Seven-month update: Shepherding season

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The best things in life come in small packages: Sophia meets Santa for the first time! Santa happened to be a fellow Darden alum from 2012.

As Sophia pushes the limits of exploration with learning how to stand and reach as well as crawling with more rapidity, we have ironically started to stay closer to home. We’ve decided to stay in town for the holidays as Michal doesn’t have time off for Christmas or New Year’s.

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Tis the Season: Browsing at the annual Christmas decorations market at Express Bus Terminal with our friend Jin whose husband is a Darden alum.

For the first time since Sophia’s arrival seven months ago, we have no visitors who can accompany us on “tourist in our town” adventures and no travel plans. With winter, daylight grows shorter and temperatures are beginning to drop. In her recent developmental stage, morning and afternoon nap times are (stubbornly) established and, with that, sleep preferences relating to lighting, sound and crib are becoming habit.

How do we manage the big leap from peaceful, easy-going infant to active, opinionated toddler?

The past month has been harder for us in different ways than the first three months were with Sophia.

Pluses of the toddler stage:

  • More independence means I can give her a cracker (a dissolve-able one she can gum), a piece of apple (in a mesh holder), or even her bottle and she can feed herself
  • More curiosity means she focuses on details and learns how objects work, entertaining herself with anything from banging pots to climbing into a box
  • More interaction means she plays with other babies as well as listens to bedtime stories, holding hands with others and trying to flip pages in a book. By the way, Sophia now only sleeps well (both with naps during daytime and her longer sleep during nighttime) if she uses up all her energy by playing a lot and has multiple opportunities to practice whatever skill she has recently mastered. I try to schedule some sort of activity or play date for her every day along with an afternoon walk, so it helps to have friends who have babies of the same close age range.
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Baby BFFs: Sophia greets a friend at a special baby exercise class. We met the parents in a childbirth class, and I have been in other groups with mom and baby (prenatal yoga, mommy and baby yoga, mommy and baby Bible study, community center play group).

Minuses of the toddler stage:

  • We can’t seem to keep up with baby-proofing as we started by padding corners and locking drawers, discovering how danger lurks literally around every corner with sharp edges and hard flooring. Therefore, we stopped putting padding on everything and have given her a helmet. (See below.)
  • We’ve stopped hyper-sanitizing and vigilantly re-washing items when in our house as everything (toys, pacifiers, spoons) seem to land on the floor, and she wants to put everything in her mouth. At least all our trash cans are locked away in a separate room. #newparenthack
  • When we’re low energy, such as when Michal and I both had colds earlier this month or when we just wanted to be lazy on a Sunday afternoon, we had no choice but to trade off who would chase around Sophia as she was on-the-go.

The status of our current household so closely mimics that of a recent devotional I read on the website She Reads Truth, which my mommy and baby Bible study group is currently reading and discussing. The devotional is part of a series relating to Advent Season and last week focused on the job of a priest, building up to Christ as our “perfect priest.”

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Gift exchange: Exchanging gifts with her pal from our Mommy and Baby Bible Study.

“A priest cares for the spiritual lives of the people.

The job of a priest in the Old Testament was to read the spiritual posture of God’s people and attend to their fears and sorrows. Priests called the people to see themselves as they really were—needy but loved, frail but protected, prone to wander but kept.”

The blogger’s metaphor really hit home as she compared a mother watching her very active twin toddlers to that of a shepherd keeping his flock:

“The truth was I’d underestimated how difficult it would be to simply keep my boys near me—to keep them in the fold, so to speak […] I felt like a lifeguard, always on duty, always scanning the room or yard or park for those two little blonde heads […] God’s priests in the Old Testament knew well the work of keeping their sheep within the fold. Shepherding was part of their job—not sheep, of course, but hearts. “

In my recent exhaustion, frustration and anxiety of guiding and watching Sophia, I see what it is like for God to watch us, His children. Just like Sophia and the blogger’s twins, I see myself having often wandered off, distracted by what the world puts in my way as obstacles in my path. Sometimes this can be the case of a time-waster like the black hole of Facebook, or it could be impatience with my husband at the end of a frazzled day, or jealousy of peers with the ability to take advantage of a night out on the town on a whim.

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Sophia stands! She learned how to stand after grabbing for a book on the couch.

As a mother, just like God our Father, I tend to let Sophia explore on her own and let her learn how to struggle a bit. (She started regularly pushing herself up to standing position on her own last week!) Similarly, the trials of life and tests of faith, whether small or big, make me a stronger person like our little Sophia has become.

This particular devotional blog post within the Bible study group I’ve recently joined, along with the preparation for and anticipation of Christmas with Advent Season, have been the reminders I’ve needed from God to “come back to the fold.” In this quiet self-reflection time paired with the scattered activity inherent of life as a new mom, I see how both Sophia and I are”needy but loved, frail but protected, prone to wander but kept.”

Wishing a happy Advent Season to all!

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Six-month update: Growing awareness of the world

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Sunday Funday for the Family: Autumn Afternoon Tea at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul

In light of the current U.S. presidential election season and results, and in tandem with our expat life, I’ve been wondering more about what it will be like for Sophia to develop her identity in America as a biracial woman, daughter to a Polish immigrant father and a second-generation Filipino mother.

I hope that at least some cultural customs will be passed down and not all will be lost as she grows up farther away from the origin of her ancestries and in what seems like will be a less accepting environment. In the times we live in now, it seems like cultivating this multi-faceted identity could be more of a challenge than how her parents managed in the past.

Flash back to almost a decade ago to a moment in my and Michal’s relationship that gives this identity a bit more context: When Michal and I were dating in undergrad, a campus tour guide was relating Johnny Appleseed to the botanical gardens at MSU. She took time to explain to me specifically, pointing out that I wouldn’t recognize this iconic American folklore because she assumed I didn’t grow up in America.

