Monthly Archives: July 2009

July 21, 2009

skype is the hype — or is it?

Ooooh, we recently downloaded Skype. My parents and uncles have been using Skype for years now, but to me it was just this weird chat thing.

Now that we have a son, I realized how convenient and fun it is to be able to see our relatives and for them to see our son. We have family all over the country, and all over the world, from Washington to Virginia to Germany. Since we’re all so scattered, it’s a nice way for them to see our son – sort of a day to day window into our lives here.

I recently read a funny and insightful essay by Peggy Orenstein about Skype. She concludes that Skype isn’t for her and her family, and that she prefers the old school way of communicating — well, recent old school ways like emailing photos.

I’m not great about sending photos. By the time I mail or email them, they are months old. So Skype is really growing on me. Plus, our relatives don’t really get to see what our son is really like and what he sounds like. Since our son’s talking a lot more now, it’s fun to see him communicate with his family members from afar. He’s even talked to relatives he’s never met before, or those he’s only met once when he was a baby, and now repeats their names as if they are his best friends.

The thing I don’t like about Skype is that it’s another activity where we end up sitting in front of the computer, staring at the screen. We try to limit our son’s screen time because he is only two. Still, I’m finding it’s a nice way of connecting to family members.

At first, I think our son was a little weirded out by the whole thing — you know, seeing his grandparents on the computer, though they’re not actually here. After Skyping he’d seem all cranky and out of sorts. Now, he will ask to see his grandparents and uncles and cousins. And dogs. He loves my sister’s and parents’ dogs and will ask to see them too.

In the end though, I’m not really afraid of us spending too much time on Skype. Our tot can only sit still for so long, especially if it’s just staring at a person’s face. Doesn’t matter even if that person is his beloved wai po (maternal grandma). He’s so used to seeing stuff on the computer that has a lot more motions, music and colors.

And it is a little awkward sometimes, just sitting and staring at each other. Actually, most of the time we’re not even looking at each other. Skypers, it seems, are usually looking down or at some other point, but not directly into the camera.

Usually within a few minutes of chatting, my son’s ready to say bye and will jump off my lap to practice his dance moves.

revisiting kiawah

Quite often, when one thinks of vacation, one’s mind is immediately drawn to places outside of the United States. This year, my family found our-selves not on vacation, but residing at our home away from home, Kiawah Island, South Carolina. My grandparents on my mother’s side have a home on Kiawah Island. Strange as it is, my husband’s grandmother on his mother’s side also owns a home there. We both feel a bond to that Island. As kids, my husband and I remember the Kiawah that used to be. We remember the quiet beaches, the local roadside vegetable markets, and the wonderful preservation of the surrounding ecosystem. It was a place where people could embrace nature in a pure form without giving up the comforts of home. It was a modern day lifestyle that embraced the efforts of the Kiawah Indians. We brought our daughter to Kiawah this year, and as I watched her play in the surf, I felt a strange melancholy come over me; my daughter would never know the pure Kiawah that I knew. The quiet beaches and no-fuss island life that I knew is slowly disappearing, and in its place stands a ritzier, more glamorous, and much more populated Kiawah. It begged the question: what kind of Kiawah would we leave her?

Even as the island has gained recognition, it remains one of the most carefully preserved barrier islands that exist today; hopefully this will not change. The Kiawah Island of old was owned by the Kiawah Indians, populated with wild horses racing through the waves. In the 1980’s nature tours had to be given in a safari-like automobile while tourists were given a layout of the land in the midst of bobcats, wild horses, herons and alligators. The natural habitat is authentic on Kiawah specifically because of the many laws that protect the wild life on the island. For example, there are no street lights on Kiawah; the community does not want to disrupt the natural cycle for the animals. Not only do the animals have the communities’ respect, but the actual land itself has immense respect from the people of Kiawah. The fact that no building is permitted on the dunes certainly prevents any additional erosion. I hope that my daughter gets to experience the ecosystem of Kiawah. I hope that things do not become too commercialized. Seeing my little one splash in the water made me realize just how simple it is to enjoy nature and how humans are naturally drawn toward natural wonders: waterfalls, beaches, mountains, caverns, lakes and valleys. We all travel to see and experience these things. There seems to be something within nature itself that is innately human. Hopefully we won’t lose that piece of ourselves within nature as these areas that we love so dearly become more and more populated. There is an Indian saying that I really connect with regarding these issues: ‘Mitakuye oyasin!’ Literally translated, it means: ‘we are all related.’ Hopefully we remember these words and treat the land as if we are all related, the ocean, the moon, the stars, the animals, the people; we are all related.

riding the rails

Maybe it’s the haunting whistle at five in the morning or perhaps it’s the gleaming steel curves of the engine, but there is something about trains that taps into a deep corner of my soul. It could be the romance-the vagabond lifestyle, the ease of which one can hop off of a train and instantly be in the heart of a new city. Or maybe it’s the pioneer spirit-looking at the open countryside filled with infinite possibilities. Regardless, as I contemplated the best way to get my family from Minneapolis to Milwaukee on a recent family vacation to the Midwest, I couldn’t shake from my mind the idea of taking the train. Sure, flying would be faster and maybe even more economical, but an airplane would be just one more opportunity for our luggage to get lost. We could have rented a car, but that option would have left us with children complaining of the monotonous views from the windows and wanting to stretch their legs. So, the train it was.

