Why I’m doing “unsexy” services work

Why I’m doing “unsexy” services work

 

I always shuddered at the thought of building a services company. I had always envisioned starting my own company one day, perhaps a product company with a rapidly growing recurring annual revenue and a kickass margin. Super scalable. All the sexy buzzwords, throw them in there, I wanted them.

Never did I imagine myself becoming a workshop provider (or a career coach, for that matter).

Well, life happens. And like Oprah said, you just have to lean in to life.

Ever since I was a student, I wanted to start my own business. Not because I wanted to be “my own boss” or because I wanted to build the next billion dollar unicorn (btw, did you hear unicorns are falling?).

I wanted to build a company I can be proud of. A company with my values and principles deeply embedded throughout.  I wanted to create an alternative reality. I wanted to build a company that:

  • Treats all people with respect and dignity
  • Is radically transparent
  • Pays people well unapologetically and equitably
  • Hires and rewards people with integrity, grit, and empathy
  • Fires jerks and bros (or don’t hire them to begin with)
  • Is truly diverse (not some “diversity of thought” bs)
  • Allows people to be their whole selves
  • Is unafraid to take a stand on political issues no matter how risky
  • Roots for the underdog
  • Wants to do good, for the sake of doing good, not for ROI
  • Cares about social justice

When I imagine my perfect “company,” I remember the time I co-led a queer student organization at UC Berkeley. We were made up of majority queer people of color, and had members from all identities and intersections. Our mission was to create an inclusive space for all queer people — folks of color, folks with disabilities, undocumented folks, truly.. all people on the margin who wanted to come together and build community, participate in developing youth leaders and empowering ourselves.

I thought I could one day achieve this vision by starting a sexy, scalable product company. Well, maybe I still could one day. But for now, I’m doing workshops.

So why did I decide to start a company providing “D&I” workshops?

I got tired.

I got tired of sitting in so-called “diversity workshops” that barely scratched the surface.

I got tired of seeing old white people dominate conversations around race and gender, “diversity,” and what it means to be an inclusive leader.

I got tired of corporate-bred D&I workshop facilitators (again, most of them old white people) diluting critical social justice concepts into palatable talking points for straight white men.

I got tired of seeing white, cis, hetero people never once feeling uncomfortable when being educated on D&I, but feeling absolved after having “checked the box.”

 

I got tired of seeing my friends and mentors not get paid for their social justice work. Being discounted to “soft skills” facilitators, not warriors, activists, and mission-critical educators.

I got tired of feeling the only reason why companies tolerated my outspokenness was because I was a high performer (and that I was a less threatening East Asian woman) and I had to continue to earn my right to call shit out .

I got tired of seeing companies using “Diversity and Inclusion” as marketing catchphrases to gain public validation, yet never wanting to dig deeper or put money where their mouth is.

I got tired of talking about metrics I didn’t care bout, I got tired of losing myself, I got tired of covering.

I got tired of doing extra emotional labor around D&I issues because no one else would.

I got tired of dealing with “brilliant jerks.”

I got tired of feeling like dying a slow death by a million paper cuts made by daily microaggressions.

I got tired of seeing my peers be mistreated.

I got tired of being let down by people.

I got tired of losing faith in humanity.

I got tired of never feeling free.

Every time I sat through a divershitty training (yeah I just made that up), I wished someone would come in and do a REAL workshop. Encourage REAL TALK. Make me and others feel uncomfortable, because without discomfort there is no real learning when it comes to understanding systemic and institutional oppression.

I wished someone would bring in critical social justice concepts into the workplace, and not be afraid to talk about structural racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and how unconscious bias stems from our deeply socialized identities that are perpetuated systematically.

I wished someone would actually name white privilege, misogyny, heterosexism, ableism, and gender binary. I wished someone would actually say the word queer or trans. I wished someone would acknowledge the mass incarceration and killings of black people by the criminal justice system.

When the time came when I no longer could stay in the toxic tech industry as an employee, I, along with thousands of women who have left before me, left.

So now I’m trying to make my distant dream and wishes a reality. I’m trying to unlearn the toxic shit I had to pick up in the corporate world, and bring back the old, authentic me. The old me who was unafraid to call shit out, who was passionate about building solidarity and coalition, who took risks and used privileges to provide access to others.

