Category Archives: culture

On Speaking Out Against Starbucks (or “…all I really wanted was some coffee”)

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My bad panaroma picture on the day I was at starbucks

Recently, I was doing some catch up on my yelp reviews and decided to write about a recent experience I had during my visit to Seattle at Starbucks’ cutting edge new coffee shop that showcased modern coffee techniques and rare coffee beans (link). I had experienced a rather unpleasant brush with some racist jokes by a corporate employee there, and thought it’d be good to write about it in my review. It wasn’t a new thing for me- in my years working in North County San Diego, I’ve had many instances of minority micro-aggression, and Yelp had been one of the places where I could express my frustrations at the experiences of prejudice and racism being one of the few Asian-Americans in a military town… And usually, my reviews would get a couple chuckles, but would simply get lost in the cacophony of the cloud. I didn’t think anyone paid attention.

I closed my computer, and proceeded to pack for a spring break camp that I was staffing for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the organization that I work with. It was out of cell phone range and there was limited wifi there for only official business.

Imagine my surprise when I went online to send a quick time-sensitive work email to see that I had created a medium disturbance in the Asian-American internet world. My yelp review had been shared multiple times on Facebook. I had interview requests from a couple news outlets. I was featured on the Angry Asian Man blog, an extremely respected blog and voice for Asian America (of which I frequently read as well). All of a sudden my review with questionable grammar was being shared and I was a mediocre viral celebrity.

Resonse From Others

I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people about the review. They fall in these categories:

  • Skepticism: “How can we trust you?” Yes, I know- Yelping is not the most reputable platform (chefs publicly rant about entitled yelpers all the time). And no, I don’t have hard data- I have only my experience. This has been an interesting response from a few people- I saw some comments in which the sharer’s friend was convinced I was lying or that the corporate employee was in fact just some guy in a suit who wanted to be racist to me. Although things could very well be proved (I could find the barista, I could find the security tapes…), and I have a very solid reputation as a yelp reviewer (I have been an elite for 4 years), when it is a story of injustice, somehow it’s instilled in us to not trust the story of the victim. It was a small taste of victim-blaming and voice delegitimization that happens in situations of abuse, prejudice and racism. It’s interesting how our society can quickly cover up real injustice by relegating it to the imagination of the victim. It’s also interesting that I felt tempted to fall in line with those accusations. However I will stand by what I said with clear conscience- I did not make this up. My experience was real and not imagined.
  • Shock and Anger: “How could this happen?” Other reactions were reactions of horror. How could this happen in Seattle, one of the most diverse cities in America? How could a corporate employee not know that his comments were not appropriate that his joke insinuating that my friend and I were Chinese spies was not funny but hurtful? How could Starbucks, a company that claims to be so progressive, allow such a bad miss by its corporate representative? “Let’s boycott Starbucks!” “They better repay you… or sue them.” While I am angry with my friends at this situation… it also opens a window into the state of our “post-racial” society. You see- I was angry, but for me, having lived in a community without that many Asian-Americans for 7 years, I had self-destructively bottled up my anger in a state of internal micro-aggression. The shock and anger, on one hand, revealed how hidden the everyday forces of racism were to many of my friends and community. On the other hand, it revealed how, out of my own internalization of anger, I had began to delegitimize my own voice and anger by silencing it in myself.
  • Relief: “Thank you.” But in the midst of all of this, I noticed another sound in the chaotic response to my yelp review- a sigh of relief. I realized I had tapped into a common experience that many Asian Americans and other minorities in America have experienced- and that they, like me, had began to internalize it in resignation to the prejudice and racism that they experience every day. It was a sigh of gratitude that at least something was being paid attention to, in a time in our country where heinous examples of racial injustice are just swept under the rug and kept from trial. And no- the stupid jokes I got are nothing compared to the treatment of my Latin@ friends as second class citizens or the trauma my black brothers and sisters have experienced in this last year with the multiple counts of untried violence against their young men- but we are all disserviced by the false narrative of our postracial society that attempts to put a whitewash over our stories of racial injustice when we decide to ignore our stories of pain, no matter how big or small. A wound won’t heal if you hide it from the doctor… instead, it festers and gets infected. Healing and reconciliation won’t come from a cover-up, but it comes from exposing it so it can be cleaned, dressed and healed. Perhaps the sigh of relief was from seeing that an experience similar to their own was actually paid attention to.

“So… What do you want from this?”

That was the question that a news reporter recently asked me when interviewing me about this. In reality, I hadn’t written the review with any real motive to get anything from Starbucks. It was just a review, one of the many that I write- some better, some worse. Really, I didn’t have a set goal for what I wanted– but after having this whole thing blow up, it’s made me really think about what I want out of this.

Jokingly, a lot of my friends have talked about how much free stuff I’m going to get and to share “shut-up” money if it comes to that. In fact, a customer service representative from Starbucks has already been in conversation with me and has promised a “gift” to me on my starbucks card (which hasn’t shown up…  but eh Edit: $50 appeared in my account last night) as they further investigate what happened at the Starbucks Roastery. And hey- honestly, I’m addicted to coffee, and I’ll take it… but reparation is not what I want.

Some wonder how far I really want to take this. It’s not really an Asian American value to speak up- you don’t want to be the nail that sticks out, because it will be hammered down. We value peace and harmony, not speaking up. But if there’s one conviction I have gained working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, building and advancing multiethnic witnessing communities- it’s that sweeping things under the rug is not real peace. That fake kind of harmony is nice and pretending it didn’t happen would be a lot less stress… but I won’t settle for that.

