Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Longings and Expectations

I had planned out the whole weekend. First, a quick drive to Half Moon Bay from the airport to see the magnificent view of the Pacific. From there, a drive up Highway 1 straight to the Mark Hopkins where we would have brunch overlooking the beautiful city. Then, a quick tour of the city and then Vietnamese dungeness crabs for dinner. For the overnight stay, a room at a Sausalito hotel over the Bay. The following day, a drive through the Marin Headlands and a stroll through Muir Woods.

It was my parents' first trip out to San Francisco. I had been living here for a few years, and they were finally coming out for Labor Day weekend. Because they opened their store on Saturday, they were flying out on Sunday morning and then flying back Monday night. Abridged by six hour flights on both ends, the weekend was not much more than a respite between two flights. For them, it was an unusual two back to back days off, and they were spending precious 12 hours of it on a plane in order to visit their daughter who lived on the opposite end of this country.

So, I carefully mapped out the weekend. I wanted to make it worth their time. I could count on one hand the number of trips they had taken in the past decade and a half. Two to visit relatives in Korea, one to visit me in Chicago while I was in college, fourth to attend my sister's college graduation, and the fifth to DC as I started law school. In addition to my planning, I had cajoled and bribed my sister with airfare to join us for the weekend. Living in NY, she saw my parents regularly while I saw them no more than four or five times a year. I was worried that I wouldn't know how to talk to them and keep them entertained for two consecutive days on my own. I redeemed my long accumulated miles for my parents' tickets in business class, and for my sister, I purchased her ticket, but upgraded her to the same class so that they could sit together.

From the minute I picked them up at the airport, things didn't go according to plan. As soon as I met them, I asked how their flight was, only to hear that the airline had refused to allow my sister to sit with my parents in business class, even though I had already used my miles to upgrade her. Citing some rule that upgrades could only be used by the mileage holder, the airline had placed her in coach, despite what they had told me on the phone when I placed my order. This little mishap upset me more than it should have, and I quickly turned the conversation to our schedule.

When I announced that we'd drive straight to the restaurant after seeing Half Moon Bay, my mother asked, "But what about all the food I brought for you? Shouldn't we put them in the refrigerator right away?"

"Oh, Mom, you didn't have to do that. We don't really have time to go by my apartment first. Our lunch reservation is at noon..."

"What if it keeps leaking?"

"What if what keeps leaking?"

"The food. The kimchi is starting to leak a little. It was leaking on the airplane and the stewardess was giving us funny looks. I think the other tupperwares are ok..."

"Oh, you brought kimchi?"

And so it went with my mother, who shows her love through food and then worries that her children are becoming overweight. She must have known that there are Korean grocery stores even in the hinterland of San Francisco but couldn't resist an opportunity to show her affection the best way she knew how.

Leaving the decision to a later hour when we'd be denied the inconvenience of having a choice, I drove them across CA-92 toward the California coastline. Even from the airport, I saw the fog looming in the distance. It was as thick as velvet. Yet, I continued to drive because that was the first stop on my schedule. I wanted to show them the coastline along Half Moon Bay, the breathtaking beauty of this land that I now called home. And I hoped that as we neared, the fog would miraculously dissipate.

As we approached, the fog seemed to be getting thicker and thicker. After our twenty minute drive across 92, I turned right onto Cabrillo Highway and entered a parking lot. When we stepped out of the car, the wind slapped our cheeks and whipped our hair. We turned our backs against the wind to catch the front flaps of our jackets and zipped up. When we turned to face the ocean again, all I saw was a swath of fog across the entire stretch. There was no vision, no vista, no ocean. All that appeared to us was whitness. And all I could think was that the ocean stretched out in the distance in all of its beauty and magnificence behind this stubborn sheath.

So for the next few minutes, we stood there, staring at the fog obscuring our view. Then disappointment set in. This view - my view - seemed deliberately to choose this day to hide from us, to taunt us. How I had wanted to share the view, to show it off. This desire came with an urgency that made no sense, even to the point of making me want to throw a tantrum. As if seeing this view could make a difference or change our lives somehow. As if so much depended on it.

