help[less]

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

Last week, my therapist and I began asking the question –
“Do I need therapy anymore?”

So we dug into the soil of memory. We dug and dug, until we got lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. We found pieces of my childhood, fossilized stories of family.

I saw my dad’s face, though it was blurry like a faded polaroid.
I could never see too clearly in class and I didn’t get glasses until the 8th grade. But it mattered not. I had to pay attention, just in case I missed something. Just in case I messed up.

My dad was a sensei.
And, I, his apprentice. Being lectured and trained to survive the “real world”.

But I never learned much anyways.
I was always too slow.

I saw my mother’s face.
It was hazy from the sheer speed she traveled at, trying to take care of all of our family’s needs. All but her own.

She was everywhere and she was nowhere.

I’d catch a cold and her motherly instincts would kick into overdrive. There would never be a shortage of warm fluids and freshly-cut fruit. Her love language tasted like rice porridge and Korean pears.

My mom was a superhero.

Then I’d recover, but she kept cooking porridge and buying fruit. Taking care of needs that were not there.

She couldn’t switch off.

I never really figured out how to talk to them, or hold a friendship.
But they taught me a lot of things. And took care of me.

She sat across the room from me but we were always in the same group. She essentially saved me from flunking the first test, so naturally, I hung out with her.

Eventually, we developed a rhythm of meeting up after school every Monday by the blue lunch tables.
Then every Wednesday.
Then every Thursday.

Then almost every day.

I told my parents I had to see a tutor. A new after-school program. They bought it.

She was someone special to me.

Some days, we’d actually talk about english homework.

Other days, we’d talk about life, when life was not school and writing essays. We’d talk about things that made us feel alive, when studying made us feel empty, like robots. We’d talk about things we actually nerded out over, when it wasn’t chemistry and calculus.

In a hollow, ruthlessly competitive environment that seemed to value numbers more than people, I felt that someone actually cared about me. Saw me for who I was beyond my grades.

In a place so cold and lifeless, she made me feel understood. Known.

Warm.

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Well, why did you pick up the phone and call in the first place?”

“Because.. I needed help. Professional help. I needed someone to save me.”

“From what?”

“From destroying myself.”

“Mm. Tell me more about that.”

“Well.. I went to Thailand last summer on a mission trip. Little did I know I would meet my long-lost childhood tormentor. When I came back, the demons followed me home.”

“Which ones?”

“The ones that ridicule me. The ones that tell me I’m not enough. And call me B̂ā.”

B̂ā?”

“Means ‘stupid’ in Thai. Or ‘mentally retarded’, to be more specific.”

“He did all that to you?”

I nodded grimly at her.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Every day, he would teach us his way doing things around the house. Like how to wash the dishes. Or laundry. Things like that. And whenever I messed up, he would beat me with his words.”

“My goodness.. That must have been so painful.”

“The problem was, in his eyes, I was always doing it wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get it right.”

She paused. Sorted through the soil.

“He was the sensei.”

I nodded.

“And I was his failed apprentice.”

The bell rang and the daily exodus of pubescent teenagers formed towards the door.

I headed towards her desk.

“Hey.”

“Hey! What did you think?”

“It was hard”, I lied. “Should have just slept.”

“Wanna meet after school? Maybe I can work my magic.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Lunch tables?”

“Sounds good.”

She smiled.

I think I liked her but I didn’t know what that meant yet.

I would probably not retain anything she taught me but she meant something special to me.

So I went to the blue lunch tables every week. Perfect attendance.

One day, my parents caught on that my afternoon “tutoring activities” weren’t actually raising my grades.

Maybe this one will work instead, they thought, and promptly signed me up for yet another after-school program.

I could not fight back. Because that would unveil the beautiful lie I had spent the past couple months fabricating. Because that would make me a worse son than I already was.

So I found other ways of lashing out. Like yelling at them. Closing the door to the office den I worked in. Closing other, more important doors.

Shutting them out of my life.

We saw each other less and less.

We were not in the same friend group to begin with, and high school has a petty way of handling friendship. Now, the only space we shared – blue lunch tables after school – was taken from us.

Our meetings became shorter and shorter. Less and less often.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, some weeks, if we were lucky,
then Wednesdays and Fridays,
then only Wednesdays.

Then nothing.

She became a senior and I jumped off the edge to college.

I spent many of my afternoons staring off into the crayon-vandalized walls of my new after-school institution.

I don’t think I ever properly mourned
her disappearance
my disappearance
from each other’s lives.

I did not know how. So into space I stared. Like a trauma victim in comatose. So much for raising grades.

I wondered what became of our friendship.
How did we get here? If I didn’t have her, did I have friends at all? Or were they all just robots?

I wondered if she found out about my affections for her.

