Monday, December 31, 2012

A Third Culture Kid Thinks About Guns

It’s happened again.  This time it was innocent little kids who were slaughtered, along with their teachers who were trying to protect their charges.  Who wasn’t horrified, disgusted, sickened?  They were little babies!  Senseless!  People are asking, “Where was God?”  Why do these things happen?  Why?  I have a dear friend from the adoption community whose daughter was a student at the Sandy Hook School.  This beautiful little girl, born in China, was in the fourth grade, and escaped, but her trauma is real, excruciating.

More recently it was a movie theater.  Before that a grocery store.  A college campus.  A shopping mall.  A military base.  A restaurant.  The absolute last places to which any of us think twice about going and fearing for our safety.  The knee-jerk reaction is that we should make guns illegal.  Sounds good on its face.  But doesn’t it then follow that only criminals will have the guns, and we law abiding citizens won’t?  As Susanna Hupp says in the video above, all of the incidents happened in “gun free” zones. 

The Philippines that I knew in the mid-1970’s was a country under martial law.  Martial Law is supposed to be a temporary fix for times of civil unrest or political turmoil; however, in Manila it lasted from 1972 until 1981.  Nine years.  Martial law means the suspension of most civil rights, and puts civilians under military courts of justice.  It suspends the rule of habeas corpus, which protects prisoners from unlawful imprisonment.  It’s a scary concept, which, in its most literal sense, puts all citizens at the arbitrary mercy of the government. 

Credit: Aaron J. Jackson Crabb
What it meant for us was curfew (1-4 a.m.) and lots and lots of armed military police everywhere.  Our school was surrounded by a very tall stone and iron fence, and there were security guards at every possible entrance.  (Somehow we kids knew how to break out, but I daresay we weren’t tempted to break in).  They checked and re-checked IDs before allowing anyone to pass.  They called ahead to the office to let them know who was coming.  Going to the bank, we had to pass a guard with a very large rifle (although I noticed once that the gun had no trigger).  There were signs at restaurants, stores and art galleries that read “Please deposit firearms here”.  I guess it should have been a scary place to live, but I was never afraid.  That may have been naïveté on my part, but I never saw fear in my parents either.  I pretty much had free rein to come and go as I wished (well, for the most part!)  I never gave it a thought, but I probably felt safe because there was no danger of being shot at in a public place.  If I had been a Filipino citizen, I would have had to ask myself if the tradeoff of losing my civil rights for being safe from being shot was worth it.  Gun control in Manila didn't help Imelda Marcos much when a deranged man attacked her with a bolo knife.  

I didn’t grow up in a “gun” family.  When I think back to my early childhood in Louisiana, I remember my dad used to go duck hunting.  I think it was a business thing, and he only did it because he had to schmooze with customers or higher-ups in the company.  He had an enormous pair of waders that I used to play in.  We did have a shotgun that made many moves with us, but for the most part it stayed wrapped in its leather case, hidden in a closet.  I’m pretty sure it was illegal for us to have it in the Philippines.  I don’t know the whole story but there was some clandestine transfer of the gun to someone who disposed of it. 

Fast forward to the present: My husband has taught me to shoot.  I’m pretty good at it, at the gun range, and I have a healthy respect for fear of The Gun, but I’m not comfortable with The Gun.  I don’t even know if I could shoot a 400 pound gorilla who might break into my house.  That said, if I was ever in a situation where a lunatic was on the loose, I would want to stand very close to my husband, who can shoot with deadly accuracy.

Which brings me to the point: who is doing these killings?  Mentally ill people.  By definition they must be mentally ill – who in their “right mind” would do such a thing?  Do we really want to disarm ourselves, leaving the deranged and the criminals with the guns?  Do we want to be at the mercy of the next psychotic break?  And if you extrapolate that idea to us, the people, being unarmed, and the government-slash-military being the ones who are armed, is that a viable option?  As Susanna Hupp says, the original intent of the Second Amendment was for us to be able to protect ourselves from THE GOVERNMENT. 

This isn’t a gun issue.  It is a mental health issue.  No matter how many people try to de-stigmatize mental disease, it remains an enormous stigma.  We recoil at the word “schizophrenia” and “bipolar” and “autism”.  Most of us turn away, thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  For those who are in the thick of it, it is a living nightmare.  As the parent of a child with a form of autism, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I found myself at his school, asking, insisting, then begging to have him tested, begging for help, begging for accommodations, and was made to feel like I was a hysterical helicopter parent.  One school, a private parochial institution, asked us to leave, saying “We can’t do anything with him”.  The memory of that one still stings in a major way. 

