Saturday, April 30, 2011

April, April

We have had a tumultuous April here, to say the least.  Things got bad very quickly right around the beginning of the month, bad enough that we threw up our hands and decided to let AFS deal with Penny and her numerous problems.  After consulting with us, amongst themselves, and with the program officers in both the US and Thailand, ultimately it was decided that as a family, we could choose whether Penny would return home early or whether we would keep her.

Penny has had a great deal of difficulty assimilating into American society.  The only area in which she shows the slightest bit of interest is in food.  She keeps a small journal tucked in her purse, and in it she records where we eat every time we go out to eat.  She takes pictures of all the food she eats.  The only thing she spends money on is food.  However, she is obsessed with her weight and with dieting, and so food is not something that makes her happy.  In fact, it makes her quite miserable.  She is currently stockpiling food that she plans to bring home with her to share with her family and friends.  And therein lies the problem:  Leah went in her room one night looking for goodies and when I went in to retrieve her, I found Penny’s true sentiments about our family and country written in her student calendar, which Leah had gotten into from Penny’s bag.

Penny has held onto being Thai like a suit of armor.  If it looks like anyone is close to her or she is in danger of changing her way of doing things, she immediately throws up culture as a blockade against it.  We had had a disagreement the weekend prior to Leah’s cookie expedition and as Penny was screaming at us, she screamed that we don’t want her to be Thai any more and that we hate Thai culture and that she is sick of being told to adjust and she won’t do it any more.  The fact is, she has not done it at all.

So recently, we made a suggestion to Penny which she liked, and immediately she followed the old adage that if you give an inch, they take a mile, and she attempted to take us on a 5 mile hike.  We pulled in the reins and told her she would not be running the show and skipping school to do things that ultimately have no value to her program, and she reacted by writing nasty messages in English in her date book, shredding the Valentine cards we had made her, and destroying family photographs.

After we contacted AFS, they contacted Penny’s school counselor to see if perhaps we had a family issue that was brewing and that Penny was actually fine.  Unfortunately, the school counselor confirmed that no one at the high school even knows Penny exists.

So ultimately, we had to ask Penny what she really wanted here.  We were of the opinion that she wanted to go home, as she’s been saying she wants to go home nearly since the day she got here.  She swore up and down that she did not want to, that she wanted to stay here and finish out her year.  When I asked her why, given the amount of anger she had clearly inside for us and for the US, she stated that she wanted to finish to make her family proud.  That wasn’t good enough for me, so she later wrote us a letter and stated that she has had a wonderful experience and is extremely grateful and wants to do better and leave a good impression on everyone.

Mike and I talked it over and ultimately decided that in this case, words were meaningless and we’d have to see some action to know Penny was serious.  Long story short, we drew up a behavior contract that Penny would have to sign that included things that she had to do like “Penny must plan an activity night for her friends” and “Penny must participate in volunteer work in the community” and “Penny must participate in activities at school” and things that she can no longer do, like swearing.  There are “punishment” type things too, like she has to help with yard work, a task that is hard for her as it involves being out in the sun, which she is terrified of because she does not want to get tan (seeing her mow the lawn yesterday in a scarf, gloves, hat, long pants, and long sleeves was quite a sight!)  Most of these things that will force her to make her mark on our town and on her school before she leaves.  AFS approved of the plan and Penny read it over and has agreed to it.  So far, she has jumped in with both feet, planning a Thai dinner that was attended by 5 of her friends, and deciding to go to the prom, for which she is shopping today with our friend Emily.

We were extremely grateful that AFS spent so much time with us as a family.  Mike and I felt like failures at the parenting game—we really have been trying to solve many of our problems on our own.  Ultimately that’s what a liaison is for, and I’m pleased our liaison, while she was out of town on AFS business unfortunately, kept in touch with us the entire time.  And we made the decision to keep Penny based on the fact that we feel she will learn bigger lessons about forgiveness and about America this way than by sending her home with a bad taste in her mouth, despite that bad taste being a result of her own behavior.  She asked me later why I was letting her stay and I said, “Penny, this would be much easier if I didn’t love you, but I’ve spent 8 months taking care of you and I can’t just turn that off.”  This made her cry, and I think helped her realize just how close she came to throwing everything away.  But just like when we adopted Leah, we took her for better or for worse, and that really helped us to see Penny as our kid, not just someone we can toss out.  So that pretty much sums it up. 

