Monday, October 31, 2011

The Animals Weren't The Only Things On Display

Seoul offers a lot of great escapes nestled within the city limits for both adults and children.  It amazes me that these finds are often free.  Today, with friends, we discovered the Children's Grand Park at Gwangjin-gu Neung-dong, a wonderland of delight from a Music Fountain, to Camel rides, to a Zoo and Botanical Garden.  Weather permitting, which it was this weekend, they also have an Adventure Land playground, Outdoor Concert Hall, and Kids’ Auto Park.  It's a Disneyland of sorts, in the midst of natural surroundings.  Or, as natural as an Asian Black Bear can be in the middle of the city.

While visiting the Zoo, with elephants, bears, leopards and more, Braden and I had an experience, with which I am still struggling.  More importantly, I don't know how to make sense of it in a way I can explain to Braden.

Braden is the kind of kid who knows when he needs his own space and has had enough.  It was a learned acknowledgment, one that came from struggles and battles with both adults and children, one that grew as his language did, and with the guidance we provided.   'It looks like you might need some space right now, do you think you might want to play in your room for a while?'  Or, 'I think this is too overwhelming for you, why don't we find something else to play with?'  If it got really difficult, he often heard, 'I think it's best you find a quiet place until you can calm your body down.'  Eventually, he was able to know his own feelings, understand his own behavior, and create the space he needed for himself.

Today, at the zoo, there was a moment, where he felt tired and overwhelmed.  It had been a long afternoon and the Children's Grand Park was getting crowded.  On his own, he found a quiet nook, slightly off the beaten path, away from the animals and crowd and sat himself down in the sun.  It was a beautiful sight, so I promptly grabbed my camera to capture this precious moment.

Suddenly, without warning, as quickly as a wave can take you under, Braden was surrounded by a group of teenagers excited to see a young American boy.  Innocently, they simply wanted to say hello, ask his name, and where he came from.  But it happened too quickly and caught us both off guard.  Braden, suddenly became the biggest attraction in the zoo.  He had more people surrounding him than the animals in the exhibits.  Parents wanted to take photos with Braden and their young children, even as both kids (perhaps more attune to each other than the adults to them) protested.

The Mama bear in me, wanted to protect my baby cub and fight off the unsolicited intruders, but I was paralyzed.  Wanting to be respectful, both of these strangers and my son, I was torn.  How do you teach children kindness, respect and friendliness, when your own space is being invaded?  How can you be a role model to you child, when you yourself feel like lashing out.  Language is a real barrier.  'No, thank you!' sounds pretty universal, but it gets ignored.  Although a child in obvious distress should give you a clue to back away, this only seems to encourage more attention and further invasion of personal boundaries.

When Braden had had enough, like a wild animal, he began kicking his feet and shouting, 'No, Mommy, No!  Tell them to go away!'  Finally, defeated, he put his head down, hoping they'd just go away.  Clearly, when I saw they were not going to stop, I became the crazy parent who scoops away her child and makes a run for it!  Sadly, we couldn't run far before more attention followed.

How then, with a cultural and language barrier, and feeling stuck between respecting others and yourself, do you navigate these situations?  I don't have the answer, nor do I think I am doing a very good job right now.

How I explained it to Braden was like this;  'Remember when we went to Sesame Place this summer and you saw Elmo, Oscar and Big Bird?  Remember how excited you were to see them?'  Several enthusiastic nods odds of acknowledgement.  'Well, that same excited feeling you had when you saw Elmo is how some Koreans feel when they see you.  You are different and special to them.  Do you see how you are different?'  'No', was his response, which gave me a knot in my stomach.  Do I really need to point out the differences when my child sees everyone as the same and holds no judgment or prejudice?  Well, he knows his Zia Sabrina, who has special needs, is different; he has an eclectic group of friends of all races, cultures and nationalities and he knows gays, lesbians, and trans-genders.  Why then shouldn't I share what makes him different than Koreans?  So, I pointed out the difference in language, eyes, hair and skin color.  I further shared that just like Elmo, sometimes, when we really don't feel like all the attention, we just have to smile and say hello; but, that if it ever felt too hard, Mommy and Daddy would always be there to protect him.  He seemed satisfied with this explanation, but I'm not sure it works for me.

As I navigate through this experience of my own, I'm open to suggestions on how to do it better, because for me, Braden is all that matters!


