Get Help from One, and Help Another


When I was a child in Korea, I was told this folklore on a magpie repeatedly. The story goes like this: a traveler spots a magpie trapped in a net. He does his best to rescue the magpie. He succeeds, and the magpie flies away. A few years later, the same man falls off a cliff and gets entangled in tree roots. He is too injured to help himself. Then, a bird flies and chews away the roots. The man looks at the bird closely, to find that it is the magpie that he helped several years ago. All Korean kids were told this story to learn a lesson on the importance of returning a favor. We were told, “when someone helps you, don’t forget to return the favor.”

I never liked this story. I want to talk about why, by means of sharing with you my evolving history of receiving help.

Phase 1: Aggressively Asking for Help

I was 19 when I came to North America for the first time. I knew nobody, and back then, I did not speak good English. I realized quickly that without help, I would not survive. I remember the first day when I arrived in my dorm. Typically, a college student arrives in his/her dorm with mom and dad and with a carful of stuff from home. But I was an international student. I went to the dorm straight from the airport, and I arrived alone with two suitcases. In them, I had some books and clothing. No bed linen, no blanket, and no cereal.  I did not know where the hell I should go to buy those. I went down to the hall and grabbed a girl who was hanging out there. My first question was, “do you have a car?” (Don’t ask me why I didn’t called a cab. I lived in a big city in Korea, and I found a cab every 20 seconds on any street. But we’re talking about a tiny town in the midwest, and I didn’t know that a cab required a phone call. And phone? What phone?) The girl said, “yes.” I said, “I just arrived here from Korea. I need shampoo and blankets and pillows. Can you take me to where I could buy them?” She took me to Walmart. For weeks thereafter, she was my indentured laborer to take me to places, until my dorm became a livable place.

I aggressively sought for help, and I received it without reservation. When my friend gave me a ride to a place and was about to go, I said, “I want to go home at 5 pm. So I will see you right here at 5, okay?” I knew that housewives were busy at 5 pm, when the children were at home and dinner should be cooked, but I couldn’t afford to think about her busy schedule. I had to go home at 5, too.

Phase 2: Afraid of Asking for Help

By the time that I became a graduate student, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. I was such a shy girl and so afraid of asking for help. I tried not to get anyone’s help. However, there were times when I had to get help. For example, for the first two years in graduate school, I did not have a car. Taking my laundry to a laundrymat was a big problem. Fortunately, my roommate had a car, and she kindly gave me a ride whenever I had to go to the laundry mat. But here is how I asked for her help.

Me: Carol, um…, are you busy this Saturday around 3 pm?

Carol: Why?

Me: Um…I have to do laundry. But if you’re busy, that’s okay.

All I was thinking was that I did not want to intrude upon her schedule and consume her time when she was busy. I wanted to allow her to say no. One day, however, my roommate exploded. She said, “Just say that you need a ride at 3 pm this Saturday. Don’t ask me if I am busy at that time. I am always busy. When you ask me if I am busy, you seem to suggest that I help you because I am not busy and have no better thing to do. Helping you costs my time, but that’s the time I am glad to spend for you. Don’t imply that I help you because helping you isn’t a big deal.”

That was an eye-opening moment.

Phase 3: Aggressively Giving and Receiving Help

As a middle-aged woman, I don’t need as much help as I did when I was 19. And, because my position has much secured since I was 19, I not only get help but also offer help to those in need. If I learned a lesson during this maturation process, it is that the magpie story that I introduced at the beginning of this post is wrong. I suggest that we learn to receive help without attaching it to the idea of return. Some people feel uncomfortable when someone else helps them. They think, “can I accept this dinner invitation when I cannot afford to invite her to my dinner?” “He always comes and fixes problems in my house. But I do nothing for him.” I assure you that the lady who invites you to dinner and the guy who fixes your bathroom faucet do not expect anything in return. They help you, because they want to help you and can afford to help you. If you are immediately thinking about how to return the favor, it is like saying, “okay, you do this for me, but I do that for you, so we’re even.” I think this is kind of rude. The idea of “returning the favor” kind of cancels out someone’s good heart. If you can invite her to your dinner and go to fix his problem, that’s great, but returning the favor is neither expected nor mandatory. Just accept the help and be thankful of the helper’s good intention. And be ready to help someone in need. That someone can be that lady and that guy who helped you, but it could be anyone.

