This Is Thriller Night

This evening was a thriller for me. For the first time in my life, I was in possession of a dangerous weapon. I probably should have waited to handle it when my husband was home in case I needed someone to drive me to the nearest emergency room. After all, I am fully capable of injuring myself with even the most benign objects. I had done so twice in the past two days.

Yesterday I noticed that my cotton T-shirt was looking quite wrinkled. It was freshly washed and hung but still managed to look like a Shar Pei, only not cute and a poor reflection of my domestic priorities. Every dress shirt Mike owns is a non-iron shirt for a reason; I do not like to iron. I was definitely not going to book a rendezvous with that darned contraption for just a cotton T-shirt. However, as I had done in the past when facing a similar dilemma, I thought I could simply expand my curling iron’s duties. After fixing my hair, I grabbed the grossly wrinkled v-neck for its first ever hair-styling adventure. Before I could think about how cleverly MacGuyver-ish I was being, I felt real pain from my neck. I managed to scorch my skin. Obviously, millions of people out there can totally relate to me. We have ALL burned our necks ironing our shirts on our bodies with our curling irons, right? No? Well, I must be in the elite league of dorks. That day, despite the temperatures reaching into the sunny mid-70’s, I had a lovely scarf tied tightly around my neck to hide what looked like a hickey gone wrong. I may have been sweating all afternoon from my overheated neck. Not only was I extra sweaty, but my shirt was still wrinkled.

Today I was dutifully applying sunscreen in preparation for a run outside. This is not normally known to be risky behavior. In fact, my young children manage to conquer this feat unharmed on a regular basis. They may have residual white marks finger painted all over their bodies, but they do not draw blood. While liberally applying broad spectrum protection on my arms, I again felt pain. Somehow my right hand had scratched my left arm skin that I found under my fingernail. My arms may be safe from skin cancer, but what will protect them from my own claws? The flesh wound (“It’s only a flesh wound!”) looked like many of the canyons I see in the Southwest. (I may be prone to slight exaggeration, but in truth that is what came to mind.) Now to complement my neck hickey, I had what looked like needle tracks on my inner arm. How badly would it look to wear a scarf around my forearm? Would I rather have my fashion sense questioned or be suspected of IV drug use?

Tonight’s thriller involved a friend’s gun she let me borrow. It was small, but still knowing my recent self-inflicted injuries, I was slightly anxious about using it for the first time. As if to accentuate how out of my element I was with this, it was a pink gun covered in animal print tape. Did I mention it was a hot glue gun? You may think the descriptive of “glue” makes is totally innocuous, but not in the hands of someone who has never stepped inside a Hobby Lobby or created a Pinterest account. Having two boys, the only other pink thing I saw today was my newly exposed skin in my baby canyon on my arm. I am more used to being told that one brother farted on the pillow and then told the other brother to smell it. Yet like most hip and happening, wild and crazy party animals, I was dedicating a portion of my Saturday night to making photo booth props for the upcoming school book fair. In my desperate Google searches, I read somewhere a recommendation for this foreign object called a glue gun. Luckily my book fair co-hort is very creative and resourcefully crafty. When I asked if she happened to have said object, she not only had it but offered one of many. I am so glad I got the pink, animal print one. It heightened the excitement of my weekend.

Thankfully I successfully made the props without anything remotely close to bodily harm. At one point while the boys watched their mom, I wondered if they would be reliable enough to call 911 were I to cover myself with hot glue. They might think, ‘Mom, if we can trick each other into smelling our own farts, we are genius enough to dial 3 numbers.’ I am glad we did not need to test that theory. While crafting with a hot glue gun should be considered high-risk behavior in my book, the only things to join sky-diving and bungee-jumping this weekend were curling irons and sunscreen application.

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Flag Rant

Today was the 2nd time I saw this big pick-up truck driving around town with these HUGE flags flying from each side of it. They flowed like massive banners alongside the back bed. One was an American flag. I am all for that. Go, America! The other, however, was a Confederate battle flag.

