Aug 26, 2017

What "Fine" Looks Like

I cried on election night. I thought I was angry, but really, I was scared. I was scared for my brown-skinned, accented immigrant husband. The campaign season’s anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric rang in my ears. I was terrified of the violence I thought it might inspire.
My family, all Caucasian, said I was being paranoid. “He’s legal. He’ll be fine.”
But here’s the thing: nowhere on his person is there a sign that says “I’m supposed to be here.” There’s no yellow star or tattoo with his green card number. (I hope to God he’s never forced to get one). He looks like what he is: a bald Hispanic man with a goatee. But because of that, there will always be people who question his right to be here in the U.S. with his wife and his children. People who shout hate at him on street corners don’t ask for his passport card first. They don’t ask him his immigration status. They just look at him and assume he doesn’t belong.
            For the most part, things have been fine since the election. We make sure our taillights work and our license tabs are up to date. We never speed or run stoplights. We do everything in our power not to make him a target. But “fine” for him is never going to look like “fine” for me.
            Fine for him means getting followed around in stores. It means people talking louder to him because he has an accent. It means folks asking what part of Mexico he’s from. (He’s from Spain.) It means people asking to talk to someone who “speaks English” when businesses call on the phone. It means a 1,000 little headaches and prejudices that as a White person, I’d never know were a part of life for some Americans.
            These are the things he faces, the silent battles he fights. But there is one thing that affects me directly, and that’s the way people react when we speak Spanish in public. While the Hispanic community here is decent sized, we don’t have a lot of connection with actual Spanish culture where we live. In fact, my husband is perhaps the only Spaniard in our county. Language is the one thing that connects him to his homeland. It’s the language of his family – the tios and abuela that my children only know over Skype and on the phone.
            And that’s a problem.
            Because more and more, people are looking at my husband weird when he speaks to our bilingual children in Spanish.
            This might not be the hardest thing he deals with, but it’s the hardest one for me. Our kids are young, but they see those looks. They see them and they know what they mean. They know that where we live, Spanish is different and “other” and undesirable.
            So they don’t want to speak it.
            Two weeks ago, my daughter had a raging meltdown. That in itself is not unusual – she’s the kind of kid who feels things deeply. But what set this tantrum apart was its cause. She was furious at my husband for speaking Spanish to her.
            “I hate Spanish!” she screamed. “Why can’t you just speak English?”
            It broke my heart. It broke my heart that she feels like half of who she is is unacceptable. It broke my heart that her Spanish heritage is something to be ashamed of or hide. And it broke my heart that these are the messages people give her on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Sometimes those messages come without thinking – a subtle change in attitude, a raised eyebrow, a change of tone. And sometimes, as with the case of today’s pardon of a sheriff convicted of illegally targeting Hispanics, those messages are clearly and intentionally given.
            I can’t change the big things. I can’t force people to be okay with minorities or confront the idea of privilege. I can't overturn a presidential pardon. But I can do my damnedest to help my kids be proud of their Hispanic heritage. I’m awful at speaking Spanish, but I’m doing it anyhow. When we watch Little Mermaid, I switch the language so Ariel speaks the same way they do. And I tell my children over and over how lucky they are to be bilingual and how beautiful Spanish culture is.
When the time comes to register them for school, I’ll mark them as bilingual, even though I know I’ll have to fight the rest of my life to keep them from unnecessary ESL testing.
Most of all, I’ll keep shouting into the void that anti-immigrant rhetoric affects more than just illegal immigrants. It affects the lives of every person with an accent or more melanin in their skin, regardless of immigration status. It affects me, a white lady from Republican farm country who just wants her kids to be proud of who they are.
I will do these things because my culture of origin shouldn’t be the only one that counts in our family.

It shouldn’t be the only one that counts, period.

