Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Risking Foot In the Mouth Disease

25 years ago, on a summer urban missions project, I put my foot in my mouth.
“You look like Aunt Jemima,” I said to an African-American friend wearing a bandana over her head.
She looked at me without a smile, “Kathy, it’s because I love you that I will forgive you, but don’t EVER say something like that again.”
Instantly abashed, I knew I had made some huge mistake, but didn’t completely understand why.  Call me clueless.
In the 25 years since, racial reconciliation has been my passion.  But frankly, if you’re going to have multiethnic friendships, multiethnic colleagues, and work in a multiethnic context, you’re going to make mistakes.
A lot of mistakes.
Glenn Kehrein, the former director of Circle Urban Ministries and co-founder of The Rock of Our Salvation Church, an intentionally interracial church, used to say, “Any conflict will become a racial conflict—it can be over the color of this piece of paper, and it’ll be a racial issue.”
Today, on the last day of Black History Month, as I conclude my series of writing on race, I’d like to make a plea for us to listen, dialogue and forgive.  But to MAKE THE EFFORT, even though we offend our friends and get offended in return.
So how do we negotiate the reality that racial issues will arise if we engage in interracial contact?
At Circle and Rock, I learned about intentionally creating dialogue so everything came into the open.  Raleigh Washington, Rock Church’s pastor, held “Chocolate” meetings where Blacks talked and asked questions, “Vanilla” nights, where Whites did the same, and “Fudge Ripple” nights where he (the only one who sat in on both meetings) read everything that came up in both groups, keeping the speakers anonymous, while everyone ate Fudge Ripple ice cream.
When I led the New York City Urban Program, we expanded to “Fudge,” “Coffee,” “Butterscotch,” and “Vanilla” nights with an “All Sundae” night at the end.  The first “All Sundae” night, we couldn’t find coffee ice cream anywhere—which led to lots of angst from all flavors.  We finally found coffee syrup for our next meeting, and even though it was nasty stuff, everyone was happy.
Because everyone was represented.
At our flavor meetings, you could get mad.  You could get offended.  You could have heated conversations.  But keeping secrets wasn’t an option.  And neither was harboring bitterness.  Because Jesus says if we don’t forgive, we won’t get forgiven.
I just spent February vacation week on a family reunion cruise.  The first night, the cruise director, as he interviewed a young Asian child who wouldn’t answer his questions said, “No speakee Engleesh?”
At least that’s what I, and my siblings all heard.
Whew!  I thought, that’s not a very culturally sensitive way to talk to a cruise that’s crammed full of Asian-Americans, 99.9% of whom speak perfect English.
I didn’t know what to do.  I sure didn’t want to spend my hard-earned vacation dealing with race issues.
Eventually, my sibs and I talked.   We decided we wouldn’t write a complaint—if this was a fire-able offense, we certainly didn’t want him to lose his job.  Our goal was to create a teachable moment, so we settled on talking in person.
We tossed around who should be spokesperson—none of us loved the idea of confronting someone on a painful issue—and finally decided  on my sister who was housed in concierge class.  After all, she’d spent the big bucks.
She called, and he was instantly apologetic.  He said he doesn’t recall saying “No speakee Engleesh?” just “Engleesh,” but that the moment the word rolled of his tongue he was mortified, didn’t know what to do and obviously couldn’t take it back.
We forgave him, moved on and had a great time.
If we engage with others across racial and ethnic lines we will mess up.  We’ll say things we wish we could take back.  But if we make the effort to listen well and dialogue, my prayer for us is that we’ll have friends across the racial spectrum.  That so much trust and care will be created that we can say and hear in return, “It’s because I love you that I will forgive you.”
This was first posted on What She Said

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fellow Spawn of Tuan, Here We Come!

In several hours, the kids and I fly to LA for Tuanapalooza 2012--a Disney cruise to celebrate my father's 80th birthday with all of my family.  Scott, unfortunately, is the lone "Tuan Spawn" unable to make it because of his huge professional conference in Las Vegas--he's on the board, running for chair, has to politic, etc.

All week I've been asking the kids to pack.  I've been packing myself.  It's winter here in Boston so none of us are wearing our summer clothes.  So why was there still a clothes/shoes/bathing suit/I-can't-find-my-favorite-swim-shirt frenzy last night?

I made matters worse when I decided to take Ling shopping for a new dress yesterday afternoon.  Remember the Love Boat TV series?  I always wondered why Julie wore ball gowns for dinner.  Turns out there's a "formal wear" dinner, a "semi-formal" dinner, and pirate night!