This really bothered us, especially me, as irony would have it that Michal, the white American male, is actually the one (not me!) who was born and grew up in another country, having immigrated to the Detroit area when he was 8 years old. This type of assumption of me as an unaware foreigner has taken shape in other forms in my lifetime.

For example, people will ask me where I’m from and I always reply with “metro Detroit,” and then they look at me incredulously and ask a second time, or they praise my communication skills thinking I learned English as a second language. (Again, as irony would have it, Michal did not know a word of English when he moved to the States. Whereas, my parents never even taught me their native country’s language because they feared I would get confused or speak with an accent.)

I’ve swept away these misunderstandings over time, maybe not even truly recognizing these interactions as racism or prejudice because these annoyances didn’t feel maliciously overt or didn’t seem to be life-changing experiences. And as Michal and I lived in more areas of the world, befriending a diverse group of open-minded and culturally aware people, we built a bubble around us that I didn’t quite realize existed until living as expats in Korea.

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Baby Boo Brunch: For Sophia’s first Halloween, we had a party with our expat neighbors. She was a bit cranky in this photo but had fun crawling around as a sea turtle.

As an American here, I have inherently become something of a “representative” within the numerous conversations I’ve had with expats from around the world and locals from Korea about our home country’s politics. Common questions from everyone around me including fellow moms in a play group, my house keeper, taxi drivers and my doctor are: “What do you really think of President-Elect Donald Trump? How could your country elect someone like him? How does the result affect your future plans as an expat?”

With that said, I have also found commonalities in the corruption and failings of various governmental systems among my fellow expats (e.g. controversial Brexit, president-condoned vigilante killing in the Philippines, the Korean president’s secret advisers). So the big question: “Where do we go next?” is truly on many more minds than ours. Do we all continue to flee – continue living in this expat bubble?

A friend of mine I know through the Darden Partners Association at the University of Virginia eloquently encapsulated the one action I certainly wanted to pursue no matter where we are living, even in my current disillusioned and perplexed state of our home country. Cathryn’s Facebook status struck a chord with me as a mother to a newborn daughter. She describes the following reaction, referencing First Lady Michelle Obama:

I am sick at the thought of him as not only my president, but more importantly, my daughter’s president. There isn’t anything I can do to change the results, but there is one thing I can do:

I will raise my daughter to be a kind, compassionate and loving human being. I will raise her to respect everyone, no matter what they look like, where they come from, who they love, or what religion they choose to follow (or not follow). I will teach her that our differences are what make us beautiful. I will teach her about consent. I will teach her how to use her voice.

When they go low, we will go high. I will raise her to be the antithesis of Trump. I find solace in knowing that many of my like-minded friends will do the same.

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Snuggle bunny: Sophia is ready to brave the cold fall weather with her hooded onesie.

In addition, Michal and I will raise our Sophia to understand what the “American Dream” made possible for her family. Her grandparents on both sides overcame much adversity and ultimately created new and better lives despite humble beginnings in their native countries. Her parents, both individually and as a couple, have disproved stereotypes and assumptions.

As I read social media updates from colleagues working in education, social justice and media in the United States, those who are working tirelessly in giving voice to the voiceless, I gather hope for my daughter’s and our country’s future.

In particular, this informative and inspiring blog post from my friend Kaitlyn who I met at St. John Student Parish at MSU is extremely helpful in describing how to take practical action with what to do next in reaction to the recent election results.

I envision that Sophia will also advocate for inclusiveness, with an understanding and appreciation for diversity. In turn, others will value her strength, compassion and intellect, rather than focus on her image, her gender or her race.

And on that note, here’s a quick update on Sophia’s current developmental milestones in her six month:

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Screeching at the top of her lungs!
  • She is exploring more of her voice: She has a new sound for protesting or complaining – a high-pitched, prolonged screech similar to a bird squawking.
  • She is building her arm muscles: She can push herself up to sitting position and launches herself at objects that she wants that are not quite within her reach.
  • She is more observant of what adults prefer and do: She reaches for my water bottle, grabs at Michal’s watch, wants to try food on our plate. (We give her bits and pieces that are easy to digest like mashed potato and squash.)
  • She is generally more inquisitive and interactive with the world: We’ve put her in the front-facing position in her carrier and stroller as she has mastered head control and sits up easily. She loves watching action around her – whether sitting at a restaurant, or during walks through the city’s busy streets.

Five-month update: More mobility and QT with the BFF

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Selfie at Gyeongbokgung Palace 

Highlights of Sophia’s development in her fifth month:

Sophia continued her cognitive and physical developments this month with incredible energy (ironically) as Michal and I were bleary-eyed (yet excited) due to either of us being ill and/or managing an unpredictable sleep schedule.

  • She has gone from hating being on her tummy in her fourth month to loving it in her fifth month, constantly rolling like a bottle downhill. However, she struggles with wanting to crawl as she gets on all-fours but isn’t sure how to move next.
  • She holds and grabs with more intention, especially with her pacifier and bottle.
  • She is more aware of the details in the world around her, recently growing obsessed with the tags on toys or clothes.
  • She is starting to have regular giggle fits when we tickle her tummy or toes.
  • She has shown interest in eating some solids like mashed up banana.

Having Esther, one of my best friends who I have known since high school, visit me for an extended period of time during this fifth month was such a blessing. Sophia is still not sleeping well, waking three to four times through the night with inconsistent nap times during the day. It didn’t help that we suffered from jet lag for a while after returning from the States, plus everyone in our home had some form of illness at different points throughout the past month.

Highlights of sightseeing in Seoul with Esther in October

I am so grateful Esther was willing to become a third parent to Sophia while in Seoul. She endured the 14-hour flight from Detroit to Seoul and helped me get Sophia to sleep in her bassinet, went to the hospital with me while Michal was at work and Sophia had a fever, got up early each morning to play with Sophia while I showered and ate breakfast each day, taught a mommy and baby yoga class for Sophia and our friends, and even baby sat for us while Michal and I had a date night. This was a level of loyalty and generosity I could never repay.

