The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804


Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.


Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.


Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh


The Upside of Stubborn

For the past year or so, Ethan refuses to sleep in his bed.  He would rather curl up like a puppy in front of our bedroom door: baby cheeks squished against his pudgy arms, butt propped high and proud. The boy is stubborn, but respectful.  He never enters our room.  He just waits, patiently, sometimes in his bed or on the staircase for all of us to settle into sleep.

His method is not perfect.  One time, during a Netflix movie several hours after we had tucked him into his own bed, Thomas spotted a black bear in our yard.  As soon as Thomas yelled “bear,” we heard little feet thunder down our stairs and his excited and not-sleepy-at-all voice, “Where? Where? I want to see it?”

Other times, when he is extremely tired, he’ll pass out on the staircase.

My friends tell me I’m lucky.  “Aww, he’s so adorable.  What a polite boy.”

Yes, I know what you’re thinking; this “polite boy” has me wrapped around his finger. When I wake in the middle of the night, I actually crack open my door hoping to see my bundle of love.  I tell Thomas that we will miss his devotion when one day, he might come home from school, run into his room, and slam the door shut (which might be in three years, since Kyra just started doing this).

However, I am worried that I’m cultivating a stubborn chord in my son.  See Who’s the Alpha Now? Our day, for instance, consists of one negotiation after another.

“Can I have juice?” he asks.

“Only after you drink a glass of milk.  You know the rules, Ethan.”

This exchange (which can also be about cookies, chips, or candy) can go on all day where he would rather starve or sit in timeout than lose his battle.  In order to get him to do what I want, I have to give him choices and make him believe that he’s in charge.  And even then, if he doesn’t hear a choice he wants, he’s clever enough to offer his own.

Most frustrating of all, if he detects the slightest educational motivation at play, he pretends to fall asleep.  Superheroes are the only angle with which I have some leverage.  Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker is willing to tell me a color, letter, or number on his toy, but never for very long.  However, I’m not keen on encouraging Superhero play since I caught Ethan nudging a spider with his toe. “Look Mommee.  Spider bite me.  I Spiderman, now?”

Meanwhile, Kyra thrives on academic challenges.  Lately, she would rather practice writing sentences than watch a movie with the family.  At a restaurant, on her own initiation, she entertains herself with iPhone educational apps or workbooks throughout our meal.  Thomas and I actually encourage her to “put it away,” because we don’t want people to think that we are “Tiger Parents.”

My friends tell me not to worry.  They say I’m only seeing the negative aspects of a stubborn child.  The positives of a stubborn personality are leadership, confidence, toughness, an ability to focus which boosts learning.  As it turns out, I’ve already implemented some of these recommendations on how to handle stubborn kids:

  • Identify the problem and seek a solution by involving your kid (Parents zone).
  • Try sneaky or judo parenting strategies like playing the “helper card” or “yes game,” offering options, establishing a connection, keeping your cool, picking your battles, and making it fun (CNN).
  • Help your child learn that choices have consequences (Ask Dr. Sears).

How do you handle your stubborn child?

A Confession – Postscript

In case you didn’t know, I’m in love with dragons, specifically the Western kind with talons of an eagle, spikes from head-to-toe, fabulous wings of leather, a tail barbed and arrow-tipped, a breath of fire, acid, or ice.  Think J.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling.

When adults used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the first answer I could remember giving, thanks to Anne McCaffrey, was a dragonrider!  Her protagonist, Lessa, continues to be the heroine I hope to be.

Naturally, the first stuffed animal my kids received from me was a dragon.  Both Kyra and Ethan believe that dragons protect them from the monsters under their bed.

Kyra sleeps on the back of a spring green dragon, a marvelous pillow complete with soft white spikes and a tail that wraps around her body.  She won’t go to bed unless I cocoon her with a How to Train Your Dragon blanket.

Ethan’s first word was dragon.  This clever three-year-old knows that he can wrestle a toy out of me at a store as long as it has anything to do with this magical creature.

So you can imagine my tears of excitement and sadness when Kyra came home from school the other day with this drawing.

Kyra Oh's first dragon, crayons, 2011


My initial reaction:  A teacher or classmate drew this for Kyra.  See Confession Part I and Confession Part II.  But after asking her a dozen questions about when, where, and how she created this masterpiece, I realized that somehow I had missed a major milestone in my daughter’s artistic development.

