20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

Month: May, 2012

What It Means to Go Back

“Do you speak Korean?”

“Do you want to meet your biological family?”

“Have you been back?”

Somewhere in the fire-safe box in my parents’ walk-in closet there is a passport for a tiny Korean baby with a stamp of entry into the United States of America–the only visa on its pages–via the Port of Seattle. In the hidden pocket of my handbag I carry a U.S. passport with several visas from countries in Europe and the Middle East. I have long spinning stories to go with each of these stamped-in-a-second permission slips. Shutting down a Parisian patisserie with a ruckus Juniors Abroad group, snoozing in Luxembourg Gardens, walking through Florence at 2 a.m. in search of a hostel, sipping coffee in Venice, setting off security alarms in the Frankfurt Airport, dining in Wadi Rum, swimming in both the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, waiting in line for six hours to be stamped into Israel (precluding any future Syrian stamps), studying at the oldest university in England and the oldest university in Scotland.

I’ve done a lot in the company of my American passport, because I am an American. When I returned from a summer of international travel, a TSA agent misread my Asian exterior as “foreigner,” saying “Visitors in that line,” before I flashed the navy blue, eagle-embossed booklet like a get out of jail free card.

Several of my friends now have Republic of Korea inked into their passports, a few live there currently. I have heard nothing but positive reports back about the fun nightlife, the delicious food, and the kind locals from these friends who have stories, smells, sights, and conversations etched into their memories. When I ask if they would ever like to go back to Korea it’s like them asking me if I would ever go back to France or Italy where I have little emotional attachment but know exactly which cafes I would visit and where I would sit when the stars come out. And even though I was born in a small town south of Seoul, I have no such points of reference that link me to Korea except that ancient passport–a glorified slip of paper with my photo, really.

When people find out I’m adopted from South Korea (the Republic of Korea now) I can usually anticipate three forthcoming, deeply personal and somewhat invasive questions with startling accuracy. Perhaps by reading this blog you can be saved from one of these awkward interactions:

“Do you speak Korean?”

“Do you want to meet your biological family?”

“Have you been back?”

To the first, I like to answer that, no, no hablo coreano, pero bitaki un peu Français.

The second question is one I’m never quite sure how to answer, because it might make me sound like a heartless bitch. I’m an introvert, a characteristic that means I have limited relational energy and don’t pursue a high quantity of intimate relationships. So, off the cuff, meeting new people–let alone long lost family members–isn’t exactly at the top of my to-do list.

I wouldn’t reject meeting my biological mother; in fact I have written quite a bit about how much I respect her for her bravery as an unmarried twenty-two year-old woman in a Korean Christian home who faced the unknown of having a baby and giving her away. It’s just complicated, and no one who has just met me wants to plumb the depth of this identity crisis.

You see, at this point in my life, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that blood and biology mean shit when it comes to who a person’s family is. The woman and man who raised me will always be Mom & Dad, Mumsy & Papi, or Aged Ps when we’ve been watching A&E’s adaptation of Great Expectations. My nieces and I don’t share a helix of DNA, but I swear that they get their affinity for tacky silky swag from me. No offense to the Duggers, but yes, offense to the Duggers, when I say that families are not built on a couple’s ability to reproduce ad infinitum but on the love, time, physical and emotional care, and good humor they supply to each other and any children they might have. Some families don’t even have a couple, but instead may be a group of friends or housemates who love and support each other.

One of my friends, who has two adopted sons, recently traveled to the place of one of her kids’ birth: Vietnam. Her reflections on this experience have inspired me to reflect on my (lack of) experience. I have often talked with my mom about the possibility of visiting Korea, something we never did when I was a child, due partly to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized why as an adult I have not visited Korea, since I have had many opportunities to do so. “I always figured your lack of interest meant you resented Korea and your biological mother, so I didn’t push it,” Mum said as we talked over the phone while I was up ridiculously late in Scotland and she was up ridiculously early in Arizona.

