Wednesday, November 20, 2019


Ever since I started reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), I can't stop imagining myself as an actor in different scenes wherever I go. A sociologist, Goffman described our social interactions as theatrical performances, where our daily actions are presented, as if on stage, with scenery and props to be displayed and interpreted by our audiences.

Conceptualizing my interactions as performances has helped me understand my life in ways I never have before. I now realize that when I am with my own family and my parents, I am simultaneously in two different scenes, one with my husband and children as a mom/wife and another as a Korean daughter with my parents. Even though we are together, I am engaged in two or more separate dramas, each with a storyline of its own, one with my parents in Korean and another in English with my kids and my husband Jeff.

For example, picture our lunch together yesterday at a local pizza joint. The six of us are sitting around a table during a school fundraising event.

In the scene, I am sitting across from my parents, with Jeff to my right and the kids to his right. I am speaking to my parents in Korean (a language neither Jeff nor my kids speak), asking them what they would like to order. My parents quickly peruse the menu and mumble that they don't know what to order, that I should order for them, and that they will just eat whatever. I push back, as I put the menu back in their hands. Can you just look at the menu? Here's the section on salads, here are the main dishes. What would you like to eat?

We have played out this scene many times. We are in a public setting, and they recede, as if they have no preferences, as if they are not there.

I feel my irritation surfacing. There is a historical context to this irritation. Their passivity unleashes the resentment of the perennial parentified child. I do not want to be your mouthpiece, not again. It also threatens to cast our lives in America as a failure, a poor decision that landed us in a foreign country where we do not function publicly.

In this setting, I am acutely aware of the pressure to perform. Here we are, in a restaurant, in a public scene. I am conscious that we don't quite fit in. My parents and I are the only Asians in the place. My parents do not interact with the waitress in English. They do not send or pick up the same social cues, such as making eye contact or returning the greeting.

I am sure I am more self-conscious in these settings as a result of having grown up as an outsider in this country. To me, the scene presupposes a certain performance out of us: to be ready to order when the waitress returns, to smile back at her, and to identify our dishes. To play the part of a happy family enjoying lunch together.

While I am in this scene with my parents, I am repeatedly interrupted by my children who demand that I take in their activities; their drawings, their recounting of the day, their mile-a-minute thoughts. In those interruptions, I am pulled into their scene as a mother.

Throughout the meal, I am in separate snippets of conversation with my parents while I toggle back and forth with my own family. My parents rarely communicate directly with my children or Jeff. The language skills aren't there, and even when they try, my father's limited hearing shortcuts the dialogue. They often comment on the children to me, or they will try to speak through me. For example, my mom will often say, "Tell Jeff to eat more. Here, give him this."

On these occasions, I am diving in and out of different scenes, playing multiple roles, and tending to various needs. In this picture, I am never sure of the role I am supposed to play. Which scene am I in at any given moment? Who am I in this picture? Who do I tend to first? Once, during my daughter's birthday party, I assumed my parents would join the party. Instead, they huddled by themselves inside while our guests and their kids played joyfully in our yard. It felt like a failure on my part, a failure to tend to my parents. I failed to give them their own scene, a safe haven in our own home. I second guess myself through two different value systems, and I may find reprieve in one, but not always both.

I am often left feeling like I neglected someone, whether it's my parents, Jeff, or the kids. I am painfully aware that when I am speaking Korean with my parents, Jeff is cut off from the conversation. He is cut off from adult company by virtue of our language, even though he is sitting with us at the same table. Less than a foot away from me, he has no access to the events happening in front of him. Similarly, when I am talking to Jeff or the kids, my parents are excluded. I don't know how to be a wife, mother, and daughter, all in the same scene.

In these situations, I am alone in my emotional experience. My conversations with my parents are often laden - with history, habit, cultural differences, and misunderstandings. Their words, perhaps intended to be helpful, sometimes land as criticism. And often, interacting with them in a social setting reminds me of all that we're not as a family, all that I would like us to be.

I often come out of these gatherings slightly peevish and mentally fatigued.

Later, when I describe to Jeff all that happened at the table, he listens and nods along. He says I am a "gasket," there to keep two parts together. A gasket is usually needed to join two parts that do not fit perfectly together. It fills the space between the two parts and protects the whole from leaking when it is pressurized. To function well, a gasket should be made of yielding material in order to fill and conform to the space, particularly where there are irregularities. 

I think about being this gasket. As a gasket, I am never in a space of cohesion; instead, it is up to me to provide the cohesion. But that cohesion never feels within reach. My arms are not dexterous enough, malleable enough, or expansive enough to wrap around all of us and tie us up in a beautiful bow. It feels like playing two different songs on the piano, one with each hand. Each song has its own rhythm, logic, and beauty, but they have no relation to each other except through the person sitting at the bench. The result is dissonance - with occasional, accidental harmony.

I think about sources of frustration -- and inaction. When we cannot act, we are sometimes caught in a crevice between different scenes, wedged between conflicting value systems. One of my professors recently commented that we cannot possibly hold all of our values at once. There are too many that we have collected over our lifetime, through too many different contexts, and they don't always align. She said that we may have to let some go in order to attend to what is in front of us at the time. I'm not sure how to work that into my life yet. I find myself juggling, trying to keep them all afloat. It never occurred to me that we can put some down. Perhaps because attached to these values are lives getting shorter by the minute.

I live a life of dissonance. This dissonance often gives me a headache and diverts me from where I would like to be. I cannot always be as attentive as I would like, and I may play a lesser part than I had imagined for myself. It can be lonely in this space, and there is always a yearning for something more, something better. At the same time, I like to think my striving counts for something. I'm trying to make something coherent out of disparate parts, not through anyone's choosing, but because that is what life is at this time. Abandoning this effort has never been an option. And I relish the occasional harmony, as fleeting and sporadic as it may be.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Finding my identity in Jeronimo

Recently, after watching a documentary called Jeronimo about Koreans in Cuba, I've been thinking about the struggle of people like us, those who have been separated from their people. In this film, the descendants of Koreans who landed in Cuba in the early 1900's struggle with their identity. Are they Korean? Cuban? Both?