I’m rolling up my sleeves and applying everything I’ve learned from my social justice activism and surviving the corporate / tech world to redefine “D&I workshops.”

I’m working to bridge the gap between “Diversity and Inclusion” and social justice activism. I’m working my ass off to get well-deserving, non-corporate-bred folks paid. 

In order to create change, we need to embrace discomfort. We need to create a compassionate space for uncomfortable dialogues, where we allow each other to fuck up, but also hold each other accountable. We need to acknowledge that change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen incrementally.

While I would never claim “D&I Workshops” will solve all your companies’ toxic culture problems, it can help begin the conversation. It’s a starting point.

There are so many amazing people trying to do different things to move the needle a smidge on creating a truly inclusive culture. And we need all of them. We need all of the process changes, policies, culture shifts, engagement surveys, ERGs, D&I consulting, anti-sexual harassment training, offsites, Artificial Intelligence based recruiting, VR training, VC accountability… we need everyone and we need all of them.

The problems we are trying to solve are so massive and so ingrained. We need all the help we can get to have a fighting chance at moving the needle.

So here’s me, choosing to do “unsexy” work (but you just wait). And you can help me by spreading the word about Awaken (and our upcoming workshop series).

Come on, let’s wake people up.

 

 

On Chasing Freedom: My 2017 Lavender Graduation Speech

On Chasing Freedom: My 2017 Lavender Graduation Speech

Link to full speech video

*Scroll down for the transcript*

I had the privilege of speaking at this year’s Lavender Graduation at UC Berkeley. As a young alumni speaker (at what age do I become a regular alumni though?), I was asked to  “reflect on what you have learned since leaving Cal and if LGBTQ+ life here prepped you for what you are experiencing beyond Cal.”

This speaking opportunity meant a lot to me. I had stood on the same stage 6 years ago, where I made a series of promises to my community and our movement as I was graduating. It felt as though I was being asked to report back on how I did on my promises, and to share stories of my adventure with folks back home.

So what have I learned since leaving Cal? I spent 3 weeks thinking about what to say. I wrote and rewrote my speech multiple times, trying to find the right words, the right lessons, the right stories. I watched famous people’s commencement speeches and Ted Talks to get inspiration. “Follow your passion” “Take risks” “Go out there and change the world” — none of these messages resonated with me. Begrudgingly, I did what I knew I had to do: actually reflecting on my own experiences. Gah.

Preparing for this speech was way more frustrating, anxiety-inducing, painful, and healing than I had imagined when I enthusiastically agreed to speak. It took a lot of introspection and reflection to get clarity on experiences that I hadn’t yet named or accepted.

I practiced the speech nervously walking around my apartment, standing over the kitchen counter, on MUNI, inside of a food truck (thank you Sarap Shop team for letting me rehearse while ya’ll rolled lumpias).

I wanted my speech to do a couple of things: 1) I wanted to share my mistakes so folks could make smarter choices and 2) I wanted to help alleviate the sense of guilt some folks may feel for pursuing or not pursuing a certain career path. I have no idea if I achieved these goals, but in preparing to achieve them, I was able to internalize the lessons I was trying to preach. As some say, “you teach what you need to learn.” Touché.

Days leading up to the speech, I started to criticize myself for accepting the opportunity. Why should my story be told? There are so many other incredible folks whose voices are rarely heard,  voices I could have uplifted by not taking up more space. Why should a corporate sell-out East Asian cis-woman have a platform to speak!? Cue unproductive, soul-crushing, self-aggrandizing guilt. I was embarrassed for not having thought of this before. FUCK! Having allies give up space to allow for more marginalized voices to be heard — this is what I preach all the effing time and yet I took this opportunity to tell my story. *facepalm*

So I didn’t take this opportunity for granted. To be able to speak in front of some of the most radical, forward-thinking, ferocious, and fearless students… this was such an honor and I was seriously humbled.

Ok, so how did it go?  Let me set the stage here.

It was a completely sold out event with a full waitlist. There were more than 200 people registered (30% of whom identified as gender non-conforming. How amazing is that?!) — a record for Lavender Graduation in its 17 year history. I got there early and greeted students as they took their seats. It was heartwarming to see so many queer students excited to celebrate their accomplishments and their peers cheering them on.

