Friendship with Kathryn, Frail and Fiery


Who would you name as one of your most unexpected friends? What unlikely friendships have you forged?

I first met Kathryn when I was ushered past the bustle of her senior living center entrance and brought into the den. The room was nicely sunned by neighboring windows, and she was seated formally, yet comfortably, having drifted into a doze. Her daughter-in-law jostled her, and becoming aware of my approach, Kathryn looked me over thoroughly with a clever and kind gaze. We enjoyed a nice chat since she was easily talkative. At the end of our time, she turned to her daughter-in-law and declared, “I like her. She speaks in full sentences with correct grammar. And we’ve already found we share a love for British literature and theatre. She and I should get on royally.” We had struck friendship gold.

You’ve read Tuesdays with Morrie, and this became my Fridays with Kathryn. I collected her each Friday morning and planned an interesting outing for the day. This always included a fine place for lunch dining after which she had a standing appointment at the Neiman Marcus’s salon for her hair setting, manicure, and chin waxing. Our jaunt would end with my drive to the grocery store to select her groceries while she accompanied me by wheelchair. Five short hours of my week became filled with humor and rife with delight. She introduced me to another world, as if time had rewound to 1942.

For my part, I met an intriguing woman in Kathryn. She was 87 years to my 27, not that that left us dry for discussion. Embodying all things as classic as cantankerous, she was educated, shrewd, sharp-witted, and humorous. She was also well-read and easily conversant, so I learned to talk less and listen. We quickly found our mutual interest in history, drama, and all things British. Although decades divided us, I found her approachable and entertaining. I did hope she found some amusement in spending time with me.

How did I come to meet Kathryn? Quite by a series of fortunate events. Her daughter-in-law had called the graduate school at which I was a student and employee. She spoke to my supervisor, declaring that she needed someone to spend time with her mother-in-law. She specified the characteristics desired. My boss gave her one name, which happened to be mine and for which my gratitude has not expired. After a pleasant interview with her family, I was brought to meet Kathryn to see what she would think of me. That successful meeting led to a wonderful season with an extraordinary woman.

Kathryn was a self-made woman, surviving the depression, college-educated in the 1930s, and left widowed at forty to raise her young children. She was kind and curt, fiery and frail. Introducing me as her “special friend,” she taught me that a sixty year age disparity is no reason to separate friends.

She said that she never understood why I so enjoyed being with her; she always mentioned feeling that she was more of a bother than a boon. I would attempt to explain that who she was was my treasure, not the so many things she could no longer do. I delighted in her humor, her historical commentaries, her dialogue, the strands of poetry she would quote, her kindnesses, her reserved nature, and much more. She became closer to me in one way than even my own grandmothers. My grandmothers knew me only as a child; we were not able to interact as adults.  Kathryn and I became friends despite the business arrangement that instigated our meeting.

Fifteen short months of lessons learned, humor caught, and history handed before she died. In turn, I hope I offered Kathryn some amusement, intellectual stimulation, and entertainment to pass her Fridays. Share a common background, faith, or politic we did not, but our times together taught me that meaningful connection can happen between any two who try.

Another brilliant example of friendship across divides is my friend’s sister, Dr. Heidi Petak, and Kellie Newton in their joint endeavor, Heart Perception Project.

Regional History and Individual Psyche

The term regional history is used instead of national because nation-states as such are relatively new phenomena and represent too large a territory to categorize per se. One’s sense of national identity can vary substantially within its regional borders, such as in India or the United States, and current borders do not designate previous combined regions, such as Korea, or vice versa, the previous Germanys.

Following Dr. Dan McAdams, I argue for understanding personal identity through its narrative format: a life story.[1] A key component of one’s narrative identity formation is its historical setting. Jenny Hyun Chung Pak elaborates upon McAdams’ work relating it to her study of South Korean migrants, particularly fathers, who immigrated to the United States in the twentieth century.[2] A brief history of Korea will end in the particular pattern of han (unrealized hopes and thwarted dreams) expressed among some Koreans. Understanding ourselves in part depends on understanding what histories we have lived.