Or if she found out that I actually had a thing for English and literature. That I tried my hand at creative writing and was actually pretty good at it.

That I didn’t need her help anymore.

I wondered if she found out what I had turned her into.

One time, I got sick. And her motherly instincts kicked into overdrive.

Freshly-cooked, warm rice porridge. Honey lemon tea. Korean pears.

Then, I got better.
But I stayed in bed. Told her that my throat still burned.

Just a little while longer.

At the moment, I didn’t really know why I did that.

But I think about how she made me feel in those moments – cared for and seen.

That in the coldest of colds, she made me feel warm.

I think about who she was, what she meant to me. She was a caretaker. A superhero.

My mom was also a superhero.
And I liked being rescued.

“Justin, you’re not just living.
You’re thriving.”

I looked at her, my mouth agape. Not because it wasn’t true but because it had been so long. Did I even believe her?

I sat on the couch, my butt on the very edge, staring into my favorite blank space on the wall of the warmly-lit room.

It was April and I sat on the very edge of a cliff, on the verge of transition. The verge of graduation, and “real life”, whatever that is. Adult things, like finding a job, paying my own bills, and waking up early.

Becoming self-sufficient. Buying my own rice porridge and Korean pears. Terrifying things of that nature.

I sat on the edge of a new chapter of relationship. I looked at the cliff and wondered which friendships would survive the fall when I jumped.

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

She spoke, snapping me out of my state of wall-staring rumination.

“So. What do you think? What would it look like for us to finish well?”

We spoke of seeing each other less. Twice, maybe even once a month.

Always Wednesdays. Always one hour, exactly.

But less and less.

Until nothing.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

I pulled out my weapon of choice and started writing –
“This is not a goodbye letter.

It is a bizarre thing, talking with your friends about how to be friends to each other. But sometimes, it is what we must do.

You walked in at a curious time of my life.
I was not entirely myself, and yet, I was more myself than I had ever been. And perhaps, it was the same for you. Funny how suffering does that to people.

I often wonder who you are to me.
Sometimes, I say friend. Other times, I do not know.

I think about the ways you’ve helped me through some of the most difficult and important times of my life. I remember the ways you comforted me and saved me from destroying myself.

In the darkest and loneliest moments, you made me feel like someone actually cared about me.
In the coldest and most lifeless times, you made me feel understood. Known. Warm.

Now that things are not so dark, now that life is not so cold, I think about that more than ever – who you are to me.

And the thought terrifies me. I fear I might lose you somehow. That as I sit on the edge of transition, maybe our relationship will not survive the fall.

Because,

Who are you if I don’t need you?
What is our relationship if I don’t need saving anymore?

I turned you into something you’re not. I made myself into someone I’m not.

I turned you into a superhero.
And I wanted to be rescued.

But I was never meant to need you.

I don’t want to be your friend because you can meet my needs, or because you can make me feel a certain way. Even if you are uncannily good at it.

I want to be your friend because you are uniquely and flavorfully you.

So I guess this is me saying,
I don’t need you anymore.

And that is a beautiful thing.

the Kid, pt. 1

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

There is this phenomenon studied in Community Psychology known as the “expert mentality”. An expert figure administers what he believes is professional help to a recipient based off of what the expert perceives as the recipient’s needs and deficits. But in doing so, the expert unintentionally creates more deficits that necessitate more “professional help”. The expert consequentially responds to the newly created needs by prescribing another treatment, which would only give rise to yet another deficit, requiring another treatment. A detrimental, crippling cycle is inadvertently manufactured in an attempt to provide help.

Think of a doctor who attempts to cure his patient’s disease by prescribing a medicine. The patient faithfully takes his pill daily but the pill produces some deleterious side effects. So what does he do? He goes back to the doctor, of course. Aha, the doctor knows exactly what to do: prescribe him a new pill to take care of the first pill’s side effects. The patient diligently takes both pills but to his surprise, this new pill spawns its own side effects. So the doctor prescribes yet another pill (with more side effects!) to treat the second pill’s side effects. You get the idea.

In an attempt to address the patient’s deficits, the professional creates new ones, further harming the patient and digging him deeper into a well of cyclical dependency. In the end, the solution to the problem the medication was made to solve is to get rid of the medication itself.

We see this all the time in social work and non-profit attempts to aid underprivileged communities. “Professional”, college degree-brandishing outsiders come into these communities and start implementing programs (often without the people’s consent/cooperation) that they believe will be the solution to the community’s problems.

We, psychologists, have this strange obsession of pathologizing everything, especially things we see as deviant. We have a keen awareness of people’s life problems and we subconsciously start diagnosing their ish, even if we don’t know them too well. (Guilty). And as with individuals, we do same with communities. But there is something fundamentally wrong and unhelpful in our thinking. The problem is that we are viewing people by their deficits and needs, rather than their strengths and assets. Why is it that we let people’s deficits be more definitive of who they are than their strengths?

