More Than Serving Tea


Why Can’t I Just Shut Up?

I have a problem. My internal filter doesn’t always work. Sometimes thoughts that aren’t fully formed but in the process of being “felt” come out of my thought bubble and rush through my mouth.

My parents did the best they could, teaching me to be appropriately silent first in the way children are supposed to be silent and then in the way young ladies are to be silent. Opinions are best left in the head, and simply naming my alma mater should be enough to gauge intelligence. Words, particularly spoken ones from my mouth, aren’t necessary. Besides, who would want their son to marry an outspoken, opinionated woman? Those traits aren’t high on the “myuh-new-ree” (daughter-in-law) list.

There are times when the properly trained Asian American woman-ness kicks into high gear, almost as if someone dialed me up to “11”. I can smile, nod, look like I am in agreement with whatever is being said and then walk away without a word. It happens, I swear.

My parents also knew enough to know that some things were irreversible. We were here in America, and one day (or almost 40 years) their firstborn would be an American. They struggled to keep the “Korean” first through language, dance, songs, food, worksheets and flashcards and hyphenated “America” by reminding me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Or is the oil?

I suppose that is part of growing up part of a generation raised to be bicultural – Korean and American – and finds itself developing a third culture – with or without the hyphen – that takes not the best of both worlds and rejects the rest but takes both worlds and creates something both familiar and new with its own best and rejects.

So there are times when I get squeaky. The dial gets turned the other way, and I can’t shut up. The raging extrovert in me, the angry Asian American woman who is tired but clearly not tired enough to shut up comes out and I hate when that happens because I hate that I feel like I should apologize for bringing to the conversation a different voice, a different perspective.

I can talk about things other than race, gender or class. It’s not always about race or gender or class. But many times race or gender or class (or all of the above) are in play. And the other night it was soooo easy. We were discussing The Help
, and there are still hours of thoughts and questions inside my head. Last night was just a taste. Why couldn’t we have started out with something lighter like a Nicholas Sparks book? Bahhhh!

No spoiler alert here for those of you who are still on the library’s list for the book or in the process of reading it. You know that the book touches on issues of race, gender, class, friendship and love. And if you read this blog you know that those issues are what keep us here in this cyberspace.

But those issues are uncomfortable, and it’s not always easy to go from discussing our feelings about a book to how those feelings translate into real life when it’s all so new and we don’t yet know our similarities let alone our differences. But how could I not talk about how I see life in our town as being different but not so entirely different than what we had just read? How could I not bring up how the rules of engagement between the junior league women and their help are as subtle and dangerous as describing “suspicious” cars and their drivers in broad generalities? Don’t we still have subtle lines drawn and communicated about who belongs where? How could any of us read the book and not choose to be uncomfortable if not for one night?


Love Or Hate “Eat, Pray, Love”?

Have you read “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert? If so, did you love it or hate it or was it just “eh”?

Well, I have not read the book, but enough folks around me have shared their opinions about the book. I know of one woman who, after a few chapters into the book, absolutely loved the book. Others who have read the book, and mind you they were all women, were turned off by the author’s story – divorce leads to travel, food and love with a dose of whine.

Minus the divorce and travel it sounded a bit like “Julie & Julia” to me, which I enjoyed in the theater but never bothered to read the book…I did end up buying Julia Child’s French cooking tome but I digress.

The general consensus was that Gilbert’s book was a whiny memoir, but I came across this op-ed piece (via Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed) and had to ask all of you who have read the book or decided not to read it like I did based on the reviews.

Jessica Wakeman contends that:

“…Eat, Pray, Love the book (and soon, “Eat, Pray, Love” the movie, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem) has turned out to be a lightening rod of controversy in the most disappointing of ways. The negative reactions to “Eat, Pray, Love” show just how resentful, bitter, contradictory, and quite frankly, hate-filled we are towards a woman who does something for herself.”

