Responding to Some Sojo Love

My post Asian≠White was cross-posted at Sojourners recently, and there have been some interesting comments that have popped up.

I’m really quite new to this blogging-for-an-audience-of-more-than-20 thing, so I’m learning on the fly about comments, author engagement and such. In the meantime, I decided to keep responses here on my site so as not to confuse myself.

So, in response to some of the comments on Sojourners:

Thank you all for reading. I’ve been reading Sojourners magazine off and on for a few years, ever since my then-supervisor decided he was going to rattle his entire staff team’s faith and understanding of the gospel. Thanks, Big Guns!

@ BlueDeacon – The separation between Asian and American is one of both culture and race/ethnicity. My parents see it from language and culture, but my father often reminds me that I am not American either.

@pcnot4me – You wonder if liberals ever just enjoy life. Hmmm. I guess you’d have to ask one. My liberal friends would say I’m too conservative. My conservative friends would say I’m too liberal. All of my friends would say I do enjoy life. I have a wonderful and complicated life. I have my moments, like when squirrels took over my attic or when my child was near death. Those moments are hard to enjoy.

@facebook-1363553490 – I wonder with you. I have no idea what the question about liberals just enjoying life and the thread that followed had anything to do with my original post. However, if any of the liberals reading the post feel like they should give more to charity, please contact me. I am still raising ministry support.

@NC77 – I do not know what % of AA are Christians. According to the US Census, about 5% of the national population is AA.

@Ballfour – You had several questions. I cut and pasted your comment so readers here will know what I’m talking about.

I have a few specific questions that come to mind from your article. I was hoping you could answer these:
1. What precisely is your “ideal” when it comes down to racial integration in churches?
2. Why would that make the church “better”? (Please don’t answer “because it would be multi-cultural” as that only begs the question as to why multi-culturalism in a church setting would be better).
3. Is there any reason you did not site the thousands of Korean-Christian and/or Chinese-Christian churches in the country that perform services in their native languages and reflective of their cultures? Do you expect them to adapt to hiring “whites” and adopting more “white culture”?

Honestly, I don’t have an “ideal” in mind. My point was to ask why is 20% the threshold and how does a number translate into cultural change. There is a great follow-up interview with David Van Biema, Time magazine’s religion writer and the author of the original magazine article I was reacting to, on UrbanFaith.com explaining a little more about the numbers and why Willow Creek’s numbers are getting the love and attention of Time magazine.

I have lots of feelings all over the map about multiculturalism and how that can and should look in various contexts. I am the product of the immigrant church where there was little to no multiethnicity (except for the occasional Moody Bible student who was hired to teach Sunday School. I do not expect all churches to pursue numeric multiethnicity but at some point in a church’s life I do believe issues of multiethnicty, race and a holistic understanding of justice needs to be addressed.

I did not write about those immigrant or 1st generation churches because that is not what the article is about. I was simply responding to the attention focused on megachurches. I do not expect those 1st generation churches to hire “white” or adopt more White majority culture because to some degree they already do having established themselves here in America. Anyone who has grown up in a 1st generation church will tell you that issues of culture and ethnicity come up because the children growing up in the those churches will face those issues – the classic generational culture gap, if you will.

But if a church publicly states its intentions to pursue multiethnicity, which is what Bill Hybels and WC has done, I do expect them to address not just attendance and membership numbers. I would argue that the culture has to shift, as sociologists would agree, and that the leadership has to shift. It isn’t enough to say that the congregation looks different if we agree that isn’t what we are talking about when we say “multicultural” or “multiethnicity”. Are there songs sung in different styles and languages and the gifts of those cultures and nuances of language addressed? Is communion always wafers and grape juice when rice cakes and tea could also help connect and express the connection between host and blood? Is it always a drum set or can there be a djembe or janggu? Can liturgical dance also draw from 1st Nations’ and folk dancing? We learn so much from one another, and that is why diversity is better. No one culture paints the whole complete picture of God’s kingdom and I am blessed through the diversity of God’s kingdom and creation.

Do You Watch What You Eat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Asian American Sidekick

Bethany doesn’t play with dolls anymore, but every now and then I’ll talk with a mom of  a younger girl who happens to still be very much in the AG doll phase. I don’t know what came over me tonight. Maybe it was thinking about culture in preparation for a Sunday School series I’ll be teaching at church later this month? Maybe.

