On Circuit Breaker

Thoughts

A few days before Circuit Breaker was going to end (well, technically enter Phase 2, but let’s face it, Phase 1 still felt like a CB-extension), I had a strange realization: I kind of didn’t want it to end.

I started testing my thoughts with a few of my friends here: “Is it crazy…that I already miss CB?” I mostly got replies of horror, mixed with immediate shushing: “Don’t you even SAY those words,” they admonished. It’s now been five whole days in Singapore of relative normality; we can legally gather in groups of up to 5 at restaurants and host up to 5 guests in our homes. While it has of course been lovely to see people again freely and start eating out at restaurants, I’m also determined to retain some of the things I learned during Circuit Breaker – both about myself and about the world around me.

My roommates and I used to discuss how we’d sum up our Circuit Breaker experience in three words. To celebrate the Easter holiday, we’d ordered a cake from a local baker that I’d found in a Facebook group for supporting local businesses during COVID-19. This was the start of one of our words – “cake” – because we began a ritual of sharing cake and tea, sitting around our large dining table, the three of us voicing thoughts and jokes and opinions and memories. In honor of this tradition, I’m going to sum up my CB experience using some words:

1. Steps. For 71 days – from April 7th through this past Sunday, June 21st – I made it a goal to get at least 10,000 steps every single day. Some days, this involved doing YouTube videos inside or walking in circles around a living room; other days, I went on runs (read: long walks), even in the rain, to hit that 10,000 minimum. Over those 71 days, I walked a total of 989,532 steps – an average of 13,927 per day. My obsession with steps culminated this past weekend in a 33 km / 20 mile walk from one end of Singapore to another (this took over 50,000 steps); after getting home at 3AM from this 10-hour walk, I finally allowed myself to rest up on Monday without hitting the minimum 10,000. It felt fitting to wrap up my step streak with the end of CB; I credit this random goal with keeping me accountable for not becoming a potato and giving me something small to ‘accomplish’ every day. This also helped me to stave off calories, which leads me to…

2. Kopi. On Instagram, I’ve been posting about the beverage stall uncle at our local hawker center. We were allowed to go out for essentials during CB, which included getting food and drinks, so I would visit this stall quite frequently. As he started to recognize me, the uncle began to joke around whenever I came: if I arrived late in the day, he’d tease me that I was sleeping in too late, and if I ordered more than one kopi – sometimes I’d get an additional one or two for my roommates – he’d wonder aloud whether I could drink all three. Occasionally, he’d wistfully tell me that soon, we’d be able to sit down in the hawker center to enjoy kopi. Visiting this beverage uncle became something I genuinely looked forward to between Zoom classes; this was as close to being a ‘regular’ as I could become in such a strange period of time. Asking the uncle for my kopi-c kosong or a kopi siew dai (always bing!) made me feel more intimately immersed in local Singapore life, which leads me to…

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kopi uncle called me ‘granddaughter!’ when we took this photo

3. Culture. I have to say that there is nothing quite like deep-diving into another country’s culture than living abroad during a global pandemic. While opinions differ wildly among my peers about the way Singapore’s government handled COVID-19, I felt like I lived through a crash course in better understanding the way Singaporean society functions. There’s a high sense of collective responsibility and accountability; it was fascinating to hear the opinions of my classmates, who come from all over the world. Some felt that it was unnecessary, stifling, even Big-Brother-ish, to have this degree of vigilance (and sometimes social shaming), while others admired the government’s actions as efficient and thorough, praising the obedient society. I felt my views constantly challenged as I attempted to reconcile the tensions between Western and Eastern perspectives. Talking about this happened in many different forms, which leads me to…

4. Conversations. I’m so thankful for the conversations I had with people throughout this Circuit Breaker period. I had long, get-to-know-you Zoom chats with peers I hadn’t gotten to talk to in person. Acquaintances and classmates turned into friends via chatting on Telegram throughout class (much to the detriment of my grades, but definitely worth it). I grew through meaningful conversations with good friends about many, many, different topics; I even had several disagreements – which forced me to practice holding crucial conversations. I noticed myself being increasingly judgmental through my chats and am actively trying to improve on this growth area. I loved sitting around the dinner table with my positive, drama-free, kindhearted roommates, ordering in food together and congregating after our days spent ‘apart’ on our respective laptops. I’m so deeply thankful to the people in my life over the last three months for keeping me sane and grounded. And I had weekly Google Hangouts with my family – something I didn’t make the time to do when we were at school in-person. In fact, CB forced me to redesign how I was spending my time, which leads me to…