So far there are 401 customer reviews that rate the book 1 – star on Amazon out of more than 2,000 total reviews. I’m an author, but I’m not that kind of author – New York Times best seller kind of author, and I’d be lying if I said/wrote that I wouldn’t want to be that kind of author. NYT best seller? But with the fame comes the crap, and I’m not that good of a writer nor do I really want to deal with more crap. But it’s worth thinking about whether or not the criticism is, as Wakeman writes in her opinion piece, gendered and taking shots at Gilbert because she is a woman doing what Wakeman contends would have been an adventure story had a man lived the same life and written about.

There was similar criticism of the movie “Julie & Julia” – mostly but not exclusively from male movie reviewers. My thought at the time was that the movie critics were taking themselves too seriously and perhaps not understanding that this was the coming-of-age story for one almost-30 woman. Yes, Julie Powell was whiny, which is why she needed something else to ground her. Lucky for her, pounds and pounds of butter and bacon fat helped ground her, and she happened to gain some self-awareness and some success.

Is/was the criticism of “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Julie & Julia” gendered? Are readers (and are they predominantly women?) doing the same thing they accuse Gilbert of doing – whining and complaining – but about someone else’s success instead of about their own average lives? Or would the book even mattered had it been written about and by a man or would the publishers have looked at it and thought “this is nothing new”? Perhaps the issue of gender isn’t so cut and dry; isn’t it possible that a big reason this book made it is because Gilbert is a woman and leaving everything behind to find herself is a novel concept?

Now, I chose not to read the book. Instead I read several other books by non-white female authors because, quite frankly, I needed a different perspective, point of view and voice than what is so prevalent and prevailing. Gilbert is a woman, but the older I get the more frustrated I become with the false dichotomy of race and gender that I often experience. As Gilbert’s book became a rising star her star wasn’t in the same constellation as what I was seeking out – authors like Amy Tan, Bich Minh Nguyen, Yen Mah and Toni Morrison. So my reluctance to pick up her book was less gendered criticism and more cultural/racial and spiritual. I’m certain there are common bonds between all women, but I’m tired of people telling me the differences don’t matter. Differences make life complicated, interesting, compelling, frustrating and hard. I don’t want the same all the time, especially if someone else is the one always defining the “same”.

But I could be wrong about it all, so I may request the book at the library and revisit my reluctance. I’ll have to think about that some more. For those of you who read Gilbert’s book, what do you think?


Serving as a Rite of Passage and Mark of Faith

So yesterday I wrote about the realization that I had become an “ahjumma”. Despite what you think, I’m cool with it. No really. It’s OK.

But comments on my FB page are proving that some of my girlfriends are not so ok with it. It’s all in good fun, but has got me thinking about womanhood and how hospitality and service carry both the brokenness and the redeemed parts of my culture and faith.

My childhood connections between the acts of service I often saw the ahjummas performing were more often than not fond memories – very little baggage. My mother and her friends were in the kitchen at church or at home. Nothing more, nothing less. But as I aged how I perceived their place and those acts of service changed and became less positive (or even neutral) and more negative. Service became less about hospitality, mutual submission and loving my neighbor but more of  being put in one’s place and being subservient or less than a real leader. As a young woman, my place was to be in the kitchen, in the nursery, in children’s Sunday School, with my mother, in the shadows. I associated those places and roles rather negatively, mainly because those were the only roles open to me.

And being the kind of young woman I was, I bristled at the idea that somehow my breasts and uterus limited my abilities and worth. My understanding of what service and submission and leadership and worth transformed and redeemed by Jesus was very limited, and in the end I did not want to become one of “those” submissive and weak women.

But the laughter I shared with my girlfriends over cake and rice cake was hardly borne out of weakness. We chose our place – to stand willingly and lovingly beside and behind another friend to do for her what needed to be done for her guests. We weren’t the young girls who needed our mothers to tell us it was time to cut the rice cake. We were the women who simply knew. Our acts of service were both a blessing to her and to us, and that was borne out of knowing who we are before doing what we do. We may not want to be called “ahjumma” but I am beginning to think that how and why we serve marks some sort of rite of passage for us into womanhood with a unique expression of that womanhood as Asian American women. Just a thought I’m lingering within…

Perhaps that is part of the transformation I am still going through, managing the push and pull to love others through my acts of service precariously balanced against the tiredness and bitterness of serving others who do not appreciate all that I am doing for them. I am both Mary and Martha – mentally wanting to sit at Jesus’ feet while simultaneously creating a checklist of things to do. I am worried and distracted, independent but still bound to my parents and children, faith and culture.


