Mother at Sixteen

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Sitting with the slight, sixteen-year-old girl on tattered bamboo mats in her family’s modest home, we compared our babies: their age and weight, their entrance into the world, how well they sleep at night, yes we’re both breastfeeding, how easy and hard they are to take care of, how much support there is, how your worldview changes from carefree to constant worry.

We are at a similar stage in life and had a lot to share.

And yet I was struck by the difference. Her baby slept in a bamboo crib on a dirt floor with only shade and a breeze to protect them against the tropical heat; mine shares our king-sized bed in our fully air-conditioned house. Hers will find a place in the same Thai educational system she went through herself; mine has access to Gymboree and Montessori classes and will learn from a mother who completed a PhD from an American research university. I’m turning 35 next month. She is a mother at 16. We are almost 20 years apart and I have almost 20 years’ worth more of education and life experience, maturity and stability. At 16, she still has all her struggles in front of her. I know who I am, what I want, and what I’m capable of. She has yet to discover who she will be.

I approached my time with her trying to answer the question: why did she make these choices? She had to have known the risk she was taking with unprotected sex. What was her underlying motivation? She said no one ever taught her about protection (I remember her deciding not to stay for the sex health workshop I taught). She talked about the desire to experience new things—a typical teenager response. But I suspected the roots are deeper than that; that it may have even something to do with deeper psychological and emotional needs regarding her bond with her own mother, even if she doesn’t consciously read it that way yet. From what I know of her background, I suspected she never got enough consistent display of love from her own mother, and made these choices out of feelings of neglect, subconsciously trying to find a way to stay close to home rather than to leave.

But do I have the right to judge her choices? I may be disappointed. I may want to continue to present her with the chance to turn things around because her story (and now her child’s story) has still only just begun. I may want to learn from her example to see how we can prevent others from going the same way. I can expect her to take responsibility for her choices and urge her to continue to make better ones. I do not absolve her of that because it is true that others in same—or worse—circumstances make different choices. But I cannot be judgmental about it. I had parents who never gave me cause to doubt their love and commitment. With an absentee father and a mother who is a former prostitute now mostly gone away at work, she has no experience of a strong nuclear family and has no idea what that would look like. I came from a life of opportunity; she came from a life of poverty and risk. For me, being a mother at sixteen would have represented catastrophic failure and disappointment. For her, young, single motherhood is the norm. From two different worlds, we both forged two very different paths.

Perhaps the question of why isn’t really the root of the matter. Maybe the question we must grapple with honestly is: how much of our life is a forgone conclusion? How much can we change by choice?

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.

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.

 

The Power of the Olympics, London 2012

With thanks to artist Pashabo and graphicleftovers.com

I was sitting around the TV with my family and dog watching the Olympics the other night, as the girls competed for the gold on the balance beam. As we switched from women’s gymnastics – a sport evidently designed to crush little girls’ dreams – to men’s vault and horizontal bars, I was struck by the difference in camaraderie between the athletes.

On the girls’ side, none of the athletes seemed to interact with any of the others, and most strikingly, when Deng Linlin surpassed her teammate by a tiny margin of .10 for the gold, Sui Lu, who ended up with the silver, broke out, not in smiles, but in tears. She sobbed on her coach’s shoulder, causing Deng Linlin to cry as well. Sui Lu refused to smile in photos and, once rid of the photographers, promptly ripped off her silver medal in temper. One might judge her for being a snot, but she has been training since the age of three, so one can only imagine the pressure she might have been under.

She’s not the only one who might need a little perspective check. Russian Aliya Mustafina was quoted as saying, “I’m not used to winning just one medal. You get a taste for it and you want a second medal, then a third.” And fellow Russian Victoria Komova expected golds, considering her efforts a complete failure as she only snagged two silvers.

We were kind of used to all that high drama. I still remember watching the Olympics in the ’80s, when the event was little more than a thinly veiled muscle match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as each tried to prove themselves superior to the other via their nation’s athletes.

