Christina Yolo asked me about my thoughts on the Korean concept of “aegyo” (애교).
Aegyo refers to a cutesy display of affection, particularly in facial expressions, gestures, and voice. It includes speaking with a baby voice, particularly with certain words, such as “오빠” (or “big brother”, a term often used by Korean women to refer to their older boyfriends). Other expressions of aegyo include pouting, making a heart gesture with one’s hands, or miming dimples with one’s fingers.
Just look for pictures online, and you’ll see what I mean.
Now, even though my parents are from Korea, I was born in the US, and I am not connected to Korean culture. I don’t know much about aegyo or how it is expressed. And I don’t have a problem with people whose ordinary behavior can be considered cute. If being cute is part of how they like to express themselves, they should do that. But I find affectations of aegyo pretty strange. I don’t like it when women pretend to talk with a baby voice or act clingy to make themselves more attractive to a guy. I also wonder if an emphasis on cuteness encourages the infantilization and disempowerment of women in Korea.
That’s not to say cuteness and strength can’t abide together. My mom has certain traits that lend her to being described as cute. But she is also a strong and accomplished woman. When she came to the US with my father, she could hardly speak any English. But through her hard work and perseverance, she was able to find a job as a pharmacist, a position that requires advanced technical knowledge. Here’s a sample line from Pharmacy Times, which my mom reads for Continuing Education:
“ENTRESTO contains 2 medications, valsartan, which inhibits the effects of angiotensin II, and sacubitril, a neprilysin inhibitor, which increases levels of natriuretic peptides that are normally degraded by neprilysin.”
I don’t understand what that means, and I’m a native English speaker. Yet my mom does. Amazing.
Beyond just her professional accomplishments, my mom is also an insightful and confident person. In the past, some of my mom’s coworkers tried to take advantage of her, or push her around. They think, “Eh, Minnie won’t put up a fight.”But my mom stood her ground, and said, “Don’t think that you can walk all over me! What you are doing is unfair!” Then they backed down. I was so proud of my mom for doing that.
Christina asked me about aegyo in the context of trying to figure out what kind of girl I would like (she is pretty intent on helping me find a girlfriend). So I’ll say that cuteness is nice, if it’s part of how a woman naturally expresses herself, but I don’t want her to act cutesy just to get my attention. But for me, more important than cuteness are traits like intelligence, confidence, compassion, and graciousness.

