Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflecting on a Racial Rant

When I was on my first summer urban project back in 1988, just after my first year of grad school, I told an African-American friend who was wearing a headscarf that she looked like Aunt Jemima.  She gazed directly in my eyes and said, “It’s because I love you Kathy that I will forgive you for that extremely offensive comment.” 

I can’t remember what I said in response—I hope I apologized.  But I remember not even knowing why I had offended.  When I confessed what happened to a couple other African-American friends who’d known me a lot longer, they both said she had been extremely gracious (which I knew) and filled me in.

Last week, James Choung, the director of InterVarsity’s Asian-American Ministry sent out a video as InterVarsity’s official response to UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s Youtube race rant against Asians in the library. Because I tend to be completely out of it much of the time (just ask my kids—extends to my clothing, my humor, my music taste, as well as current events), I didn’t realize there had been a youtube race rant until I got James’s video response in my inbox.

I watched his video, but didn’t watch Alexandra's video because I was rushed and frankly, I didn’t want to get mad.

But then when colleagues asked me what I thought we should do, I realized it wasn’t very good to watch a response and have no idea what incited it. Click here for Alexandra Wallace’s youtube video. Click here for James Choung's response.

After watching both videos again (James’s made a lot more sense the second time around), I called my girls over and asked if they’d like to see the videos. I wanted to expose them to what’s happening in the wider world, raise James’ concepts of Biblical justice AND reconciliation, and show them yet again how easy it is to make big internet mistakes. The version we watched of Alexandra's video (which I think has been taken down now) had over 6 million hits.

When we were done, they both said, “Well that’s offensive!” They didn’t say much about James’s video, but they did get how Alexandra had just ruined her life by doing something she thought was funny but others found deeply insulting.

Because my kids are bi-racial, I always wonder what’s happening within them around ethnicity, knowing that I will never really understand what that feels like. Perhaps I encouraged a schizophrenic identity when I asked, “Does your White side feel something different from your Chinese side?”

Ling shook her head, “Both sides are offended—what she said was just wrong!”

Ling’s right. What Alexandra said was wrong, and we all should raise objections no matter what our race or ethnicity. Given the outpouring of youtube videos in response, it’s heartening to see how so many have. It’s even more heartening to see how many Asians have responded with videos of their own.

The year before I went on that urban project, I served on a task force to revamp the Northwestern undergraduate experience.   Asians weren’t even on the radar of the administration as an ethnic group. As a student representative on the race relations committee, I asked why we weren’t looking at ethnic relations outside the Black/White issue. The committee chair admitted it was a huge oversight, but we only had time to really look into Black and White relations, and would make a recommendation to look at other ethnic groups after the task force was over. 

I didn’t even push back—I got it!  Northwestern had recruited a 10% Black student body, the only Big 10 school to do so, and we wanted that to work out.  There just wasn't much energy for the "model minority" and Latinos were so off the screen that I never even thought my Mexican or Colombian friends were anything but White.

But the problem with Asians not being recognized as a minority ethnic group, was that unlike my Latino friends, we couldn't pass as White.  Therefore, folks could thoughtlessly say all sorts of hurtful things about us and not even think they were being racist—and when I say folks, I mean people of all ethnic backgrounds. And because culturally it felt inappropriate to shame the other, or threaten the friendship, much of the time, I, and my fellow Asians didn’t push back.

Seeing hundreds of young Asians use their voices in humorous, often profane Youtube ways, makes me feel we’ve come a long way baby. . .

But yet. . .

Over the past several months, I’ve been interviewing colleagues about their experiences around multiethnicity in an effort to help the Graduate/Faculty Ministry to move forward. It’s been a wonderful process, really encouraging. But what’s very very clear, is that anyone who’s been in this game at all has made mistakes. . . often a lot of them. . . including me.

Over the years, I have managed to say ignorant, hurtful and misguided things to every ethnic group out there, often with the best intentions.  My Aunt Jemima comment is only one of many examples.

In my case, as well as the cases of so many colleagues I interviewed, there was someone, a friend, a colleague, a partner, who was willing to say “It’s because I love you that. . . “ Without the grace and space of these friends who were willing to mentor, challenge and guide, none of us would have gotten anywhere. The temptation would have been to hide and give up.

In American culture, race is such a loaded concept, filled with real human experiences of pain, shame and humiliation, all imbedded within a politically correct culture. And I know that culture well. 

When I wanted to study the interracial friendships of Whites, Asians, Blacks and Latinos for my doctoral dissertation, and even had started collecting data on all four groups, an advisor told me off the record that I was committing academic suicide by studying Blacks and Latinos—that I could study Asians because I was Asian, that everyone could study Whites, but that it wasn’t safe to study any ethnic groups I didn’t belong to.

I had felt that lack of safety. Despite years of enjoying very close African American friends, despite participating in and even directing several summer urban projects that focused on racial reconciliation, when I walked into the Black Students Association to survey students, I felt the wall of their suspicion. Observing my Chinese face, these students didn’t know I might be a “good gal,” or that I loved and was loved by many from their ethnic background, or that my passion was racial reconciliation. They saw no reason to trust me, and frankly, no reason to cooperate. And there were no words I could say that would quickly build a bridge between us.

I feel sad for Alexandra Wallace who’s received death threats and withdrawn from school. She’s apologized at least twice, but her youtube video lives on, even if her original post doesn't. How do you apologize to 6 million people who’ve watched you parody the Chinese language and insult Asian families? How do you build bridges when your words unleashed a tsunami of destruction, mostly for your own life? How does Alexandra experience the reconciliation that James, in his video, holds out as a hope for her? Jesus will forgive her, but will the rest of the world?

