Hive Five, Team Wild

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“Let’s go, Team Wild!” With these simple words uttered by my husband, we, the three musketeers of a New York family, joined 5,200+ other New Yorkers early Saturday morning at the Bronx Zoo, in successfully completing a 5K-run to raise money for the endangered wildlife.

Two months ago I signed up for the biggest physical challenge in my life: I will be joining thousands of other women warriors on Oct. 14-15 in New York City to walk 39 miles to raise breast cancer awareness. With the help of my family and friends, I quickly raised more than $2,200 for the Avon Foundation for Women. I was totally energized and inspired.

While training for “Avon 39,” I had another thought: I’d like to inspire my family to join me in an impactful event we all felt passionate about. Then one day on my Facebook page I came across an event notification for the “Bronx Zoo 5K Run for the Wild.” How fabulous it would be to run together as a family! I thought. I approached my husband and son with this idea. It turned out I was preaching to the choir: they were equally as enthusiastic as, if not more, than me. Almost immediately we rolled up our sleeves and started fund-raising and physical training. We named our team “Team Wild.”

I was very proud of my 12-year-old son. He not only rose up to the challenge, but also showed a strong sense of commitment. With the wonderful help from his family, teachers and neighbors, he quickly raised $355, twelve times the minimum participation requirement, and he earned his way into the event. Together we raised about $1,000 for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)!

As parents, we all want our children to be happy, healthy, successful, and perhaps most importantly, to be good people. In all honesty, my son is a wonderful boy. He is smart, gentle, empathetic, and has a great sense of humor. In my husband’s words, “he has a good soul.” But for better or for worse, my son also lives a life of privilege: he is well provided for, has two parents who love him unconditionally, travels around the world since a young age, attends an excellent school, and is surrounded by friends.

Although not his fault, privileges sometimes do hinder upon a person’s ability to understand the world in a broader term. So we’d like him to develop a more keen awareness and mindfulness of the planet he lives in—to appreciate the importance of interdependency among all living creatures. We’d also like him to understand that with every privilege comes with responsibility. We hope his participation in “Run for the Wild” serves one of the many building blocks for him to grow into a strong and compassionate global citizen.

“Run for the Wild” was truly a wonderful event to bring people together. New Yorkers of all body shapes, skin colors, young and old, men and women, ran alongside with each other, free of politics and judgments, and for one cause and one cause only: to save the endangered wildlife and preserve a healthy planet we live in.

On a personal note, in taking on this challenge, we had the most wonderful way to blend a fun family outing into a great cause on a gorgeous weekend day! To use my husband’s words: “We started together as a family, we stayed together as a family and we finished together as a family.”

High five, Team Wild!

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I Am An Immigrant

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By my bed, gathering a little dust now, is a small treasure box. I’ve kept it for over twenty years. In the box is an old 3”x5” photo, color slightly faded. It shows a scene of the observation deck at the old Beijing airport on a hazy summer day. In it, my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and my little niece are clustered together, with their backs facing towards the camera, gazing up into the sky. On the back of the photo is a short handwritten paragraph in Chinese:

            The airplane rumbled into the sky, taking with it a daughter, sister and aunt…Across the ocean to the other side of the world. They gazed up into the sky, looking, searching and yearning…As if they could see her, tears in eyes. Her good-bye waves, slow and tender. Oh, a bird has just taken off from its home soil and flown high into the blue sky, farther and farther away…

            A heart-felt farewell and blessing to our dearest daughter!

                                                                                                                              Dad

                                                                                                                              July 24, 1990

On June 23rd, 1990, I boarded on an Air China Boeing 747–the first time in my life I’d ever been on a plane. From there I started a long journey away from home, with uncertainty and foreboding in my heart, and yet full of hopes and dreams, heading towards America.

Twenty-seven years later, it still seems like yesterday. In the moments of reflection, thinking about the touching words from my poetic dad, I can’t help but feel emotional. Over the years, people have asked me time again: “Why did you come to America?” “What brought you here?” These questions seem no longer relevant to me now, but if you ask me this question instead: “Is your journey worth it?” My answer will always be: “Absolutely!”

But what made my journey worthwhile? Novelty in a new world? Opportunities in the land of dreamers? Promises of diversity in a melting pot? Well, none of these, I am afraid. Novelty can wear out, opportunities can become trapdoors, ambitions can dwindle, and cultural fusion can just be a fantasy. Rather, it would seem to me, it is the struggle for learning to define who I am that has made my journey memorable and worthwhile.

I was lucky to come to the US with a student visa and a full scholarship, and I had the freedom to pursue a higher education without enduring much financial hardship. Yet my story is still similar to those of million other immigrants. It is a story of constant struggles: struggle to become self-reliant, struggle to overcome homesickness, struggle to brush off the feeling of inadequacy, struggle to fight prejudice—veiled or not, struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin, and struggle to have my voice heard. It is through these struggles that I have grown from an innocent-beyond-articulation young Chinese girl into a strong, independent and feisty woman.

You may argue that, as humans, we are born to struggle, and that struggles are the necessary building blocks of character. All of that is true, but I would say that what makes the struggles distinctively immigrant experience lies in the fact that we have a unique brand of struggles.

