Safe space

In the past several years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about “safe spaces” on university campuses. The phrase “safe spaces” has been given different definitions by different people (sometimes to further different political goals). At a baseline, a safe space is a place where people with similar perspectives can meet together. I have heard some express concern that “safe spaces” suffocate intellectual discourse and prevent students from engaging with differing worldviews.
It’s true that “safe space” can be mobilized to shut down diverging views. But it’s also important for students’ psychological well-being. Let me tell you about one of my safe spaces.
My law school had a chapter of the Christian Legal Society. CLS is a non-denominational fellowship of Christian law students, lawyers, and judges. Every Monday at lunch, CLS would hold a Bible study. We would get together, catch up, read the Bible, and pray. I really appreciated these Bible studies, as they gave me a place to connect with other Christian law students over our achievements and struggles. We turned to each other for prayer and support, especially in difficult times.
Did my involvement in CLS limit my ability to engage with differing worldviews? Not at all. I was happy to talk with people of all kinds of religious persuasions. But CLS gave me a place to rest and not worry about having to explain what I believe.
Did I need CLS at school to have a safe space? Not necessarily, but it was a huge help. I was part of a local church community with Christians who were not law students. But I found it helpful to have a space dedicated specifically for Christian law students. When I told people that I was frustrated with God because I didn’t get a job through OCI, the members of CLS knew what I meant.
Was CLS an exclusive place that didn’t allow for opposing views? Not necessarily. Non-Christians were always welcome to come in. But if someone came and started talking about how God is fake, Jesus never existed, and we are all fools for believing in Christianity, I would have asked that person to leave. It’s not that I was afraid of engaging with these questions. But that’s not what the CLS Bible study was about. I wanted to preserve that space for its intended purpose—supporting and encouraging other Christian law students.
Having CLS as a safe space helped me to get through law school. It helped me bring more of myself to the classroom, because I had a place to find rest at school.
I don’t think that “safe space” should be used to shut down inquiry and free speech. But I do want other students to have something like what I had with CLS: a place to let your guard down and feel at home.

Learning to have grace with myself

I had another tough interaction with someone today. This time, it was at volunteer event at a laundromat. Volunteers provide free laundry and food for people living on the streets. Unfortunately, the power went out while people were washing their clothes. Some folks had to leave with their wet clothes and try to dry them elsewhere.
People were understandably upset about the whole thing. One person in particular was irate. He went to get his wet clothes from the dryer and demanded that someone come with a flashlight (the lights were out in the laundromat). I ran over to help him. He muttered about how pissed off he was. I stood there silently, holding the light. After he got his clothes out of the dryer, I walked away. In retrospect, I would have wanted to stay and give him enough light to walk out of the building. But I was afraid of his angry words.
As I was biking home, I started questioning my motivations for my life. I say that I am an advocate for people living on the streets. But is that really true? Do I really care for people? Or am I trying to make myself seem like a better person? Because I think to myself that if I really did care, I would be doing so much more. I think to myself that I am a fraud, and that I should just be honest that I don’t actually care about people and go get a corporate job that would make me lots of money. But that line of thinking isn’t helpful.
I suppose every service provider and volunteer goes through this. As much as I focus my attention on serving those in need, I must recognize that there is a distance between us. I don’t know what it’s like to experience homelessness or severe mental illness. I want to remain humble about the role that I can play. I can’t solve all problems. But I can do something.
It’s also true that self-care is important, and that taking time to rest helps me to do my work for the long term. If I gave away all my stuff and went out to live on the streets myself, it would be harder to be an advocate for other people.
In any case, I pray that I would have greater compassion for others, and greater grace to not beat myself up for my mistakes. I am still learning, after all. Learning how to be a lawyer, how to be an advocate, and how to be a human.

Perceiving America

In law school, I took a seminar called “Slavery and its Aftermath”. It was a 12-person seminar that met five times through the year. Our two professors (Abebe and Huq) would assign us books to read on the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the resulting effects on race relations, housing, employment, and the criminal justice system.
In one session, we were discussing the lynching of African Americans in the South. One of my classmates had grandparents who had lived through that period and had family members who had been lynched. My classmate described how hearing these stories developed a complicated perception of the US as a place of both high ideals and painful history.
I thought about my own emotional response to the US. As a Korean-American, my experience of the US is shaped by my community. I’ve seen the US as Home and as Place of Opportunity. From my Korean perspective, I’ve seen the US as Protector and Economic Partner. Not all Koreans see the US that way, of course, but a majority of Koreans have a positive view of the US (according to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center).
By contrast, some of my friends may see the US as Military Aggressor, as Invading Force, as Economic Exploiter, and as Abductor. These perspectives are formed by their own experiences and the experiences of their communities.
As I’ve said before, you can’t tell people what to feel. Feelings don’t work that way. Some people may feel really positively about the US. Some may feel more conflicted, or negatively. I can’t tell people what to feel. But what I can do is try to understand the reasons that they are feeling that way. Even if I disagree with the reasons, I can at least know the underpinnings of those feelings.

