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At Home with the In-Laws

We are staying with my in-laws in East Taipei in the Xinyi district, just a few blocks from Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. My husband grew up in Taiwan, and his folks still live in the last place he called home before they sent him to the States in the mid ’80s. He hasn’t been back until now, and it has changed dramatically.
According to The Rough Guide to Taiwan, this area used to be a “wasteland”, butting up to a field of sugar cane. When he left, his twelve-story building was the highest around. Now Xinyi is the most modern business center in the country, known for its high-end shopping centers and plethora of restaurants. It would be comparable to living in SOMA in San Francisco when it was a no man’s land and suddenly being able to walk out your door to the upscale Embarcadero. A few blocks from their place a huge stadium called the Taipei Dome is under construction. There is a Starbucks around the corner. Across the street, you can buy an Hermes tie or diamonds at Cartier or whatever you desire from a giant upscale mall.
The neighborhood may have changed, but his parent’s place has not. First of all, their building is now a dwarf among giants. The concrete block style fashionable when it was built now seems out of place next to all the shiny new buildings with electronic signs a la Times Square. The lobby is big enough to house the mailboxes, a gregarious guard, and the claustrophobic elevators. Their apartment is on the ninth floor along with a mix of residences and a few businesses, like the one at the end of their dark hall bearing a sign saying Fancy Joint Enterprise.
The apartment itself has the typical older Chinese family interior decorating aesthetic I have grown accustomed to after visiting many a household with my husband. There are stacks of things everywhere – jars, boxes, and all manner of reused containers, cute plastic trinkets, and odds and ends collected along the way, like a free paper fan with an ad on it from 1999. Chinese people, especially the older generations, value frugality and disdain wastefulness (it is always dangerous to make generalizations, so know this is based on my limited experience of my husband’s family), so nothing is thrown away until it can no longer serve a purpose. Also, function trumps fashion every time, so it’s not important that things match or follow trends or are put in place with concern for overall balance. Not much has been updated since it was built in the ’70s. Little star stickers remain on the wall since my husband affixed them as a kid. The light fixtures are faux crystal flowery masses with new energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs protruding out of them. Rivers of cords pour out of every light socket. A toaster oven sits on the ground next to the refrigerator. Every space is used with no superficial attempt to make it look like a magazine spread, or to baby proof it for that matter.
Except they did lay down a new layer of thin, pink carpet in the living room because they heard their grandson was crawling. And the photos crowding every shelf in a haphazard collection of frames (or simply taped up) have some obvious new additions. Alongside the treasure trove of yellowing family pictures and snapshots of my husband as an adorable child in way too short shorts and Mary Janes, there are tons of pictures of us. Every room bears our image at our wedding or on vacation somewhere. But taking up the most picture real estate is our son.
My husband is an only child, so our baby is the one and only grandson. My father-in-law is nearing seventy and my mother-in-law is not far behind, proudly bearing her retirement certificate (like American’s senior citizen card) to get in free all over Taiwan. Seeing their place, it is evident that their grandson has become priority number one.
On the flight from Tokyo to Taipei, with our exhausted baby clinging to me, I was convinced we were crazy to drag him to the other side of the world, disrupting his routine for a trip he won’t even remember. But seeing the joy on his grandparent’s faces as they carry him proudly around their home turf, I realize this trip is not for us, it’s for them. As trying as the trip may be and as awkward as it is to be in your in-law’s space for three weeks, I am glad for the chance to give back in what is a small way compared to all they have given me.

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We Made It!: Surviving an International Flight with a Baby

(When we were preparing for our trip to Taiwan and searching for practical information about traveling with an infant we didn’t find much, so this post will be a detailed review of our experience flying from San Francisco to Taipei for those of you planning a trip with a baby. More personal stories about how it’s going now that we are here will come soon.)

