More Than Serving Tea


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.

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Geishas, Wampanoag Indians and Rasta Hats With Dreadlocks. Why?

Would you let your teenaged daughter dance around dressed up like a geisha?

Or would you, as an adult, show up at a pilgrim feast dressed up in a generic Halloween “Indian” costume and let your “interpreter” speak stilted English to help portray a version of the first Thanksgiving feast?

Or would you be OK with your kid putting on a rasta hat complete with dreadlocks and say, “Give me all your money!” in an attempt to win a goofy group ice breaker?

These are the things Peter and I are discussing tonight as we have no stake in any of the amazing football games that were played earlier today. These are the things that keep me up at night because these are our realities as parents who are trying to raise three children in what some describe as a “post-racial” world.

Last week I saw a high school poms squad compete with all of their heart and dance skills dressed up like geishas. I snapped a photo, which I promptly posted on FB, and I sat there shaking my head. Their final pose was “hands meet at your heart in prayer” and bow. I expected a gong. They weren’t honoring the artistic skills and training of the geisha. They were demonstrating their modern dance team skills while perpetuating stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

But it wasn’t my daughter’s squad at the high school where my taxes go so what does it matter, right? Let it go, I tell myself. But I can’t. Or, I don’t think I should.

It made me think of our elementary school’s traditional pilgrim feast. I sat through two of those cringing at the construction paper feathered headbands the children had made for us parents, wishing I had the courage to say something appropriate after having experienced the first one, extending the benefit of the doubt and then having an even worse experience the second time. The man dressed up as the Wampanoag chief Massasoit wasn’t dressed as a Wampanoag chief. He was wearing a very nice Halloween costume. But I didn’t know what to say. I know it’s hard to believe I didn’t walk myself into the principal’s office two years ago, but it’s true. I don’t always know what or how to say things, especially when it’s clear this tradition was very, very old.

Let it go, I tell myself. Don’t ruin the tradition. But I’m having a tough time sitting here with myself.

And then Peter comes home after a fairly good weekend away at a retreat with our second child when he shares about an incident. The kids were asked to create commercials to promote their candidate (playing off this exciting election season), and one child put on a rasta hat with fake dreads and yelled out, “Give me all your money!” It was just enough to make Peter wince and talk to me about it at home…and show me the photo that he snapped.

Let it go, I tell myself. But maybe Peter and I shouldn’t.

Surely we aren’t the only ones who have seen things like this in our children’s schools and surrounding communities. What have you seen that made you uncomfortable, left you baffled, or made you angry?

What did you do or say?

Or, did you

just

let

it

go

?

 


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?


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.

 

 


Life and Death and Life In Death

It has been a long week.

By the end of tonight I will have been at the same suburban funeral home three out of seven days this week. One evening and morning were set aside to mourn the loss of Peter’s uncle, and one evening was set aside to mourn the loss of a friend’s father.

The two deaths this week gave way to opportunities to talk. I talked about my mother-in-law’s death with my husband and my sister-in-law – what we remember from the days leading up to and after her death, feelings and memories that rose to the surface after being together at the beginning of the week for Peter’s uncle’s wake and funeral.

I talked around death as my parents shared with me some details about their estate since it’s never a good time even though it’s always a good time to talk about life insurance policies and living wills.

All this talk, and I’m tired. I’ve been to many memorial services and wakes, but I have found those of first generation Korean immigrants to be some of the most mournful, sorrowful, and emotionally draining. Outward expressions of grief are limited to the occasional sob and cry, but the room is filled in black with a respectful, honoring, but heavy grief. No one but the presiding pastor speaks above a whisper, and stories are told without smiles or laughter.

Photo displays may include pictures filled with smiles and fond memories, but the photo by the casket, often marked by two black ribbons around the top two corners, is an expressionless headshot. It’s as if the person knows they will not be around to see this photo that captures life and death. It’s not unusual to see rather large flower arrangements adorned with messages of condolences written on ribbons or banners from the deceased’s or surviving family members’ Korean high school or college/university alumni association.

