I Held a Swastika.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

The nurse told me that the patient, Willard, had taken a bite out of another nurse. He had swung at one of the doctors and thrown urine at a surgeon. Willard had multiple organ failure and he couldn’t walk; he kept demanding to go home. “Get me a wheelchair, I’ll flop in and ride over you people.” The staff kept trying to get him to stay, to get treated, despite his violent non-compliance: because nurses and doctors have the guts to look past that stuff.

They called for a chaplain to ask about Willard’s family members, to see if anyone could pick him up when he was discharged. I was the lucky chaplain who took the order.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed the patient had a tattoo of a heart on his hand, near the inner-fold of his thumb, with a swastika in the middle of the heart. The cognitive dissonance was startling. Not “I love mom” or his wife’s name, I thought, with a bit of snark. But hate in your heart. Very subtle.

“He’s one of those, you know, angry old fogeys,” the nurse had whispered right before I walked in. The nurse was a Middle Eastern man, about my age, and I couldn’t imagine the awful things he had to go through with this patient the last few days.

My eyes locked on the swastika first. The symbol held a terrible place in my memory: when I was a kid, someone had spraypainted a red swastika next to the front door of my dad’s business. Though my dad had tried to paint over it, I could still see it on hot summer days, a scar on the wall and a scar in my head, a mad throbbing declaration of all the world’s ugliness dripping in crimson. I still dream about it sometimes, and in the dream I’ll peer down at my wrists, which are engraved with the same red marks down to the veins.

The patient, Willard, saw me and said, “Thank God, a chaplain, finally someone who can hear me.”

But I don’t want to hear you, I thought. And a sick part of me also thought, You deserve this. I hope you never leave. Then you can’t hurt anyone out there.

He said, “Look, I see your face, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. You get it? I just want to go home. Fetch me a f__ing wheelchair, would you?.”

Willard got louder. He clenched his fists and waved them around. It was rather sad to see someone so animated and aggressive while pinned down to a bed, like the blanket had eaten his lower half and he was trying to crawl out. “Come on, I told you people that I wouldn’t hurt nobody. I got a dozen things wrong with me, I’m not a danger to you, I want to go home and to die in peace. You hear me? I’m ready to go home and die.”

Continue reading “I Held a Swastika.”

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10 Quick Ways We Can Validate, Listen, and Learn from Others’ Experiences

horizontescuriosos asked a question:

Hi, I just had one question about your post referencing how people assume their experience is the only valid experience. Do you have any idea why people do this? It seems pretty obvious to me that not everyone would have the same experiences, but apparently people don’t always think with that logic.

Hey dear friend, I believe you’re referring to this post, which says:

“It doesn’t happen to me, therefore it never happens” is possibly the most insane, myopic, deranged fallacy that’s impeding our progress.

One of my favorite things about my Psychology major was learning all the ways that the brain can deceive itself. Things like FAE, TMT, intrinsic justification, hindsight bias, Asch conformity, the Stanley Milgram experiments, suppression rebound, and cognitive dissonance are all the loopy tricky ways that we can easily be fooled without knowing we’re fooled.

So at least a dozen times a week, I’ll see some online comment that says, “That’s never happened to me!” — which follows that it somehow never happens at all. I suppose the closest psychological phenomenon to that would be anecdotal evidence, in which a person’s own life experience tends to (wrongly) inform the totality of all human experience. It lacks empathy and imagination, because of course, we’re all wired to take the quickest shortcut by way of heuristics in order to form a schema — which means, we take the path of least resistance to form an opinion.

Our brains always want to use the least amount of cognitive faculties to assess what’s around us, which means: yes, we’re lazy, and without intentionality, we drift towards complacency and black-and-white conclusions.

Not to sound like an alarmist, but I’m afraid that our internet culture and quick-click social media has contributed to such knee-jerk judgments. No one takes time to process all the nuances of a situation anymore. Just think: these days, within five minutes of most major tragedies, there are already think-pieces posted on Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter but no time to naturally process our grief.

We are not an emotionally healthy world anymore. I say this as a person who loves social media and all the good it can bring, but when it comes to thoughtfulness and reflection, we’ve mostly gone backwards. The only way back to empathy, it would seem, is for us to exercise radio silence and to listen with total intent.

Here’s what I’d advise. I would set up some ground rules when it comes to expressing opinions online or face-to-face. Feel free to dismiss or modify any of these.

