The Constant Feeling of Never Being In The In-Crowd

Sometimes I’m browsing through blogs while ferociously picking for gems in my nose and I see these gorgeously beautiful people with amazing writing talent and life stories, and I stop mid-nose-bleed just to think, “Wow. I will never be that cool.”

Continue reading “The Constant Feeling of Never Being In The In-Crowd”

Didn’t Think I’d Be In The Hospital Tonight

“Didn’t think I’d be in the hospital tonight,” and so said our dear friend Pastor Han last night when he needed immediate surgery for his appendix.

It was quick and easy, about forty-five minutes, seven of us in the waiting room, a little detour of life unexpected.

On the way home I thought, What was that all about, God?

I’m trying to think of all the reasons.

As awful as it sounds, if it was life-threatening I’d probably understand a little better. Because it was such an inconvenience.

Continue reading “Didn’t Think I’d Be In The Hospital Tonight”

Flashback Post: The Best Years

Written April 20th, 2008.
I was never the tall kid, the best-dressed, the one that girls looked at twice. Never the coolest, the most popular, the most likely to succeed. Just a flower in the wall. Sometimes I was told I had potential, but mostly I was lucky to get by.

I wish someone had told me back then that those years spent in fear were the best years of my life. I wish someone had said, “Why are you holding back. Why don’t you go crazy. You’ll thank yourself later.”

This is the universal burning of all people – that we wish we knew then what we know now. Only later we regret that we couldn’t live out the entirety of our dreams.

I went alone to the senior prom because I knew no one would go with me. I was the awkward Asian, terrified of rejection, head down and unmoving. I remember that my dad let me borrow his Cadillac for prom and said, “She will like this expensive car. She is fortunate girl.” He adjusted the lapels on my tuxedo and made sure the fake red rose in my front pocket was just right. He said it felt like only yesterday when he carried me on his back through an old playground and pretended that we were flying in an imaginary sky that stretched into some kind of forever.

I drove the Cadillac to the senior prom. It was okay to be alone. I lied to my dad because I wanted him to believe I was the best, that I was the one that all the girls wanted, that I was a son he could be proud of.

Maybe in that world of other possibilities that never happen, I could’ve had the courage to ask some girl to the prom. Some fluffy girl dressed in a pink strapless gown and her hair would’ve smelled like Herbal Essence and she could’ve held my hand when I walked through that intimidating doorway and we could’ve danced to Fatboy Slim and the Electric Slide and Stand By Me and she would’ve sat with me at one of those glittery tables and smiled at things I had to say.

I don’t have a senior yearbook because there was no one I wanted to remember and no one wanted to remember me. I look at my yearbooks from middle school and mostly everyone just wrote “Have a nice summer,” because that’s what you say to someone you don’t really know. I flip the pages and look at all the pretty white girls who would never say hi, and these were my daydreams during class, that one of them might shake my hand and find out how cool I really was. If I had only just stepped up. If I had only just a lot of things.

I dream about them sometimes, walking through the high school hallways and seeing their faces. People I hated, people I wanted to know, people who were like me with their heads down. It’s usually the same dream – late to class, running late, can’t find it, going up and down stairs, running across the grass, backpack bouncing up and down. In dreams at least, the people actually wave and give me high fives and pat me on the back. It’s all frantic but they notice me.

Sometimes I dream about them because I want to go back and do it all again, but mostly because I want to go back and stay there. I want to fly there into some sort of forever.

Most of those teen high school movies give the nerd some redemption, a happy ending. It doesn’t happen much in what we call real life, but it did happen for me once.

Four months before graduation a counselor approached me. He was very fond of my awkwardness — most counselors were — and he offered me a spot in the multicultural festival. Meaning I could do a Tae Kwon Do demonstration in front of the entire high school.

I was reluctant at first. This could be another opportunity for embarrassment. I was confident of my ability but in front of all those smoldering eyes, I didn’t know. It could all just be disaster. I might slip, fall over on my face, and what a crock that would be during lunch time – oh hey did you see that Chinese kid fall over throwing a kick and pretending to be one of us, one of the cool people, did you see that crazy insanity. How dare he.

