Lunar New Year: 2nd Generation Korean Edition

Happy Chinese New Year to all my friends who are celebrating! I am not Chinese, but like most Asians I am familiar with the lunar calendar. Personally, I did not grow up celebrating Chinese/Lunar New Year. I do know Korean American friends who have new year’s traditions they carry out often on January 1st. They wear hanboks (traditional Korean outfits), eat dduk gook (rice cake soup), and bow to their elders for envelopes of money. I keep searching my memory for any signs of these occurrences, but all I come up with is that I would be a year older in Korea based on the lunar calendar. There could be many reasons for my lack of memories including my extended family all being far away (mostly in Korea), not having the money or access for new hanboks every year, and living in Appalachia where the need for assimilation was high and the number of other Asians who celebrated was low.

For some of us in the second generation, there is a desire to hold onto traditions regardless of whether or not they were strong in our own families. As we become more like the mainstream culture, we may feel a need to retain what little remains of our heritage. While I will not make dduk gook, I will try to honor this holiday in my own way. These are personal memories I do have as a child of Korean immigrants, and I will take extra effort and pride in keeping them alive.

  • When we eat our spaghetti tonight, I will use chopsticks and have a side of kimchi just like my dad.
  • Instead of using our regular plates, I will use the few Corelle bowls I own. I have to say that the few Corelle pieces I have are unbreakably rock solid. No wonder many immigrants used this very affordable, practical dinnerware. Ours had the iconic blue butterfly pattern. Ironically, many of my overpriced Pottery Barn plates and bowls have chips and cracks on the rims.
  • Instead of opening a new bottle of lotion this week, I am scraping every last bit from the stubborn bottom of the current bottle. This means applying lotion takes twice as long because I am using the thin pump straw to scrape a tiny speck out at a time intermittently between upside down heavy shakes where I am banging the pump-less bottle hard enough to create red welt circles all over my empty palm. Growing up, we used every last drop of everything. Bottles were turned over for days until they were truly empty.
  • I will keep having my kids do extra workbooks. Those extra few minutes are still nothing compared to the hours and hours and hours that kids in Korea spend studying every single day.
  • I will hand wash my dishes tonight. The dishwasher will be an oversized drying rack instead of a washing machine. My mom used hers to store bakeware.
  • I will keep making friends who come over take off their shoes when they come inside our house. It is not just Asian tradition; it is also way more sanitary.
  • I will call my husband “yuh-boh” today. My parents still call each other this term of spousal endearment to the point that my boys will call out, “YUH-BOH!!” like they hear their grandparents do. I have NEVER heard either of my parents call each other by their first names. Koreans do not usually use actual first names. They refer to one another in these general terms of endearment and respect. Even when using names to younger family, there is often an attachment to the name that embodies affection. I love that and wish I had my boys use it. Connor would then call Ethan his “hyung” or older brother to a boy. Ethan would add a “shee” or “yah” sound to the end of Connor’s name when calling him. It is similar to loving nicknames in other cultures. I guess we kind of do that now in our own way but calling the boys our bumlee’s (as in “Hey, bumlees, get ready for bed!”) does not have the same ring to it.
  • I will call my parents. Growing up, my parents rarely got to speak to their parents because long-distance international calls were so expensive. There was no email. There was no texting on apps like Kakao. There was no Skype. There was snail mail where they would write letters in Korean on those white envelopes marked “Air Mail” with the blue, red, and white border stripes and then wait weeks for a reply. There were occasional calls where they would yell through the receiver through the sound delay and time change to feel a connection across the Pacific. The call I remember the clearest is of us in our green linoleum kitchen while my dad was on the phone attached to the wall because his sibling called to tell him my grandmother had died. It was the only time in my childhood I saw my father cry. Those were the times the telephone expense was definitely worth the cost.
  • I will look up flights for my parents to come visit during our kids’ spring break. As infrequent as communication was for them, the visits were even more so. My mom moved to the United States in 1969. She was not able to return to Korea until I was a toddler in 1976. That means she did not see her family for about 7 years. After that trip, she did not go again until 1988, twelve years later. This was reality for immigrants needing to live frugally. I lament that my parents are 2 domestic flights away that keep our visits to a handful of times a year. But I also rejoice that I get to see them a handful of times a year. They worked hard for me to have that luxury.

These are just a few of the things I remember from my childhood that I do not want to forget. Fellow 2nd culture kids, you may recall some of the same or similar things. You may have many other very different recollections. I would love for you to share them. However you celebrate your heritage whether on a holiday or not, I am sending out a nod of solidarity. I trust you will take the time to remember and let your children remember through you as well. Happy year of the Monkey!