How's a girl to pack?

Tank tops, shorts and swimwear are never allowed at dinner, where we're encouraged to wear "cruise casual" when we're not dressed like Love Boat Julie or Jack Sparrow.

Ling, at 5'9 1/2", owns two dresses, both of which end at what looks like a foot above her knee.  She and her sister think they look fine.  Scott, my parents and I don't.  At TJ Maxx we pulled out about 45 dresses, I left her to try them on while shuttling Kai to piano, and after 3 hours, we found 2 Calvin Klein dresses that are cute, more modest, and both under $30!

Kai claimed that she had no proper shoes, so I capitulated and bought her a pair of 4 inch espadrilles from Payless.

"You know that you're going to look 6 feet tall," I said.

"I don't care." said she.

I don't know if it was wise to buy a 13 year old 4 inch high sandals, but oh well, I had no more energy to find age-appropriate footwear.

Scott suggested that the girls design T-shirts for the cruise.  Here's what they came up with:

Fellow Tuan Spawn--Bring it On!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why Louisiana Hot Sauce didn't Go with Chinese Stir Fry

During graduate school, I spent summers doing inner city urban ministry with a multi-racial bunch of students in the African-American community of Austin on the West Side of Chicago.  When you live in multi-racial community with several folks of each color and stripe, quickly the simplest issues have racial overtones.
One night TC, a Chinese from Malaysia, made stir fry for dinner.  Two African-American women, Shunelle and Niecy, promptly drowned their dinner with gobs of Louisiana hot sauce.  As I watched them pour hot sauce over their stir-fry and eat their food, I became increasingly angry.
So of course, like any good Chinese-American, I stuffed my feelings.   But like most feeling-stuffed Asians, my anger came out in passive-aggressive ways.  By bedtime, they accused me of picking on them.
I had to ‘fess up.
I told them I was mad at them that they poured hot sauce on their food.
They were flabbergasted.  You’re probably flabbergasted too (unless you’re Chinese and you know exactly what I’m talking about here).
As we talked, I realized I was offended because I had come to their community, was trying to understand and serve their culture, but when my food (stir-fry made by a Chinese-Malaysian) came to them, they weren’t willing to taste it the way it was supposed to be made, but wanted to make it over to fit their preferences.
On top of that, Chinese chefs make their food exactly the way it’s supposed to be eaten.  When they bring it to the table, they say all sorts of terrible things about their creation “It’s too salty, the vegetables were old, I overcooked the beef.”
You, as guest, ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO AGREE!  You say, “No, it’s delicious.  What a wonderful meal you’ve made.  I’m so grateful you worked your fingers to the bone and almost chopped off three fingers in the 5 day preparation of this meal.”
In other words, putting extra salt, soy sauce, or Louisiana hot sauce over the food is just about the hugest insult you can give to a Chinese chef.
In Shunelle and Niecy’s culture on the other hand, food comes and you can do whatever you want to it to make it taste better.  The chef doesn’t take it personally.  Everyone just enjoys their food with whatever condiments are available.
Hot sauce on stir fry became a parable for our summer project.  We realized that when faced with a different ethnic group, too often our desire is to pour hot sauce all over their experiences or culture, so they’re more palatable to us.   We noticed how small misunderstandings easily arise from cultural biases that then can get blown into huge racial wars.
Thank God for 2 friends who were brave enough to tell me I was being a jerk and then to ask why.
When are you tempted to put hot sauce on someone else’s stir fry?
What makes it difficult to just receive someone and their experiences without trying to “doctor” it up or recast it?
What’s your favorite brand of hot sauce?
This was first posted on What She Said

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Fun Side of Jeremy Lin

Even I, almost the least sports-inclined person in the world, am swept up by the excitement around Jeremy Lin.  Amazing what an Asian-American guy who's excelling at NBA basketball can do for one's ethnic identity, not to mention my son's.  Add that Jeremy was part of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (that InterVarsity supports), publicly (and seriously) talks about his trust in God, and continues to exhibit surprising humility even in the midst of a media frenzy, and I almost feel like his proud Mama.

Yesterday, after taking our formerly vomiting child to an emergency pediatric gastroenterology app't.  (The tomato soup?  Turns out there was nothing red consumed the previous day and so the redness was blood!  But all's well, thank God), and finding out the gigantic mole taken off another child's tummy was benign (again, thank God), I needed to decompress.

