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.

Blew Me Away: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Where do I begin? I’d started and deleted so many introductions to this post. Maybe I should just use the words of the Goodreads reviewer who convinced me to pick up the book: “Wow. Just wow.”

I actually learned about Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State through fellow Literary Wives blogger Carolyn’s beautiful review, which you can find here. Her post was compelling, but it left me in a predicament: I knew I wanted and needed to read this book and yet I wasn’t confident I could handle the intensity of the subject matter.

The book is a work of fiction, about a young Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped during her visit to Haiti to see her parents. Mireille is a spirited and headstrong woman who is living the American Dream. She is happily married and successful in her career as a lawyer. She is also the new mother of a baby boy.

The kidnapping takes place in the first pages of the book. The screaming, the pounding of fists on the glass of the car, the cries of the baby in the backseat – I can still see, hear, and feel the blood-thumping events as I type this. At that point I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I had to, reading this as a woman and as a mother and wife.

Mireille’s father is a self-made man, who has succeeded in business and now lives a life of luxury that stands out all too starkly from the majority of the Haitian population. His wealth makes his family an easy target for kidnappers. And so the abductors demand a handsome ransom, but one that Mireille’s father can afford, and one that he makes the kidnappers wait to get. It would take him 13 days to give up the money, and so it is 13 days that Mireille has to endure – is there a stronger word for what she goes through? – before she is released.

The first half of the book details Mireille’s 13 days as a captive, and these scenes alternate with flashbacks to her past, mainly the development of her relationship with her husband and her entry into motherhood. There is some flashback to her life with her parents as well. This back story allows us to understand Mireille as a human being and gives a context for the second half of the book, which details the aftermath of her ordeal. When Mireille is finally freed, she is, both literally and figuratively, broken. She struggles to feel human again but doesn’t know how. We see how her husband copes, or doesn’t cope. We see her struggle in the new light through which she sees her father.

Mireille’s voice is a force. Roxane Gay’s writing is a force. The scenes of violence were intense and effective, but they were not gratuitous or more than I could handle.

Why did I choose to read this, knowing it was going to be difficult? Carolyn said it so beautifully, and so I will borrow her words here – first a quote from writer Cynthia Bond, and then Carolyn’s words:

 “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

I second that. And I’ve felt doubly so after learning that Roxane Gay had drawn from her own experience of having been gang-raped as a teenager to write this book. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this writer and I’ve already ordered her subsequent book, Bad Feminist: Essays.

…………………….

Have you read Roxane Gay? What is the most difficult book (in terms of subject matter) you have ever read? 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

Our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ August read is Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, The World’s Wife.

In The World’s Wife we are introduced to the women – lovers, partners, sisters and wives – of some of the most well-known men in Greek mythology, the Bible, history, literature and pop culture. We hear from the women themselves, from Mrs. Faust to Frau Freud to Medusa, and the voices are often surprising. They’re irreverent, sarcastic, angry, sad, triumphant, bawdy, spiteful and, not infrequently, laugh-aloud funny. Here are my responses to the two questions we explore with each of our Literary Wives reads:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Being a wife is not a happy thing. In these poems, it is about putting up with egos, living in shadows, being neglected. Through the fictional voices we are imagining what it might feel like to be the wife of one of these famous men. Mrs. Aesop is tired of her husband’s moralizing; the loyal Mrs. Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s physical equal, is betrayed by her husband when he falls in love with someone more attractive; and even Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus loves her and tries to get her out of the underworld, prefers to stay in Hades, apart from him. She would rather be dead than to not have a voice, to live in her husband’s artistic shadow:

Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals . . .
flocked to his side when he sang . . .
 
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again, 
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
      etc. etc.
 
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

 (page 59)

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The women in the book grasp for power where they can within the confines of their relationships. To continue with Eurydice, she ends up appealing to Orpheus’ ego, in order to trick him into turning around to look at her, an act which causes him to lose her back to the underworld. Mrs. Midas, tired of her husband’s obsession with material wealth and his thoughtlessness toward her, eventually leaves him. Mrs. Icarus and Mrs. Aesop view their husbands with scorn and condescension. About their disappointing sex life, Mrs. Aesop says, “I gave him a fable one night / about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle. / I’ll cut off your tail all right, I said, to save my face. / That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.” (page 11)

The poem in which I found a defining message about wifehood, though, is Mrs. Beast. Here she warns about princesses and princes and happily ever after:

 . . . The Little Mermaid slit
her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.
I could have told her – look, love, I should know,
they’re bastards when they’re Princes.
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex
is better. 

