Sunday, July 2, 2017

Of education and worth

At the end of last semester, a professor I admire for her brilliance and insatiable appetite for knowledge, set up a meeting with me to tell me I should apply for PhD programs. "Not enough people take the time to pull smart girls aside to tell them they're good enough. It's because we're busy or we think they already know. But I wanted to make sure you knew." This is what she said to me. I don't know that I've ever had someone deeply acquainted with my academic work speak to me with so much faith. I will be grateful to that woman for the rest of my life for her kind words.

I think it's hard to be a Mormon woman sometimes and feel the weight of this paradox of education as the doctrinal reasons for education get lost in the cultural reasons. Reasons like "I'm receiving an education because my future husband might die" or "I'm not married yet so I guess I'll keep going to school" go against the doctrine of learning in the LDS faith. We learn because it's with knowledge that comes a greater capacity to serve those around us.

I still don't have very much faith in myself when it comes to what I can do with my education and that's why I was so touched to hear my professor say such kind things. Where those deep feelings of inadequacy stem from is difficult to articulate. I grew up and am still very much involved in a culture that celebrates women's accomplishments... but only as it's tied to motherhood. I think motherhood is a powerful good in this world. I will continue celebrate the sanctity of bringing life into the world and the honorable duty it is to engage in the daily tasks of raising children. But that doesn't mean I don't feel hurt when other Mormon women have told me that they're bored by the things I write about. Or when I've spent years of my life working on exhibits or projects and they just want to ask me why I'm not married yet. Unfortunately, they don't care about my work--my passions, my loves. And that has bled into my professional life. Why would I think I was worth going to grad school when I feel so inconsequential in the other large space of my life?

And so that is why I'm grateful for this professor. That's why I'm grateful for my parents, who are 100% supportive and celebratory of everything I do whether they agree with me or not. It's what makes me look back with fondness to the boss I had at BYU, one of the dean's of religion who told me he was proud of me and the work I've done. It makes me happy to be in a place like Laramie (who knew?) where I have a priesthood leader and institute teachers who make me feel like I have worth because they ask me about more than who I'm dating.

And lastly, it is these feelings and experiences I've had that made me grateful for this BYU devotional. In the speaker's words I felt celebrated and worthy. I just hope everyone listens to it and hears what she has to say. She does a far better job of articulating what I feel and wish I could say.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What I spoke about

I came back to Korea for a lot of different reasons. But one reason (that I've finally admitted to myself after many months) was to run away. I had the same expectations that every RM has after coming home from their mission. Finish school, find someone to settle down with, start a family. After months of messy surgeries, doctor's visits, and uncertainty, I was ready for some permanence. Instead I got a string of bad dates, several cases of unrequited love, and more than a few nights of sitting at home eating blocks of cheese while watching Say Yes to the Dress for the thousandth time. So as soon as I had graduation plans, I decided not to wait around and let life or love to happen. And because I don't do things half way, I moved across the world to a city where I knew no one, where I hoped adventure awaited.

Don't get me wrong. Moving to Korea wasn't a bad decision; it's just that some days I'm not altogether certain it was the best one.

Which brings me to what I talked about on Sunday in Sacrament meeting. I wanted to talk about one of the main things I've learned while I've been here: overcoming the temptation to isolate oneself. I ran away to Korea to have this fierce, independent lifestyle. And what I learned is that while I can be independent and rely on myself, I don't really want to. I learned that there's this certain kind of courage in opening yourself to others, in being vulnerable, in loving other people and letting them love you back. I think this kind of love includes, but goes beyond romantic relationships and abides in the genuine friendships that we all crave to make. Of course I couldn't say all this in Korean on Sunday, so I read this quote from the Ensign instead:

 
When I think about the type of woman I want to be, the adjectives I want to use are brave, graceful, intelligent, and self-sufficient. These are my goals. But I think, since being here I've tried to reach those goals at the expense of building relationships. There's been more than a few times when instead of socializing and being with people, I shut myself in my apartment and binge watched a TV show or two. I didn't want people staring at me on the bus, or I didn't want to have to focus all night on a conversation in Korean, or a million different things. But isolating myself didn't make me any more courageous, or graceful, or intelligent. In fact, I think isolating myself from human interaction pushed me further away from the person I wanted to be more than anything else.

