thoughts on christmas

I don’t know how I feel about Christmas. For the first time in my life, I suppose since I can remember, I am not all too excited. Some people might say that it’s because everything has become so commercialized. Others say that it’s because I’m getting old, thus becoming more cynical. (Old people, is that true?)

I’m not sure. But what I’ve always enjoyed about Christmas are the things I suppose I’ve always had: wonderful friends and family, much laughter and love. For me, this is a cheerful and joyous time. I get to see my loved ones and celebrate with tons of good games, food, and drink. I am blessed beyond a doubt.

This is not the case for everyone. This season can be especially hard for some, as it might serve as a painful reminder of what we do not have, or what we once had, now gone. Husbands and wives departed, kids you haven’t heard from in years. The loneliness is amplified, and broken pieces of ourselves are recycled. It can be a sort of bone-chilling emptiness.

But then one of my mentors told me something profound. He said that if we look hard enough to see beyond ourselves, perhaps we can begin to rediscover what this holiday is about–giving. If we can give, not just well-intended presents, but of our time and energy and hearts to meet the needs of those around us, then perhaps we would recapture the true spirit of Christmas. We would be modeling after the very Christ, who was sent to heal those who are hurting, mend the torn pieces, and bring life to things once dead.

I thought this was divine. Because if we all lifted our spoons to feed not ourselves but one another, then those with less would have more, and none of us would go hungry. And you don’t have to look far to see that the world is starving for our support, love, and attention.

What if God has chosen us to be a part of the remedy? What if we can bring Christmas to strangers and friends around us? What if we actually look to be Christ to those who do not know him?

For those of us who have been given much, this might seem like a tall order. The problems are plenty and overwhelming, and I don’t know where to begin sometimes. But I think upon Christ, about how God’s son exchanged all his heavenly riches to become human and understand our pain, and I guess that’s where I begin.

So, that’s my encouragement to you this year, by the way of my mentor. Pray to have eyes that are opened to the needs of those around you. Should you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a way to seek and fulfill them.

Let us begin.

How I’m Spending My Twenties

Several months ago, I was passing time in a local bookstore scanning through random books. I remember picking up a woman’s memoir or self-help book of some sort, and I caught a quote from the back cover that has stuck with me ever since.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

The words are simple but they sunk in heavy. It encapsulated how I felt for most of my twenties. I still remember my first day at my first job out of college. And all the other jobs after that. Yet I find myself here, at the beginning of June, and I can’t tell you how I got here. The years are short.

Oddly enough, when I’m catching up with old friends, I often find myself muttering the same words. If you were to ask me what’s new in my life, I’m not sure what to tell you. I’m kinda slow in the milestone department. No wife. No kids. No house. “Just work, that’s it.” The days are long.

It’s a weird time in life because I feel like I’m caught in the middle of two worlds. I have friends who have long settled into the next chapter of their lives, married with a kid or two in tow. (These are the ones responsible for half of my book sales–so thank you.) I also have friends who are still hanging onto the vestiges of their youth, playing the same cards until it’s out of their system–whatever that means. Me personally? I’m at a crossroads; I’m ready to board but my train hasn’t yet arrived.

There is a temptation to follow the paths of those who’ve gone before me. I wonder what it would be like to be a husband, to wake up early some mornings and cook her favorite breakfast or write her little notes, or how I’d have to think up something clever to make up for doing something stupid, which would probably be every other day. I also wonder what it would be like to be a father. My closest experience was found caring for my little cousin Justin for his first 13 years. Lord knows I would love to be a father.

But for whatever reason, it’s not now. So, in the meantime, I’m actively waiting.

Waiting…

And waiting.

There is something sublime that happens in this waiting period. For one, waiting puts you back in your place. You can’t always get everything you want, whenever you want. Waiting also benefits you in the end. It will intensify your joy and appreciation of that prized object when it does arrive.

I wrestled with this lesson a few weeks ago. Literally. I was rolling with my friends in jiu jitsu. It was my first time, and I wasn’t on the mat very long, but by the end of the night I was spent. I had exerted so much energy trying to attack, predict and defend against the opponent’s moves, but my friends pinned me easily, breaking little sweat. My friend Josh later pulled me aside. He said the ones who excel are not only sound technically, but also patient. Before they execute their moves, they would wait for opponents to make a mistake or tire themselves out. That’s what separates the good from the best. I thought that was rather poetic. Even in a physical, full-contact sport, there is a time and place for waiting.

