keeping it real: the hard work of transition

fullsizeoutput_2859TIME KEEPS PLAYING TRICKS on me. Three months have passed – no, flown – by since I’ve returned to the States. I’ve eased back into “normal” life, but unease accompanies me everywhere. How do I integrate everything I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched into my everyday? Can I?

In Colombia, I felt as though I could feel each hour moving, fluid and steady like a small stream, its pace further reduced by the homesickness tugging at my heart each day, gentle and persistent.

Here, time is like sand, slipping through my fingers and scattering across the floor. It wants to be gathered into cupped hands, but there are places to go, people to see, and plans to make.

As time passes, the novelty of Barranquilla melts from immediacy to memory. The desire to sink my teeth into an empanada or to roll my r’s fades into the same tugging, gentle and persistent.

And so the question remains. How do I integrate there with here? Can I?

During my last week in Colombia, I struggled with a similar kind of dissonance – the murky space of in-between:

As a person who likes to live in the present, I find farewells to be tricky. I know I’m supposed to be sad, and I certainly don’t look forward to leaving Barranquilla in just a few days – but that’s exactly my point: my departure is still days away.

And as someone who fears PDA (yes, that includes tears), it’s tempting to keep my emotions in a cage until I’m at the airport. However, having done a fair amount of farewells the past three years (read: life of a one-year-stinter), I recognize the importance of saying goodbye well.

Thanks to my loving friends in Colombia, I did say goodbye well. (I did not wait till the airport to cry; on the contrary, I burst into tears in front of my host aunt and host brother).

But what does goodbye mean in the age of Facebook and Instagram? What does it mean to be present here when everyone there is just one Whatsapp message away?

I’m not sure yet, and I think the answers ebb and flow with time. What I do know is that transition does not justify complacency. Rather, it requires integrity.

Integrity – the fortitude to feel uneasy about “normalcy”.

Integrity – the grace to try again when I’ve given into comfort.

Integrity – the living out of what I so cherished in Colombia: relationship building, self-love, accompaniment, sacrifice, rest.

Integrity – to do all this with the constant internalization of God’s solidarity with marginalized people.

Against time I am no match. I cannot change its current. I cannot hold it in my hands. But I walk towards the tugging, gentle and persistent.


russian roulette: the unlawful eviction of el tamarindo

BENEATH THE SHADE OF a tree we stood, freshly chopped sugarcane in hand, gnawing on that chewy plant and sucking the juice out of each bite. No matter how much noise we made, it was not enough to cover the whir of the bulldozer plowing down Nelson’s plantain trees right before our eyes. His was one of the last plots of land to be destroyed in December 2015, when a private company unlawfully evicted over 70 campesinos from an area formerly known as El Tamarindo.

My heart was all over the place that day. Temporarily relieved by the smiles and hugs of those who were about to be evicted, the heaviness in my chest turned into resentment at the sight of the corporation’s representatives arriving to finalize the eviction. How could they live with themselves for the suffering they had caused so many families?

DSCN1278Despite the tension, everyone exchanged casual banter. Small groups of people conversed in hushed voices, but there seemed to be an unspoken effort from all parties to remain civil. Marisol, one of the campesinas, even handed me a snack (see photo on right). A gift of comfort in the midst of an ugly situation. It captured so perfectly the resilience of El Tamarindo.

The final signing of documents occurred with little fanfare. The leaders of the community went about it methodically and silently. After recurring threats of eviction throughout the previous weeks, they’d known this day was coming. There was nothing left to do but to acquiesce to the demands of the powerful.

DSCN1282For years the families fought to remain on the land, which had been abandoned when the campesino Colacho made the first settlement 14 years ago. They came from different parts of the country, forcibly displaced from their previous homes. Over time they worked the land and filled it with crops of all kinds: plantains, yucca, corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes, pumpkins, sesame seeds, papayas, mangos, guavas, and more for miles and miles. Their productivity gained such a reputation that customers used to come directly to them to buy groceries.

Then their government made a deal with the United States of America. Signed in 2006, the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, 2012. That same year the first invasion of El Tamarindo took place. But why? What does a bilateral trade agreement have to do with a community of small farmers living on the outskirts of town?

