Posted by: Cecilia | January 25, 2010

Mom’s New Leaf, Turn 2

In 2009 I hit a personal (age) milestone which intersected with another milestone in Fred’s life: entering school. This meant that, for the first time in five years, I was able to divert some attention back to me. Max and I own a home-based business which runs  a cyclical six months more or less, which in turn leaves me free (more or less) to do as I please the other six months of the year. (What paradise of a job do I have, you might ask? I’ll answer that in a future post. (Note in advance: it’s not all that paradisiacal.))

So literally on my birthday I started an on-line fiction writing course, led by the writer Masha Hamilton. The only book I had read in the  five years leading up to that point that didn’t include the words breasts (in the lactation context), acid reflux and pertussis was The DaVinci Code, and I certainly hadn’t written anything literary since my college Imposter Syndrome days as an assistant editor. I suddenly found myself in a class of published writers and retired college writing instructors. I was so intimidated that I literally cried after reading the first round of email exchanges. However, I felt determined to stick it through, since up to then I had a habit of turning away too soon and too quickly from anything that might reveal my inadequacies.

The course was demanding and intense with multiple weekly 1,000-word exercises and 20-page assignments every 5 weeks. I was shocked to find at times my hands shaking while typing freewrites that pulled me back to years I had long forgotten. But the experience brought me back home to the world of words. It reconnected me to the parts of my life I had discarded since becoming a mother and dared me to share with strangers my most intimate thoughts, however imperfectly expressed. This is the first prerequisite for writers, and it taught me to live comfortably in a perpetual state of self-consciousness.

After the course was over I worked on a few pieces and submitted three short stories. Two were rejected (presumably), the third was put on hold as publication plans were delayed. I started and stopped at least three blogs. I failed to write regularly but I did start reading again.

Yesterday I was going through my old pieces, and there is one in particular that I like because it tells the story of the journey Fred and I had taken together over the last five years. It is the best way I can try to explain the ambivalence I experience now as a mother who has finally achieved the freedom she’s wanted since she became a mother. I had my finger on the “send” button, ready to submit to Literary Mama. But I hesitated, fearing I was sending an imperfect piece out to disappear in the cyberspace of some editor’s office. While stalling I surfed around on Literary Mama’s website, and found that one of the editors, Kate Hopper, is offering a writing course in February. I sent an inquiry, and grabbed the last spot in the class.

2010. Another year, another birthday, another chance to dust myself off and try, try again.

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Posted by: Cecilia | December 1, 2009

Reconnecting, Re-becoming

Who would’ve thought that biting into a char siu bao would open a floodgate of tears? Definitely not my unsuspecting Japanese husband and American-Chinese-Japanese son. Yesterday evening after my family started eating the baos we had bought at the Asian grocer I started sniffling, then whimpering, then crying. At first Max and Fred thought this was amusing. “Maybe you’re PMSing,” Max said in all sincerity (because I really do get that way), and Fred started laughing, not knowing (I don’t think) what Max meant but thinking it sounded pretty funny and accurate. Then Fred turned to his dad and whispered, “Mommy is crying like a cry baby!” Ha ha ha ha ha!

But my crying got stronger, and soon the two of them just sat there and stared at me, dumbfounded.

Those puffy pillow breads, once such a symbol of embarrassment and identity confusion for me, suddenly brought back images of my mother walking through Chinatown with her plastic hot pink grocery bags (another symbol of embarrassment).  The  memory was unexpected, jolting and familiar all at once. Like the way you smell something in the air and realize the last time you smelled that scent you were sitting in your late grandmother’s livingroom. It was the kind of familiarity that reminds you of how far you have gone and how long it has been since you’ve paid a visit.

Earlier that morning I had taken Fred to the park. There is a growing Chinese community here – graduate students and newly minted university faculty who have since petitioned to have their families immigrate to the U.S. “There are alot of Chinese families here today,” I thought outloud. In response Fred said, “Mommy, I think we are the only Japanese here.” And that is when I realized that my son isn’t even really aware of his Chinese heritage.

