Five Things to See When Traveling

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Last Sunday was Easter, but it was coincidentally also the expiration date of my passport—my constant companion—of the last 10 years. Actually it is poetically appropriate, as it is symbolic of dying to the old self and being raised to new life. After 6 continents and 56 countries (many of them multiple times) and filling up almost 75 pages of my passport (the standard 25 pages + 50 extra pages added), it’s time to say goodbye. Henceforth, I’ll be limiting myself to one international trip per year, so that I can invest myself more fully in people around me. Hold me to this, my friends.

 

Now I pass on some travel advice, which I have distilled down to this: whenever I go to a new place, there are five things I always look for (in no particular order) that help me get a handle on the place:

 

1) A religious site. I look for a mosque, temple, church, synagogue, cathedral, something that expresses the belief system of the place. India especially was saturated with religiosity—not just Hinduism, but also Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Baha’i, etc. But every country, no matter how “secular,” has some religious sites. Fascinating stuff.

 

2) The seat of government. This is the flip side of the religious site: not faith devotion but civic. But that’s a type of ‘religion’ too! #1 and #2 show the priorities of the country and often are the most spectacular examples of their architecture. It might be a royal palace, a parliament building, or a presidential residence. Look at the symbols that are inscribed on the building, that’s telling as to what they value. Did you know there is a depiction of Muhammad on the frieze of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.? Why do you think that is?

 

3) Food. I always find out what their local specialties are, something that I can’t get anywhere else, and I will eat it. I am willing to try anything at least once! I’ve eaten guinea pig in Peru, wildebeest and zebra in South Africa, kangaroo in Australia, stingray in Singapore, moose and elk in Canada, durian and mangosteen in Thailand, açai in Brazil, natto in Japan, etc.

 

4) Nature. Almost every country has some kind of natural beauty, whether it be beaches, or mountains, or forests, or desert, or rock formations. I want to see how God uniquely created each place. Animals are included in this—lions and giraffes in Africa, kangaroos and koalas in Australia, quetzals and llamas in Latin America, etc.

 

5) A museum. Museums can express a variety of things, but they often highlight the local culture, history, art, and anthropology of a people, or all of the above. The anthropology museum in Mexico City was one of the best I’ve ever seen—it has exhibits on the Aztecs, Mayans, Teotihuacan, and other ancient civilizations. The National Museum of Athens, Greece, is quite good too (it has the Mask of Agamemnon!). The National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan, has the best collection of Chinese stuff in the world—even better than anything you’ll find in China itself! And Paris is the capital of the arts, all the artists that have come out of France is incredible.

 

If I had to add one more, I would say people. I didn’t include it on this list because people aren’t a touristy “sight” to see, though they highly enrich your experience, especially if you have a host who is local to the area. I’ve had some of the most memorable experiences interacting with the locals.

Perhaps this mini checklist will help you whenever you go to another country/city. Next time you travel, try to look for these five things (at least) to help you narrow down what to see, especially if you are short on time!

The Appeal of Marathons

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Today (April 21, 2014) the 118th Boston Marathon was run. It was the one-year anniversary (by edition, not by date) of the bombings which occurred on April 15, 2013, afflicting the 117th running of the race, killing three people and injuring 260. The perpetrators were Chechen terrorists which was the same fear that plagued this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, causing it to become the most expensive Olympics ever, because of security. Last year’s marathon bombings spawned a hashtag #BostonStrong as well as a logo taken from the Boston Red Sox insignia.

 

Though it wasn’t as physically devastating as 9/11 for New York City, it was the equivalent for Boston in terms of psyche on the city.

 

Stephen Colbert humorously pointed out that Boston, and marathoners, are the wrong target to pick a fight with because of their resilience.

 

The Boston Marathon is one of the only marathons run on a Monday instead of a Sunday. The reason is because they want it to coincide with Patriot’s Day each year. How appropriate for people who are proud of our country, in opposition to people who attack our country! Also, it is appropriate that a year after the bombings, it was none other than an American (Meb Keflizighi) who won the top prize, as opposed to the usual Kenyans or Ethiopians. Meb was the first American male to win the Boston Marathon since 1983!

 

What is the appeal of marathons? I mean, how boring is it to watch people run 26.2 miles (or 42.2 kilometers)? In this ADHD generation, it seems that Usain Bolt and the 100 meter dash are more suited to the instantaneous reward/appeal typical of people who have not learned the value of delayed gratification. And yet, the marathon is more popular than ever. Every other person seems to have it on their bucket list.

 

I can’t claim to have run Boston (which is one of the “Big Six” marathons in the world, along with London, Tokyo, New York, Berlin, and Chicago—officially known as the World Marathon Majors) but I can give my perspective from running the Los Angeles Marathon on March 20, 2011, which was my first-ever marathon. (I have since run nine marathons, including San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Niagara Falls, and Chiang Mai).