Once again, there's no way I could have said any of this in Sacrament meeting. Instead I just told some funny anecdotes about how hard it is to live alone in a foreign country. And then I talked about how better my life was when I forgot about the differences between myself and those around me. And I closed with one of my all time favorite quotes by Sister Oscarson, "If there are barriers, it is because we ourselves have created them. We must stop concentrating on our differences and look for what we have in common; then we can begin to realize our greatest potential and achieve the greatest good in this world."

One of the things I believe more than anything else, is that God didn't put us on this Earth to be alone. That's why love, in all it's forms, exists. So after all this, I'm going to strive to be a little bit more present; to close my laptop, put my phone on silent, and overcome the temptation to isolate myself from other people.

And that's what I spoke about on Sunday.

The Youth in my ward and me. Aren't' they precious?
 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Things that happened today that I don't want to forget

-I went to see Jurassic World for the third time today. I had begged one of the girls from my ward to see it with me, but couldn't wait until she and I both had time. I didn't want to tell her that I had actually already seen it. So I was expecting to be bored out of my mind, but she grabbed onto me firmly throughout the entire movie, and kept hitting me during the especially suspenseful scenes. Hard. It was like watching with a 10 year old instead of a 23 year old and it was great.

-We went to a hair salon after the movies. One customer was getting a perm and the owner of the hair shop had half "gold" half red hair, with black roots. I didn't realize for a good five minutes that the customer getting a perm was a man in his late 60s.

-The hair dresser was especially chatty. I can't remember most of what she said, but I do remember her asking me why the ends of my hair were damaged. When I said that I had dyed my hair black, the old man chimed in and said that of course I had dyed my hair black as black is the color foreigners (that's white people in Korea) like to dye their hair the most. And here I was thinking my whole life that it was blonde.

-I was telling my friend how much I hate the color of my hair-boring brown. It's not even a rich brown. It's just a dull brown. Then in her simple English, she said, "No. Your hair is very special, because, in Korea, we cannot make this color, even by dye." I still don't like the color of my hair. But it just goes to show you how perspective influences beauty standards.

-I was explaining to my 4th graders the concept of fast food, and later Taco Bell, and even later still what a taco and burrito are, when one of them finally said (in Korean), "Wow you really like Mexican food. Why don't you just move there?"

-I was trying to make a deal with my rowdy sixth grade class that if they worked hard and focused, we could play a game the last ten minutes of class. One of them proceeded to grasp his hands in front of his face, with his index fingers extended and pressed together, and in the most menacing Donald Trump voice, kept repeating, "Let's make a deal." He did this in English and then Korean. This is the same kid who meow'ed at me last week... *insert sighing emoji here*

-When the same class rejected all the game ideas that I had at the end of class I said, "Hey, tomorrow is America's birthday! Why can't you just have fun with me and play a game?" Then they insisted that they didn't want to play a game but wanted to sing an English song instead, something by Maroon 5. But I wouldn't have it. So I started singing My country tis of thee . Loudly. And off-key. I don't know what came over me. Must have been an outpouring of built up patriotism.

-I went to my favorite kimbop shop for dinner and they gave me a free Korean pancake. It's run by these two sisters in their thirties. They keep telling me to stop by at night if I get lonely. I think I might one of these days.

-I was trying to say (in Korean) in a text to my friend that my new haircut made me look like a man, instead I accidently said I look like a potato. *insert Japanese shrugging emoji here*

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Empathy

I dread grocery shopping. I shouldn't. No longer being the starving college student that I was for many years has afforded me a much larger grocery budget. But still, I dread grocery shopping. I dread grocery shopping for the one simple reason that I'm not Korean. I fear that people will say something to me I won't understand and I'll look stupid. I'm afraid the employees will follow me around, as they often do in the bigger chain stores. I'm afraid that because I can't speak the language very well that I'll end up buying the completely wrong item (for example, fabric softener when I meant to buy detergent, which did happen before and makes this a non-hypothetical fear). I have a lot of irrational fears about the grocery store. Things I never thought to fear about the grocery store in America.

