On 2018

Thoughts

I had a lot of plans for 2018.

Like, a lot. As in I spent an entire day in early January mapping out exactly what I wanted this year to look like; I identified my goals, planned how I would achieve them. There’s literally a page in my journal where I answered the prompt “This year will be special for me because…” with the answer, “I will MAKE IT SO!”

Well, turns out 27-year-old me was naive and optimistic, because now, one year older and wiser, I know that sometimes you can’t just “make [it] so.” Of course, I certainly tried – I advocated for myself at work and read “productive” books; I tried Orange Theory and played in a beach volleyball league; I carefully allocated my fun time vs. my productive time; I took 3 work trips and 13 personal trips, 4 of them overseas; I prioritized my grandparents, family, friends, wanting to be there for the “big moments.” In June, I even did a mid-year reflection, recognizing the goals I had achieved and renewing my resolve to work towards the rest.

And yet when I look back at 2018, it feels like none of those things mattered. Instead, it feels like the year got hijacked by this giant wrecking ball with “NAH” painted on its side in big fat letters, knocking me off my feet again, and again, and again and again and again, from different directions, in varying magnitudes, with relentless consistency.

I’m not mad about it, though. I have learned that the heart – my heart – is remarkably resilient. My parents, worried with everything that had transpired, started ending phones calls by telling me, “Stay strong.” I found that I didn’t need to hear those words, because I didn’t need affirmation that I was strong, am strong, and will be strong, and simultaneously weak and vulnerable and brokenhearted during the times I needed to be.

Because there’s no denying that there were way too many times this year when I needed to be those not-strong things. There is no staying strong in the grief that comes from the sudden and permanent loss of a close childhood friend. There is no staying strong in the helpless “why”s that permeate daily conversations with those who also love her. There is no staying strong in the pain that comes from video calling a friend in the hospital while she waits to induce her stillborn son. There is no staying strong in the terror of waiting for an ambulance, hoping to shield the baby in my arms from my own pounding heart. There is no staying strong in the devastating resolve of a decision that breaks your heart, a heart that’s been bruised so black and blue that you didn’t think it could take yet another hit.

There was no staying strong in those moments, but that’s the beauty of it: you’re not supposed to stay strong in those moments. And taking the time to live those moments, to feel them for what they are – that’s something I’m learning to love as much as I love feeling strong. I’ve begun to understand that contradictory feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive, that it is not a zero-sum game of emotions, that you can have both, or all. It is this duality – plurality? – that I think of when I reflect on 2018: it was a year of many, many things and all of them are true, all of them are real.

I spent my mornings earlier this week run-walking by the lake, watching the sun rise and reflecting on the events that transpired this year. I took time to feel everything all over again, remembering images seared into my mind and letting them literally knock the breath out of me, still just as unbelievable and freshly painful as if they were yesterday. I’d then go home and shower, walk to work with music blasting in my ears, mulling over lyrics that hit too close to home. And then I’d walk into the office and be genuinely happy to see my friends at work, appreciating that if it was imperative for me to face the challenges of this fall, that these were damn good people to be surrounded by every day. I would feel happy, I would laugh; I would look forward to meeting friends in the evening. It is not dissonant to be both in grief and in joy, it is not fake, it is not wrong. It is life.

My old boss is always pushing me to think less, feel more; to enjoy the process instead of figuring out all the answers. I tried really hard to plan for 2018, and instead I’ve been forced to step back and live the process, at times even enjoy it. I learned this year not just to lean in, but to lean on, heavily; I learned to have grit but also grief; I learned to appreciate that I am still learning, and that is okay.

A friend shared the below with me a few months ago, and it has resonated so much; I keep thinking these words to myself. Despite everything, I still grow. I am proud of this, I am proud of myself, I am proud of this year, 2018.

