Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why December Makes Me Sad

Musing on why December makes me sad...

I wrote a blog post for this week, and I'd like to link to it here.  Perhaps, despite the melancholy tone of the piece, you'll feel hopeful like I do?

Hello, December. It’s that time of year here in America. A time for good tidings of comfort and joy. A time for happy family memories and meaningful traditions. But for me and my interfaith marriage, December now comes packaged with a new tradition–an annual holiday cry (or if I’m really being honest…cries. Plural.)
Now I know a lot of people cry during the holidays. The pressure of stressful travel plans and forced family gatherings is enough to make many people crack. But for the interfaith family, December is a particularly lonely time.
I go online to order holiday cards. (I am a little behind this year.) I skip over the red and green ones, the ones with Christmas trees or holly or Santa Claus, the ones that say “Merry Christmas,” the ones that say “Happy Hanukkah,” and I’m left to choose from lots of cards with “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” written generically on the front. After much much agonizing, I pick, “Peace, Joy, and Love.” Those are things that people from all faiths want, right?  Continue reading -->

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One (or Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes)

Musing on one year…  and a letter to my baby girl.

It’s crept up on me - our daughter’s first birthday.  And alongside the anniversary of the day of her birth comes my official realization of exactly how fast one year of life can pass.  It’s nearly daily, as we watch her play, that my husband tells me with a tinge of dread in his voice, she’s going to college soon.  And as seasoned parents tell me, he’s right.

Seeing the world from a new point of view
This year has been filled with beautiful memories: endless amounts of shameless gushing over everything she does, of the secretly held belief in our biased hearts that even as she embarks on the same milestones as every other single baby in the world throughout time, she’s the best baby that ever lived.  But even as I fill with pride and joy, I am also growing ever more familiar with the haunting feeling that we are going to mess it all up.  Gazing into my baby’s happy, soulful eyes, I know that not everyday ahead will be blissful and full of light. 

There’s something I used to do when I was pregnant.  Those haunting feelings were familiar back then.  I’d often lay awake at night worrying about whether the baby growing inside me was getting everything she needed, and hoping she was healthy, strong, comfortable, and well.  And so whenever I encountered that paralyzing worry, I'd get up and out of bed, and would pull out a notebook and write her a letter.  I made the decision not only to “journal,” but to actually write words directly to my baby.  I wanted to get a head start on what I hope will be a lifetime of open and direct communication - of not sacrificing what’s really going on for the sake of appearing like we’ve got everything together, or saving face.

Today is a perfect day for another letter.

Dear Baby Girl,

You are one year old today!  It’s been one year since you and I worked together, along with Dada and Kate, to bring you from inside my uterus out into the world.  You came into the world with your eyes wide open.  From the very first moments, you were already looking around, alert and awake. 

You are strong.  Just minutes after you were born, we placed you on top of me, belly to belly, and you inched and wiggled, all by yourself, up to my chest.  Once you were up there, you picked up your head, threw it over to one side, and began nursing for the very first time, all on your own.  I was there to make sure you didn’t fall, and to offer a bit of support and guidance.  But you knew what to do already.  Every time you come across a new challenge in life, or a big task, look inside yourself first, you might already have an idea as to how to begin.  But also don’t be afraid to look for help; we are here to support you.

You are small.  Yes, you are smaller than most other babies your age.  You have tiny hands and tiny feet.  But we are all small.  In comparison to this big, big world around us, we are just a very small piece.  Always look around you with wonder and remember that you are part of something bigger than yourself. But also know that our physical size doesn’t have anything to do with our capacity to love, give, and make a big difference.  You can do big, big things, no matter how small you are.

The world is both good and bad.  People will try to tell you that it's all one or all the other, but I don’t believe it.  When I look around, I see and experience that both are true.  In this past year of your life, there has been unspeakable badness and sadness.  A month after you were born, there was a horrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and then a few months later there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon, and just this week a typhoon hit the central Philippines, the country my family is from.  Someday you might ask me why these bad things happen, and I will tell you honestly that I don’t know.  I will tell you that I still ask that same question.  Don’t ever stop asking that question.  Trying to find the answer can lead you toward a deeper understanding of people, give you a greater sense of empathy, and inspire you to fight for what you believe in. 

To find the good in this past year, I don’t have to look too far.  I only have to see you smile, which is something you do freely and frequently.  I only have to feel your Dada squeeze my hand as we watch you play, and discover, and learn.  I only have to watch the way complete strangers light up when they meet you.  You are already, even at your very young age, spreading good cheer everywhere we go.

