Gifts From the First Generation

The hope was to have this post ready for Choo-Suk (the Korean Harvest Moon celebration, often described to immigrant children as the Korean Thanksgiving), and then I pushed my self-imposed deadline to Thanksgiving. I let several things get in the way.

Anyway, I grew up in the Korean immigrant church. The family story is that one of the first places we visited upon our arrival to Chicago was to Sunday service at First Korean United Methodist Church. Through the years our family would change church affiliations, but we would always be at a Korean church. They were not perfect churches. And those churches had their share of broken people and broken systems. But reading through Dr. Soong-Chan Rah‘s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity gave me reason to pause. Rah uses the Korean immigrant church as his example for Chapter 8 – Holistic Evangelism, and it made me think back to my childhood and youth.

As the commenting raged on on other blogs about how Asian Americans need to get over their race issues and put Jesus first, I found myself thanking God for the gifts of grace, the power of faith, and the complicated and amazing ways in which my faith have shaped the ways I view ethnicity, race and gender and vice versa. Weren’t we all “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Won’t “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” be in God’s presence and glory?

So I go back to the memories of church – the sights, the sounds, the smells, and I am filled with gratitude for the gifts from the first generation.

I thank God for the experience of the first generation Korean church and:

  1.  the church’s additional role a cultural school for me. I learned about Jesus and I learned about being Korean. I learned to read and write (though only mastered both to a 2nd grade level) the only spoken language knew until I was in kindergarten. That basic foundation of the language connects me to a rich history and culture that I grew up experiencing through all of my senses. I learned Korean folk dancing that allowed my body to tell stories that I could not speak.
  2. the gift of liturgy and hymns. They were sung and spoken in Korean. It’s now my lost language, almost like a faint memory that still speaks to places in my soul and communicate nuances I can still only grasp in Korean.
  3. the community the immigrant church provided for my parents and their peers who displaced themselves for the promise of a better life.
  4. the community the immigrant church provided for me and my peers who had no choice in our displacement but needed a group of friends (and frienemies) who could relate to the bicultural experiences our parents could not help us navigate.
  5. the gift of faith because it was at church my parents’ faith was nurtured in their native tongue and where local Bible school students interned and shared the gospel with me in English. I still have the Bible given to me by my Sunday School teacher, John Bezel, and remember his willingess to learn about the Korean American experience as he shared about Jesus.

Martha, Martha. Today is Not Cupcake Day.

Even if there were 25 hours in a day there still wouldn’t be enough time to do the things I want to get done – never mind the things that need to get done.

This morning took the cake. Cupcakes actually. My three children are currently at two schools – the middle school and the elementary school. Each school has its own set of activities and fundraisers, and I feel compelled to help when I can. Isn’t that what good parents do? Correction. Isn’t that what good moms do? As a mom who works full-time outside of the home, I’ve been able to take advantage of my flexible hours and home office to get some in-school volunteer opportunities, but on the whole I’m a shoe-in if you need a case of water for a luncheon.

This morning I thought I was delivering in order two dozen cupcakes for 8th grade cupcake day by 8:30 a.m., assorted baked goods individually wrapped for the 5th grade bake sale anytime after noon, and 200 napkins and a loaf of crusty french bread for the middle school teacher dinner after 3 p.m.

Today is not cupcake day.

All I could hear in my head after Peter came back from grabbing the orange-frosted cupcakes from Bethany (who was red-faced after her dad walked into band to free her from babysitting cupcakes all day) was Jesus:

“Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen better and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41, 42 TNIV

I want my kids to know that I care about them and their school – cupcakes, assorted baked goods individually wrapped, napkins and crusty french bread kind of care for them. I need to feel connected to what is going on at the place where my kids spend most of their waking hours. I want to do what I can when I can because I already know the dates on the calendar where my roles collide.

But on this morning I was reminded that today is not cupcake day. I am worried and upset about many things – the laundry, the e-mails, the phone calls, the mess in the family room/kitchen/bedroom.

How on this morning will I sit and choose the better thing?

What is an American Handshake?

A colleague posted this on FB, and I must admit I had to laugh at the underwear reference.

I also chuckled at the various “American handshakes” and thought of the awkward, funny cross-cultural breaches of etiquette that can happen on a daily basis.

Growing up my younger sister never called me by my first name. To this day, the only time I hear her call me “Kathy” is when she is introducing me to someone. She calls me “Uhn-nee” – the Korean word for older sister.

