Friday, July 24, 2009

For Shame

I've almost finished reading Scott Turow's One L, a memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School in 1975, and I'm struck by how bedeviled he felt by shame. "Me, too! Me, too!" I want to shout. This past year, while studying Vietnamese at Harvard, I struggled mightily. Learning a new language at my age has become a prolonged internal wrestling match with my fear that I'll never be good enough—a good enough mom, a good enough translator of Vietnamese culture for my son, a good enough writer.

Turow's account sounds so familiar. The context is very different—first-year law student in classes of 100-plus litigious brainiacs vs. my small language class—but his observations feel fresh 30 years later. He likens studying the law to studying a foreign language. And as the semester grinds on and he sinks into depression and bombs a mock exam, he makes clear that this kind of intensive learning experience lets loose personal demons (or "my enemy," he calls it) very fast.

Here's just one quote: "Over the weekend I remained in agony and disarray. I had never before failed an exam. That it would have no bearing on my grade did not matter. I had been confirmed in my suspicion that I was a ludicrous, miserable, unworthy failure."

Ah, Shame. You are a great humbler. Perhaps you have the firmest grip on us perfectionistic types. I've begun working with a Vietnamese tutor this summer, and she corrects my pronunciation every other word. I don't love it. It's sort of great. It takes me far outside myself—as being a parent does—into landscapes where I'm constantly checking the map.

Sometimes it's just plain funny, like the time in class when we were answering questions about a Vietnamese folk tale. In it, the River God (Thuỷ tinh) and Mountain God (Sơn tinh) end up locked in battle. As I attempted to say in Vietnamese that the angry River God finally had to withdraw his troops, I managed to mix up the word for troops (quân) with the word for pants (quần). My teacher replied, deadpan: "So Thuỷ tinh is taking off his pants?"

My seven-year-old son still delights in telling this story on his mom, who unlike Mary Poppins, is practically imperfect in every way. Vui lắm!

As for Scott Turow, he's still practicing law and writing terrific mystery novels. From Turow's web site: "Only in the mystery novel are we delivered final and unquestionable solutions. The joke to me is that fiction gives you a truth that reality can't deliver."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"What's My Heritage?" International Adoptions and the Culture Debate

As an adoptive mom of a seven-year-old born in Vietnam, I have so many questions about fate. Another woman bore my child. This boy was wholly himself from the moment I laid eyes on him. I love him so deeply that it's hard to imagine our fates could ever have diverged. But of course they could have.

My feature article, "What's My Heritage?", in Brain, Child magazine's Summer 2009 issue is generating interesting comments about how much adoptive parents should help children honor their birth cultures. In some ways, I've outed myself as a mom who's gone to extremes and made mistakes. I invite readers to link to the article and B,C blog.

At this very moment, my son is making laser-gun sound effects in the play area outside my office. A moment ago, he was composing his own note on another computer. We're both sending messages to each other and into the ether. We read each other imperfectly. Sometimes I'm so terribly angry, for no good reason beyond the fact that my life seems unmanageable, and those tenacious little hands of his are grasping me so tightly. But oh, I don't want him ever to let go.