Sunday, November 20, 2011

My heart, my son, races

Finishing my first 5K race this weekend was exhilarating, but more exciting than that was the fact that my nine-year-old son, also finished his first footrace that day, the JUST RUN Just Kids 3K Race, another event during the Big Sur Half Marathon weekend

The race was something Nico set out to do completely on his own. After seeing the race website when I was researching it on my computer, Nico asked me a few questions about the kids' race event and then seemingly moved on. On the day of the race, though, he said he wanted to participate. My husband and I tried to talk him out of it since Nico hadn't trained and we hadn't planned on him taking part in the event. He would have to run it alone. 

He said he wanted to do it. So he did.

I registered Nico for the race about an hour before it started. His event took place on the same course as mine, only his was shorter (3K instead of 5K) and started 30 minutes later. I didn't get to see him start and was worried about how nervous he might be without me or my husband there to calm his nerves. Luckily, my sister was there to keep him company.

During my 5K, I was running toward the finish line as Nico was running toward his turnaround. Seeing him across the path, both of us running, was among the most glorious parenting moments I've had. 

I had been on the lookout for him once I made the turnaround. Initially, I  thought Nico would be toward the end of the pack, but knowing that he hadn't trained for the race and didn't know how to pace himself, I kept an eye out for him as soon as I saw the first kids approaching. 

Sure enough, I soon spotted a boy with floppy, dark brown hair, wearing black and red windpants. I shouted and waved my arms. Nico was running fast and looked amazing. When I finally got his attention, he beamed at me as we ran in opposite directions. My heart nearly burst with joy.

Seeing Nico cross the finish line and get awarded his finisher's medal was a proud mom moment for me on a few levels. I was proud of him for finishing the race, of course, but I was amazed that he even started it. It took courage, determination, stamina - mentally and physically. This, from the boy I butt heads with on a daily basis. This, from the child who consistently finds a way to outsmart me on School Picture Day, declares a "We Hate Mommy" day and puts himself up for sale when he's upset with me.

This weekend's race finishes marked a milestone for us. In training for my 5K, my first-born child accompanied me - on foot, scooter or bike - nearly every step of the way for the past three months. He has been my coach. He has been my partner. He gives me a run for my money and keeps me on my toes - literally. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mission accomplished: first 5K race

Pacific Grove Lighthouse 5KToday, I ran my first 5K race!

It was quite an accomplishment for me as I am 41 years old and have been out of shape for years. This morning, though, I felt like a legitimate runner upon crossing the finish line of the Pacific Grove Lighthouse 5K, a part of the Big Sur Half Marathon weekend. It was the culmination of completing the Couch to 5K program.

It was a glorious experience. Despite rainy weather last night, this morning was sunny and comfortable - around 45 degrees at the start of the race and warmer by the end. Anticipating cooler weather, I brought gloves but ended up not needing them. 

Before the race started, I checked in and received my race bib, which had my race number and first name printed on it. Looking around to see what others did with their bibs, I pinned mine to the front of my jacket. Then, I made my way to the starting line. 

I queued up with the other runners and made my way to the end of the pack, away from the fast runners. Experienced runner friends had advised me to do this so I wouldn't a) get discouraged by all the people blazing past me and/or b) mess up my pace. Sizing up the other runners, I positioned myself behind the people who looked like serious athletes but ahead of the parents with strollers.

While I was lined up, I noticed that nearly everyone had orange plastic ribbon loops on their shoes. It was a D-Tag that would allow the race officials to track my pace and finish time. Cool! I located mine on my race bib and attached it to my right shoe. 

When the starting gun sounded, I bolted down the street before I remembered to heed the advice everyone had given me: Take it slow and steady. It was probably 100 yards just to get to the official start line so I slowed down, lest I burn myself out before even starting! I crossed the starting line to the sound of loudspeakers blaring the Psychedelic Furs' song "Pretty in Pink." Sweet - I was wearing a pink running jacket. 

It took several seconds for the throng of 700 people to find their place in the race. The fastest runners took off and then the rest of us settled into our spots. Since I was running alone, I looked for a gap to sneak into. 

It was awe-inspiring to be surrounded by so many other runners of all ages and sizes. There were runners in their 20s, seniors, married couples, mother-baby duos, buddies and groups of people wearing matching t-shirts. Throughout the race, I started to recognize a few people after passing them and/or being passed by them. One of my favorite running teams was the Asian father-daughter pair. The daughter looked to be in her mid-20s; when her father spoke to her in his native language, she answered in English. It made me think about my dad.

The race course was incredible. For my first race, I had intentionally set out to find a memorable route. This course was mostly flat, first winding through downtown Pacific Grove, California and then following the Pacific Ocean coastline. 

Running down Lighthouse Avenue was fun, but making the turn to the ocean was amazing. The view was breathtakingly gorgeous, with ocean waves just a few feet away and mountains in the distance. At times, I could hear the roar of waves crashing against rocks and smell the ocean (not always a good thing). It was awesome to see surfers riding the swells.

Along the course, a lot of people offered encouragement, including a few guys dressed up as vegetables. I remember the corn and asparagus guys, particularly, as they cheered me on. "Thanks, veggies!", I said to them as I ran by. There were also course marshals throughout the route, including students from the nearby Naval Postgraduate School riding on bicycles.

I did have some pace issues during the race and had to slow down after both shins and then my right knee and hip started aching. I took a walk break to drink some water after the 1-mile marker and one more at around the 2-mile mark to take a few photos with my iPhone. I had debated doing so, but in the end, I decided it was more important to me to capture the beauty of the route than get a faster race time.

Toward the end of the route, I heard my name. My sister and her girlfriend were waiting for me around the last quarter mile and it was such a boost to see them cheering for me! I smiled the rest of the race.

It was such a fantastic feeling to hear strangers clapping and cheering as I approached the finish line. Crossing the finish line was a little overwhelming. I missed hearing my time as people I didn't know shouted, "Go Lisa!" I thought it was my family and was confused when I didn't see them anywhere. How did these strangers know my name? Oh, right - my race bib has my name on it.

A man at the finish line called out my name and high-fived me as I continued to look for my family. Someone gave me a medal and I walked over to the water table. My sister and her girlfriend found me and we hugged and laughed. A few minutes later, my husband and younger son joined us.

There were a few things I'm a little disappointed about, but I'll know better next time. The biggest is that I didn't affix my D-tag properly and lost it somewhere along the route. I noticed it was gone before I hit the one-mile marker but couldn't find it anywhere nearby. It was a bummer since I really wanted to track my pace and get an official race time.

In a way, it reminded me of my labor and birth experience with my first child. I had hoped for a drug-free birth and ended up with an emergency c-section with multiple medical interventions. In both cases, I set out with an ideal in mind and things didn't happen exactly the way I wanted. On the other hand, in both cases, I ended up with happy outcomes: I gave birth to a gorgeous baby boy and I ran a race that three months ago, I never would have believed I could finish.

Speaking of that gorgeous baby boy, the best part of the day was seeing him, now 9 years old, cross the finish line too. While I ran the 5K event, he ran the 3K kids event. We both competed in our first races!   It was a wonderful experience for us to share. After our races, my husband and our younger son joined us and we all celebrated with brunch and a day of adventure in Monterey.

