Friday, October 6, 2017

Your House So Messy!

Chinese people like to pretend they are clean.  That's why none of them like to wear shoes at home.  On the contrary, most Chinese people I know are huge hoarders.  They like to keep stuff, just in case they can use it again.  In my limited experience interacting with other like minded immigrant children, I have seen a bunch of homes and guess what?  It's the norm!  In general, most Asians like to keep their cooking spices and oils on the counter for easy access.  This makes for a cluttered counter.  Most people don't wear shoes at home.  This makes for a lot of shoes in the entry way when shoe shelves are not available.  Most Asians do not like to go through their mail.  This makes for a bunch of ignored paperwork piling up.

Growing up, we had lots of trash bags.  These were usually stuffed full of clothes that had been washed but not yet put away, ones we had to stash away for when guests came over, to give the impression that our unkept home was in fact kept.  The awkward and unmatched bedsheets that had been draped over our couches were stripped away quickly to reveal untouched and nearly new couches.  Mail seemed to always take over our dining table until it was momentarily moved behind closed office doors and would often stay there and get overlooked until a bill was late.

But my aunt, she was something for the books.  I remember going to her home, and pouring over her drawers in awe, because everytime I opened one, there would be compartments and places for everything.  When she opened her linen closet to grab me another towel, I saw carefully labeled clear containers that held medicine and other cabinet appropriate items.  Her kitchen had clear counters.  Her shelves had frames and decor, not piles of junk.

My best friends' home growing up, was similar.  There were bookshelves with books upright, she had to reach down to grab the oil from a cabinet to cook with, and mail was carefully stacked in a small stack always on the otherwise clear dining room table.

These outliers inspired me that I could be something else.

Not that I got away with much at home.  I still remember being told to clean my room.  So naturally, I found the closet the perfect place to stash everything.  I quickly shoved it all in and closed the door behind the mess, proud of my own quick accomplishment.  When my mom discovered it, I was severely punished.  She found the mess and lectured me for what seemed like hours, about how inappropriate and lazy and unfilial (an Asian thing) I was.  That closet incident was a turning point for me.  From that day forth, I became obsessed with organizing, cleaning, and making sure everything had its place.  It was as if a switch was turned on.  I loved it.  I spent hours color coding and alphabetizing my closet, my books, my CDs, and rearranging everything in my room when I felt I needed a fresh organizational approach.  I even began cleaning up my friends' rooms whenever I went over, it was just so much fun.

Of course, facetime now reveals some laundry out of place, or some toys on the floor, and everytime we are talking with my mom, she will make a comment about how "messy" our home is.  And then, following, will be some audacious comment about how our home is not that far from hers.  As if funny, a chuckle of sorts, as if our home is just an extension of the one she raised me in, which is most peculiar to me because she was the one who forced me into who I am today.

I think the insight I got from others along with the reprimanding from my own mother, pushed me the the standards of cleanliness that I have today.  Mostly organized, not always clean, always trying harder to keep my counters and floors clear, even with four kids constantly unraveling the neat I have just tidied up.

But I need positive affirmation too.  I may be 35, but I still need mommy dearest to tell me I'm doing a good job.  So.... now... if only she would stop telling me how messy my home is and start commenting on how clean it looks!  Wishful thinking?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Crop Top My Mom Bought Me

I've always been a bit on the conservative side.  Two of the biggest fights I've had with a friend in middle school involved me getting mad that a girlfriend wanted to wear make-up in high school, and the other that the same friend wanted to wear a midriff to Disneyland.

Why was I offended?  Why did I care?

I don't know!  Deep down, I think I just didn't want to grow up that fast.  I knew make-up was inevitable, but I didn't want it to overtake our lives.  I wanted to have fun at Disneyland, not get checked out by the teenage boys also there with their friends.

So why I wanted a crop top when I was 15 is beyond me.  But everyone was doing it.  If only I could explain to my kids how powerful peer pressure is.  The desire to fit in, to be cool, to be noticed, to be like everyone else.

