Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Five Things That Prove I'm Really Appalachian

Act #57:  Seek commonality.  You'd be surprised at just how alike we are.

My five-year old has always called pants, britches since he began talking.  I giggle with adoration every time he does so. Not because I'm mocking him in any way, but there's just something so unexpected and beautiful about a kid with predominantly Asian features referring to his faded, second-hand blue jeans as britches.  Having lived in either Kentucky or North Carolina for the past 20 years, I've developed a deep and genuine respect for Appalachian culture, not in the "tourist appreciation" kind of way, but simply because I see myself so clearly in its very fibers.  The first blog I ever wrote was actually titled "Adventures in Appal-Asia" where I documented daily parallels of Appalachian and Asian life.  My son was the perfect subject matter at the time, and while I wasn't able to keep Adventures in Appal-Asia going, the term "Appla-Asian" has come to truly define me, my family in extraordinary ways.  Here's how.

1.  We exist in extended family units.  A couple of years ago, we transformed our first floor Master bedroom into a one-bedroom apartment, and moved my parents in.  It was quite a transition for all of us when my parents moved from Las Vegas (yes, really Las Vegas) to our small town in Southeastern, Kentucky, but now we can't imagine how we even existed before then.  This is a typical day:  I take off work in the morning to accompany my parents to my dad's doctor's appointment so that I can help translate complex medical terminology into slightly less complex medical terminology.  I go on to the office, and around 2 p.m. my mother heads out to pick up my son at his school, and then entertains him with year-round hot chocolate and ninja battles until my husband arrives home.  Upon entering their apartment, my mom hands my husband a plate of roasted chicken and before he leaves, he changes all the batteries in their smoke detectors and runs a virus scan on her laptop.  It took a few family meetings, a couple of blow-ups, and a crazy commitment on all of our parts to make this work, but at the end of the day, we wouldn't have it any other way.

2.  We are part of a community.  The other day I was at our local retail mega-chain and upon check out, a vaguely familiar cashier said to me, "Please tell your mother I said hello.  How is your dad doing anyway?"  This is not an uncommon occurrence.  Our Italian-American neighbors are our best friends and we routinely swap spring rolls for gnocchi.   Not too long ago, the nice lady across the street called my mom to ask her to check if she had closed her garage door before leaving town for the weekend.  My husband routinely comes home with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies given to him by a sweet elderly woman whose computer he keeps alive.  In this great big world where it's sometimes hard to find your place, it's so very comforting to belong.

3.  We like to tell stories.  Since my parents moved in, I learned that my grandparents were 18 when they eloped against their parents wishes.  I learned that we have lots of extended family who migrated to Australia and who still live there. Over the years, I also learned other fascinating tidbits about our ancestral line - my grandfather worked in a shipyard, my great-grandmother was half-Portuguese, my grandmother gave up Buddhism when she married my Muslim grandfather.  My mom almost died from typhoid fever when she was a little girl.  And that my son wiggles his toes every night in his sleep just like his great grandfather did.   

4.  We gather around food, we show love with food.   Every Sunday, rain or shine, our family sits down to a Sunday supper and our menu might look something like this:  homemade baked macaroni and cheese, slow-cooked pot roast with potatoes and carrots, steamed shrimp dumplings, and eggplant stir-fried with basil and sweet soy sauce.  This past Christmas I was responsible for delivering about 300 of my mom's Thai spring rolls to my dad's cardiologist, my son's kindergarten teacher, my co-workers at our holiday party, and the receptionist at my mom's doctor's office.  My mom has also agreed to have a few of interested community women (a college professor, a work-at-home mom, one of my colleagues, and a neighbor)  over to learn how to make those to-die-for steamed dumplings.   #2 and #4 intersect frequently.

5.  We never knew we were poor.  Between the ages of 8-14, my family lived in Thailand, a third-world country the size of Texas, where rural communities live way below the poverty line, and where six years of public education is a luxury to most.  While my family lived in the nation's capital, I remember spending summers in small outlying beach towns and driving through beautiful rice pastures, wild buffaloes roaming freely, children with no shoes and tattered clothes clinging to their mothers with the biggest smiles on their faces.  They lived off the bounty of the land and fiercely guarded those things that came to define them - their home front, their heritage, and their  connection to their land.  To them, poor was merely a state of mind, and as long as they had these things, they would never be without.

So as a Chicago-born Thai-American, you may find it odd that I see myself in my friend Courtney Brooks' blog called Reclamation Proclamation http://thereclamationproclamation.blogspot.com/, where she talks about poverty and riches in Appalachia, folk medicine, and activism, and family.  That I see myself in my friend (and renowned author) Silas House's novels http://silashouse.weebly.com/, where he paints beautiful pictures of Appalachia in his breath-taking works of fiction.  And when my son asks me what we're having for dinner, referring to our mid-day meal at 12 o'clock in the afternoon, I can't help but giggle with adoration, and with the satisfaction knowing that he is right at home, even though he's being raised thousands of miles from his ancestral land.

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