I love you.  Unconditionally.  There's nothing you need to do or not do to earn my love.  People often warn me that someday you'll do things that will make it difficult for me to love you.  That as a teenager you'll roll your eyes at me and want nothing to do with me.  And I know we may hurt each other, sometimes unintentionally, and other times on purpose.  But I’m holding out hope that even through tough times, we'll keep talking.  I’m hoping that ours will be a home where we talk about how we feel and what we're afraid of, where we say we're sorry and take responsibility for our mistakes.  That ours will be a home where you hear and feel how much we love you, everyday.

Happy Birthday, my darling.  Thank you for this amazing year. 
I am so incredibly honored to be your mama. 

Love always,


One - is the finale from A Chorus Line.  When I listen to this song, I swear they are singing about my baby.  :)
Seasons of Love - sometimes unofficially called "Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes."  I've listened to this song from Rent since I was in high school, this year it has completely refreshed meaning to me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn Leaves

Musing on Autumn…

It’s getting colder outside.  And it’s happening much faster than I anticipated.  I knew that this day would come.  But having just moved from Los Angeles, I know that I was incredibly and hopelessly spoiled by mild daily weather.  I’d forgotten what a year with aggressive, churning seasons feels like. 

Hello, Autumn.

It’s been a while.  Seven years to be exact.  Hello again, season of nostalgia, season of change.  Season of warmer clothing, marching band, and high school musical rehearsals.  Season of pumpkin heads, pumpkin beer, and pumpkin lattes.  Season of apple picking, apple cider, and cider donuts.  Season of crunching leaves, seeing your breath, rosy noses and cheeks, of orange, yellow, brown, and red.  Season of growing older, and going to sleep.  Season of letting go.
First Cider Donut Ever

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I used to say the thing I missed most about the Midwest was autumn.  After a few years of living, I would continue to say it, but to be honest, I think I forgot what I was missing.

Most everything about autumn this year is familiar… the way the air smells and feels.  There’s a little bite in the air that comes from the kind of damp cold you find here in the Midwest.  I can immediately recall those days when as kids, my siblings and I would play in piles of fallen leaves.  The bits of leaves would get trapped in our hair, catching in the cracks around our sleeves and collars, and stuck to the bottoms of our shoes.  I’m struggling to find a perfect way to describe the smell of autumn leaves, actually, I can’t even find a mediocre way, but if you have smelled them, they are stamped in your olfactory memory forever.  It was cold outside, but that’s not the kind of thing you make note of as a child.  You only realized it was cold out there when you came inside and the ends of your fingers and toes turned red hot as they start to warm up.

During autumn, the leaves of trees turn into some of the most vibrant colors you can find in nature.  You breathe in this beauty, hear the loud silences between the crunching beneath your feet… forgetting for one moment, or never even realizing to begin with, that what you’re witnessing is death.  Breathtaking, perfect, fragrant, crisp, clear death.  As life drains from the leaves, they show us jewel-bright colors, they reflect the glow of the sun with radiant warmth.

Imagine we could see human life in the same way.  Imagine if we made a special trip to visit the dying, not in the tentative, fearful and sad way we do, but with anticipation, wonder, and awe.  Imagine we embraced our own “leaving” the way we embrace the leaves of autumn.

People have been asking me whether I’m ready for winter this year.  And my answer is “no, not yet.”  I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit how hard I’m taking this autumn chill.  But as I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’m really trying to live here right now, so instead of worrying about the inevitable frozen days ahead, I’m trying to let my favorite season hang around while keeping my eyes wide open.
Autumn Leaves is a popular oft-recorded standard which was originally a 1945 French song "Les feuilles mortes" (literally "The Dead Leaves"). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why My Marriage Isn't Trendy

Musing on why my marriage isn't trendy...

I missed writing a post this week, but in its place I had the opportunity to blog for, a website devoted to "parenting with a Jewish twist."  I have the honor of bringing an interfaith perspective to the conversation. 

So I decided to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), and blog about my relationship with my husband.  I think some people might feel saddened to read this, while others may relate, and yet others will not understand why it its a difficult story for me to share.  Regardless of which kind of reader you are, I hope that what I have to say creates opportunities for empathetic conversation.

Here is my post...

I'm a Chinese American Married to a Jew, But Our Marriage Isn't Trendy

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Here Right Now

Musing on making each moment count...

I found out this week that a good friend is sick... very sick.  The bewildering, "shaking my fist at God" kind of sick that no one should be, ever.  And especially not when you're in your mid-thirties.  I admit, I feel like I have no business writing about anything this week.  I've been wading through life these past few days feeling like most of my thoughts are petty, and searching for deep meaning in every moment.  I found myself looking at my beautiful 10-month-old little girl in this too short, too fast life, and thinking, How do I make each moment count?