Their struggle for identity is compounded by the fact that the original settlers have no country to return to when Korea becomes colonized by Japan. Later, after World War II, the Korea that existed 35 years ago is no more as one country splits into two. In the swirl of these geo-political movements, Jeronimo Lim Kim emerges as a revolutionary who, alongside Fidel Castro, fights to reorganize (and later maintain) Cuba's political and economic system.

The paradigm that we Korean-Americans are often presented with - the binary framing of identity as whether we are Korean or American (or both) - never felt accurate to me - and overly simplistic. The richness of identities that people assume in their ordinary lives is denied us. Instead of the array of descriptions that I can present for my identity (an impatient yet striving mother; a dutiful daughter who cuts fruit skillfully; resilient middle child; a Queens escapee who once had a Texas drawl; challenging wife; ex-lawyer ejected from the big law firm world; beginner therapist; middle-aged introvert who never backs down from a fight or an opportunity to call out an indignation; recovering fingernail biter; aspiring writer; cancer dodger; and trove of other such descriptions that I can claim), I am reduced to geographical designations, as if those designations reveal the essence of who I am. In our smorgasbord of identities that we call America, we are reduced to an identity of what the other is not: a foreigner, an Asian, an immigrant, a Korean.

One of the questions the film asks is, how do you anchor your identity when geographies shift around you? What does it mean to be "Korean" when the Korea you knew no longer exists?

The process of seeing what is more or less my story (i.e., cultural transition) play out in front of me in the form of people who are similar (i.e., Korean) and yet dissimilar (i.e., Cuban) in a different context (i.e., in Cuba) helped me see what I could not see before. I was that frog unable to make sense of the temperature of the water in which I was sitting.

As I watched the Korean descendants in Cuba struggle to make sense of their identities and histories, I wondered if I have been asking the wrong questions all along. Since our family moved to the US in 1979, I always assumed that the key to my identity was anchored in geographical definition. Do I belong in Korea or in America? What does it mean to be a Korean who does not live in Korea. How do I help my children stay connected to some parts of Korea, even if they were born in America?

As I watched the film, I started to wonder if geography has nothing to do with it.

I started to imagine my family as five birds separated from their flock.

When we had been a part of the larger flock, we had cast magnificent formations against the backdrop of the sky. We had been a part of a flock that made those on the ground marvel at our beauty as we danced out nature's choreography. We knew we belonged there, and we were safe there. We knew we were flying in the right direction because we found our bearing in relation to each other.

Once separated, who were we without our flock? Did our flock miss us? Who could even spot us in the sky now? And what was wrong with us that we should lose our flock, when others still had theirs?

What happens to our identity when we lose our community, when we are tethered to nothing outside of ourselves?

As in conversation, I think of identity development as an iterative process. To be in conversation, I need to be heard, acknowledged, and responded to (and I need to do the same for my conversation partner), and only then can conversation develop and expand -- and be meaningful for both of us. For identity formation, what happens if others do not understand our social context and our value system, appropriately interpret the meaning of our actions, and affirm the interpretations we place on them?

Once we moved to the US, we were stripped of the context in which we had been socialized and with it, the framework that had made our actions and identity comprehensible. Filial piety makes no sense in America; even the phrase sounds awkward, strange. Language organized according to social hierarchy and age -- these concepts have no place in America, yet our lives were structured around such ideas.

Studies show that people do not recognize faces or emotions of others from different races as well as they do within their own racial group. In other words, outside of our own group, we are simply not seen or recognized the way we would be by those within our own group (however that group is defined).

I feel this acutely these days, especially since we moved to San Diego nine years ago. We live in a mostly white suburban coastal town, and people regularly see through me, as if I'm not there. I wonder if waiters or lawnkeepers feel this way. They aren't given an identity, just utility, a function. As long as their lawns are cut and the food arrives on time, there is no need for further engagement. For me, I don't even serve a utility; I am simply not relevant to these people and their social maneuvering.

What happens to people who are not understood or seen? Who is there to see us when the people we live alongside do not even know how to pronounce our names - or the combination of the syllables in our name do not exist in their lexicon? How do we perform the actions of our lives when we are not seen or understood? Who are we performing for? Where is our audience?

What happens to stories that are deemed irrelevant? What becomes of our history? Who will create the space for our stories to be told and remembered?

Maybe the quest for identity is not as much a quest for definition as much as a fight against invisibility. The defining matters only insomuch as it helps us find our group. When we are part of a larger group and we belong, we can be seen - just as a large flock of birds can be seen by outsiders and from within. When we lose our group, we become the incomprehensible and misfit ugly ducklings -- unable to be seen for who we are.

In the film, we see the Korean-Cubans organize as a community to learn Korean, sing BTS songs, and revisit the motherland. But as the filmmaker makes clear, there is no Korea they can return to. The Korean song they sing is an outdated version that only exists in history. One of the elders insists on a unified Korea and refuses to acknowledge the current political rift between the two Koreas. The country of their imagination is no more.

I always thought of Korea as a noun -- a place I can use as a reference point. In my conceptualization, Korea has always remained a thing I can return to, a fixed thing I can compare or contrast to my life in America. But Korea is not a just noun. It is also a verb. By the deficiency of our language, we do not distinguish between naming of things that stay more or less stagnant (like a table) and things that change (like any living thing). We have no category for things that are in constant flux, as culture is.

When I say I am Korean, what am I really saying? I am not relating to the geographic region as much as identifying with what we call culture, social mores, and relational norms as expressed through the 50+ million people who live there - or more accurately, as expressed through the people who lived there in the late 70s when my family left. The Korea I knew as a child is not the Korea that exists today. Korea was never fixed, but always dynamic and elusive. Yet, I clung to it like an anchor.

The more I think about it, the more it doesn't make sense to ask these questions of identity in terms of whether I'm Korean or American. Toggling between two cultural reference points is a useless exercise. There are no reference points to toggle between, just flotsam that drift with the waves. Maybe all I'm saying when I say I am Korean is that I once belonged. Our whole family did. We were seen and recognized. We were understood. We were accepted. We were worthy of belonging.

And maybe when we raise these questions of identity, we are striving -- and juggling the question of how to belong once again without being erased. It doesn't really matter if we're Korean, or Portuguese, or Javanese. We just want to regroup somehow and belong once again -- without being rendered irrelevant, invisible.