Some of the traditions, even in Christian Korean funerals, are connected to Korea’s Buddhist roots where the dead are wrapped in yellow hemp; the men of the deceased person’s family wear small bows made of yellow hemp and the women still wear small white ribbons (white being the color of death and mourning) signaling to the world around them that they are in mourning.

I once told my mother that I would not want to put my own children through that kind of memorial service when I die. My mother quickly shot back, “That is how you show respect to us when we die.”

The wake for a high school classmate’s mother was the first example of a different way to celebrate life and death. I walked in and was quickly alarmed and confused. People were sitting casually in small groups around the room, some dressed as if they were headed out to a nice lunch but there was enough color and lightness in the room that surprised me. I was wearing all black. (Actually, I wore a lot of black in those days, but that’s for another post.) They were talking, laughing, sharing tears and memories of my friend’s mother. There was talk about life in the presence of the dead, talk about life with life and laughter.

But in neither my Korean or American contexts have I found a good space to talk about death, particularly death in light of the living. I find it fairly easy to talk about those who have already died, but death and ways to celebrate life in death are more often than not reserved for the moments as families plan the funeral.

So it has come as some relief in the weightiness of the week’s events that this week began with Easter and last night was spent  preparing for Sunday’s worship service…

There’s a day that’s drawing near

When this darkness breaks to light

And the shadows disappear

And my faith shall be my eyes.

Jesus has overcome and the grave is overwhelmed

The victory is won, He is risen from the dead.


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.


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?


Move Over Santa. The Bunny Has Arrived.

As if Christmas in December and Christmas in July isn’t enough (though I don’t really know anyone who celebrates Christmas in July) we now have Christmas in the spring. Apparently it’s called Easter. Watch out Santa. There’s a target on your back and a bunny armed with eggs. You better hope they’re of the chocolate kind.

I’ve been reading my share of Lenten devotionals and posts from friends and favorite bloggers about the observation of Lent, fasting and feasting, but it was Sunday’s article and the increasingly larger Easter/”Spring” display at various stores that caught my eye.

Apparently the Easter Bunny is gaining popularity in the malls. It isn’t enough to take your kids dressed up in their holiday best to the mall to sit on some strange man’s lap, sorry, I mean Santa’s lap. Now you can do it with a different color palette and a big, giant bunny rabbit. Do you think they cry less for the bunny?

As a parent, this whole Easter basket turned bigger first hit my radar before my youngest was even born. A very kind neighbor dropped of a huge Easter basket for my two kids. It was taller than my son was at the time, and maybe I’m exaggerating, but it was big and full of candy and little toys.

On some level we deserve this. Peter and I lied to our kids and played along with Santa. For the record Santa gives one little gift and Mom & Dad give the other gifts and fill the stockings. And we told them about the Tooth Fairy. Apparently some Tooth Fairies give out $5s and $10s. Not here. $1 even if they pull the tooth out on their own. That actually happens quite a bit here.

Now my parents over time adopted what we knew as “American” traditions, including the tooth fairy, celebrating our Sweet 16th and “golden” birthdays, and the gift of a small treat of Easter chocolate and jelly beans in a small basket with plastic grass that disappeared and then reappeared most years. The point is that the basket of chocolate eggs and the Sweet 16 party were the same for me and my parents – American traditions not Christian traditions.

Anyway, about two years ago one of the kids came home to ask if the Easter bunny was going to leave them a gift just like their some of his friends’ Easter bunny does. The boys’ playmates would talk about what they were hoping to get on Easter, and each year what I see in the stores sets the pace – bigger displays and advertisements in the Sunday paper about Easter baskets and toys for Easter.

So I suppose it was only time before the bunny came a hopping for a piece of our consumer pie. Right? But is it right? Does it matter? How many more holidays – religious, pagan, religious made pagan and vice versa and simply made up become all about creating memories and buying stuff for our kids or for one another? How have you or where have you drawn the line in terms of Santa and the Easter Bunny?

I’ll write more later on why the Easter Bunny and the Christmas tree are important in our understanding of culture and a Western/American Christianity…I know you’re at the edge of your seats…


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.