While it was no Japanese bullet train or the Orient Express, my children could not have enjoyed their six hours on the Empire Builder more. From the moment we boarded the train and climbed up a narrow staircase to our seats, the fun never stopped. There were complicated footrests to master and train table charts to look at. There was the observation car with its oval side tables and views of the Mississippi. There was the excitement of the dining car where we sat at a table with strangers and ate ice cream with tiny paddles. Every moment held a breathtaking discovery.

Watching my children embrace the experience of traveling on a train, I couldn’t help but think of the first train trips that I took in Europe and the indelible memories that they have left. How could I ever forget sitting on my pack in a cramped hallway while 70 German teenagers on a school holiday trip chattered the night away? And my heart still skips a beat when I remember the shock of having a border guard in Hungary burst into our train compartment in the middle of the night with his German Shepherd growling at us.

In a world that measures achievement by tasks accomplished or the distance one has gone, traveling by train forces one to slow down. The calming rhythm of the train and the measured pace of the scenery slipping by the window always has a meditative effect on me, and it had the same effect on my children. As we gazed idly out the window, we commented on the birds that we saw or the red barns in the distance. And perhaps that is the romance of the train-this communal experience with one’s fellow passengers and with the landscape, all of which is something that kids seem to be hardwired to enjoy.

July 17, 2009

easy and essential safety tip for your child.

Back by popular demand!  Lori Chaplin wrote this article back in October 2008 and we were reminded of the importance of safety while families are out traveling and enjoying the wonderful summer weather.  Keep a watchful eye as you venture out on your travels this season!

Have you ever “lost” you kid? Maybe you haven’t admitted it publicly but it happens to many families. It happened to us at Disneyland last weekend. I was parking the stroller and asked our daughter to hop out and get in line with Dad. A cast member told me I would need to move my stroller to “stroller parking.” I followed a path to stroller parking far removed from the ride which we were waiting. I quickly parked the stroller and did a brisk walked back to the Astro Orbiter in Tomorrowland, almost a jog. I was unaware that my daughter had followed me. I returned to the ride with my husband in line. We looked at each other simultaneously saying, “Where is Olivia? I thought she was with you!” Quick expression of panic and we both take off running.

This is the part that saved us. Every time we go to a public place like Disneyland, Del Mar fair, Legoland, Sea World, San Diego Zoo, San Francisco zoo or any of the other places we would never had been found 6 years ago….we take pictures of our daughter on our cell phones. Front, side and back view pictures AT the site. This would allow us to show a picture of her in the outfit she was wearing and the hairstyle she had on the same day if she got separated from us. We always figured if we had a current picture on our cell phones we could easily show it and forward it to others if needed.

And we needed. Within seconds of missing Olivia at Disneyland, I showed the picture to the man who made me move the stroller and he began pointing and saying “Ohhh the little girl with pigtails. She is right there with another cast member!”

Slump of relief.

She did all the right things, found a “manager” and stayed put once she felt she couldn’t find us. But having the picture expedited the situation. Once back at Astro Orbiter, another family asked us if would like our place back in line and confessed they had a stomach ache too from the sympathy pains. I told them how I found Olivia and they immediately took out their cameras and took a picture of their 7 year old. I am sure that will become part of their “public place” routine. I can now personally recommend it to all parents.

