Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cheers to Thanksgiving!

I'm still basking in post-Thanksgiving euphoria.

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday, as it brings back happy childhood memories of family, friends and food. For many years, when I was growing up, my parents, sister and I spent Thanksgiving with other Taiwanese American families in the area. Our multi-family Thanksgiving dinners were big festive potluck feasts featuring a mix of Asian and American dishes.

Even through college and grad school, every November, I looked forward to the annual Thanksgiving homecoming where all of us, scattered across the country (and world) returned to Cleveland. We'd talk about school, jobs, relationships, plans for the future - all while chowing down on turkey, stuffing, sushi and fried shrimp. I wrote about those childhood Thanksgiving meals in an essay published in an anthology last year. In the essay, I paid tribute to Judy's Special Salad, Maggie's Potato Mushroom Casserole and Jen and Lil's mom's Sticky Rice.

Over the years, the big feasts began to shrink as all of us moved away. The saddest Thanksgiving I ever had was the year that I, fresh out of grad school, moved to Los Angeles and was too broke to come home. I spent that Thanksgiving eating alone, but surrounded by European tourists, at a cheap restaurant in Santa Monica called Mama's Buffet.

I returned to Cleveland a few years ago, but everyone else is gone. The past few years, I've spent Thanksgiving with my husband's family and we have nice meals together too, but I still miss my Taiwanese American extended family.

So this year, I was lucky enough to have a mini-version of the big Thanksgiving events I grew up with. We didn't have all of the usual suspects at the table, but my sister Linda flew in from San Francisco, Jen from New York and Lil from Los Angeles. My mom roasted a turkey and made accompanying dishes for the potluck dinner, while Linda, Nico and I made pearl balls and flower dumplings.

After having an early Thanksgiving dinner at my father-in-law's house, Vic and I took the boys to Jen and Lil's parents house for a second Thanksgiving meal that included turkey, dressing, and yes, Jen and Lil's mom's Sticky Rice. For dessert, the options included pumpkin pie, apple pie, cupcakes (in honor of Jen's birthday) persimmons, honey melon, grapes and red bean ice cream.

Linda and I discussed, at length, various Taiwanese American Thanksgiving eating strategies. Some people prefer segregating the Asian and American foods, alternating between plates of solely American foods and plates of only Asian items. Lil chose to split her plate 50/50, with half the space dedicated to traditional American Thanksgiving components and the other half reserved for Asian foods.

For me, when I was younger, I only ate the American foods, since the Asian foods did not represent Thanksgiving to me. Over the years, though, I started accepting Asian foods as welcome additions to the Thanksgiving tradition. Now, I'll load my plate with everything, but making sure that cranberry sauce doesn't touch sushi and wasabi doesn't touch turkey. My dad just piles everything together. "It's all the same in your stomach," he says.

It was great sharing this special meal with old friends and introducing my sons to the idea of a multicultural Thanksgiving celebration. I hope they'll grow up to love this tradition as I do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cultural identity journeys

There are many reasons why I'm thrilled Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States. One of them that's low on the list in terms of the country's priorities ranks rather high when it comes to my own personal life: Obama comes from a multicultural background.

This is especially relevant to me right now, as it seems that Nico, my multicultural six-year-old son, is undergoing a cultural identity crisis. There are some days when he isn't sure what he is, and other days when he wishes he were something else. Recently, he told me, "I hate my skin color. I don't want to be tan. I want to be black." Other days, he says he wants to be white, like his brother. Actually, Nolan is not white - he's more like Baby Pink. More disturbing to me is when Nico says, "Nolan looks like a Chinese boy!" Well, that's because he is Chinese (Taiwanese, to be specific), I tell Nico. And so are you, I remind him. The boys are half Taiwanese, a quarter Italian, and the rest a mix of English and American Indian.

For a while, Nico was irritated by all of this. Whenever Vic and I tried to explain his cultural roots to him, he'd dismiss us: "I just want to be an American flag guy." You can, we told him, but you should still understand all the cultures that shape you. This past summer, between kindergarten and first grade, Nico was teased by someone at day camp. He was ridiculed for being Chinese. So I decided it was time to send Nico to Chinese School.

