Thursday, March 28, 2013

Quote of the Day

"When we tell our stories, we change the world." Brene Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Our three (and almost half) year old has been exploding with words these days. From the minute he wakes up at 6am until he goes down at 8:30pm, he is spewing with words (with a mini break for a nap in between). New words, old words, made up words, repeated words, he has them all. In the car, he bombards us with questions from destination A to destination B and has a running commentary on every house, car, person, dog, cloud, and blimp we pass.

The other week, we passed acres and acres of almond groves and grape vines as we drove from our friends' house in South Lake Tahoe to visit some other friends in Montecito. T spotted a field of trees, their branches elegantly arched like outstretched limbs, blooming with wisps of delicate white, feathery flowers.

When he saw them, he exclaimed, "Look, Mommy, those trees look like ballerinas!"

Sugar Plum Fairies, anyone? Such poetry from my little man.

When he talks, Jeff and I do all we can to listen (well, most of the time). We lean toward him, we crane our necks, we bend at our knees. We parrot back his words to show we understand. We answer all of his questions, even after the eighteenth "why", even after he circuits back to the same question he asked three questions earlier. We nod our affirmations or explain why we disagree. We open our faces with surprise or scrunch them with consternation. We do all we can to continue the dialogue.

Sometimes, however, his precious words come out a little muddled. It could be that the word is a tad too big, and all the vowels and consonants get jumbled and squashed in his tiny mouth. Or in their hurry to land in our ears, the words run into each other, one unsuspecting fragile mound of syllables tripped and overrun by a bully on its heels. Or little T forgets to breathe in the middle of his rushed sentence, and all the words abandon their beginnings and endings and leave us stranded in an incoherent blob of sounds. The latest has been T's insistence that his words can sound the way he damn pleases, and if he wants to pronounce "cat" as "chat", that's his prerogative.

What three (and almost half) year old has not had a mispronunciation or two. Or some jumbling or slurring of words. Maybe even a lisp. It comes with the territory. We understand that. But what we did not expect was the explosion that happens after we fail to take in what he has to say. If we misinterpret what he has said, he unexpectedly becomes silent. Then, his little lips start to tremble. Little mounds of tear well up in the corners of his eyes. Then the bawling starts. In between the slobbering and the hyperventilating, he shouts, "You MIZ-understood ME!"

It's as if we told him that he could never play with Buzz Lightyear ever again. Or that Mickey died. Or that he could no longer sleep in his Lightning McQueen bed. It's as profound an upset as he could experience in his three and half years of existence lived with a belief in Santa, an unquestioned expectation that food would appear whenever he hungered, and the unwavering knowledge that he could get his star as long as he peed and pooped in his potty.

When his tears start to fall, we entreat him to repeat himself. "Help Mommy and Daddy understand what you said. Can you say it again?" We give him our most concerned smile, attempting to convey that fortitude is what is required at the moment, that we are ever so eager to understand. Sometimes, he shouts back with a big "NO!" and continues to cry. But after some cajoling, he repeats himself -- and sometimes (reluctantly) again -- until we understand. "Oh! Is that what you said. Now we understand! What a good thing you repeated yourself. And you know, I don't know if blimps have steering wheels. Do you want to look it up when we go home? What a good question!"

I've been thinking about his need to be heard and to be understood. To not be misunderstood. And I think about my own experience growing up in this country. Where I often felt as if no one understood what I was going through. That words were often inadequate to convey my perspective, my experience. That even if I spoke, not many could really understand because they had a different frame of reference. How I often chose to stay silent because it seemed so pointless. And I wonder how it impacts us. What do we do with this apparently deep seeded need to be understood when no one does? Where do all those upsets and tears go when those we want to make understand cannot?

