Friday, 3 November 2017

please direct any and all complaints about me to the sullivans (or, a roundabout way of saying, "thank you")

A good place to lodge complaints about the way that I have turned out as a person, if you have them, and I am sure you do, would be with Ben and Norma Sullivan.

The obvious first choice is my parents, but they are far away in Korea and not very good at communicating via any means other than KakaoTalk, which I understand not everyone uses (unless you are Korean, in which case you definitely have the app downloaded at the very least, and depending on how Korean you are, possibly have purchased some cute animated in-app stickers as well. For the record, I have Dokkaebi and Ryan stickers and they have added a flair to my text messages that you cannot create with just plain old words).

So the Sullivans are the next best option for lodging any and all Yurie-related complaints. Since my middle school years they've filled an enormous number of roles in my life, including but not limited to teachers, volleyball coaches, guidance counselors, mentors, spiritual parents, and friends, and have had a large hand in shaping things like my "character" and "values" over time. I consequently view them, as, after my real parents, the two individuals who are the most to blame for how and why I have turned out the way that I am today.


I met and got to know Mrs. Sullivan first. She bounded energetically into my life and the lives of my classmates (about fourteen of us in all, in the whole grade) when she came on board as CCS's middle school math teacher at the start of eighth grade (my eighth grade year that is, not hers). On our first day of Algebra I, she spent such a long time at the start of class telling us about herself and asking us about ourselves that I wondered if we were going to while away the whole period just chatting until I realized, with a thrill, that that was precisely her intention. And so, over those next fifty minutes, Mrs. Sullivan proceeded to joke with us, wave her arms around a lot, and regale us with fun stories from her experiences teaching in Canada.

The one that has stuck in my mind ever since then was the one about a time when two of her male students showed up on her doorstep without any warning one evening and casually invited themselves in to hang out and chat. Tell jokes, shoot the breeze. Admittedly, when you look at it in writing like this it doesn't sound like a very interesting story, but at the time I remember listening to her tell it and thinking, this is the coolest teacher I have ever heard of.

In the year that followed, Mrs. Sullivan taught me that solving for x was not such an intimidating task, and that anything could be fun if you chose to make it so, even math. It was very much her fault that I came to firmly believe it was possible for a person to be both legitimately cool and also unrestrainedly excited about the smallest of things. Unfortunately, at twenty-four, I've only really nailed the latter and not the former, but that's a separate issue.

The next year, I moved up into high school and into the daunting new territory that was Mr. Sullivan's legendarily time-consuming group projects, whose collective reputation preceded them, and incited fear. To this day, I still cannot tell you what long-term good spending hours with three of my classmates creating a papier-mâché globe covered with painstakingly shaped clay continents and topographically notable landforms did me besides affording me the opportunity to memorize the lyrics to the classic MC Mong hit "I Love You, Oh Thank You" during the long evenings of mountain-sculpting and ocean-painting. (Still a guaranteed good time at karaoke! Oh, I'm fun.) Trust me, I have thought about this many times, and still have yet to come up with any sort of satisfying answer. But I can say this, at least: the memories of those late nights with friends and the satisfaction of creating something beautiful with our hands have long outlasted those of any other mundane homework assignment, quiz, or essay I turned in during my high school years. So that must be worth something.

Also, people always tell you when you're in high school that in the years to come, you won't remember or care about the grades you got then, but I definitely, vividly remember that we got a 98/100 on that globe, and yeah, that still makes me happy, so suck it, everyone who's ever tried to make me have some healthy perspective on what's important in life.

The Globe Project™ was for our ninth grade Geography class, in case you were wondering. I do not remember much else from that class besides the fact that the official state fruit of Georgia is the peach.

After ninth grade, the rest of my high school years blur together here and there. Which means I can't say when exactly it was that the Sullivans stopped being just teachers and started being the fifty-three other things they became for me.

Here is one very likely possibility: it was when the two of them first became the coaches for the boys' and girls' volleyball teams. The first time I ever laid eyes on a medicine ball and learned its purposes was when we had our first pre-season conditioning with Mr. Sullivan. I remember a lot of phrases like "this is good for you" and "oh, quit whining" being thrown around at the girls' team (and the boys too) that fall. I don't think we ever quit whining, but we did start building up muscles in the right places (hitherto believed to be impossible) and even some much-needed agility, and, over the next few years under the Sullivans' joint coaching, started coming together as a real team and, more importantly, winning more games than we lost. (Jokes! Obviously, building teamwork is more important winning games and crushing your opponents into despair and taking home plaques and reveling in the euphoria of victory for days. Obviously.) And in between games, after practices, in locker rooms, Mrs. S gradually became confidant as well as coach to all the girls, while Mr. S was always on hand to give advice and encouragement, and keep us from getting too rowdy on buses to our away games.

Another possibility: it was when Mrs. Sullivan single-handedly revived the school's National Honor Society and inducted a dozen or so of CCS's most straight-edge, goody-two-shoes kids (this includes myself, obviously) into it. With Mrs. S at the helm, the NHS undertook ambitious projects to serve the school and the community the likes of which Centennial Christian had never seen before. A good way to give you an idea of the sort of person Mrs. Sullivan is: she was then, and remains now, the kind of teacher who could get twelve high schoolers somehow on board with coming to school at the ungodly hour of 6am to cook and serve breakfast for the entire school faculty for Teacher Appreciation Week and supervise the whole operation enthusiastically, all while preventing everyone from realizing that she was, in fact, a teacher herself too, who deserved as much as anyone to be appreciated with slightly soggy French toast and inordinate amounts of scrambled eggs.


It may have been at these times that the Sullivans started to fill the hundred different roles that they filled in my life. But more likely it was in all the in-between times.