Twenty-seven years ago, I flew across the Pacific with two large suitcases and $700 in my pocket. I not only uprooted myself from the comfort of my home and family–the cozy place that had every remnant of my childhood bliss and the very people who loved me unconditionally, but I also removed myself from the only culture that I knew well—its look, its touch, its feel, its smell, its landscape, its language, its holidays and its traditions…Suddenly, all my touchstones were no longer valid. A part of my life vanished. I was forced into situations that I didn’t have the references to understand.

I was completely alone and forever on the outside. But quitting was not an option. Self-reliance quickly became a necessity for me. I was no longer that naive Chinese girl who used to enjoy making ridiculous pranks on my dad without getting into any trouble. All the sudden I assumed a sense of responsibility–I became the front and center of my family, representing them in a new and distant land. I took refuge in my study, buried myself in a shell of solitude, with fierce determination and an iron will, charging ahead.

Every small achievement seemed like a giant step forward for me: my first English class that I could understand easily, my first “A” on a test, my first driver’s license, my first graduate degree, my first job offer, and my first paycheck in US dollars…For any native-born American, these might seem nothing extraordinary but simply part of the natural process into adulthood. But for me, these were hard-earned milestones when I could finally breathe a big sigh of relief and give myself a pat on the back: “I’ve made it!”

What was so remarkable about my immigrant experience lies not only in the self-reliance I have developed over the years but also in the confidence I have always had knowing my parents had my back no matter where I was. They were the strongest pillar in my life, helping me keep things in perspective with a sense of humor and positivity, and making my struggles in a foreign land bearable. In return, they took tremendous pride in me–the Zhao family representative in America–whose trivial accomplishments seemed so much amplified in their loving eyes. Till this day, my dad still brags about my “magnificent driving skills.”

Over the years I have never asked my parents what went through their minds on that hazy summer day of June 23rd, 1990, watching the rumbling airplane take away their younger daughter. But as a mother of a 12-year-old boy myself now, I can only imagine how hard it must have been. From time to time I take out that photo. Gazing at it, a cascade of emotions washes over me. My parents, by sending me onto an immigrant journey far away from home, did not ask me to realize their ambitions or to redeem their mistakes. Rather, with their hearts open, they gave me their blessing and let me make up my own story.

I am hoping one day I will be able to do the same with my son: sending him to a life-long journey–with an inquisitive mind, an upbeat spirit, and a great sense of humor: “Go explore the world, make up your own story, and I will always be watching you from afar!”

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Marriage Dance

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My smile was radiant. His was dazzling. It was my day. Our day. Our wedding day. Thirteen years ago, today, we tied the knot: a Chinese woman and a Caucasian man. No language barrier. No cultural inhibition. Two individuals, overcome with joy, love and passion, greeted each other at the altar. Eyes met. Tears welled up. The intense emotion we felt towards each other.

Thirteen years later, it seems like yesterday. Gone with the It-can-make-you-blush romance. Come along with the I-know-what-you-need/How-you-feel rapport. Perhaps we were destined to meet. As a Chinese saying goes, we are connected by an invisible red thread. The thread can be tightened or tangled, but will never be broken.

But we could have chosen other mates. Perhaps someone of the same culture, the same skin color, or the same religion. Perhaps someone richer, younger, or more attractive. What makes us click then? Curiosity? Shared interests? Love at first sight? Deep connections? Willingness to open up to each other? Yes. All of them, and a lot more.

If I were to come up with a few qualities in my husband that I am most attracted to, I would list the following:

His intelligence. Vast and deep. From politics, history, art, literature, to science, engineering, architecture, and everyday life. He can carry a conversation on any topic. Fact based. Well informed. Witty and nonjudgmental. He has the vision and wisdom of a global thinker. He is the Wikipedia of our family.

His passion for life. Genuine and earnest. In his words, “the fun in life is what makes all worthwhile.” He loves what he does and does it well. He enjoys travel. He is into nature. He lives in the present. He appreciates every day. Fatherhood gives him the opportunity to share and cultivate the same sense of adventure and fun-loving spirit in our 12-year-old son. We travel together as a family to see the world and to experience life. He embodies “living life to the fullest.”

His sense of humor. Witty and wry. He is funny and fun. His self-deprecating jokes often show the humble side of him. I laugh at them. A lot. But most importantly, he never ceases to amaze me with his ability to laugh in good times and bad. It would be easy for me to get frustrated and distracted by small bumps and hiccups in our daily lives, but he sets life priorities, and rolls with the punches. He is a beacon of light, an ultimate optimist.

Last but not least, his humanity. Compassionate and inspiring. It manifests in the lives he touches and the people he loves. His colleagues. His friends. His family. He takes young people under his wing, mentoring them with passion and sincerity. He cares about his elderly mother. Never missed a single time talking to her on Sunday evenings. His loving relationship with our son is what I am most proud of. Deeply involved in every aspect of our son’s life, he teaches him not only life skills, but also life values and lessons, big or small. Largely because of this, our son has grown into a kind, loving and empathetic gentle soul on his own terms.