As someone guilty of not paying a ton of attention to campus politics, I had no idea why the Dean of Students who gave the opening remarks failed to capture the audience’s attention. People talked over his speech, laughed on the side, some left the room. The room was distracted, unsettled. I kept quiet and tried to pay my full attention to the speaker, who, before the ceremony began, had shown me his thoughtfully prepared notes. Truthfully, I felt bad for him.

After he took his seat, something wild (but not surprising) happened. A student came up to the podium and hijacked the mic. They said the Dean, who had historically failed to serve the students’ needs, did not deserve the opportunity to speak at this event when the students themselves had applied and were not accepted to speak. Another student got up from their seat and pointed at the Dean, shouting out pretty harsh critiques. At this point, I was already next to the podium, getting ready for my introduction. So imagine me awkwardly standing next to the podium, NOT having been introduced, observing this whole scene play out. I admired the students’ courage, felt proud to be a Cal alumni, but mostly, I was deathly afraid of being booed off the stage, being called out for not being worthy enough, or failing to grab the students’ attention because I was also not deserving of the stage. As I tried to process what had just happened, Billy Curtis, the host of the ceremony and my long time mentor, managed to regain control of the tension-filled room and introduce me. I had to silence the million thoughts going through my head and somehow get the room’s warmth back.

I started my speech by saying outloud my loudest thought: “Shit got real REAL quick.” Then I asked for the students’ permission to speak. It was their day, after all. If they didn’t want to hear from me, hey, I was ready to walk away. I knew how much this space meant to them. It was the most important graduation event for me when I was graduating — certainly more meaningful than the general commencement, or my major graduation. Lavender Graduation was supposed to be our space. So yeah, I didn’t want to ruin that. Thankfully, they gave me their permission — oh, those were the most comforting finger snaps I’ve ever received.

As I scanned the room, I felt grateful and hopeful. I was humbled to be standing in front of some of the most fierce and brave people in our country today. People who would move on to change the world. A real force to be reckoned with.

Anyway, here’s the speech I gave along with the full length video recording (thank you Nelson Lau for the recording and event photography! <– check him out yo!).


Full Transcript

I want to invite you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath in. Breathe out. Check in with yourself right now. How are you feeling? Savor this moment. Right here, right now. You are here and you will never get this moment back. This is your community. Your net. The net that will catch you when you jump, when you need to be caught. Take another deep breath in, breathe out. Open your eyes. Thank you — I am so grateful to be here.

I was an intern at GenEq all throughout college, where I was known for fiercely protecting the office staplers and attempting to keep Billy’s desk clean. I co-founded Queer Straight Alliance, now known as QSU, I recently learned. I was really glad to hear about the name change. Thank you. In the same statement explaining the name change, I also read that the org, and I quote, “has always been considered a white space.” This broke my heart a little bit. I want you to know that we didn’t start out that way, and I think it’s important, especially for people of color, to make sure our history gets told and preserved.

So I’ll share that QSU was founded by two queer people of color, myself and a Latino queer man named Kevin Franco Torres, and our founding leadership team was predominantly black and brown queer women. I had the privilege of working alongside them to do some of the most radical, stealth organizing on campus to empower low-income QTPOC youth who were not out, which put some of our academic careers at risk, and we were awarded the most inclusive queer student organization award. The point is that we have to be vigilant about learning, protecting, and telling our history so they don’t get erased or co-opted. With compassion, I challenge you to do something that I clearly failed to do — think about ways to institutionalize the historicizing of our movement so folks coming after us can continue building on it.

I spent 6 years in management consulting and tech startups after I graduated with a degree in Business–a choice I made when some straight white boy told me I couldn’t do it. I went into the corporate world because I thought that was the only way to become financially independent, and I needed the money to support myself and help immigrate my mom to the States from Korea. I attempted to preserve my ties to the social justice community and not let the overwhelming sense of guilt completely crush me. I pursued financial gains because for me, money meant freedom. Freedom my parents didn’t have, freedom I so desperately wanted to feel growing up watching my parents struggle. Even though I was grateful to finally be able to support my family, the thought of living my life without having realized my true life purpose and passion constantly haunted me. As a result, I never felt truly free.

Today I am pursuing freedom in a different way. And I’d like to share with you 3 pieces of advice that I learned, that I’m still learning, on my journey to feel free. If you haven’t guessed already, freedom is my #1 value.