Somehow, that led me to youtube and this video of Jeremy Lin by Ryan Higa (Hawaii born and raised youtube comedy phenom) entitled "How to Get into Harvard."  Enjoy!

Monday, February 13, 2012

How did I Miss Training on Barf-Cleaning?

Long ago, when my sister threw up on our nubbly green carpet, I remember being amazed as Mama calmly took care of her and then scrubbed the carpet on her hands and knees.  I thought, "I'm never going to be able to do that."

And sure enough.  I'm not.

This morning, a kid was practicing piano and made a horrible gurgling sound.  I happened to be at home rather than the gym because I needed to interview a volunteer at 7 a.m. down near MIT.

"What's going on?" I said in a not-so-calm voice.

"I don't know." And then another retching gulping noise.

"Get to the toilet!"  I shouted.

The kid got there, retching and retching, "I feel like I'm going to throw up but there's nothing's coming up."

"Just stay there," I warned.

And then the sound changed.  There certainly was something coming up.  When the kid stumbled away from the bathroom, I said, "Didn't you flush the toilet?"


I followed the kid back to the bathroom and saw to my horror--tomato soup.  Sorry to be graphic.  But it was everywhere, all over the toilet, on the walls, on the floor.

"Were you going to leave that whole mess?" I asked.

I'm sure all you other kind, nice, gentle and sacrificial parents out there would have sent your dear child to bed.  But I gave my child a bin of Clorox wipes and said, "Clean it up."

The child made an effort and then tried to escape to bed.

"Take a bowl with you!!  But did you wash your hands first??"

Because my co-interviewer leaves tomorrow for Costa Rica, there was no way to cancel or change the interview.  I left the sick kid in bed and the other two getting ready for school with orders to avoid the bathroom.

During the interview, the volunteer candidate asked about whether we had on-line training modules.  Sadly, no.  Although we have all sorts of great training opportunities, thus far we haven't done well at orienting them towards volunteers, especially volunteers who work a normal schedule.  And I wonder how many ministry skills can actually be trained through an on-line module.  Surely it's most helpful to be trained in person?

Finishing the interview, I came home, checked on sick kid who's still in bed but hasn't thrown up again. . . yet. . . and proceeded to the bathroom.  As I realized that the nice formerly white bead board around the toilet had tomato soup in all its grooves, and that I needed a toothbrush along with bleach solution and sponge to restore the walls to their former white glory, I thought, "I haven't been trained in this.  Where's my neat training module?"

The toilet's scrubbed.  The beadboard's been toothbrushed over.  The grout and tile wiped.  The garbage can, magazine rack, toilet plunger and toilet scrub brush all disinfected. . .  I hope.  But I fear I might have missed something.  I needed training here.

Or better yet, a trainer who would have led the way and done it for me so I could observe.
Not our bathroom, but you get the picture.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why it's Sometimes Better to Work Alone

Those who follow this blog know that we've struggled as a family around work, especially housework.

A lot.

Maybe if I had trained better at this age. . .
It led to Family Rehab last summer.  The deal was we paid more allowance, they did more work around the house without complaining.  We definitely paid more allowance, but their end of the bargain?  Not so much.

And to make matters worse, not only did I not get a clean kitchen every night after shopping for ingredients and cooking a healthy, nutritious and delicious dinner, I got to hear and mediate a lot of squabbling, mostly about who wasn't doing their fair share of cleaning.

So this week we tried a new strategy.  Every kid gets two nights/week to clean the kitchen and they have to clean everything on their own--dishes, counters, table, floors--all of it.

For 3 nights, it worked like a dream.  Ling cleaned Monday, Kai cleaned Tuesday, and Ren (with Scott's help) cleaned Wednesday.  It took each of them less time because instead of shrieking "___'s doing nothing!  ___'s reading!  ____'s useless!"  They were actually cleaning.

You would think it'd be better to work hard, work together and get it all done.  The more the merrier, many hands make light work, etc. etc.  But clearly not in our family.

All this makes me wonder what my kids are learning about teamwork.  And what I actually believe about teamwork myself.  Recently I read a study that people's best work happens alone, and that if you want your employees to be efficient, making them spend their best time alone is the best solution.

This goes against what I thought I believed, yet it's also what we've been experiencing as a family.   Most often, when the kids have group projects, they turn into nightmares.  We just experienced one of these projects, a project that was 20% of the grade, and where my kid's partner said she couldn't work all day the Sunday before the project was due.  My child ended up working all day and all night on the project, finished it, but didn't study for a math test which then was flunked.  The other child did not flunk the math test and the cynic in me thinks this child was studying for math all day Sunday.

