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.

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.

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.

one sharpie at a time

THE THING ABOUT being a shy, picky pianist is that it’s hard to practice your art. Either you can’t find a good sound (plastic keys just don’t feel right), or you get roped into entertaining people (not my forte). You just want to be alone with a Steinway, dang it!



Faced with such a predicament, the shy, picky pianist must find other media of expression.

Trying new forms of art is awkward at first. As you try to plié and sauté, your muscles long for the ease with which your fingers ran along the keys. As you think about starting a poem, your mind wanders to memories of getting lost with the piano for hours with no one to please.

So when you’re asked to create a character named Sofi who is going to tell stories to the children at one of your programs, you panic. You frantically Google-search “How to make a puppet” and immediately wish you hadn’t as you recall childhood arts-and-crafts trauma.

Why do people keep asking me to do things I suck at? you think.

That’s when you realize something: The reason you “suck” at something is that you haven’t had enough practice. The reason you can play piano is not because you’re Asian, as your friends in Colombia like to joke, but because you practiced every day for 12 years of your life (well, minus Sundays and holidays, since your family took rest pretty seriously).

So you grab the nearest pen and paper and go to work. You can’t give them a Mona Lisa, but you can offer your 4th-grade-best. As your friend Jack told you in college, anyone can draw – you just need to notice things and practice.

Soon what had been a source of stress becomes a stress-reliever. Not only are you supporting community development, but you are also learning a new skill. You’re relieved to learn that what matters in the end is not the end result but the purpose behind it: to help kids understand their Creator’s love.

Plus, you get to color for work.

a tribute to her


Even two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to say that with a straight face. Being a woman didn’t feel special and sometimes even felt like a burden. I didn’t understand the hype around feminism or the desire to showcase one’s femininity. If womanhood was such a gift, I thought, why were women being mistreated everyday? Subconsciously I often compared myself with other women or tried to distance myself from them.

After many encounters, TED Talks like this one, and much processing, I can now truly say that I love my woman-ness and the woman-ness of my sisters. Being a woman is a gift, a cause for celebration – whether or not others recognize it as such.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I raise my glass to each and every single woman in the world. I hold in my heart today those women who face insurmountable challenges, daily oppression, and life-threatening situations. Those who work hard to provide for their families, to finish school, to make the world more livable for themselves and their loved ones.

I raise my glass to the women I’ve been fortunate to meet. Some of you showed up for a few moments, others stayed with me for a season, still others continue to journey with me. Your presence, your words, your laughter, your hugs, your interests, and your challenges have helped me become the woman I am today.

¡Feliz Día de la Mujer!

And in honor of Women’s History Month, I give a shout out to some of the women in my life who have made and are making history every day.

My mother, who models sacrifice & self-care.
First in her family to be born. First in her family to live permanently in another land. First in her family to come to faith in Jesus – and over the last 40 years or so, almost everyone in her family has come to know Christ through her example. First woman I knew. First to get things done. Yet always puts others first.

My sister, who is my true love.
First in my family to be born. First friend, mentor, and shero. Built a new life in a new place not knowing what it would bring.

Emily D., who teaches me to love women.7B
First DC-to-Chicago-and-back road trip, accompanied by John Legend, Beyoncé, and JT. Actively discerning the call to pastoral ministry.

Danbee, who inspires me to create.
First Asian roommate. 🙂 Making art to promote restorative justice.

Jenn, who shows that it’s okay to vocalize what you’re thinking and feeling even and especially when you feel like you should be thinking or feeling something else.
First college friend to meet my boo. Making the best of each circumstance.

Jennifer, Stephanie, Jenny, and all my female friends in Colombia, who pursue their goals and interests despite having limited resources in a machista culture.
First to prove that 100º weather and humidity is no excuse for looking like a scrub.

Stacey, who let me know it’s good to have emotions.
First boss out of college. First person I met in DC.

Sara, who taught me both the possibility and the joy of simple and shared living.
First “official” mentor. First sunrise.

Becca, who brings people together withSojo30Women her smile, her presence, and her cooking.
First photo card. Courageously pursuing work that feeds her soul.

Emily P., who loves the little things and thinks deeply about everything.
First time almost getting stranded in DC. First time jamming on the roof. First to teach me an energizer (it’s a PCUSA thing).

Jess, who fights for what she believes in.
First friend to be weirder, sillier, and more blunt than me. First to help me see the links between mental health and the prison industrial complex.

EDR, who embodies freedom and confidence.
First to tell me about doulas. Fearlessly loving each cycle of interns at Sojourners.

Sophia, who models hospitality and generosity.31065_1176503098385_4850604_n
First visit to DC. First time I said I could see myself living in DC. Making a difference in the lives of students in Chicago Public Schools.

Gracie, who marches to her own beat, always has a song on the tip of her tongue, and is the most talented woman I know.
First homemade cheesecake. Taking bold first steps in being a singer/songwriter.

Sue Lee, who always says what needs to be said.
First introduction to the love language of food. Studying law to help marginalized communities.

Rachel, who pushed me out of my comfort zone but always had my back.
First real talk on race. First exposure to India Arie.

Sarah, who lives in the present and holds plans loosely.IMG_1395
First time living overseas. Accompanying churches in Colombia and Bolivia.

Emily M., who turns any experience into a funny story.
First person I connected with at YAV Discernment Event.

Erica, Joy, Kayla, Shelby, who showed me what leadership and teamwork looks like – and that girls do in fact run the world.
First JBiebs/Beyoncé music video.

Patty, Solanda, Melissa, who saw me in all the stages of my awkward years and are still my friends.
Too many firsts.

Mabel, Santine, Karissa, who made Sundays and Jr. Camps so much more fun and who are each doing their thang in their respective corners of the world.
First campfire experience.

If you are a woman reading this, I celebrate you!