BENDING THE MISSIONARY ARROW

My passport is full of stamps from the Dominican Republic. I have gone almost every year for the past thirteen years, since my freshman year of college! The trips have varied in length and location, teams and purpose. We have worked in sugar cane communities called “bateys,” in community development work in Haitian-Dominican border towns, across the border with various Haitian schools. We have visited universities, constructed visual conversation starters called “proxes” to share the gospel, taught English in hopes of reaching Haitian students, played basketball against Dominican athlete teams and embarrassed ourselves royally. What a journey it has been!

One of our Haitian students sharing about the earthquake. Haiti, 2014.

The Dominican sister movement to InterVarsity is called ADEE, Asociación de Estudiantes Evangélicos, and our relationship and shared experiences have been much more than cool summer missions; they have shaped the way I see God, his kingdom, and my work with students in the past ten years.

Our courageous, first ever ADEE group to join our American group for a month of ministry together. Dominican Republic, 2012.

The Dominican Republic is a special place. It is the place where I worked at a special needs school called Genesis and came to understand the intrinsic, unchangeable value of being made in the very image of God, no matter how much the world values us based on what we do or produce. It is the place where the “kingdom of God” transformed from a random fluffy church-y concept to a real thing that I understood as heavenly realities beginning to heal and establish themselves in the midst of our mess. It is the place where a bumper sticker that said “Sé que soy especial, Dios no hace basura” (“I know I’m special, God does not make garbage”) cut me to the heart and began a long journey of coming home to myself as a Chinese-American woman. It is the place where conversations about deep divides between people groups began to grab my attention, break my heart, and hold a mirror up to my own prejudices and need for healing and reconciliation, as well as my own nation’s deep rifts and unconfessed sins. It is the place where I saw the actual power of God break generation-deep walls of hostility and bring miracles of a new humanity united in him, learning to live in peace. It is the place where I began to believe that the costly reconciliation God establishes with us is something he wants us to live out in similarly sacrificial ways, and that speaking and teaching and preaching of the One who reconciles is a timely word that, when embodied, is a way to see bright glimmers of the kingdom of God break through like the dawn of a new day.

It is the place where I learned to ask questions about context and culture and allow that information to impact strategy in ways that began to powerfully decolonize my mind, stripping it of assumptions and opening up new possibilities. It is the place where I watched Dominican Christian students boldly reach Haitian students in a context where there is no mixing of the two. Because of this faith that believed that Christ’s love was without borders, I steeled myself to try to reach the least likely to be imagined in our IV community: Latinx students, international students, black students, and Greek life students. And with the courage of their faith and example, I went. My faith has been emboldened by our Dominican brothers and sisters, and I am forever grateful. I’ve seen students transform as they engage with entirely different cultures and are ushered into spaces of repentance and worship that have changed the course of their lives. I have seen American students take ownership of their American campuses with a tenacity and creativity greatly inspired by their Dominican brothers and sisters.

The Dominican Republic is also the place where I’ve asked many questions about missions, about our posture as westerners, about effectiveness, about the relationship between the missionary and the people being served. What is often experienced in global missions is a lopsided relationship where one has the power to make decisions and the money to see it through, and the other receives without much say in the matter. This is problematic. The lopsided dynamic tends to look like this: those in power have a stark unawareness about the power dynamic and its effects in the relationship, while the others are at the mercy of the benevolence of the ones in power. The former feels self-satisfied with its good deeds while the latter grows in dependence. If we look closely, we would see missions tinged with the undergirding of colonization: Surely we know the more civilized way to worship and to live!

Our walk to the schools in Haiti, 2014.

Working with our Dominican sister movement ADEE has taught me much. I have learned (and am still learning) much about real partnership. I am learning that true partnership is where both parties are invited to have a voice, where needs and desires of both are seen and addressed. Partnership like that is much more time-consuming and costly. It requires investing deeply in listening to each other through different languages and observing each other’s contexts, hearts, and vision. It involves curiosity and asking questions about need and desire, and not assuming you know the answer. It is costly in time and relationship, but fruitful in long-term development of shared ownership of a shared vision. I’m learning that partnership like this only works with humility and perseverance — humility that allows us to rejoice in our need of God and one another, and perseverance to press through cultural missteps (which are inevitable) with grace.

The Church in America desperately needs the Global Church. We must acknowledge the lies we’ve believed about ourselves — that we’re invincible, that the ways we do things and what we know is better than everywhere else, that we don’t have anything to learn from anyone else, that we have only to give and not to receive, that we are the saviors of the world, etc. — and we must repent. In a culture that teaches us to resist any “neediness,” we need to fight back with great unlearning and an openness to kingdom culture, where we rejoice in our sheer, utter dependence on God (in which we were created to flourish!) and learn to lean in to our need of others, our interdependency on all of creation. We need the voices of minority groups (I’m talking a wide range — racial, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic, etc.) to speak prophetically to us. We need the voices from the Global church to call us out and encourage us.

ADEE and IV staff teams convening for project-dreaming and partnership building. Dominican Republic 2015.

And so the work I have been doing with our Dominican sister movement is developing a partnership of shared vision and trust, where our voices are invited to speak into each other’s movements and contexts, where we learn from each other and encourage each other in the gospel. It is turning the missionary arrow (westerner → other nation) into a circle, where both are free to have a voice and influence in decision-making.

ADEE and IV at our most recent partnership trip at a Dominican student leadership conference, 2018.