“Wow, did anyone help you with these details: the spikes, the talons, the teeth?”

“Nope,” she beamed. “I did it all by myself!”

When Kyra was taking art classes twice a week at the Pacific Northern Academy, her teacher Ms. Jaeger, had reminded me, “Encouragement is all kids need to be creative because when they get older inevitably they will have a habit of being self-critical.”

I showered Kyra with kisses and hugs and displayed her first dragon drawing proudly on our window sill, along with a red crayoned heart she gifted to me the day before as soon as she jumped off the bus, “Mommee, in art class, I made a gift for the whole family.”

Biting my lip, I resumed serving Kyra an after-school snack while pondering whether I should frame her first dragon artwork. I worried that it would always remind me that I had been absent.

Confession:  This summer, I never had time to make art supplies accessible in my household.  I’d like to blame it on the move, but perhaps the deeper truth is that I did not place artistic development as high on my list of parental duties as academic pursuits.

I figured that they could simply do art at school.  About a month ago, a caretaker at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Child Development Center hourly care had approached me and said, “We need more parents like you.”

When I looked surprised, she said, “Look what your daughter gave me?”  She pointed to the wall which displayed an elaborate 3D construction of a nearly life-sized eagle.

“Kyra, did you do this?” I asked.

“Yep, I’m making one for you too.”

The caretaker thanked me for raising two of the most delightful children to teach.  As she explained in detail the rapid artistic progress of both my kids over the summer, I forgot to breathe.

I did not deserve her compliment.  Teachers had made all the difference in my children’s art education.  Probably the only thing I contributed was the subject matter or artistic genes.

That evening, I wrapped a gift for a six-year-old birthday party with packing paper.  I invited Kyra and Ethan to decorate it.  To my astonishment, Ethan had graduated from lines to shapes.  He articulated that he had drawn Batman and his Batmobile.  Kyra whipped out several dragons, twisting along each side of the package.

This time, I made sure to contribute.  “Kyra, would you like me to show you how to add wings?”

She clapped her hands.  “Yeah!”

I only had time to outline five webbed “fingers” each ending with a claw when she grabbed the crayon out of my hand and said, “Got it.”

Kyra and Ethan were so proud of their creation that the next day at the birthday party, they toured their masterpiece and spun complex tales about Batman riding dragons to save the world.  When the birthday boy ripped off the wrapping paper, the three of us looked at each other with pouty lower lips.

In preparation for tomorrows show Young Artists & Arts Ed in Alaska, how have you been surprised by the artwork your child brings home from school?

A Confession: Part II

About a week after the art exhibit started at Pacific Northern Academy, Ms. Jaeger invited Ethan and me to model for Kyra’s class.

“Are you sure my terrible two is going to stay still for the class?”  I asked Ms. Jaeger.

“Don’t worry.  It will be fine.”

I leaned in close so only she could hear me, “So, do Kindergarteners know how to sketch from live models?”  Note:  I’m asking a teacher that had fifth graders create artwork for the film, Everybody Loves Whales, and seventh graders design four 54-piece dish sets and two tea sets with ceramic artist Ade Waworuntu.

“Oh yes, light and shadow on a live person is the best way to learn how to draw for artists just starting out.   Plus,” she peered at me over her glasses, “there’s something about a living being that reverberates.”

I could see what Ms. Jaeger meant.  Just as we sat down in the center of fourteen Kindergartener artists, Ethan stood on my lap, threw both arms into the air, and sprang off my thighs shouting, “I’m Buzz Lightyear!”

The Kindergarteners giggled hysterically.  “Ethan,” they cheered.  Some of them clapped and chalk dust flew from their little hands.

Ethan tossed his Buzz toy at his audience and three of them retrieved it for him.

Always the crowd pleaser, Ethan, then twisted in my arms as if he were ending a complex salsa routine and dipped dramatically across my lap.  He closed his eyes and threw his arms and head back toward the ground for a final flare.

Meanwhile, I watched nervously as some of the Kindergarteners, who had already started to sketch him in the Superhero flying stance, frowned.

But Ms. Jaeger reassured me, “Moving models are a fun challenge for artists.”

And she was right.  Catherine recovered by turning her paper upside down after she finished Ethan’s figure.

Charlie concentrated on designing his own outfit for Ethan and making sure Buzz appeared firmly in his hand.