Next steps: finding a new race!

Friday, November 18, 2011

C25K graduate!

I finished the Couch to 5K (C25K) program last month and will be running my first 5K race tomorrow!

C25k W1D1
When I first set out to do this, the thought of running even one mile seemed out of bounds. After being inspired by so many friends who are runners (including marathoners and ultra-runners), though, I thought I would give it a try.

I was looking for a way to get in shape that wouldn't require a gym membership or much hassle and expense. The C25K program fits those criteria and it is effective. It gets you off the couch and able to run 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in nine weeks. I downloaded the app onto my iPhone in August and set out to improve my cardiovascular fitness, little by little, three days a week. The program starts out gently, with more walking than running. By the end of it, though, you will be able to run 30 minutes straight. 

I was cautiously optimistic about the program. Worried that I wouldn't be able to complete it, I didn't tell too many people I had started it. Following the program faithfully, I didn't miss any workouts. For the first time in a long time, I was able to run without being sidelined by shin splints and other injuries. 

My first workouts were painful, not so much physically but emotionally. The first week was especially embarrassing. I was ashamed of letting myself get so out of shape. I hated hearing the sound of my labored breathing and heavy footfall. I imagined how I looked lumbering down the street.

Throughout the program, my nine-year-old son, Nico, accompanied me during my workouts. In the first week, he joined me on his scooter; after that, he rode along on his bike. 

Starting the program, I was deeply self-conscious so I opted to run at night. It was peaceful then, since we live in a quiet, safe neighborhood that basically shuts down at 8 p.m. We outfitted my son with an orange safety vest and equipped his bike with front and back lights. This made me feel even more self-conscious as I set out. Great! Now we looked like a parade.

After just a few workouts, though, I started to gain confidence. I fine-tuned playlists for my iPhone - lots of  80s and hip hop tunes - and made sure I had good running shoes and gear. Finding inspiring music was key. It's amazing how fast time passes when you are listening to songs you love.

There were times when I wanted to quit my workouts, but I always found ways to keep going. Having my son next to me was a big motivator. It would be one thing to let myself down, but I wanted to keep moving for him. I wanted to be an example to him in not quitting or giving up. Sometimes, I would set mini-goals for myself: Just run to the next light post. Just run to the end of the street. Just run to the park sign.

The program brought me closer to my son. Nico doesn't often share his feelings with me but during our C25K workouts, he opened up and shared details about his life, what happened in school that day, how he was feeling about our move from Ohio this summer, what his hopes were for our life in California.

Nico was a great coach throughout the program. His sense of direction is way better than mine so he charted our training routes and always made sure we found our way home. He would provide encouragement ("I think you're running way faster than before, Mom!") and help me log notes for each workout. 

Soon, I began looking forward to my runs. Even though they were sometimes tough, I loved being connected to Nico and having special one-on-one time with him. I loved how I felt after each workout: sweaty and happy! I loved taking a bath afterward and thinking about my progress.

I never thought I'd be someone who would enjoy running, but now I am. Growing up, I loved sports but hated running. The only time I enjoyed running was when chasing a ball. Running on its own was boring, tedious, pointless. These days, I appreciate the rhythm of running. I like running to think about things; I like running to not think about things.

At this point, I am still a very slow runner but seeing how far I've come from a few months ago, I know I can change. I know I can set a goal and achieve it. 

Right now, I am looking forward to tomorrow's challenge: the Pacific Grove Lighthouse 5K!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Unhappy Valley: raw thoughts from a Big Ten alum and mom

The child sex abuse scandal rocking Penn State and Happy Valley this week hits home on many levels - as a mother of young boys, as a Big Ten alumnus raised in the Midwest, as a former university communications director.

Even though one man, Jerry Sandusky, stands accused of the sexual assault charges, along the way, too many people looked the other way or stayed silent. The situation is a web of complex relationships. It is about influential men taking advantage of voiceless boys. It is about a large college football program protecting its assets. It is about power, money, hypocrisy and secrecy. It is outrageous, shameful, disgusting, unforgivable. 

As a mother of two young children, it breaks my heart to learn that the boys who were assaulted had no advocates fighting for them. Reading the Grand Jury report took my breath away as I learned the ages of the boys involved - too close.

When I sat down to begin writing this post, I did so as my older son, a fourth-grader, attended his weekly Cub Scout den meeting. New to scouting this year, my husband and I were surprised to open the Boy Scouts of America handbook and find that it begins with a 24-page pull-out booklet entitled "How to Protect Your Children From Child Abuse: A Parent's Guide". It was important to discuss this topic with our son, but initiating that first conversation was difficult. The hardest part was answering his questions: "But why would anyone want to hurt me like that? Why would someone I trust do that?" 

I look at my two boys, both growing and developing every day, and still see them as babies. The other day, I noticed, with alarm, that my older son smelled like a teenager and was showing the faintest shadow of a mustache (I guess his father's Italian genes are kicking in). Already? How could this be? My younger son, now four years old, somehow seems frozen in my mind as a two-year-old. I carry and cuddle him even though he is perfectly capable of running around on his own. I obsess over the banal details of their lives - meal preparation, homework assignments, play dates. I overshare details of our middle-class, suburban life on this blog.

In contrast, the boys who were abused generally came from disadvantaged backgrounds and unstable households. This adds another layer of injustice to the situation to see that some sick, but privileged man, preyed on these children who had so little. Somehow, it reminded me of Cleveland's Imperial Avenue murders that took place for years without anyone noticing or caring enough to investigate. Whether it is impoverished boys or drug-addicted women, our society allowed monsters to prey on our most vulnerable. 

In the Penn State case, the abuse took place in places that are essentially off-limits to mothers: men's locker rooms, showers, wrestling mats. In reading the Grand Jury report, I was particularly struck by the way one woman learned how her child was violated. She asked her son, who had just returned from a outing with Sandusky, why his hair was wet. She found out that her child showered with this predator. That detail - so visual, so concrete - stings as I contrast it with the thousands of times I've nagged my fourth-grader: Get in the shower! Use soap! Wash your hair! Brush your teeth! 

Beyond my reaction as a mom, I've also been thinking about the situation as a Big Ten alumnus raised in the Midwest. Much of the news coverage of this sordid story came from sportswriters. My own first response, when I heard the initial reports, concerned legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "No way," I exclaimed. "Not JoePa!" I believed that Paterno had nothing to do with the abuse, and I was deeply disappointed to learn that he did know something and didn't do enough. For some reason, like many others, I confused success on the field with integrity off the field. If he's a good coach, he must be a good person, right?

We want to believe in heroes. When it comes to professional sports, we want our athletes to shine and when they do, we love them, we worship them. Growing up in Ohio as a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, I know all too well the agony and the ecstasy of winning and losing (well, mostly losing). Most Clevelanders I know are sports historians who can recite our most ignominious sports moments (The Drive, The Fumble and The Decision, to name a few) like the letters in the alphabet. 