We will continue to take American students to the Dominican Republic in the summers, but we are also inviting a team of Dominican students and staff up to New England for our first ever return missions tripl! At first, this seems preposterous (see above re: lies we believe about our own importance and lack of need). But at this holy moment in our movement, this return trip seems fitting, timely, and a gift from God. We want their partnership on campus; we want them to reveal blind spots; we want their eyes on the ground to speak into what they see. We need them and are expectant of the ways we will learn together. Thank God for our sister movement and the ways they help us see His face!

Walking home from school together. Haiti, 2014.

Enjoy some pictures from the years of developing partnership!

Dominos under the shade of trees. Dominican sugar cane bateys, 2012.
We learned so much from our time in the sugar cane bateys. DR 2012.
Teaching English to Haitian students in the biggest university in the capital. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic 2012.
ADEE and IV familia after a month of ministry together. Dominican Republic, 2012.
ADEE and IV familia with a latrine we helped construct. Dominican border town, 2013.
Teaching English and Spanish. Haiti, 2014.
We walked through banana fields to school. Haiti, 2014.
Our ADEE and IV team after church. Dominican Republic, 2014.
ADEE and IV familia reunited at URBANA missions conference! St Louis, 2015.
Familia eats together! Dominican Republic 2015.
Old friends from the ADEE/IV familia reunited at the most recent ADEE student conference! Dominican Republic 2018.
IV staff and our amazing host Alfonso, ADEE staff and director of the SE LUZ student conference. Dominican Republic 2018.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CELEBRATION

Celebrations, anniversaries, parties, special little meaningful gestures, getting dressed up, making a fuss, and writing cards can seem frivolous and silly, especially if you’re in a cranky mood. I have a high value for practicality and frugality, so sometimes when Andrew and I are thinking about date nights, I find myself calculating the actual cost and deliberating if it is worth it. I can be a bit of a Scrooge. For birthdays, I never want people to spend money and would rather have them over for dinner. On my 30th, three friends took me out to a nice restaurant and treated me and brought a birthday cake too — I was floored, and slightly confused. With flowers, I used to think they were a waste of money because they die, and so I would pretend to scorn them even though I had a secret love of them. And with presents, if it isn’t absolutely necessary, why should I receive it?

It seems like I’m just really, really cheap. Which is true. But what is below the surface here is a spiritual unhealthiness keeping me from celebration. Sometimes it’s a bloated sense of my own importance and the gravity of the world’s problems that has me overburdened, lacking trust in God, and not making any space for celebration. Sometimes it’s a lack of hope that things can get better, so why celebrate this little thing now? Sometimes it’s a sheepishness in receiving love, care, and generosity — a sheepishness that comes from shame and self-abasing, false humility. Usually, it’s a lack of a true, humble (not self-flagellating but actual) view of self and a true, big view of God, and a lack of a sense of his delight in me.

I used to think rejoicing and celebration was a “not very serious” kingdom value, but I am learning that celebration is a spiritual discipline, an act of faith only possible where there is hope in the One who will never leave you. Celebration in the kingdom is more than half-hearted applause to fill in the silent parts between acts, but a steady and powerful choice to rejoice in the “ellipses” of life, when you’re still watching and waiting and hoping and praying. It is a courageous act of hope, a conscious decision to say no to despair and to take joy — even delight (!) — in small victories when you still have a long way to go.

Celebration gives room for reflection so we can see past mere accomplishments and instead savor the true gift of the presence of God with us. Celebration sharpens a fearlessness in us for tomorrow because the same God we saw with us yesterday is the same God with us today, and the same God with us tomorrow.

And so for our one year anniversary, Andrew and I celebrated! We went to a very small town in western Massachusetts and enjoyed it for what it was and didn’t expect it to be what it wasn’t; we walked on its flower bridge and hiked and ate things and stayed at a cute/creepy bed and breakfast. We remembered, we shared stories, we laughed. Lots more work to be done, lots of lessons yet to be learned, but celebrating God’s never-failing presence in our marriage was sacred and delightfully fun.

Who knew very small town New England could be so beautiful, quaint, and weird?

Right after that, I flew to Missouri to celebrate the graduation of my dear friend Dr. Miranda Machacek, who just finished her PhD! She is a part of an MD/PhD program, which means that she resumed the grind of med school a mere week(!) after her graduation from her PhD. A time of celebration wasn’t practical per say, but it was crucial in the meaningful, weighty kind of way.

Family and friends from near and far, celebratory flags, pounds of hummus and pita, hiking, favorite restaurants, and lots of Andy’s custard, all to declare that even though more is to be done, something of great value was achieved through incredible grit and perseverance. God upheld her throughout, and a celebration was in order! In a way, celebrating was a prophetic reminder that God was with Miranda in getting her PhD and will be with her as she finishes med school. Celebration leads us to worship that brings a solid, actual hope that we can cling to and stand on with more and more confidence, and deeper and deeper trust.

It was high priority to make glitter flags to accompany such a scholarly celebration 🙂

So, here on my birthday, as I sit and stare at the peonies and poppies that are gloriously adorning my living room, flaunting their intricate, strong, delicate beauty, I am invited to a place of wonder. These little friends are strong and resilient to survive the New England winters. They are needy, flourishing only when their needs for light and nutrients and water are met. They are downright unapologetic in the unfurling of all their beauty in their blooming. And they die after some time, and I’ll have to throw them in the compost along with the banana peels and egg shells.