I’ve spent a good many years pushing the “past” in me away, even adopting an additional culture to unconsciously replace the Chinese. I worry about how Fred will keep up his Japanese and harrass his dad to keep reading to him in Japanese. In the meantime I readily decline my mother’s invitations to return home for Chinese New Year celebrations and politely explain that adding Chinese to Fred’s linguistic plate may be too much for now.

As a first generation Chinese-American I grew up with a heavy dose of Chinese. And I suppose those early images are the stickiest. The ear-splitting decibel levels at which so many Chinese talk. The way the male restaurant workers spat their morning phlegm onto the sidewalks as if they were their public sinks. The way that middle-aged women pushed and hollered to get their way. The way that some acquaintances lied on their taxes so their kids could get a free ride through college. The way I just never grew up in the majority. Maybe my view was limited and my judgment clouded, and I’ve somehow chosen to remember the  bad versus the good. But I didn’t grow up feeling proud to be Chinese. 

Now it’s my Japanese husband and mixed-heritage son who are bringing me back. It was Max’s idea to shop at the Chinese grocer, and it’s Fred who’s so interested in visiting the Great Wall and in learning Mandarin. He studies through DVDs and, while he uses the same fourteen words over and over, his accent and use of tones are right on. Coming from him, Chinese sounds beautiful…beautiful in a way I didn’t remember. So, too, on this trip back, do the char siu baos taste better than ever, and the image of my mother lugging bags of groceries through Chinatown has resurfaced as that of a courageous woman braving an unfamiliar country with two toddlers, hoping to pass onto them what she had to leave forever behind.

Posted by: Cecilia | October 9, 2009

Hubby vs. Girlfriend(s)

Almost nine years ago when I married Max I made a vow to myself: don’t say anything to your girlfriends about your husband that you wouldn’t say to his face. It was a good rule, I thought, especially as I was living, at the time, in an unabashedly husband-bashing culture.

I found it amusing that one of the biggest post-honeymoon questions I got when I returned to work in Japan was, “Soooo…what about Max drives you absolutely crazy?” In fact, I was innocently lured to one lunch by female colleagues who turned the spotlight on me, asking me to confess all the things I hated about my new husband. Confused and a little annoyed (because, if I hated him so much, why would I have married him in the first place?), I remember responding softly, “There really isn’t anything I don’t like…” This type of answer usually stopped them in their tracks or invited a, “Well, you just wait then.” It was as if everyone was waiting to initiate me as the newest member of this Husband Bashing Sisterhood, perhaps to give themselves validation that indeed they were not the only ones.

For years, and I mean years, I did not let a single day pass where I didn’t acknowledge how lucky I was to have Max. I had gone through alot of heartache in my 20s (baggage, bad choices, immaturity, lack of self-awareness) and, as corny and adolescent as it may sound, I had longed for true love, for a long time. When I finally met this incredibly caring man, I knew to be grateful. It is like a person with cancer who finally finds her miracle drug. Max is the reason I survived Japan and motherhood. When I struggled as a new stay-at-home mom in the suburbs of Japan, he quit his job to work from home so he could support me. I was the center of his world, and how could any woman gossip about a husband like that?

And over the years I would continue to feel that tug – get pulled into girlfriend comparisons over who has the bigger slob of a husband, or maintain distance in my friendships? Fortunately, not all my girlfriends were that extreme. In fact, there was/is a range. There are those who vent for the pleasure of venting, for whom husbands are now little more than props in their stories. There are the one or two who like me for a long time stood firmly united with their spouses, not voicing any hint of any private grumblings. And then there are those sprinkled at different points along the middle: women who love their husbands but who struggle with tensions and conflicts over power struggles, unvoiced frustrations, etc. It is these girlfriends with whom I came to yearn for closeness, with whom I danced so awkwardly that fine line of friendship versus wifely loyalty. There were many times when I knew that all I had to do to cement a friendship was to slip in an eye roll or two about the way my husband did x, y or z. But was that fair to my husband and to my marriage? Did my marriage require occasional venting about my girlfriends in order to seal our bond?

As much of a fairy tale our marriage has been, things did get harder when Fred came along. Our childhood selves reincarnated into our current selves as parents, and suddenly all the warts started to appear. Max and I have butt heads over childrearing and household and business power. I did not understand the real meaning and challenge of teamwork until I realized we had to not only work and run a business together but also parent and run a household together, 50-50. I found myself going to a couple of key girlfriends more and more, to “vent.”