Critiques from the Outside

I been thinking about criticism of a community coming from outside the community. This is when someone who is not part of a community steps forth with critical comments about that community. I trust that I don’t need to provide concrete examples of what I mean.
I thought about what this would look like in my life. I am a Korean American. My parents were born in Korea and emigrated to the United States. I was born in Atlanta, and grew up in Los Angeles. Most of my friends growing up were Korean Americans. I am proud of my people and what we have accomplished in this country, even as I continue to learn more about our history.
Now, let’s say that a stranger comes to me. This stranger is not Korean-American. He has never been to a Korean community center or church. He has a few Korean-American friends, but has not spend significant time with their families. In fact, the only thing he knows about Korean Americans are what he sees on television and on the Internet.
He comes up to me and says, “The problem with the Korean-American community is your misogyny! You oppress your women. The problem with the Korean-American community is your idolization of academic achievement! You raise children who are so focused on academic success, they become emotionally scarred. The problem with the Korean-American community is your bigotry! You hate other ethnic groups.”
Each of those comments may have some truth. As a Korean American, I can say that there is a ring of truth to each statement. But if I were to hear that, my response would be, “Who…are you? Do I know you? More important, do you know us? Have you spent time in our community? Have you come to our houses, eaten our food, connected with us? Clearly, you haven’t. You claim to be concerned about the Korean-American community, but you haven’t exercised that concern. To paraphrase the poet Knowles, you must not know about us. Why should we listen to what you have to say?”
The stranger may reply, “What I have to say is true, and you’re too stubborn to listen.”
To which I would reply, “Perhaps, but why should I listen? You are a stranger to me. If you came up to me and told me about all of my personal problems, I wouldn’t be inclined to listen. So why should you expect an entire community to listen to you? Even if what you say may be true, that doesn’t make it complete. You don’t have the whole story.”
“Furthermore, this is especially true if my community is exercising its voice and you come from a community that has historically tried to undermine our voice. My community is trying to speak out against injustice. How do I know that you are really criticizing us from a place of helpfulness and genuine concern, instead of trying to shut us down because you don’t like what we have to say?”
“You might claim that this time, you are trying to be helpful and sincere. But please understand, that it’s difficult for us to trust you. People from my community have trusted people from your community time and time again, only to turn around and be stabbed in the back. Trust is not a given. Trust is not an entitlement. Trust must be earned. And once trust is broken, it cannot be easily repaired.”
“Now, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t free to share your critiques. You are free to say what you want. But don’t expect us to listen if you haven’t taken the time to get to know us. And if you know that we won’t be able to listen because there is a lack of trust, yet you continue to critique us, I wonder if you are really trying to help. I wonder if you are instead trying to show how wise and insightful you are, and how foolish and stubborn we are because we refuse your obviously sage advice. But our cry against injustice is not about your ego trip.”
“You may feel uncomfortable by how we exercise our voice, by our protests and votes and campaigns. Please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We don’t have to, for we are equal human beings, just like you. But if you are genuinely concerned, come and hear what we have to say. Please don’t make this about you. We didn’t work this hard to organize just to draw attention to your discomfort with how we speak up.”
“Stranger, I hope that you visit our community. Let us embrace you with open arms. Sit with us, enjoy our food (I especially recommend the tofu soup and the Korean barbecue), and hear our stories. Hear about how many of our families still carry the scars of the Korean War, with long lost relatives in North Korea that we haven’t seen in decades. Hear about how our mothers and fathers worked so hard to make a better life in this country for their children. Hear about our dreams for the future, for equality and healing in our families in the U.S. and in Korea. And then, when you are no longer a stranger but have become a friend, we would turn to you and ask you for your help. We would ask you to speak to us, help us see our blind spots, help us to grow. Because then we would know that you care about us, that your comments come from a place of genuine love and honor.”

First day of work

Yesterday was the first day at my new job. I am working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. I will primarily be in charge of a legal clinic that LCCR runs in partnership with Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco. Glide is a famous and controversial church that has been at the center of many social movements in San Francisco. Glide also provides many social services for the poor and homeless in the community. The clinic allows LCCR to connect with clients who come to Glide for services.
The clinic runs on Monday and Thursday afternoons, so yesterday was my first clinic. The attorney and I saw eight clients (I’m not able to provide clients with legal advice yet, since I’m still waiting on bar exam results). Every client had a different issue. One wanted to get legalized and feared moving back home because of violence. Another had a will dispute. A third needed had been getting harassing calls from a debt collector. Still other clients came with questions about police brutality, eviction, and wage garnishment.
Currently, the clinic can only provide advice and referral, not ongoing representation. Still, we can provide some help. For a client who has issues with student loans, we explained the process to apply for Income Based Repayment (IBR) in order to gain relief. He thanked us for giving him information that his loan servicer refused to give.
I’m a bit nervous about facing a variety of different issues. Most of my legal internship experiences have been in housing, and most of that experience was in Illinois. I don’t know much about family law, or consumer protection, or probate. Still, I know that even with my limited knowledge, I can provide some help, and point clients in the right direction.
I’m grateful for my experiences at Christian Legal Aid of Los Angeles and with Jessie Johnston Fahy, Sarah McKendricks, and Zoë Jordan. That first summer internship at CLA-LA helped me get ready for what I’m doing now with the Glide clinic. As Jessie and Sarah have said, it’s important to be a “can-do attorney.”

CCDA 2016 — Networking

Another reflection from CCDA National Conference 2016: Networking.

CCDA emphasizes connecting practitioners (people working in the field) to build ideas and encourage one another. The National Conference had several formal networking sessions, including sessions for mental health professionals, people involved in urban youth ministry, and rural and small town practitioners.

I attended a networking event for Asian Americans doing Christian community development. I appreciated meeting with other Asian-American Christians who are engaged in serving under-resourced communities. Many Asian-American Christians strive for an easy life in the suburbs. After all, many Asian immigrants came to the United States to escape the grime and poverty of their home communities, so I can understand why they would want to focus on securing a comfortable life for themselves and their children. But I do wish that more Asian-American Christians engaged with issues like racism, criminal reentry, and economic empowerment for the poor. So I am glad that through CCDA, I can meet with others who understand the work that I am trying to do with homelessness and criminal reintegration. I was also glad to see Eric Peng again, and hear about his work with By The Hand Club For Kids.