The peace that my religious convictions as a Christian speak of are rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom– a peace that comes from wholeness on every level- physical, emotional, social and spiritual. Shalom is translated as peace, but it is also translated as justice- and justice is something deeper than a surface level image of “diversity”. Shalom hurts because it demands real engagement with pain and systemic injustice. Shalom requires self-sacrifice. The peace talked about in my faith is a peace that was bought by a God who chose to fully engage and immerse Himself in personal and systemic evil head-on by being with us in our brokenness as Jesus and even became a victim of it Himself. It is from this self-sacrifice that He conquered evil and death in order to afford us not just surface level peace and harmony, but deep reconciliation and wholeness.

This is what I want- I want real dialogue about race. I actually admire Starbucks for being a corporate entity that desires to take progressive stands of inclusion. I admire their desire to have the race conversations in their #RaceTogether campaign. But if they really want to engage in subjects like race and inclusion, it’s going to take more than corporate policies and PR campaigns. It needs to start from the deep places where racist tendencies fester because we don’t talk about it. It needs to start from speaking in truth about stories of hurt… and allowing the chance for reconciliation. This is what I want- I want Starbucks to live up to its progressive outside image. As a Christian, I want to see shalom- complete wholeness and reconciliation. I speak up not to complain- yelpers get a lot of bad press for being entitled whiners. I also am not speaking up just to rock the boat just for rocking’s sake, just disturbing everyone around me with rage and frustration. I speak up because I recognize my responsibility as a citizen to offer my story up for the good of society. I speak up out of responsibility as a Christian who has been captured by the dream of not just surface level peace, but of deep shalom and wholeness in relationships, including with this corporate employee who humiliated me… I have compassion on him.

Because really, all I want is a real conversation with that corporate employee, to hear his story, and to maybe offer a glimpse of what that dream of deep shalom and reconciliation could look like in real life outside of a publicity campaign or a company policy- and maybe we could do it over a cup of coffee.

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gospel.

Reflecting on 1 Corinthians Ch. 1 this morning… when Paul engages the divisions within the church over theological issues, his solution is to go straight back to the Gospel.

The Gospel. The story of the foolishness of surrender and emptying of absolute power. The story of healing. The story of redemption. The story of forgiveness and reconciliation- for both individuals and communities. The story of a God who decided to face death, experience it, and overcame it in His power in resurrection. A story that tells the powerful that their power is nothing compared to that power, and tells the powerless, the oppressed and the victim that this resurrection power is available to them.

It is this story that we need, in a time where divisions- while not always theological, but cultural (but perhaps those categorizations aren’t so helpful)- cost lives.

In the midst of my anger at the news this morning about the City of Cleveland placing blame on Tamir Rice for his OWN DEATH, when he was shot by police in the timespan of 2 seconds of the police’s arrival while playing with a toy gun… In the midst of feeling the weight of the absence of Trayvon, of Oscar, of Michael, of Eric… of so many- I remember how much we need that story.

And yes- it’s too simple for such complicated layers of racism, of cultural divides, of historical trauma, of the diverse yet divided society we live in… But I have to believe in the potency of the Jesus narrative- the gospel- because honestly, I am at a loss at how to respond but to fully express and expose my mourning and lament to the “here but not yet” resurrection power of the gospel.

Some interpretation

I usually don’t tell people what my art means… it takes a lot of trust to let somebody into the motivation of some of my art. My art is not necessarily about skill (there are many more talented artists than I… I usually joke that I do modern abstract art because it requires less skill… it’s true.), but about catharsis, release and unburdening. They are prayers that I lay before the Lord. They are psalms in visual format… So it’s a little nerve-wrecking to let people into that space. But in the meantime, I allow people to see the final product, and I’m often interested in how the art affects them. Sometimes it shines new light on my work that I didn’t see before. I’m always fascinated at how interpretation transforms from individual to individual, and how it will affect my own interpretation, even though I myself am the creator of that piece…

…That being said, I have decided I should provide some interpretation to the last piece I painted. Here it is:

Stains on pavement Torn Asunder What will be released? Is there treasure underneath?

Stains on pavement
Torn Asunder
What will be released?
Is there treasure underneath?

The Ferguson decision was made on Monday night. I made this painting on Wednesday night, after realizing how exhausted I was from the constant stream of news, to seeing communities in pain, to figuring out how to talk to my immediate friends and family about it all.

The initial connection to the shooting of Michael Brown is obvious. I used an acrylic gravel medium to make a pavement effect on the canvas. I spread it randomly, imperfectly, brokenly… because that was what I was seeing in the system that had perpetuated this all. I used a tar-gel solution to create the red stain on this broken pavement. This was the stain that was left by Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Dr… But it represents more- it’s the stain on the community that surrounded it. It’s the stain that was there before the bullets penetrated Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant… and many others. It’s the stain of fear. It’s the stain of oppression, of systemic bloodshed that has a 400+ year history. It’s the stain we keep trying to cover up, saying that it ended in the ’60’s with the civil rights movement. It’s the stain that one can hear screaming from the pavement, crying out for justice. It’s a scream that I have heard in the sigh of black students and leaders I have partnered with in ministry. It’s a scream I, as an Asian American, have agreed with but tried to silence because there was no context in my culture for anger and loud protest. It’s a scream, that although intense, I have recognized as an invitation to listen in partnered compassion instead of the comfortable saving face action of silence and ignorance.