There was the night that Claire, Yejin, Jisoo and I were at school late working on a project (probably assigned by Mr. Sullivan), and, rather than making our parents worry about our getting home safely on the subway when it was so dark out, they invited us all to stay over at their apartment, which was right next to school. We invaded their living room and likely ate into their precious few sleeping hours with our boisterousness, but they just laughed at us and at our glee about getting to have a sleepover on a school night (about on par with getting away with murder, in high school). I think there is a picture somewhere of the four of us bundled up in our blankets and cheesing super hard that Mrs. Sullivan took on her Canon before we all went to bed. A very motherish thing to do.

Then there were the few months in my junior year when I found myself walking through a frighteningly dark valley in my spiritual life. Faith turned upside down, God disappeared, and fear set in all sides and shut me in with no visible way of escape. I shared my hopelessness with only my best friends, and the Sullivans.

I didn't tell my parents; neither of them believed in God back then. I couldn't say to them, "I'm scared that God isn't real after all." "Because he isn't," I feared they would say.

So for adult comfort and wisdom I looked to the Sullivans, as I clung to my last few, fragile strands of hope, which felt like they would break any second. They saw me at the most defeated and afraid I've ever been, and they held me up. Figuratively, but often literally too. Some days Mrs. Sullivan just wrapped me in a hug without saying anything, and fear went away for a moment.

And spring rolled around and after months of blackness, God showed himself to me and the world felt right side up again. The Sullivans shared in my joy.

At the end of that school year, Mr. Sullivan wrote in my yearbook, "Luke 22:32."

I went home on that last day of school and read the verse and cried.


Mr. Sullivan was the only other person I knew who watched Doctor Who, before Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and Steven Moffat and BBC America carried the show into mainstream global consciousness a few years years later. He introduced me to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which I thought was the most brilliant and inventive piece of art I'd ever seen. More importantly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog later became the primary factor that led to Emily and me becoming freshman year roommates at Berkeley: I saw that it was on her Facebook profile that it was one of her favourite shows (remember when that was thing?) and based on this information alone I sent her a friend request to ask her to be my roommate. One year after that, it served as the main point of bonding that Edwin and I connected over in the first conversation I ever had with him my sophomore year. It would not be a stretch to say that I owe two of my most important relationships thus, in large part, to Mr. Sullivan.

Mr. S also introduced me to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series books, and gave me a DVD with a couple of his favourite episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing on it. These last two were the only two of the many things he recommended to me that failed to stick. He overestimated my intelligence, probably, a classic parent mistake. Also, Battlestar Galactica. Unfortunately for him even my nerdiness had its limits.


The Sullivans love.

Love just emanates from them, wherever they go and whoever they're with. They are the kind of people who make it look like an effortless thing, a state of being. "It just comes naturally to some people," you'd think, looking at them.

But to think that is to not do them full justice. Loving is work, it's time, it's money, it's prayers prayed and tears shed in private, it's frustration held in against our immediate impulses. And often it's being repaid for all of this with an ungrateful remark or a bitter complaint and precious little else.

I should know; I had my share of times being on the giving end of ungrateful remarks and complaints directed at the Sullivans. And on those occasions they didn't tell me to stop being a bratty teenager and get over myself, which they would have been fully justified in doing. More often than not, they apologized, and asked me to forgive them. What on earth they had to apologize for, goodness knows, but they did and they meant it, and it still humbles me now to think of it, years later.

This is what the Sullivans' love looks like.

I have seen them, first up close and then from an ocean away, take in every single student that has ever passed through the too-narrow halls of CCS, and offer them this kind of love for the taking. Not just the students who were at the center of everything, but also, and especially, the ones who had not been loved elsewhere, the ones who were angry or hurt, the ones who mocked God, the ones who were alone. Their home, classrooms, and offices were a safe place for anyone to come and vent, or grieve, or seek advice -- or just pop in for a chat. Tell jokes, shoot the breeze.

I realized after I graduated and began living in America just how rare and special that is, how lucky I was, to have had that.


In a lot of ways it's almost easier for me to see how I resemble the Sullivans than it is to see how I resemble my actual parents. The tendency toward high levels of excitement: without question a trait inherited from Mrs. S. All the geeky sides of me, and an appreciation for well-written dialogue: cultivated, obviously, by Mr. S. My love of hosting people: picked up from both of them as a natural side effect of years of spending time in an apartment that was pretty much a constantly revolving door for guests. And a multitude of other things. 

Something I think about from time to time is how we're all, as individuals, just different combinations of the people around us. If we are, then I am probably 33% my parents, 33% my close friends, 33% the Sullivans, and 1% Mindy Kaling (she doesn't know I exist, but I somehow feel like I've spent a lot of time with her, you know? One of the many wonderful things about social media). On the whole, I think I am pretty happy with this combination, and the current result, at the twenty-four year marker. But like I said, if you're not, please send your complaints to the Sullivans. They have done too much in my life for me not to hold them partly responsible for what that life looks like today. 

I will always be very grateful.

Monday, 18 September 2017

terrace house, how jesus is transforming my life, and other september things

In January of this year I declared that I was going to write more about the mundane, everyday things in my life here, so I could look back and remember the little things I wouldn't otherwise remember when I am old and shriveled. Like most pleasing notions that are conceived in January, however, this one faded quietly into the abyss of all things forgotten over the span of several weeks, until I blinked and found myself in September with only a vague clue as to how I got here and an even vaguer clue as to all the great mundane things that happened in my life between January and September, which I have sadly now forgotten on account of the fact that I forgot about my plan to record more of my everyday life happenings so as not to forget them.

So it is September now, and the days, like my memory, are unfortunately getting shorter, and we are officially approaching fall. I know this because I have had multiple people in the past two weeks happily exclaim to me, "Your first fall in New York!", which isn't even a complete sentence, but whatever. People are excited for me to experience fall here, which I guess is nice because I am mostly just depressed about summer ending, so, you know, it balances out.