I thought about it for a day and I went back to the counselor. I said, Yes, of course I will.

So I got ready. I got the music, I practiced the routine, I busted myself into shape. I jogged miles and miles, I kicked the bag until my legs went limp, I did push-ups and sit-ups and jump rope like I was fighting for the championship title. I punched that bag and imagined I was punching my past, punching my weakness, punching all the charisma I was lacking to be like them.

The day grew closer and I grew giddy, nervous, scared, excited, nauseous. I hardly slept the night before showtime, and then the morning arrived.

I drove to school with my black belt and uniform next to me. I played the music for my exhibition over and over in the car, and then I parked and took the keys out and cried. I didn’t know what else to do; I just cried and cried. All those years of high school and I had been shut off, shot down, shut out, and this was the one chance to redeem myself in front of the whole school, and all I could think was —

Can’t do it. Too scared, I can’t do it.

Because some part of me wanted to remain the wallflower.

I cried, man. I cried like a baby. Every time someone called me chink, every time someone called me a pancake face, someone calling me Buddha, someone yelling ching chong in the hallway, someone sucker-punching me and saying my father killed his dad in Vietnam, some girl telling me I was too ugly to date her, someone calling me a Chinese busboy.

I cried because I was afraid. Maybe I was never supposed to be the cool guy. Maybe I was just the nice guy who never said much and ignored all the insults, and that was that. No one would remember me and I could look back at all those scribbles of “Have a nice summer” and be content with being mediocre, and I could tell my father that yes, the demonstration went well and the students loved it, they sure did, and I could’ve smiled through that whole lie while my dad would’ve smiled back when he really knew I was lying.

Instead I grabbed my black belt. I grabbed my uniform. I didn’t believe in God back then but I prayed to him. I asked him to forgive me for not trying harder. I asked him to give me the courage I never had.

I went inside the high school gymnasium and they were all waiting.

Put on the uniform, stretched out, warmed up, tied on the black belt.

I walked to the center of that cold gym floor. There weren’t many lights but it was so bright. It was a sea of faces eyeing me, judging me, taunting me. I was about to run out the double doors and never look behind me, but then the music cued, I grabbed my nunchucks, and then I lost myself. That’s what they call in the zone.

I whipped those nunchucks like a madman. Right from the start, they cheered. They were actually cheering. Something like adrenaline exploded through me and I must’ve thrown a jump kick that reached the ceiling. I ended in a split and everyone went crazy.

Then I pulled out the wooden boards and someone held them for me, and I picked the eight biggest football players in the audience and set them to crouch in a line in front of the board.

I started from one end of the gym and ran toward the line of crouching football players. I jumped over all eight of them, over those kids who never gave me a chance, who called me every horrible racial slur they could think of, who brought me to the rock bottom of my own gutted self-worth, and I flew over them right through the sky. I sailed through the air and my foot cut a straight path through all those hateful bitter memories and I broke that little board into a thousand splintering pieces. I landed and yelled my heart out.

The football players stood up and there was silence from the bleachers. Then the football players chanted something. Everyone joined in. Something I wouldn’t forget, ever. Slowly, but in total unison, louder and louder.

They were saying – Bruce . . . Bruce . . . Bruce.

Bruce Lee. They were calling me Bruce Lee.

So then I bowed low and did a Kung Fu pose, and just like good old Bruce, I yelled out, Waaaaaah. They laughed, and it was a good laugh.

Even now, I walk around the shopping mall and someone from my high school sees me and there’s recognition. They make a little karate stance and mouth the words Bruce, and I make the karate stance right back at them.

If only someone had told me to enjoy it, to live it up, that these are the best times. I guess we realize we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously; it’s okay to laugh at yourself. God was right behind me all those wonderfully miserable years. Sometimes all you get are those moments, and day by day you seize them, or you don’t. There is still more, you know. The best is on the way.

