Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Our Loved Ones

Why do we discount the advice of our loved ones?  As if they have some ulterior motive in suggesting a course of action, I often immediately disregard what they say but take it up as gospel when I hear it from a stranger, Dr. Oz, or, in the latest case, a fictional character.

Take running for example.  I am not an athletic person.  The only sports I have ever done well in at all are swimming (once I had goggles and could tell which way I was going), karate, and judo.  In the last two, falling was involved.  To me, running appeared to be an opportunity to wheeze and sprain an ankle.

My husband, on the other hand, is very athletic.  He thrives on physical activity, and the price of the gym is the price of my sanity because he is a different person after physical exertion.  For years, he has been swearing that I would be too.  For years, I have been full of excuses and downright defiance.  Sometimes I try a little, but the only exercise I have done consistently is walk, which is usually done with the aid of a cell phone and a good friend or sister on the other end.

But in November, I got hooked on Sue Grafton novels (I know!  It was shocking!  I generally hate bestsellers and one reason I left Waldenbooks was that the manager wanted me to read more bestsellers to "have more in common with our customers." I left after reading Message in a Bottle.  If our customers liked that, I was not interested in having more in common with them).  After reading Kinsey Millhone's repeated rhapsodies about her 3-mile run, I was becoming curious.  If I decided to take up a new form of exercise, I might consider running.

Of course, it wasn't strictly Kinsey Millhone.  We got videoconferencing up and running, and my sister-in-law took one look at me, forgot "hello," and went right to "boy, you've gained weight!"  That certainly did help.

So now I'm running, or at least, I was running until we got to Korea.  But now I think that we have a schedule and I should be able to run at least three days a week.  AWESOME!  I even have a place to do it, if rain, children, and/or other various and sundry circumstances do not impede the path (literally).

But back to our loved ones.  Perhaps the reason we discount their advice is that there's a lot of rough thrown in with the diamonds.  For example, my mother-in-law had a great idea about the us tickets yesterday morning that I was likely to discount, although it did turn out to be a great idea.  But she also tells me (and the boys) not to drink too much plum juice (your teeth will rot), not to eat too much chicken (it will make your legs week), not to drink too much milk (apparently her family doesn't suffer osteoporosis the way mine does), that dryers are dirty (and the clothes that have blown off the drying rack onto the lawn are clean?), and many other gems.  This is not to single out my mother-in-law.  My own mother can be the same way.  She may tell me to keep some gem, but this is a woman who only just threw out an outfit she began to sew before I was born.

As I contemplate my run this evening (it's far too hot to go now), I also remember today's events with wonder as my in-laws are exclaiming over AJ's sudden use of Korean.  For almost 2 weeks, I have been telling them it's in there.  I have been saying that the change was too much and that when AJ needs Korean, it will come out.  I told them that the same thing happened with English in America.  I tell them this daily.  Yet today's events were like a complete mystery to them.

Again, not to point out my in-laws.  I had a similar experience with BJ and the school in the spring when we came.

And so I wonder.  Should I just give up?  Is it the way a prophet is never honored in his own hometown?  Or is it that I am simply nagging too much?  Perhaps I should keep more "advice" to myself and only share the truly golden nuggets?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Different Pictures

"Mommy," my big son addressed me as he came into the room, "How can I be eight-and-a-half now when I'm really six-and-three-quarters?"

"Eight-and-a-half is your Korean age," I explain. 

Technically, this is not quite true.  Ages here are simply integral; there are no halves or three-quarters.  Since everyone adds one year to their age on New Year's Day, Koreans simply say the whole number.  "We know it is summer and you turned eight six months ago," they might explain. "But so did everyone else.  You are simply eight."

"No," my big son explains.  "I didn't grow that fast.  I am still six-and-three-quarters."

Amazingly, our little exchange here goes to the heart of the issues we, and many international/cross-cultural/inter-racial families, face:  We see things differently.

Now, seeing things differently is really not a surprise.  Everyone knows about cultural differences.  No, the problem is this:  Once we explain to others the picture in our own head, our expectation, we expect them to adjust accordingly--and, naturally, to accept our "normal" view of the matter.

Perhaps one of the best examples I have of this different pictures is the notion of "salty." 

Koreans are always telling me about American things that are salty:  pizza, cheese, chips.  True these things are salty.  According to, per 100 grams of cheese pizza, there are about 702 mg of sodium. One hundred grams of cheddar cheese has 620 mg, potato chips 1000 mg.

But Americans might have a thing or two to say about Korean food.  According to a Korea Times article published in November of last year ( Korean men consume three times the WHO guideline for sodium intake and Korean women 2.7 times.

The point is not to point fingers (clearly there are salty foods consumed on both sides of the Pacific Ocean) but to point out that each side sees very clearly the problems of the other side, usually without acknowledging the problems of their own. 

Finding a happy medium is never easy.

Take the example of "clean." In America, we constantly eat with our hands: sandwiches, pizza, chips, cookies.  We have an entire class foods labeled "finger foods." In Korea, this is "더럽다" or "dirty."  There is hardly a worse insult here without dipping into profanity.