My crop top had these cute little spaghetti straps that tied at the shoulder.  It was a straight neckline, made of cotton smock fabric you would use to make a dress, except it didn't have a skirt, just the tube top part, because remember, it was a crop top.  I googled a photo and cropped it, (see what I did there?) so you could see what it looked like, only mine was the cutest brown checkered crop top with the same bottom as the top, so it was almost a bit frilly.

Appalet.  Temple City.  Summer of 1996, the summer before I would be entering high school as a freshman.  Spaghetti straps had become a thing the summer before, and all of us were wearing it, especially when Wet Seal had a 3 for $10 deal, albeit mine were always covered with a sweater.  I was a little taken aback when my mom said it was cute, and if I liked it, I could get it.  Show my stomach?  *gasp  Where would I ever wear it to?  But I wanted one so badly, and was about to be a freshman in high school.  So I told my mom I wanted it.  I felt like a hypocrite.  I had just gotten into a huge fight with one of my best friends earlier that summer when she wanted to wear a midriff to Disneyland.  Of course her dad would kill her if he found out, so she planned to change into it after we got to the park.  Months later, he would find some photos of the four of us and see her revealed stomach and she'd get in trouble, but that is besides the point.  How could I now buy one?  

"Your mom's so cool.  I can't believe she let you get that!" my friends told me.  

Except... I never wore it.  It just sat in my closet collecting dust.  

I eventually donated it.  Another friend borrowed it a few times.  I should have just given it to her, but I didn't want to admit that I'd never wear it anyway.  

What would my mom have done if I did wear it?  If I did have the guts to wear a crop top in public?! (I don't even like wearing two piece swimsuits but I have bought my fair share over the years).  

"I knew you'd never wear it.  You'd throw a bigger [hissy] fit over me not buying it, so I just buying it for you."  she said. "Plus, all your friends thought I was cool for getting you it. Ha!"  

Oh.  Wow. 

How did she know?  

How do moms know you better than you know yourself sometimes?  

