Waiting.

Waiting upon things is so difficult — any human would probably attest to and agree with this. This post comes out of a current story of a season of life of waiting. We all know it feels bad, hard, anxious and painful, but what can we do about it? Is God listening to us? Is it okay to not always be tangibly “moving forward” in our lives? What do we do when we feel a little stuck?

The other night, I was babysitting for two kids, a different family than I wrote about last — these kids are a 7 and 8 year old girl and boy in Santa Monica. Their parents had told me that they could stay up til they got home, I didn’t need to put them to bed, so I had braced myself for a loong evening of rambunctious games and running around. Which is exactly what it was. I began to notice their impatience early on while playing games with them — they’d continually ask me questions and as I was trying to figure them out, they’d repeatedly ask the same question in a crescendo-ing tone. It was pretty annoying and I found myself repeatedly asking them, “pleeaase, be patient as I figure it out.” Seething a little bit under my breath, I’d pretty quickly determine the answer, just to be bombarded with more questions and way more energy than I was prepared for. After awhile of the impatient questioning and my repeated pleas to please be more patient as I figured out the rules of a new game and how to explain to us all, or as I went to get us all water, or as I figured out how to deal with a tiebreaker … I realized that this was a learning opportunity and insightful experience for me as well as for them (hoping that my encouragement to be more patient in some way had an affect).

I’ve found myself currently in an ongoing season of restlessness, anxiety, questioning, doubting and stasis, in many ways. I have so much I want to do and figure out and sometimes it feels like all I’ve been doing is waiting to start something. I find myself longing for God’s presence, peace and action in my life, because waiting puts us as humans in a weird position. We’re out of control and dependent on other forces to make decisions. The power isn’t in our hands; if it was, we’d take action and get the outcome we want ourselves. We would answer the questions we’re asking about the rules of the game ourselves. Waiting brings up issues of trust and faith because when we cannot control an outcome, how will we live in the present and how will we interact with the One who has that power?

Reflecting back on the way I responded to those kids’ impatience made me think about the way I’ve been talking to God lately. What does God think when I feel restless and anxious in my waiting? When I really want something and I ask for it impatiently? I doubt God gets annoyed like I did with the kids when we ask for the same things over and over in increasingly impatient ways.

For those of you, like me, who may feel stuck and static in seasons of waiting and expectation, I hope you’ll be reassured that God does speak to us, interact with us, and move among us. But most of all, God loves us and is with us. I don’t know how you experience God’s love and presence, but I hope that in your moments of anxiety and difficulty, wrestling and questioning, stasis and stuck-ness, that you will in some sense, experience solace. Maybe moments where we seem to most lack control over our lives can point to the fact that anything that is achieved or that happens is God and not us.

I want to leave you with this prayer from a book of Walter Brueggemann’s, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, that my mom gave to me and I’ve been meditating with lately. This one spoke to me because sometimes we pray and try to listen but are distracted. May we have clarity and may we be in a “listening mood” in order to hear well.

Your command is garbled

We imagine you coming into the barracks with your insistent demand. We imagine you addressing the sun to “move out,” the sky — “let there be light,” the sea — “stand back.”

We imagine you addressing us, each of us and all of us with your order of the day. We imagine … but the din of other commands, of old loyalties and unfinished business and tired dreams cause us not to hear well, not to listen, not to notice, and your command is garbled.

So come again with your mandate, with the clarity of your imperative. We listen, because we know in deep ways that your yoke is easy and your burden is light. Come among us, because we are yours, and ours is a listening mood. Give us ears and then hands and hearts and feet for your good news. Amen.

Big lessons from little kids’ books.

I’ve been nannying some kids for the past month or so, a 3 year old boy named Dylan and 5 year old girl named Ellie, who are hilarious, wild, crazy, sometimes really obnoxious and mischievous, but normally just a lot of fun and I’m learning so much from them. It’s true that I often think, “this isn’t my real job” or “what I really want to be doing long-term,” and it definitely isn’t. But in the meantime, this is my current reality, and so I’m investing in it as much as I can and truly learning a lot.

For example, the kids are half Korean, half Taiwanese, and both they and their parents have taught me a lot about Korean culture and food. I had a great conversation with their dad the other day about his childhood in Brazil and then his move to the US and the struggles he had learning English and connecting with other Asians because he identified more as Brazilian than Taiwanese or American.

But the big thing that struck me last week came while I was reading some books to the kids.

Lesson one came from The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. It looked like a nice book to read to Dylan before a nap; it has a pretty, green cover and I had fond memories of it from childhood. Has anyone read it recently? Warning that, if you’re anything like me, there’s a high chance it’ll catch you off guard and make you cry. A brief recap … this tree and this little boy become friends; the boy climbs the tree, plays in its branches, etc. As the boy grows up and moves away, the tree misses him and still wants to be his friend. But the boy comes back in need of bigger things from the tree, like a house and a boat. And the tree continues to give and give, and the boy continues to age and need more. And then it gets to a point where the tree can’t give anymore to the boy, and that’s kind of the end of the story. The boy is off living his adult life, full of change, growth, emotional hardship, etc. and the tree remains behind but is always the one giving in order to sustain the friendship and the boy’s needs. It was pretty heartbreaking to read this story again in my adult life, and to realize how uneven and unbalanced this giving – receiving friendship between the tree and boy is. What type of message does that communicate to kids?

