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.

Funny Mommy Moments – Magic Pennies

Last year my youngest started kindergarten and temporarily transformed into a koala bear. We would get to the school playground and his smiling face and ants-in-his-pants body would crunch up with furrowed brow, desperate pleas for help, and an uncanny ability to wrap himself around my leg or torso. If I had eucalyptus leaves growing out of my head we would have made a great zoo exhibit.

The school principal pulled him off of me and took her to the office to give him a magic penny. He was told that when he rubbed this magic penny, no matter where I was, I would stop and think about him. It took a few days, but he eventually left me the magic penny just in case I missed him.

I thought we were over that.

This morning he was tired and saying he didn’t feel well. No fever so no chance. But he insisted he wasn’t feeling well and then melted down into a sad puddle of tears and heart-wrenching pleas: “I don’t want to go, Mommy. I don’t feel good. I want to go home with you and rest”. He used his koala-morphing abilities, and again the principal came to my rescue, extracting my child from my body as other mothers either passed by giving me a knowing look in solidarity or passed by avoiding eye contact for fear the koala-morphing abilities would be transferred onto their childreen. He was fine. I was a bit rattled, but I was eventually fine.

I asked him during dinner how long he needed to cry before he felt better. He said he stopped crying right away because the principal had given him a magic penny. I thought the magic penny was to help him get over homesickness and missing me. For a moment there I thought he was still missing me. Maybe I was hoping he was still missing me.

“But I thought the magic penny was to help you when you missed me? This morning you said you weren’t feeling well. Did you miss me?”

“No, mommy. I told you I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Well then how did the magic penny work if you were feeling sick?

“Mom, it’s a MAGIC penny.”

I guess I’m still getting used to having all three at school all day. Maybe I need a magic penny.

Youth Group: Then and Now or Asian American + Christian youth group = Depressed?

I started this post out wanting to write about how my youth group experiences were different than what I experienced recently at my daughter’s youth group kick-off…and then I read this article I saw on Angry Asian Man about how participating in religion may make adolescents from certain races more depressed – Asian American girls topping the charts. My guess is that my observation #4 is part of how culture and faith collide.

Noodle fencing and marshmallow archery were for me the personal highlights of my first “majority culture” youth group experience.

Sunday night, Bethany and I went to the youth group kick-off meeting while Peter sacrificially stayed home to get the boys to bed, nearly missing the first quarter of the Bears-Colts game. In all honesty, the church is still a bit new to us after a year so I was looking forward to putting together names and faces and children and to see youth group in action.

I grew up in an immigrant church where Sunday School was taught by Moody Bible students, hymns were sung in Korean, Christmas or New Year’s Eve services were a bit like a family talent show, and the fellowship hall smelled of steamed rice, kimchee, sparerib soup and barley tea mixed with Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. If we played we played games like Mafia and Bunny-Bunny (which I know for a fact are still played with much enthusiasm).

Though it was a rare thing to live near other youth group friends, it was rarer still to attend the same school. Our families attended church less in allegiance to a denomination or physical community but to a cultural community that sometimes meant driving 45+ minutes to church. We were a rather homogenous group, but there was a comfort knowing that we understood each other and our families. There was competition and drama (so-and-so got a near perfect SAT score, so-and-so is going to Juliard, so-and-so speaks, reads and writes perfect Korean and cleans her room, so-and-so got asked to the prom) but I wonder if it was all easier to tolerate at youth group because there we were safe from the racial slurs and jokes and pressures to be something we never could be – white American.

Anyway, Sunday night both parents and students were present, and it was great to see the evening start with a birthday cake for one of the girls. We moved onto a rock-paper-scissors face-off/adult v. child. We were divided into teams (we were team Italy) and off we went to play and compete.

There were a few things that struck me Sunday evening:

  1. We started the year out together. I don’t recall my parents ever attending a meeting or being invited to one. They were still mastering the English language and American culture; anything they didn’t like they would correct at home until they could get the elders or pastor to deal with it.
  2. Parents and children competed, but there were no prizes or punishments. No “here are cookies for the winning team and oh, look we have enough for everyone” as my friends who grew up in the Chinese churches would describe. No winning team making the losing team do something embarrassing or no bundles of Ivory or Dial soap or Bounty paper towels as my fellow Korean Americans might recall.
  3. The entire evening was in English. I know that may sound strange, but again, having grown up in a Korean church youth group there was always a mix of English, Korean and Konglish (a mix of both language’s vocab, grammar, and pronunciation). I feel it even more now that we have been away from the 2nd generation Korean-American church and its subculture for the past few years.
  4. Not once did I feel guilty or ashamed. It’s hard to describe this, but I my spiritual formation is inextricably connected to an East Asian shame-based culture. So while we sang a few worship songs Sunday night, it “felt” different than what I recall youth group worship to be. The lights stayed on, there was more of a celebratory, upbeat tone, and the music set was short.

