is used.

I love kimchee. When my kimchee has fermented a wee bit too long, I chop it up and throw it in a skillet with some cold rice and spam and make kimchee fried rice for a late-night snack. Or I’ll throw it in a pot with some short ribs and tofu and make a stew to eat with rice.

But because of the smell of kimchee, and the smell of several other Korean staples, I watch what I eat and when I eat it. Yesterday I was so excited to find out that Peter was going to make it home in time to pick up the boys from school because I could stay at home for the rest of the day…which meant I could eat some Korean food for lunch and not worry about the smell that seems to stick to my taste buds and even my hair.

It’s a little silly, I suppose, but I am aware that we relate to others through all of our senses. I remember one of my piano teachers used to sit during our lessons with her plate of bleu cheese. I had never seen or smelled anything like it before, and it would be at least two decades before I could bring myself to eating blue cheese. The smell always reminded me of that piano teacher with little fondness.

Childhood memories also included being teased for being a chink and being followed by boys taunting and threatening to send me back to where I came from. Do I carry those memories into adulthood? Absolutely. Because as an adult I remember walking along the street having a car load or truck load of “Americans” slow down so I could hear them scream similar things. Being proud of who I am and fitting in has always been a tricky dance.

So when friends came over I would die inside when my mother would offer some food. I would think, “Please, don’t open the fridge. It stinks.” My kids don’t have to worry about that. My father-in-law gave me his kimchee refrigerator, which in some high-identity/low-assimilation homes would be used to actually ferment kimchee. In our home, and in other high-identity/high-assimilation homes is used to store the stinky foods, including kimchee. I used to keep juice boxes in their too until I realized the waxy paper juice boxes were absorbing the smell.

My kids are all over the map when it comes to food. There are a number of Korean dishes they frown upon, but all three of them have at one time or another taken lunches to school reflecting their Asian/Korean roots. I would often hesitate when they asked if they could bring the leftover seaweed or oxtail soup to school, but I try desperately to not make my issues theirs. Our thermoses get good use, especially in the winter when the novelty of school lunches and the bitter cold of the winter settle in because “gook bap” beats a hot dog any day.

But their courage is not always mine as I think about digging into a bowl of spicy tofu seafood soup two hours before the school bell rings. Chicken teriyaki is safe. Even California rolls or a plate of pad thai is “safe”. But kimchee? In a world where there are people who die because they do not have enough to eat, it seems rather silly to be worried about how I smell after a meal but I do…maybe more often than I should?