Really? Still? In Albuquerque? To me, it’s like saying, “We sure miss those good old days of slavery. We were willing to make a whole new nation so that we could continue dehumanizing others for free labor and make ourselves wealthy off the whipped blood, forced sweat, & agonizing tears of people we felt we had the right to own. But gosh, darn it, we lost. Oh, well, we can still take pride in what we TRIED to do.” Perhaps I lived too long in Chicago because I did not think people still boldly flew that flag in public, maybe in their SAE frat house, but you know, hidden, like most racism is these days. So for someone to boldly fly it around town all the time…it makes me want to keep my cell phone video handy in case a chant starts.

I do not buy the southern heritage pride argument. How many Germans go around flying huge swastika flags out of German pride? They don’t say, “Oh, it’s just to remember how powerful we were then and how we almost took over all of Europe but not at all about the anti-Semitic, racist, 11 million plus people murdered thing.” They choose to leave it in the past because of its shameful associations regardless of anything remotely positive connected. (Is there anything remotely positive about it?) They concentrate on something else to take pride in like Volkswagen’s or BMW’s. So instead of using a symbol rooted in racism, can you just focus on something less shameful for your southern pride, like cheesy grits or cowboy boots? I would proudly boast of delectable shrimp-n-grits or handcrafted footwear, but never the Confederate battle flag that was especially resurrected in more modern times when segregation was being challenged.

You may not think you are racist because you proudly display the Confederate flag. You may not be. Those 2 frat boys also did not think they were racist, but suddenly they find themselves chanting the n-word complete with lynching references. Just don’t play; put it away. It may not be as flagrant as a frat boy on a bus, but it still means something more than you think. That something is more horrible than whatever good you think you are honoring.

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Tale of a 4th Grade Something

Of the handful of students who need one-on-one help, José* might be the most behind in the class I volunteer with every week. Sometimes it is frustrating trying to work with him. Other times I learn to count the small victories. Today started out with a massive dose of frustration. I was supposed to help him with a class assignment. He is usually 5 steps behind the rest of the class. He had nothing written on his worksheet. The other student I was also helping, Enrique, had an empty page as well. He dutifully answered my prompts and transferred those words onto his sheet. José, however, simply said “no” as soon as Miss Pratt asked me to work with him. Every attempt for me to engage him with the assignment was met with an adamant “no.”

“Come on, José, you got this. I know you can do it.”

“No,” he chanted, shaking his head from side to side.

“Is something wrong? Are you having a bad day?”

“No.”

My mom-speech voice couldn’t help itself from surfacing, “You’re only hurting yourself by not trying.”

“No. No.”

“It is very important to at least try the work or you will get further behind.”

“No. No. No.”

I felt my face stiffen into expressionlessness and turned my efforts to Enrique who managed to finish his worksheet. José’s paper contained nothing, and I tried not to extend that into his future. They returned to their seats for a class lesson on reading comprehension. Miss Pratt called on different students to read sections of a passage out loud. The students I never work with wove through the lengthy paragraphs with ease. I was happy to hear those in my handful, like Enrique, slowly but surely sound out the shorter sections. Then Miss Pratt called on José for a passage which simply read:

“What are you guys doing?” Farah asked.

Despite being in 4th grade, his regular reading material are books that my first-grader read in kindergarten. When he stuttered out the first word, it sounded like it was traveling through molasses: “Wwwwuuuuttttttt.” Sensing their inevitable impatience, Miss Pratt asked the class not to say anything. I saw several students cover their mouths with both of their hands. Some looked to be smirking. They heeded their teacher and stayed quiet while José struggled with sounding out syllables Miss Pratt uncovered in pieces to aid him. I silently feared that the students’ smirks would escape into laughter that could crush his precious participation into a powder of shameful regret. Kids can be cruel.

I had heard such cruelty there on the playground during recess. Weeks ago, Amber ran up to Miss Pratt to report that a girl from another class had said to her, “Well, at least I’m not black!” Miss Pratt went to speak to the offender whose pale complexion stood out among the various shades of brown that dominate the school yard. I looked at Amber’s downcast eyes and saw my elementary school self after a peer’s ching-chonging. When she saw me looking, I held her lovely dark eyes with my own and said, “You know you are absolutely beautiful, don’t you?” I hoped that the smile spreading across her face would grow broad enough to penetrate into her heart. I remember thinking that if the only reason I drove across to the opposite side of town every week for an hour and half was to say those words of truth to her, then it was all totally worth it.