I’d like to challenge you to ask yourself (as this book challenged me to ask myself), are you just taking from your friendships and from others, or are you giving as well? Are you finding balance with yourself and in your interpersonal relationships?

Self-care is really important too. Are you being refilled and replenished as you give to others?

The second book that made me think a little bit last week was actually just a children’s Bible storybook, so a very simplified version of Bible stories with pictures designed for toddlers. It wasn’t anything about the stories themselves or the way they were simplified that got me thinking, but it was the fact that the writers left out completely Jesus’ death and resurrection from the story and skipped right from his birth to his ascension into heaven and then the book ended. Likely they left it out because it’s a gruesome and sad part of the story that Jesus was crucified, and it’s hard to put that in a little kid’s book. You also can’t talk about the resurrection without talking about the crucifixion, so that part couldn’t be included either. It really made me wonder in that moment how I was taught about Jesus’ death when I was a child. Was it mentioned in Sunday School and at what age did I start hearing that part of the story? I can’t remember, honestly.

I was helping the kids get ready for a Good Friday service at their church a couple weeks before encountering the Bible storybook, and I remember Ellie, the older girl, asking me why they had to go to church “not on a Sunday and at night?” and I wondered, “hmm how do I say this well to her?” I said something about having to remember the whole story of Jesus and having to honor Good Friday before we can celebrate Easter. But I didn’t give her the whole story or mention death, I don’t believe.

Why did I, in that moment, and why do we as Christians, shy away from talking about hard or difficult things or including parts of the story that may prompt our kids to ask us questions that we can’t answer? As parents, I’m curious how you talk to your kids about death and the tougher parts of Bible stories.

I wish, as a kid, I had been told more often (and I had seen others in my life saying more often) that it’s okay to not have all the answers.

I’m learning so much from these little ones, and they’re not even my own children; I’m only with them for four or five hours a day. It’s incredible how inquisitive, adventurous, funny and intelligent they are. I think they (and all children in our lives) deserve the most authentic and thoughtful storytelling experiences we can give them at their age. It’s just not good enough to leave out the death and resurrection of Jesus in a Bible storybook. That’s the most important part of the story, of our story. Today, as an adult, I’m afraid or hesitant to ask hard questions sometimes, or to be honest and transparent with my thoughts and feelings. It could be totally unrelated to the way these topics were broached in childhood, but if it is at all related, I wonder, why are we modeling to our children anything other than complete honesty and trust? Especially when it comes to the Bible and telling the story of God truthfully.

Self-Concept: How I Found Freedom in Understanding my Identity.

My name is Beth, and this is my story about finding my identity.

I was adopted from China and brought to America when I was seven months old, so most people would say I am Chinese American. But I didn’t always see myself that way. My loving parents made their best effort to educate me on Chinese culture so that I knew where I came from. I vividly remember my mom coming into my second grade class to celebrate Chinese New Year with my classmates by getting little envelopes with money in them and making paper lanterns. So even my friends understood that I was born somewhere else. As much as I enjoyed all the festivities, I still never felt like it was truly a part of who I was.

As I continued to mature, I don’t remember even trying to make sense of this disconnect. Throughout grade school, I didn’t know many other kids who were “like me”, as my school district had an extremely low diversity rate. And, as is typical of most teenagers, I wanted to fit in with the latest trends in fashion, hair, and music, which were mainly flaunted by my White American peers. I thought nothing of it. I watched my sister go off to college and start studying Chinese, and she even studied in China for a year and came back with all kinds of insight on what it meant to be a Chinese American in China. We had visited China as a family when I was 12, but I never got a strong desire to return. My sister’s stories made me wonder if I should be more curious, since we had similar stories and the same upbringing. Nevertheless, after a while, I let it go again.

My slap-in-the-face moment didn’t present itself until I was a senior in high school. One of my best friends at the time was Korean, and she invited me to her Korean church. I was excited to go, since at the church I had been attending, I was one of maybe five Asians, including my sister. That Sunday morning, I walked into church with my friend, and I shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of Asians in a Korean church, but I had never seen such a strong minority presence. My attention shifted quickly to the one White, red-headed boy standing in one of the first few rows of seats. As soon as I saw him, I turned to my friend and said, “Hey! I’m not the only White one here!” Big oops. She burst out laughing. It was at that moment that I realized I had no idea what race meant to me.

Fast forward to present day, and I am nearing the end of my college career. I decided to take a course titled “The Psychology of Power, Oppression, and Privilege”. We discussed the idea of racial identity, and more specifically, centrality of the identity. This is the idea that for some, race is an important part of how they see themselves. Even within a particular racial category, membership of that racial group can mean different things to different people. Those who consider race to be more essential to their own self-concept are more likely to be triggered by subtle microaggressions. I was not one of those people. But that’s okay because everyone’s experiences are different.

As I reflect upon the things I have learned through this class and through life experience, I think about how I do identify myself, if not first and foremost with race. If someone were to ask me in this very moment, I would probably say something along the lines of “I am female, a Christian, and a student.” And all of these things are true. Now it is also true that I am Asian American, cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled. Just because the latter are not included in my major identifying factors does not mean that they are not true. My experiences as a member of all of these categories listed above have made me who I am. I have just finally come to terms with what is most important to me when I consider my identity and how this drives my behaviors.