We were taught that calling someone who is older by their first name was disrespectful, so we never called a grown-up by their first name. Family friends were simply known as “So-and-so’s mom/dad”. Even in college I had moments of panic when a TA would introduce themselves by their first name. So when I took my first job I was horrified at the thought of calling my editors Roger, Joanne & Diane. I have this little issue with doing the right thing the right way, but clearly living and growing up in the midst of two cultures has a way of blurring the lines.

As a parent I still feel the tension. Our kids are another generation out, but we’ve taught the boys to refer to their older sister as “Noo-nah” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to and call his older sister, and Elias will often call his older brother “Hyung” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to his older brother. Elias once asked why no one calls him anything special. I guess “Hey, Elias” doesn’t count.

But what those B-school international students were learning and laughing about the American Handshake feels different if you take the point of view of an American. My kids are Americans. They may choose to identify themselves as hyphenated Americans (Korean- or Asian-), and they most certainly hear us refer to our family that way. But, by virtue of birth (and I have the birth certificates to prove it) they are Americans so do the family traditions they have grown up with and possibly choose to pass down to another generation continue to change what is “American”? 

I know. Deep thoughts for a gloomy Tuesday morning. Maybe I’ve been reading and hearing too many comments about “preserving the American way of life”. Can someone tell me what that means?

When Your Star Shines Brighter

When the idea of a group of Asian American women writing a book about faith, gender and culture started out with a snowball’s chance in hell, I had one fleeting thought that unnerved and annoyed me: What if this book actually gets published? Will my husband be OK with my success?

Somewhere in quiet, indirect messages I grew up to understand that boys were preferred over girls and smart, successful girls are scary or, even worse, undesireable.

It’s not that I thought two chapters in a book would launch my New York Times Bestseller literary career. But I understood that in the ministry world I’m in being a published author opens up opportunities that may have taken a lot more to open in the past. This is no time for false humility. After spending five years in the marketplace and then nearly a decade in ministry part-time, loving and learning from college students while raising a young family, my star was rising.

It is no small feat to be able to write a statement like that. Culturally there is no place for self-promotion – self-effacing comments, maybe. And by culturally I mean having grown up with a certain brand of Korean-American spirituality/fundamentalist/evangelicalism that let me know that under no circumstances was I to take credit for anything that I happened to achieve or fail. 

Good grades? I was lucky, or God pulled through. A promotion at work? I was lucky, or God had a plan. A big project flops? Bummer, or it wasn’t God’s will. Oversimplified? Without a doubt.

I will say here that my husband has been very supportive, but even then the kind of comments he would field while I traveled hinted at the audacity of what I was doing – pursuing a rising career. Men and women would gush over his willingness to babysit the kids while I was away writing or speaking, as if he had granted me a favor. Men at church would joke about “letting” me have so much time away from him and the kids. Women would ask how I could spend so much time away from my family.

It was as if my rising star needed to be explained away as an anomaly or excused as a luxury.

I’m not sure if it’s the sudden change in weather that is making me a bit cranky these days. I’m pretty sure it’s because over the past few weeks I’ve talked with a few other women who have wrestled with being a supportive wife and present mother who has an opportunity to stretch her wings and fly a bit. And maybe my fuse for this internal conversation is growing short…I want to respond graciously when I’m asked about the toll of my travel schedule on my family (because I really do agonize over it). I want to respond confidently when I’m asked about my ability to speak to a large audience about matters of faith and life. But I know I’m cranky.

Anyone else cranky out there?

Homecoming Weekend

During the fall of 1985, a strange wind blew through my hometown. That wind carried me to the steps of the homecoming court, and then promptly dropped me on my behind just shy of the court. It was weird.

To this day I am convinced that it was some joke that never completely saw the light of day. Yes, I was on poms, but hardly a popular girl. Hmm.  How shall I put it? I was a geek. A geek who had rhythm and stage presence. Perhaps someone thought it would be funny if I actually made it on that float with the Homecoming Queen as a member of her court and threw my name in the hat. Whatever the reason, it didn’t make any sense to me, and to be honest it was a painful reminder of what I was not and what I would never be.

Instead of becoming a great punchline or strange photo in the yearbook, the nomination created a very awkward, difficult and sometimes tense situation at home. Why? My parents had never experienced “Homecoming”. My parents had experienced high school but that was decades prior in a country that at that time was often referred to as a third world or developing nation. As if high school isn’t tough enough, imagine going through high school trying to translate it in Korean.

