Category Archives: Mothermade

I am mother. Hear me roar!

A year ago, my son lost his most treasured possession, a small Gap Hopper simply named “Bunny” at the Nick Hotel in Orlando. And with Bunny’s disappearance, I realized that I had allowed my professional life to eclipse my family life.

At the end of our stay, I was too busy refining my course syllabus to make the final sweep of the hotel room. I had my first class meeting the next morning at 9 a.m.

Irreplaceable, Bunny continues to come up in conversation. “He won’t know where to find us when we move.” “He’s never seen Wisconsin.” Now, his younger, yet bigger cousin, Bunny #2 keeps vigil.

My mother struggled with her role as a stay-at-home mother. I remember her saying things like, “I just want to have something that is MINE,” or “I need a reason to get out of the house.”

Insensitive, I grew up telling her I would never marry, let alone have kids, and that I would live the hopping life of a New York journalist, driving my BMW and writing for the Rolling Stone. How that must have hurt her. She had spent her life making mine better.

When my son was born, I struggled with my immature feelings about being the young hot shot. But caring for him day to day became the most gratifying job I’d ever had. And when my mother died during my son’s eighth month of life, a part of me felt I should give him what she had given me. During the funeral, my sister told me that our mother felt that I had honored her by following in her footsteps. But the struggle was only suppressed.

I eventually became an adjunct professor, a freelancer and an AIGA board member in Virginia. But remember Bunny? Mommy took a back seat.

Recently our move to Wisconsin allowed me to step back and re-evaluate the past year. The loss of Bunny will forever remind me of my inadequacy in my position as mother.

I tell myself daily that will never occur again. My children are growing up, and each day brings a new revelation.

Last night at 1 a.m., my son came into our room. He was frantic. Bunny #2 was lost. We searched the entire house until 2:30. At which point, I could not sleep. Where could he be? We would not lose another Bunny. Not under my watch.

My search lead me to the dirty, snow-covered curb. Armed with a flashlight, in my pajamas, a coat and boots, I searched our recycle wheely bin. And half way down, Bunny #2 looked up at me as if to say, “Thank goodness! I wondered if you would come find me before the trash truck arrived!”

I am mother. Hear me roar!

Titter loves her little sister

Thirty-six years ago today, my life changed. At the time, I was six and very angry about this change. I had been the apple of my parents’ eyes.

Wrapped in a blue-green receiving blanket, something wiggled. The thought of something so small and living excited me. So, I hurried to unwrap it. “Where is it?! Where is it?!” I kept saying. And soon, it emerged from all the layers … my new little sister.

Again, at first I was excited, then angry, then frustrated. She took a lot of my mother’s time and energy. I began packing paper bags to run away. But most times, I would make it to the end of the snow-lined walk and turn around, saying, “I’ll wait until the weather warms up.”

When my mother died, we found many things that she had saved. There were two letters in which I wrote that I wished she hadn’t adopted me. Angry children become cruel. I regret that. My sister was one of the best gifts my parents could have given me. It just took me a while to appreciate it.

My sister soon grew and began talking. Her name for me was a form of sister but came out “Titter.” Six-years is quite a gap. And often, we were worlds apart. But as we became adults, the gap decreased.

She is now my best friend. And her daughter has become my daughter’s substitute little sister with an age gap similar to my sister and me.

So, today, I honor that little baby that changed my life. She’s a fine woman and mother. And our mother would be mighty proud.

A kiss of acceptance

I’ve been absent. We moved to Madison, Wisconsin, this past summer. And all is well.

During the search for schools, I made a point of looking at the ethnic make-up of each public elementary school. Having lived in a rural, almost Asian-free community, I wanted more for my kids.

Community of acceptance. I was seeking that and have been since I was very small. Luckily for me, my adoptive family’s love sustained me through my life in rural Tennessee. But I longed for complete acceptance. Even a sense that I was just like everyone else.

