Kids, Tech & Gadgetry

_1060698It might be a bit early to start thinking about our house rules regarding technology for Cy, seeing as how the fancy gadget that’s really blowing his hair back right now is Dot’s clicker—a little plastic button that pushes onto a piece of aluminum and makes a popping sound. He likes to pop it with his gums. On the other hand, maybe it’s never too early, as technology already infuses his life: he sees his parents on their iPhones probably more than he should, kindles are on the family bed, Dad is at work on his iMac most of the day, we Skype with family half the world away, and we have a couple of “emergency” go-to video/flashy things to play for him when we really need to calm him down and nothing else is working (like, say, on a flight). There’s no divorcing technology from his life unless we turn into Luddites ourselves, but as it’s our connection to loved ones and it’s how Toby makes a living and supports the family, the gadgetry is here to stay.

What got me thinking more about this topic was reading this post by Sarah, from Memories on Clover Lane. She’s been in the trenches for twenty years, and I respect her views. She’s probably a bit stricter about technology than I am—I don’t view technology as inherently good or evil; it is we who must be mindful about our use of it—but I do plan to be stricter about Cy’s use of technology than I think might be necessary, at least to start with, because it is always easier to give than to take away.

Toby and I began talking about what goals we’d like to have regarding technology, figuring that’s the best starting point to guide what rules we make. Here’s some of what we came up with:

First, we want Cy to be able to use technology with ease, to be familiar with it, and to be able to navigate his way around the web, software, and devices so he can pursue any interest he might have. Because it is going to be a part of his life (and certainly a part of whatever job he might have), he needs to know how to manipulate it. Cutting it out of his life for fear of the pitfalls, I think, just becomes a wasted opportunity to provide him with proper guidance. Kids today appear to be “digital natives”, but my experience in teaching (from disadvantaged kids in Thailand, to university undergrads in America) tells me that they are in sore need of guidance. For example, they know how to punch in words for a Google search, but they are lost when it comes to keyword search logic, evaluating source credibility and legitimacy, and finding what they’re looking for efficiently. In today’s world, I think what you know is becoming less important than knowing how to find it out. So we want to encourage his use of technology, as well as guide him in how to use it effectively and appropriately.

However, our second goal for Cy is that we want him to be able to exist without technology. We want him to be able to put it aside and enjoy other pursuits where he can be out in nature, play a real musical instrument, or make something with his bare hands. We want him to experience boredom and how it can become the mother of creativity. We want him to be able to just BE, without constant input. We want him to be able to focus without technological distractions. And we don’t want him to hole up in his room, not interacting with his own family, or choosing to socialize with friends digitally instead of in the “real world.”

Here’s some rules I’m toying around with:

–I like the idea of restricting use of gadgetry to communal areas (like a family office, or the living room, for example).

–I also like the idea of keeping ownership communal until certain ages. I haven’t worked this all out yet, and I’m sure the popular gadgetry will have changed by the time this is relevant, but, hypothetically speaking…

–I’ll probably let him have his own kindle once he gets into reading chapter books because we travel a lot and I’m not interested in schlepping a huge library everywhere we go. On the scale of Potential Disaster, I think kindles are probably on the low end.

–The smart phone stays communal maybe until he can drive. I know the current trend is to give them phones quite young, maybe even around the time they’re 10. I just can’t for the life of me come up with a reason he would need his OWN phone that young. A family phone that he can use for whatever apps he might want should cover it until he makes it to high school at least.

–And the computer or laptop stays community property until we give him one as a graduation gift from high school so he has one to use in college).

–I also like the idea of limits being purpose driven. Instead of setting arbitrary time limits on how long he can use the computer, for example, it seems to make sense to set it around the purpose for which it is being used. Once the purpose is met, it’s good to go take a break and do something else.

But it’s not just about setting limits. It’s up to us to create opportunities for better alternatives. A big part of why kids are so “addicted” to their phones today is because they don’t have the same opportunities to be social, exist in public spaces, and explore the world freely with age mates that they once did. (Danah Boyd documents this well in her book, It’s Complicatedwhich is a really great read on teen social media use AND she provides the PDF available for free to download on her website.) So if we want him to “get offline,” we need to allow him time and space to have unstructured interactions with his friends, where he can unwind and play without adults watching his every move, so that he doesn’t have to turn to social media as his only outlet for being social.

That’s something that I think is much easier to accomplish here in Thailand, or in Europe, where there is easy public transportation and teens are welcome in public space, than it is in suburban America, where you need to drive to get anywhere and teens are viewed with suspicion by many. I remember as a teenager in suburban California, I would come straight home after school and spend hours on the phone with my friends because I couldn’t drive to go hang out with them in person, and there wasn’t really any place for us to go even if we could get there. I didn’t want to be on the phone; it was just my only option. I certainly would have done my homework more efficiently if it meant I could have had some time to unwind with my friends too.

And my third goal for Cy is to make him aware of how his actions online affect himself and others. This gets into a sticky issue about kids and privacy. Toby probably guards privacy more fiercely than I do. I believe Cy’s privacy is important, but that I reserve the right to revoke it if I feel Cy is going off track. I feel conflicted about what my responsibility as a parent is—to what extent is it my responsibility to oversee or monitor what he does and how he feels if it could lead to harm to himself or someone else? I want to say that it’s our job to just provide the foundation of good values and moral behavior, but I feel it’s also my job to protect him where I can. Would I second guess myself if something awful happened that I could have stopped? To what extent would his mistakes be mine too?