5. Purpose. So many things occurred during CB that pushed me to think about how I wanted to live my life. There was the obvious fact that I am so lucky to be healthy, safe, and well, living off of savings in a relatively stress-free environment; I became acutely aware of my privilege and hope I continue to remember this frequently. The BLM movement back home also pushed me to hold myself accountable for taking real action on matters that matter, no longer using “being abroad” as an excuse for inaction. During CB, I got involved in several courses and activities – taking leadership positions in the education and social impact clubs, starting an internship and a project with two different edtechs, winning our SDG bootcamp with an idea for a socioemotional-development tool, and entering a global social innovation competition (which we recently received some good news on!). These activities reinforced my desire to have a long-term career in social impact and education. I found myself spending nearly 20 hours on making a music video that included as many people as possible from our INSEAD 20D class, and I remembered how important it is to me to build communities and enable inclusivity. Finally, I reflected a lot (through conversations, Instagram, and of course, blog posts) – and hope to always make time in my life to do this.

When COVID-19 first started changing our lives, there were many attempts to reframe the situation to be ‘positive’ – about learning new skills, finding peace and quality time, being thankful for our loved ones who were safe from the disease. And yet by reframing – or even just seeing the positives – we risk losing sight of the nature of this tragedy, the myriad lives gone, the jobs lost, the people affected. In fact, early on, I made a tone-deaf comment to some friends back home, asking whether anyone was maybe ‘enjoying’ this lockdown period. And now, post-CB, I’m already quickly getting sucked back into the world of spending too much time socializing and not enough time getting important work done.

In writing this post, I’m hoping to document my experience so that, when I refer back to it in a post-COVID world, I can recall my individual experience – remembering that I must stay disciplined, listen to locals, understand the culture, hold conversations, and remain focused on purpose – to be empathetic, ultimately to wield my privilege and resulting power to make the world a slightly better place.

On Snails

Thoughts

The first time it happened, I didn’t even realize what I had done.

“You just KILLED a SNAIL,” Sonia declared, raising her eyebrows in reprimand.

It slowly dawned on me that the crunch under my right foot was not, in fact, a giant dry leaf. I cringed in horror as I realized that I’d stepped – no, stomped (being lightfooted is not one of my strengths) – on a large meandering snail that was minding its own business.

A snail shell acts to protect the snail’s body, including its heart and organs; it helps to retain the snail’s moisture. While the shell, which can be compared to a human’s nail, can still serve its purpose despite small cracks and holes, when it is crushed completely…the snail can dry out and die.

So when I realized that I had killed a snail, not just that first night, but a few more sickening, unexpected, dreadful “crunch” sounds after that, I vowed to become more careful. I began looking at the ground more as I went out on my nighttime runs, scanning the shadows on the sidewalk and attempting to navigate what felt like a snail landmine.

Frankly speaking, I feel like I’ve become quite the expert navigator over these past few months. I’ve been constantly navigating around my work, my relationships, my thoughts, cognizant of the fragility of it all. It feels exactly like stepping on a snail shell: if I don’t pay attention, I move so quickly through each day, and before I know it, I’ve broken a shell that I didn’t even see in front of me. And sometimes when the shell is broken, what’s underneath gets exposed: a heart that’s fighting hard as hell to make it through this objectively challenging time, refusing to become drained, daring to find purpose, striving to survive.

In fact, it feels like there have been so many so-called snails on this recent path, each with a shell more delicate than the next. It started, of course, when the rising COVID cases finally triggered the circuit breaker (read: lockdown) in Singapore. Week after week, we made the best of Zoom classes; some of us by sleeping, others of us by chatting more on Telegram, all of us – at the time – daring to hope that an end was in sight. I navigated this the best way I knew how: by deep-diving into relationships, engaging in endless walks and Zoom catchups and Telegram messages. To me, the value of my MBA experience was teetering on this fine line between tragically wasted and necessarily redesigned. I chose the latter because it empowered me; in creating my own joy and carefully selecting my surroundings, I softened the blow of this less-than-ideal year – although I acknowledged that, at any moment, this thin shield might be broken, and the crushing weight of a broken year might come crashing down.

