WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany. His posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia were treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9 – and perhaps because of them – he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. His wife Eleanor, won over to his vision, prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any child who was sick would be refused at the threshold of Immigration and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. Since “Jews were not permitted to give the Nazi salute and any parents who so much as raised an arm could be arrested, their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and were reunited with their children. Several more succeeded in coming to America during and after the war, but others perished in the Holocaust.” Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans who wanted their lives to mean more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.

Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The exuberant response to the election results among some families I know brought with it a revelation. Though they have been plenty polite, some even kind, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life that seems unnatural to me in diverse Southern California. But then again, I thought, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. Multiculturalism doesn’t work that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color: NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. Among the many reasons, suffice it to say those who have to interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white people enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and news media.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas, wasn’t it? After all, America had problems of her own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct. War, disease, emigration, loss of culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built herself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother, separately, were mugged at knifepoint, and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters came out of the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea – although as long as he admits to no Native Indian ancestors, he hails from immigrants like the rest of us. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My Asian-American friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. The commitment to excellence, our I.Q, the drive with which we emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented disparate cultures in the fissures of mistrust as we did business together, advanced the economy together, with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires first, or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you will learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance. It’s not always front and center but in this country, the holy grail of opportunity awaits the thirsty and the earnest. There is always room for resourcefulness, a corner you can turn. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can appeal with that beautiful, powerful voice you claimed at birth. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. At least they could, before.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly, the many faces of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in this country. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.

Dear Mr. President-Elect

“Remember you can’t eat money…You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people…”

Green Life Blue Water

img_2759

Dear Mr. President Elect

My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)

What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and…

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Dear White People

Making America great again.

A Thomas Point of View

Can we talk?

Can we truly talk about the elephant in the room that you never want to talk about?

Race.

Let’s talk about race.

I’m black.

I’m a woman.

Two indisputable facts that you may have noticed.

I’m a mother.

To a son.

He’s the light of my life.

He’s my Munch.

He’s also black.

Why do I keep mentioning color? Because I need you to see and acknowledge the rich hues in my skin tone. I need you to see my melanin and know that I am black. Can you see the warm coffee colored hues of my skin tone just radiating? Yes?

Good.

Let’s talk.

I’m black. A beautiful black woman who shares a rich history in this country. My ancestors were kings and queens, slaves and sharecroppers. I know this. Many of you know this. But, I need you to stop acting like I’m supposed to forget…

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stargazers

stargazers in furious
bloom – vanilla air –

are the only flowers
that trust me, tell me

i am not hopeless;
the juice in their veins, the way
they gulp the sun and meet my face,
their beauty and their business

say i don’t need a green thumb
and the riotous garden.

all one needs is a singular love.

 

stargazer

Cake Pops

The easiest sugar-free cake pops – from my food blog. Likes and comments closed on this end.

My Holistic Table

After enjoying some, I set the rest aside to indulge the next day on my birthday. My 8 1/2-year-old PoPPed them into his mouth with no thought of leaving me my portion, and I barely had any. Laughing and crying. Here’s the simplest sugar-free version I came up with.

CakePoPsFinal
6 oz. coconut flour
6 oz. gluten-free oat flour
touch of sea salt
1/2 t stevia powder

2 large mashed organic bananas
3/4 t rice bran oil or oil of choice (ghee works well if you do dairy)

chocolate almond butter
lollipop sticks

50 minutes
245 degrees

I ground the oats in the blender. Mix the dry and wet ingredients separately (holding off on the almond butter) before combining to get the dough texture of soft ice cream. Shape into 1-inch balls about the width of a U.S. quarter and place them on parchment paper. I baked on low to preserve…

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The Unfairness of Beauty

I didn’t realize Barnum was behind the first beauty pageant. Down-to-earth reflections. Likes and comments closed. Feel free to comment over on Middlemay.

Author Adrienne Morris

Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921 Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921

The young goatherd Paris had no idea he’d start a war. All he wanted was the most beautiful mortal of his day–Helen of Troy. Beauty and equality do not go hand in hand. It’s not enough to be one of the beauties or to admire one of the beauties. We must crown one as supreme.

Juno, Venus and Minerva quarreled amongst themselves over who was most lovely. They bribed a goatherd to settle things. But beauty is unsettling.It’s fleeting and it makes us wonder about fairness. Beauty captivates us even when we think we should know better. Shouldn’t we love even second-rate art? Beauty shows us the most pleasing sights, yet leaves us sometimes feeling resentful and inadequate.

