Monday, August 21, 2006

the Good Life

I’ve been holding onto this post for a while, because it is not exactly the way I want to say it... but there are things I want to say... but I can’t work on it anymore. Got to work on some other things. So here it is.

It started with the Thomas trains. Somehow, even at the tender age of 2, those were much cooler than the Brio ones. After that, brief flirtations with Yu-Gi-Oh, bug fighters, and Potris (this one was interesting because he came home from school asking for some mispronunciation of the toy’s name, and we didn’t know what it was, and nobody at the toy and shoes stores knew what he was talking about either... finally I had to ask his teacher. It’s hard to be the cool kid when you don’t have any older siblings and you’re not allowed to watch TV...). Now of course, Star Wars. (aside... just have to pipe in here that Aiden, like his father, tends towards the obsessive...sometimes I wonder if other than his eyes if my genes had anything to contribute to that kid)

The character obsessions didn’t disturb me much. I just tried to make sure he had a variety of stuff that wasn’t branded (though it is hard to find things that AREN’T branded these days) and for some things, like his Thomas underwear, which really helped him potty train, I didn’t mind the character branding at all. But the other day we were playing Uno and he stopped me short by asking for a pair of Nike shoes.

Aiden’s always been picky about his shoes (see my post on Walking in Seoul), but Nike? We’ve branched into the abstract branding now -- the idea that some brand, some symbol, is innately cooler than the other. That somehow because most of his soccer team is wearing Nike soccer shoes (which cost about 50 bucks!) he needs them to fit in.

Peer Pressure has taken residence. He is renting ad space on his fort in the corner of the playroom.

I love to lay down with Aiden until he falls asleep at night. I hold his hand, or cuddle him, and the kid who answers “I don’t know” to all my probing questions about school and so forth during the day suddenly begins to talk about all sorts of strawberry fields and whatnot. His legs are resting, finally, but his brain is running helter skelter, and his words follow. The other day, he told me sleepily, “Mommy, I called you ‘Jennifer’ today at school [when I’m teaching the kids call me ‘Teacher Jennifer’] not because I don’t love you but because I thought they might make fun of me.... but now it’s just you and me and Max and I love you, Mommy.”

Anyway, I am a mommy who believes in the power of habit. So rather than lecturing him about peer pressure, or making his own decisions, or the importance of saving, or the value of money, or evil corporate empires, I instituted a new bedtime ritual. I told him, “Aiden, sometimes it is easy to focus on the things we don’t have, and forget all the wonderful things we have. So from now on, every night let’s talk about five things we’re thankful for.”

This first discussion was held in the bathroom while he was brushing his teeth, so his five things were:

1. Mommy
2. Daddy
3. the toilet
4. the bathtub
5. his World Cup soccer ball

After we’d been doing this for a few days, Max started to chime in, repeating whatever Aiden said. “I dakpul Mommy, I dakpul Daddy, I dakpul Episode” (that’s the Star Wars lego computer game... ).

Being thankful is often a fleeting thing, a feeling that occurs at odd times during the day, usually in response to some close call or perceived threat: “thank goodness he didn’t fall off that chair! Thank goodness I remembered to pay that bill! Thank goodness I found the Obi-Wan and Yoda mini-figs!” But it is rare to have a pure moment of thankfulness for the people in your life or the shape your life has taken. I think that most of us, not so different from children, are caught up in our own desires: I like those shoes she’s wearing. I would like to live in a bigger house with a white picket fence and Corian sinks. I want that job. I would like a different nose. I would like to make more money. I wish I could speak 5 languages. I want that person to envy me. We’re not so different from kids, thinking about the next step, the next line on our resume, the next purchase, the time in the hazy future when people who were popular in high school will look upon us with the awe and respect we deserve.

Although it adds more time to our bedtime ritual (by this time of night mommy is usually quite cranky) (you may think, hey, it adds, what, 5 minutes? But actually it goes on quite a bit longer. NOTHING Aiden does takes 5 minutes), carving out this space, separate from the daily ups and downs of ego and social acceptance, to say thanks has been really been good for us -- not just Aiden, but for me too. Just taking a moment to acknowledge all the good things in my life helps me, a little, during the day, to avoid getting caught up in the petty details and desires. It has been a nightly equivalent of leaving the U.S. to live in another country, a stepping out of the mainstream track that allows me to look back upon my life and reflect.

