Thursday, September 25, 2008

Election '08

I've been debating internally about writing something on the U.S. Presidential election, but what could I add to the current coverage? Apparently writing about issues isn't effective because people would rather believe lies and in any case go with their gut instinct on whether they think the candidate is like them.

So click here for another option.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

the mirror is god

After reading Carol's post I think I felt - as I am sure many who read this will also identify with - that indeed so much of our world focuses on the ageless, gorgeous super woman that those of us who - oops - just happen to fall into the category of err... 'normal' need to be reminded that we are the majority here - and hell, ageing and being obsessed with something a little more meaningful than your appearance is not only ok, but should be encouraged!

This got me thinking about my day today. In particular my lunch appointment.
I had an interesting lunchtime conversation, with a very dear woman who just happens to also be the mother of the man who I quite like. The man I quite like is Korean - yet he was born in and lives in America, so like me, we both feel a part of Korea and yet we are not completely accepted in Korea. I think this is one of the reasons we connect.
Anyway, back to lunchtime. The woman in question who I will refer to as M, is I guess the closest thing to an almost mother-in-law, almost mother, almost all knowing one on all issues of Korean and overseas importance I have, and I know she cares about me and looks out for me - this much is quite obvious - which is a great and wondrous thing when I sometimes feel my family is very far away.

M's first comment when she saw me today was "Oh you look so pretty!" I liked this. "Wow, thank you!" I replied - really feeling that this was a genuine compliment, not just like the shop assistants who tell you everything you try on is pretty (which I am quite willing to believe until I notice they are not even looking at me when they say it...hmm...hang on a minute...) M's eyes lit up, she reached out for my hand, and the next compliment was fast on the heels on the first. "That's a nice hairstyle - it suits you!" Wow! This was just great. I remembered at this moment just how much I do enjoy meeting up with M.
It was later that I remembered that this is how we always start, and then as we get more familiar and cozy with each other again over lunch - after we have caught up on each other's lives - another dimension of conversation intimacy starts to surface. The no holds barred, honest-put-it-out-there intimacy that sometimes is not all that comfortable for me.

"Why aren't you eating?" she asked. "I am eating!" I replied. "See?" I took another mouthful. "I am eating, and mmmmm, it's delicious!" This was true. Lunch was delicious, and although I know she knows I am quite a slow eater, it seemed today that my lunch and the amount I was eating and the speed at which it was disappearing was under very close scrutiny. It was putting me off my food.
"You need to eat more." was her reply. And everytime I opened my mouth to say something, she would look concerned and repeat again "Eat!" which I think was my cue to stop talking, 'cos this was not talking time, this was serious eating time.
This is not all that unusual. I know whenever I eat with my Korean friends - especially the older generations - even by the ahjuma serving the food at restaurants - I am told to eat up, to eat more, to eat until I can barely roll myself away from the table. Constant plate to mouth contact needs to be made, with hearty mouthfuls and lots of "Mmmm, delicious!" sounds accompanying the meal. Only then can most Korean women - especially ahjuma and halmoni - feel happy. This I can understand.

What I was not sure I completely agreed with was the direction of our conversation.
I was supposed to eat and eat a lot. This was because if I ate a little bit, I would get fat, and apparently I am already on the cusp of or maybe even have tilted right over in to the world of big fat person, and this is a major concern. I can see it in her eyes, and I can read it on her face. Actually I don't even have to be that socially on to it, M usually feels quite comfortable just telling me. " You are a little bit fat. You need to lose some weight and then you will look so pretty - even more pretty!"
Ok, I do agree that being healthy is great. I am all for that. But I want to be a healthy weight to be healthy...not to look pretty or even more pretty. And to tell the truth, I don't think I am in the dangerously obsese category just yet.
So, the theory continued that eating three big meals was going to get me thinner. Thin people eat a lot. Fat people will just get fatter if they don't eat much.
I wasn't sure how to argue around this, but I did manage to interject that I was full right now, so that's why I had stopped eating. She looked worried. If this was indicative of my usual meal size, I was on the way to being a big fat mama in a very short space of time indeed.
"But you have stopped eating chocolate now, right?" This was delivered with the continuing concerned look in her eyes as M looked from my plate to my face, then back to my plate. I felt that if I couldn't say yes to this, it would be serious disaster zone. Red alert red alert, not only is she not eating big meals, but it seems she is supplementing these with the occasional(or not so occasional) piece of chocolate!
"Yes I have," I replied, and I could see the instant relief. The chocolate consumption had been a huge concern for a while, and when I said I was quitting chocolate - something that I had decided to do quite independent of the worried looks and the not so subtle hints dropped by M over the last year or so - I could tell that she felt her hand in this, and that now she could relax a little. Maybe there was hope for a thinner, even more pretty me.