Our current living room situation.

These flowers were gifts from people who love me. The very things I used to scorn as a waste of money are powerful reminders of my own belovedness, my own strength when I receive the care of the Father, my own neediness, my power and beauty, and my own real limitations. It is all beautiful, even if it is but for a moment and still in process, and it is to be celebrated with unadulterated wonder and a heart of worship.

FIRST ANNIVERSARY: A YEAR IN REVIEW

Wherever there are hearts surrendered to the Father, there the kingdom comes. As we’ve been reflecting on our first year of marriage, that has been a truth we’ve been discovering more and more: the more surrendered we are to the Father, the easier it is to love. If not trusting and soft-hearted towards God, loving the other feels like trying to run in tar. Andrew likens it to slavery, half-heartedly, anxiously running through motions and tasks of the Father’s house, all the while breathlessly estranged from the Father himself. The heart becomes numb and bitter, arrogant in its dutifulness, walking around like it’s owed something.

I’ve found that when my heart is stubborn towards God, it is nearly impossible to love Andrew –  “love” becomes shortchanged from “love is patient, love it kind, it doesn’t envy or boast, and is not proud” to “just try to be nice,” which is in some cases minimized even further to “just try to be civil,” and sometimes even further to “just try not to kill him with your words.” And sometimes that is really hard not to do. When we do not know the refuge of the Father, we defend ourselves mercilessly, often at the expense of the other. Or at least I do. Within me there is breathless fight of panic, anxiety, unrest, a scramble to defend my worth, and what comes out of my mouth is exactly that – a weaponized fight with word lances, low blows and a clear lack of listening, of self control, and of grace.

In my sin I become less of myself. The image of God is murky in my unholy chaos because I’m not surrendered to God and I’ve chosen instead to go my own way. The irony is that you’d think I’d become more and more of myself in choosing to follow myself and heed my own desires, but because we were created to most fully flourish in dependence, surrender, and trust of the Father, I am less of myself. In my sin I hurt others, and the damage is no small thing. There must be another way.

It is the Father who calls us to put our weapons down, the Father whose safety allows us to be vulnerable to confess and repent to one another, the Father whose unwavering love gives us courage to reaffirm our comparatively flighty love for each other. It is in surrender to this Father that we are learning to reconcile and come out the other side to what I call “the soft side,” where vulnerable thoughts and feelings often defended with defensive prickles and words lances are instead uncovered slowly and in trust. Instead of entering a battle ground, it’s like entering a wild garden at dawn. Sunlight pouring in to create an amazing array of shadows and light dancing among the greenery and the buds. It is a place to observe, smell, touch, admire. Because we are still getting to know each other (and will be for a lifetime!), this is a place of discovery where curiosity is invited to lean in and ask questions, as opposed to making assumptions about things we don’t know. Curiosity is a holy posture that honors the other in its inquisitive, childlike nature that communicates that you are worth knowing.

When the heart is surrendered to the Father, there humility presides, un-clenching anxious fists in a delightful admission of dependence on God. We then can laugh at ourselves and receive grace for our mistakes. We’ve experienced a lightness and levity that comes in where discouragement, shame, and despair threatened to have the last word. There is a new end of the story because of the Father’s grace in Christ! We live, walk, fight, reconcile in this grace, upheld by its tremendous power, buoyed by its hope.

One year later dressed in our wedding garb, in our favorite park for evening walks. Photo by Zoe Towler.

WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE

This was a post on my instagram with thoughts on love in marriage as we express it, receive it, make mistakes in it, and grow in it daily.

Love sometimes involves romance and red dresses, but more often love is filling up your water when it’s low, it is cooking and changing your seasoning to match the palate of the other, it is sitting next to you when you’re groggy and exhausted saying, “Chula sleep longer, skip the gym” in the kindest and most gentle way. Love is letting you have the last of the milk for a chocolate protein shake and making your own with water (ew thank you wah). Love is unwavering support in a new season of work and school, with packed meals and green tea lattes and a car full of gas. It is hosting a dinner party with Kata the elf on Valentine’s Day for the people who have been on my heart when you’d probably rather have a quiet night.

Love is fighting for each other in prayer, it is forgiveness and grace over and over, it is saying no to despair and resentment and choosing to see with eyes of faith and hope. Love is a beautiful, beautiful thing that points to something so pure and bright and of heaven that it would hurt your eyes if it were not made so tangible and real and gritty. It makes you new.

Honestly, I think Andrew loves me most when he makes and protects time every morning with the Father. because He is the One who helps him stand tall and love so freely and deeply. I have never seen someone so committed to hearing the voice of the Father. Andrés, thank you for protecting that space of great love and intimacy with Dad. I see its overflow in all places. It helps me see the face of God in places I never ever expected. It is heavenly.

ON VOICELESSNESS

Unless you’re heading to a silent retreat, there is no super convenient time to lose your voice. SERVEUP is definitely not a silent retreat. It is an spring break service trip for college students with rebuilding work during the day and conversations about justice and faith in the evenings. It is a highly relational trip that has everyone happily exhausted at the end.

Part of the team at Yabucoa, a fishing village where we did post-Maria rebuilding work!

As staff, you shout to get people into vans and buses, to remind to hydrate and put on sunscreen, to see if you left a student behind when you stopped at the panaderia. Where we were in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, there was no sound system and so you use your loudest, most commanding voice to lead evening sessions.