The waiting room. It is a hard place to be in, no doubt, when most of my peers are jumping and sprinting to their next stages in career and family. But when I learn to embrace this place, it’s like there comes a serenity that falls upon me, wraps around my mind and holds my soul together.

I don’t know when my train will arrive. Some days I even wonder if. But I stopped looking at my watch. When I take the time to look around me, beyond me, the world opens up. There is so much more beauty than I ever cared to notice.

——

“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry…you will someday.” – Lester 

Germany, Gospel and Last Samurai

IMG_2998

There are some trips you take that help you to recharge, perhaps to break away from normal routine if nothing more. Then there are others that exist to merely entertain and indulge your senses. Still there are a few that seem to mark your life in a significant way, trips from which you take away lessons or impressions that will stay with you long and true for the next leg of your journey.

When I initially flew out to Germany, I didn’t think it would be that kind of trip. After all, the primary reason for the visit was business, and I was spending only a week in town. I figured, if anything, I’d book an extra weekend so that I might actually explore Germany beyond the view from my office window. To be quite frank(furt), I wasn’t expecting much other than to say I did my 40 hours and stuffed myself with brats and bier. But sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it.

I guess it starts with the country terrain. The land alone is beautiful. Lots of trees, mountains, rivers. (I say this knowing fully that I only explored one region [and a half, I suppose, if you count my day in Heidelberg] and that there is so much more to see.) But as Friedrich would show you, the Germans are inseparable from mother nature. Germany is a biker and hiker’s dream. In addition, there is a lot of history contained in the country, as evidenced by several castles, cathedrals, and government buildings. Not to mention, the people are friendly–most of them speak decent English–and the food was wonderful. If the trip consisted only of this, I’d have been plenty satisfied.

Yet what stood out most was the people. The Germans are a very direct people. They will be upfront with you when pressed with something, and when they say something they mean it. My roommate Matt told me not to greet Germans with “How are you?” because over there it is not a trite greeting. “If you ask, expect an answer that is anything but good.” Because they will tell you how they are doing, really. It was refreshing because I didn’t have to second guess their intentions or what they were really trying to say. Their words are measured carefully. (Which reflects heavily upon me as a man. Do I measure my words carefully? Do I mean what I say, do I follow through on my commitments, is my word my bond?)

So, the few people I met there who considered themselves “Christians” really meant it. They lived out their faith. Their words and actions validated their claims. It was none of this going-to-Sunday-church-but-living-godless-Monday-to-Saturday business. When they say they are committed to being a disciple of Christ, they show what it means to have a definitive break from the world. It means they will say yes to doing some hard things, no to some others, and that persecution from family and friends is expected. They understand they will look weird to the world. They have counted the costs and determined that he is worth it.

Throughout my week, outside of work, I felt like I was on a missions trip, with the main difference being that the mission was me. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, where I was coming into contact with a new culture and people that reflected a way of living I had not known before. I experienced sincere kindness from people who consistently sacrificed time and energy to share their lives with me. On a pizza & movie night, I witnessed how a man devoted himself to loving his wife and four kids. I thought to myself, He’s got it right. I want to be like that one day. The German believers made me reconsider how I was living and approaching life, and the beauty in their lives inevitably led me to rediscover the beauty in mine.

What’s more, I think it made me reconsider my bearings on the gospel. Do I truly believe in what Christ has done for me? Do I believe in his power to change my life? How am I reorienting my life–how does it look different–if I claim to be a disciple? I say I believe in God’s all-sufficient grace, but I’m afraid I still live most days with an identity wrapped around what I achieve and what others think of me.

There is still much to process, but I’m thankful for trips like this. God not only gave me what I wanted, but what I needed. It’s like a kid who expected action figures for Christmas and got a shiny bike instead. He went the extra mile to surprise me. Thanks, God.

Only time will tell where this bike will take me.

Thanks Bruce

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently act frankly; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In other words, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. – Bruce Lee, Oct 20 1963

It is hard to swim upstream. It is hard not to feel like I have to keep up with the rest of what society is selling. It is hard to dig when you only have the energy to rake. It is hard to turn the other cheek, walk in their shoes, give without getting in return. It is hard to wake up each morning knowing it’ll be a fight.

