Saturday, October 11, 2014

Crab Apple Jelly

My partner and I have been gathering crab apples recently - those grape-sized (or sometimes larger) bright red mini-apples you see this time of year. (Fun fact: they happen to be the only apple variety indigenous to North America). We live in a neighborhood with quite a few crab apple trees, some very old, so our forager tendencies took over and we spent an afternoon walking around sampling the fruit of various trees, like some urban and slightly demented version of the biblical Eve. I found a vintage recipe for crab apple jelly, which appealed to the thrifty old lady who lives somewhere inside me, because after you make the jelly you then use the leftover pulp to make crab apple butter. It also appealed to me because the recipe was winsomely titled "What To Do With a Peck of Crab Apples." Full disclosure: I had to Google "peck" to figure out that it's the measurement equivalent of two dry gallons.

Along with Xuxu, we picked at least that much. That peck is sitting in our refrigerator right now, waiting to be jellied, because with a brand new baby daughter I haven't exactly made it to that part yet. Which is why, at a recent local farmer's market, I literally started salivating over one vendor's beautifully canned pear harlequin.

It was so pretty in the half-pint mason jar that I almost bought it. Until I remembered that a) I didn't have the money for it and b) I still had all those crab apples I'd committed to putting up.

We've been having a pretty hard time lately, not just financially but emotionally. I won't go into details, but it's been pretty rough. And no, I'm not going to turn this crab apple jelly story into some wonderful mommy blog article about how adversity teaches you stuff, or difficulties build character. Because it's too easy to read that kind of inspirational crap everywhere you go. Because that's not how I roll. And because as a fellow I rode the bus with a few weeks ago put it: "You can't grow flowers in battery acid."

Being satisfied with my own crab apple jelly, and forgoing the beautiful and no doubt delicious pear harlequin is really just an extension of what I'm trying to do with the rest of my life right now: work with what I have. It's not a new concept, not after living off the grid in the country for the last four years, and after a lifetime of poverty, It's just something that seems alien to a lot of folks I encounter, and to the American mindset in general. Don't have it? Buy it. Why make it when you can buy it? Why notice what's right in front of you when you can buy something else? Something that's supposedly better?

Really, though, re-attuning my mind to this way of living is teaching me some new things. Things I hadn't really assumed I needed to learn. New adventures in canning, for sure. Saving and pinching every available penny, certainly. But I'm also learning all over again how I'm surrounded by generous, amazing, loving friends. How mutual support requires emotional openness. How raising your children means being flexible with time, money and your heart.

And patience. It's in baby steps, but yes. Quick-tempered, loudmouth, little ole me is learning how to wait, how to hold my tongue, and how some things don't need to be said. They just don't. I knew this. I just wasn't sure how to do it in real life.

Some of these lessons are as recent as today. Most of them will continue being learned over a lifetime. All of these lessons learned are going into my parenting toolbox, my own little mental compartment I examine whenever I am covered in my infant's spit up and Xuxu is screaming at me to wipe her daggan and I'm exhausted and stressed because goddamnit I need some coffee after getting 2 hours of sleep.

That parenting toolbox is my life toolbox , too. I'm never going to arrive at a place where I have all the answers. I''m never going to be able to walk this path alone. And I'm not ever going to not feel hurt at the way the world works, at the way people can let you down. But I can deal with it.  I can move ahead. I can eat my crab apple jelly on my homemade bread and be satisfied, because I have enough. I am full. I am content because I used what I had, and I have some truly wonderful things in my life.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why Xuxu is Learning to Speak Chamoru

My daughter recently visited her great-grandmother, my grandma. Xuxu loves these visits. She loves asking questions, telling Nana about her day, and playing with the few toys that are still left at my grandma's house. And during this particular visit, Xuxu decided to try out some newly learned Chamoru words during an animated conversation. My grandmother, laughing, decided that Xuxu was talking gibberish.

That's when I interjected and explained that no, Xuxu is speaking a legit language. She's learning Chamoru along with her dad, who's learning from older native speakers and teaching himself. At this point she knows more Chamoru words and phrases than I can recognize.

My grandma, who grew up poor and white in a north Idaho mining town, couldn't make much sense of this. And a lot of other people can't seem to, either. Why would you teach a kid who talks white, who regularly passes for white, a language that is currently experiencing a cultural resurgence but that is largely only spoken on a handful of Pacific islands that Xuxu's never even been to?

I'm starting to feel more capable of explaining why we want Xuxu to learn her dad's native language. At first it was tough. Here I am, obviously white mama to a little girl with caramel colored hair, blue-green eyes and tan skin. One who's speaking English with no accent, but mixing it with unknown words in a foreign language. I understand why people squint at me, get a little perturbed. Am I one of those parents, trying to claim something that isn't mine? Or is my kid one of those overachievers who's learning multiple languages before preschool? Am I one of those multicultural appreciation parents, who's trying to inundate my kid with other's stories and languages just because I want her to grow up to be culturally sensitive? There's plenty of parents like this in liberal-leaning Washington State; I just don't quite fit the visual stereotype. Uff da, as my older Scandinavian relatives were known to say.

