Perfection

Perfection is
a treasure hunt,
an endless search
for a brighter horizon
and a bigger
treasure chest.

Perfection is a
a journey,
towards a mirage
that dissipates
as you draw near it.

Perfection is
a marathon
of endurance.
Surely,
everything
can be
improved
if you’re willing
to endure what
it takes to improve.

As a woman
as a Korean
as an American
as a Christian
I have been told
that I am to
endure.

I am to be
above reproach,
never tiring,
excellent,
and
demure
and
gentle
and
modest
and
humble
and

lovely and never vain
successful and never bragging
independent and never leading
self-sufficient and never selfish

straight
and
pure
and
thin
and
Perfect.

I tell myself that
all this pressure
is meant to turn
me,
a lump of coal,
into a diamond.

And then I learn
that you don’t
get diamonds
from coal.

Besides,
what good is a diamond?
It has no value,
no purpose
on its own.
(Honestly, they’re not all that rare anyway.
They’re only worth what the industry claims they are).

But coal,
coal has a purpose.
Its goal is
to burn
it
all
down.
To bring light
and heat
and go out
in a cascade
of sparks.

So who needs diamonds
when you can be the flame?

Perfection is not a treasure hunt
or a journey
or a marathon.

It is a performance,
and I am tired of playing pretend.

I will not give up my fire
to be pressured into
a shiny thing
that only holds as much value
as the men around
decide to give to it.

I am more.

I am a universe of fire
contained
in the dark.

I am good.
I am very good.
I am good enough.


Photo by Blaque X on Unsplash

About the Poet:

Stella is a second-gen KA who lives in Southern California. She has a passing interest in most things, and a passionate interest in justice, literature, representation in media, education, food, pop culture, crafting, and all things cute. She is addicted to personality tests, but never agrees with the results.

True Love Waits

Photo by Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey on Unsplash

About the Poet:

Ellen Huang recently graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with a B.A. in Writing & Theatre. She takes joy in creative writing, books, theatre, films, fairy tales, swimming in the ocean, the Halloween season, pyrography, and cake. As her English name means “light” and her Chinese name means “love,” her life and storytelling is centered on progressive faith and platonic love.

Burden and Gift

The band is introducing their next song when I hear someone speaking in the audience behind me. “That guy’s definitely Japanese. I don’t know what that guy is,” bellows some undergrad. Knowing my surroundings, I ignore him, but my wife shuts that shit down. “Not that it should matter to you, but they’re all Korean-American. Maybe you shouldn’t guess people’s ethnicities,” she growls, as he gets visibly cowed. I ready myself to hold back my beloved in case she feels the need to rip his head off.

We’ve driven an hour in a snowstorm to catch Run River North in concert. They have accompanied me through many important seasons of life. I played their songs on my iPod the day I moved to America for graduate school, the day I married my wife, and even the day my father died back in my home country, half a world away from me. Everyone who loves music has a band like this – staples on their life’s soundtrack.

On this night, they’re playing at a Christian liberal arts college in rural Western Pennsylvania that leans heavily conservative and Evangelical. Unsurprisingly, the college (and surrounding town) is also a very white space.

This is an unusual place for three Asian-Americans from Los Angeles to play a show, which they mention lightheartedly between songs. I smile knowingly at their self-awareness, but also feel the sadness of the truth underlying their words; as the ignorance of the undergraduate behind me suggests, it’s clear that the few non-white people in the room (me + the members of Run River North) are other here.

Despite this, Run River North’s performance is received enthusiastically in large part because they sound like this (and even better live):

I also suspect that part of the reason they’re received so well at this particular Christian college is because there’s discernible Christian language in the lyrics of some of their songs. Bands like Run River North – those with possibly Christian members, but not a “Christian band” – are valuable for people with Christian identities, but who also recognize that most of what is explicitly sold as “Christian music” is artistically and musically inane.

I didn’t see a single other Asian audience member; perhaps I was alone in feeling pride as I watched people who look like me completely own and rock a space that tends to be monochromatic. It empowers me in the way I imagine watching Black Panther might for African-Americans. I would never qualify Run River North as an “Asian-American” band, as if their music did not stand on its own merit. But I cannot deny that the shared identity affords me a deeper resonance with their craft.