As I loudly lamented the cloaked beauty of the place, my mother turned to me and said with such earnestness, "I imagine it is very beautiful."

As poor as the imagination seemed compared to the real thing, we stood there for a few minutes while my mother imagined the view. In my poor Korean, I tried to describe the gulping vastness of the Pacific, the translucent blue color of its water, the anger in its waves. And with her fluid Korean, she supplied the words I lacked and helped appease my eagerness to share. After a few more minutes, we loaded ourselves back into the car.

The rest of the weekend was more or less the same. There were a few moments that went according to plan and others that didn't. Like when we went to my apartment after lunch and my parents fell asleep for the next three hours on my bed. Thinking of the limited time we had together, I impatiently waited for them to awaken so that I could take them on a driving tour of the Embarcadero, but they were simply too exhausted from their days of working 14 hour days and the flight from NY. Or the Vietnamese crab place that couldn't seat us indoors and we huddled under the space lamps as the garlic noodles quickly turned cold.

Looking back, I can see how much I was trying to pack into a mere 30 hour period. I had wanted to share a piece of my life with them, my life that was now so different from theirs and so filled with freedom and beauty. Maybe by sharing, I thought I could alleviate some of the guilt I carried about escaping their grueling lives. I had also wanted to show them a world they did not often see from their neon lit storefront window. And I guess I had wanted to create some memories as a family because we had so few beyond my childhood days. These desires, neatly laced together by my anal planning, held together so well until the fog got in the way, until my parents expressed needs of their own, until the world put my plans in their place.

I remember that weekend with wistfulness. There is so much to long for, so much that is not ours even though we plan for it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

To Begin Again

So we left - the unmovable high rises, the corner deli packed with Italian men with mustaches, strong accents, and leering eyes, the pizzeria down the street with its stacks of steel plates that had been reused year after year. We packed all of our belongings and left behind that city where lonely trees were confined to two cubic feet squares of growing spaces in slabs of concrete, where we children were confined to handball courts and paved inner city blocks devoid of grass or flowers.

We left behind the elevator that took us up to our fourth floor apartment, where we had once been mugged at the point of a dinner knife by two scrawny teenage boys who looked so daunting to my eight year old eyes. After my mother hurriedly handed over the $48 in cash, the thugs skipped out of the elevator on the third floor. When we reached our floor, how madly we had rushed from the elevator to our apartment at the end of the hall across from the fire escape. And to prevent those thugs from running up the stairs and overtaking us, my eleven year old brother held the fire escape door shut with all of his strength while my mother nervously fumbled with the keys. How quickly we had locked all three of our deadbolts once we jumped inside our apartment and breathed a sigh of relief that we weren't tied up in our bathtub waiting to be found as Mr. Kim on the second floor had been the month before.

To begin again. That is what I wanted. To begin again, in a new world, where our sense of security didn't shatter at the point of a dinner knife, where we didn't have to look over our shoulders wary of teenage thugs. Leaving NYC was to begin again. I dreamed of living the life of a character in a Judy Blume tale, where inner city worries faded as you drove deeper into the suburbs, where summers were meant to be spent poolside - at a real pool, not the indoor pool of a YMCA where the sun didn't reach, where kids had pets and real playgrounds with sand boxes and swing sets, where families lived in houses with lawns.

For this new life, I began my preparation.

A new beginning meant a new wardrobe, a new look, and most importantly, a new name. So I announced at dinner shortly before the move.

- When we move to Houston, I'm going to change my name to Christine.

My startled parents stared at me.

- You're what?

- I'm changing my name.

- What's wrong with the name we gave you? Shinyung is a beautiful name.

- My teachers call me Shin - and I'm not a shin. I want an American name.

I had thought about my new name for weeks. I picked one that sounded the best with my last name. I wasn't going to have a funny name anymore.

From then on, I enforced my new rule with a heavy hand. I only responded to Christine going forward because beginning anew required determination. No one said it would be easy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Our eyes were fixed on the black screen. When she moved the wand, the black gave way to flickering swaths of white, like milky ways arching through space. I squinted my eyes, trying to make something out of the undefined fuzz morphing in front of us. Then, suddenly a hint of a recognizable image appeared before us. In a split second, an image of the empty uterus flashed before my eyes. No, it can't be... And it wasn't. As I lurched forward, the uterus filled with a murky image - something, rather than nothing.