Joon kick

Written on 10-19-04
For Sean Cowles. 1984-2003.

Everyone Else’s Vision For You

We do not fit each other’s shoes, even if they are the same size. We don’t think alike, so our expectations from each other will often miss or explode. You’re scared of spiders, I’m scared of heights, and we both think the other’s fear is a little silly. We cry at different parts of the same movie, don’t laugh at the same parts of different movies, I hate the movies you like, and you hate the food I love. Even if we had the same goals, we would chase it in our own unique way.

Still we forget this, that everyone is two different people, and we burden each other with our own vision of life as if we must all have the same one or die.

Every single thing on earth is trying to wrap you in its vision. That shoe company wants you in their shoes. That teacher thinks you’d make a good lawyer, or engineer, or accountant. Your friend says be single like me. Your parents want you to be a surgeon, a lieutenant, part of the family business, but not an artist or writer. The television tells you to lose weight, put on make-up, have eye surgery, get this car, buy these clothes, and then you will be successful. Nearly everyone will tell you what you can do, can’t do, shouldn’t do, and will do. Some are right, some are wrong, but you’ll be darn sure to hear their opinion anyway. As long as you don’t, heaven forbid, think for yourself.

Nothing is satisfied with how you are and wants you to be how they think you should be. But nothing on earth has that kind of authority over you. No one has business being the boss of your vision, to inform the fixture of your individually designed soul: but we let it happen.

Over time, by degrees, fooled by the bright signs and detours, we turn our will over to everyone else’s vision. Until we are merely a concoction of pop culture, radio songs, the latest jeans, and a hairdo that will not impress your kids and their kids — it is the slow death by marketing and conformity into an eclectic pastiche of cheap imitation.

Continue reading “Everyone Else’s Vision For You”

Happy There

I meet with my counselor. He’s the pastor of a four-hundred-plus college ministry and one of the most Spirit-led men I know. For him to even make time for me is ridiculous.

I walk in and he’s on hold with an airline over the office speaker phone. He’s on his cell phone too, an urgent call. There’s a roll of one-hundred dollar bills on his desk. I don’t ask. He’s looking through his drawers for something. He tells me he’s so sorry to be distracted. As a pastor who just suffered a breakdown from anxiety, I totally understand.

I needed his counsel because soon I’d be in a meeting to re-negotiate how I do the ministry. But I was nervous: I wanted to be humble with them while authoritative, demanding yet firm. I was also afraid that I’d be rejected, shot down, or fired.

While my counselor rummaged through his drawers, I shared my fears. The airline music was playing in the background. I must have said “What if” a dozen times. Suddenly he stopped, slammed the drawer shut, smiled, and looked right at me.

“You know, Joon, do me a favor. Will you stop being such a sh_tless wonder? I’ve been dealing with death all morning in and out of hospitals and funerals and I can’t find my wallet which has everything in it and you’re scared to be yourself. If you can’t say what you want to them, maybe that’s not the right place for you. Shouldn’t you just be happy there?”

He apologized for being so short with me. The airline person came on. He took the call and went right back to looking for his wallet.

We talked some more. He walked me out and hugged me and told me he loved me. He asked me to pray about his wallet. I got in my car and prayed.

“I’ve been dealing with death all morning . . . Shouldn’t you just be happy there?”

Of course, he was right.

Really Saying

It’s romantic to believe that the guy who calls and texts first, saves ‘I love you’ for you, covers you with his coat, cooks your favorite meal even if he’s allergic to it, and a flurry of other Hollywood montage moments will really fulfill you. Before we die, we want to visit Paris at night during Christmas and parasail over the Atlantic and sip wine on a hot air balloon — but you don’t really mean that.

What are you really saying? You want these things if the dude isn’t creepy, if the poor beggars in Paris do not intrude on your comfort, and as long as you don’t have to prepare a thing. A cute guy who texts you first is cute, but you change your philosophy when the dude is too nice or too short or has no jawline. Children are cute until you have to raise one — and kids are screwed up because we push our distorted view of idealism on them in place of real gritty sacrifice.