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Immigrant Images

Over winter break, our family spent some short but sweet time in our beloved Chicagoland. One morning we met up with friends for brunch in Greektown. While we sipped coffee and caught up on life, I noticed an older gentleman outside in the cold. The whole time we were leisurely eating he was bent over a shovel clearing the sidewalk of snow and ice. This man stood out to me. He was probably my dad’s age. Except instead of being retired and traveling the world, he was working hard…back-breakingly hard.

 I have no idea if he was an immigrant. I just assumed it because of all the little contextual clues. Maybe because he made me think of my dad, another hard-working immigrant.

Maybe because a couple days earlier we had lunch in old Koreatown. Again we caught up on life with dear friends this time over Korean chicken wings and Chinese noodles. Mike has been eating those wings since his (prehistoric) high school days at the same exact restaurant. These days though the owner’s daughter is at the cashier. In her friendly, smiling way, she told us how her parents are still cooking in the kitchen just like they have been doing for the past 30-some years. They are especially busy during the holidays. All of them (many familiar servers) worked for 2-weeks straight without anyone taking a single day off. These Chinese immigrants have worked enough sweat off to fill Lake Michigan. We don’t just love them for making our stomachs happy. We respect them for much more than that.

For me, a child of immigrants, I cannot think of them without thinking of the immeasurable sacrifices, loneliness, racism, language barriers, sweat labor, self-denial, and back-breaking work that have been an inevitable part of their lives. As a child of immigrants, I have greatly benefited from all that loving sacrifice in ways I can never repay. That is what makes America great. Opportunity, not limits. Bridges, not walls. For those who have never had the pleasure of personally knowing with some depth the stories of real immigrants, please do not rely on political rhetoric to form your thoughts. Seek the true stories of those around you and appreciate the undeniable humanity behind them.

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My Favorite Christmas Gift

Confession: Many times I feel that our little Beckett family can be quite negative. We easily lose sight of our many blessings. We find ourselves nagging, whining, yelling, and speaking in harsh tones to one another…often. It is not just that we are a certain personality set (sarcastic and/or inexpressive), but that we fall into a rut of taking one another for granted and easily staying stuck in barking mode (only Harper should be doing this and she is the most quiet of us all).

Just before Christmas, I had a moment of inspiration and decided to force our family to give gifts to one another this year. Usually, Santa is the only giver of gifts under the tree and in stockings with an occasional cute craft from school for us. On the afternoon of my freak inspiration, the boys and I sat at the dining room table with notebook paper and pens in hand and wrote letters. We each wrote one to every other member of our family. They had to be free of negativity. They could be things we appreciated about one another or were grateful for in that person. True to form, Ethan was less than enthusiastic about my idea. So much so that he begged me to LET him do workbooks instead. Nope. If anything, the more resistance to the exercise made me think the more that person needed to do it. Ethan really, REALLY needed to do it.

Hard at work writing (even if reluctantly)

Hard at work writing (even if reluctantly)

We quietly wrote, folded up our letters, and dropped them in the proper stockings. When Mike came home from work that day, he dutifully did the same.

I showed the boys how we "texted" in the olden days with these folded notes.

I showed the boys how we “texted” in the olden days with notes folded like this.

Last night we arrived back from our holiday travels. The boys were eager to open their gifts but wanted to read the letters first. We all sat with our stockings and read our 3 letters. Some were short, some were long, but all were filled with love. Connor’s letter to me made me laugh when he ended it with, “Even when your [sic] mean, I still love you.” Ethan wanted me to read Connor’s letter to him that described his big brother as having a loving, kind, and cool heart. Ethan’s smile was so big that it covered all the unspoken feelings contained in his simple “good” when I asked him how that made him feel. Maybe it didn’t make him (LOUDLY) squeal in delight like the box of Pokemon cards Santa gave him, but I’d like to think that all those words sunk into a foundation of security upon which we can keep building. Because from here on out, this is our new Christmas tradition.

My favorite gifts

My favorite gifts

Chances are that the Beckett’s coming year will still have its fair share of negativity. Change is hard to come by and we are creatures of habit. However, I would like to think that these past 24 hours have already been profoundly affected. I would like to think that such priceless gifts in our stockings each year will continue to combat that negativity with greater success. I would like to think that the boys will grow to learn that the greatest gifts are not those that can be bought and wrapped but those that are simple and meaningful. After all, Christmas is more about Gifts we cannot put a price tag on than those we can.

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Being Asian in Albuquerque

Some days I FEEL more Asian than other days. Yesterday felt like an 8 on the “how-Asian-do-I-feel” scale.