Yesterday at dinner, my children brought up a little adopted girl in my daughter’s class. This child is Asian and has become rather attached to my daughter and myself. My daughter wanted to know why this young girl was saying she wanted me to be her mother. I tried to explain that the little girl just wanted to identify with us because we look similar.

We also discussed how there were more Asians at this school than there were in the school in Virginia. In addition, we talked about the number of adopted children we had met. It has been refreshing seeing the unconditional love of parents here for their adopted children. It brings back such wonderful memories of my parents, and especially memories of my late mother.

Today, the little Asian girl in my daughter’s class watched as I gave her a kiss good-bye. And this little one asked if I could give her a kiss as well.

And so, I passed on the kiss of acceptance.

The Latino side

I don’t often write about my Latino side. Usually, I forget about it unless someone whom I have never met in the flesh reminds me with a casual “Hola” or “Hasta Luego”.

Last night on the eve of 2009, I was reminded of the prejudice against the Latino community.

Our town of Charlottesville has a First Night celebration every year. Various groups perform, and my son performed with his Taekwon-Do group. As a perk, the group was offered entry buttons for the participants. However, in a misunderstanding, the buttons were not delivered to the school before the event.

After the performance, our family accompanied my son’s instructor, the leader of the group, over to the registration area for First Night. The Taekwon-Do instructor is a young, Latino man. The executive director of the event informed the instructor that if he hadn’t gotten the buttons beforehand then they had none for him now. While that my have been true to some degree, she was unusually curt. I sensed that she felt that the instructor was trying to pull something. She kept giving him excuses and saying she was not authorized to give him buttons.

At this stage, I stepped forward and told her that our family had already bought buttons for the rest of us, but not for the two who had been promised buttons. She then said she would see what she could do. In the meantime, a more friendly volunteer coordinator walked over and tried to help as well.

The executive director did return with 25 buttons for our group. But I do wonder what motivated her at first to resist helping our young, Latino instructor. Was it doubt? Was it skepticism? Was it prejudice? While I will never know for sure, I did sense some of the indescribable feelings that I’ve had in my own small Tennessee hometown. Feelings my father expressed when he visited the very caucasian Colorado.

It’s a feeling of being outside of a group. A feeling of not belonging. A feeling of being excluded.

On to my children …

From very young, I never had a reason to want to know more about my birth parents. But every day, my own children astonish me. And of course, I wonder, did my birth parents pass on some love-of-design gene to me?

As I’ve said, I love design. I’m drawn to well-designed packages, typography, compellingly composed photography and paper. While granted, my children have noticed, I wonder back to the crumpler/folder theory of how Asians are drawn to a compulsive neatness and the order of things.

My son collects all kinds of things: Pokemon cards [of course!], rocks, sticks, marbles and wine corks. The latter were brought to me early one morning. He had sorted them. “The ones in the bag are really nice. See the words on them? This one has a leopard print on it. I like the way this one has wavy lines,” he told me as he showed me his most treasured corks. And yes, they were the most well-designed of the bunch. Then, he went on, “These in this container are just plain or boring. I think I’ll make a bulletin board out of them.” That’s my boy, I thought. His father doesn’t sort nearly as precisely.

My daughter also makes me proud. Her favorite thing is paper. When we open a new book or magazine, she smells the paper and rubs it against her velvety face. I recall my days of sniffing mimeograph paper. The love of that purple-hued courier type on white with its intoxicating scent.

My adoptive parents did not have such habits. So somewhere in Korea there is a paper-sniffing, cork-sorting person with my face in the back of her mind.

You all are good at math, right?

How many times have I heard that comment? I heard it in grade school, high school, college and even now, as an adult. I shouldn’t be offended. In college, my math prof asked me if I wanted to major in math. So that means I’m good at math, right?

But, I didn’t become a mathematician. No, I became a designer. Not a CAD person or an engineer. A graphic designer to be exact. Seems a bit far fetched from a mathematician, although I do some crazy math to figure out decimal figures of fractions for layouts, or conversions from points to picas to inches.