P1100343 Consequently, while some of our other plans for Penny are up in the air, we decided to go ahead with our planned vacation to New England for Easter.  Penny had spring break this past week and we haven’t been up to see Mike’s parents in nearly 2 years, and he was really excited to get home.  We felt that we would be punishing ourselves by foregoing the trip and so we decided to go for it.  We drove up to Rhode Island on Friday and stayed until Thursday (I had to get home in time to watch the Royal Wedding!).  It was a long car ride, although frankly we made the best time we’ve ever done going to RI and it was the best trip we’d had traffic-wise in forever.  Even making 4 stops for gas, food, and potty breaks, we made it in under 10 hours.  Penny kept us entertained by singing in the backseat with her earphones in.

P1100364 Easter itself was a lovely affair with the family.  Mike’s sisters and parents provided Penny with some nice gifts, including some candy bunny teeth!  She helped Leah and my nephew find eggs, tried lots of good food, and was thrilled to discover the piano in the basement, so put on a small recital for everyone.  We were all quite happy and relaxed.  After everyone had left, we took her on a short driving tour of Fall River, MA, the next town over.  We showed her the Lizzie Borden museum and B&B, and took her over to the restaurant where we were married.  She liked seeing it and we enjoyed being back, as on April 20, we celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary.  She also got to see Mike’s high school, the Four Corners area, and such.

Monday morning, Mike was being interviewed for a newspaper article and afterwards, I packed Penny into the car and we headed to Newport for the rest of the day.  Our first destination was Ocean Drive (which my in-laws call Twelve Mile Drive—not being a local, I’m not sure which is correct), and I stopped to show Penny one of my favorite views of the ocean from Newport.  We collected some seashells and sea glass, and she took a few pictures while scrambling around on the rocks.

P1100402We continued out to Brenton Point for more of the same—it was quite cloudy and the water was very choppy, so there was lots of spray and it was all what I love about life in New England.

P1100413After we’d had enough of that (or as much as I felt compelled to put one teenager through!), we headed over to Washington Square/Thames Street.  I showed Penny the Tennis Hall of Fame, where Mike and I met for the first time (lest you think we’re tennis enthusiasts, we’re not, we simply chose an easy landmark for our first meeting!).  Then we parked over by Yesterday’s restaurant, one of my favorite places to eat in Newport and walked down Thames Street and back around to the Newport Visitor’s Center to get some brochures about the famous mansions.  Newport has a new cupcake shop, so we decided to get some cupcakes for an afternoon snack and then check out souvenir shops and other little spots in the Brick Market Place. 

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Then we headed back to Yesterday’s for lunch!


I had a wonderful time with my old favorite sandwich, The Big Al, and Penny enjoyed a salmon sandwich while we looked over brochures and she agonized about which mansion to go into.  They have a package where you can go visit The Breakers, the largest and most famous of the mansions, and then choose one other mansion besides.  But there were two others she wanted to see, and it was already 1:30 and the mansions close at 5:00.  So she had to decide between Marble House and The Elms.  She leaned towards Marble House, but she had some time to decide, as we decided to go to The Breakers first.

P1100433(The backside of The Breakers, Penny is on the stairs towards the right)

The Breakers was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and family, and was built between 1893-1895.  Even then it cost $12 million to construct, and was used only as the Vanderbilt family’s summer home.  Eventually it became too expensive to run as a private home and was sold to the Newport Historical Society, which now runs it as a museum.  I had visited the home many years ago when my sister attended nearby Salve Regina University, but hadn’t been back, despite now having in laws a mere 20 miles away from the place, so I was excited to do some sightseeing myself.  The society now offers audio tours instead of guided tours, and I enjoyed it, although since Penny is not much for museums, I skipped much of the audio just to keep her from getting bored.  She was truly awestruck by the grandeur of the place, though, and I think she got a lot out of seeing how the other half lived.  You’re not supposed to take pictures inside the mansions, but oh well, we needed at least one.

P1100428 After we finished the tour of the Breakers, we drove past Marble House and The Elms so that Penny could decide which one she wanted to see.  I had never been to The Elms and had been to Marble House, which she wanted to factor in on her decision making, but as I told her, I will be in Rhode Island plenty and she should choose the one she really wanted to see.  She ultimately chose Marble House.

P1100439 Marble House was built by Cornelius Vanderbuilt II’s brother, William, and his wife, Alva, from 188-1892.  Alva wanted a home inspired by Versailles and demanded to have full artistic control over the home, which was a birthday gift from her husband.  The house was also considered a summer “cottage”, just like The Breakers.  The Vanderbilts divorced just several years after the home was completed, and Alva moved, but kept ownership of the home, which she used as a glorified closet until the death of her second husband.  She added a Chinese tea house on the back lawn with a beautiful view of the ocean.  Eventually the Preservation society also acquired this home and placed it on the tour with the other mansions it now owns.  They also do a lovely audio tour, which from start to finish lasts only 35 minutes, while we are at The Breakers for nearly 2 hours.  No pictures allowed, but we did manage to grab a couple anyway.

