Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Freezing beautiful

My friend Laura recently posted on her Facebook status that she has: 
been laboring to help her 7 year old understand how hard it would be to show up in the middle of the year in a new classroom to find yourself one of the only people of color and far, far behind academically. A little warmth and kindness can go a long way, my child. Can you overcome your shyness, be brave, and reach out? You will not regret it, sweetheart.
Her words came as a gentle knocking on the door of my childhood that I prefer to be kept locked.

I was the only person of color in my fourth-grade class in Dubuque, Iowa. I was the new girl with black hair and a strange nose. The girl with the mismatched clothes of awkward proportions and clashing colors, courtesy of people's donations. I spoke no English, and I had just learned that I had an English name. I-R-E-something-something.

My sisters and I moved across cultures and continents quite a bit when we were growing up. I was on my first international flight when I was 21 days old. My mother packed all our belongings — right after she gave birth — and we flew to Indonesia. How she managed this, I will never know. By the time I turned 4 years old, we had lived in 4 different countries.

We met many friendly people, but we had very few friends. Along with all the perks of international living came a fair dose of loneliness, and being teased and bullied.

Sticks and stones might break my bones, but unkind words always hurt me. I stood there, surrounded by people yet feeling completely alone, and confused. My face hot and tingly, embarrassed. Was this really happening? Was I imagining all of this?

The worst part about being teased and bullied was the silence of the on-lookers. They watched, yet they did nothing. They said nothing.

So, when I read that my thoughtful friend was teaching her shy daughter to befriend the new student, my heart swelled with gratitude and hope. Yes, we must teach our children that teasing and bullying is unkind. This is the easy, obvious part. But we cannot stop here.

I hope and pray that my children would learn to overcome their own self-consciousness, to see beyond their fears, and reach out to others. To have the courage to speak to and speak up for those who have no friends. We tell the boys often that they are their brothers' keepers. They are to stand with each other, and stand for each other. They are to be their brothers' strength and the shield.

As Laura said, a little warmth and kindness would go a long way. To have someone who would see me as a friend, despite my strangeness. To have friend to sit with me during lunch time, to stand in line with me, and do nothing with me at recess. I knew the difference between having one friend, and having none.

I had a friend. Her name was Keturah, and she lived next door. She introduced me to Barbie dolls, snow forts, and bicycles. She taught me how to play tetherball. I loved playing with her even though I always lost.

She taught me English by simply talking to me. I said her hair was yellow, she said her hair was blonde. On the morning the leaves turned red, she said to me, "I am freezing cold." I thought, "freezing" must mean "very." So, I started saying things like, "That is freezing beautiful," and "I am freezing hungry." We walked home together one afternoon after it had just snowed. I said to her, "The trees are freezing white!" She just looked at me, confused, and we kept walking.

Two years later, my family moved again, back to Malaysia. Reverse culture shock was even more brutal. I no longer looked different from everybody else, but I was — different. The bullies knew that I was. Teenagers were even meaner than children. Words now hurt a lot more. And there was no Keturah in sight.

In my sadness, another friend showed up. His name was Jesus, my true and never failing friend. He was my strength and my shield. He was the keeper of my heart. He became freezing beautiful to me, and I realized I had been freezing hungry my whole life. He was my manna in the desert.

He walks me home.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The best gift, by far

The thing about life-changing moments is that you don't know that they would be life-changing until they have passed. It is when you look back, you are hit with the realization that you are now a different person.

Photo by my sister Catherine Yong

When I was seventeen, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. When she told me that she had cancer, I cried. And she was the one who comforted me.

On my eighteenth birthday, she received her third dose of chemotherapy. She protected us by locking herself in the bedroom. She did not want her daughters to see her in such a state. Years later, she would tell me how awful these treatments were. How sick she felt. How she would crawl to the bathroom when she needed to vomit. How she fought to stay alive, for us.

Suffering is the part of heroism that we are less keen to talk about. We want to remember the triumphs, the celebrations. But heroes suffer.

Our home was dark and quiet during those months. Ma was the one who switched on the lights when the sun went down. If she saw us reading in the dark, she would say, "Don't ruin your eyes, always read with the lights on." When she was sick, no one else thought to flip on the lights. That is until we got tired of groping in the dark.

One evening, I walked into the living room and found a fairly common sight. Pa was sitting next to Ma. Ma had taken off her scarf. He was stroking her bald head. During the day, she wore her scarf with so much dignity and courage. In Malaysia, covering one's head carried a religious meaning — it was a mark of the Muslim woman. If strangers stared (and they did, a lot, because Ma did not look quite like a Muslim), Ma would graciously explain that she was a Christian, fighting cancer.

Anyway, I walked into the living room that evening not knowing that my life would be changed, that this picture of my father caressing my mother's bald head would stay with me for years to come. It held so much of what I knew about them, about their one-ness. When I came to the States for college, this picture of them, sitting together, comforted me during my darkest nights. When Hans asked me to marry him, I thought to myself, can we be happy, like that?

Of all the gifts that my parents gave to me, the best gift, by far, was the gift of their love for one another. I don't recall a lot of chocolates or roses, though I am sure there were some. I do recall, however, specific examples of how they changed and grew and sacrificed their own interests for the sake of the other person.

My dad loved my mom. He took her out for walks everyday. They watched the sunset. They held hands. They talked. They laughed, a lot. And Pa caressed Ma's head when she was bald. "To keep her warm," he would explain. But I knew it was because he loved her.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I am Thine

Dear friend,

I heard you that have been restless and weary. The days are long, but the years are short. In case you, like me, need words of help to pray, here is one I am praying today.

Often foolish, I act as though I am my own resting place. But as the Lord is kind to reveal, again and again, that I am not enough. I am not trustworthy; I am not strong.

Thank you, Puritan brothers and sisters, for writing down your prayers.

Teach me to see
that if Christ has pacified Thee and satisfied divine justice,
He can also deliver me from my sins;
that Christ does not desire me, now justified,
to live in self-confidence and in my own strength,
but gives me the law of the Spirit of Life, to enable me to obey Thee;
that the Spirit and His power are mine by resting on Christ’s death;
that the Spirit of Life within answers to the law without;
that if I sin not I should thank Thee for it;
that if I sin I should be humbled daily under it;
that I should mourn for sin more than other men do,
for when I see I shall die because of sin that makes me mourn;
when I see how sin strikes at Thee, that makes me mourn;
when I see that sin caused Christ’s death, that makes me mourn;
that sanctification is the evidence of reconciliation,
proving that faith has truly apprehended Christ;

Thou hast taught me
that faith is nothing else than receiving Thy kindness;
that it is an adherence to Christ, a resting on Him,
love clinging to Him as a branch to the tree, to seek life and vigour from Him.

I thank Thee for showing me the vast difference between knowing things by reason,
and knowing them by the spirit of faith.

By reason I see a thing is so; by faith I know it as it is.
I have seen Thee by reason and have not been amazed,
I have seen Thee as Thou art in the Son and have been ravished to behold Thee!

I bless Thee that I am Thine in my Savior, Jesus.

The Valley of Vision, 102-103.