On the other hand, Koreans constantly eat after one another, drinking out of the same cup and sharing side dishes out of the same bowl.  Of course, just like Americans wash their hands before they eat, Koreans take some precautions not to spread excessive germs in the process.  But it still seems pretty yucky to an American.

So what do you do?  One Korean wife of an American soldier I know accepts both restrictions, neither eating with her hands nor sharing a cup or bowl.  I, on the other hand, currently have two small children and family on both sides who seem completely unwilling to bend.  I tend to turn a blind eye to both and figure that I don't see people dropping dead because of the infraction on either continent, so I will just let it go in my case (of course, not around my immunosupressed mother, but that's another matter entirely).

Is there a good answer?  Or do we just need to settle for any answer?

"Yes," I respond to my son. "You are still six-and-three-quarters in America.  You are eight-and-a-half here.  When we went to America, you were seven here.  You didn't shrink and become five there.  You stayed seven here and five there.  When Koreans see you now, they think eight-and-a-half.  When Americans see you now, they think six-and-three-quarters.  You are still you, no matter what they think."

"But what do I say when they call me something different?" he asked.

Truth be told, I would really like an answer to that question.

In the meantime I say, "You know who you are.  All you can do is tell them who you think you are and who you want to be.  You can't make them believe it.  After that, you just have to let it go."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Leaving on a jet plane

"Wow!  That was a long ride!" my little son announced as we took to the aisles after a twelve-hour flight preceded by a two-and-a-half-hour flight and an hour layover. The guy behind us and the lady beside us chuckled, which I took as a good omen after the kids' general (mis)behavior over the last half day. 

Truth be told, they weren't actually bad, just normal kids who were leaving Daddy behind for the summer (very sad and nervous about that) to return to the land where they had made all of their childhood memories (very excited and nervous about that).  I expected them to cry.  They didn't, at least not then.  I was surprised by how often I did though.

It was a twelve-hour flight punctuated with requests for hair and ears, for a different colored ring pop (usually the one the other brother had and which I could not find), for a different toy.  It was filled with crying over the earbuds which are simply not made for children and so continually fell out over the 107 minutes of "Rango" and 115 minutes of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (it must have been a Johnny Depp children's month).  Most of all it was filled with urgent trips to the bathroom, usually involving the complete relocation of a food cart so that a little crotch-clutching squirmer could make it in time.

For me, the funny thing about these US-Asia trips, which I am now 12 years into, is that I always feel I am leaving until I get to the other side.  The weeks leading up to the trip are filled not with the anticipation of the wonderful things to come but with the full-on effort to avoid the known perils of the trip.  Did I pack deodorant?  It's really hard to get there.  Chocolate for the in-laws?  It's one of the only things that they truly appreciate from America (aside from honey) because it's one of the few things that isn't irrelevant to them.  Tea for myself?  Pracitice books for the boys?  The plethora of medicines and vitamins which we might need but can't get there?

And then there is all the cramming.  Have I paid all the bills?  Have I left the checkbook?  Is there something good in the freezer for my husband?

In the last few days, we said goodbye to all of our friends because, truth be told, life is short and even though we plan to return, you never know.  We have seen too many examples of this. 

We went to King's Family Restaurant so often that even the manager knew the little one likes his cheeseburger "with tomato on the side."  We went through old clothes and set aside things to give the neighbors in the fall.  We printed pictures with our daddy and made gifts for those we love.  Well, some of those we love.  I had a long list of those who should get the special beaded bracelets from the boys before I really thought about what it is like to MAKE those special beaded bracelets with the boys.  Do you know how many pony beads can fit in a square inch?  Do you know how easily an elastic band that seemed perfectly strong enough for bracelets in the store can break and send said pony beads flying?  Do you know how far those pony beads can fly?

I also said goodbye to the summer I might have had--one in which my nephew came to stay with us and we traveled to Ohio, Michigan, and Baltimore/DC.  One filled with swimming lessons, museum camps, and trips to various parks.  That might have been an excellent summer.  And it still might be.  But not this year.

I boarded the plane with heavy luggage (both bags combined were 94 pounds--6 shy of the upper limit) and a heavier heart.  I remembered all the reasons I love and married my husband.  Why does it take a trip to make me remember that?

I clutched the hands of two little boys during each scary takeoff and several other times in between.  We were leaving, leaving, leaving, and every 7 seconds put us a mile further from our most recent home.

But then, a day later, the clouds parted, and we saw the Korean coastline as we descended into Pusan.  The white and orange fishing boats jauntily scudded over the deep blue water around the rocks poking out of the Sea of Japan. 

"Is that Korea?" the big one asked.  "Are those the same boats we saw with Halmoni and Halaboji?"

"Yes, it's Korea, but no, those probably aren't the same boats from Pohang although they do look the same, don't they?"

The very sleepy little one rode "obuba" (piggyback) true Korean fashion as we deplaned, passed through immigration, baggage claim, and customs (can you say "aching back"?).  We walked through the gates to greet a beaming Halaboji and a weeping Halmoni.  The smells of Korea--humid salt air, pollen, and kimchi breath--greeted us.  Yes, we left on a jet plane, but strangely enough, we are home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No more teachers' dirty looks!

