Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Politically (In)Correct

I opened the door to Kai's classroom and saw children running around with headbands made of paper and colored feathers. It was three days before Thanksgiving.
"Kai," his teacher said, "would you like to make a Native American headband?"
"You are going to play Indians today, Kai!" I exclaimed and instantly congratulated myself for speaking to him in Slovak, so that nobody else could understand me. You don't say "Indian" nowadays, do you? Isn't it politically incorrect? I wish I knew. I get terribly confused about these things. Thinking about political correctness, I panicked. "Should they be allowed to wear these at all?" I thought, recalling Victoria's Secret controversy in which a model wore a Native American headdress on the runway. The show sparked a public outrage. Both the retailer and the model had to apologize. Sure, my son is not a scantily clad model, but he still pees his pants occasionally. Could that be offensive enough? When we got home that evening, Kai ran to his Dad to show him the headband. "Kai," I said, "tell Daddy who wears these." "Naked Americans!" he yelled proudly. "Native, honey, not naked." I corrected him.

Just before Halloween, Julianne Hough drew criticism when she dressed as "Crazy Eyes" -- a character from the hit Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black". I saw the headlines and -- I admit -- I was puzzled. "Does this mean I can never be Michael Jackson for Halloween?" I asked my husband, and before he could answer, I added: "Actually, he would be the only black person I could be, since his skin color was the same as mine." Then I sat back and wondered how many offensive points I just ranked up.

"Do we order 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Holidays' cards?" I asked Peter yesterday, worried that my ignorance might get me in trouble.
"I don't know," he said, "it depends on who we send them to."
"I have some Jewish friends that will be receiving them," I said.
"Then 'Happy Holidays', I guess...even though we celebrate Christmas...I don't know," he admitted and I felt so much better.

As I was driving to Kai's daycare last Valentine's Day, I remembered I needed cards for his classmates. I ran into the supermarket and grabbed the first box. "No Valentine's Day would be complete without you to make it extra sweet", I read back in the car. Crap. Is this too suggestive? Will my son get suspended on the grounds of sexual harassment when one of the Dad's interprets the card as Kai's effort to get into his daughter's pull up? Nonsense, I thought, they are three years old. Then again, they are not allowed to pretend that they play with imaginary guns. Of course, they can get real ones for their first birthdays. Can you see how this gets confusing?

"Don't kill yourself over it." I commented on my friend's Facebook status update. Then I promptly deleted it. He wrote a bestseller about a girl who committed a suicide.

Then there is the whole gender equality issue. You are not supposed to tell girls they look pretty anymore, because if you do, you are stereotyping and thus ruining their future of an electrical engineer. She will never have the self esteem necessary to pass the physics class if you comment on her good looks rather than on her smartness. I believe this applies even if the girl is 16 months old and all you see her do is to throw cooked peas on the wall. Children's place was forced to pull girls' T-shirts that claimed math was not their favorite subject - shopping, music and dancing was. "It's neither funny nor cute to suggest girls can't -- or won't -- like math in school," Huffington post article claimed. I personally think this shirt would be perfect for me, but by now we all agree that I am a troll that probably likes to torture kittens in spare time.

When I took 2-month-old Fiona to a public gathering in a pink and black checkered shirt and black pants, she was mistaken for a boy. I don't care, truly. At that age all babies look the same. But the lady who referred to her as "him" was awfully apologetic. "You see," she explained, "I saw the checkers and assumed it was a boy." It seems that pink finally made it across the border and is now acceptable for both boys and girls. Poor checkers, on the other hand, still have ways to go.

And how about selfie - the word so brand spanking new that my spell check still doesn't know it exists? "Selfies aren't empowering; they're a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness." says one article. "Selfies give us a chance to show the world how we see ourselves. And that is giving us back the control that is often stripped away from us." says another. Being a selfie enthusiast, it has never crossed my mind that I was crying for attention or taking back control. I thought I was taking a photo of myself that others might find silly, amusing, cute or interestingly composed. Now I can't decide if I take them because people were telling me I was pretty when I was a child, or because they failed at saying so. I just don't know.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Illegal Immigrants Are Human Beings Too

The Daily Beast published an article yesterday about immigrants who are held in border patrol cells in inhumane conditions.