And the torn canvas…

I was at a prayer vigil in Berkeley the night after the decision was announced not to try the officer in court. It was moving to be part of a community that mourned. At one point of the service, we spent 4 minutes and 32 seconds in silence as an act of reflection and lament for the 4 hours and 32 minutes that Michael Brown’s body was left out in the open on the street. After that, we were each given strips of cloth. As an act of lament at these events, following with the Jewish tradition of tearing your clothes when in mourning, we tore those strips of cloth as an act of lament. At first, it was silence again… but then one tear. Then another. Then the whole room was filled with the shredding of cloth. The sound was echoing off the walls of the church. Black, Asian, Latino, White… the sound was deafening. It reminded me of the prophet Joel’s cry, to “rend your hearts, not your clothing”… unlike Israel, the sound of tearing in that room was not a fake repentance. I heard beneath the shredding of the strips of cloth the sounds of people’s hearts tearing and rending before the Lord. We then, one by one, tied our torn strips to a wire-mesh cross in the front. It was beautiful:

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As an Asian American, we have many positive parts of our culture… but often, the way we are taught to mourn is silence. It was moving to be invited into a more open type of lament. I am learning to openly lament- as an act of solidarity with others and as an act of bringing our sorrows before the Lord, to the cross where He defeated our sorrow.

Later that night, I was reading a post from one of my former students, Jon. In it, he wrote to his fellow black brothers and sisters:

In the midst of all of this I still remain hopeful. Some ask; will this be the event that begins to wake black America up? Others remain less than optimistic. To all of those who remain cynical, who have given in to hopelessness, who feel empty, who can not see an end, I URGE you, once again to examine history. History has shown time and time again that under the most grim circumstances, our people not only rise to the occasion, but create a path, an outline, a blueprint for the rest of us to follow. So instead of looking from a deficit, ask yourself, what will we create this time. #‎ferguson

The hope he had was inspiring- it was a call to face the reality of brokenness in the world around us, and in the midst of lament and mourning, to activate our imagination and creativity and continue to work as a people who declare and make the Kingdom of God a reality, despite the crap we see around us.

As I reflected on this, I remembered that it was not just an old testament practice to tear one’s clothing… it was a new testament thing as well. When Jesus, wrongfully accused by the majority and sentenced to death while innocent, was brutally killed by an oppressive occupying force that had created a system of fear and dominance over his people on a cross and breathed his last breath, it was recorded that the veil in the temple all of a sudden violently tore in two from the top to the bottom. On one level pointed to God Himself rending his garments in grief at the death of His son. We serve a God who also had his son unjustly killed. Other theologians, however, talk about how this simultaneously destroyed the barrier to the holy of holies- that out of this grief, God tore down the very thing that separated people from the presence of God. The greek word in the Mark account for tearing was only used once  before- when the heavens tore open during Jesus’ baptism and a voice declared that this was His son, whom he loved. The tearing of the veil made the same sound as the presence of God tearing into our reality, a symbol of God’s presence released to be accessible for all.

As I tore the canvas of my  painting and reflected on this, I prayed- Lord- make it so. Turn our mourning into a release of Your Spirit. Turn it into new expressions of Your kingdom, breaking through and tearing apart the unjust realities that we live in. Retrieve and reveal the created goodness in this world that has been so long twisted and torn up by both the systemic and personal sins of racism. We need your kingdom to tear into our reality, God. Only You, oh Lord can do this. Lord, have mercy.

Finally, this painting is my feeble attempt at remaining a person who pursues justice. In this transition here to the Bay Area, it’s been really easy to default into “it’s not around me, so I don’t have to care”, especially living in the middle of the Silicon Valley. My old allies and partners in the multiethnic journey are no longer near me, so there hasn’t been anyone to bother me to keep pressing in. The Lord has been repeatedly reminding me in the last several weeks that those excuses are not good enough. All that the Lord had taught me about what it meant to be a cross-cultural Asian American who cared for the issues of people who didn’t look like me during all those years working with my students at MiraCosta- they weren’t just for my first years on staff, but remain my calling as I continue in ministry. As I move into more management positions, I have already felt the temptation to remain distant to the things I once fought for.

This painting was a personal confession before the Lord. The tearing of the fabric was not just for the issues but was me rending my heart to the Lord- my personal expression, my heart, my inner being. It was me saying, “Lord- continue to break my heart for the things that break Your’s.” It was a prayer, asking the Lord to give me courage once again to seek out the cross cultural partnerships that keep me from being comfortable but reveal the full richness of the gospel. It was a prayer to the Lord, confessing my propensity towards using my privilege to hide from the brokenness around me, and to help me once again to be an agent of Kingdom reconciliation and healing that comes in the wake of the power of the Gospel. It’s a prayer, not only for the stains of blood on the pavement and the stains of racism… but for the stains of ignorance and fear on my own heart.

What can wash away our stains?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus…

——-

Yes, I know- many of you don’t agree with me. The challenge of my piece is not to agree with me or the voices in defense of Michael Brown. It is this- sit and listen compassionately, not critically. Before you judge, lament with those who lament; listen to why they lament before you judge, and be open to what it might do to you…

…Still disagree after that? Fair… but please- Sit and listen first.

She Lives On…

It was Mother’s Day two years ago. We sat in my grandparents’ backyard in the shade of the veranda. After 30+ years, the porch was dilapidated with decaying wood and rusted tools. The chairs were falling apart and could barely support my overweight grandpa. We had just finished the garden tour that Ma ma (grandma) takes me on every visit to describe the condition of her garden. It was falling apart, the fruit was growing less and less taken care of. The gophers were hard at work undermining her careful tending of the fruit trees, vegetables, and winter-melons she used to always have in plenty.  She ranted apologetically about how she was getting too weak and tired to do as good of a job gardening- plus, the new neighbors had a dog that kept barking at her when she was outside, and she was scared of its angry growls.

