May 27, 2009

We all need a “Safe Harbor”

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Television at 10:30 pm by dinaheng

While it may take a village to raise a child, it took a husband and wife who were willing to postpone retirement to turn around the lives of more than a few troubled teenage boys, using strict discipline, genuine affection and sail boats.


Doug and Robbie Smith, founders of the Safe Harbor Boys Home in Jacksonville, Fla.,  are celebrating the 25th anniversary this year of their labor of love, a residential and educational facility on the waterfront that has helped more than 800 at-risk boys, ages 15 to 17, and their families.


The teens, who come from all around the country, are often juvenile delinquents, fatherless,  or have lost one or both parents to death. Living on boats, the young men are given a safe, stable and structured home as they learn seamanship, maritime skills, and study for a high school diploma.


The story of how the Smiths came to parent these troubled teens is at the heart of “Safe Harbor,” a Hallmark Channel Original Movie based on the couple’s real life commitment that  premieres Saturday, May 30 at 9 p.m. Eastern. 


In the film, Nancy Travis, who co-stars on the TBS comedy “The Bill Engvall Show,” plays Robbie Smith, a child counselor who’s a month away from a planned retirement of exploring the world with her husband (played by Treat Williams) on their sailboat. The couple’s plans are waylaid when a judge asks them to look after some troubled boys until room opens up for them in juvenile hall.


As a few days turns into a few months, the couple help the teens to find their footing, and what the boys give back leads to a new passion and purpose in life for the Smiths. 


“We all plan our lives to the finest detail, and you never know what’s going to come along to change your path,” Travis says. “When these troubled boys came into their lives, the Smiths realized this was their destiny. Robbie doesn’t have her own children, but there’s a wish in her to have children.”


Travis says she hopes the film inspires audiences to look for ways to help others around them.


“We look at the big picture, and it seems so overwhelming, but the smallest gesture means something,” Travis says. “We’re all so self-involved, and don’t always look beyond ourselves. There are opportunities all around us, from giving things we don’t want or need, to people who need them, to getting our hands dirty — or clean — by helping others.”


She notes that people often fear helping delinquent teens because they wonder if they can handle caring for someone who is troubled. People wonder, will the teenager pose a physical danger to me? Can I really help this person? How much can I give without losing a part of myself?


As the film shows, all of us need a safe harbor in life. For some, that means safety from physical, sexual or emotional abuse. For others, it means having someone who believes in you, no matter how much you doubt yourself. For all of us, it means finding the place where we are loved.


“So many of our youth end up going down the wrong path because they don’t have somebody to say, ‘We believe in you,’ “ says Travis, the mother of two. “Self-worth is a basic human need. Young people can get lost, and it doesn’t take that much to help them find their way.


“Doug and Robbie believed in these boys, and said you’re worth more than the path you’re on. They ended up finding that starting this haven fulfilled a dream they didn’t even know they had.”


Helping others often has a way of doing that.



May 24, 2009

Asians still see prejudice in TV jobs

Posted in Diversity, Employment, Television at 10:54 pm by dinaheng

Being an Asian American in television isn’t the rarity it used to be. There are increasing numbers of Asian actors, writers, directors and executives in the industry today, but those in the mix say there is still a long way to go before opportunity equates acceptance on the job.

Most say they’ve experienced some form of prejudice at work—comments about their race in the writers room, remarks about their cultural background on set, things no one would say for attribution.

To read this Television Week column, click here.

May 21, 2009

The sounds of life…

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Spirituality at 6:21 am by dinaheng

I live on the second floor of a three-story condominium. The windows of my guest room look out onto a courtyard, and are shaded by metal awnings.


Each spring for the last couple of years, robins have built a nest underneath one of the awnings. My neighbor Zohreh and I would know whenever a new family had arrived by the sound of reverberating robin song in the courtyard.


