Church, Culture, Justice, Parenting, Race, Spirituality, Theology

Review: At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung

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This is a truly unique book. And the best book I’ve read this year. Part memoir / sociology / theology / Asian corny hilariousness. It’s funny, it’s educational, it’s deeply moving.

Russell moves into and ultimately finds home in the Murder Dubs of Oakland. But it’s not a triumphant American superhero story. Nor is it a sappy romance about ‘the poor.’ It’s a complex, humble story about how he found community, identity, and ultimately Jesus in his mostly Cambodia refugee & Latino neighborhood.

It’s a story that asks: What if Jesus wasn’t as much an American superhero, but more like a Chinese Hakka exile (his ancestors)? What if Jesus was more like my Chinatown grandma than that powerful hipster pastor I’m always jealous of? He re-explores things like MISSION, JUSTICE, COMMUNITY, FAMILY & CALLING through this lens.

I finished this book richly proud of my Chinese ancestry, broken over the plight of disenfranchised non-model-minority Asians in the Bay Area, hopeful about what God is still doing through amazing yet mostly “invisible” people, but challenged to live my faith in a way that may run counter to the power and reward structures of our world.

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Culture, Parenting

Why the Stanford Rape Case is on People Like Me

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By now, most of you have heard about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer & Olympic hopeful, who received a shockingly lenient sentence for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Her brave and insightful statement about the sentence is what first caught my attention. There is now a petition to recall the judge, who was also a Stanford athlete.

I’m not wise enough to know if recalling the judge is the right thing to do. Mob justice feels right, but it also make me wary. That decision is up to you (read debate by law profs).

But what I do know is that the situation, the case, and the future falls on people like me. And by me, I mean a man. By me, I mean as a father of three boys. And if you’re white, it triply applies to you. And the responsibility ahead is a lot harder than signing an online petition.

First of all, if I had a daughter, I’d spend as much time making sure my daughter stays away from college drinking as you’d want them training for jiu jitsu. Not because if you drink and you get raped it’s your fault; it’s NOT. But for the same reason I’d say stay away from any behavior that dramatically increases your chance of getting assaulted: 80% of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Staying away from college drinking as a woman is just good self-defense. (Update: I learned the woman was 23 and not a student, so would’ve don’t nothing for her. And again: rape is always 100% the fault of the rapist.)

But I don’t have a daughter. I have three boys. And I believe it is incumbent on people like me to raise boys that not only stand up against rape culture, but perpetuate a better, safer, and more dignifying culture; a culture that I believe Jesus exemplified among men and women. And he put the onus of perpetuating that new culture on those with power, those with leering eyes and erections.

Which is why I’m writing about this. Because it’s not just women who should be speaking up, but equally, men. And thank you, sisters, for speaking loud enough so our deaf ears can hear.

Which is why I feel doubly committed to raising boys:

…who know they are unconditionally loved by God and us — so they don’t feel the need to fill some void with power, sex, or accomplishment.

…who develop a strong, healthy, and holy masculinity — so they are aware of their power and use it for good and not their own pleasures.

…who live in a rich network of relationships with God, family, church, and friends — so they have help during their seasons of rejection and insecurity.

…who are self-aware enough and rooted deeply enough in the Jesus story — so they are able to at least have a chance against a media culture that now objectifies women 24/7 on every screen through Michael Bay movies, Snapchat, beer commercials, and pornography. Because as a person who came of age at the beginnings of hi-speed internet and smartphones — guys, it’s not a fair fight.

…who respect all people, especially women, in public and in private, as just a baseline level of morality.

…who hate cheap alcohol until they hit their 30s and discover tasty craft beer that is too expensive to get drunk on like their Dad did.

…whose anger is well calibrated with the anger of Jesus.

…who do the right thing like the two nameless Swedes did when they saw Brock on top of the unconscious woman.

…who, along with other women, preside over campus clubs, social groups, ministries, workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, and cities that exist for the safe flourishing of all, not just themselves.

And which is why I try to remain honest, humble, and broken about when I fail to exemplify these things myself as a man, husband, father, pastor, and public citizen — because I do fail — but humble enough so I can change and become at least what I pray for my boys to become. And like all parents, I pray that they will become more. For ourselves, for my wife/their mother, for your daughters, and for the glory of God.

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Parenting, Race

Reflection: Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Dear Sons,

I recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. I expected to come into a deeper encounter with the experience of being black in America—and I did. But what I did not expect was to come into a deeper awareness of my love and responsibility for you.

