What Are You Worth?

No one likes to talk about money.

I mean we/I like to talk about it in the abstract. We can talk about it in terms of statistics (Women’s Equal Pay Day) or generalities (tax brackets) but there is a degree of taboo in talking about the nitty gritty. Because of what I do (work for a religious non-profit where I raise my entire salary through donations) many of my donors know about how much I could make and some ask how much I actually make.

Raising your own salary does a number on your soul. Some of it is messy in a “I know this is holy work” way and some of it is just plain gross. When people decline to give or stop giving to my support, I’m not supposed to take it personally but sometimes I do. I’m supposed to trust that it’s all in God’s hands. Some days I believe that. Some days I don’t because the bills are in my hands. There are also other layers because of gender and culture. If you grew up in the Church, think of the missionary families you or your church has supported. My husband is not the one called to vocational ministry; I am. Now, who supports the family? See? Layers.

I think many of us have a complicated relationship with money and how it isn’t supposed to be everything but we know it’s something. As Christians we are taught that we can’t have two masters, but personally the interpretation and application of that gets even messier when we remember America’s sinful relationship with slavery, mastery, and money – the Church included. As the child of immigrants, money was a means to stability and safety in a way I could not fully understand as a child. I can still sense that tenuous relationship between faith and security when my parents express their disappointment in how little my job currently pays. I have to actively remind myself they aren’t disappointed with me. They are disappointed in a system that doesn’t pay me what they think I am worth.

Which has gotten me thinking about my side-gig. I am a writer and speaker, and I often get paid for those opportunities because they are also jobs. It is work to write and/or speak/guest preach/present/teach/train. More often than not, I get paid very little or am asked to do it for free.

Corporate trainers, corporate editors, pastors, teachers all get paid. It’s fairly easy with a few keystrokes to find out the salary range in the school district my children attend. I can ask friends what their churches pay their pastors. My friends who are in the hiring loop in the business sector openly share starting salary ranges.

It’s a little more awkward in the Christian speakers circuit. Yes, there is a circuit -many circuits that overlap, run parallel, etc. And it’s a business, which is weird because it is also ministry and vocation and calling and all sorts of spiritual terms that make it that much more difficult to talk about MONEY.

So, I am going to do something awkward. I’m going to talk about money. My money. (This is where I am getting ready to duck and to read/hear comments about how I should be grateful, how that is too much, how nice it would be to make that kind of money, etc. Deep breath.)

I have already heard all of those things. I am tired of being asked to do what I do for free because it’s ministry, because I am a woman and not the one supporting my family, because it’s for a good cause, or because it’s a great opportunity to increase my platform. I have been told that my going rate is too high, that I should take what is offered, that organizers were surprised I would ask for money, that I am not well-known enough to have a rate, etc.

My going rate for a day is $1500 plus travel, lodging, meals. I fly coach. I will drink instant coffee. I don’t have to check in luggage. I won’t, however, guarantee I will be wearing something with a waistband, a collar, or pockets (male sound people often don’t know what to do with me).

I have never received my going rate. And in conversations with many other WOC who do what I do, we often are grossly underpaid.

YES, I KNOW THAT MANY PEOPLE ARE GROSSLY UNDERPAID. That is not my point. I am talking about Christian POC and specifically WOC who are being asked to lead, preach, speak, train, etc. and are being asked to work, to do what our white Christian counterparts can’t do, but not being paid for it and being told to be grateful.

I have been in vocational ministry for almost 20 years. I oversaw ministry involving 300+ students at a Big Ten university. My writing credits include a book, two devotionals, a contribution to a monograph, and five years of bylines as a newspaper reporter. As a 1.5 generation Korean American immigrant now in the sandwich generation who paid her and her husband’s student loans off so that we could now take on parent loans for our oldest child my lived experience may actually more “universal” than many white speakers.

Now, I set my initial going rate several years ago at $1,000/day at the advice of a mentor – an older, very learned, seminary professor, theologian, international speaker-type. He recommended no less because it isn’t just about the talk I’m being asked to give. He reminded me that it is my lived experience, expertise, time away from my day job and family, and preparation that needs to be considered. He told me, “Kathy, you are worth at least that per day.” He told me I might not get paid that much but that I needed to decide how much my time was worth. He also was honest and told me that as a woman of color I couldn’t be “good” like most white speakers, particularly male speakers. He told me that I had to be better than good because that is the unjust reality.

I knew the part about being better than good. That message was engrained in me by my grandmother and parents. The message was always “KyoungAh, you have to be better/smarter than Americans (translation: white people) because that is the only way they will see you almost as equal.