Growing up, I thought identity was a checklist for everyone and that people expected me to identify strongly with everything on that list. I have learned that this is not the case. And for anyone wrestling with self-concept, I would encourage you to think more about who you are and less about who people expect you to be. What it means to be you is not what it means to be anybody else. So be proud of who you are because you matter!

Thank you for reading 🙂

Beth

Image Credits: COFFEEANDMILK / IAMBADA / GETTY / NAJEEBAH AL-GHADBAN

Minimal living.

A few days ago, a friend recommended to me the Netflix doc, Minimalism, and watching it really got my head spinning, as good documentaries often do for us. It was created by the two founders of The Minimalists, who in 2010, launched a nationwide, large-scale movement stemming from their personal journeys away from corporate, high-paying jobs and toward the pursuit of minimalist lifestyles. It is a challenging yet compelling message that they offer, to leave unnecessary possessions, fancy cars, homes and jobs, in exchange for fewer material items but more overall meaning and significance in the things that they do have and in the relationships and non-tangible things that they value most. Their movement offers books, lectures, films, a podcast and more, and I’d highly recommend looking into it!

As a person who has never valued objects that much, and who finds myself in a transitional and mobile stage of life where I don’t own a home or necessarily have strong ties to physical possessions, it is not that difficult for me to consider giving things away and living on less than I do. That being said, I do have a lot of shoes and really need to clean out my bathroom vanity too. I feel a little more motivated to do so after watching this, which is good. What struck me most about this doc, however, were the social, moral and spiritual implications that it posed (this is solely my interpretation, not necessarily the intent of the filmmakers).

The questions that it leaves me with, and that I want to examine are these:

How can minimal living encompass our mental, emotional and spiritual space as well as our physical possessions?

How can decluttering our lives and hearts reveal our devotion?

I saw the minimal lifestyle championed in this film as a metaphor for discovering truth. Let me explain. Minimal living, in essence, requires cleaning out the parts of our lives that distract from what truly matters to us: our families, friends, vocations, passions, purpose. It is a means as much as an end; the significance is in the process as well as the result. We are shaped and formed as we discover what it is to live with less, what we can do without, where our priorities lie, what we cannot do without. This could be paralleled to the spiritual process of being refined and strengthened in our faith journeys, perhaps even a process that could run alongside a physical cleansing of our worldly possessions. In Malachi 3:2, God is described as “the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap, He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.” The decluttering process can be spiritual as well as material, and through it, the re-prioritization of goods and values can allow God to do His refining work within our hearts.

Additionally, when we remove excessive physical objects in our lives that are vying for our attention, we create physical, mental, emotional and spiritual space for other things to take their place. The truth is that, as capable, well-developed and sophisticated as we are in multi-tasking in this day and age, as humans, when we are devoted to one thing or a few things, we cannot be as devoted to others. Our attention can only be truly concentrated in a limited number of compelling objects, people or causes. It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. So, I interpreted the movement toward getting rid of physical objects to be a moral statement about elevating in importance our devotion or attention to other things instead. The question therefore becomes: in what do we place our devotion if it’s not our material possessions?

Taking the spiritual parallels one step deeper: I’m reminded here of Jesus’ cleansing(s) of the temple in the Gospels, where he overturned moneychangers’ and vendors’ tables and demanded allegiance to his Father (Mt. 21:12-17, Mk. 11:15-19, Lk. 19:45-47, Jn. 2:14-16). His anger toward the desecration of his Father’s house into a marketplace illustrated a few things: 1) The temple was holy; it was a place of worship of God alone; 2) The temple represented communion, access and forgiveness, where people were accepted without barriers (key point of Jesus’ anger was that Gentiles were being swindled by moneychangers, inhibiting their access); 3) Again, the temple was holy, and it represented more than a physical building; it was Jesus’ body, the church. If you’re tracking with me, this biblical story is sort of a perfect parallel to The Minimalists message made spiritual, because the cleansing or decluttering of the physical space of the temple was a metaphor for something much greater, the reorientation, cleansing, refining and purifying of peoples’ hearts and the church. There was distraction and clutter in the way of people (especially Gentiles in this case) freely accessing and worshipping God in the way He had intended, and Jesus was infuriated by this.

This reorientation of our priorities and cleansing of our homes (and hearts) is incredibly spiritual if we want it to be. Decluttering can be more than a socially conscious action to live lightly (although that is exceedingly important in and of itself); it can also be a spiritual statement in allegiance to God and his ideals of love, care for our earth, and acceptance of its people. In resisting idols of wealth, power, status, etc., we are aligning our hearts with His. I truly believe that when we resist consumerism, capitalism, and cycles of production and consumption that exploit people and our environment, we are making a spiritual statement that we align with Our Creator and His ideals of justice, peace and love.

Joshua, one of The Minimalists’ founders, encouraged viewers if they decide to get rid of possessions, to think through each item, and only keep things that are necessary or serve a tangible purpose that we could articulate and justify. Way easier said than done, I know. I wonder if we can go through this process spiritually too. Can we recenter and refocus our thoughts on things above? Can we invite God in to purify, cleanse and declutter our souls too? Can the material, physical process of cleaning out our home propel forward the spiritual process as well?

