Those of you who’ve been keeping up with me know that every new year I like to come up with a theme.
2015 was the year of experiencing new things.
2016 was the year of hard work.
2017 was the year of open doors.
I know they sound really vague and general, but each of them make sense within their contexts. 2015 was the year I finally transferred to CSULB where I met incredible professors and friends. 2016 I won my first writing prize, and it was the year I decided to declare a double major and a minor, which caused me to push back my graduation a year. 2017 was the year I released my first original song, and it was the year I traveled to Puerto Rico, which I consider my first trip “abroad.” 2017 was also the year I graduated with my BA and started grad school. As an 18 year old I couldn’t imagine myself in college. But grad school?
So naturally, I was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t come up with anything for 2018, and—what do you know—it’s 2019 already. Where did that last year go? Where did the first half of this year go? But now that we’re nearly halfway through this year, I have some insight. I can finally see why 2018 was quiet in regards to themes.
This is what I said about a year ago in my post ringing in my 26th year:
“But I finally have the knowledge and confidence that I’m working toward forthcoming returns. I’ve learned in the past several months that nothing I did has been vain. All this time when I thought I was being silenced or restrained, or even abandoned, I was actually sowing. It’s taken me years to be at peace with who I am and what I’m doing, but—finally—I have a moment to rest and to think on all the good that’s headed my way. When I sow, when I trust God and follow him, when I’m diligent and faithful, I will ultimately reap good fruit.”
This year has been pretty rewarding so far. Things have just… been working. Things that I was afraid to want in the past and things I had all but given up chasing or waiting for were just falling into my lap–
And then I see it: 2018 had been the year of sowing. I had been sowing all along. In faith, I declared that all my hard work was not simply being emitted into oblivion. But they were in fact being collected and corrected as though by intelligent intentional design. And as I recall the earlier months of this year, I can see that thus far 2019 has been a year of reaping. The year of many gifts.
Of course, every year entails some sowing and some reaping. Even now as I call this a season for harvest, I’m actively planting and I’m mindful of the work yet to be done. However, I do recognize a special ordination of harvest this year, and here’s why:
In 2017 I began a journey unaware of the fact that I’d come out of it four semesters later a completely different person. Actually, I’ll take it back even further. In 2015 I started my time at CSULB unaware of just how far this journey would take me and just how unrecognizable my life would be at the end of it. I couldn’t have imagined myself traveling to different cities in the country to share the work I’m doing, nor could I have foreseen myself teaching in two different departments at a four-year institution before graduating. By year two I was a bachelor of the arts, and by year four I became a master of the arts. And beginning year five, I’ll have the privilege of teaching the next cohort of bachelors.
In fall 2017 when I was assigned to my graduate advisor from the English program, I couldn’t have known I would create a relationship with someone who believed in me enough to put his name down next to mine and advocate for me, not only in the English Department, but the entire College of Liberal Arts. Because of the hard work I put in starting August 2017 and because of the time I took to create and maintain these relationships, in May 2019 I graduate from CSULB as the top student among the graduates from my department and the entire college of liberal arts.
In March 2018, when I walked into the office of the graduate advisor of the Asian American Studies Department, there was no way I could have known that I’d just met someone who would be my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual mentor. I couldn’t have known I’d met the person who would hire me as a lecturer for the Asian American Studies Department in a year later in April 2019.
In November and December 2018, I wrote a paper about Korean American adoptees and “affectionate racism,” which was selected for presentation at the annual Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the US conference in February 2019, and which was awarded the conference’s graduate student award in March 2019.
In May 2018 I was part of an album with John Daversa’s Big Band called “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom.” It was released in September 2018, almost immediately nominated for three Grammy awards. In February 2019, I got to walk on to the Grammy stage with the other artists and accept one of these awards. To be honest, I feel pretty disconnected from this win. It doesn’t really feel like mine, but the experience is still pretty one of a kind. I do hope I get my own Grammy someday, *prayer hands*
In May 2017 I released my first single, Scars. In March 2018 I released my second single, Dreamer. I took every invitation to perform these and other songs. I gave it my best, regardless of how small or large the audience and event. I did my best to balance my self-doubts with a somewhat reckless hope that, yes, I’m supposed to sing and make music. I sang at a handful of events in 2017 and 2018, some big some small, and I took these as opportunities to hone my craft.