Feb 14, 2017

Valentine's Day Mad Lib

In honor of Valentine's Day, I wrote a romance novel Mad Lib. Make a list of the required words, then plug them into the story. Let me know how it goes!
Piece of Clothing
Type of Plant
Verb (Past tense)
Body Part
Verb (Past tense)
Piece of Clothing
Verb (present tense)
Piece of Furniture
She eyed herself nervously in the mirror, wiping some (noun) from her one corner of her mouth. Would he approve?
The doorbell rang. She gave herself one more glance, straightened her (piece of clothing), and went downstairs to the door.
He stood on the front step. In his hands was a bouquet of (type of plant). Looking her up and down, he (verb). “You look (adjective),” he said.
She felt her face turn (color) and she looked away, (adjective) but pleased. “Thanks.” She opened the door wider. “Come in.”
He stepped inside, pausing to kiss her (body part). “(Sound),” he murmured. “You smell good, too. Like (food).”
She (verb). “Oh, (nickname). You’re so (adjective). Let me take your (piece of clothing) and we can (verb) on the (piece of furniture).”
“Sounds (adjective), (nickname).”

Feb 2, 2017

Why the Government Has My Wedding Photos

A lot of things have been said recently about immigration. I hear people complaining about a lack of thoroughness in the vetting process and asking why illegal immigrants don’t just go through the process to become legal. I can’t speak for everyone else, their reasons for doing or thinking what they do. All I can tell you is what happened to me. What it was like ten years ago when I married a Spanish man living in California on a student visa.

