Monday, October 17, 2011

NY TImes Article (Notes From a Dragon Mom)

This has to be one of the most moving (and sad) articles I've read in a long time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Two Years Later...




Earlier this month, we celebrated our little guy's 2d birthday. Hard to believe it's been two years already!

Friday, August 26, 2011

On the Shame of Blogging

A year ago, one evening in July, I received a call from my mother around 9pm PST. She lives on the East Coast, so it was around midnight her time. I picked up the phone, alarmed that something could have happened to her or my father who live alone in a closed-blind suburb of New York.

"Mom, is everything ok?" I asked as soon as I answered.

"Are you writing about our family in a blog?" she asked.

I was too stunned to respond. I had been keeping a blog for the past few years, and I had written liberally about our family. But I had not told any members of my family about it.

"Why are you writing about our family?" she continued. "And why are you doing it in your name? Other people blog anonymously. Why do you have to put your full name on your blog?"

I wondered how she found out about my blog. My mother had recently started to use the computer, mainly to watch Korean dramas on the internet. And as far as I knew, she did not know how to run searches. She navigated between the sites she frequented by going to her favorite links, which had been set up for her by my brother.

"What if someone reads it? Why did you write about your sister-in-law? What if your niece reads it? What are we going to do? How can you do this?"

I had written about my sister-in-law in one of my earlier posts as well as other members of my family. But nothing all too horrible, I thought, nothing to be ashamed about. And in my posts, I thought I had written with some respect for their perspectives and some understanding of their experiences. And then I wondered how she read all these posts - and if she even understood them. Her commands of written English was limited and I've never seen her read anything more than a few words. I had previously shown her my articles published in magazines, and she never even tried to read them.

The phone call ended badly, with me trying to defend my blog and her crying that I was bringing shame onto the family.

The following day, I shut down my blog that had been maintained under my name, moved it to a new site, and started posting anonymously. I didn't know what to do about my Kimchi Mamas posts, since I had been posting under my own name and the site even included a bio along with my photo. I didn't know what to do.

It wasn't that I thought my mother was right. I didn't. I didn't believe that she had done justice to my posts because if she had read them, she would have reacted with a little more understanding than having a knee jerk reaction as she did. And I didn't share her sense of shame, her worries of social stigma. What was shameful to her seemed to be simply a fact of life to me, something worth discussing.

But a part of me wondered if she had a point because I had written about her -- and others in our family without their permission, including conversations they obviously assumed would be private. And I was also a solicitous child, eager to please and to be approved by them. I rarely did anything that merited serious disapproval, and did not know how to handle this rebuke.

So for the following year or so, I stopped writing publicly.

For as long as I remember, as we were growing up, our actions were always controlled by threats of disapproval and shame. What we did could bring shame on our family, and it was our obligation to avoid that at all cost. We lived alone in the US, with no relatives. There were very few people here who knew what we did, or much less even cared enough for us to have felt shame in their eyes. But my parents always reminded us of our relatives back in Korea, those grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, who heard news of our welfare. And it was always they whose eyes reached more than 6500 miles across the sea to our dingy apartment in the US and scrutinized our report cards, our reward certificates at the end of the year, news of our college acceptance, our career choices, and marriage prospects.

Over the years, as our grandparents passed away and our uncles and aunts slowly faded one by one, I have to admit that I felt a slight sense of relief. Those people we hardly knew could no longer have a say in what or how we did. They could no longer look down on my parents and pity them for their children who failed to live up to expectations.

But after my call with my mom, I realized that she did not live in such a world. For her, the world was always full of disapproving eyes, and lurking around her were new candidates, like my niece, who could bear witness to her shame. According to her, our lives had to be kept secret, lest anyone find out the truth about the way we lived, and the information to be released publicly had to be managed, just the way politicians doled out massaged truth for public consumption.

I feel relieved that I do not live in such a socially restricted world. Maybe the system works in Korea, where people understand each others' hardships and can relate to each other, even without having to verbalize them. But that has not been my experience here. Our lives as immigrants in the US has been full of difficulties and heartaches, and I found that many do not understand what we experienced unless I tell them. Once in college, I wrote an essay about our family's immigration experience, and one non-Korean reader came up to me and said that she believed it "had to be true" because it was written so earnestly. I was stunned that she could have believed that it may not have been true. And her reaction made me feel even lonelier than I had ever felt before.

