More Than Serving Tea


Toyota, Women’s Figure Skating and Cultural Lessons

When the Toyota recalls made headline news my husband asked me one question: “You don’t think someone will commit suicide over this, do you?”

Absurd or plausible? How many of you understand where this question comes from or can’t believe Peter would ask such a thing?

When Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, criticized Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s apology for not showing enough remorse did you nod in agreement or get defensive? If you nodded in agreement, what would have demonstrated an appropriate show of remorse? If you got defensive what did you see or hear that might not have been as obvious or direct?

Last night’s women’s figure skating finals was beautiful and stressful to watch: Mao Asada v. Kim Yu-Na = Japan v. South Korea = two women carrying the weight of their respective countries. The entire country.

Overly dramatic sports commentators telling a story? Or did you feel the weight too? Did you feel relief for Kim Yu-Na and simultaneously feel the weight of a second place finish or did you wonder when America would once again be on the podium?

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that getting a ‘B’ or not getting into a top university or quitting every instrument I ever picked up brought shame and disgrace to my country, but I certainly understood that my family (and by family I mean those alive and dead) would forever be a part of each success and failure.

My father asked me to play the piano at the inaugural Sunday service of the church plant he was pastoring. I told him I really wasn’t sure because I’m not that strong of an accompanist. Practice may make perfect, but I really didn’t think I could practice close enough to perfect. My parents insisted in direct and indirect ways about how important this was and what it would mean for me to play the piano. I gave in. Big mistake. I was horrible. I was so embarrassed, but more for my parents than anyone else. We carried each other’s disappointment and embarrassment. We never talked about it. (Dad, if you’re reading this we still don’t have to talk about it.)

Multiply that by, um, infinity, and that might be what Kim Yu-Na and Koreans and Mao Asada and Japanese everywhere were experiencing – the weight of a nation carried by two women and their nations. (And I can’t even get into the historic animosity between these two nations…)

You could almost see that weight come off of Kim Yu-Na as she finished her long program and hit that final pose. We all saw it – it was obvious and indirect at the same time. Kim Yu-Na couldn’t explain in post-performance interviews why she uncharacteristically started crying, but the sports commentators filled in the blanks. They may not have felt a nation’s pressure on them, but they saw it and understood it enough to translate the indirect and subtle.

That’s what Rep. Kaptur missed during the congressional hearings. Perhaps she and the other politicians were expecting tears but what they missed was the indirect weight of a nation losing face and issuing apologies and testimony in both English and Japanese. Maybe they need a lesson in cross-cultural awareness, and watch some tape of last night’s figure skating performances. Maybe our politicians need cultural interpreters as well as language interpreters?

So what did you catch or miss or learn or find yourself explaining as an automotive giant was held accountable and an ice queen held court?


To Dye or Not to Dye and Questions About Aging Gracefully

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?


What Would You Do If You Won Olympic Gold?

There is something about the medal ceremony that gets me all choked up. It doesn’t matter who is getting the gold, which flag goes highest and which national anthem is played. My heart goes weak in the knees.

Maybe if I knew how to cross-country ski I might still have a shot at becoming an Olympian. I bet Korea would take me back if I trained for the women’s biathlon. I think the oldest female biathlon competitor in Vancouver is 34 and the oldest male biathlete is 39. My husband is laughing at me right now.

Anyway, if I won the gold I would sing at the medal ceremony. I would hold that bouquet in my left hand and awkwardly try to figure out how to hold it like a bridesmaid tries to figure out how to hold her overpriced flowers, put my right hand over my heart and belt out “Oh, say can you see…” knowing I’m not wearing a mic and grateful they aren’t playing that song they played at the naturalization ceremony.

But I’m wondering. If you won Olympic gold, would you stand on the podium and silently watch our flag be raised or would you sing along?


Rooting for Gold, and Waving Taegukki and Old Glory

The Olympics are fun. We see great sportsmanship and whiny losers. We see patriotism is not unique to America, and apparently neither is the practice of covering your face/balding head/body in your country’s/team’s colors with face paint. We test the kids on their limited knowledge of national flags. We dream, even for a moment, that our kids will be inspired to try something new but not something as crazy as the skeleton. And we pick our favorites and cheer for, root for, celebrate with or shake our heads in defeat for our team.

But in some families like my extended family, it’s complicated and fun because of who we are – Americans, Korean-Americans, Koreans. My parents and I had an interesting and momentarily tense conversation over Apolo Ohno, and we probably sounded a bit like a version of the Korean and American press. And then we settled down to a barbecue feast for dinner. My dad said grace in Korean (which my husband and children cannot understand, but I told the kids their grandfather asked God to remind the kids to obey their parents) and then we passed around the baked beans, brisket and ribs, and then turned on the television to watch more speed skating.