My husband is the official trip researcher in the family. He loves looking for a good deal, but is also big on comfort and quality, so I leave all the travel details to him and I know we will get there in style (it would be a different story altogether if I left the packing up to him, but at least we know our roles).
For this trip, he found some cheaper, direct flights from SFO to Taipei, but they were all on American carriers and judging from our experience on domestic flights and some online reviews, he decided not to sacrifice the service and amenities we would get for a slightly higher price on an international airline with one stop. Besides, with all the extra charges for baggage and meals U.S. airlines are charging these days, the price would probably have ended up the same, and we would have been much less comfortable. However, a direct flight could have saved us some grief on the last leg of our long journey. There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a flight, and it is an arduous journey no matter how you get there, so I’m grateful our family Decider chose for us and we made the most of it.
He went with ANA, All Nippon Airways, a Japanese airline that would stop in Tokyo before taking us to Taipei. We could fly out of SFO at either noon or midnight and he decided it would be better to begin our travels mid-morning while our baby was fresh.He was able to reserve a seat at the bulkhead with a bassinet, and also requested vegetarian meals for me and meals for Little Man ahead of time for no extra charge. The exceedingly polite ANA employee at the counter confirmed this as we checked in, as did several flight attendants once we boarded. Upon check-in, we were asked how much our baby weighed. Apparently, the bassinets are only meant to hold up to twenty pounds (Little Man barely made the cut at nineteen). You hold your baby in your lap during takeoff and they attach the bassinet to the bulkhead wall once the seatbelt sign has been turned off.
Our seats were in the middle of the aisles, and in our row to either side of us were families. We had brought along twenty pairs of earplugs in case our neighbors did not appreciate baby noise, but fortunately we ended up the quietest in a row of five little boys under four years old and only four adults managing them. Our neighbors were both Japanese women each taking their two kids home to Japan for a visit sans husbands. As I saw them struggle the entire eleven-hour flight to keep their respective pairs of chaos contained, I vowed to myself never to attempt a trip like this alone, and not to take another long flight with Little Man until he is five or so. Two to four year olds just aren’t made with the capacity to sit still for that long without meltdowns. It turns out nine months was a great age to travel. We didn’t have to pay for a seat (only the taxes on a ticket), he still fit in the bassinet, breastfeeding is still an easy way to give immediate comfort, and he isn’t walking yet so he couldn’t cause much trouble.
We brought a few toys, lots of snacks, some books, and an iPod and iPad loaded up with kid stuff, and the attendants came around with a basket of free little airline-related toys to choose from, but none of that was useful for more than a minute or two. The iPad entertained the older neighbor boys for quite awhile, especially the free Toy Story app where you can paint Woody and Buzz Lightyear by touching the screen. What got the most mileage with our kid was my husband’s watch, standing against the seat (we were very lucky and had an empty seat next to us), playing with the seatbelt and headphones, and watching the baby channel on the airline screen at our seat. Pingu, a claymation penguin popular in Asia, captivated us all. He also did his fair share of flirting with the sweet flight attendants and other passengers. He was the recipient of many compliments about what a happy, well-behaved baby he was. He took a couple naps, enjoyed two amazing, healthy airline meals (each was a box full of fruit, baby food, and a sweet treat. Our meals were also good and free mini-bottles of wine were a blessing) and impressed us all with how well he did. Thank God.
The layover in Tokyo is where things got a little tougher. We had three hours to kill and we were all very tired. We cleaned up in the airport nursery, a special room just for changing babies, with a little seat to put them in to allow you to use the restroom as well. Brilliant. Then we found a big empty seat and he and I passed out while my man played Mahjong on the iPad waiting to hear our boarding call.
On this flight, we were not so lucky to have extra space. We had two seats against the window, and he wanted nothing to do with the bassinet. At this point, only Mama would do, so we spent three hours trying to sleep in various uncomfortable positions, and this is when I wished we had been on a direct flight. But somehow we made it. And even after all that, our Little Man had bleary-eyed smiles for all the strangers exiting the plane. Phew.
I can’t believe we have to do it all again to get home. At least we have almost three weeks, and he is already adjusted incredibly well to the time difference. More stories of our Taiwanese adventures to come.