See, Coates is a journalist and a brilliant writer. He recently won a Macarthur Genius Award. But this book, although a memoir, is written to not only to convey his story, but also his love for his one and only son. By birth, Coates was thrust into the chaotic streets of Baltimore, where even his loving, unreligious, but strict home were living legacies, the ongoing fall out of the subjugation of “black bodies.” He went to Howard University, a historically black college, and found a safe place to explore the full spectrum of blackness. Yet even there, was reminded ‘safe’ is a relative word when one of his friends—a young man who turned down Harvard for Howard, whose mother was Chief of Surgery, a man who was bound for success—was shot by a police officer. Coates met his wife at Howard too—another black person, similar but different from him. They travelled to Paris and experienced not only a sense of foreignness by geography, but also because of they were no longer viewed as especially dangerous or suspicious, i.e., black; he felt like a fish out of its water; and even if that water was poisonous, it was familiar. But then he had his son. Not born into the same chaos Coates knew when he was young. Yet he saw how his boy, born into a new era, could so easily be pushed aside. He saw how his son ran into his room to weep when he saw Michael Brown lying in the middle of the street on the TV. And Coates realized that as far as he’d tried to struggle and live well into being a black man in America, that he would not ultimately succeed if he did not pass the baton to this son whom he loved.

I have not been the worst father, but I have not been the best either. It’s not fair to you guys that the person who is responsible for fathering you is still working out his own identity, his own insecurities, his own imperfections, his own demons. It’s not fair to you guys that Daddy isn’t perfectly selfless, that Daddy is still learning to be Daddy. I didn’t grow up on the chaotic streets of Baltimore, but I did grow up in confusion. I grew up in a loving Toisanese family, but felt embarrassed by them at school. I grew up in a world, that still makes me feel unwelcome. I look back with shame at how, in struggling to be an American teenager, I disrespected my hard-working immigrant parents and made them feel hurt and rejected. But, also unlike Coates, I found God, or better put, Jesus found me. And things have been changing. And the world continues to change too. But not that much. Even as an adult, even as someone who’s been following Jesus for over 20 years now, I am still someone who is just beginning to grasp the edges of self-knowledge, and far from self-mastery, and even further from Christ-likeness. Yet this is the Daddy you have.

There’s a part of me that wants to apologize. And I do. But what all of me wants to do is love you. And by love you, I do mean hug and play with you. I do mean teaching you ride a bike and run a route. But I also mean teaching you what I’ve learned about life, about being a Chinese-American Christian man. And ultimately to be better than Daddy. Because by default, you will be no better than me.

One day, you will read the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and you will at first think they are wise pithy sayings. But eventually you will learn that these are hard wrought lessons of a king to his sons, the future kings of Israel. And that’s what you are. You are my princes, you are the future kings of this world—even if the world will not have you. And I promise to not only father your strength, but also your mind, heart, and soul.

Coates with his son Samori.

Coates with his son Samori.

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Parenting

My son’s first schoolyard fight

UPDATE: Evan just told me that Jared walked up to him today on the playground. They shook hands. Jared said sorry. Evan said sorry. They went back to playing four square. Why can’t all our friendships be this simple?

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My 7 year old son, Evan, got into his first school fight yesterday. Like most school yard fights, it was mostly inconsequential. But it was a rite of passage for me as a father. (Why wasn’t this a rite of passage for him? Well, my son spars all the time — he is a scrappy but budding martial artist at our gym, Dragon’s Den.)

My first reaction, when my wife called, was disappointment and anger. We teach our kids not to fight (note: they’re always fighting each other). We teach self-control and good character. We teach peace. We teach them to be like Jesus. But rather than react, since he was emotional too, I asked him to write me a letter. “We’ll talk when Daddy gets home.” This is what he wrote me:

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If Evan is to be believed — and in this case, I do — the boy, Jared, was just your classic bully: a 3rd grader trying to intimidate a little 2nd grader.
(1) The altercation began the day before, on the wiley grounds of the four-square court; Evan tried to tell an adult but Jared, stopped him.
(2) Next day after school, he approaches Evan, “We are not dun fighting,” and jump kicks him. Evan side steps.
(3) My son tries to tell an adult again, the boy stops him, “Your so scared of fighting because you do not wont to get hert baby.”
(4) My son replies, “I do not wont to get in trouble of fighting.”
(5) Jared responds by kicking and attacking Evan.
(6) Evan gets into his fighting stance and engages (according to my wife).