The only time I had a full voice! Teaching at the first community time.

It was the third day of the trip when I started to lose my voice. Frog-like sounds began to emerge from my mouth pretending they were real words and cohesive speech. At first I panicked. There is no way I can lose my voice and lead this trip. I asked staff team to fill in for me, not realizing they’d have to do that for the rest of the trip.

THE RISK OF ASKING FOR HEALING
In the past when I’ve been injured or sick, I would immediately assume that it was to teach me something – how to be slow, how to ask for help, etc. Which was good for my spiritual formation. But I was so preoccupied with “learning from the suffering” that
I would never ask for healing. But since my miraculous ankle healing on the Camino de Santiago three years ago (will write about it sometime!), I have learned that one of the marks of discipleship with Christ is allowing ourselves to yearn for healing and asking for it even if it doesn’t seem wholly possible. I’ve been learning the sacred balance of asking God to heal with hope, and yet choosing to praise him even as it doesn’t seem like he’s said “yes.” This teaches humility while not abandoning hope, and embraces the holy ache for things to be made right. It’s the faith in waiting when things are not as they should be. It’s vulnerably asking for desires with an open hand as opposed to a suffocating grip and being open to how God moves, whether it is in the way you think it should be or not.

So there I was, asking for healing. We prayed. My voice regressed from frog-sounds to barely any sound at all. At one point I got mad; I felt annoyed and powerless to express myself. I wanted to explode but it took so much effort to try to speak that I wanted to give up trying altogether and just be quietly resentful.

I had a choice. I could allow the resentment of my powerlessness to rule me, or I could submit to the lordship of God even when I didn’t get what I wanted. By the grace of God I chose the latter, and this is what I learned.

NO CHOICE BUT TO LISTEN
The treasure of having no voice was that listening became the only way to connect with others. Maybe this is an obvious lesson, but it was like a parable I was living out in real color and silence. I began to realize the sheer, upside-down power of curious listening. Upside-down because our culture promotes well-spoken leaders who don’t necessarily have any listening skills. Upside-down because it feels like receiving more than giving, but is actually a great gift to those who trust you with the weight, conviction, and treasure of their words. There I was, getting to show some upside-down love in my muteness. In the conversations in the van, sitting on our cots, over dinner, I listened. More than ever before, I listened. Behind the questions I heard stories, and behind the stories I heard yearning and groaning and sadness and joy, proclamations of beauty, strong and uncertain desires. I was able to see people more deeply because I could listen more clearly.

I listened to the hearts and struggles and hopes of these student leaders in meetings, as we worked together during the week, as we cared for each other. It was strikingly powerful to hear.

THE POWER OF WORDS
With every word feeling like a it was a stale dry cracker forcing itself out of a brittle straw, every word was a struggle. The scarcity of words taught me a powerful lesson about their intrinsic value. As opposed to saying whatever, whenever, without much thought, I had to be wise about how to use them and when. It meant saying no to micro-managing, it meant saying yes to trusting the staff team more fully.It meant that things looked really different than I would have liked, but still seeing God’s hand at work. It meant deciding that the most important purpose of my voice was to speak of God’s reality and power to those (literally) leaning in to hear more.

This staff team carried my teaching and MCing weight, prayed for me, tried their best to listen to me in staff meetings when I was whispering haha. Jackie is a doctor and cared for me intensely with meds and motherly love. I wouldn’t have known this level of teamwork if my voicelessness hadn’t made me so darn aware of my need and dependence 🙂

I found myself on long busrides, on worksites, and eating meals with seekers and skeptics asking me questions about my life with Christ as a Chinese-American, about how to hear God’s voice, about how to trust him when you’re not getting what you desire. Every word felt like a little frog-like treasure emerging weakly and miraculously out of my mouth, and from the depths of my heart.

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. We either speak life or death. “Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing for the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). How will I choose to give honeycombs and speak life and hope, and let all other words fall to the wayside? God speaks kindness, grace, and forgiveness to me over and over. Its sweetness and power is changing me, and the more I learn to receive his honeycombs allows me to speak that to myself and to others. “Choose the honeycomb, Kata!” For all the words that come out of my mouth, that is my prayer.

THAT AUNTIE LIFE

It is one thing to experience motherhood as a daughter. It is another thing entirely to experience it as a “yee ma” (aunt in Cantonese) to your sister’s baby pupski. (I have called Harper “pupski” since she was about a month old. I’m not exactly sure why or where that came from, but it is special and she is a little pupski to me!)

Last year a baby pupski came out of my sister!! It was a miracle.

As a yee ma, I have experienced things that I never could have imagined – the crest of a little hairy head before launching into the world, yellow watery poops that smell strangely sweet, alarming dragon noises emerging from a very small child. A whole little body and face transforming every month – thunder thighs and round cheeks, a buddha poop-filled belly when constipated, the teeth of a growing little bitey pirahna, hair now long enough for pigtails! Going from falling asleep in our arms to screaming when put down for naps. Feeling actual relief flood your own body when you celebrate the poops that come after long last (even if they are now kind of gross because of the solid food). Long days, fast weeks.

Mothers are warriors. I knew this before, but I see it more fully now. In a very real way, their lives (and body, and time, and decisions) are no longer only about them. There is a magical expansion of the heart to care for another. Mothers delight in their babies, want the best for them, and their hearts go to battle for their flourishing. They root for their development and celebrate milestones – solid food intake, vocabulary expansion, crawling and walking – even as they quietly mourn the loss of the days when there was only breast milk and incomprehensive dragon noises. I think of my mom bringing three of us into the world and raising us at home, and the amount of strength and tenacity and prayer that went into the countless days of growing us up. Moms should get medals of great honor.