My first piece of advice is: practice wanting.

This sounds simple, but it’s what a lot of people struggle with. Practice wanting. What do you want? At some point, I stopped wanting and started justifying my decisions based on needs. I started confusing my needs and wants. I’d tell myself, “I need to do this because I need to support my family.” While this was true, at some point I found myself using it as an excuse to respect fear more than my desire.

“Entrepreneurship is for rich white people.” I would tell myself. Society taught me to not want. I thought it’s selfish to want and that I didn’t deserve to want, at least not yet. We must unlearn this. If you don’t believe that you deserve to want, now or ever, then no one else will. Yes, take care of your and your family’s basic needs, that’s important. But be honest with yourself when your needs begin to sabotage your dreams. As Audre Lorde said, “Our visions begin with our desires” — if we are not able to articulate our desires, it becomes impossible for us to take action.

So how do you practice wanting? Start by making small daily decisions based on your desires. Ask yourself, what do I want to be doing right now, who do I want to spend time with, what do I not want? Eventually, work yourself up to figuring out what you want in your future, what you want to be known for, what you want your legacy to be.

A month or so after I graduated from Cal, I got a fortune from a fortune cookie that read, “Don’t give into cynicism.” And that’s my second piece of advice for you. Resist cynicism by practicing compassion.

My first job at a consulting company, a senior manager thought LGBT stood for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Together. The same person, a straight white woman, once asked me to pick out a document from her trash can. When I created a women’s group at work, at a different company, I was told by a c-level executive, a straight white man, to not bring politics into the workplace — he warned me this would ruin my career. I was once told by a woman executive that I should put my hair down more often, smile more, and wear heels. I was told, by many men, to not be such a bitch, to not be so aggressive, bossy, self-advocating. I was sexually harassed during my first week at a new company (but unlike Uber he was fired the week after).

As my rainbow bubble ripped, I got jaded. I asked myself, “what’s the point?” It got increasingly difficult for me to believe that a better, more just world is possible. I started losing my appetite for change, consumed by my growing hatred towards people and systems that were causing harm, and I hated myself for being a part of the problem.

With cynicism, I lost my ability to feel compassion. I thought in order for me to stay critical, angry, and fueled, I couldn’t offer compassion, not to myself or others, because it felt like an excuse. But the truth is, we can and must be critical, angry, and compassionate all at the same time to keep us going and to free us from feeling paralyzed. Because ultimately, my cynicism about people’s intentions and their ability to change made me a terrible agent for change.

Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther leader and a political prisoner, was at EWOCC (Empowering Women of Color Conference) this year, and something she said really resonated with me. She said we should always look for a window in people to connect, not because we want to change them, but because we need to be able to believe in humanity again. This forever changed my perspective on doing social justice work and how we invite people in with compassion. This was liberating for me.

So to pursue freedom, practice wanting, and practice compassion to resist cynicism.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, always remember that you are worthy.

2015 felt like the worst year of my life. I was at my lowest, burnt out, jaded from the toxic work culture, I had lost both of my grandparents who raised me, suffered chronic stress that impacted my health and landed me in the ER. I had no capacity to be a leader, let alone a good friend. I could barely take care of myself. I felt like I had nothing left to give and it made me feel like shit, completely helpless and worthless. That year, I realized that my sense of self worth was closely tied to my ability to serve others. So when I was not in a position to give, I began to doubt my self worth and whether I deserved the support I was getting, or whether I deserved to pursue my own joy and freedom.

But my community, my net, folks who sat next to me during my Lavender Graduation, saved me. They reminded me that I am worthy for simply being. Not because of what or how much I produce, not because I am giving back or serving the community, not because I am loved or affirmed by others.

You are worthy for simply being. Your existence in any and all capacity is resistance and I promise you there is a queer youth out there who dreams of one day becoming you, being where you are on this very day.

I stand in front of you today, as someone who recently decided to redefine freedom and pursue joy by finally making the jump. This past February, I quit my job to begin my own entrepreneurship journey. I’m now fully self-employed, working as a career coach and a co-founder of a social enterprise. I’m back to worrying about money, but this time, I’m allowing myself to truly examine my relationship with money and what freedom really means to me.