This year, the bird song is louder than in previous years. When I looked out one guest room window, I discovered that not only had the robins returned to their usual awning, friends had built nests in the one adjacent, as well as in my upstairs neighbor’s awnings above.


Every morning, bright and early, the wake up calls echo through the courtyard. For the most part, I love having the birds around. Just knowing that new life is incubating nearby is a joyous reminder of God’s love. At the same time, a house guest recently complained that she couldn’t sleep because of the constant chirping. Since she was only here a short time, she put up with it.


You get used to all kinds of sounds wherever you live. When my upstairs neighbor ripped up her carpeting and put wood flooring down, it took months before I got used to the sound of footsteps overhead. I would wake up at night when she or her boyfriend got out of bed because the sound reverberated through the ceiling.


There’s not much you can do about noise in a building when everyone’s stacked on top of and next door to each other in common housing. Except save for the day when you can move into a single family home, and pray that you don’t have noisy neighbors.


It’s funny how the sounds in our environment affect us. I live in a very quiet suburban neighborhood, yet the addition of a fire station a few blocks away now means that the sound of sirens has become a part of our community. When I first noticed it, it reminded me of living in Manhattan, an island where the sound of traffic  and car horns is ever present.


We make so much noise in our daily lives, it’s a wonder that we hear anything of significance. We make small talk to fill gaps in conversations. We say things to indicate to  others that we’re listening, even when we’re not.


We get used to the sound of arguments, tuning out emotions that make us uncomfortable. We talk on cell phones constantly. Why? Surely it’s not just because we have rollover minutes.


It’s a shame that people don’t actively listen as much as they talk. We hear so much more that way. Today, I listened to a friend complain about his job, and heard his fear about not being enough. I listened to the sound of my neighbor’s son playing the piano, and smiled at the musical joy he was expressing.


I love the sounds of nature — hearing the wind blow through the trees, the steady rush of water in a creek, the near silence of a dark night in the mountains. Yet I would never live in the wilderness because I’d miss the sounds of people.


In a month or so, the baby robins outside my windows will fly away. I’ll miss their cheerful  songs, but am sure they’ll come back. I like to think they’d miss the sound of their human neighbors.

May 13, 2009

Lupus little known disease

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 7:42 pm by dinaheng

Watching media coverage about swine flu has been painful.


First, there were small stories announcing the existence of the flu, with assurances that there was nothing to worry about. Then, as health officials sounded the cry about its spread, the media took up the call and amplified it like crazy.


Every newscast and story warned of the possible danger, number of cases identified in each state and school closings… constantly. Then, just as predictably, the stories tapered off and attention moved elsewhere.


I noticed how heightened people’s fears about swine flu had become when I was standing in the check-out line of a pharmacy a couple of weeks ago.  When I cleared my throat, a man passing by behind me admonished, “You should cover your mouth when you cough.” I didn’t bother explaining that I wasn’t coughing.


It’s important to share public health information. But do we have to play on people’s fears while we do it? There are many diseases that most of us know little about unless we or a loved one have it, or unless a publicity campaign generates interest. Take lupus, for example.


May is National Lupus Awareness Month, and Imelda Balboni, M.D. ,Ph.D. has a positive story to share about this rare auto-immune disorder that can cause inflammation, pain and damage in various part of the body.


“When I was young, I was diagnosed with lupus, though I don’t necessarily have lupus,” says Balboni, a pediatric rheumatologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University. “I’ve been taking medicines for lupus since I was a teenager. 


“Most of the symptoms have gone away, except for the arthritis. It’s possible the medicines helped, and in my case, perhaps the lupus was very mild. Some people do die from lupus, but most do really well with treatment.”


As a teenager, Balboni researched her illness, using it as the topic of high school research papers. Today, she’s studying the auto-antibodies in lupus with a goal of identifying patients or people at risk for lupus early so that patient-specific therapies can be designed.


She says there’s no one test for lupus, so the disease is diagnosed is verifying various signs. In children, for example, if a patient has 4 of 11 criteria, the child is 99 percent likely to have lupus.