In the film, the raising of the question about identity is the vehicle for regrouping. The Korean descendants organize to gain formal recognition of ethnic identity from the Cuban government. Jeronimo travels the country to gather identification cards of all Koreans in Cuba in order to submit them for an official count. Ironically, the government denies them official recognition, but the people gain a group identity through this process. They come together, forge bonds, and claim their ethnic heritage. In this process, Korea is not the end goal. It is a vehicle, a commonality to help them create the community they need. It serves as the means to identify the people on the same journey, those who suffered the same struggles. Perhaps that is all we really need.

A Jewish rabbi in the film eloquently describes the experience of diaspora as pain - and the gift of diaspora as innovation. I love this framing. Separation is painful and traumatic. Losing those with intimate knowledge of our context is tremendous. And at the same time, it liberates us. As we break from tradition and custom, we are forced to forge our own path. As we break, we become the stewards of a new way of life. We are forced to become leaders, even if we had been content to follow before. And maybe from there, we find a path to create a history of our own.

The film serves as a beautiful metaphor. A people splintered and unable to return to their land are forced to settle on a foreign island. There, a son of immigrants emerges as a leader in the upheaval of his new country's political system and secures a place for himself and his family. A filmmaker visits to tell his story, and we become the audience to a story that almost escaped unnoticed. And through this storytelling, we affirm our community.

Friday, June 21, 2019


Sometimes when I think of our family's trajectory, I fill with a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of defeat, of despondence. Over forty years ago, we traversed to a new land, and it feels as if we never found our grounding. Our family still feels lost. I wonder if others who attempt to transition from one culture to another feel the same. Is this the story of other displaced people?

I feel this sadness most acutely when I spend time with my parents. They are usually during time spent together as a result of my well-intended effort to provide a semblance of a better life, as I perceive it. Left to their own, they would probably go for months without social contact. They would eat, go on daily walks along the same stretch of land, and go to their doctor's appointments. They would lock the little gate to their front yard around 5pm and from inside the walls, watch some Korean television while dozing. They live as if in a bunker, holed up against a hostile world.

I arrange almost all social events that occur on their calendar. Over the years, I've sent them to Broadway shows, to the US Open, on a trip to Europe, to countless restaurants. I have organized family vacations around their longings, including a trip to Sedona, to Hawaii, a cruise to Alaska. I arrange all birthday celebrations. Two years ago, I organized a gathering for them in Hawaii with my mom’s two sisters and their husbands from Korea. Most recently, I took them on a trip to Northern California to attend our niece's graduation. I’ve organized dinners with friends with elderly Korean parents so that my parents could meet some people. Most of these events occurred despite resistance from my parents. They often say no initially, and I take it upon myself to persuade them to engage with the world.

I've tried to cajole my parents to attend church, just to meet other Koreans. People who speak the same language. People who may share a similar outlook. People who have a chance at understanding their perspective. I’ve chatted with random Koreans who own dry cleaners and work at restaurants to inquire about which church they attend so that I could suggest them to my parents. Even when I offer to drive them or line up an Uber, they refuse.

It is difficult to watch them live out the last decades of their lives. Their lives lack mirth. They don't have much in common with each other, and they know no other people in town, apart from us. Their time, often marked by anxiety, is spent tending to repetitive daily chores. Their loneliness is palpable, and their frustration, close to the surface. They seem afraid to hope, reluctant to demand more.

They see danger in everything. A lot of my suggestions are met with resistance, an admonition of possible risk, an assessment of the money spent against the possible benefit. When I invite them to my children’s birthday parties, they huddle in the corner or indoors by themselves, eat their food, and tell me I shouldn’t spend so much money on the party favors or so much time preparing the food. Their advice usually reflects positions of retreat, like warning me against extending myself too much, conserving my money and energy, and guarding against possible danger. In their advice, I see the hallmark characteristics of the vulnerable, defenseless, community-less.

There are glimmers of their yearning. On a recent flight, my parents sat next to a Korean family. In their presence, my mom became an engaging person, someone with a social presence. She treated my daughter with more gusto and made an effort to be seen. I have seen her do this on another occasion. She emerges from her invisibility and takes on a social identity. It is a drastic transition. Her passivity falls by the wayside, and she becomes a functioning human being. She becomes the kind of grandmother I want for my children. The kind of mom I want for me.

I think of the audacity of uprooting oneself to go to another land. Anyone who has spent time trying to grow roots from a cut plant knows how tricky it can be. Thick, fleshy, water-retaining succulents may be easier than most, but stems of mature trees with histories in its rings may not root at all. Even a new shoot needs to be cut at the right angle at the right part of the plant, during the right stage of growth, and sometimes even at the right time of day to have the optimal chance to survive. The cutting needs to be handled properly. Many require specific conditions to grow, like proper level of humidity, good drainage, and the right type of soil mixture. And even as the roots start to grow, they need constant care to thrive and to avoid decaying. I wonder about the conditions we need as people.

Our family never set out to traverse to another land. We came for what we thought would be a temporary stay, and here we are, 40 years later. We are accidental immigrants. We didn’t come equipped with the kind of audacity needed to make this crossing. We lack the toughness, the know-how, the optimism needed to thrive.

Every non-Korean I speak to about this situation has basically told me to leave them alone. Maybe they prefer it. There is nothing I can do for them. Don't let their sadness interfere with your happiness.

It's difficult to explain that my life cannot be separated from the journey we took together. It is unacceptable to have their story arc turn downward, toward despair, while mine turns upward, toward hope. We are entwined. We are made of the same cutting. Any roots I grow have to supply water to their branch.

And yet, at times, I long for a little separation. To not carry the weight of their desolation on my shoulders. To not have my slivers of hope dashed by their ever-present despondence. To live cocooned in optimism, not dejection.

I feel something akin to survivor's guilt. I made it across more or less intact. They made it across as well, with their limbs and financial security, but also with a profound loss they do not name. I wonder if the decision made 40 year ago was a mistake, and I spend my life looking for evidence that it was not. I desperately search for some signs of redemption, signs that are not easy to find.

On this day, my parents and I are on yet another journey, a short stay in Hawaii before we travel back to Korea for a few weeks with my husband and children. We have many reasons for returning. To meet with our relatives. To see the land we left behind, to see how much the country has changed. To test our memories against the reality of a life we could have had.

