Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

My husband has rarely bought me flowers, and the few – okay, the two – times that he did, I think he got them from the supermarket. He reminds me that I had once specifically asked for food over flowers.

He used to buy me jewelry too, until I started losing them. And preferring books instead.

And there was a time when he wrote me cards, short reflections on our relationship and restatements of his love. And then he – and we – stopped writing altogether.

Love does evolve over time, into something far grittier. The sacrificing, compromising, forgiving, and understanding seem to take years to fully emerge. It’s only after years together that I looked up and thought, yes, that’s what we are now: a patchwork of butterflies in stomach, respect, fondness, gratitude, minor annoyances, insecurities, cultural and temperamental differences, and hopefully forgiven hurts. This patchwork is love that has been made ironclad through commitment.

In our thirteen years together I have felt Max’s love in unexpected and unscripted ways. I would never find them in a store-bought card, or in the most expensive bouquet. I can find them only in him:

~~~

Not long after we began dating I moved into Max’s place in an unfamiliar suburb 70 minutes outside of Tokyo. On one particular night that I was working late, Tokyo experienced a rare snowfall and commuter trains were delayed and rerouted. Still not comfortable in Japanese, I struggled to understand the announcements over the loudspeakers instructing passengers on new routes. I was nervous and took a chance, boarding a crowded train that only got worse as it sat on the platform waiting to pack in as many people as possible. I called Max and told him that I had no idea when I was getting home, and he asked me to ring him once I reached the station.

I finally arrived two hours later. Exhausted and frustrated and with tears in my eyes, I rang to tell Max that I had made it. “I know,” he said. I looked up and saw him standing at the entrance of the station with an umbrella. I don’t know how long he had been waiting for me.

We weren’t married yet at this point. In fact, we only dated a week before we both knew we were going to marry. The few friends I told thought I was crazy. They were scared for me, believing I was rushing into things. But somehow I always knew that I had found someone rare…a genuinely kind man who would always protect me, look out for me, and put me first in his life.

~~~

We had gotten into a particularly awful fight. As the years went on, I began realizing more and more that even love was not enough to stave off the differences inherent in our international marriage. Neither of us had ever deliberately intended to hurt the other and yet we did. And we struggled to make ourselves understood.

During this fight I went into the guest room where Max had been sleeping. Excessive pride is my weakness in relationships and I often refuse to be the one to “give in,” but this time I was worried. When I walked in, Max reached for a notebook and said, “Please don’t talk and just listen. Please.” He picked up the notebook and began reading to me through tears. In careful and precise English, he told me how much I had hurt him with the casualness with which I attack him with words.

I began to cry, not only because of the realization of what I had done, but because I saw, in the notebook and the hands and voice that trembled with emotion, what he has sacrificed for me. English is not a language he spoke until he met me. He’d studied it, yes, but he’d never had to use it regularly or depend on it for a relationship. He’d never had to struggle this much just to be heard and to be understood.

I was talking with a Japanese client this week about international relationships, as he and his American girlfriend broke up because of distance. He asked me if Max had moved to the U.S. for me. I told him, yes. Max had moved here for me.

~~~

Last year news came out that a private foundation was looking to recruit a married couple to go on the 2018 space mission to Mars. The trip would entail being confined together in a small capsule for 500 days. Max looked at me and beamed, “We can do it! If anyone can do it, it’s you and me!”

After all that we have been through together, it is the most romantic thing he could have ever said to me.

And he is right.

Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

~~~~

I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

Americanah

Image courtesy of http://cdn4.fishpond.co.nz

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s the story of Ifemelu, a young middle class woman who, due to the many strikes that have disrupted her university at home,  decides to go to the U.S. for college. She attends a school in Pennsylvania and we learn about her experiences as both an international student and a non-American African in America. She struggles financially for quite some time, unable to get hired for part-time work. Out of sheer desperation, she finally takes on a humiliating job in which she compromises her dignity. This leaves her in a depression (or triggers an identity crisis?) during which time she also ends up cutting off all ties to the boyfriend she had left behind in Nigeria.