Continue reading “10 Quick Ways We Can Validate, Listen, and Learn from Others’ Experiences”

Main Character Hero-Savior Syndrome: The Real Reason Why We Think Everyone Is a Terrorist

When someone tells me I’m race-baiting, that signals something worse than racism.

There’s something that runs even deeper than our racist attitudes and feeds those very views, an underlying coiled root that unless exposed and extracted, will continually provoke such overreactions that arrest innocent children suspected of terrorism. It’s not as simple as blaming Texas or “white folk” or buzzwords like micro-aggression and oppression. It is more subtle and sinister than outright violence and just as dangerous as the fanaticism that we claim to be afraid of.

A certain thread of socialized narrative has been bombarding us for a long time:

– That we are each the Main Character of our own particular story,

– with each person around us as plot-resolving props to support our catharsis,

– and that both The Enemy is plotting against us and The Endangered are in need of rescue.

Every act of the Main Character is considered an honorable sacrifice, while The Enemy remains a faceless, disembodied, unpredictable element that only thinks of “my” destruction.

This arc of the Hero-Savior story has silently fueled our approach to politics, religion, gender, race relations, charity, and just about every Hollywood blockbuster – and it perpetuates both a self-idolization and an other-demonization. It is both a megalomania and xenophobia. It’s why we say things like “race-baiting,” because we make someone else’s racial pain about “me.”

The most difficult part is that it acts as genuine benevolence, even believing in its own good motives, but continues to operate on a subconscious superiority of “doing the right thing.” It’s not as obvious as armed warfare but kills us over a lifetime of dehumanizing anyone outside the familiar. No one wants to think they’re the bad guy, and will find every rationalization to uphold their behavior. This runs under racially motivated crime, through power-plays or sexual conquest or the pressure for success. It’s largely our sociological need to be identified with the “victor,” the winning side, and for the “loser” to be morally wrong and the source of our ills, who must be subjugated under our feet and obliterated.

Everyone wants to be the Hero at the expense of making the “other” a Villain. This is the crux of the problem. A Hero must destroy an Enemy and “save” the Endangered. The Main Character falls into a romanticized, fetishized fantasy of being celebrated for their upstanding courage, which not only forfeits the necessary cooperation for real acts of heroism, but also trivializes the very real complexity of criminals and victims and justice, all which require a nuance far greater than our simplistic shorthand impulse.

The language of “the enemy” and “stranger” is not entirely our fault. Our brains have a shorthand schema to recognize patterns, so that we can make quick associations and fill the gaps of perception. It’s often a reflex to jump to conclusions or force-fit a memory or an explanation. This is why a movie will portray a crime-ridden city with “wet streets” and boarded doors and loud rap music, as a point of reference which works as a cheat-sheet for the viewer. Foley artists add sound effects in movies which we’re conditioned to hear, though so often they’re not the sound the thing makes, like rain and bowling balls. A clock can look suspiciously like a bomb because of Cartoon Time Bombs, but would be completely impractical since a modern bomb won’t call attention to itself with giant numbers. It only takes a moment to think through it: but our brains have gone Pavlov. We lock things into a habitual grid that relays consistent information, even when there’s contrary evidence to the schema at work.

These symbols and images and visual cues are more powerful and prevalent than we think. We’re taught that certain clothing, like a du-rag or sweater vest or hijab, conveys the entirety of that person, with moral implications and the “importance” to the plot. An Asian with glasses wearing a tie in a computer lab portrays a very specific range of information, as they’re only good for unlocking an encrypted file or discovering the missing clue in a forensics report. Or they’re used as a “foreigner punchline.” A Middle Eastern man bringing a briefcase on a bus is supposed to be a tense moment of paranoia, instantly engaging the viewer in questions we’ve been trained to ask – but not stopping to ask why we even ask these questions.

Continue reading “Main Character Hero-Savior Syndrome: The Real Reason Why We Think Everyone Is a Terrorist”

The Death of Racism: Hope For A Better World

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When I was nine, I knew I was different because someone grabbed their own eyes, pulled them wide, and yelled, “Ching chong.” Someone told me my dad had killed his dad in the Vee-ut-nam War. And no one on TV looked like me.

That summer, someone had spraypainted a swastika on my dad’s business. My dad painted over it, but on those hot humid days, we could still see that Nazi symbol like an angry pulsing scar.

We got a message on our answering machine — maybe the same Nazi artists — who spent a good ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

Someone told me that racism is dead today. But I look at these racist tweets, I encounter cashiers who slow down their speech, I get called Bruce in the mall, I still get “ching chong” from five year old boys with their mothers who don’t correct them — and I think of that swastika that wouldn’t go away. I think of my dad, who wanted to protect me from the ugly hearts of men. He wanted to give me a better world than this.

