Sunday, March 18, 2018

How Much Family Is Too Much Family?

To talk to most mothers, mine and Sonia's included, there is no such thing as too much family. In my parents' rural American culture, they look forward to every four-hour meal, every one-year-old birthday party and every high school play.

It's easy to forget from the vantage point of my coastal elitism: most of America is built this way. Or at least, the rural and suburban part of America that is lucky enough to be moderately comfortable and middle class.

This weekend, I skipped out on some family events in favor of getting my head on straight for springtime, exercising and creating some new health and writing goals. I felt more relief than guilt, a true accomplishment for a veteran of 13 years of Catholic school.

My favorite cousin, a sweet 41-year-old man with two kids, was in town from Washington state. His little brother, a self-righteous Christian who is difficult to be around, came along too. Families and girlfriends stayed at home so Thursday night, Sonia and I had dinner with the two cousins on their way to my aunt's house.

They drove their rental car our house and we walked to a nearby gastropub. I apologized for and tried to explain city life. My favorite cousin recounted a story from when we were little.

"You had this little pink mirror with a handle," he said. "I looked into it and said, 'I'm in the mirror!' and handed it to you to prove it. 'No, I'm in the mirror!' you said. You were so confused. We went on that way for a long time."

"Did you try that with your daughter when she was that age?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's a classic. You find a classic, you stick with it."

I can't explain my love for this cousin except that we were the two oldest, so right around the time I was starting to be aware of the world, he was there, five years older than me and awesome. He's also got a way of breaking the ice.

In another moment, we were explaining the structure of high schools in Philadelphia and Sonia's school pride came out, a little more aggressively than usual. I was worried that she sounded a little racist, which she is not.

"Honey," I said. "Watch it. You're sounding a little elitist."

The favorite cousin was quick on the draw. "You would be too," he said, "If you went to Central!"

It was great to see him. Even the Christian cousin and I tolerated each other, as he engaged us in stories about his new hobby: deep-water diving.

That was Thursday night. Saturday, we were invited to may aunt's for all-day conversations and meals. Tonight, about a dozen family members are doing the same thing at my parents' house. We declined both invitations.

It's true that Sonia and I are trying to say "yes" more often than we say "no" to family, but I live in the city for a more engaging job (which I love), for a chosen family (which we are building) and for the opportunity to write about where I come from (which requires distance).

Looking back on my past few blog posts, I feel like a pendulum. My boss and Sonia have a related observation about me that drives me nuts. They both claim that I can have very passionate, completely opposing views on a topic two days in a row. They're not wrong.

At work it looks like this:
  • Monday: So-and-so isn't working hard at all. We should give them a warning because they're not meeting expectations. 
  • Tuesday: The same person is amazing! They really stepped up today and it's so clear that they're putting in more of an effort. 
Both of these things can be true, but few people would make such a quick shift. I think it means I'm always open to being proven wrong. I want to believe in people. 

At home it looks like this: 
  • Monday: I haven't heard from the cousins who are coming to visit, so we can skip seeing them this time. 
  • Tuesday: I heard from them! We have to change all of our plans so we can see them in the three-hour window they gave me for a dinner together. 
When it comes to writing, this tendency leaves me a little schizophrenic-feeling. I want to write about family and belief and happiness, but my ideas about these topics are constantly shifting and internally contradictory. 

This blog is an opportunity to build a body of memior-style vignettes, to note themes as they evolve over time and to nail down a story about family that feels fresh enough to turn into a book. To do all that, sometimes requires a break from said family. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Guide for Small-talking to Parents

I've had what I thought was a healthy disdain for small talk since puberty. I raged against people contentedly chatting about grocery deals or potted plants while there was so much terror and suffering in the world.

Around this time, I also began to have a double consciousness -- making out with girls and telling myself that I was just experimenting for boys, that it didn't mean anything greater about me or my life.

By scoffing at small talk and simultaneously not wanting to talk about anything of substance with family members, I was left with nothing to say to many people I'd known growing up: aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors. And of course, parents.

My family silences contrasted with the quickly intimate confidences I created throughout my late teens and twenties. The party always ended at my dorm room or apartment, with a few friends whispering about what kept them up at night and what kept them going. I sought intimacies with anyone on the margins, where I was: restaurant workers, struggling writers, anyone queer or sexually experimental.

I learned a lot, but I am in touch with almost no one from that time of my life. We were bright-burning candles that quickly extinguished, friends of a season.