I surely can’t do justice here to their nuanced stories that are easily labeled “Christian” and “Asian-American” and the undoubtedly complex ways they embrace the different parts of their identity. But I can’t help but notice what’s on display as Run River North commands their audience; those with more than one-dimensional identities are able to flourish even in environments where they appear as outsiders.

Many of us who live in and navigate religious/ethnic/cultural/national worlds other than our own have learned to do so by drawing on different aspects of our identities. Let’s call this duality.

Duality was sometimes thrust upon us as an unavoidable burden: learn to assimilate – i.e. speak/act/eat like them – or remain an outsider. Some of us did so as completely as we could, and yet were never completely let in. Some of us did for a time and only later learned we could not whitewash the deepest parts of us. This duality in our souls could feel like a fracture, as we learned to move back and forth between our identities, highlighting different dimensions at different times.

I instinctually view my own duality as a burden, forever resigned to be part-this-part-that, only ceasing to be an outsider if I can somehow suppress those particular parts of me that the mainstream culture considers foreign. But once in a while, I glimpse others using their duality to cross those barriers that would make them outsiders, as Run River North does in venues like this.

If the whiteness of a space results in some failing to see beyond the ethnicities of Asians, how else can connection be forged? A band like Run River North has multiple well-springs to draw upon: a shared Christian vocabulary if needed and music that gets people rocking hard enough to temporarily forget their ignorance. Multidimensional identities allow the breaking of barriers that make us other (even if only for a moment).

This duality is fittingly known by many names. Psychologists and linguists speak of code-switching. Theologians speak of “double-vision” – the capacity to see from perspectives other than your own. Anthropologists refer to this as liminality – not belonging fully to any one culture, but inhabiting the spaces “in between”. This opens us to opportunities to experience the new (for we are not beholden to a single culture), to radical community (because outsiders share experiences and intimacy by necessity), and allows us to take prophetic stances against the dominant culture (because we see it without being beholden to the baggage of the status quo).

It is a fight to see and exercise my own duality as something that saves me from the forces in the world demanding assimilation. Those who have never been forced to confront the dualities inherent in their identities will easily collapse into caricatures. Is it any wonder the ethnicity-guessing undergraduate feels the need to label the identities of others, as if someone’s identity could be summed up by one dimension?

Being multiple things (Christian/Asian/Progressive) can feel like I am not any one thing, but it saves me from viewing myself and others as one-dimensional categories. It grants me the freedom to see boundaries of ignorance for what they are and to defy them. It grants me eyes to see and ears to hear.

Duality is nothing more and nothing less than the capacity to see the complexities inherent in the world and human beings. So maybe even the ignorant undergraduate is more than he shows himself to be (and more than I can see). If only he could see this and embrace it, rather than reinforcing the caricatures he breathes.

On good days, my own duality helps me glimpse the duality in God’s character and promises. God is one, but a Trinitarian community. Jesus is human, and somehow also God. We are citizens of earth, and also heaven. God’s Kingdom has come, though not fully yet. If such duality is inherent in God’s being, I can trust that my own duality is crucial to bearing God’s image in the world. I can hold it as a gift.

To hold it as a gift, I need others who share in it. I need others to affirm it in me. I need to celebrate others as I see them living it. Even better if that’s done at a rock concert in the whitest of spaces. Our duality shines in the whiteness, and the whiteness will not overcome it.


Created by: Kevin Soo

About the Author: Kevin is a graduate student in cognitive psychology, who often finds himself immersed in data and statistics. He has learned to love dwelling in the intersection of his Asian, immigrant, and Christian identities.

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Borrowed Language; Borrowed Land

Once upon a time, I read a fairy-tale about a woman who looked in a mirror for the first time since she was a girl. She stared and stared. She couldn’t believe it was her beautiful reflection in that bottle-green cracked glass.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I stare. But I’m in the wrong fairy-tale: I look the same as I did when I was 16. Everyone tells me so. I’m 16: I’m ugly; I’ve sold my feminine soul to try and become the most brilliant and witty and successful and interesting person I know. Now I look in the mirror and wonder that even if I failed at half my 16-year-old dreams, how could I not see I was beautiful? And why should I still care?