And today, in June 2019, I’m so honored and happy to share that I’m one of seven Art Fellows selected by Define American. All things considered, it all seems pretty divine. The fellowship began the same month I finished my masters (the day after my comprehensive exams, to be exact), just when I was at a critical period of transition.
Before I became a DA arts fellow I remember being daunted by the post-grad life. What was I going to do? If I opt for the PhD and add another 5 years of study, when would I be able to take care of my parents? If I went straight into the doctoral program, would I be willing to relocate and start all over again? If I do this at this point in my life, will I have time to date, get married, and start a family? Or should I take a couple years to teach? So many decisions. So many risks.
It isn’t easy to find full-time work as a university lecturer. Most of us have to run all around California teaching at 2 or 3 different college campuses. (I once had a professor who taught at UC Riverside in the morning and Glendale Community College in the evening. Yikes.) Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching. I think a part of me was made to teach and engage others in critical thought about identity, society, theories of immigration and globalization, systems of oppression, the triangulations of race (I could go on forever), but for non-tenure track lecturers like myself, full time work generally means teaching 4-5 classes, often times lower division courses. Imagine reading, grading, and commenting on 120 college papers written by freshmen on a regular basis. As much as I loved it, I was terrified by the idea. But I thought, maybe this is just my reality. Maybe it was time to let go of these fanciful idealistics pursuits, to finally grow up and enter the real world.
But a couple months before completing my program, the Asian American Studies department offered me two classes for the fall and Define American was offering me an art fellowship, which pretty much equals full-time work for the rest of the year. But more than that, this allows me to continue to develop these two different tracks in my life: I can teach and stay in academia while being paid to pursue music. I can teach without being overwhelmed, and I can sing without starving. I’m really not sure how to emphasize just how ideal this situation feels.
Now I’m just patiently working and waiting to see how it will all come together and take new form.
Speaking of music, after years and years and years of writing songs and singing to God alone on my piano and guitar, I’m finally able share my heart for worship with others. In March 2019, I started leading worship at Praise and Prayer, and as of this month I’ll start leading worship at my home church, Agape. It may not be a big deal to a lot of people; it’s a small step that so many others have taken. But to me it means the world. This area of my life, music and worship, has been a particularly knotted, painful, and long-winded journey. I always thought I was called to be a musician of some sort. So when it didn’t happen for almost ten years, I was ready to give it all up. I wondered if I was, in fact, called. Maybe my dream to be an artist was nothing more than an inflated sense of self, like I thought I had something special to offer the world when really what I had didn’t amount to much. Other times, I wondered if maybe I couldn’t make progress because I had messed up too badly in the past. Maybe I had tarnished myself beyond use.
Along the way I trimmed down many of the details of my ambitions. With time, wanting to be a Grammy-winning, world-touring, bank-breaking performer was scaled down to being an independent artist who could maybe produce an album every year or every other year. With even more time, I found myself being grateful when I was invited to sing two songs at a cafe night. Goals to record my own album were long gone. My plans saw a lot of downsizing over the years.
But here’s my honest honest truth: I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was through these years of pruning that I found my way back to the heart of God and to the heart of worship:
One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple (Psalms 27:4).
It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning, and your faithfulness at night (Psalms 92:2).
So, fast forward to 2019. To finally be given the green light to lead others to worship is… I don’t know. I don’t even have words! It’s the most rewarding part of the harvest.
I made the choice to work hard. I made the choice to push back against fatigue, complacency, and doubt. I chased down opportunities and created them when there weren’t any.
There was an undeniable favor over me. At times there was a grace that muted my weaknesses and amplified my strengths. At other times there was a grace that helped me face these weaknesses head on and trust God with the rest, even if I couldn’t fix them by the end. Ultimately, I succeeded where I did because I was allowed to.