We Have Become the Ahjummas

My girlfriend and I stood there first cutting the traditional birthday cake – the flour, sugar and egg variety –  and then cutting another traditional birthday cake – the sweet rice and sugar variety, laughing and perhaps delighting in what had become of us over more than 20 years of friendship. Another friend quickly joined us to help pass out plates of cake and mujigae dduk, understanding without ever being asked that she, too, had joined us in friendship and cultural tradition.

We started out as young ladies – “ahgashi”. Two decades filled with some experience, wisdom and grace have changed us. We have become the “ahjumma” – the older women who were always by our mothers’ sides, laughing and helping them through every church and family function.

The ahjummas were always there to help cut the fruit, serve the tea and help maintain and direct the delicate balance between managed chaos and mayhem. They knew to help, knew how to cut the fruit and dduk, knew to send leftover dduk with guests and to encourage them to take some food home. The ahjummas always seemed to know when to do these things without being asked, and I remember their efficiency as well as their hearts. They did these things out of tradition and learned expectations as much as out of love and respect for their friends and families. They just knew when it was time.

And as my girlfriend and I stood with knives sticky with cake, frosting and sweetened rice we realized we knew, too. We knew that there were things in our Korean American upbringing that we had not carried on into our adulthood – things we found too Korean to be easily transferred to our American lives or too American to transfer into our Korean lives. We also knew that we would never be able to, or want to, shake the impulse to come to another girlfriend’s side. We knew that our friend needed not just girlfriends but ahjummas to step in and help her daughter’s “dol” (a child’s first birthday) move from the pasta and salad and Korean potstickers and braised short ribs to cake and dduk without a word.

My girlfriend and I stood there laughing and grateful because we knew whom we had become.


Moving Forward Sometimes Means Looking Back

I am not trying to rehash the past for the sake of rehashing the past. I am, however, trying to figure out what, if anything, was learned from the DV incident. Personally, I’m still sorting through the experience which gave me a unique opportunity to speak up about issues of identity – both ethnic and gender.

I found myself speaking out with the likes of Soong-Chan Rah and Eugene Cho while having to ask them to consider the cost of not speaking out against misogyny and sexism. And in the end my only regret is not pushing the issue further with them. We talked about whether or not “adding on” the issue of gender would hinder the effectiveness of our protest, and there was talk about whether or not we could go back and criticize content when initially we all had agreed that we were not as concerned with the content of the book.

Looking back, I would have pressed us to stop and say what we were hoping the authors would say. We made a mistake. We drew attention to the obvious – the random “Asian” images and objectification of culture for one’s own gain. But I wish I had quickly run out and taken a look at the book (which I did about two weeks into the mess), slowed down the online rant to a more thoughtful chapter-by-chapter analysis. Once I had the book in my hands I realized I had a problem with both the content and the images. I wish I had slowed down and then pressed the issue further because at the end of a day of explaining white privilege, stereotypes and brokenness I looked at a photograph in the book of an Asian woman baring her midriff, wearing an Chinese-styled dress carrying a Japanese samurai sword I had to come to terms with “male privilege” where the normative experience is that of men.

So I’m still thinking things through, praying that God will help me find a gentle, powerful voice to move forward without losing lessons of the past.

But I wasn’t alone in DV. This e-mail was sent out on March 11 in hopes of some clarification from a few folks involved.

Dear Jud, Mike, Chris and Stan,

I trust you are all doing both well and good, and you are connecting with Christ in a fresh way this Lenten season.

It has been almost four months since our paths crossed, but I suppose in some ways our telephone conversation and subsequent online “interactions” may still be fresh. I am writing not to open up old wounds but to see if you have any reflections or a response to all that happened in the fall now that there has been a little bit of time and space. I continue to have blog readers, friends and colleagues who watched the situation unfold ask me if I have had any contact with any of you (particularly Jud and Mike) and what if any thoughts I might share publicly.