It is my children’s first trip there, and surely my parents’ last. My dad is 80, my mom, 77. It feels like a ritual of sorts. To show my children the starting place of our family while giving my parents a chance to return.

In this process, I have this fantasy to be absolved of the what ifs and could haves that have permeated my existence. I will no longer see my mom and wonder about the person she could be if she lived among her people. I will not see her invisibility and pine for a life where she can be a socially engaged person. Even if for just three short weeks.

On this day, redemption feels elusive. I see no upturn in the arc of our story. We are a family who left for another land and became lost. We lost each other and perhaps ourselves, even as we discovered new things along the way. And I, one who found a way to grow roots here, have no insights to offer my parents. All the effort I have made to try to help them enjoy the perks of our new land have amounted to little. I can pay for dinner, but I cannot give them a social existence.

And still I look, for this elusive redemption. I remind myself that this is a tremendous opportunity, one not often available to others. We return bearing gifts for our many cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. We return with intentions to be a part of a larger family, a larger community. We return to be understood, to be seen, to belong, to once again be a people with history and context. I carry images of us surrounded by our aunts and uncles, laughing, exchanging stories. I carry visions of my mom holding hands with her sisters, reminiscing, finding a version of herself that has became obscured. I carry a picture of us visiting my mom and dad’s hometowns and coming back with a new lens through which to see them. I carry a dream that by returning to the land of what could have been, we will also see all that we are. I return with a hope that we still have something to find, something to restore.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Response to Min Jin Lee

In a recent op-ed, Min Jin Lee defines power as the "confidence to speak for yourself."

In 1979, three years after Min Jin Lee's family, our family moved to the US for what we expected would be a three year stay. Those three years turned into forty. Like Lee's family, we also landed in Queens. We arrived over the weekend, and on Monday morning, I was registered to attend P.S. 20 in Flushing. I didn't even know the alphabet.

Like Min Jin, I never felt like I had the right to speak publicly. In eleventh grade, I had something to say to a teacher. Not knowing how to speak out, I wrote a letter overnight and watched, as if mute, while she read my words. During my first job at a big law firm, after also graduating from Georgetown Law, a well-established litigation partner pulled me aside to admonish me about not displaying enough confidence. I don't remember his exact words, but he told me that he had seen many Asian-Americans come through the firm and wondered why so many of us, who were clearly bright and talented, did not carry ourselves with more confidence.

I've wondered about confidence. Where does it come from? And why do some people have it and not others? I wonder why it matters. Confidence seems foreign to me. What does it even mean to feel confident about some future event? It rings of a mainstream substitute for what religious people call faith. It also feels misbegotten. I recall reading a survey of American kids who reported high confidence about math scores they did not achieve. Confidence does not correlate to results, yet there seems to be an assumption that it leads to something, that it is a necessary ingredient. Forget about confidence, I wanted to say. Just look at my results.

An online etymological dictionary defines confidence as "assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another." By this definition, confidence reflects a relationship, not an inner trait. It is a concept about how one relates to the outside world. It is a knowing that others will respond with good will, that those around us will respond with affirmations. It is akin to a sense of security among our fellow beings. As an eight year old from another culture, I received no such assurances.

What I knew was the opposite. The country we had moved to was not sophisticated or complex enough to hold space for people like me and my family. It wasn't hostile, at least not generally in my experience, but those we encountered on a regular basis made it known that they were not of us, and we were not of them. We did not belong to the same tribe. The two simple syllables of my first name did not exist in juxtaposition here. I was relegated to a color. As for my body, my face felt too big, my torso too long, my calves too stumpy. A small sampling of the food we ate was reserved for international day festivals. The words we used had no expression outside of our household. The values our parents taught often clashed with what we learned in school or saw on TV. The stories I read in elementary school (I recall Judy Blume most vividly) were not stories of my family. My upbringing was marked with more negations than affirmations.

When I was growing up, my parents rarely talked about confidence. Instead, they encouraged us to apply ourselves, to practice, to study, and to keep trying. They told us that we could not rely on America to do anything for us. We were outsiders, we were alone, and we had to rely on ourselves. Our relationship with this country was one of uncertainty and insecurity. We did not have the luxury of confidence.

To me, this poses a conundrum. If confidence is a feedback loop dependent on an affirming environment, what happens to those of us who grow up without such affirmations? What does it do to our identity to not see ourselves reflected in others, and vice versa?

I know I carry a timidity I've seen in some others like me. Immigrants. Racial minorities. Those with a past that disqualifies them from automatic membership. I see it in their smiles, the way they smile too readily. The way we let others lead the conversation, passively nodding along, and rarely speaking up even when we disagree. The way we divert attention from ourselves, even as we perform like good soldiers, saying the right things while dressed appropriately. I know I don't like attention on myself. Sometimes when eyes are on me, I find myself muttering, repeating myself, tapering off. Often, the burden of being an individual feels like too much, of finding something to say that is worthy of attention. It feels easier to take on a role - the room parent, the organizer, the foodie, the reliable friend, the easy-going sidekick. Better to pass the evening smiling affably and glibly.

I don't always know how to relate to the external world. The world I see doesn't feel multi-faceted enough to hold the complexities and contradictions I carry within. And even when I am sure that the person on the other end similarly holds those complexities, it takes effort to bridge over and create enough safety to discuss them. Sometimes, in those moments, I retreat, and silence becomes my home.

Recently, in a conversation, one of my professors said that when others don't know enough about us, they project qualities onto us. In one of his books, he wrote (applying concepts from Foucault): “Within human communities, what can be said, and who can speak, are issues of power.” It makes me wonder about all the stereotypes put on Asian-Americans. The model minority. The inscrutable. Lack of personality. So many others. And it makes me wonder about my relationship to silence and how I don't show up in certain spaces -- and whether the silence should be filled by me or others. Who should define who we are?

As I was thinking about this, I ran across this article. It calls for a reframing of perspective, from the myopic to the universal, from what we can see immediately in front of us to a larger scope. It also suggests the ability to create a community with those not just in our vicinity. A selected community with those who may be able to affirm us in ways others cannot, those who may be able to be a sounding board for our confidence loop. It invites us to zoom out, to reflect, and to search.