Historical Background of Korea

The history of Korea can be categorized into three periods: its prehistory until the Confucian state was established in 1392, its five hundred years under China’s influence, and its twentieth-century history.[3] In the land now formally known as Korea, Tan’gun, according to myth, founded the Choson Dynasty circa 2333 BCE. Centuries later, Emperor Wu of China (Han Dynasty) defeated the Choson Dynasty in 108 or 109 BCE. This event commenced a long history of occupation by its surrounding neighbors. The three kingdoms of Shilla (originally Saro) in the south, Paekche, and Koguryo in the north remained from 57 BCE to 668 CE. Each of the kingdoms officially adopted Buddhism, beginning with Koguryo in 372 CE and ending with Shilla in 528. In the seventh century, Chinese tribes (e.g. Sui, Tang) invaded Korea until the three kingdoms were bloodily unified into the Korea of Shilla in 668. The first Confucian school was established in Korea in 682. [4] Features of the Shilla kingdom included the “bone-rank” system (a class system based on blood lineage), an educational system that was limited to nobility, the introduction of Confucian bureaucracy, and the widespread practice of slavery. During this time, growing dissension allowed a rebel leader, Wang Kon, to overthrow Shilla and establish Koryo, a kingdom characterized by Wang Kon’s diplomatic reign and slavery reform. The Koryo Period (918–1392) saw multiple invasions by the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols and ultimate Mongol domination until King Kongmin assumed the throne in 1365 as a result of General Song-gye Yi’s successful military tactics.[5]

General Yi succeeded the throne as King Taejo and established Hanyang (Seoul) as the new capital, commencing the Yi (Choson) Dynasty (1392–1910). His government adopted Confucianism as its official religion in 1394 (demoting Buddhism) and introduced the elaborate Chinese bureaucratic and civil service examination system.[6] This development gave rise to a rigid five-class system with slaves (nobi) accounting for one-third of the population.[7] Korea suffered still more invasions by the Japanese and the Manchu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries followed by two hundred years of relative peace.[8] By 1871 Korea had developed an isolationist policy to avoid domination by imperialistic powers (such as Russia, France, and the United States), a stance that earned it the name “The Hermit Kingdom.” Korea, however, was eventually forced to open trade with Japan and fell prey to its occupation (1910–1945). Notably for this study, during this time of annexation Japan attempted to erase the national identity of the Korean people by requiring subjects to take Japanese surnames, suppressing nationalistic movements for Korean independence, and conscripting Korean males to fight in World War II.[9] The well-documented injustices Korean people suffered in the Japanese colonization include the March 1st movement (1919), trade inequalities between the nations, conscripted slavery of males for labor and the military, and sexual slavery of females for the Japanese military.

While Korea was liberated after Japan’s defeat in WWII, it then fell under a new kind of domination. Korea was subjected to a three-year occupation by the Allied Powers and a division of its country into north and south, with the Soviet Union and the United States presiding over the two regions. Although the Allied Powers (which also included China and Britain) originally agreed that Korea would become “free and independent” (and at several points the occasion could have materialized), the plan for an independent Korea was ultimately stymied, lastly when the Soviet Union rejected the U.N.’s call to elect a new Korean government.[10] North Korea’s political ideology became communist, and South Korea’s became free-market democratic. Just five years later in 1950, North Korea, using Soviet artillery, invaded South Korea and began the Korean Conflict.

After the two sides signed an armistice in 1953, South Korea (the Republic of Korea) has flourished economically while North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has suffered political repression and economic hardship due in part to its dictatorial government, the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, and the floods and famine of 1995.[11] While North Korea’s dictators have been Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, South Korea has had its run of authoritarian presidents, namely Rhee Syngman (1948–1960), Park Chung-Hee (1961–79), and Chun Doo-Hwan (1981–88), with the latter two achieving power via military coup.

Paternal Han

Jenny Pak’s narrative analysis of Korean-American women shows the effects of paternal ambition on her participants. Each of their fathers had lived in Korea during Japan’s occupation, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. These men faced the meager economic prospects of the Korean Reconstruction (1946–1960) as well as the han that arose from this social climate; each left their homeland for opportunities abroad. Pak summarizes han as “a complicated concept born out of a long history of collective experiences of oppression.”[12] These Korean males met resistance as first-generation immigrants to the U.S., struggled with a new language and culture, and experienced marginalization in their occupations. Their frustrations influenced their daughters, and in response, their daughters dutifully pursued similar aims for professional success.[13]

Others, however, differ in the emphasized referent of han. Han connotes a deep angst, even depression, among primarily women over male oppression in a patriarchal society. Women in Confucian Korea were given very few rights and little access to education or literacy. In short, females had no voice in society but were meant to endure sacrificially. Kang argues that if han is only understood as minjung (social and economic deprivation), it neglects the han of women enduring sexual discrimination.[14]

The United States

This leads me to consider the national history of the United States and individuals’ psyches. Surely, this differs by participant and group. The history experienced by the white majority in the U.S. over our three centuries has formed a substantially different psyche from those ethnic minorities who experienced quite dissimilar histories within the U.S. I think of the indigenous native Americans, the Chinese immigrants during the 1860s building of the transcontinental railroad, the Japanese internment in the 1940s, or the longest lasting (and on that basis perhaps the most heinous)—the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans for two hundred years plus.