Michal, Sophia and I had a lot of fun exploring the city with her, and we had a whole new perspective as Esther’s knowledge of Korean really enlightened us. For example, one day two older women on the subway spoke to Esther in Korean about Sophia. I assumed they were probably chastising me that she was too cold or too small, as I had heard others tell me in the past.

In contrast, the women were gushing over Sophia’s eyes – at how they twinkle and at how looking at her made them feel happy and young, and that they wished Sophia a lifetime of joy.

Esther even added that this was a rough translation and that their sentiments sounded even more beautiful and meaningful in Korean.

All in all, we packed a lot of activity into our days and nights, being tourists in our own town and discovering so much more beyond our fav spots. Our time together generally consisted of:

On the other hand, we were also were able to just relax in our home when one or more of us in the household was sick, tired – or both. The three-week visit reminded me of the two years Esther and I had as roommates back in undergrad, complete with binge watching TV shows (now hooked on “Breaking Bad”), ordering tons of delivery and pulling those dreaded “all-nighters.”

Pressing the pause button on the present

During some downtime on her visit, we listened to a podcast of a homily from the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Michal and I used to attend before moving to Seoul while he was in business school. The pastor addressed the age-old dilemma of the need to focus on being content with the present, rather than dwell on the past or constantly yearn for more. He wisely said:

“God is here in this moment, with all its light and darkness, with all its pain and joy […] Scripture says there is an appointed time for everything […] Living in faith can be as small as living in the now.”

Esther related to this concept with her yoga practice: the act of concentrating on her breath, clearing her mind and setting an intention at the beginning of a session.

We all saw how Sophia’s current life easily adapts to this mentality, one that is so difficult for us as a adults. Having a child at infant stage is a consistent reminder of this life lesson. Babies are not thinking about the past or the future, but about the present and expressing their immediate desires: I am hungry now. I am sleepy now. I want to play now. Their constant movement and growth keeps us from lingering too much.

I’m excited to see her grow up but also cherishing her innocence and simplicity in her life at this moment. I wish to only “live in the now” just like sweet Sophia.

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On the plane from Detroit to Seoul with Auntie Esther right before take-off

Our first family home leave trip:

Living in the “in-between”

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So much history in one spot: The place where we met (2006), got engaged (2010) and got married (2011).

 

After returning from my first home leave trip since moving abroad, I’ve felt like I’m living in some “in-between” space, as I’m not sure what to call “home” anymore. For some time, especially after having my daughter, I thought I was “homesick.” But my feelings seem to be more about being “timesick” as I’ve realized how I haven’t so much missed a specific place but a specific time in my life when certain groups of people were in it.

Mixing past with the present at MSU

While home in Michigan, I met up with a former student I taught in journalism classes when she was a junior and senior in high school in the Chicago suburbs. She is now a senior at my undergrad alma mater, Michigan State.

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Cannot believe my former student is an official adult!

The meet-up was like an Inception of flashbacks mirroring several points in my life: the time I was a teacher/newspaper adviser at my first job after undergrad, the time when I turned 21 years old and could drink legally as we met at the legendary Peanut Barrel bar and restaurant in East Lansing, the time I similarly reunited with my former high school newspaper adviser at Michigan State (as she was alumna too) during a tailgate and she brought her infant daughter (as I did during my meet-up with my former student).

So many versions of myself overlapped into this one moment. I felt proud for my former student to have seen her grow up into a mature and ambitious woman especially in contrast to how immature and uncertain I was in my identity and career path when I had met up with my former high school teacher at her age.

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On the Red Cedar River: Esther and I have known each other for more than 15 years since we were on our high school newspaper together. We were college roommates, as well as co-workers at our newspaper at MSU.

While visiting MSU, Michal and I (along with Esther, my best friend from high school/college) toured around campus with Sophia in her stroller, going back to spots like our first date location at the Union and where we met/got engaged/got married at St. John Student Parish. This October, it will have been a decade since the day Michal and I started our relationship, so to return to these spots with a child and seeing current college kids around our age was surreal. How did we get so old? Ten years ago, I would have never imagined having the life that we have now!

Sophia steals the show with family and friends

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So grateful my friend Clare of more than 15 years organized a BBQ for our group of friends from high school. The next generation of our group is growing!

During our home leave, we had significant events lined up like Sophia’s baptism, a family friend’s wedding and Michal’s best friend’s wedding. Not to mention, our friends from college and high school held events like dinner parties and BBQs in honor of our short homecoming. Through all of these fun times, we saw everyone we loved from our circle in Michigan and introduced them to our sweet Sophia.

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Michal’s old college roommate, Danny, and his wife Nancy hosted a dinner party for our circle of friends from undergrad. My cousin April surprised me with a birthday cake. (Sophia was already asleep in her car seat/stroller at this point.) 

It is such a blessing to see grandparents with their grandchild. My mother especially seems to live for Sophia. Sophia’s godparents are our best friends who attended MSU and SJSP with us, my cousin April and her husband Jake, and they relished every opportunity to spend with her. Both Michal and I have strong networks of family friends in our respective ethnic communities within the Detroit area. Both of us have kept in touch with friends in metro Detroit, especially our mutual friends from church and college. With all these ties to Michigan, we have begun considering what it would be like to return to the area, after the decade we have been away.

Former and/or future home?

For a time, I didn’t think of a more long-term homecoming as a possibility. I’ve enjoyed living in and exploring new cities after college and wasn’t too keen on reliving my past. Metro Detroit and Detroit proper had changed in a lot of ways through my lifetime . I grew up in the heyday of Troy, Mich. when it used to be the headquarters of Kmart and when Detroit was proudly reaping the benefits of being Motor City. After high school, an era began when businesses lay vacant and countless homes were going unsold. In fact, my childhood home will soon be entering the market.