“Um-mah, Ah-Bbah, (Mom and dad), would you please leave me alone and comfort me. I know this nomination is a nong-dam (joke) but there is a part of me that wants to ee-gyu (win) and there’s a part of me that knows it will never happen. Instead, come an-juh (sit) in the bleachers and wear a big ggote (corsage) with a button created out of a sah-jin (photo) of me in my poms uniform?  And then later that night you will need to snap sah-jin (pictures) of me and my nahm-ja-ching-goo (date) and my ching-go (friends) and their nahm-ja-ching-goos (dates) as we head out, this time I’m wearing the ggote (corsage), to juh-nyuk (dinner) and then a dance with a boy who calls me “Kate”. Oh, and did I mention that during the week leading up to your time in the bleachers and mine in a dress I borrowed from you, I will be gone decorating the hallways for spirit week. Oh, never mind. It’s OK. You don’t have to come.”

To the person who thought it was funny to put my name in the hat for sophomore attendant: I have almost forgiven you. 

It’s homecoming weekend here. The storefronts down “Main Street” are decorated in anticipation of the festivities, complete with a parade, football game and reunions. We have to get Bethany to the beginning of the parade route early so she can “march”. She lucked out this year. Being a member of last year’s poms squad she gets to “dance” in her poms uniform, which I must say is cuter than the band uniform she wore last year. She brought the uniform home today, and all I could think of is next year when she’s in high school this weekend has the potential to look and feel so different. She’ll know it. And I will so know it.

My parents did the best they could with a 15-year-old cultural interpreter. My hope is that through our experience together defining Korean American I am a better interpreter for my children.

Chinese Eyes & Playground Prejudice

“Look, mom! Chinese eyes!”

Apparently that was the lesson of the day during recess.

Three years ago my son came home from 2nd grade and showed me how he could gently pull up the outer corner of his eyes. Duh. Chinese eyes.

I didn’t want to alarm him or make him feel like he was a bad kid, but I didn’t want him running around pulling his eyes back for obvious reasons. What I was able to gather was that a kid on the playground came up to Corban and said, “Hey, this is what Chinese eyes look like.”

Corban, who at the tender age of 7, understood he was Korean American but he associated that more with some of the customs we keep, our Korean names, the food and the language. He figured that he was learning something new about the Chinese, and thought his classmate was sharing fact. 

“Mom, did you see? I made myself Chinese,” he said with his one-dimple smile.

I wrote in my journal:

“I need more manuals for this kind of stuff.”

So what would you have said if your child or a child you know came up and proudly showed off her/his newly acquired skills?

I remember walking into my new 2nd grade class. We had recently moved from the north side of Chicago to the northwest suburbs. As far as I was concerned we had moved to Mars. 

Miss Thompson did her best to welcome me, but the real welcome came in the bathroom. “Amanda” came up to me and asked me what was wrong with my eyes and nose.

It was an honest question with no ill-intent, just like Corban’s re-enactment of what he had experienced on the playground. Amanda had never encountered an Asian American, and I had never encountered someone that weird. We were best friends that year.

But when you get beyond the playground, say, in your 20s, 30s or not quite 40s, it’s not quite that simple is it? Or is it?

My youngest is in second grade. I wonder what lessons Elias will bring home from the playground this year…

Does PG-13 really mean 10?

My parents didn’t know half the stuff I was up to.

They did their best with their limited understanding of American culture and pop-culture. They emphasized academics, gave room for creative endeavors so long as those never translated into actual vocational aspirations, and Korean culture and language. They left the “don’t drink or do drugs” conversations to the schools and the youth group pastor. They never talked to me about sex, but they did leave a few books strategically hidden in their bookshelves that I’m convinced they had to know my sister and I would accidentally find.

They didn’t ban certain types of movies because I just don’t think they had the time to worry about that. They were trying to get to the American dream and for the most part my sister and I stayed out of the kind of trouble their radar would pick up.

But times change, as my parents learned with each grandchild and things like the Diaper Genie, seatbelt laws and strollers that required an engineering degree to fold and unfold.

I am the mom of a teenager and in a few days two tweens. I just don’t think having to wait to wear make-up or wait to play “T” video games or wait to see PG-13 movies is going to be the reason my kids need counseling later. There are so many things “out there” that I can’t control, but the few things I can I want to…wisely.

