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.


my superwoman-tiger mom

DO YOU REMEMBER when you first realized your mom was human?

Maybe you always knew that. Or maybe this is your rude awakening (surprise!).

My Eureka! moment came when I was home for the winter holidays during college. I must have just gotten into an argument with my mom (very likely). Or maybe our family had just had some tense moments – it was an emotionally fragile season for us.

All I remember is seeing something in my mom I’d never seen before: weakness.

Growing up, I thought of my mom as being in her own, one-person category. There were teachers, doctors, men, women… and 10441920_10153128574919590_9067303975421122271_nthen there was Mommy.

Mommy, the one who didn’t get sick. The one who always picked up when I called. The one who got me to piano lessons, violin lessons, swimming lessons, soccer games, and orchestra concerts on time – and packed me dinner-to-go.

Mommy, the one who forced me to drink a cup (8 fluid ounces  – count ’em!) of warm water every morning. The one who always made me bring a sweater to the movies (how did she know!?). The one who won almost every argument, and if she didn’t, it was probably because she knew I’d admit defeat later.

Of course, I knew that my mother was a human being; she wasn’t an alien or a robot. At the same time, she wasn’t just a human being. She was Superwoman-Tiger Mom*. She was so efficient, so reliable, so strict, so intuitive. Even my childhood friends and their moms were a little scared of her.

So that day during the holidays, when my mom backed off of an argument and showed visible signs of grief, I was shaken.

And thus began a journey of discovering and embracing my mother’s human-ness. It was scary at first. I feared that recognizing my mom’s limitations would diminish my admiration for her.

Quite the contrary. My respect for her has multiplied. I have come to see her courage, her persistence, her generosity in spite of her limitations.

My mother is an ordinary woman who does ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

The way she lectures me? That’s the same honesty that keeps her writing and learning new things.

The way she nags me to blow-dry my hair? That’s the same tenacity that helped her survive those first years as an immigrant woman in the suburbs of Chicago.

The way she raised me and my sister? That’s the same pride that gave her victory over salespeople who tried, and continue to try, to take advantage of her.

The way she cared for her younger sisters during their childhood? That’s the same compassion she shows towards the women in her congregation.

When my mom reads this, she’ll probably say she’s made a lot of mistakes and she tried her best. True. That’s the point, isn’t it?

I realized that I was not going just because it seemed like a good idea, but because those who love me most sent me on my way with affection, support, and prayers.
– Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!


* Note: The term “tiger mother” was coined by Amy Chua in her 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she parodies her own attempts to follow the supposed strict manner of childrearing typically attributed to mothers in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Chua says her memoir is meant to be “ironic and self-mocking”. Here, I use the term “tiger mom” not to generate controversy or to put my mom in a box but to describe my previously limited view of her and her way of raising me. Thankfully, I’ve come to see she is so much more.

el buen pastor y las ovejitas

I WISH I had a tape recorder so you could hear how enthusiastic and cute los niños were during class.

Every Tuesday I help out with the children’s program in a neighborhood called Por Fin. So far, I serve as the silent wingwoman, nodding along to the teacher’s lesson, rewarding correct answers with smiles, and attempting to quell deviance with prolonged stares. While we do our thing, a group of women (mostly moms of the kids) have Bible study in the back courtyard with the effervescent Pastora Flor.

This week we learned about el Buen Pastor (thIMG_1158e Good Shepherd). I love that in Spanish the word for “pastor” and “shepherd” are the same. We learned that God, like a good shepherd, protects us, las ovejitas. He knows what his sheep need – apparently his sheep need toys. He leads his sheep to good pastures.

Yesterday my body went to war with itself. Burning with heat, I laid in bed for about 9 hours straight. It took me 15 minutes to call my coworkers to notify them of my absence because I kept falling asleep between each attempt.

I wonder how old you have to be before you stop wanting your mom when you’re sick. Thankfully, my host mom came home after a few hours and helped me out. My host sister also told me to put on more clothes to sweat out the fever – duh! From then on, I was on the road to recovery.

For the whole day I felt so helpless, like a little sheep. But just knowing I was being cared for by my host mom brought so much comfort. The medicine, the clementine, the wet cloths for my forehead, the shoulder rub – these were the green pastures I needed.