Thank God my friends and partners were willing to stick with me despite my mistakes. And I pray that God will bring Alexandra some Asian friends who will enter a conversation with, “It’s because I love you that. . .”

What are your thoughts on race?  How do you teach your children about our fragmented society?  What have been your experiences of "foot in mouth" or marginalization?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Joy of Human Development

My former boss used to say he thought I’d end up in management someday because “you like to develop people.”

I’d always look at him quizzically because I didn’t really know what he saw or what he meant by that. Other than the obvious fact that I have 3 degrees from Northwestern University in Human Development and Social Policy, I didn’t get what he meant.

But I think I do now. Because watching my son’s theater career has been the joy of watching a young human develop.

Now I don’t want to give any wrong impressions about my son’s future as the next Daniel Radcliffe. Both Scott and I were shy as children, shyness is apparently a genetic trait, and so all 3 of our kids have suffered from a double dose of genetically induced timidity. Although all 3 are noisy and raucous at home, they’re all described by teachers as “the quiet kid” at school.

Last winter, Ren-Ren tried out for the spring play and didn’t get in. I was surprised, because I had coached him at home (I have the frustrated inner thespian within), and he’d done a pretty good job. Plus there’s little competition for boys. But he told me he had been overcome by stage fright, so I think my little boy just did not let his light shine.

All this was made worse because I didn’t sign him up for skiing, thinking he’d get into the play, and the program was full by the time we got his rejection letter. So he didn’t get the play AND he didn’t get to ski.

Audrey 2
Last summer, he wanted to do 4 weeks of summer theater camp culminating in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He played a reporter who got eaten by Audrey II, the man-eating plant.

When we saw the show, I was glad to see that he said his lines loudly and clearly—all 4 of them--but somewhat aghast to observe all the other times he was on stage. The entire cast sang and danced for many numbers throughout the show, so he was on stage a lot, giving me ample opportunity to observe his theatrical talents—which frankly, were lacking.

Ren looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Frozen.

He hardly sang, he hardly moved. When everyone else was smiling and waving their hands around their heads, he looked stricken and waved his hands around his waist. Afterwards, Scott shook his head and whispered to me, “I just think he takes more after me, introverted and kind of shut down.”

I thought, “Oh crap, now that the director’s seen him perform all summer, she’s never going to let him into the spring show.”

But of course, we didn’t say anything to Ren, just “Good job! Did you have fun?”

So I was nervous about Ren’s determination to audition for the spring play. Despite how much I encourage my kids to take risks and face their fears, I didn’t want him crushed again. I went ahead and signed him up for skiing to prevent the double whammy of disappointment.

The weekend before his audition, I was in San Francisco for my uncle’s 80th birthday celebration. Ren wanted more coaching, so when I discovered my aunt had wireless internet, we Skyped across the nation and spent 40 minutes working on his monologue (Use your arms! Gestures! Move your body!).

He got in.

Not only did he get in, he got the part of Robert, chief steward to the king. He said it was the 2nd worst boy part, but with 24 lines, it sure beats almost all “good” girl parts out there.

And he did great! He enunciated. He spoke loudly and dramatically. He even remembered every now and then to gesture throughout his 24 lines. Even better, when on stage for a big whole cast musical number, his hands actually waved at the level of his head, and he kicked his heels higher on a Charleston move than the kids around him.

I’m so proud of him. He may never be a great actor (and despite my inner thespian, the realist in me hopes he won’t pursue that career), but he faced some fears, worked on some skills and grew.

He developed.

True Blog Confessions

I don’t know what I’m doing.

Literally. When Scott set up this blog for me almost 7 years ago, he wanted me to delve in because he knew blogging was the wave of the future. After all, he works in IT. He believed me when I said 8 years ago that I sensed God calling me to write. He also believed me when I said God gave me no guarantees about being published, just that I’m supposed to write. So he said, “Blog!”

I said, “No, I’m going to write a book or two or three.” You see where that got me. . .

I couldn’t fathom blogging—I’m the type of writer who likes to edit until I think something sounds good before sending it into the world. Overwhelmed by kids, work, friends, laundry, grocery shopping, and my latest identity crisis, I couldn’t see putting any content up regularly, and so I didn’t.

But I’ve finally taken his advice, my New Years resolution was to blog at least once a week, and several nights ago I finally figured out how to find stats on my blog (click on “stats”—took me 7 years to figure that one out). And to my joy, I find that at this moment in time there are 3611 pageviews of my blog to date. Of course, Ling pointed out that between her clicking on my blog, and me clicking on my blog, we probably make up at least half of those pageviews.

Now I realize to most bloggers out there, 3611 would be a pitiful number—a sign that they’re a complete failure and should stop blogging right now. But wow! I just feel grateful that somebody’s actually reading my stuff—because to a writer, there’s nothing more gratifying!

Not only that, but I also have learned that when you click on “audience” I can see the countries where folks have read Plumbing Demons including the Netherlands, Australia (I know who you are!), Russia, India, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan!

But here are the things I’m still clueless about:

· Comments: I love them! Send them! But if I write back, do you get them? Is it like Facebook where everyone gets your comments? Do people check back? I haven’t responded to comments just because I don’t know how it works.