But after a few days of asking myself that cliche question, and becoming frustrated with the cliche answers, I went back to the drawing board.  And I came up with a new question... How do I live right now?

We Americans live in an overwhelmingly performance-based culture.  And the Chinese culture my family comes from might be even more performance-based.  So it's no surprise that I began by focusing on the "make" and the "count" in my original question.  Growing up, we are asked, What are you going to be?  What are you going to do?  Are you working really hard now so that you can be this really great thing later on in life?  Are you going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer?  Did you practice the piano, so that you'll play well in the recital?  Did you study so you'll achieve good grades?

We do the same thing with our babies.  We ask, What can your baby do now?  Is he rolling over?  Is she pulling up?  Is she crawling yet?  Can he walk?  Can he say Mama?  Can she wave?  Is she sleeping through the night?  I think I have asked and been on the receiving end of every single one of these questions of other parents.  They are the questions we think we're supposed to ask, they have become almost second nature conversation starters when we run into a parent with a baby.  And because these are the questions we absentmindedly ask, we also absentmindedly live to answer them.

When I'm playing with my baby, I keep finding myself working toward making "yes" the answer to all those questions.  I try to teach her how to wave... try to make her crawl toward the toy with which I'd be particularly tickled to see her play... try to capture her standing on camera.  The first time I tried to do this, she was not completely ready to stand on her own yet.  I propped her up next to an ottoman, then stood fumbling with my camera phone, while her big beautiful head hit the ground. 

It's difficult to stop this habit of always aiming for the next thing, of planning for the next moment, of looking for the next milestone.  But yesterday I made an attempt to squelch every instinct I had to "shape" and "teach" my daughter, and instead I followed her cues throughout the day.  Instead of trying to make her sit and read a whole book through with me, I put the book down and followed her when she started to crawl away.  I watched the wide-eyed delight on her face as she laughed at the shadow the cat's tail was making on the wall.  I loved seeing the way her lips jut forward, and listening to how her breath gets heavy as she tries stacking bowls inside one another.  When a siren began howling outside, I watched her head perk up, her eyes bright and searching for the origin of the sound.

Hello, World
I realize that for me, there is no better inspiration of how to live right now, than to watch my baby, closely, avoiding all my impulses to "make meaning" out of her play.  She lets herself cry when she's sad, or scared, or hurt.  She laughs freely when something is new, and delightful.  She's not self conscious about whether she's good enough at something to do it, she just does it.  She looks at the world with a wonderment I've long forgotten.

I suppose we have to keep thinking about the future.  I know that it's responsible to plan ahead, and to work toward goals.  I know that we will continue to be evaluated based on our achievements and performance.  I know that's how our world works.

But as I think about my friend today, I'd like to propose that we make a shift in how we think about living our lives.  Maybe the way to "make each moment count," is to stop doing so much counting, measuring, and evaluating.  Maybe we need to stop deciding what's worthwhile based on how much money we'll make, how much time we'll save, how far ahead we'll get, what rewards we'll receive.  Maybe we need to take a cue from the babies we once were, and try living here right now.  I'm starting right now.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Impossible Dream

Musing on following your dreams...

There's only so long after you've "moved in" that you can keep saying "we just moved here."  Today marks the 3-month anniversary of our Chicago Move-in Day, so I think I may have used up my "just moved here" time.  Three months ago I stood in our empty living room, directing traffic as the talented and persevering Allied Van Lines moving crew dispersed our belongings throughout our new home.  The moving supervisor had invited his local 15-year-old nephew along, offering him a few bucks to help with some heavy lifting. 

I was impressed with young Pedro.  His conversational skills far exceeded those of many adults my age.  He made good eye contact, asked follow up questions.  He skipped past petty small talk to ask questions of substance.  After sharing with him that I had been working as an actor in Los Angeles before having a baby and moving here to Chicago, he asked, nonchalantly, with what I swear was a cocked eyebrow,

"So was that, like, your dream?"  I felt a stutter creep up my throat, and then a little bit of heat behind my cheeks.  Even precocious Pedro wonders what you're doing with your life! the devilish angel on my shoulder whispered in my ear.

D is for Dream
I picture the bright-eyed me of my childhood, dreaming of all the things she wanted to do someday - sing on a Broadway stage, star in a Hollywood film, become a best-selling novelist - and I see her disappointment as she looks up at me, a stay-at-home, wanna-be creative-type, not-currently-contributing-financially-to-the-family mama. 