Boyd’s book offers an important perspective though: that kids need privacy, without the freedom to make their own choices and mistakes, they will be hampered in their moral development and growth as independent human beings. Moreover, they crave privacy, and the more you crowd them, the more they will turn to secretive measures to achieve it. If you don’t extend your children trust, you will undermine the relationship you seek to build with them.

American culture is particularly risk-averse, and as an American, I battle this within myself too. I know from my own experience, how important it is to take risks, how freeing it is and how much growth it engenders. But it’s one thing to know one should let go, and another to face the prospect of risk and danger with one’s child. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for me as a mother: forever navigating the balance between guiding and letting go.

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How do you see your role as a parent? How do you approach technology with children?

Also: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY to all my fellow American and Canadian mamas!

Thing I Love About Cy Today: When he’s happy about something, he flaps his arms and grins really wide.

P.S. Sorry this is such a long post! It’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past week. (And trust me, it could have been soooo much longer!) Also, I’m going to try to participate in Little Things Thursday as regularly as I can, so it’s likely that I’ll shift my Momma Chats over to Tuesdays, starting next week. Thanks for stopping by and hanging out here in this space with me!

Sneak Peek! My Guest Post on The Kitchn

I’ve been asked to do a guest post for The Kitchn as part of a series on how Christmas and the winter holidays are celebrated around the world. The Kitchn is a daily web magazine dedicated to bringing both beauty and simplicity to the home, and it’s a fantastic resource full of fun inspiration, tantalizing recipes, and great tips from experts.

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If you’re curious to find out how Thais celebrate Christmas, check out my post by clicking this link here! You can also check out the start of the series and found out how the party goes down in Rwanda!

Hope you like this little peek into Thai culture!

Curiosity Does Not an AHole Make

I’d be the last person to downplay the prevalence of racial problems in this world, but I have to say I do think there’s such a thing as being too sensitive about race. And I think that uber-sensitivity does us all a disservice in drawing attention away from real, actual problems of race, crying wolf when the real wolves are elsewhere, doing far more damage.

Here’s a case in point: an article on Jezebel about how to ask someone about their ethnicity. Let me summarize their answer for you: Don’t. It’s otherizing and exoticizing and that’s offensive. Apparently.

Now, I’m one of those people who never has an easy time with the question “Where are you from?” because the truth is a long story. So my answer depends on the context. If it looks like a shorter answer is appropriate, my response will be either “The States,” “California,” or possibly “Santa Barbara” though I could just as easily say Mission Viejo or Westminster if I’m being city-specific. If it’s a Thai person asking, I’ll usually respond in Thai that I’m a “half-race child: Thai & American.”

Sometimes more detail is called for: “My mom is Thai and my dad is American, but he grew up in South Africa.”

Sometimes it’s appropriate for me to mention that while my dad is an American, he primarily grew up in South Africa, but his family is actually from Norway. He’s as blond and blue-eyed as they come, but he grew up speaking Zulu (clicks and all) before he learned to speak English.

When asked where I grew up, I say southern California. But occasionally I surprise everyone when I admit I was born in Mississippi.

By that time everyone is confused, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about how my brother and sister are actually my cousins (no incest involved, thankyouverymuch) and technically, biologically, I’m an only child.

_1050346-2Like I said, long story. If people try to place me based on looks, they generally think I might be Hawaiian, or Mexican, maybe Indian. Not Thai, though. And not white either. If anyone has a claim to feeling “otherized” I’d think I do because I don’t fit the mold anywhere.

But while the “Where are you from?” question is never easy to answer, I don’t think people are assholes for asking it. Honestly, when I read articles like this Jezebel one, I just have to roll my eyes because, to me, it reeks more of the author’s own insecurity and discomfort in their own skin than racist behavior on the part of the questioner. More often than not, people asking where others are from are just making conversation. You never know their history either–maybe you look like you’re from Lebanon and that person just traveled there last month and is looking for a point of connection and a chance to talk with someone who gets it about the awesome time they had there. Or maybe you sound like you’re from Germany, and my family is from Germany but you’d never know it to look at me. Whatever. If you have an interesting heritage, maybe people are asking because you look like you have an interesting story to tell. Let me put it another way: would you rather forgo an interesting heritage in order to look just like everyone else? Is looking “exotic” such a bad thing? Is there something inherently better about looking obviously placeable?

I’d personally rather have people be curious about me than write me off.

The only time I’ve ever been really annoyed by the questioner was when he kept trying to make assumptions about me, being overly familiar and getting it all wrong. And I just wanted to tell him, “STOP. I’m sorry, dude, but I don’t fit in your preconceived molds so just stop trying to stuff me into one.” But that kind of questioner isn’t curious–in fact, he’s the opposite of curious, when he’s really just looking for the most efficient way to categorize everyone he meets–which sounds a lot more like racism to me than simple curiosity about others. Turns out this particular guy, a restaurant owner who liked to get real friendly with his guests, is now operating a hub for trafficking young girls and boys out of his restaurant, so he definitely qualifies as an asshole.