Continue reading “The Death of Racism: Hope For A Better World”

Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

My mom and dad came to this country separately over thirty years ago and met in New York City, where they were married; my dad came to the U.S. with sixty dollars in his single pair of pants, and my mom couldn’t speak a word of English.  My dad was a Vietnam War Veteran, 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army on the side of the U.S., and the only escaped prisoner of war from the Tet Offensive in 1969.  He’s also a licensed veterinarian and a Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do, a ninth degree black belt, the 54th 9th degree in the world.

Before my parents divorced when I was fourteen, my mom owned a laundromat and a grocery store next door to each other and would run back and forth between them to serve customers; sometimes she took old clothes that people left behind because we were too poor to afford any. My dad owned a martial arts dojo and mopped the entire floor every morning, then taught four classes in the evenings almost all in Korean.  Between the two of them, they worked almost 200 hours per week and slept maybe three hours per night.

One summer, someone spraypainted a swastika on the front wall of the dojo. My dad painted over it, but on those hot humid days, we could still see that Nazi symbol like an angry pulsing scar.

We got a message on our answering machine — maybe the same Nazi artists — who spent a good ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

When we visited with friends, we felt the invisible walls of cliques and class between us.  We were aliens from another world, just a foreign prop in the hero-story of the Westerner.  I was the token Asian.  When I visit churches, I still am.  Christians feel proud to know me because I meet their diversity quota; my other friends are proud to know me because they can make Asian jokes and explain, “Don’t worry, I have an Asian friend.”

In elementary school, when I first made friends and came over, I would immediately take off my shoes and bow to their parents.  I remember freaking out the first time I saw a fork.  I asked for two sticks to eat my food, and they said, “No, you can stab your food now.”  I still slightly bow to people as a reflex, and I still don’t get forks.

When I meet native Koreans from my own country, they call me kyopo, which is a slang term for misplaced native.  They make fun of my heavy American accent when I try to speak Korean.  They’re surprised I’m taller than them and say, “It must be hormones in the McDonald’s.”  They think I’m arrogant because I watch American TV shows and I have a blog written entirely in English.

I live in two worlds. I do not fully embody either, yet belong to both.

Continue reading “Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human”

Justice and Dignity for Ryo Oyamada

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Ryo Oyamada, a 24 year old student from Japan, was struck and killed by an NYPD vehicle in a hit & run.  Witnesses say the police car had no lights or sirens on and was going over 70 mph.  The released footage by NYPD was proven to be heavily altered in a cover-up, showing “lights” on the vehicle, when compared to footage from the NY Housing Authority on the same street with the same timestamp.

On a personal note: I know that this will probably not be shared or reblogged very much, because Asians are not very prominent in American culture.  I understand this, because Asians (like me) are partially at fault for being so passive.  But I am begging you to please consider signing this petition out of human decency.  Ryo was just a student walking home, then struck by a nearly silent police cruiser going at excess speed, and the NYPD covered it up.

Here is the side-by-side comparison of the released video footage, including updates from the case.  This article contains a link to a graphic video moments after the crash, showing the body of Ryo Oyamada and NY citizens yelling at the police.  Please advise, it is highly disturbing. 

And the following is an excerpt from the petition, which as of this writing only has 286 signatures.


This was originally posted on my Tumblr, and the post has now gone viral. It’s at over 33,000 notes and there are nearly 7000 signatures for the petition.


*Update* 8/28/14 – The petition has almost 12,000 signatures! Peter Chin, the one who started the petition, has also made an update on the petition page.


*Update* 9/8/14 – Over 66,000 signatures! Please keep it going!



A Semi-Sane Blog Post About Michael Brown, Rioting, Racial Outrage, and The Right Response

bluelikejazzminds asked a question:

I have a huge concern for this nation. I am outraged, frustrated and hopeless. I don’t know if you are aware but last week, a young man, Mike Brown, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. He was 17 years old and was about to start college this week. They accused him of stealing candy, but both witnesses and store clerks say he didn’t. Brown actually surrendered but the police shot him 8 times anyway. Unfortunately, there are also riots going on due to the outrage, hurt and sorrow. Police brutality is at all time high and it seems as if hate is a common theme towards young black and brown men of this nation. This is not the first time a young black man was gunned down unlawfully and it definitely won’t be the last. Justice for these young men (and women) have not been served, and if anything are glossed over by celebrity news or other stories to distract the nation.

