Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Son's Flat Nose

My sister and I happen to be fair skinned for Korean girls.  Since we grew up in the rainy state of Oregon and rarely saw direct sunshine, we despised our paleness, as it seemed, to us, a sign of poverty and unstylishness.  Living in the Pacific Northwest during the height of the 80's tanning salon fad we were always covetous of the "I can afford to vacation in Hawaii and lay around in a pool or play tennis in the sun" look that the people around us were always seeking, authentically or otherwise.

When our family visited Korea when I was in the fourth grade, my sister and I were shocked and confused to experience that our pastiness was actually held in very high regard.  Random people that we met at restaurants would comment with delight about how "wonderfully white" our skin was. One time, an older lady who happened to be with us in an elevator at a department store reached out and lovingly stroked my face, as if to confirm for herself that I, indeed, had such a fabulously light complexion. 

It was around that time that I realized that there was a whole set of physical attributes that my Korean culture and extended family affirmed; light skin, big eyes, high cheekbones and a high, narrow nose. It took me a few more years to realize that these are not the typical characteristics of a traditional Asian face but, rather, a Caucasian face.  And yet, my culture affirms and delights in the attributes that are not common or natural to our own people.  South Korea now has the highest number of cosmetic plastic surgeries in the world per capita overtaking Brazil as the plastic surgery capital of the world.  One in five women in Korea have undergone some sort of cosmetic procedure, which have become popular graduation gifts from students' parents.

Not only do we affirm those who have more Caucasian features, we look down on those who have features that are more commonly occurring to Asians.  Dark skin, slim eyes, broad cheeks, and flat noses were seen as undesirable, even ugly.  Ladies encouraged moms who gave birth to "unfortunate" children with flat noses by saying, "Don't worry.  It will grow into being more raised. Just give it little pinch every day."

As I look back to my childhood and youth, I am astounded and ashamed at how deeply I had internalized that prejudiced paradigm of beauty.  I have a memory of going to a dance in high school at a town about an hour from my hometown.  I was one of a handful of Asians in my school so I was quite used to being one of the only Asian Americans around.  Somehow, there was a group of Asian boys at this other high school and as soon as I walked into the room with my blonde haired friends, we were aware of each other.  Eventually, one of them came over and asked me to dance.  I was self conscious for several reasons.  I was a teenager and, thus, spent most of my time being painfully self-conscious in general.  Also, dancing with an Asian boy made me aware of being Asian, which made me feel self-conscious.  But the most important factor in my discomfort was that this boy was of Southeast Asian origin and had the characteristics that many Southeast Asians have: dark skin, a shorter build, and a flat nose.  I was so repelled by his looks and so uncomfortable with the situation that I quickly made an excuse and walked away.  Also, he had put his hand on my butt.

Now, as a mother to a boy with Southeast Asian heritage, I reflect upon my own culture's obsession with western standards of beauty and my own internalization of those values and I grieve.  I want to shake off those messages that you have to look western to be beautiful like a dog shakes off excess water after a bath.   

I'm so glad that Joshua's lack of awareness about the subtleties of cultural values prevents him and protects him from taking in inappropriate and incorrect messages that he is inferior because he has a broad nose and dark skin.  And trust me, his nose is flat, flat, flat.  My husband and I sometimes joke about how we wonder if there is any cartilage in there at all even as we are admiring how stunningly handsome our son's face is.  Now, I see how perfect Joshua's flat nose is on his face.  And in the summertime, Josh's skin turns into a beautiful caramel macchiato color that is, on him, glorious.  To a mom who adores her son, everything about how God made his appearance is a thing of wonder and artistry.  In this way, I believe that God is using "mother love" to transform me to see the world more rightly.