I am proud of my husband. I also feel good for myself. I am lucky to have found the right man.

But finding the right one is only half of the equation in a marriage; learning to live together as one is the other half. It is much harder.

We all come into our relationships with our own baggage; perhaps a failed courtship in the past, the idiosyncrasies of our upbringing, the differences in our beliefs, our rituals, or our habits. We are who we are- weird, flawed, and self-centered, each in our own way.

There is a cynical line about marriage in a hugely popular, Chinese social-satire novel called Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. I can recite that line by heart: “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”

Truth be told, after 13 years, we can be not so kind to each other at times. We are both head-strong, stubborn, and particular in our own way. We’ve got shares of our fights, sometimes each unyielding to the other with fury and frustration.

With two careers and a family to juggle constantly, we are tempted to wonder if our lives would be simpler, easier, but not necessarily happier, if we were still single. After all, grass always seems mysteriously greener on the other side.

But we haven’t given up. We haven’t “consciously uncoupled” ourselves. We still choose each other. For thirteen years.

What makes us stay together then? Money? Our house? Our son? Our commitment? Yes- all of these tangible and practical considerations. But more importantly, it’s our unshaken love, friendship, respect, and shared values that keeps us united.

It has to do with acceptance. Appreciating each other’s strengths. Accepting each other’s flaws. Since the day we met at the altar of marriage, we have accepted ourselves as the best possible mates for each other; we have accepted our marriage as the best possible union for us. With this conviction in mind, the myth that “Grass is always greener on the other side” will always be, well, a myth.

It has to do with compromise. I am a firm believer in shared responsibilities in marriage. But this does not equate to 50/50 division of labor. With a more time-demanding job he has, I take up the lion’s share of our household chores. He appreciates my endeavor and always puts forth his best effort to support me. His rock solid love for me and our son makes all my sacrifice worthwhile.

It has to do with forgiveness. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. If you believe love is in the eyes of the beholder, you should also believe love is patient, kind and deliberate. Thirteen years of marriage. We both have made many mistakes, big or small. But time again, we have forgiven each other’s mistakes. Shared reciprocity.

Marriage is a dance. It requires partnership, with each taking turns and supporting the other. Sometimes it is waltz, smooth and joyful; other times it is tango, passionate and sensual; still others, it is cha-cha, lighthearted and fun.

Marriage is a shared journey. We accept and appreciate who we are. We inspire and encourage each other to be better. We laugh and cheer each other on in good times and bad.

To me my husband is the one whom I can always count on. From here to eternity.

Happy Anniversary!

 

A Peaceful Warrior

 

I went to my Sunday Yoga class. Agitated. I repeated these words again and again in my head: “May this world be peace and love.” How impossible could it be!

Earlier in the morning, my Chinese community chat room and social media were exploded with angry responses to a hip hop song called “Meet the Flockers.” Its lyrics seem to advocate robbing a Chinese neighborhood because Chinese people probably have lots of cash on hand and they may not even believe in bank accounts:

First, you find a house and scope it

Find a Chinese neighborhood, cause they don’t believe in bank accounts

Second, you find a crew and a driver, someone who ring the doorbell

And someone that ain’t scared to do what it do

Third, you pull up at the spot

Park, watch, ring the doorbell and knock

Four, make sure nobody is home

They gone, okay it’s on

Don’t be scared, nigga, you’re in now

If the police come you gonna find out who your friends now

That ain’t them talking, that’s your mind playing tricks on you

You’re conscious cause you know you got nines with two clips on you

But fuck that, motherfuck that plasma

And fuck that laptop, go and get that jewelry box

You tryna paid?

Go take that jewelry box to the Slauson they’ll give you cash back in the same day

…..

It even has a YouTube video tutorial showing armed and masked men burgling home. How incredibly sickening! Sure. One could argue it is merely a rendition of an artist’s imagination. No malicious intention. No harm done. Sure. No one could do anything about it. Not petition. Not protest. America has the First Amendment to protect freedom of speech. But no, it is not OK to use my people as a punching bag or to stereotype us. Not on my book.

I googled its producer, a California-based rapper named YG. He has seized mantle of rap’s most outspoken Donald Trump critic. How ironic! If he feels the urgency to combat Trump’s bigotry and racial hatred, and to use his “platform to speak up and bring our brothers together and put some light on some of this s— that’s not right for our people,” perhaps he should educate himself about racial sensitivity to embrace other ethnic groups in the same battle against Trump’s bigotry. Perhaps he should know what he advocated in “Meet the Flockers” is equally, if not more, offensive and distasteful than those of Trump’s.

But I am here not to demand his contriteness, nor to be a willing victim of racial prejudice. If you believe silence is gold as I do, here is what I will tell you: I am a peaceful warrior, but first and foremost, a warrior. The warrior chooses to act; the coward reacts. The warrior doesn’t give up what we love.

So today I will take the high road. I will keep praying for mutual respect and for racial harmony. I will invite you, regardless of your age, gender, skin color, racial background, or ethnic identity, to join me as a peaceful warrior.