P1100440 Penny also loved Marble House, which for my money is quite gaudy (which is saying something, considering the walls of one room of The Breakers are painted with solid platinum!).  But I just enjoyed the tour and since the main tour was so short, I took the time to listen to some of the bonus information.

P1100447By now it was about 4:00, so if we wanted to, we could have upgraded our ticket and squeezed in The Elms, but ultimately decided not to.  We chose instead to hit the Cliff Walk and St. Mary’s church, which is where President and Mrs. Kennedy were married in 1953.  Unfortunately, the church was closed to visitors by the time we’d arrived, so we didn’t get to go inside, and instead made our way to the Cliff Walk.

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The Cliff Walk is a 3.5 mile trek that runs from Easton’s Beach to the end of Bellevue Avenue and passes many of the famous mansions.  We hopped on near Salve Regina and walked as far as the Breakers, approximately a half-mile hike.  Penny is afraid of heights, and there is a good drop if you get too close to the edge, although there are good fences up much of the way.  Still, Penny kept close to the wall, which in many ways is, to me, a metaphor for her year in the US.

P1100465 We did our full loop for a mile and then drove over to Easton’s Beach and ate our cupcakes before returning to my in-laws' for the night.  I needed to rest up because Tuesday was our great Boston adventure.

Penny, as I have mentioned, is determined to get into Harvard.  Whether or not I or anyone else thinks this is a reality, it is her big dream.  When I asked her what she wanted to see in Boston, her top answer was Harvard.  So Tuesday morning, we left at 9AM and drove over the Cambridge and walked Harvard.  She fell in love hard and fast, and I will say, at least it gives her something to strive for and something about coming back to the US that might feel good.

P1100471We strolled Harvard for a good hour in search of the law school campus, but alas, I did not see it.  We did see a nice statue of John Harvard, found some campus museums, went in a place you weren’t even allowed to take pictures of the hallways (something serious must go on there!), and just absorbed the atmosphere.  We also went to the Harvard Book Store.  Penny is determined not to spend money on souvenirs, so we now take pictures of her holding up T-shirts to places she’s been.  (I have opinions about this, but I keep reminding myself, “this is not MY exchange year!”)  At the bookstore, we found a Harvard shirt.

P1100469  After we got done there, Mike and I decided on a program that would show her some of Boston from air and land.  So I drove us over to the Prudential Tower to leave the car and took Penny up to the SkyWalk on the 50th Floor of the tower.  She was terrified!  But I told her I hadn’t spent $13 for her not to look out the windows, so I held her hand (which she nearly twisted off) and pointed out interesting sights on all 4 sides of the Pru.

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They had a nice movie playing up there about Boston and its sights and we watched that in an enclosed theater, which helped her calm down a bit.  When we got back down to terra firma, I told her not to let fear rule her life and that facing her fears would help her be a stronger person and that I was proud of her for staying up there for so long.  She didn’t care for my eloquent advice-giving, she just wanted out! :-D

So we walked down Boylston Street and Penny told me that Boston was exactly what she thought all of America would look like.  She asked me if NYC was like Boston, and I told her no, it was a totally different city.  It is difficult to explain the differences to someone who’s never been to both, but if you have, you’ll know what I mean.

P1000905 We got on the T and after I got us lost (I never did understand the T system very well and always got lost!), we took the train down to Government Center to go to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market for lunch.  We feasted on lobster roll and lobster pie and then poked around the shops and the Hard Rock Cafe before going over to the National Park Service’s visitor’s center.  Since Penny isn’t much on museums, as I mentioned, we decided to scrap our plans to walk the Freedom Trail.  I wanted to go see the apartments Mike and I used to live in when we were first together and then married, so we did that real quick and then I suggested to Penny that since we had time, we could shoot on down to Plymouth to see the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. She agreed.  She asked me if I was tired, and I said yes, was she?  And she said no, but then promptly slept for the entire time it took us to get from Boston to Plymouth.  We arrived at 4:45, with only 15 minutes to explore the Mayflower II.  I paid for it anyway, as I had never been on it myself, and we sped on through the exhibit and hit the boat in time for Penny to be accosted by one of the period actors who made her help take down some of the flags from the masts.

