When you grow up as a Korean-American millennial in a traditional immigrant household, you quickly realize that little instances of cultural clashes make for the best stories.
Take, for example, the time that I convinced my Korean mother that Lunchables were standard, healthy, American school lunch fare, and all my other third-grader friends dined on the delectably fine products of Oscar Meyer. Or take the time that my mother asked if we were supposed to eat the Jack-o-Lantern that I had carved earlier that day in school.
I often look back at these memories with a loving chuckle, but I’m also reminded of my mother’s bravery in navigating a new country where cultural barriers would become her new and constant reality. But one of these instances remains particularly painful in my memory and it surrounds, you guessed it, that awkward time called puberty.
I got my period when I was in the eighth-grade, which according to middle-school bathroom gossip, seemed fairly average. My mother flooded my bathroom cabinets with old-school, nearly diaper size maxi pads, and because I was too timid to ask for the “cool” pads and tampons that my fellow girlfriends had, I stuck with those.
After a year of feeling like a baby with a diaper, I felt fed up. One day, I snuck into my mom's bathroom and swiped some of her tampons – which weren’t much “cuter,” for the record. Finally, as I graduated to what I viewed as more comfortable, and more mature sanitary products, I felt that I could own my body. I continued to swipe a select number of tampons every month, feeling as confident as ever. Until my mom noticed.
My mom sat me down. I could tell she was livid. She accused me of stealing her tampons, and I admitted the truth. But what was the big deal? “I just don’t like feeling like I’m wearing diapers, Mom.” But that wasn’t why she was upset. She harangued me and told me that she knew I was having sex.
I wasn’t, and I was confused, embarrassed, and angry. Why had my mother assumed I was having sex because I was using a different sanitary product? I turned to my more American-ized dad for help. While I would have normally opted out on such a conversation with my dad, with him, there wasn’t a language or culture barrier.
What my father said was this: In Korean culture, tampons are reserved for only after a woman has had sex, and so my mother had logically assumed I was sexually active.
With my father acting as our intermediary, my misunderstanding with my mother thus solved itself. But what unfolded reminded me of our differing cultural attitudes regarding everything from holiday customs to puberty, and it ultimately taught my entire family about the value of open communication especially when language and culture barriers are involved.
I now like to think that my younger sister will have an easier time as she navigates through the treacherous waters of puberty. About one year ago, I returned home for a week in between semesters of college. I stepped into my sister’s bathroom to borrow some toothpaste, and I was happy to find both tampons and pads filling her own bathroom cabinet – assorted, cute colors and all.
An Angeleno turned New Englander and then New Yorker, Laura’s thinking about questions surrounding identity, space, and sound. And when she’s not resisting – then giving into – the claws of corporate America, you can find her producing her podcast at http://thisdartmouthlife.com/ or blogging at http://www.laura-sim.com/