To take it a step deeper, the lenses by which we view their deficits are easily susceptible to cultural, gender, and worldview biases. For all we know, what we think are “needs” in other communities may not actually be real problems. Often times, these communities don’t actually think they need our help. Go figure.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

Any community psychologist knows that the ultimate goal is empowerment. But we will never empower individuals and communities if we see them by their deficits. When we see them by their deficits and interact with them as such, we instill a debilitating belief in them that there’s something wrong with them. And the potent self-fulfilling prophecy does the rest.

God has long been at work remodeling my heart to love the socially-marginalized but I’ve always thought that I have a special place in my heart for that inner-city kid who struggles with school. The ex-gang member teenager. The father living on the street. As I digested these new concepts in my Community Psychology class last semester, I felt a deep sense of compassion for those who felt identified by their weaknesses rather than by who they fully were. And even more so for those who weren’t aware that this was happening to them.

For some reason, this time was different. I didn’t just feel sorry for them. It was a profound feeling of identification, as if I was sharing in their suffering. It didn’t take long for God to reveal to me the reason for my empathy: “That’s you, Justin”. This struggle I was discovering in underprivileged communities was a struggle I had already gone through. I felt for the inner-city kid because we had matching scars.

How could one from a stereotypical Asian-American, middle class suburb relate to the good Kid of the Maad City? I wrote an article titled “Memoirs of a Racially Confused Blogger” in my latter years of high school (roughly four years ago). Crawling out of a turbulent year of academic failure, my disillusioned self released a 3,000+ word, messy tirade on my scarring experience of Asian culture. I recently revisited this piece and thought about editing it to make it more cohesive but decided against it; I was angry and wounded and this rant captured my raw emotions while they were still fresh. I did not plan it but this article became my unofficial self-declaration of divorce from my own culture and people.

Rant TL;DR – I was not Asian enough. I was left to navigate the brutally competitive, cut-throat environment of highly-comparative hyper-Asians and everything in my environment was affirming my non-Asian-ness. Everything and everyone was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had trouble reading.  I still have vivid memories of my mom dedicating extra time to me to help me read quicker and more efficiently. I have a particular way of learning that is slower than others. But all the attention was given to the slowness. From the third grade until my senior year in high school, my parents sent me to more tutors and after-school programs than I can remember. To be quite frank, it made me feel like shit.

 I was confused. “Why didn’t my friends have tutors? How come my siblings don’t have to go to this after-school program? Why aren’t they coming with me this time? (Why are you spending so much money on me?)” As I grew older, I began to catch on. I’m the problem child of the family. They were trying to fix me.

After years of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I learned nothing. Four years later and I don’t remember the Pre-Calculus. I don’t remember the SAT grammar rules. What I do remember is the insecurity and the pain of knowing that I was not good enough. In my parents’ attempt to “educate” me, my years of being tutored have only taught me one lesson: that there is something wrong with me.

Such is the nature of institutionalization. When a child grows up in a reality in which everything in his environment is reinforcing the fact that there’s something wrong with him, he will start to believe it. When someone’s neighborhood is saturated with outsider organizations (non-profits) attempting to “fix” his people/community, a great debilitating work is done on the soul. Good intentions are not enough.

Once it dawned on me that people were trying to fix me, the seed of bitterness was sown. Am I not enough for you? Do you not want me? Fine. I don’t need you. I’m done being your slave. And in one final act of defiance, my soul beat its chest and gave a last “fuck you” as it raised the double middle-finger to my own culture and people, once and for all.

I am unashamedly ashamed to be Asian American.

Yes, God has got a lot of work to do with me. I know. Save the rebuking comments. I’ve got quite a distance to cover before my heart learns how to forgive my culture. Jesus calls us into multiethnic community but He doesn’t call us to forsake our own culture in the process. Our pursuit towards multiethnic community cannot be an escape from our own personal cultural identities. But I’m currently in a place where I just don’t want to own my cultural identity because of how much pain it has caused me. I want to escape.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that Jesus brought me outside of my suburban hometown and exposed me to the inner city in such a time as this (college) so that the good Kid of the Maad City could show me that his scars were much like mine. I needed the Kid. I had to enter his story and decipher his struggle if I was to understand my own pain. God created us such that we, an unlikely duo, would live a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Kid and I must depend on each other to see God’s redemption in our identities and in our Maad Cities.

Who would have thought that our stories could be so intertwined?

“We cannot view them as deficits.

Rather than seeing them for what they don’t have, we must see them for what they do have, for what they are capable of.

They are not deficits. They have assets and strengths. They are valuable.

They may be broke, but they are not broken down.