Way back in the mists of time beautiful women came to symbolize the virtues of nations. P.T. Barnum in 1854 saw another way to…

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Preacher Wife

My husband wondered the other day what kind of style I’d sport as a preacher. I shot up an eyebrow when without thinking it through, he cast his vote for fire-and-brimstone prophet. He had forgotten how much I’ve changed over the years – at least those few days out of the month between cycles. I reminded him how shockingly diplomatic I’ve become with those who test me. And he quickly ran through my writing in his head and realized I am generally very nice on this blog and will pose no threat to dissenting perspectives. Ah yes, he could see his wife the congenial, cerebral teacher and preacher delicately offering what may be unpalatable in a chalice honeyed with reason.

Holistic Husband jumped and burst out, “A stinking lie!!”

It was unfair that I’d get away with it when he doesn’t get away with much at home.

My Race: Coast to Coast, Part 3

Here’s Part 2.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

No. From my 20s on, some of my closest friendships have been with white and black Americans. The only other Korean-American coworker I’ve mentioned could not have been more different from me in values and lifestyle. She came from more money and attracted a white crowd. Incidentally, she married Jewish.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Christians define themselves by their faith. Hence the term born again. Because the Christian journey is really a new life, believers share a depth of intimacy and understanding that supersedes race, language, class. But I enjoy an ease with white Christians that I swear is missing in the Korean-American culture, even with those of my faith. Though I was conscious that my family was a slim minority in the two fairly white Christian homeschool groups we joined last year, I have never felt self-conscious. Our son plays well with a Caucasian classmate; they whack each other with swords like brothers. We were bemused last year to find that our little man also happened to gravitate to blondes in their tweens. I enjoy the most ready connections with people who share my values, which include lifestyle, faith, and all that goes into child nurture. So racial ties do not determine my social network as they did before my working years.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

It is not a strained effort but yes, I do. I find myself wondering, though, how many whites share this mindfulness.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

The challenge of explaining race hit me when my son was about four. I was elaborating on the slavery we had just read about. We also had a new blended family on our colorful block, an African-American man with a white woman and her two kids. I think I’m the one who put black and Korean on the radar of a child who never seemed to notice color in himself or others. I almost regretted bringing up the categories at his age. We have not had to deal with any racial insult. I am not sure if we can attribute this to our fairly well-to-do neighborhood (that is, class) or the fact that we are not with the public schools.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I’ve always been told I was noticeably unique, even among Korean-Americans. You love me or hate me. I’m Pistachio ice cream, not Vanilla. The contrast that called for a vote for or against me has softened over time but I always embraced my individuality. Being different doesn’t mean you have to feel alone. What kept me rooted? I was told even as a kid that I carried myself well. I think the confidence that has not easily shaken stemmed from the unfailing faith my mother expressed in me ever since I can remember.

My values, perspective, even personality also did a 180 when I really understood the gospel of Jesus at 17. Through the many challenges I went on to face in the years ahead, I’ve remained secure in who I am knowing Whose I am. Christians often give pat answers. In this discussion, some would say their identity as a child of God is the source of all assurance and self-definition. God indeed has been my deepest anchor but to say He is all that matters in contexts like this discussion bores me. Faith doesn’t nullify the importance of ethnicity, upbringing, or the many factors that shape us. It so happens that biologically I am a Korean daughter of God. As such I can learn from others outside my race. Thinking in platitudes doesn’t do justice to the richness of God’s designs. It is my God who gives meaning to all aspects of my life. He cares to redeem them, make them all beautiful. Interestingly, we are said to be adopted by the Father – one big multiracial family. And behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…Revelations 7:9

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

Every culture offers its own hue, rhythm, voice. You could not confuse Brazilian women with Korean, as a group. The first are more vocal, even physical. My husband has seen Brazilian women fight tooth and nail, stew, then kiss-kiss on the cheek and make up. Korean women don’t put the dukes out on each other but will hold onto the enmity. The air is different in each company. The problem arises when we make value judgments on the differences. One’s strength is one’s weakness, and this duality holds for groups as it does for individuals. It hit me as I worked through this post that the Korean preference for like company is actually an extension of the fierce loyalty that’s part of the culture. All traditions, in their imperfections, hold out qualities worthy of respect.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I was surprised at the internal resistance to writing my story. First off, my life was all I’d known, that it didn’t feel special. It was my normal. Knowing many in my community with similar experiences heightened the sense that I had nothing really unique to share. Secondly, this was the first time I’ve explored when and how I have navigated social streams, which communities I have sought, which have embraced me. I was split in the culture I aligned myself with as I wrote. In speaking of Americans and Koreans, I wasn’t sure when to use our or their. A thought also struck yesterday. Did I shy in sharing because the Korean culture seemed to bear less weight on the global platform than the African-American drama that has achieved validation in the history books and media? Have my own perceptions been influenced? Finally, my story was difficult to write for feeling bared. I’d just finished saying I give you my all on this blog. I was speaking as an artist. Here, I’d shown you into the rooms of my past as a human being.