I went on an audition recently.  I know I did it in part so that I could tell "childhood me" that I was still living the dream.  A local Chicago theatre was holding its season general auditions.  I stapled a headshot to a resume, drove in the rain, and waited (nearly an hour and half) to present my monologue and song. 

It was one of those auditions where there's just a thin curtain separating the space where the auditions are taking place from all the actors waiting to audition.  So you can hear everything, and you know that when it's your turn, everyone will hear you.  The director was asking everyone a question, "so, what are you working on now?"  Historically, that's an anxiety-inducing question for me.  The answer is a well rehearsed (but totally natural sounding, because, you know, I'm an actor!) "elevator pitch" that makes it seem like I'm busy, I've got a lot going on, I've got options, but I'm also "totally available" if this theatre wants to cast me.  If I was working on something, I'd have to find a way to make it sound really cool.  And if I wasn't... well, it's amazing how many ways there are to say I'm "in between projects."

But today, a calm comes over me.  No, I haven't been working on anything in a while... but wait... yes, actually, yes, I have been working on something.  I've been improvising characters, working on my voice, writing alternate lyrics, exercising my storytelling chops.  I am a dancer, a singer, a contortionist, a dramatic reader, a comedian, a chef.  I create the world, present it, to the most wonderful, eager, hopeful, fulfilling audience member of my life.  There is no rehearsal for this performance, I have to make it up as I go.  She is going to see every stumble, every flub.  She'll see when I'm having an off-night, will be able to tell when I'm "phoning it in."  And she'll witness some real moments of vulnerability and truth.  Those moments during a performance when you realize for as much as you're giving to your audience, nothing compares to what you receive in return.  They are moments that will stick with both of us for the rest of our lives.

There's a dream you didn't even know to dream because it was simply impossible for you to imagine how much you wanted it.  There was nothing any parent could have ever told me about parenthood that could have prepared me for how much love I would feel, or how much more I could grow.

Maybe "being a mom" isn't everyone's dream, but I'll tell my little girl someday... Dream big, dream about the thing that is the greatest thing you can imagine, and then do it, make it happen!  But save a little room for dreaming of the thing that is so great, that makes you so full, so rich, that's even better than anything you could have ever pictured.  Be open to that dream too.

So the answer to your question, Pedro, is yes.  It was my dream to be an actor.  And all those childhood dreams, sure, I still want them to come true.  But that was long before I knew there could be something even better.  To live only for that old dream would be settling.  Right now, I'm a mama.  And I'm living the dream. 
The Impossible Dream - today's blogpost title is a song sung by Don Quixote at the end of the first act in Man of La Mancha.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Food, Glorious Food

Musing on why I didn't find that Whole Foods blog funny...

Last week I read a satirical blog in the Huffington Post Comedy section entitled "Surviving Whole Foods."  I found the link in my facebook feed via numerous friends that day.  I eagerly clicked on the link.  As someone who enjoys a monthly shopping trip to Whole Foods, I got ready to laugh knowingly, maybe even at myself.

But I did not laugh.  So I reread the blog, twice... then again.  I thought I must be missing something.  But I just wasn't laughing.  So I slept on it.  But when I woke up, I felt even less like laughing.  Had I become humorless?  Could I no longer take a joke?

So I'll try to put what's bugging me into words.  I think that good satire is rooted in a healthy dose of truth.  But reading this blog just felt like a blow by blow of one over-the-top misguided observation after another.  I cringe when the author casually states that "poor people" don't have "special diet needs."  I disagree.  Diabetes immediately comes to mind... it actually affects people below the poverty line at a higher rate.  Here is Dr. Mark Hyman's thoughtful blog from a few years back that addresses the link between poverty and diabetes.  I suspect that poor people likely have just as many, if not more, special diet needs when compared to society at large.  These special diet needs were likely caused by the fact that they didn't have access to good, real, whole food in the first place.  Maybe they were deterred by the high costs, or more likely because a place that offers quality food doesn't even exist in the neighborhood.  This does not make me laugh. 

The author continues to ridicule Whole Foods as she makes her way through the beauty and vitamin aisles.  Somehow she is "tricked" into buying things she doesn't need, including hundred dollar face cream.  To use her own phrase, talk about "rich white people problems."  Talk about finding a way to factor personal responsibility out of the equation, and to let Whole Foods take the blame for you spending too much money, you having no self control, you being too preoccupied with the size of your pores to make the choice to not max out your credit card.  Maxing out credit cards is still responsible for having ruined the financial lives of countless Americans and played no small role in the economic downturn we so often like to blame on the government.  This also does not make me laugh.