I would like my children to have their crying fits now, when we can identify the source of their frustration, rather than later when it takes five therapists to untangle the causes. I want them to have the faith to know that we try, that we'll always try to understand, even if we misunderstand each other at times. I want them to keep trying talking to us, even we seem to lack the ability to understand, even if we at times may be too busy to hear. I want to instill that fortitude in them, the fortitude to keep trying, because if we give up on words, we can so easily lose each other. And losing them is not something I -- no parent -- can stand to bear.

Friday, March 22, 2013

On Self Esteem

Self esteem was in short supply when I was growing up.

Not that anyone was out to crush us. We just didn't have an environment where there was such a thing as self esteem, much less a sense of self. I'm not sure if my parents thought of us in those terms -- as individuals with individual sense of selves. To them, we were children -- viewed as a unit, perhaps more or less interchangeable, with roles to play and futures to fulfill. Of course, they knew us as separate people, with distinct personalities, but I don't know if they necessarily thought of us as contained beings ripe enough to possess inner lives worthy of consideration. We were beings in the making, nascent and malleable, billowing with potential and room for improvement. Their job was to help us ripen, prevent bruises and defects, and deliver us for perfection in the hopes that such painstaking preparation would help us weather future storms.

When I was younger, I remember my mother scrutinizing me for potential defects. In middle school, I walked slightly pigeon-toed. My mother walked alongside me, block after block, reminding me to point my toes straight. Over and over again, she made me walk along the divide in sidewalk cement to use as a guide for my misaligned feet. Her reminders were incessant, and I remember feeling harangued. Just leave me alone, I muttered. It does not matter. But to her, it did matter. It was her job as the mother to correct my defect. She focused on the potential of a corrected defect; all I heard were the words that I was somehow defective.

Another defect I had was my right eyelid. When I chewed, my eyelid flinched ever so slightly with my jaws. My aunt noticed it when I was a child, and my mother zoomed in like a moth drawn to the light. She stared and stared while I ate. Try chewing this way, she encouraged. No, try it another way. To no avail. She gave up when she realized that the movement was involuntary. My only choice was to chew less, which I tried to minimize under my mom's watchful eye, or to chew with my head down. Once in my early 30s, my mom called me out of the blue. She wanted to know if I wasn't seeing anyone, couldn't get married because of my eye. I laughed at the time because the idea seemed so absurd. But to this day, I feel self-conscious and flood with shame when someone notices.

When I was younger, I often felt inadequate. I didn't have much going for me. I stood a good foot taller than most kids in my class. I reached puberty early. I had oily skin and hair. And on top of that, I had a mom who had no problem pointing out my defects.

Now that I'm a parent, I can understand some of those concerns. You want your child to fit in, to belong. To not be that child with a blaring "difference" who could be rejected by a society of primitive beings we all have to learn not to be.

I can see how she was coming from a place of fear. But I can also see how we approach the world from radically different points of view. When faced with a "difference," you can teach your child to accept the difference -- in herself first. To love herself. To build within your child an inner reserve of self esteem and confidence so that she can face the world, and in turn, force the world to make room for her. But to do that, you have to accept that difference first, and you may be more inclined to accept that difference if you see that difference as an intrinsic part of your child. Because you believe that the body (and mind) is a holy temple.

Alternatively, instead of accepting the difference or defect, you can reject it. You don't accept it as an intrinsic part of your child, and you do whatever it takes to eradicate it. This rejection may come from a place of shame, but it may also arise out of concern for your child's welfare, out of fear that your child may be spurned. And it is far simpler to "fix" your child than to fix the world. But this approach can also be viewed optimistically, as a sign of tenacity, that anything can be conquered if you try hard enough, if you work on yourself. Maybe if you were raised in a society as rigid and as socially conforming as South Korea was in my mother's youth, you may see no choice but to conform your child. Because that is the best way to maximize the chances of your child's success.

I can't help but wonder if I would have received her efforts to "correct" me with a better attitude if we had been raised in Korea. Back there, blunt criticisms are unleashed without any attempts at nicety, and it is not uncommon to be told openly that you are fat or unattractive. Maybe if we too had been raised with the same standard of socially acceptable communication, we would have developed the same armadillo skin that could have helped us weather the criticisms and seen them as something constructive, as she intended.