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Battle of the Paper Bag

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be white.  But not just any white… blonde hair blue eyed white.  Aryan German Hitler white.  Color contacts and bleach were only a step away from making that a reality but my dear mother would never have let me live if she knew I was even contemplating it.  In my defense, growing up in the 80’s guaranteed a desire to be blonde hair and blue eyed because the hipness of diversity or the reality of being politically correct wouldn’t quite make its way into generally accepted mainstream America until much later. 
In the 80’s, all the toy commercials featured white girls and white boys, none of the Barbie dolls I had were Asian and none of the cartoons had any Asians.  Who didn’t want blonde hair like the Sweet Valley Twins?  Even The BabySitters Club only had one token Asian girl, but she of course was Japanese and did I mention, growing up – there weren’t many Japanese kids?  If there were, they were so Americanized, they didn’t even eat sushi, use chopsticks, or speak Japanese, and they didn’t even have to go to Japanese school like us Chinese and Korean kids did.  They were usually third or fourth generation Asians, so far removed from the experiences we were going through – I mean, their parents spoke perfect English for goodness sake.  Some of them even had parents who went to college… in America!  It just didn’t compare to our life as an American born Chinese growing up with immigrant parents. 
But I didn’t want just the blonde hair and blue eyes, I wanted everything that went with it.  Mac’n’cheese, spaghetti, and burgers served for dinner at home instead of rice and various Chinese dishes every single night.  Cool neon clothes and spandex shorts with crimped hair, big bangs, and curly neon hair ties instead of my flat jet black hair and oversized broken English shirts imported from Taiwan (you always go two to three sizes bigger so you can wear the clothes for a longer period of time). 
My mom tried.  But none of it mattered much to her anyway.  In our own little immigrant world, what mattered was how long you practiced the piano everyday, how many extracurricular activities you were committed to and your grades in school.
As a mother of three kids four and under, I am now constantly trying to find ways for my kids to experience their Chinese culture, encouraging them to eat with chopsticks and try authentic Chinese dishes, and while doing so, other moms and strangers are always praising me for introducing such an advantage to my children at a young age.  Maybe it’s the times.  Maybe it’s living in a big city.  Whatever the case, diversity is certainly celebrated in ways unheard of in the 80’s.
Growing up, I not only was mocked and humiliated for my dried pork and rice wrapped in seaweed lunch, I was scarred.  I am still in disbelief when I see how hip and cool bento boxes are among the food bloggers of today.  It certainly wasn’t acceptable when I lived through it. 
I know most people don’t remember things that happened from second grade.  But I’ve never forgotten it and it certainly fuels my ambitions to teach my own children the cultural sensitivities they must embody as they interact with other kids who might be different.     
The blue picnic tables separated with an invisible separation of “kids who brought their lunch” and “kids who bought their lunch,” and for the most part, it was also “Americanized kids” and “immigrant children.”  If you brought your lunch, immediately went into the “packed lunch” line and ate your lunch right away while the “school ticketed” students stood in the right lane, and paid for a typical American lunch with your pre-paid lunch ticket.  The American kids hated bought lunch.  It was so cliché to them.  Breakfast for lunch?  Spaghetti for lunch?  Tater tots?  Mashed potatoes?  Hot dogs?  But for an immigrant child, this was the land of unspoken American food, only experienced at school for our immigrant parents never bought us such things.  The only downside to the ticketed line was how long it took to get your lunch.  While we waited and waited, those with paper bag homemade lunches made their way to the benches immediately and enjoyed their American homemade sack lunches with Capri Suns, Squeeze Its, fruit by the foot, gushers, goldfish, PB&J, or if they were really lucky… lunchables!
Initially, I wanted a cute little brown sack just like the white kids. I wanted so badly to be just like them.  The line for hot served lunch was long and tediously slow (unless your class got their first but mine never seemed to), meanwhile the sack lunch bag went straight to eat and were first to leave for recess. 
I had to beg my mom to buy brown paper bags from the grocery store. 
“But you just throw these away after?” she asked me with skepticism. She couldn’t figure out why my metal lunch boxes complete with thermos cups weren’t good enough, or why we even had to purchase paper bags when those would suffice.  
“Yes, but that way I won’t lose it!” I explained.  I had obviously done my due diligence and was ready to win the paper bag fight. 
“If you use a lunch box, you can just bring it home, I wash it and you can use it again!” she said.
“This is what all the kids are using Mom!” I pleaded.
“Everyone go jumping off a cliff, you join with them too?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not a cliff, it’s just paper bags for lunch, so yes!” I responded. If my memory serves me right, I was a pretty smart second grader.   

I knew this would be a tough battle.  Asians are notorious for their frugal ways.  We always had a bag of plastic bags, ready to be reused, we never left a restaurant without all the superfluous napkins leftover, our house was strewn with unofficial Tupperware that had lived a prior life as spaghetti jars, cool whip containers, etc. and though our home had not been subject to the “leave all the packaging protectors on” rule, I had enough uncles and aunts with saran wrap over their remotes and plastic covers on their tables on top of the tablecloths, that I too knew, this would be a hard sell.

