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?

Knowing Our Limits: What Not to Say to Each Other

IMG_0811There’s this thing women seem to have started saying to each other when we come up against something we’ve decided we won’t put up with, whether because we shouldn’t or because we can’t. When we say we’ve learned we have more needs than we wanted to admit, or that we’ve learned the boundaries of how much we can give unrequited, or that we’ve found the outer reaches of our self-esteem and self-respect, we tell each other: “At least you know that about yourself now.”

I’m not sure if this is really a Thing That People Say since I’m not living in a western country and am not as embedded in American culture anymore, but it’s been said to me on multiple occasions by very different women. And it’s been said in the exact same way, so I can only imagine that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.

It sounds like such a lovely, enlightened sentiment too. “At least you know that about yourself.” Because increased self-awareness is a good thing, a thing we strive for right? So learning more about yourself can only be a positive contribution to heightened consciousness. Right?

Except in each circumstance, it felt the opposite. It felt like such a patronizing thing to say. As in, “Oh you’re not as giving as you once thought you were? How sad. But hey, at least you know that about YOU.” Like, “Oh, you failed that exam, but hey, at least you tried, and that’s cool. I still got an A.”

There’s a thing that activists do where they try to out-activist other activists. When you’re committed to a cause, there is intense pressure to prove how committed you are: to do more in support of it, to identify with it more, and the peer pressure pushes people to be more extreme and uncompromising. Sometimes this manifests itself in beliefs and political stances. Sometimes it manifests itself in what initially would be a positive trait: giving, kindness, forgiveness…until you push so hard you get burnout.

Moms do this to each other too. However committed you are to a certain belief or behavior is exactly as committed as one should be. Anyone doing less or differently is less of a mother, anyone doing more is just crazy. Right?

Of course not. But we do this to each other.

Until you realize you are actually tired, stressed out, angrier than you should be, and maybe you do need to take better care of yourself in the ways that matter to YOU and fit in with YOUR lifestyle.

So if a friend of mine tells me she needs weekly spa treatments to feel human again after working full-time, mothering X number of kids, pursuing/finishing a degree, running a business, or frankly, with some of my friends, doing all of the above, or if she tells me she realizes she needs to demand a little more from others in order to keep herself afloat, I hope I never say, “At least you know that about yourself now.”

I hope I have the presence of mind to tell her something more like, “It’s not a bad thing to discover we all have boundaries.” Having boundaries is not something to feel guilty about, and it’s not something only certain people have. Everyone has them. Knowing where they are just means you can more efficiently find out in what areas you need to protect yourself and in what areas you can more freely give. Just because there is an outer limit to how generous you can be in certain circumstances does not mean you are not a generous person. Having a limit to kindness does not mean you are not kind. Having a limit to your selflessness does not make you selfish. Asking for the things you need is not being unreasonable. It’s just the smart way to ensure you can perform your best, whether as a wife, a mom, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a boss, an employee, or a warrior.

It took me many years to understand this, but I finally now get this saying, “You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” Fill yourself up first. When we are full, we can give so much more to everyone else.

The Hunt for a Nanny Part IV: the Liaison

_1080069If you’ve been following our saga in finding a nanny (catch up on Part I, Part 2, and Part 3 here), I first want to thank everyone for their support and commiseration with the whole process, and for validating my instincts. It’s definitely nice to know I’m not alone in this, or crazy for having maybe high or specific expectations.

Anyway, thankfully, I really haven’t been alone in this process — I’ve found an amazing and important advocate in the agency who put us in touch with our nanny in the first place. The owner and founder, Kristi, came for a house visit yesterday and I shared my concerns with her. Not only was she sympathetic and understanding, she was also incredibly practical. She brought a Thai assistant with her, and together, they had a private conversation with our nanny to give her a chance to share her own concerns and perspective and to provide a safe place where they could more clearly outline what I’m looking for and hoping for.