Heck, I still remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

However, a few teenage-girl snits aside, I began to wonder if there is a change in the attitude these athletes bring to the Games. I watched as American Sam Mikulak kissed the vault and swapped handshakes and high-fives with his fellow competitors after he scored fifth. I watched as German Fabian Hambuchen slipped from top position to second after Epke Zonderland’s stunning performance on the horizontal bars, and Fabian registered his own disappointment only briefly before clapping Epke on the back and shaking his hand in admiration. The two were exchanging hugs and congratulations like dear friends by the time they received their medals.

There’s more, too. We were watching the women running, and feeling a bit of pity for the women whose countries and religions ensured they were covered head-to-toe, as they came in dead last, long after everyone else had crossed the finish line. We speculated that perhaps their countries thought it wasn’t worth investing in those athletes because they were women, and perhaps wanted to prove to their audiences back home that “See? Women can’t perform well.” Except, if anything, it does the exact opposite. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei were pressured to have women compete (thank you, IOC!), and now they are forced to reveal the comparison: how well women athletes perform when you invest in them, compared with the countries who hold them back. It’s not the women who do poorly. It’s about an entire nation’s attitude. Their performance says nothing about the women as individuals and says everything about the power of women’s rights.

Tahmina Kohistani, from Afghanistan, was one such athlete whose nation did not properly support her efforts. But the surprise was, when she arrived at the Olympics, how many others cheered her on. She writes, “I wasn’t pleased with my time – I had trained so much, worked so hard. But it was still a good experience, and definitely the most important of my life. It was so good to be able to learn from all the other girls. I talked with a lot of the other runners, and they were all encouraging me….But I knew I was not going to win a medal when I came here; I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us.” Instead of coming to the Olympics and encountering sour and threatening rivals, Kohistani found support, mentorship, and encouragement. Instead of being trampled on, she was lifted up and given a chance to make a change for women back home.

This is what I believe the power and the promise of the Olympics and events like it can be. When it shifts from a muscle match to a show of true honor and sportsmanship, when competitors are not enemies but mentors to learn from, and when athletes demonstrate through camaraderie and hard work, skill, and determination what people can achieve, the Olympics can help pave the road of progress.

The Olympics has always been political. But I’m happy when the politics of sports means that countries are pressured to invest in their girls and that competition is not a zero-sum game – there is more to sport than winning the gold. There is teamwork and there is inspiration. Let us do better and be better, not to beat the other guy up, but to make us all the best we can be.

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. CaptureShare. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Corinne’s!

Virtual Coffee

When I took this photo, I was already in a state where I was thinking, “Let’s take Virtual Coffee outside today, for I need space to think.” But the day just progressed in it’s méchant way, and now I’m looking around for the bottle of wine. So if we all had our collective cups of coffee (or glasses of wine) in hand, I’d start with something a little upbeat.

I was hoping to find a Thai translation of Harry Potter to use with the kids at SOLD and went to a bookstore that looked promising from the outside. Thus far, in Thailand I’ve only found bookshops that are little more than corner stands or maybe the size of a small shop in a strip mall. It always made me feel a little alien, as I hid away at home with my Kindle downloads. Anyway, so I walked into this one and was slightly dismayed, though not totally surprised, to see it was small and had not much of a selection. But I knew Thai translations of HP exist, so out of desperation, I asked the girl behind the counter where I might find it. She instructed me to go upstairs. Pleased as I was to discover they even had a second story, I was overcome when I got to the top of the stairs and saw a store the likes of any of our largest Borders Stores or Barnes & Nobles stretching out before me, and full of people looking for books to read! In an instant I was home. I combed every inch of that beast, just soaking it all in. Simple pleasures, folks. Simple pleasures.

If we were really chatting over coffee or wine right now, I’d try to hold back, but I’d probably not be able to help myself talking about the death of bin Laden. And the truth is, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I feel a sort of grim satisfaction, I suppose, as it seems to mark the end of a chapter in our collective history. But I cannot quite rejoice in death, even in the death of such an ignoble villain as he. And one thing that worries me is the focus the news has placed on the celebrations everywhere. The world, friend and foe alike, sees this. What they probably don’t see are the thousands of smaller, quieter voices I’m seeing everywhere saying: This is not happiness I feel.

