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Mother

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I made sure I was happy and bubbly in front of everyone else that Mother wanted me to present myself to, but I would be withdrawn at home, a blank and colorless slate once again.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

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.

Growing Roots: On Finding Voice and Belonging

Trigger Warning: CSA, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender-based violence 

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They taught me in church that it is part of our Christian duty to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
I heard it at white church.
I heard it at Korean American church (But we just called it Korean church.)
I regurgitated it and I believed it and by the time I reached my late teens years I was ready to go out and do it.

They praised me, they celebrated me, they paraded me around as the future of the Church.

They did this until the moment I began to dig into this question:
“Who exactly are the voiceless? And what do they need me to say?”

Because it turned out “the voiceless” were actually people like us who had voices of their own. And they didn’t need me to say anything for them, because they were already speaking for themselves.

We simply weren’t listening.

As I started to share what I was learning, the church began to back away from me. I was breaking rank. I was no longer a poster child, because I was no longer using their collective language. As I moved away from regurgitating their voice and began to dabble in using my own, I became less predictable, and that made me a risk.

At first this rejection hurt, but then, it was freeing.

Because, it made me realize that the reason I had been all too willing to agree to speak for others was because it meant that I didn’t have to use my voice to be truly brave. If I was busy using my voice to speak for other people, I didn’t have to use my voice to speak for myself.

I had been taught that silence was safety for so long that I had built a home for myself almost entirely on the foundation of keeping the truth quiet.

“No one can do anything to you that you don’t actually want them to do.”
He told me this while in the act of molesting me. I was eight years old, but it had already been happening for as long as I could could remember. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. But it was too late. I had already learned long before that my voice had no power.



“He pushed me up against the wall,” I told her. “But it was because he wanted to protect me.” I added that because I wanted to protect him too. I didn’t tell her how the mirror broke when my tiny body crashed into it. I didn’t tell her how I couldn’t breathe with his hand on my neck. She told me it was just between us. But, it wasn’t. And when he found out, I learned just how dangerous a fraction of truth could be. Total silence was the only safe retreat.



“Other people won’t understand,” and, “All families struggle like this, they just don’t show it,” my omma told me. They always told me in church not to lie. But, at home, my omma taught me that lying to protect my family was what good girls did. Because, if I told the truth people could get hurt. People could get taken away. I would be alone. The truth will set you free—unless you are an abused little girl. Then the truth will strip you of everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved.



By the time I reached young adulthood, I had built a fortress for myself and my loved ones out of my own silence. I had been burying my voice for so long that I had forgotten what it even sounded like.

I left the white evangelical church in America. I left the Korean church in America. And I got on a plane to South Korea.

For the first time in my life I did something just because I wanted to. It was the first time I heard my own inner voice, and trusted it enough to listen. I had a vague hope that I would find a sense of connection and a better understanding of my mother, and that was enough for me to pick up and move.

What I found was that distance from all I had ever known gave me the power and freedom to begin to use my voice— first to speak truth to myself, then to speak it to others.

I had been in Seoul a few months when I was first asked,”Are you Russia saram?” I didn’t understand then but quickly learned that Russian was code for sex worker or sex slave, and that that was code for subhuman creature to whom a man can do whatever he wants. I understood this as the drunk ajjushi chased me home, clawing at my body, and pounded on my door shouting curse words that I only somewhat recognized from my mother’s angry outbursts, until the police came and told him to go back to work.

The only consequence that day was me completely turning inward and bombarding myself with self-loathing and shame.

But, it was that reaction, plus the distance, that allowed me to admit to myself for the very first time that I was not just a trained “advocate” and “ally” for women who had been or were being abused, but I too had been a victim. I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and that had had deep effects on me. It was a jarring realization, and I felt like I was being cracked open—a splitting pain but also a relief like never before.

The next week would be the first time I ever said the words aloud to another human being. That was the beginning of my becoming a truth teller— a becoming that would assure that I could never return to “home” as I had known it. But I didn’t know, or care, about that then.

I was a newborn tasting air for the first time.



“We can no longer support you.”
“Your history of being abused makes you unfit to work with women who have been abused.”
“You are being used as an instrument in the hands of the devil.”
“You need to let go of the past, and be reconciled.”
Once I returned to the US and began to speak my truth, I was bombarded by ignorance. But, I really didn’t care. I was finally free, and there was nothing and no one that could silence or hinder me.

Except for these words, from my mother, my halmoni and my emo: “But, he is still your family. You have to honor him.”

I refused to see him. I had made my peace. I had decided that he was old and ill enough that he was not a risk to other girls so I would not waste my time in the courts. I was done with him.

So everytime they would meet with him and tell him what was going on in my life, I felt my agency and my voice being stolen again. He did not deserve the access that they gave him, and it was a clear transgression of boundaries that I had finally learned to set. Besides, he was related through my father’s side by marriage and even my father no longer had any contact with him. Why would they continue to hurt and betray me this way when they knew what he had done?