It's complicated for some of us who arrived as immigrants, as outsiders, and are now trying to figure out how to make this country our home. I'm like a latecomer to a party who now finds herself moving in. Do we spend the rest of our time hovering at the corner, or do we let ourselves settle into the sofa? Do we dare speak up, stake a claim, and assert that we belong?

I've spent a lot of time in the corner. Like a timid turtle, I shrink into myself when I'm not sure how to fit in, when the world does not feel receptive. Despite my wavering confidence, I think about how I want to show up in my own life. I want to have a say. I want to be in my own story, not someone else's and not some other people's rendition of how my story is supposed to unfold. I want to be a leader in my own life. It feels like an obligation to myself, something I owe myself more urgently as the days pass.

I think about the importance of sitting in our own discomfort. Of sitting in our confusion, in situations that don't make easy sense, in a state of limbo where easy templates don't suffice. Of seeing and hearing our stories for what they are, not through some contorted lens to fit someone else's version. Maybe if we take the risk of telling our stories, we will find others who understand our stories. Maybe we will find others who have similar stories they are willing to share.

The benefit of a loop (or a spiral) is that the beginning and outcome have no clear boundaries. One merges into the other, and there is no obvious starting point. Confidence may be a consequence that comes from doing: from finding community, telling our stories, and having our stories heard. And while doing may require some confidence as an ingredient, maybe we will find another substitute, like a sense of responsibility. Confidence may also come from taking the risk of letting ourselves be seen.

So in my pilates class, I take a reformer in the front row, right in front of the wall of mirrors. I look at myself, not with my usual disapproval or shame, but with curiosity. What have I not noticed before? What is there to be discovered? I give myself permission to be and to belong -- before I look around the room.

Thursday, March 29, 2018


I've been perusing through some of my old posts, and I am amazed to see the difference between where I was then -- emotionally, psychologically -- from where I am now. A lot of my old posts are bogged down, as if I am trying to pull myself out of slowly hardening cement. So much to figure out. I can feel how frustrated and baffled I was with my inability to reshape myself emotionally or psychologically in relating to the issues I had in my life. I remember many of those incidents and feelings as if they happened yesterday, and yet, I feel so far removed from the person I was then. And I attribute most of these changes, if not all, to entering my masters program in marriage & family therapy.

My MFT program has changed my life. I am in a cohort of 27 students, and everyone is wonderful. Warm, caring, thoughtful, and kind. It's exactly the kind of community I've longed for, and couldn't find in the years after we left San Francisco. I once again feel like I belong somewhere.

During the interview for the program almost a year ago, I entered the room feeling slightly apprehensive. What skills did I have as a lawyer that would be conducive to me becoming a therapist? As a litigation associate, I had spent most of my time writing combative nastygrams to opposing counsel and dealing with discovery nonsense. Had the law hardened me to a point that I would be unsuitable for dealing with other people on empathetic and personal levels?

In the group interview, we were first asked to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. After listening to the impressive backgrounds of the people before me, who had actually all done something to better the world through social services, I found myself stammering, "I'm not sure why I was even invited to this interview, because I have absolutely zero experience in this field that I hope to enter. I am so impressed by each of you and all that you have done." And then I prattled off a sentence or two about how I had been a lawyer in my former life.

Amazingly, at the end of the interview session that day, the director of the program offered me admission to the program on the spot.

The program started in the summer, and we spent much of the summer listening to each other's life stories. We took turns talking about the experiences we had with our families of origin, what events shaped us, what issues resonated for us. There were so many stories, some with intersecting threads, others with unique directions. But everyone had a story to tell. And they were all humbling and edifying.

It felt like I had read 26 memoirs in a matter of weeks. And I loved it.

Since the fall semester, we have been meeting with clients, and I can't describe how much I love meeting the clients and listening and talking to them about their lives. It's similar to the conversations I have always had over coffee with friends, conversations I have always loved. But these are more intentional and more directed. And with strangers, at least at start, who give me the benefit of the doubt to open up with me.

This one change - entering a new program - had reset me completely. I don't obsess about my time as I used to. I don't feel bogged down by the fears or worries I used to have. I don't feel so negative about my past career as a lawyer or my passing days.

I think if I had been diagnosed with breast cancer before I had been admitted to the program, I would have fallen into a deep despair. I would have been so wrought with resentment and sadness that I had to waste time on something that had nothing to add to my life. I would have seen it as something to deal with in order to return to status quo. And I would have felt that it was yet another segment of my life wasted on top of the years I spent trudging through law school and working as an attorney.

Now that I'm in the program, the cancer diagnosis has hardly made a blip. I see it as a nuisance, nothing more. Even though most of my free days are filled up with doctor appointments, chemo therapy, and some test or another, it hasn't gotten to me. Not nearly to the degree I used to be bothered when I even missed one day of planned me-time when one of my kids got sick or my plans got upset.

Even though I attribute it to being in the program, there are many facets embedded in it that I find so fulfilling and satisfying. Most important is that I am learning again. I am learning about things I care about in life and exploring ways of seeing things through different frameworks. The conversations that I am having as I'm learning are complex, nuanced, and substantive. I am reading wonderful books by innovative and insightful thinkers. One of the most satisfying books I read over the summer was on multicultural perspectives. To date, I have never read a satisfying book on race, at least not one that addressed different perspectives of different racial and ethnic groups. But, yes, such a book exists! I am also spending time talking to my cohorts, professors, and clients about subjects that I think are worth talking about, not just about the weather, or sports, or some TV show. And all the while I'm doing this, I am among a group of people I really appreciate. The cohort is composed of people of various ages ranging from 23 to perhaps late 50s or early 60s, all with life lessons to teach, insights to share, and life pains they have overcome and somehow managed to shape into future directions.

When I think about how simple this was -- how simple it was to reset my life -- I can't help but wonder why it felt so difficult before.  The idea of going back to school seemed daunting. I was already in my mid-40s. I have small children. My husband worked. I had to take the GREs. I wanted to carry my fair load of household responsibilities, whether it was taking care of the kids or contributing financially. And as I list them, I now see that none of them were insurmountable. I recognize that I have it easy. Jeff took some time off of work so that I can go back to school while he takes care of the kids. He has taken over almost all of the domestic chores. But I see the other women in my program doing it. Like me, most of them are entering a second career. Many of them have working husbands and children. Some are single moms. And they show up to class and turn in their assignments.