 

The 26th Los Angeles Marathon was held on the first official day of Spring—but came not with sun but with torrential downpour, highly unusual for L.A.! I ran it with six guys from my church, and one of them (Tony) said to us after the race, “Glad to be a true part of history with you all.  We will always be able to not only say we did a marathon, but we did THAT 2011 marathon!” Yep, it rained cats & dogs—I didn’t realize I had signed up for a biathlon (running and swimming)! I started getting worried when I saw the animals lining up two-by-two. :)

 

 

Here are some of my personal thoughts and observations about that experience:

-I’ve never done 26.2 miles before. The longest I ever did was a 20-mile training run a month ago. That last 6.2 miles took tough mental strength to get through—more than physical strength. But if I hadn’t crossed the 20-mile threshold a month previous, I think psychologically it would’ve been a lot harder. Just having the first digit switch from a “1″ to “2″ was significant in my mind. As I said to my fellow runners Bryan & Brandon, it’s like in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Sam says to Frodo: “If I take one more step I’ll have gone further than I’ve ever gone before.” That’s how I felt when I crossed the 20-mile mark, but it was a fun and exciting adventure to venture out into the unknown. We were like explorers in the wild frontier.

-Brandon Adachi & Bryan Ventura were my “wingmen” (or I was theirs—regardless, we all supported each other). We were the Three Amigos. No WAY I could’ve done this without them. We ran side-by-side the whole time, and crossed the finish line together with our arms around each other. “No man left behind” was our motto. Without them, I would’ve given up long ago. Maybe this was like Moses having Aaron & Hur lift up his arms for him (Exodus 17). The battle is not won with just one person—I guess God is a Trinity for a reason, eh? “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccl. 4:12).

-The rain was horrible and a blessing at the same time. We were soaked to the bone, and it was cold. When we were running down Rodeo Drive, it really started pouring again, but I said to Bryan & Brandon, “Hey, look on the bright side, we can’t get any wetter than we already are!” because we were already saturated. But actually the rain was a blessing in disguise—it acted like a perpetual ice pack on our legs and kept us from cramping too much. If it were hot weather and dry, we would’ve been encrusted with salt (from our sweat) and our leg muscles would’ve overheated and flared up uncomfortably.

-At some point, I started thinking, “I can’t wait til this is over.” But then I switched my thinking: “What a privilege to do a marathon for the first time in my life. Enjoy the process! It’s not just about the end goal.” So then I started enjoying the moment, and the experience.

-I’m grateful to have finished it (and we actually made our goal time of 4:30, exactly on the dot)! Hundreds, or even thousands, of people didn’t finish because of the rain—there were lots of injuries, people had hypothermia, etc.

-We were running for a purpose. We were sponsoring the Christian organization ChildSHARE which helps foster & orphaned children. It wasn’t about us, but I was proud to have ChildSHARE written across my shirt, running for “the least of these.” As Eric Liddell says in the movie Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose—but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure!” Well, I would modify mine to say, “God did not make me fast, but he made me for a purpose—and when I run for that purpose, I feel his pleasure!”

-All credit is due to the ladies (Kimmy, Erica, Maura, Lisa) behind the scenes. As a single guy, I benefited from the wife/girlfriend support of my fellow runners’ women. These ladies didn’t get any of the glory but did so much of the work, even taking care of us guys after the race when we were shivering, helping to pick up one of our team members when he was stranded, driving all the way from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica and fighting traffic…wow. I can’t say enough about them. Gratitude abounds. I do hope we never have to make them go through this experience again, though! They were also sopping wet.

-Three other guys, Albert, Alex, and Jason, also ran it with us. Though I didn’t run side-by-side with them, I knew they were behind us, and the team extends no matter where (geographically) we are. It’s like church I suppose—we can have people domestically, others on the mission field, but we’re still part of one body. Albert was a trooper, he was out in the rain for several more hours than us, and he stuck it through and finished strong. What a guy. THAT is impressive. Other than the women, Albert is my hero!

 

-Encouragement helps a ton. Two of our church members, Daniel & LaMikia, were waiting for us at Mile 5. They gave us big hugs (and a corresponding energy jolt!) there. ChildSHARE also had a station at Mile 15 where they had food, drinks, and more encouragement! The other benefit for running with ChildSHARE is that they had a suite at Dodger Stadium at the beginning of the race, so we had food & drinks, luxurious bathrooms, and we didn’t have to wait out in the cold.

-The person who designed the race course was merciful. The last two miles were all downhill. Oh my word, I needed that. That night, I went to eat Korean BBQ—guilt-free, I might add, since I just burned almost 3000 calories during the marathon!

-A marathon is all about consistency. We were running with a pace person, and she kept on saying, “Conserve your energy! What feels fine at Mile 5 is going to feel dangerously fast at Mile 23!” It’s tempting to just take off because you feel good, but a marathon is about running smarter, not harder. Oh, and the pace person was such a good sense of security—although I was running on my own power, she instilled a sense of confidence in me—if I just stick with her I’ll be fine because she knows what she’s doing. Maybe this is how we are with God—balancing divine sovereignty & human responsibility: yes we do it, but really it’s God who keeps us going and we’ll be fine as long as we stick with him! Without him, we’d do it all wrong and come to a bad end.

 

Some fun factoids about the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon:

 

-This was the second time ever featuring this course, dubbed “Stadium to the Sea.” The course took us through from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica beach, winding its way through/past Chinatown, Olvera St, Little Tokyo, City Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Echo Park, Hollywood Blvd (Pantages, Capitol Records Tower, Grauman’s Chinese Theater), Sunset Strip, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Historic Route 66, Silver Lake, etc. The motto of the marathon was “A Landmark Every Mile”! Extremely scenic.