The trade agreement expanded the boundaries of existing duty-free zones in Colombia. Duty-free zones are areas where foreign goods are imported without being taxed, i.e. without import duties. The district of Atlántico, of which Barranquilla is the capital, has three permanent duty-free zones. Guess where El Tamarindo was located?


The woman on the far right is the lawyer of the company that evicted El Tamarindo and offered them money to buy new land. The man next to her kept eyeing me suspiciously before telling me to put my camera away. I may or may not have complied.

A community that had lived in relative obscurity quickly became a magnet for opportunistic businessmen. Strangers, including representatives from the aforementioned corporation, Inversiones Agropecuarias Los Turpiales S.A.S., began showing up at El Tamarindo to claim title to this previously uninhabited land.

According to Colombian land laws, if a self-proclaimed landowner tries to claim a piece of land after campesinos have lived there for more than five years, the “landowner” along with the State must indemnify the campesinos, e.g. insure them against their loss or provide reimbursements. That did not happen with El Tamarindo. On the contrary, on more than 40 occasions at the request of so-called landowners, the police tried to move the campesinos off the land.

Year after year they saw sections of their territory destroyed, homes and crops alike uprooted. The initial evictions were violent. On my first visit to El Tamarindo in September 2015, community members recounted these horrific experiences. Guns, chainsaws, bulldozers. Motorcycles and cars zooming by their houses late at night to harass them. A member of their community lost her life due to the depression that resulted from experiencing these cruel evictions.

I couldn’t understand their words, but I felt the distress in their faces and voices.


This used to be fertile farmland filled with houses, livestock, crops, and families. The gold dome in the background is a giant concrete mixer that has become for me a symbol of the oppression of El Tamarindo.

By the time I arrived, only one section remained. Called El Mirador, this last strip of land gained recognition as a United Nations humanitarian zone. With the help of religious leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, and local supporters, El Tamarindo’s case was taken up in Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Considered the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court guards the constitution of Colombia and protects individuals against violations of human rights.

Meanwhile, El Tamarindo received notification from the police of an eviction scheduled for December 4, 2015. On December 1, the Constitutional Court issued a three-month stay of eviction to give the families time to relocate to lands that met their needs. When I visited El Tamarindo two days later, uncertainty hung in the air. Would the police obey the court’s petition?


Rev. Chris Lieberman (lower R) and his congregation in Louisville, KY, hold signs and candles in support for El Tamarindo in Dec. 2015, as part of the solidarity campaign I helped launch.

Yes, but not really.

The December 4 eviction was suspended. We rejoiced. We regained hope.

The following day, the eviction was rescheduled for December 7. We continued our advocacy campaign. Our US partners got in touch with the US Embassy in Colombia.

The December 7 eviction was also suspended – and rescheduled for December 9.

On December 9, the local authorities decided they’d had enough fun playing Russian roulette with El Tamarindo. The local police and the anti-riot police arrived to begin the evictions. How I wish I could have been there standing side by side with the families, offering my presence as an international witness and sharing their pain. I was told to stay in the office in case the situation grew violent as had happened so often in the past.

During the rest of the week, the atmosphere in the office felt subdued as we went about our daily tasks and received updates on the situation from afar. I was thankful for our US partners who called for the end of the evictions, demanded responses from the US Embassy, and expressed their support for El Tamarindo.

DSCN1283The toughest part for me was that nothing seemed to make a difference. God knows how long and hard the campesinos of El Tamarindo had fought to stay on their land. They got organized and set up meetings and demonstrated in public. When staying on their land proved unattainable, they rightly demanded help in relocating to new land where they could continue farming. For years the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, my ministry site, walked alongside El Tamarindo, building trust and advocating for them at both the district and national level. Numerous other actors, including the British Embassy, visited them and heard their stories.

Yet there they were, standing at the same table with their oppressors to sign an agreement that offered only a fraction of what they had asked for: money to buy 10 hectares of land for 10 families instead of 400 hectares for the 100+ original families of El Tamarindo.