Emily gave me extra long eyelashes and captured my earrings perfectly.

The twins, Mark and Sierra, imagined Ethan and me in their own fantastical world.

Hannah focused on Ethan’s face, taking extra time to blend in his hair by rubbing tissue paper over her brown chalk lines.  When she noticed me peeking, she said proudly, “My mommy taught me how to draw.”

My chest tightened when I heard that.  Her mother was an artist too, who told me she never taught Hannah how to draw either.  She simply had a lot of art materials lying around the house and Hannah enjoyed watching her work.  Lilly and Maya’s mother, who used to be an art teacher agreed, “Yes, sometimes, I’ll just throw down a tarp outside and let my girls go wild with paint.”

Lilly confidently accessorized my persona on her page.   She gave me fancy pants and a figure I wish I had.

Her twin, Maya, had entirely different aesthetics.

“Go wild with paint” sounded messy to me and it was something I’ve never tried, but with school ending next week I made a mental note to take my art supplies down from the top shelf of my closet and make them more accessible to my kids.

Fortunately, Kyra and Ethan seemed to be born with plenty of swagger.  “Look what I did!” Kyra waved her rendition of Ethan an inch from my nose.

“That’s me,” Ethan said, beaming at his sister.

“That’s my DeeDee,” Kyra said.  With the back of her hand, she brushed her hair from her forehead and a red streak appeared like an exclamation point.

“It’s beautiful,” I praised Kyra.  After that, every Kindergartener excitedly presented their artwork to me for flattery.  Ms. Jaeger told me that every child is an artist.  She said, “Encouragement is all kids need to be creative because when they get older inevitably they will have a habit of being self-critical.”

In truth, the Kindergarteners learned quite a deal this year.  They worked on the elements of design: line, shape, value, texture, overlapping, modeling, linear, aerial, and color perspective. They experimented with pencil, charcoal, chalk pastels, india ink, tempera, acrylic paint, printmaking, book arts, still life, landscape and figure drawing. They even explored clay techniques, creating an Alaskan Animals Tile Table.

In addition, they taught me a great deal too.  Armed with fourteen masterpieces, I went home that day dazzled by these passionate confident five and six year olds.  Most importantly, they reminded me to throw self-criticism to the wind.

Dandelion Killer

When my daughter was two, she hunted for dandelions in our yard.  The bright yellow flowers delighted her and she would grab handfuls of them for me and insist that I place them in vases throughout the house.

At the end of a dandelion’s flowering days, Kyra played a mischievous game, where she raced to blow apart the seed-bearing parachutes before mom and dad could catch her.

“No,” I would yell from the porch.  “Daddy will be mad, Kyra.”

She would collapse into giggles as the wind picked up the parachutes and transformed them into dandelion snow.  Then, she would leap into the sky, hands grasping for the wispy seeds that danced above her long black hair.

I think when I was her age, I loved dandelions too.  My mother had plenty of photos of me blowing apart a dandelion clock.  But somehow, thirty years later, I had joined ranks with the dandelion killers.

Maybe, I even helped my husband buy weed killers and tools like the Dandelion Digger, the Weed Hound, or the Dandelion Terminator that would pluck them out at the roots.

Recently, during my interviews of local healers in the area for a forthcoming First Alaskans article, I learned that dandelions are edible, a nutritious source of calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.  The flowers thrown into a bath helps relieve muscle tension.  The roots made into decoctions and tinctures can lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, a condition that affects many in my family.

Kyra sticks a dandelion into the camera

How had I missed such a vital piece of information?  Were dandelions prolific in my garden because we needed their medicinal properties?  Had we poisoned the store right outside our doorstep?

What bothered me most was whether I was a hypocrite.  Subsistence and wildcrafting are traditions I encourage and try to practice in an urban environment, but clearly, I had a lot to learn.

My friend, Christina Salmon-Wassillie, who lives in Igiugig with her husband and three young kids, tells me that without subsistence her community will lose “just about everything we stand for.  If the world were to completely crumble tomorrow, we would be ok.  We have fresh water, fresh fish, animals and berries out our backdoor.  We can live without electricity, gas or propane.  We know how to take care of one another.  We know how to share and be supportive.”

With natural disasters like Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami in mind, I worry that none of us knows how to survive without electricity, technology, and other modern conveniences.