Football, I think, has the deepest hold on us, though. When I went to graduate school at Ohio State University, I was already a huge sports fan but I was unprepared for the overwhelming Big Ten football culture that surrounded me. I was stunned when my classmates convinced a sociology professor to rearrange the syllabus: "We can't have a test that Monday - it's Michigan weekend!" On Saturday afternoons in October, I sometimes headed to the main library, knowing it would be all mine, practically empty. And then there were the games against That Team Up North. Win or lose, those were the nights it was best to stay inside, away from the drunks, tear gas, overturned cars.

Recently, OSU President Gordon Gee was asked if he was considering firing then-football coach Jim Tressel. His notorious response: "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me." Big Ten football = Big Money

The other part about this Penn State scandal that has been nagging at me is the crisis communications aspect. For eight years, up until this past June, I worked at Case Western Reserve University in marketing and communications. As a former media relations director, I thought about what the Penn State communications team must be dealing with: talking points, prepared statements, a torrent of media inquiries. There would be worry about protecting the Penn State brand, implications on student recruitment, fundraising. I hope that through it all there was concern about the victims.

In the media frenzy surrounding this story, the former journalist in me was curious about the details involved in the case. As I learned more, though, I wished I could unlearn it. Presumably, more information will come to light in the next several weeks.  But I don't think I want to know any more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

One peanut butter-filled pretzel nugget = one overnight hospital stay

Noli in ambulance
Food allergies can be life threatening
My four-year-old son had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) yesterday after eating a single peanut butter-filled pretzel nugget. It resulted in several hours at an urgent care center, an ambulance ride to an ER and an overnight stay at a hospital. We were discharged this afternoon, about 24 hours after we arrived at the urgent care facility.

Here's what went down:

Yesterday, Nolan was offered a few snacks, including the pretzel nugget, while I was preoccupied during a yoga class. I glanced over and nodded my approval but I did not inspect the snacks closely. It was only after Nolan said his lips were burning that I realized something was wrong. His lips had been chapped so at first I thought he had merely peeled off some loose skin that left his lip feeling raw. He said he didn't feel well, though, so I gave him some Benadryl and we drove home. 

In the car, he threw up multiple times. At home, I gave him a bath and while cleaning up the vomit, I detected the smell of peanuts. 

We have known since Nolan was nine months old that he has a serious peanut allergy. When he was a baby, my dad ate a peanut butter sandwich near him and it triggered a major allergic reaction. Nolan's entire body was covered in hives and his face turned red and puffy. Since then, we have maintained a nut-free household and carry Benadryl and epinephrine pens everywhere we go.

At the end of his bath, Nolan threw up again. I gave him some more Benadryl, loaded him and his brother in the car, and drove to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Mountain View Urgent Care Center. 

When we arrived, Nolan was not exhibiting any signs of an allergic reaction. The Benadryl had taken effect and he looked normal. We waited for the doctor and I called my husband to tell him where we were and what was going on. I said it would be good if he could leave work to come over but that everything was under control. 

Nico, my nine-year-old son, was amazing throughout the ordeal. He busted out his homework and kept himself busy through all the chaos. He didn't even flinch when his brother vomited inches away from his backpack. 

The doctor ordered an oral steroid medicine for Nolan and by the time he drank it, the Benadryl had started to wear off. The nurse helping us told us he had seen children deteriorate suddenly and severely with allergic reactions and that it was important to keep vigilant. Pretty much right after he said that, Nolan projectile vomited the medicine. Things went downhill rapidly. 

The next few hours were a blur. Vic arrived in the midst of the drama and was stunned at what he saw, particularly since the last words I had said to him were, "Things are under control." At some point, we moved from an exam room to a space directly in front of the nurses' station. It looked like a hospital room. Nolan was administered a steroid injection in his right thigh and an epinephrine injection in his left thigh. He started to develop tiny circular hives, first on his stomach, then on his neck, then everywhere. Then, the hives transformed. They were no longer circles but long, wide and thick raised welts covering him from head to toe. His body looked like a topographic map. He was given a second epinephrine injection and he vomited violently again. Nolan's blood pressure dropped and he became drowsy. An IV was administered. As the needle went into his arm, he woke up and screamed, "All of you are mean! Leave me alone!" The medical team seemed relieved (and amused) that he was so feisty. 

Around 7 p.m., an ambulance crew was summoned to take Nolan to an area emergency department. Our hospital was over capacity so we went to Stanford Hospital. I rode along with Nolan. Nico wailed, "Luuuucky!"

At the emergency department, we were greeted by a team of medical doctors, nurses, assistants, students. By now, Nolan was stable. His blood pressure was back to normal and his hives had disappeared. We had to wait as they determined which area of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital we would be admitted to. Apparently, when a patient is given two epinephrine injections, it basically guarantees an overnight stay. 

I spent the night with Nolan in his hospital room, while Vic and Nico went home. Nolan was hungry and thirsty but he was not permitted to eat or drink anything for several more hours. Eventually, he was allowed to drink apple juice. The saving grace was that he was able to watch movies on the hospital TV in his room. I knew he was back to his normal self when he asked to watch a cooking show. So we watched "Cupcake Wars". By this time, things were stable. Nolan and I settled to sleep on his bed, me still wearing my yoga clothes from this afternoon - now stiff from dried vomit. 

In the morning, Nolan was ecstatic when he was cleared to eat food again. He devoured a huge breakfast of turkey sausage, hash browns, wheat toast, raisin bran cereal, fruit cocktail, rice milk and apple juice. 

I was impressed with the medical staff throughout the experience. The doctors, nurses and students were all quite knowledgeable, caring, empathetic and helpful. Also, every person who left our hospital room asked, "Is there anything else I can help with?" before they departed. It was pretty amazing.

The attending physician told me her daughter also has a peanut allergy and that they have trained her to be extremely careful when eating new foods, accepting food from people outside her family, etc. Our pediatrician called to check on Nolan and said she also has a daughter with a peanut allergy. She shared an experience where her daughter ate a dessert that had nuts buried underneath whipped cream, even though they had specified "no nuts" when they ordered the dish. It's amazing how prevalent peanut allergies are these days.

So after a long scary afternoon and evening, Nolan was discharged from the hospital this afternoon. Everything turned out just fine, but it has been an eye-opening experience. I used to be squeamish about using the epi-pen but I am not any more. Our family now has first-hand experience that food allergies can be life-threatening. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

October in California

We had a fun Halloween evening today, our first in our Sunnyvale home. Our good friends Ellen and Edward brought their adorable son and daughter over and we ate pizza, trick-or-treated and handed out Halloween toys to the neighborhood kids. 

Don't mess with these ninjas!
It was a beautiful evening, with perfect 75 degree weather. It seemed a little strange to trick-or-treat without the familiar crispness of a midwestern October night and without leaves crackling beneath our feet. It was also weird to set out without knowing most of the people on our street.

I wasn't sure what to expect as far as the number of trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood, so I ended up with a lot of leftover rubber skeletons, Halloween tattoos and bouncy balls. Of the kids who came to our door, all were young, well-mannered and dressed in adorable costumes, accompanied by attentive parents standing behind them. I don't think we had any trick-or-treaters older than age 10 and none who came without their parents. A few neighbors introduced themselves, which was really nice.

