Wondering out loud, as an extrovert often does…is it my imagination or is the media (and perhaps the public) more concerned with:
- the fact that Jackson, who is married to Chicago Alderman/Alderwoman/Alderperson Sandi Jackson, (and both Jacksons are African American) had a personal acquaintance flown in twice for a visit, and that said acquaintance has been described as female, blue-eyed, blonde and a hostess at a D.C. restaurant;
- or renewed interest in allegations U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was hoping some fundraising prowess was going to move him up on the U.S. Senate seat replacement list;
- or that Jackson, during an on-air radio interview in Chicago Friday, said that while he was in the room when, “two Indian fund-raisers began speaking practically in Hindu and that he didn’t participate in the talk or even hear it.”
Um, if Jackson didn’t participate in the talk or even hear the talk how did he know the two Indian fund-raisers spoke in Hindu? Oh, wait. Maybe because Hindu isn’t a language, therefore Jackson couldn’t hear it? Ugh.
Actually, I wouldn’t have known about Jackson’s comment except for the fact that I read about it in this morning’s newspaper (the paper version). Until then, what I read and heard about primarily was that allegations about Jackson’s involvement in the Illinois U.S. Senate seat pay to play politics were back on and that Jackson wanted at least two private visits with his blonde, female friend who is a hostess. I heard that Jackson and his wife have dealt with this private matter and want it to stay private. Blah, blah, blah.
Yes, I have bone to pick. Several, in fact. Why does it matter that the female acquaintance is blonde and a hostess? Surely it isn’t meant at all, not even a teensy weensy bit to discredit her or make her seem “less”? It’s rather perplexing, actually. We live in a culture that worships young and beautiful (and often paler shades of beautiful) at all costs and then when you actually are young-ish and beautiful you’re the “acquaintance”. And it really matters if you are the white acquaintance of a black man (a la Tiger Woods).
But this recent scandal is almost perfect because it hits on race, ethnicity, culture, gender and religion. Jackson’s radio comment hit a nerve with me because so many conversations, as difficult as they are, are whittled down to Black and White. Hindu is not a language but a religion and a religion not limited to but connected deeply with India as well as other East, South East and South Asian cultures. Conversations about race get even more complicated when we add different voices, stereotypes, assumptions and blind spots and Jackson’s off-the-cuff comment about not hearing the conversation because the fund-raising power brokers in this case were of Indian descent and allegedly broke out in “Hindu” is a great example of that complexity.
The media would have us more ticked off that Jackson had a white female acquaintance than the fact that he, a U.S. Congressman representing a diverse population, made a rather ignorant statement about his understanding of diversity and culture.
At some point the media will talk with the female acquaintance and we will see more unnecessary photos of said woman in various stages of dress and less-dressed. In some circles of politically involved Evangelicals, there will be conversations about leadership and integrity and marriage all sorts of important “values”. And I will put money on at least a handful of us women talking about the gender issues in this story…but will we – politically involved or invested Evangelicals, men and women, of all races and ethnicities, dare embrace the complexity and messiness of integrating issues of race, ethnicity and religion into our conversations. After all, Jackson knew how to talk woman and blonde (and dare I say presumably white) but he couldn’t hear Hindu. Maybe he didn’t want to see it either and I terribly afraid so many of us out here don’t either.
OK. That was awkward.
Why? Because that’s bragging, and the only bragging I grew up with was hearing my parents brag about other kids and hearing other parents brag about someone else’s kids. There is no “us” or “we” or “honoring the family” in self-promotion. Even when I’ve thought I toned it down by talking about God’s call on my life and my ministry when years and years ago I was asked to share about my job with InterVarsity I was told by a church leader that he was surprised and disappointed in me for only caring about myself.
The message has been to wait for someone else to promote me if that person, who is more credible, respectable, connected, etc. chooses to do so. Is it fair? That used to be the rhetorical question.