I think about the countless conversations I had with my lawyer friends when I was practicing law about the second careers we wished to have. It was probably the most popular topic of conversation. And instead of regurgitating those conversations ad nauseam, I could have just gone back to school. But of course, in hindsight, it all looks so easy now. Besides the logistics, I think most of it had to do with the uncertainty of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And I realize now that I didn't know what to do with my life because I simply had not lived enough. Maybe I needed all the detours and the events of my life to take me where I am now. Maybe I needed law school, my ten years lawfirm career, the disasterous layoff, the three miscarriages, the family estrangement, the precancerous cells in my cervix, the worries of being a parent, and the delicacies of being married as well as all the happy and fulfilling moments embedded along the way. Maybe I needed these more than others after a lifetime of being a good daughter and a rule follower.

Now, from where I sit, I am grateful for all those experiences - the challenging as well as the happy ones. Even my recent diagnosis. They have made me a fuller person. I relate to others differently. I relate to my children differently. I respond with more patience, more understanding, more heart. I even like myself more.

I think returning to school was about fulfilling one of my core needs. I need to be in an environment where I'm learning. And where I am connected to others through my learning. The learning doesn't have to come in an academic environment, but I need to make space for that in my life. When I didn't have that -- when I didn't have the time or the space to take care of one of my needs, I felt suffocated and desperate.

I think about the little steps we can take to identify and meet our own needs. And to recruit others to aid us in our effort while we help them in turn. Many of us may be gearing ourselves in that direction without even realizing it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Power of Responding

Almost a decade ago, shortly after Paul Hastings laid me off, I was talking to one of Jeff's acquaintances. I'll call her R. She told me how sorry she felt for me because "one of the most shameful things" that could have happened to a person happened to me, and so publicly too! I was so caught off guard by her comment that I didn't even respond. But that comment stayed with me.

I thought it about it recently as I read an article for a class (yes, I'm back in school getting my degree to become an MFT! More about that later.). The article discusses the importance of focusing on a person's response to a traumatic event, rather than the effects. Focusing on the effects of the trauma increases the sense of helplessness and casts the person as a victim; focusing on the person's response increases her sense of agency and calls attention to the actions taken by the individual, which highlights the person's values and identity. No matter how traumatic the event, the article argues that we always respond in some way, even if those responses are subtle or unnoticed by others.

Even though I didn't view my layoff as trauma, I realized that R's comment stayed with me because she focused only on what the firm did and completely disregarded my response to it. She only saw what was done to me, something she cast as shameful. Focusing on that, and stopping there, put me in a passive role. Something was done to me, something that I had no control over. Just thinking about that now makes me feel agitated.

My many friends, however, focused on my response. They saw me taking a stance, and in my stance, they saw a reflection of the person they know me to be. Their responses reaffirmed and helped further build an aspect of myself that I very much like. Their perspectives and affirmations were life-giving.

I've been thinking about responses a lot lately. Over the summer, we had a professor who is one of the loveliest people I've met. He smiled all the time, told the class how much he loved us (yes, a professor telling his students how much he loves them! Did I tell you how much I love my program?), gave us warm hugs, and was amazingly attentive to each of us and our stories. Near the end of the summer, he told us his life story. He started out telling us about his family of origin and his academic journey. He also told us how he met his wife. As I started to think he had such a perfect and easy path, he disclosed that his wife suddenly passed away several years ago from an unexpected illness. He was parenting three children alone while chairing a department and teaching and running an organization on the side.

From his story, I learned the value of leaning in to difficult experiences. Instead of shying away from his memories of this difficult time, he tells his story over and over with the hope that his students will learn something from it. And despite his difficulties, he didn't turn bitter or cynical. Before I met him, I don't think I could have imagined someone not turning bitter from such an experience. Instead, he responded with more love and compassion for others. His hardship, as difficult as it was, expanded his experience of life.

Ever since I've had kids, I've lived in fear of certain terrible events, like the possibility that one of them could fall seriously ill or be hit by a car or be kidnapped or choke on a grape tomato or wrap the bead necklace around their neck too tightly or want to ride a roller coaster. There is no end to the list of calamities I've conjured up in my head from which to protect my children. And trailing these calamities, I imagine a sense of helplessness and hopelessness -- a despair from which I am convinced that I could never recover.

I am caught in this idea that we all respond in some way to life's obstacles.  As human beings, we respond to these obstacles with some action or mindset and we make meaning of the event and our responses. In the article, Yuen writes "even when people are sunk in the depth of hopelessness and despair, "small acts of living occur'". These small acts of living may even happen despite ourselves. Thinking about this gives me a jolt of hope. It makes me think that no matter what happens, there is some action we can take or some meaning we can decide to adopt or reject. We can always do something. We can't help but affirm life by the mere fact of living and experiencing what life throws at us.

While I cried about my shaved head, it gave me a sense of purpose to pack my hair in a box and ship it off to Locks of Love. I loved thinking about how some child with cancer could use my hair, and my hair would not have to be wasted. The donation wasn't done for the sake of the unknown child, but for me. To give my act a purpose and to find some way to handle the situation. I think if I had just waited for my hair to fall out and simply reacted to the process as it unfolded over however many days, I would have felt somewhat paralyzed and helpless. Instead, taking some action helped me to focus and feel empowered.

I love how an idea as simple as this can shift how one views life's obstacles. Maybe it was obvious to others, but I think this was the first time I actually thought about the impact of thinking about one's responses rather than the effect. I hope you find it useful.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Strange and Familiar

Last Thursday, at around 9:05 am, I shaved my head. Completely. I walked into Super Cuts as soon as it opened and asked the lady behind the counter if they had room for a walk-in. She smiled warmly and said yes. After she took down my name, she asked me what I wanted done. I told her that I wanted to shave my whole head. She didn't give a hint of surprise, even though her eyes flickered ever so slightly. I explained that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and my hair had started falling out from the chemo treatment. I told her how I wanted to shave all my hair off before too much fell out so that I could donate my hair to a place that made wigs for kids with cancer.