The topic of fighting is hard. Especially if you lean towards non-violence as I do. On one hand, I want my children to grow up to be people of radical peace, not war, aggression, or revenge. On the other hand, no one wants to see their child get hurt. And then of course, there’s the carnal part I share with most dads:  If there’s a fight, I want my kid to beat up your kid (admit it, you do). So I knew that the my conversation with him was going to be pretty important. This is what we like to call a “teaching moment.” Through prayer and thought, I stumbled my way through the conversation, but here’s the gist of what I shared with Evan:

  • There will always be people like Jared. They have something to prove, you have nothing to prove. Mommy & Daddy already love you. God loves you. And you know who you are.
  • I am proud that you used your Kajukenbo (his martial art) for good. You side-stepped, you tried to leave the situation, you tried to reach an adult. You showed wisdom and self-control. That is a sign of good character, not that you are scared (he was more scared of getting in trouble for fighting, than fighting itself). Who you are on the inside is more important than what you can prove on the outside.
  • Mommy & Daddy still never want you to fight. But when someone traps you or forces you to fight, we are not there; you are. We trust you to make a good decision.

The conversation was hard. My son is still young enough to be cute, he has these huge Precious Moments eyes and when he shared about being forced to fight, he began tearing up. At that moment, I wanted to hold him. I wanted him to tell me about how he beat that kid up (I never asked, because who won the fight is not actually important).

At the same time, I wanted to train my son to deal with bullies. People make a lot about bullying today; I was bullied as a kid. But as parents and teachers, we need to realize that we’re not there to stop or protect anyone. And rather than only comforting him, I wanted him to learn from this altercation. And I wanted him to learn how to live real life. I wanted him to be respond like Jesus.

And lastly, I struggled but managed to have compassion on Jared. Because, to be perfectly honest, I know my son could totally take him on. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Evan gets beat to a pulp. What a close second? That Jared does. And despite my protective feelings, I don’t really want anyone to get hurt. I resist the zero-sum logic of If someone’s gonna get hurt, better your kid than mine. Violence is never that cut and dry. And I don’t want my son to grow up with that kind of blood (but mostly snot) on his hands. I pray and desire for peace, not just in the abstract, but even on the blacktop.

If your kids have ever gotten into a fight, I would love to hear how you dealt with it. Or if you ever had the chance to go back in time to talk to your younger fighting self, what would you tell him/her?

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Culture, Parenting, Race

“Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” (Ch. 3 Reflections: The Early Years)

This post is long overdue – life got busy.

I love the question which opens this chapter, a question Tatum’s daughter once asked her:  “Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?”  Hearing kids talk about race is fun and sometimes even subversive.  My kids have never referred to their friends as White, Black, Yellow, or Red – because, it turns out, none of us are actually those colors (except Brown).  Race, I’m reminded, is a social construct.  Another example:  I just polled my three boys; oldest says he’s Chinese, middle says he’s English, and youngest says he’s Spanish (I asked him why, Because I look Spanish.)  But these humorous conversations with kids about race remind me that while kids certainly have some wrong-headed ideas about race, so do we as adults.

Talking to our kids about race isn’t easy.  Some parents fear that by introducing the conversation so early, they are raising questions and concerns that before didn’t exist.  Even for patently racist parents, they know that they must speak about race in hushed tones, or at least behind closed doors.  And yet passing on values about racial & ethnic identity and relationships to our children is vital, even if it happens non-verbally.  I am convinced that there are a few places where we can see where our real values are.  One is how we use money.  The second is how we raise our kids.  As a Christian, it’s almost cliche to talk about people who are Christians – until it comes to their money and their children.  But this an untenable position before a Jesus who told his disciples:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).

There are some stark differences though between Tatum’s world and my world.  First, I am not Black; while I am a racial minority, there is something categorically unique to the stigma associated with being Black in America and something unique to the relationship between Blacks and Whites.  Second, it seems like I live in a much more diverse neighborhood than Tatum does; where I live, Whites are as populous as Latinos, Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians; White normalcy seems to be more prevalent in her neighborhood, or at least at her children’s schools.  Third, my kids already come home with messages about racial inclusion and equality–unsurprising given the racial diversity among their teachers.  And for these reasons, I don’t naturally feel as nervous about my kids growing up as Chinese-Americans as Tatum does with her kids.  This doesn’t mean that there is no racism in our neighborhood–there is, but not of the character Tatum writes about.  At this stage, they don’t perceive that they are worse off or that they are weird because of their looks or their Chineseness.  They don’t think they are yellow because they drank “too much” (insert yellow colored drink).  In fact, they would be happy to bring their Chinese soy milk or yogurt drinks to school with a level of confidence that would have put my 3rd grade self to shame.  As far as they are concerned they are as different and as similar as their friends who are Armenian, Filipino, Caucasian, etc.  At least for now (or more accurately, as far as I know.)

