Resiliency

My kids have been through a lot in the past ten months.  Last June, Jason was officially accepted into the Foreign Service and our lives have been a whirlwind ever since.

In August, my kids lost their dad for four months while he was in training in Washington, DC.  Plus they had to live with a whiny, frustrated, stressed out mom during that time.  In the midst of that, two of my kids went through periods of transition that are hard and frightening for all kids; Ben started junior high and Elizabeth started 1st grade.

Then in December, just before Christmas, their worlds were completely uprooted.  They said good-bye to their friends, their cat, their bedrooms and left their comfortable home and familiar neighborhood for a foreign country.  They went from being just like everyone else in white-bread Mormon Utah, to a country where they are the minority, they don’t speak the language and they’re stared at whenever they leave the house.

About the time they got over their jet lag, they started attending a private international school.  Whereas, public schools in Utah do their best to prepare kids for college, their private school in Taipei prides itself in preparing students for the Ivy League.  The amount of catchup my kids have had to do has been unbelievably stressful.  My 5th grader spends 1-3 hours a night on homework, while my 7th and 9th graders spend 2-5 hours studying every night.  Their self-esteems have taken enormous hits.  The academic competition they face each day is mind-boggling.

If that weren’t enough, the have faced prejudice for the first time in their lives over their race, their nationality and their religion.  One child has faced a pretty fierce bully.  During the first week of school, three of my kids came to me, independent of each other, expressing shock at the language that students use in the hallways; language that they had never heard in public school in the U.S.  Both of my sons have come to me, asking what words mean; terms that I didn’t know the meaning of until after I was married.

In the four months that we have lived in Taiwan, my kids have been more frightened and more lonely than they have ever been in their lives.  They have all come home from school numerous times in tears.  As a parent, it’s pretty tough to watch.

All of these trials notwithstanding, my kids are making it.  As a parent, I am in awe of their strength.  I don’t know if I could have faced the challenges they are encountering each day when I was their ages.  I am so proud of them.  They are brave, they are smart and they are good.

My book club is currently reading the parenting book Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters by JoAnn Deak.  Dr. Deak wrote the following:  The most healthy and successful human being is one who can deal with ambiguity, figure out how to negotiate situations where the path or outcome is not clear.  Probably the worst thing we can do as adults to handicap our girls [and boys, I might add], is to encourage them in any way to want or need things in total order or control.  They’re already inclined that way.  The best thing we can do is to help them learn to grow in a climate where chaos – internal or external – is always in the three-day forecast.

I tell my kids often that one day they will thank us for this experience.  I’m hopeful that they will, but maybe they won’t.  But I have to say that they are learning how to deal with ambiguity and chaos.  They are learning how strong they can really be.  They are learning skills that will make them better adults and more aware as human beings.  They are taking a crash-course in resiliency.

I’m proud to be their mom. (But, man am I stressed out!)

An Admission

Okay, here’s my dirty secret.  I color my hair.  It turns out that I have a few gray hairs, I’m sure more a result of stress than age (I have four children after all.)  I’ve been coloring my hair for a few years now.  Okay, twelve to be exact.  My husband found my first gray hair on my 30th birthday and I’ve been lying to the public regarding my true hair color ever since.

I’m embarrassed to say that when we were applying to the Foreign Service, one of my big concerns was–Would I be able to find someone to color my hair in the outer reaches of Africa or Carjackistan or Abayaland? When we received our assignment to Taiwan I was afraid that the only hair colors I would find would be black and blacker.  And I’m a little pasty to be going brunette.  (I’m a bit old to be sporting Goth.)  So I was hugely relieved when some expats here told me of a great salon that caters to western women.

My first hair appointment in Asia was pure heaven.  The girl who washed my hair must have graduated Summa Cum Laude from hair washing school because she gave me a 20 minute shampoo/scalp massage that was pure genius.  Then she wrapped my hair in a towel and gave me a 10 minute back massage.  I sigh and go doughy eyed just thinking about it.  People often times go in between hair cuts and pay just to get their hair washed.  It’s my new favorite Asian thing.

Anyway, when I asked my hair dresser if she thought she had colors to match my current U.S.-dyed hair she looked at me and said, “Is this your first time in Asia?”

“Yes.”