This is an exciting and rewarding time for you all. You’ve accomplished so much, and you should be so proud and happy. But you might also feel sad. Scared. Give yourself permission to be not okay. Allow yourself time to think about what you are leaving behind.

I didn’t take the time to truly grieve the end of my chapter as a student activist.

I tried to find ways to bring my “radical student activist” self to work — I thought that’s how I could create change from within and “bring my whole self to work.” What I realize now is that I needed closure to move on and create a new identity within the new context, in a way that still allowed me to feel empowered and authentic. I now know that my essence could be embraced in different ways and that’s okay.

So think about what it is that you need to grieve and do whatever you need to do to memorialize and honor your time here so you can truly begin your new chapter.

Free yourself from the expectation that you need to continue your narrative in a linear way. Let go so you can allow yourself to adapt to your new and changing reality, and don’t be afraid to evolve your identity based on all of the complexities, experiences, and desires that you embody.

If I can ask you to remember one thing, because all speakers do this, it’s this: Your ability to pursue freedom and feel joy is the greatest threat to this fucked up world. Define freedom for yourself and find your joy.

And when you struggle to remember this because life throws too many punches at you, reach out to your net, which also includes a whole bunch of beautifully aging queers.

Stay free. Thank you.

 

What it’s like to grow up without health insurance

I grew up low-income watching my dad be exploited as an undocumented worker.

Then he, my determined, gritty, and hardworking AF dad, finally got his green card and became a real estate agent.

For a while we had Medi-Cal (health insurance for low-income folks), but that didn’t last long. As soon as he barely crossed the threshold for being qualified for Medi-Cal, we were out of options. Premiums were too expensive and my dad’s preexisting condition limited access.

So I didn’t have health insurance throughout high school.

Let me tell you what that was like.

We sought out doctors that primarily treated patients without health insurance, usually folks of color, usually undocumented folks.

Our go-to was a Vietnamese doctor who operated out of a small “office” near the Mexican border in San Diego. It was about an hour away from where we lived. The first thing I always recall about the place is the stench. This pseudo clinic was located next to a run-down butcher shop and it always reeked of blood and spoiled meat as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. I would plug my nose every time and tell myself not to vomit.

There would always be a line. The line started forming at 4am — the doctor would get in around 9am, but since they only take walk-ins, patients were seen on a first-come-first-serve basis. My dad would wake me up around 4:30am, so we could get in line to be seen before he had to go back to work. As soon as we arrived, we would write our name down on a piece of paper with multiple rows already filled out by other ill patients. The beauty about this place was that that’s about all the “paperwork” we ever needed to complete. They never asked for any documents — no insurance card, ID, credit card. Nothing.

Even our 5:30am arrival would have us waiting 3-4 hours before we could be seen by the doctor. We were usually the only Asians in line. Almost everyone there was Latinx and every staff spoke fluent Spanish. I was always self-conscious getting out of the car and having everyone stare at me, somehow feeling guilty that I was taking up an undeserved spot, taking up precious resources from more marginalized folks.

There were only a few indoor seats in the “reception” area of the clinic, which was composed of two small rooms, a hall way that could fit maximum 3 people, a small bathroom, and a magical cabinet filled with different drugs and syringes. So my dad and I would stand outside, wait for our turn, or sit in his car.

The visit always cost $20 flat, then another $20 if you received a shot. Cash only.

The doctor was always generous with his shots — I didn’t know what the hell he was injecting in me, but I always ended up getting a shot. Terrible flu, sprained ankle, ear infection… there always seemed to be a shot for every occasion. At first I resisted and asked too many questions the doctor didn’t care to answer. “What is this shot for? What is it? Should I really be getting a shot on my ankle?!” He was a sweet man, but he didn’t have time to coddle my sheltered ass. I also didn’t feel like I had the right to ask or receive full information. I had to either silence my suspicion and worries and take the damn meds, or suffer indefinitely without any other treatment options. So yes, I got a shot every time. After the shot followed a prescription, or sometimes he would just hand me a bottle of pills from the magic cabinet.

Truth be told, I never found out if it was indeed a legitimate clinic — maybe I never wanted to.