But the dollar amount? $1,000 a day? For doing something that I actually love doing? Something I’ve been told that I am fairly good (maybe better than good) at doing?

I was speechless.

And then I started asking around and realized I am worth that. Good grief. I am worth more than that, but again a good Christian Korean American with a uterus and breasts does not talk about worth in connection to money. The message, direct and indirect, is that I should be grateful for whatever comes my way like the birds of the air. The message is that I should be grateful to speak from my unique lived experience as a Korean American woman in ministry to speak/preach/train/teach/share from that unique lens because other speakers cannot because they speak from a universal lens.

I and many, if not most, of my sisters of color who do this work are now being told by the Church our stories and perspectives are needed because they are sorely and obviously lacking but we aren’t worth the same money.

Maybe if I hired an agent my agent could do the dirty/awkward work of negotiating speakers fees. Yes, many of your beloved Christian speakers have agents and there are agencies that represent many beloved Christian speakers. Most of those speakers are white men and women. #NotAllAreWhiteChristians but many of them are, and, yes, that is changing. And, yes, I have thought about hiring an agent (so if any of you agents are out there, feel free to contact me though I have also been doing some homework).

But that isn’t the magic wand to drive change. Change will only happen when several things start happening in different spheres at the same time with enough frequency to start forcing, encouraging, inviting change particularly as the Church and Christian conferences wake up to the racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity that exists in the world is rarely reflected on the big and smaller stages, platforms, podiums, and pulpits of our Christian world.

So let me offer a few questions for conference planners, folks who invite guest speakers to preach in their churches or at the church events, etc. to consider as they invite people like me, especially as they are looking to diversify the line-up:

1. What do you pay and offer to your “big name” speakers and consider what it means to pay fairly and justly? Do you negotiate honoraria the same with all of your speakers and worship leaders?
2. Consider what is the person’s expertise and experience worth because that is also what you are investing in and paying for. Many times I get asked to speak on the difficult topics of race and faith. There is a cost to being that person. If you don’t understand that, ask other POC, particularly women of color who speak, preach, lead worship and ask them.
3. If you are inviting someone to be a guest preacher: your church’s preaching teacher’s salary/# of weeks she/he preaches = a good starting point for a guest preacher.
4. Many conferences put a lot of good time, energy, and money into pulling off a “professional” event. Are you paying your professionals accordingly? If you are inviting them to be on the main stage, aren’t they all main stage speakers? Do you think of them as equally important but not pay them equally? Why not?
5. If you lack the skills to fix a leak in your home or building, would you ask a plumber to fix your bathroom for free and tell her/him to be grateful for the opportunity and chance to build her/his reputation? Then why are you asking an entire worship team to do something you can’t do for free?

And for my dear readers who are worship leaders, writers, or speakers, what other questions or suggestions do you have for those who hire, invite, and plan these conferences?

Grief & Gratitude

Sometimes the expression of an emotion has to catch up to the spiritual disruption. Grief is a very strange, powerful, exhausting emotion, and it didn’t really hit me until I opened my mouth and said the words on the phone.

“Someone very important to me died this morning. He has been my pastor since I was 15,” I said, requesting to be excused from a retreat I was to have attended addressing the connection between body and soul.

How appropriate that in finally saying the words I burst out in tears over the home-going of Rev. Robert D. Goette, good and faithful servant, pastor, husband, father, son, brother, uncle, spiritual father, lover of peanut butter, Bears fan married to a Packers fan, church planter, evangelist, leader, and friend.

Someone said Robert may now find himself bored because there is no one in heaven to share the Good News of Jesus with, but he is healed from the ALS that took him physically away from his family and friends bit by bit over the past 5 1/2 years. He lived longer than doctors initially expected, but that’s Robert.

Robert was a missionary kid to parents called to South Korea. By the time I met him (I was in high school) he was gathering groups of Asian American kids in the Chicago suburbs – mostly but not exclusively Korean Americans – for Bible study and fellowship. He and sometimes a few volunteers would pick up these kids to meet in the basement of a family’s home and meet Jesus in the form of a tall, lanky, blonde, soft-spoken white dude. Yes, Jesus was white in those years but strangely Korean because of his missionary kid experience. Robert had a unique perspective on and personal connection with the spiritual formation of Korean American children and youth – children of Korean immigrants caught somewhere between being the first and second generation in the U.S. also known as the 1.5 generation.

Me.