Recently, in his response to the Trayvon Martin/ Zimmerman case ruling, President Obama exhorted Americans to be "a little bit more honest and ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?" I think that what he is getting at is that racism and prejudice is not a binary reality.  It's not that some people are racist and some are not.  The truth is that we all have ways that we've been influenced by fallen beliefs that do not reflect the heart of God and of righteousness.  For me, trying to walk in rejection and repentance of  my own culture and upbringing's definition of beauty is part of that "wringing out" process.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The ABCDs of Summer Special Needs Survival

Well, summer school is over and so is our week of family vacation.  Ahead of me is 33 potentially tedious and stressful days of keeping my kids occupied before school starts back up.  Although the girls still have some day camps, Josh is at home with me all day for most of those days. This morning I had a momentary flash of panic.  How am I going to keep my sanity while juggling the kids at home during this second half of summer?  How can I arm myself for the unavoidable moments of conflict, stress or boredom that are likely to present themselves?

While searching parenting websites I saw something that both amused me and gave me hope.  It's called the ABCDs of a parenting bag of tricks for avoiding a meltdown or easing a tense situation.  A for amuse, B for  bribe, C for comfort and D for distract.  

I was thinking about how I can apply this with a child with special needs.

Amuse.  It's tricky to know what will amuse Josh.  He often just starts laughing and it's hard for me to know why.  It's hard for me to share his joy or amusement because it often just seems to come from no where.  Also, Josh doesn't seem to care if someone is laughing with him.  Still I do know two things that amuse Josh to no end: a brisk breeze and music with a good strong beat.  I am going to spend more time walking with Josh along the Bay and I'm going to get out our electric fan.  Also, I need to find more clean rap stations on Pandora (if that exists).  These things are not technically "funny" but they make Josh laugh so I think it counts.

Bribe.  Motivators are often difficult to think of for kids with autism.  They are simply not motivated by the typical things that kids want like toys, money, verbal affirmation or the promise of anything that takes place more than 2 minutes from that very moment.  Over the years, I have had to get very creative to even be able to think of things to bribe Josh with.  Sugary food always works but I don't want Josh to gain a lot of weight so I need to think ahead about what else I can use to bribe Josh.  Thus far I can think of the following:  1)  watching YouTube videos of people installing shower heads,  2)  being wrapped up in the comforter on my bed and being squeezed and 3) anything having to do with playing with water.  When the kids get overtired or bored or stressed, I have been known to just march right outside and spray a big spring of water high up in the air and let my fully dressed kids get soaking wet. We call it "carwash" but it's more like kidwash.  It seems to me that they key to bribing well is to think ahead about what are things that you'd be willing to use as bribes that you won't regret rather than turning to something in the moment that you don't really want to use as a motivator.

Comfort.  Josh has always been the child who is most likely to want to snuggle.  However, lately, he's exhibiting more pre-teenish desire to be physically independent.  To my dismay, he often doesn't even want to hold my hand while crossing the street!  Sometimes, when I snuggle in with him in bed he will say, "Want Mama to go away." This is very sad for me.  Without physical touch, how do I connect with Josh?  Strangely and fortunately, there is one thing that comforts my son to no end.  Like many things in the autism world, it's a little bit weird.  Josh likes to sniff my hair.  Yes, I do take showers and I don't think my hair smells any different from anyone else's hair (I think) but, for some reason, when Josh is stressed, one of the things that comforts him the most is being able to stick his face right up to my long black ponytail and taking a couple of good whiffs.  There have been many an anxious moment at a busy Safeway where Josh suddenly announces, "Wanna smell Mama's hair!"  And if I'm desperate enough, I let him do it. Yep, right there in the middle of the grocery store or whatever.  Odd it is, and we will definitely have to fade this behavior at some point but, for now, it comforts my son and I need this tool in my pocket to survive the summer.

Distract.  In order to survive any outing with Josh, one must have lots of music. . . . car stereo, ipod with headphones, chimes on one's cell phone, whatever.  If you ever get caught in some situation without music, you must distract Josh by singing one of his favorite songs, the louder the better.  The other day we were waiting for my daughter's swim lesson to be over and Josh was just on the edge.  He started whining loudly and demanding to go home so I had to sing "Party Rock Anthem" and dance with him in circles under a tree at the park.  Instant distraction!  It bought us the 6 more minutes that I needed for Anna's lesson to finish.