Tatum advocates that FIRST, we should be happy to accept children for where they are at developmentally (often making broad generalizations, e.g., about one’s consumption of chocolate milk).  SECOND, we as adults need to watch how we unconsciously transmit messages about race to and around our kids (do we mention someone’s race unnecessarily?  especially in a pejorative way, or to express surprise?).  And THIRD, we should help them develop a critical consciousness (e.g., using racial stereotypes in media as simple entry points to teach them).

At this point, as a parent, I find myself emphasizing three things with my children which overlap, but slightly differ from Tatum:

  1. ACCEPTANCE:  Like Tatum, I accept where my kids are with respect to their understanding of race and ethnicity.  After that one conversation, I have never asked my kids what race their friends are.  When they describe what’s unique about their friends, only once or twice have they ever referred to skin color; all other times they’ve referred to their hair color or curliness, their height or size, their raspy voice, and (when pressed) if it is a girl.  I want to learn about their world as they see it.  And even when my youngest insisted that he was Spanish because he looks Spanish (what does that even mean?), at this point, I see no reason to correct him.  Because at this point, self-discovery is just too fun and fluid.  The stuff my youngest says is wrong almost half the time.  And rather than spending all my time correcting him and stifling the joy of discovery, I delight in seeing how he discovers things about himself.  But with my older son, I do find myself correcting him because he’s old enough – but I always do it in a way that steers his understanding of the truth rather than making him feel embarrassed for being so “ignorant.”  We laugh a lot when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender, or outer space aliens — and I hope, learn a lot too.
  2. IDENTITY:  Clearly, two of my boys have identity issues (but who doesn’t?).  But that’s the freedom they have at this age.  But what does it mean to be Chinese-American?  I resonate with this question, because I am Chinese, and yet I’m not.  I look Chinese, yet I don’t speak Chinese.  I have Chinese family values, and yet I am also a Western individualist.  I cook and eat Chinese food, but pretty much every other cuisine as well.  My kids are the same.  Unlike my grandparents, I don’t feel the need to preserve their Chinese-ness, and yet I want them to have a sense of what it means to be Chinese-American, especially in the diverse environment that they are growing up in.  Recently, I’ve been reading through with my boys Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a marvelous graphic novel that approaches the Boxer rebellion from the Traditional Chinese perspective and the Catholic Chinese perspective.  There’s also lots of gods, and magic, and knives, so my boys love it.  I also read Yang’s American Born Chinese with my oldest – and to my surprise, he understood it’s meaning, despite not growing up wanting to be like the cool White kids.  What I love about these stories is that they are both Chinese and Western.  Yang offers a narrative that not only bridges those two worlds and their histories, but also brings the tensions to surface.  I am resistant to the idea of imposing what it means to be Chinese-American on my boys, and story provides the freedom for them to discover that for themselves with some narrative anchors.
  3. JUSTICE:  Particularly out of my Christian convictions, I want my children to grow up being sensitive to anyone or any group that is being ignored, bullied, or singled out in a pejorative fashion–regardless of the social marker.  I regularly ask them if there are people who no one wants to play with, that everyone laughs at because I want them to be the first to be their friend, to include them.  Race has generally not been something I have specified as a reason to rile them to action, again, because they have not brought it up as a reason.  More often, it will be because someone is smelly, or weird, or dumb, or mean (do these labels track with race, gender, or socioeconomic status?  maybe/maybe not).  A good friend of ours has a son who is autistic, so that is also on my radar.  As they become more race-aware, you bet it will be a more intentional conversation.

If you’re parent, it’d be great to hear what’s on your mind when it comes to conveying messages and values about race to your children.

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Parenting

Children: To have or not to have. Is that the question?

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TIME Magazine recently featured an article about couples who choose to go on without kids.  It’s caused quite a stir.

I’m sure I could weigh in – I am, after all, a father of 3.  But I think the article serves more interestingly as a sociological piece. Our world would seem so strange to the ancients – or even to those in developing countries.  Whereas they viewed children as a gift you hoped for, susceptible to early death, and also a means to economic security…we view children as a human choices made in our plan, objects of our medical-technological control, and a trade-off with our economic mobility.  This is generally true regardless of how many children we do or do not have.

