Saturday, April 30, 2011

JC, 2009-2011

On December 13, 2009, I woke in the morning with the firm conviction that I had to make it to church. We hadn't been there since October. After my little one's Chuseok/Korean Thanksgiving Day fever seizure and the looming threat of swine flu with its high fever (and the high fever from its vaccine as well), we had been counseled by our pediatrician to remove our little one from all activities that brought him into contact with the public and to remove his older brother as well.

We dutifully kept both children home, taking them out very rarely and always with close supervision. So it was very unusual for me to get to church. I talked it over with my husband, and we eventually decided to go for the afternoon service which is fairly poorly attended and therefore held less risk of infection.

I don't remember much of the service; it was what came after that I now believe was the reason I was so compelled to get to church. My husband had come with my children and spent some time talking with Cindy and her little son JC who was coming up on his first birthday.

After much delay and tears over leaving the toys in the nursery, we finally headed toward home when my husband slowed the car way down.

"Isn't that your friend?" he asked. Puzzled, I contorted in my seat and cast my eyes up and down the sidewalk. Sure enough, Cindy was walking down the sidewalk with JC wrapped in a blanket.

"It's too cold for that baby!" Ilsuk would keep children in protective bubbles for the first eighteen months if they would allow him. He pulled the car over and, after brief argument, persuaded Cindy to get in with JC.

Her husband, it turned out, was taking a test that Sunday afternoon, and she was heading to her in-laws' apartment, a few miles from my husband's family's home where we were headed.

During the car ride, my boys were both entertained by and entertaining little JC. They made faces, played peek-a-boo, touched his hands, and stuck out their tongues in the typical Korean 메롱. JC was transfixed as he worked his tongue around in his little mouth, trying to 메롱 back.

I was in love. JC was always a special baby before, but he showed so much personality that day, such a loving playful spirit, combined with a name like my own children's, I felt like he was one of my own.

While they played, Cindy witnessed to my husband about God's goodness in their life and their upcoming trip to America.

We dropped Cindy at her mother-in-law's and headed a block to the main road before realizing that she had left her wallet in our car. Over the next forty-five minutes, we finally obtained her cell phone number, reached her, and returned the wallet.

A day or two later, my friend called me and said, "We need to pray for JC. He has eye cancer."

"WHAT?! We JUST saw him! He was so healthy!"

That very Sunday, Cindy had shown a church friend a little bump by his eye. The friend advised her to get him to the doctor immediately. It was cancer.

One problem with living in another country, especially if you are marked as foreign by your language and your skin, is that you never feel you quite belong. This can be even more isolating when you spend most of your time working in your home or caring for small children. You are disconnected. And it rarely seems to bother anyone but you.

I had been feeling especially that way since my children had been confined to my home. I had canceled almost every meeting with friends and seldom saw anyone.

Through JC and others, God taught me about connection. It was no accident that Cindy and I were put into closer contact that day. Over and over again, we would be prompted to one another.

I hesitate to write about this. Am I crazy? Am I putting too much emphasis on something that is not there? Or am I called to testify to the love of the Lord? There is too much coincidence. This is my testimony.

Time and again, God would bring others into the picture to pray, to be there, in supernatural ways. Can I remember the first time? No. But I would just know and send a text or an email. I would have a strong feeling, and Cindy would call and say, "How did you know?" But of course I didn't know. God knew. And he knew we were each feeling alone, and he was connecting.

Sometimes, it would just seem too crazy, and I wouldn't say. Like the time I really wished I could send money to them, feeling like they really needed it, praying for providence. Then a note came from Cindy: "Thank you for the money." My friend, whom I had not spoken to in quite a while, had sent it to them in my name. What moved us if not for God?

There was the time that I had been given a message for them at church: Psalm 42. I had brought my English Bible, but I could only find my Korean one. As I struggled to read along with the pastor, I suddenly knew these verses were for Jimmy and Cindy and they needed my prayers. I was busy. I prayed, but I buried the feeling. I didn't want to admit this. It was too strong, too strange, too scary. JC felt like my own child. How could I deal with an illness like this? How could they? What words could I possibly have that were appropriate? It is one thing to pray. It is another to tell.

So I didn't tell. But as I was thinking about JC and praying with a friend, she suddenly began praying for "A child not yet named." I knew it was JC. I told her. We prayed together, and I finally emailed Cindy. A day or two later, I was meeting another friend preparing to pray. I was telling her about JC. Midsentence, Cindy called. She apologized and said she would let me go, but I said, "No, Cindy. My friend and I were getting ready to pray and I was telling her about you. If this isn't God, then what is?"

She told us what was happening--how God had alerted me of those verses as he had alerted Cindy to get up and take JC to the hospital. My other friend began to praise God for the privilege of being allowed to see his hand.

So many other things have happened. I have had so much hope for JC. Then, on Wednesday morning, I began to cry at the kitchen sink as I washed the dishes, thanking Jesus for Cindy's new baby. I didn't hear anything about JC. I was overwhelmed. I assumed JC was healed, whole.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a call from Cindy. She gave me her news, both hope, peace, and longing. There is new life within her, but JC was called home to the Lord on Wednesday.