Do they have to grow up so fast? Real life is hard enough without speeding through the easier, carefree parts. I don’t want to be their best buddy. I want to be their mom, and sometimes that means being the heavy. Right?

We have rules and guidelines. Our stand was that the kids would not see PG-13 movies until they were at least 13. It seemed like an easy way out. We figured that by the time our oldest child was 13 we would have had “THE TALK” and allowing the chance to go see those PG-13 movies with friends would open up opportunities to talk later about language, innuendo, and values (YOU DON’T NEED A BOY/MAN TO MAKE YOU HAPPY OR AFFIRM YOU).

It has actually become more of an issue with our boys because we’re finding so many PG-13 movies are being marketed to boys – movies based on toys, super heroes, etc. Peter wanted to introduce the Star Wars series early for our boys so that meant bending the rule (and opening what I predicted was a can of worms – my blog so I get to say, “I TOLD YOU SO!”) We would either pre-screen the movie (a huge sacrifice on our part since Peter and I enjoy watching movies) or wait for the dvd and watch the movie together to pause & fast-forward through the inappropriate parts.

The other night our boys came home early from a party because they were going to be watching a PG-13 movie. The host parents were very gracious, honored our choices, and did exactly what we hoped for. Corban was angry, and all I could do in that moment of his anger was to hold him, tell him it was OK to be angry, and ask him, “Corban, don’t try to grow up too fast, OK?”

I know not all of you are parents, but some of you are. Some of you are teachers. Some of you are “aunties and uncles” to many kids, maybe even mine. But all of you are out there engaging and interacting with current culture. What have you done to protect the kids in your lives from the things you can protect them from? What have you allowed, against your better judgment, and found that perhaps your judgment was off? What are the things you aren’t going budge on?

Help.

Sunday? Sabbath?

“Mom, can we take a break from church because I want to do something as a family for a day…like play outside?”

Elias apparently noticed that the sun is out this morning. My kids need some vitamin D after last week’s wave of clouds and rain. He wants to spend the day relaxing and resting…and even at his age he’s wrestling with something I’ve been wrestling with for years.

Sometimes our Sundays do not feel like a Sabbath. Sometimes going to church does not feel restful or restorative or even worshipful. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it. There. I said it. I’m struggling with identifying how big of a space “going to church” is supposed to take in my life. If going to church does not equal a Sabbath, what is the proper equation?

I grew up going to church. Even on family vacations my parents would try to find a local church to attend. During one of our week-long road-trips to see and appreciate the expanse of land known as AMERICA my father found a small countryside chapel. The pastor was the only one there, and my father explained in his choppy but not broken English that we were on vacation and couldn’t be at our home church. Could we pray and sing a hymn or two as a family here in these pews? I seem to remember the pastor joining us for the singing…

When Peter and I were in the painful process of leaving our home church of 10+ years, we did what we Christians call “church-shopping” which for me is a lot like bathing suit shopping – something I feel I must do but cringe at my self-loathing, over-critical, never-satisfied self. We church-shopped because we couldn’t imagine not going to church because that is what we were supposed to do, expected to do and wanted to do. We felt lost without that Sunday morning anchor, but somewhere along the line we gave ourselves permission to take a break and worship God together as a family by going to experience the Doctors Without Borders exhibit, by taking Sunday to prepare our vegetable garden, by meeting the neighbors and sharing a meal with them.

And then we “found” a church. And on this sunny Sunday, my youngest son is asking, “Can we take a break?”

So for those of you who are Christians, do you go to church? Why or why not? Do any of you practice the Sabbath? If so how?

The Stigma of Suicide

Aquan Lewis was found hanging in a bathroom stall at his elementary school. He was 10 years old.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide, but Lewis’ mother, Angel Marshall, openly shared her disbelief and distrust of the ruling.

“My baby did not kill himself,” she said. “You all need to get in that school and look at that stall.”

A police investigation into Lewis’ death continues, but the local news coverage is now focusing on the broader issue of suicide. The front page of the newspaper, countless websites, the news radio programs, afternoon news – suicide spoken of out loud in the same segment as the economy and weather. Does that mean the stigma is gone or is it something else?

As a campus minister, I have walked staff and students through two suicides. The first one was a freshman I vaguely remembered meeting at a new student week event. I got the call in the middle of the night from a frantic student leader. The second one was an upperclassman I did not know. I was out of town at a staff training event (ironically being trained for a new job supervising staff teams) when I was quietly pulled out of a meeting and given the news.

