Monday, December 29, 2014

The Least Korean

A pastor once made a curious observation about my ethnic status. In a casual conversation:
Friend: "I wonder what kind of woman Joel would marry."
Sunhee Robinson, without a moment's hesitation: "A white woman. Joel is the least Korean Korean man that I know."
Let's put aside the anticipation of interracial union for another time. I was intrigued by her comment (and not at all offended, for if I were, I would have cleared it with her privately, instead of airing it publicly like this. It's all good.) I am certainly far removed in outlook and personality from my cousins in Seoul. Yet even I notice differences between myself and my Korean American male peers (bearing in mind that my experience is limited to Californian Korean Americans, and regional differences undoubtedly abound.) Some common interests for my peers are cars, sports (especially basketball), popular music (Asian pop/hip hop/R&B) and video games (DoTA, LoL, SC.) Certain phrases and idioms are common, e.g. "Dang," "Legit," and "Sick," terms that I seldom employ. However, none of these strikes me as distinctly Korean American. I may well just be different from most American men my age, not just Korean Americans.
But what does it mean to be Korean American? I won't dig into that longstanding question, but it is interesting to look at the entry for "Korean American" in Wikipedia. In the sidebar are pictures of notable Korean Americans. Amongst the men, there are entertainers Dennis Oh, Jay Park, and Justin Chon, but also Judge Herbert Choy (the first Asian American to serve as a US federal judge and first person of Korean descent admitted to the US bar), Jim Yong Kim (President of the World Bank), Peter Kim (Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford), and activist Mike Kim. Clearly, we encompass dimensions. Oddly enough, of the females pictured, four are entertainers and one (Michelle Wie) is an athlete. Other figures, like Judge Lucy Koh (the first female US federal judge) and Jane Kim (the first elected official in San Francisco), are listed in a separate article.
I don't believe there are immutable characteristics that are universal to Korean Americans (we are not genetically predisposed to be better at StarCraft.) Although there are dominant social norms and cultural forces, there is space for improvisation and individuation. Maybe I'm the least Korean, or maybe I am simply part of another way to be.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Have Yourself a Merry Christmas

I have recently noticed the pensive nature of the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The song starts with the title line and continues "Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight."

Yet we all know that this isn't true. No matter how much we may wish it so, our troubles will never be far from us. For many, Christmas is a time of family tension and bitter disagreements stretching back to old times. For others, it is a reminder of our material lack, of having hardly enough to live, let alone to give away. For still others, it is a time of loneliness, grieving for loved ones that have passed on. Even after the holidays are over, troubles come. War, famine, disease, poverty, unemployment, eviction, grief.

In some sense, this song typifies the escapism and sentimentality that are endemic to this holiday. These words are futile! They have no power, even as we may try to decorate, buy, and feast away that reality.

Yet even still, there is an endurance to these words. Though we know that our troubles will never truly be far from us, we can hope for a day when it will be so, and that gives us strength to continue on. "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays," and other such good wishes are more than just the mantra of bored retail clerks and television commercials for mattresses. They are words of courage for a homeless veteran, of hope from an unemployed mother to her child, of comfort for a grieving grandson. For even into a world of despair and misery, there is hope that one day, every tear will be wiped away, and all troubles will cease. It is in that hope, in spite of all despair, that we live.

Wikipedia fact: The song was originally written for the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1944 and was sung by Judy Garland. The last stanza is:
"Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now"

In 1957, when Frank Sinatra was covering the song for his Christmas album, he asked the lyricist, Hugh Martin, to "jolly up that line" for him, which is how we got "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." I actually think the original line is quite fitting with the pensive hopefulness of the song.

Monday, December 22, 2014

How Parents Change

I had dinner with Angie Lo this week. It was my first time meeting her son, Colin. I asked how life has changed with a son. She said that it was like night and day. She wasn't one of those people that long to have kids. She was never particularly excited about children, never one to play with them. Yet she said that life with Colin, even with all the inconveniences, is so much sweeter than she could have imagined. She still isn't particularly excited about children, but "I'm in love with this one."

I am reminded of something Benjamin Robinson said when his daughter was born. Up to that point, he was a calm and easygoing person, who would never raise his hand against anyone. Yet he describes how the moment she was born, a kill switch went off within him. He knew that if anyone would try to harm his daughter, he would end them. As it is said, "Anger is love in motion towards a threat against that which it loves."

Whenever my dad sees me with a picture of a baby, he asks "Doesn't that make you want one of your own?" My typical response is "Not really. It's nice, but eh." Yet I do wonder how I would change if I became a father. Granted, parenthood is not easy, and parents need to actively fight resentment, bitterness, or envy against their children from taking root in their hearts. I am not certain if I will ever have children, but it would be interesting to see if I become gripped with the same love as Angie or Benjamin.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The definition of success

I had a very helpful conversation with my mom about career. It was after all my law firm interview rejections came in, and I was feeling a bit low. She called to check in on the process. She then mentioned how surprised she was that I had pursued these firm jobs, as she had expected that I would work for a nonprofit or the government.

She said "One reason that you might have been pursuing those jobs was because you felt a need to be more financially successful than your immigrant parents. We came to this country with very little and couldn't speak the language perfectly, yet were able to get good jobs. You may think that if you don't make as much money as us, you have failed in some way. But that's not it. Success is measured by freedom of opportunity. We stayed in this country not so you would have the opportunity to be rich, but so you would have the opportunity to pursue what you want to do."

I had not considered the impact of my immigrant heritage on my career choices. I am grateful to have parents (my dad talked to me about these things too) that are thoughtful and able to articulate these points well. I don't think it was a conscious factor, but it may well have played a subtle role.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The first time

I remember the first time I was the target of a racial outburst.

I was walking to dinner in San Mateo, CA with a friend (who is also Asian-American.) A car was driving toward us, and as it turned the corner a white man leaned his head out and said "Go back where you came from!" My friend and I weren't wearing anything that indicated we were from out of town, so it seemed like it was targeted at our ethnicity.

I immediately felt outraged. As much as I knew that I should just ignore this man and his foolishness, I felt angry, hurt, and scared. There was something deeply personal to his comment. It was even more shocking to hear it in San Mateo, which is almost 20% Asian (downtown San Mateo is full of Asian restaurants.)

This happened in 2012. What strikes me is how I lived for 25 years without encountering this sort of attitude. I grew up in a Korean-American community; the schools i attended had robust immigrant populations. I had never heard anyone say that sort of thing to me before. I felt real anger at that man's comment. What would have been my response if I had to hear that message over and over since childhood? To be the target of mockery, hatred, violence? To feel like a foreigner in my own neighborhood?

I don't know what that is like. I haven't had that experience. But I want to understand, to know how it feels, for I know that this is part of my history.

Edit: It turns out, I have written about this before, but it's good to get renewed perspective:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Not the righteous, but sinners

There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors (widely regarded as crooked agents of the Roman government who embezzled funds from the taxes they collected from the people of Israel) and sinners. The Pharisees, religious leaders, were shocked and outraged that he would associate with them. Jesus' response was that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

This story emphasizes Jesus' mercy. He was present with people that religious leaders avoided or even disdained. His love wasn't conditional; people didn't need to have everything together before he would embrace them.

I wonder what this table would look like today. Who would Jesus invite? Would there be drunkards? Thieves? Murderers? Drug dealers? Abusive spouses? Racists? Rapists? Child pornographers? Pedophiles? White supremacists? Members of ISIS and al-Qaeda? Part of me would be horrified to find them at the table. I would think "They don't belong to be here! They are evil people!" Yet that's what mercy is, understanding that we are not defined by our worst deeds.

Jesus' embrace, of course, doesn't mean approval. He did start his ministry with the word "Repent!" Yet he knew that before others would heed his words, they would have to trust his voice, and they would only trust his voice if he was near to them. Paul wrote in Romans that the kindness of God is meant to lead us to repentance. Jesus embodied that principle.