A few days into our honeymoon, my new husband fished a stack of papers from his suitcase and handed them to me.
“What’s this?” The pile was at least a hundred pages thick. Each was single-spaced and looked suspiciously like a tax form.
“My immigration application. My student visa is expiring soon, so I need you to fill those out so the government doesn’t deport me.”
My eyebrows rose. “Say what?”
Like most Americans, I’d seen those movies where the immigrant marries someone and presto! Instant citizenship. Nowhere in Hollywood’s version of immigration was there a dead forest worth of paperwork.
Ruymán looked apologetic. “I tried to fill them out myself, but I didn’t understand most of them.” He had learned English when he was fifteen, mostly from watching the Disney channel. Reading comprehension wasn’t his strongest suit.
"Oh, okay." I gave him a reassuring smile. “No problem.” 
I figured I’d swoop in, read a few things, fill in a few forms, and save the day. I was college educated and an English major for crying out loud. No sweat. He’d be a citizen in no time.
Except I didn’t understand the forms either. I spent hours pouring over those things. While other new brides penned letters that read “Dear Aunty Vi, Thank you for the toaster,” I crammed the seventeen-word name of Ruymán’s great grandmother into a three-inch space on a government form. My mother was mortified but I didn’t send out a single thank you note. I told her I was too busy trying to keep my husband in the country. The first batch of forms finished and sent with accompanying checks, I thought we could relax. Not so. The government then requested a new set of paperwork: letters from our friends and family assuring that we were actually married, a copy of all our jointly-paid bills, my tax returns from the last three years, a letter from my employer promising that I could afford to keep my husband, and copies of our wedding pictures. Plus, they wanted another $1000 and we had to show up in person at an appointment in L.A. to deliver it all. Or else.
At the time I was working at a school in the San Fernando Valley and the other teachers were from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. When I started whining in the lunchroom about the endless immigration hoops we had to jump through, nearly everyone had something to add.
“Your appointment is scheduled in three months?” asked Raquel, whose husband was from Mexico. “That’s really fast. When Miguel and I did his citizenship stuff, it took him over a year to get an interview just because he had the same name as some serial killer in Guadalajara. He’s not even related to the guy and from a completely different part of Mexico, but still, they had to do like twenty extra background checks on him.”
“That’s nothing,” chimed in Evelina, an Armenian immigrant who married a man from her hometown. “My husband’s friend Aghasi had to wait three years before he even heard back from immigration. He’d call and if he ever got to talk to a real person, they said they still hadn’t received his documentation. Turns out the stupid official accidentally dropped his paperwork behind the copy machine. They didn’t even find it until the department was redecorating the office.”
When everyone’s cries of outrage subsided, Tara spoke up. Though a Valley girl born and bred, she’d spent her summers running a Jewish summer camp in Israel and was friends with quite a few immigrants. “I have an even worse story,” said Tara. “This happened to someone I met at camp a couple summers ago. So this guy, his family saved up their money, moved to the US, and hired an immigration lawyer to handle the whole process – paperwork, fingerprints, everything. They didn’t speak or read English, so they gave the lawyer the checks to send to the government and he’d tell them how it was going. They knew immigration costs a ton, so they didn’t question the lawyer when he said they needed more. One day, the lawyer just up and disappears. No forwarding address, no paperwork, no green cards. Nothing. It turns out the guy was a con man. DHS never got one single thing and the family had to go back where they came from because they ran out of money.”
Discouraged and terrified by such stories of cruelty and incompetence, Ruyman and I faced our appointment with growing trepidation. We spent hours at the local Kinko’s, making sure we had every document requested in triplicate just in case. When the day arrived, we wore our best clothes, made the long drive downtown, and then sat in a decaying office building for three hours while we waited for our number to be called. Anxious groups of people in exotic dress spoke unrecognizable languages and sat in hard plastic chairs that were bolted to the floor in rows. An armed guard stood by the door and gum-chewing clerks pushed paper behind bulletproof glass. The message of the place was unmistakable: “We don’t want you here and we sure as hell don’t trust you.”
This was during my stress eating without extra insulin period, so I’d loaded up on chocolate chip bagels for breakfast. My blood sugar was through the roof. I paced the stained linoleum, hoping the physical movement would bring it down, but my marching back and forth made Ruyman even more nervous. Instead, I tried to fill up my water bottle at the fountain by the door.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the guard.
“Do what?” I asked. As far I knew, I hadn’t broken any of the many rules posted on the wall next to me.
“Drink the water,” he said. He pointed to the rust-colored fluid that half-filled my bottle. “I don’t think these pipes have been used since the fifties.”
“Ick.” I poured the water down the drain and went back to pacing. Occasionally a bored-sounding voice would announce a number over a crackly loudspeaker, and an anxious group of people would move toward the desk clutching a ream of papers. Without making eye contact, the clerk would motion them through a door to the right or mutter a few words and send the people back to their seats.
When our number was announced, it was immediately clear why our appointment was scheduled so quickly. Two groups of people stood up: Ruyman and I and a Korean family with an interpreter. We all shuffled to the window and stood there until the clerk looked up. In a tone as dry as my tongue, he said, “I’m guessing not all of you are here for Eunhee Kim, am I right?”
“No, the number you called is ours, too. Here.” Ruyman handed the man our summons.
The man scanned the paper. “Ah, f—not again. Stupid automated letter system. Look, sir, you were called here today by mistake. Normally, it takes at least six months to get your appointment. The automatic system messed up and assigned you the same appointment time as someone else.”
“Well, we’re here and all our stuff is ready. Can’t we just do the interview?” asked Ruyman.
The clerk scanned the crowd seated in the bolted-down chairs. He sighed, and then picked up the phone. “I’ll ask the guy that was supposed to interview you, but no promises, okay? If he says come back a different day, that’s how it’s gotta be. You understand?”
“Of course,” replied Ruyman, all outward politeness but his grip on my hand was so tight I could hear my metacarpals grinding together. We both knew there could be no second trip because we were moving to Utah in two days. It had to be then.
The clerk hung up. “He says come on back. He’ll squeeze you in. Go through the door on the right and then take a right and two lefts. It’s interview room number seven.”
Mumbling our gratitude, we followed his instructions and found ourselves facing a grey-skinned man with a vicious comb-over and eyewear from 1985. “Please come in,” he said, looking through his considerable eyebrows as he thumbed through some paperwork.
We came in. We sat. We handed him our documents. We gritted our teeth and waited for the questions to come. When they did, I was flummoxed by their utter stupidity.
“Are you or have you ever been a member of a terrorist group?” asked Eyebrow Man, making a tic on his form.
“No,” said Ruyman.
“What about the communist party? Are you in anyway affiliated with them?”
Ruyman shook his head. “No.”
“Have you ever killed anyone? Worked as a prostitute? Hired a prostitute?”
My mouth dropped open. What kind of asinine questions were these? No person in his right mind would ever answer yes. Plus, they were asked and answered on at least three of the forms Eyebrow Man had in front of him.
After a tense fifteen minutes, Eyebrow Man rubber-stamped our forms. Ruyman and I started packing up our documents, but when we reached for the purple polka-dotted album containing our photos, Eyebrow Man put up a hand. “Hang on there. I’ll keep those.”
“Seriously?” I’d barely said two words during the whole process, but the question popped out before I had a chance to self-censor.
“Absolutely,” said Eyebrow Man. He palmed the album and slid it into a desk drawer. “That’s why we had you make copies.”
            A month later, Ruyman’s green card arrived in the mail. He got a job and we got on with the business of being normal people living in the U.S. Except every six months to a year, the government stuck its hand out again, asking for this form or a translation of that document or another set of fingerprints or another interview. And each request came with a price tag.