These were the women who loved me most in the world. They had been my sustainers. To them, I had always been and would always be the most precious thing in their lives. They love me with a kind of burning passion and depth of affection beyond my comprehension. They had always been fierce in their protectiveness over me.

And yet.

I just couldn’t understand what was missing. How could they love me and still hurt me this way? Would we ever understand one another?



More than six years passed before I returned to Korea again.

I had spent those years re-learning how to speak. Getting to know my own voice, deconstructing and reconstructing it again and again, and little by little mining out gems of truth that had been hidden for far too long in that old home-turned-prison called silence.

In those years, I burned that prison to the ground, cell by cell. And while I now found myself free, I also found myself uprooted and homeless. I often wondered if that would be my new reality, and had decided that I would be okay with it if it was. Home had never been a safe place, anyway– if it had ever even existed at all.

This time when I moved to Korea, it was for work. I was now nearing thirty, married, and confident in my identity as a biracial Korean American woman — a nomad living in the in between spaces in nearly every area of my life. But, I still carried with me the old familiar hope that this move would bring me deeper connection and understanding with the women in my family. The women who loved me but, who were in so many ways beyond my comprehension.

The community that I formed in Korea started with my work in the red light districts, and spilled over into the community of young Korean women activists who asked myself and other foreign women residing in Korea to come alongside them in their fight for gender justice.

I had arrived in Korea at a moment when the fight for gender equality and taking a stand against gender based violence was a tide beginning to swell. It was a moment where things that had long between whispered between women, behind walls, in the darkness, were spilling over into the light. Those whispers were collectively forming a roar, brought to a head by the murder of a woman in a public restroom by a man whose only criteria for targeting her was her female body. The momentum would later be spurred on by the rising tide of the burgeoning global #metoo movement.

In this context, a small group of women and I found one another. We were diverse, a mixture of Korean born women and expats from different ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds, belief systems. And we decided to do a bilingual Korean and English production of the Vagina Monologues.

As we met, practiced, shared, I found elements of myself yet undiscovered. I found it especially among other women with Korean mothers and grandmothers and aunts who loved them, and who silenced them. Who chose their brothers first, who ignored their cries, who couldn’t protect them, who wanted only for them to be strong and to survive. I also found it among Korean women of my mother’s age, who were unafraid to embrace me and to call out bullshit, regardless of cultural norms and expectations.

In our shared commitment to storytelling as activism, I realized that my voice, intertwined with the voices of each woman who shared her story, and woven together by the voices of the women whose stories we heard and held, had formed into roots. Rather than finding my roots, I had in fact taken part in creating them.

Before then, my voice alone had been a powerful force in setting me free, but had left me without a sure footing. But now, our voices together formed a power even greater; our voices together were connection, they were community — and what are those things, if not the foundation on which home is built.

And the wonderful thing about a home with roots, as opposed to one with walls: it expands and grows as you do.

I saw my mother again last year. Bolstered by the strength of the roots I had grown, I had the courage to be vulnerable enough to tell her exactly what I had suffered, and without my usual protective defenses up, how she had hurt me. And through tears she told me things that showed me that she actually understood from experience more than I had ever known.

We are still reaching out to one another for connection, one revelation at a time.

It is hard. It is messy. And I have great hope.

Now that I am secure in my voice and my place, I am able to hear her voice more clearly; and not only that, I am content to carry between us all of the things that will likely forever be left unsaid.

Because finding the words to tell the truth can be one of the hardest things we will ever do. It is also one of the most freeing and sacred; for no matter how long we are silenced, none of us is voiceless. And none of us have the right to rob another of the chance to discover that for themselves.

Elizabeth is currently most likely to be spotted exploring South East Asia with her husband Marc and her dog Mr. Chi.

Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Learning to Speak

I am a soprano. I have trained for years to use my voice with precision and with freedom; with agility and with richness; with my heart and my body; with articulation and with color; with diction and with meaning. I lend my singing voice to communicating words penned by mostly men (and once in a while, women), modulated through tones composed by mostly men (and once in a while, women). The meaning I convey is sometimes sculpted by a coach, sometimes mediated by a director, sometimes charted by myself.

Sometimes—these are the best times—my collaborators help me uncover compelling truths beneath the musty layers of repertoire consigned to the antique shops of Western art music, also known as “classical music”. And sometimes I have the added great privilege of communicating fresh truths, just written, to even smaller audiences willing to come out to experience something novel in the marginal world known as “New Music”.

I am more comfortable using my singing voice, mediated through all this technique and all these intermediaries, than I am in using my unvarnished speaking voice.

To me, my speaking voice sounds naked, colorless, flat, hesitant. Nobody ought to take this voice seriously.