This year, for the first time in our family, the selection of Halloween costumes went relatively smoothly. Both boys decided to wear matching ninja costumes.

This year, there was no battle over excessively gruesome attire. And I also let go of my cheap Asian mom instincts (well, to some extent). Years ago, I bought a plush puppy toddler costume off eBay for $10. I made both boys wear it, each for three years in a row. Friends tried to talk me out of it, lest my kids think that Halloween means dressing like a dog. Whatever! I got six Halloweens out of that costume, at $1.67 a year!

This year, I again went back to eBay for my costume shopping. I found some pretty good deals and opted against the ninja costume extras. Nico complained that he needed a sword, but I convinced him that the best ninjas need only their bare hands as deadly weapons. 

Last week, we participated in other Halloween activities. Nico's school had a wonderful Halloween celebration, beginning the day with a parade and an awesome performance of fourth- and fifth-graders dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (an annual tradition), led by their gym teacher. Vic thought it would have been better still if the kids dressed up as Filipino prisoners while performing the dance. Nico was embarrassed about the routine, but I thought it was fantastic! Also, the boys joined Vic for his company's annual trick-or-treat event for kids. Vic's team dressed up as Occupy Halloween protesters, with signs that said, "Save the pumpkins! No more carving! No more tricks! Give us treats!"

Earlier in the month, we went on a pumpkin-finding mission in Half Moon Bay, where we went to a pumpkin patch with my sister Linn and her girlfriend. All of us went in the haunted house, which was a stupid idea for four-year-old Nolan, who screamed, "NO! NO! NOT AT ALL! NOT! AT! ALL!" within seconds of entering the pitch-black maze. Vic and Nico also found their way in and out of a huge cornfield maze, while Nolan and I rode on the baby train. Afterward, we went on a long family hike. 

October in California has been lovely, although I do miss autumn in Ohio - the beautiful leaves, the apple-picking, the football weekends. Halloween is the highlight of the season for me, and once it is over, I know the winter holidays are not far behind. At least in California, the weather will be nicer. It's amazing how much sunshine and fresh air can lift my spirits.

After turning off the lights and cleaning up the trick-or-treating aftermath tonight, I'm feeling a bit wistful. Another Halloween, another childhood milestone for the boys, another year drawing to a close.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Gold foil-wrapped Jordan almonds. Red silk jewelry boxes. 

For the days preceding September 11, 2001, these were the things that occupied my mind. With less than two weeks away from the most important day of my life, I was busy dealing with head counts, meal preferences and questions from vendors.

Then, early on the morning of September 11, my sister Linda called with the news that two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Vic and I were living together in California then and both of us had been asleep. He turned on the television, which stayed on the rest of the day. Shocked, sad and angry, suddenly, I couldn't think about our upcoming wedding any more, and in fact, the idea of assembling 180 wedding favors seemed downright frivolous. 

Even though 10 years have passed since that awful day, I still remember the dramatic emotional shift I underwent, from pre-wedding giddiness to post-9/11 anguish. Even though I hadn't lost any friends or family in the attacks, like so many Americans, I was distraught. 

I dug up a few email messages from that time to recall the exact words I used in corresponding with friends that week:

"I'm not in the mood to talk -- about my wedding, that is. It seems so inconsequential in light of everything else going on right now."

 "I am still so sad about all of this. On Saturday, I'm supposed to fly to Cleveland to iron out last-minute details about my wedding. But I can't even think about the wedding right now…"

Back then, Vic had been working for an Internet start-up whose office overlooked the San Francisco airport. He stayed home on September 11, but returned to work the next day. It was eerily quiet, he said, as the usual whoosh and roar of airplanes taking off and landing was missing. "There is zero apparent activity taking place over there," he said. 

We were in California and our wedding was in Ohio. We were scheduled to fly from San Francisco to Cleveland in four days, but weren't even sure if our flight would happen. For the next few days, we fielded phone calls and email messages asking if the wedding was still on. Someone suggested we postpone it, but we dismissed that idea immediately. A few people canceled their plans to attend. Too risky to fly, they said. 

One of my friends, Wendy, emailed me some wonderful advice then: "First and foremost, you need to thank God that you and your loved ones are safe and celebrate the time you have with them at your wedding.  I think you are actually lucky to have an event to celebrate with your closest family and friends this weekend during this tragedy.  Celebrate even more and tell everyone how lucky they are to have everyone together for this very important event in your life."

She was right. The wedding took place on a beautiful day in Cleveland and was a wonderful celebration of family and friends. The nation's official period of mourning had just ended, as President Bush ordered the American flag to be raised to full mast that day

In the time that has passed since September 11, 2001, I came to meet other women who shared their 9/11 stories with me - a friend who was pregnant then, a woman who even went into labor that day. In the 10 years that have passed, Vic and I became parents too. Our older son, a fourth-grader now, was upset this week that they didn't talk about September 11 at school. He was incredulous that they didn't discuss it in class, but said he did talk about it with his friend Lance during recess. I asked what they said. He shrugged. "We were just sad," my nine-year-old said. 

When I think back to the fateful day 10 years ago, I remember that after getting over the shock, I felt exceptionally proud to be an American and uncommonly united with all fellow Americans. September 11 marked a turning point for this country, and it seems that since then, we have blurred the difference between nationalism and patriotism. We have found more ways to divide ourselves. I hope today we will reflect on the losses we suffered together as a country 10 years ago and unite again.

News media love anniversaries and no doubt, the day will be filled with profiles, special reports and other commemoration features about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I hope we will use this opportunity to remember, reflect and return to the values that bring us together. 

American, by choice

(Note: This essay was published in the San Jose Mercury News on November 25, 2001.)

Pride in becoming American intensifies after Sept. 11 attacks

Last year, I became a true American: I was granted U.S. citizenship.

At the ceremony, 1,500 of us gathered in San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill to declare our loyalty to this country. An Iranian woman stood on my right, a Korean woman on my left. People of all ages, races and economic backgrounds were there, many dressed in red, white and blue. Some wore jeans, others business suits and dresses. We were as diverse in appearance and ethnicity as any group could be, but we stood as one in the crowded auditorium.

I had expected the naturalization ceremony to be just another bureaucratic ordeal to endure, much like renewing my driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But as 1,500 strangers from different lands pledged allegiance to the same flag, tears filled my eyes, pride surged in my heart.

Memories of that day flooded back to me on Sept. 11 Like millions of Americans watching the awful events of that morning unfold on television, I felt shock, sadness and fear. By the time the World Trade Center towers collapsed, I realized I felt something new, something I'd truly never felt before. We soon learned that this country, my country, would be going to war and I felt as patriotic as any native-born American.

It was my younger sister, Linda, who frantically woke me with the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. And, it was my sister, Linda, who had an appointment with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sept. 11. After we ended our call, I stared in shock at the TV for the rest of the day. My sister, I later learned, headed off to her INS appointment to be fingerprinted, one of the critical steps to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

I was upset that my sister kept the appointment on a day people fled most government buildings in droves. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “I’m sure INS would have understood your wanting to reschedule.”

My sister, who is five years younger, knew the truth.