"Mrs. Kim, you look just like my mom in that dress!" my student told me. I smiled, and she added, "Except my mom's not fat." I smiled a little harder and a lot more stiffly.

Of course, this came from one of my favorite students.  When she left after our last class together, I cried.  Then I had to pull myself right back together because she was back!

"Whoops!" she said.  "Forgot my umbrella."  She smiled and scooted out the door for the second time.

Mrs. Kim, you may resume crying now.

This post is dedicated to the last day of school and to the teachers who are left behind today.

Being a teacher is a catch-22 position in so many ways, particularly for teachers of very young children.  The children don't understand that their teachers are temporary, passing from the center of their lives after a brief stay, often nine short months.  They don't understand that the learning they need to do is hard, hard work.  They don't understand any extenuating circumstances beyond their own relationship with you, their teacher.  And they have been forced into this student position, not asking for it, much like they have been forced into their relationship as the child of their parents.  And they simply don't understand that teachers just don't have the biological predisposition to love them the way a parent does.

The teachers, on the other hand, are acutely aware of the difference between parent and teacher.  They know why they are employed.  And they know that the overall expectations are unfair--they should magically fill the child's head with knowledge without the child becoming weary, discouraged, aware of difficulty, bored, or unhappy.

And, let's face it, sometimes children, even our own, can be very hard to love. They can insult ("Mrs. Kim, do you have a baby in there?").  They can frustrate ("Saejik!  You are nine-years-old!  WHAT POSSESSED YOU TO STICK THAT PENCIL UP YOUR NOSE?!"). They can perplex ("He's just afraid of your face. He'll get used to you"--Said three-year-old cried every time he saw me for four months before announcing to his mother that I was his favorite teacher. I still don't understand this.). And they can push buttons ("I could have done my homework, but I know my mom can't understand your Korean when you call her.").

But still, I think that overall we teachers really try to love our students.  We try to like them, to support them, and see them through.  And when our time with our students comes to an end, we wonder if we did enough.  Were we kind enough? tough enough? specific enough? challenging enough? forgiving enough?

I miss teaching in a more full time schedule and sometimes feel that my current minor duties tutoring and editing don't really affect many people.  And so I was surprised when I found my work in one of my students' papers recently.  It was a reflection paper that we were laboring over.  He likes to state facts, and his idealistic teacher wanted him to reflect on changes to his attitudes after an oral history assignment.  Jay (not his real name) just didn't want to talk about feelings or attitudes.  We settled on talking about life lessons

He chose to say that his oral history interview taught him about persistence.  And after giving examples from his interview, he threw in an example from his own life--another paper that we had toiled over and slogged through together.  In the case of that paper, Jay often thought we were done only to have me come back with a point that he had missed, a section with inappropriate grammar, an area with ineffectual logic.  When he finally turned it in, he had the second highest grade among all the classes of that level.  He wrote in this reflection paper that the last paper had taught him that if he persevered, he would succeed.

I was absent in this reference, and that is how it should be.  Yes, I held his hand.  Yes, I forced him to continue.  Yes, I threatened, cajoled, modeled, and revised.  But when it was done, they were his words, and he was proud.  And that is why I am there--just as the educational metaphor suggests--to scaffold during the building and to be removed upon completion.

I am lucky in such circumstances to know what effect I had on my student.  I wonder, in similar circumstances, if my teachers knew the impact they had on me.  They influenced everything from the trivial (Did Mrs. Gibson know that her offhand comment about my jeans not being a dress on the first day of first grade would cause me to choose dresses for the first day of the next eight grades of my life?) to the lifechanging (Did Mrs. Montgomery know that her comment, "Well, I don't expect you all to go to Harvard, but you could," would inspire me to apply and go to Harvard Summer School when the notice came?).  Did they know the long effects of encouragement?  Did our student teacher Mr. Michener know that his kindness made second grade almost bearable?  Did Mrs. London-Gibbon know that laughing at my NOT FUNNY state capital jokes was just so encouraging?  Did Mrs. Galmoff know that her listening to the myriads of oral book reports would inspire me to do something with my own students, one of whom was inspired to read 831 pages of English (he speaks Korean) in a single month?

And I thank my sons' teachers, too.  Do Mrs. Haupt and Miss Davis know how thankful I am that they laugh at my big son's not funny jokes or how happy he is to tell such jokes to them?  Does Dr. Clinton know how much confidence those AR tests have given my big son and how thankful I am that she has found a way for him to come more often (and that he actually wants to come more often because apparently he either wants to do things every day or not at all)?  Does Mrs. Bologna know how grateful I am that she always smiled when she saw my little son coming, even when she had to pry his sobbing body from mine?  Does Mrs. Emahizer know how very excited the little son gets when he sees her in the community ("They let her out of school, Mommy!  Really!")?

And, if these teachers find themselves dismissed for the summer and feel wonderful, I applaud them.  Or, if they, like me, sit down in the car and cry over all that was and wasn't, I am with them too.

God bless your summer, and we'll see you in the fall!