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Our family and friends on the Filipino side at Sophia’s baptism.

To see it empty – my former home of more than 25 years, a place that symbolized the American dream for my family as my parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines and moved from a Detroit apartment to the suburbs, conjured up feelings of the past – of possibility. When we first moved into this home, I remember dancing around the living room thinking how there was so much space to play. But like any home, there are feelings of heartache paired with those happy memories. As a 31-year-old adult who celebrated her recent birthday in this home, I am looking forward to my parents selling the house in order to let go of what has become a burden to maintain in their age, and I am glad I got to see it one more time to have some closure.

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Our family and friends on the Polish side at Sophia’s baptism.

One year ago when we moved to Seoul to begin our expat adventures, I wrote a bit about the concept of home based on the adage “Home is where the heart is.” Yet, another saying that comes to mind with this blog post is “You can ‘t go home again” because past times can never be as fulfilling as they initially were. In my recent visit to my former home after much time living in other parts of the U.S. and the world, I have discovered what you can do instead:

You can create a new home again in the same place that once was.

I have seen this happen in the continual resurgence of Detroit as it seems more and more revitalized with hip restaurants, bars, breweries and other business each time we visit. I have seen this in the hope and joy within grandparents’ eyes has they play with their grandchild for the first time. I have seen this in friendships that have not only stood the test of time but have actually thrived through distance and difference in lifestyles.

Michal and I aren’t sure what’s next for us, but we are trusting in God’s promise and plan, whether it will be the place where we came from or some place farther away.

Four-month update: Flurry of activity

Good morning: Sophia is awake and on her tummy!
Good morning: Sophia is awake and on her tummy!

True to the title: This blog post comes a few weeks late because we’ve been busy with a packed schedule of events in the U.S. and Canada! Not to mention, our little one is keeping us on our toes with her sudden bursts of action.

Michal and I had Sophia’s baptism, festivities related to two weddings (one in Detroit and one in Creemore, Ontario), three birthdays within immediate family (including my own) and several reunions with friends and family in the area as it is the first trip for me back home since moving to Seoul and obviously the first time many have met our daughter. (More on the blog later about our first home leave as a family.)

The jet lag that naturally comes with the 13-hour time zone difference, in addition to the fatigue of a 12-hour flight (Seoul to Detroit) with an infant combined for an initial exhausting adjustment period. But let’s not forget the fact that Sophia is going through her four-month sleep regression.

How do we cope with one of the most difficult sleep regressions and major developmental periods of an infant’s life?

Let me preface the rest of this blog post by saying: We have taken an alternative route that would cause anxiety for most, but it worked for us with our lifestyle as an expat family not wanting to miss out on any important event while home. (Can you say FOMO?) We went with the flow by letting baby set the feeding/sleeping schedule, while simultaneously instituting an upheaval of our daily routines.

Return to undergrad alma mater: Chilling in her car seat by the Red Cedar River in East Lansing.
Return to undergrad alma mater: Chilling in her car seat by the Red Cedar River in East Lansing.

This past month’s active travel and social schedule distracted ourselves from exhaustion as well as incorporated free baby-sitting and new stimulation for Sophia through the day. We haven’t spent more than four nights in a row in one place for the past three weeks! If this were the case with just me and Michal as primary care-givers, like our Bali vacation, the nomadic lifestyle would have been impossible. However, we’re surrounded by so many different family members and friends who have been dying to hold and play with her. Michal and I even fell asleep early at Sophia’s baptism reception/party while everyone entertained her and eventually put her to bed.

The dreaded four-month sleep regression hit us just when we were settling into a routine and feeling like we finally got a handle on parenting. We originally had split nighttime duty so that Michal bottle-fed pumped breast milk for her final feeding before longer sleep while I would go to bed early and then get up early to nurse her when she would wake up around 4 a.m. Sophia would then fall back asleep until right before Michal would leave for work and get her up and ready for the day in time for me to take over.

A lot happens at four months old to completely throw off prior routines:

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Eating her hand at a water park in Blue Mountain ski resort, Ontario.
  • Sophia has learned to roll over from back to tummy easily but going from tummy to back is still difficult, which makes sleeping through the night almost impossible now as she wakes herself up every couple hours when she finds herself in an uncomfortable position she can’t get out of. We were so surprised when waking up the next day after our flight to see her on her stomach with wide eyes looking up at us.
  • She is distracted by everything and everyone around her making it more difficult to nurse her. She will look at me with curiosity while I eat or drink (no more multi-tasking) but then she gets upset when she realizes she is hungry. I discovered the nursing cover is really more for her than me at this point!
  • She has more motor control as she grabs with more ferocity and sometimes with intention. My hair has already been falling out in clumps due to hormonal changes with breastfeeding but now I must put my hair in a ponytail any time I’m holding or playing with her. She also will take out her pacifier but hasn’t quite mastered putting it back in her mouth when she wants it.
  • She has exercised more vocal chords as she has seemed to be exploring what her voice can do. In the beginning of the fourth month, she made a funny sound by blowing through her lips. Now in the middle of the month, she seems to screech more and has started giggling at opportune times.
  • She seemed to have started teething as she is drooling a lot and putting everything in her mouth including my hand, my chin, her hands and toys.
  • She became super clingy with mom and dad for a short-lived period of time. While touring around Toronto after one wedding, we had been switching off carrying her in the Ergo. After my and Michal’s turns, our friend Pawel offered to carry her and she immediately cried when going to him. It was a definite change in behavior and temperament when just a week before she had been fine when being passed around so many times at her baptism that it was like playing hot potato. We joked that Pawel probably needed to shower more, but we’re certain Sophia just needed familiarity during the most “stormy period.” Check out the helpful Wonder Weeks app and book (suggested by my prenatal/mommy and baby yoga instructor) that describes all developmental leaps and how to interact with baby during them.
Strolling around Toronto Island, Sophia is asleep in the Ergo carrier.
Strolling around Toronto Island, Sophia is asleep in the Ergo carrier.

