Perfection meant doing everything exactly the way Mother wanted.

“You have to clean this like me. Why do you not do it like me?”

“You look so dark. You have to be pretty, so stop being out in the sun so much.”

“When you go to dinner, make sure you say ______, so that your uncle can laugh and be happy.”

When I followed Mother’s instructions, I received praise, not only from her but also the people Mother wanted me to please, perhaps for her own praise.

“Good, you are such an obedient daughter.”

“See? Now that you have stayed out of the sun for a few months, you look pretty with light skin. ”

“(My uncle speaking to me) What a smart girl! (talking to Mother) You must be so proud that you raised such a charming and intelligent daughter.”

I grew up believing that I needed to follow Mother’s rules and instructions to be accepted. To be loved. But no matter how much I reveled in the amount of praise, the instructions constantly felt like accusations that I was inadequate and imperfect – flawed, even. To hide my feelings of inadequacy, I would put up a front: I made sure I was happy and bubbly in front of everyone else that Mother wanted me to present myself to, but I would be withdrawn at home, a blank and colorless slate once again. I felt I had no voice or role or personality outside of who Mother wanted me to be. Every time I put on my mask outside the home, I became an actress. I knew my lines, I knew how to deliver them, and I knew how to wrap up the show so that I could give the spotlight back to Mother, the mastermind behind my acting and script. Every day, I craved the praise I received from Mother and others, yet I’d return home after my act completely empty, wanting to be filled again.

Mother’s words showed me enough how I was supposed to live to be perfect, without flaws, just the way she wanted me to be. After all, she didn’t give up her entire life and her livelihood in another country to come to the United States and have an imperfect daughter; she wasn’t going to settle for that and accept it, just as she has had to with every other aspect of her life. Therefore, I couldn’t mess up. If I were perfect, she would be validated in her sacrifices, disappointments, and failures, and I would be living proof that everything was worth it.  

It’s no wonder that it was so easy for me to also put on my mask and become an actress when I met God, when I found a seat at God’s table. I wanted to be the perfect Christian who followed all the rules; Mother taught me well enough, so I simply had to continue the act, now under the identity label “Christian.” But when God called me to take off my mask and lay it down at His feet, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had nothing else to show for my life thus far except for the blank and colorless slate behind the mask. Who was I behind the mask? Would God be satisfied with what He saw? What script would I follow now that I had a new master? What did I have to give now?

There was a moment, in my desperation to find solace in God’s word, when I flipped open the Bible to a random page to see if there was anything that God could speak to me and share with me to help me face the world and myself at the same time. It felt silly to say a quick prayer and flip open my Bible to a random page, but I had nowhere else to turn and nothing else to guide me in my search for answers. I landed on the following verse.

2 Kings 4:2

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a little oil.”  

In this passage, Elisha speaks to the wife of a dead prophet who needed to repay the debt of the creditor who was coming to take her two boys as slaves. She had nothing else to give, besides a little oil. Elisha then told her to ask around for empty jars to fill. After gathering the empty jars and going into an empty room to fill the jars, the widow had an endless outpouring of oil, to the point where she had no more jars to fill.

When she thought she had nothing to give, she received everything she needed. With a little bit of oil, she filled more than enough jars to fulfill her needs.  

I prayed to God that night: Your servant has nothing there at all. Nothing beneath the mask. Except maybe a little faith. Faith that things could be different without the mask. Faith that things could be a little better. Faith that I could be loved and accepted just the way that I am, no strings attached and no mask needed. Faith that there is a life of freedom waiting for me when I set my mask down. God help me to be free. Help me to trust in the little faith that I have in the life-giving and fulfilling future you have planned for me.

That little bit of faith carried me through the years as I discovered more of who I was separate from my mother’s desires, expectations, and instructions for me to be perfect. Sometimes, I still want to put on that mask and be an actress, out of habit and out of a selfish craving for praise and validation. Sometimes I still feel that people won’t recognize me or love me if I don’t have that mask on. It has taken time for me to feel brave while baring my skin, and it has taken even longer for me to believe that my skin beneath the mask was more beautiful and worth sharing with the world than the mask that I’ve co-created with my mother.

As an adult, I find myself still caught off guard by my mother’s requests for me to do things her way, to say things exactly the way she’d want me to. It’s taken courage for me to say no to my mother or to walk away and come back to conversations only when I’m ready at a later time. It’s taken courage for me to be called “disobedient” or “unpretty” by my mother after my small acts of defiance. When I think about my mother and what she sees in me now, I wonder if she’d prefer me with my mask on. I wonder if she’d prefer the perfect daughter still. But I still have my little faith that has sustained me thus far, the little faith that God has much much more life-giving and joyful things ahead for me once I no longer have to live under my mother’s standards of perfection. And I pray that the little faith I have and God’s abundant faithfulness will help me be free to be the imperfect me.

About the Author

Cindy is an aspiring mental health counselor studying at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was an English teacher who taught 12th grade newcomer immigrant students for two years. These wonderful students taught her the importance of mental health, self-care, and self-love, so she sometimes writes about those lessons and moments, among other things. She also loves ginger beer and Korean food.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash


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.
can be
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

I am to be
above reproach,
never tiring,

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


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

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

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
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
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.