Every day of these past three months, I have understood this fact: if I don’t navigate this time carefully, intentionally, gently, it is too easy for something fragile to be broken, and these days, everything feels pretty freaking fragile. The spirits of my classmates, as we repeat grim conversations about this seemingly endless circuit breaker and its impact on our MBA. The relationships we’ve developed, as people make decisions about staying or going, truncating friendships that perhaps might’ve blossomed in a different time. And even – especially? – the impressions we’ve built of each other, to each other: with limited physical interaction and heightened emotional tensions, impressions have become particularly fragile as it is harder to give generous assumptions and easier to just judge. Finally, the farewells: delicately crafting each goodbye to adequately honor the friendship, enough so that the goodbye is meaningful, but not so much that it is too painful.

The fragility is apparent in the plans of my friends, who smile through the disappointment as they postpone weddings to next year and move baby showers online. It manifests in how quickly my eyes well up when I start missing the people I should miss, and also missing the people I shouldn’t. It’s present in conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, as I find myself tiptoeing and wordsmithing despite knowing that it’s not about me. It shows in our reactions to the movement itself: the tears we’ve shed from oceans away, frustrated that no amount of donations or discussions will bring change about quickly enough, pained that we can’t be back home to march alongside people we love.

I have been so focused on navigating these matters of the heart, recognizing that this is precisely what makes all of this so fragile: when you care about something deeply, you open your heart up to become particularly vulnerable, and tender, and exposed. It’s not about avoiding sadness, but about keeping the heart healthy so that it can continue to feel sadness, and joy, and disappointment, and hope, and most importantly of all, so that it can continue to care. So I continue to navigate through the landmine: whether it’s a snail’s shell or a delicate shield over my spirit, I’ll do what I can to keep it safe from being crushed. Because it’s worth the extra emotional labor to look out for what’s ahead, to be conscious of where I tread, ensuring that I can keep trudging along…even if it’s as slow as a snail.

Yesterday, I got off the phone with my grandparents and burst into tears, for no other reason than that I simply miss them so much and am desperate for China to open its borders so I can visit. “We miss you so much,” my grandfather said, “We keep counting how many more times we’ll get to see you. Maybe once, maybe a few more times. Who knows how long we’ll live.” For the first time in a long while, I was sent over the edge; no amount of careful navigation can save you from the heartbreak of loss, even if it’s hypothetical. And yet – even though I’m exhausted from all the emotions that have come with these past few months, I also feel stronger than ever, confident that I’ve kept my heart safe for the matters that matter, and that I will keep inching on until the end of this time.

Photo Credit: I spent an hour and a half outside looking for a snail to take a photo of, and I couldn’t find one on the one day that I needed one (of course). A quick Google search taught me that they are actually nocturnal, so thanks Miao for having this photo at the ready! 

On Bubbles

Thoughts

On Sunday night, I flew back into Singapore from Myanmar – making it in 24 hours before the expanded Stay-at-Home requirement issued by the Singapore government went into effect (the expansion added ASEAN countries to the previous list of countries from which travelers were required to stay at home upon entering Singapore). I was dreading flying back: I hadn’t purchased a data plan while in Myanmar, and so it was so very easy to become fully immersed in the sights, experiences, and people – in effect, willfully and blissfully ignorant of the incessant coronavirus updates coming in from the INSEAD community and the Singapore government.

Since I love elephants, let me address the one in the room: I probably shouldn’t have been traveling in the first place. But here in Singapore, we’d already been taking precautionary measures for months; we’d booked this trip in anticipation of celebrating the end of our first set of final exams; and when we left for the airport on Wednesday of last week, the virus seemed under control here in Asia. I never, for a second, considered pulling out of the trip, and even as my dad expressed his disapproval upon finding out about it yesterday morning, I found myself justifying my actions, using the excuse that “everyone else” was traveling as well. Call it herd mentality, optimism bias, or even stupidity – in fact, as I reflect on what my actions say about my priorities and values, I can only conclude that it’s probably just plain old selfishness.