 

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On Friendships | Thanksgiving Edition

Thoughts

It’s somehow Thanksgiving time again, and I’m finally taking a moment to pause, breathe, reflect on the last three months. This fall has been one of the the most confusing, heartbreaking, difficult seasons that I have ever had in my life, and yet I’m coming out of it still somehow in one piece.

I say “somehow,” but really, I know how: in the last three months, I have been reminded again and again of the incredible support system around me. And so today, on this day of thanks, when the world feels a little less whole and a little less right and yet the sun is still beaming outside – I have to take a moment and just be in awe at the different friendships that I’m lucky to call mine.

– Friendships of growth, ones that challenge me in so many different ways to think differently, to be better. They’re friends who care enough about me to speak the truth, even if that’s not what I want; friends who remind me not to be so hard on myself, that it’s okay to take a moment to feel the feels; friends who are passionate about causes and ideas I’d never even considered. Through these friends, I’ve realized that you can be a “lifelong learner” without even picking up a book.

– Friendships of hospitality, my friends who have opened their homes to me, without hesitation, offering me refuge even before I would admit I needed it. I’m thankful for the food, of course – homecooked meals of Chinese food and pancakes and cookies – but more thankful for the safe comfort of warm spaces to have conversations on anything and everything.

– Friendships of distance, and at the shared times that grounded these friendships so deeply that they could survive the distance. Not even just “survive” – they’re friendships that continue to thrive despite the distance, whether it’s across the country or across the globe. I’m thankful for these friends who can so easily put a smile on my face through just a text or a call, reminding me that maybe the world isn’t quite as big as I thought after all, reminding me that I am never alone.

– Friendships of circumstance, a circumstance we never wanted. And yet here we are, so easily settling into this pattern of texting each other when we’d really only tangentially known each other in years past. It has been so easy to love each other because of how much we love her, and it is in turn so easy to see why she loved every one of you.

– Friendships of forever – I’m talking about you, Meg. And you, Nirmam. I am learning day by day that I have not lost you, I will not ever lose you, because your words, your actions, your friendship lives on in so many things I do or aspire to do. And while of course I wish more than anything that I could actually talk to you, I’m taking a step back today to just be so damn thankful of the laughs we shared, the words you spoke, the unforgettable way in which you’ve touched my heart.

I could go on with more friendships I’m thankful for – new ones, rekindled ones, everyday ones, not to mention family (does family count as friends?) – but for once in my life I’m not too concerned with accidentally leaving out a person or a category. I think that’s what gratitude helps you do: you focus on what you have, and how amazing that makes you feel, and just soak in that moment without worry for anything else.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone – my heart is feeling more full right now than it has in a really long time, and my stomach is hoping to follow suit very soon. I’m so thankful for all of you!

On Different

Thoughts

Earlier this week, I was in Chinatown as I often am, meandering through the square as I debated which noodle shop would fulfill my craving. When I lived in Hong Kong, I had practiced the “art” of eating alone; I would force myself to go dine solo to get over the fear of a) what other people might think (spoiler: nobody cares) and b) of being alone (spoiler: it’s actually kind of fun).

It had been a while since I’d eaten out alone, so I was actually really looking forward to tucking in and allowing my mouth fully concentrate on eating, with zero interruptions for talking. Unfortunately, I was stopped by an obnoxious instrusion right before I got to the restaurant.

“NI-HAO,” a non-Asian man said tauntingly, with a weird, mocking wave.

My natural instinct to grin to a fellow human turned quickly into a tight-lipped smile; I broke eye contact and hurried ahead to my destination. I was no longer excited to eat, but rather already felt a bad taste in my mouth – all it took was a five-second interaction. The moment I sat down at the restaurant, I texted a friend: “Some asshole just waved to me and said nihao.”

As she expressed her horror at my little story, I began to try and process how I felt. I wished I’d stopped him and asked why he thought it was okay to do what he did. I wished I fully understood why it hurt; was it because he thought I didn’t speak English? Because it felt like he mocked my race, my culture? Judged me based on how I looked? Made me feel different, like I didn’t belong?