I cannot fathom their mixed emotions, cannot grasp the hope and despair. Yet I thank God for their strength and their witness. I do not want to walk the road that they have walked, and yet Christ within them has lit that way with brilliant, blinding light.

I wonder where my God is. I wonder how I could have misheard so badly. I was so certain. And yet, God's hand is here. I can see him even though I don't know where he is going.

This is the word of my testimony. I have seen God's goodness in the land of the living. For twenty-seven months, we were blessed with JC's presence. For the last fifteen months, God has shown me that neither time nor distance can separate us from his love. He will never forget us nor forsake us, and he will work wonders so that we know he is there.

I told a friend what had happened minutes after I ended my call with Cindy. "Why did I feel such hope if this was the end?"

"Oh, no, Elizabeth," she said. "God is not done yet."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Are you...or aren't you?

Perhaps this story began in the fifth grade when Tanya was my best friend for a short time. She was perfect. She always smelled amazing. I suspect her mom let her use some of her own perfume. Her hair was perfect all the time, with the kind of body I could only dream about. She was tall and thin and athletic--everything that I was not. Yet she never gave up on me even when most others did.

"You need to exercise. Run. Do pull-ups. You'll feel better."

It didn't happen right then, and I still can't do a pull-up to save my life. But she was right. When I finally began to exercise, I did feel better.

But she was also perfect in other ways. She was willing to share my flights of fancy, interested in what might be under rocks, live in trees, or cavort while we were sleeping.

So it was a complete surprise when she began to ignore my questions, to turn away when I spoke to her.

Finally, Tatiana walked up to me. I could see Tanya a ways behind her, pretending not to look at us. "Don't talk to Tanya anymore," she said. "She's not your friend anymore." She paused. "Because you're a racist."

I was crushed. (Had I mentioned that Tanya was African-American? Probably not. Because that wasn't what I thought of when I thought of her.)

I think I cried right then. I know I cried that night.

I couldn't imagine what I had said or done. I'm not sure to this day if I really said or did anything. Perhaps I had and not known it. Or perhaps I hadn't, but the distance between the ways that people approached us was so different that it was no longer traversible. Is that racism?

In the intervening years, I have come to reconsider racism many, many times. And many times, I have once again been struck that racism, sometimes very real, is most often overlooked by the transgressor when it is truly there. And other times, misunderstanding is mislabeled as racism by the minority who is tired of explaining and, occasionally, just as unwilling to understand the majority trangressor as the transgressor is to understand the minority.

This morning I was forced to review it again, but more on that later.

It was the second time in two days that someone had done it. She was trying hard to cover.

"So you're husband is Korean?"

"Yes," I answered.

"And you're not. (squinting)...Are you?"

"No," I say with half a laugh. "I'm not."

I cannot fault the woman at all. In truth, there is nothing that she could have said that would have been "correct."

"It's funny sometimes having an Asian last name," confided my caucasian friend. "There are those moments when someone announces your name in the waiting room and is obviously not looking for YOU to answer the call."

I laughed hard. It is, afterall, part of my daily existence.

Then I counter with a story.

"You should have seen what it was like when I first began advocating for my son regarding ESL. They looked at me as if I didn't speak English. I grew up here! I went to that school, for pity sake. I mean, look at my face!"

And there it is. As if being white means that I speak English. Of course, I did mean other things beyond that. Foremost, that our assumptions (that only Asians have my Asian last name) color our perceptions (their belief that I am Asian when one close look at me reveals that I am obviously not). And then, not far behind, that the same Asian last name has wiped out the fact that I was born here, that I grew up with these same people, that the woman in the room next to us, who had already interrupted with a message once, had sometimes left her son in my care. I was a foreigner to them. But by the same token, I was claiming that my white face made me their peer. Could I say the same for my own children later? They don't have white faces. What of my brother, also non-white/non-black, who has spent his entire life (minus the first 105 days) here in this very small town?

Even those of us who are aware of the problems have our own blinders or moments when our prejudices, blindnesses, or overall ignorance is exposed.

Another non-white/non-black friend recently described the same experience in reverse. She said, "When I lived in Atlanta and someone asked where I was from, I could say Pittsburgh. Now when someone asks, I feel I have to justify it or come up with another answer."

I have spent a long time pondering this. It happened to me all the time in Korea. Of course, it was different there. You were not Korean unless you were ethnicly Korean, so it kind of made sense to ask. But it often felt to me (and to a lot of other foreigners I know) that the person was reminding me that I did not belong there. Perhaps. But more often than not, I think it was an attempt to make small talk and, more importantly, to establish connection where there previously wasn't one.

And I have often asked myself if there is anything that the other person could have said that would make me happy. I have to admit that I cannot think of any. And I realize that the problem is as much in my own mind as it is in theirs.

Which brings me to this morning and an acquaintance's post regarding this link. I don't really know the mother, but I had spoken to the son about a year and a half before he died. I would hate to think that he was murdered, but I would believe it.