Resentment? How could I resent a place or a person who in essence created me? How could I resent something I have never known? And therein lies the real reason I have never returned to the place of my birth. Korea really is just another place in the world–a beautiful, interesting place, but still just a place–with dirt and mountains and skylines. And what if when visiting Korea I found that I didn’t love it? What if it couldn’t make me fall in love with it like Jerusalem, or enchant me like Atlanta? What if I couldn’t eat myself sick on falafel from its street vendors like in Bethlehem, or wander its streets till dawn like I could in Rome? What if Korea just isn’t my place?  How could going there ever be considered going back?

We all have a place, or a few places, where we feel at home or most alive. Maybe a particular house where we grew up, like in Miranda Lambert’s song “The House that Built Me.” This place could be an entire state or a mountain range or a coastline. It might not be where we would choose to go on vacation, but it’s a place we can always return to. I wish I could claim an exotic location as home, or that going back to Arizona for a woman who is not white weren’t obnoxious these days, but I don’t have that luxury. Instead I do have the luxury of a family waiting for me on the other side of security, whether I’m returning from another continent or visiting from my home in Oregon: a sister who texts me inappropriate jokes, a brother who doesn’t make fun of me when I stumble through Spanish conjugations, another brother takes all my trash talk and dishes it back with class, and parents who send me into minor anxiety attacks by calling late at night without leaving voicemail messages. So when TSA agents, like other strangers, assume I’m just passing through or have somewhere else to go back to, I look for my cluster of white kin and reply, “Nope. Sorry. I’m already home.”

I Almost Forgot about Memorial Day

I remember the first person I lost. She was in her thirties, I was ten. Her name was Betty and she was the mom of my best friend Jenny. Of course at ten years old you don’t tend to think of how much your friends’ parents mean to you until they’re gone. Until you’re checking out books from the library on aneurisms. Until there isn’t someone there to hug you and put Sesame Street Band-Aids on your blisters after you walk three miles, barefoot, in central Arizona, during July. Until you’re holding your best friend clinging to a casket and hoarding peach roses for her, because those were Betty’s favorite. Until encountering one of the most common names in America brings back a flood of memories every single time you pass a grocery store comic book or watch an episode of Mad Men.

A couple weeks ago the main street in the little burgh where I live was lined with American flags. Since Newberg tends to express its patriotism with fewer outward symbols, a moment of panic ran through me as I walked to the grocery store for more limes (my culinary obsession). I quickly texted my friend: What’s with all the flags? Did I miss something? Is it Memorial Day already? I was surprised to feel like a bad American for those few adrenaline-juiced seconds, and more surprised that forgetting Memorial Day would induce an adrenaline response. Rarely do I feel like a “good American,” since “good” comes with multiple definitions depending on who you ask. The moment passed and the mid-April surge of nationalism still remains a mystery.

Just yesterday I made lunch plans with a friend and suggested we meet up this coming Monday, to which she reminded me that Monday is Memorial Day and most businesses are likely to be closed. I had forgotten again.

I tend to blame my occasional forgetfulness on flakey 20-something preoccupation or on the fact that I read a lot of books (work on that logic), but I think I know the real reason I forget Memorial Day specifically.

I have no close friends or family serving in the military to personalize this day. To me, Memorial Day comes down to remembering people as exactly that: people–fathers, daughters, brothers, and aunties–which is why going to war is something for which I struggle to find clear justification. The reason I consider myself a pacifist is not that I can shoot down all the just war criteria but because I wouldn’t be able to face myself or my god if I ever were responsible for taking another person’s life or was the reason another person’s life was taken. I admit that I am somewhat isolated from issues of U.S. conflict, but to be fair American culture is isolated from its own conflicts, and I’m grateful beyond words that my siblings are not in the military and that instead they are going to school, going to work, and with their families. They could have chosen a different path just like anybody else, but they didn’t. And I’m proud of them.

I am a pacifist who offers sympathy to those who have lost those they hold dear; I feel that sympathy for the families of soldiers and the families of suicide bombers alike. Loss is universal. It knows no borders or nationalities. It doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a flag. It speaks a language easily lost in translation. Because of this, Memorial Day is a solemn day for me, since no matter how we do the math, we have to face the conclusion that everyone has lost someone they love (to death or otherwise).

