Feeling at Home at Church

This may sound silly to some, but for others you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve been attending “our church” for more than a year now – dipping our toes into church life with worship team (me) and drama team (Peter), getting to know some delightful, God-loving people, learning the traditions of “our church”.

Last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is the traditional children’s music Sunday. The Sunday School children sing with the choir, play the handbells, and present gifts of music to the church. At the start of the service there were a number of children who performed various pieces – piano duets, string trio, violin solo, etc. I haven’t felt that “at home” at church in a long time. Something about seeing a steady stream of kids, some willingly and others under some duress, standing up in front of the church to play their instruments made me and Peter look at each other and smile a knowing smile…

It also created a moment of panic when I realized that none of my children can really play the piano. My daughter had a year or two of lessons, but she quit and picked up the flute at school. Corban just started the coronet (it really does sound like “Jingle Bells” when he plays), and I taught Elias “Mary Had a Little Lamb” because I felt guilty. Not only are my children amazingly average, they have not yet mastered any musical instruments. Something feels so very wrong.

Seriously, though, it was a light-hearted moment for me and Peter, as we have been talking a bit about church, community and culture. Peter asked me if I missed being at a Korean-American or Asian-American church. I answered honestly – yes and no. Being at a majority-culture church we’ve had to ask and wonder new questions that at the surface seem rather stupid or silly, but can add a layer of anxiety and uncertainty that is rather complex and confusing.

“Is this house a shoes on or a shoes off house?”

“When I’m asked to bring food that represents my culture, but not too much of it so I won’t be offended when people don’t like it, how should I respond?”

“What are my kids gaining from being in a majority culture church and what are they losing by not experiencing the AA or KA church subculture?”

And then there is the nagging question…should I force piano lessons on all of them for a few years? 😉

This Sunday, the final Sunday of Advent, our family got to light the fourth candle. It was a wonderful worship experience to practice and then read together the following reading:

We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ. Advent is a season of hope. The first word of hope was restoration. The second word was peace, and the third was joy. The fourth word is love. ‘I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever. He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High. The LORD God will give Him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.

As our kids read and Peter lit the fourth candle I felt very much at home, worshipping with our church.

Working Mom Angst – Asian American style

Honestly, I haven’t thought this through. I don’t know how or if my culture has impacted the way I experience working mom angst…I’ve been sitting at my desk trying to get through e-mails, file expense reports, start and finish a prayer letter and listen for the dryer to finish when I realized I forgot to go to school to see my daughter’s gym class dance performance.

Now, before I am absolved of any guilt for not taking 15-minutes out of my work day to run over to the middle school by justifying my absence with the simple fact that my daughter is in MIDDLE SCHOOL and seeing her mother armed with a video camera AND a 35-mm waving from the bleachers isn’t her idea of fun,  I can’t shake the fact that she handed me the note from the teacher inviting parents to view the performance.

My daughter is practicing her “Mom, puhlease” look of slight disdain, embarrassment and awkward separation from her parents. But she gave the me the note and asked if I was going to a meeting or working from home. She still likes me.

I have the blessing, and I really do mean blessing, of a home office and the flexibility to the administrative portion of my job within earshot of my washer and dryer and steps from my espresso maker. My mother (and most of the world) can’t imagine an easier balancing act.

So maybe here is where the Asian American guilt and shame and sorrow (and the swallowing of it all) come into play. In a mere 15 seconds I am wrestling with all of it – wishing I could support my parents, wishing I was actually SuperMom who could remember to run over to the middle school (God, help me remember I’m supposed to be at the grade school at 12:30 to be the reading parent!), wondering if my daughter noticed my absence and wasn’t relieved but sad, hoping that my mistake doesn’t make my parents sad that I don’t take advantage of the luxuries of time that they didn’t have.

Please, I can’t be the only slightly neurotic Asian American working mom, right?

Living Through My Children – Making the Pom Pom (Pon?) Squad

My daughter made the pom pom squad last week. It was a little strange to watch her the night before tryouts, practicing the turns and kicks to Devo’s “Whip It”. Even Peter came upstairs after watching her and her friend go through the routine shaking his head and saying, “She was dancing and doing this shaking thing. She has moves.”