I think it was this year that I went and bought a glass vase and flowers for my grandma. She initially thanked me, but later, as we were sitting in the backyard with that annoying dog barking, she confronted me, “Why did you get these? These will just die in two weeks… sigh”. My dad chuckled and shook his head, smiling at me.

She pointed behind me to a plant in a pot. It had large leaves on the bottom and a single long, thick stem that ended two feet high in a brilliant red flower. In cantonese, she continued, “Look at this flower here. Your mother gave this to me years ago. It’s still alive even now. What’s more is that it only blooms every Mother’s day. These are the kind of plants I love.  The ones that keep living”

That night, after she had made her special meal for me, I listened. She had to check her blood sugar. I asked her how her health was going. She let a long sigh. And like the many times before, she showed me her notebook that logged her blood sugar. Some days were way too high. Some days were way too low. She was sweating that night. She wasn’t doing so well. In fact, grandpa had done most of the cooking that night. She then transitioned into the usual lecture- be diligent and hardworking at your job, find a girlfriend because you’re the only grandson to pass on the family name and please keep visiting me.

She had worked so many hard years in the US. She and my grandpa came over 40 years ago and sold everything so that they could give their 5 children the opportunity at a better life. They went through the humiliation of not knowing the language, of working in kitchens and laundromats and gave everything so their children could prosper.

That night, after I had gone home, I received a call from my dad that grandma had to go to the hospital because she was having congestive heart failure. Luckily he was in town visiting and he could drive her to the hospital.

That was one of the longest weeks in my life. Grandma hated the hospital. They kept trying to feed her food specifically tailored for her diabetic condition… but she looked at it in disgust. In stubbornness, she crossed her arms and looked away defiantly from the food. She didn’t want to eat the American food. My grandpa, in frustration, said, “How can she eat this stuff? We don’t eat this western food.” We were so far from the safety of their old dinner table…

That week, I tried to talk to her about Jesus. I talked to her about the God that loved her, and the God that created such a loving heart in her for me. I talked about the God who cared for her. She looked away sadly and just said, “I haven’t been a good enough person for that God. I don’t deserve that God.”

I tried to go down as often as possible to visit her in the hospital. I knew it was far from home, and she wanted to get out of there. That next week, she finally was able to go home.

This last February, during Chinese new years, I was late. I heard her say a later time, and had taken a nap. When I awoke, I saw on my phone were multiple calls and messages. I called and found out I was an hour late. I raced down from Oceanside. I knew this was the worst thing I could have done as a Chinese grandson- to miss the most important family holiday dinner. I was angry. I was angry at the stupid drivers who wouldn’t get out of the way. I was angry at the distance. I was angry that God took me to this place so far from my grandparents.

I got to the house, and everyone had finished eating. In fact all the food had been put away, and everyone was sitting there looking at me and making fun of me. But then my grandma, upon seeing me, immediately brought out every single dish that they had just put away- the chicken, the daikon beef stew, her pork stew with black fungus that she only made on new years… Without any condemnation, she had me sit down, put chopsticks and a bowl in front of me. “Here is the chicken that you love to eat so much. We saved a lot for you. Please, eat more. And don’t forget to eat your vegetables. You know how your mother gets when you don’t eat those…”

About two months ago, she was back in the hospital. But this time she was smarter. Last time she had been in the hospital, she learned she had been there for so long because she stalled going to the hospital, thinking that she would be all right if she waited and had made it worse. This time, she immediately got herself to the emergency room. She looked strong and, although annoyed, was in much better spirits than last time. She now proudly ate the disgusting american food, with a fear that if she didn’t eat it, the american doctors would punish her by making her stay longer.

I learned my lesson this time. I bought her some potted orchids. I told her it was to make her room more beautiful, because she was the most beautiful paternal grandma I knew (ha. the only one). She looked at them, proud of her grandson for getting her something that would last for more than two weeks.

Victoriously, she left that hospital 3 days later, with an iron will to be healthy. But the doctor had said she only had so much more time to live. I didn’t want to believe it. She looked so strong in that moment, so determined to be healthy so that the family would stop worrying about her.

Last Friday I received a call from my dad. He told me to go straight to the hospital. She was back there again.

I got there, and it was just my uncle. Usually, he’s a very happy relaxed man with a mustache that just makes me think he’s smiling even if he’s not smiling. But not even the mustache could hide the gravity of the situation. “How is she doing, suk suk (uncle)?”

His eyes were red, and he was trying to hold it together. A long pause and then, “Not good.”

My uncle had been with her for 4 or 5 hours alone, so I told him I would relieve him and told him to go back to the house and rest. After he had left, it was hard to sit there with her. She didn’t have the strength she had two months ago. It was hard to breath, it was a struggle to move. She wanted to talk to me so much but would keep running out of breath. I kept telling her to sleep, but she kept her eyes open because she was so glad I was there with her.

I asked her again- “Have you received Jesus yet?” I continued, “I know it’s a little annoying that I ask you, but I do this because I love you so much, and because God loves you so much. If you believe in Jesus, you won’t be alone. You can go to heaven. Jesus will be with you and you won’t have to be scared. And you’ll see me there one day.”