· Photos: How do you get an online photo to fit the blog? Obviously haven’t gotten it right with the Audrey II below. No idea. Is it possible on blogspot to imbed the photo? Can you put up more than one photo? No idea. I’m adding photos because a blog on how to write a blog said you need pictures—but if the photo doesn’t fit, isn’t that worse?

· Gender: For all 7 of you guys out there who’ve told me you read my blog, thank you, thank you, thank you! Does the fact that I changed the look to a girly pink/red/orange scheme mean your manhood will be assaulted by reading this blog now? Am I supposed to think about the male audience? No idea.

· Cooking: Stats also shows me that my recipes are not the most popular reads—there goes my future as a Cooking Channel chef! (Kai constantly asks if that’s my biggest aspiration) Do I dump the food? But then how will anyone get my world famous granola recipe that may someday go up?

· Links: I notice others put in hotlinks to websites. Don’t know how to do that either.

So Scott, you were right—you had foresight and wisdom and I’m sorry for not listening to you.

If anyone else has any thoughts, ideas, suggestions, please send them this way. It’s nice to know I’m not just sending posts out into the abyss of the blogosphere where they turn and twist alone in cyberspace wind.

Maybe I’ll even comment back.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Made it Through the Weekend. . . Sort of

I made it through the weekend without fighting with my daughter, which means we’ve managed 3 whole days of not fighting after a business trip! I knew it would be challenging. Scott was at the monastery for a long-sought after and well-deserved retreat of silence. I had 5 Sleeping Beauty shows to get Ren-Ren through while also serving on the make-up committee. Stress was going to be high. And it was.

Here’s an example:

Context: Friday afternoon after school

She: I got my report card!

Me: Great! Let me see it! (I look at it, see she got 2 A+s, 1 A and 3 A-s) Wow! Good job!

She: What? That’s all you’re going to say? I got straight As and all you can say is good job?

Me: What do you want me to say?

She: You did great! You’re terrific! What an achievement!

Me: You did great! You’re terrific! What an achievement! (and I wasn’t even faking it, I tried to put genuine enthusiasm into every word) You’re awesome! There. Was that good enough?

She: (Grudgingly nods, then looks up with a glint her eyes) Yeah, but most parents whose child brings home a report card like that would get them a present!

She was not happy to hear my adamant no. Nor my eventual, “You’re trying to fight with me again, and if you continue, you’re going to have to go to your room.” But that type of constant negotiation is how I made it through the past days without fighting. It also helped that I spent a lot of time drawing evil diva eyes and beaver faces instead of being home to engage with my daughter.

But despite avoiding the typical after-travel brawl with my child, I still ended up losing it in a rant on Saturday night after making it through 3 Sleeping Beauty shows, getting 7 loads of laundry done in between shows, whipping up a healthy dinner of leftovers and Asian salad, watching “Megamind” with them, and even letting them watch the special features.

By the time we finished “Meet the characters of Megamind” I’d had it. I was done with kids. And when they took their own sweet time and whined about bringing their dishes upstairs, I started the Mom rant they’re all too familiar with, the Chinese mother’s “After all I’ve done for you and all the special features I’ve let you watch, you still can’t give me even a little bit of cooperation and obedience???”

The problem with ranting and raving like a lunatic is that it actually works—they actually start moving in a way they didn’t when I asked nicely. All 3 kids hopped up, grabbed dishes, cups, salad bowls and flatware. When we got upstairs and the dishwasher cycle had just finished and everything was still burning hot, I ordered them to put the dishes away anyway.

And they did. Without even complaining too much about their tender fingers. And then they loaded their dirty dishes in the dishwasher while I stood with my arms crossed glaring at them.

That’s the problem. Like my daughter, when there’s been the right stimuli, I’ve got to fight also. It's usually not anxiety that gets me going, instead it's exhaustion or chaos or feeling attacked. After all that laundry, Sleeping Beauty and "Megamind," their indolence felt like the confluence of all 3.

For how smart my kids are, for how many As they've managed to amass, they just haven’t figured that out yet, even when I tell them to their faces.

I think we're over the "fighting after travel" dilemma, so back to my giving up criticism/ranting/mean nasty voice Lenten fast.

Lord have mercy!

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Corned Beef and Criticism Update

12.5 hours after flying home, I haven’t yet fought with my daughter who always picks a fight when I travel, even though she’s taking another MCAS test today. My strategy thus far has involved employing her languages of love.

Unfortunately for me, everyone in my family likes all 5 languages of love Dr. Gary Chapman writes about in his book The 5 Love Languages:

  • quality time
  • gifts
  • words of affirmation
  • physical touch
  • service
I don’t really resonate with any of them (except maybe a little with words of affirmation, but because I’m Chinese I don’t know how to accept a compliment so praise makes me squirm—just realized I receive written affirmation a lot better for that reason!).

Years ago, when I helped lead an Asian-American Student leadership conference, we had a session on languages of love using a book (unfortunately out of print) that described about 16 love languages. The vast number of possible love languages was really helpful because some Asian-Americans assumed their parents didn’t love them because they showed no physical affection and expressed no verbal affection either. Looking through the list, they could see how providing for the loved one, giving gifts, and acts of service were also viable love languages, albeit not the ones seen often on American TV.

My preferred love languages according to that list were

  • Being on the same side
  • Emotional intimacy

Here’s my love language strategy thus far.