Robert understood that a generation of kids were growing up in the abundance of America with parents who had just experienced the aftermath of a war – the Korean War – and the political and social turmoil that followed. Robert knew that the language and cultural gaps  would widen, that Western churches were ill-equipped to welcome us (they were happy to rent their spaces so long as we didn’t smell them up too much with our food, which really was superior to donuts and coffee IMHO), and that Korean churches would lose us because of the very gaps caused by chasing the American Dream.

Korean pastors thought he was stealing sheep even though most of us sheep weren’t thrilled to sit in the pews listening to pastors preaching in Korean, couldn’t (or didn’t want to or were never invited to) go to the white church youth groups, or weren’t going to church at all. And I have no idea what his white pastor-peers were thinking as he slowly built the foundation of a church with a bunch of junior high and high school kids.

Surely some people thought he was crazy because junior high and high school kids are not the group church planters are going after. That is not the demographic strategic, trained church planters necessarily go after when dreaming of a strong core. Kids are flaky and unreliable. We don’t have an income let alone our own modes of transportation. We bring and create drama (we were K-drama before it was a thing). We are immature in ways our non-Korean peers were not because we also did not have parents who understood America.

Yup. Robert was crazy.

I’m so grateful Robert was crazy. His investment in my spiritual formation and the formation of a generation of Korean American kids is immense. He understood that my experience as a Korean American child of immigrants was going to mean life and a journey with God would have different turns and curves and bumps and that I would need a place with peers who spoke and understood my heart language – not Korean, necessarily, but a way of understanding and connecting and expressing what our non-Korean American peers could not understand, would never experience, but at some point would benefit from our articulation and expression of it. Robert knew the Kingdom of God needed my generation before most of us cared, and his faithfulness in investing, discipling, mentoring, pastoring, and evangelizing…well, even though it had been a long time since Robert could speak on his own I knew he was still Robert. Even when he ceased to be the senior pastor at Grace Baptist and then Grace Community Church. Even when Peter and I left the church. Even as we stopped seeing Robert and Julie, his wife, on any basis. Even as ALS took away more than Robert’s balance. Robert was still Robert. He was still a missionary, a church planter and trainer of planters, a husband to Julie and father to Jennifer, Emily, and Robbie.

And because Robert was faithful I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Before I knew what ethnic-specific ministry was, Robert and those who believe in Robert did it. They invested in a bunch of kids who grew up to become doctors, lawyers, pastors, investment bankers, traders, and designers. He followed us to Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago – Circle Campus; bible studies on those campuses eventually became Asian American Christian Fellowship chapters connected to JEMS – Japanese Evangelical Missions Society and then later affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Yes, the very organization I work with. See?

There is so much to be thankful for, so much to remember.

Grief is a very strange and powerful emotion. I’m looking forward to being on the other side of it someday.

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Robert was one of three pastors we had presiding at our wedding. He also was the only one who spoke in English, the only one Peter could understand, and the only one who knew me. Robert didn’t mind being one of three. He understood the Korean family/church politics involved in planning the wedding of two firstborns and the son of founding elders of a church. Peter and I have been married 22 years, and we still remember the gist of what Robert said to us about respecting and cherishing each other.

Hearing and Speaking “Ching Chong”

I am always a bit stunned and saddened to hear children speak Ching Chong, especially when they do it in the presence of their parents without fear of being corrected or stopped.

The other day as we were trying to enjoy a windy 65-degree day at the beach we could not but overhear three families sitting in front of us discuss the uselessness of spending time to learn a second language. As if on cue, one of the kids started in on the Ching Chong with at least one other child and one adult chiming in. Gotta love those everyday racist experiences.

I cannot tell you how tired I am of having to bite my tongue when really what I want to do is approach the offending parties and explain to them how ignorant, short-sighted, and limiting their attitudes and action actually are. I sat there, staring at my husband while practicing mindful breathing when in reality I wanted to say as they passed by, “Oh, how good you Engirsh and Ching Chong speak. Almost perfect for Haole like you. Welcome to America.”

As you can see, I need Jesus because I have practiced this conversation for too long.

The irony is that language immersion programs and second language programs are growing because America continues to slip behind not only in math and sciences but also in its ability to train multicultural, multilingual skilled workers.

The irony is that I grew up bilingual, lost much of my Korean language skills as I immersed myself in my academics, learned enough Spanish to help my kids through high school Spanish, and hated the way my parents spoke English with an accent when I was younger.

It was bad enough that I looked so weird compared to the beautiful, popular girls at school and church. It was hard knowing that my home smelled weird because of the pickled, fermented cabbage and radishes and that I probably smelled weird, too. It was humiliating and terrifying to walk home, ride the bus, walk the halls knowing that there were boys and girls who threatened to beat me up, screamed obscenities at me, and made elementary school worse than it needed to.