P1000922The ship itself was quite interesting and I’m sure it would be awesome to actually go when there was time to talk to everyone and learn about the ship itself and the journey across the Atlantic.  But alas, that was not the day.  We disembarked and checked out a nearby souvenir stand for bottles of water and then Plymouth Rock, which as you might imagine is indeed just a rock inside a shelter.  I’ve been to see it many times and always find it funny to see people standing around watching it, as if something might happen if we just wait long enough.


P1100519  On the way through the town of Plymouth, I had seen signs for the National Monument to the Forefathers, so I decided we’d go see that as well, since we were there and I’d never seen it.  It’s basically a big statue in a huge field in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and I somehow missed it and Penny thankfully yelled, “It’s right there!” as I drove past.

P1100545 The monument is quite an amazing and inspiring work.  There are four smaller statues around the base of the larger statue in on both sides of either of them are smaller reliefs carved into the stone.  It’s worth a stop if you ever find yourself in Plymouth!

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Afterwards, it was time for dinner, and we agreed that we hadn’t eaten enough lobster yet, so we found a place to get lobster roll and lobster pasta and enjoyed the heck out of our dinners before getting back to the house around 9pm.

Wednesday we didn’t have much planned, but I knew Penny didn’t especially want to sit around the house, and a place I find absolutely fascinating is nearby to the house:  The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast.  They have a tour of the place every hour on the hour and you can get a complete history of the case and a look at the crime scene.  It’s reportedly one of the most haunted houses in America, and when Mike took me there some 10 years ago when we were dating, I can say I smelled something awful in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was killed.  So while I know Penny is scared of ghosts, I decided to take her anyway to see if I had a similar experience, and I think it’s good for her to try all different kinds of things.  And I feel as if this might be one of those “only in America” type things that should be experienced!

We made it over in time for the 2:00 tour and Will, the tour guide, was a true aficionado of the case and fascinating to talk to (even if we widely differ in our opinions about who committed the murder!  But I did learn a lot from him!).

P1100587 Penny outside the Bordens’ front door

P1100576Penny sitting on a couch at the approximate location where Mr. Borden’s head was

After the tour, we headed over to see where Lizzie lived after she was acquitted of the case and then to the cemetery to see her grave.  Penny flatly refused to get out of the car, saying cemeteries made her very depressed and she very nearly started crying, so we left as soon as I snapped a couple of pictures of the graves.

P1100590And no, for the record, I did not leave the flower there.

Afterwards, we headed to the grocery store and Penny picked up supplies to cook everyone a Thai dinner as a thank you after she had been generously hosted by Mike’s family.  She decided to make spicy noodles with shrimp and chicken with ginger, which was eagerly consumed by our hungry family!  My sister-in-law and nephew also came over, and Penny got pictures with everyone, as I doubt she will see any of Mike’s family again before she leaves to go home.

P1000945P1000947We left bright and early at 6:15 the next morning.  Penny slept all the way from Massachusetts to New Jersey, where we stopped for lunch, and then again to Maryland, a good indication that we had done a great job of exhausting her.  She was happy to get home, and that evening I taught her to bake scones for the following morning.  She overslept a bit for the opening part of the Royal Wedding, but managed to rouse herself in time for the ceremony.  We shared scones and clotted cream and fruit for breakfast and she was blown away by the spectacle of a Western royal wedding.  It was nice to talk with her about the royal family of Thailand and how there haven’t been any recent royal weddings.  She is so respectful of her king and the royal family and actually taught me quite a lot about them as a matter of contrast between her country and England.  It was a nice cultural exchange.

P1100606     So that’s where things stand in our home for now.  I do have Penny’s every weekend planned out until she goes home, as I am of the opinion that if she keeps busy, she will keep out of trouble.  I am blessed that I have wonderful friends who are taking an interest in her and will help keep her occupied and our AFS area president said other families have volunteered if we fall short of things for her to do.  The only thing up in the air is if I will take her to New York City or not.  I refuse to make any decisions on that matter until I see how May goes.  I know it is her dream of being in the US to travel there, and she will have to demonstrate a full commitment to being the best exchange student possible before I fully commit to the trip.  I hope she will! 

We remind her regularly that she has much to be grateful for, and she is now keeping a gratitude journal on the kitchen wall calendar where we can see it.  She knows that she could be sitting in Thailand right now, wondering “What if?” and we know we could have been without her too.  Like Voltaire said, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” and we are determined to live that way for the next two months and beyond as we cultivate a relationship with this young lady.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It’s Starting to Happen…

This past weekend we’ve done a lot of talking, Mike and I, about the upcoming months, and for the first time in almost a year, we’ve begun to make plans for a family of 3 instead of a family of 4.  We have been talking about a beach trip, upcoming holidays, birthdays, and more, and all with the sudden realization that Penny will not be here.