The conversation continued in this vein for most of lunch. I didn't really know how to take a lot of what she said, although I am used to talking with her like this. I guess what I didn't like about it all, was that these comments are hard to ignore, and instead of leaving the restaurant feeling great after a good catchup with M, I came away feeling doubtful of myself, and convinced that there was something wrong with big fat me.

I don't want to make out that M is an evil character, she is not. Her way of looking at appearance and judging me accordingly is hard to understand. Hard for me to understand.

I find myself comparing her style with my own parents, and the way they have always reinforced that appearance was not important. What is inside you is the biggest part of you - and should be constantly worked on, developed and treasured. Being healthy is cool. Staring in the mirror for extended periods of time (as in longer than it takes to brush your teeth) is not. The outer you will shine if you are healthy on the inside...well, that's another one of these theories anyway, and one that I am more inclined to believe.

So, I just wanted to comment that although I do feel that living in Korea your appearance is placed under a ridicuously powerful microscope, I can't let it control my own feelings of fab-ness and self-worth. And if anything, hopefully this can provide an alternative for Korean women who are equally - if not more so - bombarded by the images of thinness and beauty - often unrealistic and unobtainable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One more reason to wear heels. And a bandana.

I was recently confronted by an ugly truth: I am getting older. I’m not quite sure if this means that I am ugly, but the realization certainly was. I’ve also realized that motherhood does not make a woman more fashionable. More womanly, perhaps. Wiser, almost certainly – but not more fashionable. Fashion takes time and money and energy - things that most mothers, myself included, often experience a dearth of. I manage to brush my teeth and make sure my clothes are not stained with grape juice and sticky rice before I leave the house in the morning. For months now I’ve been experiencing some low-grade melancholy about both my dowdiness and my frugality, and worry about my looming 34th birthday. I’ve been wanting a haircut, an exercise regimen, a day at the spa, a new wardrobe, a snappy scarf and new shoes. Better skin tone and smaller pores. I’ve been worrying about what 44 is going to feel like, if 34 feels this much like a failure.

All this became part of an epiphany – or a blog post if you will – a few days ago while I waited at the elevator with my co-workers. I attempted to make cheery chitchat by complimenting one of my younger-but-born-in-the-same-decade workmates on her outfit: a billowing, gauzy frock that looked like it had just been worn on a runway, complete with perfectly tailored pants and spotless heels. Impeccable hair spun into an impossible bun - held together with a single, shining pin - and glowing makeup. It was truly impressive, and clearly required a lot of time, planning and long skinny limbs. Oh, and money. I was envious but didn’t want to show it. I tried to sound genuine when I complimented her.

At first her response was gracious. She thanked me and
told me where she had bought her clothing (a swank place popular with hip young professionals) and which I knew only by name, but not by wallet. At this stage in my life I find I am more Gmarket and less Zara, if you know what I mean. But then for some unfathomable reason she peered at me (narrow eyed and smugly) for a few seconds before settling on my shirt and said:

“Oh. Um, I like your shirt. It’s kinda … nice …”.

Kinda. And trailed off dramatically. And cleared her throat. And then pushed the elevator button again.

And that was all I needed, folks. Seriously.

You think I’m going to say I punched her in her fake nose, but I didn’t. That’s not what happened. What actually happened is that any discomfort and worry I felt about my own recycled fashion and Irish thighs vanished like a blemish on Photoshop. And I laughed. Deeply and well. You know - the kind of laughter that just *feels good*. The kind of laughter that just doesn’t happen often enough. It was liberating.

I didn’t feel bad at all because I suddenly saw how ludicrous we were. And how unimportant our fashion was. There we were, standing at the elevator in one of the most respected institutions in the country, taking a break from our work – a job I know we both worked very hard to get - and the only thing we could find to talk about was clothing? I was wasting my time by being insecure, and she was wasting my time by being catty. We should have been holding hands and gazing into each other eyes instead of eyeing each other’s trousers and bags like enemies. If there were teams then we would most certainly be on the same one.

Of course, I’m not sure if there are teams, or if there is a them vs. us. I still don’t know if I’m a radical or liberal feminist. I don’t know if I’m Paglia or Wolf, Prada or Pucci or Palin or Obama*– but I’m sure I don’t want to fight about it - and I don’t want to get distracted by pettiness and smallness. I was never that kind of person, not even as teenager, and I certainly don’t want to start now. I don’t want to be that kind of role-model for my daughter.