What would it look like if I embraced this teaching? If the church embraced this teaching? What would it look like if we were people that the outcasts, the disturbed, the demonized, and those haunted by their former evil deeds could turn to for help? Would we not then have the privilege to bear witness to the remarkable power of transforming love?

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Rules on Writing

When I first started writing on Facebook, I was hesitant about mentioning God. Faith is a big part of my life. I grew up in the church and have been very involved in congregational life. On a personal level, faith has brought comfort and hope, alongside questions and difficulties. I would say that my relationship with God is easily the most important element of my life (although I am still learning to live this out in practice.)
But I know that talk about faith, God, and religion can get messy really quickly. It is a space of much pain and hurt for many people. Moreover, the church as a whole and individual Christians have often responded callously or even horribly to the pain of others. As one quipped, "Lord, save me from your followers." Social media isn't conducive to nuance as it is; talk of religion can become ugly, maudlin, or toxic.
I still like to write about faith, since it is important to me. However, I want to make a few things clear:
1) I will do my best to be explanatory. My thought in writing one of these bits is "How can this be helpful to others?" Using Christian terminology such as "blessed," "anointed," or "the blood of the lamb" can be confusing (particularly that last one.) I want my writing to be accessible, that even people who don't share my faith can take something from it.
2) I will never try to argue someone into conversion. I've seen it tried, and it doesn't work. Questions are a crucial part of faith. I would submit that one issue with modern American Christianity is an outright allergy to probing questions. That said, arguments on a comment wall almost never end well. I am amiable to private conversations, both in person and online, but not on a Facebook wall, above pictures of empanadas (go to the fundraiser!)
3) When I write something normative, I start with myself, then with my community, then to everyone else. I have seen many Christian writers say "People who are not Christians should do this!" There is some value to that, to the prophetic voice outside the walls calling for change. That's not how I choose to write. I will say "What I am learning is that something I need to do is X." Maybe this means that I lack the fiery searing voice bringing power to truth, and that my writing comes across as bland and quaint. Yet I have found that the most profound sermons I have heard start with "I need to hear this too."
Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me to keep writing. Even today, someone said "You know, I haven't had time to go to church in a while, and I appreciate reading what you have to write." This has been a great joy so far, and I'm looking forward to more to come.
And seriously, buy empanadas for our fundraiser tomorrow. Those Bacon/Date/Goat Cheese ones? Wow.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Start of Advent

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season celebrated in many Christian churches around the world. It is a season of expectant waiting and preparation to celebrate Christmas, the Nativity. This season of reminiscent waiting for Christmas is also in parallel to waiting for Jesus' return.

I didn't grow up observing Advent. It wasn't part of my Korean Presbyterian upbringing, nor was it mentioned in the other communities I joined in Berkeley. It was only last year that I heard about Advent at my church here. Yet I remember last year's season of Advent with great warmth. I may write a few reflections on this year's season.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving for health

I am learning to be thankful for health. I don't have a history of major health problems. I can walk, move, and live without chronic pain. I don't have problems with breathing, migraines, or anemia. If I get a cut, I know I will heal fine. I can move my limbs and my joints without limited mobility.

I don't have to worry that I will die before my parents do. I don't have to shy away from making friends, to try to protect others from the grief of my imminent passing. I don't have to worry about people staring at me, feel out of place, be worried that some malicious person will attack me and leave me helpless simply because they can.

My mind is clear. I don't need to fear forgetting the faces of my loved ones, of losing relationships as memories die out. I don't need to worry that I would possibly be a danger to myself or others. I don't have slurred speech or become confused in my home.

I don't know what it's like to live with these physical or mental challenges. My thankfulness is not meant to denigrate, mock, or pity anyone with these concerns. I don't know their full experience and don't know their story, and my heart goes out to them. All that I mean to say is that I want to be thankful, to be grateful that I have riches that others do not, riches that I have not from my own effort or deserving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning to listen

One skill I learned as a peer counselor was how to help people process through their emotions. Many clients would seek counseling because they did not feel safe working through their emotions with others. Often they would hear phrases like "You shouldn't feel that way," or "You're wrong to be so angry."

Some clients came with legitimate grievances. Others knew that they were overreacting. Some didn't even know fully why they were upset. Yet all they could see was their anger, sadness, or bitterness; it was impossible to hear the words of others. I would often hear "My friend doesn't even understand how I feel, so how can he know what is going on?"

I was taught to listen carefully, to not pass judgment, to not tell the person that their emotions are wrong, bad, or inappropriate. I would try to understand the reasons behind the emotions. It was only after building that relationship of trust that I would bring up inconsistencies or concerns. Yet I always remember that it is the client that is the expert about himself, about his emotions, experiences, and perspectives.

The past few days have been incredibly emotional for so many. There is very little that I know about the history of both entire communities and individual people. I want my default posture to be one of listening, of trying to understand, recognizing that there is much that I do not.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon Reflection: God in the Mundane

A meditation on a sermon by David Whited:

A phrase I often hear is "I can't wait." About schoolwork: "I can't wait until this class is over." About school generally: "I can't wait until I'm done and can start working." About work: "I can't wait until the week is over and I can have fun on the weekend."

A narrative of delayed gratification, living for what is to come, not what is at present. And it is true that we often do things for the benefits that are to come later on. I may not enjoy reading about the statutory framework governing capital gains tax, but I read it to build my knowledge.

However, there is a grace in learning to appreciate what is at present, to see the beauty in the ordinary. It may be reflecting on the place of the mundane in the will of God. It may be simple thankfulness for what I have, not fixating on what I lack. It may even be the mystery of practicing the presence of God at all times.

In any event, it is useful to know that nothing is inevitable. As much as I may work hard in school, it is not certain that I will reach graduation, or that I will even reach next week. So I make it my goal to live, not just to maintain, and to seek to see the extraordinary in the routine.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Money is the lowest

One of the best pieces of advice that I received from my dad is that "Money should be the lowest consideration in your decisions." He has seen people take a job for money, get married for money, or go to school for money, and they have all regretted their decisions.

My dad told me about such a decision he had to make. When he was planning to come to the US for his graduate studies, an rich older gentleman took him aside and offered a deal. "My daughter really wants to move to the US. If you marry her, our family will pay for all your education. We will provide for all your needs." My dad was facing an uncertain future and possible debt. I asked him if he was tempted. He said "Not a bit." He was madly in love with his girlfriend. Though she came from modest means, no amount of money could draw him away from her. That girlfriend, of course, is his wife and my mom.

My dad said that later on, the woman from the rich family found a willing man to take the offer to marry her and take her to the US. Last he heard, they are in a bitter relationship.

When I asked him why he wasn't tempted, he said "She's my girl. No amount of money will change that."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Disagreeing Well

I live with two guys in my church, Scott Erdenberg and David Malison. One thing (of many!) that I appreciate about them is how they disagree well. They embody how friends can hold very different worldviews. David is an economist by training, and tends to be more libertarian. Scott is a theologian, and tends to be more liberal. Several times, I have come into the apartment to hear them arguing over some tough subjects, such as the minimum wage, government regulation, and public goods. They seldom reach agreement on any of these topics (I am usually reading for class, so I can't participate.)

Yet what I applaud is how they don't allow their disagreement to poison their friendship. They could be very far apart in many aspects, but still respect and care for each other. The situation may be different if their disagreements were more personal (the conversations tend to focus on large societal issues, not personal ones.) Yet even then, I believe that their respect for one another will remain. Living with them is a good reminder that it is possible to disagree with someone else yet still love them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

War has forever altered my family.

When the Korea War broke out, my father's parents were living in the northern part of the peninsula. As conflict ripped across the land, they fled south, leaving behind homes, possessions, family. Even now, I may have relatives living in North Korea. Cousins, aunts, uncles, family members whose names I may never know and who may well be dead.

The Korean War shaped the face of modern Korea, its boundaries, institutions, and ideologies. Yet I will confess to a wholesale ignorance of the war. When I visit South Korea, it takes effort to remember that only 60 years ago, the country was torn apart by war.