But, this is where I might find the real essence of life.

Like Horse & Carriage

I made a trip up to Central and Northern California this past weekend to observe two marriages. One actually becoming official “before God and these witnesses” at a small chapel in Fresno; the other fresh and exciting after a couple weeks spent honeymooning in Europe. Both reminded me of the beauty found in marriage.

Ricky and Jessie came together in a simple yet meaningful ceremony. Pastor Jon officiated the wedding and delivered a memorable sermon. Nothing too long or heavy, but it was full of honest and practical wisdom. I remember one quote in particular in which he said (paraphrased): “In marriage, one half plus one half does not equal one. In this equation, rarely does each person ever give their full share of the fifty. Sometimes you might feel you are giving more, sometimes less. But if you are putting the other person’s cares above your own and you are running toward the other person to meet their needs, then rest assured you two are bound to meet each other somewhere in the middle.” It reminded me of the whole concept of giving, not taking, in marriage. Knowing the kind of man that Ricky is, I have full confidence that he will cherish, protect and provide for her with every ounce of God-enabled strength.

After the reception, Jeremy and I headed on the road to Oakland. The next day, we met up with my dear friend Deborah. We were introduced to her husband Jerry. We spent the entire afternoon and early evening together, going from church service to brunch to J-town to the piers over at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a lot of activity, running into fobs at J-town and dodging fat birds, but through it all I got to see how Jerry served and loved his wife. They had that sort of chemistry that spoke of deep trust and understanding. I recount how at one Japanese novelty store, Jerry asked the cashier if they had a Domo ear-set to complete her full-body Domo costume. They didn’t have it, but Jerry was obviously looking out for her best interests. (Sarcasm intended.) I became a big fan of Jerry and I am glad that she is well taken care of. (It also doesn’t hurt that his hair reminds me of a cross between Beatles Paul McCartney and Super Saiyan 3 Goku.)

As I reflect on these two stories, I begin to see how they tie together. I think about the Bible and all its talk about marriage being a symbol of Christ and His church. How Christ in all his glory came not to be served, but to serve and make lovely His bride. How even when we fail or falter, Jesus is pursuing us with a passionate and furious love. He is fully committed. And He will not rest until He has us, wholly and completely devoted to Him.

This is what makes marriage special. This is what makes it divine. The world looks in to see what we have. It discovers, as a matter of fact, that it is a love triangle. Indeed, Christians are the most scandalous lovers of all.

When Voices Turn Flesh

I saw them out of the corner of my eye. A homeless couple, sitting on a bench, begging. As the other three members in our party shuffled into the BJ’s, my friend Travis decided to stop and listen to them. Not wanting to leave a brother behind, I told the others to go ahead while I stuck close to Travis, you know, in case something happened.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve come across and met several homeless people on countless occasions, at times even going out of my way to provide them food or clothing. Many of them are not as you would expect. They are not all junkies. Or alcoholics. Or robbers. Most of those whom I have met are coherent, decent people who just happened upon hard times. Still, whether subconsciously or not you kind of get the sense that they are a different class of people. In our tainted and jaded worlds we look to them as people whose worth and dignity are lower than yours.

So we walk by and turn an eye or try to feel good about ourselves by sparing some pennies or lint or whatever we have in our pockets. We go about our business and forget or pretend like this isn’t reality.

The reality is that night, we ran into a couple that was weathering some hard times. It’s one thing to be at a financial rock bottom. I can imagine what’s worse is having to beg for meal after meal just to survive. You are at the mercy of other men. So it was no surprise when the man’s first words to us were: “Please, listen, we’re not drug addicts or alcoholics or nothin’ like that, we just tryin’ to survive. Could you hear us out a bit?” Mind you, this was a 6’4 250-pound black man in his early forties, looking like he just retired from a fifteen year career in the NFL. He could have taken both of us out. But something prompted me and Travis to stop in that moment. And something prompted us further to listen.

I think what’s especially humbling when you are homeless and having to beg on the streets is the fact that you are no longer a name. All dignity is lost. You are just a face people pass by, a voice people choose to drown out or suppress in public. If people pass you by, you don’t exist. If people flippantly spare some change, you’re just a cause. But God has imprinted his image on you. Aren’t you worth more than that? Don’t you have a story, too?