As summer approaches, I am eager to encourage my children to explore what’s outside our doorstep.  Here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Hike with guidebooks like Janice Schofield’s Alaska’s Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest or Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors.
  2. Harvest plants with someone who knows what they’re doing.  Observe how they harvest, prepare, and store the plants and what they use them for.
  3. Consult with sources like the Alaska Community Action on Toxics to make sure we aren’t harvesting in areas that are polluted or sprayed.
  4. Teach my children to respect others by being nice to plants.
  5. Show them how to give freely and tell them stories about how when you give, it always comes back.  If we go berry picking, I will instruct them to take only what they need.  If they catch their first fish, they must give all of it away to an Elder or someone in need.

What do you teach your children about plants and animals in the Anchorage area?


Last Friday, Thomas and I received an email from Kyra’s school announcing a Brown Bag Concert series every day the following week.  I noticed that four of her classmates were performing.   As we brushed our teeth that night, I remember telling Thomas that I felt terrible.  First, I was clueless about whether there was a sign-up sheet or how students were selected.  Second, I had started to teach Kyra piano for about a month fairly informally on the weekends.  And most of that time, we would get into fights because she insisted on figuring out the notes on her own.  Third, having hated performing as a child, I couldn’t believe that I felt Kyra was missing out on something.

Thomas said, “Well, I didn’t know about the concert series either.  Besides, I would never perform if I didn’t have to.”

“Me too!  So why am I even upset that Kyra isn’t performing?”

He laughed.  “Is she even ready?”

“No,” I said.  “We’ve been kinda goofing off with the whole piano thing.  I wanted to make it a fun thing.  So we haven’t really had consistent lessons.”

“Well, there you go.  Why make things stressful?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, twisting floss tighter around my finger. “But, I can’t help feeling like I should’ve done more.  You know with her piano lessons or preparing for the concert.  I’m worried that she’ll miss out on an experience.”

Unwinding the floss, I continued, “But then, I always hated my mother for making me perform.  All the stomach aches, stage fright, obsessing about the mistakes I made in front of the whole world!  No, it’s better this way.  I’m happy that she doesn’t have to suffer through all that and I’m relieved that I don’t have to stress about her performing.”

Thomas just shook his head, “You are so confusing!”

When I picked Kyra up from school on Thursday, she grabbed my hand and asked, “Mommee, how come my friends got to play the piano and I don’t?”

“Do you want to ask your teacher?”

“Okay!” She pranced off to her teacher’s side.  I helped her get the words out and nearly shriveled when I heard the teacher say, “There was this big sign-up sheet in the front of the school.”

Before I could apologize, the teacher said, “You know what?  Robert decided not to do perform tomorrow, so if you want, you can have his slot.  Or even better, you can always play the piano during show and tell.”

Kyra drifted off while the teacher and I explored various options.  So when I put Kyra’s jacket on and asked her what she wanted to do, I was surprised to hear her say, “Play tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” she said without any hesitation and then chased after her brother.

That night, she ordered all of us to sit down and be her audience.  On her first run through the song, I heard a few mistakes and tried to play along, but she snapped at me, “No, Mommee.  Don’t touch the piano. Now, sing.”

We tried.  But after a few attempts, she said, “I play by myself.” And that was that.  She ate her strawberries and said she was going to bed, “I’m ready.  I’m good.”

Thomas and I looked at each other with apprehension.  She had a tendency to start the song, stop, turn to her audience and say, “I made a mistake.”

In the morning, she practiced the song one more time repeating it three times.  I told her she only had to play it once, but she insisted, “No, I like three.”

Then, my baby girl was off to school and I didn’t see her until the show.  She lounged in her teacher’s lap, cool as a cat.  No fear.  Not even in need of any Mom or Dad hugs.

When the music teacher announced her surprise performance, she ran up to the piano and climbed onto the bench.  Then with legs swinging back and forth, she played it through once and paused to check out her audience.  Then repeated the song two more times.  The music teacher winked at me because we had talked right before the show and after hearing Kyra’s attitude the night before, she told me I was in trouble.  She said she was exactly like Kyra when she was little.

Kyra performing piano

Kyra finished off her performance with a flamboyant bow to the cheers and applause from her entire school.  I watched Thomas’ face and saw him beaming proudly at his daughter. I bet I was even more transparent.