“I can tell.  Yes, we have your color here.” (I think I may have offended her.)

So my hair color is no longer a concern.  I sleep easier.  Moral of the story:  It’s better to offend an Asian hairdresser than to admit one has gray hair.

Although I couldn’t quite rid myself of my addiction to hair dye, when we joined the Foreign Service, I decided that I needed to scale back a bit on my high maintenance ways.  I tried, I honestly tried to use grocery store shampoo and conditioner, but in the end I shipped ten of the largest bottles of Biolage shampoo and conditioner I could find.  Also, racked with fear that I wouldn’t be able to buy makeup that a pasty white chick could wear, I stocked up on so much makeup that I was given seven free Clinique gift bags.  (I know what you’re thinking, only old ladies use Clinique anymore.  Everyone is now using MAC makeup.  But the swarms of teenagers and young hip moms at the MAC counter scare me and I always find myself back at the Clinique counter with the other old ladies.  Call me old fashion.)

And since I’m on the subject of fashion, back in the U.S. I wear a size 8 pants.  (There, I said it!)  Turns out, there is not a Chinese woman alive who wears a size 8.  The women here range from size 0 to size 2.  The very most obese woman might wear a size 4 pant on her most bloated day and even then she’ll need a belt to keep them up.  Last month I tried on a pair of pants for the first and last time here.  I couldn’t even come close to squeezing my gigantic Anglo-Saxon hips into the largest size they had.  (The humiliation!)

And speaking of large body parts, the other day a woman actually laughed out loud when I told her I wear a size 9 shoe.  Yes women of Asia, I am Gigantor!

So now, like a closet porn-addict, I do my pants and shoe shopping from the privacy of my personal computer when no one is around to catch me in my humiliation.

So much for scaling back on my high maintenance ways.

A Cultural Experience

If by the title of this post you are expecting me to have written about something “cultured”  as in high-brow or sophisticated, you probably want to stop reading now.  There will be nothing high-brow or sophisticated in this post.  Instead, my family and I (more specifically my daughters and I) had a cultural experience today of the slightly baser sort.

This weekend our family went on our first road trip.  We have been in Taiwan now for almost four months and we probably should have ventured out of the city before now.  But frankly, the city has a lot to offer and we have spent the days we have had off exploring Taipei.

So our first road trip was to the city of Hualien.  Taiwan, for those of you geographically inept, like myself (a year ago I didn’t know this either) is about the size of Indiana.  It is shaped roughly like a football.  Taipei, the capital, is on the northern tip of the island and we live in the northern section of Taipei which puts our home on the tippy-top of the football.  The city of Hualien is about half-way down the island on the east side.  We had a great time in Hualien and at Taroko Gorge, but I won’t go into our travel itinerary here because the cultural experience occurred on our way home.

Much of the drive home from Hualien took place on a Pacific coast highway which was high up on winding cliffs.  Every so often we would descend the cliffs into a small city and then ascend the cliffs again as we continued northward.  At one point, as we were driving along the cliffs, Elizabeth said she needed to go to the bathroom (I warned you that this wasn’t going to be high-brow).  So the next time we descended the cliffs, we stopped at the first place we came to, to look for a bathroom.

I wish I could tell you the name of the place where we stopped, but none of the six Chinese characters that I’m able to recognize were on the sign out front.  However, it looked like a sort of very large convenience store.  The place was big and new and as we pulled up I thought to myself, Surely there is something in there that I cannot live one more day without owning! I wasn’t sure what that object was going to be, but I knew it was going to be good.

Unfortunately, after perusing the store for a couple of minutes, I realized that it was full of nothing but garbage!!!  There were rows and rows of bottles of every pickled meat and vegetable you could imagine.  There was one section that I will call “Some Fourth Grader’s Science Fair Experiment in Dehydration.”  Just imagine everything that you would NOT want to see dehydrated and there you have it.

Then there was the mochi section.  This particular part of Taiwan is famous for a delicacy called mochi.  How can I describe mochi?  Well, let’s see … for lack of a better description:  A few years ago, my brother-in-law gave me a pair of silicone breast implants for my birthday.  No … I did not have them surgically implanted, but apparently he thought I might need them someday – or maybe he was just giving me a hint.  So, I am now the proud owner of my own set of breast implants that are tucked away in a drawer and are therefore, NOT fulfilling the measure of their creation.

