Saved by My Refugee Neighbors

Oak Park Santas 2-1

Here’s my essay recently posted on Christianity Today’s “This Is our City” series.  It offers snippets of our twenty years of urban ministry in Oakland, about which I’m writing a spiritual memoir. You can read the story here.

This is an excerpt about my Mien neighbor:

Faithfulness over Effectivenesss

While it is tempting to romanticize the kids and our communal life, the city’s violence born of inequality and structural racism has worn on me.  Over 2,000 individuals have been murdered during my time in Oakland and I have witnessed my share of shootings.  Even when we organized our neighbors and won a housing lawsuit that rebuilt Oak Park, the new apartment layout unintentionally eroded our sense of community. I had to move because of federal rental guidelines, and the families preferred to remain inside their enlarged units.

When the issues of our city appear too daunting, I likewise retreat and focus on my own personal life, where I have some semblance of control. After leaving Oak Park, my wife and I purchased a home two blocks away, and we built gates to keep out the city’s dangers. But, fortunately, our refugee neighbors continue to knock at our door to teach us kingdom values.

When we got our house, I borrowed a rototiller and cleared weeds in our huge yard. After an afternoon of hard toil, I gave up; all I had readied was a small plot 5’ by 10’.   The next day, I was surprised by a small, turbaned lady sitting up in our apricot tree, like Zaccheus.  Yien Saelee, a grandmother who is Iu Mien, was hacking branches.  She had seen that the lot was empty and came to start a garden with my permission. I agreed, but doubted her strength to do the work.

To my surprise, though, she returned with two other grandmothers, each armed with only a small machete, and cleared the entire yard.  They planted the Native American Three Sisters– corn, squash, and beans—and soon, my family received locally grown, organic vegetables to meet our daily required vitamins.

Yien later joined our church’s “Young Family” cell, which paradoxically came to include five grandmothers.  As we shared and prayed together, I learned more of her story.  During the Laotian Civil War, she had lost three sons—child soldiers fighting with the CIA—and her husband was assassinated.  Moving to our Oakland neighborhood as a refugee did not make her life much easier; she remained poor and constantly felt fatigued.  Her step-parents’ spirits tormented her such that they made searing burns on her arms.

After being resettled in Oakland, Yien became a Christian when God revealed himself in a dream to her.  Since then, she claims, “My heart is light now because I no longer have to bear the burden of the spiritual world; it was too heavy.”  Not only did she pray for us and support her own local Mien church, but also she regularly taped gospel songs to be sent to Laos.

In spite of their advanced years, Yien and her fellow grandmas collect aluminum cans and hawk their produce to supplement their scant disability benefits that were almost cut by welfare reform. Her sense of social justice isn’t about asserting her rights, but taking responsibility for others.  Always chipping in for our water bill, she states simply, “I’m happy for the opportunity not to starve.”

When my father passed away, Yien, her back bent from osteoporosis, took the time to stand with my family in our grief.  Despite our communication and cultural barriers, her unceasing prayers  and faithful presence comforted me.  Growing up with privilege, I came to expect to make my mark and to effect social change in Oakland.  Unfortunately, our neighborhood has not been transformed despite our church’s best efforts.  If anything, its persistent poverty reflects the growing inequality in our nation.

Yien models for me another way to make one’s mark.  The servant who is faithful is the one who enters the joy of the master. The persistent widow who prays boldly is the one who receives justice.

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Memories from Asian American Equipping Symposium

Fuller Theological Seminary served as the venue for the 3rd Asian American Equipping Symposium this week Monday and Tuesday (3/19-20), thanks to the tireless effort of Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC). With 100+ ministry leaders from the worlds of academia, churches, ministries, and Christian counseling, the presentations and responses revolved around the theme of healing memories, in reference to the pains, scars, and wounds that are particular to the Asian cultural contexts. I was delighted to hear 2 of our NextGenerAsianChurch bloggers–Helen Lee and Kathy Khang– cited in a couple of papers presented.