Starting salary

Starting salary of a legal aid attorney is around $40,000-$52,000. Salaries vary based on location and agency, but that is the ballpark. According to the legal career association NALP, the median salary in 2014 was $44,600. My own salary fits within the range.
Living in the Bay Area on that salary requires careful planning and diligence, but it’s definitely doable. I don’t eat out much, and try to prepare my own food (hence the Mason jar salads). I don’t go to shows or concerts. I don’t travel. I exercise at home, so I don’t have to pay for a gym membership. I make sure to put some money aside for my Roth IRA and for my savings.
I’m thankful for what I have, because every day I meet people who have to survive on much less. People who are receiving General Assistance from Alameda County get $336 a month, along with $194 in food stamps. That’s $530 a month, or $6,360 a year. That’s not a lot, especially for folks who are disabled and unable to work. SSI is $895 a month, or $10,740 a year. While not great, it’s definitely better. This is why we work so hard to get people on SSI.
Some folks may be surprised by my salary. “Don’t lawyers make a lot of money?”, they may wonder. But it depends on the kind of lawyer you are. Private practice lawyers, especially those at big firms (with clients like Google, Exxon, or Walmart), can make significantly more. In fact, starting salary at these big firms is around $160,000, not including bonuses. So a 25-year-old straight out of law school can make more as a BigLaw attorney, working to support big companies, than a legal aid attorney with 10 years of experience, working to advocate for poor people. That’s just how things are.
But BigLaw is not the life for me. Many BigLaw attorneys are unhappy. They’re unhappy with the stress. They’re unhappy with the 80-hour work weeks. They’re unhappy with the constantly buzzing phones. I know people have their reasons for pursuing BigLaw, and I wish my BigLaw colleagues success and happiness in their careers. But I’ll take my lower salary, my 35-hour work week, and my personal satisfaction with my work, and be content with that.
My parents joked with me that it’s a good thing that I’m saving money now, because once I have a girlfriend, my money will disappear. I certainly hope that’s not true. I mean, I would like to be the kind of guy who can afford to take his girlfriend out to fancy dinners or excursions. But the truth is, at least for a while, I won’t be able to afford that. So some women who are accustomed to a certain standard of living won’t give me the time of day. But I bet that whoever ends up choosing to be with me will appreciate what I do have to give.

Dating advice from mom: Opposites Attract

My mom’s dating advice: “Opposites attract.”
“Look at our family. Your dad and your brother have similar personalities. They are both simple people. Not that they are simple-minded; they are both incredibly intelligent. But they have simple approaches to life. You only give them a few things, and they are happy!”
“On the other hand, you and I are similar, in that we are deep thinkers with complex inner worlds. We are always thinking. You give us everything, and we’re still unhappy!”
“You and your brother get along so well, even though you two are so different. You see the good things in each other. You bring out the thoughtful side of Dale. He brings out the fun side of you. You need someone who will do the same for you.”
It’s true that I tend to be more serious in my approach to life. I’m not a dour-faced curmudgeon, but I do seek out purpose and meaning in life. As a result, sometimes it’s hard for me to have fun.
And this isn’t to say that I would pursue a bubbly pixie person who chirps from diversion to diversion. I would find such a person ungrounded and obnoxiously flighty. But it’s nice to be comfortable enough with someone to let my silly side out.
If people have stories about opposites attracting, I’d love to hear them!

Changing your plans

I am 30 years old, and currently single. In fact, I’ve been single my whole life.
One of the reasons that I have been single for so long is because my life has constantly been in transition. When I was in high school, I was waiting until college to date (I also didn’t like myself very much and didn’t expect that others would like me, but that’s a separate issue). In college, I was waiting for graduation. After graduation, I didn’t know where I was going in life, and wanted to get that figured out. When I was in law school, I was waiting for after graduation (plus, I had hardly enough time in law school for myself, much less someone else). Now I’ve graduated and moved back to the Bay Area, but my life still feels very much in flux. And after years of moving on from one thing to another, I’m having a hard time settling down in one place.
I wanted to settle down before I started pursuing a relationship because I didn’t want to disrupt another person’s life. I thought that it was selfish to start a relationship with someone, only to have her change her plans on my account. That struck me as self-serving and tactless.
But then I remember what happened with my parents. When my mom met my dad in South Korea, she had no intention of moving to the US. My dad was coming here to study, and told her that she would have to leave her family, her culture, and her home to be with him. She said yes. Even though she didn’t know the future, she knew that she wanted to be with him.
I think about other friends who have had similar experiences, who have changed their plans to be with the ones that they love. While the sacrifice is real, the love makes the sacrifice so sweet.
And I realize that I haven’t really changed that much from high school. What I took to be thoughtfulness for others is rooted in a lack of value for myself. I thought that it would be too much to ask someone else to change her future plans for me.
I don’t know if my parents’ story will happen for me. I don’t know if I will ever get married. I’m glad that I can say that if I were to stay single, I would be grateful for life. But I’m embracing this truth about myself: I am worth changing your plans.