When I go to an Asian-owned business here, there is a good chance that an employee will ask me my specific ethnicity. This is different from when your average non-Asian asks the “Where are you from?” question, but is more like “Yo, homey, are you my kind of Asian or another? There aren’t that many of us here so I need some solidarity.” I answer and sometimes ask in return. The waitress at the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant asked me this as some folks and I were getting lunch. I answered as usual, but this time it made me realize the difference between me and my other dining companions whose chances of being asked that question were slim.

Then when we ordered a round of sake she asked to see our ID’s. The chances of me being asked for my ID are 95% whether I am at a restaurant, bar, liquor store, grocery store, or Costco. Yet my companions seemed a little surprised and celebratory for the compliment to our age. We are old enough to think it a nice gesture….except that for most Asians who look 12 all the time it is just the norm. I am more surprised when I am NOT asked. I often wonder what they think when they check my date of birth and realize that I have been giving my ID for decades. DECADES. Our waitress was honest and reacted accordingly, “Oh wow, you look much younger than you are.” Or something like that. I keep waiting for it to be a compliment for me, but for some reason it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels a little embarrassing that every time I partake of an adult beverage I am pretty sure the servers are putting on their best poker faces while thinking, “Dang, not only did I think this lady was 12, but she is actually significantly older.”

Later when I took the dog for a walk (or more accurately, she took me for a walk pulling me along so hard that I got leash burn on my hand), I ran into four young girls. After awing over Harper’s cuteness, they asked me if I had kids at the local elementary school.  They confessed that they wanted to get outside from their big party because well, their parents inside were OLD. I agreed that adults can be pretty boring. I could sense that they were giving me the inside scoop as a non-OLD parent. Little did they know that my Asian genes had me at about the same age as their lame OLD parents. Maybe the waitress carding me was not a compliment, but being “in” with the 5th grade girls made me thankful for my youthful genes. I could have kept chatting it up with them about boys, teachers, and what was on my iTunes playlist had one of them not dismissed me. (“Thanks for talking with us!” code for “bah-bye!”) I guess I was not as “in” as I thought, and I wish I could explain logically why that even mattered to me. But chalk one up for Asian genes. Had they been close enough to see the crows’ feet framing my eyes, they might not have indulged me in the insider conversation we had.

The teppanyaki lunch was after our outing to the movies. We were there for opening weekend, baby! That’s right, the movie we have all been waiting for….Sisters! (You thought I meant that other one?) I have always been a fan of Fey & Poehler and many of their SNL cohorts and want to support women in comedy doing their thing. It was rated R for plenty of reasons, but those ladies seriously crack me up. Again though, I felt quite Asian when the Asian girl(s) were on the screen. The movie did poke fun at the ignorance of the average non-Asian, but at the same time it was in a way that had me laugh in slight awkwardness. May there be a day when we escape from stereotypical roles and be known enough to just be a regular person. It can happen. I saw a woman of color on the same screen just there as a regular party guest. From what I could tell, she was married with kids and that was blessedly it. Not angry, not loud, (aka not stereotyped) but just regular. One day I hope to sit in a theater and see that person on the screen representing me and not the limiting stereotypes of Asians I see on the screen most times. It can happen.

It made me wonder if that is the only way most non-Asians see us especially in a place like Albuquerque where the percentage is slim. We are either nail salon workers, Asian restaurant workers, or on occasion a doctor or scientist. Those things are true. I guess I just miss being in a place where there are so many of us that we become more than those 3 categories. I am hardly asked my ethnicity in large cities because there are so many that the need for feeling solidarity is less. Non-Asians may think that there are more than I think here in the ABQ. But that perspective is usually from a majority view where we stand out. So having 2 of us in a group of 10 seems like a TON, like we are taking over. But if there were to be only 2 whites out of 10 non-whites, I think the feeling would not be that there are a good number of white folks in that group, but of unquestionably being the very few. Like how I feel on those days I feel pretty Asian. Percentages mean different things when made up of different people.

My older son read over my shoulder the first paragraph of this post. I asked him if he felt Asian here in Albuquerque. He said, “No.” I immediately thought, ‘Great, my son does not know his ethnic identity! He is not going to feel Asian at all growing up here. He won’t be able to appreciate the unique heritage given to him by God.’ Then he said, “I don’t FEEL Asian…but I know that I am.” Maybe I have a lot to learn from my offspring. I hope he always KNOWS it. On those occasions where he may also FEEL it, I hope he does so in a way that allows him to celebrate the uniqueness that is his. Even if it means feeling somewhat “other” or alone, may that feeling propel him to greater empathy for all those familiar with that blessing of discomfort. The good that can come of that is worth the awkward laughs and slight embarrassments. Feeling Asian can mean many things. I have to remember that it is always a gift.