Anyway, September. The most important thing to have happened in my life in September is that I discovered Terrace House on Netflix, and became instantly obsessed. Terrace House is a Japanese reality TV show which, like many American reality TV shows, features a group of strangers living in a giant house together, but which, unlike many American reality TV shows, features said group living together mostly peacefully and politely, with minimal drama, while still going about their ordinary, day-to-day lives. It is simultaneously the most mundane thing I have seen on television and also the most addictive.

There are many great articles out there that address this bewildering correlation between the show's mundaneness and its addictiveness and why it is so fascinating and enjoyable a watch, so if you are interested in further reading on this, I will point you to a couple here and here.

The main point I want to make here is that starting from when I was about five minutes into the first episode of Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City, I have not been able to shut up about this show.

Since September 8th (a day that I will remember as the day my already pretty good life improved even further) I have talked nonstop about Terrace House to pretty much everyone I know, in all existing social circles in my life, and across multiple mediums of communication. I have brought it up during weekly Bible study, on the phone with Edwin, in my company's workplace chat, over late night chicken wings, in texts with friends I haven't seen in months, and on Facebook. In the past nine days I have gotten four different friends to watch the show, one of whom blew through something like thirty episodes in two days (I will not name names, but she is a good friend of mine who also lives in New York).

And in all of these conversations, talking about Terrace House has come very naturally and easily to me. I love talking about this show because I love it, and I want other people to experience the joy that is watching it. A lot of people have laughed at me (I mean, I would laugh at me too, if I were unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the barrage of words that inevitably pours out of my mouth every time I bring up Terrace House), seeing me get so excited about a Japanese reality TV show, but I have not minded the teasing because my love for the show is so great that I do not have any mindspace leftover to even worry about how patently ridiculous I sound in talking about it. As long as I can let people know that this excellent TV show exists, and that it has brought me great joy recently, and encourage others to watch it too, I'm happy, and can go on and on about it, ad infinitum.

Why am I not this excited to talk about the Gospel every day?

This very unwelcome question presented itself to me a couple of days ago, as I was making my way from Lincoln Center to my friend Jaimie's apartment (where, after she made me a very yummy dinner, I repaid her by sitting down and watching an episode of Terrace House with her, thereby creating my third convert). On my way there I was texting with Judy and talking about Terrace House (of course), when the thought hit me. I did not dwell on the question at the time; I "loled" about it briefly over text with Judy (okay, it's Judy, Judy is the one who watched thirty episodes in two days, but Judy also just took a difficult exam the previous week and deserved a break from studying, so Judy is not to be judged), but then put it to the back of my brain, for it to hang out quietly until such time when it deemed it necessary to emerge again and force me to confront it (ideally, never).

That such time ended up being today, when I met up with Haekyung and Christine for CORE group (which sounds like an intense, abs-focused fitness and exercise group but is in fact a mini church community meetup) at the Culture Espresso on 38th and 6th. Christine had to leave a little early but Haekyung and I stayed at Culture for another hour or so talking, and I brought up this question to her.

It would be cool for narrative purposes if I could say that I looked intently, even imploringly, at Haekyung from over my latte and asked her, Haekyung, how come I don't talk about Jesus the way I talk about Terrace House, and that she looked just as intently back at me from over her latte and dropped a profound wisdom bomb on me using only five words which I then went home and wrote in my journal and designed a calligraphic tattoo for so I could remember them forever, but really how the conversation went was that I just ended up answering my own question while thinking out loud, because that is how I process things, and usually I just need to verbalize something in order to get to the bottom of it.

Anyway, the explanation I arrived at via this narratively uninteresting process was this:

I don't talk about Jesus and the Gospel the way I do about Terrace House because unlike with Terrace House, I don't feel, lately, that Jesus has changed my life.

In my mind, I know that he has. In my mind, I know that I have been brought from death to life by Jesus's own death and resurrection. But in my mind I also know that broccoli is good for me, and yet I just can't feel it to be actually, practically true in my life.

This is maybe not one of my better analogies. I really just hate broccoli.

But Jesus! Jesus is so good. And he has done so many amazing, beautiful things in my life. It is just that all the cool "big" spiritual things happened a while back, and life has felt mostly pretty stable the past year or so, and as a person I've felt pretty stable, and there hasn't been anything I would describe as super momentous in my spiritual life recently that I can point to and say Wow God really, really truly SHOWED UP and did something big, transformed me, transformed my life, did something so good that I really must share it with everyone so they can experience the goodness too. That would be nice. But, instead. Not much there to talk about. I'm a Christian, God is good, life is mostly routine and lovely, and I am blessed. Have I told you about this Japanese reality TV show that has literally changed my life?

This is the realization I came to today, sitting at the corner table of Culture Espresso with Haekyung. Two relevant things happened after I came to this realization.

The first was that Haekyung, sometime later in the conversation and not as a direct response to this particular topic, asked me about my testimony, and I ended up sharing with her my story of how I came to encounter and know the Holy Spirit during college after a decade or so of being Christian without really knowing who he was. The freedom, joy, and explosive growth that came from stepping into a life filled with the Spirit. Going from black and white to technicolour. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, making sense to me for the first time.

Sharing that with her made me relive it all, relive that period of my life when I felt God working a very tangible transformation in me, when every day I was excited to see what he would do next, when I talked a mile a minute at anyone who would listen about how cool God was and how nothing was too big for him and how faithful he was. Sharing helped me remember that the point of a testimony is literally to talk about the things that God has already done in your life and how he has changed it, regardless of how long ago or how recent.