In that moment, I decided I would help them out. I had a couple 20s in my wallet. But more than that, I wanted to return to them a sense of dignity that might have been misplaced or muddied in this whole ordeal. So I asked him for his name. “The name’s Andre,” he said as we shook hands. His felt like a sledgehammer. “And this is my wife, Chantiya.” Chantiya looked a little weary and exhausted, and perhaps she wasn’t all there. But Andre–there was something different; he had a good vibe about him. He is what I would call a gentle giant.

“So, Andre, what’s your story?” I asked.

He was a normal man not too unlike myself. He was working a typical job in the warehouse/assembly field before he got laid off due to the economic downturn. While he was trying to find another job, unemployment was paying him up to $15,000 to keep him afloat. Then they cut off their support. Now, he’s trying to help feed his wife and daughter by begging on the streets.

Within 15 minutes, they were no longer just another wandering voice in the night. They became real, living, breathing flesh. Andre and Chantiya. People like me who were just trying to get by in this beautiful struggle called life. The only difference was that we were riding opposite points of the wave right now. And I knew God didn’t bless us just to be fat collectors. Jesus was about dispensing; I just had to help.

Before I knew it, Andre and Chantiya were in my car. They needed a ride back to the Rodeway Inn in which they were living day-to-day. Throughout the car ride, we were talking about God and spirituality and how Jesus has been seeing them through this, even though it’s been hard. When we pulled up, Travis and I were taken aback by how dumpy the place was. Half-naked junkies smoking outside the rooms, giving us the look. It had a bad vibe all around. “It was like a scene out of Training Day,” he would later say.

For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t feel any bit threatened or afraid. I asked them how I could help them this day, and I met their need. They were very thankful and humbled. Then I asked them if I could pray for them. We all got in a circle, held hands, and came openly before our Maker. It was a powerful time I cannot exactly describe.

Before we left–and Travis was eager–Andre went to his room and came down with a copy of his resume. I told him I’d do everything I could to help him find a job, get him and his family back on their feet. Then we shook hands again. I told him how I was encouraged by his upbeat spirit through all of this, and to keep on fighting. “You know I will,” he said. “Cause you know Jesus Christ kept on fighting for us. He never quit.” Andre didn’t know it, but he had just delivered a powerful sermon.

Then we left. I’ve been trying to contact him ever since, with some leads I got. No response. I can’t find him.

Wherever they are, on this night or the next, I pray the Spirit of God be upon them. To protect them and lead them out of the dark valley. Because they are no longer just voices blowing in the wind. They are Andre and Chantiya, a married couple struggling in the beautiful disaster called life.

It’s easy to turn down a voice or cause when you don’t know the story. But when you lend your ears, colors begin to appear and life happens. It’s not always about getting in your words. I had nothing to say to them that night. I mean, what platitude could I give them that could possibly comfort them? Look for the silver lining? It’ll all turn out alright? I don’t know that. I haven’t been in their shoes.

But so much happens when you listen. When you try to immerse yourself in their world and reach out to them instead of trying to pull them into yours. Sometimes that’s all this world needs. More understanding, more listening, more love. The church is sounding like a broken record to the world, but I still have hope. I won’t give up on her, not just yet.

I learned it all that night.

On Fire When He Speaks

Don’t give up. Don’t stop believing. Don’t ever count something or somebody out, just because God’s logic doesn’t line up with yours.

I say this because I was guilty. I was in a lonely, desperate rut no more than a few months back and I was about ready to give up on God. Many people around me were moving up and about in life. Church ministry became a huge burden and I felt like a confused hypocrite. Worst of all, I was lonely. I had very few friends to turn to and share about all this stuff.

Then crazy things started happening. A random acquaintance had a vision about me–the type you read about in the Bible that the apostles experienced. It was like a wake-up call from God. Then our church youth retreat happened, and I witnessed one of my youth actually come to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. It was a reminder that God still changes lives, even when you have stopped believing.

At this point, I’m thinking, life is still hard but God–You know so much better than me. He must be onto something here so I started praying that God would break me and humble me and give me His heart. It’s a dangerous prayer, I know. But it’s one I knew He would answer. Before I knew it, God had broken and afflicted me with deep, personal trials. As if I were the refiner’s gold and He the blacksmith, all my bad habits and wayward thoughts and insecurities were brought to the surface of the crucible. He said He needed to skim away those impurities in order to renew my spirit and use me.