It has been fascinating to follow the development of Harper the baby pupski, and how her introduction to the world is shaping us. Oftentimes it  feels like we won’t have the bandwidth to love more  (the #nonewfriends movement on social media?), but when we choose to love there is this beautiful expansion of the heart. It looks different for everyone, but it is a steady opening of the heart that is breathtaking in its self-giving love. There is a becoming, an unfolding of sorts, that is sacred. Just when you thought you knew someone so well, all your life? Front row seats to watching family choose love and become more of who they were created to be.

I see that in Kit the mom, Jeff the dad. Kim the yee ma, me the “yee ma weirdo” (it is important to distinguish between me and Kim okay). My mom is now “paw paw” and my dad is “gung gung” (maternal grandma and maternal grandpa in Cantonese). It has been so curious and fun to watch these relationships and new avenues of love unfold.

Paw Paw, Gung Gung, and Elmo are all big Harper fans teehehe

As our family expands with husbands and children, we are all changing and learning new things. It’s not just Harper the baby, but the adults too are adapting and growing. It feels new and different, clunky and a little confusing sometimes.  And just as we are kind to Harper when she falls on her butt after standing up ( “It’s okay chooky you can try again!”), I’m learning to be kind to when mistakes are made and I need to try again.

This past weekend was Harper’s first birthday party and we all came together to celebrate. I was struck by the love Harper is surrounded with that she experiences in being held, in playing with us, in exploring new places while we hold hands as her walking support, in gifts that span from the things she needs (socks and chopstick trainers obviously) to things she loves (an Elmo couch, animal floaty bath toys, an orange), in Kit keeping her to her nap schedule and feeding her, in the prune concentrate she drinks to soften her poops so they’re not little rocks that hurt her when she tries to launch them out of her body. I see the sacrifices (of time, of dream jobs, of sleep, of desire) that Kit and Jeff make for Harper’s care. It is a deep love. It is an embodied love.

Yee Ma Star Baker (aka Kimberly, not me) made two BOMB cakes – a hedgehog cake funfetti cake for the adults, a personal sugarless carrot cake for the birthday girl!
Harper got NEW WHEELS! (slash, a hand-me-down from a neighbor but new to her!)
So many little and big milestones to celebrate in a year of life!
We got her baby chopstick trainers, bath toy friends, and a cara cara orange 🙂

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” + Matthew 7:9-12

“How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Grateful for this new perspective of “yee ma life” that gives me a real life picture of the love of a parent. It has filled me with gratefulness for parents who love us so well through the years, and has filled me with wonder to think about God the Father. Delighting in us, fighting for us, savoring communion with us. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! Wow. That is amazing. Maybe I am a growing-up grown up pupski in the Father’s eyes.

LEARNING TO SAVOR CHINESE NEW YEAR (Amy Zhao)

The following is our first every GUEST POST!! Featuring Amy Zhao, who was my “Head Dumpling Czar” for our wedding, successfully leading a small army towards the ridiculous but delicious goal of making 1,300 homemade dumplings! Amy’s journey with God in her Chinese-American identity has brought me great joy and her thoughtful, precise, and powerful voice has encouraged many others, including my own.

In the third grade I practiced writing 新年快乐, happy new year, over and over again. I remember sitting at our kitchen table with a sheet of scrap paper with my mom’s example handwriting at the top – clean and natural compared to my ugly and lopsided scripts. But I was practicing it so that the next day, my scratch paper reference would be ready and I could write it on the class whiteboard so everyone would know it was Chinese New Year! A special, very important day!

In subsequent years, my signifiers changed form and then slowly fizzled out. Some years I wore a simple jade necklace, the classic red string with the pearly jade stone. “It’s Chinese New Year today,” I liked to inform people. “Did you know that?” Throughout elementary school, I was usually the only Asian student in my class and sharing this one part of Chinese culture seemed to be exotic, special. “See me, I’m Chinese.”

When Chinese New Year rolls around every year, with its bright red and gold colors and dragons and music and delicious food, it is the most overt expression of Chinese pride that I know. And as a kid, it was like my one Chinese thing that I could be proud of, that my classmates were actually curious about. I clutched onto it as my proof that I was Chinese and that that was something to be proud of. I had language to describe it and explain it, images to point to, the lion, the red envelopes, a whole history of traditions that I didn’t know but could at least Google. On that one day it didn’t matter that I was the only Asian in my class, and all my other defensiveness and insecurities about being Chinese hid themselves in pride.

By high school, though, I felt like a poseur and stopped wearing the necklace on Chinese New Year and didn’t really bring it up at school unless someone else brought it up. Chinese New Year meant going to church and eating slightly overcooked dumplings with random Chinese dads and bringing a book to read while the Mandarin congregation carried on their festivities. It meant good food at home and occasionally at my mom’s friend’s house too, but mostly, my participation was that of an obedient Chinese daughter. The tight clutch shifted to a loose grasp, like I didn’t know why I was holding it anymore.