 

-Two major records were broken in 2011: the fastest U.S. marathon ever (this on a course that is not known to be a fast one, plus with the additional obstacle of rain), and the heaviest man to ever finish a marathon (as now recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records). The former record was done by Ethiopian Markos Geneti in 2:06:35—the second-fastest marathon debut in history (i.e. he has never run a marathon before this)! The latter record was done by American sumo wrestler Kelly Gneiting at over 400 pounds, who did it in 9:48:52.

 

-The female winner was Buzunesh Deba from Ethiopia at 2:26:35. It was the first time an Ethiopian, male or female, has won the L.A. Marathon. Kenyans had won the previous 12 men’s races.

 

-The Gender Challenge: If the lead man catches and passes the lead woman (after she has a 17-min head start), he wins $100,000 (in addition to the $25,000 prize for winning the whole thing). Usually, if this happens, the man catches the woman at Mile 25. This time, the man caught the woman at Mile 20—that’s how fast Markos Geneti was going!

 

-Celebrities who ran the 2011 L.A. Marathon: Gordon Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen); Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers); Edward Norton.

 

-Out of 25,000 runners, there were 220 Legacy Runners—people who have run every L.A. Marathon!

 

-There was a lot of great music along the way: “I Love L.A.” (Randy Newman); “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey); the theme music from “Rocky”; and live bands.

 

-The marathon organizers posted hilarious signs along the way to keep us laughing. My favorites:

“You are at Mile 5; the Kenyans are at Mile 15.”

“You are at Rodeo Drive; no shopping, keep running.”

“Why is a marathon 26.2 miles? Because 26.3 would just be wrong.”

 

-I saw a few people running it barefoot. Crazy, I tell you.

 

I love the fact that marathons are run in every major city in the world, so there is an international flavor to it, similar to the World Cup or the Olympics or the Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Yep, every country (just about) has one, so for a world traveler like me, it is a perfect complement to travel. I don’t like to be just a tourist, I like to travel for a goal, whether it be for missions trips or to attend conferences, or to run! Many marathoners have a goal of running a marathon on every continent, similar to how many baseball fans have a goal of visiting all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. I’ve already completed the tour of MLB stadiums; I hope to do the six World Marathon Majors (I’m doing Chicago this Fall) and the Seven Continents Marathon Club (yes, there is an Antarctica Marathon)!

 

 

Best marathon quotes:

Rob de Castella, winner 1983 World Marathon Championships: “If you feel bad at 10 miles, you’re in trouble. If you feel bad at 20 miles, you’re normal. If you don’t feel bad at 26 miles, you’re abnormal.”

Asics: “First you feel like dying. Then you feel reborn.”

Oprah Winfrey: “Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

Bill Rodgers, winner of four Boston and four NYC marathons: “The marathon can humble you.”

Hal Higdon, running writer and coach: “The difference between the mile and the marathon is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals.”

A sign I saw while running the L.A. Marathon: “Why is a marathon 26.2 miles? Because 26.3 would just be wrong.”

Another sign I saw while running the L.A. Marathon: “You are at Mile 5. The Kenyans are at Mile 15.”

Seen on a running shirt: “Anyone can run a hundred meters, it’s the next forty-two thousand and two hundred that count.”

Alberto Salazar, three-time winner of the NYC marathon: “I had as many doubts as anyone else. Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”

Emil Zatopek, Czech runner; winner of four Olympic gold medals: “We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

[To reconcile these last two quotes, I would say: we all start at the same place. What separates a marathoner from everyone else is not ability but the willingness to do it.]

And in homage to the Boston marathon bombings:

Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN: “Marathons, more than any other event I’ve covered in 20 years’ worth of international sports experience, are a celebration of a range of achievement, not just the top percentile. The amateurs run in the footsteps of the elite. The pride is palpable from the front ranks all the way to the back. The massed color and movement at the start are an impressionist painting of accomplishment. Because — honestly — most normal folks would tell you that getting there is achievement enough. The training they invest and the self-belief they develop in the process are worth it, no matter how long it takes them to finish.” “The marathon is symbolism for overcoming and facing challenges. This will not stop anyone. If anything, it will inspire people to persevere and show that we’re better than that.” “Amateur marathoners push themselves for a whole host of reasons. To test their physical and psychological limits. To raise money for worthy causes. To compete. The next time this — or any — marathon is run anywhere in the world, they will run for yet another. To show that the power of communal achievement can be beaten on one day, but not on most days and never indefinitely. And that is what makes sense on a senseless day.”

Roger Robinson, Runner’s World: “Marathon running has a long tradition of celebrating, commemorating, and affirming life. Even without that special purpose, marathon running is a sport of goodwill. It’s the only sport in the world where if a competitor falls, the others around will pick him or her up. It’s the only sport in the world open to absolutely everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or any other division you can think of. It’s the only occasion when thousands of people assemble, often in a major city, for a reason that is totally peaceful, healthy and well-meaning. It’s the only sport in the world where no one ever boos anybody. If you’re losing your faith in human nature, look at marathon crowds, standing for hours with no seating, no cover, no bathrooms, to cheer thousands of strangers. Or look at our sport’s volunteers, on whose shoulders the whole sport rests.”

Choices: What To Do WHEN We Sin (Not IF We Sin)

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Though I am not married, I am well aware that in a marriage the husband and wife have to let go of the idea that the other person will be perfect. Rather, the idea is more along the lines of: what will you do when the other person fails? And what will you do when you yourself fail? Because failure is inevitable from both parties. But you have two choices when you screw up: either run and hide and/or risk repeating the mistake later; or own your mistake and ask for forgiveness and learn not to do it again.