I’d love to claim that the selfishness is an act of self-preservation during these trying times, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t want to leave Myanmar because I felt so insulated from the corona-drama around me; I loved being in this peaceful bubble, surrounded by pagodas in Bagan and by water in Inle. When we were riding our electric bikes through the dirt backroads, I felt so carefree as the wind blew past me, as if coronavirus didn’t exist. As our boats floated through the houses-on-stilts of Inle Lake, I felt worlds away from the onset of urgency that awaited us back in Singapore, the debates around classes moving online and students arriving from France. And even after we learned that our dean was the first INSEADer to test positive for COVID-19, I was determined to stay in the bubble of colonial buildings and street art and one final temple during our last day in Yangon.

I briefly wondered if the people living in Inle Lake knew about coronavirus; the people we saw selling produce, weaving lotus stems, building boats and fishing the lake seemed to go about their daily business, entertaining us tourists from the moment our boat floated up to their homes until the moment we left (seldom making any purchases). I thought to myself, again, how it felt like we were in a bubble away from the rest of the world, and I worried about how the village would survive if one of us tourists somehow brought coronavirus to them, and I realized how easy it would be to burst that bubble of peace, of safety, of ignorance.

With all the resources I have – my network, education, technology – this ignorance can only be called willful, albeit blissful; I have no excuse. And I have a proclivity for bubbles: during my year in Shanghai, I distinctly remember taking full advantage of the hedonistic China bubble I lived in, thoroughly enjoying a break from thinking about race, politics, or anything that exerted pressure on my civic duty as an American citizen. While I’ve always been involved in some form of volunteering, it wasn’t until I started working at LEAP Innovations in Chicago that I cognitively began to appreciate and value the importance of pushing myself to live outside the bubble. Because how beautiful the world becomes, when each of us ventures outside of our bubbles, and we all come together to tackle collective challenges – of a relentless coronavirus, of undeniable climate change, of the vicious cycles of poverty, of access to quality education.

I firmly believe that getting outside of my bubble is something I’ll continuously struggle with for the rest of my life. It is not only easy to find myself in bubbles – of INSEAD, of MBAs, of the corporate world, of people who share my values and perspectives, of environments that allow me to disregard social responsibilities – it is not only easy, but oftentimes preferred because it’s also fun, usually pleasant. And yet I’m confident that a life like this would be utterly unfulfilling, although of course there will be times that it is necessary to take a break, to think of yourself, to be selfish with your time and energy and love in the name of self-preservation. So despite being reluctantly back from my bubble (by the way, I also essentially ignored the Ronhingya crisis during my ‘vacation’ in Myanmar, which is just another example of how even within my bubble, I filtered my experience), I now also feel prepared to engage in the crisis happening around me, making decisions that I believe is right – this time, not only for myself, but also for those around me. Above all, I’m thankful to have friends who are willing to push me outside of my bubble and challenge me when I’m being lazy or selfish, making this journey feel a lot less alone and a little more manageable.

On Cliques, Coronavirus, and Closure

Thoughts

Somehow, in the span of just a month, I feel like I’ve lived another year’s worth of thoughts and emotions. I came to Singapore and to INSEAD on a personal high after an upwards climb during 2019, capped by a rejuvenating volunteer trip in Kenya, treasured time with family in China, and of course an irreplaceable last few months with my community in Chicago. I felt secure in my relationships, confident in my identity, and proud of my growth over the last year.

That lasted for about a week into my business school journey. The first thing that shook me was the emergence of cliques: their general existence at INSEAD, whether or not I was part of one, whether or not I would or could or should be a part of one. For the first few days, I reassured myself by remembering the people I love back home: my own tribe of mentors, my “personal board of directors” – friends who had have seen me at my best and my worst, who oftentimes know me better than I know myself. And yet even this anchor I knew I had wasn’t heavy enough to keep me steady as waves of insecurity washed over me in these first few weeks. Every time I heard about a hangout I wasn’t invited to or a Telegram group I wasn’t a part of, I wondered whether people liked me – even though I knew, cognitively, that it was impossible to become friends with everyone. Now, a month in, I’ve become more comfortable with my individual relationships here; I still get bouts of feeling left out but I’m also feeling much more myself again. I designed my social life around my specific needs – finding like-minded individuals who are excited about self-development, world impact, and everything in between; holding personal conversations over 1:1 chats to supplement the huge group hangouts; getting off campus to play hockey, see non-INSEAD friends, and remember that life very much exists outside this business school bubble.