I loved and hated being who I was. I fiercely loved and hated my parents for their broken English and flawless Korean. And I didn’t understand until at least a decade later that regardless of the Ching Chong American kids would use to taunt me and my family it was our very ability to speak in two languages interchangeably that put us squarely in the lead of the American dream.

My parents may speak with an accent but they speak two languages. Ching Chong be damned.

But like I said, I need Jesus.

I don’t need the American dream as much as I have needed to plunge into the pain of being an outsider and embrace my multifaceted identity as a Christian Asian American/Korean American working married mother of three in the suburbs as a gift to steward not for revenge or self-righteousness but for Kingdom purposes. I have continued to appreciate the gift of language(s) and culture, and while I struggle with the anger that too quickly bubbles up inside at the Ching Chong comments I also quickly fall into a deep sadness for those who do not see the diversity and beauty of all God’s people.

There is such a limited view of God if we only know Him through the eyes of one language, one culture. Just like meaning gets lost in the translation between languages, no single culture or language can fully express, explain, proclaim the fullness of who God is and what the Gospel is. We can get a glimpse, even a blurry yet beautiful picture but it’s not complete.

So I must also correct my image of those families, children and adults who think speaking Ching Chong is funny and harmless. They are not my enemies. They are the neighbors I am called to love, and if they can’t speak my language I must learn to speak theirs. Sigh. Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor.

Which leads me back to those families on the beach. They are back today. Pray with me that my scowl softens and that maybe a day at the beach will be the perfect opportunity for me to stretch my multilingual skills.

Grief Takes Form

ribbons of mourning

My father-in-law died on Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection on Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection.

The morning he died I read out of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. I chose passage about God knowing and choosing to live into human suffering, how the resurrected Christ invited Thomas to touch his nail-pierced hands. I don’t know what it is to suffer the failing health and body of 87 years, but Jesus does, and that is what I whispered in my father-in-law’s ear. My only regret was that I couldn’t translate the reading into Korean, forever the Korean daughter-in-law.

Four hours later he took his last breaths, and the family moved into a fog of grief, guilty relief, sadness, memories, cultural expectations, and uncertainty about the future.

Paul Si Kun Chang, 87, lived with us for 7 months in 2006. He moved in with us days after my mother-in-law died. Friends of hers thought I wept because I felt guilty for not doing enough as a daughter-in-law. Little did they know I wept because I knew what was coming, and I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be that kind of Korean daughter-in-law.

My father-in-law had many moments worthy of a K-drama. He and I argued over the sheer amount of stuff he wanted to move into his room and into my house. The four-drawer, heavy-duty file cabinet and pleather recliner sent me over the edge. He would come into my office and ask to be served lunch. My favorite was when he looked at his plate of spaghetti (the kids had begged for “American” food after weeks of Korean food), and he told me he wasn’t going to eat it for dinner.

But we had many more moments as he mourned and tried to find his way out of the sadness while living in the company of a family of five on the move. He trimmed the bushes, rinsed out the garbage cans, tried to teach my boys how to swing a golf club, and he shared with me bits and pieces of his story – how he longed for his mother when he saw me love on my kids, how excited he was to receive confirmation of his arranged marriage, and how he couldn’t believe a poor Korean could live such an incredible life as an American.

Stories all spoken to me in Korean, usually when I served him a traditional Korean meal for lunch or dinner.

My grief is not that of a daughter; my memories of our relationship only go as far back as my relationship with Peter. My grief feels distinctly that of a Korean American daughter-in-law – “myu-noo-lree”. My father-in-law did not first meet me as a newborn; he met me at my prime grandson-bearing years. We both saw and knew each other in relationship to our cultural roles.

It took almost 20 years for us to trust each other with our own stories of faith and suffering and hope. That’s why it made sense to read a Lenten devotional to him on Ash Wednesday while wishing I could have done it in Korean. That was the link that helped us understand each other in ways his son and my husband could not.

Death and all of the preparations were a whirlwind until I sat down with the black ribbon to wrap around his portrait and then the white ribbon to make the traditional symbols of mourning the surviving children and grandchildren would wear.

Grief, remembrance and reflection did not begin with ashes this year. It took form in white bows.

 

Rice Pudding and Other Cross-cultural Adventures as an Outsider

I eat a lot of rice – white, brown, sweet, wild, steamed, fried, with Spam, and with kimchee. It’s “just” rice, rice cakes, rice noodles, rice crackers, rice porridge. When I buy rice it is not in a box. It is in a 20# bag, which I empty into my rice dispenser. The rice cooker (mine plays a song) takes up precious countertop, right next to the toaster oven and the coffee grinder. I have spoons for serving rice.