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Trip Prep: Packing, Planning and Passports for Baby

I am sitting amidst mountains of laundry. My busy boy is finally napping. My hypochondriac husband is getting checked out for mysterious pains – heart attack? acid reflux? Who knows, but the stress always seems to get him right before we travel. Last time he came down with shingles and then a staph infection, rendering him completely useless the whole trip. He is not allowed to be sick this time. I cannot do this alone. If nothing else, I need him to at least be able to carry stuff, the stuff I should be packing right now.

Do  I bring everything and the kitchen sink? I used to travel with just one carry-on no matter where I was going. Then came hubby who likes to check our bags so we have nothing to lug around. Now there’s Little Man, and it seems we could end up taking more stuff for him than for ourselves combined if I follow this list I found on Baby Center. Or not. We are going to Taipei, not the Serengeti. I’m sure they have diapers and baby food and cheap clothes. But what about his favorite books? And Lamby, his gigantic stuffed lovey he hugs like a body pillow when he sleeps (why oh why couldn’t he have become attached to a washcloth)? And blankets and toys that feel like home? And the sound machine he needs for his nap? And the video monitor? Good Lord!

Ok, my task right now is to take a deep breath and pack, paring it down to the essentials and trying not to forget something major like our passports. Did you know babies need their own passports for international travel? Try getting a six-month old to sit perfectly still for a straight-on headshot. It took many attempts, but we finally got one where both ears are showing. Of course his tongue is hanging out in his go-to “Blue Steel” look he gets whenever he sees a camera. He’ll have that same passport until he’s five years old. Ridiculous.

Ok, off to pack. Wish me luck!

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Baby on Board: Slow Travel by Necessity

Before our son was born, my husband and I naively proclaimed that this baby would operate on our schedule. After all, if we just took him everywhere we went, wouldn’t he be used to traveling and eating out late and just adapt to our on-the-go lifestyle? I just heard the collective “HA!” of all you seasoned parents who know what a pipe dream that was. How wrong we were really sank in on the way back from a weekend trip to Tahoe when he was barely two months old, during which he screamed his lungs out, making what should have been a four-hour trip take nearly eight with all the times we stopped to comfort him and try to figure out what he needed. Fortunately, he’s gotten better at being in his car seat, but we have certainly learned that babies come with their own set of needs and preferences which require huge adaptation on our parts, and often deference of our own desires. Duh. Welcome to parenthood, right?

While becoming parents has dramatically impacted our day-to-day routine (wow, we watch a lot of TV since we have to be home for his 6pm bedtime and dang, getting up for the day at dark:thirty hurts), one of the things I miss most about our pre-baby life (besides sleep) was the ease of travel without a little one. We could up and go without packing or planning much. We could drive into the night and sleep until noon to make up for it. We could take international flights to multiple destinations and not think twice. That life is gone. And we can mourn it and be miserable, or we can adapt. I wrote about the Slow Movement as it applies to parenting a couple posts ago, and Slow Travel seems to be the philosophy that will serve us well at this stage of our lives, and maybe convert us in the hereafter.

“The art of living,” says Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, “is about learning how to give time to each and every thing.” Whether it’s slow food, travel, or parenting, it simply means doing things at the appropriate pace to truly enjoy the experience. It means gathering with friends to prepare a meal together instead of eating fast food. It means stooping to see and feel and smell the grass with your son as he explores it for the first time instead of urging him to hurry up to get wherever you are going. Slow travel is about being present in the moment, not checking off must-see destinations with your nose in a guidebook, not getting from here to there as fast as possible, but enjoying the journey and taking the time to engage in the culture wherever you are.

We have become slower travelers by necessity. In his first nine months, we have only taken our son on short trips around our home state of California. Hardcore slow travelers even eschew driving or flying. In this way, it is a philosophy that goes hand in hand with Ecotourism, attempting to do as little damage as possible, and even aiming to help out the place you’re going. Fortunately, we live in an amazing place and just staying home in San Francisco can be like traveling around the world with the right frame of mind. But we are in desperate need of a true vacation.