In a few weeks, I'll be giving a social studies presentation to Nico's first grade class about Taiwan. I was happy when his teacher called to ask me if I'd be willing to consider the idea. Nico said he'd like to help me. I hope this will help him feel more connected to his Asian heritage. I do understand his desire to fit in - it reminds me of my own longing to assimilate when I was his age - but understanding it doesn't make it sting any less.

When I was Nico's age, I used to be terribly embarrassed when my mother would speak Taiwanese to me in public places or when she would take off her shoes at people's homes. My parents were immigrants, so we learned about Canadian and American culture together. Halloween, for instance, was something that took us a little while to figure out. My mom took me, dressed as a princess, trick or treating for the first time when I was in preschool. That year, my dad prepared elaborate little paper bags filled with goodies for trick-or-treaters. Even though we lived in a high-rise apartment building, he wanted to make sure we were ready. To this day, he considers Halloween an important social occasion. I do too.

For Nico and Nolan, I admit I feel a bit unprepared for the cultural identity issues they will encounter growing up. Since they are half Asian, I don't know if they will be confronted with a different set of issues than I faced.

It's going to be a journey for all of us.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We did it!

I cannot believe it! Barack Obama will be the new president of the United States!

This is an amazing historic moment and it is hard for me not to be emotional about it. Yesterday, there was so much anticipation about the election results - I was antsy all day long. I went to vote at my polling location in the morning and was surprised to walk right in, with no wait. Afterward, I chatted with a few of the parents running a PTA bake sale. All of us were energized and excited - but nervous too - about the election. After that, I walked to work in a happy mood. I love going to the polls, voting alongside my neighbors and sensing a strong sense of community.

Beyond my immediate community, I communicated with friends from faraway places too. During the day, Vic and a friend in Nigeria had an IM conversation about the election. Another friend in England left a comment on my Facebook wall: "I trust your fellow Americans will not let the rest of us down this time!" Last week, during our trip to Toronto, a family friend told us he supported Obama. "American needs a big change," he said. It was amazing to see that it was not just Americans paying attention to this election - the world was watching.

Vic and I watched the election results on TV with a Pakistani American buddy. He turned to me when Barack Obama took the stage and said, "Lisa, we just elected our first black president! Now the door is open for people like us too. Maybe there will be an Asian American president some day." When the rest of the family came to join Obama on stage, Zaid noted the multicultural representation and said, "This is America."

I called my friend Claire several times during the evening. She had been volunteering as a poll observer all day long and was just driving home when I called to tell her that Ohio chose Obama. We couldn't believe it. I stayed up through McCain's wonderful, inspiring concession speech and Obama's eloquent speech and then went to sleep emotionally exhausted.

This morning, Vic woke up Nico to tell him the news. Nico was thrilled. After all, he was the one who advocated getting an Obama Biden sign for our yard. (Despite Vic's initial resistance, he eventually relented, especially after Nico argued, "I want it waaaaaay more than you DON'T want it!") When my mom came over to take care of Nolan for the day, Nico said to her, "Ama! I am super happy! Barack Obama is our first black president! I am so happy!" Nico watched some of the coverage on TV and Vic had to explain to him why some people were crying.

On my walk to work, I called my friend Audrey. She and I had a happy, tearful conversation: "We did it! I can't believe it!" Although she was born and raised in Cleveland - in fact, she was my first American friend when we moved here from Canada more than 30 years ago - she lives in Chicago now. She was my first black friend and is an inspiration to me for her strength, determination and focus. She attended the Grant Park rally last night, as I had expected, and described it as "electrifying".

At work today, there was a wonderful, palpable feeling of optimism. In person, through emails and via Facebook wall posts, my friends and I celebrated the ushering in of a new era. For Zaid, a Pakistani American, Gina, an African American, me, a Taiwanese American, and my children, a mix of several glorious cultures, we are ecstatic that our country has shattered a wall, leaving behind a long, painful past of oppression and injustice. Although this election will not erase racism and discrimination, it is a great start.

We are all proud Americans today!

Monday, November 3, 2008


Nolan and I went to the Obama rally in downtown Cleveland on Sunday. (Check out the photo of him sporting a "Kids for Obama" button.)