For me it’s not about fairness anymore because I get too emotionally hooked right there. I want to move the conversation to understanding leadership. Leaders, and I count myself in that broad category, need to have a level of self-awareness – our strengths, our weaknesses, our blind spots, our junk, our humanity, our passions. You get the picture. That also means understanding our influence. I am still learning, but in the meantime I have been blessed by advocates who understood and did not shy away from relational, influential leadership as a way to bring diverse, new voices into the fold, mine included, even when those voices aren’t proven on the big stage.
So I was recently asked by web strategist DJ Chuang if I’d be willing to start a list of Christian Asian American female leaders who would be great resources for other leaders, churches, conferences and organizations who are sincerely and actively looking for what I would call “new to them” voices and leaders for conferences, strategy meetings, etc. Because I can’t be the only one who is tired of hearing “we didn’t know who else to invite/ask/promote”.
Just for starters…
- Jeanette Yep
- Donna Dong
- Young Lee Hertig
- Melanie Mar Chow
- Nancy Sugikawa
- Nikki Toyama-Szeto
- Kathy Khang
- Hyepin Im
- Laura Cheifetz
- Helen Lee
- Christine Lee
- Asifa Dean
- Christie Heller De Leon
- Tracey Gee
- Ella DeCastro Baron
This is not an exhaustive list. I need your help. It’s pretty clear to me where some of my blind spots and limited networks are. Who would you add? If you’re not sure, who do you know who might know? Step up. Speak up. Advocate and lead, my friends. This certainly needs to be a longer list…and I’ll add links in between “Mommmy?” requests from my homefront.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I had never noticed them before. I’m sure I would have noticed them if they had been there just a few weeks ago. Without a doubt these were new, unwelcomed and unwanted – several white hairs peeking through my fashionably coiffed look. Maybe they were lost and on their way to someone else?
I had no problem with turning 30. By the time I celebrated my 30th I had been married 7 years, had two children and made a career change. It seemed right.
Turning 40. Well, I’m having a tougher time with that because friends who are telling me not to worry because 40 is the new 30 also had a tough time and are probably in denial as well. I don’t feel like I’m falling apart, but the warning signs are there. The knees actually call an audible when I’m headed up and down the stairs. Late nights require more and more recovery time. And I’m just waiting for the day when the words on the page make me wonder if it’s a lighting issue or if the copy is actually blurry.
But seeing those white hairs in the midst of my brown roots and reddish dyed hair made me stop to think about aging and what it means to age gracefully. So much of what I imagined has been internal – a growing and deep winsome wisdom akin to Erma Bombeck and Madeleine L’Engle mixed in with a touch of Obi Wan.
Our culture’s emphasis on external beauty is extremely unforgiving and unfair, especially but not exclusively to women (those “Just For Men” beard and mustache dye kit commercials are horrible). But I think we can agree that the scales are tipped against women more often than not. An older man on television communicates trustworthiness. An older woman on television is Betty White in a commercial. HD technology makes certain TV shows and movies come to life, but it has also meant that then evening newscasters will never look quite as glamourous. A nip and tuck or a chemical peel to the face in HD – well, you get my point.
But the crazy tension I find myself in is that Asian culture honors its elders. We have a thing about age. Now, I realize that Asia proper is changing and, the way I see it, not all for good. Women in parts of Asia have a thing for cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams, and the market for men is increasing as well. Eyelid surgery. Nose surgery. Chin implants. Nothing is off limits. But there is still a reverence that is reserved for our elders, and that value came in the hearts and souls of Asian immigrants. When my extended family and I sit down for a meal, my parents or father-in-law will always be seated and served first. On New Year’s Day we bow to them, acknowledging their place and the roads they continue to pave for us. We defer to them.
Aging in the Asian American community brings a special status of honoring and responsibility. Next week I head off to our national Asian American staff conference and what I hear over and over again is that I am one of the senior Asian American staff. Instead of waiting for an invitation to lead we are extending the invitations. Living in the tension of Asian and American I’m finding that with age comes experience and opportunity.