And when I think about that feeling of loneliness, I realize that I should write about my experiences. That we all should. And we should share our stories because without them, we are lost in our own little bubbles, floating aimlessly without perspective and with less understanding. So I post here once again, and look forward to the day when my children are old enough to read what I have written so that they too can understand a little more, care a little more.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Matters of Approval

When we were growing up, there was usually a right and a wrong answer for almost everything. What is the proper way to read? Sitting upright with the book held at eye level approximately 1.5 feet away. What is the right way to sit? Never with your back hunched over. What is the right amount of rice to serve? Always more than just one scoop. What is the amount of food properly left behind on one's plate? Certainly never just a morsel or a spoonful.

These answers, fed to us in bite-sized aphorisms, ranged from the mundane to the weighty. For some of the more serious issues, the questions were never posed because the right answers were presumed to be understood. For example, our parents never asked us, What kind of a person would you like to marry? They never asked, Do you wish to marry a white person? What about someone of Hispanic background? Or someone black? We understood that we were to marry a Korean.

I'm not sure how we first came to that understanding. Maybe the time when my father consoled his friend whose daughter was dating an Indian. My dad's friend muttered, "An Indian," as he spit on the ground. Or the time I told my mom that my Korean-American friend was married to a Japanese woman, and she exclaimed, "How could he do that to his parents!" I have a vague recollection of my parents taking us aside after these incidents and explaining how Koreans should be married to Koreans.

Later, my mother clarified that a Korean-American -- as opposed to a Korean who grew up in Korea -- would be better for me since I was so head-strong. A couple of years after I started working, she further clarified that he should earn as much as I did -- and have an advanced degree as I did, lest he be humiliated in the eyes of his wife.

We painfully learned the consequences of making the wrong choices. Like the time my brother brought home a wrong girlfriend. She seemed right at first. She was Korean-American from a decent enough family. Seemingly polite enough. But for some unspoken reason, my dad decided that she was not right. Not right for our household, even if my brother had apparently decided that she was right for him and I silently thought she was good for him in many ways. But my father felt otherwise. When she came over, my father refused to acknowledge her, even when she greeted him politely and did all the proper things. Sadly, she did not last long.

This process of making decisions by viewing all variables through the disapproving eyes of our parents wasn't limited to just dating. It dominated almost all decisions in our lives, including school selection, our career choices, where to live. When I was applying to colleges, there were only a handful of colleges that were acceptable to my parents. A wide assortment of Yale, Harvard, or Columbia. That was about it. Maybe they would have been okay with Princeton. When I did not get accepted into any of those, my father insisted that I would have to attend a state school, even though I had been accepted into the University of Chicago, my first choice. It became an uphill battle to try to convince my father -- and perhaps myself -- that I wasn't a complete failure because I had not been accepted into those three or four schools deemed acceptable in his eyes.

Most decisions in our lives seemed to be a matter of approval or disapproval. Either our actions pleased our parents or they did not. As children, I don't think we ever stopped to consider the difference between our actions and our being -- or the difference between approval and love. When they approved of something we did, we beamed in their eyes and felt loved. When they disapproved, we felt spurned and rejected.

I've discussed the notion of unconditional love with some of my Korean-American friends, and we often conclude that we do not believe in such a concept. Maybe because we grew up in households where love was never verbalized. Where the only semblance of love was approval, which peaked and waned with the choices we made.

Focusing so much on my parents' approval often cast a shadow over other factors that we should have considered, either more carefully or in their own light. Most decisions became for or against them -- but we rarely considered the question of were they right for us? Maybe we did ask those questions, but often they were so cluttered with worries and anxieties about our parents' reaction that I wonder if they ever got the attention they deserved.

I think my parents must have grown up in a time and a culture where children did not make decisions. At least not to the degree children do here. I remember my mother once marveling over how American parents stop to ask even toddlers their preferences on things, including what they want to eat or where they want to sit. She rued that she had not done so with us -- that she had always simply told us what to do and how to do it.