The second thing that shook me was the arrival of Coronavirus – not of the virus itself, but of the social and political conversations that came with it. The last time I lived in Asia, I had a renewed sense of confidence in my identity as simultaneously Chinese, American, and even a little bit Japanese. So when news of the virus spread and general fear began to straddle Sinophobia, I felt angry and defensive. We received surveys asking us to self-report if we’d been in “close proximity” with anyone who had traveled to China recently. The question was worded in a way where the entire student body began questioning whether to self-quarantine, recalling their recent interactions: after all, hadn’t we been interacting with the Chinese students who had just moved here for school, like the rest of us? As the virus spread across the world, I read more articles and heard more conversations – many of them blaming “the Chinese” as an entity, implicating a population that includes citizens who by no fault of their own had caught the illness. China isn’t perfect, but it’s important to recognize that not all of its citizens are eating “exotic,” “weird,” or “disgusting” meats; that its tourists are not all infected with Coronavirus and out to bring it to other countries; that its government, while flawed, is not as malicious as Western media often makes it out to be. I’m really lucky to be in a diverse student body that’s made up of nearly 70 nationalities with many, many different perspectives, and I hope that this year pushes me and my classmates to continue having difficult conversations while challenging the stereotypes we hold – especially during times like these. On the one hand, being both Chinese and American is a privilege I could leverage into having more open conversations, and yet I’m struggling to channel my emotions into productive actions that might help broaden perspectives and deepen empathy.

Finally, I’ve had to face the hard truth that starting a new chapter doesn’t mean closing the old. Life here is stupidly stimulating; there is no shortage of socializing, schooling, and schmoozing – all excellent distractions. But I worked really hard last year to lean into everything I felt: the grief, the pain, the loss, the uncertainty, the hope, the joy – and the guilt of leaving it all behind. So it’s honestly been a real piece of work to somehow reconcile the two: allowing myself to fully live in the moment here while stopping to catch my breath when I need it. The hardest moments here in Singapore have been those moments when I just miss Meghana, or I think about the breakup, wishing that the heart would just heal faster and wondering if it ever fully will. These are the moments when I feel most alone, not because I don’t have anyone to talk to – on the contrary, friends here have been an absolute dream in offering listening ears – but because those memories are so deeply personal. I don’t really want to admit this, but a maybe-subconscious part of me wanted to just leave it all behind in Chicago and gain closure of sorts on that part of my life. Unsurprisingly, that’s really not how life works, and, knowing me, that’s not really how I work either. If anything, closure feels artificial and arbitrary, and these memories of people I loved are a part of my story, whether I’m in Chicago or in Singapore. And when I think of it that way…I think of this quote by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

It’s only the start of 2020, and I know there will be many, many more learnings to come. In the meantime, I’m trying to be brave, vulnerable, and authentic, fully aware that I’m in an environment where I’ll be challenged constantly on all three fronts. I can’t wait to look back at this in December of this year and reflect on all that will happen between now and then. Here’s to the rest of my time at INSEAD, the rest of my time in Singapore (who knows how long that will be), and the rest of 2020!

On Food

Thoughts

Happy post-Thanksgiving! I’m a few days late, but it’s the perfect recipe for another blog post right now: it’s a time I should be sleeping (been up since 3AM…thanks jetlag!), it’s a time when I feel reflective (transitions to come), and it’s a time that I feel pretty emotional (a common side effect of visiting my family in China).

I left Dalian on Saturday evening. The previous night, after another three hours of mahjong – we’d played mahjong for hours every night for the entire week – I came out of the bathroom after having brushed my teeth to find my grandma rummaging through the freezer. It was midnight.

“Lao Lao, what on earth are you doing? I thought we said we were going to bed five minutes ago!”

Without turning her head, she explained, “Your Lao Ye said you wanted to eat ‘mian xian’ tomorrow for breakfast, so I’m looking for shrimp that he can put in it.”

Exasperated, my mom and I waited until Lao Lao found what she was looking for; we knew she wouldn’t stop until she did. Luckily, it didn’t take long – and sure enough, the next morning, the shrimp proudly topped the steaming bowl of needle noodles that my grandpa made for my last breakfast in Dalian. Despite his shaking hands and slow movements, Lao Ye insisted on cooking for me himself. He completed the noodle soup from his native Fuzhou with an egg and stuffed fishballs, the way it’s traditionally made: “My mom would make this for me every morning growing up,” he told me as I ate.