But once again, the claim to race here obscures the much larger issue. Bullying and being an outcast is a big problem in Korea, as it is in the United States and Canada. Murder will always be a hate crime. It doesn't mean that the hate stems from race. It is truly an utter loss that this beautiful child's life has been cut off from the earth. In the few minutes that I spoke with him, he was engaging, fascinating, joyful, and precocious. He was also homeschooled and, while holding unconventional ideas, seemed to have the closed-mindedness and lack of empathy that many children who have not been exposed to more than a few adults and children often possess (in a nutshell, THIS is my problem with homeschooling).

This boy would have been completely unprepared to meet and negotiate with an opposing group of boys (Korean OR American). Being alone, as he was so often, he didn't have a buddy to protect him. He didn't have the cultural fluency or exposure to others unlike him to help him, and he was an outcast for more than his complexion--his weight, his lack of friends (adolescents in Korea tend to travel in packs), and most likely his mannerisms.

HIS DEATH IS WRONG. YES, IT IS WRONG. There can be no condoning. There can be no explaining. But at the same time, there are issues here that go much deeper than race--namely bullying, pack mentality, and the arrogance of the individual in thinking that they don't need to understand the other (and I mean this on both ends), among others.

My heart bleeds for this mother. I pray that I am never in this situation. But I know that we are all walking a tightrope. Years ago, someone (non-white/non-black) was beaten in this very same small town less than a block from the home where he had grown up. No one has called this a hate crime. But in this small area, I don't know anyone else that this has happened to. I also didn't see much in the form of police work. Similarly, a non-white neighbor appears often to be harshly punished for behaviors similar to those that his white counterparts also engage in (unpunished). Is it because of his race? Is it because those who are white better understand how to dance on the line of what is going to be punished and what it not? Or is it because one set of parents is not about to be silent at the punishment of their children while the other has perhaps given up?

Even early this fall, I spoke to a school administrator about the need to deal with my son's anxiety which is, in part, tied up with his language (and, because his language is nearly only spoken by those of his race, his race). When I told her that we were seeing four times the amount of self injury and that it was dangerous, her response was "Well, we expect behaviors to increase."


Perhaps I had failed to mention that these behaviors had nearly resulted in his falling from a second floor window onto the concrete below. (I can't believe that I did.)

I could say that she was callous. I could say that this was racism.

But I think it highly more likely that she just didn't know what to do and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.

Is it okay? No.

Is it understandable? Yes.

And, I think, we have to choose to start with the understanding.

Friday, April 1, 2011

You belong here--April Fools!

"There's something on your shirt!"

"April Fool!"

"There's something coming out of your nose!"

"April Fool!"

"Your shoe's untied!"

"Mom! I'm not wearing shoes!"


It is a minor Western holiday, perhaps underpinning a Western belief that the gullible deserve to be duped--the regard in which that belief is held revealed in the severity of the pranks generally practiced.

It was similar here on St. Patrick's Day when the leprechauns visited us with green pancakes and green milk. There were even green flowers to be shared. Even though the boys didn't see any gold or rainbows, they certainly basked in the luck of the Irish, and the little one tries to recall it about once a week with a request for "green pancakes and sauce!" Again, the Western belief in the fickleness of fate and the importance of luck permeates the minor holiday and helps color the population that celebrates it.

It's these minor holidays and the lack thereof that set me off as both non-Korean, and now, do to this new awareness, not quite American either (or perhaps reluctantly a majority American watching painfully through the life of a minority American and realizing belatedly the pain that I have caused those who didn't walk this same path).

You can forget you're part of the majority. You never quite forget you're part of the minority.

You see, the big holidays are easy--they are well marked on the calendars in both countries. You can't miss Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Easter. Similarly, Chuseok and Seolnal are well-advertised. I know they are coming.

And they are not hard to celebrate--there are countless books on the holidays in both languages (believe it or not, even the Plum Library carries a book on what it is like to celebrate Chinese New Year in Korea!). Ditto in Korea. Several of my students were very proud of their Christmas cookies.

The only problem with contacting the families on these holidays is getting through the busy phonelines and catching the ever-moving relatives at home.

But the little holidays somehow reveal more about the culture or what I don't know about it, and I seem to have lost the little Korean holidays here--the day the little fish are released at the beginning of spring, the day we eat peanuts to frighten evil spirits, the day the traditional dancers beat drums and cymbals through your home to chase out malevolent spirits. I don't know how to find these days, and, without the reinforcement of the culture around us, some important lessons are missing, namely that life is precious and needs to be fostered and protected.

We return to Korea in two and a half months to see our relative. Two and a half months--76 days. Seventy-six days of limbo, a place we are becoming accustomed to dwelling in.

Part of my name means "house," and since moving so much during my marriage, it often feels like a cruel joke. I am longing for a family, friends, and a home that doesn't change so much, for a security that is elusive (or, perhaps, "illusive" might be a better word since such security probably does not exist). I feel that we are making progress here, just as I felt we were in Korea before we left. And I fear that the transition will wipe it all away once again. I fear that we will once again, no, not once, make that twice again in a single summer, remember that we are neither Korean nor American--that, to mangle Leonard Bernstein's fine work, the somewhere that is a place for us is not in this time for us.