I even wondered if I was being sensitive. “He’s just ignorant,” I thought, “It’s just some idiot who seriously lacks exposure to diversity. It doesn’t matter.” But that didn’t feel right; I remembered a recent conversation with friends, where they were discussing a clear increase in the number of insensitive racial interactions they’d had since the election. One mentioned a visceral reaction to retort, start an altercation; this spoke volumes to me: these interactions, no matter how small they may seem…they hurt.

They hurt because they make you feel like you somehow don’t belong, as if being different is somehow bad. Like many immigrant children, I still remember how my classmates thought my lunches were “weird”; the comments ranged from harmless (“What’s that?”) to rude (“Ew, that looks gross!”) but consistently made me feel one way: different. Sadly, the tone of these little interactions taught me that “different” was actually “bad.” To this day, when I’m heating up a lunch that might elicit too many questions, I hide away in another room to eat it – even though my coworkers are awesome, a traumatized part of me still fears having to deal with feeling “different.”

Despite what we teach our kids, that different isn’t bad, the truth of the matter is that it’s not that easy. Sometimes, it’s as clear as day: an ignorant passerby who makes you feel deindividualized. But other times, it’s much more subtle, and you question whether you’re just imagining it: a subtle change of tone. A flash of incredulity. A glimpse of judgment. We say that different is good, that every person is free to be unique – but I’m not quite sure that we truly live that. I know that I frequently fail to be aware of my subconscious judgments, recognizing that I may feel like a victim but am also likely a perpetrator.

This isn’t the first “Ni-hao” I’ve received, nor will it be the last. And while I want better for the future, I’ve accepted that fact for now. In fact, I’m learning to appreciate that experiences like this remind me to pause, to think, to remember how it makes me feel. My ideal world is not one in which no one feels different, but one in which every one feels fully embraced for their differences. And one of the ways we can continue learning to do that is to slowly but surely increase our empathy; to remember what it feels like to be “different”; to recognize the negative emotions triggered; to know that we can do better for others around us.

As for ourselves? Now that I’m done practicing eating out alone, I’m going to start practicing feeling “different.” I want to be true to myself, unafraid to raise eyebrows, ready to flaunt that which makes me unique, so that I know I’m being honest the next time I tell someone that it’s really, truly, absolutely okay to be different.

Project: VISION

Chicago, Thoughts

Last week, I went to an open house hosted by Project: VISION, a local Chicago nonprofit that I began supporting this fall. PV provides after school programming to youth aged 12-18 in the Chinatown and Bridgeport neighborhoods; most of the students attend Chicago Public Schools and many are from first-generation immigrant families.

At the open house, I got to ask some of the students what they’d been up to over at the center. Some were receiving mentoring from Chicago professionals; others were being helped through college applications and FAFSA. A group of students told me about a recent exercise they’d completed that pushed them to think about their 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans.

“So what did you say was your 10-year plan?” I asked, curious to understand the mind of today’s 17-year-old.

“A stable job,” said one. “A doctor, lawyer, or a teacher,” replied another. “I want to be a father,” answered a third, as his friends laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. I noticed an easy camaraderie among them, three seniors in high school who were semi-anxiously awaiting the start of college admissions decisions. These didn’t seem like kids who just came to a center once a week to receive homework help; they seemed like friends, true friends.

“You guys said you go to different high schools, right? Would you say you’re better friends with your school friends or each other?” I wondered.

They smiled – somewhat bashfully – and all pointed at each other.

In that moment, I understood the power of a place like Project: VISION. It is a place full of resources to help middle and high school students navigate the next stage of life; it provides opportunities to learn, lead and serve – and yet it is so much more. Between the logistics of life that have to be completed, there is a space at PV – literally, and figuratively – that allows for relationships, for community, for belonging.