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Every Country Needs an Ameri-town

I've been to Korea-town in both Los Angeles and New York, but I never thought Korea would have it's own Ameri-town.   Every country needs an Ameri-town and Itaewon is Korea's version.

From the moment I stepped out of the subway, I was surrounded by all things American:  fast food chains and retail stores line the strip from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, to Dunkin' Donuts, Coldstone Creamery, Subway, Quiznos, Outback Steakhouse, Nike, Reebok, of course a McDonald’s and my ultimate favorite; Aldo.  Starbucks was, as Starbucks typically is, strategically placed at both ends of the strip.   Most signs and logos were in English, but within this mass of American advertising, there were also little unique, Korean shops, boutiques and restaurants.

Non-Koreans were mixed within the crowds and English was overheard among the busy buzz of the neighborhood.  I felt oddly at home and out of place at the same time.  Interestingly enough, Braden asked, 'When are we going home, Mom?’  As if he too felt like a foreigner in this non-foreign world.

How quickly we adapt to our environment and notice even the slightest differences.  In Nowon-gu, our neighborhood, I expect to be the minority and I almost don't notice it anymore.  I know, that sounds so ridiculous after only living here for a little over a week, but today, when I noticed Americans, it caught me off guard.  As if I had, for a split second, forgotten where I was.

Braden and I will definitely come back to Itaewon; both for the familiarity and the ease of navigation.  It's busier, cleaner and more metropolitan than our neighborhood, nestled within the locals.  There's a greater mix of cultures, language and diversity and this, I want for Braden.  It’s nice to know, way out here in the mix of things in Seoul, that we can still find a little slice of America, a little bit of home.

The Seoul Metro Subway has 328 stations.  That means 328 places to visit, 328 places to explore, 328 places to get to before we move on...

We better keep riding. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life is Like a Picture Book

As newborns, we explore and learn about the world through what we hear, see, touch, taste and smell. From the moment we are born, we recognize our mother's voice and finally put a face to it.  Instinctively we know when we're hungry and tired, and rely on the very beings that nurture us to help us navigate the world.  Newborns don't quite know that a ball is a ball, and that it bounces and is round.  They can discover this through sight and touch, but it's only after we repeatedly hear that this object is a ball, that we know it's a ball.

As toddlers begin to grow, they learn that everything has a name and that names are made up of letters.  They begin to recognize their letters and see them in the world around them; words in a book, signs on the road, names of people. Before they recognize words, they recognize symbols and logos.

I remember Braden, at a very young age, recognizing a Starbuck's iced coffee cup on the counter of a store and saying, 'That's Mommy's Coffee.' Too young to read, he recognized the logo and the countless times I repeated, 'Please don't touch, this is Mommy's coffee.' And he knew what it said.

Now, at three, Braden is piecing together his letters and recognizing words.  Those same picture books that were read to him as a baby, he's able, to some degree, to begin reading to himself.  He recognizes that M-O-M is Mom, and D-A-D is Dad. He knows the sounds of each letter and is beginning to phonetically piece them together to sound out words.

And this is how it begins.  Our lives go from picture books to chapter books, as we navigate the world around us.

Recently, I find myself feeling much like a newborn again.  As I look around my world, nothing looks familiar anymore. I see words, but don't know what they say. I see things, but don't know what they are.  I am once again trusting the people around me to help me navigate my new world.

Today, I went to the grocery store for the first time and I felt lost and helpless.  I felt like a newborn must feel in the early months of life, how a toddler feels before he begins to read, how my parents must have felt immigrating to New York many years ago.

How do we make sense of a world that is so foreign to us?  Like babies, we take it all in.  We look, we smell, we touch and we taste until we know that a ball is a ball, and that it bounces and is round.  It may take a few tries, but eventually we learn.

So, for now, my life is like a picture book, and I'm taking it all in.


Monday, October 24, 2011

What's the Next Adventure?

Braden has always been a boy that likes adventure.  Since we moved to Korea, each morning he wakes up and one of the first things he says is, "What are we doing today, Mom?"

Even after a long day of being out and about, as we head home he cries out, "I don't want to go home.  I want to go everywhere."

"Oh we'll go everywhere, for sure Braden, but for now, it's time to go home."

Today, even with gray skies and a little chill in the air, it was no different.