I sometimes wonder about this part of my upbringing. Even now, I often find it difficult to make decisions. And the decision making process becomes easier when I have an opposing force -- that kicks me into an emotional and reactive mode. I have been trying to think of ways to extricate myself from this overdeveloped need to gain approval -- or to fight against disapproval. To be a person with more integrity to keep her in balance.

And I think about ways in which I raise my son -- to allow him to be his own person without needing to meet my approval at every turn. To help him to develop the skills to assess and meet his own needs -- without feeling crippled by the needs of others. And to fortify him with the assurance that he stands on solid ground even when we disapprove -- that our love does not peak and wane with the school he attends or the girl he chooses to date.

For my part, I intend to speak clearly when I speak of love -- and softly and sparingly when I disapprove, if I have to disapprove at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wasting time

A few months ago, I transferred my cases to a trial lawyer -- a real trial lawyer, with more than 175 trials under his belt, not a glorified paper pusher like me (and most big law firm partners I worked with over the years).

The transfer came after weeks of overwhelming stress. We have a nanny who comes about 20 hours a week, and I easily had enough work to fill up 40. As a result, Jeff and I had been - for a series of weekends - negotiating how to split the weekends so that we could each get done all that we needed to. The first weekend of February, I worked most of Saturday, and Jeff had most of Sunday, even though we took a break in the middle to go out for lunch and a stroll -- to celebrate my birthday. When he asked me how I wanted to celebrate, my response was, "I really don't have the time to celebrate right now."

I had days when I was so overwhelmed with work that I couldn't work. I never had those before. I would sit down in the front of the computer and my mind would be reeling with the list of tasks in front of me. Unable to focus. Touching this paper and that, piling them up, and then reshuffling them again. When I worked at firms, I remember having a lot to do at times, but I never shut down with stress. A partner once commented what a cool cucumber I was under pressure, and that's how I remember myself. I don't know when she wilted.

Ever since I handed off my cases, I've had the luxury of having free time. Little T goes down for his nap around 2pm these days -- and happily snoozes until 6pm. Four whopping hours. Along with the luxury of free time has come the luxury of wasting them. After I've picked up his toys, thrown the clothes in the laundry, folded the ones in the drier, and filled the dishwasher, I look for other tasks to keep me busy. On some days, I read a book from cover to end in one sitting. On others, I watch a movie - and then immediately start another. There are days when I surf the net and then stare out the window.

Why haven't I been writing more? Well, the last couple of months, I've been blissfully napping. Overtaken by overwhelming drowsiness that comes with pregnancy. I'm about to start my 20th week of pregnancy -- and so thrilled with the news that this one is a girl. The last three pregnancies, including two miscarriages, have all been boys, and I assumed that we were only capable of making little men. I was almost ready to tuck away my dream of shopping for little dresses, adorning a little one with frilly hats, and making time for girl to girl talks. It never felt so much better to have beaten the odds.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Short Visit

We returned late Wednesday night, or rather early Thursday morning, from a 15 hour visit to San Francisco. The visit was wedged between two 9+ hours of driving - from San Diego and back. It was meant to be a normal visit - a 1.5 hour flight in the morning and a 1.5 hour return that night with a short deposition in the middle of the day. That is until Jeff found out that he had to be in the Bay Area as well on the same day for his work. We realized it was more complicated when I remembered that I had to be in Los Angeles the day before, and we couldn't figure out how I could be back in San Diego in time for Jeff to make the last flight out of San Diego (a woefully early flight of 6:50 p.m.). We have a part time nanny, but she goes to school in the evenings, and we are not together enough to have lined up a back-up babysitter for such emergency situations. Hence this brilliant idea of driving 18 hours in a 34 hour span.

