The Least Korean

A pastor once made a curious observation about my ethnic status. In a casual conversation:
Friend: “I wonder what kind of woman Joel would marry.”
Sunhee Robinson, without a moment’s hesitation: “A white woman. Joel is the least Korean Korean man that I know.”
Let’s put aside the anticipation of interracial union for another time. I was intrigued by her comment (and not at all offended, for if I were, I would have cleared it with her privately, instead of airing it publicly like this. It’s all good.) I am certainly far removed in outlook and personality from my cousins in Seoul. Yet even I notice differences between myself and my Korean American male peers (bearing in mind that my experience is limited to Californian Korean Americans, and regional differences undoubtedly abound.) Some common interests for my peers are cars, sports (especially basketball), popular music (Asian pop/hip hop/R&B) and video games (DoTA, LoL, SC.) Certain phrases and idioms are common, e.g. “Dang,” “Legit,” and “Sick,” terms that I seldom employ. However, none of these strikes me as distinctly Korean American. I may well just be different from most American men my age, not just Korean Americans.
But what does it mean to be Korean American? I won’t dig into that longstanding question, but it is interesting to look at the entry for “Korean American” in Wikipedia. In the sidebar are pictures of notable Korean Americans. Amongst the men, there are entertainers Dennis Oh, Jay Park, and Justin Chon, but also Judge Herbert Choy (the first Asian American to serve as a US federal judge and first person of Korean descent admitted to the US bar), Jim Yong Kim (President of the World Bank), Peter Kim (Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford), and activist Mike Kim. Clearly, we encompass dimensions. Oddly enough, of the females pictured, four are entertainers and one (Michelle Wie) is an athlete. Other figures, like Judge Lucy Koh (the first female US federal judge) and Jane Kim (the first elected official in San Francisco), are listed in a separate article.
I don’t believe there are immutable characteristics that are universal to Korean Americans (we are not genetically predisposed to be better at StarCraft.) Although there are dominant social norms and cultural forces, there is space for improvisation and individuation. Maybe I’m the least Korean, or maybe I am simply part of another way to be.

Have Yourself a Merry Christmas

I have recently noticed the pensive nature of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The song starts with the title line and continues “Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.”

Yet we all know that this isn’t true. No matter how much we may wish it so, our troubles will never be far from us. For many, Christmas is a time of family tension and bitter disagreements stretching back to old times. For others, it is a reminder of our material lack, of having hardly enough to live, let alone to give away. For still others, it is a time of loneliness, grieving for loved ones that have passed on. Even after the holidays are over, troubles come. War, famine, disease, poverty, unemployment, eviction, grief.

In some sense, this song typifies the escapism and sentimentality that are endemic to this holiday. These words are futile! They have no power, even as we may try to decorate, buy, and feast away that reality.

Yet even still, there is an endurance to these words. Though we know that our troubles will never truly be far from us, we can hope for a day when it will be so, and that gives us strength to continue on. “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” and other such good wishes are more than just the mantra of bored retail clerks and television commercials for mattresses. They are words of courage for a homeless veteran, of hope from an unemployed mother to her child, of comfort for a grieving grandson. For even into a world of despair and misery, there is hope that one day, every tear will be wiped away, and all troubles will cease. It is in that hope, in spite of all despair, that we live.

Wikipedia fact: The song was originally written for the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1944 and was sung by Judy Garland. The last stanza is:
“Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now”

In 1957, when Frank Sinatra was covering the song for his Christmas album, he asked the lyricist, Hugh Martin, to “jolly up that line” for him, which is how we got “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” I actually think the original line is quite fitting with the pensive hopefulness of the song.

How Parents Change

I had dinner with Angie Lo this week. It was my first time meeting her son, Colin. I asked how life has changed with a son. She said that it was like night and day. She wasn’t one of those people that long to have kids. She was never particularly excited about children, never one to play with them. Yet she said that life with Colin, even with all the inconveniences, is so much sweeter than she could have imagined. She still isn’t particularly excited about children, but “I’m in love with this one.”

I am reminded of something Benjamin Robinson said when his daughter was born. Up to that point, he was a calm and easygoing person, who would never raise his hand against anyone. Yet he describes how the moment she was born, a kill switch went off within him. He knew that if anyone would try to harm his daughter, he would end them. As it is said, “Anger is love in motion towards a threat against that which it loves.”

Whenever my dad sees me with a picture of a baby, he asks “Doesn’t that make you want one of your own?” My typical response is “Not really. It’s nice, but eh.” Yet I do wonder how I would change if I became a father. Granted, parenthood is not easy, and parents need to actively fight resentment, bitterness, or envy against their children from taking root in their hearts. I am not certain if I will ever have children, but it would be interesting to see if I become gripped with the same love as Angie or Benjamin.

The definition of success

I had a very helpful conversation with my mom about career. It was after all my law firm interview rejections came in, and I was feeling a bit low. She called to check in on the process. She then mentioned how surprised she was that I had pursued these firm jobs, as she had expected that I would work for a nonprofit or the government.

She said “One reason that you might have been pursuing those jobs was because you felt a need to be more financially successful than your immigrant parents. We came to this country with very little and couldn’t speak the language perfectly, yet were able to get good jobs. You may think that if you don’t make as much money as us, you have failed in some way. But that’s not it. Success is measured by freedom of opportunity. We stayed in this country not so you would have the opportunity to be rich, but so you would have the opportunity to pursue what you want to do.”