On the outside, I am pretty Chinese. I can speak Mandarin without an accent (most of the time). I make pretty good tang cu pai gu and can fold dumplings really fast and I prefer to cook Chinese food for myself most of the time, even if it is the simplest interpretation of Chinese food. I go to Asian American Center events and lead a community group for Asian American students and (after a few years of questioning) am beginning to have language to name both beautiful and broken things about Chinese culture.

Amy and the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community group!
Chinese New Year treasures!

But when I’ve made dumplings with friends and roommates for Chinese New Year in college, my ownership over the tradition has felt feigned for some reason, like I’m pretending to have ownership over something that doesn’t feel like mine. This is probably imagined and self-imposed but when my non-Chinese friends ask me about new year traditions and dumpling recipes, I feel this pressure to know or at least pretend to know the answers. When really inside I do not know how much salt to put in the filling or how long to cook the Chinese celery!!! Or really how to do anything without my mom on the phone, patiently giving me instructions while I back track and double check everything she says, anxiously trying to hold on to all the details.

On Friday I went to Chinatown after class to get ingredients for dumplings and some decorations for Kaitlin. I thought it would be a quick trip: I always go to the same grocery store (Jia Ho) and know where to find the dumpling skins, ground pork, and Chinese celery from my previous trips. But then they were sold out of the dumpling skins I like and the meat counter man understood my Mandarin but I didn’t understand his and I couldn’t find the red envelopes even after asking two different workers. And then I had to walk to Cmart and I couldn’t find the entrance and I couldn’t find this other preserved vegetable thing I wanted and my parents weren’t picking up their phones and suddenly what was supposed to be a restful quick trip to Chinatown turned into a confusing bumbling 2-hour affair of me wondering what the heck I was doing there.

Chinatown discoveries

What does it mean for me as a Chinese American daughter of immigrants that my culture is not and will not be the same as my parents’? What does it mean for years and generations of traditions to be transplanted into a whole new country and whole new experience, and that translation, not replication, is how I will pass my heritage on? What does it mean that loss and generational change are inherently a part of my narrative as a Chinese American?

In reflecting about all this, I think in some ways my relationship with Chinese New Year from year to year tells a story of my relationship with Chinese culture, from a sort of forced pride to hesitancy to shame to shy reclamation. And even with the questions that still remain, for me, my hope is in the God who made me in his image, who made me intentionally as his Chinese American daughter. That my identity is not just a narrative torn between a binary of Chinese and American, or defined by confusion and loss, but was intentionally made by Him, and made well. Although at times all I see are lost details and undersalted dumplings, there is a God who has ordered it all behind the scenes, who has given me a chance to experience first-hand wonder in the discovery. Many days I begin the day imagining God kindly inviting me to eat with him at his table, and because it’s breakfast time, we eat congee together. As a kid, I used to hate congee, but it is in this time that I get to savor it, a simple and familiar comfort, a reminder of how God has made me.

LOUDER THAN WORDS

Streets lined with red lanterns, firecracker debris scattered on the streets like red confetti, lion dances outside restaurants and storefronts with that dun-dun-dun-dun drumroll with the crashing cymbals that lets you know that the new year has come! Listen closely, and come see the bright red banners with shiny gold Chinese characters, the fresh shrimp chips with the oil dripping into its three-tiered paper towel cushion, and hear the sound of the wok’s sizzle song as the wooden spoon keeps the stirfry on beat. Artfully displayed cuts of fresh fruit, shiny red Chinese candies, gold coins of solid milk chocolate. It’s like Valentine’s Day, but better! No one is alone and sad. Everyone is together, there is decidedly less pink, and there are hung baos (red envelopes) full of cash.

Lion dances on Mott Street, Chinatown NYC. Dragons eat cabbage!

These Chinese New Year memories have sharp sounds and savory smells and flavors and feelings and little kid wonders. As a third-generation Chinese-American whose parents were born in New York City and whose Chinese is limited to “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (happy new year), a few food dishes, and “ne mo gaw cho-ah” (what is your problem?), I have sometimes felt like an outsider looking into a culture not quite my own. Is this mine, too? After years of the slow work of God healing my understanding of my identity (more on that in another post!), I have been freed to say yes, it is also mine. From a much greater distance than my ancestors in China, but yes, it still speaks to a family whose story and culture has shaped me deeply. It’s a culture about which excitedly enjoy learning and celebrating!

One of the things I most appreciate about my Chinese culture is the sheer generosity in expressing love. Through many perspectives, that might sound odd because Chinese communication could be seen as stingy – quiet, passive, not direct enough to say “I love you.” But if you look closely you’ll see that it is not passive but quite active; we communicate love through quietly anticipating needs and thoughtful, generous acts of service. It is not a deficiency of love but a different means of expressing it. It’s the best.

My family out at Chinese New Year in 1994! Guess which child I am 🙂

If you listen curiously to the indirect communication within a Chinese family, you might be surprised to see the subtle but strong ways need, love, and appreciation are expressed with lavish generosity, yet subtly so that the recipient will not feel ashamed. If you listen closely, you will hear stories of my dad coming to my apartment when I’m away for the weekend and dropping off two watermelons, a Costco ream of toilet paper, and containers of hearts of palm (something I love but don’t want to spend money on). You’ll see the group text between my mom and sisters and the ways we care for each other by constant updates and pictures of Harper, cats, and me with yogurt masks on my face. You’ll see softly given, unpretentious generosity from Chinese church families who support the ministry to students continuously and with great faith. You’ll see my parents driving to Boston to bring snow tires up for Andrew for the winter.  You’ll see tables abundant with all of our favorite Chinese food whenever we come home, communicating an affection without words. But, to us, it’s understood as plain as day. You will see me trying on wedding dresses with my sisters and mom, falling in love with the most expensive one in the store, crestfallen at the price, then receiving a text from my dad the week after saying “Don’t worry about the dress.” And then getting similar texts from my sisters to see if I needed help to get the dress. You’ll see me cry. You’ll see my parents ensuring that we had real hot food and a tent for our wedding so that we didn’t have to do a potluck picnic haha (a real option). You will see the cards from my parents, with prayerful and powerful words of pride and joy. Rarely spoken, but heard and treasured forever.