When the leaders of El Tamarindo had signed all the papers, the lines on their faces loosened with relief. It wasn’t until later, when I talked to my co-worker Germán about it, that I understood why they smiled: Yes, the agreement fell way short of their initial proposals, but with it came the end of fighting a losing battle. At least for these 10 families, the dream of living on their own land without harassment was becoming a reality.


Members of El Tamarindo and of the company posing with the checks that would pay for the campesinos’ new land.

i went to a funeral today

IT IS A GREAT mystery that each of us is both unique and not at the same time.

Not a day goes by that I don’t come across an aspect of life in Colombia that stands in stark contrast to my experiences in the US. Communication styles. Jokes. Notions of personal space and autonomy.

Then there are moments that shake up my comparison game and remind me that, at our core, we share similar desires and sentiments. I had such a moment today.


This afternoon I attended the funeral of a beloved member of our presbytery. Dr. Ángel Quintana recently passed away at the strong age of 89. I never had the chance to talk with him, but I saw him at church a few times. From getting to know his son’s family (they are super nice), I could guess that Dr. Quintana was a noble man.

That he was, and more. Upon arrival, my host aunt and I had to weave our way through the crowd to find a seat. (There were just a few couches lined against the walls. Everyone else stood.) There must have been at least 100 people.

I couldn’t grasp every word that was shared during the service, but grief doesn’t need words.

The mild, subdued atmosphere. The faces of those who loved Dr. Quintana. The way his daughter-in-law asked me, “¿Cómo te ha ido?” as if it was just another day. The emotion that shook the speakers’ voices and the shoulders of his children and grandchildren.

It is true that followers of Christ who lose a loved one can find comfort and hope in the promise of eternal life with God. Jesus’ solidarity with humans in their suffering is really good news. But until the promise of heaven is fully fulfilled, the hole left by that loved one remains. The desire to see them again remains. The pain of living without them remains.

This afternoon I was glad I couldn’t express myself well in Spanish. I gave hugs and squeezed hands, offered silent tears and prayers. Because although I didn’t know Dr. Quintana, I have grieved the deaths of my aunt, my last piano teacher, and my friend in DC.

Losing someone makes you cry regardless of the language you speak or the country you live in. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that one can witness a sad event and walk away unaffected. It is only when we choose to enter into our shared experience of sorrow that empathy abounds.

an unexpectedly folkloric evening

IT REALLY HIT ME this week that I won’t be in Colombia for much longer. And it occurred to me that I haven’t shared much of my experience of Barranquilla’s rich and lively culture. Oops.

Fortunately, I took a bunch of videos at the event I attended on Tuesday at the Reformed University. (The university was founded by the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. The office of the North Coast Presbytery, where I work, is right next to the university’s campus.)

Unfortunately, my dancing feet + my amateur skills = mediocre footage.

Fortunately, the energy and talent of each student performer still shine through. (I personally know the sax-player, the violinist, and the dude on the keys. No biggie.)

They performed about 6-7 folkloric dances and styles of music. Each selection deserves its own spotlight, so I’ll include them one at a time in blog posts here on out.

Scroll down to enjoy the finale performed by Marco and fellow bandmates.
– Style: Fandango
– Song: Fiesta en Turbaco
– Fun facts: The fandango originates from Colombia’s Atlantic/Caribbean coast and is very popular in bullfights in the coastal savanna regions. It can also be heard during Barranquilla’s Carnaval.

It goes without saying that folkloric music and dance is only one aspect of Colombian culture. Yet this one aspect contains so much diversity that I’d need to live here at least 10 more years to wrap my mind around it all.


china-gringa, ch. 2

* Note: This is the second post of my new blog series on identity. It is meant as an ongoing reflection rather than a summary of conclusions. In case you missed the previous post:

china-gringa || ch. 2, turning dread into opportunity

NO MATTER HOW MANY times I tried to prepare myself for it, I always hesitated when someone asked me, “Where are you from?”

Do I go with my instinct and say the country I grew up in? Or do I tell them what they want to hear: my birthplace, where the people would think twice before saying I’m from there?


Where do I come from? Them.

I usually went with instinct: “The US.”

Then I would brace myself for the look of confusion or skepticism as they said, “But where are you originally from?” or “But you look Asian or Japanese or something like that.”