 

It is similar in the Christian life: it is not a matter of if you will sin, it is a matter of when you sin what will you do about it? On this Easter Weekend, the contrast between two people—Peter and Judas—highlights this perfectly.

 

We think of one as good—the Rock on whom Jesus built his church and the leader of the Apostles; and one as bad—the ultimate traitor of whom Jesus said “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).

 

But though Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, let us not forget that Peter denied Jesus three times. What was the difference between the two? Certainly not “goodness.” Why was one exonerated while the other was not? In the Bible, it wasn’t just Peter who was a redeemed sinner, it was also David (the murderer and adulterer who is most often known as the Man After God’s Own Heart) and Paul (the murderer and persecutor of Christians who is now known as the greatest missionary in the Bible). What makes Peter, David, and Paul heroes (though fallible) while Judas goes down in history as the bad guy?

 

It certainly isn’t lack of sin. It is the response once the sin has happened. Do we act like Adam and Eve and hide from God? Do we act like Judas and hang ourselves? Or are we more like David who repents, tears his clothing, and fasts and prays and worships? And like Peter and Paul who are reinstated and gladly die martyr’s deaths in gratitude for what Jesus has already done for them?

 

Easter highlights the choice even more starkly. When Jesus was crucified, he had a criminal on his right hand and on his left hand. Why was one saved and the other wasn’t? Both were equally guilty of wrongdoing. But the difference was in their response to Jesus—one had scorn and rejection of Jesus, while the other had righteous sorrow and acceptance of Jesus.

 

One other thing needs to be considered: sometimes we are not the sinners, we are the sinned-against. What do we do in such a situation? Again, we have to remember that, with the person who sinned against you, it wasn’t a matter of if they would sin, it’s when they would sin, and what your response to them would be.

 

Remember that Jesus’s last words on the cross were not “smite them” or “may they burn in hell” but “Father forgive them.” Are we any better than he?

 

Quite simply: if Jesus forgave us the magnitude of our sin, we ought to be able to forgive any magnitude of sin that we’ve suffered from someone else—and all the more so because Jesus is sinless and we are not (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” right?). In my previous blog I talked about how Jesus told us to “pay it forward”: in the same way he loved us, that’s how we ought to love others. The flip side of the coin holds true too: if someone has wronged us, we need to forgive them the same way that Jesus has forgiven us. Otherwise we become like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, holding onto bitterness.

 

We have two choices whenever (and not if) we sin: run away from God, or run toward God. That’s the difference between Judas and Peter. And we have two choices whenever (and not if) others sin against us: deny them forgiveness, or grant them forgiveness. And that’s the difference between the Pharisees and Jesus. And ultimately, the difference between death and new life.

 

He is risen.

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Maundy Thursday

Jesus washing feet

Tonight I experienced, with some good friends and a dear family from Biola who “adopted” me, a beautiful Maundy Thursday church service. Maundy Thursday is often an overlooked holiday in light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but I love it and think it’s very important, because it has an anticipatory feeling and prepares us for the death and resurrection of our Lord.

 

The name of the day comes from the Latin word mandatum which means “commandment”—because on the night that Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

 

Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, unlike the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the wine and the bread are replaced with the footwashing. Despite the fact that John is by far my favorite Gospel, this was a detail which I was not aware of until I was older, and it’s striking that there is no mention of the wine and the bread in John. It makes me wonder if the footwashing has the same significance as the Lord’s Supper, namely signifying the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But it doesn’t seem to suggest such a thing.

 

Jesus spoke this “new commandment” while he was washing his disciples’ feet. So perhaps the footwashing is more akin to baptism? And yet Jesus differentiates baptism from footwashing when he said, ““The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…” (v. 10).

 

So footwashing almost seems to be a third sacrament. Some churches (though a minority) do consider it to be such, because not only is it commanded by our Lord himself (one of the criterion for something to be a sacrament), but it is also done by Jesus himself to show us by example (another criterion for something to be a sacrament). I’ve been to some Maundy Thursday services where there is actual footwashing involved, and I think it’s beautiful.

 

But the “new commandment” bit has always baffled me: is love a new commandment? I thought it was the Great Commandment and is as old as the Old Testament itself. The more I ponder the text of John 13, I realize that it is the “pay it forward” aspect which is new.

 

Jesus divested himself of power and humbled himself. He gave of himself freely and expected nothing in return. And yet at the same time, he requires much from us. He said:

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

 

I think I have a hard time knowing how to love properly. Sometimes I demand too much from the other person. But that is not how Jesus told us to love—he told us to serve. Sometimes I think that love is a one-way street. But that also is not a Biblical way to love—a relationship goes both ways. Jesus taught us to give freely, to live humbly, and to expect nothing in return. And yet, at the same time, ironically he wants our whole life. But how? Already in giving of himself he gives far more than we ever could repay to him. When we give back to him, it is not out of indebtedness but out of joy and gratitude—and the way Jesus asks us to “give back” to him is to love others (like in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt. 25: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”) The first greatest commandment leads to the second greatest commandment. This is why the Apostle Paul, chief of sinners and murderer of Christians, said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” (Rom. 1:14) Because God rescued him from the pit of hell, he felt the need to “pay it forward.”

 

I can give to others, likewise, because Jesus has already given way more to me than I ever deserved. So if I give my love to someone else and they don’t return it, then I have no cause for complaint. And if that happens, I can take comfort in the fact that I am identifying with my Lord what it must have felt like when he was on the cross, experiencing the scorn from all the people who betrayed him—which includes myself if I have to be honest.