Overall, it was a great way to start out the week as Bethany and I chatted on the way home about the 7th grade girls and about how she understood the theme of remaining in a relationship with Christ plays out in her life as a middle school girl. Peter and I are hoping that our family will benefit from being a church with a strong youth and children’s ministry, but I can’t say that we don’t have moments when we ask ourselves if we should consider returning to our Asian American roots. Our church looks much like our community – predominantly Caucasian. Our children are growing up far more “American” than I ever did, but keeping them connected and aware of how culture and ethnicity connects with faith has become more complex with more choices and opportunities. How ironic. And now, reading about depression, ethnicity/race and faith the picture and choices become far more complex.

How will participating in a majority culture youth group impact my Asian American children or my biracial nieces and nephews? How will not being part of an Asian American community – Christian or otherwise – outside of immediate family impact them? 

What do you think? Did being in youth group help you through adolescence or make it more painful?

The Gender Politics of Motherhood

I haven’t written anything in a few days because Sarah Palin put me in a funk on many levels – as a Christian, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman I do not understand the conservative love-fest over Palin.

Today I’m scratching my head over the working mom debate Palin’s candidacy has sparked. The conversation crosses the liberal-conservative spectrum because folks on the extremes and every where in the middle are asking what was never asked of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and countless other men with young children who have run for public office: “Can you be a parent and be the (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)? Does your family or ambition come first? Do you think you can be the best parent you can be and still be the best (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)?”

I am a “working mom” (that is, working a paid job outside of the home). I always thought I would be, and then I gave myself permission to always ask if the decisions Peter and I were both making about our careers were best for our family (which included ourselves as well).

I was a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee when I was pregnant with Bethany 13 years ago. I remember doing phone interviews and filing a few stories from home lying on my side because of sciatica during the final weeks of my pregnancy, running out to the cop shop at 5 a.m. so that I could file police briefs and get back home before Peter left for the office so that I could stay home with Bethany when she was sick, or rushing back to get Bethany from daycare only to find that she was the last one to be picked up. 

Newspaper deadlines were then replaced with campus ministry, and we found college students who would babysit Bethany, Corban and then Elias while I met with other students for discipleship or planning meetings (thank God for Patrick, Christine, Tina and Joy as well as Jess, Hannah and the other amazing sisters at Delta Zeta!). Other times I would simply wait for Peter to come home, and I would schedule all my meetings according to College Time – 9 pm-2 am. We’ve had other campus staff come stay in our home so that I could travel to meetings, and friends and family who have provided our patchwork of childcare until all three reached school-age.

It has never been easy, so I take offense at comments questioning Palin or any other working mother’s commitment to her family. Working in ministry has made me a better parent and wife, and being a parent and wife has made me a better campus minister. I know many stay-at-home moms who love being home every morning and every afternoon for their kids; some long for a little more adult interaction, a little more in the bank each month, etc. I know many working moms who love their jobs and are a blessing to their employers and colleagues; some long for the hugs and kisses after the school bus arrives, the financial ability to stay at home, etc. The grass is always greener on the other side, but it isn’t fair to pick up the fence and start stabbing it into the neighbor’s yard.

So why is it OK to ask if Palin can be a mom, wife and VP but no one asked the same questions of Biden? Is it really because his children are older? Do we not ask the same type of questions of Obama because he’s running for the top office?

I find it rather vexing that conservatives like Dr. James Dobson think Palin is an “outstanding choice” for VP. How so? The fact that Palin is a working mother cannot have been overlooked by the Republicans. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor. She is governor of Alaska. But there is no doubt that gender and the ability to both field dress a moose and breastfeed her infant son crossed someone’s mind as a helpful narrative. In many ways, her ability balance roles is what women across the political spectrum want. But for conservatives the feminist movement is “hurtful to women” because it encourages them to give up their natural roles as mothers, homemakers and nurturers, according to a top staff member with Focus on the Family. So why the love-fest? Does it really just come down to abortion? Please tell me it doesn’t. Explain to me how conservatives who for so long have promoted family values in seemingly narrow terms see this mother of five, soon-to-be-grandmother the best choice as the VP when in many church contexts she could not lead or hold authority over adult men? Does it really make sense to say she can lead the country but not lead in a church?