At this point, we’re in a more settled point of our home leave as we are residing at my parents’ house for longer and she is seeming to be less fussy. However, nighttime is still a struggle because I’m up solo with her as Michal has returned to Seoul before us for work. (More on how to handle long flights and drives with baby in a future blog post.)

If you have any advice for me on how to manage the four-month sleep regression, specifically with the tummy time troubles, please share!

Baby in Bali:

The Ups and Downs of Our First International Family Vacation

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Photo credit to Conrad resort in Bali on Nusa Dua Beach – In the lobby gardens

In the midst of our tropical paradise vacation last week, Michal and I found ourselves more stressed and exhausted than we were before leaving. Ironically, we were not overwhelmed because of our three-and-half-month-old child, but because of ourselves.

Sophia inexplicably slept the most soundly we’ve ever seen her sleep when we were on holiday in Bali, Indonesia. She fell asleep quickly – not needing any of the usual help rocking or swaying, and she slept straight through the night every night. We’re not sure if we can attribute the calm to the serene surroundings, the clean air quality, or the time in her development.

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Balcony view at the Conrad resort overlooked pool and ocean.

Her sleepiness could have been due to the over-stimulation of her senses: the persistent sounds of nature with the crashing waves and the croaking of frogs and crickets, the vivid sapphire blue of the Indian Ocean and verdant green rice terraces, the variety in textures from the grainy sand to lush grass.

Looking back on it now, Michal and I should have followed her cues from the beginning with how to handle this first big international trip as a family by simply taking in the beauty of Bali and relaxing in God’s glory. Michal and I were instead busy with taking this time of respite for granted.

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Balcony view at our resort in Ubud overlooked rice terraces.

In the time of B.B., we would tackle extensive jaunts abroad with a To-Do list that rivaled agendas we had at the office as we would research reviews and gather tips on TripAdvisor and Yelp as well as read guides like Frommer’s and Lonely Planet.  We wanted to make the long flight worth our time and money by visiting every historic landmark, trendy bar and hip restaurant. We would stay out all night and still try to get up early, as we were running on adrenaline fueled by our wanderlust.

For example, I remember one night back in 2013 when traveling Cambodia when we befriended a British bloke who had recently broken up with his girlfriend back home and was set on drinking everything in sight with me and Michal as his entourage. We ended up bar hopping all night despite having a packed schedule during the day with a reserved tour guide who would to take us around the temples. It was all about seizing the moment and not wanting to miss out on anything.

In general, logistics get complicated when keeping in mind what to do with a baby vs. without when baby stays with sitter/nanny or at daycare. During our trip, we invested a lot of time categorizing activities in either column, and then prioritizing what was most important in case we ran out of time, and then lastly making the appropriate arrangements/reservations.

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Drinks at the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak

We had planned on one day with a baby sitter while at the beach so we would do all the activities we couldn’t do with baby: Rent a scooter and venture around Seminyak area (more known for its nightlife and party atmosphere), eat dinner at a romantic restaurant, get drinks at a posh beach club.

Truth be told: After all this work, I was mentally drained and generally tired from being a new mom, so I wanted to throw it all out and just stay at our first location for the night, ordering another round of appetizers and chilling until the sun set on the beach. Michal had other expectations and a lot more energy for the day and night. Needless to say, I wasn’t very articulate in expressing my perspective and he wasn’t ready to slow down, so we both ended up disgruntled and slightly disappointed with how the day unfolded.

The best days we had on the trip were when we didn’t plan much of anything except a starting point and we just went with whatever presented itself. Sophia was miraculously pleased by our side the whole time.

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Nusa Dua Beach in front of St. Regis

Nusa Dua Beach: We had brunch at another resort for variety’s sake – the St. Regis, savoring our Luwak coffee alongside a smoked salmon sandwich and poached egg and pancetta salad. Walking around the resort, we discovered a turtle conservation area and were in awe of the many tiny baby turtles. Then, we took a dip in the most beautiful stretch of the beach with its crystal clear blue water and soft white sand. With its calm coast and shallow depth, it was very comfortable for us to hold Sophia while the gentle waves rolled over us.

 

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Trekking rice terraces in Ubud near the Puri Sebali Resort

Ubud: We trekked through nearby rice terraces surrounding our resort and then wandered through the monkey forest. We had lunch at a vegan cafe that had large sofa-like benches for Sophia to stretch out on. And then we did a hike along the Campuhan Ridge at sunset. With its moderate inclines and mostly paved path, it was manageable with Sophia.

Sophia slept through most of the walking while we wore her in the carrier. When she wasn’t sleeping, she was looking around with curiosity at all the sights. We were surprised at not only how calm she was but how alert.

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Pampered at the Conrad

Bali itself turned out to be very baby friendly. Balinese people were extra interested with her and enjoyed meeting her and even offered to carry her while we dined at certain places. Resorts are generally accommodating to families, but on another level in Bali.

For example: At the Conrad in Nusa Dua, our room was equipped with a baby bed, baby toiletries, diapers, a bottle sterilizer and a bottle warmer.

The least stressful parts of the trip were when we stopped worrying about our lists, reviews, maps and plans. It was yet another reminder of the overall theme of this blog – Proverbs 16:9. On our next journey, we will keep in mind that the point of a vacation is to relax, and that true joy is in being content with what we have rather than stress about what we could be doing or what we are missing out on.

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Photo credit to Conrad resort in Bali – View from lobby overlooking pool and ocean

100 days update:

On honoring (and breaking) Korean tradition

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We did our “100 Days” photo shoot in Namsan Park with Maitri Photography.

In stark contrast to the Korean tradition of keeping children indoors until 100 days old, Michal and I went for a walk along the Han River with Sophia napping in her stroller six days after giving birth.