These gatherings are few and far between, and much needed as so many Asian Americans in the church and outside the church are basically the walking wounded, needlessly carrying more burden and suffering than they ought. Yes, the healing that ultimately comes from God was referenced numerous times. The resources of talk therapy and emotional discourse had its share of mentions. And, again, the lament of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of bring emotional healing to personal (and collective) wounds amidst shame-based Asian cultures.

Other good points were raised, these are just a few: what can we learn of social harmony and incorporating that into our understanding of shalom? What can we do if immigrants are not equipped (by Confucian-influenced Asian cultures) for emotional discourse? Why does increased church attendance directly correlate to lower self esteem? What would it look like for Asians to experience healing apart from talk therapy? What do we do when the notion of “boundaries” is based on a western individualistic model of the self doesn’t readily fit in an Asian/ Asian-American context? … I’ve included a sketch of my Day 1 notes below so you can catch a few sound bites.
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I’d venture to say that a majority of those in the room were quite accomplished (yes, many letters behind the name were swirling around on business cards) and we already know much about these issues, and as such, to review what we’ve already experienced and known may have only been most helpful for those who are at the entry level and starting on their healing journey or beginning deeper ministry engagement. Much more is needed. Much much more. Nevertheless, events like these are notable and worthy.

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Who Am I? And What Do I Want?

Trout Island, MI

Years ago, I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, taking a class in Interpersonal Communication that was famously known as “The Island Course.” The professor would personally fly the class, two by two, in his twin-engine propellor plane to Trout Island in the northern part of Lake Michigan, which his family owned. As islands go, it was tiny, but still roomy enough for one grassy airstrip and one casual summer home with enough beds for our entire class of 9 students, plus our professor. Think of it like ten days of “Survivor”, without the risk (or blessing!) of being voted off.

It was during this course that I was introduced to the “Who Am I? What Do I Want?” exercise, in which you would pair up with another person and ask them these two questions, then switch, then keep going for as long as you desired. What we found is that as we kept answering the same questions over and over again, in time we would reveal layer upon layer of information, much of which we had never revealed before. Most of the pairs conversed for hours and found themselves in tears before the end of their time, my duo included.

And while I cannot replicate the experience here, my hope is that as we use this blog to share both who we are and what we want to see happen or change in the world, we will be able to do so deeply and openly, with grace, compassion, and understanding, and that this would become a safe place for us all to reveal ourselves and get to know one another–contributors and commenters alike.

“Who am I?” I am currently calling myself a “writer,” although writing is just one of my many wide and varied interests. I have finally written one Jeremy Lin-related post; authored one book (The Missional Mom) and co-authored another with a group of amazing Asian American leaders and pastors with whom I was deeply honored to work (Growing Healthy Asian American Churches). If all goes well I’ll be at work on another book this spring and summer. In my previous journalistic life, I worked at Christianity Today and re:generation quarterly. But I have secret dreams to 1) write an Academy-award winning screenplay someday, 2) start a business again someday (I have an MBA in entrepreneurship and once launched my own dot-com business that is no more…that is a story for another day!), or 3) finally declare victory over the daily beast that plagues me (otherwise known as “laundry”).

The Lee Family at Moody Bible Institute

But for now, my daily life now is largely consumed by mothering and homeschooling my three boys (4th grader, 1st grader, preschooler). I’m a second-generation Korean-American, married to a second-generation Korean-Canadian (the Korean-CANADIAN distinction is very important to my husband, and as I have learned over the years, we are definitely in a cross-cultural marriage!) Hubby Brian Lee is a classical pianist and professor music at Moody Bible Institute. Our family attends a largely Asian-American church in Chicagoland which Brian and I helped to plant 16 years ago. I am a huge supporter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as it was through this ministry that my faith grew by leaps and bounds while I was in college, and it was also through meeting Asian American IVCF staff workers (Peter Cha, Jeanette Yep, Jonathan Wu, Greg Jao, Henry Lee, to name a few) that I finally understood my ethnicity as a Korean-American was not a curse, but a gift to be cherished.