What you’re really saying is you demand a photoshopped dream, like the impossible make-up model on the cover of Maxim, to attain the highest degree of complacency at the least amount of effort for the easiest life possible. Your blog proves it.

We reveal our selfish hearts with a conditional wishlist that reads more like a bad movie script. Can you step back for a moment and examine what you really mean? And why you have these idealistic fantasies? And what your motives are? We buy into bizarre paradigms of romance and leisure and life without thinking to the bottom of them. You’ll find quickly that self-serving is not even good enough to serve yourself.

The wasted life wastes no time wasting it. The destined life invests time and makes it. You can cheat yourself to death simply by choosing the current convenient option. A life of non-committed fantasy is just a walking grave.

Question: So you used to be an atheist

Someone asked:
So you used to be an atheist/agnostic. How did you come to know Jesus?

I won’t bore you with too many details, but it was a very long journey. In the end no “proof” or “argument” won me over.  I also wasn’t looking very hard.  In high school a guy in my homeroom found out I played drums. He asked me to play, I politely declined, but he offered a ride and mentioned there was free lunch at church. I asked if there were girls.  He hesitated, then affirmed. My original motive was hot girls.

The church I attended was gracious enough to allow an atheist to play on their praise team.  I liked the sermons, I liked the pastor, I liked the people (well most of them anyway). But the gospel then was just another religion in a handbag full of them.

Around college a lot of the Bible began making sense. It was actually horrifying because nobody, and I really mean nobody, wants the Bible to be true. And I saw how the Bible played out in serious believers who actually read the dang thing and totally loved Jesus.  They were nowhere near perfect but man, were they passionate. My mockery of these weirdos soon turned to respect … and a horrible fear.

I could say I was “saved” in college, but I still lived exactly as I wanted to.  I didn’t understand the gospel until my mid-twenties.  It was not any overnight epiphany but a slow-burning revelation, understanding the person and work of Jesus, the God who became a man and whispered forgiveness through dying lips on a cross. I studied the Resurrection for a while because that would seal the deal for me.  And so it did.

Three years of seminary later, I’m preaching what I used to hate. Like a scaled down Apostle Paul. Having been an atheist/agnostic, I saw how much hatred and ignorance and straight up messed-up-ness I had, much more than I would have ever admitted on my own.  I see now that I had turned off entire parts of my brain to justify a godless universe, and when I talk to atheists today, I remember my former smug rage that worshipped the flesh between my ears. 

I also have the advantage of seeing church as an outsider.  So much of the American church makes no sense to me.  Reading the Book of Acts and then walking into a modern church is like meeting Superman who turns out to be a three foot troll.  The backdoor politics (which I’m well embroiled in now) is nauseating.  In most meetings I just sit there amused while elders argue over paint color and programs-programs-more-programs. I keep thinking, If God tore off the roof right now you’d be all be dead or blind. Can we do some Jesus work now? Think you can maybe keep half an eye on eternity?

Absolutely no one would ever have thought I would be a pastor, and a large sample of my church population is uncomfortable with it.  Which means there are people who are uncomfortable with God’s radical grace — you know, the God who can change Sauls to Pauls and Goliaths into dead.  I’m living proof that God can do as He wants. Not perfect proof, but yes, passionate.

It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part Three

This is an ongoing reflection on why being a Christian may or may not be worth it.
Part one is here. Part two is here. Part Four, the conclusion, is here.

It’s hard to want God. We can say He exists, we can call the Bible true, we can conform to the religious pattern of a typical midwest backroad King James-reading church, but we can despise God with every passionate fiber in our puny body. Jumping the bridge from “There is no God” to “I want God” is nothing short of a miracle. You cannot convince the blind to see or the lame to walk. It takes an act of God. Really us tiny humans can only describe the seeing and walking.

Two conversations with atheists —

The first: “The Bible was just written by people. We can’t know if God exists. I have good morals and I stay out of trouble.”