We’ve been living in Korea for three years now. I think no matter where you move, it takes about 2 years to settle in. And three years to become thankful for the way in which this new place has reshaped your life.

There are so many things I miss about the U.S.: our friends and families, really good reuben sandwiches, big playgrounds that aren’t crowded, Halloween and the Fourth of July. But looking at my boys and our life here, I am so thankful for the decision that brought us here, and changed our lives.

It all started over a cup of coffee at our local Ann Arbor Starbucks. I had been there to work on a paper -- fueled to boldness by caffeine, grand theories and sweeping, compelling narratives were pouring from my fingertips. Taking advantage of Aiden’s temporary absence at preschool, KC and I were trying to fit our lives into those few precious moments without a child around. KC stopped by to talk and share a latte, so we could have some adult conversation. As always, we began talking about Aiden, and the child we hoped to have in the next year or so, and the kind of lives we wanted them to have. We had always talked about having our children live part of their lives in Asia, and how important it was to us that they spoked several languages, knew their grandparents, and knew their parents’ cultures from personal experience. And suddenly we both realized -- the future is now. We have the opportunity now, we have the time, and our parents aren’t getting any younger. The kids will be the right age to pick up a new language. What’s stopping us?

It was like the moment after he proposed. What had been theoretical, something for the future, suddenly appeared right in front of our noses, demanding details and decisions. When? Soon. How long would we be this free? Me in school, about to do a dissertation, him with his own company, able to make his own decisions. His parents aging but healthy in Seoul. Our kids -- one in preschool, one non-existent. .We jumped off the cliff and decided to leave in June, 6 months later.

It was so hard to leave Ann Arbor; it was such a difficult time in my life. We had such good friends there, Aiden went to a wonderful school, we loved our house and neighborhood, and KC got to play a lot of cheap golf. We had a wonderful, relaxed lifestyle. I was doing my PhD, he was working on his company. We were on track to get all the things we wanted: professional success, a comfortable life. As one of our friends asked, “Why go there and throw all that away? Why take that risk, for less money and less security?”

Michigan was full of open spaces, wide skies, long expanses of green grass. But we wanted to open something in our and our kids’ lives. To provide them with more languages, more cultural familiarity, so that they would have more freedom, more choices available to them in their lives. Our parents opened doors for us by raising us totally or partially in the States; we wanted to open doors for our kids by returning to Asia.

But those first months were suffocating. I had never lived in the city, was exhausted and irritated by the small spaces, the constant crowds always bumping and rubbing against me, our claustrophobic apartment, the oppressive heat. The constant noise, the signs everywhere, the pressure of people’s gazes studying me, the effort to speak and listen to Korean all day long exhausted me. Nothing was straightforward and I found myself going back and forth to the Immigration Office (way out in another part of the city, requiring 2 subway rides and a labyrinthine 20 minute walk in the heat) to the straighten out visa problems. I had to figure out how to the work the hospital system to make sure my body was healing from surgery and to take care of all the viruses Aiden kept getting (guess the viruses in Seoul are different that those in the U.S... and 14 million people are spreading them around... his little body was a hot target). Banking required special stamps and books and straightening out our family registry, since everything here references your family tree.

Although we moved to open up opportunities, those first few months were claustrophobic, oppressive, suffocating. Sometime I will write more about that, but not now.

But the hard part passed, and we have settled in. I cried the first time our saw our tiny apartment, but I have grown to like it here, not to be weighed down by so many things that I never use. I have grown to like the feeling of having something close to what we really need, and of throwing things away periodically, like a snake shedding its skin.

I’m thankful for every day that our kids get to spend with their aging grandparents. Even though they drive me nuts sometimes, I’m so grateful that they get to see these kids grow up for a little while, and in a place where they are comfortable and respected. I remember, growing up in the U.S., being so embarrassed by my grandparents, because they didn’t know how to behave or talk like everyone else, they chewed loudly, and they farted loudly. I never got to see them in the context of their own world, with their friends, where they knew more than me. KC’s father loves to take Aiden to the mountain with him and introduce his grandson to his buddies, who go hiking every week. He loves to show off his knowledge of Korea and of Seoul.