Her boyfriend Obinze is a seemingly good man, her intellectual equal, and he adores her. He is heartbroken and confused when she no longer returns his calls or e-mails, but eventually moves on. He goes to England but outstays his visa, and soon he is working illegally under someone else’s identity, and he makes arrangements to marry a British citizen in order to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Ifemelu recovers in the U.S. and finds great success writing an anonymous blog entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American BlackA central part of Americanah is a study on black-white race relations in America, in particular, the experience of the African in America versus that of the African American. Ifemelu says that she never even thought of herself as black – she never thought about race – until she stepped on American soil. She picks up on the peculiar ways in which people react to subtle issues of race. For example, while paying for an item at a clothing store the cashier asks which of the two sales women had helped her. The cashier would identify the two sales women by hair length (if I recall correctly) but not race, when one of them was clearly black and the other white. She finds race a volatile issue yet something that people aren’t really supposed to notice or talk about directly.

She also experiments with her own assimilation, from trying to straighten her hair to letting it go natural, from trying to perfect an upper-middle class (white) American accent to finally returning to her own. After leaving behind Obinze she dates Curt, a wealthy, white software entrepreneur, and then Blaine, an African American faculty member from Yale. One powerful part of the book is when Blaine stops speaking to her because she had chosen to attend a university department talk over the campus protest he had organized to speak up against the unfair arrest of an African American security guard. Such is the terrain that Ifemelu walks, as an African immigrant who has not lived the American black experience and who needs to learn to fully “get it.”

Race is a central theme in the middle of the book, but by the end the story evolves into more of a love story when both Ifemelu and Obinze are back in Nigeria. They meet again, and are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision.

This was my first time to read Adichie, and I have become a new fan. Americanah is one of those books where the author’s writing fit me – the book is no lightweight, at nearly 500 pages, but I glided through for the most part not feeling as though I was reading. There was a lot that I was able to relate to, in my experiences as an expat and immigrant and having worked with many international students. At the same time, it was an eye-opening read for me as it gave me a window into the Nigerian experience in America as well as a first-hand tackling of sensitive race issues.

Many readers, I’ve found, have either loved the book or felt disappointed by it. Those who don’t like it have complained that they felt lectured to on race. There are certainly parts in the book in which the race discussion feels contrived. For example, Ifemelu is a quiet and often uneasy observer in Blaine’s regular get-togethers with his sister and intellectual friends. The group is a diverse one, and during these dinners they would all discuss some topic on race. I felt the same about a conversation between Ifemelu and Obinze about the present state of Nigeria. There’s a bit of unnaturalness there, like the characters are placed there to be sociological mouthpieces.

Adichie also closes some chapters with Ifemelu’s blog posts. The following is an excerpt:

Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white follks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

I was probably too fascinated by the discussions to mind the presentation of the race issues. As Ifemelu says, it is more palatable to people if an African rather than an African American writes about race in America. And that is exactly what Adichie has done, albeit to mixed reactions.

Stress and growing pains (a back-to-school post)

I didn’t get much uninterrupted sleep over the last week. Fred was struggling with a cold and an on-again-off-again fever, night terrors, and complaints of mysterious leg pain at odd hours of the night.

I can attribute all of this to any number of things — the hectic travel schedule we had this summer, summer camp fatigue, recirculated air, too much t.v., too much video game playing, too much sugar…and/or…I can blame it on August, the ending of summer and a time when his half-brother returns home 7,000 miles away, and the anticipation of a new year at school.

As in tune to my child as I’d like to think I am, I haven’t always been successful in seeing when he is anxious. After all, he is not likely to come to me and say, “Mommy, I’m nervous about starting school and about the academic and social pressures that I’ll be facing this year.”

Of course part of it is because it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day to always see beyond the surface, to know that your child might be talking back to you or overreacting over small inconveniences not because he’s being difficult but because something deeper is unsettling him.