Then a week ago Max and I had a particularly bad blowout; one of those that had been bubbling under the surface and where one person says more than s/he ever intended to. I was clearly not in the wrong in this one and as soon as Fred fell asleep, I made a beeline to my computer and started an email to one of my girlfriends. “Dear K., Sorry I haven’t responded to your other e-mail yet, but tonight Max…” and I kept typing. Non-stop, full paragraphs, everything that was seething inside of me that didn’t get expressed to Max. (Never even occurred to me to say those things to Max!) And then, for whatever reason, something inside made me stop and go back to read what I had typed. I then opened up my personal folder in Word, found my journal, and cut and pasted my e-mail into my journal. My e-mail to K. now had just half a sentence in it, and I saved it in my drafts folder. I’d continue it another time. If it’s still relevant at the time, I may tell her I had a bad night.  But I’d save my knee-jerk reactions for the hard drive. I was glad I did it, because when I turned around, Max was at the door to tell me he was sorry.

Posted by: Cecilia | September 26, 2009

Intimidation

I’d like to think that alot of maturity and self-acceptance take place between the time we step out of cap and gown and into a kid- and grocery-packed SUV or boardroom or center stage or wherever you happen to be twenty (give or take ten) years out of college. Now, I can understand, and even remember, the hesitation in attending our five year reunion or the periodic Wellesley Club get-togethers that seem to spring up in every corner of the globe. But nearly twenty years out, this spring and summer I found myself in two separate conversations with fellow alumnae – successful alumnae no matter how you want to define success these days – who were doggedly sure they did not want to attend a Wellesley alumnae event. “I’m too intimidated” were the exact words.

A funny thing happens when you attend a women’s college that prides itself on shattering the glass ceiling, that even launched the woman who made the most visible cracks in the nation’s highest ceiling: you graduate with the guts to pursue and even nail both career and a rewarding personal life (perhaps not simultaneously but you have done both at some point) but not the confidence to show it to your fellow classmates. 

Now, I don’t speak for everybody. There are plenty of alumnae out there who have incorporated Wellesley’s message exactly as it was meant to be incorporated, and they are sure of themselves and attend these events with high spirit and Wellesley cheer. But I am speaking for those who, for whatever reason, don’t leap at the chance to gather with old sisters, whose minds jump to titles, perceived achievements, money, and/or the pedigree of husbands before tossing their invitations into the recycling bin.

It took me seventeen years to attend my first alumnae event. I was in Japan at the time, and received four to five emails a year with announcements of get-togethers with both Japanese and expatriate alumnae. At least once a year there would be invitations to meet and greet fellowship students or a visiting faculty member. The lunches always took place somewhere swanky in downtown Tokyo and the club was headed by a Harvard Business School graduate.

Despite what I’ve written so far, I’m actually not very hung up on where I am in my life. Had I cared alot about power or money, I would have made different career choices and/or married into it. But what I want most in life – balance, love – I got (maybe in fluctuating levels at times but I think I’ve got it), and I figured, okay, I’m satisfied, maybe even “successful.” So what held me back from attending a Wellesley event for nearly all the years (8) that I lived in Japan? The fact that I spoke kindergarten-level Japanese. Eight years in Japan and I would turn white if a Japanese salesperson started talking to me in Japanese. I have alot of excuses – reasons – for never having become fluent, but, in the end, it is pretty lame  no matter how you look at it. So despite the fact that all the gatherings took place in English anyway, I never went until my final year in Japan under the fear that, once the alumnae heard me attempting to order in Japanese, I would be revealed for the linguistic dolt that I was. (FYI, the only reason I finally attended was because we were hosting a Wellesley administrator who was the cousin of one of my best friends, and I had promised I would say hi…)

But you know what happened, I had a wonderful time. The HBS head who I had thought was completely cold over email turned out to be quite lovely in person. I met a diverse group of down-to-earth women who ranged from investment bank managing directors and teachers to homemakers and students. When I moved back to North Carolina, it somehow became easier for me to accept a dinner invitation to meet the head of the club here who, by the way, turned out to be another Harvard Business School graduate and, who, not surprisingly, is a lovely person.

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