Reflecting on these ABCD's made me realize that the main point of them is to take it easy and to not let the situation spiral in a negative way.  I also need to think ahead so that I can amuse, bribe, comfort, and distract myself at times so that I can keep it mellow and not buy into being too stressed out, tense or angry as we walk through the second half of summer.

What about you?  What's in your parenting bag of tricks so that you can have a good rest of the summer?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Joshua's Happy Day Poem

Spending three hours at a big pool with a mushroom shaped thing that overflows with loud falling water.

Coming home to a snack of avocados, tomatoes from Mom's garden, fresh crusty bread studded with roasted garlic, and almost a whole bag of frozen mangoes.

Realizing that I know how to sneak marshmallows from the pantry while my mom is distracted.

My tired sisters reading silently in a room where I am not.

My mom kissing me with her eyelashes causing me to laugh really hard for a long time.

The prospect of spending the rest of the afternoon in my bedroom with loud classical music and the freedom to draw showerheads and hairdryers on my magnadoodle over and over again.

Sheer summer bliss.

By Joshua Van Riesen
(as intuited by his mother)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hope's Story vs. Josh's Story

The weather topped 100 degrees but we were still having a blast!  Every year the regional office of our adoption agency hosts a "Family Fun Day" at a ranch which belongs to a family that supports the organization.  Our kids get to enjoy horseback riding, snow cones, face painting, a BBQ lunch, jumpy houses and a ton of other fun kid activities.  Josh enjoys it because we let him consume as many snow cones as he wants.  By the end of the day Josh becomes a happy, sticky mess!

This year, at lunch, Alex had an interesting conversation with the woman who organized the event, who is also in charge of public relations.  She enthusiastically told us that Hope's birth mom had come to share her story at an agency event recently and that it was so touching to hear more about our family.  Our agency has invited us to share through several venues and platforms about Hope's adoption story.  

There has been a great deal of interest about her story because we have a very successful open adoption situation with Hope's birth mom.  Miranda visits us three or four times a year and has a very positive relationship with Hope.  She is a very mature and gracious person whom we trust to be a good presence in Hope's life (and the lives of our other kids as well).  She's also a great voice for Bethany because she's thoughtful, articulate, poised, beautiful and has had a profound spiritual revival in her life through the process of choosing to give birth to Hope and place her for adoption.  We have been so glad that our story has been used (by the organization and by God) to encourage others about adoption in general and about open adoption specifically.  Below are some links to some of the content that has been produced about Hope and Miranda.  

However, Alex found himself sharing with the staff person from our agency that it was a little sad for him that, while Hope's story has been told very publicly, there has not been much interest in Josh's story.  Now, it's rather obvious why an adoption agency might not want to highlight Josh's story.  His is a story that says to prospective adoptive parents, "you might adopt a child hoping that he would be healthy but then they turn out to be a severely disabled, medically complicated person".  This is not a adoption agency's publicist's dream.  After we adopted Josh, Alex and I used to joke that we'll probably never get invited to come speak at those prospective adoptive parent trainings because our family story would probably scare everyone away!

Not every child gets to have their story put into videos and articles.  Still, the imbalance between the interest in Hope's adoption story and Josh's adoption story is painful for us especially because it's the healthy, typically developing child who gets a lot of attention and the special needs child who gets ignored.  For us, as parents, both adoption narratives feel like stories that should be told and celebrated.  I suppose that it's the conviction that Josh's story needs to be told that causes me to write this blog.  He may be mostly non-verbal and hard to get to know but I believe, with all my heart, that his story is important.    

Surprisingly, the woman listened with an open heart.  She emailed us a few days later to ask if it would be ok for her to talk to the agency's national communications department about doing a story about Josh for their quarterly adoption magazine.  Apparently, it fits right in with a special focus that the organization is launching about adopting kids with special needs called, "Courage to Love".  We told her that we'd be glad to participate!  I feel so touched that the agency is one who is feeling moved to address this topic.

I just got off the phone with a writer who has been contracted to write the story and am looking forward to seeing what kind of fruit this produces.  I'll blog about this more later, hopefully with links to the story about Josh.