At one parent meeting at the new public school, I sat in front of a semi-circle of stern-looking teachers who, one after the other, told me all of my son’s shortcomings, telling me “what he needs to do” and “if he would only” and “you need to”.  I could only get one word out before the tears started falling.  Not a single one of those ladies reached out to pat my arm, hand me a tissue, nothing.  They just sat and stared at me as I blubbered.  It was humiliating.  If it was humiliating for me, you can only imagine the humiliation my child suffered every day in his classes.  Not to say that all teachers are heartless, I know there are very good ones out there, but where were they for my child?  The other kids labeled him “odd.”  I cried inside as other kids asked his brother to play.  When I suggested that my other son might like to come too, the reply was, “Do I have to invite him too?” 

This son is now in his early 20’s.  He has a job, lives in an apartment with two roommates and is doing great.  I could not be prouder of him.  He is only mildly affected; many people are surprised to know that he has Asperger's.   An amazing therapist encouraged him to embrace his differences instead of fighting them.  She gave him valuable tools to begin his life as an adult.  I can’t imagine the pain of those whose kids have really big problems.

Mental illness is for the most part invisible.  We as a society make it invisible.  We brush these people under the radar, looking the other away so we don’t have to deal with them.  When one falls through the cracks, listens to voices in their head and starts shooting people, we don’t look at the mental illness, we look at the guns. 

I confess that I am a fan of the British Royal family.  (Make all the jokes you want).  Every day these people go around the country, making public appearances.  One day it could be a tire factory or a boat launching, but on another it is at hospitals and facilities for the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled or the terminally ill.  They are patrons of a multitude of charitable organizations who care for these folks.  Look at the long list of charities which Princess Alexandra, a cousin of the Queen, supports:  Alzheimer's Society, St. Christopher's Hospice, Royal Navy Nursing Service, Mental Health Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and many others.  And she is just a “minor” royal!

Princess Alexandra opens Mental Health Foundation's New Office

Many dismiss the royals as archaic and medieval, time for them to move on.  But think about it: by publicly supporting these institutions, which take care of the most marginal members of their society, they are acknowledging these people’s existence, validating their illnesses and their very difficult lives.  We could all take away a lesson here.  Remember how Princess Diana hugged the child with AIDS?  Look  how far we’ve come from the days when AIDS patients were treated like lepers.  Google “mental health cuts in the US” and you will, as I was, be shocked at the number of articles, just in the last month.  Louisiana.  Texas.  Maine.  Ohio. 

There is a joke about a man standing under a street light, looking for something.  Another guy comes along and asks him what he’s doing.  The man replies, “I lost my wallet.” The other man asks, “Where did you last see it?”  “Down the block,” is the reply.  “Why are you looking here?” the guy asks, incredulous.  “Because there is more light here.”  Maybe we are all looking for solutions in the wrong place.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thoughts on Boxing Day

An Expat in America’s Thoughts On Boxing Day

Boxing day?  As in Ali, Frazier and Sugar Ray?  Uncle Joe and Cousin Billy Bob getting into it after too much eggnog?  Nope!  The British Day After Christmas when the servants were traditionally given boxes of money.  Or perhaps the opening of the alms-boxes in churches, to spread the money amongst the less fortunate.  If you've been a fan of "Downton Abbey" you remember the servants' ball, where the Lord of the Manor dances with the lowliest of scullery maids.  Seeing as all these folks probably had to work on Christmas Day, it seems only fitting.

My mom, the Anglophile, has always tried to preserve many British Christmas traditions that have been bowdlerized by the Americans.  My gifts from her usually include a jar of Devon cream, lemon curd or Crosse & Blackwell Branston Pickle.  Christmas Eve morning, the household stops for the broadcast on the BBC of the Lesson in Carols from the Kings College choir at Cambridge University.  The sound of the first plaintive notes of "Once in Royal David's City" still gives me chills.

Mom insists that Christmas BEGINS the day OF Christmas.  As in the twelve days of.  As in, December 25 is the day that the partridge and the pear tree arrived by UPS.  Christmas continues until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which is the purported day the Wise Men arrived at the stable.  (Only 12 days across the desert on a camel?  I think not!)  My question is, after all that time, was there STILL no room at the Inn?  Surely there would have been a room by then?  Mom tut-tuts at all the forlorn Christmas trees lying in the gutter on December 26.  But since most Americans put up their trees on Thanksgiving Day (a full MONTH) before Christmas, they most likely need to do this to reduce the risk of conflagration!