Unlike the author of "Surviving Whole Foods," I didn't grow up shopping there, as she states in an on camera interview.  In fact, I'm pretty sure my parents never step foot in the place because they've also heard that you'll spend your "whole paycheck" there.  Maybe they are intimidated because they've heard of the snooty, unfriendly, pretentious staff members.  This has not been my experience.

Avocado - Natural Whole Baby Food
The parking lot at the Chicago South Loop store has great big parking spaces (it's a perk to living in the mid-west I suppose!).  I'm wearing my baby as I cross the walk, and a nice lady smiles and waves me through.  I have a lovely conversation with the butcher behind the counter, he helps me decide what the best cut of meat would be for a recipe I'd like to try.  He's knowledgeable, friendly, and talks with me about how to get the most for my money here.  I sample delicious cheese; I learn where it's from.  The whole wheat bread is in the bread aisle along with all the other bread; I am empowered to choose a loaf that's in my budget.  The signs in the produce section help to highlight what's in season, so if I want, I can make the decision to provide my family with food that's growing optimally and nearby.  I learn about a local farm I didn't know about before.  I buy an organic avocado from California, it makes us think fondly of Los Angeles.  I try a sample for a bath scrub, I smell amazing for the rest of the day.  I decide not to buy any, because it's out of my budget right now, but the scent on my wrist makes me smile.  I check out, providing my re-useable bags, which I now store in the car.  I used to forget them all the time, and sometimes I still do.  But I'm glad that this store is trying to help me remember to use them. 

It is not my intention to be a spokesperson for Whole Foods.  I can't deny that prices are high there.  And maybe on occasion you'll run into a grumpy staff member, but who doesn't have grumpy days?  The truth is, good quality food simply costs more than food that's bad for us and bad for our country.  It's a problem that we've made highly processed, sugary, empty calorie-d food so cheap that we expect all food should be cheap.  And the cheaper bad food is, the more it costs to provide healthy options, such as fresh grass-fed meat, a wider variety of whole grains, and support for small local farms.  Whole Foods is not here to solve all our problems, but they are a forerunner among national supermarkets when it comes to providing customers with with good, healthy whole options.  I would like to argue that an occasional, well thought out trip to Whole Foods can be a really enjoyable experience, that does not need to result in breaking the bank.  

If we're ever going to make a dent in our country's food problem, we need to demand better food from better quality sources.  We can ask this of our local farmers' markets, or grocery stores.  I'm lucky to have this opportunity.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the access or the means to do this.   But if people with relative privilege, like the author of "Surviving Whole Foods," spent a little more time making smart choices in the food aisles, and a little less time maxing out her credit card on ridiculously priced beauty products, we might have a chance at changing the status quo. 
I promise, I'm the same fun-loving gal I've always been.  I haven't lost my sense of humor or my appetite.  I just spend my laughs on stuff that's funny, and my money on food that's good for my family.
Food, Glorious Food - this week's blogpost title is the opening song from Oliver! in which the orphan workhouse boys fantasize of food while collecting their daily gruel.  I hope I see the day when the dream for all Americans to have access to good, whole food, becomes a reality. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

[Miss] America

Musing on how to combat the hateful ignorant tweets...

Uh, you guys, why is Miss America green??? 
Today's news stories were filled with reports on Nina Davuluri's Miss America win, as well as the aftermath explosion of unspeakably hateful and embarrassingly grammatically incorrect, ignorant tweets.  I am mad.  I am sad.  I want to meet one of these tweeters, and then I want to punch him/her in the face.  I have had a lot of dark thoughts in response to these tweets, not the least of which was imagining a beautiful day in the future, on which the last of these hateful, stupid people dies out. 

I let myself go to that comfy dark place, where I vigorously spew out equally hateful energy back at the tweeters, for a good 10 minutes.  But then, I stop.  Because if any of this is ever going to stop, it has to stop with me. 

And I’m inviting you to join me, all you people like me - all you loving, thoughtful, open-minded, progressive citizens of this beautiful country we call the United States of America.  I'm inviting you to first spend whatever time you need to punch a pillow, scream atop a mountain, stab a few needles into an ignorant racist doll... and then I'm inviting you to stop, lose the hatred, let go of the anger, and instead use all the energy to fuel something better.  Because if it is even possible for a time to come when a good day for a non-white American doesn’t result in an explosion of hateful tweets, it has to begin with us.  We have to change the way we think and act in reaction to this kind of ignorance and hatred.

I don't blame the news for reporting on the tweets.  I'm grateful that they are shining a light upon the darkness, and I'm glad it’s given me the opportunity to see how there are so many people who are infuriated just like I am. 

