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.