- Here is the little guy, said Dr. C, with her finger on the screen.

- Where?

- Here, see him? He's upside down. Here's the head. See the heartbeat?

- Where?

- Right here. See it?

As we looked, there was the smallest flicker of light moving in and out. And as I saw the little thing move, my body heaved, my chest filled with a surge of emotions, and tears sprang to my eyes. It was relief that set in, relief that said thank goodness, it's alive. Relief against the fear that I hadn't realized had taken front row seat.

Still, I'm not ready to believe just yet, even as I hold the photo of the ultrasound in my hands. My hopes are tempered, my enthusiasm curbed, my excitement muted. I'll wait until the 13th week, until a week after the last little one left me.

Monday, October 20, 2008


We walked in - a classroom, much like one of the classrooms where I sat for three years, learning the law of perpetuity, the exception to the exception to the hearsay rules, and other such obscurities. As we walked in, there was a buzz. Of people chatting to each other, making small talk, trying to make a connection, expressing eagerness in their common purpose. We sat off to the side, not ready to claim the place just yet. We felt like guests, even though we belonged as much as anyone else.

We sat there and waited for the training session to begin. We were there to learn how to be poll monitors on election day in Nevada. The session started at 5pm but people were still streaming in through the double doors. The room that had been less than a third full when we walked in was now completely full, with stragglers filling the aisles and standing along the walls. There must have been over 200 of us. Just in this one session. There are more than 30 such training sessions for Nevada alone.

The person training us was an attorney from the NY office of White & Case who had obviously taken a leave from his paid position. The room was filled with lawyers from Berkeley and its surrounding area, their hair unkempt, dressed in raggedy sweatshirts, many still bearing the markers of the bygone hippie days, still carrying their notions of social justice.

I sat there happily, proud to have my legal background serve some useful purpose, for something greater than just a paycheck. It dawned on me that I've been waiting for something like this, to be part of something larger than mere survival. And what a relief to cast aside the cynicism, disappointment, and the indifference of past elections and volunteer with my doe-eyed optimism. Is this what democracy feels like?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I had a scare the Saturday before last. We were in Tahiti for a friend's wedding to be held that evening. Sometime in the late morning, I went to the bathroom, and as I usually do, I looked down to make sure I didn't see anything unusual. When I wiped myself, I saw a smudge of blood. The sight of it stopped my breath. The first thing to come to mind was, oh, no, not again. I walked out of the bathroom, crying and muttering, not again, not again. I went to Jeff and bawled for a good thirty minutes. Then we just lay in bed for a while, afraid to move.

I wondered what was wrong with my body and if it was defective somehow. I feared that motherhood would be denied to me. And I regretted having made the trip to Tahiti. We had taken the 8 1/2 hour flight two days earlier, and even though my doctor said flying was safe, I kept hearing the voice of my mother who had repeatedly admonished against traveling during early pregnancy.

I waited for the cramps to start. An hour passed, then two, then three. Nothing. Then we dressed for the wedding and celebrated my friend's happy day with preoccupied minds. We left the reception early after dinner and lay in bed, waiting again for a repeat of what happened the last time. Every time I went to the bathroom, I scrutinized the bowl. Nothing.

We passed the next day and the day after straddling apprehension and hope. The day after brought us cautious optimism. It is now over 10 days later and I seem to be still very much pregnant. All I can think about is getting past the next three weeks until I hit my second trimester.

When I brought this up with another pregnant friend of mine yesterday, she reminded me that we are signing up for a lifetime of worrying. Just wait til the kid hits puberty. I'll have to start working on my worry face now...

Monday, October 13, 2008


I lived outside his mile limit. His profile identified a range of 0 to 25 miles. I was in San Francisco, he in San Jose. A distance of more than 45 miles.

We had never met before. A random email dropped out of cyberspace into my inbox. And tickled me with expectancy.

He had seen my profile and decided to drop me a line. Extending himself outside of his zone of comfort in the hopes of making a connection. With a stranger who could cease being a stranger.