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My whole life, I’ve loved food. I’m not exaggerating: this trip, my grandma recounted the story, again, of sneaking noodles to me when I was just a few months old because baby me wouldn’t stop staring at the food until she did. In Philly, I started exploring different cuisines through restaurant week; in New York, I tackled a list of 100 cheap eats; in Shanghai and Hong Kong, I photographed each mouthwatering dish; in Chicago, I even became a Yelp Elite (not anymore, since I got lazy) and used the a la card to try new restaurants.

And throughout all of those years, every time I visited my family in China, it has been the same routine: every meal is deliberately planned around what I (and my sister, and my parents) like to eat. In fact, I almost feel like I’ve been conditioned to elevate the importance of food, feeding (pun intended) my innate affinity for eating. Because my whole life, that’s also been how I’ve been shown love by my family.

Love is…

    • When my paternal grandma, Nai Nai, sent an insane amount of milk tablets back with my dad when he visited because she remembered that we loved them;
    • When my dad’s younger brother, Xiao Shu, snuck us to street vendor lamb kabobs because he knew that we were obsessed with lamb kabobs;
    • When my cousin Shan Shan takes me to hot pot or barbecue every single time I see her, laughing at how I’m a true “Liu” because of how much I love meat;
    • When my mom’s younger brother Jiu Jiu takes us to the fish and produce market every day of our visit, buying too much of everything and cooking it to perfection – better than any restaurant;
    • When his wife, Jiu Ma, stocks the fridge with ‘suan nai’ – yogurt – knowing how quickly my sister and I will devour the pouches;
    • When Lao Ye ignores Jiu Jiu’s pleas not to go out (worried about Lao Ye’s age) because he insists on taking the bus to go buy ‘dou fu nao’ – savory tofu soup – at 7AM so it would be ready when we woke up;
    • When Lao Lao climbs back out of bed at midnight to make sure that the right ingredients were available for that traditional needle noodle soup that her oldest grandchild wanted for breakfast in the morning

It’s the incessant thoughtfulness of remembering exactly which foods we like, no matter how long it’s been since we last visited. It’s the unnecessary self-denial of saving the tastiest snacks in anticipation for our visits, even if it’s six months away. It’s the insistent commands for us to take the best, biggest, last bites of every dish. It’s the meticulous effort put into finding the freshest ingredients, even if it takes extra trips to the market. It’s the loving heart put into creating each dish – from the simplest of steamed eggs to sauerkraut dumplings that are wrapped one by one – no matter how busy, how tired, how old the chef may be.

I was so grateful to spend this Thanksgiving in China with my extended family, feasting on crabs and shrimp and oysters and fish – a port city, Dalian is known for its seafood – instead of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Jiu Jiu had taken us to the market again that afternoon, buying whatever we pointed at while expertly navigating stalls for the freshest hauls. And I saw it again: love, delivered through actions, manifested through the meal on the table that evening.

Like every other time I’ve visited China, there’s a hole in my heart from just missing my family already: I hate being so far away from them. But, like every other time, I’m also so full, filled to the brim with my favorite foods and love from my favorite people in the entire world. Until next time, Dalian!

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On Kenya

Thoughts

“So, how was Kenya?”

Even before I returned, I started to dread answering this question. How do you adequately encapsulate an experience that left you on an inexplicable high, in a way that is meaningful and non-cliche? In the past nearly week since I’ve been back in Chicago, my mind has run endlessly through the different memories from my twelve days in Kenya, bouncing from gratitude to longing to wonder to joy – blobs of feelings that refused to be synthesized.

I know I laughed a lot, laughed really hard and really frequently. Whether it was hanging out in the volunteer house (which felt like a reality TV show) or bouncing around for hours in the safari van (which requires a surprising amount of arm strength), there was always something to laugh about. It ranged from mistaken names (Ibrahim, Hostage) to miscounted lions (ugh); from love-hate bromances (“Kiss!”) to love-love rafikis (Wakanda Forever!); from mercilessly making fun of each other to seamlessly syncing in unexpected circumstances – laughing even when we had to get out of our van in the middle of the Maasai Mara to push it out of the mud. If laughter is medicine for the soul, my soul could probably stock the entire medicine section of the Carrefour that we shopped around together on our first day – the memory of this bizarre adult field trip still makes me want to laugh until “crocodile tears roll down my cheeks, forming the number eleven” (one of many entertaining phrases we read while grading essays at school).