Time is of the essence
“I’ve waited too long for this,” she said. She knew that missing her appointment, even on that terrible and frightening day, could delay her naturalization process several months.

Linda, 26, is the last of us to see American citizenship. A San Francisco social worker, she has nerves of steel. Whether she was overcome with patriotism or she merely wanted her family to stop nagging her – or both – she kept her appointment with the INS.

Her defiance of fear on the day that changed America – and how we think of it – forever was similar to my new feelings of patriotism.

Until my naturalization ceremony, becoming a U.S. citizen had been a mind-numbing process of filling out forms, cramming for the civics exam and waiting for further INS instructions. Until I entered the auditorium, I felt only relief to have reached the final step of naturalization.

But after I turned in my green card to INS officers as part of the ceremony, the weight of the experience overcame me. I was about to begin a new life. When I took my place in the auditorium, I felt exuberant. Although I began the naturalization process alone, I was ending it surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all looking as proud and happy as I.

Looking around the room, I was reminded of the official motto of the United States of America, printed on Page One of my official “Guide to Naturalization” booklet: E Pluribus Unum – From Many, One.

For years, our family never felt an urgency to apply for citizenship. We weren't able to vote, but having a green card seemed enough at the time.

My family’s road to U.S. citizenship began with my parents in the late ‘60s when they emigrated from Taiwan to Canada, where my dad attended graduate school. He eventually received a job offer to teach and do research at an American university, so in the summer of 1976, our family drove across the border to begin our life in the United States. We moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

In the mid-‘90s, my parents worried about growing anti-immigrant sentiment. They decided to formalize their commitment to their adopted country and were sworn in as official Americans in 1997.

Reasons to apply
I decided to apply too, for other reasons. Unlike my Taiwanese-born parents, I was raised in the United States. I was born in Canada but had lived here since age 7. Citizenship status was a mere technicality and I had been content being a U.S. permanent resident or as my green card said, a “resident alien”.

My feelings changed when my parents became citizens. I realized that if my mom, who still speaks with a heavy Taiwanese accent, could make the leap to American citizenship, then surely I could. Both my parents required extra effort to study for the naturalization civics exam, but I already had the benefit of an American education, from grammar school to graduate school. I had been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance since second grade. Surely if anyone in my family were to be called an American, it should be me – and my sister.

I had already missed three presidential elections already and decided that was enough. My parents and I voted as U.S. citizens for the first time last year.

My road to citizenship had taken two years.

The experience is the same for everyone who seeks citizenship. You begin by filling out a detailed application in which you are asked if you have any affiliation with the Nazi Party or various other groups. You must declare if you've ever been a prostitute, a gambler or a “habitual drunkard.”

The questions are meant to determine the moral character of an applicant but seem so pointless, especially now. During the oral exam, an INS inspector quizzes you on a variety of U.S. government and history topics, which sometimes include having you list the 13 original colonies, explaining what the colors of the flag represent and naming local elected representatives.

Does knowing those things make us good citizens?

Pose these questions
In our post-Sept. 11 world, we need to know so much more. Perhaps it's time to change the citizenship application process to reflect modern reality. If I were in charge of developing a new citizenship application, I would ask people to answer: Why do you want to be an American? What does it mean to you?

The answers, I imagine, would be as varied and individual as the applicants themselves. I had wanted to vote. Others wanted a better life for their children. Some sought religious freedom. Or education. Or opportunity. When I first came to the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance was just a jumble of big words. When I recited those words at my oath ceremony, I finally understood and cherished each one.

Just like a marriage oath, the oath of allegiance to this country is something sacred. It means declaring to the world, “I choose you” and being willing to fight to protect the personal and political freedoms we hold dear.

At my oath ceremony, 1,500 people simultaneously renounced allegiance to their countries of birth and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It was an easy promise to make in peacetime, though. The oath bears greater weight and significance today. Will young men still pursue naturalization now, knowing they could be drafted for war?

As part of the Sept. 11 aftermath, there has been talk of monitoring student visas and imposing more stringent background checks. While it is important to protect the country from enemies, we need to be careful not to discourage the people who come here with good intentions. Somehow we must distinguish between those who come to visit and those who come to stay.

Unlike people who are citizens by birth, naturalized Americans choose their allegiance. They choose to put their faith, their hopes and their dreams in their adopted country. And if necessary, they will put their lives on the line.

In a way, those who come forward to seek citizenship now are quiet heroes. They will be the ones who, even in times of danger and backlash, keep their INS appointments.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

See you later, CWRU

Today is my last day of work at Case Western Reserve University. It's been an incredible experience working for my undergraduate alma mater for the past eight years.

My role as director of marketing and communications for the College of Arts and Sciences has to be among the best jobs around. I work with people I admire and respect; they are dedicated, diverse and dynamic. My staff colleagues include a classics scholar, a fashion model, a violist, a talent agent, a yoga instructor and a musical theater director. The faculty I work with include anthropologists, astronomers, chemists, dancers, historians, musicologists, novelists, playwrights, psychologists, sociologists. My boss and mentor, the dean of the college, is a particle physicist who unwinds by training for ultramarathons and teaching himself Mandarin.

My first job at CWRU was in the Office of Undergraduate Admission, where I helped to attract talented, high-achieving students to the university. After that, I joined the Office of Marketing and Communications to lead the university's media relations team. My colleagues were some of the most hardworking, tireless people I have ever known.

Among my most rewarding professional experiences at CWRU was being a founding member of the committee that created the university's Women Staff Leadership Development Initiative. It was exhilarating to see one little idea evolve into a robust, thriving university program. It was deeply rewarding to work with a group of talented, thoughtful women leaders interested in building a supportive community and elevating the campus culture as a whole.

And of course, I cannot forget the students. CWRU students are simply amazing. I was honored when I was nominated for an undergraduate mentoring award a few years ago; knowing these incredible individuals has been a privilege. From the interns I supervised to the student newspaper editors I advised, these rising stars were impressive as undergraduates and have continued to astound me with their accomplishments since graduation; they include a Fulbright scholar, Teach for America corps members, Peace Corps volunteers, and a number of engineers, doctors and lawyers. Some of them have married, some are new parents. Thanks to Facebook, I'm able to stay updated on their exploits.

Working at CWRU has had its challenges over the years. For one, it has been difficult juggling parenthood and a demanding career. I should have realized from the start that my work-life balance would be indelibly blurred at CWRU - my work and wedding anniversary are the same day. During my time at the university, I endured a difficult pregnancy and contemplated quitting my job once my baby was born. I had understanding supervisors, though, who gave me flexibility in my work arrangement. I continued to work full time with a few accommodations (anyone need a breast pump - anyone?). And then I connected with a network of wonderful working parents who sought to face work-life issues together.

In my personal life, these past eight years have brought some major changes. My family expanded; when I first came to work at CWRU, I had a one-year-old boy in diapers. Now, that little guy has big horse teeth and will be entering fourth grade. And he now has a three-year-old brother, one who enjoys playing online UNO on my iPad but has little interest in toilet training.

And their dad, my husband, is working for a fantastic company that requires us to relocate to California. We are excited about this new family adventure, but it is going to be hard to say goodbye to all that we love here in Cleveland, Ohio.