But this fear has developed into something useful that I never expected to gain during my time here: empathy.

Before I really began learning languages, I thought of it as something of a switch. Either you speak the language, or you don't. Now I realize the reality is totally different from that. Learning a language is more like boiling water. It's a very slow process at first. Though you heat the pot, it looks like nothing is happening. Then tiny bubbles begin to rise to the surface, followed by bigger bubbles. And then you turn around to grab the box of macaroni and cheese, and then BAM! it's suddenly a rapidly boiling pot of water. Learning a language in a new country is the same. It's a slow process that takes patience. And while you're struggling through the patience, you often feel like an idiot and maybe a little afraid to go to the grocery store.
 
So this is my life now. In the situations where I am the only foreigner, namely church, I sit in the back where once I might have sat in the front. I act as a spectator where once I might have participated. I feel incredibly stupid where once I felt intelligent. I speak to only when approached, where once I might have been the one doing the approaching.

Somewhere along this road of perpetual embarrassment, I realized that America was largely made up of people who went through these same situations. And I realized how very unsympathetic I've been. I never said anything out loud, but there were certain people I always questioned. "Why don't they participate more?" "Why aren't they friendly?" "Why do they always look so confused?"

But now that I've lived this life, I know. I empathize. I wish I could participate! But I can never say the words in my heart. I try to be friendly, but after using up all the small talk I know, I'm afraid of being awkward. And I generally live my life in a state of confusion in Korea. So it's no surprise if it constantly shows on my face.

I suppose I could study Korean a little bit harder and get myself out these situations. But another thing I've discovered about myself is that I'm rather lazy. But also, I'm grateful for these little struggles because it's taught me about the life of the immigrant (and the emigrant). Maybe once I get back to America, I'll finally start sitting in the back of the room just to be with the person that's too afraid to sit in the front.

Jacob Riis, Children saluting the flag in school, c. 1890 (via Smithsonianmag.com)
 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Let Me Hear Your Story

I've had a thousand blog posts bottled up inside my head; just ricocheting around up there waiting to be put to keyboard. But not having written for so long has made these little essays pile up. So when I sit at the keyboard, I'm never sure what to write about first. But, I know writing is something I have to do, even if it's not very often. So here goes one of those grand blog posts that's been composing itself inside my head for the past few months. Enjoy.

Maybe almost six months ago, I met this guy. He had graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and he was pretty decidedly anti-religion. So when he found out that I was Mormon, the conversation took a brief almost hostile turn. He asked about the priesthood and women's rights among other things, to which I gave honest answers. Later I found out he'd actually been baptized a member as a child and perhaps that's where some of the resentment toward religion came from. Though the conversation started out rough, I think the outcome was ok. I tried to answer his questions in the best ways I knew how. The conversation eventually moved to other topics, but when our group split ways for the night, he proffered these parting words, "You're the most interesting religious person I've ever met." It was definitely a compliment coming from him. I think at the time I laughed. But in my head I was thinking, "How many religious people have you met? I'm really not all that interesting of a person or any different from any other religious person I know."

The funny thing is, that's not the first time I've been told something like that. One Christmas break during college, I was home visiting high school friends, and one told me that I wasn't like other Mormons, I was more interesting, more free. And though I didn't say anything then, I thought it was a silly thing to say. Often people have said to me that I'm not a "regular Mormon" and I find that to be confusing as well as troubling. What is a "regular Mormon" and do you even know anyone who happens to be one?

During my time at BYU, I met some of the most courageous women. These were women I lived with, but some were neighbors, some were classmates, and some were my professors. These women are vivacious, strong, independent, ambitious, and deeply intelligent. If I am different from them, then I want to aspire to be more like them.

Now my perspective is a Mormon perspective and that is what I know best, but I feel that there's this common misconception about most religious women in general. The older I get, the more plainly I see how wide the chasm is between what religious women are and what they are seen as being. Because religious women support an institution (which is usually patriarchal) they are often seen as weak, foolish, and yielding. There is somehow this belief that following a cultural structure limits agency. But what people fail to realize is that a religious life is a constant use of one's agency. (I don't explain this as well as Catherine Brekus, but click here for a scholarly explanation of what I'm trying to say) By following a religious institution like Mormonism, I am making a choice. Millions of other religious women do the same thing. Millions of other religious people do the same thing.