But I believe for every sad story, there’s a happy one.  For every hateful ignorant tweeter, there is another kind of person.  A person who after watching Miss America may have chosen not to tweet his/her thoughts, but who came to see America in a new light.  Maybe it was a little white girl who saw for the first time that beautiful American women come in all different colors from all different backgrounds.  Maybe it was a little Asian American girl who got to see an American who looks like her on television.  

If this story has a happy ending, it has to start with us, and our children.  The only way to reduce the number of ignorant hateful people, is to increase the number of well-informed loving people.  It means we don't just pass on this anger we feel to our kids, we pass on our love for all people.  It means we share our history, good and bad, and we talk about how we're a country made up of people from all over the world.  It means we have a globe or a map in our homes, and our families grow up knowing the names of different countries, but seeing that we’re all a part of the same world.  It means that we choose not to only surround ourselves with people who look just like us.  We stop using words like "us and them."  We stop calling people who are not like us “weird.”  We stop rolling our eyes when we talk about the importance of diversity, and we seek it out.  We seek out people who are unlike ourselves; we acknowledge and celebrate our differences, and allow beautiful friendships to grow out of our commonalities. 

We stop the people we love when they say things that are fueled by hatred or ignorance, and we lovingly correct them, we let them know humbly, that we don’t have room for statements of ill will in our homes.  We stop laughing at hateful jokes; we clarify misunderstandings.

And I'm not just talking to my white friends right now.  I'm calling upon my friends of color to stop the cycle.  I'm calling on you, my Asian American friends, because you know that our parents are culprits.  I’m picking on you because I can only speak from my own experience.  Let’s not sacrifice our children and the future of our country by allowing hatred to perpetuate, for the sake of “saving face” and “respecting elders.” 

I am going to put these hurtful tweets behind me, and I am going to move forward firmly in love.  If my daughter has any chance of growing up in an America where "our children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" (thank you Dr. King, I realized that what I was trying to say, you had already said perfectly), then it has to begin again with me.  I hope you'll join me.
America - today's blogpost title is a song from the musical West Side Story, the lyrics of which may be apropos.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Climb Ev'ry Mountain

Musing on why my minority family loves the great outdoors...

Glacier National Park - from our trip there in 2010

Last week, I read about how The National Parks Service is trying to make themselves more appealing to non-white Americans.  And I thought to myself "Hm, for as long as I (non-white American) can remember, I have found National Parks to be quite appealing."

Then a couple days after that I read about why outdoor activities are appealing to white people and not to minorities.  And I thought to myself, "Hm, why are outdoor activities appealing to me?

And so today I find myself reflecting on the circumstances that lead my own family to become the nature-loving, yearly-camping, National Park visiting, mountain hiking, despite being non-white Americans that we are today.

My family is ethnically Chinese, but my parents immigrated here to the United States via the Philippines.  Ethnically Chinese people make up about 1.6% of the Philippine population, and about 15% if you include people of mixed Chinese/Filipino decent.  I didn't know that before, I just learned it from a wikipedia page about Chinese Filipinos.  I have more to say about being Chinese from the Philippines, but maybe I'll save some of it for another blog on another day.  For now, I'll just muse on how I think it played a part in how my family came to love the great outdoors.

I think it began with my dad, who moved Iowa to begin grad school in 1972.  He was 23 years old.  The thing about Iowa in the early 70s is... there were not a lot of Chinese guys from the Philippines.  Actually, there probably still aren't very many.  But back then, my early-20s-dad landed in Iowa and was immediately surrounded by people unlike himself. 

I note this because it seems like basic human nature to notice when you feel out of place.  If you're used to being around people who look like you, you notice when you're surrounded by people who do not.  The NYT article opens with this implication, that few minorities choose to visit National Parks because they don't perceive it as something that minorities do. 

But what happens when you aren't used to being surrounded by people who look like you in your daily life?  What if, like my dad in 1972, you're the "only one," the only person from where you're from, who speaks your native language?  At first, I think you start to find the similarities you have with the people around you, similarities beyond your background and language.  And second, I think you begin to acclimate to a new status quo.  You no longer need to be surrounded by people who look like you in order to feel comfortable.  And so, I think it was this ability of my dad's, to find comfort in uncomfortable situations, that led him, and the rest of my family into the mountains.

And it didn't stop with our nuclear family.  When my grandparents came to live with us in the mid 80s, we acquired an additional tent, and an air mattress to accommodate their elderly backs.  When our aunts and uncles and cousins visited from the Philippines, we borrowed a family friend's Dodge Ram Van, piled in, and hit the State Parks of Michigan.  And in the following years, we acquired a canoe, a kerosine lamp, a bug zapping lantern, a portable stove top, better flashlights.   We figured out how to put tarps underneath our tents so we didn't get wet during the night.