So I would tell them where I was born and watch their face light up: mystery solved.

Without a doubt, I love that I was born in Hong Kong. I love being Chinese American. It’s who I am. I’m happy to share parts of my story with both friends and strangers.

What drains me is the follow-up:

“What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?”
“Are you related to Jackie Chan?”
“Can you say something in Chinese?”

On their own, each of these questions is legitimate and harmless. The problem is, none of these questions exists in a vacuum. In my current context, these seemingly lighthearted questions ride on a deeper current of prejudices and assumptions.

What I hear and what I interpret:

Question: What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?
Meaning: Chinese cuisine is weird. Normal people don’t eat what Chinese people eat. I kind of hope you say “mouse”.

Question: Are you related to Jackie Chan?
Meaning: Jackie Chan’s the only Chinese actor I’ve heard of, thanks to Hollywood, and you’re the only Chinese person I know, and all of you look alike. Therefore this joke is super funny.

QuestionCan you say something in Chinese?
Meaning: “Chinese” is so exotic.

I don’t know the intentions of each person who asks me these questions. I, too, get curious when I see someone who doesn’t appear to be like everyone around me. Most of the time, people just want to strike up friendly conversation. That’s fine.

What raises red flags for me is that the desire for small talk mocks an entire people group. Why not instead ask me to describe my favorite elements of Hong Kong’s cuisine or to teach you a specific phrase in Cantonese?

Growing up in the Midwest, I grew so accustomed to colorblindness that I learned to downplay the cultural dissonances I experienced and went with whatever the White majority was into. Most people didn’t expressed much interest in the fact that I was born in Hong Kong except that they thought it was cool to have lived overseas. As a kid, I was fine with that since I was so removed from the realities of life in Hong Kong anyway.

It wasn’t until my first year out of college that I began to miss this part of my story. I longed to talk about my experiences as a young immigrant. I grieved my loss of fluency in my first language. I wanted somebody, anybody, to ask me what Hong Kong was like.

As I’ve processed my aversion to “Where are you from?” and its follow-up questions, I’ve come to see them as an opportunity. An opportunity to shatter assumptions that everybody who comes from the US is White and that everybody of Chinese descent lives in China. An opportunity to reject notions of “nationality”, as Taiye Selasi does in her brilliant TED Talk. An opportunity to proclaim my own narrative.

About a month ago, a friend asked me about the “Chinese language.” I decided to engage the question and explained that Chinese actually consists of hundreds of local dialects that are distinct from one another. She was intrigued.

A few weeks later, I overheard her saying, “Sophia doesn’t speak chino, she speaks cantonés. There are actually many different dialects in China.”

I was so proud. Not only had I taken the chance to celebrate my cultural heritage, albeit in a small way, but I had also helped someone else to see it in a more meaningful way – and she was passing it along.

This incident will not transform an entire society’s view of Chinese cultures. Equally inconsequential would be any attempt on my part to debate, during a passing conversation, the legitimacy of asking where somebody’s “from”. There’s no easy way to navigate the “in-betweenness” that comes with identifying strongly with more than one culture.

Sometimes the only thing you can do for the moment is to turn a dreaded question into an opportunity for you and those around you to see things differently.

china-gringa, ch. 1

* Note: Considering the complexity of my questions and thoughts on the following topics, I’ve decided to make this post the first of a series. I wish to clarify that most, if not all, of the people I’ve met in Colombia have had only good intentions, or at least no harmful intentions, towards me. In sharing my reflections, I seek to be honest, to create space for dialogue (I really welcome feedback), and to deepen my understanding.

china-gringa || chapter 1: questions

MY NEW FRIENDS AND I were walking down the street when they bump into some friends, an older couple. I was in the middle of shaking their hands when they said, “Hola, mi japonesita.”

Even though I’d been in Colombia for only a month at the time, I was ready to retire from this game.

“Soy china.” It was getting close to my bedtime, and I was too tired to keep the edge out of my voice.

Caught off guard for a second, they quickly sought to ease the tension.

“Oh, it’s the same thing,” they said.