The second thing that happened was at church in the evening. I found a seat right in the middle and sat down as the worship set kicked off; I think I was praying something along the lines of God please help me to be as excited to talk about you to people as I am to talk about Terrace House even when you're not doing anything super momentous in my life, like right now. And I felt God responding immediately and saying I am doing something momentous in your life every single day. And then I broke down and cried and could not pray anything coherent for a while because it was so true, every day I wake up and live a life that has been transformed by the Gospel which is that God gave his son Jesus to die for my sins, and every day God is still changing me, at work in me, and if the Creator of the universe making himself known to me every day is not a momentous thing then what is?

Unrelated, but Jon's sermon today was on Nehemiah and holy ambition. Haekyung and I had been talking about ambition at Culture today too. Some days it is almost comical how blatantly God is like HEY PAY ATTENTION I AM TALKING TO YOU NOW.

The takeaways from all this for me today were pretty much: one, God is constantly doing big things in your life and transforming you daily, dummy, so recognize that and be excited to share it with people, and two, ask other Christians more often to share their testimonies with you because the act of sharing how God has redeemed is mutually life-giving for sharer and sharee, and most importantly gives God glory. And three, Terrace House, on top of being hugely entertaining and fascinating, can also lead to profound and timely spiritual revelations, so everyone should totally watch it.


Some other September things, while we're here.

I spent the Labor Day weekend visiting Jin and Sam in New Haven, and Sam showed us around the Yale undergraduate campus. It was so beautiful, I decided on the spot that all my children will go to Yale.

Jin came back with me to New York that Sunday, and the morning of Labor Day itself we went to Chinatown for dim sum with some of my friends from church. Afterwards she said to me You've found the sweetest, kindest group of people in New York, and I felt so at ease with them all. That made me so happy.

Also, spending three full days with Jin and feeling that she is so very close by was so lovely.


I told Edwin about my experience volunteering recently with The Father's Heart Ministries in the Lower East Side with Claire, for their Saturday morning breakfast program for low/fixed-income and homeless folks, and how I want to serve there regularly. He suggested we go together the next weekend he visits and I said that sounded good.

Some time after we made this plan I was at Claire's place and asked her if she and Dan would be down to hang out with Edwin and me the Saturday he's here. "We're actually going on a day trip somewhere upstate that Saturday; do you want to join?" she asked me. I heard the words "upstate New York" and said CAN WE GO TO STORM KING and Claire said "Yeah maybe sure!" and I got excited and immediately texted Edwin.

"Would you be down to go to Storm King on a double date day trip with Claire and Dan on Saturday when you're here"
"Oh wait ahh we were gonna volunteer"
"Lol what should we do"

"Can't we go after we voljnteer?"

"No too late haha"
[This "hmm" was like "hmm is it that bad if we just don't go volunteering like we said we would and go another time instead because Storm King looks really beautiful"]

"Lets volunteer"

Edwin is a better person than I am.


I mentioned this above, but the other day I went over to Jaimie's place and she made me dinner. I had worked from home that whole day with a cold, but gone up to Lincoln Center in the evening for volunteer orientation for the New York Film Festival. The orientation ended up being much shorter than I'd expected, so I was wondering what to do with myself as I didn't want to go back home so soon having been cooped up inside all day. I texted my church community group group text to see if anyone was in the area and wanted to grab dinner, whereat Jaimie instantly responded and invited me over saying she'd cook for me.

Jaimie is actually an angel. Not only does she make generous and hospitable offers to take in and feed lost souls aimlessly wandering Lincoln Square, she also occasionally fosters wizened old cats with kidney problems. She told me she doesn't like the name the cat she is currently fostering was actually given, so she calls it Nekochan ("cat" + term of endearment, in Japanese -- for the record, Jaimie is not Japanese), which I find hilarious and adorable and reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, only gentler, and Asian.


September has been a lovely month.

All my months in New York have been lovely so far.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

packing up and moving on

Today is June 14, 2017. As of today, I have been a resident of New York City for twenty-five days. Twenty-five!

I think twenty-five days is sufficient time. Sufficient time, I mean, to have let elapse before sitting down in front of a screen and trying to cobble together some words that might help me, at a later date, remember the experience of packing up almost-seven years of cold, windy summers and bunk beds shared with best friends and delicious, impossibly moist, tomato-sauce-less, meat-less pizza such as you'll never find anywhere outside of the Bay Area (because who in their right and sober frame of mind would think that pizza without tomato sauce and meat could be a good idea?) and love, so much unfathomable, bottomless love, and stuffing it into suitcases and boxes and moving all of it, the winds and the blankets and the pizza and the love, as indelible memories, across the country and into a new city.

Moving itself isn't new. I've moved before, and not just a few blocks down the street. Across a couple of continents, across an ocean. South Woodford to Seoul, Seoul to Berkeley. In 2002, my dad finished his PhD at the University of London; we went back to Korea ("Back? What do you mean, 'back,' Mum? I never lived there!" "Don't cry, you can just come back to England for college."). In 2010, I finished high school; my parents shipped me across the Pacific ("Yoojung-ah, don't go to college in England. You already lived there. England is boring. America is so much bigger. Just go to Princeton.").

So I've left homes before, made new ones in new places. But leaving California was the first time I left a place not because someone with the last name Kwon had finished a degree, but because... I chose to.

I felt like it. I felt like a change.

While this is true, it also makes it sound like I moved entirely on a whim, which is a bit misleading. For some people, "I feel like it" simply does mean "I feel like it, so I'm doing it." I am in awe of and slightly terrified by these people. (Also I'm convinced they don't exist.) For me, "I feel like it" means "I feel like it, but I can't really decide if I actually should or if this is just a quarter-life crisis creeping up on me, and I've been thinking about it but, agh, I just can't decide, and I've been praying, but God is being all mysterious about it and won't just tell me what to do--so annoying--and I really don't want to leave my church, and no YOU need to stop freaking out, and no, no, I do want to go but I can't so maybe I will just live in Americana Apartments forever and be buried in the Bay, and what do you mean I need to calm down I'm totally calm I still have my chill look it's right here, it's good, everything's good, I'm fine, we're fine."