You probably won’t find me playing volleyball at a barbeque and stuffing my face with strawberry Jell-O tomorrow. Instead I might be thinking about the grandpa I never met, who said, “I’m a cook” and threw down the rifle when his superior officers tried to offer him a weapon. I might finally process the loss of my grandpa who died a year ago while I was on another continent writing research papers. And I might be at lunch with my friends, creating and sharing anecdotes over sun tea and sandwiches.

For Dear Life: Confessions of a Christian College Adjunct

*This is a post I recently wrote for Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock’s blog Ain’t I a Woman, which is dedicated to deconstructing images of Christian womanhood often taken for granted in evangelical cultures.


“I don’t know how you do it—how you can stay in a faith tradition that seems to hold women to impossible standards at every turn.”

“I think [my previous church] became a place where people just judged me without bothering to even talk to me. I started wearing black for a while, and the pastor thought I wasn’t a Christian or something.”

I said the first of these two statements over five years ago to one of my professors, having just returned from spring break junior year and a visit to the church of my friend’s grandmother. Since enrolling in Kendra’s Women and the Bible course the previous semester, I had made many trips like this one up the stairs in the Hoover building to her office with some sort of conundrum or revelation. In fact, I came to the conclusion that teaching at a Christian college would be worth its struggles while sitting by her bookshelves filled with every volume Joan Chittister had ever written.

This particular visit was clearly not so optimistic. Blond highlights aren’t inherently bothersome (unless they’re brassy), but I was nearly in tears as I explained, “I sat in the pew behind hundreds of perfectly styled heads of blond-highlighted hair while the pastor talked about men needing to step up and take leadership positions because they’re men when these women looked perfectly capable to me. I felt sick when the highlights all nodded in agreement!” After passing me a tissue and a chocolate peanut butter cup, Kendra said some things I will never forget: first, “I’ve learned to hold traditions loosely,” and second, “It’s our job as feminists to make sure these women’s voices are heard, too.”

The second statement was confessed to me over coffee a couple weeks ago by one of my students, who confided, “I go to a different church now, but I still understand when my friends avoid Christians because they don’t want to be judged. It still happens all the time.” When she concluded: “I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to this sort of thing,” regarding the church’s involvement in social movements, I wanted to say, “Oh, sister, me too,” but instead I settled on, “Well, if you ever want someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”

As I finish up my first year of teaching, I’m still learning to navigate the space that includes sharing honestly with students about the problems in Christian communities while respecting the university that has nurtured, hurt, rebuilt, and employed me. It sure would be easier not to care—to be in and out of the office and repeat the university student handbook verbatim whenever someone comes to me in confidence. I could always feel apathetic when students write very vulnerable personal information in their reflection essays. But the college experience is about more than going to class, doing homework, and going back to class to turn in said homework.

College is about figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and what you value most. It kicks off that lifelong process of allowing yourself to grow and change for the better. And students at Christian universities need people they can trust to surround them, who will be real human beings and admit that members of this community don’t always fit the mold. How do I know this? For starters, I needed people like that when I was a student.

I’m going to let you in on a little-known fact. After my sophomore year at a Christian college I seriously contemplated taking time off—from school, from dogma, and whatever else I had felt obligated to do or be because of my gender and religious background. I had been a very dedicated and hard working student. I went through countless free coffee punch cards at the local coffee shop, tucking myself in a corner with caffeine and textbooks until the baristas started mopping at 11:00 pm. I had been a good Christian girl, too. I didn’t drink, or smoke, or have sex, or even make out on the benches down by Hess Creek. If Christian college were a poker game—which, ahem, it most certainly is not—you could say I was playing all the right cards, and I was gonna win, darn it. The problem is, the game kind of sucked.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad not to have a history of heavy drinking, hook ups, and drugs. My stomach lining is grateful for that, too. But during my sophomore year I had to tear away powerful and destructive messages that I had come to accept, some while growing up in evangelical Christianity and a lot while trying to fit in as a college newbie.