So on Tuesday morning, I boarded Amtrak's Surfliner for Los Angeles at 6:45 a.m. with my suitcase of exhibits for my deposition. That afternoon, at approximately 3:00 p.m., as I bombarded my witness with my endless list of tedious questions, Jeff left San Diego to pick me up in LA with our little guy strapped in his carseat in the back. After wading through LA traffic, he found me waiting at a Starbucks after my depo. I greeted him with a big cup of coffee for his driving, and we continued to drive and drive and drive -- with a quick stop at In-n-Out after the Grapevine -- until we found ourselves in our familiar terrain, our home that no longer was home. But it still felt like home, even the East Bay, where we had hardly spent any time except to visit our close friends and for the occasional visit to Ikea -- but the signs leading to Berkeley, the lights on the Bay Bridge, and even the potholes on the roads felt like they were mine in some way.

When we checked in at the Hyatt Regency at 1:00 a.m., the guy asked if we needed directions around the city. Oh, no, we said. We used to live here - until we moved away four months ago. He, a native of some unmemorable state like Arkansas or Idaho, raved about the Chinese food in San Francisco. And suddenly, I couldn't stop thinking about the Chinese food in San Francisco.

I stayed up to finish preparing for my next deposition and made the mistake of sitting in front of a mirror with lighting that worked far too well. I noticed all my gray strands as I sat typing in my questions -- and vanity required that I spend at least 30 minutes at 3 in the morning pulling out all my unwanted signs of aging.

At 7:00 a.m., Jeff left for his meeting in Silicon Valley. After showering and getting dressed, I hung out with little T at Starbuck's across the street where I had spent many mornings before work in my days before little T. As we sat there, me in my suit and he in his stroller, he munching on a blueberry scone, me sipping my grande latte, I felt conspicuous -- a mom with a baby in the midst of all those careerists.

Suddenly, I thought of all my friends who must be on their way to work at that very moment and perhaps even passing the very Starbuck's we were sitting in. I regretted the short visit and wished we had set aside some time to see our dear friends that we missed. I impulsively left messages with a few who worked within a 2 block radius, knowing how busy they must be and knowing they would not likely be able to see us on such short notice. At 8:25, we rushed back to the hotel room when little T pooped and waited for my friend who had agreed to watch him while I took the deposition.

At around 9am, as I tried to finish preparing for the deposition, I was surprised by an email from one of the friends I had pinged, and half an hour later, she was knocking on the hotel room door. These visits after a long stretch are never as satisfying as they are meant to be because there is never enough time to say all that you wanted to say or to give as firm as hug as you meant to give. But they are good enough placeholders for the next visit, the next hug.

Seven hours later, after the deposition, after the other meetings, and after talking on the phone with friends who were sick with a cold or couldn't make it to the city that day, we packed our stuff back into the car and started the drive out of SF. It was a mad rush to beat the rush hour traffic, to be ahead of the onslaught of cars pouring out of the feeder ramps. And that was our focus until we were well past Livermore, and miles away from our old home and the friends we didn't get a chance to see.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Our House With a View

Here is the ridiculously amazing sunset I saw tonight from our balcony:



And another photo I took about a month ago:



Before we moved to San Diego, Jeff and I talked about the adjustment period we'd have to go through. We had both lived in the Bay Area for over a decade and had built up so many friendships during that period. That was the hardest part about moving away. We adored our friends out there. But we also talked about the kind of life we'd like to have long term and the unlikelihood that we'd be able to live in San Francisco long term given the bad public schools out there. We also thought about the draw of retiring in a place like San Diego, instead of somewhere in Silicon Valley, which would probably have been where we would have ended up had we not moved down here. And we agreed that if we had to make a move and go through the difficult transition of making new friends and growing our roots, we might as well do it now in our relative youth than doing it right upon retirement.

So that's what we are doing now. Trying to find some softness in the earth where we can put down our roots. And it will take a little time to find that. And to start feeling like this place is home. It's hard not to love this land when we are surrounded by such beauty. Almost everyday, we say to each other how lucky we are to live this privileged life as we do. With the kind of view that we have.

And I know in time, I'll make some new friends out here. Apart from Jeff's parents, I know five people out here. I'm sure in time, that number will grow. I remember how it felt when I first had little T and I didn't know any other moms in my neighborhood. By the time we left, we knew most of the new moms in the neighborhood and would often run into them wherever we went. I'm hoping we can build that kind of life out here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Home Alone

Jeff is out of town for a few weeks, and I'm at home alone with little T. Our nanny worked until 3pm today, and as soon as she was done, we rushed to T's music class down on La Jolla Boulevard. Only one other mom/kid showed up, but the class was delightful just the same.