 

The Inaugural Yale Asian Alumni Reunion

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This past weekend I attended the first-ever Yale reunion for Asian alumni. It was interesting because most reunions bring together people joined by graduating class. A week ago, however, I was in Oxford for a reunion which united people via college rather than graduating class; and this time I was in Yale for a reunion which united people via ethnicity rather than graduating class. Meeting alumni who were much older and much younger than me was fascinating.

 

The last decade of my life, I have dedicated my research and ministry largely to Latin America: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject, I’ve been a missionary there, and I’ve been a member and proponent of the Latin American Theological Fellowship.

 

However, in this past year I have felt myself gravitating back toward my roots: Asia. I did my undergrad degree in Chinese history, I want to write my next book on Sun Yat-sen (the Father of Modern China), and would love to move to Singapore or Hong Kong to live and work.

 

Yale has had a long history with Asia, especially China. The Yale-China Association, founded in 1901, is one of the oldest of its kind, and originally was named the Yale Foreign Missionary Society. As someone who is a missiologist, and who is a Yale alumnus, this makes me happy. Yale also happens to be one of the only secular universities in the nation which has an endowed professorship in missiology! (Currently held by Prof. Lamin Sanneh, who is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, the post formerly held by Kenneth Scott Latourette, one of the greatest missiologists in American history). The impetus for the founding of Yale-China was the martyrdom of Horace Tracy Pitkin, a Yale graduate who was a missionary to China and who died during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. A monument and plaque dedicated to Pitkin can be found in the Woolsey Rotunda at Yale.

 

The history of the association between Yale China goes back even further. Yung Wing graduated from Yale in 1854, and was the first Asian to ever graduate from any U.S. university. He subsequently became a translator for American missionaries in China, and finally at the end of his life returned to Connecticut where he died and is buried at Hartford Cemetery. Later a public elementary school in New York City’s Chinatown was named after Yung Wing.

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Yung Wing made an appearance at the Yale Asian Alumni Reunion!

Speaking of education, in 1906 Yale established the Yali School in Changsha, Hunan province, which today is one of the top high schools in the world. And just last Fall (2013), Yale joined forces with the NUS (National University of Singapore) to establish a new college in Singapore: Yale-NUS College.

 

The Yale-China connection runs so deep that Chinese president Hu Jintao, in 2006, visited the U.S. and chose only one American university to visit: Yale. You can read his speech here and watch it here.

 

In our inaugural Yale Asian Alumni Reunion this past weekend, we were treated to a fantastic lineup of speakers (all Yale alumni): Amy Chua (“tiger mom” and Yale Law professor), Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo and ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 most powerful women in the world), David Henry Hwang (Tony Award-winning playwright, especially known for M. Butterfly), Gary Locke (former governor of Washington state—in fact the first-ever Asian American governor of any mainland U.S. state—and U.S. Ambassador to China), Eric Liu (author of the critically acclaimed The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker), Karen Narasaki (civil rights activist), and Vijay Iyer (renowned jazz pianist and 2013 MacArthur Fellow). Three other Yale Asian alumni who did not show up but I would’ve loved to see would’ve been: Maya Lin (renowned architect, especially known for creating the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.); Robert Lopez (one of the only twelve people in history to win the EGOT); and Brenda Hsueh (screenwriter for the hit T.V. show How I Met Your Mother). The last two were my contemporaries/classmates at Yale. [Though not Asian Americans, other famous classmates of mine at Yale included Josh Saviano from The Wonder Years (he was in Branford College with me), Sara Gilbert from Roseanne (she was in my Art History section), and Kingman Brewster IV (he was my next door neighbor in my dorm), the grandson of Kingman Brewster Jr. the former President of Yale. Actress Jordana Brewster, also a Yalie, is Kingman IV’s cousin.]

 

Another prominent Yale Asian alumnus is C.Y. Lee (Yale class of 1947) who wrote the book Flower Drum Song off of which the eponymous Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was based in 1958 (the movie version came out in 1961). David Henry Hwang reimagined the musical for a modern audience in 2002 when it enjoyed another Broadway run as a revival. To this day, Flower Drum Song remains the only Broadway musical about Asian Americans.

 

Despite the myth of Asian Americans being the “model minority,” Jane Hyun pointed out in her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians that we are very underrepresented in politics, sports, business leadership, and media—or at least they are not proportional to our educational attainments. Santa J. Ono also wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year (October 28, 2013) called “Why So Few Asians Are College Presidents.” Other than Jeremy Lin, I can’t think of any other major Asian American prominent in sports (other than Tiger Woods who is half Thai). Other than Gary Locke, no other prominent Asian American in politics comes to mind other than Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana) who is Indian-American. And other than Jim Yong Kim (former President of Dartmouth College), no Asian American has been a prominent university president in the U.S.

 

In another vein, the recent #cancelcolbert trend by activist Suey Park also highlights the fact that Asian Americans seem to be “easy pickings” when it comes to racism as opposed to other racial groups.

 

Next month I have the privilege of being one of 150 Asian American Christian leaders to go to the White House for a briefing and the National Asian Prayer Breakfast. Black Christian leaders, and Hispanic Christian leaders, have been invited to the White House in the past, but never before Asian Christian leaders. This is going to be a historic event where we will hopefully have our voice heard in a sphere where we are sorely underrepresented: politics.