And here’s another point: I’m sure that she is going to need role models. Because feminism may not be dead but it is confused right now, and has been for a while. As Rebecca Walker (a few of us around here read her, I guess) said: “if Feminism was Wal-Mart, and had as many decades-old unresolved grievances against it, it would have long ago been bankrupt”. So true.

I’m not sure why we do it. Tear each other down and beat each other up, I mean. The theories are varied: genetics, evolutionary psychology, environment, effects of pop culture, lack of role models, etc … and I certainly have no revolutionary answers but I know that the last thing women need is more infighting, squabbling and jealousy. Really. Because we still have this shit to deal with, and this and, of course, this video reveals a lot too. Pun not intended.

The things that have been causing me to fret: age, baby fat, laugh lines and saggy breasts are actually the things that I should be most proud of. Or, more honestly, I should be proud of the processes that brought them about. And I shouldn’t be just complimenting my younger workmates on their fashion choices and accessories, I should be engaging them in real dialogue about the things that we have in common, and the very real challenges we all face as women: glass ceilings, childcare issues and leering male workmates. And unrealistic expectations. From everyone – maybe even ourselves.

So go ahead, have a good day - and wear whatever you want.

*well, ok. I do know the answer to that one.

This is Carol’s first post on Naked in the Sauna. She’ll be back soon with new shoes and a nursing bra.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Becoming what we're called.

I stole this title from an essay by Alice Walker about being called “dude.” I don’t really have any problem with the word “dude” but it is a lovely essay. But I am only slowly getting used to be being called “ajuma.” The title makes me cringe a bit, because I don’t want to be automatically incorporated into notions of bad driving, rabid consumption, visor-wearing, etc. (no offense Queen Min).

As some of you know, we have recently moved to China. I’ve written a bit on my own blog about how we’ve leveraged the knowledge and connections in the Korean community to hit the ground running here, but last week I really experienced the power of the ajuma network in particular.

Last Friday I took my older son Aiden for his school health check. The two of us moved as one wave towards the entrance of the school with all the other new students and their parents only to halt abruptly a few feet through the door as everyone in front of us stopped to survey the surroundings and figure out where to go. I said, “jian kang jian cha” to the matron standing there and she pointed me to one of the doors to the left. I went into a small room where parents and kids were crowded around a woman with a cashbox and a roster. The mom directly in front of me was a foreigner, I could tell, since her Chinese wasn’t smooth, but I didn’t know where she was from until the two kids next to her started arguing with each other in Korean. Look, I said to Aiden, Korean kids! He watched them from a position mostly hidden behind my body.

I had to fight my way into the cashier’s attention and by that time they were gone. I paid my money for “Jang Xiong Zai” and she told me where to go but I didn’t understand the directions. I figured I’d follow the flow of people, but after stepping out of the office I realized there was no flow, people were going in all different directions. I stood there in the lobby a little lost, Aiden looking at me with utter faith that I would figure things out. I waited until the people who had been behind us came out and asked them where we were supposed to go. That mom also didn’t know and went in to question the cashier again. She came back out and said something to me that I didn’t understand but I followed her and her daughter down the long hall into the gymnasium.

The gymnasium was set up with stations all around the perimeter: one table for blood, one for urine and stool samples, one for a vision test, one for blood pressure, etc. The room was full of kids, some with their parents and some in large groups with a teacher. I took my fa piao (receipt) and showed it to the people manning the front table who checked Jang Xiong Zai’s name off the list and gave me a stack of papers. She instructed me (I think) to visit each station and then bring the paper back to her.
At this point I began to feel like I could use an ally. Not that the situation itself called for any combat, but I felt I needed a cushion from the mass of people and noise. The Korean mom and her two kids were at the blood test station close to us so I went up to her and said, “최송하지만, 저희가 따라가도되요?" I picked the right person. She was surprised and a little confused to find that I spoke Korean, but not as surprised as people usually are in Korea. Her boys are twins, the same age as Aiden, but they tested into different grades, one into 3rd grade and one into 2nd grade (but not in the same class as Aiden). It turns out they live in the apartment complex next to us. (I REALLY met the right person.) The kids immediately started joking around and punching each other; they were already friends. They watched each other with fascination and a bit of pressure during the blood draw and none of them cried.

We went as a group through all the tests, meeting other Korean moms and their kids along the way. The twins’ family have lived in Shanghai for 2.5 years already and their mom (who had her youngest child, now 2, here in Shanghai) was familiar with medical terminology and the system of health checks. If I had been by myself I could have done it (I took Max for his kindergarten tests at the local hospital by myself and survived psychologically unscathed) but meeting her, the other moms, and those two boys made the process so much more comfortable. And it made the prospect of going to this new school seem far far better for Aiden. Standing in line for the chest x-rays the Korean moms and I were working out which taekwondo class to send the kids to and explaining which homework was supposed to be done during vacation. There was one pale little girl and her mom standing in line in front of me who was sort of caught in the middle of this group of Koreans.