It can be hard, too, because we might have forgotten exactly what it’s like to be 5 on the verge of starting kindergarten or 6 about to head into 1st grade or 10 wrapping up the final year before moving on to middle school. By now, we’ve conquered so many feats from surviving high school to passing any number of job interviews to graduating from the dating world to giving birth. Our adult brain with all its experience and wisdom and a certain amount of amnesia now ranks moving on to the next grade in school as nerve-wracking as taking that first step into a cocktail party; it’s uncomfortable but after a couple of drinks and some introductions we know we’ll sail through.

It’s also harder for me to notice the signs, I suppose, because I had it harder, just like my parents had it harder than I when they were in China. Growing up in my family we’d heard so many versions of “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school without shoes.” (The joke for our generation is “When I was your age I had to get up to turn the t.v. channel. ;-)) As a first generation American, though, things were quite difficult for a good number of years while my parents were trying to get established in a country where they didn’t know the language or customs. They fought all the time from the stress, to the point where I used to run into bed and hide as soon as I heard my father coming home from work. For the first 10 years we lived in a 2-room apartment in a pretty bad part of town, and one night when I was about Fred’s age I heard a woman get shot outside my bedroom window while I was trying to sleep. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling, but my body was screaming through headaches, stomachaches, tics and canker sores. And I coped by turning inward, to reading, writing, drawing, and daydreaming.

Those years feel like a lifetime ago, and today we have everything – my modest definition of everything. We live in a safe community, a beautiful home (once I organize it), and we have the luxury (and burden) of knowing that Fred never needs to suffer or want for anything. He travels, takes piano and martial arts lessons, studies foreign languages, reads books he is running out of room for, plays freely outside with his friends. He is safe and he is incredibly loved. To me, he has absolutely everything.

Interestingly, though, that is how my parents saw me as well: blessed and privileged. In their eyes I got to grow up in America, to know English, to attend school all the way through graduate studies without ever needing to question otherwise, to not know the threat of soldiers or invasions, to never have to go a day without food, and to grow up with both parents (my father was on his own from 16 and my mother never saw her father). My parents had not seen the stress I was suffering, because they thought I had everything.

Nine years ago when I was an expat in Japan and home alone with a new baby, I spent a good deal of time on a mothers’ forum on the internet. I was living in the suburbs then and knew no one and couldn’t speak the language well. I was grappling with some level of post-partum depression or “blues” as well, and though new to the whole world of social media, decided one day to reach out and talk about my feelings of isolation, especially with my husband away at work 16 hours a day.  I received many sympathetic and encouraging responses, but one woman brusquely responded that at least my husband wasn’t stationed in Afghanistan, that those wives were the ones who had it hard.

Her response humbled, hurt and angered me. If I were to compare my troubles against the troubles of the world, then I should simply keep my mouth shut, something I had been doing my whole life anyway, up until I posted that message to the forum. Absolutely many have it harder. There are women raising families alone, women living with disabilities, women being beaten by their spouses, women being sold into prostitution, women being raped and mutilated and murdered — where do I stop? And yet the fact that others have it harder or worse – and even the awareness and appreciation that they do – does not lessen my need for comfort during my own times of difficulty, even if the difficulties seem paltry against the world’s larger and innumerable problems.

And so for all the parenting mistakes I have made, I am grateful that I have managed to not belittle the stresses felt by my son, comparing his experiences against mine. Over dinner with family friends the other day, Fred said, “Teachers yell more in the 4th grade. In kindergarten and first grade they’re nice to you and they take care of you, but they yell more and more after that. And there’s going to be bullying, and bullying tends to take place around lockers.” This is thanks to stories, rumors, books, and too much Nick at Night. But this is also the reality that my rising 4th grader believes he will face in the coming year – the certain extrication from childhood, the entry into a more unknown and threatening stage of boyhood – and that can be pretty stressful for anyone.

Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

The world I want for my son

About this blog carnival: “The world I want for my children” is an effort to support The Joyful Heart Foundation, which was founded by Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay to help victims of sexual assault mend their minds, bodies and spirits and reclaim their lives. Today, the foundation is at the forefront of an effort to end a disheartening backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits in labs across the country, a backlog that contributes to a rapist’s 80 percent chance of getting away with his crime. The backlog and its detrimental effects will be the topic of an SVU episode on September 29th.

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In 2004, when Fred was born, Max and I made the decision that we would move to the States to raise Fred here. We were in Japan (of which Max is a native) and up until we became parents, we never had any definitive plans as to where we would settle or when.

But like my immigrant parents and my father’s immigrant parents before him, the future takes on a different urgency once you have children. I imagine that few Americans need to question which country in which to raise their children. Living in Asia with my American perspectives, I encouraged (okay, urged) Max to consider alternatives. Would Japan provide the opportunities that we want for Fred? Would our Japanese lifestyle allow us to have the family life that we want? Do Japanese values fit our values as a family and as individuals? There is so much that is truly wonderful about Japan, and in fact a number of my expat friends have chosen to raise their families there. In the end, the negatives (for us given our particular needs) outweighed the positives (and vice versa; the positives of America outweighed the negatives), and we chose to move to the U.S.

After nearly 10 years abroad I was looking forward to returning to my home country and being able to communicate fluently once again, but I didn’t come without trepidation. I remember those early feelings of not fitting in, of seeing myself as meek and overly deferential, only to realize later in Japan that I was simply being Asian. I had grown up in the 70s and 80s and was caught in the desegregration movement in the Boston Public Schools not that long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember the occasional racial slurs and taunting and the feeling that I wasn’t American not because I didn’t feel it but because others wouldn’t see it. In the back of my mind, I knew that Fred could be who he is but I worried if he can also feel fully accepted.

My worries, over the next two years, would be gradually appeased as even Max acclimated to our new home with relative ease. There is a popular Japanese school here which Fred now attends in order to keep up the language and remain connected to his heritage. Our neighborhood, despite being in the south, has been called by some as a mini United Nations and the children play together without thinking twice. Fred’s school, one of the top in the southeast, is diverse in nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic class and ability. A sizeable number of children are international children adopted into American families. At least half of our couple friends are multicultural or biracial. Though these are examples of diversity in culture, the larger point I am trying to make is that there is no one “standard” – my son sees no mold in which he needs to fit, or to fit others. At least not yet.

It was an election year the year we moved, and one of Fred’s favorite first English words was “Obama” (perhaps because of the way it sounds). He began equating the American flag with Mr. Obama since he never saw a scene or photo of the presidential candidate without the flag behind him, and for a long time insisted that the stars and stripes were called “the Obama flag.” I remember one day asking him, at age 4, what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I want to be president,” he said.

“President of a school, a company?” I asked.

Fred stretched his arms wide to show the scope of what he was talking about.

“No, I want to be president of the United States!”

Max and I were impressed, and this dream continued until he turned the tables on me.

“Why didn’t you become president, Mommy?”

I was floored by his innocence. Yes, why didn’t I become president of the United States, or a doctor, or a chef, or a librarian for that matter? I struggled to come up with the “right” answer. The truth is, as an immigrant Chinese girl in the 70s, it simply never occurred to me to become the president of anything.

“Uh…I guess because it’s too hard for me. It would just be too stressful. But that’s just me.” 

“Okay, never mind. I don’t want to be president anymore.”

“Oh, just because I didn’t want to be president doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.” How quickly my words impacted him. I really wanted him to go for it if that was what he wanted (even if it was just the flavor of his 4 year-old week). 

“Nah. I don’t want to be president. I want to be a daddy.”

And that’s the world I want for my son. A color blind world where there are no limits, no messages whether overt or covert that tell him he can’t reach his potential or simply be who he is. A world that would provide him the space and the opportunity to grow into someone who will take his turn making the world a better one for the children who follow…as a president or a daddy or…both.