I went on the AG website and was reminded why I was grateful when Bethany announced she had grown out of that phase of childhood.

Currently AG, from what I can tell, has two Asian American dolls. And both dolls are the sidekicks to a “main” doll. Again, finding affordable, quality, multicultural dolls is not the most pressing issue in the world, but it is a pretty typical parenting dilemma for many of us. Our kids want dolls, and while they might not immediately care whether or not its a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll, some of us parents do care for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, these two dolls are the sidekicks, and of course I have my theory. (I’d love to hear yours if you have one.) My theory? They haven’t figured out how to create and then market an entire line of historical fiction-based matching outfits and accessories for girls and dolls based on the Japanese internment or the immigration/resettling patterns of East, South East and South Asians.

Oversimplifying Asian American history? Yes. And really, isn’t that what the line of dolls is? It makes history (or historical fiction) accessible for those who can afford it, but it isn’t without its share of stereotypes which in the hands of young girls can be a bit tricky.

“Sidekick!” – it makes me think of the movie “Sky High” where new students attending this special school for super hero-type kids had to show off their super hero skills. Cool skills like super-duper strength mean you go to the super hero classes. Other skills like turning into a rodent mean you are a “Sidekick!”

My favorite doll growing up was a little “rag” doll my mom made out of a pattern. She cut out two pieces – the front and the back – sewed and stuffed. Voila! The other doll I remember loving was my “life-sized Barbie-like doll”; she was a black doll! My parents couldn’t find an Asian doll so they figured better black than blonde I guess. I can’t say I remember noticing or caring. The dolls were mine, and that was all that mattered.

Is it always that simple?

Working Mommy=Unhealthier Kids? Work, Parenting, Calling & Roles

I’m always telling my children that they have the “meanest mommy in the whole wide world” but apparently I now have proof that they are pretty lucky kids.

According to a new study out of Britain, researchers have found that children of mothers who work full-time were the unhealthiest of the bunch. The second group of unhealthy kids belonged to part-time working moms.

Why? Because those kids ate more sweets, chips and sweetened drinks in between meals and spent more time than did their stay-at-home-mom-kids counterparts.

Hey, Bethany, Corban & Elias! Stop whining! You may have spending limits on clothing, and restrictions on the types of movies you are allowed to watch, but YOU get more sweets, chips, high fructose corn syrup enhanced drinks & tv/computer time than your friends whose moms do not work outside of the home. I have research to back this up!

I told you you were lucky to have the meanest mommy in the whole wide world!

Studies like this frustrate me to no end. Apparently fathers and their presence or lack thereof is irrelevant. Because their working trends have not changed significantly since the stone ages or so, it is obviously up to women to stay at home and raise healthy children. Razzle, frazzle.

I have worked outside of the home since Bethany was born (minus the first six months of her life when I was recovering from nearly bleeding to death, but that’s another story for another day). I may have been a career-driven 20-something, but when I was holding Bethany, and then Corban and Elias, in my arms I did not care whether or not I would see another byline again.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be a SAHM (stay at home mom) and to never feel that work gets the very best of me on some days while my children get the tired, worn out version of me. I have listened to SAHMs who refer rather wistfully to my “trips” away to exotic destinations like Madison, WI; Champaign-Urbana, IL; and Cedarville, MI. (OK, Seattle and SoCal are better!) What we’ve learned in living the journey together: the grass is always greener on the other side if all you’re doing is looking at the other side.

I’m in my 14th year of parenting with a lifetime to go and thousands of years of Korean American cultural baggage of guilt and shame with a splash of Christian fundamentalism to weigh me down. I do not have the energy nor the desire anymore to take on more false guilt or spend energy frustrated over things I cannot change. That is how I do it.

For those of you moms out there, what have you done to make it “work” for you and your family – whether you are a SAHM or a mom who works outside of the home? What about your situation has frustrated you or made you feel guilty or even envious of the other side and how have you dealt with it?

And out of curiosity, what do you think? Are kids with SAHMs better off?  Are kids with moms who work outside of the home better off? Does it have to be an either or?

The Inauguration Live or a Day at School?

Should I cut the school day short and have the kids come home to watch the inauguration on tv?