I am also a writer. I have always had a facility with language. I began editing school newspapers at age 12. I was a newspaper journalist for over eight years, switching to academic writing after leaving my first career. My written voice has also not been my own: deployed at the service of the day’s news; telling others’ stories; or assuming the voice of a researcher putting a fresh spin on old facts.

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I was raised, like many in Asian families, not to use my voice, but to submit to the rules around me. I grew up in a Chinese-speaking home, in an English-medium school founded during colonial days, in an authoritarian post-colonial city. My identity was forged in the tension between the sophistication of “Western” liberalism, individualism, freedom, and logic; and the “Asian values” of conservatism, communal good, pragmatism, and paradox. (I have since come to question all of these assumptions.)

The “Asian values” part of my upbringing clashed with my internalized Western aspirations. They clashed at home, where personal success and family responsibility were stressed at the expense of following one’s dreams; and at my girls’ school, where correctness, modesty, and conformity were enforced even as the curriculum, filled with Western literature, cultivated an inner hunger for voices that were true to themselves and tried to change their world. I lapped up the stories of Jane Austen’s heroines, who asserted personal happiness in a world where women were little more than property; Charles Dickens’ orphans transcending the cogs of the Industrial Revolution; George Eliot’s nonconformists whose singular minds provided a way out of the strictures of Victorian society.

When, at 14, I turned to Jesus and the Christian faith that has defined my adult life, I was also converted into a post-colonial evangelicalism, which added to the tension with its emphasis on correct belief, right living, eternal membership, and institutional power. Never mind that the Bible tells a story of prophets calling out injustice, culminating in a power-subverting Messiah who submitted to ultimate humiliation to restore the cosmos to its original state of wholeness.

Because I yearned to be among the authentic, prophetic voices, I left home, during the Clinton years, for an America that appeared to welcome the stranger with open arms. Someone like myself, colonialized, apolitical, silent, elite; comfortable in the role of model minority; more facile in English than the average American; brandishing educational power; protected by religious identity; and completely blind to the country’s beleaguered cultural, historical, religious, and racial dynamics.

In America, I honed my stage voice to acclaim, moving audiences, chalking up successes, learning to live with failures as I grew in age, resilience and self-confidence.  But outside of my inner circle of trusted friends, my speaking voice stayed mostly silent, unwelcome in my family, my hometown, and, I subconsciously feared, in my adopted and hoped-for new home.

*

It was in relationship that I began to find my voice. Through true love, a partnership with someone who has encouraged me to embrace who I am, and to pursue what I believe in. And through motherhood, shepherding two young ones into my dream for them: a life of wholeness, overflowing in love.

I have learned lessons in watching my children learn to speak. A child is born with a loud voice. She has the words, too, deep inside her. When a typical child’s articulators—the muscles and organs that govern speech—grow and become coordinated, the words tumble out. My job, as my children’s parent, is to help them continue to stay true to their voices, to help them chart a path to use their voices in ways that are healthy and kind.

The election of 2016, having belatedly exposed for me the yawning fault lines of American society, has provided the impetus for me to start using my voice.

On the one hand, my spoken voice is like a young child’s. My vocabulary, tumbling around unexpressed in a fearful mess just below the surface, needs work. I’m learning anew the rules of language, of conversation, of respectful communication. I’m learning to break those rules. My voice is tentative, it is lisping, it stumbles often. But here it is.

My speaking voice is also a mother’s voice. It is tender, it is ragged, it is loud and louder; it is wisdom, it is folly, it is music, it is noise; it is healing, it is hurtful, it can comfort, it can kill. It can sometimes roar. I am learning, sometimes painfully, to marshal this voice for truth anchored in love.

My voice is finding its expression: in person, on paper, scrolling across your screen. It wants to speak up for those with no voice, against those loud voices that keep others’ silent. For fellow immigrants, sisters and brothers of color, those in the LGBTQIA+ community who have suffered immeasurable hurt in the hands of the Church. Against systems of patriarchy and whiteness, unjust leadership, and a Church that has through the ages been drunk with power instead of leading with humility.

I am finding my voice, to show my children they too can use their voices, whether in song or in speech, in cursive or in print. My Asian-American children need to make themselves heard, to claim their space in a land which may not accept them as truly its own.

I can’t protect them with my voice for long, but I can show them what a strong and loving voice sounds like, so they, and their children, can speak for themselves and for the voiceless. They can speak, so that there is room for more people like them and unlike them, in America and in the world, where everyone can use the voices God has given them.

Sometimes, the voice inside of me, that creaky and unformed voice, tells me I am too old to go through, for the second time, this process of taming, of shaping, of unleashing with skill.

But another voice, the voice growing in confidence, tells me: It’s never too late to begin again.

 

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Jennifer Lien has worn several hats in her life in two continents: newspaper journalist, opera singer, music professor. She is also finding fresh meaning in doing justice and loving mercy in her roles as mother and community volunteer.