With its flat terrain, paved path and scenic green areas, it was the perfect baby-friendly, relaxing outing we needed after being cooped up in the birthing center for five days.

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On our first walk along the Han River at six days old. We took her out of the stroller just for the photo.

The meaning behind the 100 days tradition dates back to when the infant mortality rate for the country was high. Those babies who lived to 100 days survived and thrived afterward. In a way, celebrating 100 days in Korea was more momentous than celebrating the first birthday.

So it’s understandable that my husband and I received quite a few surprised reactions and inquisitive responses while out and about with Sophia pre-100 days: How old is she? How are you feeling? Should you be walking? Shouldn’t you both be at home? Isn’t she cold?

The most memorable comments we have gotten in Korea with our little one were from an elderly couple at the Grand Hyatt. The couple had never seen a baby that small in person, let alone out in public, and exclaimed how she looked as tiny as a doll so they just had to take a photo. In fact, they asked to take several photos with Sophia and her father.

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Sophia fell asleep just before our bingsu dessert came to our table at the Grand Hyatt.

Furthermore, new mothers in Korea typically recover at home for the first few weeks after giving birth or stay in post-partum care centers, where they are able to receive a variety of support that could include lactation consultants, yoga instructors and massage therapists.

Michal and I decided to forego this option as my mother was coming into town shortly after Sophia’s arrival. Private nanny and cleaning services are also very affordable in Korea, at a going rate of 10,000 won (about $10) per hour, so we decided to invest in this option as additional support during those first crucial months.

In relation, I remember reading a blog post by a mother in the U.S. about what those first 100 days are like. She called them the “Dark Days” because of how difficult they were for the mother and father to have to adjust to a “new normal.” Those fragile, frantic first weeks of absolute sleeplessness and uncertainty paired with post-partum recovery are now past us.

Looking back at the past 100 days, I’ve seen Sophia grow stronger and more independent. She’s becoming her own little personality with preferences and dislikes. And with each day, Michal and I have grown more and more adventurous with our baby outings – pushing ourselves beyond expectations I originally had for our new family life.

In the era of B.B. (before baby), as a newly married couple five years ago, Michal and I thought to delay starting our family in favor of more travel, independence and leisure. After years of repeated interrogation, friends and family were excited to hear we decided to start trying. And the grandparents couldn’t have been happier for Sophia’s arrival (yet saddened as she is so far from them in the States).

Our wanderlust didn’t end since getting pregnant and having a baby. This shared desire to explore and experience new cultures is an integral part of the foundation of our relationship. So in the time that I was pregnant, we traveled around Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

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My favorite part of our travels through Kyoto and Osaka was “Philosopher’s Walk” when we visited numerous serene temples and gardens.

In recent and coming months, Sophia will have been on a plane three times – jet setting to Jeju-do, Bali and Detroit, Mich. In Seoul, we started with those easy strolls along the Han and moved up to strapping her into a carrier or wrap while hiking around Namsan.

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Our first activity together during Michal’s parents’ visit in Seoul: Hiking around Namsan (mountain). Sophia fell asleep quickly in the carrier.

Ironically for us, as a recent Washington Post column states “The adventure doesn’t have to stop” with a baby.

Being at home with just us in the nursery is where Sophia sleeps the least soundly. She needs movement, white noise, body warmth (as recommended by Dr. Harvey Karp in his book Happiest Baby on the Block). Therefore, why not give her all of this in a natural environment? Sophia falls asleep quickly and sleeps the longest on walks and hikes. She even sleeps fairly well in a her car seat at a crowded restaurant.

I wholeheartedly agree with the WaPost column: At this early age, now is the time to venture out while baby and bags are lighter. She doesn’t need toys as she is entertained with the ambient noise and color of nature, nor does she need snacks as she is solely breastfeeding.

In addition, the majority of airlines either do not charge her fare or require a fraction of the original amount for a seat. Most resorts provide baby bassinets. In Korea specifically, we have found a number of nursing rooms in malls, on cruise ships and at nature centers.

The days when I would just stay indoors at home with her, I found myself going stir crazy as it was like I was living my own version of the film Groundhog’s Day. The routine of nurse-play-sleep on repeat every two hours became tiresome for both Sophia and me as she has gotten older and grown bored of what I could offer her as entertainment in our home.

Michal and I can’t help but notice how interested Sophia is in the world around her, with her alert and inquisitive eyes darting around the room and following any new face or brightly colored object. My mother-in-law, in particular, can have full length conversations with Sophia through cooing, mimicking pitch and tone. And our osteopath, along with friends and family who meet her, have witnessed her constant action – flipping from her tummy to her back, consistently kicking and wanting to stand (with assistance) instead of sit in our laps.

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Tummy time!

Sophia’s voracious curiosity, fluid activity and insatiable desire for noise and interaction have inspired Michal and I to keep going and moving with her by our side.

We have emerged from these past 100 days with a newfound motivation to keep up this expat lifestyle. Thank you Sophia for showing us another way to live our “new normal,” and congratulations on your 100 days!

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To celebrate her 100 days, we did a cruise on the Han River. The Banpo Bridge Water and Light Show is in the background.

Cheers to the years:

A recap of our craft beer bar crawl in honor of our five-year wedding anniversary

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Our first and favorite stop: Pong Dang

If you know Michal and I, you know we enjoy a good beer. In fact, we would rather toast to our five-year wedding anniversary with a craft brew than a fine glass of wine or champagne.

So for this milestone wedding anniversary, smack dab in the middle of a super sticky summer in Seoul and about three months after having given birth, we thought it was perfect timing for a craft beer bar crawl.

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We got a baby sitter for the whole day and traded in the usual bar crawl T-shirts for a snazzy matching couple outfit we found on Gmarket (Korea’s equivalent to Amazon), ala Korean style.