The part that I really wonder about though, beyond the politics, beyond religion or ethnicity, is I wonder what our younger generations will take away from this entire episode. I’m about 10 years ahead of the generation who came of age in a post-9-11 world. Their lives, more than mine, have been shaped by a world in which war is a near constant background, and politics ever more than before has been characterized by folly. Will this have as powerful an effect on this generation as the Vietnam War and Watergate did when those events eroded public faith in government and set in disillusionment on the national scale? If so, what will those kids take away from it? Or have they (or even we) become so numb that even something as big as this will roll of our backs in a few weeks’ time?

I can’t help but wonder.

Meanwhile, when I turn my gaze closer to the ground, to the immediate, I find myself again contemplating consequences for the future of children. When I taught at the university level in the States, and here again now, teaching disadvantaged children in Thailand, I find myself bumping up against the same thing: people held hostage by fears, too afraid of children to stand up and guide them. Too afraid to make them upset. Too afraid to make them do hard work. Too afraid to challenge them. Too afraid of not being fun. But then I read this post and was reminded of all the reasons I feel it is right to push the children, to be the disciplinarian, and to hold them to a higher standard, even when everyone else around me is saying “don’t expect too much from them.”

The thing that I found when I taught at university though? The more I pushed the students, the higher my expectations, and the less slack I allowed for laziness, the better the students responded. It’s like they craved the discipline. Sure, I got the stink eye from them a time or two. But when I got my evaluations back? It was nothing but gratitude. They found the harder they worked, the higher their rewards.

I refuse to believe it’s any different here. At least, not until I see any strong evidence otherwise. And hell yes, I’ll take a few stink-eyes if my students walk away from my class feeling they actually got something out of it, more than entertainment.

</end soapbox>

Have you read Amy Chua’s book? If so, what do you think?

Anyway, this month will be hectic for me. I’ve written 60+ pages of my novel so far (not counting any of the character descriptions, vignettes, scene layouts or synopses, of course) and I’m getting to the point where I’m fully absorbed by it and any attention directed elsewhere makes me itchy. But I’ll be going to Chiang Rai every weekend this month to teach and to help with Parents’ Weekend. School is starting up again at the temple, and I’ve gotten back into yoga, AND I have to fly down to Bangkok for several days to take care of some business (yay, another visit with Mr. Pig…). My days shall be quick full, and I’m already sorely behind on my 365 photo project.

::sigh::

Still, busy doing what you love? Not so bad.

And I’m very excited because I’ve just finished (well, almost) putting together a textbook for the kids at SOLD. I’m gearing my writing workshops to each focus on one element of putting together an illustrated storybook, from start to finish, so that by the end, the kids will have practice in creating, planning, and executing a whole project by themselves. The exercises will walk them through it, but we’ll also have some other reading & writing exercises to help build their vocabulary in English and central Thai, build skills in critical thinking & analysis (especially understanding cause & effect and understanding how we learn things through observation and attention to detail), and improve writing skills. I can’t wait to see how it all goes! And when the kids are done, I hope to somehow put their final projects on display somewhere. So excited!

Ok, I KNOW I’ve rattled on long enough. I can’t wait to hear how your week is going! Hope you’re staying away from crazy tornadoes…See y’all around the Virtual Cafe!

Join in the fun at Amy’s!

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Capturing imaginations – finding the bigger picture

Sometimes awareness comes in startling revelations. Sometimes there is a moment so simple that the stunning part is how subtly it clued you in to tiny revelations accumulated over time.

I was sitting at the resource center and had finished up some small bit of work. I turned to the group of girls who had been playing together while waiting for me to finish working and join them.

“So you girls want to watch a Disney movie?” I asked.