I mean that's...that really about sums it up. The whole thing at the beginning about packing up seven years of sun and pizza and frigid summers--when it came to it, the packing was easy. (Emily and I started early, like responsible adults. It's the most adult-like behaviour we've ever displayed.) The deciding to pack was what was so enormously hard.

Mostly what it came down to was that I felt life had become stagnant for me, in the Bay. I was very happy--I generally am, most days, as long as I haven't run out of milk for my tea or stubbed my toe on the dresser--but it felt too comfortable, too still. There were a lot of days I walked down Shattuck Avenue and found myself thinking, if I have to walk this exact path down Shattuck one more time I'm going to lose my mind. (Dramatic, am I? How dare you!)

I think someone wiser, more mature, and more grounded than I would have been able to stay put and still find new challenges and ways to grow in an already-familiar environment. I, however, am not that wise, probably still less mature, and about as restless as a five-year-old suffering through a long, dull church sermon.

Eventually, like any good five-year-old, I tugged on my mother's sleeve and whispered loudly that I was bored and wanted to go outside, or in other words, after several months of sitting on the proverbial fence, I walked into my boss's office and asked her if I could transfer to our New York office. And then, much sooner than I had expected, she said yes, and to let her know when I wanted to go, and I promptly clambered back onto my fence, and sat there some more, until I finally just fell off and landed on the side that said "New York."

And suddenly, faster than I could say "wait can I maybe get back on that fence for a little longer," I had to say goodbye! To friends, to my first home in America, to a very full and happy life in California with unlimited access to good tacos and boba. Saying bye sucks. So much. Livingwater was the hardest, of course. I cried so hard on my last Sunday that I was surprised to wake up the next morning and find that I could still see.

How do you leave behind a community that has nurtured you and loved you so well, so genuinely, for the better part of six years, that has played a crucial role in helping you to understand, with a startling clarity, your identity as a daughter of a loving God, that has shown you time and again the very great joy to be found in walking with Christ, with others?

If I sound like I'm obsessed with Livingwater, it's because I am. And I miss it, and all the people in it. But you can't hold on to perfect, or near-perfect, or not-anywhere-near-perfect-but-I-still-love-you things forever. You treasure them while you have them, say a sucky, weepy, snot-filled goodbye when it's time, and move on. Livingwater, my Berkeley friends, my coworkers, In-N-Out, Elmwood Cafe and Moe's Books, the deep bond I'd formed with another physical place I'd taught myself to call "home"--all of these were things I had to reckon with as I sat on my fence and let myself fall.

Falling was painful, but I'm glad I did it. Leaving a place behind is one sucky, sad thing, no matter how ready you are to leave; arriving in a new one is another, tremendously exciting and life-giving, thing entirely. I feel newly energized here in my new surroundings (although who knows how long that will last, with a very hot and humid summer fast approaching--place your bets now!), and happy to be living in a crowded city again.

Contrary to most expectations and all well-meant warnings from other people, New York and its residents have been kind to me so far.

I will not jinx it by elaborating too much, but I will just say that the lady at my local Dunkin Donuts gave me two free Munchkins with my coffee the other day when I asked if I could just buy a single Munchkin instead of the minimum four, so.

If free Munchkins are not a herald of a bright new chapter in New York, I don't know what is.

I wrote most of this sitting at a little table in Bryant Park after work today, enjoying the warm summer evening outdoors and eating a quinoa-chicken-salad bowl with avocado. Avocados, in my mind, will always be associated with California. Californians love few things more than they love avocados. They might as well be the state mascot.

It is funny what little things can make you feel connected to another place, a previous home. If ever I get homesick for the west coast, maybe I will just run to the nearest bodega and buy an avocado and the Bay will suddenly feel not so far away.

Until then--I think free Dunkin Donuts are about enough to help me get adjusted to New York. Change is good. So are free donuts.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

advice extorted from my friends for a newly 24-year-old (me)

I turned twenty-four yesterday, April 23, 2017.

Can we dwell for a minute on the fact that April 23 is also 1) Shakespeare's (observed) birthday and (actual) date of death, and 2) World Book Day? (A fact that I will probably never tire of beating people over the head with?)

I mean, what the hell. I never stood a chance. I basically emerged from the womb declaring my undergrad English major. My first wails were probably the expression of a primal instinct that sensed all the budget cuts to hit English departments in institutions of higher learning across America in the years to come. Or the rise of Amazon and the slow death of independent bookstores, exacerbated by the pain of knowing that I, too, would one day contribute to this, in my early twenties, just because "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" would turn out to be cheaper on Amazon than at Moe's Books.

If Moe's ever goes out of business I know this decision will haunt me. Please Lord, that I may live guilt-free, let Moe's flourish long and happily and continue to bless generations of students and bookworms with their complimentary candystriped bookmarks for decades to come.

What was I talking about?

Oh: I turned twenty-four yesterday.

Turning twenty-four is a solemn affair. Twenty-four, in my eyes, is just over the brink of "real"' adulthood. Past denying liability and getting away with it, the way you might be able to at twenty-three. No one takes twenty-three very seriously. Probably because it's a prime number. Being a prime number age is the worst. That is a Fact. I know it's a Fact, because I say it's a Fact, and we now live in an age when anyone can declare something to be a Fact, and that automatically makes it so. That is another thing that has changed from twenty-three to twenty-four.