For years, my family has had Crackers on the table for Christmas dinner.  (Not the Ritz kind, but those shiny wrapped bundles that you pull apart to open them with a bang).  I was intrigued to learn that the tradition of wearing fancy headgear harkens back to the Saturnalia celebrations.  Christmas after all historically encompasses many of the pagan winter holidays like Yule, Solstice and Saturnalia.  Our unsuspecting dinner guests would be required to wear the silly tissue hat all through the meal.  And Mom wonders why they never accepted another invitation from us?  It warms my heart that you see crackers pretty regularly in the U.S. these days.  Maybe mom's mission to Anglicize us all is working?

Fear not: Mom is an equal opportunity critic.  Even the American traditions aren't safe.  She takes it upon herself to inform hapless sales clerks that the reindeer in "The Night Before Christmas" is NOT named Donner (that would be the name of the group in the 1800's that  got stranded in the Rocky Mountains in a blizzard and ended up eating each other to survive).  Furthermore, mom points out, the poem is really called "A Visit from St. Nicholas."  Get it right people.  The reindeer in the original poem was named "Donder" which is close to the Dutch word for thunder.  Which makes sense since "Blitzen" is the word for lightning.  After a little research, I found that the GERMAN word for thunder is indeed "Donner" so she's only partly right.  But Clement Moore (who wrote the poem) called him Donder, so Donder it should  be.  The poor lady in the Brighton store the other day didn't know what had hit her.

Bless her heart, Mom has good intentions.

Merry Christmas to all .. the turtle doves are in the mail.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Post 2011

Well, okay I'm going to rehash an old post anyway.  I'm proud of this one!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Displaced Christmas

Same lyrics, different melodies: Coping with an expat Christmas

Read this interesting blog about not being "home" (wherever that is) for Christmas.  I found it a little cynical .. although I understand.  Everyone who celebrates Christmas seems to have their own idea of a "genuine" Christmas, i.e. what it should be, what it means, what accouterments should come with it.  (I think it's called "tradition" haha).  Maybe it's based on that one perfect Christmas from childhood where everything came together in a symphony of smells, tastes, sensations, and thrills.  For me it was the magic of going to bed with a few paltry gifts under the tree, only to wake up to find the living room practically strewn wall to wall with silvery wrapped presents.  See, there really IS a Santa Claus!  Even if his handwriting was eerily similar to my father's, I chose to believe.  My mom's initials are S.C., so even if the cards were signed from "S.C.," I ignored the irony and chose to believe they stood for "Santa Claus".  Even though I loathed going to midnight mass at church, and sat sleepily through the service, yawning as if my jaw would come apart, that memory goes down with the whole Christmas package (pun intended).

My ideal Christmas is located in New England (think Currier & Ives) with snow on the ground, getting a sled and a breathtaking Scarlet O'Hara doll from Santa.  My mom was in a choir that year that performed in gold paper dresses (don't ask me how they pulled THAT off) doing great hits from Andy Williams and Herb Alpert.  One of my favorite Christmas songs is the great chart-buster "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle" and I love it because of its obscurity.  Another favorite was Alan Sherman's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (not the usual one!)  (All these songs traveled with us on my dad's reel-to-reel tape deck).  I think of my parents dressing up, dad in his red sweater and Santa tie, drinking a cup of tea while waiting for mom to come out, in a great whiff of Chanel No. 5, her ears sparkling with gold earrings and her wrists tinkling with bangle bracelets.

So how are we to live up to that New England standard, living overseas?  New traditions crept into the family lore.  In Japan of the early 1960's it was hard to get Christmas wrapping, so the cry on Christmas morning was "SAVE THE BOWS!" Gifts were unwrapped carefully and the paper was carefully folded into squares, saved for next year.  I was in a performance at school, dressed in a hula skirt, and we danced to "Christmas Island".  We used to go to some enormous banquet Christmas Eve, which was really more like New Years' Eve, with noise makers and music that went on into the wee hours of the night.  That was the Japanese equivalent of midnight mass for me.  I was so worried about getting home in time for Santa to come!

Brussels came in a close second for "Ideal Christmas".  We made weekend trips to Germany (the REAL home of Christmas!) and stocked up on ornaments and decorations from there.  Mom still re-uses tags from those days, with glitter and pictures of old Europe on them.  There was snow on the ground, and we went to the dreaded midnight mass at a British Anglican church.  So the agony became a little more bearable because it was done with an English accent.  Very little.