At a young age, my mom had hammered into my head the importance of budgeting and saving.  Do it yourself was not a project for the weekend for us, it was a way of life.  Weekends were filled with trips to numerous garage sales in upscale cities or large flea markets and I knew what Ross was but didn’t quite understand the concept of the mall until my high school years (we just never shopped there until later).  My mom loved to say, “No wine taste with beer salary” which confused me until I was in college age and closer to drinking age.  Committed to our frugal ways, our dishwasher served as a drying rack and I never knew a soft towel (besides at a hotel) since all our stuff was air dried in the warm California sun.  It wasn’t until I was 27 that I would have to learn how to use a dishwasher as a dishwasher for the first time, and college would quickly teach me that dryers shrink sweaters.  We always had a dryer, we just never used it correctly.
            I used to think being cheap was an Asian thing.  The pure joy and excitement my aunts and uncles had along with my own parents about a good deal was never short lived.  It’s almost as if the food tasted better when it was a good bargain.  Or that the supplies worked better when it was discounted.  When the 99 Cent Store chains finally made its debut in a neighboring city, we went ballistic over the stock.  I still remember my cousin stocking up on Dove nose strips from the store, explaining what a steal it was compared to the Save-On drug stores.  My entire family was infectious with cheapness.  It wasn’t until I got older that I realized cheapness knows no boundaries and doesn't discriminate.  Cheapness unites all ages, races, genders, and religions.  
One of the roommates I had in my 20’s was exceptionally frugal, and she was white!  Blond hair, blue eyed, white girl WHITE.  She rarely ate out, she made her own meals three times a day, and she reused red silo cups by running them through the top shelf of the dishwasher.  While I was eating out for lunch and dinner everyday and secretly throwing away all the used red silo cups after hosting a night of friends at our apartment, she was purchasing her first car with ALL cash after a year of working, and still shopping at Ross while I toted my little brown bag from the nearest Bloomingdales with pride.  It was then that I realized… frugality is not limited to my Asian family.  It was then that I also started to celebrate the frugal ways my family had taught me all my life.  I mean if you think about it, it’s actually a smart way to live.  
I did win the paper bag argument.  But it wasn’t easy.  And it didn’t last long.  When I buy paper bags now, I chuckle at the memory of how long I had to work to persuade my mom.  These days, everyone is environmentally conscious, and they understand that using a bento box will help the environment by reducing our trash and "carbon footprint."  Back in the day, all my Asian family members were using lunch boxes because paper bags were wasteful.  If we recycled, it was because there were machines that gave us coins in return for our trash!  

"Why to use a paper bag when we have leftover tupperware from the cool whip?  Or the cream cheese?  Or the lunch meat?  Ai-yah, just use it!"  

Like me, you may never look at a paper bag the same again... 

My paper bag story is not done.  Yes, it's a long one... as many of my memories are.  

So.... I probably brought lunch a few times, but I only distinctly remember one time that I was sent with a paper bag, the one I wanted so desperately before....  

I asked my mom to make me a pb&j sandwich, like the cool kids.   
"A what?" she asked.
"A peanut butter and jelly sandwich,"  I repeated.  
"I dunno what that is.  You eat what I make.  You don't complain, or you go hungry."
And that was that.  So, the day came and I took my lunch with gratitude, not knowing what might be in it.  None of it mattered much, because my lunch would reside in a brown paper sack, my ticket to the east side.  I proudly held my brown paper sack, got into the quick line, and sat down with the kids on the east side.  She wrapped it in foil, who does that.  Why couldn't we have normal ziploc bags like everyone else?  I opened it slowly, not sure what I'd find.  Ohhh, I was actually quite happy.  I loved dried pork with rice wrapped in seaweed.  Yum, I thought.  I guess this is better than a sandwich.  The kids around me thought differently.  
Ridicule.  Laughter.  Disgust.  It felt more like intolerant hate, but really, they just didn't get it.  It was cruel.  It was painful.  It was... just what kids do with unfamiliar territory, but still... it sucked.
Is that seaweed?!  Apparently, the kids back in 1988 didn’t have seaweed as an organic snack as the kids today do.  Nor did Costco or Trader Joe’s sell them as a hip snack for white people (no offense white people, but this is how it feels when I see something I was mocked for celebrated and eaten by everyone now.. I'm unsure whether I should be happy or mad, but mostly I lean towards the former).  Well.... unfortunately, back in 1988, my seaweed labeled me as an outsider.  Do you also eat raw fish? Some kids asked me (when I say some kids, I mean white kids).  Well technically, I wouldn’t try raw fish sushi until I was at least sixteen, but the thought that my parents did already embarrassed me, and I met their teases with silence as I struggled to figure out what to do.  I was ashamed of my lunch, still hungry for it, but not sure how I could even take another bite.  Why did I have to be so different.  I didn't cry though, I'm not a crying person.  To this day, I rarely cry.  So I didn't.  But with every fiber and emotion in my body, the awful memory seared itself in my mind.     
This was a moment I had been waiting for and yet here I was… wanting nothing than to be far away from these mean white people who didn’t understand the food I ate at home.  I wanted to be back with the other Asian kids who were excited for tater tots and breakfast for lunch and school lunch pizza.  Not the snobby white kids who laughed at the nasty lunches that paled in comparison to that which they ate at home.  No more paper bags for me.  So I left.  And I never went back. 
I mustered up the courage to ask my mom to buy lunch.  She was not pleased with my fickle indecisiveness.  I didn’t want to tell her someone had made fun of my lunch.  She would have probably personally approached this child’s parents with a word or two, or three, about how inappropriately they had raised their child, and made me bring more sushi to school for lunch.  Instead, I told her I thought it was more affordable to buy lunch because of how much you got, fresh and hot, and that it wouldn’t waste her time and money going to the store to buy paper bags you would just throw away.  She seemed pleased with my logic at the age of seven.  The convenience was priceless and saved me from ever facing the cruelty of the culturally inept children of the 80’s.  How happy I am that bento boxes are in and it’s now cool to be diverse and welcoming of other cultures.  It means my kids will never experience the painfully mortifying experiences I went through.   