What has been so interesting to me has been my older son’s reaction to the Olympics. During one of the speed skating events, he was quick to notice that there was a Korean skater competing against an American skater. His reaction? “Hey, look! There’s a Korean and an American! Cool! Who do we root for?”

I swear I  have never whispered in his ears, “You are Korean first.” (I remember hearing those well-intentioned words and walking away deeply confused and conflicted because wasn’t I both Korean and American equally, at the same time?)

We’ve explained to him and our other two children they are Americans whose cultural and ethnic roots are originally from Korea. We’ve explained in different ways as each of them mature and experience life what the term Asian-American or Korean-American can mean and why I identify myself that way. We’ve explained to them why we bow to our elders on New Year’s Day and the significance of the rice cake soup, and they simply lord over their non-culturally Korean friends that they get gifts for Christmas and cash for New Year’s.

It bothered me a bit that he would feel like he had to choose, but then I had to stop. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that he proudly and delightfully identifies with both even though none of our children have stepped foot in South Korea and could one day become the President of the United States.

His pride in his Korean ethnic and cultural roots are not a result of being rejected by Americans (which was the case for me), and his pride in his birthright as an American isn’t born out of a jingoistic arrogance about America’s superiority (which I have often been on the receiving end). My journey, thankfully, is not his, and I am learning so much from his.

He asked this morning how the Americans and Koreans finished after last night’s events.

Corban, we all did well.


Do You or Don’t You: Valentine’s Day?

This will be the 18th Valentine’s Day sort-of-but-not-really-celebrated. Early in our marriage we were giddy-in-love and wrote notes and kept the local florist busy. One could fairly say we’ve become less romantic and increasingly practical. We are less giddy, more in love, write notes about getting the car’s oil changed and remember that cut flowers die but nothing says, “I love you” like getting one step closer to being debt free.

But if you must do cut flowers the $20 bunch at the grocery store placed in one of the many vases we received 17 years ago from our wedding will suffice. 😉

I grew up knowing my parents loved each other, but it wasn’t until college or so when I noticed my father making more of an effort to show my mother his love and affection. One year I remember he hung a little box containing a piece of jewelry on the gear shift of her car, and another year I remember he bought her a new watch and left it near her bathroom sink. The point is, I remember.

So every now and then Peter and I remember. We remember that our children are watching us and learning about marriage, commitment, honor, respect, faith, fighting fair and not so fair and…about love. We hug and kiss in front of the children. We argue with and apologize to one another in front of the children. We exchange gifts in front of the children.

But as a mother  I find myself looking far more critically at the messages around Valentine’s Day, and I get a bit weirded out. Commercials about men frantically trying to find the perfect sparkly something, floral arrangement, chocolates, lingerie, fragrance, etc. and print ads showing women wearing sparkly somethings or lingerie all for that special someone who isn’t necessarily their spouse until death is commercialized romance on drugs. I’m not sure it’s all that romantic let alone about love. Maybe it’s about “luv” – a generic imposter that looks like the real thing but falls terribly short?

I’m really not that cynical, but it’s a little crazy out there. Be careful. Seriously.

So this Valentine’s Day Peter and I will do what we’ve been trying to do for 17 years and lowering the pressure to compete with the commercials and celebrate our love. We will try to love our children and be kind and patient with them (and leave a little note and some chocolates for each of them), and we will try to love one another and be kind and patient with one another. We are hoping to have dinner with a young couple on the staring line of what will hopefully be a long running, long loving marriage. We can’t think of a more perfect Valentine’s Day.

What are your plans?


How Many Times Have You Sworn This Year?

I have raised my right hand and promised so many things so many times this year – to be truthful, that I am really me, that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law…So help me God.

Monday the cold medication was working remarkably well so I took the kids to our local library so they could check out books, video games and a movie while I took another oath. Actually, the plan was to register to vote…which required documents and another oath.

So there I stood with my kids at my side and with lookers-on looking quite confused as I again raised my right hand and repeated the words, which I can’t remember. I think I swore that I was who the documents said they were and that I lived where they said I lived. I don’t remember…

Which is a bit troubling to me. For all the oaths I’ve taken this year in my American journey, I can’t say that I remember many of those promises and allegiances. Hmm…


I Pledge Allegiance

Next week Tuesday I take my Naturalization Test and hopefully pass. The process has gone a lot faster than expected, but it has raised up a few more moments of angst for me.  I don’t see it as a negative thing – this wrestling with identity and a sense of belonging. I do not want to take for granted the place and privilege I have; I do, however, want to understand it.

Question #52: What do we show loyalty to when we say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Acceptable answers: the United States or the flag.

I’m actually studying because I am afraid of failing this test. It’s only going to be 10 questions, and I need to answer 6 correctly. 60%.  Some of the questions are easy but will require some restraint on my part. I don’t think I will get any extra credit for snarkiness. For example: what is the economic system in the United States? Answer: capitalist or market economy. Snarky answer: broken.