Then came our move to the Philippines.  The first obstacle, other than the weather, was finding an acceptable Christmas tree.  We brought in a pathetic looking tree that may or may not have been in the pine family.  Mom, against all odds, actually decorated it and made it look quite presentable (again, pun intended!)  It wasn't the New England Christmas tree, but it, like Charlie Brown's tree, became part of our family history.  Midnight Mass in Manila involved sweating and fanning, but I still yawned and loathed it.  Check.  One year it involved a typhoon.  Okay, liquid snow; close enough.  I'm pretty sure we had turkey too.  Served by our maids in their Christmas aprons.  Now there's a tradition that I'd like to bring back.  These days, when we're all stuffed to the gills and the dirty dishes and cooking detritus spreads out towards the horizon, mom and I lean back and yell, "PACITA!" as if she would come running in her slippers and clean it all up.

All in all, we made do wherever we were, appreciating the unusual customs, incorporating the culture of where we were into making new traditions.  We never wished we were back in the states, because, while that was "home" to most Americans, wherever we were was "home".  And that was okay with me.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's All About the Light

Christmas is almost here again!  I thought about rehashing some of the earlier blog posts I have written about Christmas around the world, and the various ways my family adapted our own traditions to the places we were living.  But some thoughts came to me, like visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

This is a year when my children will spend Christmas with their dad in North Carolina (we rotate years).  They did spend Thanksgiving with us, and we had the chance to exchange gifts and enjoy that holiday as a sort of hybrid.  My soul was warm and fuzzy, surrounded by my five (not so little) chickens.  We ate ourselves into an L-tryptophan turkey coma, and went to see the Cirque du Soleil Christmas show at the Long Center.  We were just together, and to me, that was the culmination of the Christmas spirit, right there, a little early. 

For the past few weeks, I have watched my neighbors put up Christmas lights (some of the displays are gargantuan, over the top!)  As I go off to sleep at night I can hear the carols booming from a house that has its lights synched with a radio station.  Lines of cars slowly make their way down the road, children excitedly leaning out the windows taking in the sparkle and glimmer.  As for me, I have my little tree in the front window, although I only used lights this year, no ornaments.  I did wrap some lights around the back porch railing, so we do look somewhat festive.  In honor of my husband’s Jewish heritage, I like to embrace Hanukkah (the festival of lights!) as well, and have fallen in love with the a cappella group “The Maccabeats” who have made a name for themselves in YouTube world. 

I work in retail, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the bling and the swag that decorates our store and the ones near us.  Williams-Sonoma is always putting out samples of goodies, and I often wander down there for a taste.  Their store is the epitome of Christmas tastiness and I love just wandering around, even though I can’t afford half of the things in there! 

My mom and I are planning to go to a Christmas Eve service near her house, and my husband and I will have dinner with her Christmas night.  Other than that, our holiday will be muted.  But I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.  I feel that without all the trappings of Christmas this year, I am feeling the real meaning of it.  No last minute dashes to the mall to “even up” the present count. No staying up til the wee hours of the morning to assemble a toy with instructions written in Japanese.  No mountains of discarded wrapping paper.  No soldiering through the day, eyes grainy with lack of sleep.  No cooking for hours in the kitchen, then having the meal gone within minutes.  No stacks of dirty dishes.  No looking at the decorations still up in February, thinking, it may be time to get on with it. 

Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, who, for many, is a beacon of light in a dark world.  History and archaeology have shown that Jesus wasn’t necessarily born on December 25, and there are stories that the date was really a pagan holiday that the early church used to encourage converts.  Never mind that shepherds didn’t have their sheep in the fields at this time of year, and never mind all the skeptics who put Jesus in the same category as Santa Claus.  It is a time when we can appreciate that no matter how dark the world gets sometimes there is still light.  If Jesus is that light, then so be it.  Jesus or no, there is still good in the world, and I truly believe that goodness will always outshine evil.  Next time you go to the movies and some dipstick turns on his cell phone to check his messages, you will appreciate how any light, no matter how small, will illuminate the darkness. A physicist could explain all the mathematical reasons why darkness is merely the absence of light.  To me, darkness is only the temporary absence of light.  As my dad used to say, "It's darker than the inside of a hat!"  Take off your hat, and there will be light!