Much thanks to Albert Alby Wang and Steve Park (along with the other organizers) for their work in putting the networking event together!

Basic Geography

I’ve never seen this interaction, but kind of hoping it happens.
Thirsty White Dude: “Hey there, where you from?”
Chill Vietnamese Woman: “I’m from LA.”
TWD: “No, I mean, where are you really from?”
CVW: “Well, I was born in Dallas, but my parents are from Vietnam.”
TWD: “Oh, I love Vietnam!”
CVW: “Really? How so?”
TWD: “I love Vietnamese food. Pho noodle soup, spring rolls, beef. Hey, we should get some pho sometime. What’s your number?”
CVW: “Here, let me show you something on my phone.”
TWD: “Oh cool…Wait, what is this?”
CVW: “This is a map of the world, but without any of the country names. Since you love Vietnam so much, show me where it is.”
TWD: “Oh! Uh, it’s here, right?”
CVW: “Nope, that is Laos, an entirely different country with a completely different language, culture, and history.”
TWD: “What about here?”
CVW: “Wrong again, that’s Indonesia.”
TWD: “Here?”
CVW: “That’s the Pacific Ocean.”
TWD: “…”
CVW: “Listen, I know it takes guts to go up to a woman and strike up a conversation. But honestly, if you’re going to try to hit on me just by claiming that you love the country from which my parents emigrated 30 years ago, the least you can do is know basic geography.”

CCDA 2016 National Conference: Go and See

CCDA 2016 National Conference: Go and See.
CCDA puts an emphasis on highlighting local ministries in the host city. As part of that effort, CCDA organizes Go and See tours to explore the work of different ministries in areas such as affordable housing, economic empowerment, and criminal reentry.
I participated in a Go and See tour hosted by InnerCHANGE, a Christian order dedicated to serving the marginalized and the poor. We walked around the Westlake/MacArthur Park area, home to a large immigrant community from Central America. The neighborhood is also facing a growing homeless population, a sign of the lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles. We heard about the neighborhood and its history of gang violence, as well as the work that InnerCHANGE was doing to be a good neighbor. We had an amazing lunch at Mama’s Hot Tamales, and heard about the efforts of entrepreneurs to start businesses using the restaurant’s commercial kitchen. We visited the UCLA Labor Center and heard about how the Center equipped immigrant youth activists to lift up their communities. We ended our tour at Tapestry Los Angeles Church, a mostly Korean-American church working to connect with the local neighborhood.
One place that struck me was an old paper store. The proprietor told us that way back when, many art schools existed in MacArthur Park, and the store was started to provide art supplies. As the community changed, the art schools left; the store was the last of its kind left in the area. The store was known throughout the city for its high-end paper and arts supplies, and customers would come from all corners. But the store had little interaction with the local neighborhood.
Then one day, John (one of the members of InnerCHANGE) stopped by the store. He regularly came by to purchase supplies for his collage art. He had been developing a book dealership to provide students in the area with books for school, and he was looking for a retail space. He talked with the proprietor and worked out a deal to have the store sell books on commission. The store sold the books for just a couple bucks each. John and the proprietor started with a table out in front of the store. Neighbors began to notice, and the table got a lot of attention What started as a table then became a shelf in the store, then a whole section, covering everything from philosophy to literature to graphic novels. The books led to more connection with the community. When we visited, John pointed out that the art that the store exhibited on its walls had been made by local youth artists.
John was able to connect the store with the neighborhood in a meaningful way. He was able to build bridges and connect people to resources that already existed in their community. What John did wasn’t spectacular or revolutionary. But his work was a simple expression of Jesus’s words: “Love your neighbor.”