“What Do I Want?” At this stage of my life as a 40-something middle-aged adult (yikes, it’s scary to type that out!), I’m less concerned about understanding my own ethnicity and identity, and more interested to see the broader Christian culture demonstrate greater awareness and inclusion of the Asian American voice. I also want to challenge Asian American Christians to let go of cultural influences in their lives (both from Western and Asian culture) that are not God-honoring, and that encourage a particular definition of success and accomplishment that is more culturally- rather than biblically-defined. I’m excited and hopeful that this blog can be one vehicle to see these “wants” lived out, and honored to be a part of this group of contributors!

Please find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or visit my website! I look forward to getting to know you better.

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Where I’m Coming From – Adrian Pei

My full name is Adrian Su-Chen Pei, and I thought I’d introduce myself by telling you the story behind each part of my name.

My last name “Pei” is about as Chinese as you can get, contrary to what you might think if you’ve ever visited a “Pei Wei” restaurant.  The name itself is pretty uncommon, which in the recent past has made me extra curious about its origins.  My aunt recently traced it back to a village in China, where apparently all Peis originate.  They even have a saying on a big banner, translated as, “all the Peis have only one ancestry.”  So if you share my last name, we might actually be related!  However, I am not related to the famous architect I.M. Pei.

Even having “Pei” as a last name in America reminds me that I’m a little bit different.  Just last week, a nurse asked me, “And may I ask how exactly do you pronounce your last name?”  I get that question often, and I can understand why.  There are two very embarrassing (or funny if you see it that way) ways to mispronounce the name.  Hint: one rhymes with “tie”, and the other rhymes with “tee.”  Every time I make a restaurant reservation, I think about spelling my name as “P-E-Y,” just so they don’t mess it up.  But not as “Pay,” which would be funny for other reasons. ; )

My first name (Adrian) is a surprising choice for such a Chinese last name.  I think it has European roots, and only in the recent past has become more popular as a boy’s name (yes, I still get people who yell, “Yo Adrian!” btw, did you know that Rocky also thanks God in his speech?!).  Considering my parents’ background, though, the choice makes more sense.  My mother grew up in Vietnam, attended a French school, and learned seven languages throughout her life.  She was one of the most active members on the multicultural boards of my schools.  My father grew up in Japan, and was a bridge-builder in his work between the U.S. and Japan.  Despite the fact that he had to teach himself English, he and my mother both adapted to their lives in the States, and brought with them a love and respect for culture.

And that was what shaped me, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Because of my father’s work, I lived on three continents (born in upstate New York, then moved to England for one year, then Japan for three years) before I was five years old.  My parents chose to spend all their pleasure money on family travel, so I got to visit Australia, France, Italy, Greece, and even Micronesia while growing up!  We made good friends with our Iranian, Korean, and Indian neighbors.  And on any given night, my mother would cook anything from shepherd’s pie to sukiyaki to tacos.

But despite all this richness to draw and learn from, I don’t think I knew what to do with it.  In high school, we didn’t talk about our cultural backgrounds and uniqueness.  All we cared about was fitting in, according to what was popular.  And was being Asian American “cool”?  To be honest, that was the furthest thing from my mind, and from what I saw in society.  Most of the time, I found myself wanting to convince my Caucasian friends that I was just like them: that I listened to the same music, played and watched the same sports, and talked and acted like they did.  Though I couldn’t put words to it, I was living the reality of a minority in America, whose very status forces him or her to wrestle with an extra layer of identity issues.  I’m not like everyone I see around me, so is that okay?  Why do I have to work so hard to be known and accepted?  Why do people call me names, look at me strangely, or treat me in special ways?    

What do we do with these questions and feelings?  To some degree, it’s a normal part of growing up.  But part of me looks back on my childhood with a measure of sadness, wishing I had been able to make greater sense of the anger and depression I sometimes experienced.  I wish I had seen all the learning and growth I was missing, in the unique stories of each person around me.  I wish those things had been honored, and platformed.

So now I’m an adult in my thirties, and one of my biggest lessons is that I don’t have to wish, or wait, any longer.  In the landscape of this country and these times, we do have an opportunity to bring awareness to, and fight for the things we care about.  Even more, it’s a responsibility, and an honor!