Once, I was walking through a mall with my dad when we ran into a veteran. He was around his 60s, Caucasian, wire-frame glasses and a "KOREA VETERAN" cap perched on his head. My dad stopped the man and asked if he served in Korea. When he answered in the affirmative, my dad thanked him for his service. He said that the man's sacrifice meant a lot to him and other Koreans.

There is a lot that can be said about the Korean War, especially regarding the impact that other countries, including the US, played in the conflict and its aftermath. Yet today on Veterans Day, I want to give my thanks for all who served, in the Korean War and in all other conflicts. Thank you.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Just saying hello

I was on the plane to DC for a career fair when a man sat down next to me. He whipped out his phone and started playing a game, his earphones plugged in. I figured I would listen to a few podcasts on the flight, so I plugged my earphones in as well.

Shortly after takeoff, he put his phone away and pulled out a magazine called "Affordable Housing Finance," as well as a few pamphlets that said "How Housing Matters." I am currently in a clinical class working with developers of affordable housing, and I find housing a fascinating space. I thought "I could either continue listening to my podcasts, or I can say hello. The worst that could happen is that he doesn't want to talk."

So I said hello, and we ended up having a great conversation. He is the executive director of a national housing organization that works on affordable housing issues all over the country. He gave me great insights into housing generally, how he entered this field, and what I could do as a law student to get involved. He also told me about all the great things about living in DC and the changes in the city in the past few years. As we left the plane, he gave me his card and said that he wanted to keep in touch.

I am glad that I reached out to say hi. There was so much that I got from that conversation, and I'm excited to continue learning about housing issues.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Marriage is death

My pastor here in Chicago, David Whited, served for ten years as a university chaplain and seen many people get married. Here is my reflection on his words regarding marriage:

Many people come into marriage because they are lonely. They believe that marriage will quiet their inner loneliness and fulfill their deep longing for intimacy.

Marriage isn't about fulfilling your loneliness. Marriage is death.

Marriage is learning to die to your own desires on a constant basis. Marriage is giving up your own preferences for the sake of another, whether it be where you will eat for dinner or what city you will be your home. Marriage is dying to your pride, to let go of legitimate grievances because it's not worth it to win the argument but lose the relationship.

That's why so many marriages fail. Both parties enter it believing that it will fulfill their personal desires, but it doesn't work that way. It's not even a give and take, a quid pro quo. It's giving. and giving. and giving.

This isn't about codependence or submission to abuse or anything of that sort. Those are pathologies. But between slavery and kingship there is mutual servanthood, a self-giving that builds each other up.

We all want unconditional love. Are we ready to love unconditionally?

h/t Scott Erdenberg

Saturday, November 1, 2014

For it is in dying

When we were children, we learned to receive care. We cried for attention, helpless even to say what we need. We learn to talk, then to speak, to articulate, to ask for what we need. For food. For comfort. For forgiveness. For understanding.

When we grew, we learned to care for ourselves. We learned to dress, not just to keep warm but to express ourselves through what we chose to wear. We learned to take care of our needs, to be ok when we are sad, lonely, or hurt. We learned how to be with others, of eye contact and shaking hands and pouring hearts.

As we grow older, we learn to care for others. We learn to be attentive, to be mindful that there are others with wounds that we are meant to heal. We learn to listen, to cry with, not just about, to not help for our need to be needed but genuinely for another. We learn to sacrifice.

Life is a continual death. Maturity is learning to die to oneself in service to others. Not to a destructive degree, of course (there is such a death of self that makes life not worth living). Yet true freedom, the freedom from our own insecurities, anxieties, and discomforts, can be found in the giving of oneself to another. For then we realize that we are gifts to bring life.

It is in dying that we find life.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pity for single people

I feel sorry for single people.
I don't intend to. I believe that it is possible to have a fulfilling, wonderful, love-filled life as a single person. I believe that while marriage is a good thing, it is not a guarantor of happiness.
Yet I can tell when I see single people, especially older single people, I feel sorry for them. I can hear this voice that says "Oh, what a shame. They must feel so alone." Even for some of the most lively, joyful, and gracious single people I know, I feel this twinge of pity.
But why should this be the case? Why should singleness seem to be this horrid condition that needs to be cured? I suppose this depends on whether the person chose to be single or wanted to get married but couldn't. But if the person is ok with singleness or even embraces it, why shouldn't I?
Marriage is not a panacea to life's ills. As written in the article Jesse Chui shared with me, "Marriage will not bulletproof your life from pain or loneliness or tragedy. People can be married and still feel desperately alone, or misunderstood, or even hated/hateful, all at the same time."
I feel sorry for single people. Should I be?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Life without marriage

What if I were to never get married?

What if I were to live my life with no romantic relationships, without that sort of relational intimacy?

Would I look upon my past with regret and resentment, bitter over what I never had?

Or would I choose to be grateful for the wonderful life that I was able to experience?

What about looking forward now? What if I were told that I would never have a romantic partner?

Would I look to the future with dread and sorrow, grieving over lost possibilities?

Or would I choose to believe that life is filled with richness, wonder, and glory, regardless of whether I am in a romantic relationship with another person?

I still would like to get married, to find that romantic partner. Yet I have been musing over how to live in contentment. So much of the present narrative is that my life would be incomplete without a spouse. The modern American church (which has an illustrious history of people devoted to celibacy) has done a poor job of capturing a theology of singleness, treating it as a temporary condition that needs to be cured by the panacea of matrimony.

In present times, discussion of marriage can become politically and theologically intense. This is good, for marriage is important, and it is good to discuss important things. But marriage is not everything. It is possible to have a wonderful, amazing, worthwhile life without marriage or romance.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Summer at Christian Legal Aid

This past summer, I worked at the Christian Legal Aid of Los Angeles. After a year of theory-driven law school work, I was eager to get practical experience with real clients. Also, I grew up in LA, but the last time I spent a whole summer there was in 2005. I wanted to spend time with my family and explore the city as an adult.

My experience at CLA-LA showed me the stark need for legal services in LA. We saw clients with all sorts of legal issues, from housing to employment to family to immigration. As a small organization, we were limited in what we could do to provide assistance. Yet even the small things that we could offer, like explaining legal processes or searching for information online, were of great help to our clients.

I especially appreciated the spiritual nature of our work. We would always offer to pray for our clients. Acceptance of prayer was never a precondition to receiving services, of course, but many people were drawn to the organization specifically for this reason. Several of our clients talked about how God had brought them through their difficulties and how they had found strength in dark times. It was refreshing to have this spiritual and personal element in my relationship with my clients, instead of seeing them as abstract legal problems.

In the Book of Micah, it is written "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Justice. Mercy. Humility. I am still far from fully grasping these traits, but my experience this summer showed me a small glimpse of these. My thanks to Jessie Johnston Fahy and Sarah McKendricks for a great summer.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I have been feeling sick this past week, with coughing and general fatigue. I have been getting better, which is good. One effect of sickness is a lowered desire to be around other people. I am generally a social person, but not when I feel ill.

The thing is, most people probably would not be able to tell that I am sick from first glance. I had a friend say "Sorry to hear you're sick! You don't look sick. I hope you feel better." I was thinking about some of my friends that have chronic illness, such as autoimmune disease or joint pain. From the outside, people may not know that they are sick or how that sickness impairs them. I will eventually get better and return to full health, but some of my friends may face years of illness. Not every disability is visible, and even this short bout of sickness was a reminder that some people live with that reality.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Portraits in the Hallway

The classroom hall of my school is lined with portraits of distinguished faculty, deans, and trustees. All of the portraits are covered in glass. All, that is, except two: the portraits of Richard Posner and Richard Epstein. Their portraits are not under protective seal, but are exposed. Why is that? Is it because they are the only people portrayed that are still alive? My hunch is that the subjects of all the other portraits have passed. Does this mean that at their (hopefully distant) death, their portraits would be encased in glass? Why not just cover the portraits now? Are the portraits exposed so that they can be altered if their subjects change in appearance? If Richard Epstein were to change his sex and go by Rochelle, would that be captured in this painting?