As an adult suicide has touched me several times, but only once was I told up front what had happened. A college friend had gone home for break and did not come back to campus. She had hung herself, perhaps in an attempt to silence the darkness that she had been fighting for sometime.

The other two times were just family deaths until years later when the secret of suicide emerged. A family member who had died decades before I was born died in the midst of familial turmoil, but it was never clear how this person had died. I once heard someone come close. “— died because — was so sad. — died because of the sadness.” It was almost as if the cause of death could be erased the demons would never come back.

Decades later those demons did come back. This time involving the other side of my immediate family. I was simply told that this relative, who was years younger than I, died. No other explanation given despite my obvious question – “How did — die?”

I was pregnant at the time, and I later learned that relatives were concerned that telling me this person had died of suicide would lead to either problems in my pregnancy or somehow adversely affect my child. You see, there are cultural taboos and then there are cultural taboos. There’s eating and drinking cold things after birth taboos and then there are the taboos that follow through the generations. The problem with hiding those family stories and addressing the taboos straight on is that we never really know what we’re running from and where we need to run to. 

I started thinking about my family’s relationship and understanding of suicide because the story of a 10-year-old boy’s suicide reminded me that suicide is never expected. It never makes perfect sense, if any sense at all. Yes, my family members may have struggled with undiagnosed depression. Yes, there might have been “signs” and “cries for help”. But at the end of the day those things never neatly lead us to think “Yes, that makes sense.”

The story also reminded me that those who have come closer to suicide than others in some strange way carry a responsibility to break the stigma around suicide, to continue breaking down the cultural barriers to openly talking about death and depression and how the two really can come together. One day I imagine it would be important for me and my sister and my parents and my children to sit down and talk about how depression runs in the family. About how I struggled with thoughts of suicide. About I feared depression was rearing its ugly head in my own children. About how we’ve sought both prayer and counseling therapy. About how the only taboo is believing that not acknowledging suicide will erase it from existence.

So as I glance at the clock and head out to pick up my young boys from school I’m saying a prayer for Angel Marshall and her son’s family and friends. I don’t know what the death investigation will turn up, but hopefully it’s gotten some people talking about suicide and bringing to light that which cannot remain in the dark.

Have any of you been affected by suicide? How have you (or your families) talked about suicide (or not talked about it)? Does a stigma remain on suicide? depression? mental illness? And how does faith or religious beliefs help or cloud the issue?

There are a number of good resources out there, but one I’ve used over and over is Grieving a Suicide by Albert Y. Hsu.

“…I didn’t do enough…”

I feel the weight of familial guilt, shame and expectations heavily. The older daughter married to a first-born son can’t get away with “I don’t feel like it” or “I can’t fit that into my schedule”. I try. Believe me. I try. But the danger of living a bicultural existence relatively detached on a daily basis from the direct implication of said existence is that I begin to think I am the only one in my family who feels the weight. I may think and experience life a bit differently but most mornings when I rushing out the door to work or to drop the kids off, life is less bicultural and more chaotic.

Anyway, the other day I was on the phone with my mother talking about my grandmother. She is 86 and still lives on her own. As one who has helped care for an aging parent, I was trying to sensitively give my mother advice on how to best care for her mother. About two minutes into the conversation I remembered there really is no culturally sensitive way to give one’s own mother advice (if any of you have figured it out, please let me know…).

Instead I tried to listen, but I was so sad and disturbed at the weight of the guilt my mother carried that I wanted to hang up the phone lest the weight take me down too. My mother was wondering out loud why her own mother is choosing not to move closer to her adult children, and after she had run out of what seemed to be the most logical and legitimate reasons (grandma likes her independence, she doesn’t want to leave her friends, etc,) my mother went “there”.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to move in with me because I didn’t do enough for her. Maybe she doesn’t think I will really take care of her,” mom said.

One of the things I find most difficult about adulthood is navigating the cultural divide with my parents. As a child/teenager/young adult my response was often one of detachment or simple resentment. “They don’t understand” was the path of least mental and emotional resistance. The older I get the more I begin to understand and appreciate that they understand as much as they can given the circumstances. They have spent their lives as parents bending in an attempt to understand America and its culture and trying to bend their lives to fit and be “American” enough for their neighbors, coworkers, children. My guess is that they understand my bicultural journey more than I know.

What I still don’t know is how best to respond when my mother goes “there” with her guilt and expectations.