She looked back at me, paused and replied with struggling breath, “…I don’t know. I know that you and your family have always wanted me to but…” and it was getting hard for her to talk.

“Grandma, you don’t have to give me reasons why or why not. Just think about it. This is really important to me. But I want you to decide on your own. Let me know tonight or tomorrow.”

I had always been cynical about these deathbed confessionals. Cop outs for real conversions and life discipleship. Plus, in seminary, we’re always debating if heaven is what we think it is, and if hell exists or not… But that night, those debates and rants meant nothing.  More than anything else, I wanted to see her say yes to the Jesus that she imitated more clearly than many Christians did in her love for us. Later that night, after her (maybe 5th) demand for me to go home and rest and not worry about her, I drove home. On that drive home, I started to think about all the 42 students I had witnessed at community colleges make decisions to allow Jesus to become Lord of their lives this year. I ranted at God, “Lord- All of those 42 will feel so empty if I can’t see You work in this 1 person…”

The next morning, Tricia and I went to Trader Joe’s and picked up some orchids. It was the day before Mother’s day, and I had learned my lesson from those two Mother’s Days ago. This was the first time grandma would meet Tricia.  We got to the room with the orchids in hand, and she was overjoyed to meet my girlfriend. It was seemingly a very happy moment- my entire father’s side of the family was there. My grandpa took the orchids and showed them to Mama and he proudly told me that the orchids I had brought the last time she was in the hospital were still alive and had at bloomed at least 11 beautiful flowers.

My uncles and aunts, who had driven all night from the Bay Area decided to leave and let my family take over so they could sleep. When they had left, my grandma whispered something to my mother. My mom pulled me aside and said, “She just told me, ‘Whatever my grandson has asked me to do, I say yes.'” In disbelief, my mother tried to specify what it was, and wasn’t sure if it was about Jesus.  “Daniel, you better just ask her.”

As I went to her bedside, I asked her if she wanted to receive Jesus yet. She then went on to share, “I used to go to church all the time in Hong Kong with a relative. I’d been a very good person and had no idols in my house. But when I came to America, everyone at church looked down on me because of my situation. I didn’t want anyone to look down on me, so I stopped going to church, since their God seemed to look down on me too.”

It’s funny. This grandma, so selfless and Christlike in her love for us, was rejected by the church. They had a shining example of God’s love in their midst and they rejected her and looked down on her, for being the exact kind of person that God had called the church to look after- the immigrant, the poor.

“You know, Jesus is different from those people, grandma. He doesn’t look down on you. He sees you as His precious daughter. Are you ready to say yes to that Jesus?”

She nodded. I pulled my dad in, and He prayed for her to receive Jesus, as my family and Tricia laid hands on her. She received Jesus- the one who looks after her when she is too weak to look after others; the one who doesn’t look down on her, but loves her so deeply.  The one who doesn’t look at why she isn’t good enough to go to heaven, but welcomes her home to a feast no matter where she’s come from or how late she is to the feast.

Two days later, peacefully, sedated by morphine, she drifted off to be with the Father. Before she had passed, she had one tear coming out of her eye. My aunt told her not to be afraid as my father prayed Psalm 23 over her. As soon as I heard the news, I drove as fast as I could.

I haven’t wept so hard in a long time. I will miss her so much.

Later that day, we were sitting again in the backyard, the whole family… well I guess not so whole anymore. We were laughing. We were crying. Somebody pointed at the flower that Mama had pointed out to me 2 years ago. It was the day after Mother’s day, and it had not yet bloomed. My grandpa sighed, “It probably won’t bloom this year… but look at those orchids you bought. Look at how beautiful and alive they are.

That night, we all quietly ate all of Mama’s favorite foods- the vegetables, the white chicken, and the last of the daikon beef stew she had made before she went to the hospital. She couldn’t eat many of these things anymore because of the diabetes, but would always snack at them rebelliously. We ate in honor of her.

I went outside and sat in the yard again as the sun set. I was sad. But there was a soft whisper of joy in my heart. My grandma was no longer a vase of beautiful flowers that would just perish in temporality. She was now a beautiful orchid plant that would live on, brilliantly making heaven more beautiful because she’s there now. This beautiful daughter was home now.

My dad came out and sat with me. “You know, she really did love you.”

We quietly held back the tears, and I looked behind me.

…The mother’s day flower had begun to open up in brilliant red.

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Ranch 99

I drove into the crowded parking lot. Cars are “parked” (more like strewn about) in strange patterns that generally follow the patterns of the parking lot lines. I see mothers pushing carts laden with food for their families towards their cars.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.

I park and walk in. I walk straight to Sam Woo. No, it’s not the best Chinese food… but there’s something homey about the place. I stand in line. As if an act of recognition and welcome, the man behind the counter purposefully skipped the white man in front of me and pointed at me.

I replied, “Cha sieu fan.” The words felt clumsy coming out of my lips. English had been forming the muscles in mouth, and the old forgotten muscles, tones, sounds, and inflections wanted to come out… but it was like running for the first time after a long period of no exercise… painful yet exhilarating.

I walked out, glad that my lack of practice in Cantonese wasn’t tipped off to the rude cashier lady.

But much like after a first run in a long time… I realized I needed more. With the sweet BBQ pork with rice and savory sauce in a plastic bag, I turned around from heading back to my car and walked into the fray.

