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.

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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.

Two Masseuses

Hanoi

My friend and I were tired. After waiting and waiting at the customs of Noi Bai Airport for our respective visas to be issued, we’d taken a late car back to the Airbnb we were staying in. Airbnb was a loose term for it; like many other listings I’d encountered in searching Hanoi accommodations, this was actually a small hotel using Airbnb to advertise its empty rooms. Regardless, the room was perfectly fine for the $20USD total we’d each paid to stay for a quick girls’ weekend, and we made quick arrangements for “in-room massages” as advertised by the hotel’s front desk.

A knock on the door the next day signaled the arrival of our two masseuses. The moment the massages began, so did the conversation. “Where are you from?” My masseuse asked. She was the talkative one; her colleague listened quietly to all of our answers. “America,” we answered, little knowing that this would only be the first of a barrage of questions. The noise in the room grew as the minutes passed by; I glanced over to see my friend’s masseuse chatting away on the phone, continuing to “massage” with only one hand.

My annoyance grew as the incessant interrogation grew invasive (‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asked, “What is your job?”) and the experience quickly deteriorated from the relaxing massages we’d hoped for. I was relieved when it was over, cringing as the masseuse stepped on my pillows with her bare feet in order to get off the bed and leave.

But the two masseuses did not leave, looking at us expectantly. “We’re paying at the front desk,” I explained, “This will be added to our bill when we check out.” They shared a glance, and my masseuse insisted, “You pay us now.” I thought perhaps she did not understand due to a language barrier; I explained again: “We signed up for the service through the hotel, and it will be billed with our rooms.”

She stared right at me, her partner silent. “You tip us, now.”

Finally, I understood: they were waiting to be tipped in cash and had seemingly no intent to leave the room until we paid up. My anger grew at their entitled expectation: given the lackluster experience that I’d just had, calculating a justified tip was the last thing I wanted to feel pressured to do. And yet I knew I was also being obstinate: quality or not, the difference a few dollars would make to me versus to our masseuses was more than significant. What was more important to me: the principle and perceived value (“deservingness”, I suppose), or compassion and generosity?

The masseuses stayed in our room for a long time as we argued back and forth. I refused to back down and became increasingly stubborn as the masseuses grew increasingly aggressive and insistent. In the end, I don’t even remember how we got them to leave – but I do remember that it wasn’t because we tipped them on the spot.

When my friend and I think back to that experience, we say, “Hey, remember that time we had those terrible masseuses?” But I wonder sometimes: why did I prioritize my need to feel “justified” over paying up a few extra dollars to someone who really needed it?

Taxi Driver

Shanghai

I slid into the backseat of the taxi, slamming the door behind me. “Beijing West Road and Xizang Road,” I told the driver. “Beijing West Road and Xizang Road!” He repeated my destination cheerfully and put the meter down to start the ride.

It was late into the evening, and the radio played old Chinese songs as we drove along the brightly lit streets of beautiful Shanghai. The music was ceaselessly interrupted by the Didi app, aka the reason Uber failed in China. “Ding ding! Huaihai Road and Ruijin Road!” “Ding ding! Nanjing Road and Maoming Road!” The taxi driver ignored the ride requests, humming along to the radio; after a while, the Didi sounds blended as percussion into the symphony of sounds on the drive.

Suddenly, the blaring ringtone of the taxi driver’s phone interrupted. “Hello,” he answered.

“Shifu,” a young man said, calling driver ‘master’ as was common with the more polite youth in the city. “I’m the friend of the girl you just dropped off, Shifu, the one who forgot her wallet. I can pay you back now, I’m at the corner near where you just dropped her off – can you come here?” The conversation turned into one of figuring out meeting logistics and I sat in the back, quietly listening.

As soon as the call ended, I piped up. “Shifu, how did you know she was going to pay you back? What if she was just lying and you never got your money for driving her?” He laughed and shrugged. “It’s just 20 RMB – really, not a lot of money. It’s not a big deal, it’s just money, right?”

His attitude both surprised and touched me; in a city – country, really – where I was wary of being scammed or ripped off, his words felt an anomaly. But that was exactly the point: every moment I’ve spent in any town, any city, any country, I am taught over and over again that the people who make up its population are so incredibly unique. Some may be selfish, but others will be generous; some are out to scam me – but others are out to help.

My imperfect human tendency to generalize a culture, a people, a city was and is always being challenged and rebuked; this I owe to the intricacies of the human beings like the taxi driver that I met – if only for a ten-minute ride across central Shanghai.