It would seem from my experience that Asians must be “good at math.” My Taiwanese friend, however, says she is hopeless at math. [And yes, she is.]

What do appearances say about us? As one who is often mistaken for something else, I think we all use our sense of experience, be it personal experience or learned experience from our parents, to evaluate new acquaintances. Do we feel more comfortable when we feel that we know something ahead of time? It would appear that our experience in something comforts us. But are we that predictable?

Society and the media think so and feel the need to compartmentalize. Researchers, too, are notorious for it. [See an example in the post Mistaken Identity.] But the lines have blurred. Despite this, race categories are becoming essential in the US election. Emphasis of one heritage over another appeals to certain groups. When will the race factor just not matter? When will gender not matter?

When will we take an individual for his or her own merits, and not the merits of a particular race or gender?

To visit or not to visit

It’s been 39 years since I left Korea. And I truly consider myself first and foremost an American and a Puerto Rican. In all those years, I had never wanted to find my birth family.

When I was younger and people asked me if I wanted to find my real mother, I would always say, “Why? She’s at home in Newport, Tennessee.” I’d known no other.

In the spring of 1995, my then husband-to-be wanted to take me back to Korea for our honeymoon. I said, “Are you kidding me? There are tons of places in America that I haven’t seen or experienced. I’d rather explore my own country, thank you.”

But since the births of my children, I have had underlying urges to know more about my birth country. I do love Korean food [especiallly kimchi and Korean citron tea]. And I have since made a Korean-American friend.

My mother passed away shortly after my first child was born. She always encouraged me to learn more about Korea, but I never really showed much interest. My father had been stationed in Korea during the Korean War. Despite my rolling eyes, my dad loved to use Korean words and phrases with me, and he introduced me to kimchi, a favorite food of his.

My seven-year-old son was drawn to Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. He’s learned to count in Korean. His best friend is going to Korea this summer, and he’s quite keen on the idea. So, now that I have children who are curious about that side of their lineage, I would love to go to Korea with them, so that we all could learn more about Korea together!

My Friend, Ted

I so enjoy a sense of humor. My friend, Ted, breathes humor. He theorized the “Crumpler or Folder” idea. He taped his face for a laugh on the eve of my leaving Clarksville, Tennessee. I miss not seeing him on a day-to-day basis. But I can go to his one-and-only blog for my daily laugh. His face says it all.

Check out his one-and-only blog entry here.

“Yer not from roun’ here, are ya?”

My family made one of our few treks to Tennessee this holiday season. After being on the road for a few hours, we made our usual stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. As I checked out, the cashier asked, “Where are you traveling to?”

I said, “Tennessee.”

“Where are you from?” was the reply.

“Oh, Virginia.”

This short conversation got me thinking. How did she know I was traveling? I know that most Cracker Barrels host the interstate traveler. I worked for Cracker Barrel for many years through high school and college. But even in my native East Tennessee home, I often get this question, “Yer not from roun’ here, are ya?” My reply is always the same, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I grew up around here.”

I grew up loving overcooked veggies like fried okra, “kilt (aka killed)” lettuce and spring onions, canned green beans, chitlins, and pintos and ham hocks. I love my cousin’s decaf sweetened iced tea and her apple stack cake. But these loves are not evident when a stranger sees me. I appear as a stranger, an outsider. However, my heart still dwells in the rural hills of East Tennessee.

My Asian friends at times will remind me of my looks and my strange dichotomy. Recently, we were driving from D.C. and became lost. My husband, knowing the back roads of Virginia well, directed us out of the rural route and onto the main highway.

On our journey down the back roads, my friends mentioned a fear of breaking down in the rural area. “What if we have a flat tire?” they asked. Our cell phones weren’t getting a good reception, so I said I’d just approach a home and ask for help. Their reply was that I wasn’t a white male, but an Asian female. Did I really want to do that. From my upbringing, I realized that I was thinking in terms of my relatives and how they would help us if I approached their homes. But it was true that I didn’t appear to be from “roun’ here.”