I learned to become comfortable just rolling with things – we established quite early on that there were many details about the program that weren’t clear, from the address of the volunteer house (much to my mother’s chagrin) to our specific placements. But as they say, “Hakuna Matata” – an attitude that I grew quite fond of in my time there, a way of living that forces you to let go of planning and trust that all would be okay. When Ayub, our school director, took out a good chunk of his morning to unexpectedly take Dave to the hospital on our second day volunteering, I marveled at someone so busy being so flexible and generous with his time. Going with the flow kept things exciting: I didn’t know when an NVS staff member would show up to the house to say hi; I didn’t know what time I was technically supposed to be at school every day; I didn’t know what we were expected to teach in music class or even how many students would show up. But each unknown turned into an opportunity to build trust with those around me, having faith that we’d figure things out eventually, and together.

I also had to be honest with myself about my volunteer experience when I realized that I’d really only be teaching music for a total of 3 days (Monday was orientation and Thursday was Bible Study). This was my second foray into voluntourism, and I felt pressured to come out on the other end with a life-altering experience rooted in deep bonds with the community – in this case, with the kids and the teachers at school. As it turned out, I was only at KAG Olympic for a total of 3.5 days (I tagged along to the hospital for half a day). And while I adored the 3-year-old “babies,” their lunch leaders (Steven and Grantu), the 5th grade music class (Daisy, Gloria, and others), and the lovely Olympic staff (thank you for the chapati, chai, and conversations!), realistically, I felt that my short stay limited the depth to which I would bond with the people at school. I hated the fact that leaving on Friday was not as excruciating as other farewells I’ve bid, that there’s even room for doubt whether a piece of my heart was left in Kenya. I’m sad that I didn’t forge the same emotional bonds in Kibera as I have formed through other similar experiences, and this feeling is only compounded by the fleeting nature of the impact of a short-term volunteer.

I recognized discomfort several times – not so much from being in a new country, but from a heightened sense of awareness of my own reactions to what I saw. Walking through the Kibera slum left me with many mixed feelings – it was uncomfortable ‘touring’ the area because, as Ekaitz put it, “It doesn’t feel great to make a spectacle out of someone’s poverty.” And yet – what was the alternative? To ignore the slum’s existence? I felt baffled by the sheer randomness of birth, the luck of the draw that determined what kind of life you’d be born into. It was burning on my mind that we would leave the slum just as easily as we’d entered it, leaving a few bags of maize and some mzungu high-fives that masked the guilt I felt about the gap in our lifestyles. Actually, I wasn’t even technically a ‘mzungu’ – kids shouted, “Chinese! Chinese! Ni-hao!” as they pointed as me. Instinctively, I felt offended, and yet when I reasoned my way through the intent and understanding of a child in a Kenyan slum, it felt silly that I felt even remotely hurt.

I was repeatedly inspired by the stories I heard. People were so willing to share their life stories: stories about rising out of poverty, pursuing education again later in life, caring for sick loved ones at a young age. They shared about the school’s role as a safe haven for children facing traumatic experiences in the slum; school was a place where they had space to play and food to eat. I learned from my fellow volunteers’ experiences working with kids with special needs and teaching children from Spain to Mexico, echoing challenges in education that sounded oddly familiar, hinting at universal barriers that prevent our kids from receiving the best possible educational experiences. We shared with each other about career goals and transitions; about life and love; about loss and grief; about our journeys to pursue our best selves despite the obstacles that might have come our ways. If laughter is medicine for the soul, vulnerability is the sustenance that actually feeds mine, and I’m just as thankful for the walking commute chats, nighttime pillow talks, and under-the-stars conversations as I am for the belly laughs on this trip.

There’s so much more I could write about – the joy I found in making music every day with the students as well as with Dave and Oscar; the cheers from the babies when we showed up with plastic bins of ugali and kale; the majesty of the elephants and giraffes and lions and leopards and all the other animals we saw on safari; the serenity of gazing out at the savannah and feeling the wind blowing through my hair; the awe at watching the sun rise – twice! – and realizing that, despite all that has happened, yet another day had come, and the sun had risen again. Writing in depth about all this would take too much time and do it too little justice.