We ventured back to Sinsa-dong where we visited Mikkeller last year because there were a bunch of craft beer spots we recently discovered on a helpful map compiled by the Seoul Brew Club.

With each beer, we cheered to a significant memory of our marriage. Although we ran out time, we didn’t run out of beer choices – and we certainly didn’t run out of memories.

The following describes our bar crawl experience by sharing the special moment from our relationship we reminisced, along with our thoughts on the beer, food and ambiance of each microbrewery or pub we visited.

First stop: Pong Dang

The memory we toasted to: Our sweet Sophia

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She’s wearing our wedding colors!

How could we not start by toasting to our darling daughter? I recently was telling a group of my preggo pals in Seoul about how I thought I could have never loved my husband more than I already had – until the day our daughter was born.

I was determined to give birth without medical interventions, so I was impressed and in awe that through all the pain and messiness of labor and delivery, Michal not only stood by me but helped me through each position and exercise (even climbing 11 flights of stairs with me twice in order to help move the baby down).

The beer we tried: Bold brews
Wide selection of beer brewed in-house but unfortunately flights were not an option. Michal had the nitro breakfast stout and I had the sour ale. I loved mine as it was especially tart but not mouth-puckering. I had a generous taste of his nitro and enjoyed the overall rich flavor, velvety mouth-feel and chocolate undertones.

The food we wished we tried: Skewers and sausages
We had just eaten a multiple course lunch at Si Wha Dam, so we opted out of getting food but regretted it later as it seemed like Pongdang had the best options for what we like to eat when we drink yet the food was still unique to the culture of the country (e.g. a variety of meat skewers and sausage platters).

The atmosphere we had fun with: Hipster haven
More like what we’ve seen in the U.S. at microbreweries. We had some fun tinkering around on the retro video game machines operated by coin, but were disappointed when one ate our money and didn’t work.

Second stop: Vincent Van Golo

The memory we toasted to: The beginning of our globe trotting days

Alright, this one goes back in time before we were married – the summer we backpacked through Italy and France after we graduated from MSU. It was the moment we knew we loved each other and were invested for the long haul.

We both thought the trip was a test for us because during our couple years of dating prior in undergrad we had never done any sort of vacation together as a trial run, not even a short road trip. But thankfully, we ended up having the time of our lives!

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(2008) In the gardens of Versailles – We ended up exploring the grounds long after all other tourists left.

From being in the Pope’s private audience in Rome and getting an umbrella blessed by him (unfortunate we didn’t have anything else on us to bring to the altar) to unintentionally strolling through the Versailles gardens for hours not realizing the gates closed for the night, our first international trip (one of many to come) forged our relationship ahead and cemented our shared wanderlust.

The beer we tried: Decent drinks

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There were only two beers on draft brewed in-house – a pale ale and a hefeweizen. The hefe was the perfect session ale on a hot, humid summer day – light and easy to drink. I avoided Michal’s pale ale as I am not into bitter hoppiness. The owner said he recently opened and was just starting to brew, so he was hoping to expand his repertoire.

We actually talked with the owner for a bit as he spoke good English. He funnily assumed we were college kids on a date, not a couple on their 5th year wedding anniversary, which – given our cute coordinated outfit and choice of venue for afternoon drinks – was fair.

The food we tried: Standard snacks
The food menu had the usual bar food options like fries and chicken wings. We arrived just when the place opened so we had to wait a bit longer for the food to be prepared, but appreciated getting complimentary shrimp chips in the meantime. I liked how the fries were seasoned and the wings were crispy on the outside yet juicy on the inside, however the flavor was nothing to write home about as it was a pretty predictable BBQ sauce.

The atmosphere we enjoyed: Artsy and airy

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Just a few of the art pieces adorning the walls

The highlight of this spot was theme and decor. It had a bit of a gallery feel as we enjoyed looking at all the kitchsy pop art by local artists (many pieces conveyed anti-establishment themes). The two floors of the building included balcony and terrace spaces, with a bar on the bottom and on top.

Third stop: Boozy Cat Pub & Taphouse

The memory we toasted to: Our wedding, just another reminder of Proverbs 16:9
Five days before our wedding day, I got a call from the dry cleaner that a new employee didn’t cover the jeweled buttons on the back when turning my wedding dress inside out. The result – The front of the dress looked like a cat took her claws and ran them from top to bottom.

When I saw the shredded mess, the dress I bought more than a year before and had imagined wearing at my wedding every day since, it felt like someone close to me had died. However, the dry cleaner owner was so apologetic that she took me and two of my best friends, Erin and Esther, to nearby dress shops and allowed me to pick out anything on her dime. What could have been a disaster, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I wasn’t restricted with my previous budget and the dry cleaner even had a seamstress as a friend who would take care of the alterations. Looking back on it all now, the fiasco seemed so trivial as it worked out for the better.

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(2011) Jumping for joy with our wedding party in front of the Spartan Statue at our alma mater, Michigan State University

Our wedding day was a series of so many similar surprise moments filled with generosity and love. From the skillfully and cleverly made video montage by my cousin April to the solo piano performance by our friend Joe, Michal and I were continually presented with an outpouring of appreciation and loyalty we didn’t expect. We not only felt loved by each other when getting married, we felt blessed by everyone around us.

The beer we tried: Variety is the spice of life
A good amount on the menu of well-known local and foreign craft beer on tap, especially compared to other typical Korean bars so we had to order two flights to get a full variety. The pours were a little larger than the usual in a flight, so needless to say, we ended up making this our last stop for the bar crawl.

The food we didn’t need to try but did any way: Pass the cheese, please
The food menu was an attempt to be more upscale and hearty, offering pasta-based entrees. We got the most appetizing sounding appetizer – the roasted Camembert (we’re usually a sucker for hot, melty cheese like baked brie) topped with slivers of almonds and a mysterious sweet syrup, served alongside saltine crackers.