The world is only getting more globalized and we’ll only begin to see more multi-ethnic people and more convoluted stories about where we’re all really from, whatever that means. There’s no one way to ask a person about their heritage that encompasses all the possible responses. Is it really better to shut up and not ask the question for fear of “otherizing” each other, or is it better to leave open the opportunity for making a connection with each other, either through the magnetism of our differences or because there’s a hidden similarity that might not otherwise have been seen?

Meanwhile, if I feel otherized by or that I don’t fit in with a particular crowd because of my answer to the “Where are you from?” question, then they’re not the kind of people I want to spend my time with–regardless of whether they so boldly ask the question or not.

Playing the Waiting Game–in Life, Marriage, and Motherhood

Strung out on a line

Strung out on a line

When I was in college, the largely unspoken, but prevailing belief seemed to be that smart, strong women could have plenty of fun dating around, but would want to get their degree and all their career ducks in a row before settling down. For some, random hookups were the mode de jour; for others, dating was one long stream of bad men. Only a few had really long relationships. And motherhood? That was for way later, if at all. Pregnancy would practically mean the end of your life. Taking birth control was the only smart choice.

The trouble is none of us had any idea how difficult it could be to find a good partner after college. When you join the work force, you enter a pool of widely varied, but highly limited options. There’s usually a huge age range—which makes finding unmarried age-mates more difficult, and when you spend the vast majority of your life in one office, meeting people outside that milieu gets incredibly hard. If there aren’t any suitable mates among your coworkers (and let’s not even get into in all the potential trials of an office relationship), you can be hard-pressed to find the time or place to even meet anyone else new.

I remember when I was a teenager, I used to dream that I’d go to college, get a fancy career started, find an awesome apartment in a big city, and then find my future husband, whom I’d marry, preferably around the age of 28. After a couple years of marriage, we’d have our first child, probably when I was around the age of 30. Thirty sounded like a good child-bearing age. That still would give me a couple of years to have my second child at 32 or so, and be done well before that fertility drop-off at 35.

I assumed getting pregnant was easy because all you hear, when you’re young, is about the girls who got pregnant even though they only had unprotected sex “that one time.”

I don’t know if it’s by luck or by choice, but I never had a string of bad men or bad relationships. Sure, I dated a jerk or two and a few guys who, though nice, weren’t going to captivate me long-term. But those were always obvious from the start and I never was one to stick around with a losing bet (I distinctly remember one relationship that had a shelf-life of “Four Tuesdays”—my best friend from college will get this reference; there were lots of fun, crazy memories from that episode in our lives). My relationships either lasted a few weeks or a few years—the long ones, even the ones that didn’t work out, were great while they lasted, and important learning experiences in preparation for marriage.

It turns out, I met my husband in college—though neither of us was anywhere near ready for marriage at the time. But we fell in love, probably to both our surprises, and we stuck around each other, even though “not ready” was a big light flashing above both our heads. Toby took a year to travel the world after he graduated college, and in the interim, we had both grown a lot. By the time he came back, I knew I was ready to think about marriage, even if we weren’t anywhere near ready to marry each other. We loved each other; we knew that much. I probably broke a slew of dating rules by doing this, but I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if we were going to be together, it would be with an eye towards marriage. Though we both knew there were no guarantees in this trial run, I wasn’t going to waste time with someone who was only in it “just for now.”

Luckily for me, he was on the same page, more or less, and the years following were a steady learning experience in which we tried out what marriage might look like, what commitment meant, and what it would mean to devote ourselves to another. By the time he proposed to me, I was 26 and we were ready. We had grown into marriage together. We had become ready together. When we did exchange vows, I had just turned 28.

But marriage isn’t the only odyssey one embarks on—there’s also parenthood. Having just gotten married, I wasn’t in any rush to have a child. There was my doctorate to finish and a career to start. Toby was only just getting his career off the ground, and a job in the tech industry at that time seemed volatile and uncertain. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and had other dreams too, namely involving travel. Maybe living abroad for a while. There was still adventure to be had and a baby seemed more like a huge complication and intense responsibility than the next inevitable step in our life progression. The biological clock had started ticking, but I ignored the bell toll.

Though I had heard that fertility decreases with age, I still assumed it would be easy enough to get pregnant. I did have one friend who was trying to get pregnant and had started fertility treatments. She warned me getting pregnant could take time. I heard, but didn’t hear.

When I turned 30, I finished my doctorate and we made plans to move to Thailand. Work with The SOLD Project was already lined up; all I had to do was get to northern Thailand. We were leaving everything we knew behind. That wasn’t the time to start thinking about babies.

After we got settled in Thailand, and Toby’s work situation seemed solid, I was getting integrated at SOLD and halfway through writing a manuscript, I began to listen more carefully to that biological clock. I went off the pill slightly before entirely ready, thinking it would take a few months for the pill’s effects to clear my system, so that, fingers crossed, I might be 100% ready when it did.

Then, I didn’t get pregnant. Our jobs got even better, visitors came and went, we had grown into life in Thailand…I still didn’t get pregnant. My best friend from college was also enduring her own trial of fertility problems, and my best friend from grad school had suffered miscarriages, and another friend was going through a divorce…so by this time, I was really hearing it: Yes, it can be freaking hard to get pregnant. We traveled to Hong Kong and saw more of Asia. I still didn’t get pregnant. We spent a month in Europe, I didn’t get pregnant. We went back to the U.S. for a month…if I didn’t get pregnant soon, we’d have to think about fertility treatments. I didn’t even want to know what that cost would look like. My mother and sister had both had miscarriages before being able to carry a child to term. My cousin is 40 and still unable to get a baby to take, despite almost a decade of treatments. I knew that even if I did get pregnant, it might not work on the first try, and I had to steel myself for that possibility.