Because twenty-four is thus from the outset presenting itself as a year of many challenges, not the least of which include trying to act like a real adult and also moving across the country, I gathered some of my older, wiser friends in one place yesterday (with a couple of exceptions for the two friends who are still a prime number and therefore not to be taken seriously), ostensibly to stuff ourselves with Korean BBQ and drinks and "celebrate," but actually just to squeeze them for advice on how to be good at being twenty-four. (This is one of the many benefits of being the youngest/near-youngest in your friend group.)

As you can imagine, I received a range of responses. Some thoughtful, some funny, some spectacularly unhelpful, but all most very appreciated. I'm recording them here, so I can look back and remember, when twenty-four gets hard.

1. Brace yourself. Alternatively, embrace yourself.*

2. Get married.

3. Don't do drugs. Well, maybe just once, just to see. But not the stuff that gets you addicted on your first try, like cocaine. Maybe a brownie?

4. It's okay to be confused.

5. Keep reading and writing.

6. the year before you turn twenty-five. THE YEAR BEFORE YOU TURN TWENTY-FIVE.**

7. Make friends with more people who are very different from you.

8. Travel solo.

9. When you move to New York and your cost of living suddenly increases, don't let that hinder you from being generous with your finances. Continue to find ways to give, and bless others, with your money.

10. When you make new friends in New York, and you will, and it will be great, don't forget you will always have friends here, and don't be afraid to reach out whenever you need.***

11. Keep loving the Lord and other people, with joy.

12. Eat healthy. Take care of yourself physically, because as you get older, your body will start healing more slowly.****

*This is a reference to a Livingwater Church-wide joke, but the advice still stands, I think.
**This one is blatantly not a piece of advice, but a statement of a fact. I included it because it was presented with great urgency and significant emphasis on and repetition of the last six words (italicized/capitalized to reflect this emphasis).
***I will admit this one made me a little bit teary on the inside.
****This one also made me a bit teary on the inside, but for multiple different reasons.

Writing this all up and looking it over again, I can see clearly that this list contains (for the most part) some genuinely good advice; it is practical and wholesome and fun and I aim to follow it the best I can in the year ahead. But I also see that this list is more than the sum of its parts, more than just discrete tips; this list is love and laughter and encouragement; it is "we love you" and "we will make you laugh" and "we want to help you be the best version of yourself" and "we are here for you."

It has been said by so many people all the world over who have all believed it to be true for themselves and themselves alone, but:

I have the best friends.

Everyone else who has said this sentence before me was obviously deluded, because mine are, Objectively Speaking, the best.

Mine make twenty-four seem a little less daunting and a whole lot more exciting, and for that and for everything else that they do and that they are I am very grateful.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

what i watched in 2016

So I've come to a point where I've realized that if I procrastinate any longer on writing this post I'll find myself in 2018 and by then this will be neither timely nor relevant. Also, it's too late at night now to start the next episode of 시그널 (Signal) without effectively committing myself to nightmares about serial murderers tonight, so here we goto follow on from my "what I read in 2016" list, here is my "what I watched in 2016" list, and accompanying reflections. And to clarify, "what I watched" here refers to movies only, because if I included TV shows the total number of hours I spent looking at medium-to-big screens last year would skyrocket to frightening heights. The partial truth is much more bearable.

The first thing to note is that I watched an unprecedented number of movies in 2016. That is, unprecedented for me, in my own life, not unprecedented in the history of the world, obviously, because, movie critics. It was a good year for personal entertainment, escapism, and empathy, and a bad year for my wallet, which now has burn marks from the hole that Hollywood put in it.

So why so many movies? What's with the obsession? When did it start?

I'm not sure when exactly it started, but the why it started is easy. There's a quote from a piece by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker from a couple of years ago called "The History of Loving to Read," which I really liked—mostly because of how much it talked about Jane Austen—that about sums it up. "The rise of TV and movie fandom—with its generous affection turning, when it’s betrayed, into lavish scorn—seems to be an extension of our love affair with books. It’s a way of loving a canon in the present tense." In short, I came to love movies because I've always loved books. I've always loved books because I've always loved stories. It was a natural, inevitable progression from an obsession with one medium of storytelling to another.

As for why so many movies in 2016, well, the easy explanation is that 2016 was such a spectacularly crap-on-a-cracker year that the movie theatre and all that it offered in terms of escape became more appealing than ever. And that's partly true, but also I think it was, very simply, that I realized last year that I have a good amount of free time outside of work and ministry, and that there are few ways of spending this free time that I enjoy more than watching movies, whether with friends or by myself.

Where my "what I watched" list differs from my "what I read" list is in the fact that it doesn't reflect who I was and what I was thinking in 2016 so much as it reflects who society was and what society was thinking in 2016. The former list is dictated (mostly) by whatever comes out in theatres in a given year, the latter by my more deliberate choices of which books, from a span of centuries, I am curious to read. So while my annual books-read lists will maybe paint a picture of who I was in a given year, it will be interesting to see how my yearly movies-watched lists will maybe paint a picture of the backdrop against which I found myself in that year (Zootopia and Moonlight, together, might just sum up 2016 for America).

So. Favourites from 2016. Zootopia, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Captain Fantastic, Sing Street from the spring/summer. Miss Stevens, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land from the fall/winter. And Moonlight, Lion, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures—though since I actually watched all of these in 2017, I haven't included them on the bulleted list below.

Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures all had plenty of noise around them during awards season (and rightly so). I loved them all, but everyone on the planet has already said every good thing that can be said of them, and then some. So here are some thoughts on a few of the others that I loved from last year.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: So damn funny. It probably elicited the most laughs out of all the movies on this list. But it was also heartfelt and sincere. I loved it because I loved its hero: Ricky Baker, an overweight juvenile delinquent who writes haikus as a way of dealing with his anger issues. (My favourite haiku: "Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.") I loved him and I believed in him and in his relationship with his crusty foster "uncle" Hec (Sam Neill), and I somehow also believed in their shared run from the police through the New Zealand bush, absurd as it all was. Wilderpeople was smart, hilarious, warm and unassuming, and thinking about it eight months later still makes me smile. (Side note: the director, Taika Waititi, is next going to helm Marvel's Thor: Raganarok, which is a jump that makes me think of Colin Trevorrow's leap from Safety Not Guaranteed—one of my favourite movies of 2012—to Jurassic World. Are we going to keep losing all the good indie people to impersonal franchises?! Don't answer that.)

Captain Fantastic: I'm still upset that Viggo Mortensen didn't win the Oscar for his role in this movie (and angry that Casey Affleck won instead, but that's a whole separate issue), even though I knew it was probably the least likely outcome and that I should celebrate the fact that he was even recognized with a nomination at all. But Viggo Mortensen was really, truly fantastic in this movie, playing a progressive, countercultural father raising his six kids completely off the grid in the Pacific Northwest and also raising questions about parenting. Watching him and his interactions with his kids and with other characters made me feel as if I were watching a real person, with very real emotions and flaws, not just a tidily crafted character. And I appreciated that while the film's sympathies were obviously for Viggo's character, it also highlighted the many questionable aspects of his parenting. Other good things: the kids (all of them!), the humour, the emphasis on thinking for yourself and talking about your ideas, the costumes, the colours, the lack of fear of being sentimental, the story itself—all wonderful. But really this movie is all about Viggo. Viggo, I love you. Please be my adoptive father.

Sing Street: Here's the thing. La La Land was amazing. But my one gripe with it will forever be that its splendor completely drowned out the other great movie musical of 2016, which was Sing Street. To describe Sing Street is basically to create a word bank of all the words that describe the type of movies I like best: sincere, feel-good, triumphant coming-of-age. With great music (tributes to 1980s pop/rock). And lovely accents (Irish). And so much sympathy for its young protagonists and their dreams that you feel heartened by their every small victory and plunged into the depths of heartbreak with their every pitfall. Everything about this movie was so lovely. I'm going to go and listen my way through the soundtrack again and soak in the "happy-sad"-ness of it all. And then be amazed all over again that none of the songs were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. But oh well. I am just happy this movie exists (and now on Netflix!).

I think I'm done now. Here's the full list of movies I watched in 2016, and again, most memorable in bold:
  1. Hail, Caesar (2016)
  2. Zootopia (2016)
  3. Love and Friendship (2016)
  4. The History Boys (2006)
  5. The Jungle Book (2016)
  6. The Departed (2006)
  7. The Lobster (2016)
  8. Finding Dory (2016)
  9. The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
  10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  13. Seoul Searching (2016)
  14. Indignation (2016)
  15. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
  16. Whiplash (2014)
  17. Sing Street (2016)
  18. Eye in the Sky (2016)
  19. 13th (2016)
  20. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
  21. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
  22. Breach (2007)
  23. Arrival (2016)
  24. Moana (2016)
  25. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  26. La La Land (2016)
  27. Don't Think Twice (2016)
  28. Nerve (2016)
  29. Miss Stevens (2016)
  30. Howards End (1992)
  31. Cafe Society (2016)
  32. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Monday, 6 February 2017

what i read in 2016

I have been keeping a list of all the books I've ever read since 2006. The list started out in a free notebook I got from Starbucks one year as a token of appreciation from the green mermaid herself for buying more caffeinated drinks in a year than was likely healthy for a pre-teen who needed to grow, and since then has moved into a Google spreadsheet home more suited for this digital age.

It's a fun list to look at. It tells me that I was at my most literary in the year 2009, when I read 41 books (only a few of which were for school), and that I apparently forgot what a bookstore was in the years 2014-2015, when I read a total of 14 books over the two years combined. I'm inclined to think that can't really be right. The only explanation I can come up with for this dismal number is that I graduated from college in 2014 and spent much of the following year worrying about whether I would be able to stay in America. Thus, the time I would normally have spent reading books I spent instead defeatedly reading articles explaining how I essentially had less chance of getting an H-1B visa than I did of weightlifting for Korea in the next Olympics. I wound up getting the visa, so the joke's on me, I guess, and on all the bookstores that otherwise would have made much more money off me.

I thought it would be nice to start writing up my yearly books-read lists here. I have a hunch—or maybe it is wishful, romantic thinking—that I will be able to look back on a particular year and paint a picture of who I was that year, what I thought, what I wanted to learn about, based on the collection of books I read.

I say this, and then I look at the books I read last year, and it strikes me that a significant fraction of them are stories or memoirs written by celebrities/actors/musicians/entertainers. Which, you know. Doesn't really paint me as the bookish intellectual I'd otherwise pretend to be. Though this is not to say those books aren't great, of course. Mindy Kaling is one of the funniest writers of all time, and B.J. Novak's short stories are clever and poignant and feel so acutely unreal-but-real. But Kaling is not Kipling and Novak is not Nabokov and what my 2016 list accurately reflects is that this was the year that I reached new heights (or depths?) of immersion in pop culture, and consumed an unprecedented amount of TV and film. And it spilled over into the books I chose to read. I am more than fine with this. If anything, my 2016 list serves as a reminder of my first time watching "The Office" (both UK and US versions), and of the weeks of endless laughter it brought me. That will always be a happy thing.

There are other hints too, from my book list, as to what I was thinking about last year. 2016 was the year I stepped into a greater awareness of how important my Korean identity is to me. It's the year I began giving voice to the feeling that has increased over the past few years of my living in America, that I do not really, wholly belong on this soil, that there will forever be a part of me that cries loudly to be on another soil across the Pacific, and that such a cry cannot be so easily tamped down beneath a love of Hollywood movies and a deep-rooted attachment to Chipotle. And so last year I read a novel by a Korean-American author for the first time in my life, recognizing in it a something from within myself that I had not found in other books, and reveling in the novelty and the joy of it. The following month, I made my way through a collection of short stories by Tablo (of Korean hip hop group Epik High) and reveled more. Both books were lent to me by friends, both of whom are Korean, and it made the experience of reading them so much the more wonderful.