CCDA National Conference 2016 — On Diverse Worship

Another reflection on the Christian Community Development Association National Conference, this time on Worship.
CCDA’s member organizations represent communities throughout the world, from primarily African-American urban centers to Latino rural settings to Native-American reservations. Thus, CCDA makes a concentrated effort to express diversity during worship. Part of this includes who is on stage: the worship band included musicians who were African-American, Latina, Asian-American, and Middle-Eastern. No one was a token presence, and the band gelled well together.
But diversity extended beyond who was onstage to include the kind of music that was presented. The first night of the conference began with the Spanish worship song Demos Gracias al Señor:
“Demos Gracias al Señor
Demos Gracias
Demos Gracias al Señor
Por las mañanas las aves
cantan las alabanzas
a Cristo Salvador”
We also sang “Si tuvieras fe como un grano de mostaza” and “Hay Libertad”, which included this wonderful bridge:
“Que somos libres
Somos libres
Por su sangre
¡Libre soy!”
Not to mention other songs that we sang in Arabic and Korean, and songs from different praise traditions.
Sandra Van Opstal, the primary worship leader, pointed out that diversity in worship is not about adding zest or flavor to our worship for our entertainment, or about making us feel sophisticated and urbane. Rather, diverse worship recognizes that all people and all cultures have a place in God’s kingdom. Diverse worship puts to shame the idea that any one culture or one people can claim sole or superior access to God. Diverse worship is an important (however small) corrective to the Church’s long history of eliminating minority voices, of forcing people to forget their “pagan languages” and adopt the “proper Christian tongue of English/French/Spanish/Portuguese/etc.” Diverse worship calls us to remember that the name of God is also Dios, is also 하나님, is also الله‎ (Allāh, which is the name that Arab Christians use for God).
Diverse worship opens us to new ways of experiencing God through the lens of another. One of my favorite worship songs is “除你以外” — “Chu Ni Yi Wai” — “Besides You”, a Chinese worship song based on Psalm 73. Singing this song reminds me of God’s incredible faithfulness to the Chinese church in the face of horrible persecution, and how much joy it brings Him to hear His children sing to Him in their native tongue.
More diverse worship will not solve all the problems of racism and xenophobia that are present in the Church. However, such worship will certainly help us on the way to remove the barriers of hostility within our walls.

Reflections on CCDA 2016

I am so grateful that I got to attend the Christian Community Development Association National Conference this past week here in Los Angeles. CCDA is a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities holistically restored. CCDA’s core principle is that loving our neighbors means caring for all their needs: spiritual, emotional, physical, economic, and social. CCDA is not about charity or handouts, but about partnering with vulnerable communities to help them flourish.
Here is a taste of what I experienced at CCDA:
CCDA’s plenary speakers represented a multitude of ethnic backgrounds and disciplines: theologians, pastors, and community activists.
Noel Castellanos, the CEO of CCDA, spoke about the long Camino of community development, reflecting on his walk on El Camino Del Inmigrante, a 150 mile pilgrimage from the border of Mexico and California in solidarity with immigrants who are migrating across the world.
Brenda Salter McNeil from Seattle Pacific University spoke on the need for new models of reconciliation, and for the church to not sit idly by in the face of injustice.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto of IJM commented on finding her unique voice in God’s work as a Japanese-American woman, and she illuminated Isaiah 58’s message of how the work of Shalom in the present can rebuild the past and restore the future.
Peter Chin of Rainier Avenue Church talked about his experience of witnessing reconciliation between African Americans and Korean Americans, and the transformative power of Christ to overcome deep-seated animosity.
Sandra Van Opstal of Grace and Peace Community reminded us that worship is integral to the work of restoring communities, for it reorients ourselves to the God of the work, not just the work of God.
Ched Myers of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries extolled us to remember the history of Los Angeles, of the ecological history of the floodplain on which the city was built, to the history of the indigenous Tongva people, the Spanish colonization, the Mexican government, and the complex interweaving of different communities in the city.
Daniel Hill of River City Community Church called on those of us with privilege to not ask ourselves, “What should I do with my privilege?”, but rather, “Can I see my privilege?”
Lina Thompson of Lake Burien Presbyterian Church shared of her struggles as a Samoan-American female pastor of a multi-ethnic church, and that we all need to disciple from a true picture of Jesus.
Ben Lowe of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action reminded us that the work of the cross is for the restoration of all things, including all of creation.
Ian Danley of Neighborhood Ministries reflected on his family’s experience relocating into a poor community in Phoenix and how he learned to raise up leaders to combat systemic sin.
Efrem Smith of World Impact led a study on Paul’s letter to Philemon, and reminded us that the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated are not just stories for our donor letters, but that they have a missional call of their own.
Enid Almanzar from American Bible Society shared her story of how the Bible gave her hope when she was living in the housing projects of New York City, and encouraged us to make sure that the word of God is at the center of everything that we do, as we contextualize the word to remove obstacles blocking others from participating.
Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center called on us to join in the work of Jesus, who came to set the captives free, and for the church to reclaim its prophetic voice against the injustice of police brutality.
What I find so encouraging about CCDA is that it is a community of people who are deeply committed to Jesus and His work in the world, particularly in poor and vulnerable communities. As I continue to explore my call to serve my city, I am grateful to have this community available to support me.
If CCDA sounds interesting to you, let me know and I can connect you to resources to learn more. The next National Conference will be in October 2017 in Detroit!