But until Sunday I had never had rice pudding, and I didn’t know you could eat it with lingonberries. The occasion was my church’s 35th anniversary. My family has been there for at least 5 of those years. The festive, celebratory mood was obvious, and knowing that my church has been such a key place for so many throughout the years continues to give me hope that I too will feel a deeper sense of belonging in the years to come.

But I get impatient, and I get cranky. And I wonder if it’s OK that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week for Christians because on Sunday I really felt like the best I could do was eat and leave. I had to ask what “that dish” was, which I learned was rice pudding. I recognized the salmon and the ham & rolls. Thanks to my mom’s days at Motorola I recognized versions of broccoli salad and jello salad. And thanks to Ikea my boys and I recognized the meatballs and lingonberry as well as the blue and yellow. I felt like a guest at my own church.

I’ve been told by others that I am not alone, and that it takes time. But when you are in the moment(s), time is not what I want to give.

It was a homecoming for many, but it was another cross-cultural adventure for me. I felt so outside inside of my own church, and I am still wrestling with how I as a regular attender can engage well when on most Sundays my family and I stand out.  Our traditions are not part of the present or the past, and we are still trying to find our way to places to impact the present and future. I don’t want to get rid of the rice pudding or meatballs, but I really do think potstickers and seaweed would go well with the salmon.

Because it is in the breaking of bread (or breaking out the rice in its many versions) and in the act of fellowship amongst sisters and brothers in faith we should find that the differences matter because there is space to delight in the variety, creativity and abundance that is from God. Look around. God doesn’t paint all the leaves one shade yellow. Our differences don’t define us; our Creator does.

But that’s easy to say when no one is there to point out the differences and say “we celebrate God’s goodness this way, with this food, with these people”. At the last church we were a part of, we wrestled with the same issue. The church was started specifically for second-generation Korean American youth who were growing up in immigrant, Korean-speaking churches. (And if that doesn’t make any sense to you, please ask for a longer explanation because I would welcome that.) The youth grew up, got married to Koreans and non-Koreans. We had children. We celebrated milestones with kimbap, Korean-style wings, jjap-chae, and dduk. And we assumed everyone would know what it all was and would enjoy it because that is how we all celebrate. And we were wrong.

And so I take a deep breath and discover that rice pudding is OK (better with the lingonberries) though I prefer rice cakes or the meatballs. Because the idea of creating an inviting and welcoming space isn’t limited to Sundays and a church.

Learning & Leaving – Reflections after reading “Honoring the Generations:Learning with Asian North American Congregations”

One of the earliest photographs taken of me and my parents is of the three of us in front of Chicago’s First Korean United Methodist Church. I grew up in the Korean/Korean-American immigrant church. It was at church where I took Korean language classes. Where I learned Korean folk dancing. Where we spent many Christmas Eves waiting for Korean Santa to show up while many of us were dressed in our Korean dresses and Sunday best, and where we spent New Year’s Eves to the smells of rice cake soup and the sounds of four wooden sticks being thrown up in the air in a lively game of yoot. Where I learned to say the Lord’s Prayer in Korean before I knew it in English. Where I learned to sing hymns and read the liturgy in Korean before I would learn the meaning behind the words.

But also learned about leaving. Elders’ meetings going on for-e-vah. Phonecalls. More meetings. Angry words. More angry words. Churches splitting, leaders resigning, families leaving.

My husband and I left the Asian American church about seven years ago after a series of cultural and generational differences that lead to our decision to bless the mission of that particular church by leaving it. The decision was one of the most difficult and painful to make because it pulled at our identity as a Christian Korean-American family longing to integrate the very best of what we had gained from our immigrant church experience into our “grown-up” lives.

Every now and then the Asian American church pulls at something, tugs at my heart, hits a nerve just under the surface. I wonder what, if anything, my three children are missing out on by not being a part of an Asian American church and youth group. I wonder how different my circle of friends would look like if we were still a part of an Asian American church, how our Sunday afternoons would be spent, and what a small group Bible study would be like.

And then that wonder turns into a hint of longing for what was once familiar, and that is exactly what happened for me as I read Honoring the Generations:Learning with Asian North American Congregations (M. Sydney Park, Soong-Chan Rah, and Al Tizon, editors; Judson Press 2012).