Whenever someone talks about the ease of citizenship or the lack of thoroughness in vetting immigrants, I think about those photos. Ten years and thousands of dollars later, the government still has pictures of me feeding cake to my husband and throwing a bouquet. Something that was private and special and important to me is either in a filing cabinet somewhere or part of some ICE employee version of Awkward Family Photos. 

So I ask you, how’s that for thorough?

Oct 14, 2014

What I'd Tell My Mommy Friends

For the last year, I've been studying early childhood literacy, reading ridiculous amounts of research about how kids learn to read and what adults can do to help. It's made a difference in the way I treat my own kid, so I figured what the heck - why not share?

If you want to have a smart, book-loving, academically successful kid... to him. Scads of research shows the number one thing you can do to build your kid's vocabulary, word skills, and future academic success is to talk to him. Talk to him when he's two days old and you wonder if there's anything to him besides saliva, a voice box, and a fully functional rectum. Talk to him when he's a toddler and you can't get him to hold still for two seconds together. Talk to him on the potty, at the park, in the car, and in the bathtub. Talk to him in the grocery store while you're buying food. Talk to him while you're doing dishes and scrubbing toilets. Talk to him wherever, whenever.

Talk to him about the weather, about the hazards of washing the coloreds and the whites together, about the gross national product of Djibouti, about how much you love the Denver Broncos, about where the geese go when it gets cold. It doesn't matter what you talk about, so long as you do the talking. Books on tape, overheard conversations, and, Lord forbid, Baby Einstein DVDs just don't have the same effect. He needs to hear you, to see your face, to watch your mouth move, and to observe what you look at. He needs to learn about the give and take of normal conversations, ones in which he can babble and you respond to him. It cannot be overstated. TALK TO YOUR CHILD. to her. Books use vocabulary that you might not think of in normal conversations. Besides, it introduces children to the idea that sounds correlate with words on a page and letters in an alphabet. Show how text moves from left to right and top to bottom by following along with your finger as you read. Ask questions about the pictures, about the story, about the individual letters in the words. Ask her to make predictions and summarize when the book is finished. Help her get excited about books. Read them over and over until the book falls apart and you truly believe that if you have to say "I will not eat them, Sam-I-Am" one more time you might just upchuck green eggs and ham all over the floor. Do it because that's how she learns. Do it because one day, she'll be reciting the book along with you and suddenly understand that the words on the page and the words she's saying mean the same thing. And then she'll be reading.

...sing to him. It doesn't matter if you sound like Miley Cyrus without AutoTune. The point is not to show off your vocal stylings. Singing slows down language so that your kid can hear the individual sounds in the words, which heightens phonemic awareness. It works best if you sing songs meant for kids. Even if they're kind of stupid and pointless, most have language patterns that emphasize simple rhymes, something that will help your kid read later. Hand motions are good, too, because they foster gross motor control and help your little one remember the words. Clap the rhythms of songs and individual words to help your kid hear the differences in syllables, another pre-reading skill. If you're dead set against singing, do the same things with nursery rhymes.

...let her draw. Few things strike terror into the hearts of parents like the sight of a toddler with an uncapped marker, but it's the best way to help her learn to write. Have her sign her name on her drawings to help her understand that writing has meaning. Let her "help" you write the shopping list or a to-do note to yourself. Authentic writing tasks make writing real and make her feel important.