Meeting Dean Badger

This morning, as I was waiting for the bus, I saw one of the administrators (Dean Badger) walk up. He gave me that slight nod you give to someone you recognize, but don't really know that well. We had never talked before, but I thought to myself "I can either just stand here and we can wait silently, or I can say hello."

So I said "Hello, Dean Badger!" He responded "Oh hi! I didn't recognize you!" Which he probably really didn't, considering this was our first interaction. I quickly introduced myself. We ended up having a great conversation on the bus. He told me about what it was like serving as Assistant Dean decades ago, when he served as Dean of Students, Admissions, and everything else. We talked about the international students at the school and their experience. We talked about his children in DC and Japan and how he is looking forward to seeing them soon.

All in all, I was glad that I said hello.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Reflection on the past year

First week of second year is done. When I started first year, my mom told me: "My biggest concern for you is not that you will do poorly in school, or not get a job, or have difficulties with your classmates. My biggest concern is that you will get stressed, stop exercising, and get fat. Then you would never get married, get diabetes, and die."

Well, first year is over, and I haven't gained weight. I'm working out most every day and watching what I eat. The biggest challenge has been to maintain focus and clarity during a very stressful time. It is easy to lose sight of why I came here, the purpose of all this studying, the world outside the law school walls.

Still need to get more sleep, though.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Roots and Horticultural Metaphors

A lesson on roots. Adapted from a sermon given by a Korean preacher in a church in Mongolia:

"I have been growing flowers in my yard to prepare for our church's anniversary celebration. I planted them in the soil and watered them for a few weeks before transplanting them into pots to bring to the church. I noticed that some of the plants had healthy roots and some had weak roots. Both kinds of plants were flourishing in my yard, because I had good soil there. When the plants with strong roots were transplanted, they continued to thrive even in new soil, because they had sturdy roots. Yet the plants with weak roots became frail in the new soil. These plants had been flourishing because of the soil they were in, not because they were strong themselves. Transplanting showed their weakness."

"In the same vein, if you feel strong and healthy, you need to ask yourself: Am I strong because I have strong roots, or is it because I am in good soil, but my roots are weak?"

In a season of transience, as I am in a different city, it is useful to think on this question. I may be surrounded by good people, but am I myself rooted? Community is necessary, but the strengths of others can mask my weakness.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I was a Forestry major in undergrad, although I don't plan to pursue that career path. People ask me what Forestry majors do. Many of my classmates have gone on to pursue a career as an RPF, or Registered Professional Forester, which involves a rigorous licensing exam. Here is an example annotated posting for an RPF job:
Area Forester
We are seeking a forester to help manage our 73,000 acre tree farm in Northern Sonoma and Southern Mendocino Counties in California. This new position is designed to provide hands on management of our southern timberlands as well as assist the forestry staff on our northern properties.
The forester will develop THP’s (Timber Harvest Plans) in conformance with TCF management plans and guidelines and see the THP through the approval, operations, and completion process. Oversee road construction, improvement and decommissioning projects. A good understanding of forest inventory systems and road construction techniques is also required. Additional duties may include any or all of the following:
• Road and Sediment Source Assessments—evaluate potential erosion sites and road maintenance needs;
• Forest inventory-- install and measure fixed and variable radius plots for out forest inventory.
• Biological surveys—direct, conduct or participate in surveys or habitat assessments for Northern spotted owls, red legged frogs, anadromous fish, and other species of interest;
• Silvicultural projects—Develop and monitor silvicultural activities such as pre commercial thinning, tree-planting, brush-clearing, invasive weed control, and other similar projects;
• Public access—Assist the North Coast Program Manager to develop and implement low impact public access programs, and monitoring trespass;
• Demonstrated ability to supervise various sub-contractors including logging supervision, road construction, inventory and silvicultural activities
The qualified candidate will have:
• Bachelor of Science in Forestry or related field.
• 5 years’ experience with forest management, THP preparation and/or logging supervision. (The successful candidate should have the necessary experience to perform the above mentioned duties and be eligible to take the RPF exam within 1 year of the hire date.)
• Be a motivated individual, eager to learn and to contribute to the overall success of our forest management program. Strong work ethic and time management skills.
• Excellent oral and written communication skills, ability to productively engage with contractors, customers, stakeholder groups and the general public.
• Computer and basic statistical analysis skills, including MS office, ARCGIS (mapping software) are a plus.
• Ability to work independently and as part of a diverse team.
• Current California Driver’s license and clean driving record.
• Conversational proficiency in Spanish or willingness to learn.
This position will regularly require the ability to safely travel to and perform field tasks at distant work sites in variable weather conditions, at remote locations and sometimes in difficult /hazardous terrain.
Some folks ask if Forestry majors go on to become park rangers. Although some of my classmates have gone into recreation, the realms are pretty different. An imperfect analogy would be that park rangers are to foresters as traffic police are to urban planners.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Miguel and the Piano

A story inspired by true events:

It was 9 PM, and Miguel was tired. He had woken up that morning with a sore back from work the day before, which had made the hour long bus ride to his job at the hotel difficult and uncomfortable. He had been working since 8 AM that day moving carts, unloading boxes, and carrying away dirty plates. He had been working at this job in the cleaning crew for 5 years, and it had not been easy.

But it was 9 PM, and an excited grin crept across Miguel's lips. As tired as he was, he looked forward all day to this part of the day. He was about to clean the ballroom. The ballroom was the largest room in the hotel. It was reserved for conferences, events, and dances. This week, there were rows and rows of tables and chairs set up for an education conference. During breaks in the sessions, Miguel and his coworkers had scurried through the ballroom, replacing water glasses, refilling pitchers, and taking away platters of dirty plates.

But it was 9 PM, and the ballroom was empty. As Miguel and his coworkers entered the ballroom to clean it one last time, Miguel walked over to the piano. Without a word, he sat down, and as his coworkers began to clean the room, he started playing.

It was a simple song, nothing remarkable or amazing. But it was the song that Miguel's mother had taught him years ago. His mother had been a piano teacher for many years, and had taught Miguel a few songs as a child. This was the only one that he remembered. After his mother had died several years ago, he had started playing this song again. He couldn't afford a piano at home, so he would play this song every night in the ballroom. Every night. To remember her.

His coworkers finished clearing the room. Miguel closed the piano and stood up with a smile. On the bus ride back, he didn't think about his aching feet, his sore back, or his tired hands. He simply closed his eyes and remembered.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Marriage and Money

My flight into Oakland was delayed and I arrived close to midnight, so I decided to take a taxi to Berkeley. My taxi driver asked me where I was coming from and about my family. When I told him that I was Korean-American, he said that he was Ethiopian. He then asked if I was married. When I told him that I wasn't, he said that should get married soon, and to make sure to marry a Korean-American woman, not an American one. In his words, "People like you and me, we know the value of money and know how to save it. But the people here, they waste money. They have it one day and it's gone the next."
He may be right as a general matter (it is feasible that immigrant families have higher rates of saving, since their financial base tends to be more precarious.) Of course, there are exceptions, as I know some thrifty Americans and some spendy immigrants. On a personal level, it was a reminder that conversations about money are important in preparing for marriage. One prevailing cultural narrative is that money should not matter in a relationship and that love is enough. Yet it is precisely because of love that conversation about money is critical. If I have a disagreement about money with a client or a business partner, I can walk away from that relationship; it is much more difficult to do so with a marriage. Talking about money may not be fun, but it is important.
For now, I want to work on developing healthy financial habits, such as reducing spending. Now that my first winter is out of the way, I won't have to buy more winter clothes.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Contracts Law

One of my favorite classes this past year was Contracts. Most people think of contracts as boring, tedious, and cumbersome (think iTunes user agreements.) Contracts law, however, is fascinating, and it helps to have an excellent professor who makes contracts his life (the other professor was great too, but he was more of a bankruptcy guy.) During winter quarter contracts class, I had a sudden realization: contracts is about the duality between human ambition and human fragility.