"Las hieleras, or “the freezers,” is how immigrants and some Border Patrol agents refer to the chilly holding cells at many stations along the U.S.-Mexico border. The facilities are used to house recently captured border crossers until they can be transferred to a long-term Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, returned to their native country or released until their immigration hearing. According to interviews and court documents, many immigrants have been held for days in rooms kept at temperatures so low that men, women and children have developed illnesses associated with the cold, lack of sleep, overcrowding, and inadequate food, water and toilet facilities."

Picture your childhood. Can you hear the laughter of family get-togethers? Do you remember the secret you shared with your best friend at a sleepover? Do you smile when you think about Grandparents taking you to an ice-cream shop? What was that book Dad always read to you at bedtime? Have you mastered Mom's chicken noodle soup recipe, or do you still crave it when you get sick? Do you have a favorite coffee cup? Are the walls in your house covered with family photos? What about your baby's first blanket, is it still in your drawer?

Now imagine leaving all of it behind – everything you ever knew, everything you ever owned, everything you loved and understood. Your family, your friends, your neighbors, your pets, your language, your memories, your home. What would it take for you to go? Close your eyes and put yourself in the room in that moment when you are grabbing a bag, throwing in a few necessities before rushing out, not knowing what lies ahead, suspecting you might not live another day – whether you stay or go. Do you see yourself? What do you feel - knowing that running away with nothing, to a place you don't know, is the best option you have? What are you telling your children as you put your life and theirs in hands of strangers? Now tell me – do you truly believe these people came to the US just to steal your jobs, steal your possessions and mess with your taxes? Do you truly believe that they were just too lazy or irresponsible to take care of themselves, so they crossed over to take advantage of your social welfare system? More importantly, is the label of "illegal immigrant" a reason enough to treat them like lesser human beings?

"I have the perfect solution...don't cross the border illegally.  If you act like a criminal you will be treated like one." This is one of the comments to the article. May I ask - this is a perfect solution for whom? How far removed is this commentator from realities of this world, not thinking about illegal immigrants as breathing human beings who suffer from pain, loss, fear, hunger, humiliation, despair and sorrow? May I ask another question - is this how we treat criminals? Or are criminals, let them be mass murderers or pedophiles, still treated humanely as long as they were born in the United States?

Where is the human(e) in us? We support animal charities, drop off food for families in need, volunteer in retirement homes. How come we donate to people whose houses were destroyed in hurricanes without thinking twice, yet spit on people who are forced into such terrible choice? These are not punks who were bored one afternoon and decided to go smash some windows. What happened to “you shall love your neighbor as yourself?” Does this not mean to love all persons, everywhere? Or does it really mean to love only our actual neighbor, whose house has about the same real estate value as ours and whose car fits the upper middle class standards?

The laws and rules that every country has are in place for a reason. That goes for immigration laws as well. But that does not give anybody a right to be unkind and hateful. You were born in the United States. They were not. How is this your accomplishment? How is this their fault? It's not. You could be them. They could be you. You are lucky and privileged to make judgment. You are lucky enough to be asking in the comment section: "How cold was it? That's an easy number to come with, a [verfiable] fact. What is the number, and why was it not included in your story?"

I am not a romantic fool suggesting we all just hold our hands and sing kumbaya. I do hope that one day all people will be equal. For now, George Orwell had it right - we are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others. Of course, he was talking about pigs, wasn't he? Detained illegal immigrants don't deserve to be treated like pigs. You don't need to welcome them in your house. You don't need to offer them your help. But you also don't have to throw them into freezing cells and question the definition of cold. You have a choice. A choice to be humane.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"So You Got Married to Get a Green Card?"

I took Kai for a haircut last week. I hadn't met the hairdresser before. After a little bit of chit-chat, she asked me where I came from and how I ended up here. This is a question I get asked all the time. I have an accent that immediately gives me away. In the last decade, my story has changed. It is getting longer and more challenging to sum up in a few polite sentences.

Some people are satisfied with: "I came to stay for one year as an au-pair, and 11 years later I am still here." Others want to know more: "So what happened that made you stay?" This is usually followed by a keen interest in my immigration status. It used to surprise me that people cared about how - and if - I got my green card. By now I had this conversation so many times that I am not surprised anymore, I am just uncomfortable.