The gestures of intolerance or bigotry leveled against me were mild compared to the ugliness many have known. And it is the pioneer generation that breaks through the gates of a culture that has it the worst. My parents lived the friction everyday. My mother was spit on by a customer in the delicatessen she owned. I remember how it pained me, a kid. But my parents were not faultless. All groups harbor distrust of foreigners.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks at the signing of the Immigration Bill on Liberty Island, New York seem fitting here. October 3, 1965:

And this measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country – to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit – will be the first that are admitted to this land.

Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.

My Race: Coast to Coast, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Koreans care only about themselves. Americans aren’t ambitious. Californians aren’t bright. People go up in arms at generalizations, though these are not my claims in this post. Yes, exceptions defy stereotype. But people obviously make up groups of color and features called race. I talk about the cultures I have straddled and the differences within groups.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

With some exception, I did keep among Korean-Americans up through college. But if you were to ask me about Koreans, then or now, I would encourage you to ask a black American about village life in West Africa. Two different worlds. I have more in common with many of you than I do with Koreans, and know more African-American and European history than Asian.

An amphibian, I feel white around Koreans and then sometimes remember in white company there is a whole other world to me these folks don’t understand. After all, my bicultural generation grew up steeped in the traditions our parents imported. I at least have a lot of stories and images of white culture from TV, painted not only by the Brady Bunch but drama of all kind. But most people who are not Asian don’t have this familiarity with the Korean culture. I realize in the writing I’ve grown not only more American but more comfortably Korean over the years – though Korea remains a foreign land. I’m surprised it doesn’t have to be either/or when you’re bicultural.

My husband and I have not felt at home in churches that are predominantly white. After moving counties a few years ago, we half-joked in the search for a new church that we should try black Baptist. We probably would’ve jumped out of the pew to groove with the choir. We settled in a diverse church with an active Korean-American membership.

One other factor besides race came up in my time in the suburban district: class. Cross the border out of the idyllic suburb back into the city of Philadelphia and it was 80% black, not well to do. Stopping for gas one day, I remember thinking it was ghetto. A very interesting moment because I’d not only felt at home with black Americans all my life but had grown up poor by middle class standards. The offhand feeling that I didn’t belong in that neighborhood wasn’t snootiness. I had studied my way up the immigrant ladder into Ivy League classrooms. The principal I was working closely with encouraged me to dream big. Her grandfather had climbed out from slavery to a PhD. I now realize that it is not all black Americans but those who’ve succeeded in the upward mobility that I have been drawn to. Those who are educated. It was very odd meeting people here in California who didn’t aspire to the best colleges and advanced degrees; even the Korean parents who secure private tutoring for their kids make golf lessons almost as high a priority. I came to appreciate the health of balanced living. It spotlighted the intensity of the east coast and broadened my experience of people. In my own way I had lived in a bubble. The majority of my friends from childhood went to the top schools, built impressive résumés. But I’ve come to see beyond theory that there are many ways to be smart and successful. And happy. This lesson has saved me from being the parent I would’ve been in the east.

There are some things about my parents’ culture I’ve wanted to disassociate myself from. For one, I find the people complicated and by comparison, Americans more straightforward. Americans say no when we don’t want it and the eager, grateful yes is welcome. Among Koreans, you have to listen between the lines. Which is why the language is among the hardest for nonnatives to become fluent in. While the alphabet and grammar are innocently simple, the social cues and mores to speak under can become complex. In part, my cultural illiteracy keeps me from easy participation in this exchange. It’s also my lack of finesse in navigating unspoken customs. The rest, my temperament. You can take me at face value and I like to be able to do that with you in turn. Another habit I consider a cultural blemish is the self-consciousness of both natives and the acculturated. Koreans often have to save face, especially among one another. It’s subtle, but I have little patience for it. I find myself sinking into the casual comfort among Americans with relief, over against this tiring posture to maintain. Of course the Face has its positive side: propriety, mindfulness against disgracing yourself, the upholding of honor. Koreans reach high and Americans (are happy to) have less to prove. Koreans are also insular. In all fairness, this attribute could stem from the history of invasions we have endured. But the ethnocentrism gets to me. Even many Korean-Americans don’t know how to socialize, extend beyond themselves. Huddling is not socializing.

Any thoughts on the subtle shades of your own culture? And I’m curious, with so many of us throughout the world and in the major cities. What has been your experience with Koreans, native or bilingual?

Continued in Part 3.