And that is what happened. We met for a drink, then a dinner a week after, then many more drinks and many more dinners. Soon, I was no longer a stranger. I became a girlfriend, a fiancée, then a wife. Today is our one year anniversary.

A change that began with a few written words sent outside one's defined radius. That is how we found each other.

Now or Later

(This was previously posted on Kimchi Mamas.)

We had been sitting next to each other for the past four hours, and we were about to go into the final hour, the home stretch. We had spent the past week together, vacationing in Hawaii. There we were in a row, me, then my mom, then my dad. My dad was conked out, snoring with his mouth open. My mom prattled as she usually did, telling me this or that story, sharing her snack of roasted nuts and rice crackers, occasionally flipping through Airways Magazine.

"So," she said. "You're planning to get engaged, aren't you?"

"Uh hum, we probably will. We talked about it, so we'll see how it goes."

She had met Jeff for the first time a week ago over lunch. She had watched me talk to him nightly during this vacation. She had asked a question here and there about our relationship, his background, his family.

She nibbled on a rice cracker. Then, she said it so nonchalantly that I almost missed it.

"Well, then, why don't you try to have your baby now?"

I looked back at her. "What?"

"Try having your baby now. Why wait?"

This was my mother speaking. The same mother who prohibited me from having any boyfriends all throughout school, including law school which I attended until my late 20s, who was horrified by the stories I told from college of girls showering with their boyfriends, who believed men and women should never cohabit before marriage. Before their visit this time, I had, like a silly schoolgirl, made Jeff remove all external signs that he lived with me. Quite silly, since I was already 35. For all I knew, my mother thought I was still a virgin. Or so I thought.

So who was this woman urging me to have a baby out of wedlock? And with a man she had met just once? And whom I met just five months ago. And a non-Korean at that. Surely, this was not my Korean mother.

She's had her notions before. Like the time she got a friend of hers to mail in her nephew's resume in time for one of my short visits home. When it arrived, she and my dad huddled by the lamp to examine it, beaming with the excitement of kids receiving their happy meal toys, before announcing to me that there may be someone suitable for me to meet. As they encouraged me to look over his resume, they pointed out no less than six times that he got his graduate degree from Columbia.

Or that other occasion when a random guy called from a 212 number and announced, "Hi, this is Paul… Paul from Harvard? Uhh, didn't your mom tell you about me?" Another nephew of some Korean woman my mother knew, who had been given my San Francisco phone number. My mother had taken the liberty of telling him that I would soon be moving back to New York.

So, we've had our different approaches to relationships and sexuality. But I had always assumed that I was reliably to her left on these issues. Until this moment.

"Mom, I'm not going to get pregnant before we get married! We're not even engaged yet."

"Well, just think about it. You're not that young, you know…"

So, there it was. Practicality above all else. Maybe this was my mother after all. Practical advice from a woman who had all three of her children in her 20s and could not imagine starting a family so late in life. A woman who insisted that I marry a Korean-American who came from a good family, who earns a higher income, who has a graduate degree, yadda, yadda, yadda... That is, until I entered my 30s as a single woman and then she decided that any male would do. Turns out the absolute values she projected came with expiration dates.

Needless to say, I dismissed her suggestion out of hand. I was only 35, and as I saw it, well within my fertile bounds. And no way was I going to risk carrying a child before we were legally wed. Besides, weight gain, expanded waist, and morning sickness just weren't compatible with my idea of a perfect wedding.

Now, two years later, I look back on that conversation. Two months after this conversation, Jeff and I got engaged. Eight months after that, we were married. Now, almost a year into our marriage and four months after a miscarriage, I wonder if I am running out of time, especially to meet our hopes of having two or three children. Now, I am pregnant again, but I am beset with worries that this one too could end in a miscarriage.

Not to say that I would have taken her advice knowing what I know now. I would still have opted to take my chances - and turned to fertility treatment, if necessary. But I have wondered about our different outlooks - me, who was looking forward into a future unwinding slowly with so many possibilities - and my mother, who was looking backwards, counting my numbered days and fearing the blockades already in place. I could not have imagined getting married in my early 20s and having three children by the age of 28 with no means of supporting myself. In me, my mother sees a woman near the end of her fertile years just starting to work toward having a family.