Some teenagers are able to find these friendships at school; others at places like Project: VISION. And still others are unable to find it at all. It could be due to a shyness that creates anxiety in social settings. It could be due to the lack of alternative opportunities like PV. It could be due to priorities like babysitting the family, priorities that take precedence because of the necessity to survive. It could be due to any number of different factors – but every young adult who wants the safety of community, who needs the comfort of belonging – they deserve a chance to have it.

I’m incredibly proud to support Project: VISION and all the work its staff does to provide students with the help and the skills they need to succeed. That the students I met at open house could point to each other as close friends is a beautiful testament to PV’s power in creating an alternative space for community. As these students begin their journeys to a stable job, a doctor / lawyer / teacher, and to becoming a father, I can’t help but smile knowing that they’ll have each other’s friendship through it all.

If you’d like to support the work at Project: VISION, click here to donate or message me to learn more! 

On Downtime

Thoughts

This weekend was filled with downtime. A little play on words here, but I think of ‘downtime’ in two ways: the first is what we’d typically think of – time to just settle down and hang out; the second is somewhat more literal – a time when you’re feeling just a bit down. Interestingly enough, I’ve learned that too much of the former downtime inevitably leads to the latter for me – it’s a repeated pattern, and one that I’m not sure is ‘healthy’ (spoiler: probably not).

Those life quotes about wisdom (you know, old-school memes) often differentiate between being ‘busy’ and being ‘productive.’ Starting from my time in New York, I’ve gotten into an unfortunate habit of conflating the two. Being fresh out of college and living in one of the biggest cities in the world, I kept myself incredibly busy with a determination to make the most of my new home. I made plans with friends, I volunteered through three different organizations, I even joined a rock choir – all with the goal of staying busy. Being busy served a dual purpose: it provided a facade of seeming productive, and it also ensured that I would never feel lonely during my time in the city.

Unfortunately, neither of these purposes was a healthy way to live life. Both were distractions from tackling the underlying fears, which were rooted in an insecurity about the general direction my life was taking. I was worried that I wasn’t living New York City life to the fullest. I was worried that I wasn’t taking steps to move forward in my career. I was worried that I would drift from friends if I didn’t see them often enough. I was worried that I would be missing out. I was worried that I would be lonely. And I was worried that – God forbid – I would be sitting there with nothing to do.

So for the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of minimizing downtime. When weekends like this past one come around, where I find myself with swaths of untouched time, I make plans to do productive things: read a nonfiction book to learn something, write a meaningful blog post, work on my career goals, even organize the bookshelves in my apartment. This weekend, I had all intentions of using the time to make progress in my personal life.

Instead, I sat around and read a semi-trashy fiction book. I stalked people on Facebook. I clicked around Reddit aimlessly.

By Sunday night, I was hit by the other kind of ‘downtime’ – that is, a time when I just felt a bit down. I felt upset that I hadn’t been productive, I felt upset that I hadn’t ‘accomplished’ anything (although, in my own defense, I cooked three giant batches of meals for the week, so I guess that’s better than nothing). What surprised me was how negative I felt after the weekend: rather than feeling relaxed, I was disappointed in myself and regretful at the ‘wasted’ time.

One of my goals this year is to be intentional about my downtime. Movements like Ariana Huffington’s Thrive are modeling that it’s okay to rest, that it’s imperative to avoid burnout; I don’t disagree. However, I do think that being intentional about downtime will be helpful in making the time more meaningful and actually restful. The next time I have a weekend of untouched time, I hope to go into it with some ideas on how to spend it so that it doesn’t just disappear into the dark abyss of the internet. It seems contradictory to have ‘planned’ downtime, but I believe that by planning it out, I’ll be setting myself up for greater productivity with the rest of my hours.

Here’s to actually enjoying future downtimes – the good kind – and for continued productivity!

On Confidence

Thoughts

Preface: This summer, I’ve been participating in Education Pioneers workshops as a Visiting Fellow. We were asked to share our leadership stories with our teams, so I cleaned mine up a bit and am sharing in this blog post. 