For the first time in my life, I'm spending time with my elders and thinking about the next decades of our relationships and how I can make them stronger. Against all my natural resistance, it seems to come down to a question of small talk.

It all started when Sonia and I began reviewing "acceptable topics of conversation," when driving to visit to her parents or mine. We had long ago lost the ability to talk naturally with our own parents about our real lives, and this seemed the best way back in. By listing out conversation topics for one another, we gained confidence and security that we could get through the night without too many awkward silences.

Acceptable Topics: The Korean Side
  • How to make Korean food (this is actually several, since you could talk about each dish in great depth)
  • How to make kimchi (merits its own bullet point)
  • Early days in America (their tourist stand, how they chose Philly)
  • Korean traditions around marriage, 100 days (for new babies), Lunar New Year
  • Business at the store
  • The new micro-loan at the store, what they got with it, the sketchy contractor
  • Retirement (although I learned that this quickly leads to the "when are you having a baby" conversation)
  • The house in the suburbs where Sonia's brother & sister-in-law now live
  • Her brother's job & sister-in-law's progress in nursing school
  • Us in 2018: getting healthier, plans for the house, trips
Acceptable Topics: The White American Side
  • How to make Slovack pastries
  • The grandmothers (I'm still lucky enough to have two)
  • Other family members (the cousin headed off to college, the cousin's child with health problems, the aunts and uncles moving south)
  • House renovations and improvements, recent and planned
  • Yard improvements and changes, recent and planned
  • Dad's substitute teaching gigs
  • Mom's halfway house project for women coming out of prison
  • Upcoming trips
  • My brother's work on his house & his girlfriends' parents' health
  • Us in 2018: getting healthier, plans for the house, trips
Gay children with difficult family relationships have so much stacked against them. For years, we practice the art of hiding ourselves from our parents. By the time we come out, we've lost the ability to talk about even the most everyday aspects of our lives.

When we come out, we want to launch right into the big questions: the meaning of life, our dreams for the future. Yet we struggle to talk about the most everyday happenings: a movie we saw, a night out with friends. 

Even though it's still uncomfortable, Sonia and I are making plans and showing up. We are being patient with ourselves and with our parents. We are starting with the little things, and learning how to talk to them again. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Path of Joy Is Connection

We can walk to a gorgeous, redesigned public library from our new house, so Sonia and I recently rediscovered the magic of borrowing books. You can take 10 home, try them all on for size, and read one or none at all! 

We've been interested in mindfulness, so The Book of JOY  became my bedtime reading. It's written by Douglas Abrams and details a week when His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, two dear friends and spiritual leaders of Buddhism and Christianity respectively, spent a week together talking about the meaning of life. 

All three are listed as authors because the spiritual leaders' dialogs are recorded and sometimes quoted for several pages at a time. 

It has gems like this: "Modern society has prioritized independence to such an extent that we are left on our own to try to manage our lives that are increasingly out of control" (p. 95).

My independence is often at issue in our relationship. Sonia doesn't understand why I won't call my dad to help us hang a new light fixture or tear out the old bushes by the front sidewalk. 

I try to explain. I never saw my parents asking their parents for anything. They did everything on their own. Parents give you eighteen good years and then they should be able to reap the benefits of their hard work. It's your turn to shine.

Korean culture is more familial, so that even though it's just the four of them plus the sister-in-law in the U.S. (and, more and more, me!), the bonds seem stronger. Dinner every two weeks is non-negotiable. Parents weigh in on how much you're eating, how healthy you look, how eager they are for grandchildren. 

My parents have never in 36 years asked about grandchildren, and so I have no idea how they picture their role in that time of life. Sonia's parents bring it up every second visit and it's clear that mom wants to be involved, daily if we'll allow it. 

"Once again, the path of joy was connection and the path of sorrow was separation. When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as a part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face -- together" (p. 100). 

I haven't yet put the "Script for Clearing the Air" into practice. When I wrote it, I saw my parents as a threat rather than as a part of me. It's a common feeling for those of us lucky enough to have living parents with whom our connection is still recalibrating. 

Today, after reaching out to talk to my mother this weekend about her own mother's decline (they may have to move her into 24/7 care within the week), it feels more like we're on the same team. I can almost picture my parents attending our wedding one day. 