***

My brother has a simple explanation for why we undervalue our looks, like he does for everything: “racist white people in high school who weren’t attracted to Asians.” He’s probably right. He moved to California and he left his half-ness and never looked back. He sends me photos all the time of dumplings or hot pot or his APIA mentoring job or his Asian church friends or his Taiwanese girlfriend and I think – or maybe hope – he’s finally found somewhere to belong.

I’m different from him. The classics are my problematic faves. I’m obsessed with Kant and Eliot and Yeats and lots of dead white guys who would’ve thought me inferior by half. I was a high school libertarian, drink my tea with milk and sugar. I can quote Milton in my sleep and Pascal in French. I like cafes and Switzerland except that time I was harassed by the police because they thought I was a Tibetan asylum seeker.

“Where are you from?” “Boston,” “No, really from?” “Scotland,” “No, really from?” “Ireland.” I grin my whitest grin. White teeth, white eyes, white face. They don’t believe I know the old songs, that the first things I fell in love with were the hills and roses and rolling sea. They don’t believe in my blond cousins who grew up on soda bread and calzones, raised also to long for some mythical home where the sidhe walked the land and the English never colonized anyone.

Once I met someone who played the pennywhistle better than I do, but he was actually from Britain and Shanghai. Nothing to make you feel more like a fraud, I guess. Some sort of bizarre American hybrid who pretends to be from everywhere but is really from nowhere.

I learned Irish and Arabic because I was sick of white people thinking I could speak Chinese. “I can speak five languages; Chinese isn’t one”. Besides, Mandarin wasn’t my ancestors’ language anyway. But now I meet people and their faces light up when they see mine and they start asking for directions or where to find food or something else I can’t understand, and every time I say “sorry, only English,” I deflate a little more.

“Why are you so obsessed with identity? Are you an SJW?” Well, sometimes; I want to be a warrior for justice. But the identity stuff, that’s more selfish. I can weep over Scotland, and still, if I show up there and think I’m going home, I’ll be a stranger. And my brother can join all the Asian groups he wants, and he still can’t talk to his girlfriend’s parents because, well, we’re fourth gen. We can’t even pronounce our middle names.

***

My brother and I are more similar than I think. I haven’t identified as white since I was five and living in the South Pacific, because the world makes you define yourself as what you’re not. Some of my Asian friends say I look white, flippantly say I’m lucky I don’t get microaggressions. They’ve never been me on the street: I’m Asian there, not even Chinese, because on the street “ni hao” and “konnichiwa” and “annyeonghaseo” aren’t greetings, just ways of saying “you’re different from us. We know where you’re really from.”

When I walk into unfamiliar places, I find the faces that look like mine and I sit with them, and for a moment, I feel at home. And then they ask something, vulnerable, like how well can I read Chinese because they can’t and sometimes that makes them feel disconnected, you know, and I say, loud and white, “I can’t even speak it. In Hawai’i, it’s different. That’s where we’re from.” Sometimes I speak pidgin, and sometimes with a Scottish accent. They look uncomfortable. I want to say I understand, maybe, but instead blurt, “My Popo is trying to learn Mandarin.”

My favourite books as a kid and teenager were by Bette Bao Lord and Gene Luen Yang and Maxine Hong Kingston; my favourite movies Miyazaki. After I watched Chungking Express I thought, I never have to watch another movie again, even though I didn’t speak the language. I read Zen Cho and Sarah Kuhn and Courtney Milan and Stan Sakai and Justina Chen, and sure, they might not be as profound as The Woman Warrior, but they’re great within their genres and I wonder if they’re like me, walking the razor’s edge. The book that changed my life was Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Some white guy asked me, “does he even count as an author of colour? He’s a French Catholic.” I simmered.