The second: “There is no objective proof that God exists. And there is no real world application to believe in God. I need math to go to the market, but without a God I can live a good life just fine.”

The first conversation is easily answerable. The second though, I absolutely agree.

So we ricochet between two walls: one says God is not knowable by the self and the other says the self is knowable without God. Many self-proclaimed Christians also live this way. He is too difficult to fathom or we’re into our own thing.

But wanting something takes a choice, and many are too lazy to really consider it all. If your entire life and purpose and trajectory and destiny was possibly determined by a being of infinite proportions, wouldn’t you be at least be curious in rooting out all the angles of such a thing? Wouldn’t you absolutely want to know beyond a shadow of an existential doubt if you wanted God? We could at least go beyond our familiar territory to see if He is desirable amidst all the hypocrites, bad preaching, and rotten pastors.

Instead most of us only read things to confirm our own beliefs, so atheists go on angry atheist websites and Christians stay within the safe church walls and Christian literature. Every narrow-minded soul has a pre-commitment to their truth, throwing arrows rather than asking questions. It is when we have considered all bases — truly allowed them to percolate in our heart, mind, and soul — that we should commit to anything. It’s the same way in which we wisely pick a car, a spouse, a house, a college, a career. But with God we tend to carelessly use our preprogrammed defenses and automatic statements — for or against — that we’ve never fully contemplated on our own.

Continue reading “It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part Three”

It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part Two

This is an ongoing reflection on why being a Christian may or may not be worth it.
Part one is here. Part three is here. Part Four, the conclusion, is here.

Imagine you’re a Chinese guy comfortably living in China, and suddenly some white guy with nicer clothes than you tells you about eternal life, a better way, and an intimacy with the Creator of everything through a man named Jesus Christ. But in China you could get arrested or shot up for believing that. It would be easier then to just believe that stuff in private, but no: Jesus has commissioned all followers to share the truth, because after all it’s the only truth that saves people from eternal hell. That sounds serious. Your friends call you crazy, foolish, brainwashed. But you go to the underground meetings, read your Bible in secret, and even attend public worship services that could tarnish your immaculate record.

Your friends ask: Is this really necessary? Do you have to be a Christian?

Millions of Chinese have chosen Jesus. Not quietly, either. At the outset this looks ridiculous; religion always flies in the face of our luxurious rational comfort zones full of Sun Chips and never-bother-anyone except for when-it-bothers-me. These Chinese must be crazy. They don’t have to be Christians, says the inoffensive whitewashed politically correct champion of tolerance. One thing is for sure: any public Chinese Christian is unequivocally the real deal.

Uncommitted: God, can we be friends with benefits?

We circle back: Is it necessary to be a Christian? This is a peculiar interrogative because it sounds like a manner of profession. A job is necessary because of its basic provisions but we can choose to change jobs. It’s like putting on clothes or leveling up an RPG sorceror. To interpret Christianity as a pair of jeans is dumbing it down to a fringe luxury. This is exactly what has happened with nominal, non-serious, hypocritical believers.

Continue reading “It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part Two”

It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part One

This is an ongoing reflection on why being a Christian may or may not be worth it.
Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Part Four, the conclusion, is here.

I commend every single person who wakes up early on Sunday, hops in that cold shower, finds their best dress, best shoes, best tie, and flies out the door for an hour plus of spiritual beatdown. To enter the church doors with all the piercing eyes, carrying your awkward Bible, some lugging an awkward purse and wild children, finding a seat in silence, trying to sing the songs you don’t know (not so loudly that others can you hear but loud enough that God can hear you), and not fidgeting for the entire sermon. Then trying to say hello to the pastor who is surrounded by more important looking people, meeting new people who probably already know you from tagged pictures on Facebook, and slipping out without having to volunteer for some expensive mission trip to an unpronouncable country. You go home, set the Bible on your nightstand for the week, and loosen your tie. You survived.