The very first time I remember feeling confident was as an emcee. I’d planned the entire program, from the exciting opening speech to the closing cake-cutting ceremony. My “captivated” audience – which consisted of my parents and my sister – laughed and clapped and participated at all the appropriate moments, filling my six-year-old self with pride at my success. My confidence extended to the classroom, where I won a sky-blue ribbon as the 1st grade calligraphy champion. I remember dashing along the streets near my home in Yokohama, excitedly showing the neighbors my proudest accomplishment to date. Then, my world changed.

For the next three years, my confidence waned as I struggled to learn English first in Canada, then in the United States. I failed to understand the directions for my ESL homework. I asked my 3rd grade teacher what “f***” meant in front of the class, who found it hysterical (I thought it was a bird, because it rhymed with duck). It wasn’t until I wrote an essay about flamingoes that things started to change.

My 5th grade teacher was the one who gave us the assignment to write an expository essay. When I received my flamingo paper back to see a “105% A+” on it, I was ecstatic. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I’d done something not only right but well – and in an English writing assignment at that. In fact, that entire year, my teacher made me feel like I could do anything; that I was smart; that I was skilled: a seed was planted because he had confidence in me. For that, to Mr. Gowler (who has since passed away), I will be forever grateful.

As I continued on through junior high and high school, I continued to receive external validation. I was now on the accelerated learning paths, which showed that my teachers thought I was smart (or at least good at testing).  I held leadership positions in different school clubs, which showed that my coaches thought I was somehow leadership-worthy. I was even voted Homecoming Queen my senior year (the ultimate “validation” for my 17-year-old self), which showed that my schoolmates thought I was kind of cool (let’s just assume that they counted the votes correctly).

By the time I graduated high school, I knew that I had a strong community that had confidence in me. I joke about high school being my glory days, and I hope that I didn’t peak in high school. However, it’s worth noting that those years will be the only time in my life where such a strong support system – my parents, my friends, my teachers, and other peers – were there for me daily in such close proximity (literally in a one-mile radius, because that’s how close I lived to school).

But talk about a big fish in a small pond: everything changed when I got to college. On the first day, freshmen were gathered in an auditorium and asked to raise our hands if we had been valedictorians at our high schools. Uncomfortable laughter bubbled through the room as we looked at one-another and realized that over half the audience had hands raised. And so at college, I found myself a mere B-average student; I got rejected from club tryouts and didn’t even bother running for leadership positions. Many other kids had that “it factor” that I once thought I had; seeing theirs only caused me to doubt myself. Moreover, there was the added social factor: what group did I fit in with, and who was my core community? I continued to sift through these questions as I graduated and moved to New York; in my two years there, I found that the city only made me feel smaller.

I appreciate how those years humbled me, serving to socialize me with the ‘real world,’ so to speak. But I can’t say I was too bummed to move past them when I found myself in Shanghai and having the absolute time of my life. I won’t get into it too much since I’ve already written about it, but that year in China helped me rediscover the essence of me – and be proud of it. I was in totally my element for many different reasons: culturally, socially, professionally, I felt so confident. And looking back, it was my time in Asia that helped me to put together the final piece of the confidence puzzle: in order for it to be complete, I had to believe in myself. I had to have confidence in me. 

My 5th grade teacher first gave me confidence, and my community helped to confirm it. But similar to motivation, confidence isn’t sustainable unless it comes from within. Luckily, I was given the incredible opportunity to be in a place that encouraged me to be the best me that I could be, which bestowed on me a sense of confidence that was not only deep but also sustainable. I work in education because everyone should have access to the three pieces of this puzzle:

  • Every child should have access to a teacher, a mentor, a someone – just one at the very least – who plants that seed of confidence, who believes in that student more than the student himself.
  • Every child should have access to a community, whether it be comprised of parents, teachers, friends, mentors. And despite the gaps – absent parents, lack of friends – the community will rally together to give a student confidence, stronger together.
  • Every child should have access to opportunities that helps him develop confidence in himself, so that even when the world knocks him down, he believes in himself enough to get right back up again.