 

Not only that, Christianity (where Asians have been actually quite well represented—for example, the Lausanne movement’s new chairman is Michael Oh, the director of InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference is Tom Lin, and of course the largest church in the world is in Korea), there still is much lack of understanding and discrimination. Infamously, a decade ago, the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Christian Resources published a series of offensive (to Asian Americans) VBS curricula called “Rickshaw Rally” and “Deadly Viper.” Rick Warren and Exponential recently have made some faux pas regarding stereotypical portrayals of Asians—with Warren handling it badly by refusing to apologize (or apologizing badly) and Exponential actually handling it well by apologizing immediately and sincerely. This prompted Asian American Christian leaders to write “An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” of which I was an early signatory. And today, we are campaigning to free Matt & Grace Huang, two Asian American Christians from Southern California who have been wrongly imprisoned in Qatar on trumped-up charges.

 

Hopefully, at our White House briefing and Prayer Breakfast, we Asian American Christian leaders can bring to the fore some issues that the intersection of our ethnicity and faith uniquely highlights, and maybe speak to the political sphere what the aforementioned “Open Letter” spoke to the religious sphere.

The Best Burger in L.A.

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I am at a reunion at my alma mater, Yale, which is located in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven may have been an obscure city if not for Yale University, but it is also famous for two other things: pizza and the hamburger! I was an undergraduate student at Yale, and I loved the pizza. New Haven-style pizza is, in my humble opinion, better than all others. I’ve had pizza in New York (I’ve been to the birthplace of the American pizza, Lombardi’s, as well as Grimaldi’s which is the famous one under the Brooklyn Bridge); Chicago (likewise, I’ve been to the birthplace of deep-dish pizza, Pizzeria Uno’s, as well as tried the other famous ones like Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s, and Giordano’s); and I’ve even had a lot of pizza in Italy (though admittedly I’ve never been to Naples). But my favorite in all the world is still New Haven-style. It is similar to New York-style in that it is thin crust, but unlike NYC which garnishes it with a little mozzarella, tomato slices and basil, New Haven-style can have toppings ranging from white clams (try Pepe’s Pizza) to mashed potatoes (Bar Pizza) to the hedonistic “Italian Bomb” (Modern Apizza), though my favorite New Haven establishment is Sally’s Pizza. New Haven-style pizza is irregularly shaped, slightly charred, brick oven-baked, with melty gooey cheesiness all around. People from New York City drive up to New Haven just for the pizza (that’s a 2-hour trip). That’s saying something.

Louis' Lunch

But I digress. This blog is not about pizza, but about hamburgers. There is a little shack of a place in New Haven called Louis’ Lunch, and it is the birthplace of the American hamburger. You would never know it was there if you drove by it, it’s so small. But there is always a line out the door. Once you go inside, they have these original vertical grills in which they place the juicy patties, cooked just like they did when they opened in 1895. In lieu of buns they use slices of toast, because what we know as “hamburger buns” did not exist back then. As the purists that they are, they keep things exactly the same. No condiments are allowed—in fact, if you ask for ketchup or mustard or anything, they will get mad at you. You are only allowed to have cheese, tomatoes, and onions in your burger, which serve as your “condiments.” And no prices are listed—they charge you based on how much they like you—so cooperate nicely and you will be just fine. There is a sign on the wall which sums up their philosophy nicely: “This is not Burger King, you can’t have it your way.” Despite this “Soup Nazi” reputation, people flock to it, because it’s the original. CNN recently ranked the top five burgers in the country as (in no particular order): Hodad’s Burgers in San Diego, Ann’s Snack Bar in Atlanta, Triple XXX in Indiana, Phillips Grocery in Mississippi, and of course Louis’ Lunch at Yale.

 

Now to the point of this blog—I want to talk about burgers found in Los Angeles, my hometown. I’m not a huge meat eater, but burgers are about as American as you can get, and I had to find the most legendary burger in the City of Angels. Below are what I think are the top six burgers in L.A. You might be thinking something similar to the dialogue in the movie Two Weeks’ Notice when Sandra Bullock’s character says to her boss, “Honestly, I think you are the most selfish person in the world!” to which Hugh Grant’s character replies, “Well that’s just silly, have you met every person in the world?” Similarly, how can I list my top six burgers in L.A.—have I tried every burger in L.A.? No, of course not. But going off of websites, blogs, and word-of-mouth, I narrowed it down to a manageable number, and came up with this list of my top ten:

McDonalds Downey

10) McDonald’s

Hold on—before you write me off as “off my rocker,” there is a reason for this choice. I’m talking specifically about the branch that is located in the city of Downey, one of the suburbs of Los Angeles. I add this to the list more as a point of historical curiosity rather than a quality burger, because Downey has the oldest extant McDonald’s in the world. They’ve kept the old-style sign (it has the original mascot, Speedy—not Ronald McDonald!), and there is a great McDonald’s museum attached to the place, where you can trace the history of this most famous of fast-food chains. This deserves to be on the list simply for historical reasons—and you gotta experience it for the atmosphere (though the food is the same as any other McDonald’s).