Revisiting DV publicly didn’t seem appropriate until a follow-up of some sort had happened. You see, as I’ve replayed our phone conversation (with Mike, Jud, Chris, Nikki, Soong-Chan, Eugene and me) and re-read our joint statements post-conversation, I cannot help but shake the impression that our conversation would continue at some point offline. Perhaps I mistakenly assumed that Soong-Chan, Eugene, Nikki or I would be part of those conversations and that you have sought counsel of other Asian Americans. Was I wrong in assuming we would at some point come back to the table to talk?

Jud and Mike, I have been watching POTSC from it’s unexpected early start develop into what looks like a lively community ready to engage in learning from and extending second chances. I’m getting ready to write a follow-up reflection piece, and I’d prefer to include a public comment or two from either of you (or from Stan or Chris) in response/reflection four months later rather than a “no comment” or non-response. At the very least, I will be letting readers know by the end of the month that I’ve contacted you, perhaps including this e-mail, in hopes of getting us back to the table to talk again.

Please let me know what kind of response I can share publicly with my readers.

Peace,

Kathy


If You Only Had Four Years Left With Her

My daughter and I went shopping last night for her 8th grade graduation/confirmation dress. She was looking for fun, colorful and sparkly, and I was looking for my little girl.

I felt a bit scatter-brained, trying to focus on dress-shopping. Instead my mind kept racing ahead to high school and high school graduation, and then I found myself thinking about the next four years differently. Yes, academics and extracurriculars came to mind. And friends, boyfriends, and all the drama that comes along with high school came to mind. And college prep, exams, essays and application fees came to mind.

But what I kept going back to was that I might only have four years left.

When I left home for my freshman year at Northwestern, I had no idea that I would never really live at home again. I guess I thought that coming home for a few weeks in the summer meant living at home, but I didn’t factor in the internships, summer jobs and college friends who lived all over the country would change my time at home. And then I suppose I always kept the option of moving back home if there was a job change, etc. I never thought I would go from my first apartment and job to marriage and my first home. I always thought I’d go back home, I guess.

When I graduated I essentially moved from my apartment on campus to an apartment in Green Bay, WI. Some of my things stayed at my parents’ home for years, but eventually all of my personal belongings made their way in boxes and bags and large vehicles to wherever I was living. All three kids have read or been read to from my copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My daughter’s jewelry and makeup sit atop my childhood dresser. Her books and magazines are on my old desk.

As far as I’m concerned, the job of parenting won’t end. In Asian culture, your parents continue to play a strong, active role in your adult life until you or your parents die. In America, you’re an adult and on your own at 18. At least, that’s how I remember the difference. In my Asian American existence, the influence of parents and ultimately of culture is somewhere in the tension of the two sometimes polar opposite views.

Which is why I keep thinking about the next four years, wanting to be a combination of guide/cheerleader/coach/drill sergeant having had a driver’s seat view of the transition from high school to college with parents who did their very best but didn’t know the systems or even what to expect. We picked colleges based on reputation. I did one college visit alone – my interview at NU. We talked about the future, but I guess we never talked about home.

So I’m thinking about home, and how my daughter will always be welcome here in this house, my home, but sooner than either of us may think or know or want this may not be her home. I’m thinking about how to love my daughter, to delight in her and her drama, and to simultaneously trust God and steward the gift of parenting well because we may only have four years left to fold laundry together while watching some guilty pleasure on tv, harvest tomatoes and lettuce, wash cars and paint walls, raid my closet when I’m out of town and be home together in this way.

She tried on a nice pink dress that looked better on her than it did on the hanger, but it wasn’t the dress. I half-jokingly suggested she wear one of the flower girl/junior bridesmaid dresses she wore a few years ago, and she looked at me with that look. She’s not a little girl anymore, but we have four years together at home and at all the places we will be together and apart to discover the young woman she is becoming.


This is Our Story: InterVarsity’s National Asian American Ministries Staff Conference 2010

Here are some images from our national Asian American Ministries staff conference “This is Our Story“.