In my day-to-day, it’s easy to forget the reason I work where I do as I get bogged down by Powerpoints and spreadsheets. But in taking the time to reflect on my why, I remember my personal North Star: it’s not enough to blab on about how blessed I am because blessings are nothing if not shared with others. I have the confidence now to pursue what I believe matters – to set our students up in systems where they can find their own confidence, so that one day they can pursue what they believe matter.

Uber Driver

Chicago

We rushed along Michigan Avenue, dodging the tourists that milled about leisurely. I looked down at my phone, checking the license plate number of our Uber. “She said she’s in a silver car,” I told my boyfriend, scanning the road for our ride. We were cutting it close for getting to Ogilvie to catch the train that would take us to the suburbs. Finally, we found the Uber, slamming the door behind us as we breathlessly greeted our driver.

“How are y’all doing today?” she asked cheerfully. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how, but the conversation veered away from generic niceties about the weather to specifics about her Englewood neighborhood. “I like Uber because it gets me out of there,” our driver commented, her tone matter-of-fact. “You could be sitting outside on your porch for 2-3 minutes and you’ll hear gunshots.”

My jaw dropped, unsure whether this was an exaggeration. I had heard that Englewood could get ‘bad’ – but I didn’t really know what ‘bad’ meant. “Are you serious?” I asked, and our driver continued talking. “Yeah, I’m serious. They rob people, too, but I would be pissed if they robbed me because I ain’t got no money. If they want the lint from my pockets, I’d tell ’em, ‘You can have the lint.'” We laughed with her when she said that, and the mood lightened.

She continued. “You know, I love driving Uber. I get to meet all kinds of people when I drive, from all over the world, and learn stuff. It gets me out of Englewood and I get to see parts of Chicago I never even knew about, which is crazy ’cause I’ve lived here my entire life.” I nodded, appreciating that sentiment – one which I’d heard from other Uber drivers as well.

“I never even knew we had two airports in Chicago before I started driving Uber,” she declared as she turned a corner.

“WHAT?” I reacted, failing to hide my shock. As an immigrant, I’d come by way of O’Hare; the airport was literally where I’d taken my first few steps in the Chicagoland area.

“Yep,” she nodded, her face breaking out into a grin. “Like I said, I love Uber. If I ever meet the guy who started Uber, I’d just go up to him and squeeze his little nubbins.” My boyfriend chortled next to me at the mental image of Travis Kalanick having his cheeks pinched.

I mulled over that conversation for days afterwards, unable to fully digest just how different my life was from that of our Uber driver. It was more than the differences found in our skin colors, in our jobs, in our current life stages (she was a mother, she told us; “I tell all my kids they gotta be good people”). These were obvious; loud, external contrasts that already carried whole hosts of implications – right or wrong – about our lives.

It was her statement about the airports that struck me: the tiny, specific fact that so clearly delineated the vast disparity in the ways we’d both experienced this journey called life. Chicago has two airports: a fact I didn’t realize I’d learned; just one that I’d “known” for as long as I’d been here. And yet here I was, talking to someone who had been in Chicago her entire life – much longer than me – who was, until the last year, unaware of this detail that I’d never given a second thought to.

The disparity makes me feel uncomfortable; I feel guilty that I fly for leisure multiple times a year while she’s just grateful to get out of Englewood driving Uber. It makes me feel spoiled and so out-of-touch with what “reality” might mean for another human being; it makes me feel like a hypocrite about the bubble I live in while I work for an organization that serves neighborhoods like Englewood. I should be more thankful for all that I have, that I’ve experienced – but the inequality makes me judge the parts of me that has taken everything in my life for granted.

But conversations like this are the ones that push us to grow: in understanding the most nuanced details that make us so different, we forge empathy. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that we must face head-on. Despite not quite grasping how that conversation impacted me, I know that it has at least forced me to pause and reflect; and for that, I owe that Uber driver from Englewood.