Criteria include such things as skin rashes, photosensitive rashes, nasal or oral ulcers, blood abnormalities and other symptoms. Lupus is relatively rare, and 90 percent of those afflicted are women, usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45. In the United States, lupus affects minorities more than Caucasians.


“It can be difficult to diagnose because adults can have confusing symptoms that look like other things,” Balboni says. “Often, people are misdiagnosed before it’s correctly identified. There’s probably a genetic susceptibility and a trigger that ultimately develops the disease.”


While there is no cure for lupus yet, Balboni says treatments have gotten better, and emphasis is now on dealing with the long-term complications of the medicines and the disease itself.


“I probably wouldn’t be a pediatric rheumatologist if I hadn’t been diagnosed with lupus,” Balboni says. “My whole family was in an uproar because I had lupus. I was a rebellious teenager who didn’t want this disease that caused me to be dragged to doctors to have blood work done. I didn’t like being told I always had to wear a hat so that the sun wouldn’t get on my face. But it also helps me to understand my patients today. I relate to them a lot.”


Fortunately, lupus is fairly rare. Media coverage will probably never be widespread. But for those who have lupus, the work of doctors like Balboni will always be welcome news.


May 7, 2009

Mothers teach us true strength

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships at 10:50 pm by dinaheng

My mother is the strongest woman I know.


Born in China, she lived with her grandmother when her parents left to seek a better life in the United States during World War II.  I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, at 9 years old, to suddenly lose your parents like that.


She used to tell stories about hiding in the caves in the mountains when the Japanese invaded, going hungry, and taking an orphan into the house with her grandmother when the fighting ceased. After the war, she moved to Hong Kong to live with an uncle, and it was there that a marriage was arranged with my father.


My dad, who had left China as a teenager to work in the United States and send money home to his mother, had become an American citizen. After dating each other for a month, they decided to forge a life together and got married.


It was because of that marriage that my mother was able to come to the United States, and see her parents again for the first time in 12 years. 


If you ask anyone who they most admire in life, I would wager that most people would include their mothers on the list. My mom’s story is not unique. Many families have similar stories of separation, sacrifice and hardship, particularly those who immigrated to this country. 


No matter how old we are, we look at our mothers with mixed emotions until we understand that for all her strengths and weaknesses, she has her own life story — separate from ours — that is worth honoring more than just one day a year.


I remember when I went off to college in New York that my mom was both proud to see me go, and terrified that I’d never come back to Houston. Being the oldest of seven girls, I wanted to explore the world and get as far away from family as I could. I didn’t understand then why she begged me to return after graduation, saying, “You could live on the other side of town. You don’t even have to see me.”


It wasn’t until years later, when I traveled to China with her to see the village where she was born, that I understood her fear of abandonment. A fear that on some level no doubt drives my own unconscious behavior at times.


Today, three of her daughters live in Houston, and the rest of us live elsewhere. A part of me is sad that families don’t stay in close proximity to each other as they did generations ago. But without the ability to branch out and explore, we would never really discover the meaning of home.


I visit Houston as often as I can, and whenever my mom goes on a trip with one of my sisters, I try to meet them wherever they go, just to have more time with her. Last week, I met Mom and my sister Linda in Las Vegas, where the two like to go to play the slot machines once a year. 


I hate smoky casinos, but I go anyway, just to sit next to them to see the joy on their faces when they occasionally hit a jackpot. And to grab the money before they put it all back into  the slot machine.


This trip, I rented a car because it’s harder for Mom to walk very far every day. We made sure she stopped playing each afternoon, and would go back to the hotel room to watch TV and relax. Inevitably, she’d fall asleep for an hour, then say she was ready to go again.


She never admits when she gets tired, and it’s easy to forget that she’s not as energetic as she used to be. Her inner strength — having the ability to grow and change over time — continually amazes me.


But that’s what mothers do best.