It is both sad and a little bit freeing.  Take for instance our planning a trip to the beach.  We typically go every spring and love it. Leah can spend hours digging in the sand, and Mike and I can spend hours sitting or walking along the beach, watching the waves, listening to the seagulls, and enjoying ourselves doing absolutely nothing.

Penny, on the other hand, hates the sun.  She informed us that she absolutely will not set foot on the beach until at least 5pm.  Lest you think she is prejudiced, she also hates cloudy days, which she says make her depressed.  If it’s warm and sunny outside, she’s too hot.  If it’s cloudy outside, she’s immediately cold.  She hates the air conditioning.  She has spent most of her time here wearing shorts (including all winter) and then complaining that we don’t keep the house warm enough. 

So we knew that going to the beach as a family of four was, well, stupid.  Instead we will go in September, when the weather is still really nice and warm, and we can spend our days out on the beach without worrying about a sulky teenager sitting alone in the condo!

But in many ways, it is also quite sad.  She came home from the mall yesterday and asked how it felt to have a quiet house with no children (Leah was away for the weekend).  And I answered honestly that for the first time, it’s really hit home that she’s actually leaving.  We talked a lot about what her leaving would feel like to all of us, about what her year has meant to us all.  I told her that there have been times she’s made me so angry I absolutely wanted to throttle her, and there are other times I can envision myself chasing the bus down the road and trying to never let her go.  We’ve talked about opportunities and time she wasted, what she could/would/should have done differently, what she did exactly right, what she still has time to change, what things she should still take advantage of.  She is presently debating going to the prom.  She’s never going to have the opportunity again, so I told her to take the bull by the horns and go.  I hope she will.  She has asked a friend to go with her, and I think they could have a very good time.

She admitted today that she is very excited about going to graduation and going through the ceremony.  Ok, ok, she also said she was just glad to be done with American high school, which in my view indicates a pretty poor attitude in general, but be that as it may, her excitement about the prospect of doing ANYTHING is a good sign. 

Today we went back to the Riverside Theater and saw another show and she asked to see another one before she leaves, so we’ve scheduled one last theater jaunt for 3 days before her scheduled departure.  She made plans with a friend of mine to go see the Shenandoah Mountains—something she expressed no interest in when I mentioned it to her before.  We’ve got our trip to NYC narrowed down to 2 possible dates, so I can begin to plan that out.  She is busy attending an SAT class in the hopes that she can score well on it, better than she thinks she did on the TOEFL, to keep her dreams of attending an American college alive.

Every week she combs the grocery store, looking for snacks on sale to bring home with her.  We are all starting to consider how she will pack the things that she wants to take home, what she will have to ship, what she will keep, what she will leave behind.  So far she has agreed to part with the box her Nintendo DSi came in.  She is also intrigued by the possibility of Space Bags for getting clothing and a blanket and towel she’s acquired to take up less room.

There is a definite sense of urgency she is experiencing to cram things in.

We have also started reminiscing about her first days here, how little she spoke, how far she has come, how far she still has to go in terms of learning, speaking, listening, reading, and writing English.  In particular we laughed about her first days when every morning she would come downstairs and tell me that she couldn’t sleep because the air conditioner was so cold.  And I would explain to her every morning, very patiently, “There is a heavy blanket under your bed.” and she would smile and say “Thank you” and the next morning, the scene would repeat itself.  Finally after 3 days of this, it dawned on me, “This girl doesn’t know what the heck ‘there’s a blanket under your bed’ even means.” and I went upstairs, pulled out the underbed storage box with the heavy blanket in it out and showed it to her.  She has been sleeping under it ever since. 

Reminding her of this story made her laugh so hard.  I recently submitted an article to Yahoo Contributors about her exchange and about how excited she was to use the dishwasher when we told her she had to do the dishes.  Now it’s like an act of Congress most days to get her to do the dishes!  She laughed about how on the first night, we got home and I kicked off my shoes as soon as we got in the door and so she thought she should do it too and then misinterpreted my “You don’t have to take your shoes off” as “put your shoes back on!” and she had no idea what to do.

We have grown so much as a family, as individuals.  It has at times been painful, joyous, exciting, disappointing, frightening, and even worrying, but I know that when these next couple of months are over and done and Penny is home, we will still be a family of four.  I assured her of such last night, telling her, “This isn’t the end.  It’s only the beginning.”  I truly hope it is.