The stories of cultural and generational conflict and misunderstandings resonated deeply with me. I found myself nodding not to sleep but in agreement and affirmation, as if my nod would be felt by the authors and collaborators. Our ANA church history (is your church an art museum or a hospital? p.88) is important to understand and know, not just for those of us who lived and live it but for all in the Church. I found myself nodding because even when I wanted more (would it surprise you if I said I wanted more from chapter 6 on women and men leading together?) I hoped that non ANA church leaders would pick up the book and learn.

Some of the chapters provide more concrete steps for ministry practitioners to take to help move ANA ministry forward. Others leave more space and ambiguity. My personal preference tends to want more concrete steps – something I can either agree with and implement or something I can disagree with and move on.

The book is divided into two main sections covering the ANA church from a generational perspective and a ministry issue/strategy perspective. Each chapter covers a different topic, and each chapter is written by a pair of authors who are using information and stories gathered from a group of ministry practitioners and scholars. In true Asian American form, collaboration takes the lead in shaping this book.

Readers may find this approach, this collaborative voice, both informative and frustrating. If you’re not familiar with the ANA church the stories will be new and informative, and they may be frustrating because they don’t fit in your paradigm and experience. Creating new categories aren’t easy when they are someone else’s story, particularly someone else you may have considered as “White” as Asian Americans have often been seen by the majority culture.

But for me it was like singing a hymn in Korean. It tugs at my heart because the hard memories continue to soften with time, and there is a longing to continue learning despite having left.

Full disclosure: I received an e-copy of the book for free from the publisher post-release to read and review for my blog.

Thoughts on Leadership While the Nail Polish Dries

I love nail polish. It’s a low-commitment, low-cost vanity/beauty splurge that when used properly forces me to slow down and not do a whole lot. Which is why I am typing slowly and not moving my feet right now – pink on the toes and a french mani.

And when life slows I can breathe, pray, think and reflect.

Tonight I’m thinking a lot about leadership – the privilege, the joys and the costs. In a matter of a week’s time I saw how God was using me to develop a new generation of leaders (Pacific Northwest Asian American InterVarsity students, YOU ARE AMAZING!) and how God was still buffing and shining the rough edges of my leadership. There were moments of fear and confidence, of joy and anger, of front-door leadership like “fill in the blank with a Biblical patriarch) and back-door influence (Ruth, Esther, Mary, the Samaritan woman, the bleeding woman, the servant girl, etc.).

All while rocking lavender nail polish (last week’s color), telling funny family stories about rice cookers and kimchee refrigerator, and wearing a bra, which apparently is still enough of a novelty that as I head into the final week before I speak on leadership fails at the Asian Pacific Islander Women’s Leadership Conference next week, I reminding myself of how important it is to remember God created me and knew me before I was even born as 1.75-gen Korean American Christian woman, let alone a wife, mother of three, writer, speaker, yoga junkie and nail polish addict.

Gender or ethnicity doesn’t trump my identity as a Christian, but they are integrated, enmeshed in blessed and God-ordained ways and in broken and needing Jesus’ redemption ways, because Christians are not meant to be eunuchs. Embodied. Gendered. Which for me means wearing a bra and the great option of many nail polish colors. My seasons or micro-seasons of leadership are acutely tied to my physical state – pregnant, post-partum, nursing, PMS, exhausted from the gift and plain old work of raising children, peri-menopausal, and all of that is tied to my gender. And my embodied, gendered life is also wrapped and engrained with the values and mores of my Korean ancestors with a clashing or enhancing palette from my American host. How can that not affect, change, impact, enhance, and challenge my ability to lead?

It does. It’s not all negative, and I’m not surprised…unless I meet and talk with someone who has never considered her/his leadership through their cultural/racial/gendered lens.

What lessons have you learned about leadership, your own and that of others as well as how you are perceived and how you perceive others? Need some time to think? Do your nails.

 

 

A Case of “The Others” – Asian-owned Businesses in Black Neighborhoods

Why are so many dry cleaners owned by Koreans?

Why are so many nail shops owned by Thai or Vietnamese?

Why are so many donut shops/convenience shops owned by Indians?

Why do Asians and Asian Americans own businesses in Black neighborhoods?

Why are they taking our money?

Why are foreigners who don’t speak our language and disrespect us take our money out of our communities?

Are these stereotypes or archetypes?

I’ve heard all of those questions posed in various ways, most recently from Marion Barry, former mayor of D.C. and recent victorious incumbent in Democratic primary race for the D.C. council seat he has held since 2005. He celebrated as cameras rolled by saying,

“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

You can take a look at Barry’s twitter feed  and read the WP article to get a sense of how things unfolded. It’s typical. A politician/public figure says something offensive, people offended speak up, figure claims it’s taken out of context and apologizes (in this case Barry actually says, “I’m sorry.), tries to do what he/she should’ve done in the first place and put things into context.