This is how the story goes.

I came to the US eleven years ago as an au-pair (live-in nanny). Back in Slovakia, I graduated from college with a degree in molecular biology. The degree I had, the passion for research I had not. I didn't necessarily want to take care of kids, but it felt like the easiest way out. I was 22 years old and in my imagination I was living in New York City, shopping for the latest fashion trends, strutting across Manhattan in high heels, meeting fascinating people, and making invaluable friends who would open the door to whatever it was I was going to discover was my calling in life.

Instead, I found myself in Long Island, unable to afford anything but Old Navy and driving everywhere, because nothing was in walking distance (not even if I wore running shoes instead of heels). I was tossed daily between the highs of adventure, independence and thrill, and the lows of cultural shock, homesickness and a sense of having lost and being lost. I stopped belonging - the new country was too foreign and the old country was left behind.

Then I met a guy. I fell for him hard. It is said that home is where the heart is and when I met him, I didn't have a home - not geographically, nor emotionally speaking - but my heart suddenly belonged. He was the only thing that made sense to me in all that mess. He was a mess himself, but at the time I didn't see it as a problem. I was going to save him from himself, so he could be eternally thankful to me and love me forever.

When people ask about what brought me where I am today, he is a part of the answer. I could tell: "I met a guy, got married and settled down." I am with a guy, I am married and I am settled down. But then people ask: "Where did you two meet?" Or: "How long have you two been together?" Or something similar that leaves me with no other option but to explain that I was married once before, because it is obvious that the timeline doesn't fit quite right.

I don't have a problem to admit I got divorced before (not anymore). However, once I reveal this information the next question hovering over my head is: "So did you marry the first guy just for the green card?" I say that it hovers over my head because so many people ask it. So many people immediately jump to that conclusion. I find it offensive, because I feel like they are doubting my integrity. I feel like they are questioning my honesty. I feel like they disregard or downplay years of my life when I was swimming against the current, trying hard not to drown and make it work. My first marriage was never a conspiracy. I fell in love and it didn't work out. We happened to be from different countries. I didn't build borders or come up with immigration laws. I just met a guy.

It is true that I would not marry him as fast as I did if we were given the chance to date for longer without an expiration date on my visa. (I was told once, before I married him, that I was a girlfriend with an expiration date.) Nevertheless, it was never my priority to stay in the United States. My priority was to stay with the man I loved. Ironically, he left me and I stayed in the US. That's life's sense of humor for you. 

If I go ahead and address it right off the bat, saying: "I married a guy and it didn't work out. I got a green card because I was married to the US citizen, but I didn't marry him just to get a green card," then I often hear: "Well, I am sure the green card was a nice bonus." By then I feel like I should call immigration services and ask to be deported, if for no other reason than just to get out of the conversation. It fascinates me how many people believe there is no better place to live than the US. There are many good things about living here. There are just as many bad things about living here. This goes for the most of developed countries.

One day I will get that story right. One day I will not have to think about what to say when the person I just met asks me if I faked my marriage for a green card. One day I will not have to feel defensive about my decision to live in the US, the decision I am not even sure was made by me, or made by circumstances. One day. Maybe.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Having Or Not Having Kids

Yesterday, my friend posted an article on Facebook about things people say when they hear somebody does not want to have kids. It's humorously written, but it brings up a serious issue - people find it so impossible to respect another person's decision that they feel the need to lecture them on why they are supposedly wrong. One of the most common arguments the author of this article hears is: "But what if you regret never having your own kids?" To which she responds: "I'd rather regret never having children than have children and regret it." 

Incidentally, just a few hours later another friend emailed me a blog post from a Slovak blogger, called: "Leave Mommy Alone! She Is Writing an Article About How She Didn't Want to Have You." If you can read Slovak, I recommend you check it out. Glancing at the title, I assumed it was about one of the two things - either this lady did not want a child, but had one anyways and is now the most fulfilled person in the history of the world, or it's about sharing too much on the internet without thinking about how your child will feel one day when he or she will read old blog post about Mommy struggling with her feelings (good luck, Kai).