So often I fall into this idea that I set my plans into motion. I congratulate myself for my own need for achievement and my successes, which are actually pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. That’s when I remember all the support I got over the years. I’m reminded of my parents’ and sister’s tireless love and patience for me and their spiritual covering over me. (Can’t forget their financial covering too.) I think about the various mentors who’ve poured into me, teaching me, advising me, advocating for me, praying for me, correcting me. I think about my community’s faith in me, how they were far better friends to me than I ever was to them. The ways their encouragement and energy fueled me and gave me reason to speak up, work hard, and make a way for us to laugh a little more, to live a little easier. Not that I’ve accomplished so many things, but what little I did manage to do, I never did alone.
Let’s take it a step further: things don’t come easily for working-class undocumented immigrants, so I’ve always been incredibly proud of my grit. I paid my way through college. I worked 2 sometimes 3 jobs to support myself. I applied to and received nearly $30,000 in private scholarships to finance my education. I forged useful relationships to create opportunities for myself, like job offers from two different departments. My resourcefulness and hard work landed me opportunities like being the top graduate of my class or becoming an arts fellow. I got up every morning, and I did that. I fought for everything I have.
Then I remember the one who gave me breath in the morning and rest at night. I remember the one who gave me health and the ability to think and work. Through this lens of grace, the question of what’s “mine” is flipped on its head. This very “fight” in me comes from a creator who knows me and loves me. This creator gave me dreams when I only asked for food. He gives me art and grace when I only asked for breath.
I often credit my successes, as small as they are, to my passion. But in recent years I’ve come across a paradigmatic shift in the form of a question: Where does this passion and grit come from? Who’s responsible for it? To say I was born with it seems inadequate. To say I’ve nurtured it, that I’ve made it grow by my own power, seems incomplete. To say I deserved it seems most of all inaccurate. I was given passion, and I was given the abilities and circumstances to put it to work.
Have you considered how involuntary desire is? “Go-getters,” and I like to think of myself as being one, are only such because we have a predisposed inclination toward success and achievement. But even that predisposition, that hard-wiring, is fully beyond our control. Being born with the desire to affect positive change, and being born into the appropriate abilities and circumstances that allow me to act on these desires are all beyond my control. I did nothing to deserve them. They say nothing about me and everything about the one who created me.
So if I can’t even claim the very things that allow me to accomplish my goals, what is it that I’ve actually done? What can I take credit for? Nothing, it seems. I can’t take credit for that which I was so graciously given. I sowed by the grace of God, and I reap all that I do by this same grace. It’s like what the Apostle Paul says: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any one of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10.
In the same way that I can’t take credit for the sowing and the growing, I have no intention of keeping what I glean for myself. I hope never to be selfish with what was never mine in the first place. I think everything I accomplish is always always meant to be shared. What’s mine is my family’s and my community’s. It belongs to the people I love and serve.
Aside from day-to-day stressors and anxieties, honestly, lately my days are full of joy and sunshine. Of course, I realize that I’m currently riding a tall wave. I’m in that season where life is exciting and returns are favorable. To be sure, I’m old enough now to know that every high point is followed by a new low. But I also know that despair teaches me how to recognize joy, and that darkness makes me revel in sunshine. It took all the unpleasant, dull, and even hateful things of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to get me here. They equipped me with love for what I do have and what I can accomplish.
I couldn’t see what 2018 was until I got here to 2019. But that gave me new sight: it made me see just how intimately tied the act of sowing is to the consequent act of reaping. They aren’t isolated activities, but in faith, I know that they are two ends of the same activity. In faith, one guarantees the other. Now in the future, I know that every time I feel like I’m exerting myself more than I’m receiving, there’s a harvest coming.
Even now, as happy and grateful as I am, I’m apprehensive about the unforeseeable dips and turns up ahead. I know I can’t make this last forever. The unfortunate truth is that soon I’ll be back to the years of sowing when reaping seems distant and uncertain. Sowing can indeed be painful and empty. But if there’s anything I’ve learned with certainty these last several years and especially these last several months, it’s that life moves in a recursive rhythm and that an eternal perspective is most wise. When the tides of good fortune turn and the harvest ends, this eternal perspective will keep the oils of my faith burning. When the reaping ends, I’ll be ready for another quiet season of sowing. And I’ll have faith that, eventually, I’ll find myself under the sun’s zenith once again.