So, it's no, no, and no. Xuxu is learning Chamoru because Xuxu is Chamoru - more commonly spelled Chamorro, although this spelling is the Spanish interpretation of an indigenous word. Chamorro are the native peoples (in Chamoru, Taotao Haya) of the Marianas Islands, the most well-known of these being Saipan and Guam. My partner's family is from Guam, and although his immediate family has lived stateside for the last 20 years, they have not lost their connection to their islands.

It's a connection my partner hopes our daughter - and our soon-to-arrive second child - will feel. Culturally, Xuxu is Chamorro. She is learning and sharing in traditions, language and values. While I hope she also appreciates and shares in my cultural background, I wasn't raised with a distinct set of cultural ties. The closest thing I had was a strong relationship with my Swedish great-grandmother. Unlike me, Xuxu is part of a large extended family that is tied together by common culture, what one could term a sense of tribal unity. She's been included in that world since her very first day. If she hadn't been, I might hesitate to call her Chamorro, although that's certainly a large chunk of her genetic makeup. She's more Pacific Islander than I am Norwegian and Swedish, which I like to claim when I'm feeling weirdly nostalgic for something I don't have. Maybe it's my own response to feeling culturally void.

But Xuxu is growing up with strong cultural identifiers. She is learning more than words, more than food and fiestas. She is learning about ties to an ecosystem and a community, about values that connect her to her grandparents and great-grandparents and their experiences learning and growing on an island first brutally colonized by the Spanish, then governed as a colony by the United States. Connections not only to those grandparents, but to ancestors long deceased who spoke some of the same words, danced some of the same dances, heard and told some of the same stories. Xuxu is participating in a centuries-old cultural tradition that is currently being restored and reclaimed by Chamorro people across the Marianas and North America. And Xuxu's white mom is excited for her.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reasons for Being

I started this blog as part of an ongoing project for a college course - an upper division English/Education class called A Global View Through Children's Literature -  that I had to drop out of, thanks to financial aid restrictions. Which sucked, because I'd already bought the required texts and I was really enjoying where the course was headed. I still managed to graduate with a BFA in English/Creative Writing (and yes, you don't need to tell me; I know my grammatical skills are still somewhat lacking). Since graduating in June, I haven't written anything beyond a few scribbled notes about ideas for poems or short stories I might someday write. Grad school is not on my immediate horizon; I'm more focused on trying to birth this baby, who now feels like a colossal watermelon that decided to take up residence in my abdomen. The next couple years promise to be full of late night feedings, poopy diapers (of course we have to make things harder for ourselves and commit to using cloth nappies) and balancing the needs of my two-and-a-half-year-old with the ever present, ever changing requirements of raising an infant. Less writing, more wiping.

So I'm not planning on diving into freelance writing, although it's something I've dipped my toes into, or taking the GREs, or completing my first poetry chapbook, all things college graduates with writing degrees are supposed to be doing. I am going to be a stay-at-home parent who hopefully is also going to be helping my partner start a small organic farm. On Guam, no less. I just like doing things out of order.

This blog, however, might help prevent me from losing everything I just spent far too long learning. It will be my stand-in writing project for the foreseeable future. Hopefully you can bear with me, and see what happens with it along the ride. If you're reading this, you're probably related to me or already know me in some way, so none of this should come as a surprise. So I should probably say: thanks for reading! thanks again for taking further interest in my life by checking out my haphazard late-night mom musings. Okay, I know it's just past 10 pm, but that might as well be 2 am in Pregnant Mom Time.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Kampung Boy: Childhood and Economics

Okay - so first of all, I loved the graphic novel Kampung Boy, which is based on the author's  childhood from birth until secondary school age. The drawings are energetic, funny and full of life, and the narrative is simple but feels fresh and honest. I had never read much of anything by a Malaysian author before, especially not about day-to-day life in Malaysia, and I found it informative and fascinating.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how much childhood has changed for rural Malaysian children in the 50+ years since Lat's first experiences. My previous research on Malaysia indicated that a lot of areas on the peninsula are continuing to be developed as mines to take advantage of huge tin deposits. Urbanization has also increased at a fast rate. For a lot of Malaysians, and for the Malaysian economy as a whole, this has been a good thing.

But financial well-being is not the only indicator of quality of life. The author of Kampung Boy obviously felt that his childhood was magical and fun-filled. I wonder how different his experiences would have been if he'd grown up entirely in an urban setting, and whether his family's financial status would have been more of an issue to him, more keenly felt.

As a kid who grew up far below the poverty level, I didn't really experience the feeling of being poor until we moved to the city of Denver (from a small rural farm) when I was 6 years old. That's when I met other poor kids, like me, who were more aware of what they didn't have, because there was in fact so much they didn't have access to in the middle of the city. Kids who had never sat under a tree to listen to the wind, had never seen a goat, let alone wild deer, ducks or rabbits, had never gone fishing or picked food from a garden. Living in Denver, I felt poor for the first time, not only because I met children who felt their low economic status, but because I no longer had access to the kinds of activities I had loved. Backyards and sidewalks weren't enough. Maybe I was worse off because I knew what I was missing.