My dad got a first look of my golden-flower princess poof wedding dress! Photo by Shipra Panosian Photography

It is a beautiful song of call and response that you will miss if you’re not listening. Families seeing each other deeply, anticipating each other’s needs, and helping each other. Whole communities functioning and flourishing with this sweet, subtle communication to help one another, to save face and protect honor. It is a song that that communicates pain and softness, strength and wisdom, courage and pride. It is not without missteps – harshness where there should be softness, passive aggression when it doesn’t feel accessible to express negative feelings, needs not well anticipated. And in emergencies when decisions need to be made quickly, indirect communication doesn’t work so well. But when it is just right – when there is learning and giving and receiving, and a shame-lifting grace, it is powerful. It would bring tears to your eyes.

As I’ve walked with God I have found that he sometimes he speaks boldly and directly in  moments that change your life forever. But there are also times where he is subtle and indirect, where you feel seen and gently invited if you so choose to trust him. There are the bold declarations of the prophet, and also the gentle whisper of the Lord after the wind, earthquake, and fire. You see Jesus blatantly chastising the self-righteous, and you also see him teaching in parables for him who has ears to hear.  Those earth-shattering “ah ha” moments are powerful, but the indirect ways he speaks to me are some of the sweetest. I often find myself crying and repenting when reading for pleasure; God speaking subtly and yet powerfully through fictional characters! Or through a thoughtful note from a friend gently suggesting the very thing I need, reminding me of how seen I am.  Or in writing – as I wrote the last post on generosity via our wedding cake, I heard God’s invitation to be radically generous to a brother when I really didn’t want to be generous (haha, irony). But I heard God’s voice constantly as I wrote (it was annoying but endearing) and eventually said yes to him. And it has brought life. His indirect, gentle beckoning and care is one of the ways that his long-suffering love comes along side of us. It is a deep seeing, soft with kindness and strong for the long road. How has God shown you his love in subtle, gentle ways?

THE CAKE

Whenever I host dinner parties, I never think of dessert. If a guest doesn’t bring dessert, I usually don’t have anything sweet other than a few oranges, like a proper Chinese restaurant (minus the divine hot towel service and the pink tablecloths). But ever since I got married, that has all changed. Andrew is literally my southern sweet. He has a sweet tooth that involves browned butter caramel cakes with glazes and frostings and things that make me thirsty just thinking about them. On days of rest or special occasions, you can find Andrew humming to himself, covered in butter and flour, baking something very special and very sweet. So when we were planning our wedding, orange slices were out of the question. We needed a cake.

I take a picture of all of his cakes! He hates it haha. This is his browned butter cake!

As we planned for our wedding with us both in full-time ministry, we knew the wedding would mostly have a “do-it-yourself” vibe. Neither a cake nor orange slices even made it as a line item in the budget.

In September, eight months before the wedding, I got a Facebook message from Mandy, a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. The message contained a short update on her life and ended with this: “I make cakes for a living. Did you know this? Birthday cakes, anniversary cakes…WEDDING CAKES… If you haven’t already made plans for this part of your special day, I would love to make your wedding cake as a gift to you and Andrew. I’m hoping to make it up to Boston this October, and I’d be glad to do a tasting for your guys. It’s just a thought, and of course if you have other arrangements, that is wonderful!” I read it right before bed and I remember groggily looking at it and thinking it was a dream.

It was not a dream. Mandy is actually a real-life sugar plum fairy! She was very serious in her cake offering and magically showed up in my apartment in Boston a month later laden with piles of little cakes of six different flavors and nine different buttercreams that she had made in her own New Jersey apartment and transported in an impressive arrangement of baking pans and tupperware. She set up a professional cake-tasting for us. You were supposed to take small bites of each mini cupcake, but Andrew downed them whole and was in heaven. Andrew is a baker himself, with annoyingly high standards and strong opinions on flavors and moistness, so to see his thorough enjoyment of Mandy’s baking had me at ease — we were going to have a wedding cake! She had bold rich flavors for Andrew and light subtle ones for me, somehow satisfying both the southerner who glazes everything with an extra layer of sweet and the Chinese-American who would almost always rather eat fruit. Mandy was determined that we could each be satisfied because, after all, “cakes have tiers!” What a gift, somehow reconciling our opposing taste buds with buttercreams and green tea.

TASTES OF HEAVEN: Six different cakes and nine different buttercreams!
Notice the plate piled with wrappers from Andrew’s thorough demolition of cake.

Now, when we started the guest list endeavor we realized we’d likely have upwards of 250 people. That is a lot of cake. I wanted to give Mandy a way out in case this was more than what she bargained for. “So Mandy,” I said, “what if we have a lot of guests …” To which she cheerfully replied, “Then there will be lots of cake!” As simple as that. The generosity of that response blew me away. We were being thoughtfully, abundantly cared for by a friend whom I hadn’t seen in ten years, a magical sugar plum fairy baker from New Jersey with a heart of gold and a knack with buttercream.