(page 72)

A celebration of love and partnership these poems are not. But I did find The World’s Wife a sharp, clever and witty read. Though many of the women were cattier than my preferred tastes in women’s voices (many of the poems reminded me of the darker side of female conversations bashing boyfriends and husbands), I read this collection for what it is. I enjoyed the modern and feminist twists on traditional and historical stories as well as the opportunity to revisit various cultural and historical references. (I kept my iPhone by my side to look things up while reading.) As a novice poetry reader, I also found this collection very accessible. My favorite Literary Wives read so far!

……………….

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

running_onlyou

 

 

How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01813/englishpatient_1813424i.jpg

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy: i.telegraph.co.uk

 

Midlife Crisis?

I recently saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which stars Ben Stiller in the role of 42-year-old Walter Mitty. Walter is a quiet, mild, play-it-safe kind of guy who frequently escapes into vivid daydreams in which he is a superhero doing all the daring and admirable things that he can’t or won’t do in real life. And then one day he changes. It was a sweet, silly, funny, inspiring, predictable Hollywood movie which the three middle-aged people in my party enjoyed, in large part because we could all see a bit of ourselves in it. Or, perhaps, I should speak only for myself.

I was that quiet, play-it-safe kind of gal, for a very long time. Circumstances created her just as they had created Walter Mitty, who was a mohawk-bearing, skateboarding teenager until his father suddenly died. Left with little savings, Walter picked up two part-time jobs that same week, and the seed of the risk-averse and conservative adult was planted. Early on my immigrant parents had drummed into my head that security was #1. Save money and stay close to home. Find a career that offers lifetime stability. Marry a husband from the same ethnic group and same city. Change was bad, as were uncertainty and excitement.

I went along with all of this, until I no longer could.

I still remember a recurring dream that I had for a year, one that awoke me with my heart racing every time. I was in an enormous place – a building, or a house – with no visible exit. The owners of the place were planning to kill me, but they would also kill me if I tried to escape.

At the end of that year, a series of opportunities fell into place and I won a one-year traveling fellowship to Japan. The moment I made that decision to move, my recurring dream stopped. The owners in my dream were my parents, whose expectations of me to stay close to them and to follow their instructed path were beginning to stifle me.

One year in Japan turned into eight, and it was there that I met Max, became a mother, created a professional name and started a business. Because of what I experienced and how much I grew, I will encourage Fred to one day consider living abroad, even if it means having him an ocean apart.

So I have my break-out adventure under my belt, a handful of experiences checked off my bucket list. But now, in my 40s, I feel that I’ve come full circle. For the last ten years, ever since I became a parent and a work-from-home business owner, I’ve retreated…retreated from the larger world I used to be a part of and from the larger person that I used to be. Instead of wanting more, I want the same. I wonder where that hunger has gone, that almost insatiable craving to live out of my comfort zone.

It’s a natural progression, you might say; maybe evolution or biology requires me to crave and create security during my early mothering years. In Japanese the word for wife is okusan, literally, “the one deep within/inside.” Without conforming to anyone’s expectations, I have become her, the one deep inside.

The other reasoning, equally valid, is the fact that my eight years in Tokyo were so intense. 70-hour work weeks. Constant pressure under the gun of being terminated to produce and to add to the company’s bottom line. Elbow-to-elbow everyone and everything and everywhere. Language barriers, cultural adjustments. Every minute of every day was a trip beyond my comfort zone. I think I’ve since swung the other direction because I’ve been seeking equilibrium.

The problem now is that, after nine years of this quiet life – which, to be quite honest, I very much enjoyed the first eight years – I’m starting to feel a bit Walter Mitty-ish. I like my lifestyle but I don’t; I’m comfortable but I’m not. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to my previous life. I don’t want to work 60 or 70 hours a week; I don’t want the stress of networking and being “out there” and making a name. Maybe my life cycle is eight years in one direction, eight years in another. Maybe it’s also the fact that my son is turning ten. He no longer needs my constant care; he’s growing, and so am I, or so I have to. The question now is, in what direction do I go? How do I want to live? Because that young woman in Japan, the one who reveled in being free and unencumbered and in securing each new professional rung on the ladder, no longer exists.

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com/dhaiphong/albums/showpic.dml?album=389738&picture=5877907

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.

onlyoublogwalking

On beauty and looking “American”

asian woman

photo credit: Time

I was going to post something more innocuous today until I read the status update of an Indian/Japanese-American friend on Facebook: “It’s really hard not to take this personally.” She had posted a link to the angry outbursts on social media over the fact that an Indian American was crowned Miss America last night.