Sometimes this looks like it did in the film for the founders or like it did with Jesus in the temple: a force ravages our lives and we are confronted head-on with our priorities and what is getting in the way of focusing on them solely. There is a distinct moment where we come to the awareness that we need to make changes. Sometimes, however, and I can speak from my own experience here, there isn’t going to be a drastic moment of realization or truth where we know exactly what we need to do. A lot of changes are gradual, incremental, and filled with indecision and hesitation, and that is okay too.

I think (and I’m taking my own spiritual liberty here) that we can be patient and forgiving with ourselves too, open ourselves up to change, refining, purifying and decluttering, but still take it slow. Again, the transformation is as much in the means as it is in the end here; a lot more could be changing for us or being refined within us than we may realize. Can we start by opening our imaginations to what we may need to do to either begin or propel forward this process?

Of freedom.

Caught in between
worlds, cultures and faces.
Where do I find myself?
But lost
within a notion of who I have been
conditioned to believe
that I should be.

Shapes, colors, details, bone structures,
have torn the world apart,
have told us who we are,
have told me that I cannot decide for myself.

But when I do decide,
what do I say?
Who am I to know now who I want to
become?

My face is not my culture,
it is not who I am.

But when I am free,
to act on something deeper
than my tiny nose, almond eyes and black hair,
am I ready?
Do I know what my freedom means,
or what it can do?
How do I find something that has always
been missing?

I need to construct, to redefine, to revert
and subvert
that which has been constructed for me.
Freedom is in this power
to discover and create.
Can we look beyond?
Can we look within?

To discover
that we are a human race
never meant to be defined by borders,
shapes, colors, frameworks, details or faces,
but by qualities
of love,
of creativity,
of compassion,
of discovery,

of freedom.

The Truman Show, RBG and changing unjust realities.

It’s amazing how movies help me process ideas and make connections. Recently, I’ve realized how many classics I need to still see, and so have been trying to catch up. Movies have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, help us put into words what we cannot ourselves, or empower us to envision scenes that we wouldn’t be able to construct from our own realities. Movies inspire and particularly for me, help in making connections between ideas or concepts that may otherwise remain separate and unrelated.

Last Friday was a great example of that.

I was introduced to The Truman Show for the first time (checked a classic off the list!) and was immediately engrossed in Truman’s distorted reality and his journey from discovery of a false identity to complete rejection and rebellion against the system which had placed him as a star in his own reality TV show. Shrouded in humor, lighthearted banter, personable characters and happy neighborhoods, at its core, the movie is existential, deep and haunting. Truman is basically stuck in a reality that is everyone else’s but his own, constantly watched by zealous viewers around the world, lied to and deceived from birth by the people seemingly closest to him. His fate has been scripted by people he has never seen or met, who hold ultimate control over everything from what he eats, to where he works, to whom he marries.

In the middle of the movie, the producer, Christof, this metaphorical God-figure who oversees Truman’s life, says in regards to Truman’s situation and his coming awareness of reality, “We accept the reality of the world as it is presented to us.” Deep, right?!

Okay, before I elaborate on that quote, let me fast forward in my own evening to the second, seemingly completely different movie I saw that day, the newly-released must-see, On the Basis of Sex, a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Firstly, shameless plug for this film — it is powerful, inspiring, informative and provocative. It opened my eyes to a movement of men, women and youth for equality against a discriminate legal system that I had no idea existed. And, apparently, it is helping me make broader, very important social connections.

Basically, RBG, depicted skillfully by Felicity Jones, is one of the most brilliant women ever, who excelled in both Harvard and Columbia Law, taught gender law passionately at Rutgers when denied other employment opportunities that she was more than qualified for, cared for and worked alongside her husband, a skilled tax lawyer himself, raised a daughter and son, and fought tirelessly for gender equality throughout the course of this film. In a quintessential speech in a Colorado courtroom where she was representing a man who had been penalized on the basis of sex for caring for his mother, she delivers a remarkable speech about social change. In her speech, she talks about various laws and cases that brought about social changes, and the pressing need for new precedents and laws to fit a new era. While the opposition wants stasis and stability, out of fear of change and what that will bring to a male-dominated system, RBG and her husband advocate for incremental, step by step change that is needed for a new age.

Now, hopefully this isn’t too much of a jump, but with the premise of this film in mind, I want to return to that quote from The Truman Show, because herein lies my main connection. The basis of that quote is the idea that humanity accepts blindly the norms, structures, systems, realities, institutions, etc. that surround us, maybe on the premise that we are either powerless, lazy, incompetent, unmotivated, whatever, to address or change them. For Truman, there were incredibly active and formidable forces keeping him from changing his reality, so I didn’t see this statement as a remark on any laziness or paralysis on his part to take action, but more of an umbrella statement about the human condition and our tendencies.

For whatever reason, it is comfortable for us to resist change. Or maybe not to resist it, but simply to ignore its possibilities. We are afraid; we’re apathetic; we’re lazy; we lack the foresight to take risks and trust in the unknown outcomes. We cannot often envision futures beyond what we know in the present, or what we have experienced or seen.