My trouble with the magpie story, then, is that it limits the scope of giving and receiving help to one-on-one relations. If you help me, I help you back. What’s that? A ping pong game? When someone helps you, accept it graciously. And widen your network of help relations. Offer your help to whoever needs it. That’s the idea of ” return the favor. ”

P.S. Today’s post is dedicated to all the strangers and friends who helped me during my first years in North America. They didn’t judge who I was, didn’t calculate their losses and gains, and didn’t mind the risk of being attacked by me. They just helped me unconditionally. They are the ones who taught me the lesson on the widening network of help relations. One thousand thanks to them, and I hope I help others now, as they did help me back then.

Is Audrey Hepburn Pretty?


A couple of days ago, I watched the movie My Fair Lady, in which Audrey Hepburn is the leading actress. It was my fist time to watch a movie with Hepburn in it. The movie was fairly disappointing to me for a couple of reasons, but normally, I am ready to forgive everything if the leading actress is pretty. The thing is I didn’t find Audrey Hepburn pretty at all in that movie. It was shocking. I know that a lot of people worship her as an immortal goddess with unsurpassable beauty. And I am usually one of the first people to bow down before pretty women. But I didn’t find the goddess Hepburn pretty at all!

That night, I had a conversation with some of my Facebook friends on whether or not Audrey Hepburn is pretty. Some friends suggested that she looks much better in Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My friends were right. She does look better in Tiffany’s.

And this got me to think about what makes a woman look pretty (Hahaha. Sounds like it is cropped from a corner of Cosmopolitan or Allure or Dear Abby). My thought is that a woman looks pretty when she is so much into what she’s doing. I think Audrey Hepburn could not look pretty in the Eliza Doolittle role in My Fair Lady because her singing voice was not her own. In other words, she was not really there in the movie, because she was not really the role she was playing. I could feel the gap between the actress and the role she played, even before I compared her later to Julie Andrews, who, in the musical version of MFL, did both acting and singing and looked in my eyes so pretty. By contrast, in Tiffany’s, all Hepburn was expected to do was to act, and when she acted, she looked better. ( I wouldn’t say “good” because, according to my idiosyncratic definition of pretty, an actress is pretty only when she acts well. Unfortunately, I don’t find Hepburn a great actress. So I think she is not that pretty even in Tiffany’s, but I won’t utter this judgement for my friends who think she is so pretty.)

To my women friends who read this post and want to look pretty, I suggest that you throw themselves into what you are doing. That vital energy that comes to your face when you are intensely concentrating on what you’re doing — that is the best cosmetics that a woman can put on.

Who Shall I Vote For?

Who Shall I Vote For?

hilary clinton

Last November, I wrote about Elizabeth Warren. ( ) I wrote it, because a lot of my liberal friends preferred her to Hilary Clinton, expressing disappointment in the latter and investing in the former hope for a more democratic future. In that piece, I argued that the differences between Elizabeth Warren and Hilary Clinton were not as large as they thought and that we should think more in terms of political structures rather than in terms of individual politicians.

And, tomorrow, our beloved Hilary Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy for the 2016 presidential campaign. A lot of comments are made about her, but to me, most of the analyses seem to mince over negligible differences between her and other politicians. So this morning, I wrote the following on my Facebook:

“Let’s say that you’re getting married. You’re the bride and I your bridesmaid. We go on shoe shopping to get your bridal shoes. You’re wearing a white dress, but at the shoe store we’re visiting, we find only two pairs of ivory shoes. One pair is deep ivory, the other light ivory. You agonize over these two shades of ivory, when neither matches your white dress. I say to you, “modern brides no longer think that they have to wear white shoes. It is acceptable to wear pink, blue, purple, or red shoes. Let’s look at other colors in the other aisle.” Tomorrow, Hilary Clinton is going to announce her candidacy for the 2016 presidential campaign. All I want to say in response is, let’s widen the scope of discussion. Instead of agonizing over minuscule difference between deep ivory and light ivory, let’s consider other bold colors, such as blue, red, and orange. Hilary is all up for exacerbating inequalities that are already in deep shit. But compared to others who are more reckless under the same banner, she passes for a progressive, just as light ivory looks a lot more white than deep ivory. BUT, whether light ivory or deep ivory, they are the same color. And that they are the same color won’t be made clear until we bring blues and reds and oranges to the table.”