 

9) Five Guys

OK, admittedly this is not an L.A. chain. This is a Washington D.C.-based franchise, but they did open a couple of stores in Los Angeles. It has often been dubbed the “East Coast In-N-Out Burger.” I took that as a challenge. It actually is a really good burger, but it’s no In-N-Out. But it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. In-N-Out is quite a simple burger; Five Guys loads on the toppings. If you ask for “The Works” or “All the Way” you get: Mayo, Lettuce, Pickles, Tomatoes, Grilled Onions, Grilled Mushrooms, Ketchup, Mustard, Green Peppers. And you could get more free toppings upon request. The bun is very soft; almost too soft. But it’s a flavor explosion in your mouth because of all the toppings. That is what makes it a good burger, not so much the meat (which is not bad)—but it’s just the quantity of stuff on top of the meat that distinguishes this burger.

 

8) The Counter

This trendy chain has an old-school feel to it, established around a build-your-own-burger concept. I was actually overwhelmed by the options (apparently, there are 312,120 possible permutations of burger, once you decide what kind of meat, cheese, condiments, and toppings you want), so I just went with their standard “Counter Burger” which has provolone, crispy onion strings, sautéed mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s a nice combination of unusual things (provolone instead of American cheese, crispy onions instead of grilled, sun-dried tomatoes instead of regular). The concept is cool, but this burger didn’t knock my socks off, so for the price I’m paying, I’d rather get one of the four I ranked above this.

 

7) Slater’s 50/50

It’s called this because the meat patty is 50% beef and 50% bacon. Sounds amazing, right? How can anyone go wrong with bacon? (Unless you’re Jewish or Muslim of course, in which case you don’t eat pork—and thus are missing out on a whole lot of awesomeness). The problem with this 50/50 concept, though, is that bacon tastes best when it’s crispy. And when you grind it up with the beef, though you may get the bacon flavor, you don’t get the texture. It stays soft within the patty. So, while this is a really good burger, and the concept of the 50/50 patty is certainly creative, I think they should’ve just stuck with the original way of doing things: a meat patty with crispy bacon on top. Thus you get the best of both worlds. Sometimes gimmicky doesn’t help.

 

6) Haven Gastropub

Not strictly in L.A. proper, this is located in Orange County—in fact, in the city of Orange itself. Downtown Orange is a trendy happening place these days (especially right around the Orange Circle), and Haven fits right in. The gourmet burger has pickled red onions, roasted red bell peppers, wild arugula, and St. Agur blue cheese (my dislike for blue cheese probably biases me a bit against this burger, like it does for Father’s Office below…)

 

5) Pie ‘n Burger

This Pasadena establishment is a diner which feels like it has been around forever. The inside is charming, like something out of the 1960s (even the cash register is an antique, and it’s cash-only), and it is one-of-a-kind—all the other burgers on this list have multiple locations, but Pie ‘n Burger is an original. I grew up in the Pasadena area, so I thought this restaurant was only famous locally, but apparently people all over L.A. know about it. The burgers are wonderful, with Thousand Island dressing, pickles, and lettuce—similar to an In-N-Out burger except without the tomatoes. And with a homemade feel to them—they’re really messy and tend to fall apart, but really tasty. The “Pie” in the name of the restaurant is because that’s what they serve for dessert. It’s great as a way to end your meal, it doesn’t matter if you blueberry, peach, banana cream, or another kind of pie—it’s all good. Just make sure you run a marathon the next day to burn off all those calories you just took in.

 

4) In-N-Out

OK, how do I even describe this burger which is so familiar to every Angeleno? It’s just simply the best fast food hamburger in the world. I don’t know how they do it because it’s so simple, but it tastes fresh and custom-made—but I actually think the secret to its deliciousness lies in the bun. It’s lightly crispy/toasty, and that contrasts so nicely with the soft beef patty. I think it still tastes as good as it did when I first tried it. Oh, and for those of you non-Californians who don’t know, there is a “secret menu” that’s not listed on the regular menu—I always ask for my burger with grilled onions, and you can also get it “Animal Style” among other things. And, like Chick-Fil-A, it’s owned by Christians, which just ups it another notch in my book (look for references to John 3:16, Nahum 1:7, Proverbs 3:5, and Revelation 3:20 on the cups, wrappers, and bags of fries).

 

3) Father’s Office

This place is what is known as a “gastro-pub”—a pub which serves food, so it’s not exactly a restaurant. And for those of you who are underage, unfortunately you can’t go inside as they check IDs. Well, I didn’t go for the beer but for the burger, which many of my friends swear is the “best burger in L.A.” Obviously I didn’t think so, as I listed it as #2 on my list, but it’s pretty darn amazing. First of all, it’s unusually shaped because it’s not round—it’s served on a soft French baguette so it looks like an oval torpedo sandwich. Inside, they put two kinds of cheese: gruyere and blue cheese; plus arugula, and caramelized onions. These toppings make it truly “gourmet.” It feels like an upper-class burger. And the beef is really superb. Why did I put it not as my #1? One major reason is because I don’t like blue cheese. Another reason is that they are more “Soup Nazi” than Louis’ Lunch: they don’t let you alter the burger at all (and no condiments allowed)—so I was stuck eating it as it was. I think what also detracted from my experience is that this place is always packed, and you can hardly find a seat (it’s self-seating), so it’s difficult to enjoy your meal in such a chaotic atmosphere. But I guess if you like blue cheese, you would love this burger to no end.