I’m still thinking about the conference and the significance of what we heard and saw and spoke of, and I’m still wrapping my brain around InterVarsity’s AAM history that began with Gwen Wong being hired in 1948.

1948.

I’m still thinking about the amazing legacy of women like Gwen Wong, Ada Lum, Jeanette Yep, Donna Dong and Brenda Wong who did more than blaze a trail for someone like me to follow decades later. Their legacy is clear and points in the direction I long for my legacy to follow.

I’m still thinking about how we label ourselves – Asian. American. Asian American. Indirect. Model Minority. Shame-based. Female. Working mom. Called. Leader. – and see ourselves through a different lens in order to see ourselves clearly.

I’m still thinking about the hymn that comes to mind when I think of the conference theme – Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance”. I learned that hymn in parts in Korean. And I’m thinking about how changing the lyrics from “my story” to “our story” makes so much sense in the Asian American context.

What is your story?


What Does It Mean To Be “Feminine”?

There is a great discussion going on about Mark Driscoll and the “chickified” male/church at the Jesus Creed. I’m running out the door so I’ll have to revisit topic, but I have blogged about  my concerns with similar thoughts on masculinity and femininity.

But controversy aside, I’m curious. I’m not sure who all of you are who read my blog, but I’d love to know how you would define, describe, live/seen lived out femininity? It can’t  be about lip gloss and twirly skirts, but sometimes we don’t push the conversation, the descriptors, the issues deeper than that, I’m afraid. What do you see in women that is a part of the image of God that is reflected uniquely in the feminine? Or is there such a thing? And does race and ethnicity play any role in how you’ve seen the feminine defined?

For you women, what about being a woman do you find joy or discomfort in? What about being a woman draws you closer to God or makes drawing closer to God more challenging?


The Balancing Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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


The Friends We Are & the Friends We Have

As a child I remember the most jarring part of moving was saying goodbye to Serge, Vikram, and Evangelia. They were the friends that made recess at Waters Elementary worth the wait and gave each of us someone else to blame when the walk home took longer than it should because we stopped at the little store to buy a piece of candy. We were the best of friends and having to find new friends was scary. It still is.

I suppose that is partly why after reading The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow, all I want to do is get together with some of my closest college girlfriends to catch up, cry, laugh, drink some wine and eat. K, P and C are not the childhood or young adulthood friends that are chronicled in the book, but they represent the closest I have come to the deep and enduring friendships I have just read about.

My husband said that though we hadn’t known each other for very long before our marriage, meeting my friends, watching us, and hearing us taught him so much about me. He was watching both the kind of friend I was as well as the kind of friends I had, and he continues to watch as some of my friendships enter a third decade while others are just starting out.

There was a season in my life when there was little space for new friendships. I craved connection to other new moms, but the demands of motherhood when life was full of infants and toddlers and preschoolers made establishing new friendships seem impossible. But God surprised me with new friends, some of them women I had known of or known years ago.

So now that there is a different pace to motherhood I find myself longing for friends like K, P and C to be both near and far.

To maintain the friendships from far away we have used technology to help us connect through three time zones. We have made celebrations and professional conferences as perfect excuses to get together. We will see how crisis and death in the future play into our reunions.

And to build new friendships I am simply trying – trying to set aside my own insecurities, competitiveness, and other character traits that desperately need God’s redemption and trying to be the kind of friend I have been so blessed by. Trying to be open to new things, but I’m really not sure I have the time for scrapbooking. (If any of you are reading this you know who you are 😉 Thank you for reminding me that I am still invited even though I joke about it being a cult.) Trying not just because I’m an extrovert but because we aren’t meant to do real life all alone. Trying because my daughter is watching and hopefully learning how girls and their friendships grow into women and their friendships. Trying because friendships have been good for my soul, made us more into the image of God we were created to be. Trying because laughing and crying and coffee and wine and a good book or a bad argument are always better with a friend.

How old are some of your most precious friendships and how have you weathered life’s transitions? How have you nurtured new acquaintances into deeper friendships? How have your friendships changed you?