Since I wrote the piece on Elizabeth Warren, and whenever I express my view during political discussions with my friends, I am often told the following: “Okay, I got your point that Elizabeth Warren is not perfect. Nobody is perfect. But don’t you think she is a lot better than Republicans, who have no respect for women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, immigrants, etc., mangle American history, and let loose mad gunmen? Even Hilary Clinton can be better than, let’s say, Ted Cruz. Somebody has to sit in the oval office, and I very much prefer a Democratic candidate to a Republican asshole. And, voting for a third party can be dangerous, because it can divide liberals’ votes, to lead to the victory of Republicans.”

So, today’s question is, “who should we vote for?” All right. Love the question.

The first thing I want to do is to alert you about the kind and breadth of politics that we’re talking about. Let me use the shoe analogy once again. Do you agree that we have broader options and more diverse ideas when we consider not only white/ivory shoes but also red, blue, and purple shoes? Similarly, I am talking about two kinds of politics. When we hear the word “politics,” we usually think about elections and votes. This kind of politics (I will call it “vote-centered, institutionalized politics”) is in fact only a small part of larger politics. In other words, there are politics that exist in tandem with the institutionalized politics but are not completely encompassed by them. The politics determined by votes are important, so yes, the question of who to vote is a valid, legitimate question whose importance cannot be underestimated. At the same time, however, politics outside votes are also tremendously important. In fact, I would argue that they are more important than their counterpart, because it is in these larger politics that are not yet captured by vote-seeking politicians that new ideas are generated and ultimately transported to the institutional politics to change our living reality.

So, when I suggest that we broaden up the scope of our political discussion, I am suggesting that we understand politics in broader contexts that go beyond votes. I am suggesting that we don’t limit our political vision to the votes but open it up to the vast, unexplored areas where unprecedented ideas are established and further developed. Out of those ideas, only a limited number make their way into the institutionalized politics to seek your vote. Once they are there, I need you to examine those ideas carefully before you cast your precious vote. But remember that you’re not done with discharging your political duty when you cast your vote for the right politician -whoever that may be – on the election day. There are tons of things that you should do on non-election days. You are responsible for determining which ideas outside votes deserve our attention and should make their way to the politics inside votes. Only when you perform this political duty well, we can move beyond narrow political debates determined by the differences between Democrats and Republics.

So, how would you feel about colorful shoes?


Guilty Before Proven Guilty: the Patriarchy of the Feticide Laws


Yesterday and today, one of the big news that feature newspapers and social media concerns Ms. Purvi Patel, a 33 year old woman in Indiana who is sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide. (Those of you who are not familiar with this news can check the following two articles, among many others:

This is a controversial issue and also a very complicated issue. From this incident, I draw a lot more radical interpretation than the one that I will present below, but in order to communicate with a wider range of readers and to prevent unnecessary disputes, I will limit the scope of my discussion into one single point and draw from it the most conservative interpretation that I can offer insofar as it makes rational sense.

Here is one single point that I want to make about the Ms. Patel case: have you heard the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty?” This is one of the most basic, fundamental, and uncompromising principles of a legal system that ensures fair treatment. My argument today is that this basic principle is severely violated in Ms. Patel’s case.