Somewhere in this refining process God started to pour out abundantly into my life. One thing was community. God divinely brought about a close-knit group of brothers and sisters with whom I am not only able to hang out but share deep stuff, inception-like. The other was ministry. God had reinvigorated my passion for the youth and this past weekend, I even witnessed some of them performing their first random selfless act of kindness: they spent their own money to feed a homeless lady on the streets!

All to say that these gifts and trials and lessons from God came as a reminder to me of one thing: LOVE. God loves us all more than we could ever imagine. I was in a lonely, desperate rut. I didn’t deserve any of this. I didn’t even ask for it, really.

But it doesn’t take long before you discover that in this spiritual union, God is the bridegroom and you are the bride. He pursues us with a passionate and furious love. He chases after us, He woos us with His grandness and beauty. He brings us out of our pits of darkness. And out of His unfathomable love, He enables us to love Him back.

It’s true what they say. God works in mysterious ways. I stopped trying to reason and figure it all out, it’s just a silly game I won’t ever win. All I know is that when I enter those pits in life, I must never give up, never stop believing, and never count Him out.

*****

Please do yourself a favor and watch a documentary called Furious Love. It will light your world on fire.

For Better or For Worse

I’m learning about it means to be a good husband. Yes, I am single–in both the technical “marital status” and actual sense. But as a friend had once shared with me, as a Christian I am joined together in a spiritual union with Christ. How I grow and nurture my relationship with Christ provides insight into how I will or will not grow and nurture my relationship with my future wife.

When I realized the truth of this statement, I was saddened. For no sooner had I come to see another truth: I would make a terrible husband. Over a decade ago, as a hopeful but naive teenager, when I had first committed to following Christ, I was in essence making a vow that declared my complete devotion to him–for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health–for the rest of my life. Indeed, I was proving myself to be faithful, when it was an easy vow to keep, when it was for the better, and I was in richness and in health.

But then came the trials and temptations of life, and suddenly the very cords of my relationship were being stretched and broken. Through the lusts and greed and pride of life my heart had become hardened. As the days progressed my love subsided more and more. It happens, so slow and subtle. My feelings became dull, my love grew heartless. I kept serving the church, believing it was my duty. That will keep him smiling, I thought. But he was not pleased. After all, shall a wife be flattered when she receives roses bought in obligation?

I admit there were times when I was unfaithful. I had other lovers. Times when I found other things more attractive. Money, respect, relationships. These lovers danced before me so alluringly. They whispered secret pleasures, they spoke of great thrill. For some time I had listened. I would leave in the evenings to flirt with them, coming back home worldly-drunk, not unlike the man with the smell of cheap perfume and faint lipstick on his shirts. Yet I still had the audacity to face God and say, “But out of them all, I love you the most!”

That was what I was. An unfaithful, unloving spouse. Yet in all his right and power to divorce me, God has stood by my side. He forgives, he forgets, and he chooses to love. He waits for me to come around. This is the power of a vow. Not that it is merely kept, but that in every right for him to break it he chooses not to. That is what is meant by the terms “love” and “unconditional.”

So, here I am. I’m thinking I’ve got to get this right. If I’m not good with God, the most patient and perfect lover, then I will never be the husband and father I ought to be.

Near His Heart

I am very honored to share with you readers a new blog that my head pastor Jon Hori just started a few months ago. Being the stealthy guy that he is, I wasn’t even aware he had a blog until he brought it up during our lunch meeting. I was not only impressed by his writing ability, but also encouraged by all the insights he had to share.

It is called “Near His Heart,” and it details the accounts of his everyday life as a husband, father, and spiritual shepherd. Please check it out here and leave him a comment or two!

The Reborn Identity

My most recent project has me working on a collection of personal reflection essays. The progress has been kind of at a standstill since I started a new job in October, and who knows when I’ll finish at this point, but it’s been a very cathartic and enlightening experience. Here’s one of the essays for you to enjoy.

—–

The Reborn Identity

THE WORLD IS OBSESSED with identity. You don’t even have to leave your room to know it. It seems like everything is marked. There are tags on our bracelets, computers, televisions, and shirts. They all stand for certain brands, visions, or beliefs. How those tags read tell a lot about who you are and how you invest your resources.