It turned out to be neither. She writes about having a child and regretting it. Now before you get all worked up about this and call social services, this is not one of those women who leave their children locked out on the balcony when the temperature drops below zero because they spilled milk on the carpet. Neither does she try to escape the family life by running away or getting drunk. This is an educated, intelligent woman who left her job to be a stay at home Mom. She loves her son. She can't imagine not having him at this point. What she can imagine is turning back time to that moment when she and her husband were deciding on having a child, and instead choose not to. She never felt the need to have a child. She never wanted one. Yet she ended up with one. And now she often feels regret about that decision.

I have not regretted having children, but I have also never felt my ovaries vibrating from pure need to replicate. I made an educated guess. Which is the same thing people who don't want to have children do. It is true that motherhood brings me some of the highest highs I ever got to experience. My heart bursting into pieces from joy so concentrated it could almost kill me. At the same time, it brings the lowest lows with it, and we are only three years into it. We didn't even make it to that stage when they yell they hate you, they roll their eyes at you, they are ashamed of you and you have to watch them making stupid decisions you know could ruin their lives.

I fight with Kai every day. I don't want to. I want to be his best friend. I want to go through one day without having to say "no" to him, but I can't even make it through one hour, because he insists on pinning down the cat, throwing books and other heavy and/or breakable and/or sharp objects, shoveling big lego pieces right into the TV screen, climbing up a bookcase, sticking his fingers into openings from which he may not be able to remove them, using knives, running with a fork in front of his face...you get the idea. I could go on all day. I do go on all day - telling him no. Which makes him mad. Which makes him scream at me or hit me. Which is not how I imagined my daily life would be. Call it parenting if you want, to me it mostly feels like fighting. Fighting with a person I love the most.

I often wonder how I ended up being the responsible one. I am not talking about the philosophical "responsible for someone's life". I am OK with that. I am fine with being in charge of a human being, keeping him safe and raising him the best person possible. I am talking about the fact that I still feel like a child myself most of the time. I get scared and I don't know which decision is the right one, but now I am expected to make one. 

Kai tells me to go ask a lady at the museum front desk a question, and I don't want to, because I am shy and I don't want to impose, but his question is relevant, plus I don't want him to grow up afraid to ask questions, because that is what I struggle with all the time, so I have to do it. He does not want to go himself, and I understand, because I feel exactly the same way as he does, only I am the Mom now, so I have to do it.

I don't want him to learn that I am scared of spiders, because I don't want to instill the same fear in him. I have to pretend they don't bother me in the slightest, while going through a full blown panic attack inside. He thinks Mommy can fix everything, while Mommy feels she needs her Mommy half the time. Just because I have kids, I don't feel any more mature, or wise, or competent.

Sometimes I wish I could have back those weekends when I didn't have to get out of the bed before noon and had nothing else to do but look forward to the evening dinner plans with friends. I can't do that anymore. Yes, I could get Grandparents or friends to watch the kids, but that's not the point. I'd miss the kids. I want to be with the kids. I don't need a day without my kids - I need a day from before I had them. 

I know having children was the right decision for me. Other people know it is the right decision for them not to have children. Just as I would never have anybody talk me out of having kids, I can't talk them into having them, nor should I feel the need to do so. They are perfectly capable to decide for themselves.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mass Killings in the United States Are Not Unexpected

There was a mass shooting in Washington Navy Yard today. Thirteen people, including one suspect, are dead. The president of the United States said about deceased: "They know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that we wouldn't have expected here at home."

Seriously, Mr. President? Unimaginable and unexpected? I am not going to get into the pro-gun, anti-gun laws argument here. I don't have a solution that would be realistic enough in the given setting, and as much as I would love to be a dreamer and imagine the world living in peace, I am mostly a realist.

It's the terminology, and what it implies, that angers me. The United States of America has a problem. The problem is that certain people decide to take a weapon and start randomly killing others. To call mass killings "unimaginable" and "unexpected" is burying your head in the sand. Mass killings -- defined by the FBI as four or more victims, not including the killer -- have occurred across the U.S. at the rate of about one every two weeks since 2006.

I understand that the president can't say: "Oh shit, another one, huh?" in a press release, but maybe it's time to start calling things what they are. Mass shootings have become a part of our lives. Americans are split on what the best course of action to prevent them should be. I get all that. But please, stop implying that this is just a fluke that will pass on its own. It's time to admit that the emperor has no clothes.