  • · Quality Time: I purposefully didn’t go to the gym this morning so I could be with her the morning of yet another MCAS test. (And also because I hurt my back during the trip and so can’t Zumba. Yes, my problem back survived shoveling about 7 gazillion tons of snow this winter only to be brought low by shoving my suitcase in the overhead compartment)
  • · Physical Touch: I woke my daughter by crawling into bed with her and hugging her, squeezing in time to my other daughter’s piano practice piece. I personally would find this incredibly annoying if someone did it to me, but different strokes for different folks.
  • · Service: I volunteered to make her an egg McMuffin for breakfast and executed a perfect one.
  • · Service Again: I made her peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich as requested.
  • · Words of Affirmation: I told her last night how great she did on a variety of things
  • · Gifts: I forgot to give her the bag of peanut M & Ms I picked up from the piñata at the Texas themed staff party. Unfortunately, because of the repeated hits the piñata took, it may actually turn out to be M & M peanut powder, as one of my colleagues found when she opened her bag.

Despite the acts of service I performed that are normally her responsibility not mine, things got dicey when she asked for yet another act of service—could I drive her to school because even though it’s March 25th, it’s 27 degrees outside. But I was still in my jammies and needed to help my son to school so I said no. He has 5 Sleeping Beauty shows this weekend after performing 4 shows in the past week, so is really dragging by now.

Of course this resulted in her accusing me of catering to my son because I apparently have inherited the Chinese disposition of preferring sons to daughters. When I pointed out that we catered to her during her shows, she started to argue how I had actually done nothing, but I somehow shut it down with a “Let’s not go there” sort of comment.

Whew! She’s out the door, I have 7 more hours to prepare for the onslaught this afternoon.

Now, onto corned beef. When I published my blog last night I thought I should probably include a recipe for corned beef hash, but I was too tired and also figured, what’s there to know? Take leftover corned beef, whatever you boiled with it, chop it up and fry it in a pan with a fried egg on top (those of you who’ve been reading awhile might be getting that I’m partial to fried eggs).

However, it occurred to me this morning that some other tips about corned beef might be helpful.

First, some words on corned beef. I don’t adore corned beef. It stinks up the house during its never-ending boil and one thing my growing up diet of Chinese food taught me is that vegetables taste better crisp than boiled and soggy. But Mama loves corned beef and cabbage, so every St. Patrick’s day we took a break from Chinese food so she could boil the red slab of meet for hours and hours, adding cabbage towards the end.

But then one day Mama remembered back to her college days, bought a can of corned beef hash, fried it up, and served it to us. Even though it looked and smelled like canned dog food, when I took a bite, I was sold forever. As were my siblings.

It took several tries of feeding my kids corned beef hash before they caught on to how delectable it is—the dog food look and smell didn’t help in the beginning. But now they’re corned beef hash fanatics and I have to restrict their intake because it’s really quite bad for you, even the reduced fat variety.

I started making my own corned beef for St. Patrick’s day because, like Mama, I like to get in the spirit of holidays whenever possible and the best part of making lots of corned beef is reuben sandwiches later. Cook’s Illustrated published an article on making the best “New England Boiled dinner” as it’s called here, where I learned that you can also add potatoes, parsnips, carrots and other vegetables to the boil.

They also recommend using “gray-cured” corned beef if you can find it (it’s a New England thing) because it’s not full of nitrates and tastes better. You can also make your own gray-cured corned beef if it’s not sold in your part of the country by brining a beef brisket, then rubbing spices over it (allspice, pepper, bay leaf, thyme and paprika). Gray-cured brisket comes unspiced, so you’re supposed to rub the spices on that as well. When I’m really lazy, I just throw all the spices into the water.

After many years of boiling my own New England Boiled dinner ala Cooks Illustrated, it dawned on me that if I chopped everything up, that would produce corned beef hash! (Duh, don’t know why it took so long to figure it out) So for the past 3 years, I’ve either chopped or food processed our leftovers and made hash for dinner with fried eggs on top.

These days, a 10 pound gray cured corned beef, 2 heads of cabbage, a bag of carrots, 2 bags of parsnips and a bag or 2 of red potatoes gets eaten up pretty fast. Between the traditional New England boiled dinner the first night, corned beef hash another night, Reubens for lunch or dinner another night, and my increasingly gigantic kids, our massive amount of boiled food runs out way too quickly.

What are your memories about corned beef or tips for avoiding fights with your kids?

Corned Beef and Corned Beef Hash Tips:

Note: Because Cooks Illustrated makes you pay for their recipes online and in magazine, I generally don’t publish their recipes unless I’ve modified them. For websites that give you recipes for free I don’t have a problem with passing them on.

1. Buy a bigger hunk of beef than you think you need. That bugger shrinks to less than half its original size.

2. For the actual New England boiled dinner, serve horseradish with the corned beef. Make a lot of cabbage because that’s the best (and healthiest) part

3. It’s much faster to use a food processor to chop everything, but then you end up with mush. It’s a tasty mush and my kids don’t mind it, but it’s mush nevertheless.

4. If you take the time to chop everything with a knife, the result is much more hashlike—better texture, but there’s a lot of chopping.

5. Butter with canola is a tasty mix to fry both the hash and eggs. A non-stick pan also makes the frying easier.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Secret to not Criticizing—Spend no time with Children!

I’ ve just experienced exactly 63 hours of Lenten success, avoiding criticism for that entire time. The secret? I was on a business trip and therefore spent not a single minute with my kids.

Of course, I totally blew it the morning I left, not just descending into criticism but also what could be called cursing and laying the biggest most awful mother guilt trip I’ve ever done. Here’s what happened.