Contracts are about promises, and promises are about our desire to shape, plan, and predict the future. We make claims on things to come, and believe that it is in our power to deliver a perfect hand, or the bales of cotton, or a share in a company. Contracts law reflects our desire for control.

Yet we are finite beings, prone to mistakes or miscalculations. We are adrift in a sea of uncertainty; we can't control what will happen in the next 5 minutes, much less the next 5 years. Circumstances spiral out of our grasp: the music hall burns down, the king gets sick, the price of rubber plummets. So we reach out to the other party, asking them to mitigate or to accept money damages. We try to protect ourselves and even claim that our promises have no legal force.

Contracts law is about anthropology. It's about aspiration and error, designs and deviations, lofty human enterprise and inevitable human folly.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Criminal Law

Summary: Sharing my thoughts on crim law final.

I took my final exam for my introductory criminal law class. This is a standard class for nearly all first year law students. I do not intend to take any more criminal law classes, nor to practice criminal law after I graduate. This class was one of the more complicated and confusing classes this year, but I am glad that I took it.

What I learned is that US criminal law is very complicated. It is a mishmash of laws from different eras, from judge-made laws from 1600s England to modern statutes that have been adopted different ways in different jurisdictions. There are the rules, then the exceptions to the rules, then the defenses, then the exceptions to the defenses (e.g. grading of homicide from murder to involuntary manslaughter, and the defense of duress, unless entered into negligently, which may or may not matter.) Some of the problem may be attributed to judicial ineptitude, some to jurisdictional inertia, and some to cross-purposes of the criminal law (is it to punish, to deter, to rehabilitate, or to incapacitate?)

But the real problem is that criminal law matters. It touches lives in a deep and fundamental way. A wife stabs her husband, who has regularly physically abused her the past 14 years. A male college student mistakes his female classmates "No" as token resistance and is charged with sexual assault. An 11-year old boy, growing up in a violent and unstable family, takes part in a gang-related shooting. These people, and those whom their actions affect, enter into the criminal law system, with its myriad contradictions and illogical mechanisms. For them, criminal law is not just some confusing doctrine that needs to be spun out into a workable answer on a 3 hour test. It marks a fundamental shift in their lives and their place in society.

I was listening to a radio show about a man who had an argument with his wife and killed her in a fit of rage. He was 40 years old. By the time he left prison, he was 70. He spent 30 years in prison. He spent more time in prison than I have been alive. It would be as if I had been born in prison and had spent all of my life there. The man himself said that he believed he deserved it, since in that brief moment, he had wanted to kill his wife. Yet reflecting on his sentence gives me pause.

I'm glad to be done with the class, so that I can move onto other things. Yet it was a reminder that behind the outlines, the cold calls, and the finals, there will be real people affected by the work that I and everyone at the school will do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


My counseling teacher taught me that the dysfunctions we have as adults are often rooted in coping mechanisms as children.
For example, Tim grew up in a family with parents who were constantly fighting. He learned to cope with the strain and turmoil by avoiding conflict. Whenever his parents seemed to get into a heated exchange, Tim would do what he could to steer the conversation to calmer waters. Tim learned to avoid conflict, since conflict would inevitably lead to fights. But as an adult, whenever his wife Barbara brings up a difficult topic, Tim shuts down. Even though he is 40 years old, part of him is still that 8 year old, the sound of his parents' shouting ringing in his ears. He isn't even conscious of the role his childhood trauma plays in his current life.
The key here is to recognize where the dysfunction comes from. Oftentimes, we try to will our dysfunctions away. We resolve to do better, to be more attentive, to be more emotionally open. Yet if we remain ignorant to the deep well of our habits and patterns of thinking, resolve will only go so far.
For myself, one such coping mechanism/dysfunction is an expectation of rejection. It manifests as a little voice that says "No one really likes you. All these people that are nice to you, they are just being polite. If they said what they really felt, they would want nothing to do with you. The best thing you can do for everyone is to leave them alone, so they don't have to put up with you."
The story behind this coping mechanism is long and involved. Suffice it to say, I know that it isn't true, but it still triggers within me at times. Yet when these thoughts come back, knowing the story behind them and how to speak truth against them is transformative. Instead of becoming hopeless or upset when these thoughts come up, I can ask myself: Where does this come from, and what is the truth?

Home Buying

I was having a conversation the other night about the merits of buying a home against renting with my legal writing teacher. He commented that he strongly encourages renting over buying for students entering private practice, since most such lawyers have careers that allow or even require geographic mobility. He said that he was buying a house because he knew he wanted to settle in San Diego and wanted certain amenities that buying allows, but otherwise would have still kept renting, and that he didn't believe in the predominant cultural norm that encourages everyone to buy.
Yet another dimension to renting/home buying that came to mind was how the act of buying solidifies ties to a location, which is particularly important for immigrants. When my parents moved to the US from Korea, they had no family ties here whatsoever (even now, all of my family is back in Korea.) They had come on my father's graduate student visa, and it wasn't clear if they would stay or return. When they bought our house, it wasn't just a financial investment, or a nice building in a neighborhood with good schools, or a choice for a certain bundle of goods that a local government could provide. It was a statement about the future, that our family would be rooted in this new place. The Kim family would make this place home.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Marriage is work

It's almost summer, which means it's almost wedding season. I haven't been invited to any weddings this year, but I remember the weddings from the past few years that I attended (happy anniversary to Vinicius and Christina.)

I was telling a friend who is in his mid 30s that I'm getting to the age when many of my friends are getting married (in the past few weeks, two couples I know got engaged.) He said that he's getting to the age when several couples are getting divorced. He said "I was a guest at their wedding. I talked to the guy's uncle. I gave them a blender as wedding present."

It is a sobering thought; I hope that none of my friends need experience a divorce, but underlying it is an important reality. Marriage is work. Once the wedding is over, once the champagne flutes are packed away, the decorations are taken down, and the music is over, marriage is hard work. It's easy to look with loving eyes on your partner on the big day in a dashing suit or beautiful dress. It's a lot harder when both of you are exhausted, you're stressed over finances or family, and you don't know how to make this life together. Marriage is messy, divorce is messy, and I have great sympathy for those who go through such hardship.

It will be interesting to see how my perspective on weddings changes once I get married (if I get married). Those who have experienced the joys and scars of married life will likely see weddings from a different light. Some may be cynical, knowing the difficult things ahead. Some may be patronizing, wanting the new couple to avoid the same mistakes. And some may be even more joyful, knowing that the hardships make the beautiful things even sweeter.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Grief is to let go

The very first memorial service I ever attended was for a woman named Mary Case. She was in my supervision small group for a counseling ministry in Berkeley. She was a gentle, sweet woman, who spoke with warmth about her relationship with her care receiver. She would share about her hopes for her teenage children, about family trips, about projects around the house with her husband. She would also share about her cancer. At our last meeting before she passed, she mentioned that things were going quite smoothly and that she was optimistic about the future. Her death, although not entirely surprising, was shocking.

I didn't know Mary well, but I felt compelled to attend her service to support her family. I arrived at the church on that beautiful sunny spring day. Friends and family members came forth to share memories of her. Some were crying. Her husband told a story that had us all laughing. Some could only speak a few words.

Today, on another sunny spring day, I left a different memorial service, at a different church, in a different city. This time, it wasn't a mother and wife whose life was cut short by cancer, but a vibrant young woman taken by an accident. A young woman whom I had never met, but clearly had an impact on everyone around her. As I reflect on what her loss means for those close to me, I remember these words from that first service, years ago: To grieve is to let go of that which you cannot have. It is painful, it is difficult, and it takes time. To grieve is to acknowledge that we cannot hold claim to another, but that we can thankful for how another has deeply changed our world.

Friday, May 9, 2014


What do people mean when they say "Happy birthday?"