It turn out that it was only when we no longer had a stream of life and travel plans that, after more than a year and a half off the pill, I got pregnant. I’m turning 33 next week, and my dreams of having two kids are now looking more like I’ll be blessed to have one. I’m okay with that, and even saying this, I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining. I doubt I’d make different choices even if I had the chance. I love the years Toby and I have had together, and I think the stability we’ve built and the life experiences we’ve had, having had that time, will only serve our child better.

But I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like it’s only partly our choices, and mostly by chance that things have worked out for us (so far—I don’t want to jinx this!). I look at women I know who’ve been trying for years and years to get pregnant, or friends who’ve suffered miscarriages, or others who still can’t find a life partner, and I know how easily it could have gone a different way.

It’s a myth we tell ourselves when we’re young that we can somehow control life and when and how it happens to us. We make plans for what sounds like a good age to marry, and to have children…and these days, that “perfect age” is getting later and later. Instead of right after college, many push it off to their late 20s. Some women, realistic about demands certain careers make, push it off into their 30s, or even later. We don’t factor in the potential for complications. When we make our timelines, we don’t consider the possibility of divorce. We don’t consider the possibility of infertility.

Though I did get married at 28, the truth is I met the man I would marry when I was 20. It took us 8 years to get where we needed to be. If I hadn’t taken my feelings for him seriously way back then, when I still felt I had other life goals to meet first, or vice versa with him for me, who knows where either of us might be? Maybe we would have found other people to love. Maybe there is such a thing as soul mates, and we really are the only ones for each other. Who can really say? Meanwhile, people perpetuate this fear that marriage really hampers one’s freedom and independence. We’ve found this to be entirely untrue for us. Marriage has given us each a strong foundation from which we can both fly—both separately, and together. It’s made us stronger than we would have been alone.

We tell ourselves, when we’re young, that to be real strong, smart women, we have to put education and career before absolutely everything else. The truth is, life goals can exist side by side. You don’t have to put your ducks in a row…sometimes, you just kind of herd them along together. The trend now is to stave off marriage and family until you’ve lived your life first. What makes for “the right time” is an incredibly personal decision and it varies widely from person to person, but I do think we women do ourselves a disservice when we don’t make clear to each other that there are potential tradeoffs when we put off childbearing; that while you’re busy living your life, it can become increasingly harder (and harder than we think it will be) to be able to bear life. We underestimate how fragile life can be, and how uncertain fertility is. We all popped our birth control pills every day for years, each of us never knowing if we’d be the one who’d get pregnant on the first try, the one who would need years of fertility treatments, or the one who couldn’t get pregnant at all.

We can’t control when life happens to us, but we can be honest and informed about the consequences of our choices, and we can listen carefully to our inner guides about who is right for us and when we’re ready. From an employer’s perspective, there’s never a good time for a woman to get pregnant. But your life is your own. External deadlines matter little compared to the timeline we feel ticking along inside.

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This post was inspired by this one, “26 and Already Pregnant,” by Kate from Eat The Damn Cake. If you’re interested in more fun facts about delayed marriage and child-rearing, check out this post, “The Sweet Spot for Tying the Knot,” by Susan Walsh at Hooking Up Smart.

A Coffee Chat

Fresh home baked bread

Fresh home baked bread

This week has been one of those weeks where I felt like we’ve been really busy, but when I try to remember what all it was that we did, I just draw a blank.

We did go furniture shopping on Thursday and on Saturday. My parents were browsing for items to fill their new house while I was looking for shelving units I can use to store our nice wedding plates once the shipment arrives and to make a couple of diaper changing stations for the baby’s stuff (one for upstairs and one for downstairs). No purchases to show you, though. We just got an idea of what’s available and prices. We didn’t find exactly what we were hoping to find, so I think we’ll just keep looking.

That’s something that’s still a bit hard, living in Thailand. In the U.S., I’d know exactly where to go to find pretty much anything I need and the variety of options is usually more than plenty. In Thailand, especially if you’re looking for something for the first time, it can really turn into a scavenger hunt and luck is pretty hit or miss when it comes to finding exactly what you want. No telling too, because sometimes you can find some really great, obscure items for really cheap. And sometimes it’s a challenge just to tackle the basics. I remember entire months when powdered sugar simply was unavailable.

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

I’ve come across a couple of interesting books this week.  One is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Written by the editor of Wired, it’s a fascinating look at how technology is changing the sale value of items that cater to niches. Before, when products (think like books, movies, music, etc.) had to justify their position on physical shelf space, it made sense for retailers to focus on the mega-hits, so items that cater to niche interests would be hard to find. But now, with online retailers like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, etc., there is virtually unlimited shelf space, which means it costs relatively little or even nothing to make those obscure items more available. They still, individually, won’t sell many units, but in aggregate, it ends up creating a huge new avenue for business. And it’s only growing, as people discover more and more how their tastes and interests diverge from the mainstream and they find new things they like that before they might never have come across. The ideas and observations in this book started as an article written in 2004 (and since then has been developed, with input, data, and insights supplied from leading economists, academics, and retailers).