Guest chapel speakers, dorm hall conversations, student forums, and class discussions taught me key things that were supposedly true about myself, and any other woman in Christiandom: God designed extra special roles for women, bless our hearts. We can do whatever we want vocationally (except being a pastor in many congregations), as long as we remember that at our core, women are nurturing (I have been known to force-feed my students brownies), sweet (oops), spiritually and relationally intuitive (please tell me this develops with time), and submissive (double oops).

I learned Jesus loves me, yeah, but my value among peers and supposed role models depends on: the status of my hymen, how many times I swear or curse, whether I’m straight, and how well I can submit my will and ambition to the will of my future husband.

And to top things off, God is inherently masculine; we know this because he uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself in the bible, and masculine metaphors of the self, such as powerful, omniscient, and reasonable. End of story. But the story doesn’t end there, since to suppose a link between divinity and masculinity implies that women are less like God and for that reason less valuable. And for women who are taught to find their value in their relationship with God that feels really shitty. Really, really shitty.

As my sophomore year came to a close and junior year began, I started serendipitously connecting with professors who understood my experiences and sentiments. They didn’t wear sandwich boards reading, “Hey, I’m not sexist, racist, homophobic, or convinced I’m never wrong!” Instead they made it clear through the materials they assigned, the discussions they led, and the way they treated everyone—man, woman, A-student, D-student—with respect and kindness that they were safe people to be honest with. Without these faculty members, who I now call colleagues and friends, I would not be able to live with Christianity, even on the fringe.

I needed to have the opportunity to criticize Augustine’s take on women’s allegedly seductive nature in Kathy’s literature class. I needed Mark to come to my aid in our free will seminar when I had to admit honestly to a room of seven men that I didn’t know what a non-patriarchal epistemology would look like, and to call Cody a “Philistine” in Aesthetics after he slammed feminist art as seeking “a civil war.” I needed Melanie to see the humor in my cynical Valentine’s Day diatribe after my creative nonfiction classmates responded as if they were six-year-olds learning the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I needed Steve to hear and send my concerns to the person who released a poster on campus suggesting women were not candidates for youth ministry. I needed all of these people and many others on my journey through college to be proof-positive that some Christians really do exemplify kindness and peace, and that perhaps I could be like that.

It’s easy to stay angry over the ways an evangelical context has and continues to hurt us. I still get discouraged or flat out pissed off when I hear hate baptized with so-called biblical exegesis. These just so happen to be the times when I send snarky e-mails to my colleagues. I have not reconciled all my beliefs with biblical Christianity, nor do I plan to. And beware if anyone tries to tell my students that God’s love and acceptance is contingent on their race, gender, paycheck, immigration status, or sexual orientation. A person who believes that fodder doesn’t know the capacity these students have to love and be loved. That person has obviously not heard the stories my students can tell about the people they’ve lost, the hurt they’ve overcome, the crapshoot jobs they’ve worked, or the borders they’ve crossed.

Fortunately, Christian colleges are not filled to the brim with harsh, judgmental people—far from it. If that were the case I wouldn’t be here. There are people who want to hear those stories; you just have to look around and pay attention. And at the end of the day, if you find that traditions and histories are rapidly slipping through your fingers, find those people. You can hold on tightly to them, and they’ll help you pick up the pieces you can’t do without.

You know you’re over-educated and poor when . . .

1. You alternate between paying off your credit card bill and paying off your student loans each month.

2. You take a sudden liking to bastardized Mexican food, because you can make bean and veggie quesadillas for mere pennies (and Tapatio makes everything better anyway).

3. You know all about the health benefits of eating organic eggs and dairy vs. their conventional counterparts. Therefore, you are vegan for the last week of every month.

4. You and/or your housemates use department store credit cards at the gas station.

5. Tuesday becomes your date night, because Regal Cinemas offers $5 Tuesdays.

6. The local thrift and consignment shop owners know both your dress size and your teaching schedule.

7. You don’t own any music purchased in the past six months, just several overly developed Pandora stations.

8. You also own a grand total of six DVDs (all purchased in the hay days of your youth), but have several crowded shelves of books (especially those over-educated in literature).