We were there for five hours, standing in line for two. The line was unbelievably long, starting at the Quicken Loans Arena (the "Q") and snaking its way to Malls A, B and C near Browns Stadium.

It was awesome to see so many people, of all ages and from varying backgrounds, all gathered to support Obama. News reports estimated around 80,000 people in attendance. To see the streets of downtown Cleveland filled with so many people was surreal - it felt more like being in New York.

Originally, I wasn't even planning on going. Our family was supposed to go to a birthday party that afternoon, but my friend, Claire, convinced me otherwise. An Obama Mama from the very beginning, she talked me into going to the rally to support an inspiring presidential candidate during a historic campaign. "This is it, dude," she said. "This is it!" A few of my friends from work were going too, so I gave in. Nico was very disappointed that he couldn't attend too - "What? You're going to see Barack Obama? In REAL LIFE?" - but he had to keep his commitment to his friend's party. So Vic took Nico to the party; I took Nolan to the rally.

Even though the line was so long, there was some entertainment to keep us from getting too bored. Along Ontario, there was some giant Obama Puppet Guy on stilts. Also, throughout the wait, vendors sold t-shirts and buttons, food and beverages.

For the most part, people were energized and happy, although there were times the the long wait made some of us crabby and tired. Ultimately, after waiting for two hours, Claire and I decided to ditch the line and just go to the open mall area where we joined hundreds of other people.

Not all of the people in the area were Obama supporters. Particularly after the Browns game was over, there were some tense moments. The Browns played miserably against our arch rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. So once the game let out, a throng of unhappy Browns fans poured onto the mall. One especially drunk, red-faced guy came up to me and Nolan and, taking note of our Obama buttons, shouted, "Get your welfare checks here! Get your welfare checks here!" I'm not sure if that was supposed to be some sort of derogatory insinuation that Obama is a socialist, but if anyone was likely to need welfare or some sort of government assistance, chances are it would be this crazy guy.

Nolan was great - only acting up a little bit during the five hours we were there. At one point, I had to change his diaper on the lawn - it stunk bad and he was pretty upset about it. I murmured apologies to the people around us as he fussed and cried through the prayer and national anthem, but everyone was understanding and empathetic. "Don't worry about it. I've got two kids at home," one guy said.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. While I was in line, at one point, I stood behind a group of young musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra. One of them told me it was great that I brought Nolan to the rally and that some day, he will be grateful that he was part of this day. Behind me, a young couple must have shared the same idea - they brought their daughter, only three months old.

We don't often get opportunities to take part in historic moments like this.

Now I just need to vote!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween - with muscles

This year, for Halloween, Nico went as Iron Man. His costume, sent to him by his beloved Auntie Linda, was very nice. It fit perfectly and came with built-in padded muscles. Nico's buddy at school also went as Iron Man, but alas, his costume came sans muscles. Nico was quite pleased to be Well-Muscled Iron Man.

It looks like Halloween costume technology has come a long way since I was a kid. I'm talkin' the old school costumes, if you're old enough to remember them. One year, my sister (now known as Auntie Linda) had one of those horrible store-bought costume kits that included a cheap plastic Fred Flintstone mask and a set of shapeless vinyl t-shirt and pants. Vic wore a similar costume in grade school, but his version was Captain Kirk. There were several super hero versions that were popular back then, and even one of Jaws.

As for Nolan, this year, he inherited his brother's old giraffe costume, but sadly, Nolan was a crawling giraffe - still no walking.

During the day, I went to Nico's school to catch their annual Halloween parade, where the entire school paraded around the neighborhood in costume. It was wonderful! Afterward, I stuck around to help out with the class party, which was fun too.

Trick-or-treating went smoothly. I love handing out treats! There's no other time when you get to see so many children walking around the neighborhood having a fun time. Nico had a great time and Nolan was happy to stroll along for the ride.

On Saturday, my parents and I took the boys to Halloween at the Farm, an annual Case Western Reserve University tradition, where there's a giant bonfire, a live band, marshmallow roasting, pumpkin carving, a costume contest, face painting and free food (hot dogs, pumpkin pie, apple cider, etc.).

We all had a fun Halloween. Next year, Nico wants to be Darth Vader.