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What I Shared At Grace’s Memorial Service

I met Grace in 2005 when my husband Mike and I started the downtown community group for New Community Covenant Church. At the time, she was a new attorney for Legal Assistance Foundation and like us was also relatively new to our church and Chicago. Starting a new group was hard but thanks to the faithfulness of members like Grace, our newly formed group steadily grew into a tight-knit community.

For some reason, that group had a lot of lawyers in it. Not many people would think that having a bunch of lawyers together is a good thing. But not many people are as good as Grace. Just a couple months after our group had started, she was already asking for prayer requests about starting a legal clinic at the church. Grace could not take the statistics about low income Chicagoans not getting the legal help they needed without coupling it to the divine provision of a community group with a large number of attorneys. She had to become part of the solution herself and mobilized others to do their part as well. She and another member Suzy Choi worked hard to make this vision a reality. After 2 years of praying, planning, researching, networking, and meeting, Micah Legal Aid officially held its first clinic in February of 2007. Many great volunteers came and went, but Grace and Brant stuck with it for years. It wasn’t enough that she dedicated her full-time profession to serving those in need, but she also dedicated a huge portion of her personal time to provide the Logan Square community with free legal aid.

What I also remember of Grace from all those times in our community group was her intense pursuit of truth and how seriously she considered scripture and faith. There were no pat-answers in discussions because folks like Grace were constantly taking us deeper. She was a true philosopher. But she was also a well-rounded person. She could expound upon intense theology one minute and then sing and dance to 80’s music like the life of the party she was. We watched her grow into a strong leader simultaneously with the birth of Micah Legal Aid. She regularly facilitated for both our community group and the women’s group that met separately and endured years after the downtown group ended.

In 2012 my husband became very sick to the point that he had to take 3 months of medical leave. During this debilitating illness and constant family stress, Grace reached out to us on several occasions. She was part of the tangible caring that rallied to our side, praying for us and encouraging us. She shared her own very personal and very vulnerable stories of family sickness and hardship and connected us to resources like her good friend Peter for whom my husband and I are grateful. She was part of the loving community we hated leaving when better health meant moving across the country for a new job.

The last 18 months were my turn to reach out to her in a time of devastating illness and stress. She knew of my background as a hospice social worker and perhaps felt a freedom to pour out some heavy things that naturally come when facing cancer. Over the course of time, we reversed roles, and she became a spiritual mentor to me. She was fully human: struggling with God’s will, wondering where He was at times, and feeling the agony in the deepest parts of her soul at the mere thought of leaving Brant and Dylan. It’s what made her faith accessible to the rest of us; there was no pretense or loftiness. Only the strongest of faiths can question, doubt, wonder and struggle while steadily maintaining unwavering trust in His sovereignty. In her constant battle, physical torture, and mental anguish, she never let go of her belief that God was still good, that He was still faithful, that He was still carrying her through the storm. Just as she had 10 years ago, she doggedly pursued truth in scripture and earnestly sought him in her prayer closet.

Mike and I were able to visit with her and Brant in July. The first thing I noticed from the last time we had seen her at Christmas was the physical changes. That initial observation quickly faded because it was completely overshadowed by the greater spiritual change in her. I can’t quite describe it, but there was definitely a purity in her faith that I had never witnessed before. She was still speaking of the struggle: living with one foot in the world of the living and one foot in the world of death. She was still agonizing over what His will for her was. And even so she was also still showing her familiar sense of humor that had us smiling. But there was a greater presence of the Holy Spirit emanating from her. When we emailed later back and forth about it, she said that being sheltered from the world forced her to see God more clearly and hear his voice of comfort and love. I was floored when she said she did not regret getting cancer because in it he had brought her from what she considered a dark place to life changing repentance through his amazing grace. It showed how her sharpened spiritual eyes could see the blessings that far outweigh anything this world could offer. While weak, tired, and enduring unspeakable hardship, she was praising God in genuine gratitude.