Case Western Reserve University has been a special place for my family. My father has been a research scientist here for nearly 35 years. My sister and I used to visit his lab and be fascinated with the Geiger counter. My husband and I both earned diplomas from the university; I was an English major, Vic was a computer engineering major who later also earned a graduate degree in operations research. Our sons experienced life on campus, from visiting my office countless times to going to Springfest year after year. Nico used to accompany me during production nights at The Observer while Vic attended evening classes. I nursed two-week-old Nolan in the press box radio room during a CWRU Homecoming game.

I am enormously grateful for all that I've experienced in my years at CWRU. I've met great people and I've learned valuable life lessons. I am sad to leave a place that has had an impact on my family for three generations.

But I know I will be back again some day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tiger Mom vs. Third-Grader: Part II, Great American SpellCheck

This morning, Nico participated in Roxboro Elementary School's first Great American SpellCheck competition and was eliminated in the second round. (Did I imagine a gasp when it happened? Maybe it came from me.)

It was a somewhat shocking result, as Nico misspelled the word "badly" ("baddly"). This, from a kid who breezes through weekly spelling words like "perspicacious" and "paradigmatic". I was stunned that he was eliminated so quickly and saw that he was too. He walked off the stage dazed. When the students eliminated in his round rejoined their classmates in the audience, Nico sat off to the side, away from all his friends.

I went over to him and suggested we go out to the hallway. He was fighting back tears. "I spelled it wrong on purpose," he said, bitterly. "I didn't want to be there in the first place." Nico had scored 50 out of 50 on the written exam to qualify for the oral spelling competition, but had mixed feelings about the whole thing. "I don't want to be on stage," he had said when he learned he had qualified.

Spelling bees are a source of pride in this family. Both Vic and I were grade school spelling champs and to this day, I silently judge people who can't spell well (and don't get me started on people who can't use apostrophes properly). Still, I didn't want to put too much pressure on Nico for his first spelling bee. I debated even going to the competition today, but am glad I did. I sat with some friends and we cheered for all of the spellers.

There is so much drama at these things! For first-, second- and third-graders, these competitions must be incredibly nerve-wracking. As I spoke to other parents, we all admitted that we were nervous ourselves as we watched our children take their turns at the mic. The rhythm of a spelling bee is mesmerizing - we hold our breath as the students recite the letters, we listen for the bell, we sigh with relief (or gasp in sympathy), we clap, repeat. It was heartbreaking to watch the young spellers as they were eliminated, one by one. Some of them stumbled, crestfallen, into their parents' open arms; some only needed a quick hug and then raced back to sit with their friends, others needed to be embraced for the rest of the competition.

Nico displayed a disturbing, but familiar mix of emotions after he was ousted from the contest. Like me, he's emotional and excitable, but he is embarrassed to show it. Like Vic, he is brooding and intensely competitive. When we finally reentered the auditorium after a few minutes hugging in the hallway, I heard Nico whisper, "Yes!" when his friends were also eliminated. "Don't you want to root for your friends?" I asked him. "No. I don't want anyone to win," he replied.

Admittedly, I was annoyed that Nico was booted out of the competition so early. I tried not to show it, although, for a microsecond, I related to my own mother's feelings of disappointment in me. I remembered the piano recital where I flubbed a note and heard her in the audience clucking her tongue. That memory has stayed with me and I don't want Nico to know that feeling. I hugged and kissed him for a long time. "I'm a horrible speller," he said. "No, you're not," I told him. "You have weekly spelling words much harder than the one you missed today. You're a fantastic speller all day every day, just not for a few seconds today. It's OK." I hugged him again.

I wasn't at all a Tiger Mom today and it was fine. F.I.N.E.

Tiger Mom vs. Third-Grader: Part I, Invention Convention

Last night, Nico won the 3rd-4th-5th grade division for his school's Invention Convention with his "Boat Buddy Bath Thermometer". He built a sailboat out of balsa wood and inserted an 8-second thermometer through it so that the whole contraption would result in a floating device that could measure bath water temperature. He came up with this idea based on his daily problem of jumping into a shower that is too cold. Although his invention doesn't really work for showers, it's pretty good for baths.
I helped Nico a lot with his project, taking him to Target and JoAnn Fabric for supplies, assisting him in building his sailboat and working with him to put his display together. His poster included a bar graph of our family members' preferred bath temperatures (mine was the highest - duh, I'm Asian!). It also included an advertisement: "Upgrade your bath! Ingredients for a perfect bath: soap, bubbles, water, Boat Buddy!"

While there were some amazing inventions on display, the science teacher told us that what put Nico's project over the edge was his research plan. Yesss! I gave my husband a smug look. "See, it's all about the writing, " I explained to Vic.

Then, in re-reading Nico's research report, I saw that my first-born son had crossed out "special thanks/credits to my mom for her help". Originally, when I read over Nico's report, I was flattered that he mentioned me at all. But at Science Night, when I saw he crossed out the words in heavy, angry pencil marks, I was surprised. Nico explained, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I crossed that out after you made me mad! You said you weren't going to help anymore and that it was my project and I had to do it all by..." I cut him off, worried he was going to tell the world all about the ups and downs of our collaboration (i.e., my mood swings throughout the process). I was nervous he would describe how, in a fit of frustration and anger,  I angrily scattered all of our craft supplies across the dining room.

It was a terrible Tiger Mom moment and I knew it even as I flung pieces of balsa wood in the air. It reminded me of the time in second grade when my mom got upset at me for sulking through a weekday afternoon piano practice. I had been sitting at the piano, shoulders slumped, sighing and dawdling, listening to my friends Big Wheel down the sidewalk. Suddenly, my mom swooped in, swept up my piano books and threw them in the trash. The kitchen trash. I fished them out of a snarl of apple peels and carrot shavings, cleaned them up, taped the torn pages and sat down to practice. It was a day I will never forget and now I wonder if Nico will have a similar experience seared in his memory.

So far, Nico does not seem too scarred. He was elated when he was announced as one of the two school winners. When we got home, he bounced into the house and called my dad, who was simply delighted. Nico put him on speakerphone and it was heartwarming to hear their conversation. My dad told Nico he had a good feeling about his invention because it was a great idea and that he had worked hard on it. He asked Nico if he was happy and if he wanted to be a scientist some day. Nico said, "I think so!"

Next up: Great American SpellCheck

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A letter to me, age 7

A few days ago, I watched a wonderfully charming film, With Love, From the Age of Reason (L'age de raison) during the Cleveland International Film Festival. The premise was intriguing and completely resonated with me: A woman, on her 40th birthday, began receiving letters from herself that she wrote at age 7. The first began like this:

Dear Me,

Today I am seven years old and I'm writing you this letter to help you remember the promises I made, and also to remind you of what I want to become.

So, today, on my birthday, I decided to write a letter to me, age 7:

Dear Me,

Today I am 41 years old and I'm writing you this letter to revisit the promises I made, and also to tell you of what I became.

Here are the things I had vowed to do that I did do:
-- I went to college (and graduate school).
-- I lived by myself (in an apartment seven blocks from the Pacific Ocean).
-- I became a writer.
-- I got married.
-- I became a mom.