...let him play. Dramatic, "let's pretend" kind of play helps him to tell his own stories, something that increases linguistic skills, reading comprehension, and social skills. So when he tells you that you're a shoe monster and he's the Jello Knight of Destiny, roll with it.

...listen to her. Even if her words are more like spit bubbles and screams, ask her what she's done today. Work with her to retell the major event of her day as she saw it. Use her own words to reply back and lengthen her response. When she says, "baby cry," say, "Yeah, we heard that baby crying in the store today, didn't we? The mommy was holding him." It models correct grammar and vocabulary while making her feel like you listen, which you should do anyway.

...get him a library card. Go to story time. Check out new kids' books so you can give Green Eggs and Ham a rest for a while. Talk to the children's librarian for suggestions on books and programs. Introduce him to the wild world of books, including nonfiction.

So that's it - 800 pages of early literacy research condensed for your reading pleasure.

You're welcome.

Jul 13, 2013

The Big 3-0

My birthday was a few months ago, notable in the fact that I have officially completed three decades of life. Thirty. 3-0. The age at which you grow up and get down and dirty with real life.

I never feel old on my birthdays. Instead, I’m overwhelmed with Prufrockian angst. What have I done with my life? Is this it? Is this me? Are the next thirty years going to be the existential equivalent of lather-rinse-repeat? Metaphorically speaking, I tie my hair in a blue ribbon, grab a basket and a sheep, and spin around town square while belting out, “There must be more than this provincial life!” 

(I understand that Weltschmerz is a family trait since at least one sister-in-law has complained about similar behavior from my brother. However, I think their musings are sans hair bow and basket. I’m not sure about the sheep.)

Despite the import of this particular birthday, my inner T.S. Eliot was a complete no-show this year. For the first time since quasi-adulthood, I find myself totally at peace with where and what I am right now. Such self-acceptance is so completely unprecedented that I had to sit down and ask myself why I feel this way.

Maybe it’s the newfound parental status. Having a baby is kind of a living, breathing reminder to get over yourself. Or it could be that I’m finally writing and being read. Sure, it’s on a blog frequented by friends, family, and a handful of Russian faithfuls. (Privyet, ya’ll.) But someone’s reading my stuff.

I think it more than that, though. I’ve finally allowed myself to take risks with my life. With the exception of the 12-month period known as 2006, I’ve always done the safe, responsible thing. When a high school teacher suggested I become I writer, I told him there was no job security in it and I’d do something else instead. (That’s the real reason I became a teacher, actually: a paycheck. Though somehow I missed the memo about how small a paycheck it would be.) Ten years later when I realized I regretted ignoring his advice, I stuck with the job I had because hey, health benefits don’t grow on trees. 

Two years ago, I decided I was tired of it. I was tired of the status quo because, in the words of Dr. Horrible, “The status is definitely not quo!” So I tried to get into graduate school.  

Didn’t work.

I tried to get a different job.

Didn’t work either.

Then I did what any self-respecting person suffering a tri-life crisis would do: I fled the country. I figured I’d do some snorkeling, learn some Spanish, and come to grips with my life on a sandy Mediterranean beach while perfecting my tan.

I don’t know why I was convinced I was suddenly Elizabeth Gilbert, but I was desperate to get out of my ever-deepening rut. So off we went. And though I don’t tan, I still don’t speak fluent Spanish, and it’s crazy difficult to snorkel with an extra buoyant pregnant belly, I did learn some things of note.

Most importantly, there is something to be said for stability. Not having it makes you appreciate it real quick. The same is true of things like financial solvency, reliable transportation, and a working roof. 

Secondly, I will always be a middle class American at heart. That means a Puritan work ethic and a nagging sense of modesty. Things like figurehead monarchies, deeply entrenched governmental corruption, or the idea of Germany controlling my immediate universe stick in my craw just a little. And a part of me really hates being the minority. I hope I’m not done seeing the world, but I’ve decided I’m a better tourist than an expat. 

So how do I feel now that I’ve sowed my wild oats, watched them sprout and then get trampled under the heels of a lousy economy?

Funnily enough, I feel like everyone else. I feel old.