The night before I left, we sat down over dinner and discussed the plan for their lives in the 3 days I’d be gone. I had chopped up our St. Patrick’s day leftovers into corned beef hash for dinner, purposefully saving a bunch so the 2 kids who would be taking the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System ) exam could fry some up with an egg for their big pre-test breakfast without me.

I’m a slightly nervous flyer, so I like to have all my relationships as reconciled as possible before I travel just to make sure everyone will say nice things and remember me well at my funeral should the plane crash. There’s nothing more upsetting than fighting with a family member before a plane flight.

So of course, the next morning, when Scott and I were supposed to leave for the airport at 6:30 a.m., at approximately 6:15 a.m., one of our kids threw a complete fit that I was not frying up the corned beef hash and egg for her on this morning of her exam. The same child who, as the best cook and baker of the younger set, is perfectly capable of frying up her own pre-made corned beef hash and egg.

But NO, the fact that I refused to cook for her was just proof of how I love my work more than my children and suck as a mother.

Now I know this child struggles with anxiety so always has to fight with me after either of us spends a night away from the other. When we reunite, she’ll pick, pick and pick at me until I finally blow up. Even when I say a calm, “You seem to want to fight with me. I don’t want to fight. Please go to your room until you calm down,” she’ll keep at it until I finally lose it, yell, and bring her to tears. By then I’m so incensed I feel like Donald Duck with the proverbial steam coming out of my ears. Later, she’ll eventually tearfully approach me with loving words and requests for forgiveness.

I don’t know why the fight/reconciliation cycle is so necessary for this child each time we’re apart, but it’s a pattern that’s been going on for years.

That this child started the pattern before I even left her rather than when I came back, plus castigated me over not meeting expectations I had already set the night before, plus was doing this all 15 minutes before I needed to walk out the door, meant I just went ballistic.

I lost it. I cursed her out for her selfishness and character flaws finally ending with “This the last thing you want to have in our relationship if I die in a plane crash? Us fighting and screaming at each other? You’re going to feel so good about ruining our relationship if I die.”

She rolled her eyes, “Mom, now you’re being overdramatic.”

As we reenacted our quintessential mother-daughter drama, Scott cooked her a quick breakfast, pandered to her, and calmed her down so that we got out the door by 6:38 a.m.

I fumed the whole way to the airport with Scott reminding me that as the parent, it’s my responsibility to control my side of the conversation—that she can’t help herself as a kid, and I need to not escalate things. Which of course made me even more mad.

That’s the problem with my criticism fast and frankly sin in the first place—it’s pretty hard to give up besetting sins and character flaws no matter how much you want to. It was a lot easier to give up dessert, which no matter how tempting, is external to me, than it is to give up the judgmental spirit married with quick rage embedded in my soul. Like the apostle Paul said

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15 TNIV)

I called my daughter after I got to Chicago, checking in on how the MCAS went. She was happy—it was a long composition test, she’s a great writer, and she had already decided that she was going to try to twist whatever question they asked into writing about water-skiing. The prompt, “Describe a time when you felt proud and why” was perfect for her topic.

We didn’t talk about the morning fight—hard to do over the phone, so I didn’t apologize and neither did she, but we ended with our typical “I love you” sign-off that ends all our phone conversations when I travel.

I got home safely tonight. We’ll see if I can negotiate our first day back tomorrow without caving into this pattern. She’s caught a cold, I got little sleep, so it’s going to be dicey.

And next time I travel, I pray I can make it through the morning in peace so that if I do crash and die, her most recent memory of me at my funeral will be sweet.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

At the end of a weekend of fasting failure

My pastor likes to say he’s broken more fasts than any of us have ever started with. I’m glad for that knowledge, because after a weekend spent with my kids I can’t even count the number of times I’ve broken my criticism fast! Because if the key characteristic of criticism is disapproval, I've got disapproval down like no other Mama out there.

I can spin things and say I wasn’t really criticizing anyone. I called no child a lazy bum this weekend. Nor did I attack any child's character. I just spent a huge amount of effort correcting kids and ordering them around—most often with a not very nice voice. So even if it wasn't "criticism" per se, I'm sure it felt critical to whoever got the brunt of it.

Here’s a very partial list of things I felt like I needed to correct:

· Kids calling each other fat

· Kids elbowing one another

· Kids eating junk

· Kids not putting their dirty dishes in the dishwasher (what’s this with bringing dishes to the sink, expecting Mom to put them in the dishwasher?)

· Kids bickering

Here’s a very partial list of orders I gave:

· Please fold the laundry

· Please put your dishes in the dishwasher

· Turn off the TV and read a book!

· Fold the laundry!

· Eat your vegetables!

· Leave your sister alone!

· It’s 9:45, go to bed!

And here’s a very partial list of wheedling questions I asked that could also be construed as critical:

· Why is the laundry still not folded after I’ve asked you to fold it about 5 times?

· Where are you on the homework situation?

· Where are you on your English project?

· Have you practiced your entire 30 minutes of piano yet?

· Why are the dishes sitting next to the sink after I’ve asked you to put them in the dishwasher every day of your life?

· How many fruits or vegetables have you eaten today?

· Who left this mess of folded paper shapes on the floor?

· Why didn’t you put away your homework so you could find it in the morning?

I just asked Ling what I criticized her on today. She said, “You criticized me on something, and then you said it was a criticism so you were wrong, but I can’t remember what it was.”


“See? This shows us how much you criticize us. You criticize us so much we don’t even remember what you criticized us on.”

Yup. That’s me.