So next time when I do my warrior poses, I will simply hold them a touch longer. For peace. For love. For wisdom. For fearlessness. For our collective hope.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Peace Peace Peace

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Summer Camp through the Eyes of a Boy

This summer, my 11-year-old boy went on a sleep away camp for the first time. This blog is our first writing collaboration in which he narrated to me his experiences at the camp, and I simply put his words down on paper. The exercise has proved to be a fun and exciting experience for me too because I get to access to some of my son’s private thoughts in dealing with his homesickness, gaining self-confidence and thriving at camp on his own terms. Where relevant, I have also included, with his permission, some of the photos he took at the camp. Hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I do. 

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The Drop-Off Day

When my mom and dad first told me that I would be going on a 3-week sleep away camp, I thought I would never survive. As the days before the camp drew nearer and nearer, I began to worry, but at the same time I felt excited because they told me this was one of the best sleep away camps they knew. A friend of my dad’s recommended it to us because his kids all loved there. Earlier this year, my parents invited the camp director to our house. He looked like a very nice guy. He showed us a slide show of the camp in previous years. Watching the slide show made me feel more interested in going but I still couldn’t shake off the fact that I would leave our home for 3 weeks.

In the morning of the day when camp started, I couldn’t help but feeling sad even though I knew the camp was going to be fun. My parents and I drove for 5 hours up to the camp site. Those 5 hours were probably some of the worst hours I had ever had. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like during the next 3 weeks when I was so far from home. I had already missed my pet bunny Ollie.

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When I arrived at the camp, my parents stayed for a short while to take a small tour to see what the camp was like. Then they walked back to the car. Standing there alone and watching them walk up the dirt path and disappear behind the trees was probably the hardest thing for me. I walked down to our cabin with small tears in my eyes. I was sad to see them leave!

Our Daily Routine at Camp

My first day at camp was tough! My mom and dad had just left me the previous night and I was all alone. Not knowing what to do, I followed other campers by watching them and wondered when I would finally catch on. Things eased up a bit on the second day. I started to get the feel of what it felt like being on my own and getting to know other kids. Things were not all bad.

IMG_3381I shared a cabin with 4 other campers (2 were new) and 1 camp counselor. All our cabins were named after the 46 Adirondack mountain peaks. Ours had a cool name; it was called Skylight. There was no electricity in our cabins. We shared 3 shower stalls and 2 bathrooms in a cabin about 20 yards away. If I wanted to go to the bathroom at night, I had to use the flashlight I brought with me from home. It freaked me out a bit at first, but I got used to it soon.

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At camp, we woke up to the sound of the bell ringing at 7:30am. We got out of bed and waited for the next bell to ring which signaled the waiters going up the hill to help get breakfast ready (we took turns to be waiters). Fifteen minutes later, a third bell would ring and we all went up to the lodge to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all followed the same sequence. I have to say, our camp food was pretty good.

Our bedtime was different for different age groups: 9:10pm was the time for our group, the junior section, to go to bed. We were allowed to read in bed for 10 minutes with flashlight until 9:20pm when all lights were out.

Writing Letters Home

At camp, we were not allowed to have electronic devices except for iPod for listening to music. So the only way we communicated with our families and friends was through mail. Every Sunday after lunch we would go back to our cabins to write letters. I loved writing letters to my parents. It was a great way to keep in touch with them and know what was happening at home. My mom and dad had kept their promise and they wrote me almost every day. I always looked forward to receiving their letters. Reading their letters made me feel really happy when I missed them.

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My Nana, aunt and cousin also wrote to me and sent me fun postcards or newspaper clips. I exchanged letters with a friend of mine whose family had just moved down to North Carolina. I even received a letter from a former Lower School teacher of mine who had been here as a camper, a camp counselor and a camp director since 1998 until last year.

When I came back from camp, my parents told me my letter writing has improved quite a bit. They said I wrote with more details, expressed more feelings and used larger vocabularies. Yay!

My Favorite Activities

I loved all my camp activities, but of course, I had a few as my favorites.

My first favorite activity was swimming. Who doesn’t like swimming? But at our camp swimming was very special–we got to swim in Augur Lake. The water was clear, the air was fresh, and the dock was beautiful! There were a few things we could do at swimming. The first was the general swim, the second was the diving board, and the third was a 10-foot high jumping tower.

IMG_3372To be able to jump from the diving board and the tower, we had to take a series of Red Cross level swim tests: we needed to swim from the main dock to the boat dock for 16 laps–each lap was about 40 feet in distance; we needed to put a life jacket on in the water; we needed to swim in our clothes and shoes for 4 laps; and finally, we needed to swim across up to the other side of the lake, about 1,200 feet away. I passed all four tests in my first week and I jumped from the tower into the water in my second week. It was awesome and I was very happy about it.

How did camp counselors keep track of us in and out of water? We used double-sided tags on a board. Each time we went swimming, we would flip the tag to the red side to indicate we were out in the water. When we finished swimming, we would flip the tag back to the white side. So nobody got lost. That was super important.