For the wedding, Mandy took three days off of work, drove up to Toah Nipi two days early, labored hours and hours making so many cakes, so many buttercreams. Andrew and I weren’t even there yet! Mandy made us a beautiful three-tiered cake and two huge sheet cakes — the most delicious labor of love. She somehow cut and served all the cake on the wedding day, and even though there were no forks (we forgot that small detail -whoops), cake was abounding and guests were so happy! As predicted, the Asians loved the green tea cake with green tea buttercream and the lemon cake with the strawberry buttercream (my choices!!) and the southerners were keen on the chocolate cake with the caramel whiskey, while the hummingbird cake with the cream cheese frosting was a crowd favorite that spanned people of all ethnicities and tastebuds. Somehow she also made sure that Andrew and I were stocked with cake for the honeymoon. We ate cake all honeymoon long, Andrew indulging in abnormally large slabs of it at any given hour of the day. We froze the rest and ate it for months after the wedding. Generosity overflowing so much that it ended up in the freezer.

Mandy saved us the cake tops to “test” the night before the wedding! Everyone approved.
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

That cake. That colossal, thoughtful, time-consuming, delicious cake was one of the most beautiful displays of undeserved love and sacrifice showered on us that day. It tasted sweet like something costly and way out-of-your-league wrapped up and given excitedly with your name on the tag, like getting an Audi when all you wanted was a bike tune-up, like holy grace so undeserved but so undeniably meant for you. It was generosity in the shape of a three-tiered cake with its two sweet side sisters. This kind of generosity makes you question what you’ve done to deserve such a gift. And the honest answer? Nothing.

That cake was a reminder of the sheer lavishness of God’s love, the ridiculous lengths He has gone to to get our attention, to express his love, to give us real life-changing hope. How will we respond to his over-the-top sugar plum fairy kind of love? A love that comes down to be with us, that is entirely self-sacrificing, that promises never to leave us, and to lead us in the way everlasting? I hope we learn to receive, savoring and delighting in the gifts, enjoying the presence of the Father, who uses all things (the waiting, the aching, the receiving) to draw us nearer to himself. Because, after all, that is the real gift that can never be taken away. May the lavishness of his love inspire us to go over the top in our love for others. “How can I give like Mandy?” is a question I now ask. How can I be unselfishly generous? How can I show the heart of the Father, and heap on as much buttercream as possible?

Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

 

PS: Here is photo evidence of Andrew’s post-wedding mini-moon cake consumption. Half of that chocolate cake was gone when we left 🙂

NO MORE CRUMBS

Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography
Picture by Shipra Panosian Photography

These pictures capture of one of my favorite moments of the year. Partly because I forgot to practice walking in my big poofy cupcake princess dress, partly because our “aisle” to the altar was like a mile long DOWNHILL, and partly because my dad and I were cracking up as he tried to not be blown away by the cupcake skirt. The wind was strong that day.

It’s also one of my favorite moments because it had be pouring rain for two days straight and had been forecasted to rain all weekend. I had wrestled with this for weeks because, excepting the dumpling hour, the entire wedding was outdoors. We had prayed for it to be “as dry as when the Israelites walked across the Red Sea” because I told God, “I don’t care about rain except that our guests would have wet feet. I am a host, but you’re a better host, and you have power to stop the rain. Wet feet are not ok, Lord! Think of those southerners! Bring dry ground.” And somehow the rain stopped and the sun came out a few hours before the ceremony. And there I was, trying not to roll down the aisle with my unwieldy dress, laughing and almost gleeful that my heels weren’t sticking into the mud because there was no mud! The ground was dry. “Oh, how the Father loves you,” said Rosa to me that morning. Oh, what a gift! My heart burst with delight. I didn’t trip.

And then there was Andrew, with his dewy eyes and kind smile. People we loved surrounding us, our parents’ blessing, and a holy covenant.

The Father’s hospitality is thoughtful, thorough, and sometimes outrageously over-the-top. Almost uncomfortably so. Like, who am I? In my Chinese-American family, when we get “too good” gifts, we say “No, you must be crazy! You better have got that on sale!!” Surely we are not worthy of such generosity. And so with God, with his pure goodness and overflowing banqueting table, we often say, “No way, who am I?” We shy away from giving our desires to him, acting like a servant in the corner who may scrounge some crumbs if we’re lucky. We think his guests must be befitting of his riches on his table, “worthy” in some way to have a seat. And yet in his upside-down kingdom, the guests we wouldn’t think fitting to sit at the table of a king, He deems worthy of high honor. He says, “Come out from under the table silly Kata, and take that crumb out of your mouth. Sit here and feast with me.”
In some moments, our souls are awake enough in surrender to see the lavishness of his sheer delight for us. This year has been marked by his generosity; it has been confounding me, changing me, softening me. Crumbs are not satisfying, after all. In the next few posts, I’ll be reflecting on some of the moments of God’s generosity where I heard clear invitations from groveling and eating crumbs to standing tall and feasting at the table; moments experienced through elaborate cakes, a Chinese banquet, lavish grace when my head was bowed in shame. My hope is that your eyes will be opened to see the Father’s generosity towards you. He hasn’t forgotten you. He is inviting you to the table, also. The food is really good, and the Father’s prepared a seat for you.