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.


kyrie eleison


en una finca de café en el Eje Cafetero, Colombia // on a coffee plantation in Eje Cafetero, the coffee growing region of Colombia

imploramos tu piedad o buen Señor
por quien sufre en este mundo.
a una gime toda la creación.

tus oídos se inclinen al clamor
de tu gente oprimida.
¡apura, o Señor, tu salvación!

sea tu paz bendita y hermanada a la justicia
que abrace al mundo entero.
¡ten compasión!

que tu poder sustente el testimonio de tu pueblo,
tu reino venga hoy.
kyrie eleison.


a rough translation:

we beseech your mercy, oh Lord,
for those who suffer in this world.
all of creation groans.

may you incline your ears toward the cry
of your oppressed people.
hurry your salvation, oh Lord!

may your peace, holy and united with justice,
embrace the entire world.
have compassion!

may your power sustain the testimony
of your people.
Lord, have mercy.


i learned this beautiful song during my time in Barranquilla.

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.


the last 30 days: desolation, consolation, transformation

BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND NOW, I spent many hours outside the office. As a volunteer with a flexible schedule, I didn’t think I needed more time to rest. But it turned out that my mind and heart needed a little break.

During those weeks of rest, I also experienced anxiety and nostalgia as I navigated new Christmas and New Year’s traditions and chatted with my biological family. Sometimes I felt like a burden to my host family. So even as I relaxed and played, I was being stretched in ways I hadn’t expected. It sucked, but it forced me to dig deeper within myself to find the areas that needed transformation.

It also taught me to empathize with all the young people who spend the holidays overseas away from family – like the college students from Hong Kong at my church in Minnesota who couldn’t afford a plane ticket to fly back home for Christmas.

Thankfully, there were moments of great consolation, too, as you will see in the photos below.

So say hello to the renewed me! The stronger me and the more tender me. Stronger because God walked me through it. More tender because I learned to see myself more clearly – shortcomings and all.

Enough said… Enjoy the pictures!

the auction

MY PASTOR HAD just finished his sermon when he turned to our current church building situation. A new ceiling was recently installed, but the walls still needed to be repainted. The paint job would require some 1 million pesos. Where would that money come from?

The pastor started writing on a piece of paper. He said, I’m putting my name down … for 100,000 pesos.

The air buzzed with murmurs and gasps.

Who will join me? the pastor asked.

His congregation returned his gaze with thoughtful silence. Was he joking or was he serious? Then my friend’s dad raised his hand. Cien, he saidOne hundred thousand pesos from his family.

Another person called out, Cien.

And one-by-one, voices rang out. Like a heating pot of popcorn kernels, the atmosphere was initially punctured by sporadic pledges. Cien here, cien there. Then someone said tres ciento (300), and everybody was raising their hands. Cincuenta, cien, treinta, cien! 

It was like being at an auction, except that there was no highest bidder and every offer was taken.

I remained motionless in my seat, thoughts flying, motor skills failing. How were they so open about their giving, their finances? How could they be so generous? Not only that, but they were also excited. They spoke with such assurance I started thinking they’d had advanced notice.

My home church has talked about a new building for nearly 15 years. The initial projected cost was $1,000,000. They’ve held meetings, taken votes, created deacon positions and formed committees for this project. Some have even left the church or stopped talking to each other due to conflict over the decision. Last I heard, concrete plans for the move are underway, though we are still in the same building. I’m not sure how close to our fundraising goal.

I know painting walls and moving to a new location are very different things. But both represent an investment.

To put things in context, $1 = about 3,000 pesos. Or, 1 peso = .03 cents.

While 100,000 pesos ($30) may not seem like a big chunk of cash in the States, in the Colombian context it is a moderate sum of money. A meal of 15,000 pesos (about $5) is considered expensive for many people. So 100,000 pesos is not an amount you’d normally offer at a moment’s notice.

Yet there they were, my brothers and sisters cheerfully offering more than they would pay for a meal for the improvement of their church building. They didn’t say, “I need to think about this” or “I need to pray about this”. They were united in their desire to make their meeting place even more hospitable. They were willing to sacrifice financially for their goal. Just as astounding to me was the fact that they felt safe enough to announce in front of everyone how much they would give.

It was a spectacular moment of God’s people pooling their resources to build up their community.

After about 5 minutes, the pledges were added up: over 2 million pesos! Double the amount asked for. The pastor said they could use the extra funds for things besides paint. The women behind me said, ¡Aire! and chuckled.

Air conditioning, that sought-after luxury, may not be such a far-off dream after all.

to drink or not to drink?

THAT IS THE question. Every time someone starts pouring cups of Coke or Postobon, my conscience has an internal battle: do I accept this sugary substance at the expense of my health, or do I stick to my convictions at the expense of politeness?

The same thing happens when I’m offered deep fried flour for breakfast or the choice between a hamburger and a hotdog when what I really want is kale.

If I was like the rest of the world — i.e. normal people who joyfully consume sugar and grease, I wouldn’t be having existential crises every time I go to a party. Funny enough, though, these trifles have led me to see what I hadn’t before:

I am a guest.

thumb_IMG_1084_1024Growing up in two cultures, I thought I’d arrived at superstarguestdom. For my White hosts, being a good guest typically meant arriving at six on the dot, not eating too much or too fast, and commenting on house decor. For my Asian hosts, being a good guest usually meant arriving half an hour late (or intentionally arriving early to help or chat), helping myself to three servings while not taking the last portion, and offering to do the dishes. And when norms weren’t clear, I knew how to adapt.

In Barranquilla, hospitality is on a whole other level. When they say make yourself at home, they mean it. Instead of putting apps on a table, they bring them out on a tray and serve guests one-by-one.