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Chicken Nugget Incident

Now that I have kids of my own, I can appreciate the intense scrutiny my own mother had towards all my friends.  Good friends make such a big difference.  I am constantly praying that my own kids will surround themselves with good friends and that their best friends will also include their siblings.  Friends influence you to do so many things, so like it or not, they really do make a big impact.

My mom won't let me forget this as she brings up the "chicken nugget" incident all the time.  In middle school during the summers, to fill our time, my mom would always convince a bunch of my close friends' moms to enroll in the same PSAT prep course as me.  So the four of us would all go together and have a grand time goofing off and learning some new vocab here and there.  One time, my mom picked us up and took us to McDonald's on the way home.  My three girlfriends sat in the backseat while my mom and I sat in the front.

My mom pulled over to the side of the McDonald's and instructed me to get a box of 20 chicken nuggets for everyone to share.

"Do you want to go with me to get it?" I asked my friend who was sitting behind the passenger side of the vehicle.  At the time, my mom drove the oldest model of the Odyssey which had doors that opened outwards instead of the awesome automatic sliding doors they now come equipped with.  This makes a difference because it would have been dangerous for girlfriend A on the left behind the driver to open her door since the McDonald's was on a busy street and cars were zooming by.  Girlfriend C who sat on the far right looked bored and muttered, "No," an answer I wasn't quite expecting at the time.  I was a bit baffled to be honest.  Who says no?  Girlfriend B who sat in the middle piped up, "I'll go with you," which made me think for a brief second that Girlfriend C and B would come with me.  Or maybe all three would go and it'd be a group outing.

Instead, Girlfriend C stepped out of the car, held the door open for Girlfriend B to move out, and then got back into the car to sit in her new seat in the middle.

To be honest, I didn't think it was a big deal at the time.

My mom didn't say anything in the car, but the moment we got home, she started to lecture me about how inappropriate Girlfriend C had been, reminding me that Girlfriend B was a true friend, and Girlfriend A was just oblivious.

"It's one thing to be lazy and not want to go with you, but it's an entirely different level of lazy and added level of disrespect when you get out of the car to let someone else go, and then get back into the car."

I've always contemplated, maybe she wasn't feeling well or maybe something else was bugging her.  Should we be that judgmental? Should she have known the proper social decorum when she was only 13 or 14?  I'm not quite sure what to think, but my mom's continued critique of this friend surely resonated with me.  I'd never show it on the outside, but on the inside, I thought twice, and in many ways, I trusted her instincts even if I'd never admit it.  

But it wasn't just what she said about Girlfriend C that meant anything.  She also told me you could tell Girlfriend B was someone important.  Girlfriend B was one to befriend forever.  And through our ups and downs over 25 years, Girlfriend B has remained on my side, so that much is true.  So I suppose my mom was right.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Shoulda Known

So... I had this great idea for family photos since we haven’t had one with my mom and dad since almost four years ago, before I had my third and fourth child.  I was about five months post partum and we were going to go visit her in a week once school is out for my kids.  I thought she’d be excited and thankful for my brilliant idea, and I sincerely thought it was a great idea! After all, Asians LOVE taking photos!  
"What do you think about family photos when we come in May, Mom?"
“Well, maybe we should waiting until you lose the baby weight.”  That was her very as a matter of fact response. 
I wasn’t offended.  I think I chuckled before agreeing with her suggestion.  She must have sensed I was a bit offended... because then she said, "well, think about it, these photos will be FOREVER, so of course you have to be skinny for it."  
2013: our last family photo..
includes my brother's ex who Mom still hopes will become her other daughter...
Oh Mom.  