There are many points of ambiguity in establishing Ms. Patel’s crimes. One major ambiguity is about whether or not the baby was alive when it was dropped in the dumpster. I won’t go into details to introduce who says what about this question. I won’t even pick a side to assert that the baby was alive or dead. What I want to argue is that this question is not settled and probably won’t be settled. Medical experts who examined the baby present different views about when the baby died exactly. This is not surprising because there isn’t anything in human life whose meaning is just given. Everything – our experiences, animate or inanimate objects, or social phenomena – should be interpreted before it releases meaning. Hence two scientists looking at the same object can draw two radically different conclusions, according to their different value systems, frames of reference, and political/religious/intellectual orientations. (at this point, it’s legitimate and necessary to discuss scientists’ biases, patriarchal or racial, in interpreting scientific findings, but let’s skip this complicated issue right now). When medical opinions are divided about the baby’s condition, the least that any conscientious person can say is to admit that we don’t know for sure. To quote a phrase from the New York Time article above, the question on the baby’s survival cannot be settled “any more than looking at a body that fell from a high building can determine whether the fall was a suicide, an accident or a homicide.” It means that all three possibilities exist and you should be open to all the possibilites. You can’t remove one possibility at random unless there is compelling evidence to suggest its untenability.

The second major ambiguity in Ms. Patel’s case is about her abortion-inducing medication. It seems clear that she ordered from a Hong Kong pharmacy an abortion-inducing substance that is available in the United States through prescription only. But did she take it? This seems to be another unsettled question. The prosecutors who charged Ms. Patel of feticide are convinced that she did take the medication. But the test administered after Ms. Patel is admitted into the hospital does not show any evidence of the drug in her body. Again, I am not picking a side to say that she did not take the drug. Perhaps she took the drug, but by the time she got tested, the drug was either absorbed in her body or found its way out of the body? I don’t know. Yet what I know is that this question is not settled and may not be settled ever.

These two important questions that should be settled before Ms. Patel is announced guilty or innocenct appear murky at best. In other words, there is contesting evidence surrounding her case. One can pick one series of evidence to conclude that she committed feticide. Or one can pick another series of evidence to conclude that the baby was a stillborn and Ms. Patel is innocent. My point is that a legal decision cannot be made in this situation where there are two competing narratives. It can be made only when one narrative is supported by solid evidence and appears irreversibly and irrefutably clear. This is the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” I am guilty only when you present irreversible evidence of my crime. If your evidence is murky and open to interpretation, I should be presumed innocent. In Ms. Patel’s case, however, we see that this principle is shamelessly violated. Ms. Patel keeps arguing that she had a miscarriage and the baby was a stillborn, and there is convincing evidence that support her argument. Why should her argument and her evidence be ignored, when it is highly contesting the prosecutors’ evidence? When they are ignored, I see nothing but the American legal system’s refusal to listen to Ms. Patel’s story. This is willful ignorance. This is an expression of a will to define Patel as a mother only and to deny her of all other elements that constitute her individuality. This is patriarchal violence. I don’t know what else I could call this shameless verdict on Ms. Patel.

Two things to add before I conclude this post. First, I think that part of the reason why people are so convinced of Ms. Patel’s crime despite evidence of her innocence is that she threw the baby into the dumpster. A baby – even when it is a stillborn – wrapped in a plastic bag and tossed into a dumpster does not feel good to most people. This image is upsetting enough to make people react emotionally and condemn the mother as a heartless bitch. I kind of understand this emotional response. But we can’t let an emotional response govern a legal judgement. We just can’t. If you kill my baby, I am sure I want to tear you to pieces. But my emotional desire for revenge should not influence your judgement in front of laws. You are innocent until irrefutable evidence of your murder is presented.

Second, it is terribly important to note that Ms. Patel is a woman of color. When there is room for interpretation, the identify of the accused does matter to determine the verdict that s/he receives.This explains why African Americans in particular and people of color in general are overrepresented in American prisons. When we are talking about the feticide laws and when the accused is a woman of color, her identity automatically activates all the racial prejudices circulating in our society: for example, Asian American women have a low awareness of reproductive health. And this activation of radicalized codes makes it very difficult for the woman of color to receive fair treatment. I am sure 100% that when the feticide laws are in practice more widely, a vast majority of the accused will be disprivileged women – women of color, working class women, immigrant women, etc. But now it is dangerously coming closer to the interpretation that I really believe about Ms. Patel, so I will stop here.