I've been thinking about all this in the context of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Besides the tragic loss of lives, and the fear that citizens now have to live with, one great sadness for me out of all of this is that the actions of extremists become definitive for a whole religion. I know there's some debate about whether or not the terrorists were really practicing Muslims. But it makes my heart ache that for some reason it's always the loudest and ugliest voices that seem to define religious groups even if they aren't expressly associated with that group.

So naturally, I've been thinking about how to change this. How do we live our lives as religious people in a world where other people think that might be an insane thing to do? I've come back to the same conclusion I've always have: We have to tell our stories. We have to open a door for dialogue between all different groups about what a lived religion means. That means claiming the right to worship by the dictates of our own conscience, but also letting other people do the same. And hey, how about talking about all of it with each other?

So with that, I'm breaking my usual rule of making no New Year's resolution and making a New Year's resolution. I'm going to keep telling my stories. And I hope you will too.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Gift

Christmas in Korea is celebrated a little bit differently than other parts of the world. In Korea, Christmas is a couple holiday much like Valentine's Day. So instead of gathering with family, Koreans usually go on dates on Christmas. This concept is still very strange to me. And I can't wrap my head around not having Christmas traditions with your family.

 My family has some spectacular Christmas traditions. And although they've changed over the years, and even some traditions have stopped over time, I'm really grateful that I have those memories and that, for me, Christmas is a happy time.

This year, being alone and all for Christmas, I wanted to create a personal tradition that I could also share with the people I love so we could still be together for Christmas. So this year for Christmas, I'm reading the four gospels. When I realized that my Christmas celebrations this year would be very stripped down, and probably without any fanfare or pageantry, I knew that the best thing to do would be to focus on the life of Christ. That's what Christmas is supposed to be all about right? So family, friends, and anyone else, please join me! If you read about 10 pages or for 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish before Christmas.

I'm not a perfect person. I struggle with the baser tendencies of humankind just like everyone else. But lately, I've had this desire to do a little better, and try a little harder. It has only been a few days, but reading about the life of Christ has already helped me to do that. In the quiet moments of study in the mornings, I've read about what it means to truly live your religion. And I would love to hear what my friends and family have to say about the same chapters. So, what do you say? Are you in?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On Hope

I spent the last hour or so going over some things I had written years ago. And like I often do these days, I lamented the old me. But instead of moping, I decided to do something about it. I decided to sit at the keyboard and write; to transcribe thoughts into words and sentences as I listen to the familiar clatter of the keys beneath my finger tips. I don't know if there's any more productive and comforting sound for a writer than the tapping of keys.

I don't know what happened to make me stop writing. But I did, and I'm so out of practice that I'm not sure if I can even call myself a writer anymore.

But back to these thoughts that need transcribing. One of my Korean friends is leaving for the army tomorrow and I'm unreasonably upset about it. It took me a little while to figure out why, but I think the reason is I know he's the first of many goodbyes I'll be saying over the next few months. The contract for my job ends in February. I've thought about extending. And I likely will, but the past eight months have flown by so fast, I feel like I'm already clenching tightly to the figurative sands of time in my fists, but it's slipping away without my being able to help it. And the tighter I clench, the more quickly it slips away.

I think the reason time is passing so quickly is because I've figured out what I want to do next. But I'm scared that it's such a far-fetched idea that I won't be able to accomplish it. I'm so afraid of failing. I don't even want to jinx it by talking about it out loud. So this idea about my future, this place I want to move to next, I've only mentioned it to a couple close friends. Except for last night when I finally talked about it in a more casual conversation. And for the first time I thought, "Hey, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can take the GRE in a month, apply for grad school, and get into the university I've thought about almost every hour for the past two weeks.... Maybe I can start writing again. Maybe I'll feel inspired again."

I don't know if it will happen, this crazy dream of mine that seems so impossible. But as I transcribe these thoughts into words and sentences, I've realized why the sound of keys tapping sounds so comforting to me; it's the sound of hope.