For a more expensive cheese (especially here in Korea where high quality cheese is hard to come by), I would have preferred better accompaniments. It’s like serving Moet & Chandon champagne with a bag of Cheetos. And the syrup was not for me – it tasted a bit artificial and was unnecessarily drizzled on both the cheese and the crackers.

The atmosphere we noticed in passing: Average
I liked that it was on the second floor with wide-open windows, making it appear larger and bringing in tons of natural light, but there wasn’t much personality to the decor design.

Overall

Pong Dang wins our heart. It definitely scored high points for the best beer. The food menu was intriguing enough to entice us to try it next time. And the overall feel made it seem like what we’re used to seeing at home.

We definitely want to revisit the area as we could only fit in so much day drinking, and ironically, we had a wedding to catch in Gangnam later that night…

To Michal: Cheers to many more unexpected adventures to come with our marriage!

Start of summer: Sophia’s first flight

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Memorable last night of the trip: Sunset at Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak on Jeju-do in South Korea, a UNESCO World Heritage site

Summertime in Seoul is sticky and rainy.

In this concrete jungle, monsoon season often sequesters me indoors with Sophia in order to avoid sweaty crowds, pesky mosquitoes and seemingly unceasing storms and humidity. Not how I am used to spending my summer days.

Summer always meant a time of freedom to me – both physically and mentally.

Growing up, summer officially started when the school year ended and I was on my way to a sunny beach vacation, whether it was a short road trip to nearby Lake Michigan, or a flight to the Hundred Islands in the Philippines.

When I was teaching, summer similarly started when I closed my grade book and walked out of the classroom with an empty bag in hand, heading back to familiar spots but on the other side of the lake in Chicago, or jet setting to tropical paradise in other parts of the world with Michal, like Thailand or Costa Rica.

So when my in-laws set their travel itinerary for Seoul in July, just after Sophia turned two months old, Michal and I thought it would be perfect timing to get away from the city life and make our first flight with our little one.

 

I thought “let’s start small with our tiny traveler.” Based on recommendations from our Korean friends, we chose Jeju Island because it is only a one-hour flight away from Seoul and it has the country’s best beaches as it is dubbed the “Hawaii of Korea.”

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We rented a beautiful house through Airbnb, just a five-minute walk away from scenic Hyeopjae Beach, as well as rented a car for exploring the rest of the island. Both the house and the car made it a lot easier to accommodate our little one with all her belongings and needs.

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Highlight of the trip: Aquarmarine water, almost cloudless sky and black volcanic rock on Hyeopjae Beach

My favorite season of summer finally felt real with the ocean breeze, blue sky, fresh air and clear water. (Thankfully, it only rained on the day we returned to Seoul.)

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Combination of tranquil nature and spiritual peace: Temple on top of Sanbangsan Mountain

 

Gone are the days of carefree beach vacations with no responsibilities and obligations, as I now have Sophia my side. But I am grateful for the opportunity to relax in a place reminiscent of my favorite past beach getaways and to share that sweet taste of summer with Sophia.

 

Two-Month Update: The Hard-Earned Smile

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Smiling Sophia: She loves her Treetop Friends Activity Gym play mat.

I tend to smile and laugh too much.

It’s a habit I can’t seem to break even when I’m focusing my “stern teacher glare”on an off-task student. I smile when I’m angry. I laugh when I’m nervous. When passing a stranger on the street, my natural inclination is to greet the person with a smile. When reuniting with a close friend for the first time in months since I’ve lived abroad, I used that same smile.

On the other hand, Sophia’s first smile was hard-earned.

The first month of her life went by in a blur of sleeplessness and hormonal fluctuations for me, so I was surprised when everything suddenly seemed to start to stabilize. Post-partum recovery, paired with adjusting to new parenthood, ended just when Sophia began to sleep longer stretches at night.

In this first month, I encountered unexpected bursts of weepinesslochia and healing stitches, along with oftentimes frustrating and sometimes comedic oversupply issues. (ie. When supply finally equaled demand, milk issuing from an overactive letdown no longer sprayed all over Sophia and/or across the room like a broken kitchen faucet.)

First Father’s Day: Brunch with craft meats from Salt House

And then her six-week growth spurt hit us.

With little preparation other than pediatricians nonchalantly telling us we could give her an infant massage if she has some additional fussiness due to growing pains, we were a bit alarmed that our usually calm baby began crying longer and with higher frequency and seemed to need much more holding and attention. In addition, she was eating a lot more – consuming almost double the amount of pumped milk and nursing for longer.

In that week, Michal and I felt an intense helplessness as it seemed we tried everything we read in Happiest Baby on the Block (highly suggested by a friend with three kids), constantly wearing her in a wrap and offering a pacifier. I brought her to two different pediatricians, along with an osteopath, in search of more recommendations on how to manage the growth spurts and the resulting seemingly inconsolable crying.

In the midst of her extreme change of behavior and temperament, I felt such a sense of desperation and dejection that I started to think ‘What did we do wrong? How did she stop liking us?’

And then that week ended as abruptly and suddenly as it started.

At the end of six weeks, Sophia was even more calm than before, sleeping easily and soundly. And she then showed one of the first signs of communication human beings express at any age – a smile. We celebrated the end of the growth spurt as she demonstrated her developmental milestone of “the Social Smile.”

Now, as Sophia approaches her third month of life, she has begun to make noises that sound like happy cooing. The week after that six-week growth spurt was definitely the rainbow after the storm.

First Road Trip: Nami Island and Garden of Morning Calm

In a recent email conversation we were having about motherhood, my friend Clare eloquently summed up these difficult first few weeks:

Some days are better than others. It sometimes seems like they push you to the breaking point, and then they do something wonderful and all is forgiven.

Now that we’ve experienced the wrath of the growth spurt, we can go through the next ones at three months, six months and onward with more confidence and less apprehension.

Cheers to your two-months, sweet Sophia, and looking forward to more milestones!