It's a phrase uttered all over the world. I received birthday wishes from China, Mongolia, Korea, and all throughout the US. Yet why do we say it? It's a quick, one-off phrase, said in passing in the hallway or in a quick social media post. A smile, a wave, cake, candles, songs, laughter.

When I say happy birthday to an old friend, I want them to know how our friendship has enriched my life. How meeting them has changed me in a profound and positive way. My birthday greeting is rooted in the past.

When I say happy birthday to an acquaintance, I bring in my hopes for the future. If I have gotten to know them well enough to sincerely wish them happy birthday, I come with the hope that our friendship will continue to grow. My birthday greeting looks to what is to come.

When I say happy birthday to a stranger, I give them my good tidings for the moment. I may not know them well enough to know what this year has meant to them, and I may never run into them again, but I can still celebrate today with them. My birthday greeting is in the present.

A birthday is an opportunity to celebrate life. Because as hard as life can be sometimes, there is so much beauty to it. Each of us only has a fixed number of birthdays. To quote xkcd: "Remember, every second counts toward your life total, including these right now."

Thank you for the birthday wishes, friends. I am 27 years old now (28 in Korea!), and every day is a gift.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

University Symphony

Tonight I went to watch a concert by the University Symphony Orchestra. My friend Caroline Wong was the soloist for a concerto and I wanted to go support her (spectacular job tonight, Caroline!) I loved going to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concerts. I had several musically inclined friends back in Berkeley, and it was always a great time to listen to beautiful music and support my friends.
What I love about these amateur concerts is the chance to share in the deep love that the musicians have for the music. Most of these musicians aren't going to be professionals performing in orchestras after they graduate. They are students with papers, exams, other student organizations, and countless demands on their time. Yet they put those things aside to create music together. In a way, they invite the rest of the community to take a step back from the relentless tide of work to relish in beauty, mystery, and dreams. Orchestra and audience, we together create a moment of ordinary wonder.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friend of Jesus

A meditation on Good Friday:

One aspect of the story of Jesus' crucifixion as told in the gospels that I find striking is what happened with Jesus' friends, his closest companions. At their final meal together, Jesus predicted that they would all abandon him, yet all adamantly denied it. They all declared the strength of their bond, a friendship unto death.

Yet when Jesus was arrested, all his friends abandoned him. One of his closest companions, Peter, even denied ever having anything to do with him. I imagine myself in Jesus' place, arrested and jailed for no crime, and all my friends abandoning me, fearful for their own lives. I can imagine myself becoming bitter at them for their betrayal, or perhaps mournful in myself, believing that I deserved to be abandoned.

Yet after three days, when Jesus returns to his friends after the resurrection, he makes no mention of what happened. Instead of coming against them with accusations or resentment, he comes to them with love. He even embraces Peter, saying to him simply "Follow me."

This same Peter, who hid in his cowardice and shame, would give the first sermon of the church, wrote letters that are part of the foundation of the church, and would be killed for his faith. The other disciples, the friends of Jesus, would experience similar fates of martyrdom and exile. The love of Jesus transformed them.

I am amazed at the power of love to forgive, and am inspired to forgive others. Just as I have been healed, so too do I wish for the healing of others.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Insecurity and Pizza

This past weekend was Admitted Students Weekend for the law school. It brought to mind a memory from my experience at ASW last year.

After a very full day of activities, the law school had scheduled a deep dish pizza dinner at Gino's East in downtown. Buses pulled up in front of the school and admits piled in. Somehow, I ended up with sitting by myself, next to the window. As the bus headed up Lakeshore Drive, I heard the chatter of excited admits all around me, including some unfortunate smack talk regarding Chicago sports teams. Yet I felt distant and disconnected. I was tired and worn out from a busy day, but I knew that what I was feeling went beyond simple introversion. Old insecurities were welling up within me, a familiar sense of not belonging. "You don't belong here. You don't belong with these people. You will never find the acceptance and connection that you want. You don't deserve it." It stunk.

However, I have lived long enough with these destructive beliefs to know how to respond. I told myself "Stop it. Don't sit here in your self-pity and foolish thinking. Don't wait for someone else to fix it. Make a connection!" I slid over to the other seat and said hello to the person across the aisle. That is how I met WuDi Wu and Amy Upshaw, two people that I honor and appreciate greatly.

I still have those same feelings insecurity from time to time. There are days when I walk through school and the same familiar lies come at me: "You don't belong here. No one wants you here. Leave." Yet I am thankful for a truth that is stronger than my insecurity, that carries me even when I feel weak.

Oh, and the pizza was pretty good (although I enjoyed Zachary's in Berkeley and Oakland more. Yay Bay Area!)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Growing up with Korean parents: Korean dentists

One challenge in growing up with immigrant parents is navigating medical services. Growing up, my mom used to take me to Dr. Cho, the Korean dentist nearby. He had the benefit of being close to home and Korean, so my mom felt comfortable with him. However, his English wasn't very good, which made going to the dentist rather miserable. I would sit in the chair, Dr. Cho hovering over me with all sorts of dental implements, not understanding most of what he said (my Korean wasn't proficient enough to grasp his words.) I didn't want to say I didn't understand, so I would just nod and play along.

If you get squeamish over dentist stories, skip the next paragraph.

This language barrier wasn't a problem until Dr. Cho performed the root canal. I still remember it as a very painful experience (lots of scraping). Several months later, I had a terrible headache with swelling in my jaw. I went to another dentist, who told me I had an abscess from an infection, filling my gum with pus. She numbed the infected area, put a suction tube in my mouth, and sliced the gum open, spilling the pus out. The tube got most of the pus, but it was a painful and disgusting experience. Later, I went to get the root canal checked out by another dental surgeon. He showed me an X-ray of my teeth. "See that little area? That's your root canal. And see this small gray sliver? I'm not sure, but I think it's a piece of metal. Whoever did your root canal broke off a dental implement in your tooth." The follow-up root canal was relatively painless. Suffice it to say, I haven't returned to Dr. Cho since.

I have heard stories about children helping immigrant parents to navigate services in English (6 year old kids explaining forms at the DMV, for example). More rare is how children try to navigate receiving services for themselves in their parents' foreign language. This can often lead to confusing (and painful) experiences.

Cultural distinctions

I went to the dry cleaning to pick up my alterations. Usually, it's staffed by a pleasant Korean woman, with whom I would chat about the weather. Last time, I was met by a middle-aged Korean man. He had a bit of a gruff demeanor. He started telling me about his troubles with the weather this past year. Then he said that his car had gotten "f***ed up" by the salt.

I was a bit taken aback. I think this is the first time I had ever heard an older Korean man use a curse word casually, in English, with someone he had just met (and a customer at that). I started to feel uneasy and left as soon as I could.

As I reflected on that encounter, I realized that I experienced some cultural dissonance in talking to this man. There are certain cultural norms that are part of how I interact with older Korean adults, centered around expectations of respect and civility (even the Korean words I use are different). I seldom interact with Korean adults who use salty language, and certainly not in English. However, I was still quite surprised by how much it affected me.

Today I went to a different cleaner, where I met an older Korean couple. They were warm and friendly, asking me about my family (I tried to explain what work my dad does, but I forgot the Korean word for "Actuary"). I really enjoyed talking to them. If the alterations turn out well, I'll definitely go back again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tu és fiel, Senhor!

This past summer, I was in Rio de Janeiro with my friend Albert Alby Wang to celebrate the wedding of Vinicius Gripp B. Ramos and his wife Christina. Vini and Christina had already gotten married in May in Berkeley, but this was a celebration for friends and family in Brazil. The ceremony was a simple one, conducted at the church where Vini's father was a pastor. The ceremony was conducted in Portuguese, so I could not understand any of it. However, we did get to sing several hymns, including "Tu és fiel Senhor", which in English is known as "Great is Thy Faithfulness."

I have grown up hearing this hymn, both in its English incarnation and in Korean as "오 신실하신 주". Yet there was a beautiful richness in hearing it afresh in a new language. I kept the program from the ceremony and still sing the hymn every now and again. It reminds me of the wonderful time I had in Rio with my friends and of that beautiful city. It gives me a greater appreciation of the truth of the words.