The produce section was filled with people touching and testing the veggies. It brought me back to times at the dinner table when my mom had to negotiate with me to finish eating my veggies, to at least get one down my throat. Ironically, as I walked past the fruits and towards these vegetables, I missed the gai lan, the bok choy, the luk dao…

I strolled towards the meat section. There were cuts of meat that I was so familiar with and missed. There was that familiar smell… the smell of wet markets in China where you weren’t sure if you were smelling fresh meat or rotting meat. There were people haggling in different dialects of Chinese and other various languages over fish and pork… Ah yes. The fish. This was my favorite part of the market as a child. I loved seeing the live seafood swimming around. I would always try to convince my mom to buy a cat fish, my favorite fish to eat as a child. I remember the wonder and excitement I would have as the worker would grab the net, capture a big catfish and then take it to the back and clean it for us. I remember the grumbling of my stomach as I smelled the catfish steaming on the stove, with green onions and ginger; finished off at the end with a mixture of sweet seafood soy sauce and hot oil with crisped up ginger or garlic. I loved how the skin tastes… Recently I went to buy some salmon fillets at an American market. I asked the butcher to scale it for me. He looked back at me confused- “Oh, so you want me to take off the skin?” “No. Scale it.” “Skin it?” “No. I like the skin, please just scrape off the scales!” The butcher sighed in confusion and attempted to scale the filets… he left half the scales on and I had to finish the job for him at home.

I periodically become painfully aware of how in between I am. All of this here has so much nostalgia that pulls me back to my roots of where I came from… but I’m no longer there. My cantonese wants to spill out of my mouth in a smooth torrent of communicative lyricism, but comes out in dilapidated dry chunks of clumsy sound waves. My heart is caught in a state of homelessness.

I don’t always feel safe sharing my culture where I’m at. I have a tired rage within me at times. I’m tired of explaining how I communicate. I’m tired of people looking at me like I’m crazy for talking about how things happen for an Asian. I’m tired of people asking me about the missions field in China when they don’t realize that they themselves are my mission field at the moment, not China. I’m tired of explaining why I don’t like Jackie Chan or being called a ninja. I get tired of having to confront directly every single time at such a great intensity and having to train myself to look directly into the aggressor’s eyes… and I’m tired of having to remind myself that their directness does not mean that they hate me, they are probably just trying to understand.

But at the same time, I am not where I used to be. It’s not just the language I’m no longer as fluent in. I’ve lost my sensitivity to face. I tell people more directly than I used to that they are wrong because I’ve just gotten impatient. I don’t fight for bills too often anymore. I forget that sometimes just the words “thank you” once don’t really mean “thank you” until you’ve said it 5 million times (same thing with “sorry”).  I’ve stopped waiting to be invited into leadership all the time, I’ve had to learn how to fight and stand up for myself instead of worrying about the shame and pride of an entire group, family, community or culture.

But I must keep trying to remind myself- where I was is not home. Where I am at is not home. Where I will be in the next season is not home. These spatial-temporal loci we call seasons have formed the lenses from which I view the journey and look for home, but they are definitely not home. Home is much more fluid than I want it to be- It hasn’t come yet, but it is with me. It’s not a place but a posture towards a Presence. Heaven is my home. I chuckle to myself as I wrestle with how hard it is to follow the very advice I usually give my students, “Don’t fear the tension or lack of answers and run away. Face it. Wrestle with it. Sit in it. Embrace it. You might even find God there.”

In this season, every time I have complained about feeling out of place anywhere I am at, no matter if the people look like me or not, I have felt the strong response of that Presence remind me that the only place I will ever be at home is in YHWH’s “hesed”- covenantal love. A promise is a promise, and He doesn’t back down from a promise.

And as I turn the corner towards the hot food and the bakery, I realize it’s time for me to leave the familiar sights and smells that I grew up with.

I let out my melancholy in a sigh. I miss these things.

But I’m reminded that I haven’t left it all behind.  I still take my heritage with me to where I am called, it’s not something God requires I leave behind, but is something He redeems for others.

The smell of cha sieu fan slowly fills my car as the Highway 5 takes me north- back to Oceanside.

A mystery.

I had a micro rant earlier today on facebook. It went like this:

why is it that so many churches merge their college and young adult ministries together? Is it a resource thing? Is it because we don’t know what to do with either demographic? Is it because young adults out of college keep wishing they were in college?

the mystery of my last 5 years. They are totally different life stages! Doesn’t make sense!

And then I realized I had a lot of answers and thoughts for my own questions.

Background- I’ve been a little angsty lately on the topic of personal community. Although I’ve made some great friends here and there, on the whole, making friends after college in a new town is extremely difficult. Every time I go to one of these “young adult” groups to see if I can go and meet some more people in my life stage, I find myself sitting next to… college students.

And don’t get me wrong. I love college students. It’s my freaking job to LOVE college students. Many of the college students I minister to are my friends… but it’s a different relationship. I am their mentor. Their leader. Their pastor. Their coach. There’s a point when I stop being their friend and lay some truth bombs or make them do extremely uncomfortable things as their leader. So you can see how it’s awkward to go from a place of leading college students to having them called peers all of a sudden.

Here’s the problem- many churches in the West have engaged these different life seasons with different ministries. The problem is, life stages usually keep following common age markers… and then when you hit post-college (or even during college), the age markers go all out of whack. Things start getting weird. They start having groups for married people, for people with babies, for people retiring… and all these things happen at different times. Which leaves me in an awkward place- A 28 year-old single male that is often shoved in with college students at church because all my friends are married and having babies.