So, today's adventure consisted of shopping at the opening market.  First on our agenda was buy a shopping bags with wheels.  With a lot of walking in our future, that is definitely a necessity.  This is the one Braden settled on.

Next stop, shopping for dinner.  Still unsure of what everything is, we were going to play a lot of guessing games.

With a bag of full of a lot of guesses, we headed home and made dinner.

Turned out...  let's just call it "experimental".  It got a thumbs up from Braden, which doesn't say much since he eats practically anything.

The best part certainly wasn't the dinner, but the afternoon filled with exploring, discovering and simply trying something new.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

First Impressions

As I start this journey of emerging myself in a new culture, not just visiting, but living within the culture for an indefinite period of time, I begin to think about first impressions.  What kind of impact do they have on our overall judgment of a person, place or thing?

Coming to the end of my first day living in Seoul, I begin to think about my first impressions and how they will affect my overall feelings about being here.   When you have first impressions, do you tend to focus on the positive or negative?  I guess for me, it probably has a lot to do with my preconceived ideas or stereotypes.

What I have come to  know, in just a short day, is that Koreans are extremely friendly.  I'm talking, over the top, out of your way friendly.  They do not take “No, Thank you” for an answer.  I think having a three year old with blonde hair by my side, certainly draws a lot of attention, but I’m surprised by all of the attention.  Most surprising is that the majority comes from Korean men.

From the moment I landed in Korea, I had Korean men offering to help me.  Perhaps it was the fact that a single mom with a three year old and seven suitcases in tow looked obviously needy, but I was touched by their kindness.  With little vocabulary, they simply nodded, smiled, picked up my suitcases and walked with me.  If I was in a store and asked a question, if the man/woman behind the counter didn’t understand me, they went out of their way to call for someone who could help.  Young teens stopped us on the street just to say, “Hello”, literally, just-to-say-hello.  Several men throughout the day also stopped to touch or pat Braden on the head.  Braden, not necessarily thrilled by this outpouring of attention said to me, “Mom, it’s rude for that man to just touch me without asking for permission.”  Ah- yes, how do you explain this to a three year old?   I want Braden to be friendly, open minded, spirited, and compassionate.  I want him to be loving, gracious, respectful and accepting of others, at the same time, I also want him to know and have his own boundaries.
So how do we teach our children to be open minded, friendly, compassionate, and accepting.   We walk the walk and talk the talk. We expose them to environments that nurture awareness of others. We teach them sand-box etiquette – which is; we don’t throw sand, we help to build the castle, we don’t knock it down or kick it, we share our shovel, we help each other and work together.  Most of all, we smile and are friendly.

Seoul reminds me a lot of Europe and there is a sense of comfort in that. The smells are different, unique to Korea, but I recognized the noises of the street, the buses and cars, the sound of children playing in the school yard, the local produce stands and cafes, and the hustle and bustle of old city living.  Of course there is the obvious difference of people and language, but the sounds are very familiar and reassuring.

It feels good to be here.  Braden seems happy.  The happiest I've seen him in a long time.  Perhaps it's because Mommy feels complete and settled.  Perhaps it's because I'm the happiest I've been in a long time too.  I'm looking forward to all that Seoul has to offer our family.  Nothing like jumping in the deep end and taking it all in.  We are definitely taking it all in...

Until the next adventure...


Friday, October 7, 2011

Finding the Stability in Moving

Moving to me is like having a fresh start. It’s finding a new home, making new friends, embarking on an adventure. Whether you move around the block, several miles away, clear across the country or world, each move offers new opportunities.

I grew up in the same house until I left for college. My mom still lives in my childhood home. For a long time after I left, I had the same room, with the same bed, the same posters and furnishings. I had a sense of regularity, consistency and stability. Not much changed and I always knew where everything was. The longer I stayed away, the appearance slowly began to change, but I always came back to the same home. I didn’t necessarily want the same stability in my own life, but it was nice to come home to it every now and again.

I enjoy moving! Not the physical part of it, of course, but the energy that comes with moving. The excitement of a starting over; whether that meant a new space, new job, or friends.

Having moved eighteen times since leaving for college, I have it down to a science. You accumulate less, use the bare necessities, and learn to travel light. I find that I’m more flexible, social, resourceful and adventurous. I’m more spontaneous and less attached to material things. I make friends easily and always manage to find my way around.