I can’t even begin to tell you what an immediate and effective difference it made. After Kristi left, I took Pii On and Cy out for a long walk, in which I could spend time showing her more of Cy’s interests, explain his efforts to communicate, and let her get used to our dynamic. By the end of an hour, he was able to play with her for extended periods. I got things done that have been sitting on my to-do list, eating away at my nerves for weeks. He began to look for her. He was happy. He had a fantastic day, and so did we.

There are still a couple of small wrinkles to iron out, like maybe she could nip it with the unsolicited parenting advice, and she’s so raring to go with him she gets a little pushy, and I’m hoping she’ll learn to trust me that things will go much better with Cy if I fill him up with food and mama time first before going to play. But these are comparatively such tiny things, and definitely fixable, and the huge difference in just one day is plenty of hope to go on to give these other things a pass and have faith that it will all turn into one well-oiled machine soon enough. And major kudos to Pii On for being so flexible and willing to hear critique and act on it.

It seems like such a little thing: a little fracture in communication and understanding, but it could have easily and quickly destroyed the relationship, and the simple addition of a friendly liaison to act as an advocate for the relationship, to make sure both sides are happy and well-understood. But such a huge impact. It makes me think, especially when there’s a big class, language, or cultural divide, or even the simple divide created by trying to be polite, there are so many relationships that can be cut off too quickly, or jobs too quickly lost, despite best intentions on both sides. Having an agent bridge the gap is so incredibly valuable, and I’m so thankful for ours.

If you’re ever in Chiang Mai and are in need of a housekeeper or nanny, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Kristi, from Bliss.

Little by Little

Momma Chat: The Two Questions I’m Asked Most Often

_1060292There are a couple questions I’m frequently asked about mamahood and my lifestyle. The first one is about Cy’s bedtime routine, and given how I approach it, the question is: how do I have time for my husband and for own self?

So let me back up and explain how bedtime goes down in this house. Since Cy was about 3 months old, he started being able to nurse to sleep. At first this was great. It would start around 7 or 7:30 and take about half an hour for him to fall asleep and then he’d be out until about 11 p.m., when he’d need to nurse again (then again around 2 a.m, and then what happened between 4-7 a.m. was anybody’s guess). I could probably have just left him by himself in bed at that age, and gone downstairs to enjoy dinner and a movie with Toby every night, but he was still so little, I didn’t want him to wake up alone in the dark and be frightened. So I lay down with him. Plus, in the early days, I was pretty exhausted by his bedtime too, so I didn’t really want to do anything else.

Then, around four months of age, I probably would have felt comfortable enough with our routine that I would have let him be alone…except that’s when the 4-month sleep regression hell horror show started and it took anywhere between an hour to four hours of crying, carrying, rocking, singing, nursing madness to get him down to sleep at night. By the time that was over, it was often 11 p.m. and I didn’t want to do anything but crash myself.

We’re now getting back closer to what it was like when he was 3 months old (it takes more than nursing now, I have a routine: change his diaper & put on fresh clothes, nurse him, read On the Night You Were Bornthen alternate nursing & carrying him until he falls asleep), and still I lie down in bed with him when I put him down. People wonder: aren’t you bored/annoyed having to go to bed when he does? Actually, no. That’s my down time too. I don’t go to sleep, but I do need to unwind before bed. So Toby and I get dinner, switching off taking turns to eat and stay with Cy. While Toby eats, I get caught up on emails, blogs, and Facebook. Then we pull the laptop onto the bed, snuggle in together, plug in the headphones, and watch movies and TV shows.

“But you can’t talk to each other with him sleeping right there,” people wonder. “When do you and Toby get time to talk?”

This is one of the big perks of Toby working from home. We talk all day long. Cy and I pop into Toby’s office once every couple of hours or so just to say hi for a few minutes. We trade off Cy duty while we eat lunch together and chat. Then in the evenings we’ll often go for walks together in the neighborhood or at the mall, and while Cy chills out in the stroller we catch up with each other. Actually, some of our best conversations come in the car when we go out to the mall or dinner because we can talk uninterrupted and not have to be busy entertaining Cy.