But what do I do? Do I stop correcting? Do I stop barking orders? Do I stop asking questions? Is it possible to parent and not criticize.

I’m musing on these questions. . . I’ll let you know if I come up with any answers. . .

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Notes on Day 1 of Fasting from Criticism

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Anyone who read the comment Ling left predicting my fast would last until all 3 kids came home can discern that no one in my family believes I can do it either.

Case in point: Yesterday afternoon I took my son to get his new cell phone. He begged me for a phone with a keyboard. I said we’d see what came free with the family plan. At the AT & T store, sure enough, a cell phone with a keyboard and large glass screen came “free,” so I got it for him.

“I love you Mom! I love you Mom!” he kept crying out as he jumped around the store in ecstatic fervor.

The whole ordeal took an hour. We celebrated his “special time” with an Oreo McFlurry and came home.

When he flaunted his new phone in front of an unnamed sister, she literally started screaming and bawling at me all at the same time. After all she’s done in school and home, I clearly only love my male progeny because she’s ALWAYS wanted that cell phone and I’ve refused to get it for her. All this a mere 2 weeks after finally granting her texting.

Rather than screaming back at her, or telling her what an ungrateful brat she is, I calmly said, “Please go to your room if you can’t control yourself.” About 3 times.

She went to her room, re-emerging every 30 minutes or so to scream at me again, where I once again said, “Please go back to your room.”

I’m so proud of myself!

Hmmm. . . I don’t think fasting’s supposed to lead to pride.

But that my decision to fast from criticism led to a once-in-a-lifetime calm reaction to a bawling child screaming about my injustices as a mother, I give God all thanks and praise.

Yet all this begs the question of what exactly is criticism, and what I’m abstaining from. My Mac’s dictionary defines criticism as:

the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes

As I’ve thought about it these past 24 hours, it seems to me that the key word is “disapproval.” All of us have faults. All of us make mistakes. All of us need to grow. The job of a parent is to help our children learn from mistakes, discern right from wrong and make healthy loving choices. You’ve got to point out faults at some point to do the job right.

Growing up with a typical Chinese “Tiger Mom,” I know criticism well. Criticism was ladled out lavishly each and every day of my childhood. I used to wonder if I could go a day without making Mama mad and telling me off, and I don’t think I ever achieved that feat.

Yet at the same time, my mother loves me more than any other person in the world. (This conviction of mine makes my husband mad, and I have to say he comes very close, but my trust and belief in my mother’s love goes deeper than my bones.)

So I grew up feeling extremely loved, but not very much liked. I knew I was lovable, but also that I was rebellious, selfish, irresponsible, unloving to my siblings, and clearly not the filial perfect oldest child my parents expected.

Those feelings quickly translated to my relationship with God so that I perpetually assumed the critical voice that runs through my mind at all times (which sounds suspiciously like my mother’s), was also God’s.

It took really pressing into listening prayer to realize that God’s voice isn’t one primarily of criticism/disapproval, but one of love, encouragement, and yes, at times, conviction of sin. When I take the time to listen to God, His words surprise me that they're so much kinder, gentler and yet incisively truthful than anything I would come up with on my own.

So I want my voice to sound more like God's, than like the screaming shrew of a mother I so often turn out to be.

All this to say, I don’t think I can last the next 46 days (I don’t think I should wildly indulge in criticism on Sundays just because they’re a “mini-Easter”) without sharing my feelings, offering correction/advice/orders. Somehow doing that without the overarching sense of disapproval may be the key.

At dinner last night, this unnamed daughter read us the treatise she had written during her sojourns in her room. For her sake, I won’t include it here. But the chief complaint was that she has worked extremely hard on school, getting along with me, cleaning the kitchen, etc. and I’ve never even given her a runty goat, uh, “good” cell phone for her to enjoy with her friends, while here, her brother has been underachieving, annoying and undeserving and he got a fatted calf.

Despite all the ways I heard my character faults growing up, I’ve always related to the envious older brother in the prodigal son parable more than the wayward younger son. Apparently, so does this daughter.

Although I never yelled throughout our family drama, I can’t say I succeeded at my fast yesterday. My husband accused me of criticizing him for giving me the wrong information in a text exchange while he was in the middle of a meeting. I was trying to explain why I acted on his wrong information, but I guess I still sounded critical, and we ended up yelling a bit over the phone. So failure there and no reason for pride.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on criticism. . .

Meanwhile, 46 more days to go. . .

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

This year's Lenten Fast

Happy Ash Wednesday!

For those from non-liturgical backgrounds, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days leading up to Easter (Sundays don’t count because they’re seen as mini-Easters). It may be a misnomer to say “Happy Ash Wednesday” in light of how the main theme of Ash Wednesday is remembering “From dust you came and to dust you will return” as a priest puts ashes on you’re forehead in the shape of a cross. But I grew up in a Presbyterian church, so I’m still not really with it. All we did for Lent was “The One Great Hour of Sharing,” where we kids got a plastic box, often in the shape of a loaf of bread, and were asked to put coins in it for hungry children. Yes, the Presbyterians took 40 days and condensed it to one great hour.

When I started attending Episcopal churches, I learned that Lent was a much bigger deal—that fasting and adding spiritual exercises was recommended. There was a lot of freedom over what to fast from—dessert, TV, alcohol, even swearing. But because I was a Presbyterian used to mortifying myself for an hour, not 40 days, I resisted fasting for many years.

When I finally decided to give Lenten fast a real try, I gave up dessert. My goal was to pray “Jesus, let me desire you more than I desire this brownie, cookie, scoop of ice cream, etc.”

