Superhero Mom vs Antiquated Aunt

Oops! We're so so sorry this article was not published on Saturday morning! :( We hope you'll forgive us and enjoy this article about Paul's absolutely amazing mom!

My mom—who will always be my superhero—has lived in Europe four times, Asia a couple of times, spent a decade on Guam, and now she lives in Alaska.

Every time we moved and in each new country we lived, my mom openly embraced everything. And that was amazing. In the era of Pax Americana when Americans could do little to no wrong and aggressively toted their culture at the locals, my mom was there experimenting with the food, reviewing the culture and embracing it all too. In Korea, my mom would meet me in the living room, ginseng tea in a lidded local tea cup complete with pine nuts floating on the top in hand. It was a welcoming into the home ritual. In England, it was tea and homemade shortbread. Christmas in Germany, Easter in Spain, they were all followed as closely as my mom could being a foreigner, and I enjoyed learning with her.

She really made time to get to know the people in our neighborhood, too. I don’t know too many people who would have gone to a funeral of a neighbor just a few short months after moving in, but she was one of them. It was endearing to watch her build relationships and see the community accept her. Neighbors would rush up to welcome her back after her periodic trips between the US and where Dad was stationed. Slowly our living rooms filled with treasures from our places abroad. She made more and more friends with each new place she lived, and made it a point to keep in touch with friends back home too.

My father’s older sister was at the opposite end of the spectrum, and I was painfully unprepared to deal with that disaster face to face. She was proud to be an “American,” and yes, my lip did just curl in a snarl typing that.

She was of the mindset that all things American were good and anything else from anywhere else was inferior. Her company had offices all over the world, and my uncle traveled a lot. She wouldn’t go with him on a single trip though the company would have footed the bill. She was quite happy staying home in Chicago where it was safe in her boringly regimented white bread life.

Imagine my surprise when I got a letter in Tokyo demanding I send her a bottle of Thai Nampla fish sauce. Nampla? How did she even know what it was? The kicker was her reason for asking me: she wouldn’t go into ‘Asia Town’ Chicago because, as a white woman, she’d be attacked, raped, and/or killed like they did in Hong Kong. Huh? Somehow my very un-TCK aunt had lumped Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong together in an unbelievably misguided and exaggerated stereotype! It was mind boggling.

I’m not sure if it was the fact that my Mom was raised in a big city and my aunt was born on a farm, but when you asked my mom about travels, she could speak about experiences, cultures and languages from 4 continents. My aunt’s opinion on internationalism, on the other hand, was that Florida needed fewer Spanish speakers. I remember that I didn’t say anything when she mentioned this, even though I was born in Spain and Spanish was my first language. I would also keep sagely quiet when she often blustered, “You wised up and learned the right language eventually.” All this was coming from a woman who would keep raising her voice until you “understood” her. Internally I screamed, “Ethel, she’s not responding because she doesn’t speak English. She’s not deaf!” I really could hate my aunt, but, I also knew it would be better to just let all of this go.

My mom is the one who embraces diversity, and I am lucky it was her (and not my antiquated aunt) I watched so I was able to follow suit. To nurture my international friendships, I write an email digest to close friends (some who I haven’t seen face-to-face in 20 years!), regaling them with my travels, trials and triumphs. I have cross cultural recipes I am proud of and that my partner eagerly charges home for after work, and I can switch between two languages. I’m a Japanese-etiquette-ninja, a moose-tongue expert and a writer from many continents, and I owe it all to her, my superhero.