Squeals of delight erupted and they clambered over to the couch while I pulled out the DVDs. “Which one do you want to watch?”

Without hesitation: “Cinderella!”

I chuckled over their love of an old Disney classic and was intrigued since I hadn’t seen it more than a couple of times when I was a kid. But as I watched it, it seemed to me to be such a stark contrast from my personal Disney favorite, “Beauty and the Beast”. “Cinderella” is a story that captured the imaginations of little girls of the 1950s and 60s and follows the traditional story line of an impoverished and used girl who must be rescued by magic and a prince to find love and freedom. Both Cinderella and her prince are thin on personality; they are primarily just pawns moved about by larger forces (some benevolent, like the King, some malicious, like the wicked stepmother). Slightly different from my favorite, where the heroine must overcome her own fear and prejudice to find love and freedom with a hero who looks terrible from the outside but has similar intelligence and sensibilities underneath.

But “Cinderella” is the one these girls want to see. And as we watch, the tiny memories started to accumulate into one larger revelation.

When I was at their families’ home on Saturday night, the girls were watching cartoons on TV and interspersed between the cartoons were popular music videos. These girls, all around ages 6-8 or so, were belting out the tunes at the top of their lungs. I laughed at the cuteness, though I felt a little disturbed because all (and I mean ALL) the songs were about two girls fighting over a man.

And then I remembered my cousins doing the same thing when we were teens: watching music videos and singing happily about betrayal and loss.

And I thought about all the popular Thai music videos I’ve seen, waiting in bus stations, sitting on the bus, playing in cafes and hair salons, and in shop windows…

Almost all of them feature a woman left behind by a man. A lover who moves on to be with another woman. Two women fighting over a man. Men make all the choices. The women are portrayed as scheming and over-crazed by emotions. And they haven’t the self-respect to walk away.

And as I looked at these young girls, the same age as my nieces, singing lovingly about heartbreak and affairs, jealousy and betrayal, I realize just how ubiquitous this theme is in Thai culture. How do we teach empowerment, when they’re taught to romanticize love triangles and inferiority to men at such tender ages? I’m not going to sit here and blame popular music for how these girls think. Rather, I believe that these songs strike such a chord with them because the stories are so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the culture.

In reality, most Thai women I know are actually incredibly strong. But they are also rather jaded on the whole idea of romance. I’d venture to guess it’s because what is portrayed as romance in the popular culture is really just women being weak.

I want love for these girls. When they get older, I want them to find joy in romance; stability, comfort and honor in marriage. (If marriage is indeed what they want.) I’d hope they don’t have to push away love to survive, for love and strength don’t have to be at odds with one another. In fact, they should support each other. What I don’t want is for these girls to sit around waiting to be rescued. I don’t want them to ever feel like they don’t have the power to make choices. It took forty years for the story of a generation to shift from “Cinderella” to the likes of “Beauty and the Beast”. I wonder what it will take to help even just one little girl see how much power she really has over her own life.

I wonder, if I ever have a daughter of my own, what story will capture her imagination?

What Disney film captured your imagination? What bigger picture did you see this week? Join in at This Heavenly Life!

 

 

virtual coffee

Welcome! Come on in and help yourself to a cookie (or two or three). I baked them fresh. They’re oatmeal but I tossed in some chocolate chips and a few chopped up Ferrero Rocher chocolates for some hazelnutty-crispy decadence. Do you love Ferrero Rocher as much as I do?

I’m pretty sure I need the chocolate after the past couple of days. If we were really meeting for coffee today, I would tell you about what’s really been going on in my heart. But because this blog is just so public, I’m just going to have to say I’ve been stuck in a bit of a moral grey zone the last little while and I don’t know what the better path is. The brunt of it seems to have passed, but the weight of the uncertainty in this particular instance has left me rather emotionally exhausted. I would also tell you all about a separate issue entirely that has been weighing on me, but for now I can only say it is a situation where a girl is at a crossroads between choosing what is right and what is easy. I worry for her immensely because there is a lot at stake. If you’re the type to pray, prayers that she chooses the higher path would be much appreciated. And for now, I’ll just have to say my heart is heavy and leave it at that.