Finally, José made it across the 7-word marathon’s finish line. Others had sprinted or jogged or walked, but none had limped like he had. Their collective response was immediate. Twenty-five sets of hands clapped in supportive celebration. The applause surrounded José and lifted his now grinning face high into the clouds of possibility leaving the repeated “no’s” in the distant dust. It was such a sweet moment that I felt the threat of tears. The only thing these kids crushed today were my apprehensions. Their clapping had filled the room and crowded out my cynicism. As often is the case in volunteering time to help others, the tables turned so that I was the one being helped by a valuable lesson. Kids can be so awesome.

*All names have been changed.

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Layers

It was not a big deal at all, just something small and insignificant that any normal person would have gladly obliged to and gone on without a further thought. For some reason, it struck me as strange. Saturday night my visiting parents, my husband, I and our two boys were walking from Izanami through the small parking lot separating the restaurant from the adjacent Ten Thousand Waves (Japanese-themed mountain spa). We had enjoyed a delicious izakaya dinner and were going to make our way past the spa down the outdoor stairs to the lower parking lot.

A woman who had exited the spa was walking towards us in the direction of her car. She had a few items in her hands, but nothing heavy or bulky. She asked us, “Excuse me, could one of you open my car door for me?” We were all a little surprised she accosted us, and no one said or did anything at first. From what I can vaguely remember, she was holding a plastic cup with a few sips of water left and maybe a towel or jacket and some slippers. After those first awkward seconds passed, I went over to where she was pointing to her door with her plastic cup in hand. She said something to the effect of her hands being full. I quietly opened the door with a halfway smile and lowered gaze before rejoining my waiting family and continuing to our destination.

That was that. However, in the car, I asked my mother, “Was that weird?” My mom agreed and wondered if maybe the lady was used to being catered to all her life. Later when I asked my husband the same question, he also agreed wondering why she couldn’t have put the cup on her car and opened the door herself like he would have. There is no denying that it was strange to us, but was it strange to the average person? Maybe not, you tell me.

It made me think of how every action, every interaction, every word, every conversation, can have layers and layers underneath it. Spa lady may have no idea how strange she seemed to us. After all, I smiled and carried out her request. She has no idea that her one-sentence question produced a multitude of assumptions. (Did she have a pampered life? Did she think because we’re Asian that we worked there and were supposed to serve as her valet? I do not think the latter is true because really no one who works there is actually Asian. Still, the question popped up uninvited in my mind.) She has no idea that I had spent the previous week soaking in stories of my Dad’s physically harsh refugee years during the Korean War and trying to piece together my Mom’s emotionally harsh motherless childhood. When he was my older son’s age (9), my Dad sold whatever he could (gum and popsicles) to contribute to the family’s stark conditions. When she was my younger son’s age (6), my mother lost her mother to a childbirth-related infection that robbed her of being raised in a mother’s tender love. I am so glad that I was the one to respond to spa lady’s beckoning and not my parents who in my opinion have earned the right not to carry out such inane requests. They have always figured out how to open doors themselves despite having their hands full with whatever life placed in them.

Before that dinner, we had hiked the slot canyon trail at Tent Rocks National Monument. The area is full of volcanic tuff from a massive explosion 6 or 7 million years ago. Wind and water erosion over time has formed amazing shapes and caverns that reveal the multiple layers of rock and ash. They tell of the storms weathered to create those unique formations: the wind and rain beating against the tuff to leave behind one-of-a-kind marks of nature. When I gaze upon the towering mountain of rock, I am taken by its beauty. It is like many southwestern landscapes. To some observers, it just looks brown, ugly, sparse and barren. But in its rugged nature, there are so many signs of enduring life. Those trees and plants whose roots are long and wide hold my utmost respect and awe. They merge together with the ancient rock into a canvas that stands as a testimony to their Creator, the Artist behind the breath-taking work.