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At camp we had an awesome wood shop where we could create and make all our arts and crafts. In the wood shop, all the tools were man powered, like saws, drills, hammers, screw drivers, wood chisels, and a lot more. I got to use them all. I made a wooden boat which I named “the Dragon Boat,” two bridges for my train layout using Popsicle sticks, a ring holder for my mom and a bookshelf for my dad. The coolest part was I got to design them from scratch, make and glue them together all by myself. I had a fantastic experience at our camp’s wood shop.

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During my weeks at our camp, we had the option of going on many different types of overnight trips. Each cabin would go on its own cabin overnights, which meant that we would canoe across the lake into two spots, Cubs Point or Pirates Cove. Our cabin went to Pirates Cove; it was a bit farther than Cubs Point in a hidden area on the other side of the lake behind a large cliff.

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We would load up canoes with camping gear, paddle across the lake to Cubs Point during lunch time, and continue on to Pirates Cove. When we arrived we would pitch a couple of tents and put our gear in. We then went swimming in a small beach area, cooked on a large campfire for dinner, hung around and explored the area. In the morning we would go down to the campfire, cook and eat breakfast, and paddle back to our main campsite. I learned some basic survival skills in the wilderness. My dad said these were important skills to have.

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Another of my favorite activity was hiking. There are 46 main high peaks in the Adirondack park area. To be a high peak, the mountain we were climbing had to be over 4,000 feet. Many campers have tried to get their 46ers over the years, which means we have to climb all 46 peaks.

This summer I climbed 2 of the high peaks, Cascade and Porter, plus 2 lesser peaks, Rooster Comb and Hurricane, which were below 4,000 feet.

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I had never climbed up that high in the past and this was a whole new experience for me. When I reached the peak of Cascade and looked around at the landscape in front of me, it was just like I could see the whole world. The view was amazing! I couldn’t believe I was that high up. Looking down at the valley, I could see small towns and ski jumps and bob sledge courses at the Lake Placid Olympics. The small cars were like little ants running around along the road. I reached the top and touched the summit marker knowing that I had climbed up the mountain and I could finally relax my legs. I had conquered my first High Peak. It was an amazing experience.

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Perhaps my most favorite activity this summer was archery. It was my first formal experience in this sport. Somehow I connected to it naturally. At camp our instructors told us in order to do well in archery, we needed four things: be physically strong, have a firm footing, a good aim and a strong focus. For me archery was really fun and exciting.

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For safety reasons, at the archery range, we were not allowed to cross the line unless permitted. When we wanted to shoot, we were instructed with four commands: pick up your bow, knock your arrow, fire at will, and retrieve your arrows.

At our camp there were three major ranks: Tracker, Path Finder and Guide. Tracker being the lowest was the easiest to earn, and Guide was the hardest to earn. In every activity there were also their own made up ranks. In archery, for example, there were altogether 18 ranks. To get each of the three major ranks, we had to be able to shoot at 15, 20 and 30 yards and got points from 60 to 160, depending on which rank we were going for. The archery tracking system was recorded on a chart on the door of the shed at the range. As we received a rank, we would color the square in red.

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I started at the first level of 15 yards. Looking back now, that was so easy, but it was not easy back then as a first time archer. When I got my first rank, the Tracker, which was 15 yards and 60 points, I felt really pleased with myself. I then set myself a goal for this summer: to get the highest official camp rank in archery, the Guide. On my third to the last day at camp, I finally got it. That was one of my happiest moments at camp! I have received 11 out of the 18 ranks in archery this summer. Way to go, Ben, I said to myself!

That’s all I have to say about my summer camp. I was worried about going to camp at first. But when these three weeks were over, I was ready to go back next year!

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When my son finished the last line of his enthusastic story, my heart was bursting with joy. He had fun, he was happy and he had an awesome time. He is growing into a confident outdoor adventurer. Just what we had hoped for at the beginning of the summer. I am so proud of him!

I have to say, his amazing camp experience is just as valuable to him as it is to me. I am gaining new perspectives because of this. A year ago I couldn’t imgaine myself sending him away for 1 week, let alone 3 weeks, but just like him, after this summer, I am ready for a longer session next year. I’ve learned to trust his judgment and let go of my fear. 

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An Unlikely Friendship: Three People, Two Cultures and a Single Bond

In the summer of 1994, after four years of studying and living in the US, I invited my parents to visit me for the first time. First time for my Mom to come out of China; first time for my Dad to come to this side of the hemisphere—he had only taken business trips to Japan in the past. So before they arrived, I had prepped them with a few “Don’ts,” things that Americans were typically uncomfortable talking about but we Chinese never shied away from.

“Do not ask people how much they make.”

“Do not ask woman how old they are.”

“Do not ask people whether they are married or not.”

I told them. “Do not describe people as ‘fat’ but use ‘big’ instead,” I also warned them, “because unlike in China where ‘fat’ is a neutral word, in America it is a bad word; it borders on moral judgment like ‘stupid’.” For whatever reasons, Chinese had been intrigued and even fascinated by why Americans often looked taller, larger and stronger. We were so convinced that it was the cheese eating that did it. So I thought if they knew these unspoken social norms, they would ultimately avoid unnecessary awkward situations with my friends, my professors or people they might meet. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I lived in a small house, one of the few house-turned dorms for graduate students on a quiet street in downtown Princeton. The University owned them all. Each house had three floors, and each floor 3-4 rooms. The students shared three bathrooms and one kitchen in each house. My room was on the top floor, like an attic, enough to fit a single bed, a desk and a chair. Small but cozy.