But as I was reflecting on this conundrum after posting my question on facebook (and receiving a lot of interesting replies), I realized the whole “age group” thing is a convoluted mess. I was honestly acting like what I always tell my students NOT to act like- A consumer of ministry, not a missional producer of ministry.

Here’s my theory- It starts with the western notion of “youth group” at church. Youth groups started with the missional purpose (and many still remain missional- I continue to be influenced by what I was taught by my own youth pastor, and am continually inspired by my man Nate Wells and other youth pastors I know…) to reach the unreached youth for whom church was often irrelevant or unaccepting of. It was to address a problem in which youth were not being reached. So they started to create hip programs and hire youth pastors that could play electric guitars or who had tattoos on their arms. But then something strange started to happen… parents started to see the youth program as an extension of the babysitting/children’s program. It was something to keep the teenagers in the church. And so the posture so easily shifts- It’s not about the groups that are not in the church, it’s about those who are IN the church and to KEEP THEM STIMULATED. Once ANY group becomes a babysitting program… you lose missional edge, you lose the point and you create consumers of ministry.

And so it continues for college groups- Well… the kids we KEPT with youth group are out of youth group… and oh shoot. There’s no youth group for them. They will probably leave because we aren’t giving them anything! So we get trendy hipster services where there’s radiohead-like crooning with V-necks, plaid and skinny jeans, so our kids will stay.

As a college minister, I unfortunately have to work out the consumer out of most of my Christian students. It’s driven me to a point where my co-workers have called me out for just ignoring Christian students because sometimes the mentality of consumerism is so engrained, it just drives me nuts. It’s why I often tell my students that we are NEVER to be called a “Christian Club”. Christian clubs (including the one I was the president of in high school) have the tendency (and not all of them, mind you) to HIDE from the world, not engage it. I’ve found that the shift in my ministry in the last 5 years has gone from producing a good product (like a slick bible study) to producing good producers. It’s not trendy. It’s not sexy. Sometimes it makes Bible studies horrible. But I’ve begun to realize that an empowered student who leads an awkward and choppy Bible Study but knows that they are heralds and representatives of the Kingdom of God in the location that they’ve been placed… oh man the shivers that run down my back thinking about that.

So back to my dilemma. Really, the question I was really asking was- WHY ISN’T ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION TO ME AND FEEDING ME?? I’m like a raging glutton who’s had his feeding tube fall from his mouth, but is too fat to stoop down and pick it up.

But my yearning has some legitimacy though. Perhaps my question should not be about whether somebody will minister with me or not… but rather “Are there any peers out there who want to do mission with me?”

Perhaps the dissatisfaction comes from churches not sure how to treat the masses of Christians getting older and addicted to being babysat. So many churches just create another baby-sitting program for… adults? Perhaps this is why it feels so demeaning. It takes the leadership out of adulthood. All this time of just getting really hip programs and inspirational speakers… were we like princes and princesses gorging at a medieval feast that our father the king provided… while not paying attention to the intentions and real leadership that a king does? Has our king become the caterer for our buffet?

We were meant to become LIKE Jesus, to do what He did, to love what He did. And yes, He’s promised a banquet for us in heaven (personally, probably my 3rd highest reason for being a Christian), but Jesus was about SO MUCH MORE. He was about healing. He was about redemption. He was about forgiveness and reconciliation. He was about raising up the weak. He was about starting movements that would change the course of history.

Here’s a scary thought that is inspired by how my youth pastor, Victor Quon, used to think- What if youth groups stopped being a place where we protected our kids but where we actually started to teach them how to lead their friends to faith? What if college ministries were not about helping all those Chrisitans keep their faith in college by sheltering them (by sending them to Christian college… ugh don’t get me started), but to actually see their place in college as A CALLING. I was inspired recently by our IFES counterparts in Mexico. Their group is called COMPA. Their group spans from high school to college… When their high school student leaders get ready to go to college, they actually go through a process where they pray to God things like, “God, what school would you send me to? How do you want me to become part of the movement there? What college campus do you want me to plant your movement at?”. Gutsy.

Let us end our babysitting programs. It gets old. Especially to a 28-year old. Honestly, the more I learn about Jesus and sit in the word, there’s nothing about Jesus that was about staying and being protected by a program. The only thing that comes to mind was that Jesus told the disciples to wait for was the Holy Spirit, but even that was SO THAT the disciples could fulfill the great commission of going OUT to the ends of the earth… Let’s start leadership development programs. Let’s start launch pads into unreached cultural groups, campuses, companies and office buildings. Missions isn’t for a select group of people in the church who go on Christian vacations to exotic locations across the ocean- it’s for EVERYONE who calls themselves Christian, which originally meant “little Christ”… If we are to be imitators of Christ, shouldn’t we be stepping forth into His mission wholeheartedly? What if we knew we were “sent”, like Christ was sent? What if high schoolers knew that they were sent to their high schools for a reason? What if college students knew that they were sent to their college, no matter how prestigious or dingy, for a reason? What if young adults stopped seeing their cubicles and annoying boss as a place of slow death, but as a place where Christ’s light could burst forth with light… through themselves, who were sent?

What if we stopped worrying about KEEPING people? What if we decided to stop being consumers of babysitting programs and bomb shelter supplies…  and began to awaken people as forces of cultural change, reformation and redemption?

What if I stopped whining about nobody paying attention to me and started finding co-conspirators to find and redeem my peers who are far from God?

…okay. My unorganized stream of conscious vomit of thoughts is over. I’m getting old, can’t stay up this late. Time to sleep.