 

2) Umami Burger

Most people think that there are only four tastes that the tongue can sense: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. However, in 1908 a Japanese scientist named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University discovered that we actually have a “fifth taste”—what he called umami. In English, we would call it “savory.” People confuse it with “salty” but umami is actually something different. Salty is neutral—it can be a pleasant or unpleasant taste. Bitter and sour are usually unpleasant, and sweet and umami are usually pleasant. This “fifth taste” is the type of flavor you would get from MSG, but other things can produce the umami flavor too, like tomatoes, meat, broth, and teriyaki sauce. Though the Japanese recognized umami 100 years ago, Westerners did not legitimize it until the 1980s. Today, a burger chain has capitalized on this by creating the Umami Burger. They scientifically researched how to target your umami taste buds, and I think they nailed it. There is something so sublimely delicious about this burger. Their classic burger has grilled onions, shiitake mushrooms, and an unusual crispy parmesan cheese thing inside. I don’t even know how to describe it. You can also get variations on the Umami burger, such as the Truffle burger, the Port & Stilton burger, and the Earth burger (vegetarian). Even their fries have ketchup which targets your umami taste buds. Amazing. One warning though: the burgers are a little bit small (typically Japanese), unlike Father’s Office which has fairly large burgers. But it is quality, not quantity, that I was after, so to me this beats out Father’s Office. Oh yes, and another bonus is that you can order “Mexican Coke” here. In Mexico, they make Coke with real sugar, not with high fructose corn syrup as they do in the United States. Mexican Coke tastes so much better! I’m glad they take the effort to import it.

 

1) The Back Abbey

Located in the suburb of Claremont, the Back Abbey is another gastro-pub (resembling a Belgian monastery) but it serves, in my humble opinion, the best burger in all of L.A. Their signature burger has gouda cheese, mustard aioli sauce, caramelized onions, and crispy bacon, all on a soft brioche bun. I don’t know how they do it, but it just has the best combination of pleasing flavors. Whether or not you think this deserves the top spot is up to you—but I recommend you try it.

 

So there you have it. For some reason, three of these (The Counter, Father’s Office, Umami) originated in the West Side of L.A., especially around the Santa Monica area. I don’t know why the center of gravity might be out there, but perhaps it has to do with the trendiness/hipsterness of that side of town. Also be sure to try the sweet potato fries that many of these places serve up.

 

P.S. Honorable mention goes to:

The Foundry

Standing Room

25 Degrees

Burger Lounge

The Apple Pan

G Burger

Hole in the Wall Burger Joint

Hawkins House of Burgers

The Habit Burger Grill

26 Beach

True Burger

Why Japan & Britain Are Alike

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I have a theory, which I have held to for some time now, that Japan is the Britain of Asia. Or perhaps the other way around—Britain is the Japan of Europe. Why? There are a number of striking similarities:

 

-They both are major island nations off the coast of their respective continents.

 

-They both regard themselves as culturally and economically superior to their continental neighbors.

 

-They are strong, solemn, polite cultures which are highly educated.

 

-They are two of the most expensive countries in the world (I don’t know which has a higher cost of living—London or Tokyo)!

 

-They both have had extensive empires—Japan at one point had conquered half of Asia, and Britain at one point had conquered half the world.

 

-Both the kings of England and the emperors of Japan have ruled by “divine right.”

 

-Historically they both have had a feudal system of lords, vassals, kings/emperors, and knights; but now, both are parliamentary monarchies.

 

-They both drive on the left side of the road (aside from Britain and its former colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Kenya, Australia, etc.), the only countries in the world that drive on the left side are Japan and Thailand.

 

-The reason they both drive on the left is linked to their feudal system. When you have knights (in Japan they were called samurai) who wield their lances/swords with their right hand, they necessarily have to charge at each other, while on horseback, riding on the left side of the road.

 

-They both have crests and coats of arms for their family names.

 

-They are both tea-drinking nations, though neither were originally so. Japan derived its tea culture from China; Britain stole its tea-drinking habit from India—notice that all “British” teas are called Darjeeling or Assam (regions of India) or Ceylon (which is Sri Lanka).

 

-Both countries have fairly bland food.

 

-People in both countries are stereotyped as having bad teeth.

 

(Don’t get me wrong—I happen to love both countries! I think the U.K. and Japan are two of my top five favorite countries in the world. I don’t really mean this blog to be a negative critique. But I think we do have to realize that what people love about Japan & Britain—the wealth, power, economic prosperity, and high culture—are often due to building on the backs of oppressed people. Just saying.)

 

Of course this analogy starts to break down after awhile—after all, the two are different countries. But the parallels are interesting nonetheless.

 

P.S. A missionary in Japan, after hearing the above theory from me, independently confirmed this by saying, “I’ve thought the same thing. But I would add that Korea is like Italy.” He cited all the same reasons as me for why Japan is like the U.K., and when I asked why Korea is like Italy, he said: “Both are famous for their zesty food, both love garlic, both people have really fiery passionate personalities, both are peninsulas, both are into art and culture, and contribute greatly to music.”  So there you have it.

 

Or, perhaps Scotland is like Korea! Certainly Scotland and Korea have no great love for England or Japan, respectively, and have seen them as oppressive “bully” neighbors. Plus, Scotland and Korea have probably been the two greatest missions-sending countries in the world, per capita. They are small nations who have made tremendous contributions to the cause of world missions. And both Scotland and Korea have a Presbyterian (read: Calvinist) heritage. Just goes to show, it is a false premise to say that the doctrine of predestination precludes missions! Quite the opposite, in fact. And William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, was a Calvinist.