"Tu és fiel, Senhor! Tu és fiel, Senhor!
Dia após dia, com bênçãos sem fim.
Tua mercê me sustenta e me guarda.
Tu és fiel, Senhor, fiel a mim."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dream 2: Carrying another's burden + a surprise

Dream 2: Small town. I was with a few friends, visiting the hometown of another friend, "Bill". As he walked through the town, he started reminiscing over things in his past (this is someone I actually know, but I don't know anything about his family history, and Bill isn't his real name.) He started sharing about his ex-wife. As he talked about how long it has been since he has seen his two children, he started getting teary-eyed. We sat, quiet, listening to him share about his disappointment in his failures as a husband and a father.

At some point, our group ended up sitting on one porch, while Bill was sitting on his porch across the street. We called to him to come sit with us. He said that he was grateful for the invitation, but that he couldn't leave his house. He smiled a sad smile, and started to walk back inside. Without a word, our group got up, walked over to him, and sat down next to him. Some of my friends hugged him. He started crying. We sat in silence.

Just then, a large black spider with a body the size of a quarter came scuttling along the porch at a frenzied pace. My friends jumped back with a scream. The spider crawled onto the leg of Bill, who yelped. The spider crawled over him, up the wall, and onto the ceiling right over my hand, and then jumped down. I shut my eyes tight right before it landed on my face. I stood completely still, keeping my mouth closed firmly. I could feel the spider scrambling all over my face.

Dream: New York City buses

4 dreams last night.

Dream 1: New York City. Almost sunset. I was standing in a cafe with dozens of other law students, all of us chatting idly while waiting for the bus to take us to the event. I fidgeted with my suit and looked at my phone. The bus was due any minute to pick us up at 900 Grayson (East Bay friends, note the reference). I looked on the map and noticed that there was a small produce shop nearby. The map showed the prices of fruit (app developers, get on this), and I noticed it was cheaper at the shop than at the Ralph's (SoCal friends!) a few blocks away.

I got excited because the produce shop looked just like one I have seen on Seinfeld, the one that sold the melons that got George perked up. I tried to tell others to get them excited (about the shop, not George), but they were not interested.

I looked at the map again, and with a sudden sinking feeling realized that we were waiting at the wrong spot. The buses were waiting on a peninsula several blocks away. Our group left the cafe and started walking. Soon, we were marching lock-step, stone silent, the sound of our leather-heeled steps ringing in the humid night air.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Caribbean Dream

Had a strange dream last night I want to share:

I opened the door to my cabin and set my bags on the ground, a big smile on my face. I walked over and opened the window, taking in the refreshing sea air. "I made it!" I said to myself, as I looked out onto the brilliant blue water. I had signed up for a study abroad program on a boat in the Caribbean. For a year, the boat would travel to different countries, where I would learn about the Caribbean ecosystem.

I walked over to the sink and started washing my hands. I noticed that the sink was filling up with water, so I pulled the stopper out of the bottom. Suddenly, the roof started leaking water, and soon the whole room was flooded. I grabbed my backpack off the floor (now soaking wet), and scrambled toward the door. The walls of the room crumbled down, and I found myself swimming in the crystal clear ocean water. The water was warm and pure. I turned and saw a man and a woman sitting on a bench on the shore, dressed in bathing suits. I thought they were fellow students, so I swam over and said hi. The man shook my hand but didn't introduce himself. The woman gave me a quick awkward smile. Then they started making out heavily. I left in a hurry.

As I swam away, I saw other students getting into the ocean. I heard people talk about how excited they were to get wasted and laid on this trip. I started to feel upset. It seemed that people came on this trip just to party and that no one was interested in learning about tropical ecology.

I dove down into the water. The water was wonderfully clear; I didn't need goggles to see. As I poked around in the sand, I was dismayed to find it strewn with garbage: small bottles of alcohol, gum wrappers, food. I picked up a few bottles and swam out to shore. I walked over to a bar on the beach, where the friendly bartender with tanned skin and dark curly hair said "What can I get you?" I told him I just wanted to empty out the bottles in the sink. Once the bottles were empty, I told him where I should put the recycling. He flashed a smile and said "We actually don't recycle" and threw the bottles in the trash. Somehow, I felt worse on hearing that.

I walked away, the sounds of laughter echoing behind me. I felt really out of place, and wondered if it was too late to get a refund and cancel the trip. I reached into my bag and pulled out the brochure for the trip. I flipped to the back page, which in my excitement I had not yet read. I was stunned to see written in bold print: "We guarantee that you will lose your virginity on this trip!" Underneath that was, in smaller print "Just kidding. We know you all lost that years ago." I thought "This can't be real." I looked out over the beach, the water, all the people, and thought "Is this a dream?" Then I woke up.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Winning to Lose

"Be careful not to win the argument but lose the relationship."

I am not an argumentative person. I lack a strong competitive desire to win, and this is born out in my conversations with others. Yet even still, there are times when I find myself in deep disagreement with others. In those times, I remember this saying.

I have seen relationships fall apart when disagreement turns to enmity. What started as a conversation of differing viewpoints becomes an ego-driven need to be right above everything else.

Of course, handling disagreement well is an important facet of life; any relationship that has no disagreements may need re-examining. Yet I still find it useful to ask: "Is this issue so important that I'm willing to risk this relationship just so I can be right?"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The introvert pastor

One of my inspirations to start writing was an interview I read with Timothy Keller.

Tim Keller is the founding pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In a highly secular and skeptical city, Redeemer has been flourishing in drawing in young, urbane, sophisticated professionals. This growth is in no small part due to Keller's intelligent and informed sermons. He is the author of several books, one of which ("The Reason for God") was on the New York Times bestseller list for March 2008.

Yet in an interview, Keller described his "painful introversion" and the strange irony that an introvert like him could become a megachurch pastor in Manhattan. Keller described overcoming a feeling "like nobody likes me."

As an introvert myself, I resonate with Keller's experience. Many times in my life, I have told myself that no one cared what I had to say. When I started thinking about writing, my initial response was: "People are too busy to bother with your words. Stop wasting their time with this nonsense." Yet I found comfort in this interview. If Tim Keller, who has written many books and pastored countless people and preached fantastic sermons, has felt this way before, maybe it's not so strange that I feel this way. If Keller feels this way, and I feel this way, maybe there are other people who feel this way too. Just as I drew comfort from knowing that I'm not alone in thinking these thoughts, perhaps sharing about them can help others as well.

I'll have more to say about this later, but for now I'll say to anyone who has felt that no one cares what they have to say and their voice doesn't matter: It does. It really does. You have the wonderful gift of your perspective to share with the world. Now, just like any gift, you need to treat it with care, especially in trying to share it with people who don't want it (especially so on the internet). Just like any gift, you don't want to compare it to someone else's gift and say yours is better than theirs just because. Having a gift isn't a license for rudeness. But for those who believe that they have nothing important to say because their perspective doesn't matter, don't believe that.

The interview:

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rains and Rivers

My home state of California has been experiencing some very heavy rain these past few days. This rain has been a welcome respite from the terrible drought of the past year. However, in certain parts of the state, the rain has been dangerous. A very dry year and numerous wildfires have stripped the earth of its vegetation in some regions, such that mudslides and flooding are a real danger. Though this rain is important, in some ways the ground isn't ready for it.

When I heard about the mudslides, I remembered something I learned years ago. There is a biblical image of one who does not follow wickedness but meditates on truth. Such a person is like a tree planted by streams of water. This image of the stream is important in how it contrasts with the rain. Any gardener or farmer will say that rather than have a heavy downpour all at once, it is far better to have a steady flow of water. Abundance is good, but consistency is better.

