The Balancing Act

Hollywood isn’t real life, but when real life (mine and the lives of the actors) and Hollywood converge it is great fodder for thinking and conversation. Peter and I can’t stop talking about last night’s date night movie, “Up in the Air”, starring Vera Farmiga and George Clooney.

IMBD’s movie description: With a job that has him traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham leads an empty life out of a suitcase, until his company does the unexpected: ground him.

My oversimplified movie description: Ryan Bingham has a midlife crisis.

But I’m not so focused on Ryan Bingham (that’s for another post). What I am still thinking about is how I was drawn to Alex Goran, played by real-life mom and wife Vera Farmiga. Alex is a strong, confident, beautiful, sexy (but not slutty, for the most part), successful, intelligent business woman whose opening exchange with Ryan had me and Peter talking about power dynamics into the wee hours of the morning. (Peter and I really are a fun couple.)

Women have a different balancing act than men, especially in the corporate world, in terms of how they communicate through their words, body language and even the way they dress and carry their sexuality. Times are changing, but Equal Pay Day, when women finally catch up to what men earned the year before still isn’t until April 10, 2010. We’ve come a long way, but it’s still not a level playing field, which is in part why the length of the skirt, firmness of the handshake and awareness of the hair flipping matters. You  may not agree with the rules, but there are rules. Changing them means knowing them first.

As a Christian woman who works in the tension of a management position in a Christian missions organization, my concerns and thoughts on “dressing for success” can either be dismissed as being superficial and too concerned with “the world” or hijacked by important and related conversations about women’s roles, marriage and parenting (and then get into the messier conversations about whether or not a mom should get a paycheck for her work, whether or not a woman can lead other men over the age of 18, whether or not women can be women without tempting men) while ignoring the obvious truths. God gave all of us, men and women, more than one sense in which we interact with the world and, therefore, people. Sight gives us literal lenses through which we make judgments and assumptions. Hearing allows us to interpret tone and volume and pace. Even smells, touch and taste play into the ways we interact with one another and how that affects success and effectiveness. Again, understanding and awareness is not the same as agreement with said rules.

Successful women are often portrayed in both Hollywood and real life as the “byatch”. The stereotypes are easy: successful women essentially act like men but happen to have breasts or they are women who have used their breasts to gain access. Even in scripture we have to wrestle and understand the cultural norms and stereotypes of women as we interact with Ruth and Naomi, Queen Esther and even Mary the mother of Jesus along with the unnamed sinful woman and the woman at the well. When Bible teachers and trainers are asked to teach on leadership, where do they turn? I turn to those women.

I digress.

The reality is a balancing act of trying to embrace our leadership, our femininity, our voice alone and alongside men. Personally I struggle and am confused when colleagues describe me as being “motherly” and describe other male colleagues as “pastoral”. I don’t want to be overly vain and concerned about my appearance but I’m not going to pretend that my appearance doesn’t matter to others or myself.

Which is why I found Alex as a character fascinating. Alex, from what little we know, is neither a man with breasts or a “byatch”. When the younger female character Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick, is in crisis Alex listens and speaks frankly without cattiness. Alex is a woman who has, in some sense, arrived in the corporate world and in midlife, unlike the younger Natalie. Alex was a woman comfortable with her sexuality, success and choices and Natalie was still struggling to figure out what her choices would be, how she would view success and how her gender would play into those choices.

Twenty years ago I was Natalie, and I suspect I would not have resonated with the movie or the characters in the same way, which is why I say go watch “Up in the Air”. Hollywood gave me 109 minutes of entertainment and lots about reality – past, present and future – to think about.

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?

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.

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.

How Many Times Have You Sworn This Year?

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

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

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

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

The Little Voice Inside My Head

Right now my head is a bit stuffed up thanks to a cold, but the little voice inside my head usually takes no prisoners. This past weekend, however, it was not expecting such a direct confrontation.

“Why don’t you think you’re an ‘A-level’ speaker?” asked a respected colleague of mine.

The little voice inside my head was very quick on its feet and replied, “I actually don’t do a lot of teaching and preaching so I don’t get as much practice as an A-level speaker would have. I tend to ramble a bit. And, I let life hijack me and my emotions too much to bring my A-game every time.”

I’m fairly comfortable in front of a crowd, can make eye contact, etc. Larry Studt, my high school speech team coach, taught me well. I’m a good public speaker, not great. Good. At the same time, I’ve never considered putting my name in the hat to be the Bible expositor at our summer training weeks, nor have I considered myself to be of that caliber. Self-promotion is not my MO. I was raised to believe that if you are that good, someone surely will notice and advocate on your behalf. There is no need to toot your own horn if you’re that good, right?

Um. Sort of. Sometimes? Maybe? Not always?

I’ve often wondered if there is unique flavor to female self-doubt, or perhaps a unique spin to a woman’s self-confidence. I know so many strong, successful women who are often surprised when asked to consider putting their names in the hat for a promotion, a speaking gig, a leadership role. Add to that any cultural layers that explicitly or implicitly limit a women’s role and there you have a interesting combination – confident self-doubters.

My colleague later asked me what I could only presume was a rhetorical question: “Why aren’t you out there more speaking?”

There are a lot of good reasons. I’ve spent the past 14+ years having and raising three amazing children. Speaking gigs don’t always fit in between childbirth, nursing, weaning, teething, potty training, preschool, kindergarten and suddenly high school registration.

And perhaps there were a few opportunities to put myself out there and to get a little more training and experience when I let the little voice have too much space. Perhaps.

I’ve found ways to quiet and calm the little voice – mentors and trusted colleagues and friends who will give honest feedback, trying new topics and speaking in front of new audiences, and listening to my own voice.

What does the little voice inside your head stop you from doing or trying or experiencing? How, if at all, does gender or ethnicity, play into your experience of self-doubt? How have you silenced that voice of self-doubt or have you found it helpful?

This past weekend was good for my soul on so many levels, and I’m still thinking about the questions my colleague threw at me. And I’m rethinking, reconsidering how I might answer them the next time those questions come my way.

Image is Everything

Do you care about what others think of you?

I do. Sometimes I don’t care at all because I’m at the gym to get my cardio done and mascara and my version of cardio don’t mix well. Sometimes I care too much (like during junior high and high school, and when I’m around a group of people I don’t know well). Maybe it was all that great training I got in high school – poms, speech team, student council and the school newspaper. You learn about image and presenting yourself well. You learn about diction, eye contact and presence. You learn that even if you don’t care what other people think of you those people are forming opinions about you.

This weekend I’m headed off to Ohio to spend the weekend with some amazing InterVarsity students and staff to talk with and learn from one another about God, Jesus, faith, culture, ethnicity and identity. I cannot say this enough. I love my job.

We will be talking about image – what we think of ourselves and perhaps what others think of us. My hope is that we will be honest with ourselves and with one another.

So I’ll be honest. The worst part of public speaking isn’t the public speaking (even if it can feel as vulnerable as standing on stage with nothing on but your underwear). It’s packing for speaking gigs. Yup. Stupid? Yes. No. Maybe. Packing unnerves me because I want to project just the right vibe – accessible, warm, engaging, cool, but not trying-too-hard-to-be-cool cool, fashionable but not in a materialistic way, intelligent, prepared and wise but not old. That is a lot of for an outfit to do, right? And knowing that about myself makes me feel vain and foolish.

Where is the middle or appropriate ground when dealing with the way we look and present ourselves? I feel like it’s particularly dicey for women, and there additional issues for women of color. What do you worry about when it comes to your image and where or how do you draw the line?

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.