Here are the things I didn't do:
-- I did not make an appearance on Sesame Street.
-- I did not become a kindergarten teacher.
-- I have not opened a combination boutique/bakery/bookstore.
-- I have not lived in a mansion I designed myself.

There is still a lot of time to do the things I've always wanted to do, although I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed in wanting to do many things at once. Sometimes I don't know where to start. I can't believe I ever felt one moment of being bored! I remember the "Things to Do on a Rainy Day" book I made when I was seven and contrast it with the ever-growing pile of to-do lists I keep today.

What keeps me busy? For the most part, it's my family, my friends, my work. I am a wife and mom, which I had always hoped to be. I love my family wholly and unquestionably; I feel so blessed by having so much love in my life. Marriage and parenthood are much, much more than I expected - more exasperating and more exhilarating. My husband is solid, brilliant, handsome, kind and fair. My sons - my sons, can you believe it? - are beautiful, hilarious, devious, fun-loving and sweet. My guys are everything to me. They deplete me and fill me up every day.

I'm not a perfect wife or mother. I am not as patient as I hoped I would be, I am more tired than I want to be. In second grade, I started a list of things to keep in mind when I became a mom. I was angry at my mother at the time, and wanted to be sure I didn't do any of the things she did that enraged me. Now that I'm a mom of two, I understand her a lot more now. People have asked me if I'd like to have more kids. I have all that I can handle.

As far as work goes, I didn't become a kindergarten teacher, although I do work in a higher education setting doing meaningful work that makes a positive difference in the world. I love being in a university environment working closely with amazing, accomplished people who are incredibly diverse, smart, curious, creative, thoughtful and funny. I feel blessed in being able to work with people I respect and admire.

I've learned that it's important to surround yourself with great people, no matter what age you are. My family and my friends support me, challenge me, protect and comfort me. They buoy me wherever I go, whatever I do. Being blanketed in this unconditional love gives me the emotional security to take risks, to try new things, to visit new places.

I'm middle-aged now, but I don't feel old. I have a fulfilling life that seems to keep getting better each year.

Happy birthday!


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lost: my exobrain

I lost my iPhone two days ago.

I am completely lost without my exobrain and am trying to convince my husband that I need to get a replacement (upgraded model, though, of course) ASAP. Vic and I are not on the same page about this. He reluctantly bought me my first iPhone (now the one he uses) for my birthday in April two years ago.

Here's an excerpted transcript of our phone conversation this morning:

Vic: I'm looking into the iPhone stuff. I emailed you a bunch of links.
me: OK.
Vic: You should probably go to the Apple store. Find out what your options are - correction - find out what your CHEAPEST options are.
me: Cheapest?
Vic: Yeah. Don't just walk in there with the mindset of "I'm coming out with a new iPhone."
me: Uh-huh.
Vic: I mean, if you have to get another phone, your best bet may be a refurbished iPhone 3Gs.
me: Hmm. I was thinking iPhone 4.
Vic: Well, I'm due next for the upgrade.
me: I knew you would say that. I'll see what it costs.
Vic: Don't buy anything or sign any new contracts without calling me first.
me: I have to go.

What iPhone should I get?
Get the top-of-the line model. You deserve it!
Get a refurbished older model - the cheaper the better. free polls

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tiger Mom = Mother Martyr

As a college senior, I had written this essay for an English class, The Immigrant Experience. It was published in CWRU, the magazine for Case Western Reserve University, my undergraduate alma mater, in May 1993.

The Mother Martyr

No matter what she is saying to me, my mother's voice sounds sharp, urgent, and usually angry. Her voice is a knife. At college, my suite mate once said to me that she could always tell when I was talking to my mom on the phone because my voice would suddenly get loud. It is true. My mother's voice demands boldness. I am forced to speak as loudly as she does. Tenderness is rare between me and my mother and sometimes the only way to handle my mom is to be the same way she is.

When I was younger, I used to watch my mother cook. When she cooks, she stir-fries vegetables the same way she talks–with speed and aggressiveness–so that they are cooked in seconds. She chops meat just as swiftly. I have seen my mother cut herself only a few times while chopping, which is amazing considering her speed. When she does cut herself, though, my mom's chopping is so fast and powerful that it never leaves anything but a deep wound.

On the rare occasions that she does cut herself, my mom wipes the blood from her fingers and laughs at her clumsiness. When I was young, it seemed that her wounds hurt me more than they hurt her. I cringed when I saw the blood while my mom laughed. Once, I had a nightmare about having my eyes cut with razor blades. The worst form of torture to me is not one of stabbing or burning or drowning, but of slicing.

When you slice with a knife, there is a moment of commitment, when there is no turning back. I am tentative. I do not want to commit too soon and risk getting cut.

I wonder sometimes if my mother's agreement to marry my father was a fast choice, a deep cut. My mother married my father knowing that he was planning to study in Canada. She knew that if she married him, she would have to leave her family and friends and learn a whole new culture. I know my mother loved my father very much when she agreed to marry him, but I wonder how she felt about leaving Taiwan.

My parents had me while my father studied at the University of Alberta. When I was born, my parents taught me to speak Taiwanese before I learned English. After I went to school, though, I forgot a lot of my Taiwanese. There are still some Taiwanese words I have never learned. For example, I don't think I was ever taught the word "regret". Instead, I learned words like "hungry."

I learned practical survival words in Taiwanese. My mother learned the same in English. I have never learned enough Taiwanese, nor my mother enough English, to convey nuances or subtleties–only facts. When I was little, my childhood conversations with my mom were business transactions–negotiations, deals. "Please," I would whine, in the most dignified way a second-grader could. "Please let me play outside now and when I come back, I will practice piano for a whole hour." "NO," she would reply firmly. "NO BAH-GAINS."

I was constantly trying to "bah-gain" with my mother. I wanted her to give me more freedom so I could be like everyone else in school. Trying to assimilate into the American culture was very painful for both of us at times. It was harder for me, a cry-baby and whiner. My mother was more stoic. She never complained.

My mother sat and listened while I tried to tell her how out of place I felt among Americans. While I felt awkward and shy, I explained, my best friend Jennie Price was the popular trendsetter. She was the first to have a Mandy doll (second grade), Calvin Klein jeans (fourth grade), Atari video games (seventh grade), etc. Jennie's mom was so hip too. She sunbathed and ate pound cake all the time.

I wanted to be like Jennie. My mom knew it. My mom would study the way Jennie dressed and buy me the same clothes just so I would feel better. It wasn't good enough for me, though. I wanted my mom to be like Jennie Price's mom and know what was fashionable before everybody else did, not after. I didn't just want to fit in–I wanted to be in, like Jennie Price.

I wanted my mom to be like Jennie's mom, or at least somewhat like the moms I watched on TV. I wanted my mom to be June Cleaver or Carol Brady. In elementary school, my mom even tried to be this ideal I wished for. She joined the PTA. She made cupcakes for everyone in my class on my birthday. I even remember her going to a Tupperware party once.