What does it mean to age gracefully? So much of my life was drawn out between absolutes – Christians do this and not that. Success looks like this and not that. Children should be like this and not that. Americans do this, but Koreans do that. I suppose that is why my knee-jerk reaction is to make a list of do’s and don’ts. Aging gracefully means letting my hair grow out in shades of gray and white and redirect my DIY hair dyeing skills to my daughter’s locks. Maybe? Maybe not?
I am an expert in kicking myself in the butt. For those of you who live life without regrets, this is not the blog post for you, friend. My life has been messy and beautiful and full of poor choices and better choices shaded by the inability to make decisions. I am grateful for the moments of perfect clarity and timing, but those are few and far between.
Some of those decisions rank low in the “change my life” category, like the beautiful red coat I spotted on the rack, tried on, considered buying and then decided against it hoping it would go on sale. The coat went on sale but out of stock in my size. That was more than 20 years ago, and every now and then I’ll kick myself in the butt for being practical to a fault (how many coats does a girl need?).
Other decisions are weightier . Will I stay home and put my career on hold when we start having children? How will we care for aging parents? How will we choose a church?
So when two opportunities of a lifetime vied for prime real estate on my calendar this fall I found myself in a familiar place – full of gratitude and momentarily full of whining.
Opportunity #1: to be home to see our children (and myself) through a major transition. This fall our oldest child is headed to high school. (Yes, I know. I don’t look old enough to have a child in high school. Yes, time has gone by quickly. Yes, she is nervous and Peter and I are too.) This fall our second child is headed to middle school. (Yes, we’re a little nervous. We’re not sure if he’s nervous, but neither is he.) And, our youngest, will be in 3rd grade and not have an older sibling at school. (Yes, he is excited and nervous, and so are we.)
Opportunity #2: to be one of 4,000 leaders from around the world to attend the Third Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010.
I know. Poor me.
I was honored & humbled to be invited to participate, and amazed at the opportunity to be a part of an international discussion on the critical issues we are facing and how they relate to the future of the Church. This was never in the career plans.
But after the thrill came the realities of the opportunity, the largest hurdle was time. Saying “yes” to #1 meant seeing my family through a once-in-a-lifetime transition, with the possibilities ranging from full of drama to smooth as butter. Saying “yes” to #2 meant being a part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a learn from international leaders and be a part of conversations that have a global impact. Raising money to attend and travel was one thing, but no one was going to be able to give me my time back.
All parents have to make choices weighing the pros and cons, comparing time and money against opportunities gained and lost. I have never been able to separate my statuses as Asian American Christian working mom and wife from one another, and this decision pulled on me in all directions and pushed all the right buttons.
When you say “no” to something, you are leaving open space to say “yes” to other things. That is what I tell other ministry colleagues, friends and even my family. In a culture and society that often screams “more is better”, saying “yes” to every good opportunity makes sense. Seize the moment. Carpe diem. No regrets. The phrases sound good and are wonderfully inspiring, perfect for a bumper sticker or status update.
But reality, at least the whole, big picture of reality, doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker. Saying “no” can feel foolish. Saying “yes” can feel selfish. It’s all so messy, isn’t it?
So, I thought I knew within a week which opportunity to say “yes” to because I saw once-in-a-lifetime one way. It wasn’t wrong, but a month later it didn’t feel right. I needed to let go of some angst, deal with ambition and self-image issues, figure out what space I was going to leave in my life and how to draw the margins.
This fall 4,000 leaders from around the world will gather in Cape Town, South Africa and I will watch Bethany become a high schooler, Corban become a middle schooler, and Elias become a third grader. I will not be discussing issues facing the Church, but I will be discussing scheduling challenges facing a family headed in five different directions. I will not be with thousands of international leaders, but I will be with three future leaders who will probably be running a little late or needing a little help and teaching me a few things about life in the process.
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity I could not pass up.
Right now my head is a bit stuffed up thanks to a cold, but the little voice inside my head usually takes no prisoners. This past weekend, however, it was not expecting such a direct confrontation.
“Why don’t you think you’re an ‘A-level’ speaker?” asked a respected colleague of mine.