It was a little strange because, believe it or not, I was a pom pom girl. My poms career began in junior high and ended abruptly my senior year of high school when scheduling conflicts between poms practice and newspaper deadlines collided. I opted to stay on as EIC and give up my poms, but despite never having good friends on the squad I missed performing. Back when my knees didn’t creak, I had moves. (Stop laughing!)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking back to that season in life and wondering what my parents thought of the whole thing. They didn’t come to any performances that I can remember, though I found a photo of them at homecoming with a “My daughter Jane is a Lancette” so I know they were at at least one game during my sister’s stint on poms. I vaguely remember my parents and I talking about whether or not being on the pom pom squad was something I could put down on my college applications and whether or not it would conflict with more important endeavors like school.

But one of the things that I remember about being on poms was that holding those blue and gold and then blue and white bundles of plastic gave me an exclusive look at social power. It was all very confusing to me; isn’t everything pretty confusing in junior high and high school? Suddenly, the geeky smart Oriental girl had access to the social elite. I spent hours in practice and at games with girls whose hair defied gravity and designer bags were both the envy and joke of us “regular” girls at school. It was always such a strange feeling, walking around in school on game days in my uniform. I felt part-phony, part-geek, part-mean girl. 

Now before you think this is all about teenage angst, I actually had a science teacher who laughed when I walked into class with my lettered sweater and pleated skirt. He laughed out loud and then made a comment to me in front of the class about how cheerleaders and upper-level science didn’t work together. Never mind that I was also fighting stereotypes about Asian Americans excelling in math and science (my passion was English and newspaper reporting), but now I was fighting stereotypes about girls and math and science.

Fortunately, the strength of those stereotypes have wavered some since my days as a pom pom girl. I’m not so sure if the social power structures of middle school and high school have changed all that much though. I wonder what my daughter will feel when she puts on her uniform for the first time and walks through the hallways. How will her friendships deepen and change? How different or the same will her middle school experience? Will the uniform help my daughter, whose teachers unilaterally describe her as quiet and shy, find her voice? And if so, what will that voice sound like?

I’m unabashedly proud of her. She knew that only 16 girls would make the team, which meant a lot of girls weren’t going to scream and smile when they opened up their envelopes. And when she found out that she made the squad but that a few of her close friends had not, she handled it with aplomb. I can’t wait to hear more from her.

Living Through My Children – Parent/Teacher Conferences

I’m so glad they’re over. Yesterday was our marathon day of parent/teacher conferences. As a child, I didn’t think much of these times. I just knew that the weeks prior to conferences our classrooms would be plastered with our very best work –  self-portraits, our best writing assignments and neat desks.

As a parent, I’ve learned that I need a balance of leaving my issues at the door,  being a learner in each new classroom, and being my child’s advocate and cultural translator.

My issues: When Peter and I had our first conference for Bethany’s preschool (!?!?) I realized how I connected her academic success to my parenting. Silly? Yes. Understandable? Yes. It was easy to take credit for her reading skills and social skills. I figured if I had to listen or watch people tsk, tsk me when the kids throw hissy fits in the middle of the cereal aisle I would take the credit for their better moments. Really, our kids are amazing…by the grace of God. I’m not saying they are perfect. They can use what little money is saved up for college or therapy. But as a parent I can’t take all the credit.

Culturally it was inappropriate for my parents to brag about me and my sister. If someone said they thought my sister was pretty or I was smart, my parents would smile, thank them and go on to tell the person at least one fault of ours – “Yes, she’s pretty except she’s not very tall. And, yes, she does well on her tests but not as good as I hear your child does.” The parenting theory of many 1st generation Korean immigrants was that compliments would only make our heads bigger but not in the brain cell/rote memorization sort of way. The result is my personal inability to receive compliments graciously. It’s always very awkward and a bit stilted because it feels so odd. Even though I think the world of my children, it is with trepidation I enter parent/teacher conferences because I never know how to receive compliments about my own children. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Yes, she/he loves reading, but she/he doesn’t want to read more challenging books.”

And then when I do hear the compliment and manage to acknowledge it, I have another overwhelming urge to find out how my child ranks against other children. I can’t help it. I think it’s genetic.

Being a learner: Each teacher has their strategies, goals, dreams, issues. Each grade level has its challenges. If I expect my child’s teacher to understand my child then I need to put in a little effort to learn about each classroom. I’ve also learned that the many teachers who influence my children are human. Some of them are just as anxious about meeting me as I am about meeting them. They have just a few minutes with each parent to communicate authority, expertise, understanding, insight, etc. It feels a bit like what I imagine speed dating might feel like.