And the irony isn't lost on me. I grew up watching my mother negotiate her realm of motherhood and wife in this foreign country, often taking the backseat to my father's decision making and power. Her battles and losses fueled my desire to secure a career, to fortify myself with a degree and independence, to ward against just motherhood. And here with are, me securing what she didn't have, and her fearing what I may miss. With both of us praying at this late hour that it isn't too late to have it all.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Hi, All,

Thanks so much for your wonderful comments and warm wishes! I'll be traveling for a couple of weeks, and I'll be back here on October 13th. Write to you all then!


They shouldn't have surprised me, but they did.

Less than five feet away was an elderly gentleman, probably about 65 or so, dressed in a brown cardigan and donning a black beret, driving a convertible. And he was Asian.

Then less than thirty minutes later, I saw another peculiar thing. As I was strolling through Golden Gate Park, I saw an elderly Asian couple, also in their 60s, leisurely riding their bicycles. And they were not delivering Chinese food.

I had come out to San Francisco for a week to look for my new apartment. I was moving here to flee the neurotic monkeys that I saw in the faces of overworked New Yorkers, to escape my parents' ridiculous expectation that I live with them until I married into a new household, to find myself in my own space, outside of the strictures that had been imposed on me. Two weeks earlier, I had announced to my parents that I was moving to San Francisco. Somehow, their confused brains heard San Francisco as Newark.

"What, you're moving to Newark?"

"No, Dad, I said San Francisco."

"Why would you move to Newark?"

"No, Dad, not NEW ARK. San Francisco.... SAN FRAN CIS CO."

Then it dawned on them that I was escaping to the other end of this country. Had I been a lesbian, the conversation may have been easier. Well, maybe... At least, they could have latched onto a more coherent reason for the move. I had none to offer, at least none that I could tell them, besides the simple truth that I wanted to, which probably sounded incredibly indulgent and needless to them. But why not indulge myself? Wasn't it about time?

I had never been to San Francisco before. After my announcement to my parents, I scheduled my trip to San Francisco. A week later, here I was, taking my first good look at what would become my new city, my new home.

I had expected to find the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, the tie-dyed hippies left over from the 70s, and the fancy restaurants glorifying California produce. What I had not expected to find were Asians like these. You know, ones who seemed so unlike the Asians I saw in New York, Houston, Chicago, Washington DC, all the cities I lived in before I found myself in San Francisco.

Before this day, I had never seen an elderly Asian man behind the wheel of a convertible. I had seen them behind the wheels of taxis as they asked me if I needed any change back after I gave them a $20 for a $12 ride. I had seen them next to their fruit carts filled with bananas, apples, pears, strawberries as they goaded me to get one more apple for just one more dollar. I had seen them maneuvering those huge steering wheels on Queens buses as they sneered and ignored requests for transfers. I had seen them behind church pulpits, arms raised, invoking the power of Jesus.

As incredible as it sounds, for the first 28 years of my life, I had never seen elderly Asian Americans bicycling for recreation. I had seen them ringing up cash registers behind deli counters, waiting in line at the Korean grocery in Flushing, working behind stoves in Chinese restaurants, or picking up empty soda cans from trash cans in the streets.

Now, after nine years of San Francisco living, it seems unbelievable that those sights should have been so unusual. These sights now seem as banal as Asian police officers walking the beat, Asian gay couples walking hand in hand, Asian judges and Asian politicians campaigning for office, elderly Asians speaking flawless English.

Until I moved here, I wasn’t even aware that I had bought into those images. You know, those images that sneak in somehow and lock your brain into imagining US presidents and CEOs as tall white men and school teachers as perky little ladies with brown bobs. And I had somehow relegated Asians to ghettos, small businesses, and churches.

And it makes me wonder how many people can imagine an African American president. No matter that he’s half African and half white. No matter that he is a Harvard law grad and a former editor of The Harvard Law Review. No matter that we’ve had the likes of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice fill our tv screens in the past decade, not to mention 24.

If the election were decided by people like the person I was nine years ago, would we have voted on the issues or our failure of imagination?