The little voice inside my head was very quick on its feet and replied, “I actually don’t do a lot of teaching and preaching so I don’t get as much practice as an A-level speaker would have. I tend to ramble a bit. And, I let life hijack me and my emotions too much to bring my A-game every time.”
I’m fairly comfortable in front of a crowd, can make eye contact, etc. Larry Studt, my high school speech team coach, taught me well. I’m a good public speaker, not great. Good. At the same time, I’ve never considered putting my name in the hat to be the Bible expositor at our summer training weeks, nor have I considered myself to be of that caliber. Self-promotion is not my MO. I was raised to believe that if you are that good, someone surely will notice and advocate on your behalf. There is no need to toot your own horn if you’re that good, right?
Um. Sort of. Sometimes? Maybe? Not always?
I’ve often wondered if there is unique flavor to female self-doubt, or perhaps a unique spin to a woman’s self-confidence. I know so many strong, successful women who are often surprised when asked to consider putting their names in the hat for a promotion, a speaking gig, a leadership role. Add to that any cultural layers that explicitly or implicitly limit a women’s role and there you have a interesting combination – confident self-doubters.
My colleague later asked me what I could only presume was a rhetorical question: “Why aren’t you out there more speaking?”
There are a lot of good reasons. I’ve spent the past 14+ years having and raising three amazing children. Speaking gigs don’t always fit in between childbirth, nursing, weaning, teething, potty training, preschool, kindergarten and suddenly high school registration.
And perhaps there were a few opportunities to put myself out there and to get a little more training and experience when I let the little voice have too much space. Perhaps.
I’ve found ways to quiet and calm the little voice – mentors and trusted colleagues and friends who will give honest feedback, trying new topics and speaking in front of new audiences, and listening to my own voice.
What does the little voice inside your head stop you from doing or trying or experiencing? How, if at all, does gender or ethnicity, play into your experience of self-doubt? How have you silenced that voice of self-doubt or have you found it helpful?
This past weekend was good for my soul on so many levels, and I’m still thinking about the questions my colleague threw at me. And I’m rethinking, reconsidering how I might answer them the next time those questions come my way.
Articles like this make me want to celebrate and cringe. Change can be a very difficult, painful process. The desegregation of the church and a deeper and theologically rooted understanding of ethnicity, race and culture demands current systems, institutions and communities to change. I want to celebrate the steps taken at mega-churches like Willow Creek that acknowledge and recognize the world isn’t as White as their congregations have often been, but I can’t help but feel a teeeeeny bit annoyed.
Why? Well, maybe it’s because the arctic blast in the Midwest makes me annoyed at everything because I forget how fortunate I am to have heat in a house full of food and warm clothing. And, I’m a bit prickly. How does a congregation that is only 20% minority count as being integrated? (The Time magazine article cites 20% as “the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation”.) It feels like some odd application of the one-drop rule. Maybe someone out there can help me understand the significance of the numbers and specifically the 20% threshold.
And then if you read on in the article, there is this:
Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions “blows my mind,” says Emerson. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that “if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider” — and it could help smooth America’s transition into a truly rainbow nation.
Go back. I do hope I’m reading this incorrectly: “and a category containing whites and Asians”? Um. Are we, and I think Asian here means Asian American, lumped together in a category with whites?
I’m not White.
And my parents would argue I’m not Asian either.
Sometimes words and labels matter because assumptions are going to be made. Asians are not white. Asian Americans are not white. If we were, my answer to “Where are you from?” would never be followed by “No, I mean where are you really from? You know. Like where were you born?”
My prickly response here is to get us thinking, and to remind me to think, critically about the statistics, initiatives and innovations. What are we celebrating here? And how can we appropriately celebrate, re-group, look critically and then respond accordingly?
For example, if we stop too long in amazement over the racial make-up of the congregation we forget that the up front leadership at WC, by and large, according to the article remains white (the article does not mention gender). Where and from whom are the white leaders of churches like WC going to learn about the non-white experience? How will congregations that are 80% white experience multiethnic leadership if they never see it, hear it and submit to it at their own church?
Press “publish”. Holding breath…