This may be the case for menial daily instances like cleaning our room, doing chores, cooking dinner, to larger personal situations like changing a career path, leaving a job or moving abroad. But the idea that we are immobilized or apathetic toward changing larger social things that we know are wrong, unjust or oppressive is very interesting. Why do social systems remain the way that they do — why historically were there hundreds of laws prohibiting women from doing certain jobs and requiring them to live by certain procedures, or preventing African Americans from having equal opportunities and rights as white people? What does it take to uproot a system? Why are we so afraid of change? And why do so many people feel helpless to change things?

Hopefully, you’re starting to see some of the film to social connections that I’m trying to make. Funny how two disparate movies brought up similar questions. My main goal here is to raise the questions that can help us think, and leave you to answer in your own varied contexts.

I now want to bring in a spiritual component to these ideas of social change, resisting structures, confronting norms, and not living within the reality of the world as it is presented to us. The truth for Christians and for my own journey is that Jesus lived both within and outside social systems. He was a Jewish man who in one sense inhabited a human body and died a real and painful death, while in another sense being completely God and effectively subverting and resisting all forces and structures of power and oppression that he came into contact with. The Gospel, as people of Christian faith believe, is not a comfortable reality or something that just fits into a modern or prescribed worldview. We have to notice differences, unethical structures, and step outside the boundaries of what is normal or comfortable to us in order to take action and make changes when we are confronted with them.

The ways we choose to do this depends on the situation and our context, but the truth is that social change, ethical decisions, movements that serve and help others, justice on behalf of marginalized or oppressed peoples, creation and culture care, etc. are not just realities that are presented to us (often reality stands in opposition to them); we must act to propel them forward. This is a biblical and theological precedent as well as a historical one. We are called to take creative and just action and participate in God’s kingdom here on earth, being moved by things that move God’s heart.

So take Christof’s words not as reality but as a warning of what could be; strive to embody social change where it is in line with justice and truth; live within the bounds of earthly systems while trusting in divine, otherworldly realities.

My prayer, both for myself and for you as readers and friends, is that when you do feel immobilized or stuck within a reality presented to you that you know is wrong or you do not want, that you would be able to envision hope and change, both an eternal and everlasting hope, and simultaneously, a tangible and practical hope that meets you in your immediate need.

*Artist: Banksy, Title: Girl with Balloon

Crazy Rich Asians from a different Chinese-American perspective.

Who didn’t go see Crazy Rich Asians this weekend?! is the real question … as theaters in and around Pasadena were selling out as my friend and I were trying to book tickets on Sunday afternoon, and even after finding one we spent half an hour parking and barely got seats (as they were unassigned).

Obviously I didn’t come here to complain about the reality that is LA on a pretty consistent basis, but despite our temporary troubles, am happy and highly impressed that this movie has had such an incredible turnout.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to and most things I’ve read and heard have been extremely positive — it’s funny, the characters both have depth and are well-rounded, the main cast is entirely Asian and Asian-American, it’s creative, it broaches the theme of Asian-American identity in the midst of rigid and traditional Singaporean-Chinese wealth, and it raises questions of cultural, ethnic, generational, socioeconomic, etc. identity that challenges even those of different contexts.

Despite the backlash about the lack of diverse Asian representation, it does well at its limited goals. As a Chinese-American woman, it was empowering to see so many beautiful Asian faces on screen in a popular and desirable American context, and to see the way in which a version of the Chinese-American “rags to riches” story was portrayed. A girl (Rachel Chu) basically defends and reclaims her unique mixed identity and history as her very value and worth because of her poor, immigrant background is challenged by her boyfriend’s real estate tycoon mom and family.

All I could do in the theater was laugh and thoroughly enjoy this movie. At first thought, seeing Asian people on screen and hearing an adaptation of a very different story than mine was purely entertaining and barely personal. However, reflecting on it a little bit, and what the Asian representation questions and cultural identity questions it poses mean in a personal context, I realize that it hits me in an interesting way. As a Chinese-American adoptee, I can come into this story at various angles — on one hand, I identify with the backlash that complains about the lack of representation of other ethnic, cultural and/or economic histories of Singapore or Asia, because the story of adopted Chinese girls is almost never told. We are certainly Chinese-American too, but our story and history is completely different than 2nd-generation Chinese-American kids’ stories whose parents immigrated to America (like Rachel’s mom). I have yet to see our story told on the big screen in any way, shape or form.

The other truth and point of identification is that I can wholeheartedly identify with Rachel’s feelings of isolation and rejection by this Singaporean family because I experienced similar feelings (in different contexts) during my time studying in China. China is of course completely different than Singapore, and I was not trying to gain the favor of a wealthy family, but everywhere I went I constantly felt at the very least, out of place, uncomfortable, a too-tan, slightly overweight, wavy-haired, abnormal, non-conforming, maybe-Chinese person in the eyes of locals and natives (they really weren’t sure where I was from, and they didn’t hesitate to say it). On bad days I really let it get to me and I genuinely felt lesser than, completely rejected, disconnected, bitter and ready to give up. It was one of the hardest years of my life trying to learn the language and the culture of a people and a nation that I expected to connect with and be welcomed into — I saw more faces that “looked like mine” than I had at any other juncture of my life — but I had never felt more alone or isolated among them. So, if we’re tapping back into those feelings, I can empathize with Rachel’s frustration, questioning, and anger when coming face to face with cultural values that opposed her identity at its very core. I’m fairly confident, Asian-American or not, whether they were connected to our culture or ethnicity or not, that we have all felt similar feelings before.