So, we are going on our first international trip with Little Man. Pre-baby, we had hoped to hop around Indonesia this year. We went to Gili Meno and Java right before we got pregnant, and made great friends we’d love to see again, plus we wanted to go to Bali and some of the other islands. Post-baby we realize this would be a tad too ambitious, and probably not enjoyable to lug a baby around an extremely hot, occasionally dangerous, and often frustrating country. We’ll save that until he can carry his own bag. For now, we are headed to Taiwan. We are going to stay with my husband’s parents in Taipei for three weeks. We will have a home base. We will live in the city like locals. If we go anywhere, we will take the train to the coast, and play at the beach. We will hunker down and take it slow. It will be better for the environment, for our baby’s schedule, for the thrilled grandparents, and for our peace of mind.

Just like I would never label myself “green” or “progressive” because I could never live up to the die-hard followers of those philosophies, I wouldn’t call myself truly “slow” yet. But just as I believe my attempt to be a little greener whenever possible is good, I think taking it a little slower will make a difference, too.

Stay tuned for adventures in slow travel with Little Man and the in-laws. We leave on April 6th and I will hopefully be posting regularly while we’re there from my new iPad!

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Mothering on the Middle Road

Modern mothers are bombarded with vast amounts of conflicting information about their parenting choices and are pressured to choose sides. Even upon becoming pregnant, it felt as if I had to opt between a hypnotic orgasmic water birth at home or a conveniently planned c-section at a baby factory hospital. Like most issues in life, I don’t find myself drawn to either extreme, but fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra, or a peacekeeping middle child, but I’m often able to see value on both sides of any argument. The birth of my son ended up falling in the middle,too –  a natural childbirth in a hospital (and I’m not ashamed to admit that if there’s a next time, I’ll probably choose an epidural).

The middle road does not grab headlines. It doesn’t spur comment wars in blog posts. The middle isn’t sexy, but I’d venture to guess most people dwell there and are doing just fine, taking bits and pieces from this or that side of the spectrum and making it work for them when it comes to a whole host of issues, from sleep training to deciding what to feed their babies. Yet at each new stage, I continue to be barraged by the fear-mongering headlines and blog posts and forums of those opinionated enough to say that their way is the right way. Little Man is eight months old now and I’m hearing things like I should be getting him on preschool lists now (or more like, yesterday) and I should be starting to develop his brain with education materials, especially bilingual ones if I want any chance of locking in a foreign language while I can. And so I’ve stumbled upon the next two camps looking for new recruits: “concerted cultivation” vs. “slow parenting”.

I can very easily turn into a Type-A worrywart overachieving listmaker, but over the years I’ve learned that very little comes of this. Worrying doesn’t make things go my way and the stress of spinning my wheels just isn’t worth it.  So I try not to buy into all this fast-track parenting, the concerted cultivation thing saying I should be giving my kid a head start by inundating him with educational materials on him, signing up years in advance for the right school, taking a million classes, etc. Not because I’m too lazy or it’s too overwhelming, but because I don’t really believe in the end result. Jump into the rat race now and it will never stop. I don’t want him to live in a pressure cooker this young, only to end up a stressed-out adult. It’s difficult to avoid, though. Even after reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, which debunks a lot of the myths we think will make our kids smarter (hey, it turns out those lame Baby Einstein videos are actually bad for your kid!), I found myself making a checklist of things that their studies show do work. I had to give myself the ‘ol “whoa nellie”, when I started getting excited about having Little Man write up play plans because it will improve his concentration and help him engage in extended play. Hello! He’s eight months old!

So I was relieved to discover the other side when I heard Carl Honore being interviewed about his book “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting“. He actually doesn’t use the term “slow parenting“, though there is a whole group of people who do. Instead, he encourages doing things at the “right speed”, or the appropriate pace at which each task can best be enjoyed, emphasizing quality over quantity, and being present in the moment. A quote from a New York Times interview with him says “childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product development. It is not a project; it’s a journey.” Ah…what a relief. I’m sure I will end up in the middle of the two extremes as usual, but it helps to be aware I have choices and there is no right way. I will make my best concerted effort to cultivate enjoyment of this journey.