I’m slowly learning that being a good guest here means accepting whatever is offered you, and when you’re absolutely not feeling it, you can say no without making a fuss. You follow the overall conversation without having too many side convos. It’s completely acceptable to ask your host to bring you something or to take your plate. You can help if you want, but you really should just sit, relax and enjoy the company.

But when I say I’m a guest, I don’t just mean adopting new manners. It’s more than that.

I am a guest of this culture.

A huge area of growth for me is to observe without judging. So many times I’ve questioned the efficiency of a task or the motive behind a question or statement. One event in particular made me stop and think.

Earlier this month, I went to the beach with a IMG_1073group from my church. An afternoon of laughter and fútbol made me feel so comfortable that I forgot we were speaking Spanish. Yet as I laid in bed that evening, I felt completely drained. Flipping through the day’s events in my mind, I replayed my faux pas, reheard the side comments, relived the embarrassment of not comprehending the words spoken to and around me…

Loudest of all, the words ¡Sophy! ¡Siéntate! ¡Ven! ¡Cuidado! echoed in my memory. Why did they keep commanding me to do stuff? In my confused rebellion I actually refused to sit several times.

Shame came over me as I realized I’d been living as a tourist, one foot in, one foot out. Despite everything I’ve read and experienced about incarnational ministry, I was subconsciously comparing everything to my life in the States and rejecting the parts in Colombia that didn’t match up.

So I went to work. This past month has been about shifting lenses, readjusting steps, peeling back the layers of my North Americanness – all in an attempt to pinpoint and part with my prejudices in order to see Colombia for what it is, in all its facets.

To be a good guest.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve probably made one inch of progress in this marathon. But that one inch has opened my heart to recognize that being a good guest in Colombia ultimately comes down to this: respect.

Accepting hospitality in all forms
Honoring the values and norms of my hosts
Trusting the precautions of my hosts
Learning how my hosts do things
Offering my opinion without imposing it
Understanding that the constant Asian jokes come in a different context
(that’s a different post altogether)
Even and especially when I disagree

To be clear, respect is not assimilation. It’s not surrendering my personality and beliefs for the sake of blending in. That would rob our relationships of diversity.

Respect is sacrifice. Because I naturally hold myself in highest esteem. Because I am called to always recognize the dignity of others. Because it is a choice, and sometimes that choice means giving up a day without pop/soda/Coke to share in the revelry of your new friends, who are worth so, so much more.

thumb_IMG_1061_1024Interestingly, as my attitude changed, so has my stomach. A few times I’ve found myself craving the very things I avoided!

And let’s be real. As much I’m “sacrificing,” it’s really my hosts who are going out of their way to take care of me, waste time while I try to form a complete sentence, and be friends with me. I am grateful to be their guest.

5 words in 5 minutes

Not even two weeks have passed since I arrived in Colombia, yet I have learned and experienced so much. My thoughts on more serious topics have yet to coalesce into a coherent post, so here are a few initial observations and some new words I’ve picked up, complete with a couple of fotas:

1. sudor (sweat)

Inevitable. I remember complaining every day this past summer in DC about the heat and humidity. HA! (Lo siento to everyone who had to suffer my whining.) Living in a house with no central A/C for a year definitely helped me ease into Barranquilla’s climate. It’s still annoying to sweat the moment I emerge from my sheets, but I’m learning to embrace it. Next lesson: Play soccer during the day without passing out.

2. dulces (sweets)

Ubiquitous. In all forms. Café con leche, jugo (juice), candy, postres (dessert) – you name it! One of our teammates has been on a sweets fast for 1.5 years. He has amazing resolve, but we’ll see… ^^

3. japonés (Japanese)

Unexpected. Unsure of how I’d be perceived here, I’d braced myself for hearing “china” throughout the day. That hasn’t happened even once. Instead, one of the first questions many have asked me is, “Are you Japanese?” This is a new one; in the States I’m often mistaken for Filipina or Vietnamese. I had assumed that here, people would guess my ethnicity correctly – a “privilege” of being Chinese that I do not like. I wonder if there is greater exposure to Japanese culture here than other Asian cultures. In any case, I am daily reminded of my complex mosaic identity. No doubt, pieces of Barranquilla will get mixed in with it.

4. zapatos (shoes)

Impressive. One of the first things I noticed. In Bogotá, a common outfit was blazers, jeans and sneakers. Not just any sneakers, and not just the ones you wear to the gym. Nike. Adidas. Converse. In trendy colors and mint condition. Here in Barranquilla, it seems normal to be more casual, but I often feel underdressed in my plain crewneck T’s and sandals. (I’m actually borrowing my teammate’s sandals because I only brought flip flops, so after we split up to our different placements, I may need to do some shopping…)

5. amable (kind)

Incredible. I love hearing and saying Buenos días from/to strangers and hugging people and kissing each other on the cheeks. Smiles are readily exchanged. Many people are patient in slowing down their rate of speech and trying to make sense of my jumbled español without laughing or scoffing. People were not kidding when they said Colombians are known for their warmth and hospitality. I’m excited to make new friends and get to know my host family better.

The team with our lovely site coordinator!

Team Colombellas + Colombro with our lovely site coordinator! In Bogotá, we took our initial dive into Colombia’s history at the national museum (all in Spanish, of course)! Fascinating & informative.

Simón Bolívar, commemorated for his legacy in leading Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru to independence from Spanish rule. This is in La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, known for being Simón Bolívar's death place.

Simón Bolívar, commemorated for his legacy in leading Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru to independence from Spanish rule. This is in La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, known for being Simón Bolívar’s death place.