July 14, 2009

flying solo

Flying doesn’t scare me. For some, the mere mention of an airplane elicits panic. Not this girl. Often, when a plane passes overhead, I’ll glance up and wonder what exciting place it’s bound for. And I’ll sigh with a brief moment of envy before returning to the day’s activities. I’ve flown often and for the vast majority of my life. My first flight was at 4 weeks old and I haven’t slowed down since.
Recently, I flew alone for the first time in quite a while. To celebrate my birthday, I met my husband at the tail end of a business trip for a long weekend in California. It was our first trip alone together since Annie P joined our family. The traveler that I love to be, I picked a place that left a whole country between my daughter and I. Better to just close my eyes and jump rather than dip my toe in the water by way of a close location, I say. I’ve flown halfway around the world, for goodness sakes. I figured I could leave Annie P on the east coast for a couple of days. So off I went.
The first thing I noticed about traveling alone for the first time since becoming a mother was the absolute tranquility of the experience. I don’t think that’s something you often hear people say about a plane trip. But for a mother, it can be downright therapeutic. Let me elaborate with a few examples.
On the way to the airport, I filed my nails – don’t worry, I wasn’t driving. I sat in the car with no sippy cups to dole out, no nursery rhymes to sing and filed my poor neglected nails. I chatted with my friendly limo driver (part of the birthday present). I took part in the excitement of a trip to the airport where I would be leaving for somewhere other than home. This was going to be good.
Once I made it to my gate, I just sat and watched my fellow travelers. People watching is a too often overlooked perk about traveling. When people go somewhere, they are inclined to hurry from one overrun tourist attraction to the next, without truly looking around them. One of the easiest ways to experience a new culture is to grab a seat in the center of the action, be it a market or a town square, and just watch how people live. Throw away the agenda and just be. That isn’t easy to do with a child. All your focus is on them; are they safe, where did they get the mystery object they’re chewing on from, are they bothering the person next to you. You get the picture. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s surely not as easy to come by. So I soaked it in. At one point they came over the intercom to announce that our flight would be slightly delayed. For the first time ever, I truly didn’t care. I didn’t have any real place to be. I’d get there, my dear husband would be waiting, and we’d carry on.
We did eventually make it on the plane. And here’s where my trip truly began.  I ordered a drink. I drank slowly, and without having to share. I read the vast majority of a book. I ordered a movie that I watched in the middle of the day with no interruptions. It was almost like a spa day. All I needed was the robe and slippers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in first class.
I did see a few uneasy travelers around me, sweating out the flight all the while reassuring themselves that eventually their feet would be on solid ground again. But me? I kicked my feet up as far as the space between seats in economy class will allow and enjoyed the blissful sounds of someone else’s kid crying.

the native tongue

Last month, we took our six and a half month old daughter Amelie to meet some relatives who were in town for my cousin’s graduation. My side of the family is Vietnamese, and except for some early cooing from my parents when she was two months old, this was the first time Amelie was surrounded by her Vietnamese relatives, all who baby talked and interacted with her in their native language.
I never learned to speak fluent Vietnamese. As new refugees in this country just after the fall of Saigon, my parents felt incredibly self-conscious speaking English in public because of their perceived heavy accents. Determined that their own children wouldn’t experience the same prejudice they faced, my parents had decided to speak to my brother and me only in English. In retrospect, it has been a great disappointment not to communicate in the native language of my relatives and have the ability to pass it down to my own child.
Amelie loves attention and eagerly allowed herself to be passed around between her great aunts and great uncles. I sat listening to them chat with her, ask her questions and hug her. One of my uncles even pulled out the karaoke machine and sang Vietnamese love songs to her. She cried at the end, possibly because of the high decibels, but perhaps because the serenade was over. I was thrilled with the attention too, taking way too many pictures and video clips. Even though I knew she was too young to understand, I wanted to retain these memories for her, especially the words they spoke, which were full of love and history.
My parents remind me all the time that I could take language lessons. They are convinced the Vietnamese is buried within me, since I still can understand what they say to me—I just can’t generate the words to reply. But I don’t hear Vietnamese on a regular basis anymore. My parents tend to speak in English when we’re on the phone. So when I do hear it, either in passing on the street, or on the car radio, or in a restaurant, I sit transfixed, silencing everything else around me, attempting to translate and understand.
My husband and I have talked for years about taking Vietnamese language classes. My father is getting older and although he has spoken English for over thirty years, I know he feels more comfortable speaking in Vietnamese. I don’t want that kind of language barrier between us. We always found reasons to put these classes off, but this weekend convinced us we needed to make it a priority. Children retain languages best when they are young, and I want us to be prepared when Amelie is able to speak her first words.
I know it will be difficult. This is probably why I’ve been delaying it for so long. But I’d like to believe what my parents say, that my fluency will not be so hard to attain, after years of listening to my family.
Sometimes, I feel the language swelling up in me. Little endearments I remember my parents used to say to me, I now find myself saying to Amelie. Although I cannot literally translate even to myself what I am saying, I hope she can feel the affection in the words, and trust that I mean them.

July 2, 2009

take a deep breath this holiday weekend…

I have always felt badly for my mother around the holidays- she gets so stressed about having guests, when they are coming and going, how to transport them, where they will sleep, how to entertain them, and on top of that, making massive amounts of food. As a kid I always got to enjoy having more people in the house, run around with the other kids, and enjoy the special holiday feasts. My mom, like every other host of holiday parties, worries about their guests feeling comfortable, taken care of, and having enjoyed their time.

So often, the idea behind holidays gets pushed by the wayside in favor of stressing over grocery shopping, making the house guest-ready, and how you’ll handle crazy relatives.  Sometimes, even the history or tradition gets lost in the excitement that kids have for having a day off from school, or adults have for having a paid holiday.  Of all of the different holidays throughout the world, the one common thread is that they give reason to bring people together, and celebrating our accomplishments and connections to each other.  The point is not to stress about the little things, but to enjoy being around the friends and family you love, and remind ourselves of the support system we have in each other. 

 And you might cringe at the thought of dealing with the in-laws or crazy uncles, but try to remember on this 4th of July weekend that hiccups are bound to happen, hot dogs and marshmallows will get burned, and it might be a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher handy!