To most contemporary Americans, Kampung Boy isn't exactly a story of prosperity. But I don't think the author felt in any way deprived as a child. Would contemporary Malaysian children in the same situation feel as if they were missing out on wealth, as if they didn't have enough? Has globalization changed the world enough in the last several decades that quality of life no longer means the same thing? I think it has. And I think that's sad.

Obviously issues like clean water, sufficient food, good schooling and adequate housing are important. But if those needs are being met, no matter how differently they might appear from our (wide range of) American experiences, is that a life still lacking? So what about media access, cash money, disposable income, and involvement in a larger global community?

I guess I don't think those things are important. Yes, they are on a national level; yes, they are bound up in economic processes. But what is more valuable: to have more national wealth, or to have the resource and experience of a close community, the availability of natural resources, to know and experience diverse and healthy flora and fauna? I feel that development can accomplish some good things. But there's always a price. Prosperity doesn't benefit everyone; often it leaves already poor people completely impoverished, while destroying vast areas of natural resources and ancestral homesites, leading to cultural breakdown and community schisms. Problems like alcoholism, domestic violence, and childhood malnutrition rise noticeably in areas all over the world where poorer communities are heavily impacted by industrial development.

As some of the world's primary consumers, we need to be aware of these impacts. We need to know the environmental and social ramifications of industry not just in the global South, but within our own national borders. Undoubtedly kids in Malaysia still get to experience many of the same adventures Lat did. But how fast is that changing? And what does that mean to us?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Malaysia: Deep History

I'm writing this as my two-year-old watches Ponyo with a family friend; my reading and writing are punctuated by cartoon voices and loud splashing noises from the movie. Distracted, I'm not sure where to begin. My partner reminds me that "Malaysian" was considered a racial designation by Westerners for most peoples of Austronesian descent - including Micronesians. As late as the 1950s, many Pacific Islanders enlisted in the U.S. military were classified as "Malay." However, in 1826, French navigator Jules Dumont d'Urville had suggested the separate classifications of Malaysia, Micronesia and Melanesia in reference to the various geographical locations of south Pacific islands. These classifications were intended to distinguish these island groups from Polynesia, a term already in use.
In fact, the term "Malay," in contemporary anthropology, specifically refers to descendants of some of the oldest inhabitants of the Malaysian peninsula. Austronesian in ethnicity, this group lived on islands throughout southeast Asia, including Borneo and Sumatra. Multiple ocean migrations from these regions resulted in the populations of outlying Pacific islands. The earliest found evidence of modern human habitation of the Malaysian peninsula dates to about 40,000 years ago. Migrations began possibly as early as 2000 BCE; archaeologists using carbon dating have been able to establish this time frame for human presence on certain Pacific islands, such as Guam.
Settlers from India and China arrived on the Malay peninsula by the first century CE, establishing trading routes and bringing their own religion and culture with them. The kingdom of Langkasuka rose to power in northern Malaysia during the second century, lasting until the 15th century. Southern Malaysia was dominated by several powerful kingdoms during these years. By the 1400s, an independent Muslim state known as the Malacca Sultanate was founded by Iskandar Shah, and spread over most of the peninsula and to surrounding islands, including Sumatra. Malacca became important not only commercially, but as a center of Islamic learning. Development of the Malay language, arts and literature became the hallmark of the Malaccan era, issuing in a sense of Malaysian identity that is still influential today. Malaysia became a maritime power during this period, and Malacca's series of Sunni Muslim dynasties disseminated the religion throughout southeast Asia.
European colonization began for Malaysia with the fall of Malacca to Portugal in 1511. Despite resistance efforts headed by former Malaccan rulers, and fierce opposition from China, the Portuguese were not expelled from Malaysia until 130 years later. Allied with the Dutch, the sultanate of Johor, established by descendants of the Malaccan sultans, was instrumental in dislodging Portugal . However, authority over Malaysia was handed over to the Dutch. Malaysians did not regain independence from European colonial powers until 1946, and the road to autonomy has been slow, as it has been for many former European colonies in Asia and elsewhere.
My daughter watches as Ponyo's father, an eccentric scientist in love with the sea, reminds us that humans rarely have an understanding of the balance of nature. I'm reminded constantly, in studying the history of colonization, that Europeans rarely understood it either. Neither did they understand the cultures they encountered, typically seeking to either document them as curiosities and then to insistently alter them by adding their own religions and cultural heritages, often quite forcefully. Malaysia, as we know it now, is still recovering from a long history of colonialism. It's prior cultural and historical heritage is still intact, but few Americans are acquainted with it. I was struck by how little I know about a culture and place that had a great deal of bearing not just on the south Pacific, but - through the medium of history and genetics - a great deal of influence on people I know and love.
I'm thinking, why didn't I know any of this before? I could barely place Malaysia on a map.