“The Talk”

I’m not really sure how it happened, but over the past few years I have become the “sex talk” speaker. One month last year I was speaking to four different college groups – all four talks were on the subject of sexuality. By the third talk I was working completely without notes, and by the end of the fourth talk I was tired of talking about sex.

I’ve been asked all sorts of questions by college students who want honest answers about sex and sexuality. Yes, many of these students are Christians. No, not all college students are having sex. Yes, many are or at least towing a very fine line. Yes, some of “those” students are Christians. There is a hunger and need out there for biblical teaching that goes beyond “don’t have premarital sex” or “stay pure until marriage”. Scaring people into chastity doesn’t work because not everyone feels guilty enough to stop having premarital sex. Guilt shouldn’t be the basis for the Church teaching chastity. Truth, discipline and worship should be the basis.

So, I really don’t have a problem talking about sex, sexuality, dating, relationships, etc. The challenge is now it’s time to talk with my own daughter. She has become a young woman before my own eyes. She has long shed the cute little summer dresses I picked out for layered tank tops and shorts that are almost too short she has picked out and bought with her own money. And when I look at her walk off with her friends what I really want to say is, “Don’t have sex. Don’t date until you’re at least a junior in high school. Don’t waste your time pining over boys until they are closer to being men. And mommy and daddy really love you so that’s why we’re locking you up in this tower until you’re 21.”

My parents never had the sex talk with me…unless you count the brief conversation I had with my mother after I returned from my honeymoon. (I wrote about this in More Than Serving Tea.) My mother spoke to me in Korean, just in case Peter happened to wander by, and gave me one piece of advice for the boudoir: KyoungAh, men and women are different. Men need it more. 

Yup. That was it. 

My sister, my father and I were having lunch a few months ago, and my dad swore that he and my mom had given us a set of books to teach us about the birds and the bees. My sister and I couldn’t stop laughing. We knew about the books only because we had found them in a bookcase we weren’t supposed to be looking through.  We were never given the books but we did look through them. I can’t say the books cleared up any questions we may have had, but thanks to time in the junior high locker room I heard a lot more than I really wanted to.

So, I feel a bit like a family pioneer charting new territory. Anyone out there have any sage advice or book suggestions? I’m being very serious here. I do not want to abdicate responsibility for these conversations to the school health curriculum. I want my children will have a healthier, fuller understanding of God’s gift of sexuality and sex than I did. What do you wish you had heard from your parents or understood about sex and sexuality?

On The First Day

They are all in school, and the house is strangely quiet.

I did not cry, though I did feel quite a pang in my heart as the boys lined up with their classmates and headed into school through the red doors. I felt gratefulness wash over me as I watched my daughter come with to say goodbye to her brothers and greet a former teacher. I felt a sense of amazement as the kids headed off to school for a new year of discovery.

This is my first day, too, and I’m not sure what to expect. For years the next step were outlined for me in “What to Expect” books. This is new and exciting and slightly horrifying. Why? Because for years I couldn’t get into a regular quiet time routine/exercise routine/self-care and management routine because the kids needed more of me. I’m sure I’m not alone. What are the things you couldn’t get done – big and little – because there were naps, diaper changes, playdates, preschool, mommy and me classes, etc.? For me the excuses, as amazing and cute as they were (and still are), are now in school for a good chunk of the day.

Lord, may I be open to the ways in which You are refining my understanding of You and of myself as I enter what feels like a new season. May we all feel Your presence today as we step out on this first day. Amen.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Monday is the first day of 1st grade for my youngest. After 13 years, all three children will be in school all day long.

Last year when I sent him off to his first day of kindergarten I took photos, shot video, and felt a little pang in my heart that the baby of the family was now responsible for his gym shoes getting into the cubby. “First time Moms” were crying as they watched their first or only child walk through the red doors. But I didn’t shed a tear. Instead, I couldn’t stop smiling. I think I went home and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee in one sitting, and then had to turn right back around to pick him up since kindergarten here is only 2 1/2 hours long.

(The second day was another story – imagine child wrapped around my body like a koala bear hugging a eucalyptus tree with wonderful principal extricating said koala child from my body while he cries. I was so glad the “first time moms” were still carrying kleenex, and all the more grateful the wonderful principal called an hour later to tell me koala child was smiling and doing just fine.)

On Monday I’ll walk my boys to school (my daughter is in middle school so we’ll take photos at home and say goodbye in the kitchen), take some photos, shoot some video, and feel a pang in my heart. I don’t know if I’ll cry…

“Kathy, what are you going to do with all of that time?”