I’ve often thought: Wouldn’t life be easier without church? If I wasn’t a Christian, couldn’t I just do the stuff I always wanted to do? What do I even get out of all this?

In moments of extreme doubt, this is the tennis match I play out in my head. I’ve made lists. I’ve divided it pros and cons. I’ve pretended to be an atheist for days at a time; I used to be one so that wasn’t too hard. I’ve reformatted my moral grid to relativism. A few times I’ve contemplated all the wild things I could do if I wasn’t a “Sunday church person.” I remember what it was like when I would stay up four nights in a row downing shots of Bacardi and flirting with random strangers in tubetops. Sometimes I can even convince myself those days weren’t so bad. I imagine a world without God — impossible — so I imagine just my life without God. And every time the suspicion screams out: Life would be so much easier without Him.

Continue reading “It Would Be Easier If I Wasn’t A Christian: Part One”

The Danger of Accountability

We need someone in our lives to get in our face and tell us what’s what. In Christian circles we call this the accountability partner. Rebuke is healthy. But what they don’t tell you is that this can get out of control real fast.

Every biblical friendship that steered right was steered by godliness: Naomi and Ruth, Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, the Twelve and Jesus. Every friendship gone wrong was grounded in carelessness: Job and his buddies, Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve. If only Adam had tackled Eve to the floor as she was going for the apple, action-movie-style, and avoided all the sinful mess.

But accountability gets dangerous. The danger is in gaining a certain power in calling out a person’s sin. When you are given the responsibility to constructively criticize your friend’s sin, it’s easy to start looking for little things like that’s your job. The filter can get so tight that it becomes more about preference than promoting growth. Like all spiritual disciplines, it can be abused.

Many years ago I had an accountability partner that went down the path of critical power-madness. He saw more and more negative in me until I could hardly do anything without some remark over the sinful implications of my actions. And I went the other way: I was less and less willing to call him out on anything because I wanted to play nice. It would only look like I was fighting back.

I neglected his spiritual growth because I was so reluctant to get into a back-and-forth tango over what amounted to legalistic minutiae. Much self-doubt and fear lingered in everything I did: I was paranoid that I’d be called out for the smallest infraction. The friendship fell apart and deep hurt was marked by deep judgments that never quite disappeared.

There was a time when I spoke out against accountability partners every time the subject surfaced. I didn’t want anyone to experience the same hurt I had. I even tried to purport that there was no biblical precedence for an accountability partner. Rebuke was just a last resort, I said. Admonishment was only for the mature, I claimed. Truth was to be spoken in love only if it sounded loving, I said.

Though I am still wary of accountability partners, I feel accountability is a non-negotiable must. I’m just not sure we should even have a term like “accountability partners,” as if that’s all Christian friends are to do. It’s not like we have sing-together-on-Sunday-partners or must-pray-together-in-the-back-room partners because that’s encompassed by the entire relationship through Christ. It’s part of a much larger dynamic of serving, confessing, encouraging, teaching, and yes, rebuking and correcting.

To specifically label a partnership for the sole purpose of straightening them out is a danger on its own. We tend to emphasize that part of it without grounding it in grace. Yet we also often emphasize “grace” over honest rebuke, letting each other off the hook, and that in the long run is even more destructive.

There are warning signs of crossing the threshold. If you’re called out on some trivial concern — the color of your jeans, the one button on the top that’s unbuttoned, your tone of voice in reply — or you’re called out way too frequently, that’s a sure sign of getting power-drunk. That’s rightful cause for revoking the rebuking privilege for at least a little while. And if there is no rebuke nor a whiff of care in either direction, time to man up and stare truth down the barrel. No one likes the deep end but you can’t learn to swim in the shallow.

My Best Birthday

Why I’m allergic to milk.

Almost seventeen years ago, I was attending Annsworth Montesorri Academy in Largo, Florida. My teacher was a sweet elderly lady, Mrs. Lebo, who had curly gray hair and smelled like fig newtons. My principal was Mrs. Johnson, a short sprightly woman with lightning gold hair and eyes smaller than mine. Every morning, I bowed to both of them and they cheered me on with exaggerated delight, smiling wonderfully approving smiles.