So honest.  Sometimes too much so.  Overbearing.  Almost always so.  Difficult.  Never have I known life otherwise.  You know, when it's your mom, you just learn to live with it, to adapt, to compromise, okay who am I kidding?! to give in!  Love your mom and be a good daughter.  
It doesn’t help that my mom is Chinese, always justifying every odd rule, too strict regulation, or completely insane input as her simply being Chinese.
From a young age, my mom repeatedly reminded me of my duty to be the good Chinese daughter.  I know because I am to respect my seniors, which means I loudly acknowledge all adults in my presence with the proper Chinese greeting, even if it means once on my own accord, and then once again when my mom tells me to in front of them.  I know every stranger with black hair and yellow skin who speaks Chinese words is an “auntie” or an “uncle” because that is the polite and right way to greet someone.  I know to respect everyone older than me because I have spent hours burning incense, folded paper gold bars, paper money for the dead, and even miniature paper homes with furniture to be burnt to honor and respect my dead ancestors, and then bowing in front of an elaborate spread of fruit, steamed buns, chicken, and cooked greens by their framed photos.  I know because I have done every good Chinese girl activity from playing an instrument to doing Chinese knotting to traditional Chinese dancing with ribbons, fans, and even chopsticks.  I have abided by the expectations of good grades (even in PE!), strict rules (no dating while in high school... in college, it just became a blurred non-sequitur and then all of a sudden, it was when are you going to get married?!) and endured.  I’ve grown up always feeling like I’m never good enough, that there’s always something more I can do, someone I can be better than, and somewhere I ought to be instead of what I’m doing, who I am and where I am. 
And yet I love and express extreme gratitude to my mom.  I’m not sure where I’d be without her.  She’s one of my best friends.  I talk to her almost everyday.  And yet, when my skin is breaking out in a heat rash, I know to avoid video chat.  When she tells me I need to start doing chin exercises (because I'm not holding my ipad or iphone high up and the angle is all wrong), I just laugh it off.
I’m grateful for my mom.  I’m not always happy with her, in fact more often than not, I’m furious.  I don’t get it.  I don’t get her.  She fails to show any form of logic or reason and I just don’t get it.  But there’s also a large amount of respect for the effort and dedication to her Chinese ways, albeit not all correct, all taught me something. 
The difficulty for me was not realizing I was any different since I grew up in a sheltered Asian community.  For the most part, all my friends were Asian immigrant children as well.  The few times I befriended Americanized Asians and white people, the cultural disparity was shockingly obvious and painfully scarring.  This is normally when my relationship with my mom is magnified as one step away from a bi-polar breakdown.  Despite her teachings being the backbone of sound principle and judgment, tradition and family, they also became the reminders of being different, insecure, and alone.

As a grown adult, I work with a lot of similar immigrant children, coaching them in public speaking.  Along the way, I find myself mentoring them, reminding them that their immigrant parents mean well and the non-emotional Chinese ways of love through over bearing criticism and blunt feedback (you looking fat, why do you grades being so bad?) are not truly representative of them or their intentions.  I know our American friends would not understand the mild eating disorders and body image insecurities our immigrant parents have instilled in us.  I know our American friends would also not understand the unwavering financial support our parents continuously provide despite us being grown adults or the brand new cars they bought us at the young irresponsible age of sixteen.  Love is defined differently by Chinese moms.  It’s providing a meal, an education, material goods, and advising you on your shortcomings, no matter how hurtfully honest.  My mom and I hug when we see each other now, but it’s not reminiscent of my childhood nor is it comfortable or familiar.  But when my mom buys me facials, nice shoes, or takes me out to a nice meal, I feel warmth, a sense of belonging and sweet outpouring of love. 

I have no regrets or resentment towards my mom, only love and appreciation for her efforts and awkward navigation through our cultural attempts at assimilating to the American culture.