On Wednesday, the morning before, during my shower, I noticed my hair collecting around the drain. I didn't even feel them falling out or running past my fingers. But when I looked down, there were little clumps around the holes in the drain. I knew the time had come. When I brushed my hair after, more clumps fell out, and the strands seemed limitless because the falling strands had other strands entangled in them. My brush looked like a shaggy animal from all the hair tangled in it. I hastily put my hair up in a tight ponytail and kept it that way all day.

I had planned all along to donate my hair as soon as my hair started falling out, but when the time came, I could not do it. Instead, as I saw my hair fall out, I cried. I wasn't necessarily attached to my hair. I hardly did anything to take care of it these days. Every morning, as soon as I woke up, it went up in a little bun. I didn't have time to blow dry or style it. I have breakfasts to prepare and kids to send to school. But with the loss of hair came all my insecurities about my looks, the size and the shape of my head, the excess weight I've put on, and all the features I don't like to think about or bring attention to when I'm in the middle of living day to day. Now, I didn't even have my hair to hide behind. My face, and all its imperfections, was exposed for me and the world to see.

That afternoon, I rushed to the store where I had ordered my wig a week before. When the lady told me my wig wasn't ready yet, I bought another and whisked it home as if I were bringing home a newborn. At home, I tucked it away safely in my closet while I thought about what to do. Actually, I didn't think about it as much as live with it. Live with the new circumstance. Live with this development. Live with the idea that my hair was falling out and I would soon have none left.

I thought about how fragile we are, how thin the divide between those who belong and those who don't. How we live in a society shaped by certain images and norms and how desperately we cling to them. I thought about what it would mean to be a woman with a shaved head. I could only think about Sinead O'Connor. And more recently, Emma Gonzalez. But who else?

Since the breast cancer diagnosis, I have not felt sorry for myself at any moment. It is only stage one, and it's completely treatable. It seems like nothing to complain about, especially when I think of others who have it so much worse. But that night, I let myself cry a little. It felt like a farewell of sorts, a farewell to a part of me that had provided a sense of comfort and protection. A part of me that would soon cease being a part of me.

I slept with my hair in the pony tail out of fear that I would lose too much hair along with my opportunity to donate it. On Thursday morning, I cautiously pulled the rubber band off to assess the situation. The amount of hair that sloughed off alarmed me, and I put the rubber back on immediately and braided it. I checked the hours for Super Cuts, and rushed over as soon as I could.

I sat in the chair, and the lady pulled out the electric razor. Mindful of how I wanted to keep my hair intact for donation, she kept my hair in the braid and started shaving from the top of my nape. I felt the coolness on my scalp as she worked on a section at a time. As she worked, I became self-conscious about the odor of my scalp since I had not washed my hair since the morning before. The kind lady gave no sign of noticing anything, and kept shaving. I don't think I looked in the mirror once while she was working.

When she was done, she reached over to put the hair in a paper bag, but I asked her to hand it to me as I had brought my own plastic bag. The hair still retained the shape of my head. In the cap, I saw several strands of white in the shrub of black. For a few minutes, I focused on pulling the white strands out, thinking that the kid who receives my hair shouldn't be stuck with white hair.

Finally, I looked up in the mirror. In myself, I saw images of Buddhist women monks. Emma Gonzalez. And Wakanda warriors. I looked strange and familiar.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Lens of Money

Since my teenage years, my singular image of my father is a vision of him crouching alone, at the end of the day, on the floor in his bedroom in front of his file cabinet. In front of him sits piles of coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and reams of bills. First, he tackles the bills. He sorts them into twenties, tens, fives, singles. Then he returns to each pile to straighten out the bills, unbending the dog-ears, turning each face side up. Then the coins, each clanking as they fall onto the pile, while he counts softly under his breath. After each mound, he logs the amount into his notebook, marking the sum of his earnings for the day. This ritual is repeated day after day, with the exception of Sunday, when their business is closed. For a man who had no words left for his children, he spent a remarkable amount of time with his earnings.

In our family, life was understood through the lens of money. It represented the hours my parents spent cleaning, pressing, and bagging other people’s dirty clothes at their dry cleaners, where my mother worked through her bleeding hemorrhoids and talked of her simple longing to treat herself to a cup of coffee in a coffee shop one day like everyone else. It represented our mirthless days in the musty store, nodding along with customers who wanted a discount or expected us to carry their clothes to their car when their nails had just been manicured. It represented the monotonous years that passed, while the children graduated from high school and then from college with no parents to witness the commencement. It represented the decades spent away from our extended families in Korea who would eventually learn of our success in America.

Money was precious, precisely because they stood in for the lives we should have lived. A quarter wasted or an irresponsible purchase became causes for rebuke. “Do you know how much longer your mother has to work for that?” When I asked mother why we never invited others over to our isolated house, she responded, “Do you know that costs money?” Doctors went unvisited, gifts unpurchased, all social rituals foregone because money was something to be held, not used. To spend it meant we had no proof for the life we had lived.

Money wasn’t just our past. It was also our future. As we continued to hear stories of other dry cleaners dying of cancer, my father, who spent the most time hunched over chemicals, put off his retirement year after year so that he could save enough to cover treatment if he got cancer. Money was also our language of love. When they could not visit their parents in Korea, they sent money. On special occasions, my parents sent us money in an envelope addressed in block letters with a check inside, no note. When my mother sent me a check to prepare for my wedding, I cried in the dressing room as I tried on wedding dresses.

It would be dishonest to describe money only as a source of oppression. It provided for our food, our shelter, our clothes. It gave my parents a goal and structure when we had none. But we could only fit so much onto these flat, green surfaces already occupied by Washington, Hamilton, and Jackson. These objects offered no space for emotional connection. They didn’t console us when we felt alone. They didn’t comfort us when we needed a hug. We children didn’t understand the language of money. Even though we didn’t know it as we receded to our disparate corners, we were hungry for warm embraces, understanding, words of empathy.

I didn’t realize that I had become trapped on these flat surfaces until I was in college. I remember observing myself, devoid of emotions, intellectualizing everything, disregarding my yearnings. I did not know how to speak the language of emotions, even though I longed for connection. The intellect is superior to emotions, I remember arguing. My closest friends were those who saw eye to eye intellectually; they sufficed. The emotions flooding inside me felt illegitimate; I shouldn’t have those feelings and what was the point anyway. I didn’t know how else to be. The world of emotions was not mine, and I did not belong there.