I have never prayed so much in my life! I found myself saying that little prayer about 20 times a day if not more. The biggest test came the night colleagues hosted us for dinner. Rich is known for his desserts, and he announced right after dinner that he had baked a flourless chocolate cake in our honor.

The spiritual struggle that went through me in that moment must be something Dante describes in The Inferno. Scott looked at me, wondering what I would do. I finally blurted out, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t have any.”

Rich quickly understood and said, “Well we have peppermint ice cream, you can have that instead.”

In a strangled voice, I had to say, “No, ice cream is dessert too.”

Rich said, “Dessert? I assumed you just gave up chocolate—now dessert, that’s going overboard.”

Scott said, “I have never seen this much self discipline in this woman before.”

Then they all proceeded to enjoy Rich’s luscious flourless chocolate cake while I looked on. It probably won’t surprise anyone that I baked my own flourless chocolate cake for Easter to finally break the fast.

Since then, over the years I’ve given up:

· listening to NPR while driving (with the goal that I’d pay attention to my children instead of blocking them out)

· reading novels (with the goal that I’d read spiritual books and pray, but instead found myself reading newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes with an addict’s frenzy)

· opening my computer while kids are home (with the goal that I’d spend quality time with them instead of working)

· dessert multiple times

Several years ago, I somehow forgot to give anything up, but then regretted it, because Easter just didn’t feel as joyful.

This year, our girls have decided to fast for the first time ever, and are giving up chocolate. I had to argue with one of them, who wanted to literally fast from food regularly. But she’s a growing girl with typical teenage body image issues, and we’re not going to mix up the spiritual discipline with weight loss desires/bulimia/anorexia issues.

For that very reason, I’m not giving up anything food or drink oriented. Because I already determined in early March to lose some weight by my birthday at the end of April, I don’t want to suffer from mixed motives and my spiritual director agreed. So I’ve spent the past week wondering what I should do for Lent. This morning, I finally decided.

I’m giving up criticism.

Bua Ha ha ha ha. . .

This feels like the most impossible fast I’ve ever chosen. After all, the Chinese motto is “Spare the scolding, spoil the child.”

I made my decision during spinning class this morning and solidified it on the way home, knowing my commitment would be sorely challenged the moment I walked in the door and observed at what level my son had achieved getting ready for school. To my shock and delight, although he greeted me in pajamas, he claimed he had already done everything on the list (other than getting dressed) including his piano practice and 30 minutes of reading. Wow!

All continued well. When he walked in on me in the bathroom without knocking, I didn’t rant and then I politely asked him to shut the door on the way out. While I was in the shower, he yelled that he forgot he had to go to drum practice early today, and I sweetly yelled back, “Have a great day! See you after school!”

But the minute I turned off the water, I heard incessant doorbell ringing. All 3 of our kids have the bad habit of ringing the doorbell repeatedly when they want to come in the house, even though all 3 of them have their own keys. Literally, there are times when I ask why they didn’t use their keys and they respond that it was too much trouble to dig them out of the backpack.

Dripping, wrapping myself in a towel, I made my way downstairs to the side door, steeling myself for what to say when I opened the door and 24 degree wind blasted onto my still-wet skin.

I opened the door.

“I locked myself out and forgot my music stand,” he shouted.

“Where are your keys?”

“I don’t know! Sorry! But I need my music stand.”

“I really don’t appreciate this,” was the best I could muster.

So it’s a Lenten experiment. I made it through 30 minutes of life with child and I didn’t say all the things I was tempted to say as I stood shivering and wet in our cold hallway clad only in a towel. As some of you have noticed, a daughter likes to add comments to my blog entries, so I’m sure she’ll fill you in on how I’m doing.

Lord have mercy. . .

(And to tempt those giving up dessert, here's my favorite flourless chocolate cake recipe from Bon Appetit)

Chocolate Almond Souffle Torte

1 cup (about 5 ounces) whole almonds, toasted, cooled
4 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

6 large eggs, separated, room temperature

1 cup chilled whipping cream
2 tablespoons amaretto or 1 teaspoon almond extract

Powdered sugar
1/2 cup almond slices, toasted

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Shake out excess flour. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper; butter paper.

Combine 1/2 cup whole almonds and 2 tablespoons sugar in processor. Using on/off turns, grind nuts finely. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Combine remaining 1/2 cup whole almonds and vegetable oil in processor. Process until mixture is thick and pasty (consistency will be similar to that of peanut butter), scraping bowl frequently, about 3 minutes.

Stir butter and 1/2 cup whipping cream in heavy large saucepan over medium heat until butter melts and mixture simmers. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and whisk until smooth. Stir in both almond mixtures. Cool slightly.

Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1/3 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Beat egg yolks in another large bowl until very pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Gradually beat chocolate mixture into egg yolks. Fold in egg whites in 3 additions.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake cake until sides crack and puff and tester inserted into center comes out with moist batter attached, about 35 minutes. Transfer cake to rack. Cool cake to room temperature, about 2 hours (center will fall slightly as cake cools.) (Can be prepared 4 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Beat chilled cream, amaretto and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in large bowl until soft peaks form.

Run small sharp knife around pan sides to loosen cake. Release pan sides. Dust cake with powdered sugar. Sprinkle toasted almond slices around top edge of cake. Serve chilled or at room temperature with whipped cream.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Secrets to Superlative Salad

My father used to threaten that he would die if he didn’t have Chinese food at least 6 days a week. As a result, we ate a lot of Chinese food every night for dinner: white rice with a meat dish and a vegetable dish. Although my mother is a fabulous cook, I didn’t prefer rice and I didn’t eat much of what I didn’t like, so I ranked among the 3 skinniest girls in my grade for all of my childhood.