Today the connection, which is not static but ever-changing, feels like enough. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Script for Clearing the Air

Mom and Dad, I'm calling today because Sonia came out to her parents about two and a half months ago. They had a hard time with it at first (her mother threatening suicide, her father insisting she can still get back on "the right path" and not ruin her life).

But just over two months later, I've had two dinners with them and her mother is dropping hints about babies and asking to meet you while we make kim bop.

What a natural parental instinct -- to want to meet the person that your child has chosen, then to want to meet their family.

It made me remember a tipsy phone call we had about a year after Sonia and I started dating. I was the only tipsy one, to my knowledge. I called your house needing a bit of honesty. I remember talking about my admiration for Sonia and her parents from a half a dozen different angles, trying to help you see why this relationship was the best one of my life.

That would have been a good and appropriate time for you to say you wanted to meet them. But you didn't. I did most of the talking.

Instead, Sonia and I are approaching our four-year anniversary and it seriously shocked me when her parents said they wanted to meet you. When I realized that this "meet the parents" moment was probably going to happen, my stomach sank.

Would you be willing to do it? Furthermore, do I even want you to meet them without knowing if you would support our marriage? What about kids?

I haven't put my life on hold, but I don't look forward to milestones because of the weight of navigating them with shaky parental support.

I'm thirty-six years old and I've built my own life. But the desire for parental acceptance is strong. I've held onto a candle of hope that the two of you would come around, but the flame is fanned by an absence of conversations, an avoidance of the big topics.

I won't let our marriage and any children we're lucky enough to have be tainted by your shaky support or overt judgement.

Sonia and I would like your support during these upcoming milestones, but if there is some point your religion won't let you pass, we need to know now. So we can get on with it, with all of the information.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Denial Is the First Stage of Grief

Sonia had two or three dinners with her parents during which they flatly ignored the fact that she had come out to them.

This didn't surprise me at all because my parents had gone through (and are possibly still in) a similar stage of denial. However, I was more than a little surprised when literally every gay person we talked to about this, responded with a knowing, "that sounds familiar." How common is denial?

Denial is the first stage of grief. As much as it breaks my heart that so many parents of gay children approach being gay as a loss, at least it's predictable.

The five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It's still uncommon for parents of gay children to celebrate rather than mourn the chance to learn more wholly who their children are. But perhaps our response to this, as gay children, is to judge them by how quickly they move through these five stages, so that we can all at least get on with our lives.

For Sonia's parents, it was about seven weeks. Their quick turnaround, despite a horrible initial reaction, makes me wonder if my parents are even there yet.

Following those few dinners of denial, Sonia's mom came around with a light prod right after the New Year. Sonia asked if her parents would like to meet me, and before we knew it her mom was asking what I liked to eat and I was in the car driving with Sonia to Sunday dinner for the second time in the three and a half years since we've been dating.

(The first time, I'd met them as Sonia's friend after we'd been together only a few months. If they remembered that other meeting, they didn't let on.)

We entered Sonia's parent's home and balanced our flowers, coats and bags as we took our shoes off in the entryway. Her parents came into view in the living room. 

I said, Annyeonghaseyo, twice, smiling and bowing awkwardly, worried she hadn't heard the first one or that I'd said it from too far away. 

Sonia's mother brushed off my carefully practiced Korean "hello," and greeted me with a warmth my own mother had never shown Sonia, hugging me with my coat still on and patting my cheeks with her hand.

"So pretty," she said, as she pulled me into an awkward embrace.

Her father and brother asked me questions about my job as her mother and sister-in-law brought dish after dish to the table. They were somewhat incredulous that someone could make good money at a nonprofit, but Sonia reassured them.

During the meal, we talked mostly about the recent snowstorms and the food. A lot of the conversation was in Korean. The food was all familiar; Sonia's mother sends her home with at least two shopping bags of Korean food every two weeks, so I'd been getting familiar with all of it for years. I knew what I liked, and I even surprised myself by liking the soup with rice cakes, a texture I usually avoid.

After dinner, her mother brought out two bowls for each of us, although some family members declined one or the other. Unlike me, they knew what more was coming. One was a sugary liquid dessert with rice; the other tasted like a cold cinnamon tea with pine nuts. Then there was a fancy cake her brother had brought -- because it was an occasion, right?

As Sonia has taught me, no Korean meal is complete without fruit at the end. The orange slices came last. Count 'em: that's four desserts.

We went home with full bellies and a sense of whiplash. From Sonia's description of her coming out night only seven weeks prior, we didn't believe such a lovely night would be possible, maybe for years.