I’m not going to rehash the racist and other asenine comments here. But the issue made me think about what it means to not look “American” in America, to be bombarded with images of beauty that are not only difficult but literally impossible to attain.

I am Asian and I grew up in America. I was and am petite – thin framed and with a soft face that, for better or worse, makes me look perpetually youthful or perpetually childlike depending on your interpretation. As a child I went from worshipping Snow White and Cinderella to worshipping Charlie’s Angels, especially Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, and Jaclyn Smith. I was much less interested in the brainy and skinny Kate Jackson, whom I probably had more in common with than the other three sexier and more curvaceous Angels.  I wasn’t much older than my son is now when I began collecting celebrity magazines and analyzing actresses’ facial features and bodies. The cruel secret that I didn’t know at the time, when I didn’t yet know to distinguish white from brown from yellow and continued to hold up pictures in front of the mirror to compare against my own face, was that I would never, with any amount of exercise, diet, hair color, make-up, plastic surgery and positive thinking, look like a beautiful Caucasian – American – woman.

In late night talks in my women’s college dorm, after spending our days studying English literature and economics and feminist theories and doing good in the community, my Asian-American girlfriends and I would sometimes trade tips on how to look less Asian and more white: clothes pins to elongate our noses, hydrogen peroxide to lighten our hair, blush applied strategically to create more angles on our even faces. We would envy friends who were blessed with double eyelids.

According to ethnic identity theories, it is often during college that we in the 2nd and 3rd generation would become curious about and appreciative of our heritage, after having spent our adolescence rejecting it. We would enroll in ethnic studies classes, look for same-ethnicity peer groups, and start using chopsticks in the college dining hall. I followed lockstep with this model minus the chopsticks, but the one thing that stayed was the dissatisfaction with my appearance. I often felt self-conscious and less than in student gatherings and campus parties, allowing my appearance to stand in for who I was inside, and worrying that others – including and perhaps especially members of the opposite sex – would find me as attractive as I found myself.

My mother used to say to me, “In Hong Kong you would not be small. In Hong Kong you would be so normal. The girls in those beauty pageants are all your size.” At some point I had seen a photo of Hong Kong pageant contestants, and indeed many looked like me – petite, narrow shouldered, narrow-hipped, small busted. I still judged them against the American ideal though, thinking, how pubescent they looked, how unwomanly. But at least now I knew that somewhere in the world, even if 6,000 miles away, someone like me was not so far off from the standard of beauty.

Whether it was my surroundings or maturity I don’t know, but I started to obsess less and less with my appearance after I moved to Japan when I was 30. I went for a personal challenge, and ended up staying for nearly a decade. What’s interesting is that the emphasis on beauty in Japan is even more insidious than that in the U.S. In Japan you’ll never see any woman running around with a suit and sneakers, or with hair wet from the gym. Hair is perfectly coiffed, nails are clean and polished, and make up is flawlessly applied. Beauty is not just aesthetics but evidence of personal responsibility. Still, it was during my years in Japan that the expectations of beauty began bouncing off of my now hardened skin and ego. Definitely it made a huge difference to be surrounded by images of people who resembled me, but I was also living on my own and in a foreign country for the first time, and running a $1.25 million department in a Japanese company as the sole woman manager. I was doing things I never thought possible during those earlier years when I hid behind a mask of learned helplessness and obsessed over things I couldn’t change. Working in Japan I barely had time to pee let alone manicure my nails, and I was the most satisfied with myself I’d ever been.

America literally looked different when I came back, five years ago. Barack Obama was running for U.S. president, and my son was introduced to Dora and Wendy Wu on children’s television. However, as evidenced by the reactions to President Obama and to Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America, there are still many places in our country where the American face is supposed to look one way only.

At the moment, I am at a loss as to how to make any changes at all, except to start with my own child. We don’t talk much if ever about people’s appearances, and usually when Daddy can’t contain himself and has to tell Mommy she’s beautiful.  And we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where we live: in an open-minded and internationally diverse town with like-minded neighbors. This year my then 8-year-old caught a glimpse of the Academy Awards red carpet for the first time, and watching him react was like watching him land on another planet. Why are the women so tall? Why do their faces look like that? To watch Hollywood is to open the American dictionary of what beauty should be, and I closed that book fast. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now we are going to bask in our 9-year-old’s world in which it is decency and not looks or narrow expectations that define us.