When I started working, I too adopted the language of money. It was the only way to trump my dad’s power. No, Dad, let’s go out to dinner; I’ll pay for it. Yes, you can afford to take a vacation; I’m sending you. I paid for my mom’s doctor appointments when they had no health care. I helped them buy a new car when theirs broke down in the middle of a parkway.

No one event drastically changed my relationship with money; rather, it slowly became more grounded by the mere experience of living. Making my own money bought me liberation from my parents, and it allowed me the means to distance myself from them. From this distance, I was able to negotiate my own, direct relationship with money. It was no longer mediated through my dad’s anxiety or my mother’s longing for a life she couldn’t have. And unlike in my parents’ case, it bought me freedom, dinners with friends, membership to the ACLU, and a second career.

I am still very reactive when my parents, now in their mid-70s, choose to forego instead of spend, when they cut the paper napkin in two to share. It reminds me of their lives that passed uneventfully in a dusty enclosure, unnoticed by others, with no real sense of purpose or meaning. And no matter how much they have saved, it restores nothing. It saddens me that all they have to show for their lives is their savings.

My relationship with money hasn’t been a jig, but a slow dance. At times, I let go too much, and other times, I embraced it too tightly to find my own footing. In this clumsy back and forth, I learned that money is just a thing, an object, like a car or a chair, with no power over us apart from what we bestow on it. In my family, it often felt like the only thing. It held all the promise for a better life, but no matter how much we had, it was never enough. It was a currency of anxiety, insecurity, and desperation, but it also offered a glimmer of hope. My parents latched my hands to this glimmer until I was delivered to a safe landing. And like many children of immigrants, I suffer a sense of guilt for all I have and all they lack.

These days, I do what I can to alleviate my parents’ anxiety, buy them some enjoyment, allow them some moments of relief. But my offerings are delivered in the hands of my young children, who come with promises of an afternoon of giggles, a meal to be enjoyed together, and a reminder that there are relationships to nurture. And such afternoons restore my hope in all that is possible, in all that I can do, and all that a family can mean.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making a Big Change

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in The New York Times called “Hesitant to Make that Big Life Change? Permission Granted”.

In the article, Carl Richards writes about why some of us have trouble making big changes. He believes one reason is our desire for permission to make such changes. He writes: "Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find."

About nine months ago, I set out to make a big change in my life - or at least work toward one. After years of complaining about my career path, I enrolled myself in a local community college and signed up for several classes in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. I wasn't quite sure what was next, but I wanted to give myself a chance to explore and see what I liked, to do what I wished I had done more of when I was too young and insecure to give myself permission to try my hand at something that didn't fit the script. For several hours, twice a week, I drove to the local campus and wedged myself into chair-desks to sit next to kids who hadn’t even been born when I received my B.A. and were still peeing in their diapers when I received my J.D. I raised my hands frequently enough to receive full participation points and felt a stupid mix of pride and shame each time teachers commented "Great!!!" with a smiley face on my homework or read my papers out loud as examples of how to write cogently. As far as I could tell, I was older than every teacher except one, who was my age.

I am now in my second semester at the community college, mainly to fulfill some prerequisites for a graduate level program in psychology, while studying for the GREs (yes, yet another standardized test). I am still not quite sure what I am doing, but I feel a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to define a direction for myself, so that I could tell myself and others what the hell I am doing with my life. After all, I am 45.

The one pervading feeling throughout all of this has been a disquieting sense of illegitimacy. In so many respects. I mean, really, I am a mom with one kid who just learned how to tie his shoelaces and another who still eats her boogers. How can I justify sitting in a library outlining social psychology when I have little finger nails to clip and healthy meals to plan and playdates to coordinate? Am I not supposed to be helping them prepare for life, instead of still fixating on my own development? Besides, I already have my B.A. and a J.D. Why the hell am I still hanging out with a bunch of kids who are trying to gain admission to four-year colleges? I could tell from the looks on some of the kids in my classes that they were wondering what went wrong with my career that I was now back at ground zero with them. (No, I did not go into the details about the inanities of corporate America.) And how about being a full-fledged adult with some income to show for it? Isn't it completely self-indulgent to be a student full time?

When I read Richards' article, I realized the unease I've been feeling for the past eight months was the discomfort of not having been granted permission, of not having received validation. Not from any specific person, but in a more cosmic sense. From the world we live in. The world I live in has pretty clear guidelines. Go to school, figure out a career in your 20s, plan a family, lean in and work up the ranks to partnership or management, save up, and retire when you have a decent nest egg. Sure, we deviate sometimes, but on the whole, that's where we fall in if we claim to be a certain kind of adult.

Validation is a big thing for someone like me, for someone who was raised as I was. An Asian, a good daughter, a middle child, an immigrant. I've lived my whole life seeking and receiving approval. I still remember how it felt to start receiving more attention as I began bringing straight As home, how it felt to receive recognition for helping out around the house as my parents started working long hours at their store. I'm one of those good kids, someone who never rebelled, who always accommodated, often to my detriment. I also have a lifetime practice of trying to fit in, as an outsider in America, even to the point of wearing blue eye shadow in high school. Thank goodness we left Texas.  

I read somewhere that most of us live as we think we ought to. We pick up a script that tells us how we're supposed to live, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to enact it. So maybe this process of validating a big change is simply a cognitive exercise. Will it into your script, and voila, it's yours to follow. That is more or less what I've been trying to do. Looking for examples of people who've already done what I am trying to do. There is an endless list of successful women who started their careers mid-life: Vera Wang, Toni Morrison, Julia Childs, Martha Stewart, and so many others like those profiled here. I keep meeting them in my own life as I explain to others why I'm back in school while my husband drops off the kids in the morning. Every mom I meet has a story about someone in her family or someone she knows who went back to school after they had kids. One lady I met volunteering told me that she cried and cried while she tried to decide whether to go back to school in her late 30s. When she called her dad and lamented she was going to be too old for school, he responded, "Well, you're going to get old anyway."

So I will quiet that little voice that nags that I'm too old, that I already missed my opportunity to set a direction for myself, that I should have been bolder in my youth, that I will be 50 by the time I graduate from yet another school, that I am being frivolous, that this is not my time, that it is too late...

I'll cling to that mantra. I'm getting old anyway. Might as well try it.