We still can’t believe the chutzpah of this girl.  Whatever might be the source of her audacity, we agreed that this moment was one of our proudest parenting miracles.  The next morning, for the first time ever, she cleaned up her room without anyone asking!  Maybe kids innately know when they have achieved something on their own and it’s a major boost to their confidence?

Please Don’t Tell Me I’m a Chinese Mother

This month, my inbox flooded with friends and family urging me to read Amy Chua’s book excerpt, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior?  Over dinner, Thomas kept asking me, “Have you read it yet?”

A week later, he tried to peak my interest with: “Our friends are really offended by Chua.  Did you know she even received death threats?”

Finally, he summarized the story for me, hoping to engage some discussion, but I remained as quiet as the eye of a storm.

Maybe, because I never ever want to be labeled as a “Tiger Mom” or worse “Chinese Mother.”

When Kyra was born, I vowed never to parent like my parents.  No four hours of piano practice a day.  No rules about how my kids can’t date until college or go to prom or watch T.V.  No demands that they must get As and pursue career choices as a physician or lawyer. And definitely no wooden spoons (for hitting little hands) allowed in the house!

Unlike Chua, I didn’t think my parent’s legalistic cultivation was a gift.  American born and rebellious against my parent’s customs, I proudly resisted anything Eastern or Chinese.

We showered Kyra with kisses and hugs and constantly told her we were proud of her.  We let her watch her favorite cartoons.  When she talked about the future, we said she could do anything she wanted.  I even told Thomas, I would be thrilled if she became a professional snowboarder!  By three, she had settled on becoming a race car driver and that is still her number one choice today.

Meanwhile, she blossomed in academics, outdoor sports, art, music, and picked up languages intuitively.  Hey, the Western style of parenting is working, I thought.

Until, my best friend started to ask me questions.  Michelle is a Head Start Preschool teacher, pursuing a master’s in Early Childhood Education.  Lately, she’s been interviewing me for an assignment on how culture influences parenting techniques.

“So do you think academics is more important or art?” she asked me over the phone as I waited in the hall for Kyra to be dismissed from her after school Chinese program.

“Well, both!”

“No, you have to pick one,” she giggled.  “I want to see how well you know yourself.”

When I didn’t answer, she nudged me further.  “Think about what Kyra does to please you.”

We’ve known each other since four years of age, so instinctively I knew that Michelle was teasing me about our dinner last month at a Chinese restaurant.  Just after tea was poured, Kyra announced to the whole table that she wanted to do her workbook.  With my dad, aunties, uncles, and Michelle’s parents beaming at her, she pulled out a math workbook from her backpack and started to wow her audience with additions and subtractions at levels well beyond her age.  Embarrassed, I tried to distract her with my iPhone.  “Here, why don’t you play a game?”

After a few minutes of “screen time,” she nudged my aunt sitting to her right, handed her my iPhone and said, “Pass this around.”

Soon the whole table shouted praises: “Kyra, you are so smart.  You are writing sentences already? You know how to use notepad? How old are you?”

“Okay, fine!” I paced furiously in the hall.  “She pleases me with academics.  However, I want you to know that we’ve also enrolled her in swimming and ballet and I started teaching her piano.”

She laughed.  “That’s good!  I just wanted you to see if you knew that sometimes your parenting reminds me of your mother.  But, don’t worry, you are a great mom.”

My ears burned and I nearly dropped the phone.  Am I unknowingly slipping into my traditional Eastern upbringing?  Wait, let me explain why Kyra had a math workbook in her backpack.  Her preschool teacher had recommended her for the gifted program and I heard from other parents that these books would help her feel more comfortable with the entrance exams.

Then Michelle asked, “Next question, are you going to force her to practice piano a certain number of hours a day like your mom?”

“No,” I said heatedly. “I don’t know.  I gotta go.”

Before I had a chance to think about her question, Kyra’s Chinese school teacher let out the class and approached me.  “I was wondering if you could play the piano for our Chinese New Year concert.”

She did not wait for an answer, but hurried me into the classroom and asked Kyra and the other girls from the class to rehearse lines from the Feng Yang Flower Drum song.  While they danced and waved drumsticks above their heads, the teacher described the introduction, conclusion, and transitions she needed me to compose.  Kyra repeatedly threw her arms around me and hugged me hard.

I guess I had my mom to thank for starting me in piano lessons at the age of four and pushing me to perform and compete.  Now, I could do something for my daughter that not many other parents could.  I didn’t turn out that bad, did I