My son is now learning that he is not a true white male. He is struggling with his identity. Classmates and strangers are calling him “Chinese boy” in a derogatory way. We live in a city that is quite diverse and yet, he is still faced with the cruelty and ignorance I faced in rural Tennessee. My husband and I have come up with this description of who he is … Anglo Korean Latino American. We explained what they all meant to him and if someone continued to harass him, to say, “Just Google it.”

In some respects, I feel a need to get back to my roots and understand what motivates people. My parents always explained to me that criticism has its roots in insecurity. We don’t know the true struggles of those around us.

While I was home, I met with an old high school friend. She now teaches high school English in Tennessee. She relayed a story to me of an eighteen year old in her class. His classmates learned that he had no proper bed. He had slept on the floor of his grandparents’ home since he was fourteen. His previous bed had broken, and they did not have the money to replace it. So, he just slept on the floor for four years.

The students in his class were so moved by his need that they all chipped in and bought him a bed for Christmas this year. Kindness goes a long way.

Though we may have different skin color, different facial features, different backgrounds, we all understand emotions in the same way. We all feel hurt, sadness, happiness and joy. And we all appreciate kindness and acceptance.

Crumpler or Folder?

From an early age, I steered clear of being associated with other Asians. I rebelled. I didn’t truly feel Asian. And I knew very little about the Asian culture. So why should I be lumped in the Asian American category?

However, during my journey, I have found several wonderful Asian friends. Their histories have become my own biological link. All are first generation Asians. And oddly, we all are married to Caucasians … both Americans and Britons. They are assimilating to the American way of life, and I am moving in the opposite direction. I want to know more about my Asian heritage.

My interest in things Asian first developed when a Japanese friend, Ted, noted the Asian tendency to be, as he put it, “A folder.” I was intrigued. He explained that people are either “crumplers or folders.” The crumplers are type Bs with a tendency to crumple papers rather than fold them. My sister is a crumpler. I am a folder in a family of crumplers. My father used to tell a story of me as a youngster lining up my hair bows from the largest to the smallest.

There’s a Japanese store in London called Muji that caters to the folder. I feel at home in that store filled with its small compartmentalized items and organizers. My husband knows to always book a good bit of time there so that I can absorb it all.

And yet, I still shied away from the Asian mothers at a local bookstore storytime. They clustered together. Referring to me as “auntie,” they asked if I wanted to join them for lunch. I declined. But weeks later at the same storytime, I noticed a Taiwanese woman, Katherine, whose daughter looked like my son’s sister, a mix of Asian and Caucasian. We have become fast friends.

Since having children I wonder more about my medical history, and what genetics may have in store for them and for me. My Korean connection, Adrienne, has revealed some interesting Asian biological facts.

First fact, Asian ear wax is flaky and white. I spent a good portion of my childhood with my head tilted. Having been told that I had wax build up in my ears, my father would ceremoniously put drops in, wait and then syringe my ear canals with water to remove that stubborn ear wax. But my hearing was never affected by it. I just didn’t have the yellow ear wax that came out of my ear on a simple cotton swab. I know now. My son has yellow ear wax like his father. And my daughter has Asian ear wax.

Second fact, a good number of Koreans have creaseless eyelids. Surgery that adds that coveted crease is growing in popularity in Korea and among Korean Americans. I struggled as a teenager with my creaseless eyelids. I would create eyelids by applying liquid eyeliner to train my eyelids to crease. It was frustrating as an awkward teen. And I have come to terms with it as an adult. Adrienne’s eyelids have grown that crease, but she warned me that hers were due to a hereditary aging droop in her eyelid.

Third fact, Asian teeth are more concave than Caucasian teeth. I’ve yet to understand this one.

As I learn more, I want to know more. My children have become another reason for my curiosity. Theirs is rubbing off on me.

My son asks about his Korean heritage. He takes Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. And he can count to ten in Korean. He’s curious about his Korean heritage and intrigued that I know so little about it. He asks me, “Can we visit Korea?”

“Perhaps,” is my reply.