As we were leaving, I got that dreaded feeling inside as I thought of returning to an empty house. A little taste of those panic attacks I've had a couple of times in the past, where the emptiness of the house feels overwhelming, the looming hours frightening. I strolled little T down the street in the direction of the park we usually walk to. As we neared a frozen yogurt shop, I saw a mom with a stroller seated in front, and I dropped in, hoping that she may be up for a chit chat. But no such luck. As we approached, she started packing up her two little boys and rolled away. I still got my frozen yogurt, which I shared with little T and thought about where to go next. But it was already nearing 5pm, and the sun would go down soon. And the little guy needed his bath, having missed it last night. He was already showing signs of fatigue, so I reluctantly strolled us home.

When I walked in, the closed windows felt stifling, the silence, too thick. I busied myself getting T ready for his bath. As I did, I turned on my iTunes, and Elvis' cooing filled the silence. Bathing T, feeding him, and then chasing him around for a bit filled the following couple of hours. As soon as he went down, I busied myself folding the laundry and then sat myself down with a glass of red wine and my computer.

The Roomba is buzzing downstairs, and Sherlock is already conked out on his pad. I'm in my glasses, with my make-up wiped off. I'm ready for bed, and it's only 7:30pm. I usually don't stay up late anyway, but I don't know if I can fall asleep this early. It's ridiculous because I have a shit load of things to get done, and I'm not sure how I'll finish everything by their deadlines next week. But right now, I can't seem to care very much. I feel immobilized.

I don't know what is wrong with me. I'm guessing that at the heart of this pseudo-panic is a fear of being alone. I had always thought that solitude was something that never bothered me. If anything, I used to relish it and often felt that I didn't have enough of it. I remember how in college and in the years after, I wanted to be left alone more so that I could have more time to read. And now, I can't seem to spend a night alone without feeling panicked.

I imagine at the root of it is some deep-seeded fear. Something I am aware of, but haven't really pieced together. Loneliness has always been a central theme in our family. Growing up, my parents repeatedly mentioned that we were alone in this country, that we had no one we could rely on for help. We had no relatives here, very few family friends. No one we could call if some tragedy befell our family. We had to rely on ourselves and no one else. It was a call to attention. A warning to stay on the alert, lest we let our guards down and suffer.

To prove the case, our family lived a lonely existence. On Christmas and New Year's eves, we often stayed late at our parents' dry cleaners, watching others pick up their evening gowns and tuxedos for the parties they were planning to attend. When we turned off the neon sign and locked the front door after 7pm, the streets were usually empty and the other stores around us closed except for the lone liquor store down the street.

On the holidays we celebrated, we never celebrated with anyone else. Who is there to invite, my parents asked. Besides, they would say, it's just extra money to spend. Why spend more money to feed others?

For several years, I worried about who would attend my parents' funerals. Who could we call? No relatives. Very few friends. No church members. No neighbors. Just our small nuclear family. Who would stand with us to remember their lives? Make note of them and mark their existence on earth?

My dad always admonished that all we had were each other. There's no one else, he would say. We're all we have.

Despite his admonishments, we have done a poor job of staying cohesive as a family. And I wonder if my panic attacks didn't start after my fight started with my sister, the person I always relied on to be there for me.

In some moments, this world seems like a fragile little place, where all I have are Jeff, my little T, and my parents. These four people out of all the people in this world. Who can we really rely on to be there in times of need? But not just times of need, because I'm sure I have friends I can call on if something dire came up. People whose lives don't turn on a different axle, who don't live separate lives except for occasions when our lives intersect for this or that social gathering.

Sometimes I wished we lived in a small village, where everyone knew everyone else's business, when you can amble down the road to find a kin. I must be longing for more meaningful human contact, something I have had less of since we moved down to San Diego. It's just not enough to post some tidbit on Facebook every now and then.