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Our layers are shaped by childhood, experiences, people, faith, difficulty and death. The layers cannot be discarded but are carried with us everywhere we go. Many times they remain hidden beneath the surface. I try to remember this when I come across anyone who might seem strange, who might seem annoying, or who might seem hard to understand. They have their own layers that I cannot see. This is especially true in the case of spa lady with whom my interaction was limited to a few brief minutes. Often when we are allowed the privilege to see some of those layers revealed in others we are much better able to understand them. I have had the honor of having more of my parents’ layers delicately revealed this past week during their visit when they shared treasured aspects of their past with me. It has only made my love and respect for them deepen. I have seen the wind and rain erode protective barriers and expose layers in others facing life’s harshest storms. When I see these layers, not all of which are pretty, I still stand amazed at the Creator’s hand in working a masterpiece in each of them. I remember He loves me in my brown, ugly, sparse and barren nature; He sees the rugged beauty and declares it good. I hope and aspire to do the same with others, as strange or difficult or annoying as they may be. They are testimonies to His artistic work and deserve the same treatment I am given in my ashes and dirt.

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Asians (That’s Plural) on a TV Show!

For some in the Asian community, last night was long anticipated. How long? 20 YEARS LONG. It has been 20 years since we saw a (short-lived) sitcom centered on an Asian American family. We held our collective breath hoping that the premiere of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat was not a total disaster. I am happy to say that it was not. I laughed. I reminisced. I related. I saw people who resembled me in both appearance and experience on primetime network television. I exhaled. It was somewhat surreal.

I remember my father telling me as a child that I would have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart and do twice as well to be truly successful as a minority in this world. This was probably in response to my complaints about having to do extra workbooks every afternoon at home. I have no doubt he spoke from his immigrant experience, and he definitely put that belief into practice working two jobs for decades until he finally retired from one. While Fresh Off the Boat seemed to have a successful start for the viewing Asian community, I hate to say that my husband and I both wondered if it could last beyond one season. It IS funny, entertaining, and for the Asian folks watching a very welcome oasis in the desert of Asian American representation. But is it twice as good as other shows out there, twice as funny, twice as relatable in order to be truly successful in this world? I hope the show has a first generation father standing over it demanding the writers, actors, and producers work twice as hard.

I want it to be successful. I want my boys to be able to grow up seeing a mostly Asian-casted show on TV. I want them to see themselves as more than a token. Maybe that colors my positive reception of the show’s first episodes as well. SNL has a skit called “How’s He Doing” featuring African American commentators asking if they would still support President Obama if he did or said some horrifically unacceptable thing. As ridiculous as those scenarios can be, the unanimous conclusion for the group is always a resounding YES. If the show fell into the depths of awful television, I might be guilty of still watching and supporting in fear that it will be another 20 years before such a show comes to my TV.

I wonder what the general public thinks of the show. I fear that they will assume that everything that happens in it is exactly what happened in my childhood or in my family now. The thing with little representation is that what little is out there is often perceived to encompass the whole. This is not a burden for those with mass representation. Where there are more, there is usually a wider understanding of the full range of possibilities. That is another reason to support more diverse representation on television, in Hollywood, and in the culture at large. However, where there are only tokens, the brain naturally categorizes it as the only information known so that when another similar token is seen that information automatically pops up.

Coming from a metropolis like Chicago to a smaller city like Albuquerque, I can feel somewhat like a token. In a place with only 2 Asians per 100 people, we often stand out. While a person of the majority culture may have had the experience of being mistaken for someone else in their lives, I have had people thoroughly convinced I was a different Asian woman 3 times in 2 months. In those cases, my guess is that those folks do not know a ton of us. They thought ‘she must be the one lady I met before’ to the point in some cases that I almost felt I had to convince them that I was not. I KNEW I had never met them before. Do I blame them? No. Again, the brain does things to make it easier on our cognitive capacities. Knowing that the possibilities are high that I was that one lady (the other one out of 100), it makes sense. I wish they knew more Asians so that they could realize we are not all the same nor do we all look alike.