I have a friend whose daughter was a student at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown.  This beautiful little girl survived the tragedy, but there are so many families whose lives are indeed very dark right now.  I don’t know how much light would be needed to dispel that darkness, but it is good to see how many people all over the world have reached out to try and help in their own way.  I like Ann Curry’s plan to commit one act of random kindness in honor of each person that died that day. 

For me, this year, Christmas is all about light.  I feel closer to the light this year than ever before.  Much like the Grinch who realized that even though he stole all the material things in Who-Ville, Christmas still comes.  As long as there is light, there is hope.  I will never lose hope and confidence that goodness will prevail.  In whatever fashion you celebrate this season, be it the winter solstice, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas, I hope you will always put your faith in the light.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Do You Know the Way to Oaxaca?

This is one of the more hilarious, tongue-in-cheek blogs that I follow.  I was rolling on the floor reading this entry about how we mis-pronounce names around the world.  Having spent so much time in Jolly Olde Englande, I particularly enjoyed the ones from there.  I remember a car trip one year with my mom and our English friend Judith, jumping from one small, obscure Cornwallish and Devonish town to another, staying at Beds and Breakfasts (some quaint and charming, some not so much) making history with our mispronunciations.  One exquisite little town was called "Mousehole" (how much more adorable can you get?) which is pronounced "Muzzle".  What, is it too much trouble to open your mouth for the long vowels?  We also purposely mis-pronounced some signs: "No Through Road" became "Naw Throff Road".

Imagine the embarrassment of asking for the way to Phuket, Thailand.  Be careful, be very very careful with that one!  I can't even mention the name of an Austrian town that is beset by British tourists who keep stealing the road signs.  (Okay, here's a link if you must).

There is a town south of me called "Buda" which always made me think of my young years in Tokyo.  But no, it's pronounced "Byoo-da".  That little town east of Austin on 290?  Is it Elgin or Eljin?  Don't ever say "Palestine" when you mean "Palesteen" Texas.  The only way to tell if you're a native of New Orleans is to know the proper pronunciation of Tchoupitoulis (not to mention the spelling!!) and Terpsichore.  "New Orleans" itself has been butchered by thousands -- please, I'm begging you, don't ever call it "New Or-LEENS".  Unless, of course you're talking about Orleans Parish or Orleans Street.  They like to keep you on your toes down there, sha (the correct pronunciation of "cher" or dearie).  Don't come down with your fancified knowledge of French and think you're going to impress anybody.  My mom insists on calling a "po'boy" a "poorboy" and we all cringe in unison.

For some strange reason I am offended on behalf of the citizens when people mis-pronounce the names of their countries.  The biggest offenders, unfortunately, are we (us?) Americans.  I can't tell you how much I have shuddered over the past twelve years, when I hear "EYE-ran" and "EYE-rack".  It should be "EE-rahn" and "EE-rock".  And yes, I admit I have been obnoxious and have tried to correct a person or two at times, only to be told, "Whatever."  Would we be as blase if someone from overseas came here and started pronouncing Arkansas phonetically?  I think not.

Get your mind out of the gutter.  It's Pen-i-sten.
I guess growing up as I did gave me a double, no triple dose of respect for the cultures into which I was dropped.  To me, it's an insult to take a name, be it a town or a country, and recreate it to match your own cultural identity.  It's like meeting a guy named David, and taking it upon yourself to call him "Dave".  (My first husband, much to his chagrin, deals with this all the time).  It's just rude.  On the other hand, we Americans tend to be Hooked on Phonics, and are only trying to do our best with Worcestershire (a mouthful!) and Gloucestershire.  

So how do YOU pronounce this?

However, it may be a function of no one taking the time to tell us how to correctly pronounce a word.  How many times have we listened to a song on the radio and mis-heard the lyrics?  Remember the Elton John classic, "Hold me closer, Tony Danza"?  Could the fear of an embarrassing mis-pronunciation be the reason some are so hesitant to speak a foreign language to a native speaker?  Could be.  Who wants to be immediately marked as a "tourist" by asking where the train to Green-wich is (rather than Gren-ich).

Does this all really matter?  My kids are always rolling their eyes when I attempt (emphasis on the "attempt") to correct their pronunciation or grammar.  I can't even resist the urge to correct them online.  It's a terrible terrible vice.  I could write a whole 'nother post about apostrophes and semicolons; you get the picture.  I guess it's my feeble attempt to slow the whole societal slide into the abyss of ignorance.  It's a Sisyphean effort.  Indeed, but don't ask me how to pronounce it.

**Y'all do know to click on the word "this" to get to the link don't you?  My mom didn't.