There's not an academic group project I've done from elementary through grad school where I did not perceive that I did the vast majority of the work--mostly because I was NOT going to let my partner(s) affect my GPA.  

Yet in ministry it's been so different.  Yes, there are projects where I feel like I pulled most of the weight, but there are plenty of other projects where someone else did.  And there's not a single project that would have come out as well if I had worked alone.  Not a talk.  Not a training.  Not a retreat.  Not a missions project.  Nothing.

When you work with a bunch of highly motivated colleagues who're willing to work hard and well, there's no comparison!  No single person can put out that level of excellence or create the joy of synergy.  And because my work involves trying to reach a diverse graduate population of students and faculty, we need our differences, our gender, ethnic, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, age and perspective differences.  

Our fall retreat tradition has been to have a male and a female preacher preach together Sunday morning. It takes about 500% more work to write a great sermon with someone else, but having the two voices, the two perspectives has been priceless.

But add a person or two who doesn't work, who whines, who criticizes others work while neglecting to do their own, and the whole equation changes.

In other words, our family system.

Last night we hit a snag.  I thought I'd been clear about who was supposed to clean but a big argument ensued and because Scott couldn't stand the noise, he insisted on cleaning the kitchen instead.

Time for a sign up list, but 3 cheers for kids cleaning alone!

How do you manage household cleaning? 
How do you get kids (or anyone) to work as a team?
Do you think it's better to work alone or in groups?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Do You Think Chinese Girls are Pretty?

Last week I joined the challenge to talk about race by wondering Why Aren’t People Talking to Me? This week I write about seeing (and hearing).
Long ago in college, I talked about ethnicity with Duncan, a tall skinny White guy with a large Adam’s apple and black rimmed glasses, and George, a tall skinny Chinese guy with a large Adam’s apple and silver rimmed glasses. Duncan said he considered me to be Chinese-American, and George to be Chinese.
Since George and I were both American citizens, I didn’t understand why Duncan wanted to make the distinction until he said that because I was outspoken, gregarious, and majoring in counseling psychology, I was “Americanized.”  Because George was quiet, shy, introverted and majoring in engineering, he was authentically Chinese.
“I think that’s a racist point of view.”  I told Duncan, immediately confirming his judgment about my outspokenness.
He protested, “I’m not racist—really I’m not!”
“Look, I lived in China for a year,” I said, “And there were people who act like me as well as people who act like George.  Just because I don’t fit the stereotype doesn’t mean I’m any less Chinese than George.”
George was silent.  Trying to rectify the rudeness of talking about him in front of his face, I asked, “Why do you think you’re stereotypically Chinese?  Do you think it’s who you are or because of other influences?”
“Oh culture, for sure,” George said.  He told us about being chased home almost every day from school by White bullies, how his house was egged and toilet papered repeatedly.  Disappearing into the stereotype was how he survived his toxic middle class suburb.
That led to me relaying how I felt invisible at fraternity parties—I perceived I wasn’t looked at and rejected, but never seen at all.  Duncan cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, “Can I ask you an embarrassing question?”
“Sure.”  I said.
“Do you think Chinese girls are pretty?”
“Uh, yes.”
“Do you think Chinese girls are ugly?”
I was taken aback.  “Some of them. . .why, don’t you?”
He looked up, “No. . .  I don’t.”
“You don’t think they’re pretty?”
He shook his head.  “No.”
“You don’t think they’re ugly?”
He shook his head again.  ”I don’t think they’re anything–you all look the same to me.”
I stared at him.  George remained silent.
“But I’m not racist, really I’m not!”  Duncan said.
Back in my dorm, looking for sympathy, I relayed the whole conversation to Erica, my African-American roommate and best friend.
“Welcome to the real world,” she said.
Later, I separately told two White girlfriends the story and had two disturbingly identical conversations.   Both protested, “But I think you’re really pretty!”
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m pretty or ugly!” I stormed.  “I’d rather be ugly and be seen!”
And my friends confessed, “You know, I think you’re really pretty.  But I’ve never thought of Asian men as handsome or ugly.”
I was too chicken to say to their faces what I later heatedly discussed with Erica.  If all humankind is created in the image of God, then all ethnicities and races must reflect God’s beauty.  The inability to either see or distinguish beauty in any ethnic group felt like racism, pure and simple.
Yet research shows that stereotyping helps us sort through the magnitude of unfamiliar stimuli the world offers.  Our brains stereotype so we can make sense of the world.  The ability to stereotype is part of the way God created our minds.
So perhaps the problem isn’t about stereotyping or finding the unfamiliar foreign and uncomfortable.  Perhaps it’s about our hearts and attitudes.  Jesus and the prophets warn that when our hearts are calloused and our minds closed we will see but not perceive, hear but not understand, and ultimately miss out on receiving forgiveness and healing.
It’s a spiritual discipline to look and look and look some more until we finally perceive distinctions and beauty in all people.  To sit on our hands, stay in the room, zip our lips and listen until we can finally understand the heart of our neighbor.
Despite how their attitudes annoyed me, Duncan and my White girlfriends’ willingness to engage with honesty was a step towards all of us seeing and hearing in a way we never had before.
How else can we soften our hearts and open our minds?
This was first posted on What She Said