By the way, whether you’re in a Chinese-, English- or Spanish-speaking Christian community, you can bet that the go-to Sunday school answers will always be some form of ¡Dios! or ¡Jesús!

does God know spanglish?

ON SUNDAY I sang with the praise team at church. The team consists of four other young women and the music director/pianist, Osman. He works his magic on the synth to bust out beats and melodies to accompany the songs. It’s impressive.

181015 coro con osmanA decade of music ministry could not keep my voice from shaking as I shared Psalm 121:1-2. Memorizing those verses was my solution to Osman’s request for me to pray. I wondered if the congregants could make out the beautiful words beneath my North American accent.

181015 coroI started to sing. My voice sounded like gravel from a month of underuse. My left ear, still plugged from last week’s beach outing, made it hard to know if I was on pitch. Still I was honored to have the opportunity to serve in such a tangible way – and happy to sing one of my new favorites, Renuévame (see below).

As we sang, I really wanted to lose myself in the moment, eyes closed, arms outstretched, just as I’ve done so many times before. But something held me back.

Music ministry is a struggle for me. On the one hand, music has always been the most intimate way for me to connect with God. I love singing. I love running my fingers along the keys or the strings as an offering of praise. I love being able to express myself truly and completely before God without saying a word.

But put me in front of a crowd, and the pressure to perform, to impress, to be perfect, permeates even the purest of intentions. Add on the challenge of speaking and singing another language, and I become very self-conscious.

What held me back yesterday was the fear of inauthenticity. It felt insincere to offer wholehearted worship in a language I can barely comprehend. I felt like I didn’t have the right to do that. And I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I already did as the only English-speaking-Chinese-American in the room.

If I could turn back the clock, I would’ve plucked that fear out by the roots and chucked it far away. I would’ve replaced it with the assurance that the ultimate value of a song offering is not in how it sounds but in the One to whom it is offered.

Now I remember
how the Bible talks about the nations worshiping God,
how John saw people from “all tribes and peoples and languages” standing before the throne of God (Revelation 7:9-10),
how the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, enabled people to declare the wonders of God in their own native language (Acts 2).

God understands even my broken Spanish.

After service, I was told to keep the black outfit I had borrowed for the morning. “You’ll need it for next time,” they said.

I’m glad I get to try again. Until then I’ll be listening to Renuévame on repeat. ^^ (The singing starts at 0:40.)

i’m not there yet, but…

TWO WEEKS FROM now I will be in Colombia.

Even as I write this, words are bouncing off the walls of my mind like popcorn kernels in a pot. Excited. Nervous. Longing. Wonder. Howwillifitmyshoesintothissuitcase. Surreal.

The tension comes from simultaneously knowing what to expect and not knowing what to expect. Meaning, I expect to be in the honeymoon phase for a few months, love speaking Spanish, miss my family and friends, miss pizza and Target at some point, probably get diarrhea, probably get sick of the humidity and want to put off the farewells at the end of my year in Barranquilla.

Realistically, I have no way of knowing if any or all of the above will happen. I have no way of knowing what will happen, period. So this is extremely thrilling and absolutely terrifying.

For me, one effective coping mechanism for worrying, besides prayer and denial, is to look at the big picture. I bring to mind the hopes I have for my time in Colombia: to grow, to learn, to flourish, to love.

To grow more fully into the woman God calls me to be.

To learn new skills and ways of being.

To flourish despite, and because of, unfamiliarity, discomfort, unexpected commonalities and new relationships.

To love the people I meet in Barranquilla.

No matter how many hours I put into Rosetta Stone this week or how many extra socks I pack, God is making something new, and God is going to surprise me.

how did i get here?

THE TITLE OF this post is shamelessly meta and cliché, but I think it every day. Most days it takes the form of a complaint (e.g. Why, God, why?); other days it is a sincere inquiry. Rarely does it express wonder and gratitude.

So tonight I say it as a declaration of praise.

How did I get here? How did I end up in my sparse room in a gentrifying neighborhood in a city that is not in a state but that houses some of the most powerful (and dysfunctional) institutions in the world?