But it wasn't just this. I think it was my parents' ambitions for us that, ironically, did greater damage. My parents had three children, but one dream for all of us. They wanted us to become doctors or lawyers, some kind of professional. It was their idea of security, of fulfillment. It was the best they could imagine. Their children would have money, an earning potential that could never be taken away. And we would have the respect of others, a degree to elevate us in the eyes of others.

Their dream, however well intentioned, had little to do with any of us. Although none of us showed any inclination to become a doctor or a lawyer, they failed to see this in their zeal. My parents tended to disregard our individual traits that didn't align with their prospects for us. And when we showed promise in any other field, whether in playing an instrument or showing our creativity otherwise, it mattered little. Of course they humored us by attending the annual holiday concert, but we were quickly made to understand that excelling in those areas held no value. It was as if they took their pruning knives and lopped off those traits they deemed undesirable in the hopes that we would tend in the direction they set out for us.

But I don't know if we ever recovered from their efforts to shape us. We felt the pain of having parts of ourselves shunted. The implicit message we received was that those traits were neither worth having nor knowing, but to us, they felt like they contained the seeds of our inner essence. It felt like a rejection in the deepest sense, as if they were telling us that we were not worth knowing, not at our core. And it felt like a failure -- their failure to see us for who we really were. And to this day, I can't help but wonder if those thwarted parts were the very things that could have helped us define ourselves, helped fulfill our destiny.

Our sense of rejection created a cascade of issues that none of us children ever addressed, or at least not really well. Suppressed of our distinguishing traits, I think we felt interchangeable -- and hollowed. We became fiercely competitive with each other, even though we never acknowledged it. But we expressed it in the way we always compared ourselves to each other, in the way we resented each other. And we lived with the seed of fear that we could never measure up, that we would never reach the standards that others set for us.

It's hard for me to blame my parents. They were no more ambitious for us than most other Korean parents we knew. If anything, my parents were more easy going. They never sat us at the piano for hours with a stick in hand. They never made us practice for hours. They never prohibited other activities at the exclusion of the one they chose. They were moderate, but even so, they followed the prescribed methods of their time and culture. And they believed, with all of the best intentions, that they were creating the best environment to optimize the future of their children.

But no matter the good intention, I see our upbringing through the American lens, where acceptance is touted as the higher road, and self-confidence, the key to one's success. And through this lens, I am sensitive to the scars my siblings and I bear and what I interpret to be markers of low self-esteem. We are quick to anger. We have a tendency to read into comments, to scour another's words and to find offense in them. To take things personally. To get our feelings easily hurt.  All of us are a little needy -- in need of more attention, more affirmation, more affection. And I don't mean to oversimplify things by pinning everything on the parenting we received, but it's hard to argue that there isn't some connection.

I think of the difficult task of parenting. You could have all the best intentions in the world.  You could plan and hope for the best. You can clothe and feed your child, wipe off that snot, break your back washing laundry by hand day and night, run to the doctor in the middle of the night with desperate fear of that abnormally high temperature as your baby cries and screams at the top of her lungs in your ear. You can refrain from eating that bowl of rice you hunger for because your child wants it, and you limit yourself to the scrapes left over from the last meal that your child rejected simply because he wasn't in the mood to eat the rest. And you can worry in a way you've never worried about another human being, not because something horrific has occurred, but simply because you understand the ever-present dangers of this world as well as the frightening vulnerability of your little person. And you are determined to do whatever it takes to protect this child.