Some of us look to these tags for comfort. Reading an Italian designer on the back of our shirts convinces us that we’ve done right for ourselves. Perhaps we smoke certain brands of cigarettes to feel like cowboys or camels. Or drive a certain car to feel like James Bond. This is true of products, and it is true of the schools we attend, places we dine, and athletic clubs we follow. Identities are being formed every second, through both the seemingly trite and deep things, whether we know it or not. It is inherent in our nature to look for belonging in something. So we find people who are alike and buy things that are pretty and obsess about careers in order to feel alive. It helps give definition to the inkblot known as life.

This need for labels is perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve always felt insecure about my own identity. It’s like I need a medal or hand-written certificate for every good thing I have ever done to make sure it is valid, that it wasn’t just imagined. This practice works well when every flick of the dice seems to turn up sevens. The job is good, girlfriend’s a trophy, and you’re kissing babies at church like you’re the mayor. But of course, problems arise during the numerous times you don’t win in life. I didn’t make varsity, so I doubt my athleticism every time I step on court. I didn’t nail my speech, so that’s the last time I do public speaking. And I didn’t date the prom queen, so I suppose I’ll end up with a horse.

Growing up with this type of insecurity was crippling. In my mind I would build another person—a more successful, handsome, respectable me—and set my standards against him. What Would that Martin Do? He would be calm and collected, always knowing what to say and how to say it. “I’ll have my martini in a champagne goblet, shaken, not stirred,” he’d say, as the party glances over in cool curiosity. People would trust him as a friend, follow him as a leader. The ladies would love him like he was LL Cool J.

But the only problem was that Martin didn’t exist. What I was left with instead was a naive and angsty teenager, and he was not what I wanted. It was disappointing because Real Life Me could never measure up to Imaginary Me. Good was never good enough because Imaginary Me was always better.

* * *

On more than one occasion I have had to deal with “identity theft.” It can happen when you give away private information about yourself, such as your social security number or mother’s maiden name to random strangers. That might land you a bill for a Swedish massage chair that you never actually bought and a very bad credit report. I’m sure it’s not a pleasant experience.

But I’m not talking about that sort of identity theft. I’m talking about another way, something much more creative, which is to have parents who decide to name you after someone famous.

I don’t think my parents are fully to blame–they probably never had a clue about the guy–but when they slapped me with the name “Martin,” they were in effect pegging me to a fifty-something year old chef from Hong Kong who had a successful cooking show. I discovered the truth one day after school when I was watching a PBS special. The show was called Yan Can Cook, and it featured an animated middle-aged man gripping a knife over a chopping board full of green onions. The man looked stereotypically Chinese, which is to say that he had squinty eyes and a flat nose, and was donning an apron. What’s worse, he had a stereotypically funny Chinese accent.

It’s the same accent I hear when my mother is speaking to me. It’s the type where you turn all the R’s into L’s, and place the emphasis on all the wrong syllables. I always assumed it was a speaking issue since certain sounds didn’t exist in a native language. But I had never imagined this rhetorical disease infecting the writing forum. My mother proved me wrong. Once she had written a recipe for a friend who liked one of her egg and shrimp dishes, and it read like the bubonic plague.

“Son, could you look this over please?” she said in Cantonese. “It’s for Mrs. Hasegawa.”

My mother handed me the piece of paper with the instructions she had written up. It was typed in Times New Roman font, neatly lined with numbers and all. Unfortunately, that was the only thing she got right.

“Bit the egg?” I read aloud.

“Yes, bit the egg,” she repeated.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, bit. You know—” and my mother proceeded in a frenzied motion with her arms. She meant “beat.” This was only the first line.

I continued reading. “Hit the pan?”

“Yes, hit the pan,” she reaffirmed.

I took the pan and mimicked the action as her words had indicated. I assumed it was some mystic Chinese ritual that would infuse the cooking with supernatural powers. Maybe that’s why her cooking never failed to deliver—it was blessed.

“No, no! Silly! HIT the pan!” she cried. She turned to the stove, worked the knob, and set it alight.

“Mom, you mean beat the egg and heat the pan?” I asked.

“Yes!”

My lungs nearly collapsed from laughter.

“Ai-yah! You know I’m not too good with English!” she cried.