I don’t think my parents ever considered themselves partners with my teachers, but that is how I have come to understand my relationship with my kids’ teachers. I’ve learned that if I don’t learn how to work well with the teacher’s style, curriculum, and expectations the only one who loses out is my child.

Being an advocate and cultural translator: This is what shouldn’t have surprised me but did. I know that I am Asian American, but being a parent I’m fascinated with watching and influencing how my children will develop an ethnic/cultural identity. I don’t recall every telling any of the children to be quiet in the classroom, but I was floored when teacher after teacher commented on my daughter’s “quietness”. They would say how she was a good, solid student, but without fail one of the first things each teacher would mention was that she didn’t often raise her hand to offer up her opinions.

I asked if we could look at a photo of my daughter just to make sure we were talking about the same child.

After about the third teacher I jumped in by asking why they were telling me how quiet she was. I asked if participating was part of the grade, and, if so, how participation was being evaluated. Don’t worry. I asked all of these questions with a motherly smile. 😉

It turns out that all three of my children do not raise their hands in class and only answer when called upon. Their teachers call them “respectful” and “considerate of his/her classmates”. I’m not saying that those traits are Asian, but respecting elders and honoring community are high values the kids have learned in very Asian ways. The boys don’t call their older sister by her name. And I’ve even seen Bethany do a slight bow when she meets “an adult”.

In the end, I come home wondering if I’ve done enough as a parent to help each of my children do as well academically and socially as possible. (Funny side note: the other night Peter and I were out at dinner with the boys and while we were waiting we whipped out math flash cards to pass the time. I had a “oh, my god, I can’t believe we have become our parents” moment as other diners stared at us like we were crazy or their child’s worst nightmare.) And then I wonder if I praise my children enough or too much. And then I wonder what the teachers really think about our kids and maybe even us? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Birthday Traditions Made and Broken

Are birthdays a big deal in your family? 

In our home birthdays are a bunch of little things throughout the day for the kids. On their birthday, our birthday child gets a candle at breakfast (so far pancakes have been the trickiest because they aren’t thick enough to hold a candle upright for very long) and our version of the “Happy Birthday” song. They get their present from Mom and Dad in the morning, and then we send a small treat to school for their classmates. Dinner plans are up to the birthday child.

Yesterday was Elias’ 7th birthday, and it was the first birthday we missed the morning candles. I was in Indiana at staff meetings, and Peter held down the fort wonderfully. He picked up donuts for the class treat, presented Elias with his wrapped birthday gift. Peter even managed to get the kids to pose for a birthday morning photo. But, in the rush of the morning, the candles had to wait.

Elias reminded me as we were wrapping up the evening that he had not had his birthday morning candles. “Why weren’t you here to remind Daddy about my candles?”  It nearly sent me over the edge. I feel so incredibly blessed to have this amazing life – marriage, children, home, career. But this amazing life often feels like it’s perched on a very sensitive scale where the constant demands are weighed against the blissful moments. 

I wasn’t home because on this birthday, some traditions were more important than others. I wasn’t home because I had a work commitment I chose to honor, knowing I would be home to pick you up after school. I wasn’t home because I want you to know you are loved and cherished, but I also want you to know you are not the center of the universe.

And just so that I could work out my working mommy guilt, I took him to Target to spend some of the birthday money his aunt sent him.

What am I Eating? My Korean American Garden Revealed

Growing up eating a variety of foods is one of the gifts of a bi-cultural childhood. There was always steamed white rice in the rice cooker and a large jar of kimchee in the fridge, but it wasn’t unusual to have the rice and kimchee on the table with the bucket of KFC original recipe. When my parents hosted Thanksgiving we would have turkey with all the trimmings, which for us meant dressing and japchae, mashed potatoes and kimchee, gravy and daenjang jigae. The trick was I never really knew the English names of the some of the ingredients. It didn’t matter. I rarely had friends over for dinner unless it was pizza night. Asian food didn’t hold as much social and cultural currency back then as it does now. 

But knowing started to matter. For school potlucks we became the go-to family for all things Asian – potstickers, spring rolls, futomaki, fried rice, etc. Depending on the level of exposure to Asian foods and the prevalence of food allergies, it became more important to know what we were eating and serving.