You could do all that, year after year. But the world changes on you. And the standards of parenting change. Your now grown children see the world through a different set of eye, a different measure of approval. And your parenting cannot surpass the boundaries of culture or time. No. You do what you believe to be right at the time, but what you believe to be right is a product of your own upbringing, your own culture, the beliefs of your time. You do the best that you can, and pray that your children will one day have the ability to reflect, the maturity to understand, and the inner resources to appreciate. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mothers and Daughters

My mother has the heartiest laugh. Her face opens up and a deep guttural peal rings out. In the middle of her laughing fit, she sometimes snorts and covers her mouth half heartedly as she doubles over in her spasm. Then she throws her head back as she clutches her chest with her other hand and you could see tears squeezing out of the corners of her squinted eyes. It never matters whether anyone else joins in. She is too busy laughing to notice others. Her laughter is always nearby and ready, as if waiting to be released like helium from an overinflated balloon. She finds humor readily, in the smallest incidents, anywhere around the bend. She used to often emerge from the bathroom in a fit of giggles, saying "Oh, it's so stinky in there!"  

Because of her laughter, I used to think of her as a jolly soul. Someone who saw the levity in life, who found humor in the everyday. But as I grew older, I saw a different side of mother. The side that had always been there, but one I had somehow failed to see.

From my late teens, I had been my mother's confidant. She would often sidle up to me late in the evening to chat. I would be lying in bed nestled with a book under a tiny lamp, and she would peek in with any excuse. Do you need more blankets? Are you tired? Did you have enough to eat? I would answer and move over to make room for her. She would drape the comforter over her legs and start the conversation talking about any random tidbit from the day. After a while, though, the conversation would drift toward the all too familiar terrain. Her feelings of neglect. Her anger. Her day to day complaints and frustrations.

For years, I just listened and nodded along. "Oh, really, Mom?" "That's so hard, Mom." "You have to take better care of yourself." I was her sounding board. I was her listening ear. I was her daughter.

Sometimes, though, I didn't listen very well. I felt some topics were off limits, that as her daughter, I should not have to listen to certain types of complaints, like her gripes about my dad. "Mom, you have to find some friends to talk to. I'm your daughter. I shouldn't be hearing about this kind of stuff," I would say. She would respond that she couldn't talk to anyone else because such things should not go outside the family. And I was her daughter. Who else could she talk to but her daughter?, she would ask.

The fact was that even if she wanted to, my mom had no friends to talk to. After we left Houston in 1987, I don't remember my mom ever having a friend or any semblance of a social life. She and my dad just worked. They did not attend church. They did not meet with any alumni groups. They did not know anyone apart from a few Koreans they knew from the old days.

Sometimes I tried to help my mom. I often encouraged her to nurture her relationships with the few people she knew. "Let's invite so and so over for Christmas, Mom," I would say. "I'll help with all the cooking. And if they're busy, let's figure out another date." Once in a while, she agreed, but more often than not, she refused, saying that hosting others was an unnecessary expense. Week after week, months after months, I offered to drive her to church, even though I had no interest in going for myself. Once, when I was home for a college break, I took my mom to meet my friend Cynthia and her mom. We visited their apartment in Flushing and chatted over coffee and tea. When I was graduating from law school, my friends and I organized a dinner with our parents so that our parents could meet each other. And another time, I took my parents to my friend Grace's house for a Thanksgiving dinner. But those events never transpired into anything more than isolated meet ups.

I used to worry about my parents' funeral. Who would attend? Who could we call to remember them and their days with us on earth? And I couldn't even come up with one name apart from our small family.

When I left for college, I felt a deep sense of guilt for abandoning her. For leaving to live my life while she lived so poorly. For having new experiences while she endlessly repeated her mundane routine. For eating at new restaurants and for meeting friends for coffee while she ate the same tedious meals day after day. For having the freedom to live my life while she was stuck in one she didn't like.

Once in a while, we talked on the phone. They were usually more perfunctory than anything else. But sometimes, I would receive a call in the middle of the night, and I could hear her desperation and loneliness. Once, she crushed her hand in the car door, and she described the pain and her feelings of neglect. "It hurts so much," she cried. No one took her to the hospital, and no one took care of her. And I cried from 800 miles away, feeling helpless.

