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!