Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Life as a 10-Year-Old

Yesterday my oldest daughter Ellie asked me, "Mom, what was your life like when you were 10 years old?"

A simple question, but I couldn't give her a simple answer. I really hadn't thought much about my life at 10, but I know there were a lot of things that raced through my mind as I ventured to think that far back. I want to give her a full answer, so I've decided to write down my thoughts before I share them with her.

If you were to look at my life from the outside, you might have thought that my life at 10 was absolutely a dream. In many ways, that was true. I lived in a beautiful house at 3256 Montlake Drive in Spring Lake Estates, a nice neighborhood in Rockford, IL, with a private lake and large parks. Our house sat on a cul-de-sac, walking distance to the tennis courts, lake, and park. As a homeowner now, I see that it was an ideal piece of property!

My room was an explosion of Pepto Bismol pink; my mom allowed me to choose my colors so I had pink carpet, pink valances, and a pink comforter. I sprinkled a few black accents too, with black pillows, a black bean bag, and a painting of a black vase with pink flowers. I loved my room; it was my safe place. I could look out the window at an old oak tree that almost engulfed our house, and I spent hours watching the rustling leaves and the beautiful clouds. In my room, I had a bookshelf full of my favorite books, including Nancy Drew, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Sweet Valley Twins; you could usually find me on any given day nestled in my bean bag reading.

I remember the feeling back then that I could do anything and be anybody. I really wanted to be Haley Mills from the Parent Trap; I practically memorized every line from that movie. I also idolized Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music; I would say her lines over and over, singing the songs all over the house, especially "My Favorite Things." I decided that I wanted to be a writer, an actress, and a professional roller skater, since those were all of my favorite things.

My life was busy, not because of social plans, but because my mom had a schedule for me from the minute I got up to the minute I went to bed. I was taking 2 music lessons per week for each instrument and practicing hours a day. Not on my own volition, of course. This was dictated to me and I was to do as I was told. The consequences of bucking the system resulted in no dinner or some other form of punishment, followed by a verbal lashing. I also received weekly tutoring for math, reading, and writing since my parents were worried that their broken English would hinder me from learning the language properly. As for math tutoring- there must be a manual somewhere that mandates all Asian parents should force their kids to excel in math. Unfortunately for my parents, math was always my worst subject; I was much more interested in reading, writing, and the fine arts.

I attended a private Christian school with a class size of about 50 per grade level. We had wonderful teachers, and my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Stadel, was certainly one of my favorites. She was a beautiful, petite lady with a warm smile and sing-songy voice. Her golden brown hair was perfectly coiffed each day, and I never saw her in a bad mood. If the class got out of hand, she would take a piece of chalk and rap it under the chalkboard tray sternly, but with a smile. Everyone would automatically stop talking or horsing around; no one wanted to disrespect Ms. Stadel. She would read to us from a book called "The Grandma's Attic Storybook" by Arleta Richardson, and I fell in love with the heartwarming stories from a time and place that I was completely unfamiliar with- the early pioneer days. It's a book that I read to my older girls this year and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did.

Sundays were spent almost entirely at church. Why? It was a Korean church, and after services, it was an important social gathering for all the immigrant adults. At first we kids were forced to endure the entire adult service preached in Korean, with the adult choir singing several special songs and elders' prayers that seemed to last for days. I wondered if there was a secret competition amongst them to see who could give the longest, most passionate prayer, with at least a few tears. At every service, I wanted to shrivel up and disappear out of severe boredom. Finally, they hired a youth director and we were able to attend a Bible study during the adult service. That was better, but with such a huge age gap in children and teens, I always felt like I was playing catch up with the older kids in their answers during class.

My dad owned a restaurant at the time, and no, it was not Chinese. It was actually American cuisine: breakfast food, sandwiches, soups, etc. The only thing I enjoyed on the menu was the special teriyaki kabobs because it came with rice. Not just white rice, "Rainbow Rice!" Oh, my mouth waters to think about it now! I would beg my dad to bring it home each week, and it was such a treat to have it for dinner. My mom is an extraordinary cook, so on the other nights, we would have incredible meals that would put all Korean restaurants to shame. It was not unusual to have squid, fish, crab, ox tail soup, toasted seaweed, marinated beef, kimchi soup, and all kinds of pickled vegetables for dinner. Definitely no chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pizza, tacos, or anything close to what I serve my kids because I have absolutely no clue how to make the foods she does.

One thing that made me feel out of place was my nationality. I knew I was different and I felt it. On numerous occasions I would go to a store or a restaurant, and kids would tease me about my slanted eyes. One person actually asked me if I only saw half of the world since my eyes were so small! Ridiculous, I know. But 1985 was a totally different time; Asians were not as mainstream as they are now.

Even though my life did have all the components of a happy childhood, I still felt lonely at times. I didn't know exactly who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt misunderstood in my home and not completely accepted at school or church. The only place I felt safe and known was in my writing- through journaling my thoughts in prayer form. It was something that came naturally for me, and I started every day's journal with "Dear God, this is what happened today." It was a way for me to start a dialogue with God that later grew to be a real relationship.

I do remember that I was full of questions, mostly about the future. What will I do when I get older? Who will I marry? Where will I live? What will my life look like? I would daydream about being a journalist someday in New York, coming home to my apartment and going out with friends at night. Interestingly, I never ended up with that life. I got married straight out of college at 21 and had Ellie 3 years later. And this sweet girl wants to know all about me. She reflects a part of me and yet is becoming her own person. I wonder what she will share when her daughter asks what life was like at 10!