We had a janitor take care of the common areas of our house. His name was James, a tall African American man with very dark skin complexion, a bit on the heavy side, maybe in his early 40s. Gentle and friendly. Every morning around 7 o’clock he would pull up his beaten-up Pontiac into the driveway promptly and stayed until 6 in the evening. During the day, he would go around the houses cleaning the kitchen, hallway and bathrooms, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and taking away the trash. He would also do some light repairs for our rooms. When he walked around, a long string of keys dangled from his hip would give away the clicking sound as if to announce his arrival. Sometimes he would heat up the lunch he usually brought with him in the microwave and eat with us: white rice and black beans. Same food. Every day.

My communication with James was quite minimal. As with every graduate student, I went about with my crazy schedules, rushing in and out of my room like lightning. I would cook up simple meals quickly and return to the library. But whenever I saw him in the hallway, on the street or around the house, I would politely greet him, sometimes cracking a couple jokes here and there. That was about it.

Then my parents’ arrival changed everything.

During their visit in the summer, my parents stayed with me in my cozy little attic. I shared a bed with my Mom, and my Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. Don’t ask me how we did it, but we did. My parents were early birds. They got up before 6 o’clock every day and went about with their morning exercise routine, often doing Tai Chi, walking and strolling around the blocks. My Dad, being a quintessential extrovert, was charismatic, outgoing, curious and not afraid of making mistakes (I am anything but that unfortunately). He could read some English but did not speak much of it. Nonetheless, he often carried conversation with people he met with his halting English. My Mom on the other hand, an introvert and observer, was more on the quiet side. She did not speak or read English.

At the beginning, as with any new acquaintances, James and my parents were friendly and cordial with each other: they would wave, smile and nod whenever they met. But within a few days, quite remarkably, my Dad and James had become like old pals, often laughing and talking with manly handshakes and bear hugs. To help him better communicate with James, my Dad often brought with him an English-Chinese dictionary to look up for words and expressions that he might not fully understand. My Mom on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace such warm gestures. She continued to smile and nod at James but kept a healthy distance from him.

One time after greeting my Dad with a bear hug, James tried to give my Mom a hug, too. Visibly uncomfortable and guarded, my Mom had quickly pulled herself away even before he pulled her closer. Unfazed by the moment of awkwardness, James hugged my Mom anyway. I watched them on the side, part embarrassed and part amused, but I was not surprised. Apart from her personality as an introvert, cultural inhibition was also a key in my Mom’s reaction. Like many Chinese of her age, she had never known a single person whose skin color was different than hers, let alone stood so close to one. Besides, she was only 5 feet and 110 pounds, and James 6 feet and over 200 pounds. I could imagine what went through her mind, but I knew all this would change with time.

One evening after dinner my Dad casually said to me: “James is a good man. He works really hard.” He continued, “You know, he didn’t have a father growing up. He lived with his mother and grandmother as a child, and now lives alone in Trenton. Is that the place we accidentally ran into the other day?” I knew exactly what he talked about. A few days earlier on our way back from Longwood Garden, while looking for a gas station, I accidentally made a wrong turn into, shall I say, a not-so-desirable neighborhood. It was the first encounter of urban poverty for us, a family from the other side of the world. Though my parents had been through a lot in their own lives under China’s Communist regime, this experience was still quite dramatic for them. I remember we sat quietly the entire time afterwards until we reached Princeton. If I were to guess what was on their mind, it was the despair in people’s blank stare that shocked them the most. It was also the sharp contrast from the beauty, grace and affluence of Princeton, the not-so-far-away picturesque town they were first introduced to. In their mind, hunger and poverty should be rare in this country.

So I told him: “Yes. It’s the same Trenton.” My Dad then said: “Well, since I have nothing else to do, maybe I can give him a hand. What do you think?” Having known my Dad all my life, I knew even if I said “No” to him he would offer his help anyway. So I said: “Sure, but don’t overdo it.” Just like that, my Dad started a self-appointed pro bono job as a janitor’s helper in a country thousands of miles away from home. Initially he helped clean the kitchen mess, like wiping the table, washing the stove, and gradually, he started taking away the trash and sweeping the floor. The two men’s friendship had also deepened. My Dad even picked up a few slang terms from James. Don’t ever “get high” was one I still remember vividly.

I bumped into James on campus one afternoon. He was very complimentary about my parents, saying how lucky I was to have them. Then he said, “I have been thinking about this. It must be uncomfortable for your Dad to sleep on the floor. There is an empty room on the same floor as yours and no one is going to move in until in the Fall. If you are OK with it, I will unlock the room before I leave in the evening and your Dad can go sleeping in there. Lock it back on in the morning.” Wow, that was a very generous offer and would be of tremendous help to us, I thought. But I said: “It is so very kind of you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble to you.” “No trouble at all.” He said, “The room is empty this summer anyway.” With that, my parents were finally able to have a couple months of comfortable living arrangements during their short visit. What a wonderful gift from James!