An Addendum

I was told a couple of times I made some pretty hard hits on white church in my last entry. I wanted to make a few comments along those lines. It’s a little different from what I usually write, but I think these things should be said.

1. Was it too heavy handed? It may have been. But these are real thoughts that bounce around in any person’s head in cross cultural interactions (they call it red-lining in InterVarsity missions training, read about it here). What I was trying to capture was my “red-line” posture, in which I approach differences negatively. Now, just because it is common or “real” doesn’t make my rant very right. I should have put in a clear disclaimer that my posture was not a good one (And I do write later how God had to change my posture), and perhaps didn’t need to put all the details of my thoughts there. But this is the type of “red-lining” that I have to guard my heart against each day when I’m in North County- a culture that is not my own, but God has called me to make my own. That’s a huge part of missions- making the decision not to approach differences badly and to see and call out the created beauty within the culture we are called to. When we stop seeing the beauty, we fail the mission of missions.

2. Was I making too many generalities about cultures? Yes and no. Yes in that culture is full of generality- in fact, it’s not about the individual, but the collectivized and generalized actions of many individuals. But culture is slippery. It’s hard to pin down what is Asian culture, white culture, black culture, Latino culture, etc… The descriptions of white culture and Asian culture I had were synthesized from my own personal experiences that constructed specific schema for me to operate out of and assume out of. See, that’s the thing- culture is not only the actions and ideas of the group, but the perceptions of the observing individual. And then let’s not forget the unique and anomalous decisions of individuals which will always aberrate from the constructed assumptions (from within and outside) of that culture. Actually the point of the previous entry was to point out that things are easy to hate and be annoyed at (or on the flip-side have a very ignorant type of paternalistic love for) when we refuse to see the nuanced individual aberrations from culture and just pure surprises when we actually take time to get to know the individuals of a different culture.

3. So are white people evil? There is a long history of oppression by white westerners towards the rest of the world. As individualist as a white person wants to be and say that they are separate from their history, it simply is not true. We are all part of our histories, and our histories are what have put us in our specific present places (geographically, socially, etc.). Subsequently, a lot of the expressions of white culture (even when expressed healthily!) are tainted with that history from a minority’s point of view. So yes, white people are evil… but not anymore evil than any other group of people. NT Wright writes that good and evil is not a line between good and evil people, but a line that runs down the center of every single human heart. Every single person or people group has the same potential towards sin, and we all share a common history in sin with Adam and Eve. The oppressed can so easily become the oppressor. The question isn’t really if white people are evil… because the same stain of evil and sin is deep within every culture.

BUT THE GOOD NEWS: We were created by a good God, who originally saw creation and saw it good. Culture is part of that good creation. I serve a God that not only had good original intentions, but is constantly redeeming the fallen parts of our beings and cultures through the power of the cross and the resurrection. We, by ourselves, are suspended within a sinful system and are infected deep within with sin. He is the only one that can redeem us from being suspended within the endless cycles of oppression and sin.

Because I feel that white people get a lot of flack for how much they suck, I thought it would be good to put out a list of admirable things I have observed about white culture in these last several years. It is the created beauty that seems to shine out a lot in white american culture (again, refer to #2, these are generalizations, this is not all white americans, and many non-white people have these traits as well). In no particular order:

  1. Hard work and honesty- They value good hard work. It’s one of their core values. And yes, this value has been manipulated to work against others, but I think at its core, this is a good thing.
  2. Individualism- We love to hate individualism. But really, it’s something that that white American culture offers to us, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I come from a culture of heavy communalism. In its best, we know how to be family and how to have hospitality towards the stranger. We know that we have to stand up for each other and protect each other. We know that we are all connected, and that no individual’s action is done in isolation. But at its worst, it’s easy to just go with the masses and make peace instead of actually standing up for what’s right, or just my own personality. Individualism helps me to make my faith my own, instead of just what everyone else is doing. Individualism helps me know that God has created me uniquely, not for selfish purposes, but to bless others around me. However, I (and everyone else) lose that blessing if I think that I have to be like everyone else. No, God has created us uniquely to be blessings to creation.
  3. Confrontation and truth- Similar to individualism, this is also one that people steer away from. I remember always wincing at the comfortability that some of my white friends and their families had with conflict. But coming from a culture in which our (good) peace keeping tendencies can easily turn to hiding the truth, not speaking up and just being plain silent when injustice is occuring… the expression of dissatisfaction is refreshing. White people have taught me how to be a brave prophet and speak truth, even if it will offend people. In its better form, confrontation helps us speak truth so that we can love even deeper and make even stronger peace.
  4. Indie music. Coffee. Homebrewing. haha i guess hipster culture in general (I always poke fun at it, but it’s really because I admire it).
  5. Engaging the mind. This is something I notice in white worship services. The worship leader gives just as much if not more theology than the pastor that is preaching the sermon! One of my students aptly observed- white people’s services are like a college lecture. It’s not about inspiration but learning. While I am a big fan of honoring God with the emotions (I’m really emotional, in case you didn’t know), what I get from my white friends is an act of worship by offering God their minds.

There’s more. But it’s getting late, and I’m tired. Perhaps you should add. We know how white culture and history has badly affected the world… but what if we did some excavation and looked for what God’s original intention (and is still there) in white American culture? I’ve seen too many white brothers and sisters either ashamed of their culture or unaware that they have one. That shame and/or unawareness only leads to more sin. Shouldn’t we (and especially myself) be calling out the good in our white brothers and sisters, so as to empower and challenge them to also be blessings to the rest of us in the fullness of their cultural identities?