Monday, October 16, 2006

Coming of Age

I am restless these days. Perhaps it is the coming of winter -- in the back of my mind I know that the darkness and cold are coming, and want to make the most of the light while I have it. Or perhaps writing this blog (and now writing for some other blogs as well) is making me restless. Suddenly Max is in school and I have some free time -- free time to confront the unanswered questions about what the hell I’m doing with my life, if I am putting my skills(?) to good use, and whether we should have another child, thereby delaying any resolution for another 3 or 4 years. I’m just starting to really get into this blog (so, dear readers, keep reading -- all 5 of you) and into the mode of writing and thinking again. I love being a parent, and it is important to me to raise my kids myself, but on days like this I am restless to exercise other faculties as well.

Aiden will be entering elementary school in March, and we are planning to send him to the local school. I view this change with excitement and trepidation -- it is a big milestone for him, but I am unfamiliar with what elementary school in Korea entails, and I keep hearing horror stories from other parents. Horror stories of big classes, outdated educational methods, old teachers who play favorites, lots of busy work for mommies, bribery, social pressure, and the pressure of competition. (Sounds like a Roald Dahl book!) Starting around this age, the educational system starts to become a black hole that sucks up every other aspect of life for children. On one hand, KC and I aren’t TOO worried -- we know we won’t be around for more than 2 years, and we want Aiden to get as much Korean out of this experience as he can, and we don’t care if he’s not ranked at the top of his class. Aiden doesn’t have to worry about English, which is a huge source of pressure (I could write a book on English anxiety just based on the conversations I eavesdrop on over at the sauna), his math skills are pretty good, he’s social and athletic, and I will help out at school as much as I can (apparently the teachers favor those whose mommies help out). On the other hand, the situation is so unfamiliar I am nervous, and Aiden has attended such a good kindergarten (5 kids in his class, bilingual education, excellent teaching -- go to FYKO, everyone!) that I am also worried that he will have trouble transitioning to a more hostile environment. At least he’s stopped pulling his pants down in public.

Childhood is supposed to prepare one for adulthood. But what does that mean? Take a quick look at the parenting books on the shelf: confident kids, self-sufficient kids, kids in touch with their emotions, kids comfortable with their sexuality, who don’t do drugs, who are healthy, who communicate well, who have good body images, etc. But the more time I spend listening to the collective anxieties of mommies here, the it seems to me that the monster of Getting into a Good College overshadows all other concerns and goals. The college entrance exam is a vortex that seems to engulf all other aspects of childhood, minimizing other responsibilities and abilities to the point that many young 20-somethings become dysfunctional adults.

Take young women, for example. Although women are entering the workforce at higher rates now, there is still a heavy social expectation that these women will get married and become primarily caretakers of the house, children, and of their husbands. But there is so much pressure to spend every moment of their childhood studying that very few girls or boys ever learn anything about how to run a household -- their mothers cook, clean, do laundry, pay bills, even wash their hair for them. They get through high school and college, get married, and suddenly find themselves the target of rage because they (women, I’m talking about now) have for the most part lived with their parents until marriage and have no idea how to live independently, much less fulfill the rigid expectations of hostile in-laws.

A Korean friend of mine describes how she went into her marriage with no knowledge of household tasks (집안일). One day she received an alarming phone call from her mother-in-law, who had gone to visit the apartment while she was out. “You’ve been robbed! Someone came in here and tore up the place!!” Hurrying home she found the apartment just as she had left it.

I remember a non-Korean friend of mine, living with another non-Korean plus two young Korean girls, who would daily rail at the inconsiderate living habits of the two girls. They would leave their dirty plates all over the place, never helped cook or clean or take the garbage out, and it never occurred to them to help. They were used to having things done for them.

As much as I hate to hear people bitch and moan about how hard life is, it really is hard for lots of women to adjust. How fair is it to train your child to study for 20 years and then rate them on how dust-free their floor is and how good their kimchee tastes? Hey, I can explain about “discourse” and object-oriented programming, I can make a kick-ass train track and do magic tricks and recite the star wars trilogy backwards and forwards but I’m judged on my housekeeping sins. It does not bother me to have books and papers lying around. A little dust never hurt anyone. I don’t feel the need to sterilize everything. Do I belong in the same category as the depraved and perverse?

The problem is not just with women. I’m sure we all remember quite vividly the tortures and deprivations our parents put us through. (For my part, we were only allowed to have one piece of candy a week, so my brothers and I spent much of Saturday morning in the candy aisle of the drug store contemplating what would last the longest.) KC spent his childhood being told not to indulge in his favorite things: sports, music, and even family; always to put study first. He was a talented athlete but was told “sports are for stupid people.” He didn’t have to attend family events because he was supposed to study. His father taught him to put study over his own relationship with his brother and sister. After he moved to the U.S., he didn’t even learn of his sister’s death right away; his father thought it would interfere with his schoolwork. For that KC will never forgive him. What kind of family is that? Sure, he has a doctorate. That degree doesn't hold the family together, or substitute for past neglects and hurts.

Aiden is heading to school, and I am still trying to figure out what place my years of education will play in my adult life. He’ll be entering a pressure cooker where he’ll be constantly compared to and ranked against his peers, admired for his English, and pushed to learn the next year’s worth of material after school. I’ll most likely be serving meals in the lunch room and helping kids cross the street safely during the day; cuddling my children to bed at night then donning my cape and gown and rushing out into the night of my thoughts, wrestling with the Bad Guys of Identity and the Management of Urine.

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