Did Cy always need us to be there? Probably not. Some days he would need a little extra reassurance, other days not. It’s hard to say which would be which, but I did prioritize his sense of security and so I’m glad I was there when he needed me to be.

This definitely wouldn’t work for every lifestyle, but it works well enough with ours.

_1060308The other question I’m frequently asked is: how does becoming a mother affect your perspective on what you do at The SOLD Project? (For those who don’t know, I oversee the education programs at an organization that aims to help prevent children from being trafficked as sex slaves, by providing education and raising awareness.)

This question is hard for me to answer. I mulled over it for ages, and honestly, I don’t think being a mother changes how I feel about my work at SOLD. I still believe selling children for sex is inescapably wrong. And I couldn’t possibly believe it is more wrong than I already did.

However, I think my work at SOLD affects me as a mother. I know all too well the horrific conditions (the squalor, the emotional and physical torture…) children, even babies are subjected to. (How young do you think it starts? 14? 10? 5? I’ve heard tales of the sexual abuse of 6-month olds.) I know how nauseatingly atrocious, and how very real this gross injustice is. How close it is to our front doors–even in the U.S. It’s not abstract to me. It’s not the millions of children worldwide, and it’s not the 500,000 in the U.S. each year. It’s children I know by name. Children with whom I have hugged and laughed. If anything like that were to happen to Cy…oh, let’s just not go there.

And here, I bump into a real cultural problem. Here, Thai people LOVE babies, and they adore Cy. Complete strangers come up to coo over him and touch him all the time. From several yards away, they’ll point at him and nudge their friends to look at how cute he is. Random people on the street ask to hold him. Waitstaff in restaurants are often conscientious about wanting to hold him and entertain him so Toby and I can eat in peace. If you say no, people will actually get offended.

There’s about 50% of me that relishes living in a country where the sense of community around babies is so strong. It’s lovely to be so feel so welcomed with a baby, and to know that people are so generous and loving with children.

About 40% of me is happy he gets a chance to be with so many people so he can develop his sense of confidence among others and his social skills.

About 10% of me is terrified every time he is in the arms of someone who just might try to whisk him away. Someone who might see his value in dollars.

We have a neighbor lady who just thrills every time she sees Cy. But instead of enjoying her excitement over him, I get nervous. This lady never spoke one single word to us in the three years we lived here before Cy came along–not even when I was pregnant. Her husband was actually rude to us when we had car trouble. Then, when I started taking Cy out on walks, suddenly she comes out like we’re best friends. At first, it was nice that we were somehow legitimate or something…but as Cy gets bigger and more sociable, she keeps asking, “Is he easy to take care of?” and “Is he afraid of people?” At first, the questions seemed innocuous. I didn’t blink twice at them. But she asks me this every time she sees him. Maybe they are benign questions, but I find it strange that that’s what (and all) she wants to know about him all the time.

Then, a couple of days ago, I was out walking with Cy and she spotted us, drove out of her way to pull up next to us because her friend (whom I’ve never met) really wanted to take a bunch of photos of Cy. Prickles on my mama bear neck began to rise. Why would a complete stranger want photos of Cy? As foreigners, we’re subject to our fair bit of exotification (is that a word?), which doesn’t bother me,…but I didn’t like the smell of this.

Maybe my work over-sensitizes me. Maybe I’m just weirded out because effusive praise always puts me on edge, as it often comes across as being not genuine. But I also know the vast majority of child abusers and abductors are not strangers. They’re people the child knows and trusts, people who know them by name.

Because of my work, I can’t really relax and enjoy when waitstaff take him off our hands for a minute. Because of my work, I have no idea how to find balance between teaching Cy to be confident among people, but to also take care. Because of my work, I will never ask Cy to kiss, hug, or be held by anyone he feels uncomfortable with–even family–because I want him to know he always has the right to say no and he always has ownership over his own body.

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I wish I could end this on a lighter note.

Tell me: how would you handle the balance of cultural niceties versus protecting your child?

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Thing I Love About Cy Today: When he stands up now, he loves to stick out his tongue and go, “Pbbbbt!

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!
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