My 2016 list is a marked, intentional improvement, quantity-wise, on my 2014-2015 lists. But looking at it does make me want to set some goals for my 2017 list. More books by people who have been dead for over a century. More books by people of colour. More books by women. (I'm on the right track so far on that last one: the first new book I read in 2017 was The Devil Wears Prada—a very important book in the modern fashion-literature canon by a highly talented female writer, obviously.)

So, anyway. The first of many of these lists to come, here are all the books I read in 2016 (not counting those I re-read for the seventieth time, like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women)—most memorable in bold:
  1. Girlboss, by Sophia Amuroso
  2. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman
  3. Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque
  4. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
  5. The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
  6. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
  7. The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
  8. One More Thing, by B.J. Novak
  9. The Haters, by Jesse Andrews
  10. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, by Mindy Kaling
  11. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
  12. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
  13. Howards End, by E.M. Forster
  14. Why Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling
  15. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  16. A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee
  17. Pieces of You, by Tablo
  18. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  19. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
  20. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, by Amanda Filipacchi

Thursday, 19 January 2017

january things, or, let's not be afraid to record the mundane

It is January in the year 2017. It is a prime number year, which I hate. I lamented about this long and loudly in the weeks leading up to the new year to everyone who was unfortunate enough to find themselves in my immediate vicinity, until someone got tired of my complaining and told me to get over it, after which I largely kept my dislike of specific numbers, prime or otherwise, to myself.

I am twenty-three years old (another prime number) in January in the year 2017. Twenty-three and three quarters, to be precise the way you are in elementary school when being eight-and-a-half means you are significantly older and wiser than your friends who are only eight-and-a-quarter. I have been twenty-three years old for nine months and in those nine months I have learned a few things about what it is to be twenty-three.

None of those things are very profound.

One of those things is that when you are twenty-three, decisions gradually begin to feel like they have more weight attached to them than you remember them having. What to do, where to go, how to live, who to be. It happens slowly, imperceptibly, like gaining physical weight. You don't feel it as it's happening, until one day you step on a scale at your friend's house and squint at the number, hmm, that can't possibly be right, I didn't feel like I was putting on more pounds -- but if the scale says it, it must be so. Choosing to live in America at this current stage of my life had never seemed to me a big deal -- or even like a conscious decision -- until last year when it began to dawn on me faintly that it was in fact a Big Decision, with Significant Consequences. Most significant of which: having to accept that it meant being far away from family. It is hard to explain why this was such a new realization, after five, six years of already being separated. I suppose it is the difference between being a student and being an adult.


Things that have happened in my life as a twenty-three-and-three-quarters-year-old in January in the year 2017, so far:

I spent the first half of the month at home in Korea, as I've been fortunate enough to do every year since I came away for college. Edwin came for a portion of the trip as well, and did important things like meet my dad, and the Sullivans, and teach my sisters how to play Settlers of Catan, and watch a lot of Korean broadcast network awards shows with my family. I did a couple of things for the first time on this particular visit home, like spending a 24-hour (count 'em) period making a single batch of cookies with Eugenie, and taking Izzie shopping for clothes, just the two of us.

Samie came to San Francisco with her boyfriend, and I spent a full, glorious (jet lagged) day with them, walking along the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building to Pier 39 to Lombard Street. She exclaimed several times about how pretty San Francisco is. It made me realize I have been here for a long time, to take it so for granted as I do now.

I received another email from my high school AP lit teacher Mr. H, in the sporadic but flourishing email correspondence that sprung up between us after I graduated. His email was characteristically pithy; my response was characteristically, uncontrollably wordy. I am twenty-three, the age he was when he taught me and my peers, which is very weird. He is now married and living in Beijing, and I am now flailing about as I try to navigate the unpredictable waters that are post-college young adulthood. He still asks me about the books I am reading, and I ask him about the books he is reading, and on occasion I also ask him things like "how do you do this whole adult thing and does it get any less hard" and he says wise, encouraging things in response like "don't get overwhelmed by it all" and "trust your intuition and trust God" and "get excited about what's going to happen and how cool it will be."

One of the earlier emails in this particular chain was the one in which he had wished me a happy birthday last April as he has done every single year without fail since I graduated. In my reply to that email, I remarked that it had been six years since I graduated high school and I was still receiving happy birthday emails from my AP lit teacher, and that this was how I knew that life was kind to me.

I still know it now, from these emails that are sent my way every so often from a computer in Beijing: life is very kind to me.


I like to think I am becoming more okay with the uncertainty of everything in my life, but I am not sure if that is actually true. What is true is that I am becoming more okay with saying that I am becoming more okay with the uncertainty. I think part of me hopes that in saying it more often, it will eventually become the truth. If you say something enough times, does it become true?

I like tomatoes I like tomatoes I like tomatoes

I forgive you I forgive you I forgive you I forgive you

I am okay with uncertainty I am okay with uncertainty I am okay with uncertainty


I took some time earlier this month to sit down and reflect on the state of my faith, and on where my walk took me over the last year. The two words that impressed themselves upon me were intimacy (as in, a lack of) and idolatry (as in, far too much of). There is still repenting to be done, and still -- thankfully -- grace to be sought and received.


It is January in the year 2017 and I am twenty-three going on twenty-four and a lot of things about my life feel uncertain and still more things feel deliciously sturdy and I am feeling hopeful for what this year will teach me. It is a nice feeling.