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Why Aren't People Talking to Me?

Today I'm responding to Rebecca Cusey's blog Let's Talk about Race Baby:  A White Girl Experiences Minority, where she talks about being a minority in her 'hood, and her perception of Blacks' loudness.

A couple years after we moved to a pretty White Boston suburb, my bi-racial 5th grade daughter shouted to a Chinese boy while biking, “Well, you know I don’t have any White friends!!”
Frankly, she had almost no friends since moving to town.  I attributed this to her extreme shyness, introversion, striking prettiness (shy+quiet+pretty=girls think you’re stuck-up), and moving after most girls already made their friends.
But she clearly thought it was her race.  She saw herself as the only Chinese kid in her class.  While this wasn’t totally true, it was almost true—most other Asian kids were boys.
Rebecca Cusey just blogged Let’s Talk about Race, Baby:  A White Girl Experiences Minority, where she explored both how it feels to be White and a minority in her ‘hood, and her perceptions of Blacks’ loudness.  I’m taking her up on her dare!
I grew up in the majority since Hawaii is 70% Asian/Pacific Islander, but I’ve been on the other side ever since moving to the Mainland for college.  A challenge of being the minority is you never quite know what’s really going on with others.  When I was an average looking, low on the social scale adolescent in Hawaii, I just attributed where I stood to my bad hair and overly intense geeky personality.
But on the Mainland, everything was called into question.  Is no one talking to me because I’m boring/unattractive/have spinach in my teeth or because I’m the only Chinese girl in the room?  Am I dateless because of me or because White/Black/Latino guys think all Chinese girls look alike (as one guy said)?  Or conversely, do some guys want to date me ONLY because I’m Chinese and they have “yellow” fever?
Years ago, I wrote a dissertation on The Interracial Friendships of White and Asian College Students.   Although my original proposal included studying 4 groups:  White, Asian, Black and Latino, after I collected surveys from 20 Blacks and 16 Latinos, an advisor warned me off the record that I would commit academic suicide if I studied any group other than my own and Whites.  “Whites are fair game for everyone,” he explained.
The White and Asian elite Eastern university students often talked about the importance of “comfort zones” in friendship.  At the time, most friendship theory emphasized the importance of similarities in forming friendships.  My research raised how differences, especially cultural ones, repel.
Loudness was one of those repellants.  In fact, the students reported an expressiveness continuum from quiet to loud as:
Asian–>  White–>  Latino–>  Black
Although Asians, Latinos and Blacks have similarities—all racial minorities, all from collective/communitarian cultures as opposed to White individualistic culture, all low in power in our country—White and Asian students felt intimidated by their louder brethren.  They perceived that Asians and Whites hung out more because they were quieter, and Blacks and Latinos hung out more because they’re more expressive.
I’m not a quiet Asian.  I’m drawn to Black and Latino friends precisely because I enjoy how different their culture is from my own.  In my line of work, it’s also my job to initiate with students, faculty and the staff I supervise.  But when I’m “off duty,” the lone non-White in the room, and find everyone talking in groups to everyone but me, I can feel like I’m back in college, shaking hands with a fraternity brother who’s winking at a White girl across the room.
With fellow moms in my suburb, mostly I think it’s my fault—I work, I rarely can volunteer at the kids’ schools, I’m congenitally bad at small talk (especially White suburban mom chit-chat).
But like my daughter, sometimes I can’t help but wonder.
This first appeared on What She Said