I believe we’re doing that in my work, as I serve on the Leadership Development team of the Asian American ministry of Cru, specifically heading up the field of Creative Arts and Resources.  At Epic Movement, we are moving towards raising up young leaders who are culturally-aware, emotionally mature, and missionally-minded.  College students are some of the leaders of the next generation, and we are seeing future artists and business-people who don’t feel they have to deny their cultural heritage, but are embracing the unique strength that it brings to their life and mission.  That’s exciting.

At some point as well, I threw off some of my natural introverted and self-conscious tendencies, and started to simply write.  Writing is a powerful vehicle of expression, when you live on the margins of society.  I began blogging about topics that ate at me, and that I felt needed to be explored.  I collaborated with other ethnic ministries to write an article about how minorities relate to the majority culture.

And of course, there’s this Next Gener.Asian Church blog.  I love that this is a collaboration of different voices, which provides so much more color and dialogue than a lone voice.  There’s something powerful about the communal aspect of Asian American culture, and to know that we are stronger as we put our minds and stories together.  We can disagree and debate passionately, but we have each other’s backs at the end of the day.

I’ve had the chance to meet most of the contributors to this blog in some fashion, and I can say that they aren’t just writers, but they are leaders.  They care deeply about the past, present, and future of Asian American Christianity, and are living out that passion and integrity in their work and lives.  I have great respect for all of them.

Which for lack of a better transition, brings me to my middle name, “Su-Chen.”  Literally translated, it means “honest scholar.”  That’s what I try to live up to.  Whether or not you know me, well or not, I will always strive to be honest and sincere in my words and life.

And for the “scholar” part, I do believe there is something sacred about the written word.  I was talking to David Park about this, and he mentioned how we have a freedom to express ourselves here, that isn’t tied to money or jobs or other motives.  But we also talked about how we have a responsibility, knowing that people are reading and in a way, our dialogue with everyone here is being recorded — even if informally in the pages of Asian American history.  As a reader, you are part of this as you write in.  What will we learn, or stumble upon in the process?  It’s up to us… let’s find out!

Looking forward to connecting with you more here, or getting to know you better on Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail!

Adrian

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Talking Around Each Other

Found the above on YouTube and found it to be a classic example of how Asian Americans and their parents talk in a way that doesn’t fit the definition of communication. And of course, while it is parody, it certainly sounds similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with my own parents. In some ways, it’s not just about our parents learning English, it’s about trying to keep up with this emerging, techno-illogical world that literally has only been blown up in the last two decades. It is the rare parent that can keep up with a serious discussion about the changing nature of work in the digital economy, expectations about the predictive capacity of the SAT for success, and whether or not having a secretary constitutes as a bragging right. Sometimes all they care about are their videos. And we, our YouTube.

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When a father's love goes unexpressed

This USA Today commentary by Ray Wong, In death, assumptions about Dad melt away, seems typical of a child’s (or more specifically, a son’s) yearning for the blessing and love of a his Father. And it’s not really limited to Chinese or Asian cultures; it’s a common thing in many (most? all?) cultures for a son to want his father’s approval.

I didn’t think my father cared about me. I left Hong Kong at age 5, when my mother divorced my father in 1968. My father never contacted me. I lived in America. He lived a world away. …
…. After I married my wife, Quyen, in 1998, I visited Hong Kong again to introduce her to my father. When Quyen and I had kids, I heard through my mom that he wanted to see our children. So I invited him to the U.S., told him I would pay for his plane ticket and that he could stay with us. But I never received a response. I didn’t think he cared. So I went about my life.

… my father suffered a stroke and died. … my father’s younger brother brought my father’s possessions to me. … My father had kept every item relating to me and my family. … As I looked upon the pictures of my family with tears in my eyes, I knew I was wrong.

Read the full article.

Love unexpressed and love that doesn’t connect with the “love language” of the person of affection is love lost. What healing and joy there could be when love can freely flows, especially across cultures and generations.