Anyway, as I type this, my husband is crossing into Burma. The embassy in LA told us he has to check in with immigration periodically to keep his visa valid for one year. What they didn’t mention is that it’s not checking in with the immigration bureau in Chiang Mai. It’s an actual border crossing in and out of the country. When he went to Chiang Mai’s immigration bureau, they explained what he actually has to do (and said the embassy in LA isn’t very good), so he had to drop everything and ride up, on a motorcycle, over some gnarly roads, in the rain, to Burma and back. Things dealing with legal authorities always make me (perhaps irrationally) nervous. I feel about 70% better now that I just got a call from him saying it’s taken care of. But I won’t feel 100% better until he’s back home safe and dry.

Although, as a Californian, I never developed much of an affinity for rain (though most people I know like rain), I’m actually quite glad we’ve got some rainy weather now. It cooled down the heat considerably and cleared the air so it smells fresh and lovely outside. I never liked going outside in the rain before, so I thought I would hate riding a scooter in it. But it turns out, with a helmet, I’m perfectly fine. I discovered I don’t mind getting wet; it’s just getting rain in my eyes and the feel of raindrops on my head that I find annoying. So that’s good news because it’s supposed to rain the whole rest of the week.

I’m also excited to hold another creative writing workshop at SOLD this weekend. After watching the Women In the World summit last weekend, I have lots of ideas to play around with in terms of where I’d like to go with our education program and how to develop different aspects of it. After watching the summit, too, I think I have an even deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges we face. I realize even more deeply than I did before that what we do is not just a matter of giving children the tools they need to avoid being trafficked. It’s not just educating them so that they can have chances for a better life. There are deeper ramifications. If you educate a girl and financially empower her, she will be far more likely to change the power dynamic within the family and she will be far more likely to make different choices. She will send her children to school instead of to work (or to war). She will not accept a husband having a mistress or second wife. I realized this before and thought of it as a good thing; an end to be achieved. But now I also realize, or perhaps am more sensitive to the realization, that when you create those changes, you really do begin to mess with a whole cultural order. That can be good, when elements of a culture give rise to or perpetuate the use of children for sex. But we also have to realize how those same elements are linked to other aspects of the culture that can be forces for good (or at the very least, may just be a different way of doing things). If we really want to tackle the problem of child sex slavery, we have to attack the problem deeply. But the deeper we go, the more responsibility we carry in affecting a society and a culture. In the name of our goal, to what extent do we have a right to push? These are questions we must be aware of and try to answer as an organization. Not having clear answers is okay. It’s life. But it is critical that we are sensitive to and aware of the questions. Reducing the issues to black & white would be irresponsible.

In the meantime, we can empower individuals, one child, one woman, one man at a time. And they at least will be able to make choices for themselves. And if there are enough individuals together, they maybe they (not SOLD) can push a society to ask itself questions about what they want for themselves as a society. And then maybe the society can choose what values they want. But at least they might begin asking the questions.

Maybe it is not really for SOLD to have the answers. Maybe the role of SOLD is to just present the question and provide alternatives and the chance for individuals to choose for themselves. After all, isn’t that what empowerment really is about anyway? Having the freedom to choose.

Oooph. Heavy for a cup of coffee, eh? Anyway, how are you all doing? I’ll stop yammering away now and turn to your voices. How is your week going? Do you like rain too? What is written across your heart today? What is brewing in your mind?

- x -
Jade

P.S. I did make the crocodile last week. I sauteed it in olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper with bell peppers and pineapple. The flavor combinations worked quite well together. And crocodile is indeed a delicate flavored white meat. The hubby quite approved. However, I’m still not sure I’m sold on crocodile meat. It was a little bit like white fish that had been cooked too long – maybe because it was cooked from frozen? Whatever. I can now say I’ve tried it.

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Join Amy for Virtual Coffee (and hopefully some lighter conversation)!

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