During MLK Day, in between the arguments and conversations about legos, Bionicles, Wii and shopping, we talked about Dr. King and his legacy, president-elect Obama and his inauguration, what kind of dog Malia and Sasha might get, and ended the night with the Disney Channel’s concert (Malia and Sasha in the front row busy taking photos and shooting video – too cute and so serious!).

Do they “get it”? I think so. I hope so.

But would pulling them out of school help mark the significance of the day or would the day turn out to be an excuse to miss school?

I know. I’m totally over-thinking this.

Working Mom Angst – Asian American style

Honestly, I haven’t thought this through. I don’t know how or if my culture has impacted the way I experience working mom angst…I’ve been sitting at my desk trying to get through e-mails, file expense reports, start and finish a prayer letter and listen for the dryer to finish when I realized I forgot to go to school to see my daughter’s gym class dance performance.

Now, before I am absolved of any guilt for not taking 15-minutes out of my work day to run over to the middle school by justifying my absence with the simple fact that my daughter is in MIDDLE SCHOOL and seeing her mother armed with a video camera AND a 35-mm waving from the bleachers isn’t her idea of fun,  I can’t shake the fact that she handed me the note from the teacher inviting parents to view the performance.

My daughter is practicing her “Mom, puhlease” look of slight disdain, embarrassment and awkward separation from her parents. But she gave the me the note and asked if I was going to a meeting or working from home. She still likes me.

I have the blessing, and I really do mean blessing, of a home office and the flexibility to the administrative portion of my job within earshot of my washer and dryer and steps from my espresso maker. My mother (and most of the world) can’t imagine an easier balancing act.

So maybe here is where the Asian American guilt and shame and sorrow (and the swallowing of it all) come into play. In a mere 15 seconds I am wrestling with all of it – wishing I could support my parents, wishing I was actually SuperMom who could remember to run over to the middle school (God, help me remember I’m supposed to be at the grade school at 12:30 to be the reading parent!), wondering if my daughter noticed my absence and wasn’t relieved but sad, hoping that my mistake doesn’t make my parents sad that I don’t take advantage of the luxuries of time that they didn’t have.

Please, I can’t be the only slightly neurotic Asian American working mom, right?

Living Through My Children – Making the Pom Pom (Pon?) Squad

My daughter made the pom pom squad last week. It was a little strange to watch her the night before tryouts, practicing the turns and kicks to Devo’s “Whip It”. Even Peter came upstairs after watching her and her friend go through the routine shaking his head and saying, “She was dancing and doing this shaking thing. She has moves.”

It was a little strange because, believe it or not, I was a pom pom girl. My poms career began in junior high and ended abruptly my senior year of high school when scheduling conflicts between poms practice and newspaper deadlines collided. I opted to stay on as EIC and give up my poms, but despite never having good friends on the squad I missed performing. Back when my knees didn’t creak, I had moves. (Stop laughing!)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking back to that season in life and wondering what my parents thought of the whole thing. They didn’t come to any performances that I can remember, though I found a photo of them at homecoming with a “My daughter Jane is a Lancette” so I know they were at at least one game during my sister’s stint on poms. I vaguely remember my parents and I talking about whether or not being on the pom pom squad was something I could put down on my college applications and whether or not it would conflict with more important endeavors like school.

But one of the things that I remember about being on poms was that holding those blue and gold and then blue and white bundles of plastic gave me an exclusive look at social power. It was all very confusing to me; isn’t everything pretty confusing in junior high and high school? Suddenly, the geeky smart Oriental girl had access to the social elite. I spent hours in practice and at games with girls whose hair defied gravity and designer bags were both the envy and joke of us “regular” girls at school. It was always such a strange feeling, walking around in school on game days in my uniform. I felt part-phony, part-geek, part-mean girl. 

Now before you think this is all about teenage angst, I actually had a science teacher who laughed when I walked into class with my lettered sweater and pleated skirt. He laughed out loud and then made a comment to me in front of the class about how cheerleaders and upper-level science didn’t work together. Never mind that I was also fighting stereotypes about Asian Americans excelling in math and science (my passion was English and newspaper reporting), but now I was fighting stereotypes about girls and math and science.