I had not considered the impact of my immigrant heritage on my career choices. I am grateful to have parents (my dad talked to me about these things too) that are thoughtful and able to articulate these points well. I don’t think it was a conscious factor, but it may well have played a subtle role.

The first time

I remember the first time I was the target of a racial outburst.

I was walking to dinner in San Mateo, CA with a friend (who is also Asian-American.) A car was driving toward us, and as it turned the corner a white man leaned his head out and said “Go back where you came from!” My friend and I weren’t wearing anything that indicated we were from out of town, so it seemed like it was targeted at our ethnicity.

I immediately felt outraged. As much as I knew that I should just ignore this man and his foolishness, I felt angry, hurt, and scared. There was something deeply personal to his comment. It was even more shocking to hear it in San Mateo, which is almost 20% Asian (downtown San Mateo is full of Asian restaurants.)

This happened in 2012. What strikes me is how I lived for 25 years without encountering this sort of attitude. I grew up in a Korean-American community; the schools i attended had robust immigrant populations. I had never heard anyone say that sort of thing to me before. I felt real anger at that man’s comment. What would have been my response if I had to hear that message over and over since childhood? To be the target of mockery, hatred, violence? To feel like a foreigner in my own neighborhood?

I don’t know what that is like. I haven’t had that experience. But I want to understand, to know how it feels, for I know that this is part of my history.

Edit: It turns out, I have written about this before, but it’s good to get renewed perspective:

Not the righteous, but sinners

There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors (widely regarded as crooked agents of the Roman government who embezzled funds from the taxes they collected from the people of Israel) and sinners. The Pharisees, religious leaders, were shocked and outraged that he would associate with them. Jesus’ response was that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

This story emphasizes Jesus’ mercy. He was present with people that religious leaders avoided or even disdained. His love wasn’t conditional; people didn’t need to have everything together before he would embrace them.

I wonder what this table would look like today. Who would Jesus invite? Would there be drunkards? Thieves? Murderers? Drug dealers? Abusive spouses? Racists? Rapists? Child pornographers? Pedophiles? White supremacists? Members of ISIS and al-Qaeda? Part of me would be horrified to find them at the table. I would think “They don’t belong to be here! They are evil people!” Yet that’s what mercy is, understanding that we are not defined by our worst deeds.

Jesus’ embrace, of course, doesn’t mean approval. He did start his ministry with the word “Repent!” Yet he knew that before others would heed his words, they would have to trust his voice, and they would only trust his voice if he was near to them. Paul wrote in Romans that the kindness of God is meant to lead us to repentance. Jesus embodied that principle.

What would it look like if I embraced this teaching? If the church embraced this teaching? What would it look like if we were people that the outcasts, the disturbed, the demonized, and those haunted by their former evil deeds could turn to for help? Would we not then have the privilege to bear witness to the remarkable power of transforming love?

My Rules on Writing

When I first started writing on Facebook, I was hesitant about mentioning God. Faith is a big part of my life. I grew up in the church and have been very involved in congregational life. On a personal level, faith has brought comfort and hope, alongside questions and difficulties. I would say that my relationship with God is easily the most important element of my life (although I am still learning to live this out in practice.)
But I know that talk about faith, God, and religion can get messy really quickly. It is a space of much pain and hurt for many people. Moreover, the church as a whole and individual Christians have often responded callously or even horribly to the pain of others. As one quipped, “Lord, save me from your followers.” Social media isn’t conducive to nuance as it is; talk of religion can become ugly, maudlin, or toxic.
I still like to write about faith, since it is important to me. However, I want to make a few things clear:
1) I will do my best to be explanatory. My thought in writing one of these bits is “How can this be helpful to others?” Using Christian terminology such as “blessed,” “anointed,” or “the blood of the lamb” can be confusing (particularly that last one.) I want my writing to be accessible, that even people who don’t share my faith can take something from it.
2) I will never try to argue someone into conversion. I’ve seen it tried, and it doesn’t work. Questions are a crucial part of faith. I would submit that one issue with modern American Christianity is an outright allergy to probing questions. That said, arguments on a comment wall almost never end well. I am amiable to private conversations, both in person and online, but not on a Facebook wall, above pictures of empanadas (go to the fundraiser!)
3) When I write something normative, I start with myself, then with my community, then to everyone else. I have seen many Christian writers say “People who are not Christians should do this!” There is some value to that, to the prophetic voice outside the walls calling for change. That’s not how I choose to write. I will say “What I am learning is that something I need to do is X.” Maybe this means that I lack the fiery searing voice bringing power to truth, and that my writing comes across as bland and quaint. Yet I have found that the most profound sermons I have heard start with “I need to hear this too.”
Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me to keep writing. Even today, someone said “You know, I haven’t had time to go to church in a while, and I appreciate reading what you have to write.” This has been a great joy so far, and I’m looking forward to more to come.
And seriously, buy empanadas for our fundraiser tomorrow. Those Bacon/Date/Goat Cheese ones? Wow.

The Start of Advent

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season celebrated in many Christian churches around the world. It is a season of expectant waiting and preparation to celebrate Christmas, the Nativity. This season of reminiscent waiting for Christmas is also in parallel to waiting for Jesus’ return.

I didn’t grow up observing Advent. It wasn’t part of my Korean Presbyterian upbringing, nor was it mentioned in the other communities I joined in Berkeley. It was only last year that I heard about Advent at my church here. Yet I remember last year’s season of Advent with great warmth. I may write a few reflections on this year’s season.