So, how was Kenya? It was living through all of the above, staying present and mindful in these memories as they were being created. It was exhausting but rejuvenating. It was one of the best trips I’ve had in the past few years. It was wonderful.

On Education, Part 2

Thoughts

Seven years ago, when the Penn Class of 2012 learned that Geoffrey Canada would be our graduation speaker, I had the same reaction as many of my classmates: “Who?” At that time, I had never heard of Waiting for Superman and was frankly pretty uneducated on social causes; instead, I was gearing up to start my first post-college job in financial services. Despite my initial disappointment at not having someone more ‘famous’ as a grad speaker (I know, first world problems), I remember feeling inspired that spring as I watched Canada stand on stage in his cap and gown, speaking passionately about his work with children in Harlem. There are certain fields of work that touch the soul, even for those who aren’t well-acquainted with them, and education is one of them.

Last week, I watched Geoffrey Canada walk on stage once again as he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at ASU GSV X. Admittedly, I still don’t know a ton about his undoubtedly impressive accomplishments – but this time around, I knew a lot more about the field of education than I did seven years ago. As he spoke of educators who believed in him as a student and students who trusted him a generation later, I paused and took a moment – just grateful to find myself in the education sector.

For me, the conference hadn’t started off on a particularly positively note: my first conference activity was a school tour to  a charter school in San Diego. The school itself was incredible: I met 2nd graders who had reflected on their own needs using Maslow’s Hierarchy; I listened to 6th graders explain their agendas for upcoming Student Led Conferences with their teachers and parents.

Unfortunately, the school was also facing the prospects of being shut down. “I have to be the bearer of bad news,” the principal shared with our group as soon as we sat down: the school was currently slated to close in June of this year. Despite this, we were there for a school tour, and so after an initial introduction about the school’s philosophy and curricula, we dispersed to explore the campus and visit with students.

What I didn’t expect – and, as we know, this is a common theme with adults – was that the students knew much more than I thought they did. I sat down to talk to a pair of 4th grade girls sitting by the playground. “Are you going to help us keep our school open?” she asked bluntly.

“I’m not sure,” I responded regretfully, “but it sounds like you like school here. What do you like about it?”

“This school helped me so much socially! I met my best friend here,” she giggled, and pointed to her friend. I sat with them for another ten minutes, listening to them chatter about everything from wanting the newest iPhone to guessing what new school they’d end up attending the next year.

As I continued to visit classrooms in the school, other students, spotting new adults in the classroom, kept asking us: “Can you help us keep our school open?” Later, a teacher shared about how several of her students had even watched the close decision being made in Sacramento on their televisions at home. “They came in crying the next day,” she said, shaking her head, “It was heartbreaking.”

There’s always so much happening at conferences, and ASU GSV this year was no exception. Yet between the coffees and receptions and sessions and keynotes, my mind kept wandering back to those students I met on Monday morning: “Can you help keep our school open?” Helpless as that question made me feel, I also knew that more than anything else at the conference, it reminded me of why working in education is such a beautiful endeavor.

As I looked around me at the handshakes sealing partnerships and hugs reaffirming relationships, I saw trust being formed between conference attendees. And outside the walls of the conference, there are students all over the world who in turn trust adults to help them experience to the best possible educational journey. Adults like their teachers, who work tirelessly day in and day out despite being underpaid and overworked. Adults like me, who trusted the system when I was a kid and was lucky that the system worked in my favor. Adults like Geoffrey Canada, who took that trust and took it as far as he could, and then some, whose students – now older than he thought possible – still stop to thank him on the street.

It is that trust that I take away from ASUGSV 2019. I feel deeply aware that it is an honor and a privilege to even be allowed in this field of work. Education, like any other field, is not perfect – and yet despite the mistakes that we adults make, these students continue to trust us. In roles like my current one, where we’re several steps removed from students in the classroom, it is imperative to be even more vigilant about the implications of our actions: I do not take this trust lightly, and want to make damn sure that whatever decisions I make do not breach it.  I’m not sure how long how long I’ll work in education, but I do know that in this moment, I’m very thankful for this precious, innocent, undeserved trust from our students to us imperfect, well-intended, still-learning adults.

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.