Fortunately, the strength of those stereotypes have wavered some since my days as a pom pom girl. I’m not so sure if the social power structures of middle school and high school have changed all that much though. I wonder what my daughter will feel when she puts on her uniform for the first time and walks through the hallways. How will her friendships deepen and change? How different or the same will her middle school experience? Will the uniform help my daughter, whose teachers unilaterally describe her as quiet and shy, find her voice? And if so, what will that voice sound like?

I’m unabashedly proud of her. She knew that only 16 girls would make the team, which meant a lot of girls weren’t going to scream and smile when they opened up their envelopes. And when she found out that she made the squad but that a few of her close friends had not, she handled it with aplomb. I can’t wait to hear more from her.

Living Through My Children – Parent/Teacher Conferences

I’m so glad they’re over. Yesterday was our marathon day of parent/teacher conferences. As a child, I didn’t think much of these times. I just knew that the weeks prior to conferences our classrooms would be plastered with our very best work –  self-portraits, our best writing assignments and neat desks.

As a parent, I’ve learned that I need a balance of leaving my issues at the door,  being a learner in each new classroom, and being my child’s advocate and cultural translator.

My issues: When Peter and I had our first conference for Bethany’s preschool (!?!?) I realized how I connected her academic success to my parenting. Silly? Yes. Understandable? Yes. It was easy to take credit for her reading skills and social skills. I figured if I had to listen or watch people tsk, tsk me when the kids throw hissy fits in the middle of the cereal aisle I would take the credit for their better moments. Really, our kids are amazing…by the grace of God. I’m not saying they are perfect. They can use what little money is saved up for college or therapy. But as a parent I can’t take all the credit.

Culturally it was inappropriate for my parents to brag about me and my sister. If someone said they thought my sister was pretty or I was smart, my parents would smile, thank them and go on to tell the person at least one fault of ours – “Yes, she’s pretty except she’s not very tall. And, yes, she does well on her tests but not as good as I hear your child does.” The parenting theory of many 1st generation Korean immigrants was that compliments would only make our heads bigger but not in the brain cell/rote memorization sort of way. The result is my personal inability to receive compliments graciously. It’s always very awkward and a bit stilted because it feels so odd. Even though I think the world of my children, it is with trepidation I enter parent/teacher conferences because I never know how to receive compliments about my own children. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Yes, she/he loves reading, but she/he doesn’t want to read more challenging books.”

And then when I do hear the compliment and manage to acknowledge it, I have another overwhelming urge to find out how my child ranks against other children. I can’t help it. I think it’s genetic.

Being a learner: Each teacher has their strategies, goals, dreams, issues. Each grade level has its challenges. If I expect my child’s teacher to understand my child then I need to put in a little effort to learn about each classroom. I’ve also learned that the many teachers who influence my children are human. Some of them are just as anxious about meeting me as I am about meeting them. They have just a few minutes with each parent to communicate authority, expertise, understanding, insight, etc. It feels a bit like what I imagine speed dating might feel like.

I don’t think my parents ever considered themselves partners with my teachers, but that is how I have come to understand my relationship with my kids’ teachers. I’ve learned that if I don’t learn how to work well with the teacher’s style, curriculum, and expectations the only one who loses out is my child.

Being an advocate and cultural translator: This is what shouldn’t have surprised me but did. I know that I am Asian American, but being a parent I’m fascinated with watching and influencing how my children will develop an ethnic/cultural identity. I don’t recall every telling any of the children to be quiet in the classroom, but I was floored when teacher after teacher commented on my daughter’s “quietness”. They would say how she was a good, solid student, but without fail one of the first things each teacher would mention was that she didn’t often raise her hand to offer up her opinions.

I asked if we could look at a photo of my daughter just to make sure we were talking about the same child.

After about the third teacher I jumped in by asking why they were telling me how quiet she was. I asked if participating was part of the grade, and, if so, how participation was being evaluated. Don’t worry. I asked all of these questions with a motherly smile. 😉

It turns out that all three of my children do not raise their hands in class and only answer when called upon. Their teachers call them “respectful” and “considerate of his/her classmates”. I’m not saying that those traits are Asian, but respecting elders and honoring community are high values the kids have learned in very Asian ways. The boys don’t call their older sister by her name. And I’ve even seen Bethany do a slight bow when she meets “an adult”.