How do Americans characterize their psyches? Confident? Religious? Independent? Civil? Faithful? Arrogant? On what bases?

***This is an adapted excerpt from Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation. More about narrative identity, migration, and self-understanding are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 .

[1] Dan McAdams, The Person, 409–13, 424–25.

[2] Jenny Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves. New York: Routledge, 2006.

[3] Breen, Koreans, 75.

[4] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxi–xxvi.

[5] Breen, Koreans, 79–85; Walker, East Asia, 263.

[6] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, 9–10.

[7] Breen, Koreans, 86–87.

[8] During the early 1600s, Catholicism was introduced in Korea.

[9] Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxxxiii, 48–49.

[10] The Soviet Union was not the only nation culpable as Nahm dutifully records. Ibid., 15–21.

[11] Buzo, Making of Modern Korea, 175–76.

[12] Ibid., 212.

[13] Pak, Korean American Women, 210–13.

[14] Namsoon Kang, “Han.”


The Space Between and the Migration of Identity

Photo Credit:

Yes, the title is my nod to the Dave Matthews band. In a recent article for the Anxious Bench, I discuss international migration and identity formation.

“If history has taught us anything, should it have taught us humility, to hesitate before being so sure of ourselves? Broadly speaking, this book heralds that message. I discuss the concept of identity, that self-understanding of who we think we are. How do we form who we are? Why? How does that make us treat those around us?” Read the rest.



Black and White

hands-769649_960_720            I have noted, from all sides in the barrage of social media regarding the recent shootings of civilians and officers, these tendencies:

us-them talk

herd thinking

confirmation bias

These further no one’s cause and foster the opposite, as any social scientist will tell you. Talking in terms of “us versus them” alienates. It objectifies and dehumanizes. It distances people from seeing or seeking commonality. Herd thinking, or mob mentality, is the human tendency to copycat, and research shows we lapse into it by default. Confirmation bias is the “seeking and interpreting evidence in ways that confirm what you already think,” according to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, p. 80.

I was born into white privilege (and by that I mean, a Caucasian, middle-class, educated home), and society has treated me well because of it. Thirteen years ago, I married into the African-American community, and without sharing his story here, my husband had a disparate experience growing up in America. With a foot in both worlds, I have experienced life differently. I have personally encountered the effects of structural oppression. We have experienced times and locations where we stood out and have seen threat. The Saturday after the police were killed in Dallas we were to spend the day in a metropolitan city. My husband said, “Let’s not go.” I asked, “Why?” He replied, “Because [this city] already has enough racial tension, and I don’t want to be there if a riot or shooting breaks out.” I protested, “Well, isn’t that cratering to fear? I say we should live our lives freely.” Kevin slowly replied, “Things are too hot right now. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want someone getting upset over us or me. I have to think about you. I have to protect my family.” Being white, I have rarely considered such a thing. I thought, Wait a minute. This is the United States of America. This is a free country. Or is it? Is it equally free for everyone?

The things I hear. The things I have said.

My observations did not start with marriage. Once at a public speaking conference, my roommate was an African-American college student who later shared her experience with me. She was part of the team who led the evening sessions, and the main speaker, educated and well-meaning, turned to my roommate and said, “Why don’t you lead tonight’s music? Surely you sing given your background.” What background? Because she was black and somehow this ushered her into the talent of her African ancestors’ rhythm? My friend, in fact, had admitted no musical talent, so not only was she placed in a very awkward position, she was tempted to feel shame for not somehow representing “her people” well. I was stunned.

Recently, my friend, at a university association, expressed his difficulty during a session in being a person of color at a principally white institution (PWI). A colleague, again presumably well-meaning and trying to be helpful, said to him on a break, “Why don’t you leave this PWI then and go to an all-black institution (e.g. HBCU) where you might be more comfortable?” Really? My friend was not looking to leave; he was seeking encouragement. How about offering support in some tangible way?