As we drove home, I explained the honky phrase, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sonia Came Out!

Our "couple logic" went something like this. Holiday season 2016, I let Sonia know that I didn't want to spend another holiday season attending separate holiday gatherings hosted by our separate families. I didn't want to face my own family without her. I thought I might go crazy if they tried to ignore her existence again. It was harder to do that when she was present.

Sonia planned her coming out by counting backward from Thanksgiving, the indisputable beginning of holiday season 2017. She decided to tell her parents two weeks before Thanksgiving. That meant telling her older brother and sister-in-law two weeks before that.

First, some background. Sonia's mother and father immigrated to the States from Korea in the late 70s. They worked a tourist stand, hawking American flag t-shirts and Eagles tossle caps until they could afford a store of their own. They've been working six days a week at their corner store in North Philadelphia for at least 20 years now.

The store is their livelihood: what put food on the table in the early years & eventually what bought them the down payment on a four-bedroom home in a gated community an hour away. Turned out the American Dream house was too much of a commute; Sonia's brother moved in and her parents still live in the row house where they raised their children.

Sonia is the baby of the family, and the darling. So much so that, when she came out to her brother over the phone four weeks before Thanksgiving, her brother insisted that everything would be "fine and dandy," so loved and admired was she by her parents.

Sonia wasn't so sure, but I dared to hope. Within a week, I met Sonia's older brother and sister-in-law, a nurse from Korea whose academic papers (for her B.S. in nursing) I'd been helping to edit for months.

They were kind. Conversation moved naturally from education to jobs to her brother's new car. I floated through the meal, only slightly more demure than I am in my daily life. When I went to the bathroom, Sonia's brother told her she should be nicer to me and make me eat more dessert.

The night Sonia came out to her parents, her brother and sister-in-law were at dinner, but it was harder than they'd expected. Her brother didn't expect the overwrought emotion from her mother, and ended up crying himself. Her sister-in-law struggled to support her and also maintain her role of accommodating daughter-in-law. I sat at home twisted in knots.

I met Sonia at the door when she came home. "It did not go well," she said.

We played Thanksgiving much as we had in previous years -- Sonia drove about an hour with me to my family's dinner, then I sipped wine at home while she visited her own family. Her parents pretended that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

It didn't feel like other years. Something had shifted.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Blake Morgan Is Bi!

Happy Monday! I'm on a roll this morning: lunches made, kitchen swept, laundry folded. I have a little over 30 minutes to drink some tea and write so I can exercise for 30 min. and still get to work at a reasonable time. Can every morning feel this good?

Because of my time crunch, this will be a short blog post in homage to the writers of Madame Secretary, which I've been watching solo on Netflix (Sonia avoids political shows).

After working together for three years, Blake Morgan, assistant to Tea Leoni's Secretary of State, finally came out to her. Any queer person watching knew this character wasn't just a straight guy. There was something truly satisfying about this revelation.

Blake Morgan is awkward. He's been burned. He maintains his right to hold some thing or things sacred, and decide himself when he wants people in his inner circle. He'll tell you what he wants you to know when he's ready, and not before.

Plus, he's a dashing dreamboat. He's a bi guy I would've gone for in a heartbeat.

One of my first books after beginning to date women was Look Both Ways (NYTimes review). It gave me confidence but not necessarily a language, or a way of talking about bisexuality to gay (especially lesbian) people I knew or my Christian parents.

Among lesbians, beginning in college, I was an outsider. If they suspected I had crushes (oh, did I have crushes!), I was dismissed as one of the silly straight experimenters. I even thought of myself that way.

Among my straight Christian family, I was already an outsider with my education and liberal views. Add feminism, then bisexuality and eventually moving in with a woman & the bisexuality tends to get lost. It becomes a fuzzy stepping stone rather than a part of my identity to choose and fully own.

Thank you, writers of Blake Morgan. It was a rare pleasure to see a bisexual character on television whose sexuality is secondary to his work ethic, determination and adorably anxious overachieving.

I liked this character because he bucks the "all-out, all the time" mandate from LGBTQ leaders like Dan Savage. I see where they're coming from, but I also think it's a little bit like asking your black friend to represent all black people whenever you have a question that concerns "the black community." It's not his or her job, just like it's not my job to represent all queer people, all the time.

Like "the black community," maybe the "LGBTQ community" is less a community and more of an umbrella that serves its political purpose. I'm under it. Is that enough?