In the end, I come home wondering if I’ve done enough as a parent to help each of my children do as well academically and socially as possible. (Funny side note: the other night Peter and I were out at dinner with the boys and while we were waiting we whipped out math flash cards to pass the time. I had a “oh, my god, I can’t believe we have become our parents” moment as other diners stared at us like we were crazy or their child’s worst nightmare.) And then I wonder if I praise my children enough or too much. And then I wonder what the teachers really think about our kids and maybe even us? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Birthday Traditions Made and Broken

Are birthdays a big deal in your family? 

In our home birthdays are a bunch of little things throughout the day for the kids. On their birthday, our birthday child gets a candle at breakfast (so far pancakes have been the trickiest because they aren’t thick enough to hold a candle upright for very long) and our version of the “Happy Birthday” song. They get their present from Mom and Dad in the morning, and then we send a small treat to school for their classmates. Dinner plans are up to the birthday child.

Yesterday was Elias’ 7th birthday, and it was the first birthday we missed the morning candles. I was in Indiana at staff meetings, and Peter held down the fort wonderfully. He picked up donuts for the class treat, presented Elias with his wrapped birthday gift. Peter even managed to get the kids to pose for a birthday morning photo. But, in the rush of the morning, the candles had to wait.

Elias reminded me as we were wrapping up the evening that he had not had his birthday morning candles. “Why weren’t you here to remind Daddy about my candles?”  It nearly sent me over the edge. I feel so incredibly blessed to have this amazing life – marriage, children, home, career. But this amazing life often feels like it’s perched on a very sensitive scale where the constant demands are weighed against the blissful moments. 

I wasn’t home because on this birthday, some traditions were more important than others. I wasn’t home because I had a work commitment I chose to honor, knowing I would be home to pick you up after school. I wasn’t home because I want you to know you are loved and cherished, but I also want you to know you are not the center of the universe.

And just so that I could work out my working mommy guilt, I took him to Target to spend some of the birthday money his aunt sent him.

What am I Eating? My Korean American Garden Revealed

Growing up eating a variety of foods is one of the gifts of a bi-cultural childhood. There was always steamed white rice in the rice cooker and a large jar of kimchee in the fridge, but it wasn’t unusual to have the rice and kimchee on the table with the bucket of KFC original recipe. When my parents hosted Thanksgiving we would have turkey with all the trimmings, which for us meant dressing and japchae, mashed potatoes and kimchee, gravy and daenjang jigae. The trick was I never really knew the English names of the some of the ingredients. It didn’t matter. I rarely had friends over for dinner unless it was pizza night. Asian food didn’t hold as much social and cultural currency back then as it does now. 

But knowing started to matter. For school potlucks we became the go-to family for all things Asian – potstickers, spring rolls, futomaki, fried rice, etc. Depending on the level of exposure to Asian foods and the prevalence of food allergies, it became more important to know what we were eating and serving.

So what does that have to do with my garden? I’m getting there…We have a small vegetable garden in the back. I can’t seem to keep plants growing indoors, but it turns out that when applying my efforts outside I may have inherited a bit of my mother’s green thumb. Each year we try to add something new, and if that fails we move on. Tomatoes, peppers, basil and carrots are always there. This year we added cantaloupe (we are waiting for three to ripen) and green onions.

Two years ago my mother brought some green stuff and planted in the garden. We would cut the young green stalks, chop them up and put them into soups or Korean-style crepes. I had no idea what “boo-chu” was called in English. Thanks to the Google search engine and “Korean vegetable pancake” the mystery has been revealed. She planted leeks. The best part of this discovery? Knowing that my kids eat leeks and they don’t even know it! I didn’t have to steam, puree and hide it into a clever dish (I tried that with broccoli and Corban figured it out a mile away). I just told them it was a Korean pancake! Leeks!

Last year my mother planted a few more plants with large green leaves. We pick the leaves and wrap them around rice, red pepper paste and some grilled meat, preferably kalbi (marinated short ribs) or bulgogi (marinated sliced beef). When the season is about to end, we pick the remaining leaves and put them in some soy sauce, garlic, sugar, red chili flakes and sesame seeds to essentially pickle them. Again, I had no idea what “ggaen-neep” was called in English. A literal translation would be sesame leaves, but again thanks to Google and “Korean sesame leaves” I can rest. She planted perilla – a member of the mint family.

Now I can rest knowing my kids will eat two three vegetables – carrots, corn and LEEKS! No one else seems to like the perilla leaves, though.