As with international students studying in this country, one common thread we all shared was our constant homesickness. The smell of a familiar dish sometimes could quickly trigger a mysterious and overwhelming nostalgia. So it was quite a treat for me to have my parents’ company in the summer that year. My Mom was a great cook who could whip up some delicious hearty meals in authentic Sichuan style that I had not had for a long time. I felt like a princess. Every day. There were two other Chinese students living in the same house at the time. Knowing how I missed homemade meals, my parents often invited them to join us when we made dumplings, steamed buns and other delicious dishes together to share. Always a happy occasion.

James was curious about Chinese food and often watched my Mom cook. She would patiently explain to him through my Dad what ingredients were needed and why they were needed. Gradually they had built a nice rapport. Each time she made some delicious dishes for me, she would save some for James. One day she said to me: “James seems to eat the same food everyday for lunch—rice and bean. How awful. Maybe you can ask him if he wants to join us for lunch.” Ever since then James had become a frequent guest at our lunch table during the summer. My parents were very happy to have him eat with us. To use my Mom’s words, it was just “a matter of adding an extra pair of chopsticks.”

Three months flew by quickly, and by the time my parents were about to go home, they had become a big fan of James. My Dad not only continued his pro bono janitorial work, but he also appointed himself as a house inspector, frequently reminding my housemates to clean after themselves. The two men continued to exchange laughs, jokes, hugs, and even fist bumps. My Dad’s English seemed to improve quite a bit, often chatting with my housemates on subjects like politics or China and US relations. Perhaps the biggest transformation was from my Mom. Though she was still on the quiet side, she had completely let her guard down. She was more receptive to James’ bear hugs, and on occasion, she would reach out to James with handshakes. She even started to greet strangers on the street. From time to time she would invite James to come with us to the Chinese grocery store, so that she could show him a few Chinese dish ingredients that he might be interested in later.

On the day when my parents were heading out to the airport, James gave them a card. I forget the entirety of what he wrote, but one thing has stuck in my mind all these years. He told my Dad that he was like a father to him that he had never had. The two men stood there holding each other’s hands for a long time, their eyes welled with tears. An unforgettable scene.

In 1998 when my parents came to see me again, I had already graduated from the University but still lived in an apartment in Princeton. When they knew James still worked in the same houses, they asked me to invite him over for a re-union dinner. We made dumplings together. Just like the first time they met, my Dad and James carried a lively conversation with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary, and my Mom listened quietly, smiling and occasionally pitching in. Just like that, three people of different ages, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different skin colors, shared a single thread—a beautiful friendship across continents.

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When I write this blog, my mind travels far back to these hot summer days, with a mixed emotion of nostalgia and sadness. Now my Mom is gone, my Dad is slowly finding solace in the loss of his lifelong partner and I lost contact with James quite sometime ago. And yet the thought of their unlikely friendship has brought heart-felt warmth to me. I marvel at how people transform in the process of building a friendship, moving away from the place of fear to the place of bond.

In Yoga practice, we believe in the teaching and spreading of kindness, non-judgment and mindfulness. Indeed, we don’t have to be the same to be human to each other; we can be different but still be human. The fun of human interactions is to celebrate and relish the differences. We let our guard down, we embrace the unknown, we open up to endless possibilities, and then we find a common thread. The friendship between my parents and James reminds me the importance of celebrating what bonds us rather than what divides us.

Summer’s First Family Letters

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dear Ben,                                                                                                                                                             

                 By the time you read this letter, you may have already settled in with your awesome summer camp: you may have made cool friends, done cool things, and been to cool places, but you may still miss home–Daddy, Ollie, Ducky, and me. I miss you tons already!

                  I am super proud of you, buddy! Remember I told you? Being able to do things on your own and away from Mommy and Daddy is part of your growing up. It is not easy at the beginning and being homesick is part of the process. I totally get it. Right now you may only see the bad part of this whole thing, but I can guarantee you that you will have lots of fun at the camp. By the time you are ready to come home, you may not want to leave your awesome camp at all.

                  I hope you will write to me a lot sharing your experience at your camp. I will also write to you everyday letting you know what is happening on the home front—how Ollie is doing, what and when I feed him…I cannot wait to receive your letters and hear your adventures. I miss you tons and wish you were here, but remember I love you!

                  Buddy, I love you!!

P.S., I wish I could draw as well as you do to show you how much I miss you!!

                 XOXO, Mommy

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Hi Buddy!                                                                                                                                                             

                  Right now, it’s early morning on your first full day at camp. You should be waking up right now and looking out there the trees at the rising sun. I’ll bet that it’s really pretty. I hope that your first night at camp went OK. I’ll bet that it was a bit tough to be away from home. I wish that I were there to give you a good morning hug!

                  Mommy and I had a pretty good trip home last night. There were no events like flat tires and police cars on the way back (Author’s note: we had both on our way to the camp)! We got home about 8:30 in the evening, and it felt very quiet in the house without you—not nearly as much fun as it is when you’re around.