A Page, a Cashier, a Waitress

When I was growing up, my parents and I went back and forth on the value of a part-time or summer job. As immigrants wanting their children to find “success” they wanted me and my sister to focus on the important thing – studying. Anything outside of studying, including socializing and working for a paycheck, was optional. Very optional. They figured they were working hard enough so that we wouldn’t have to later on. Our work was being top students.

But somehow I managed to take on a variety of part-time jobs. I suspect it had more to do with my parents’ desire to instill in me a good work ethic, to teach me the value of money and budgeting, and the reality that the money tree wasn’t growing fast enough to get both daughters through school.

So, here as best as I can recall are the jobs I had up until college graduation and what I learned:

  1. babysitter – I don’t like being in a stranger’s house, even if they are paying me to do so.
  2. library page – There are too many good books and not enough time to read them.
  3. park district swimming instructor – I teach swimming better than I can swim myself.
  4. cashier at an educational toy store – Somewhere out there someone can turn any educational kids’ game into a drinking game.
  5. private tutor – People will spend A LOT of money to help their kids write better, study better, test better.
  6. office administrative assistant – I like to organize.
  7. dry cleaning cashier – Working for your parents is difficult, but I did appreciate them even more.
  8. newspaper intern – I love the pressure of a deadline.
  9. hostess/waitress – Treating restaurant staff with respect and a smile goes a long way.
  10. radio intern – There is a lot of eating and laughing that goes on off-air.
What part-time jobs did you hold down and what did you learn? Will you encourage your children to work and save before college or is it all about the books?

Queen Bees

Has anyone read “Queen Bees & Wannabees – Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence” by Rosalind Wiseman? 

When we moved back to Illinois, one of our concerns was moving our daughter out of her charmed school experience. In Wisconsin, she was enrolled at a charter school – a public school that ran very much like a private school. The school drew from the entire school district by lottery so it had a great mix of students with one class per grade level.

The move here was rough all around, and our daughter had a tough year making new friends in a larger school. I remember talking with her teacher at parent-teacher conferences and asking about the girls and their friendships. This teacher was honest and said that cliques had already formed. 

For the past few years we’ve watched and counseled Bethany through a few friendship bumps and dramas and crisis. I’ve only stepped in once when I felt that another parent had crossed the line and owed Bethany an apology. But each time something happens I wonder, “Why is it that girls turn on each other? Why, even in adulthood, do women get so catty?”

Personally, I hated junior high  and high school. I couldn’t wait to leave. Looking back I’m sure some of it was “normal” teenage angst – not getting asked to the dance, not getting the name brand clothes, not being cool. Some of it was “normal” but painful; to this day I can still name some of my tormentors who teased and threatened me. You might think that I just need to let it go, but others of you might relate. My confidence today comes from God alone, but back then my confidence came and went with the wind or the way certain peers looked at me or spoke to me. I wasn’t a queen bee, but I was definitely an overachiever with a lack of self-confidence. (And there’s nothing like looking ahead to your 20th high school reunion and looking back at high school through facebook to bring it all back again!)

I picked up the book because I wanted to revisit adolescence just as my daughter is entering it. The way I see it is that I have an advantage over my mother. My mother grew up in Korea attending girls-only schools in a time and culture that no longer exists for either of us. Her junior high and high school experiences were frozen in time when she immigrated to the US, and when I hit puberty all bets were off. We literally were from different worlds. But for me and my daughter we have similar starting points – the Illinois public school system. I remember being worried about opening my locker and changing for gym so it was a good chance to release some pressure when Bethany and I went to the open house last year and neither of us got the locker open on the first try. I remember wanting the perfect outfit for the first day (actually, week) of school so it’s a blessing to be able to take her shopping with much more financial freedom than my parents. I remember wanting to fit in and have fun, but I have been able, so far, to guide Bethany in hopes that she doesn’t lose herself in the process of fitting in.

I also wanted to read the book to better understand myself. I am a grown woman, and when I’m honest I can admit that I long to fit in and am still trying to find my niche of friends in this community. There are the working moms and the stay-at-home moms. (Those labels don’t make sense to me. I rarely see a mom who doesn’t work or just stays at home.) There are the PTA moms and the soccer moms and the ballet school moms and some are the all-of-the-above moms. Most of us are just-managing-by-the-grace-of-God-moms. And just like in junior high there is gossip and the looks we give one another. Sometimes we are very much like our teenage daughters.

So, were you (or are you still) a queen bee or a target or somewhere in between? Be honest.