It took me a long time to realize that my mom could help herself. Before, I couldn't see that she could have taken herself to the hospital. That she could have walked out of the store and demanded a different work arrangement with my dad. That she could have taken a train or a bus to church. That she could have learned to drive. That she could have learned English. That she could have said no to whatever she did not want. I could not see that until recently. All these years, I felt so much pity, so much sympathy, and so much guilt for all of her sorrows.

Every time I heard one of her complaints, I felt responsible. I thought it was my job to find a solution. I would offer her suggestions and brainstorm to try to find that magical fix. Or I would drive to the store to buy whatever it was she needed. Other times, I would intervene and scream at my dad. Or at my brother. Or try to cajole my sister to see my mom's point of view. I didn't realize that she may not have been looking for a solution.

Over the years, her complaints have not changed. She repeats them to me, but not to the person who should hear them. She believes in restraint, the kind of restraint that practices walking away with one's civility rather than giving them a piece of your mind, the kind of restraint that elevates harmony over personal needs, even if it means walking on tiptoes day in and day out. I do not understand my mother's need for restraint, for secrecy. Or her sense of powerlessness. I've asked her many times why she doesn't change this or that. Why she doesn't speak up. Why she doesn't express her dissatisfaction and demand a response. She often responds that she herself doesn't know, that she is frustrated with herself. To me, it seems so simple, so easy. But she lives in a different landscape that I do not understand. She answers to some cultural norm that accepts Buddhist form of suffering, some inner psychological need that she herself may not recognize, some standard of civility that seems pointless to me. Maybe she cried because she needed someone's expression of care for her more than bandages for her hands. Maybe it mattered more to see my dad's willingness to compromise than to implement the change that she complained about.

I hadn't realized how deeply her sorrows and anger had seeped into my bones. These days, suddenly, in the middle of the day, I feel a tightening in my chest. A sadness creeps in. Tears well up. A sense of helplessness. And hopelessness. Despair. As I wait for the emotions to recede, my brain starts to process the scenario. A week spent at home with the baby. A desire to go somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere different. To see something new. To escape the familiar. And I remember my mother's constant longing to escape the confines of our hole in the wall burger joint, then the dry cleaners. Her frequent yearnings to see more, to see the world. And I realize that I'm consumed by her sadness even though I live in one of the most glorious places in this country with a view of the ocean in a spacious house, enveloped by the loving sunshine, just blocks from a beach.

Over the years, I have come to resist my mother's unburdening. I no longer want to hear her talk of her sorrows, her complaints, her frustrations. These days, I stop her short, and say, "Mom, you can change all that. It's in your power." And I proceed to advice her the steps to take, even as I hear myself sound like a know-it-all teenager. But I don't know how else to keep her emotions from oozing into my ears, into my bones. To keep these sorrows from settling in and filling up my well. And from overflowing when my own sorrows arise.

So many aspects of my life are answers to my mother. From high school on, I have always maintained close friends and kept them close to my heart. I always have confidants I can talk to about my deepest fears, worries, complaints, and I feel desperate when I don't have close friends nearby, like shortly after a move. And I like to have an active social life. I put in ridiculous efforts to entertain my friends. I invite them over constantly, and I make dishes with dungeness crabs, giant prawns, and nicest cuts of meat, despite the expenses.

And unlike my mother, I take pride in speaking out. In taking action. In finding my way out, whether it entails self help books, a run on the treadmill, a blog post, or a call to the therapist. If I feel wronged, I say so, and I'll raise the issue before I begin to stew. If I don't, I feel powerless, helpless, and I do anything to escape that feeling.

These days, I am on a hunt to find my equilibrium, to find whatever materials I need to fill in the holes in my life. I rebel against my mother's form of restraint because I'm living proof that it does not work. All of her sorrows and anger and fears still reside in me, and they threaten to grow, like mold trapped in the deepest corners of the closet. And I push aside the blinds, throw the windows wide open, reorganize all the crap, throw out what I no longer need, and let the sun shine in.