I don’t quite remember how the last lines read, except that it involved the peeling of “shimp,” which was apparently a truncated Chinese version of shrimp. For her sake, I was glad she had asked me to look over her recipe. Then again, part of me would have secretly enjoyed to see Mrs. Hasegawa hitting pans in some sort of rain dance cooking ritual.

Mind you, not all accents are hideous. Brits and Aussies are ten times more charming when they speak (granted when they are not intoxicated). But it is hard to win a date over when your order for Chinese takeout results in “flied lice.” These accents only perpetuate stereotypes, and it can be the sort of thing that sets us back generations.

Martin the famous chef was sharpening his knife. He was on the video camera teaching us the proper techniques on how to chop vegetables. “And nao it is time fo yoo to chop dee un-yuns.” Fortunately, the show aired on PBS, which is a channel I don’t believe any hard-working blue-collar American or their children had ever watched. Perhaps the program aired only in convalescent homes. I’m not quite sure but somehow this boy escaped.

After all, it would’ve been cruel and unusual punishment to hear kids taunting you with “Martin, could you please chop dee un-yuns” for the rest of your elementary school life.

* * *

A high school friend once told me about a girl who actually thought I was the Martin Yan. She told the girl that she knew Martin Yan, but the girl thought she meant the guy who bones chickens and chops dee un-yuns. I was bewildered. I mistakenly believed I had buried him away in elementary school.

“She wants a picture with you and an autograph!”

“But the guy’s like fifty!” I said. “How am I anything close to the real thing?”

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I wonder what it would have been like to swap identities with a man who made a living off of food and funny accents. To pull off a fake Chinese accent and masquerade as the chef–it wouldn’t have been right, at least not the right Martin Yan, but I could have played the part. I would have stood out, and my days would no longer be punctuated by unending question marks. I might have even scored a date or two. But then she’d probably want me to cook something, and I’d end up burning down her house.

* * *

Aside from the occasional “are-you-related-to” questions from college professors, I have mostly come out of this thing unscathed. I suppose it could be worse. I could have been named Benedict like the traitor, or be stuck with a Chinese monosyllabic repeating double name like Xing Xing.

But who am I? The high school me couldn’t tell you if he had tried. I wasn’t known for my cooking, or for anything really—I was just a skinny, run-of-the-mill, first-generation Chinese-American boy who wore his cousins’ hand-me-downs and occasionally made straight A’s. I wasn’t anything special; I didn’t have anything to offer. I challenged the world to a staring contest but it never blinked.

And that’s what bugged me, my lack of identity. I was a nobody lost in a deep ocean with six billion other people, struggling to stand out and find purpose in an increasingly whatever world.

* * *

The summer going into my senior year of high school, I felt as though God was reaching out to give my life a new definition. He was offering me the sort of thing that would not only break labels but chains. I had been spending my summer days camping out in the gospels, reading about Jesus and his disciples. That’s when I heard him.

He was telling me I needed to be reborn.

It wasn’t audible or anything, but it was clear what he was asking for. I had been on stage for altar calls and I did the whole Sunday morning church bit, but this went beyond buildings and services. Jesus was saying that unless I allowed him to redefine everything about me, he would have nothing to do with me. He wanted it all—my struggles, desires, talents, and insecurities. He wanted to give me a new identity. Most of all he wanted me to be a part of his family.

I was now faced with the cross. The scandal of the cross is that someone as perfect and blameless as Jesus would play identity-swap with thieves. When Jesus hung on the cross he was effectively saying, “Here’s my name, my social security number, and my credit card. Charge everything—all your debts and losses—onto my account. Now take my perfect credit report and claim it as yours.” You don’t do that sort of thing, giving unlimited credit to people who have spending issues. But this is what he meant, when he promised the thief hanging next to him that they’d be together in paradise. And this is what he promised me.

That’s when it hit me. The crucifixion is the greatest act of thievery to have ever occurred in history. Jesus traded places with scoundrels and gave crowns to crooks. How is that fair? It didn’t make perfect sense to me on that day. But it was enough for a guilty thief to say I’m in.

* * *

As the days unfold I see the kingdom coming nearer. One day I will walk through the gates of heaven and they will all take one look at me and say, “Welcome home, Martin Yan, who is not the famous chef but the insecure Jesus lover. We’ve heard a lot about you. Come on in, the Father’s waiting.”

They won’t be asking for ID. On that day it will be as clear as dee un-yuns.