Again, for lack of a better description, mochi have the texture of silicone breast implants.  And the flavors include (among others) red bean, wasabi and salt.  Now, I know that I don’t speak for all westerners here, and this is probably a huge generalization, but I really don’t see mochi as ever becoming a big hit in the US.

Then there was a big section of super cheap toys (think All-A-Dollar cheap).

So after realizing that, sadly, there was nothing in the store that I needed or wanted, I walked with my two daughters to the back of the store to the restrooms.

Now, for a short explanation.  Most Taiwanese public restrooms include a number of squatty-potties.  There was a variation of these in Italy back in the day, which missionaries fondly called “whizzarias.” (Again, if you are looking for a high-brow cultural experience here, you probably want to look elsewhere.)  Squatty-potties are exactly what they sound like – a potty that you squat over.  Apparently Asians consider them more hygienic than traditional toilets because no body parts actually come in contact with the toilet itself.  However, you must have pretty good balance and thigh muscle control to use them effectively.

As my daughters and I entered the bathroom, we were immediately confronted with the absolute worst bathroom stench I have ever encountered and that includes port-a-potties and campground bathrooms.  (Maybe that’s what happens when you eat wasabi mochi and pickled meat together.  Just sayin’.)  We all held our breath.  Then as I looked down the line of bathrooms stalls, I realized that there were only two traditional toilets, and the rest were squatties.  (My daughters had yet to ever use squatties.  As for me, well let’s just say, I am a user, and my thigh muscles have benefited as a result.)  Upon this realization, my older daughter opted for one of the two traditional toilets.  She walked into the stall and immediately walked out again, white as a ghost and exclaimed, “There is a fish in that toilet!”  No, that was not a typo; there really was a fish in the toilet, undoubtedly contributing to the bathroom odor.  She could see that the other traditional toilet was occupied, so she made a mad dash for a squatty, and in so doing, had an important cultural experience, which she refuses to talk about.  It’s probably just as well.

I then turned to my six-year-old daughter.

“Squatty?”

Folded armed, determined face, shaking of the head back and forth.

A minutes or so later a woman exited the fishless traditional toilet stall.  Now, normally, when you see a person exit a public toilet stall, is it not safe to assume that the stall is now free for the next person to enter?  Apparently not, because when I opened the stall door, there was still a little old lady inside using the toilet!  Riddle me that!  What kind of clown toilet stall was this?!

I then sheepishly exited the bathroom into the store, with Elizabeth in tow and looked in vain for anything chocolate; although I did find pork balls on-a-stick.  And a few minutes later Elizabeth and I returned to the bathroom, held our breath,  and found the fishless traditional toilet stall free of old ladies.  Elizabeth refused to enter the stall alone, so we entered together, completed the business at hand and exited the bathroom and the convenience store having had a great cultural experience.

I have never appreciated 7Eleven more!

Learning to Let Go

Disclaimer:  Any of you blog readers out there in the Blog Stratosphere who are not Mormon will probably not understand this blog post.  However, you Mormon women, especially you Utah Mormon women, will understand exactly what I’m talking about here.

This time of year, all over the world, LDS women are celebrating the anniversary of the organization of the Relief Society.  I am currently serving as a counsellor in our RS presidency, and I was in charge of our RS birthday celebration.

This was the first time I have been in charge of one of these events, although I’ve attended many of them in Utah.  All of those that I’ve attended have been held on a weeknight evening.  An entire committee of women would have spent months in preparation.  The Sunday before the celebration, a lovely hand-made invitation would be handed out and a few days before the event, a cute reminder would magically appear on the door of every sister in the ward.  A delicious dinner would be served, prepared by members of the committee.  Other committee members would have spent most of the day putting up lavish decorations that they had spent weeks making.  The room would have been transformed into something that looked like it came straight from the pages of Martha Stewart Magazine.

The program would consist of semi-professional musicians performing beautiful musical numbers and speakers that could have come straight from BYU Education Week.  At the end of the evening, the sisters would go home with some sort of hand-made party favor that would include a quotation from the evening and probably something chocolate.  The evening would be inspiring to all who attend.