That particular day was gloomy and chilly, the clouds swirling in weepy brush strokes. It was like God had painted the sky and forgot to finish. I was excited because it was the first time I was aware my birthday had any real significance, and besides the perks of presents and singing, I was one more year on my way to becoming a grown-up.

There were at least five or six birthdays that had already been celebrated in my third grade classroom and each one was almost identical: a cake, candles, cards, and hats. The lights would go out and everyone would sing as the teacher or other qualified faculty member brought the cake in the room, alive with eight fiery candles. I was allergic to cake so I was never able to have a piece. I dreaded the day my birthday would come because I knew we couldn’t have cake. When that day came, I walked into class and told the teacher I had an announcement. Mrs. Lebo obliged and I took the front of the room.

Hi everyone. You all know that I’m allergic to dairy products and I can’t eat milk or cheese. Cake also has milk and/or cheese. So we can’t have cake today. I’m sorry.

Everyone looked disappointed. A few snorted. Mrs. Lebo shushed everyone and we commenced class.

The day progressed and I looked outside at the streak of clouds, wondering why God the sky-painter had given me these stupid allergies. I imagined a lunch tray with eight candles burning on their sides – no cake whatsoever – as the room sang a hollow rendition of what should’ve been the best song ever (except Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg), and I lost myself in my head again.

At the end of the day we gathered close for the birthday celebration. My stomach was in knots. My fellow classmates, with unforgettable names like Ben Hedstrom, Kim Ormand, Erin Heaberlin, Ryan Dixon, and Christopher Douglas, looked rather cranky to have a birthday with no pastry.

Suddenly my mom burst in the room. She was holding a huge plate of Korean mandu. Someone beside her was holding a huge plate of strawberries. And someone else was even holding a cake with candles in it.

The room woke up and everyone sang in a quick fervor. I clapped like a mad idiot and blew out the candles in only eight or nine tries. Mrs. Lebo cut the cake but the classmates were more interested in this mandu stuff.

I stood up again amidst the students and said,

Okay everyone, this is called mandu. It’s like a big rice skin with meat inside. You dip it in the soy sauce and eat it, but be careful! It’s hot and it can turn off your tongue.

Each student tried them. My mom had made at least one-hundred mandu and she sat patiently in the corner, watching our reactions. The first few classmates bit into them, then nodded their heads in unison. A few more tried and eventually the whole class was in an uproar, grabbing three or four mandu at a time.

No one even touched the cake. In less than five minutes all the mandu was gone. In another three minutes all the strawberries were gone.

And for the next two years my mom made mandu for the class on my birthday. Every year after, my mom had become too busy, but it was a long time before my friends stopped asking when the mandu would come back.

My birthday had become something of a hit then, a unique oddity that set me apart from the normal cake-and-candles. I still remember the very first moment when my friends bit into their first taste of foreign food. I remember when it was all finished and I had looked outside the window into the stormy sky, thinking to myself,

This is why I’m allergic to milk.

No one questioned the mandu, no one thought it was gross, no one made fun of it or refused to eat it. We simply ate it together, a bunch of bright-eyed, hungry, naïve, restless kids that knew nothing about birthdays and only knew about cake. Or in my case, rice skins full of meat.

That was the best birthday I ever had.

Thank you mom, for making it the best.

The Best Years

I was never the tall kid, the best-dressed, the one that girls looked at twice. Never the coolest, the most popular, the most likely to succeed. Just a flower in the wall, barely a stem. Sometimes I was told I had potential, but mostly I was lucky to get by.

I wish someone had told me back then that those years spent in fear were the best years of my life. I wish someone had said, “Why are you holding back. Why don’t you go crazy. You’ll thank yourself later.”

This is the universal burning of all people – that we wish we knew then what we know now. Only later we regret that we couldn’t live out the entirety of our dreams.

Continue reading “The Best Years”