Hampered by a lack of language proficiency, I could only reply with a cold stare.

Afterwards, I heard my friends joking about the incident. Though they were laughing, I started to worry. Did I respond too strongly? I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself. Could I have acted more lovingly, whatever that means? Am I too sensitive?

This internal dialogue continues to accompany me as I live in Colombia.

Why is my ethnicity a topic of such fascination for strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike?

Why don’t they know, or care to know, that Japan is not the same as China?

What am I supposed to say when asked to describe a “strange dish” in “Asian cuisine”?

How did both the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner phenomenon become instilled in mainstream Colombian society?

My emotions fluctuate between shock, indignation, shame, sorrow, apathy, annoyance, and anger – sometimes all in one day – as I regularly face ignorance and offensive attitudes and gestures toward my race and ethnicity.

Most of all I am confused.

One of my coworkers, whom I trust and respect, told me that Colombians don’t talk much about race. Rather, he said, they talk about ethnicity. Race isn’t as relevant, apparently because most Colombians are mix-raced (having indigenous, African, and/or European roots). This mestizaje identity evokes pride for many Colombians.

I can see where he’s coming from. Race is a social construction, after all, and diversity should be celebrated.

Besides, Colombia and the US are different countries, with different histories, different norms, different perceptions on race and ethnicity. And as a guest of this culture, I know I’m missing a lot of context. The last thing I want to do is jump to conclusions, impose my paradigms, or say something disrespectful or arrogant.

But beneath my open-mindedness lurks the question: How can race not be a thing here?

Didn’t both Colombia and the US have indigenous nations living in the land for centuries before White European colonizers invaded and claimed the land for the sake of God, the gospel, power, freedom, what have you?

Don’t both countries have histories shaped by state- and church-sanctioned violence and domination? The enslavement and mistreatment of women, men, and children of African descent. The extermination of indigenous communities and livelihoods. The exploitation of natural riches in exchange for cold metallic coins.

And these histories have evolved into iteration after iteration of oppressive systems in both the US and Colombia.

What’s more, if race is irrelevant here, how come every person I meet wants to know where I was born?

I started this post over two months ago, and I wish I could say my confusion has decreased. It has – when I choose to ignore it. Which is to say, when I live falsely.

So I’m picking my shovel back up. I’m digging holes into what I always thought was unmovable, and I’m gonna see the lies and truths that lie beneath.

beneath the guava tree


LUIS MIGUEL PAUSED just long enough to make sure I was following him before he dashed off. A few seconds later I stood next to the young boy in front of a tree.


Nov. 2015. Luis Miguel plays with one of the accompaniers from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

¿Qué es?” I pointed to one of the green fruits dangling on the low-hanging limbs. I thought I heard aguacate before he disappeared into the tree.

I stayed where I was, thinking about all the bugs that lived down there. Luis Miguel’s head poked back out from under the branches. “¡Ven!” he insisted.

It was such a simple phrase, one I’d heard consistently since the day I started living with my host family – so much so that I had come to detest it.

But this time was different. When Luis Miguel said, “Come!” it was not a command. It was an invitation. An invitation to play, to share a moment, to enjoy each other’s company.

Luis Miguel’s face lit up when I crouched down to follow him. It felt like we had entered another world. Never before had I seen the “interior” of a tree. The branches were so short that they were touching my head even as I squatted. I did my best to ignore my aching knees while Luis Miguel poked the dirt and talked to me.

I did not understand a single word he said, but the way he moved about in that space made me think that he’d found refuge under these branches many times before. I felt like a friend getting in on a secret, like an honored guest getting shown a favorite room of my host’s house.

That moment is forever etched into my memory. It’s the first one that comes to mind when I think about Luis Miguel and his family, who were displaced in December 2015 along with their neighbors in El Tamarindo. I don’t know where they live now.

Every time I visit some of the relocated families from El Tamarindo, I feel a little sad that little Luis Miguel isn’t there. I miss his endless energy, his lust for adventure, his wild imagination, and his charm. Wherever he is, I hope he is safe and finding new friends to explore nature with.

Arbol de Guayaba.jpg

Árbol de guayaba. It turned out to be a guava tree.