But I don’t live in Utah anymore.  I now live in Taipei where things can’t be done like they are done in Utah.  For one thing, all of our RS activities have to be done on Sunday afternoon, immediately after church.  Many women in our ward are Filipina domestic workers; and for most of them, Sunday is their only day off.  If our activities were held on weeknights a large number of our sisters would never be able to attend.  Because activities are held right after church, we have very little time to set up and decorate.  Also, whereas in Utah, an event like this would require a large committee of women, in our case, the committee consisted of me and one other sister (who coincidentally is also named Erin.  We were the Erin Committee.)

Here is how our RS birthday celebration went:  There were no hand-made invitations.  The invitation was given orally during the RS announcements the week before.  With the help of our husbands, Erin and I quickly set up tables in the cultural hall during the Sunday School hour.  We needed seven tables to accommodate the forty-five or so women and young women we expected to attend. (We have eight beautiful young women in our ward.)  Unfortunately, our RS owns only one set of six dark red tablecloths, so one table didn’t even have a tablecloth. (It is my recollection that my former ward in Utah had six or seven sets of tablecloths in various colors, each set consisting of twelve to fifteen tablecloths.)  Each table was decorated with the paper products from which the women were eating.  The tableclothless serving tables were decorated with the food that was served–nothing else.  Sisters signed up to bring either a crock pot of soup or some sort of side dish.  The ward sprung for rolls and cake.  The food that was brought included dishes from the Philippines, China, Korea, Mexico, the US, Taiwan and Italy.  One sister brought a pot of boiled chicken soup–with an entire chicken carcass, skin and all, still in the pot.  (Not very common in Utah, but quite a hit in Taiwan.)  There was even a lovely hot dog soup.

After dinner, we moved to a large room on the 4th floor. (Our building serves as the stake center for three stakes and consists of four floors, two chapels and three underground parking levels.)  Erin and I spent a grand total of seven minutes decorating the room.  I won’t embarrass myself or Erin by describing the decorations.  But in our defense, neither of us had any idea where to go to buy any cute or crafty supplies to make Martha Stewart decorations.  So everything came from our houses and they were pathetic.

We started the program by reciting the RS Theme.  I love, love, love hearing women recite this.  And hearing it recited together by women from so many nationalities with so many different accents sent chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.  Our adorable young women then recited the YW Theme from memory, just like young women all over the world do each week.  I then spoke briefly about the history of the RS.  Then we heard from two lovely senior sister missionaries, one from Utah and the other from Kentucky.  They both shared insights that only women well-seasoned in life experiences could share and they were both delightful and inspirational.  We then played some fun games prepared by the other Erin.  Then we had cake and that was it.

Earlier in the week, I saw some pictures from one of those Martha Stewart RS celebrations on Facebook.  I also spoke to my mother on the phone where she described her ward’s celebration.  I’m pretty sure both of these celebrations were put on by full-time professional RS Birthday Party Planners.  And it made me kind of sick to my stomach when I compared those celebrations to the meager celebration we were planning.  But then during the dinner portion of our celebration today, when I was apologizing to our bishop’s wife who was sitting at the one tableclothless table, and comparing our sad, little party to those in Utah, she said to me, “Erin, you need to let go of your Utah ways and expectations.  Look around this room.  Are the sisters here enjoying the company of their sisterhood in the Gospel?”

“Yes.”

“Are they getting to know one another better so they can better serve one another?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’ve accomplished what this celebrations is intended to accomplish.  We don’t need all the tablecloths and decorations.  No one here is expecting that and trust me, no one here cares that we don’t have it.” And she’s right.  In my previous wards women would spend countless hours and incredible amounts of stress with the same results we achieved.

However, at the end of the celebration, we did hand out a home-made party favor which included a quote and chocolate.  As she took her party favor from the basket, the bishop’s wife said to me “See, you still have some Utah in you!”

Just a little.