I don’t want to give the end of the movie away, so I’ll just say again that the resolution of my story of cultural rejection will never look the same, but my own journey to a place of pride, reconciliation, courage and acceptance in my unique mixed cultural and ethnic identity is taking shape in its own way. I think that if we want to interpret the movie this deeply, despite its particularity, Rachel’s version of her story can serve as a symbol of empowerment and reclamation for people of mixed backgrounds confronting opposing forces, however those may take shape. This movie shows us that there are always two sides to the story and that both can show empathy and pride.

Go see the movie and let me know your thoughts!

Church, class, Chance the Rapper.

Church, a class on Race and Theology in America, a Chance the Rapper concert. This was my day yesterday. Why do these experiences matter, how are they similar and why should you or anyone care? It hit me about halfway through the concert last night, the remarkable parallels between these three very different places and spaces and the ways in which each one can dialogue with and learn from the other. Let me attempt to share my thoughts with you.

Firstly, church. Recently, my church has started studying the book of Ecclesiastes together during our weekly Wednesday community group; a book that we as a corporate church do not often talk about, a book that almost didn’t make it into the Bible, a book that calls life meaningless and questions at its core the existence, purpose and will of God. But we are discovering together that there is joy in the midst of it too. I think Ecclesiastes is probably one of the most honest, reverberating and truthful expressions of the human condition. It is always timely; in the words of my pastor, it is like a “well-aged wine.” In the midst of all that is unexplainable, absurd, a chasing after of the wind, what is the point of living? We live in the faint hope that there is a purpose, but how and where do we seek it?

With those cliffhangers, let’s turn to my Race and Theology class. This class is blowing my mind and it’s only the end of the second week. I won’t go into all the details, but in essence, we are learning, reading and talking about the stunningly widespread, pervasive and insidious ways in which the church’s whiteness has created, magnified and perpetuated structural and institutional racism. It is halting how implicit we are as Christians and Americans (however you may ascribe to those identifiers) in the perpetuation of prejudiced, unjust social systems. How do we firstly recognize and understand the origins of these hierarchies and divisions? Where do we place responsibility? What does responsibility even mean or imply? How do we dialogue about it in a larger cultural and church context? Is a post-racial society possible? What are we working toward? Where is God in the midst of it? These are just a few of the countless questions we are examining and that are emerging from this class.

A couple hours later, I found myself with two dear friends at a Chance the Rapper concert at the Hollywood Bowl with a thousand of maybe the most diverse group of Angelenos that you’ll find together at once. I strongly believe that certain rappers, especially ones as remarkable as Chance, are instigators of incredible social dialogue and change, prophetic truth-tellers and cultural icons. With varying degrees of transparency and directness, they speak to the issues at the heart of a marginalized, oppressed, dissatisfied, unjust American experience that questions the existence of God and the goodness and purpose of humanity (ahem … Ecclesiastes). The realities of mass incarceration, structural racism, gentrification, racialized police brutality, gang violence, drug wars, inner-city poverty, etc. that those of us who live a privileged, white American existence simply hear about on the news, are embodied and lived experiences shared in such music. Music that we (white Americans) appreciate and enjoy. Music that allows us to connect with a story that is not our own. Now, does our vicarious enjoyment, if not inciting within us lifestyle change or any sort of action or further dialogue or thought, have any significance? Is it simply reasserting our privilege if we listen to these songs and go to these concerts, but don’t engage in the struggles and fights of the black or Latino community? Maybe. That’s a discussion for another time.

The point I want to make here is that no church service I’ve ever been to has attracted such a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse group of people as a Chance the Rapper concert. Granted, some hip hop artists only propagate harmful messages that are unrelated to social commentary and justice in their songs and they are not the artists I am referring to. But Chance truly uses his position and pedestal to authentically, insightfully and creatively comment on realities of his experience and invite his listeners and fans into a dialogue and a vision of something different. A “vision of something different” that may not truly be all that different than what we want as a church or as a group of grad students learning and talking about racialized America.

As we, in our many different positions as churchgoers, Christians, students, businesspeople, hip hop fans, millennials, consumers, capitalists, blacks, whites, Asians, etc. struggle to understand the layers of race in our society and world and try to identify points at which to enter the conversation, it’s really important that we engage with cultural mediums such as film, music, literature, social media, etc. In a thoughtful and selective way, yes, but engagement is necessary, especially for the church, because we are trying to address questions of God and faith in a current cultural context. What would it look like for us as Christians to try and better understand the ways that God is at work in our wider culture, through art, film, literature, hip hop? What would it look like for us to affirm the narratives of communities by listening to their music and engaging with their stories in these ways? I know that I am always appreciative of the ways in which others’ stories also help me engage with my own.

Across time, geographic location, race, socioeconomics, cultures and mediums, we ask the same perennial questions. The writer of Ecclesiastes, my professor and classmates at Fuller, Chance the Rapper, pastors and Christians across the country, filmmakers and artists. Who is God? Where is God? Who are we? What is the point of humanity? Why is there evil and injustice? Will there be an end to the pain and suffering? Where are the answers? Where is the meaning?