Moving when you’re single, or at least without children, doesn’t hold the same responsibilities.  It’s easy, effortless and a whole lot of fun.  I hadn’t intended to be a transplant.  I’m definitely not a gypsy or a nomad, but opportunities came and I followed my heart.

When I finally got married and had a baby, I really thought I would settle down. This meant buying a house and living happily-ever-after. Well, it’s definitely been happily, but not ever-after.

In our son’s three years, he will have moved three times, with at least another time anticipated in the not so distant future.

As a mother, you worry about the effects a move, or multiple moves will have on your children. Will Braden feel insecure, unstable, and anxious? Will he become fearful, distant, or detached? Will he miss out on making solid childhood friendships? Friendships that will last him a lifetime.

Experts may argue that moving is traumatic for a child and that children need stability and consistency in their lives; to which I agree, to some extent. But what about the adventure that moving brings? The life lessons, experiences, and growth that you gain from living in multiple places, cultures and worlds? What about the flexibility that you learn, the sense of freedom you develop, or the acceptance of differences?

Don’t get me wrong, I want Braden to be grounded, but does that mean he needs to be grounded to one place or that he needs to be attached to a house or things?

Children do need security and familiarity, but that shouldn’t come from their relationship with things. It’s the relationships they form with people in their lives that should help them feel secure and loved.

I want Braden to have friendships that will last him a lifetime, but that doesn't mean his friendships need to be local. What an amazing gift it will be for him to have friends, like his parents, that he has made through the course of his life, who are scattered all over the world. Friends that he can call, Skype, email or travel to see.

I have no doubt that these next couple of years will provide Braden with experiences that will shape his development in a positive way. He will learn multiple languages, experience unique cultures, foods and people. He will learn differences and acceptance.

I am, New York-born, Bostonian-bred, and Californian at heart.  Now, this city-sunshine girl is finding herself moving for the ninetieth time. This time, half way around the world not only to a new place, but also a new language and culture. This time, however, I get to do it with my husband and son.

And together, we'll find the stability in moving within ourselves.


Monday, October 3, 2011

When Hope Is Taken Away

From the time we are young we have hopes.  We hope we'll make friends at school.  We hope the cute boy will ask us out.  We hope to get into college.  We hope we'll get a good job.  We hope we'll fall in love, get married and have children.

As soon as we have children, our hopes become stronger.  From the moment we learn we're pregnant, we start hoping.  Hoping for a healthy baby, first and for most.

Then your hopes turn into wonder and dreams.  I wonder if it's a boy or girl?  I wonder who he/she will look like?  What color eyes will they have?  Will they be smart, funny, shy or popular?

You start to imagine the day they are born, their first steps, words or loose tooth.  Their first day of school, first sleepover, prom and graduation.  Their wedding day and the birth of their own children.  How quickly this little being, you haven't met or even know, fills your mind and heart.

Then, just a quickly as you found out, you realize that this time it wasn't met to be.

The thoughts and feelings that overwhelming took over, don't seem to leave you as quickly as they came.  Now, you're left feeling empty and angry.  Angry because there is no real explanation.  Angry because there was nothing you did or didn't do that could have prevented it.  Angry because you waited too long.  Angry because life took you in a direction you hadn't intended.  Angry because you're just a statistic!

Your doctors, midwife, family and friends all try to console you.  'Things happen for a reason", "A miscarriage is your body's way of knowing that this baby, no matter what, was not viable", "You're lucky, you already have a healthy baby", "At least you know you can get pregnant, you can always try again."

We are often reminded how precious life is and to be grateful for what we do have.  Growing up with a sister with special needs,  9/11, when my father passed away, and the birth of my son, were all reminders for me.  But every day life, our egos, busy schedules,  and our desire to have more, sometimes get in the way and we just forget.  We forget to focus on the good and to be grateful for the abundance we do have in our lives.

When I finally let go of the anger and focused on abundance, I got a strong sense of what I needed to do, where I needed to be, and for what was truly important in my life.  It was then, that I realized, Braden and I needed to be in Korea!  Nothing else mattered more than our family and being together.

As much as I hate to say it, things really do happen for a reason.  Our loss, propelled me to make a decision I was too scared to make on my own.  A decision I wouldn't have made if it hadn't been for the gentle reminder that life is just too precious.

So now, I hope for ...   togetherness.  I am grateful for my husband, my son and all that we have!