What I find interesting, though, is that although notice of this phenomena is basically 10 years old, publishing houses are still trying desperately to cling to the old model of business, touting themselves as gatekeepers, instead of service providers for authors and readers. They like to pretend they’re the arbiters of taste…but the real irony is everyone knows a lot of what “sells” is total crap, catering to the lowest common denominator. Silly, because they’re just continuing to shoot themselves in the foot as the way we do business as top hits garner less and less in actual sales and niche markets take up more and more of the profit stream.

The other book I’ve come across is Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). The author let her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway by himself, a trip that left him unharmed and totally thrilled with his adventure and burgeoning sense of independence, but caused her to be nationally vilified as a horrible, lazy mother. She then set out to explain how crime statistics are at the lowest they’ve been in decades (if not longer) and how thoroughly she prepared him for the trip in advance, arguing that we over-estimate risk and helicopter-parent our kids, leaving them unable to do for themselves what kids growing up in previous generations (or even different cultures) had no problems doing on their own. As she says in a post about outdoor play reducing ADHD, “outdoor play is probably very key, and taking it away in favor of more “safety” or more “education” has caused us a number of ills. Ironically, our kids are LESS safe (from depression, diabetes, obesity…) and LESS educated (about the natural world and all the things it makes you wonder about).” I haven’t actually read the book yet, only perused her website. I’m not sure how much I need to read the book when I pretty much already agree with the philosophy she espouses, but maybe it will help add more fuel to my fire if anyone ever accuses me of negligence when I let my kid play in the dirt, teach him to help himself in the kitchen, or, God forbid, have him ask a stranger for directions.

I was telling my husband about this book last night and he said, yeah, and we wonder why kids these days never go play outside, when we don’t let them actually go anywhere or do anything.

As far as I see it, part of being safe in this world is about being at home in the world: confident and capable at managing essential tasks like reading a map, talking to people you don’t know, and knowing how to take care of your own basic needs. If you don’t learn that when you’re young, when do you learn it? If you’re always waiting for Mom to do for you, you won’t know how to do for yourself, and eventually, all your future relationships could become about finding a Mom surrogate to fill a hole you’re too scared or inexperienced to be able to fill yourself.

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Anyway, that’s a bit of our week. How has yours been going? My mom and I have been practicing yoga together, which is fun. And it looks like we’ve got a couple nights of dinners out with friends coming up. Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the grand opening of a new mall, the Promenada Resort Mall, in just over two weeks. It might seem silly to get so excited about a mall opening (when I lived in the U.S. I would have scoffed at myself), but this one will be huge, much closer to where we live, and will hopefully have more variety of shops so we might be able to get some items (like possibly shelving units for baby stuff…??) that we’re having trouble finding now.

Happy Wednesday!

And Sometimes I Still Feel So Wrong-footed

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If class differences weren’t enough to make things tricky with a maid, try adding in cultural and language differences.

I’ve always done my own house-cleaning, but when we moved to Thailand, we got a much bigger home. More space = more cleaning. I kept up with it fine when it was just me and Toby and we’re used to keeping pretty tidy, especially since we had been living in a shoebox apartment where even one book out of place felt like clutter. But then came the year we hosted over 40 people for anywhere from a few days to several months each. It became difficult to keep up with all the bedsheet & towel washing and guest bathroom cleaning in between visits. When I have guests visiting from overseas, I’ll do all I can to clean before they arrive, but I feel ridiculous cleaning around them while they’re here, especially since I’d rather spend that time showing them the exotic Thai sights. Hosting and sight-seeing would be worked in on top of our regular jobs, so I became quite willing to spend the money to have someone come in once a week to just help clean the bathrooms, floors, and kitchen so that I could hold on to that extra fraction of sanity.

But this year is different. We don’t have nearly so many visitors, and since becoming pregnant, I’ve reduced my trips to Chiang Rai and focused more on work I can do from home. I still kept the maid on because there was no point in her losing her job (where she makes in 2-3 hours more than a full-day’s worth of minimum wage) just because I didn’t need her so much anymore and I figured when my parents return to live with us and the baby comes, I’ll be grateful for the help again. She doesn’t do a perfectly great job, but for $10 a week, I’m glad to not have to do it myself.

And here’s where the language and cultural difficulties start to play a role. I speak Thai well enough now to get on in most conversations and, even if I don’t know all the words, I can generally figure out from context what is being said. My grammar and vocabulary might not be perfect, but I can usually make myself understood. With Thai people. However, in Thailand there are large groups of ethic minorities, some documented, some not, and they all speak different languages. If I were to get along like a rockstar over here and speak all I needed to, I would learn not only Thai, but also northern Thai (which is very different), Akha, and Shan (a.k.a Tai Yai). Most of the people I interact with are Thai. But the underclasses, the ethnic minorities who make up the fleet of maids and gardeners, primarily speak northern Thai or Shan.

If I could speak Shan with my maid, I would explain our situation to her, so she could stop giving me weird side-glances when I’m sitting in front of my laptop while she mops my floors. We can communicate well enough that I tell her I work with an organization that helps disadvantaged children in Chiang Rai, but she never actually sees me work because she comes on Sundays, when I’m not in Chiang Rai. And how do you explain to someone who might, at best, have a 9th grade education (many minorities are highly discriminated against and wouldn’t be accepted in public schools and couldn’t afford secondary education even if they did get in) and does hard, sweaty work, that you who can afford a large house and a maid, do most of your work sitting on your butt at a computer in your own home? (And believe me, she does ask if we work–as has the gardener, who knows we’re home mid-week–and when I explain that we do our work online, I get the same blank look from them that I must give them when they speak Shan to me.)