And it's this quality in my dad that kept us going back each year.  He's genuinely curious to try new things, and stubbornly patient when trying to figure something out.  There might have been times when a tent was unruly, or was missing an important piece.  There were times when it rained the entire day and he had to set up our tents and start a fire while getting completely drenched.  He never got discouraged; never hinted that something couldn't be done.  He looked at each problem and calmly found a solution.  And we kids internalized that.  We've all grown up to look for solutions, to never assume that something can't be done.  I don't think this was even intentional on his part.  He didn't create "teaching moments."  He never sat us down and said, "when there's a problem, look for a solution."  We just watched him figure out how to do stuff, and one day found ourselves doing the same thing. 

We love National Parks.  We've visited nearly 40 of the United States, as well as much of Canada, all by car.  Traveling to our country's most beautiful spots, and standing and staring in wonder and awe, is something we've been doing for as long as I can remember.  And there's no question in my mind, that it's something our family will continue to do, for generations to come.  

So I guess if I were going to share my two cents with The National Parks service, I would say... try to appeal to people's innate curiosity and sense of adventure.  This curiosity can be found in people of all colors and backgrounds, universally.  Get kids (all-the-colors-of-the-rainbow kids) into a national park to witness something mind-blowing, and those kids, whatever race they are, will want to pass on the experience to their own families and friends.  The truth is, there are also plenty of white people who are completely intimidated at first (my husband may or may not fall into this category) by traveling in the great outdoors.  How do we make National Parks more appealing to them?  I think if there's an answer to that question, it will likely increase the number of people, from majority and minority backgrounds, to climb mountains, ford streams, follow rainbows, 'til they find their dreams.  ;-)
Climb Ev'ry Mountain - today's blogpost title song encourages a young and curious Maria (pre-Von Trapp) to follow her dreams in The Sound of Music.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Musing on Rosh Hashanah (and the sweetness of life)…

I am not Jewish.  But I married a man from a Jewish family.

The thing about marrying someone from a different background, is you have an excuse, obligation, opportunity to become a part of something that you otherwise would not have explored.  Instead of quietly watching as the Jewish High Holidays float by, and wondering what they are observing, and how they are celebrating, suddenly I am a part of they, and the questions become, what are we observing?  How are we celebrating? 

Having a baby makes people think about holidays.  Some of the reason for that probably comes from within - our personal desire to “pass on” something worthwhile and meaningful to our child.  But another part of the reason definitely comes from everywhere else.  An interfaith union sometimes has the power to strike fear, concern, and bewilderment into the hearts of those who know the couple.  “But what will she be!?”  “How are you going to raise her?”  “What if she is confused?”  And my answers to those three questions are “Whatever she wants to be.”  “With love and care.”  And “She will absolutely, most definitely be confused.”  Because childhood is confusing.  Life is confusing.

I think all parents, and not just those in an interfaith relationship, are asking themselves the same questions too.  And really, how many people are raising a child with someone who believes THE EXACT SAME THING that they believe?  I don't think that exists.  That’s kind of like marrying yourself.  It might be easier, maybe, but it sounds boooooooring!
I know that there might be some people who will think to themselves (or sometimes not just to themselves) that my daughter is not Jewish because I, her mother, am not Jewish.  But today I’m choosing not to focus on official labels, and instead I’ll be taking this opportunity to explore how this time can be meaningful to my family.
So as I muse on Rosh Hashanah, I’m looking forward with hope, and good intention toward the year ahead.  And I’m reflecting on the year that has passed.  There’s a ritual that some Jews practice called tashlikh (sorry about the wikipedia link, I know there's probably better info out there), where your sins from the previous year are symbolically cast off into the water (a river, stream, lake, etc.).  Since we live just a couple blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan, I think it might be the perfect place to spend a little time in the next few days.  I’ll be thinking of ways in which I can be more loving, more patient, more generous, and more kind in the coming year.  And I’ll be reflecting on the times that I’ve been hurtful, impatient, selfish or ill willed… and casting them off into the water (I will likely dramatically mime this action, which will cause my husband to lovingly roll his eyes at my demonstrative nature).  With my baby and husband by my side, and family and friends in my thoughts, I’ll make a little promise to the world to nurture the sweetness in life for the coming year.  Then we will come home and will eat apples and honey (everyone except the baby!  Don’t worry, we’ll wait on the honey 'til she’s at least 12 months), I will make sweet raisin challah french toast for dinner, and we wish you all L’Shana Tovah (for a good year!)!
L'Chaim - today's blogpost title is a song from Fiddler on the Roof, it means "to life!" which is not what people say to each other on Rosh Hashanah, but is as close as I could get :)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Musing on labor...