Can we find unity and common ground through our questions? Can we ask the questions together? Where may it take us if we start trying?

“I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom. Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom. Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air. Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ’bout blonde hair. Jesus black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy. Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family. He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest. And gave Donnie a trumpet in case I get shortness of breath”     — Chance the Rapper, Blessings

 

 

 

How “Christian movies” frame my vocational dilemma.

As some of you know, I am taking a course this quarter at Fuller on Theology and Film. It is illuminating my life and confronting me with so many questions, and so I want to share some of these thoughts with you all. The whole purpose of this course, its discussions, lectures, books, films, etc. is to spark innovative, creative, intersectional ways to generate dialogue between films and churches, moviegoers and Christians, pop culture and the church, the messy, racy, unmentionable realities of life with the Gospel and biblical truth.

The big question that this class has helped me reach is: How did these spheres become so separate and what can we do to bring them back into dialogue? 

Ralph Winter, the producer of dozens of world-renowned films, including Star Trek, X-Men, The Promise, etc. is co-teaching our class — AMAZING. As a Christian, he has an interesting and insightful perspective on how to live out your faith as a successful Hollywood insider. My last post was about identity, and I concluded that my identity in Christ has to take precedence over my ethnic and cultural identity in order to find ultimate peace or wholeness. But what do you do when your faith-based identity is not the best way for you to connect with others, do your job or bring about change in the world? How do you allow it to still dictate who you are when you don’t always feel free to display it to others? Ralph said something along these lines in last week’s class, “I don’t hire a Christian plumber, or someone who can share the Gospel or recite Bible verses to me when fixing my toilet. I hire someone who can do the job well, and if he happens to be a Christian, that’s great! If he doesn’t and he does his job, that’s great too.” Obviously, right?

I think about how many “Christian films” have been made that just did not resonate with me, my friends, or anyone except a select few churchgoers. To quote Ralph again, “Why didn’t nearly as many moviegoers cry when Aslan died in The Chronicles of Narnia as when Mufasa died in The Lion King?” What happened? Now this post is not intended to bash “Christian movies”; they do a brave thing, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone involved in creating films. The power of storytelling and the skill it takes to create a credible, emotionally engaging on-screen story is tremendous.

The question that certain overtly “Christian films” raise, however, is: When and how do we display the different “labels” of our identity?

We all are defined by multiple spheres of identity, whether they are cultural, ethnic, political, religious, our career, passions, etc., some of which we visibly carry with us wherever we go, some of which are invisible until we choose to reveal them. We are not always free to display the invisible, but still fundamentally defining spheres of identity such as our political or religious identities, especially when they may come into conflict with the context that we find ourselves in. This sounds very obscure, but the reality is that we all encounter this conundrum daily. It is why “sacred” and “secular” are so separate; we have relegated our identities to “appropriate” spheres of life because it is just a little too overwhelming to try and navigate them all at once. The fear of rejection, embarrassment or awkwardness when we display our authentic selves is all too real. But is there potential for art, film, music, literature, etc., to tap into multiple spheres of identity and bring the “sacred” and “secular” into dialogue with one another? Could that even be one of the primary purposes of these art forms — to provide us a medium to engage with the often so incredibly polarized sacred and secular worlds? In the words of Dutch historian and theologian, Gerard van der Leeuw, in his book, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, “Art can be religious, or it can appear religious; but it can neither be Mohammedan nor Buddhist nor Christian. There is no Christian art, any more than there is a Christian science. There is only art which has stood before the Holy.”

When we want to create something beautiful as an expression of ourselves, our values, our identity; the entire process as well as the method or the medium we choose can achieve this. I often find myself getting anxious, frustrated or stressed with the stage that I’m currently at in life, because there is so much I want to do and so many dreams I have that seem so currently unattainable. I have not yet discovered my “vocation” or discovered the means in which to achieve my dreams. Just like a “Christian film” with great intentions, pure motives and a heartfelt expression, my life currently feels like a series of unreachable goals, bright ideas, and idealistic dreams that just aren’t manifesting themselves in the way I would intend. How do I do something that matters and that makes a difference in peoples’ lives? How do I love, serve, and learn from other people in a meaningful way? How do I do something creative and generative with my time, money and effort? How do I purely, effectively and sensitively express my faith through what I do? These are big vocational questions that I am finding myself asking, with the purest of intentions and the deepest desires for good, but uncertainty of the best medium, method or approach to use to answer them.

Maybe Christians and Christian movies are asking the right questions, maybe we’re not. We definitely need to think about it. We need to be open to being wrong or having missed the mark. We need to be okay with new, different and creative expressions of faith, both in ourselves and others. As the church, we need to recognize that there is deeply spiritual and beautiful art, film, music, and literature that sears the soul in a way that overtly “Christian” art, film, music or literature does not, and that our faith-based identities and convictions can be expressed in different, equally valid ways.

If we are asking authentic questions of each other, of our church, of our political affiliates, of our friends, of our culture and society, are we willing to go through the maybe painful, sometimes messy, always uncomfortable process to really seek to understand the answers we might be hearing?