If I were in the States, speaking my native language, I could also explain very politely, in ways that still make staff feel appreciated, when I need them to do a better job. Here, I know how to say quite literally “I need you to clean this better,” but I don’t know the best way to say it delicately. In the States, if they did a great job, I’d occasionally buy them lunch or share other small things with them, but here, I’m not sure the best way to do so because when I do try to give them extras it seems to make them feel profoundly uncomfortable.

And if I could speak Shan with my maid, I’d know what the proper response was when she’d ask me for favors. So far, she’s only asked for small things like can she have my used water bottles to recycle for extra money and can she have the fruit growing on my tree. (Answers thus far: Yes and yes.) She seems to understand my Thai well enough, but all I hear from her are long strings of unfamiliar sounds interspersed with “water” and “go” and “jackfruit” and “cut down” and “ripe” so that I can only barely pretend to know what she is saying, and even though I really don’t speak perfectly well, she seems completely oblivious to the fact that I usually can’t understand her.

Then today, just before she left, she came to me asking for help with her cell phone, which appeared to be broken. I had no idea what she was saying, but I gathered from the way she was trying to get the screen to scroll, and that it wouldn’t, that somewhere in there lay the crux of the biscuit. She seemed to be asking me how to fix it.

Me: I don’t know. Maybe you need to take it to a technician and have them fix it. Maybe take it to where you bought it.

Her: adfe ajiehfi anedn fmeaknjf eaf janekjfnka do you think it’s the phone itself anjdah hweknk?

Me: Umm…it could be the phone, or maybe just the battery or SIM card needs to be replaced. Did you buy it new or used?

Her: (proudly) I bought this one new. Do you think it broke because I keep it in my pocket while I work?

Me: I don’t think that would break the scrolling function. Maybe if it got in water or you dropped it? How long have you had it?

Her: I’ve never dropped it. hewajk eanjnekd at the store by aneknnd najdndnjd. I’ve had it for less than hetieshlhieht. I got it for $45 thiea nalmk dmf.

Me: (wondering how best to explain, delicately, that maybe the problem is that it’s a $45 cell phone) You can try taking it back, but I’m not sure if they can fix it. I haven’t bought a phone from a small shop before so I’m not sure what they’ll say. (again, intensely feeling class differences because I can afford to get my phone from a place that gives you things like receipts and warranties and clearly she doesn’t have that option)

And here’s where things began to get really perplexing. She seemed to be asking me to take her to the shop to get it fixed and I was totally confused because she has her own motorbike so why would she need me to take her? I tried to ask her where she wanted to go, and she just pointed vaguely in the direction past my dining room. I tried to tell her I didn’t really know where she wanted me to take her, and I really have no idea what she said in response.

It was only after several more fruitless efforts and after she seemed to have given up that it occurred to me that maybe she wanted me to go with her because I could speak Thai (and have money and education and whiter skin–i.e., am not Shan) and she hoped I might have better luck getting help. Except I have no idea how I could help her when I can barely communicate with her.

Maybe I should have gone anyway? Say yes, and ask questions later? If they couldn’t fix it and she had to buy a new phone, would she then be expecting me to buy it for her?

All I know is I ended that exchange feeling like there had been a test of some sort, and I had totally failed. I probably would have had no problem taking her, if only I knew what it was she wanted, but I didn’t even know how to explain that to her.

It’s all so very confusing.

The Kind of Article I’m Starting to Hate

There is a certain kind of article/blog post that I’ve been coming across more and more these days, and each time I read one, I know I should just click away, but I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And just as assuredly as the flame can burn the moth, this kind of article draws my ire.

It’s the “What Not To Say” kind of article.

I’m sure you’ve seen them. What Not To Say to a Disabled Person. What Not To Say to a Working Mom. What Not To Say to a Stay at Home Mom. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Miscarried. What Not to Say to a Mom With Lots of Kids. What Not To Say to Thin People. What Not to Say to Fat People. What Not to Say to Parents of Kids with Special Needs. What Not to Say to Girls…To Teens…To Pregnant Women…To Recovering Alcoholics…To Survivors of {fill in the blank}…actually, you can fill in whatever you can think of, I’m sure there’s an article somewhere on it.

They always sound so helpful at first, because yes, of course, we want to say the right thing when someone is facing a particularly difficult challenge. We want to empathize. We want to be helpful. We, by and large, want to avoid being assholes.

Of course.

But notice this kind of article I’m referring to is not a “What TO say” article. It’s not advice that tells you what will be helpful. By all means, tell me what I can do to best serve you in your need. Yet, far too many of these articles only focus on lashing out against the words of the uninformed and possibly judgmental.

The effect is, instead of telling you how to help, it basically tells you to shut the hell up. Because when you’re actually faced with a grieving person, can you really remember the full list of 10 Things You Must Not Say you read that one time last October? No. So you are left, mute, with nothing but the awareness that it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing.

Meanwhile, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the spirit in which these types of articles are written. We all face our own challenges in life. Our struggles are as unique as each of us, and we respond in different ways. What helps one heal or step up may not be useful to another.