After trying to find the solution to the community’s needs, we completely miss the solution that is right in front of us: the people themselves.” 

–excerpted from my Community Psychology lecture notes [October 8th, 2015]

Update 1/6/2017 – This is part one of the Kid, a series recounting my story as an ethnically-confused (and slightly jaded) 2nd-generation Asian American. After much soul surgery, bloodshed, and cussing at the gods, I wrote a sequel 10 months later. You can continue the story here: the Kid, pt. 2.

Dear Justin

Here are some reflections that I have of this past Fall Semester as a leader on InterVarsity at Cal State Long Beach, written as a letter to my future self. I had some fun with it. Hope you enjoy!

Dear Justin,

Do you ever have moments when you learn something from Jesus and not too long after, you learn the same/similar lesson in one of your classes? Of course you do. You’re me, haha. Sometimes, it’s vice versa but you get the idea. I took Community Psychology this semester and this actually happened pretty frequently. Probably my favorite class I’ve ever taken in college and probably for this reason, too.

One of the first lessons I learned in that class became so core and fundamental to my thinking that you’re probably still thinking about it as you read this letter in my distant future and your present. On the first day of class, I learned that the way that we ask questions frames how we see the world. Therefore, we must carefully discern how we ask questions if we are to understand ourselves, other people, and the world in the most holistic way possible.

The secret to the Kingdom of God is to pursue Jesus by asking questions. So we must therefore be vigilant in examining the way by which we question, lest we miss Jesus, or see Him through the wrong lens. I’m not sure which one’s worse. It’s not only avoiding seeing Him the wrong way, but seeing Him for who He truly is. If so much of following Jesus is the discovery of His character and His truth, we have to question how we question, for how we question is how we intake and digest truth.

The secret to the Kingdom isn’t a one-time prize that you receive when you decide to follow Jesus. It is a process of learning, a state of mind that must be sharpened constantly, a heart posture that needs continual refinement. It takes practice.

Perhaps the most helpful question we can ask ourselves is this: “Am I asking the right questions?”

This semester, I asked the wrong questions. Out of the brokenness of my heart, I warped the image of God. It’s interesting how when you ask the wrong questions, you can make Jesus disappear. The Light of the World can grow strangely dim.

And yet, I blamed God for this. Is He really the Good Shepherd? What kind of shepherd leads His sheep to a valley of over-demanding stress and turmoil? What happened to green pastures and still waters? I thought the yoke was supposed to be easy. I knew I shouldn’t have signed up for this.

It took the voice of community and the grace of God to rescue me from my blindness. And only one question would suffice to lead me to the right ones.”Are you asking the right questions?” I realized that it wasn’t that Jesus was disappearing or that Jesus was a bad shepherd (oh. yeah.), but rather, there was a problem with the lens that I was viewing Him with.

Jesus was still the Good Shepherd. He never stopped being the Good Shepherd. It was my vision that was faded, not His goodness.

As I saw Jesus more clearly, truth could sink deeper into the soil of my heart. And with truth came conviction.

“This semester was a demanding one, but was it really other people making those demands? Or was it you? It definitely wasn’t me. You were trying to give it your all AND some. You were trying to give your 150 percent. I never asked for more than 100. Indeed the yoke is easy but you’re just adding more weight to it.

Stop living like you know how to do it better than I can. I can live your life better than you can yourself. You need to let go of all the expectations you placed on yourself. Let go of control. It was never your’s to begin with.

You need to learn how to ask for help. How can you speak of raising new leaders and empowering people if you’re so afraid to delegate the ministry to the people you’re discipling? I think you’re scared that they’ll make mistakes. That they’ll fall. Well I knew that YOU were going to make mistakes but that didn’t stop me from calling you into mission, right?

Justin, I took you through this turbulent semester, not so that I could punish you, but so that I could reveal the areas that I needed to heal you. I wanted to stretch your faith and invite you to deeper trust.

I miss you, Justin. I miss it when you could see me more clearly. I could have just left it that way but I love you too much for that. I knew that although you could see me clearly, your vision could still be sharpened. And I was willing to do that for you, even if that meant leading you somewhere where you couldn’t see me for a while. You don’t know how much that pained me.

Justin, you need to learn to trust me more or this will have been all for naught. I implore you. Come and take the freedom and vision that is already your’s. Come and follow me.”

oh.

dammit.

I’m so sorry, Jesus.

 

Have you ever done something that was good while it lasted but you would never choose to do it again? Of course you do. You’re me, haha. Well, this semester was one of those times. Jesus’ healing is good but it’s also kinda painful.

So. future Justin, don’t screw this up, okay? I don’t want to have to go through this again. Thanks.

By the way, Jesus is proud of you.

 

To infinity and beyond,

Justin (as of December 19, 2015)