More Than Serving Tea


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.

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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.


Korean-American Wedding Guide for Hire: Me

Have you ever been to a wedding and wondered why the father of the bride didn’t crack a smile or why the bride and groom genuflected before the parents? Did you think it was strange if not out right rude for 1/4 of the guests to leave right after dinner? Or what were the parents throwing at the bride and groom? And what was in those envelopes on the table set up with food and dates and sake?

If you are invited to a Korean-American wedding in Chicagoland I’m available to serve as a cultural guide of sorts. I figure I’m some sort of expert on Korean-American weddings since Peter and I had one almost 18 years ago, back before you could rent a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing – ours were custom-made and sent to us from Korea by my aunt and uncle) and all the fixings for full on pae-baek ceremony (a Korean wedding ceremony, which we did after the “American” ceremony) or find a make-up artist who specialized in Asian American bridal makeup (btw, Grace, you are beautiful – your amazing make-up artist, who I would hire if I were getting married, had the perfect canvass to work her magic on) or find wedding planners, venues and catering companies that will work with brides who want to cut a wedding cake, take amazing and creative photos and serve up a mean buffet of white rice, braised short ribs, kimchee and wine. Yummy.

This past weekend Peter and I had the honor and joy of attending the wedding of two Northwestern University Asian American InterVarsity alumni, Grace and Nate, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of many other IV alumni and friends as we discussed different wedding traditions – cultural and generational.

For example, it’s an unwritten rule/a guideline/strongly suggested at Korean-American/Asian-American weddings that the extended family is introduced in some manner. Sure, the wedding party and bride and groom often make their way into the reception to some fun music, but aunts and uncles, grandparents and sometimes cousins get a mention and applause. Why? Because they are FAMILY. The wedding is about the bride and groom…and their families being joined together. Some have travelled cross-country, others cross-countries, not just to be in the pictures but to be a present reminder to the bride and groom of the depth and history of their family, and their presence is a blessing, sometimes out of obligation, but usually out of a deep sense of tradition. You are there for your family in the good times and in the hard times. The people who are there for the weddings will be there for the funerals, too.

Another thing we pointed out was the generational mass exodus that usually occurs after the meal has been served and before the dancing begins. I remember many years ago at another Korean-American wedding reception, the “older” guests ate, thanked the parents of the bride and groom, and then promptly left, leaving several tables empty and lots of extra cake. A non-Asian American wedding guest commented on the rude departure, and I said to her what I write now: it wasn’t rude. Didn’t anyone teach you manners?

Don’t overstay. For the older generation, they are there out of respect for their friends – the parents of the bride and groom, and they leave to make plenty of space for the younger generation to have their fun out from under the glare and perhaps confusion of the older generation.

When Peter and I got married, logistics limited our options for a reception so my parents offered to pay for a second reception of sorts at the nearby Holiday Inn so that our friends – julmu-nee-deuhl – could dance and laugh and celebrate on our own.

As we watched Grace dance with her father and Nate dance with his mother, the talk at our table turned to the pros and cons of having such a private and sometimes slightly awkward moment in such a public way. And we talked about about the future and how I couldn’t imagine Peter and Bethany sharing a “traditional” father/daughter dance. I imagine something that starts out to “Butterfly Kisses” and quickly devolves into the history of dance. Peter’s and my parents came to our second reception and tried the whole father-daughter/mother-son dance and fortunately it quickly evolved into a wedding party free-for-all and bridal party cry fest. My father and Peter’s mother loved us, respectively, but dancing was never going to be their thing so we moved on to Bizarre Love Triangle. I suspect Peter reviving the Cabbage Patch will be a perfect moment for him to share with Bethany.

Over the years we’ve seen a handful of older family and friends stick around and dance as I suspect they too have been to more and more wedding receptions and learned to cross the generational boundaries brought here to America. There was a very awkward moment this weekend when a few aunties were out on the dance floor with one lone single guy…

It has been fun to be on the guest-side of weddings and to learn about groom’s cakes, dollar dances, breaking glasses, jumping the broom and wedding sponsors – fun because we’ve so often had friends or gracious guests who have helped us navigate the cultural waters.

And though it’s a few weeks before the wedding season is in full force, I love a good wedding story. What are some of the cultural traditions and twists you added to your own wedding or have seen others incorporate into their special day? What are some things you’ve seen at other weddings that needed explanation and taught you something about your friends you didn’t know?

 


Pickled Herring & Breakfast For Dinner

No, I am not making this up. This is why one step at a time I am learning to love my church.

Last night was our annual Family Advent Night – a fun night of gathering together to do a family craft and eat breakfast for dinner. My kids have learned to love having breakfast for dinner. Seriously, who wouldn’t love being offered the choice of plain or CHOCOLATE CHIP pancakes for dinner?

So having breakfast for dinner was one of those cross-cultural experiences that happened over time – trips to IHOP or Denny’s late at night/early in the morning after some dancing at Medusa’s during my high school years, trips to Omega late at night/early in the morning after studying or formal in college. But that wasn’t really eating breakfast for dinner. It was having second breakfast. But, it was a primer for this Korean-American girl who would eat rice and kimchi jigae for breakfast, lunch and dinner if she could.

In addition to breakfast for dinner was a special delivery for M – his jar of pickled herring that I’m going to guess he bought at our church’s summer missions silent auction. M sat down and with the same look on his face that I have when I’m sitting down to a meal I know I am going to enjoy, he opened his jar of herring. For background sake, I attend an Evangelical Covenant Church – a denomination with deep Swedish roots. No, not “Hey, I like Ikea” Swedish (I love those meatballs) but Swedish. And maybe, for some at my  church, so much so that they don’t know how Sweden and its values and traditions have been integrated into church and life until someone like me shows up and wonders what the deal is with pickled herring and hymns sung in Swedish and Advent candles in blue (is that Swedish?) and coffee at night and respectfully restrained worship.

Back to the herring.

Truth be told, I’ve heard of pickled herring but until last night I had never actually seen it. And while I’ve known folks who have offered me arroz con pollo, pan tres leches, collard greens, lumpia, pho and chicken feet there are other foods, like pickled herring, I’ve never had the opportunity to see or taste.

Which is why I am so grateful that M offered me a taste of his pickled herring because food, and the food of my people and of your people, is such a part of we are, and how we live, etc. Food can tell the stories of why our ancestors ate what we eat, values, land, traditions. It doesn’t define us, but food certainly is a part of who we are. Even authors of the Bible shared stories of  and with manna, milk and honey, unleavened bread and water and wine.

So I tried the herring. Not bad. Personally I think it would have gone great with some rice and kimchi (pickled spicy cabbage), but that’s just me. What I loved is that we broke bread (pancakes, sausage, fruit and pickled herring) and shared a sort of communion in a most unconventional way but hours later is still leaving my soul deeply connected to God and the beauty, diversity and richness of His creation and His people.