When we confront these questions and realities, are we willing to allow ourselves to be open to new mediums of expression that we might encounter?

How can we grow through this process?

Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo

*image: Mako Fujimura, Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)

How Lion helped me think about my true identity.

About a month ago, I saw the movie, Lion, which I would highly recommend because it probes at questions of identity, family, belonging, culture and love in a way that will likely deeply move you, as it did me. I have been inspired to write a response to it for some time. Let me give you a brief summary of the story, connect it to my own, and then use those connections to draw a larger conclusion about identity formation.

A young Indian boy named Sheru is separated from his brother at a train station and ends up taking the train hundreds of miles away from his family. After disorienting weeks of (mis)adventures, he finds himself in an orphanage where he is soon after adopted by an Australian couple. The story then jumps ahead to Sheru in his mid-twenties, about to go off to a hospitality university program away from his parents and brother (also adopted from India). As Sheru eats Indian food with friends at school, he is confronted with questions of his ethnic heritage and vivid memories of his mother, his brother and his childhood. He begins a (long-awaited) search using the (at this time) newly invented Google Earth, to find the train station where he long ago fell asleep and was separated from his brother. I won’t give away the ending, but it is gut-wrenching to watch Sheru struggle with memories of his family back in India and the knowledge that his mother and brother do not know what happened to him. Because he knew his mom and siblings for years before he was lost, these memories are cripplingly powerful.

Sheru’s experience searching for that train station and his family resonated deeply with my own feelings of loss and disconnect from my birth culture. His personal journey to find his family of origin centers much more around his feelings of love, loss and guilt toward the train station separation and less around the sense of lost cultural and ethnic identity that I have encountered. However, despite our age differences when we were adopted or where we were adopted from, I believe that every adoptee faces questions of identity and feelings of loss, disconnect and longing. These feelings can be because of a remembered separation from parents or a culture, like Sheru’s story, or they can be imagined based on cultural or ethnic disconnects that occur later in life, if the adopted child was too young to remember his or her birthparents or siblings.

Even though my personal story of adoption and search for Chinese cultural and racial belonging is very different from Sheru’s search to find his family in India, the feelings of love and loss have a similar origin. At one time, we were both separated against our wills, from a family and culture that we either loved very deeply or never had the chance to love. For years leading up to my return to China, I wrestled with a deep longing in my heart to discover what place China held in what I felt was an incomplete cultural and racial identity. I harbored a fantasy that there was a part of me left behind in China that I could somehow return to and reclaim – it wasn’t like I wanted to find my birthmom or family necessarily, but that I wanted to somehow reclaim some pieces of my identity that I believed had been taken from me against my will.

Lion barely touched upon any cultural disconnects that Sheru experienced (either as an Indian adoptee in Australia or as an Australian returning to India), however, the couple brief moments that were illustrated resonated with me deeply. There were moments in class and at his Indian friends’ home when he has to explain that he’s culturally Australian, not Indian, and so supports the Australian cricket team and doesn’t know how to eat naan with his food properly. Watching those on-screen moments, I felt exactly the unspoken, jumbled feelings of embarrassment, shame and discomfort that Sheru experienced, because this discord between how I look and who I actually am in determining how I am perceived by others and who I consider myself to be has been something I have carried with me for years.

I have been beyond blessed to find myself among family and friends who have never questioned my ethnic or cultural identity in a way that has made me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, but instead given me the space and support to discover what pieces of my Chinese heritage I want to claim and which pieces I don’t. The moments of discord are random and nothing I can complain about, because they always challenge me to think, reflect and grow in both my self-awareness and understanding as well as my humility, compassion and forgiveness toward others. Blaming others for their ignorance has never helped anyone or solved anything. Laughing off insensitivities hasn’t either, however, and so I am learning the fine art of challenging peoples’ misperceptions and reverting stereotypes gently and humbly. If I hold my identity in Christ above my cultural or racial identity, than maybe over time the ignorant questions about my race won’t cut quite as deeply because they simply are not that significant to who I truly am. Over time, I am learning to respond in a way that reflects this true identity rather than responding in a way that reflects an immediate emotional reaction. This means asking questions and responding with affirming, truthful statements when people misunderstand, instead of acting offended or upset and saying nothing.

Where our devotion truly lies is ultimately revealed when aspects of our identity are mistaken or rejected, because it then becomes apparent what we hold at our core — is it devotion to a racial identity, an ideology, a socioeconomic status, a people group, a nationality, a set of religious standards or values, a level of education, or a vocation? For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, whether we are adoptees, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, professors, pastors, businesswomen, the list is unending — in moments when these different identifiers of who we are are rejected or misunderstood, like my “American-ness” was by Chinese culture, than how does the way in which we choose to respond reflect the God that we serve and that which is most important to us?

Our self-image, our different identities, our passions and gifts, the way we move and connect in the world, are definitive to who we are, but we can never lose sight of what these identifiers should point toward. They were never meant to be disparate, singular, stand-alone identities, but instead reflections of the fearfully, wonderfully created images of our Creator that we are. We must remember that our various racial, ethnic, cultural and vocational identities are supplements to the identity that we have in Christ, as beloved sons and daughters of the King, saved by grace, on this earth not for ourselves, but to reflect his love.