                  I cleaned out Ollie’s cage last night and gave him a very long scratch. He liked that—happy bunny! You’ll be glad to know that we also clipped his nails, so he’s in good shape now. I gave him a treat, too!

                  I thought that you’d like to know that finally after all of our searching, I saw my first firefly last night! I was bummed that you weren’t with me to see it together, but I’m happy firefly season has finally arrived. When you get back, we’ll have to do some good firefly catching together. I hope that you can see and catch some fireflies at camp, too!

                  I was really happy to get a chance to see your camp yesterday when we dropped you off. I thought that the setting was really beautiful. I liked your cabin—you’ll have to tell us which bunk you’re in so that I can picture you there. I think that the best part of the camp for me is the lake front area with the dock, the boats, and the swimming. That looks like so much fun! I can’t wait until I hear about some of the things that you do there! I also think that everyone that we met was really nice—the camp directors, nurses and your counselor Jeremy. I’m sure that they’ll all take really good care of you!

                  I have to tell you, Buddy, that I’m really proud of you. I know that it was really hard for you to have Mommy and I drop you off and then leave you there by yourself. Like everything that you do, though, you handled the challenge of it incredibly well. I’m sure that it’s going to be hard sometimes, and sometimes you’ll be missing home a lot, but I know that you can handle it. You’ve also got a lot of people there with you who want to help and support you any way they can.

                  In a short while, Robert will be here to pick me up and take me to the airport. By the time you get this letter, I’ll probably be in Hong Kong. I’ll take a Star Ferry ride for you! I’ll also take some pictures, and I’ll send them to you since we won’t be able to do our usual Skype calls.

                  Again, Buddy, I miss you so much, and I love you even more! I hope that camp goes great and that you have tons of fun! I’ll write again as soon as I land in China.

                  Love always, Daddy

IMG_3056Monday, June 27, 2016

Dear Mommy and Daddy,                                                                                                                         

                  I am having fun at camp so far. We have done archery, baseball and swimming. Later we will see the horses. Sleeping in the cabin is okay. The food is great, and it’s sort of like Hackley. I miss you a lot, and I’ll write to you a lot more. One thing I forgot we also made a fire and we heard a loon singing. Tell Daddy I am on the Yule Ball in “Harry Porter.”

                   Love, Ben (Heart and smiley face drawn by him)

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These are the first sets of paper-pen letters my husband, my son and I wrote to each other as a family. What a treat to still be able to communicate the old-fashioned way!

Last Sunday we dropped off our 11-year-old son, for the first time, at a sleep away summer camp, five hours away from us. We would not be able to see, hear or talk to him for 3-5 weeks. The only way to keep in touch with him was through mails. It was hard for all of us. Before we started the journey, we had promised him that we would write to him every day and hoped that he would write back to us whenever he could. Then on the fourth day into his camp, we received his first letter to us. Short yet sweet, his letter gave us a glimpse of all the activities he did on his first camp day. Just like that, our son has set out for his first solo adventure, away from us, away from home. I am proud of him more than I can say!

IMG_3058While I am writing this blog, my thoughts are scattered, searching for the right words to describe our motivation to send him away. Like many other working parents in this country, the summer’s long break has created both a bliss and trepidation for us. On the one hand, we are extremely happy that we don’t need to rush out of the door every morning to send him to school, and I am particularly grateful for not being like a time bomb sometimes to storm out of my office, run to the subway station only to watch the train slowly pulling out of the station right in front of my eyes. But on the other hand, in a culture that everything happens with an incredible velocity and competitiveness, summer has lost its magical touch where doing nothing means doing everything. Parents are inundated with the infinite choices of summer camps, from sports camps to music camps, from art camps to pseudo outdoor camps. Many still feel like an extension of the already cramped school year, highly structured and hurried. Don’t all our children these days already have enough of a programmed life, from academic classes, to organized sports, to music lessons?

So our primary motivation to send our son to a sleep away camp is not to cultivate a strong character in him—of course, self-reliance, resourcefulness, corporation will come with the experience; but rather, we want to send him to a place where he can have real adventure and fun—out in the woods, get hands dirty, and learn by participation. To us summer should be winding down time when life is dynamic and purposeful, yet unstructured and unhurried. Children can find their own style and self-worth without excessive competitive tension. They develop their skills and interests at their own pace. If gazing at stars, catching fireflies, hatching eggs, riding horses, jumping in and out of water are all that our son wants to do, that’s wonderful. If by the end of the summer, he forgets that 1+1=2 or adverbs modify verbs, so be it. There is always time to catch up, but creating unforgettable memories comes and goes. I believe we have found what we are looking for in the camp we send him to. Though too early to tell how he feels about the camp, I hope he will have the time of his life!

Of course, I miss him terribly, constantly wondering what he is doing or how he is coping with his homesickness. I then think of the many trips we have taken together as a family:  all these long lasting happy memories we have created with him—the sparkle in his eyes, the ear-to-ear grin on his face, his looks of wonder, his giggles of joy…I trust that he can handle any challenge well, because he knows by heart that we have his back, as always!