By the time I saw her for the last time just a month ago, she had come even deeper in her faith. I didn’t think it was possible considering how focused she always was throughout everything, constantly giving testimony to her God, constantly relying on Him and attributing her unbelievable strength to Him. Gone though was any sign of spiritual struggle. Instead she had a peace given to her just a few days prior when He answered her earnest seeking of Him in all of this. We had talked before about how physical healing is the obvious miracle, but peace that passes understanding in the face of life’s harshest trials is a truly miraculous act of God. Grace displayed this miracle. With tears streaming down her face, she was wanting the world to know that there was real peace in her heart because she knew without a doubt God was with her. In the face of suffering, she focused not on her circumstances but in that her salvation was secure and that brought her sustaining joy. She never cursed God. She never forsake him. She always clung to him even when she was not fully sure he was there. She shared: “And then in cancer, in potentially losing everything, I gained everything. I stand and sit by the grace of the Lord…And I am so glad that God never lets us go…My hope is that others learn something from my hardship without having to experience it themselves, to fix our eyes on Christ and his incredible love, no matter what the circumstances.”

Let’s honor her memory and amazing life by doing just that. Let’s meet the needs of those around us with passion and servants’ hearts. Let’s serve the underserved. Let’s be a supportive community to those facing trials. And above all, let’s fix our eyes on Christ, stand in faith, and find joy in all circumstances. If we can live half the life she lived in her short 36 years, we would accomplish so much in making the world a better place and allowing His love to lead us beyond ourselves to His divine purposes and everlasting peace. Grace has left an irreplaceable hole in our hearts, but we can let her incredible spirit live on in us by emulating her and the truly incomparable life she lived.

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From Grace: Just Stand

Tuesday, October 13, 2015: …But one idea is in those moments of lucidity, send me all your thoughts of what you want to say to anyone (Brant or Dylan or anyone), and I will compile them all as they come to you in snippets…

Grace:…I never considered this legacy since I’m tired, but that’s a great idea. I will send you random current or past thoughts. You can assume they have the same audience, my family and friends.

The bible often uses the metaphor of walking through affliction, that we must pass through it. Most of my cancer fight was focused on standing up first. My motto was that I must, though painful, first stand and then walk through the affliction. But the courage always came when God lifted me off my feet.

Just stand. No matter how hard or all the tears, you must stand first.

God did not make himself easily available during my fight. He clearly was with me providing acts of hope and deep love, letting me know that I’m never alone. But I had to earnestly seek him, his word, prayer, and he drew near as I drew near. I wondered (if he was there) but now I know. When I don’t have a clear mind, I am more confident he is with me because what I’ve learned, the nearness. Bible passages are now in my heart.

I have confidence he is more firmly in my heart. When I can barely pray, Christ prays for me.

I see his purpose now.

A positive is that I spoke to my father for the first time in 7 years. We both cried and said we loved each other. He even apologized for being a distant, bad father which is hard for a Korean dad to say. We forgave each other.

God brought so much love and reconciliation from people I never realized cared. Cancer has been the worst best blessing.

God makes the impossible possible.

Unfortunately, Grace’s condition did not allow for any more legacy sharing to be sent before she passed away. A week before these snippets, she had shared with me in person how she had wondered where God was. He had seemed so distant and absent. She said that there was JOY in pursuing Him, in her earnest seeking. As she was pleading and asking if He was even there, she had a vision as clear as day: big, bold, block letters I AM. It answered all her seeking. He IS with her and He is who He is, the great I Am. From then on, she started having peace.

For all of us with puffy eyes and broken hearts, let us remember Grace’s words to us. Let us just stand, earnestly seek Him, and allow His peace to minister to our pain in losing her. 

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“Second Day on Earth”

Today Ethan received a birthday package from his Uncle Peter & Aunt Robin: a nice variety of excellent books! The stack stood as a gleaming tower of knowledge, promise, and delicious literature. After dinner just an hour after opening them, Ethan started The Green Ember by S. D. Smith, while I had picked up Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. The latter author was familiar to me because of her book Each Kindness that my younger son has and is part of a book club at their school. Woodson writes about her life in chapters of lovely poetry. I am only a few chapters in and already swooning. Here is just an excerpt from her 2nd chapter entitled “Second Daughter’s Second Day on Earth.”

Another Buckeye!
the nurse says to my mother.
Already, I am being named for this place.
Ohio. The Buckeye State.
My fingers curl into fists, automatically
This is the way, my mother said,
of every baby’s hand.
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s–raised and fisted
or Martin’s–open and asking
or James’s–curled around a pen.
I do not know if these hands will be
or Ruby’s
gently gloved
and fiercely folded
calmly in a lap,
on a desk,
around a book,
to change the world…

You will probably want to get your own copy not just because it is a Newbery Honor Book or National Book Award winner or Coretta Scott King Award recipient or because we need to continue supporting diverse books and authors, but because you will be glad that you (and your children when they are able to pry it from your hands) read it. At least, I think this will be the case once I actually read the rest of the 300 pages. But I am taking the gamble this early and predicting a winner.

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