9. You go clothes shopping (at the thrift store) as soon as you find out you will be teaching adult degree completion courses, not to look older–that’s a losing battle–but to look like you can play ball with the 401K crowd.

10. You go to bars not because you like to party but because if you look cute some lonely guy will pay for your nachos while he tells you about the great grades he got in community college before dropping out (to pursue a career that makes more money than yours will ever make).

To be continued. . . Because I know I’m not alone.


* This is a piece of nonfiction. People’s names have not been changed to protect the innocent. In fact, let’s just call this my “love letter” to Nash, Jeff, and Christina.

I am now of a certain age: for some in my bracket “certain” means “marrying” and for others, such as myself, “certain” means “bridesmaid” to friends who are marrying. I am in full-bridesmaid mode having recently returned from Tammi’s wedding, and with two more weddings on the calendar in June and January.

Each request to be a bridesmaid comes with the acquisition of a new dress. Just ask Katherine Heigl. With one royal blue be-flowered number and a silk little black dress already in my closet, I am just one little blue dress away from meeting my wardrobe quota for the numerous upcoming nuptials. (And, with dances planned for each wedding, the patent leather pumps are about to earn their salt.)

But dresses (that I can, like, totally wear again) are not the only gains to accompany the honor of standing with my friends as they make one of the most important commitments of their lives.

It’s tough to marry close friends off, because as much as we hate to admit it, relational dynamics change. For one thing, there’s a whole other human being to consider when making plans. Partnered friends aren’t likely to be up for a last-minute, late-night taco run and Gilmore Girls marathon, nor should they be. This realization is easier to rationalize than to practice. It’s even harder to marry friends off to people we don’t know. Think about it: a person you love deeply commits his or her life to the partnership and protection of another human being whom you have never met?!? What if the intended is a serial killer, a pathological liar, a control freak, a two-time-and-double-dealing-friend-mistreatin’-loving-heart? In academia we have a very technical term for marriage because of these potential downsides: that shit cray.

Talking about crazy (cray), a few weeks ago I boarded a plane from PDX to PHX with Alicia, the sister of the bride, and from PHX caught the Thursday night red-eye to Atlanta, Georgia, where my dear college friend wed a man I had, until that Friday morning at some god-forsaken hour, never met. He turned out to be a fabulous shuffle board partner and his family was welcoming and hospitable. As I rode with just the couple to the rehearsal dinner and we talked about our observations from the weekend, it struck me that they are now a unit–not just Tammi & Nash, but TammiNash (please notice that there are two capital letters there, since you know I’m not saying anyone’s identity should be absorbed by anyone else’s). Like, they anticipated each other’s familial behaviors and planned accordingly. As if they were friends or something.

I was reminded of all the long talks I’d had with Tammi and Alicia over coffee, in student apartments, at the corner bookstore, and across continents via Skype. I remember the mysterious and potentially political connections they have in their family tree. And no one will forget how my mom sent me back to Oregon with dollar store condoms and a pregnancy test for Alicia when she was first noticing the unsavory effects of gluten on her system. Admittedly, we might know too much about each other. And all right, all right, all right, Nash doesn’t know anything about my mom’s attempts at humor, but he is part of this knowledge pool now. This great guild of uncontrollable laughter and mended hearts.

We aren’t an exclusive group, and this isn’t my only cohort of till-death confidences, but if anything in this world is sacred it’s friendship. Whether that’s between life-long partners or life-long co-conspirators. So, please, soon-to-be-married friends, remember us–the ones who told you the first dress made you look like an ice cream cone–because we’ll stick by you and yours in sickness and in health. We’ll make you dinner when your sweetheart has to work late and you’re all alone, even when we’re at the poorer end of richer or poorer. And we’ll be the first to make the newb tell a deeply embarrassing story during game night. (You’ve been warned.)

And soon-to-be-spouses of friends, please remember how much we love the person you are marrying. You think you love them more than anyone else ever could, but let’s be honest, it’s not a contest (and you’d probably lose anyway . . . just sayin’). And keep in mind that we’d like to learn to love you, too, as an individual and as part of your own TammiNash.