One day, there was a Brownie Girl Scout meeting for parents at my friend Ann's house. While the adults had their meeting, the girls played out on Ann's front lawn. While I was pretending to be a normal American, a girl named Debbie ran out of the house and shook my arm. She was totally stunned because my mother had taken off her shoes upon entering the house. "Why?" Debbie kept asking. I don't know what I said to Debbie, in my grade school embarrassment, but I remember scolding my mom later for not knowing better.

When I think about that Brownie meeting now, I realize what a difficult, alien situation I had forced upon my mother. At Ann's house, my mom's voice was soft and unsure. She wasn't the thunder mom I as used to. I shouldn't have made my mom go to that meeting. I cut her that day.

I think my mom cut me too by expecting me to be Superkid. I was a timid child. My mother tried to force me to be strong. Like so many other Asian American parents, my mom was determined to make me The Best Kid in the Universe. I had art, ballet, piano, violin, ice-skating, and swimming lessons, Chinese Saturday School, and Brownie Girl Scouts. When I wasn't in school, I was scooted back and forth between my various self-improvement courses.

I remember initially wanting to take all my various lessons but eventually resenting them. In Chinese School especially, I thought I was cursed for being Taiwanese. I got sick of having Chinese culture jammed down my throat every week–and on Saturdays! I wanted to watch cartoons like everyone else.

Now that I think about it, I know my parents were just trying to give me some advantages over other kids. They wanted me to know more than others. The even taught me how to read before I entered kindergarten. I remember being bored learning that the letter "B" makes a "buh" sound when I could already write my own stories. I would read all the time, especially with my mother enrolling me in library summer reading programs. I was the school spelling champion.

I think it is strange now that my parents don't know why I became an English major in college. "WHAT ABOUT BEING A DOCTOR OR ENGINEER?" my mom still asks. I want to scream that I was molded into this direction. I don't understand why my parents think I betrayed them. After all, they were the ones who taught me how to read and write early. Studying literature was only logical considering the background I had, a background of languages and interpretations and colors and meaning.

Since I'll soon be graduating from college and living on my own, my parents are trying to make me cook more. My mother is disgusted with the way I chop slowly. "YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO CHOP RIGHT. YOU HAVE TO COOK FASTER OR ELSE YOU FAMILY WILL STARVE TO DEATH WAITING FOR YOU," my mother warns.

When my mother chops, she does not worry about getting cut. If she does slice herself, she will simply wash her hands, wrap her wounds and keep chopping. When I think of knives, I think of pain and danger and death. When my mother thinks of knives, she thinks of efficiency, of practicality, of life. I understand now why she chops so fast. She wants to feed her family as quickly as possible. She doesn't want the family to wait. She doesn't want life to wait. Opportunities don't wait. Life is not about deliberating or deciding, but of doing and moving. Cut fast, commit, and never look back.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chinese parenting - right or wrong?

In a Wall Street Journal essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", author and Yale Law School professor Amy Chua shares her perspective on "Chinese parenting".

Where do I begin?

I must emphasize that I'm not speaking for all Asians. I do have some things in common with Amy Chua. I do know what it's like to be the daughter of Asian immigrant parents with high expectations, and I'm also a mom of two facing challenging issues concerning academics and discipline. But Chua and I have different perspectives on parenting.

Chua describes the Chinese attitude toward education, where achievement is not an option. She discusses the shame and humiliation Asian parents subject their children to if expectations are not met. She views this style of parenting as clearly superior to "Western parenting".

After reading the WSJ piece, horrified, one of my friends asked me if I agree with that style of parenting. "I was completely blown away," she said. "It was really hard to read."

To me, it's, well, complicated. In thinking about the Chinese parenting style Chua advocates, on a large scale, I do have concerns about how it contributes to the model minority myth. I worry about how this parenting style affects the mental health of our children. There is research that links parental pressure to high rates of suicide among Asian Pacific American women.

On a personal level, though, I admit I was a bit entertained and amused by some of the examples Chua laid out in her essay. They were so familiar. It was like the first time I read Joy Luck Club. I ticked off the checklist: pushy mom - yes, cowed daughter - yes, outrageously high expectations - yes, oh yes.

In my own experience, I grew up in a close-knit Taiwanese community in Cleveland. My parents and their Taiwanese friends emigrated to the United States to pursue careers in medicine, engineering and natural sciences. They expected their children to excel academically as well.

And for the most part, we did. We graduated from well-regarded colleges and universities. Some did go to Ivies, some did become doctors. I majored in English as an undergrad and studied journalism in grad school; my sister became a social worker. Some people may regard our career choices as a colossal Asian parenting failure, but my sister and I are doing meaningful work that we enjoy.

Still, it is easier to say this now that we are adults. It was painful growing up under the scrutiny of an entire network of overbearing Asian parents. I used to dread the large family gatherings where, after dinner, all the children would be summoned for an impromptu piano recital. On the way home, my mom would list all the amazing awards the other kids had achieved, as told by their mothers - math contests, science fairs, etc.

The pressure to excel is intense. "If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion," Chua says. "The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A."

I can relate to that. In seventh grade, I went through a rebellious period where I thought it was terribly uncool to care about grades and studying. It caught up to me when I got behind in my algebra class and midterm progress reports were sent out. I estimated when the mail would arrive and planned to intercept the envelope, the contents of which were sure to cause an epic parental reaction. When I got home - it was a Wednesday afternoon - my stomach lurched when I saw my father's car in the driveway. He happened to be home early that day, after taking the car in for repair. I walked in the door and saw a tall stack of math books piled on the living room coffee table. "Start on page one," my dad commanded. And that was before Mom arrived on the scene. It was a brutal several weeks.

"Chinese mothers get in the trenches," Chua says, "putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids." She shared her own experience of how she forced her young daughter to learn a difficult piano piece for a recital.

I remembered a piano recital of my own when I was in junior high. At one point, my fingers stumbled, but I quickly recovered. Too late. From the back of the room, I heard my mother cluck her tongue. After the recital, fuming, I told her I did not want her to attend any more of my piano performances. "Good," my mother shot back. "Then I won't have to hear any more of your mistakes."

In exchanging Moms with High Expectations stories with my friend Claire, a playwright, she laughed when I told her that one. "I'm using that!" she said. (See the story come to life in her upcoming theater production, Mother/Tongue, this month!)

Asian moms demand perfection from their children - and not just when it comes to school and piano. Image is important. “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight,’ ” Chua says.

Again, this resonates with me. Years ago, on a family trip to Taiwan, I had such severe food poisoning that I had to go to the emergency room. My mom was disgusted and impatient with me when I fretted over the shots the doctor prepared to administer. "Stop whining. Women your age give birth with less fuss," she said to me in Taiwanese. I was weak and dehydrated, having lost 10 pounds in four days. She added, "You look great, though".

So I'm a mother myself now, and I oscillate between Eastern and Western traditions, customs and values. My husband and I want to find a balance, but it's hard to do. Sometimes I find myself repeating my parents' words and actions. I hear myself using words like "sacrifice" and "responsibility" a lot. But I also do some things differently. I hug and kiss my kids a lot. I have high expectations for my children too, but above all, I want them to be healthy and happy.