Growing in kindness

When I first came to Chicago, before school began, I met with a friend of a friend, a practicing lawyer. I shook his hand and sat down, ready to hear about his practice. Yet before I could get a full question out, he started telling me about his entire life. He was incredibly animated, which made his story difficult to follow. Also, I was not used to his level of profanity, so I was a bit taken aback. At one point, he suggested that I vigorously copulate with myself (I’m paraphrasing what he actually said).
He told me that there were two types of people in law school. There were those who become sexually aroused by legal doctrine (again, I’m paraphrasing, as his actual words involved suggestions of lewd physical activity). Then there is everyone else, including people like me, who do not derive erotic pleasure from the law. As such, I could work myself to death to try to compete with my colleagues and get an “A”, or strive for a “B” and use my spare time to build something, such as a business.
So when I got to law school, I didn’t expect to be at the top of the class. I did not get straight “A” grades in college. I had not written any involved analytical essays in a long time. My last essay had been about aspen trees, as part of my tree taxonomy class for my forestry major. Although I received above median grades my first quarter, I received median and below grades for my second and third quarters. At that point, my expectations became reality. I would not be at the top of the class.
I decided that I would follow the advice I received and focus not on competing for the academic gold star, but on building something. But rather than focus on building a business (an enterprise for which I lacked the desire, ambition, or talent), I set my attention on building the character and community of the school. “I may not be the smartest or receive the most prestigious awards, but I am going to try to be as kind as possible.” After all, Jesus commanded His disciples to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I was just trying to put into action His command to love, in an environment that is not always conducive to compassion.
At the graduating students dinner, the school gives out several awards. One of those awards is the Ann Watson Barber Outstanding Service Award, which is given to 3L students who have made an exceptional contribution to the quality of life at the Law School. I was fortunate enough to receive one of the awards. When I look at my colleagues who have received the award, both from my class year and prior years, I am humbled and honored to be counted in their company, not to mention the many others who have also contributed to the vibrancy of the school.
After the dinner, I ran into a couple classmates near the lockers. One of them congratulated me on the award, gave me a hug, and told me that I deserved it. Another told me, “Joel, you’re one of the people that make the law school a happier place.”
Looking back on my time, perhaps there are ways that I could have done things differently. Perhaps I could have been involved with other student organizations, or approached academics differently, or engaged more with the neighborhood outside of the law school. But even still, I am satisfied with my time at the school. I did my best to embody my beliefs, both in my contributions to the Chicago Law Foundation as well as my individual interactions with people. I believe that all people are made in the Image of God, b’tzelem Elohim, Imago Dei. All people are deserving of dignity, honor, and worth. I’m still working with that truth, as that truth works in me. I know that I am far from fully embracing it. Yet I believe that these past three years have helped me come a little bit closer to it.
To my former classmates and now colleagues, I thank you for the ways that you have taught me, challenged me, and encouraged me these past three years. I especially thank you for how you have supported me in finding my voice in writing. Even though I know that we don’t come from the same place or see through the same lenses, I am glad that you encouraged me to keep writing.
And as many of us begin our professional journeys in the coming weeks (as some of our colleagues have already done so), I hope that we will all continue to grow in insight, compassion, and maturity. Moreover, regardless of our respective career paths, I hope that we are able to use our skills and our voices to help restore dignity, honor, and worth for those that are discarded and abandoned in our world. Lawyers cannot save the world, but we can help mend it. When the wounded and vulnerable come to us for help, let us say, “I see you, I am here for you, and I will help you.”