So I ask you, have any of you thought about this? Do you know what is going on? As a Christian, I want to look to the church for help but it seems that there is silence on these types of issues. Around the time Trayvon Martin was killed, I went to church and nothing was said about it. Not verse, not a word.

As a leader, I ask what words would you give to the congregation; God’s people; your brothers and sisters who were/are affected by these issues? What do you say to a young black man who fears for his life whenever he sees a cop? What do you say to a young black woman whose brother was killed unlawfully by the hands police brutality?

Hey my dear friend: I must say this first of all.

A young man is dead.  Not just dead, but shot until he was lifeless.

Before I’m just another ignorant blogger who goes into semantics and politics and the “spiritual lesson” for all this: let’s recognize that another member of our human race, a real living breathing person with hopes and dreams and insecurities like the rest of us, just as real as your brother or sister or parents or math teacher or pastor or coach or best friend, is permanently gone from the world.

I want to grieve about this.  I don’t want to turn yet another real person into ammo for my platform or agenda, and God forgive me, I have failed at this so many times.

I want to hurt with Michael Brown’s family.  I don’t need to suspect what he was “allegedly” doing, because the fact remains: a young man’s life was cut short, and for every turn of events that led up to his death, it’s still no less than a tragedy.

I know that we will not all see eye-to-eye on the external issues: but can we lay down our verbal weapons and meet each other in our grief over a deceased young man?  Can we recognize we’ve lost a member of our human family? And that this keeps happening over and over?

I also agree that the rioting is sad.  Some of the physical outrage is perhaps extreme.  The whole thing is downright horrible.  None of it can be generalized or simplified, and it’s all a bitter ugly mess.

I’m well aware that I’m just one more limited voice in a sea of angry voices, and anything said here could barely uncover the heartache at every level.

What’s more saddening is the racially charged maelstrom on social media from every side. No one speaks rationally about these things.  I understand that race and violence and politics are all sensitive issues to discuss, and someone will always be offended.  I’ve probably offended you already with something said here.  But I’m still waiting to have a thoughtful conversation about it, that maybe there is a sane nuanced voice out there who wants to weep with me, and that maybe we could be part of the solution and not the problem.  We don’t have to agree: but maybe this is less about agreement and more about our desire for peace.

Yet everyone is turning this into some kind of philosophical circus, like lives are meant to be debated. I recently posted a picture of a protesting black man in Missouri with guns pointed at him from police with riot gear, and the caption read “Don’t let anyone tell you that racism is not dead.  Pray for justice.”  When I say justice, I mean to set right all the ways in which we’re not meant to be. I lost quite a few followers on all my social media, including some nasty feedback, and I understand that.  It’s okay if you’d like to unfollow me too.  But my intention was simply to show: the fact that this picture even exists is tragic.   Every part of this hurts my heart, and I’m not trying to “win” some side.

Again: A young man is dead.  No one is the winner here.

The fact that a young dead black man would draw so many racist online comments in the year 2014 makes me sick to my stomach.  The fact that a group of people feel the need to riot in order to express a deep inconsolable outrage is equally heartbreaking.

Continue reading “A Semi-Sane Blog Post About Michael Brown, Rioting, Racial Outrage, and The Right Response”

On Racism, Bruce Lee, and X-Ray Vision


I am Korean, and I’ve been a victim of racism my whole life.  I hate to use the word “victim,” but really, your race is nothing you ask for, and in a melting pot like America I’m still painfully aware that I am not like most people.

More than my faith, my socioeconomic status, my intellect, my demeanor — this has been the one dividing wall between me and my white friends that is just as tangible as the seat I’m on.  I am an alien.  I have different traditions.  I also own a dog.  I keep explaining myself to people because they think I’m going to eat him.

I grew up in the States but I’m still the token Asian guy.  When I visit an American church, they are proud to have an Asian person in their midst. They try to make me talk to the other Koreans. I am a victory for their diversity.

Since I’m this hybrid-Asian, it’s apparently okay to make jokes about chopsticks, Bruce Lee, martial arts, and eating octopus.  The thing is: I love chopsticks, Bruce Lee, martial arts, and eating octopus.  So do a lot of people.  I just don’t feel like making this a point every time I introduce myself.  I want to be a human being, not a flyer for AsiaFest or a punchline on South Park.  I don’t want to cater to anyone’s relaxed stance on ethnicity, as if “I’m cool enough to make racist Asian jokes because I’m friends with this one Asian guy.”

Continue reading “On Racism, Bruce Lee, and X-Ray Vision”