I’m thankful that I can stay home with Max. I haven’t written much about Max yet... from this blog it may seem to all of you that I only think about Aiden. Actually, Max has been a real challenge -- he’s a really sensitive kid. One of the reasons I get so frustrated with Aiden is because I’m actually frustrated with Max but I end up lashing out at Aiden. Anyway, more on Max at another time. But Max is growing up really well now, he’s becoming a very funny little character with quite a personality, and he’s so happy and secure. He still has his crazy moments, but he’s come a long way. I think he really needed to be raised with his mommy always around, always ready to hold him close or nurse him or comfort him. I think the last two years I’ve basically spent just holding him. And it was worth it.

I’m thankful that I left the PhD program. I feel like most of us live our lives on invisible tracks -- you keep going, doing what you think you’re supposed to do, not thinking about whether you want to do it or not. Especially if, like me, your parents kept pushing you forward when you were young, filling any hesitation or boredom with educational workbooks, writing summer school, and piano lessons. It is easy to keep taking the next logical step: high school to college, college to grad school, this award or that, to a professional career and a white picket fence. That is not a bad life -- a life of social and professional respect, of enough money, of comfortable possessions. It was the path of least resistance to stay, to keep on going on those invisible tracks that we all follow without thinking... once you get started, and it beckons with the promise of respect and security, it’s hard to think seriously about other options. But I left, and rather than feel like some sort of failure it has been a liberation. I’ve enjoyed being able to spend the time with my kids without the additional stress, and I have really enjoyed being able to spend time on things I always wanted to do but felt I couldn’t: learning Chinese, reading non-academic things, and writing. I still feel, in some sense, that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but for now I’m comfortable with not knowing and enjoying the adventure. My life has not been the linear, progressive, positivistic narrative I once imagined... perhaps I embraced postmodernism first theoretically and then later in my personal life... ;-)

I’m thankful for all the good people we have met here: Aiden’s friends and their parents, my Chinese teacher, other ex-pat friends, our Kindermusik teacher, KC’s business and golf friends. Each of these people come with their own stories, which I don’t have room for (hey, I met my Chinese teacher in the public bath...) but I am thankful every day for their presence in our lives.

Leaving the U.S. and taking a bit of a bizarre track has made KC and I see the world a little bit differently than most others, I think, and perhaps made us a little... idiosyncratic. Weird, perhaps. But having this shared experience, this shared adventure, this common perspective from which we study those around us has made us even closer in a way that we weren’t before. Somehow this coming and going, this crossing of borders, and the encountering and re-encountering of the same people, has given us strong ideas about the way we want to raise our kids and also the things we want in our own lives. So we're weird together, and I'm thankful for the way that our meanderings have cemented in us such a strong sense of the rightness of what we're doing, how we're living, and how we're raising our kids.

Putting aside for a moment the long philosophical questions about living the “good life,” the trick, it seems to me, is to somehow be able to live in the moment, appreciating the beauty and splendor and gifts as they occur, and yet also somehow place these in some sort of framework which provides meaning to the overall direction and expanse of your life. No mean trick, if you ask me. I’m a high-level person, not good with details. Give me a history book and I can tell you about the themes, the ideas, the significance -- but not the dates, the people, the microcosmic aspects. And I like aesthetic things, I like things to be beautiful, not messy. In mah jhong I almost never win because I go for the big hands, all the same suit, not wanting to settle for a mishmash of ugly things.

But somehow in these past three years, leaving the US and leaving the PhD has given me, temporarily at least, a sense of that micro and macro good life. The details of this life are still wonderfully strange enough to lend a glint of fascination to the everyday, and the freedom of embarking on this strange journey has opened, even in this crowded land, a sense of wide number of roads available in this world. Who knows which one we’ll travel next.

1 comment:

Nicki said...


I am thankful I know you. We say prayers with the girls each night. You know I was raised going to church, and part of the reason I love church and religion (and yoga, too) is the opportunity to say thanks. To pause and not take things for granted. I am thankful that Max is thankful for Episode!

You and KC are giving your children wonderful gifts. The boys will not forget these things.

Do you have lightning storms in Korea? We had another wonderful storm last night in Atlanta. Frightening, earthshaking, and truly beautiful. A good life and a good night.

Miss you and wished I wrote as beautifully as you,