These are not isolated incidents. These may seem minuscule, even innocuous, by comparison to the altercations that have led to so many deaths. These absent-minded comments, however, represent the mere surface of the micro-aggressions that persons of color can face every single day. Ezekiel Kweku describes his “ambient fear” poignantly.

I can personally testify for all to heed:

They’re not making this stuff up.

Or rather, we’re not making this stuff up. It is real. It is tragic. Here are two other personal narratives. Tim Scott, a black Republican U.S. senator (and only), shares the first; Brian Crooks offers the second.

I am, of course, not at all condoning the related loss of life of policeman as justified, any more than I would say that police deaths should justify officers being more brutal with persons of color. Do not let the realities of “black on black violence” or those who claim victimization illegitimately detract us from the reality that people are treated differently in this country because of the color of their skin. See more about that here. Of the many articles and opinions posted, here is a highlight that I found most life-giving, one that points a way forward. Writing as a sociologist and as an African American, Dr. George Yancey shares his thoughts.

I share, lastly, a stunning moment of balance and truth and wisdom. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my friend, who is an African American living in Dallas, struggled in light of tragedy and confusion and outrage. She posted a photo on Facebook and wrote, “With a heavy heart and forced smile, I debated what to wear today. I chose this.” Her selfie showed her wearing a deep purple shirt with this etched on it, #Love. I felt sadness that she would have the burden of enduring and yet set her heart to love. Her response was a seasoned, mature, and weary one: always love. Forgiveness disarms evil. She is my example.

Actions seed from the human heart that spawns our thoughts and motivations. What are ours? Change happens first personally and daily. My friend chose well. As Bryan Loritts has said, “Patience is not passive indifference.” We must seek each other. All must seek due process in every case. All must be humbly self-critical. We must speak truth without bitterness. We have a ways to go yet.

Learn More:  Bryan Loritts recommends his top five books for understanding black America. On my list to read are Beyond Racial Gridlock,  Divided by Faith, Notes from a Native Son, and The Souls of Black Folk (free at the moment on Amazon). 

“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1956).

“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

The Contingency of Identity


Claude Steele, in his book Whistling Vivaldi (2010), brilliantly narrates his 30+ year journey as a social psychologist researching identity and stereotype threat. He explains “identity contingencies” as the situational conditions because of one’s social identity and their effects on, particularly, educational access and academic performance. Here are two excerpts:

Identity contingencies—the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity . . . Contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with in order to get what you want or need in a situation. . . . Ours is an individualistic society. We don’t like to think that conditions tied to our social identities have much say in our lives, especially if we don’t want them to. . . . By imposing on us certain conditions of life, our social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performances in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves, even the comfort level we have with people of different groups—all things we typically think of as being determined by individual talents, motivations, and preferences. [My purpose] is to bring this poorly understand part of social reality into view. I hope to convince you that ignoring it—allowing our creed of individualism, for example, to push it into the shadows—is costly, to our own personal success and development, to the quality of life in an identity-diverse society and world, and to our ability to fix some of the bad ways identity still influences the distribution of outcomes in society. How do identity contingencies influence us? Some constrain our behavior down on the ground, like restricted access to a public swimming pool. Others, just as powerful, influence us more subtly, not by constraining behavior on the ground but by putting a threat in the air.” p. 3-5

“People, though capable of independent choice, do have a location in society; their lives are located somewhere in its social, economic, and cultural structures and in the networks of relationship that make up society. Being born into a low-income Appalachian family in the hills of eastern Kentucky is to take life on from a different location in society’s opportunity structure than being born into a high-income family in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Different locations afford people different resources, different access to the “social capital” of skills, knowledge, opportunities, and life chances.” p. 196, (emphasis mine)

Thank you, Dr. Steele.


Anchoring Yourself

Are we feeling tossed on the waves of digital media, rush hours, and hustled meals with no mooring? James McWilliams suggests how to anchor one’s self and identity: being alone, conversation, friendship, and shared activity within community. Brilliant!


The Boon of Being Alone

To be human is to be related, so I’m not suggesting that we seek hermitting (the noun should be a verb). William Deresiewicz suggests, however, that solitude is key to leadership and describes four forms: introspection, concentrated focus, books, and friendship. He explains here:


If only our culture defined beauty this way! Look what Ria Sharma is doing in India.