Pie in the Afternoon

Yesterday, my six-year-old daughter had a playdate with a girl from school.  These two girls’ friendship is based solely on the fact that they are both named Elizabeth; which, when you are in 1st grade makes you instant soul-mates, kindred spirits and best friends.  Whereas my Elizabeth only uses her full name at school and at home goes by Ellie, the other Elizabeth goes by Liz all the time.  I’ve decided that the name Liz is much more sophisticated than the name Ellie (think Liz Taylor vs. Ellie Mae Clampett).   Which is probably the reason the child Liz is better behaved than the child Ellie.  It has nothing to do with parenting and everything to do with naming.  No parenting book or expert is going to convince me otherwise.  (Although I’m sure that Ellie Mae Clampett could totally take Liz Taylor in mud wrestling.)

So yesterday I was taking Liz home after the playdate and I walked her up to her apartment and then spent a few minutes talking to her mother, a lovely Chinese woman named Christine (another sophisticated name, much more so than the name Erin.)  During our conversation Christine told me that she loves to have Ellie over and that she would like to have her over more often if possible because every afternoon they have Pie.  This statement caused me to immediately size up Christine’s hips and wonder how on earth someone who has pie every afternoon could possibly be the size 0 that she obviously was.  What kind of freaky Chinese metabolism is that?!

She then said some more things that I didn’t hear because I was completely lost in thought over the pie every afternoon comment when she shook me out of my thought process by introducing me not to the large fruit or cream filled tart I was thinking of, but instead to her Thai domestic helper named Pie (or Pi, or maybe Py, or possibly Pai or maybe even π.  Not sure which she prefers).

I’m certain that if I had a domestic helper named Pie I would weigh 250 lbs. since just the mention of the word gives me a hankerin’.

Mmmm, pie!

My Moment of Glory

This afternoon, as is often the case, I was running late.  I was late leaving the house to drive down the mountain to pick up my 14-year-old daughter from school.  I had to pick her up and take her to the mall to find some very, very, very important Spandex shorts that she could wear under the dress she is modeling in the Taipei American School Charity Fashion Show this Friday evening.  Apparently, if your designer tells you to buy Spandex, especially if said designer is a Senior, you don’t ask why, you just buy the Spandex.  Hence the reason for the trip to the mall.

So, as I said before, I was late leaving the house to drive down the mountain to the school, and I was in a hurry.  Now, there are basically two roads down the mountain (in reality, there is a third, but I’ve only been down it once and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t think I could actually find it again.)  The main road is full of goat carts and speed traps so I don’t usually like to go down it.  OK, that’s not actually true.  I completely made that up, except for the “I don’t usually like to go down it” part.  Truth is, the traffic on it can at times be dicey and I have on more than one occasion seen full-sized city buses passing other full-sized city buses on the two lane, double middle lined, serpentine road.  The back road is much faster and has much less traffic and it lets me off very close to the school, so I use it whenever possible.  But many people I know avoid the back road at peril of death and claim that the only thing the back road will get you is dings and side-swipes on your car.

If you read/viewed my husband’s last blog post (which included riveting video footage) you got a good feel for the back road.  And I have to say that when I’m on that scooter by myself I go much, much faster.  It’s quite a thrill-ride and it turns out that at 42 I’m a bit of an endorphin junkie.

Anyway, so I was heading down the back road in my black mafia-mom mini-van and I got to the part, toward the bottom where the road becomes a one-laned, bottleneck mess.  Every time I get to the bottleneck, whether I’m alone in the car or not, I say out loud, “OK everyone, suck it in!”  And then I suck in my gut, hoping that my mini-van will follow my lead and suck in its gut.

So I was going through the bottleneck, sucking in my gut, when I rounded a bend and saw, at the very worst point in the bottleneck, a very large utility truck coming my way, hogging up a good 3/4 of the road.  The gentleman driver (if you can call him that; maybe surly fellow is a better term) saw my van and stopped, opened his window and blew cigarette smoke my direction.  He then gave me a “I ain’t puttin’ this truck in reverse, sistah” look.  With that, I pursed my lips, unrolled my window, pulled in my side-view mirror and shot back a “Bring it on, brothah” look.  I then took my foot off my brake, one second at a time and inched my way past him while he sat and did nothing.

Now here comes my moment of glory; after I finished inching my way past the truck, the people in the taxi that was stopped directly behind the truck unrolled their windows and all four of them, including the driver started clapping their hands and while giving me the thumbs-up sign yelled , in English, “Good Job!!!”

For those few seconds of inching my way through the bottleneck in my black mafia-mom mini-van, I was the back road Rock Star!