As a token show, Fresh Off the Boat will inevitably carry that burden of the Asian community to represent us all. While it presents aspects of Asian and immigrant culture we can relate to, it cannot and should not encompass us all. I did not bring Asian food for lunch to school, but I do remember telling my mom to make spaghetti when friends came over rather than Korean food. While my parents do have accents, they do not sound like the mother Jessica. (I don’t think anyone on God’s green earth sounds like that, but I understand the reasons of including the accents as part of the show.) I remember wanting to be white and being embarrassed by racial slurs in the cafeteria, but my parents would not have confronted the principal nor did they make me study Korean for hours each day. Let me just tell you that there will be many things many Asian Americans can relate to in some way (which is such a great feeling for once!!), but there will also be things that are unique to Eddie Huang (the show is based off of his memoir of the same title) or the network writers and do not translate to us all. I wish the television world knew more Asians so that they may better realize we are not all the same nor do we all sitcom alike. However, I am not holding my breath for that dream of mass representation. I just hope this singular show can last more than a season.

If you missed it this week, you can catch it next week when it airs on its regularly scheduled time slot on ABC: Tuesday’s 8pm EST/7pm CST (7pm for Albuquerque).

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To a Friend (To Any) on a Foggy Day

Today it is completely cloudy in Albuquerque…there is no sun at all. I love looking at the majestic mountain range in our back yard. It reminds me so much of the mighty presence of God: His strength, His protection, His faithfulness, His existence over all the generations. But today, there is a heavy fog covering over most of the view. I cannot see any hint of, let alone the full scope of, the mountains. Had I not known their familiar, regular presence and view, I might never realize they were there. There are times like these where God is completely covered. We cannot see Him, hear Him, or feel Him. In fact, we wonder if He is even there. Even if it is as tiny as a mustard seed, I pray that you can remember, know, and sense that He is there, that He is the same unchanging One who loves you with a love that is beyond comprehension, despite feeling the absence of such in this time. I will keep praying for you and that the fog lifts to encourage you before the next season of cloud cover comes.

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Glimpses of Beauty

Friday night I went with a friend to hear another friend play in the Albuquerque Philharmonic Orchestra. These ladies are from the school community where we wear our “mom” hats or “teacher” hats. Beyond that context, we can be more than what our hats describe. For instance, this one mom is a violinist in her spare time when she is not saving lives as a doctor. (Then there is me whose hidden talent apparently is yelling at my children when not dancing with them in the kitchen to Uptown Funk.)

The concert was in a catholic church on the other side of town whose arched sanctuary did not disappoint in delivering great acoustics. It had been awhile since I heard live orchestral music. I am so glad I took the time to treat myself. To be honest, I am not often choosing to listen to classical music. When the local NPR station hits those hours of Performance Today between Morning Edition and Native American Calling, I am usually switching to my old school station to see how much of the “You Be Illin'” lyrics I accurately recall.

But hearing the instruments LIVE lifts me above the stiff, hard pews and carries me to sublime sweetness. For a moment I can allow my soul nourishment from all those things that leave me hungry. Enduring racism. Abject poverty. Educational inequalities. Childhood leukemia. Institutional injustice. Oppressive dictatorships. Death. Those things that lately have left me saying, “What the F, God?” It may sound sacrilegious, but if He is truly omniscient He already knows what I am thinking. And if He is truly unconditionally loving, I can come to Him as I am. Confused. Frustrated. Hurt. Angry. Grieved.

The music does not solve anything, give answers, or take away the hunger. Yet it gives in that moment a glimpse of true beauty that reminds me that suffering is not without redemption even in those instances that seem too far for redemption’s reach. Perhaps the coexistence is not strange but often inseparable. The composers who were able to create such art must have had their share of the varied human experience. Without the extended range of pain and joy, would they be able to produce such sounds that cause one to cry simply by listening? There is something in those moments of hunger that signify sacred, holy ground. A wanting. A need. And a hope of fulfillment. The Advent season. There are glimpses of beauty in the midst of hunger that satiate the soul in that moment to remind us that promised fulfillment is on its way. Until the day of full completion comes, I am thankful for those glimpses.

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