In my life, I see this principle take root. There is a temptation to put off important priorities because I believe I am too busy. Exercise, prayer, time for rest — I see a tendency to put things off to take care of all at once. "I'm too busy to do this today; I'll wait until the weekend and get it done all at once." I see this tendency in other people over longer stretches of time for relationships — "I don't have time to eat dinner with my family these next two months, but I'll make it up to them with a vacation." Certainly, there are times when consistency is difficult to practice, but relying on some future downpour of activity as compensation isn't wise.

The rain may come with terror and storm, but may find only a cracked and barren earth to welcome it. The water will wash out the soil into the sea. Yet even a quiet, constant river brings rejoicing, for where the river flows, everything will live.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Snow Walk

This is my first winter in a cold climate, and so for the first time I need to deal with the snow. I bought several pairs of boots, socks, and long underwear, and so far it's not been too bad. Sometimes, though, the snow can get quite deep, and walking through it can be frustrating. A walk that would ordinarily only take a few minutes can feel longer just because of the need to trudge through the snow.

Sometimes, in walking through the snow, I feel a strange temptation to just give up. I think about how much work it will take to get home, take a shower, unpack everything. I think about how much work there still is left to do. It's strange, but I feel a seductive urge to stop, fall over, and let the cold embrace of winter take me. Very dramatic, for a ten minute walk! Yet it is in these times that I need to remind myself to keep walking and take every step. Rather than fixate on how much time it will take to the end, I need to keep going.

I've been trying to approach this law school experience the same way. When I think about finals or Spring Quarter or the next two years, it all can seem so daunting. There is so much to do, and in some way it's tempting to give up. Yet I need to remember to just keep going forward. There will be failures and missteps and problems on the way, and that's ok. In fact, just like a walk on a still winter evening, snow gently falling into the crisp cold air, the journey can be beautiful.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


A mentor told me years ago the importance of staying FAT: Faithful, Available, and Teachable. He said that more than having any amazing ability, it was important to be faithful with what I have been given, to be available to serve, and be teachable to learn.

I try to remember this now. Most of my law school classes are composed of questions and discussions. Sometimes, it can feel like the discussions are going nowhere, or that a question is totally irrelevant, or there's no resolution at the end of class. There is a temptation to give up in frustration and disengage, to stop caring.

Yet I try to keep teachability in mind. The truth is, we are engaging in hard questions that don't always have easy answers. Part of the journey is learning how to think through these questions, even if there's no resolution.

Furthermore, this is good training for work. There will be plenty of times in the future when I'll be in a room in a seemingly pointless conversation, except instead of a classroom at school, I will be in a conference with a client. Just like in class, I might be confused on what the client is trying to communicate; unlike in class, waiting until the conference is over doesn't solve the problem. These mystifying, confusing, and sometimes mind-numbing classroom discussions are an opportunity to learn forbearance. After all, even patience takes practice; it doesn't come quickly.

Ultimately, teachability is more than a passive amenability to learning. Teachability is not just "I'm willing to learn, but only if the information is interesting, it's presented in an easily digestible manner, and it's not too much work for me." Teachability requires an investment in my end, for it is the fruit of the seed of humility, which is something I'm still learning.

The City of Stories

I met someone who came from a state on the East Coast. I asked her what it was like growing up there, and she said "Oh, it was terrible. It's a horrible place with nothing to do. There's nothing good about it all. Ugh."

At first, this didn't sit well with me. No matter how bad her experience of growing up there, I don't believe it was truly that horrible. Moreover, it struck me as ungrateful and negative; surely there is something to be said about the stability and peace of her hometown.

Then I realized that sometimes I behave this way. When people would ask me about growing up in LA, I would complain about the shallowness, the unabashed materialism, the suburban disconnection, the lack of public transit infrastructure and enslavement to automobiles, the heat.

The truth is, LA is a very big place, with a great diversity in its neighborhoods. My experience of growing up in Granada Hills is just a fragment of the overall picture. Santa Monica, Westwood, Torrance, Compton — these are all different parts of LA that I haven't fully experienced. The weather is nice, there are people from all over the world, great food, amazing cultural resources.

What really gave me a vision for LA was a sermon I heard by a preacher from Louisiana. He said "I love LA because it is a city of stories. More than any other city, this city is the birthplace of stories. A little boy growing up in Lima, Peru may never leave his country, yet his life will be influenced by the stories coming out of this city." If you ask the average person in Turkey, Mongolia, or Morocco about Mark Zuckerburg or Warren Buffet or Richard Posner, they probably couldn't tell you. But ask them about Mickey Mouse, Will Smith, or Angelina Jolie, and they would be able to tell you, or at least recognize their faces. Creativity, wonder, excitement live in LA, as do grit, disease, and malevolence.

So now when people ask me about LA, I tell them about the City of Stories, of the stories that draw people to LA, and my own story of the city in the desert that is part of my memory, my identity, my home.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day, 2014

In the last few weeks, I have seen friends' announcements on Facebook about new romantic relationships. I have watched wedding videos, scrolled through adorable couple photos and pictures of beautiful gifts, and read posts of love, affection, and thanksgiving.

As I reflect on these tender displays, I recognize a single question lurking in the back of my mind: "What about me?" I'm sure there's many people wrestling with that thought. It is a scary and sad thing, to believe that one is alone. It can feel patently unfair to see other people in romantic bliss and see in one's own life...nothing.

Yet a phrase that I heard weeks ago helps me maintain perspective. "That is not your story." The key to contentment and peace is to embrace the life that I have been given. When I see someone with something that I don't have, rather than stew in bitterness and envy, I can say "That is not your story." As it is said, "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."

Truth is, there is much in my life for which I am grateful. Wonderful family, incredible opportunities, a sound mind, a strong body. My grandparents fled the chaos of the Korean war, losing many of their relatives. My parents suffered through poverty in the aftermath and had to struggle to find stability and opportunity in a foreign land. I have loving friends, I have encouraging community. Delicious food! Transcendent music! Beauty! Wonder! Enlightenment!

To all my friends who are single today, remember this: Just because you are single doesn't mean that you are alone. Just because you are single doesn't mean that you are unwanted. Just because you are single doesn't mean that you are unloved. Enjoy life!

To my friends that are in a relationship: My best wishes go with you. Whether you celebrate this day or not, may all go well with your relationship. May your union be more than you could have ever dreamed, but may it never become more than it was meant to be.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Anger and Unreasonable Patience

A few years ago, I was talking with a friend about a time that I got angry. She said "Wow, Joel, I could never imagine you angry."

I was puzzled and somewhat taken aback by her comment. I know that I am generally a very calm and cheery person. Yet I don't want to give the impression that nothing ever upsets me. I am human, and I get angry, sometimes at rather trivial things (like crumbs on the kitchen countertop).

Still, I can't help but wonder if my even-headed temperament is my true emotional state, or a carefully calibrated attempt to control an uncontrollable inner life. I think for a long time I have not given myself freedom to feel certain feelings because they were too painful. In so doing, I may have forgotten what I really feel and what I tell myself I should feel. Yet it is a quiet tragedy to forget the timbre of one's emotions. I am grateful to be learning how to recognize true emotion.

Lastly, anger can be good. To paraphrase the early church father John Chrysostom: He who is angry without cause sins. He who is not angry when there is cause sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I will dwell

People who are not familiar with the Bible may still be familiar with Psalm 23. The psalm begins "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." It is featured in many funerals, and most people may have seen it in a movie.

One verse that I find quite striking is v. 6 — "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

I spend most of my time out of my apartment. I am usually at school or running errands. Yet even though I don't spend the majority of my time at home, my apartment is where I dwell. When I go out of town for a few days, this place is still my dwelling. Even if I go to a distant country for months, I know that this place is still my home.

With this in mind, this verse gives me great comfort. No matter where I go, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Even if I visit a land of sorrow and bitterness, even if I find myself in a pit of despair and self-hatred, that is not where I am meant to live. This doesn't mean that I will be free from problems (verse 5 refers to having a table "in the presence of my enemies," indicating there will still be trouble). Nevertheless, there is this promise of goodness and mercy to follow me through the heartaches, uncertainties, and disappointments of life.