Sojourners’ internship program led me to DC. I learned about Sojo at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference. I went to the CCDA conference through Global Urban Perspectives (GUP), a ministry at my college that allows students to learn and participate in ministry in an urban low-income context. GUP sent me to Denver, where God showed me the limitlessness of the Gospel – through the wisdom of unhoused men and women, the hospitality of families who lived paycheck to paycheck, the vastness of mountains and starry night skies. Working and living in Denver showed me how desperately I needed grace. I could no longer prove my worth with my accolades. My new friends at the shelter didn’t need to know my GPA or how many instruments I played – not because they didn’t care, but because they appreciated me for who I was – just me.

But the rabbit trail doesn’t end there. I found GUP on a bulletin board as a freshman overflowing with “blessing” (privilege). I wanted to give more of myself to others. The reason I wanted to give was that I had received so much love (and graduation money) from friends and family members that summer, including those living in Hong Kong whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years.

I could go on, but I want to dwell on this: relationships. I’ve experienced relationships of all kinds, but the relationships that have transformed me for the better are the ones that don’t expect me to fit a mold. The ones that give without a predetermined budget. The ones that embrace without explanation. The ones that allow, even propel, me to be the person God creates me to be.

And all of these attributes are just a smidgeon of the love God has for God’s creation. Blows my mind.

How did I get here? I don’t really know – in the sense that I don’t know why certain things happened or why certain people entered my life. But at the same time, I do know. I know God is good. God is love. God is real.

I am here and only here by the grace of God.

happy one year

EXACTLY ONE YEAR ago from today, I was lying on a creaky bed wondering what I had gotten myself into, moving into a house with 9 strangers in a brand new city and committing to a yearlong internship… I stood at the threshold of an exciting adventure, and the overwhelming sense of calm I felt assured me that I was stepping into something good.

“Good” seems overly simplistic, yet it was the word I used most frequently when describing my year with Sojourners and Cycle 30. Jam sessions on the balcony. Girl talk on the roof. Wednesday night Zumba. First-date drama. Morning runs in the neighborhood. Late-night donut runs with the flourish gang. Parties and worship nights on weekends. Sherlock. Harry Potter. Free-flowing conversations (and body movements) around the kitchen table – actually, anywhere in the kitchen… my favorite memories were formed in the kitchen. Indeed, part of the goodness of the past year was the spontaneous fun that happened, whether explosively or gradually.

But there were also really sobering times both for our community and for myself. Loss of loved ones to sickness and accidents. Tension with parents and siblings over diverging values and worldviews. Disappointments and regrets from impulsive decisions and unresolved conflicts. Clashing theologies and applications of faith. Growing cynicism of systems and deepening doubt of long-held doctrines.

The most challenging thing for me was the spiritual oppression I (didn’t know I) faced. Having emerged from a summer of wilderness, I entered the year with Sojourners in a spiritually vulnerable state. Without the sort of accountability to which I was accustomed at Wheaton and at home, I leaned heavily towards open-mindedness and tolerance of diverse views. Considering multiple perspectives is always positive, but I approached any new idea like a smoothie, slurping everything up that was palatable without taking time to consider the taste. Absorbing information without filters left me more disoriented than I ever imagined.

I am thankful for the opportunity to see God through different lenses and to emphasize different parts of God’s character. I am thankful for the freedom from White conservative evangelicalism to which I had clung. I am thankful for the chance to worship with people who differed from me in socioeconomic background, cultural upbringing, ethnic identification, and sexual orientation.

At the same time, my relationship with Jesus has become fragile. I crave discipline and solitude. I am itching to participate in ministry. I seek to be rooted in conviction.

Presently, I feel like I am back at the beginning of my year with Cycle 30, minus the wonder & anticipation. Right now, I am weary. I am learning to walk on my own two feet. Sojourners truly is my family – a place where I feel at home, where I am loved as myself, where I delight in the company of my colleagues even if I have some frustrations with the organization. But no matter how much I enjoy spending time with my family, I am not meant to stay forever. As much as I want to be babied for another year, I hug Sojourners goodbye and carry the lessons & memories and the laughs & hiccups it shared with me. Putting one foot in front of the other, I move forward towards another milestone, whatever it may be.