In any case, I think you can have some pretty horrible reasons for not having kids – just as you can for having them. And of course, there are some pretty glorious reasons to go one way or the other as well. And still, there are those of us who have kids by ‘accident’; others who cannot no matter what we try (both instances betraying the modern notion that children are mere products of our will).

Seems to me that our station in life is important, but it’s not always clear which is inferior or superior. What seems most important though is, having found our station, how we choose to live within it. If we’re ever going to be judged, I suspect it will and should be for that.

This is especially true for those of us who are Christians.  The Apostle Paul teaches us that marriage is relativized in light of eternity (spoiler:  there will be no marriage in heaven).  Jesus subverts the sanctity of marriage, children, and family when he asserted that his family was not necessarily biological, but spiritual–i.e., those who do the will of my Father.  Our “life stage” (that whole concept is demolished not only in modern thinking, but in view of the resurrection when we should no longer assume that every single person should get married, or that every married couple should have children, etc.), or station in life, as the ancients called it, is a present reality and of real importance.  And yet it is not of ultimate importance.  That’s why Paul could have the guts to say something as blasphemous as, “Those who are married should live as they were not.”  If we were to follow that logic, we should also say, “Those who have children should live as they did not.”  Being married isn’t better than being single, nor is having children better than not (although – most people still would prefer to be married and have children; it’s natural).  What matters most is how, as a married person, or a parent, we give ourselves wholly to the Lord.

But if we take Jesus seriously, we could even say, “Those who are single or childless should live as if they were not.”  Because our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters, our children aren’t biological but spiritual–those who do the will of our Father.  Even if I am single – by choice or not – I am called to belong to and sacrificially love God’s family.  Even if I am childless – by choice or not – I am called to care for “the least of these” and to make disciples, that is bearing spiritual children.  Being single or childless means a large measure of liberty (although with loneliness mixed in), but the question Jesus and Paul would ask us is:  What are we doing with that liberty?  Are we living for YOLO?  Or are we living for YHWH?  (please don’t roll your eyes).

And this is where we, as Christians, must diverge from the contemporary ideas about marriage, children, and family.  Our goal isn’t supposed to be personal fulfillment or self-actualization.  Having children merely to make us happier is as evil as not having children for the same reason; because while either path can make us happy, regardless of the path, we are called to service, not to self-gratification.  And children are not a means (or an obstacle – although Jesus says we adults can be one for them), they are human beings made in the Image of God, people whom we must continue to love and nurture even when their ability to make us happy diminishes.  And so as followers of Jesus, while I think we can weigh in on topics like these, the most important question isn’t IF we should do this or that, but HOW.  The goal isn’t personal fulfillment, but living wholly unto the Lord, offering our lives as living sacrifices to God – regardless of what kind of station we find our lives in.

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Parenting

3 Kids More Expensive Than I Thought?

In my last couple of posts, I wrote about having three kids.  And this just came out…

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) just released regionally-based adjustments on the Federal poverty line.  I don’t know much about the EPI; I’ll leave it up to you whether you agree with their definition of basic standard of living: “the income a family needs in order to attain a secure yet modest living standard by estimating community-specific costs of housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities, and taxes.”

What really caught my attention was how much BIG the cost jump was to three kids versus the jump to having two kids.  For example, the cost of raising a family in the SF East Bay:

3 kids:  $92k
2 kids:  $75k
1 kid:  $69k

The difference between having two kids versus one:  $6,000.
Jump from two to three kids:  $17,000.  The EPI estimates it costs three times more.  

Now I generally ignore these sorts of things because people are always getting freaked out about whether or not they can afford to have kids.  Some people have a legitimate concern their.  But most people who read and write these sorts of articles can probably afford to have kids — they’ll just have to (*gasp*) make some sacrifices.

But what caught my attention was the massive jump from two kids to three.  That seemed rather incredible to me.  But then I reflect on our experience…

  • upgraded to minivan; literally could not fit 3 carseats in the back of our sedan
  • prolonged the number of years we needed childcare (my wife thereafter reduced to part-time, which in a sense is a “cost”)
  • we were blessed enough to already have a place large enough – but if we were in a 2-bedroom place, we could obviously make do with 3 kids, but an upgrade would certainly make sense (actually, with the massive dip in interest rates over the last few years, our housing costs have actually decreased).

Even with the above, I’m kind of scratching my head on this one…

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