So what does that have to do with my garden? I’m getting there…We have a small vegetable garden in the back. I can’t seem to keep plants growing indoors, but it turns out that when applying my efforts outside I may have inherited a bit of my mother’s green thumb. Each year we try to add something new, and if that fails we move on. Tomatoes, peppers, basil and carrots are always there. This year we added cantaloupe (we are waiting for three to ripen) and green onions.

Two years ago my mother brought some green stuff and planted in the garden. We would cut the young green stalks, chop them up and put them into soups or Korean-style crepes. I had no idea what “boo-chu” was called in English. Thanks to the Google search engine and “Korean vegetable pancake” the mystery has been revealed. She planted leeks. The best part of this discovery? Knowing that my kids eat leeks and they don’t even know it! I didn’t have to steam, puree and hide it into a clever dish (I tried that with broccoli and Corban figured it out a mile away). I just told them it was a Korean pancake! Leeks!

Last year my mother planted a few more plants with large green leaves. We pick the leaves and wrap them around rice, red pepper paste and some grilled meat, preferably kalbi (marinated short ribs) or bulgogi (marinated sliced beef). When the season is about to end, we pick the remaining leaves and put them in some soy sauce, garlic, sugar, red chili flakes and sesame seeds to essentially pickle them. Again, I had no idea what “ggaen-neep” was called in English. A literal translation would be sesame leaves, but again thanks to Google and “Korean sesame leaves” I can rest. She planted perilla – a member of the mint family.

Now I can rest knowing my kids will eat two three vegetables – carrots, corn and LEEKS! No one else seems to like the perilla leaves, though.

Funny Mommy Moments – Magic Pennies

Last year my youngest started kindergarten and temporarily transformed into a koala bear. We would get to the school playground and his smiling face and ants-in-his-pants body would crunch up with furrowed brow, desperate pleas for help, and an uncanny ability to wrap himself around my leg or torso. If I had eucalyptus leaves growing out of my head we would have made a great zoo exhibit.

The school principal pulled him off of me and took her to the office to give him a magic penny. He was told that when he rubbed this magic penny, no matter where I was, I would stop and think about him. It took a few days, but he eventually left me the magic penny just in case I missed him.

I thought we were over that.

This morning he was tired and saying he didn’t feel well. No fever so no chance. But he insisted he wasn’t feeling well and then melted down into a sad puddle of tears and heart-wrenching pleas: “I don’t want to go, Mommy. I don’t feel good. I want to go home with you and rest”. He used his koala-morphing abilities, and again the principal came to my rescue, extracting my child from my body as other mothers either passed by giving me a knowing look in solidarity or passed by avoiding eye contact for fear the koala-morphing abilities would be transferred onto their childreen. He was fine. I was a bit rattled, but I was eventually fine.

I asked him during dinner how long he needed to cry before he felt better. He said he stopped crying right away because the principal had given him a magic penny. I thought the magic penny was to help him get over homesickness and missing me. For a moment there I thought he was still missing me. Maybe I was hoping he was still missing me.

“But I thought the magic penny was to help you when you missed me? This morning you said you weren’t feeling well. Did you miss me?”

“No, mommy. I told you I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Well then how did the magic penny work if you were feeling sick?

“Mom, it’s a MAGIC penny.”

I guess I’m still getting used to having all three at school all day. Maybe I need a magic penny.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Monday is the first day of 1st grade for my youngest. After 13 years, all three children will be in school all day long.

Last year when I sent him off to his first day of kindergarten I took photos, shot video, and felt a little pang in my heart that the baby of the family was now responsible for his gym shoes getting into the cubby. “First time Moms” were crying as they watched their first or only child walk through the red doors. But I didn’t shed a tear. Instead, I couldn’t stop smiling. I think I went home and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee in one sitting, and then had to turn right back around to pick him up since kindergarten here is only 2 1/2 hours long.

(The second day was another story – imagine child wrapped around my body like a koala bear hugging a eucalyptus tree with wonderful principal extricating said koala child from my body while he cries. I was so glad the “first time moms” were still carrying kleenex, and all the more grateful the wonderful principal called an hour later to tell me koala child was smiling and doing just fine.)

On Monday I’ll walk my boys to school (my daughter is in middle school so we’ll take photos at home and say goodbye in the kitchen), take some photos, shoot some video, and feel a pang in my heart. I don’t know if I’ll cry…

“Kathy, what are you going to do with all of that time?”