(My Murakami- and Melville-reading cousin thinks my interpretation of Endo is wrong, and that agreement or disagreement with a character in a story is no reason to wholly reject faith. She, like Endo, is more comfortable with ambiguity. My mother, when I was seven, told her friends that I saw everything in moral absolutes. Things like “I reject Calvinism, and therefore Christianity. And if I perish, I perish.” But now I’ve been talked back onto that razor’s edge of little faith – make my heart restless until it rests in thee even when it means rejecting St. Augustine. My cousins are better at balancing.)

I’ve always disappointed everyone in my Chinese-ness (and my faith). But I am Asian American through and through: my skin, my blood run with butter mochi, my voice telling my brothers to close the lights, my memories…

***

In Hawai’i, I don’t look in the mirror and wonder that I’m beautiful. I look in the mirror and wonder that I’m normal.

I lived in Hawai’i only three months. If you count all the time I’ve spent there, it’s a year. I don’t tell people this at first. I don’t want to explain, Hawai’i is the only place I can dress colorfully and walk down the street, and no one will look at me. I don’t want to explain, how in Hawai’i, cousins kind of appear out of the woodwork. Last week, I discovered dozens more. They have a fleet of canoes and teach surfing. “No, I’m not actually Hawaiian,” I make sure to tell people. But apparently my cousins are. Do they support sovereignty?

We settled in Hawai’i, we Asians, because we could not survive in our homelands and we were chased out of the US. These stories weigh on us still. My cousins are Chinese and Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian, Chinese and some other white race, except, like me, they might get annoyed if they called them white. I’m not white, I’m Irish. And maybe I’m not Chinese, but Asian. Is that reductionistic? The cousin I’m closest to is Korean. We’re not actually related, but in Hawai’i we can be, and everywhere else, people think we are: I’ve borrowed her ID because her name looks more like my face than mine.

When I speak in favour of land reform in South Africa, I wonder if I remain a hypocrite because what of us, what do we do, we who cannot speak our ancestral languages, whose blood relatives are now part of the land and sea? We didn’t colonize; we made our cake noodle and spam musubi and manapua to survive. We are mixed.

But even there, I can never understand. I can sing only two songs in an Austronesian language. My cousins from the sea, unlike me, have a home. Our presence on the island is fraught as our presence on the mainland: borrowed legends, borrowed language, borrowed land.

Even there, the one place they have a name for my race, they call it half. Half one thing, half the other, like we can be so easily cleaved in two.


Created by:  Siobhan McDonough

About the author: Siobhan was born in Scotland. She lives in Zambia and works in international development. She loves her dog.

 

Rivers

I’ve struggled to find ways to describe my journey with identity, filled to the brim with that ever-familiar sense of in-betweenness. Something that captures the tensions in the worlds I inhabit.

Race. Ethnicity. Sexuality. Within each of these, I’ve found different ways to convert the seemingly liminal into a permanent place of residence.

These thoughts used to evoke visions of travel and the feeling of being in transit. A wanderer crossing a bridge or fording a river. An explorer cutting through brush or climbing a mountain. I’ve since discarded the sense of drawing nearer to a destination, but I find myself returning to this river. Perhaps the image of one who makes their life on the water but has a view of both shores can begin to tell my story. Someone who comfortably drifts between banks, but is not lost; who sometimes finds trouble trying to communicate what river life is to those on land. Growing in confidence as it becomes clearer that this is home.

In a world that prefers to break things into this or that, “Pick one”, and either/or, finding a sense of belonging isn’t always easy. It can be tiring to feel like you need to prove your legitimacy. Scrutiny flows from within and beyond your own communities, and otherization takes many forms.

It’s being deemed whitewashed by APIs and a perpetual foreigner by Americans
It’s “You’re so exotic!” from white and Asian faces alike, or the even less savory: “So you’re like a mutt, then?”
It’s that strange, brief pause when a demographics survey says, “Check one.”
It’s “What are you?” as a conversation starter
It’s both gay and straight people telling you you’re mistaken about your sexuality because it’s “not a thing” or “just a phase.”

These statements tell me to hide, adapt, modify, choose, and erase. Some are declarations stating that you’re out of place on the shore while others are requests that you get out of the water. They rejected realities that I knew to be true but began to question.