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Not Post-Racial Yet Or Are We?

Last night I had a great conversation with my mother-in-law (wow, how many times have you ever heard that in your life?) and we talked about some of the dynamics of racism, poverty, and power. Her assumptions as an Indian immigrant were that poor, uneducated people were simply plagued by a mentality where they simply settled for what they had, didn’t value education, and didn’t want to save money, to push themselves. She reminded me that her husband came to this country with only $6 in his pocket, but my wife and I reminded her that he was in a PhD program. It’s slightly easier to starve today if you know have the intellectual assets and opportunities for a payoff tomorrow.

And while something of a “mentality” issue might be there, we had to get the conversation to a point that despite the laws that made us equal, the playing field was not. Furthermore, the people in power haven’t changed much, so poor neighborhoods stay poor, the worse schools stay the worse schools, and the low-paying jobs don’t help people gain useful job skills nor does it allow them to save or invest. In essence, while the system pats itself for being fair and just, it is clear that some people do not have a fair shake or that it is much, much, much harder for certain people based on race and class.

But a huge contingency of people think that these are issues in the past and that the cream of any crop – white, black, or other – are rising to the top. And when the real color is green (as in money), that may well appear to be the case, but categorically speaking, when we assume individualism as the lens for this discussion, we fail to understand how the system as a whole has inequalities in it. To prove the point, my in-laws, while financially secure, do suspect that they never got credit for the amount of work they did, especially when my father-in-law has over two dozen patents to his name. He was passed up for promotions and never got his due. Maybe it was “a mentality” or maybe it was a race thing. It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We can always rationalize it when there are a few exceptions to the rule, but it really begs the question of whether or not we are post racial.

A great site for all things racial is Racialicious, where I found this post asking the question “How Post Racial Are We?” And it’s clear that while we would like to think that racism is a thing of the past or at least a settled matter, it is clear that it is not. And so the writer, Latoya Peterson finds answers from our society.

Apparently, so post-racial that the Feds just interrupted an assassination plot that would have eventually targeted Barack Obama.

Two white supremacists allegedly plotted to go on a national killing spree, shooting and decapitating black people and ultimately targeting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, federal authorities said Monday.

In all, the two men whom officials describe as neo-Nazi skinheads planned to kill 88 people — 14 by beheading, according to documents unsealed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tenn. The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic in the white supremacist community.

The spree, which initially targeted an unidentified predominantly African-American school, was to end with the two men driving toward Obama, “shooting at him from the windows,” the court documents show.

“Both individuals stated they would dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt,” the court complaint states. “Both individuals further stated they knew they would and were willing to die during this attempt.”

This follows the attempted assassination plot back in August at the Democratic National Convention.

So post-racial that vandals tore down a memorial sign to Emmitt Till:

A sign marking the site where Emmett Till’s battered body was pulled from a river in 1955 has been ripped down by vandals, authorities said.

The sign posted on a road near the Tallahatchie River was among eight that were erected after the county adopted a resolution last year apologizing to Till’s family because an all-white jury acquitted two white men of murdering Till for whistling at a white woman. […]

“We’re not going to tolerate them tearing down anything that’s marking Emmett Till’s murder,” Board of Supervisors President Jerome G. Little said Monday. “I want to send a message: Every time they take it down, we’re going to put it back up.” […]

This isn’t the first time vandals have targeted Till memorials. Last year, a roadside marker on U.S. 49 in Greenwood in Leflore County was stolen. It was replaced with another sign. And, another sign in Tallahatchie County was damaged earlier this year, commission members said.

So post racial, that we seem to be repeating history:

Jacquline McClelland poses with a photo of her son Brandon McClelland, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, in Paris, Texas. Brandon, a black man, was on a late-night beer run across state lines to Oklahoma with two white friends last month and ended up dead on a rural Texas road. Authorities say he was run over by a pickup and then dragged as far as 70 feet beneath the truck. Two white men have been charged with murder in the case.

So what do you think?

Race: Much Ado About Nothing? or Let’s move on?

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