But the context is complicated and entrenched in broken systems run by broken people and then communicated to the masses by more broken people (myself included) who are missing each other because, in some cases, they aren’t even talking with and being heard by one another. Creating “simple” dichotomies makes it easier – us against them, respect versus disrespect, rights and entitlements, etc.

I know this because as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee I reported this story. A Korean American owned beauty supply store in a predominantly Black neighborhood became the target of a protest. Black community leaders wanted to know why Asian store owners were rude, didn’t employ anyone from the community, didn’t contribute to the community. Store owners didn’t want to talk.

But I understood why they didn’t want to talk. Why they didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why they didn’t contribute.

My parents owned a dry cleaning business for years. My parents, who hold degrees in engineering and accounting, turned to small business ownership to help pay for college and weddings and to provide so much more. They didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why pay someone when my sister and I could work for free and my parents were willing to be there everyday (except for the two days off I remember they took for our weddings!).

A significant difference for our experience was that the dry cleaners was in the suburbs, but my parents experienced many cultural clashes in an effort to make a living and provide a service that was in demand.

Most customers were fine – pleasantries exchanged and business as usual, but there were plenty of customers who looked down on my parents as if they were uneducated foreigners. Few of them ever had to say anything because those of us who learn to be invisible, blend in, assimilate learn to read the looks, the tone, the small gestures because we learned to “speak” American even though we continue to be questioned about actually being “American”.

So I took that experience as the child of one of those Asian store owners first to my White editors and then to the Korean-American beauty supply store owners. The readers, the editors, the community leaders, the store owners and I all learned from one another.

We learned that we all considered each other as “the other”. We learned about how exchanging money – one-handed, two-handed, eye contact, a nod or a look – can be rude to one and normal to another. We learned that the owners were Americans, just not American-born. We learned that there was great pain and suffering in the community, and community leaders wanted participation, not handouts. We learned about cultural differences and expectations. We learned about prejudice, misunderstandings and misinformation.

I can only hope that Barry will take the time to learn that he didn’t just offend Asian who own dirty stores but offended Americans, some of us who happen to be Asian Americans. I hope we stop to learn about the corrupt, broken and racist systems and policies that limit Black entrepreneurship.

I hope we learn that life is more than Black and White and that we all need to develop cross-cultural competencies. All of us.

Yoga, Praise Nights, Harvest Celebrations, Christmas Trees and Easter Eggs

Every now and then on late-night television a commercial for Time Life music collections sends me back into the 70s, 80s or 90s. Or the commercial makes me want to plan a romantic night with my husband or remind me of how I drowned in relationship (or non-relationship) drama in my youth as the commercial hawks a collection of love songs. But the one commercial that wigs me out the most was the one for Christian worship songs. (This is the newer version. The older version was shorter but weirder, IMO.) The shots panning the homogenous crowd, eyes shut, arms raised high, waving and swaying while the band/worship team/song leader belts out lyrics about the “blood of Jesus” or “the lamb that was slain”.

Do I look like that when I’m blissed out for Jesus in church? (Not at my current church.) Do we Christians really look like that when we are “worshipping”? Do we really look like we are at a rock concert but instead of lighters we wave little candles that are recycled for use at prayer vigils and Christmas Eve?

It’s weird. But so is dressing up like a superhero and knocking on stranger’s doors asking for candy. Or putting up a plastic tree and decorating it with more plastic and synthetic materials so that we can put piles of presents underneath it. And then break out a birthday cake for Jesus. Or filling up plastic eggs with candy and spreading them out on the lawn and having masses of children collect them, grab them. hoard them like they’ve never seen so much candy (except when they saw that much candy on Halloween).

What makes one tradition “Christian” and another “not Christian”?  Why do some Christians think it’s OK to put up a Christmas tree but not OK to go trick-or-treating? Is it the Star of David ornament we put up on top of the tree that makes it OK even though historians can connect evergreens and the use of them in non-Christian traditions? Is dressing up in costume OK and getting free candy OK so long as you don’t go door-to-door but you go to the big church in town? Is beating up on another man OK so long as you are a Christian and you let everyone know God is on your side but practicing yoga is not because it is demonic? Is it OK that my sons are second- and first-degree black belts in an ancient Eastern martial art and my daughter dances to pop music? And if it isn’t then would it be OK if my sons started watching Christian MMA and my daughter danced to Christian contemporary music?

Sometimes I don’t get my own people, which is nothing new since I am still “getting” myself.