And those doubts have their way of sinking into your skin. Impostor syndrome creeps into the picture, feeding on insecurities and plastering your mind with question marks. A competing voice wonders aloud if you’ve imagined everything and exaggerated your otherness. This uncertainty, too, has many forms:

It’s wondering if you belong in APIA spaces when your connection to the countries of your ancestors is tenuous at best.
It’s sensing that an inability to speak or understand their tongues might be something shameful.
It’s being unsure if you’re Pacific Islander enough to speak to PI issues.
It’s believing that liking a girl makes you straight and liking a boy makes you gay.
It’s thinking either of these cases voids the validity and reality of the other.
It’s asking if you’re allowed in queer spaces at all.

***

In different ways, I’ve tried to fit myself into the frameworks I know, tightly defined. These dualistic and pluralistic structures take pieces and reluctantly add them together. They measure something like my Asian American identity by attempting to quantify how much Asian or how much American. I lack the vocabulary to handle the resulting dissonance, in part due to the lies I’ve told myself. I’ve thought of myself in a compartmentalized way – a divided individual who’s had to weigh different parts of who I was to figure out where I had a right to belong. And yet, this method is inadequate. Sure, it allows for the coexistence of these various worlds, but often it defines them as contradictory, at odds with each other.

Lately, I’ve begun to question the limits to this model. I’m left wondering if dualistic, and even pluralistic thinking continues to encourage dichotomies and discourage a holistic view of the self.  But, fittingly, maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Rivers can take many forms – they branch off, intersect, and make their way past different shores. Some identities are best described as a synthesis, some their own entity, and some a combination of the two.

Over the last few years I’ve been able to connect with others who share similar experiences, and I’m still amazed at how life-giving it can be to be seen and understood.

My senior year of college, I decided on a whim to attend a conference hosted by a mixed-race club. Over the course of a single weekend, I met students from a vast variety of backgrounds and felt known like never before. Common threads ran through our stories, weaving us together through our questions of belonging. We shared anecdotes of acceptance and rejection, the ways appearance and names play into our racial and ethnic sense of self, what it means to interact with a largely monoracial world. I felt affirmed in my mixed identity and empowered to identify with both my individual backgrounds and their composite. I read the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage. That kind of freedom to identify was new, exciting, and unfamiliar, but I’ve since taken it to heart.

I’ve shared parallel conversations with those who identify at different places along the spectrum of sexuality, who wouldn’t identify themselves as straight or gay. We’ve talked about the doubt that rears its head when others doubt your orientation again and again, the surprise at the idea that there are people genuinely exclusively attracted to a single gender, and the questioning of if telling others even matters at all. As I read more and talked with friends, things began to clarify and click – there are words for this! Taking a cue from Robyn Ochs’ definition of bisexuality, over time I came to claim the bi label.

It’s interesting to see how these things have played a role in my faith journey. As I’ve gone through transitions out of some of my old beliefs and structures, I find familiarity in the midst of the uncertainty. I find myself renovating my categories again: throwing out boxes that are too small, tearing down walls that are too narrow, and learning to sit in the resulting tension.

I like to think I have a clearer picture of who I am now. I can take shattered, preconceived notions and arrange the pieces into a mosaic that tells my story. The multicolored glass is the lens through which I see the world. Though the individual shards might reflect different characteristics, you can’t see the full picture if you focus in on the shape and color of each piece.

My identity as American of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, as each of my ethnicities, as mixed, and as bisexual capture intersections–eschewing false binaries that oversimplify and erase. The self-doubt continues to fade, and it’s getting easier to dismiss the impostor syndrome now that I can better articulate who I am. And through all of this, I’m also reminded that I am more than the labels I claim. They’re invaluable in helping find and foster community, solidarity, and support, but each one only reflects a single facet of who I am. Somewhere in the in-between, I’m still finding that I can embrace and celebrate all the parts of my identity while allowing myself to just be. At the place where the streams combine into a roaring river, I relax, letting it carry me along. Maybe the water isn’t so scary after all.

Created by: Jon M

Featured Photo: Steven Lee

About the Author: Jon is a native Californian of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.  He has an affinity for foreign languages, outer space, and groan-inducing wordplay, and is always looking for recommendations to add to his ever-growing reading list.