The thing is…I don’t feel that other people owe it to us to understand us perfectly. Yes, people often say the wrong things, but how often do they really have bad intentions? If they haven’t been in our place, on what founding do we have the right to expect them to know how we feel? More often than not, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is just trying to make you feel better. It may be a clumsy attempt. It may even be the opposite of helpful. But isn’t it worth anything that they’re trying?

Of course, there are some people who really are just being hateful, but I don’t think they’ll be won over by a “What Not to Say” article either. They’re not the intended audience – the real audience is the well-meaning commiserators. Just like it would be ungracious to throw a Christmas gift back at someone simply because it wasn’t what you wanted, I find it ungracious to judge others for a failed attempt to be kind. Even words that sometimes sound like judgment are really just awkward, clumsy attempts to try to protect you – a motivation based in love, not hatred or contempt.

Yes, there are better and worse ways to comfort people, to converse with them, to let them know you’re there. Many times, there are no words that can help a person heal or deal. Maybe even most times a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on are worth more than any thousands of words.

But the world does not owe us perfectly eloquent grace or perfectly clear understanding. Each person who loves us is a gift. Each loving intention is its own kind of grace. Embracing them all with loving kindness can do far more to help us heal than focusing on how they fell short of our mark.

 

Raising Men in the Aftermath of Feminism

Photo by Kristi Phillips

It’s no secret now that, while women are still fighting for equal pay and the face of power remains decidedly male, the gender gap in schools didn’t close, it flipped directions. Girls and women at all levels of education, from elementary to collegiate, are outstripping boys – so much so that some colleges are even giving a little extra boost for the guys (yes, you heard that right, affirmative action for white males). Nicholas Kristof provides a nice summary of the problem here and Businessweek has another good one here, but even a cursory poke around Google will bring you a slew of articles from across the Western nations documenting this counter-intuitive trend.

Meanwhile, when we look around at male role models in popular culture, what do we see? Primarily, a glorification of one of two things: underperformance (a la Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.), or androgyny (types like Michael Cera, “metrosexuality,” dare I even mention Ryan Gosling?). We have to look to Mad Men to find masculinity of the type we used to revere – except they’re all philanderers and misogynists, so that ideal is certainly tarnished.

Toss in rising divorce rates plus a “gotcha!” culture of news media (if I may borrow that phrase) focused on catching politicians and celebrities with their pants down, so to speak (for good or ill), and we have a recipe for stripping society of role models to look towards. I’m being a little blase and overgeneralizing an incredibly complex issue here, but the truth is men these days are often confused about what role they should play and are taught to be ashamed of manliness rather than to uphold its virtues.

We’ve focused so much attention on girl power and what it means to raise a confident, empowered woman, that we’ve forgotten the need to guide our boys too. But we’re doing our girls no favors, when they grow up to be strong, smart, independent women only to find there are no men they can respect to stand strong beside them. Building women up does not require tearing down our boys.

A fellow blogger touched on a growing double-standard in her post, “I never thought he would feel that being a boy was a limitation.” Her children are young, so her concern focuses on erasing gender lines with the toys her kids play with and the cartoons they watch.

But it’s about so much more than that.

It’s about so much more than whether girls can play with monster trucks or whether boys can enjoy watching My Little Pony. As my friend, Brook put it, “we want ALL children to be confident, compassionate and courageous.” Courage is not just for the men, just as compassion is just not for the women.

BUT I don’t think androgyny is the answer either. We do both our children and our society a disservice when we tell them it’s wrong for men to be manly and wrong for women to be feminine. (By the way, we haven’t just hurt our boys either – teaching girls to act like men when it comes to sex has created a host of problems, including, but not limited to: undermining their own sense of value, repressed needs, and increased difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships.) Moreover, we’re simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that there aren’t at least some biological differences between the genders.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow a gendered ideal, though – we all suffer when we try to force anyone into a box, no matter what that box is. I’m not harping on anyone who naturally falls towards the middle of the gender spectrum. Gender and sexuality are both complex and we should honor that complexity. What I AM saying, though, is this: We don’t celebrate humanity by wishing (or socializing) away all our differences. We celebrate humanity by encouraging authenticity, harnessing the power of each individual’s strengths, and treating ourselves and each other with respect.

There are two blogs I follow despite the fact that I am neither male nor am I mother to a son. I follow them because I find the articles provide a fascinating discussion of what masculinity means in a post-feminist world: how men can still strive to be the best they can be, present themselves with distinction, be assertive, demonstrate honor and valor – and that masculinity does not have to imply male chauvinism. The first is The Art of Manliness, which grew so quickly and displayed such gratitude from its readers that it showed just how lost men feel in this age, how desperate they are for some guidance on how to be men. The other is 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son. Both hark back to the past for examples of great men, tempered with the greater understanding and self-awareness we have gained in the past decades. It’s a shame how far we have to look back to find great examples.

So whether your boy melts his G.I. Joes in violent combat or plays quietly with a Carebear, teach him to read because great communicators make for great leaders. Whether he prefers World of Warcraft or Sims, teach him to help with chores around the house, because a sense of responsibility breeds great husbands and fathers. Whether his interests lie in the sciences or the arts, teach him to show others respect and appreciation because courage means putting others before ourselves and strength should always be on the side of justice. Whether his hobby is fly-fishing or baking, encourage it because any added skill makes for a more well-rounded human being. Teach him how to change his oil, sew a button, safely discharge a firearm, and iron his shirts…because one day he might need to know all those things.