After the health checks they came to our place to play with Legos and the Game Cube. We ordered 자장면 and spent hours talking about different schools, about language acquisition, about siblings and birth order, about raising boys, and other typical ajuma topics.

On Sunday we reported to the school for orientation. I met the twins’ mom in the room to pay for taekwondo and bus service. She had gotten there earlier and was waiting for me to sign up for taekwondo too. I went to pay for the bus first and found that Aiden’s name wasn’t on the list. The woman there told me that if he wasn’t on the list I must not have registered properly and he would be put on the waiting list. I started to get upset; I had told them we needed bus service, how could I possible take him to school every day and send Max on time too? The twins’ mom saw I was in trouble and came over to help me argue, and a few other moms followed. Them stepping in to do the talking for a little bit gave me some time to collect myself and recover my Chinese a bit; being upset doesn’t do anything for my language ability. Eventually I went to talk to the admissions director who knows me and she sent her assistant who told the bus people to let Aiden on the bus and that was that. More rigid here than in Korea and you have to know the right person to talk to; I have a lot to learn about negotiation.

But I was impressed by these Korean moms. They seem to speak Korean really well, they know how to finesse a situation, they know when to raise their voices and argue and they know when to sit back, smile, and pal around with the person. KC calls his “전투" Chinese (“combat” Chinese), not because it is necessarily confrontational but because it’s language learned in the trenches, necessary for negotiation but also ready to dig in until one side gets what it needs. Having just spent the last week relying on KC’s tutor to help us resolve issues with our shipment and our broken air conditioning, I was impressed.

We met Aiden’s teacher and received his uniform. It turns out that the pale girl who had been in the x-ray line in front of us is in Aiden’s class and I got to meet her parents who are Taiwanese but spent years living in Boston. I liked them very much and reflected that being in that bubble of Korean speakers had prevented me from making friends with anyone else -- we had spent all that time standing in line next to each other but didn’t actually meet until I was without my new entourage.

Tuesday was the second day of school, and after hammering out further bus problems on Monday we reported to our new bus stop at 7:20 sharp. The bus arrived and Aiden stepped on, then a mom and boy came running up from behind. What have we here? Another Korean! I spent about 20 minutes talking to that mom after the bus left; she had just moved to this side of town from Puxi and has lived in Shanghai for about a year, but was full of worries after switching her son’s school. I told her I had to go take a level test at Marine University where I had enrolled to take Chinese classes and somehow (did I convince her?) she decided to enroll too, so we met a third woman (also Korean, but young and relatively newly married, no kids) and went together. Then we had lunch and ended up talking for 5 hours afterwards. I introduced her to KC’s tutor, who came over to the apartment to teach KC, and she promptly hired KC’s tutor to hire her own children.

Next day. I had to pay the twins’ mom back some money I had borrowed to pay for bus service (yes, I was unprepared, despite finding nearly every day that I need to carry more cash because China is such a cash society) and I thought I should introduce the twins’ mom to the mom I had just met; their sons are in the same class. The three of us enrolled at Marine University were planning to meet and go and buy books together anyway so I asked the twins’ mom if she wanted to come to the meeting place and 인사 to the others. She ended up coming along for the ride and again we spent about five hours talking, adding another mom (whose son is also in the same 3rd grade class) around 11am. The group was snowballing, picking up new members here and there, and I was playing an active part in making that happen, hooking up the people I know and actively incorporating them. I felt empowered by the process; in less than a week I had found a community to fall back upon. After the bus problems I hadn’t had any big problems but the 3rd grade moms were having issues with uniforms, schedules, and classes and they set about pooling their resources to solve them.

This is the information gathering power of the ajuma network. It was a network I benefited from while I was living in Korea, without working very hard to create and sustain it. The neighborhood ajumas had already done all the footwork to figure out the best soccer programs, swimming lessons, teachers, the way to get certain homework assignments done, etc., and I just leeched the knowledge from then, offering my English expertise in return. Now I find myself here in China actively hooking up moms I know from different places who have similar anxieties or interests, building layers of a support system that help me deal with the largely unknown Chinese aspects of living here but also buffer me from those aspects. It is both a blessing and a source of danger, as it allows me to get a lot of things done in a short time (we’ve only been here a month) but decreases my need to interact with locals.

I guess I am an ajuma after all.