When Mama cooked Western food, it wasn’t always that palatable either: watery spaghetti sauce that was more like spaghetti soup; Delmonico steaks cooked so long that they were completely gray and I had to spit unchewable pieces into a napkin, excuse myself and go to the bathroom to dispose of them; cream of mushroom soup as the main sauce for Swiss steaks, meatloaf and pork chops (the latter one coming out delicious as I have blogged earlier, but the former two coming out so dry I also had to resort to the napkin/bathroom trick).

Ragu transformed my experience of spaghetti. Eating a rare steak at a physicist’s home in 6th grade transformed my experience of beef (with Mama almost retching at the sight of the bloody red meat going in my mouth). But my mother-in-law transformed my view of salad.

Growing up, salad was iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing, not even with cucumbers or tomatoes on the side. My two favorite dressings were green goddess and creamy cucumber. We ate salad when we ate steak with baked potatoes, and I gradually came to love that meal. After that seminal dinner with physicists, I asked Mama to cook my steak less. Baba chimed in with “Me too!”

“What?” Mama cried, her eyes bugging out at my father, who had graciously received and eaten everything she’d ever cooked, “you want a bloody steak?”

“I like rare steaks,” he replied. It took me standing up to my mother to give my father the freedom to confess his penchant for red, not gray, meat after 14 years of marriage.

So our steaks went from gray with a little pink, to mostly pink, to rosy pink, to reddish pink, and finally to almost red. Mama wrinkled her nose each time she forked over our steaks, proclaiming we surely couldn’t eat that bloody hunk, but Baba and I dove in. Yet the iceberg lettuce with green goddess never changed. We didn’t know any better.

When I first ate at Scott’s home and bit into the salad his mother had made, I experienced another food conversion. This was no iceberg lettuce with green goddess dressing from the bottle. It was fresh and weightless even with shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms, diced red peppers, and some basil leaves torn into the mix. She lightly dressed it with what the family calls “French dressing,” a recipe a French friend provided. As Scott’s father says, “It’s nothing like that orange glop Americans call French dressing.” Instead, it’s an emulsion of Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, olive oil and canola oil.

Marrying into this New England WASP family, I also learned that they ate salad almost every meal, something I previously never could fathom wanting to do. But with Mom MacLean’s salad, which I gobble up each visit, I think, “I could live like this.”

Alas, I am no longer among the 3 skinniest girls in my grade, and eating a lot of salad is what will prevent me from becoming one of the 3 heaviest girls in my grade. In early January, I experienced an epiphany—a fried egg on salad greens is amazing! The yolk gushes out and becomes part of the creamy dressing—it’s much better than hard-boiled eggs. As proof, when I offered a fried egg salad to my kids (when they had the option to not eat at all), the fried egg made them volunteer to eat salad.

Incorporating some of Mom MacLean’s tips here’s my philosophy of superb leafy green salad: Great salad looks beautiful to the eye with a riot of colors, has an amalgam of all the flavors—salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, and also presents a wide variety of textures—crunchy, creamy, smooth, chewy. To achieve this:

1. Use dark green greens, both for nutrition and taste: arugula, baby spinach, romaine, spring mix. Pre-washed packaged greens in those clamshell boxes or bags make life easier since I really hate washing lettuce. I hope recycling the plastic counters buying plastic in the first place.

2. Make sure the greens are as dry as possible—this lets the salad dressing stick instead of slide off, keeps them from getting slimy, and means you can use less dressing. A salad spinner is a must, or just use them straight from the package without washing

3. Add an allium—something from the onion family to give the salad some bite—scallions, red onions, grilled onions, caramelized onions, Vidalia onions, you choose—I usually do red onions, and in the summer, grilled red onions.

4. Add some supporting veggies, either cooked or raw, the more color contrast the better: red peppers either roasted or raw, grape tomatoes, shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms (or garlicky sautéed ones are extra yummy), fennel, beets.

5. Add a fruit—chopped apple, pear, orange slices, mandarin oranges for an Asian salad, pomegranate seeds, peaches, mango, strawberries, blueberries, anything goes (just have never tried banana and probably never want to)

6. Add something creamy & fatty but be careful! This is where the calories go up. My creamy favorite is avocado, but this is where you can also go with cheese like goat, feta, blue, cheddar, parmesan, romano, etc. I try to go for cheese with maximum flavor because a little goes a long way.

7. Add something chewy—I usually use raisins or craisins

8. Add something crunchy—I usually use nuts, but croutons are the classic in Caesar salad. Once again, this is where excess calories can happen

9. Lightly dress the whole thing with a vinegar and oil based dressing (for ease, I use Good seasons and switch vinegars to make life interesting—balsamic is especially good), tossing thoroughly and gently so a little dressing goes a long way.

10. If it’s a meal, add some protein if you like—grilled chicken, shrimp, leftover steak, pork, tofu, egg, cheese.

Try the fried egg!

French Dressing

1 Tbs. Dijon mustard

1 Tbs. red wine vinegar (or balsamic if you want a sweeter dressing)

2 Tbs. olive oil

2 Tbs. canola oil

Whisk all together. Do not overdress! Lightly drizzle some on, toss, and drizzle more if you need it.