And roughhouse with him too, because we don’t learn everything there is to learn from “playing nicely” alone.

 

A Conversation

Her: So you’re telling me you live in a gated community with security guards that salute you and click their heels every time you pass through the gate. And you’re in a 4-bedroom house. For $670 a month.

Me: Yes. Except for the first full year I felt incredibility guilty about it, like we had somehow found a way to game the system and it’s all great now, but someday karma’s going to come back and bite us in the ass.

Her: Right. Because God clearly hates people who try to prevent children from being trafficked into prostitution.

Me: Yeah, well, and yesterday I felt like a total schmuck because our maid came, and she normally comes on Mondays, when I’m working, so it’s fine and makes sense, but this week she came on a Sunday, which is my day off, and I felt like a total asshole sitting on the couch reading a book while she cleaned up around me.

Her (blink, blink): Because…why?

Me: Well, you know, it’s guilt. I’ve got this whole white liberal privileged guilt thing –

Her: White liberal privileged guilt — You’re half-Thai – white liberal privileged guilt, and you’re not even all that white. Do even you hear how ludicrous this sounds now?

Me: (nodding while tears of laughter stream down my face)

Her: It’s like the Thai side makes it worse; like your Thai side is warring with your white side…and um, I barely know you, but here’s my assessment of your entire cultural identity. You’re welcome.

Me: (still laughing, but not, because it’s totally true and I’d never thought of it that way before)

::

We met to exchange written words and ended up talking for hours. That conversation stuck with me for days afterward, and I wanted to preserve a piece of it, even if I only caught the gist of how it made me feel, because it made me feel better. I love people who can make me laugh; I really love people who can make me laugh at myself. I wanted to thank her for that.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

A Coffee Chat

Guess what? I whisper from behind shaky hands. I think I’m done. With my manuscript. It’s done. Tomorrow, I’m going to do one more run-through to make sure I haven’t missed anything (because I’m obsessive like that). But basically, I think it’s ready to ship out–and sink, soar, or barely float, whichever way it goes.

{BIG BREATH.}

So what’s in your cup today? Do you have any big news to share? Little joys to celebrate, or big kvetches to get off your chest? A week ago, I decided to try to start cutting down on the sugar I consume. I stopped putting sugar in my coffee and discovered I actually don’t need the sweet anymore, and then I wanted to see what other sweets I could live without. I decided to avoid processed sugars as much as possible, and try to only eat naturally occurring sugars like the ones in fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and dairy. (And NOT, say, the sugars naturally occurring in my cookies.)

A Thai fruit called “noi nah” or “custard apple”

It turns out, I’ve noticed I’ve gotten way more sensitive to what has sweet in it and sometimes even find some fruit crazy sweet. On Saturday, I had some ice cream and it gave me a bit of a headache which I’m pretty sure wasn’t just brain freeze.

What surprised me more is that I haven’t really had sugar cravings either–which is big because they’ve been a pretty constant (and obnoxious) part of my life.

But, like I said, it’s only been a week and I haven’t yet put it through the PMS test, so we’ll see how long this lasts.

The custard apple is one of my favorite fruits, but like custard desserts (flan, creme brûlée), one I can only eat on occasion lest I overdo it.

Speaking of Saturday night…I’m still basking in the glow of a fabulous, and much-needed girls’ night out. I went out with two lovely ladies and, together, we consumed a large dinner of fried morning glory, stir-fried eggplant, and a stuffed omelette served with a side of ruminations on life lived abroad and what it’s like to go home. We followed that up with sizable cocktails (mine involved gin, triple sec, and lemon juice) and wedding horror stories, then capped off the evening with ice cream and giggles about what women really want from their men.

That whole part I wrote above about how I’m avoiding sugar? Clearly, that does not apply to a girls’ night out.

As my friends drove me to catch my bus home, we had a conversation about irony, a concept that I’m finding difficult to convey outside Western culture. I tried to explain that it’s when things happen in a way that’s opposite of what’s expected, but usually in a way that’s funny. I used the example of the first Thai movie Toby and I went to see. It was a story about two tough guys who were in a gang but totally had each other’s back, fighting off rival gangs…and then they would occasionally break out into song, passionately singing “Friends are for-ev-AH!” Toby and I cracked up–but it was clearly a sincere moment and every one else in the theatre was getting all teary-eyed, meanwhile Toby and I were laughing like jerks. Because in American movies when gang members break out in song, it’s either a musical or possibly something along the lines of Superbad. I tried to explain the humor, but my Thai friend explained that Thai guys would be very sincere about that sentiment, so the humor was lost.

And there I was, confronted with a revelation about American culture. The stereotype about Asian culture (especially men) is that they keep their emotions hidden and never reveal how they’re feeling. It’s mostly true in Thailand, especially with anger. People are taught from a young age not to show anger in public. Westerners, on the other hand, are known for being loud and expressive and leaving everything on display. But I’m pretty sure if an American guy (past the age of, say, 8) went up to a group of his friends and was like, “We’re going to be friends forever!” he would probably be laughed at. Yet here in Thailand, men can apparently share such sentiments and not be denounced as a schmuck.

Ironic.

On that note, I’m going to head out. I’ve got a cooking date with my mom! YUM. Have a great week everyone and thanks for stopping by for a chat over coffee!

 

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