Perhaps its the blessing of growing up tri-cultural – Korean, American and then Christian Korean American. Growing up we adopted many “American” traditions – Halloween, Sweet Sixteen celebrations and  my personal favorite, the “I’m 18 so I am an adult” tradition. We also held onto many Korean traditions – bowing to our elders on New Year’s Day and eating very yummy rice cake soup and celebrating the first 100 days of our children’s lives. And then things become a “new and improved” version of both – having our children participate in the dol-jan-chi or fortune telling on their first birthdays (with a pastor to pray for the meal), having Santa come at our Korean immigrant church Christmas Eve services (our Santa was Korean, why isn’t yours?), having a big fat Korean American wedding where a cavalcade of pastors bless the married couple who wear both the Western wedding attire and then switch into Korean wedding attire and perform a blessing and fertility ceremony.

Now that I think of it, Christian Korean Americans might be dancing with the devil. Maybe we should stick to having dollar dances and throwing bouquets and garter belts.

There is a constant ebb and flow to our adaptation of culture and faith and practices that embrace and honor both but ultimately requires wisdom, discernment and a good dose of Christ’s humility and love. If I avoided everything, every situation, every topic that the Western Church deemed unChristian I’m not sure I could remain in this world but not of it.

Where have you drawn the line?

Dear NPR & Maureen Corrigan: What the Frak is Kimchee-scented Kleenex Fiction?

Dear NPR & Maureen Corrigan,

What the frak is “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction”? What does that phrase even mean?

Were you trying to be funny? (Fail.)

Were you trying to let listeners and readers know you “know” Koreans? (Fail.)

Were you trying to be clever and/or charm us with your use of alliteration? (Fail.)

And why, after a week of comments on the NPR website  where you take Kyung-sook Shin’s novel “Please Look After Mom” to task, has there not been a response from NPR or from you, Ms. Corrigan? Surely you would want to explain yourself and this misunderstanding. After all, you are just a critic who didn’t like the book, which you pointed out has sold 1 million copies in the author’s native South Korea and is set to hit the shelves in 22 other countries. Your opinion is just one of a million, and clearly no one at Knopf asked your opinion before claiming the U.S. rights to the translated version so I’m certain you would be sorry if you offended anyone even though that was not your intention. I’m sure of it.

So why not just come out and say it? You could probably cut and paste or adapt a version of the standard non-apology.

Or maybe you or NPR could come clean and and apologize because Ms. Corrigan your review did offend and continues to offend real people – not the fictional characters you clearly did not connect with in the novel. Some of us are actually American readers, by the way, who might even be able to bridge what appears to be a cultural gaping hole in your understanding of Korean/East Asian mother guilt, family values and shame even as you poo-poo the novel as “Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction”.

You offend those of us “ladies” in book clubs all across America (I’m in two of those book clubs of American readers, btw) who read all sorts of books we like and dislike and suggest or read only because it was on the book club list which is our ticket to a fun night out, and not all of us would see the message of this novel as “alien”. (Couldn’t you have phrased that better? Maybe you tried “foreign” but perhaps that was too literal or obvious?) You offend me because throughout your review you allude to your POV as “an American reader” but I am an American reader and I “get” the message and nuances of this book by reading the excerpt. I am not an American woman (whose ethnic and racial heritage I do not know) who was “indoctrinated in resolute messages about ‘boundaries’ and ‘taking responsibility’.”

I am an American reader who learned that taking responsibility meant a deep connectedness between my happiness and my mother’s, but I don’t want to wallow in the cross-cultural self-pity you describe. I am hoping you will understand that I just don’t get what you don’t get. This is a novel that you read in English but was written in Korean by a Korean woman who grew up in rural Korea and then moved to Seoul (!). The words were translated, but I’m not sure you want to do the work to understand the characters and their culture and their point of view or even get a deeper sense of the author’s voice, which is so obviously different than yours. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like “The Tender Bar” that much now that I think about it.

I can gather from your critique you are missing the things that make novels connect with its reader and thus earns its place on a bookshelf or top 100 list. Surely much in the plot and prose has been lost in translation because the words “mom” and “mother” don’t carry the same weight and meaning as the Korean words “uhm-mah”, “uh-muhn-nee” and “uh-muhn-neem”. Three words to describe the relationship between a mother and her child. Three. But you don’t get that because you, Ms. Corrigan, are an American reader as am I, but we read with different eyes, hearts and connections, and I’m trying to understand you.

So, let me ask my question in a different way.

Do you really think Korea’s Kleenex smells like kimchee? Because if you do you’re just silly.

Translation: Jung-mahl mee-chus-suh.

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