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To expose or not to expose?: Deciding how much info is too much when it comes to my kid

It turns out I have boundaries. I know that’s surprising, given the gratuitous photos of my giant pregnant belly and explicit details of my son’s birth story that appeared on this blog. But when it comes to posting his vital stats and even any photos, I hesitate. It’s tough, because everybody’s doing it. Mommy blogs everywhere are filled with photos, video, real names and info about every detail of their kids’ lives. I read them, and enjoy them immensely, and am tempted to post my own because surely he’s the most beautiful baby there is and his life just as entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder what the backlash will be.

I have vague, ominous fears about internet boogeymen trolling for kidnapping victims or turning innocent videos or photos into ugly things or stealing identities that won’t be discovered ’til your kid turns 18 and applies for their first credit card and finds out someone has racked up huge debt in their name. The latter is a true story that helped me decide to not even post his name or birthday, though I’m sure if you dug deep enough, you could find it. I’ve shared it all on Facebook with nearly 200 of my closest friends (I said I had boundaries, I didn’t say they were particularly stringent ones). What made me really stop and think about all this was when we were posting videos of our baby on Motionbox for my in-laws who live in Taiwan. They miss him terribly and this is a great way to keep them updated, but when my husband was about to upload a video of our 6-month-old happily splashing in the bathtub, I thought about the Demarees, and made him stop. Yes, our account is password-protected, but it still didn’t feel right. If this family could get arrested and separated from their children over printing a couple naked baby pics at Walmart, why even risk it?

Above all, my decision to keep his life private is based on how he will feel when he’s old enough to decide for himself. I remember being annoyed that all my mom’s friends knew all about what was going on in my life, and can’t even imagine how upset I would’ve been if she’d had a blog at her disposal and typed to millions of strangers, “Guess what, Internet? Cassy started her period today.” Argh. The humiliation. I feel for all these kids who I know by name and how many bowel movements they’ve had in the past week and I vow to not embarrass my son. As much as I’d love to share his antics and expressions, big moments and small ones, this is not the best forum to do so. I respect his privacy too much. This is my blog, so I will make it about me which will occasionally include my experience with motherhood because that’s where I am right now, but not be so focused on him. So, sorry, all six of you who read this regularly, there won’t be any chubby baby pics here, but I’m sure Little Man will thank me someday (though I’m sure I’ll give him plenty to be embarrassed about regardless).

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Little Man Reads – 6 months

One of the perks of parenting, at least from the perspective of an aspiring author/illustrator, is having an excuse to read childrens books every day, multiple times a day. I can’t get enough of it, and fortunately, neither can my son. Periodically, I will post on Little Man’s favorites.

He started showing interest when he was three or four months old, for books like First Words and the ABC book from the Bright Baby First Learning Box by Roger Priddy. He liked photos of real objects or babies on bright backgrounds with big, bold words. When he became coordinated enough to reach out and grab and put everything in his mouth, his preference was soft cloth, interactive books. An old hand-me-down copy of The Busy Book was his favorite, even though we have some newer, flashier ones.

Now, at 6 months, he’s really into board books that have a good cadence or noises when I read to him. He can pick Sandra Boynton‘s Barnyard Dance out of a pile and will do so every time. The illustrations aren’t as bold and bright as he was into before, but he loves that we bounce to the rhythm and I slap my thigh and call it like a square dance. He’s also into the First Book of Sushi, Mirror Me, and Toes, Ears and Nose.

He’s not ready for longer picture books, which I can’t wait for him to get into. His attention span is too short and he still wants to grab or eat the pages, but I’ve had some luck reading him One Is a Drummer by Roseanne Thong and illustrated by Grace Lin. The sing-song verse plus the gorgeous pattern-filled pages and lots of children in action keep his attention. I love how multicultural it is; it shows all kinds of kids enjoying typical kid activities like playing in sprinklers and riding a carousel, but incorporates many things from Chinese culture, like dragon boat racing, mahjong, and foods like eggs tarts and fish balls while it teaches the concept of counting to ten. My husband is Chinese so it’s great to find books that will help us teach our little guy more about his heritage.

I would love suggestions for what your 6 month to 12 month old is/was into, so we can expand our library. Happy reading!