But I am learning a few things while I wrestle through the emotional process of becoming a citizen of the country I grew up in. Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge, and it was published in 1892 for children to say on the anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. The quotes are mine.

Since 1892 there have been two changes to the pledge. The original pledge was to “my flag”, and Congress added the phrase “under God” in 1954.

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I have always felt strange pledging allegiance to the flag. It’s not like I’m bowing before a god, but it certainly does feel different than say singing the national anthem. I’m not sure what it is…I’m still trying to put my finger on it.

I remember learning it in school, and thinking the phrase was “I pledge of allegiance”. I remember getting confused with hand placement – right hand over the heart for the pledge. Right hand held up with thumb and pinky down for the Girl Scout promise. Sorry. I was 5. What I don’t remember is how the teacher explained the pledge and why we say it.

Have any of you read James Clavell’s The Children’s Story? It’s a quick read – a tale of a teacher and her classroom and how education can become re-education. The teacher is trying to explain the pledge and the exchange between students and teacher is what I resonate with the most. Why do we say what we say if we don’t believe all of it or understand it fully?


Calcium, Sleep and Phone Calls Just Because: Welcome 2010

I’ve been MIA with the holidays taking over life. We had a great but full two weeks with family, friends and food, but today (Monday) the kids went back to school, and I went back to my Monday routine – cardio and sculpting class, lots of water, one latte, less food than last week’s average and quiet office time in my happy green office.

Our family rang in the New Year with Korean food, Japanese soda, a few rounds of Pit, a looooong round of Mexican Train (does anyone know why that dominos game is called Mexican Train? Elias wanted to rename it Asian Train), and lots of laughter over my inability to wakeboard on Wii Resort. I was asked what my New Year’s resolutions were…I usually don’t make resolutions because I don’t like the pressure.

But after thinking about it for a few days there are just three things I’d like more of in my life:

1. Calcium – there is nothing like seeing your shrinking grandmother to remind you that stronger bones are within reach. I started working out with more intentionality in 2008, and by the fall of 2008 I added weights (my sculpting class) to my routine. I love the class but I hate crunches and crazy pushups. This year I will finally listen to my doctor and add calcium supplements.

2. Sleep – I don’t get enough of it and it shows. It’s already past my bedtime. No LOST episodes tonight.

3. Phone calls just because – in an age of text messages, Facebook and blogging it’s tough to keep up and keep in touch with friends. Seriously. Status messages are great, but if I can’t see someone face-to-face hearing their voice is second best, not seeing an emoticon. I used to regularly call friends just to chat for a few minutes – no agenda, no reason, but technology in many ways created more busy work for me. I’m hoping to slow things down a bit and pick up the phone more often.

And if I had a #4 it would be to be more welcoming to all the newbies in my Monday morning cardio and sculpting classes.

Do any of you make New Year’s resolutions?


Christmas Traditions New and Old

It’s two weeks away from Christmas. Are you feeling anticipation and excitement or is there a sense of panic, anxiety and dread?

Usually about this time I want to run away or let the kids run around the house to find the presents so we can enjoy them as their winter break starts and so I don’t have to waste wrapping paper. We live in America, and this is not Christmas. This is the holiday season, and the holidays make people crazy. I just saw a lady get out of her car to scream at another driver in the parking lot. Crazy scream with arms flailing. Happy holidays, lady.

I love Christmas, and the older I get the more I cling to traditions, new and old. I have faint memories of decorating the tree. My hope is that my kids will have much more vivid memories of decorating the house and the tree. Decorating the tree together is a must. Each child has a set of “their” ornaments – their baby ornaments, the homemade ornaments, the school photo in a frame ornaments. Bethany has an ornament that looks like a pair of pointe shoes. Corban has a few Star Wars ornaments. Elias has a few Star Wars ornaments. Peter has a few Star Wars ornaments. I have one of a cup of coffee, and Elias just bought me one with my name on it.

I’ve told the kids that when they grow up and move out they will get to take their ornaments to their new home to decorate their first Christmas tree with while I cry buckets. There is a pang in my heart even as I write this.

A few years ago when I was serving as the worship director at a church I introduced the church to Advent. Congregation, meet Advent. It helped us as a contemporary worship service kind of church and me as a selfish, working out my personal issues through my parenting person remember that waiting for Christmas and our Christ invites us to do just that – to wait, to hope, to anticipate, to see.

Last year we asked the kids to wait to open their presents until we had a short family devotion and then lit the center candle – the Christ candle. There was some grumbling, but it was worth the wait. This year we will do the same, except this year I will remember to blow out the four tapers before we open gifts because purple and pink wax all over the artificial wreath is messy.

I’d love to hear from all of you…what are some of the traditions you keep during this blessed season?