Yesterday was Labor Day, a day dedicated (the United States Department of Labor website informed me) to paying “tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to muse on a special contribution of mine and my husband’s to our world.  Going back nine and a half months, I recall a day that may never be recognized as a national holiday, but will forever be the day that first comes to mind when I hear the word “labor.” 

I’ve heard it said that no one gets a medal for having a baby without drugs.  “You know," the triage nurse said to me in a ho hum tone while I breathed deeply through another intense and painful contraction (I found out later that I was likely in what some people describe as transition at the time), "you can have an epidural right up until the baby's here."  We had just gotten through telling her I was going to try this without an epidural.  "Please don't offer me an epidural unless we ask for one" I had handwritten in very friendly penmanship in my "birth plan."  But even in the midst of labor, the look on her face was unmistakable to me, the sound of her voice was clear.  She was annoyed that I was exerting energy, that I was experiencing pain.  

It felt kind of like if someone saw you biking up a hill on your way to work one morning (maybe this is a choice you'd made to get a little exercise, or because you liked the way you felt after a rigorous bike ride up a hill, or because you wanted to reduce your carbon footprint, or save gas money) and someone yelled at you out their window while driving by “You know, no one gets a medal for riding their bike to work!”

I've also seen the opposite happen...  Someone says to an expecting mother, “You’re not going to use drugs during labor are you?”  Revisiting the biking analogy, it’s as though you’re driving to work one morning and a person standing outside your car yells at you, “You really should walk to work you insert judgmental adjective (Lazy jerk!  Fat ass loser!  Wasteful scum!)” 

We don't tell people how to begin their work days.  We don't make critical comments to people who make a different transportation choice from our own.  We don’t make people feel bad for trying to do something they perceive as good.  Or at least, we shouldn't. 

I would like to propose that we honor all the ways in which women labor babies into the world.  And I’d like to do it without negative commenting.  I’d like to allow women to celebrate their own experiences of labor without needing to put them down. 

I’d like to celebrate my own labor.

No, I did not get a medal for laboring our daughter into the world without pain medication, but I didn't need one.  Actually, I reject the notion that any person needs promise of a medal to motivate her to do something difficult.  My labor was a rigorous, fast-paced, intense, and at times painful ride.  With my loving husband by my side, as well the reassuring calm of my doula’s voice (see below), I felt every contraction, deep breathed and counted, moaned and shouted, and even “hee hee hoo-ed” just like in the movies.  As I pushed, I asked for a mirror, and got to watch the most beautiful, perfect, glorious baby fly out of my body and into the world.  It felt amazing.  I felt accomplished.  I felt proud.  I didn’t need a medal.  I would have chucked that thing through a window.  It’s presence would have felt like a ridiculous belittling token next to the living, breathing, cuddly piece of love that we received instead. 

In my view, that’s pretty “nice work, if you can get it.”
If you're looking for a calm, cool, comforting doula with a lot of heart in the Los Angeles area, please look up Kate Zachary.  She's precisely the kind of marvelous, Midwestern, (someday) mama, we wanted right by our sides.

Nice Work If You Can Get It - today's blogpost title is a song by George and Ira Gershwin

Friday, August 30, 2013


Nine and a half months ago I became mama to a beautiful baby girl.  My husband and I didn't know she was going to be a girl.  It was a secret to everyone, even our doctor.  It was the sweetest, most fulfilling, surprise of our lives, and it's a surprise that keeps on giving.
So, I'm a mama.  That's the newest adjective in the list of adjectives in my blog title.  So far, it's the best job I've ever had.
I'm also Midwestern.  I was born in metro-Detroit, grew up there, and did my undergraduate studies at Western Michigan University.   After that I moved away from the Midwest for 10 years, but now I'm back!  We live on the south side of Chicago, a city I'm just getting to know, but is already feeling like home.  Maybe it's because of my Midwestern heart and soul.
And I'm musical.  I love to sing.  I play the piano.  Once upon a time I played the violin, and erhu.  Sometimes I pretend to play guitar.  I like acting in musicals, listening to jazz singers, and singing lullabies to my baby.  Anything can be a lullaby, if you sing it lullaby-ishly.
I'm a lot of other things too, I'll share them eventually, but I like alliterations, so musical, Midwestern, and mama, made the cut.  In this blog, you will find my musings.