Legal or not, this doctor saved me in high school. He saved my dad. My dad, like most Korean fathers, was never an emotive man. But whenever I was sick, like really sick, he couldn’t hide his desperation. And the guilt. Oh the guilt. For not being able to provide access to quality care and prompt treatment. For having to wake me up at 4 o’clock in the morning to drive an hour to a stinky “doctor’s office.” Seeing his own daughter suffer and feeling absolutely, devastatingly helpless — I don’t wish that on anyone.

Besides this last resort option we had for when my sister and I were sick, I depended heavily on Planned Parenthood for all things a sexually active teenage girl may need (sorry mom and dad): birth control, STI screening, UTI / yeast infection treatment, pap smear, mammogram, pregnancy test (oh the paranoia days!)… you name it they provided it (and still do). Getting an appointment right away was always near impossible, so I would always wait 2-3 hours to be seen as a walk-in. But I was never turned away.

I was always jealous of my friends who talked about their “primary care physician” — it sounded like such luxury to have someone who understands your holistic health needs, equipped with your medical history and treatment options.

My days of being uninsured ended when I began college. When I got accepted into UC Berkeley, I signed up for the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) but I was worried about paying for it. I was making minimum wage working a part-time job, something I had started doing when I turned 14 to help lessen the burden on my dad. The student health insurance cost $625, I think it was, per semester.

I had shared my concern off-handedly with my high school counselor, Mrs. Morton, who managed the student advocacy program at my high school. She had been my biggest advocate and champion, rooting me on to go to college and to change the world. She thought I would one day run the world. She facilitated the underground support group for LGBTQ students which I was a part of, most of whom were also low-income and struggling in school. Mrs. Morton and the support group played a huge role in helping me get through high school without losing my shit. Most students didn’t know its existence and most of my friends didn’t know I was a part of this group. I was a model student: straight As, AP classes, student government, blahblah… To Mrs. Morton, I was an unusual profile among more troubled students she typically supported. I was like a daughter to her and she was always proud of me. Before school ended, she handed me check for $625. She told me I needed it and that I deserved it. We cried. I will forever remember her and how much that check meant to me.

So I signed up for SHIP. I felt safe.

While at Cal, I had a major sickness one night where I had to go the Emergency Room. I still remember that night — I kept telling the nurse I was going to die and she looked at me stoically and said, “you’re not. going. to. die.” and gave me a morphine shot to calm me down. Then came the bill – a whopping $20,000 for a night in the ER. I was in major panic. I hadn’t realized the ER trip wouldn’t be covered by my student insurance. Luckily, after many desperate phone calls and paperwork, I was able to apply for financial assistance and got the bill shaved down to a much more reasonable amount. It was a rather obscure process that I would not have found out without much pestering and research.

Since graduating from school, I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that provided full health insurance coverage. I appreciate it every single day. Because I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and exposed, being fearful of insurmountable debt that could cripple your entire life.

But the fear still gets me, it’s so deeply rooted in me from my young adulthood and I can’t really shake it off.

A couple of years ago, I dislocated my elbow after I fell during a run with my co-workers. Immediately after the fall I knew something was very wrong with my arm. People called 911 and I was taken to a nearby hospital. My then CEO was with me, holding my injured arm in a splinter on the ambulance. I was in a shit ton of pain, but I was mostly worried about what this incident could do to my bank account. I remember I kept asking him about our insurance — I was deathly afraid of incurring tens of thousands dollars of medical bill. He probably didn’t realize why I was so paranoid, but he managed to calm me down by letting me know everything will be okay.

When the Affordable Care Act finally passed, I was ecstatic — not for me, but for my dad. He can finally go see a doctor with an appointment. Get preventative care. Get a damn physical! ACA by no means is perfect — but it helps millions of people like my dad and young people that I once was.

But some people seem to disagree. With the upcoming Orange Stain Administration, people’s livelihoods, in addition to the very existence of our democracy, is under attack. And shit’s beginning to unravel with the proposed repealing of the ACA. We are on the brink of repeating my youth days all over for millions of folks: youth living in fear, parents in guilt, and too many without the basic human right (not privilege) to be healthy.

Our health is the very foundation that enables us to reach our potential — and we have to fight for it to become a right, not a privilege. So I urge you, friends and friends of friends, strangers, doubters… whoever you are, to realize that millions’ livelihoods are at risk, and to do something about it: go to a protest, call your reps, donate to Planned Parenthood… there are options. Google it.

My relationship with the medical and insurance world will always have an undercurrent of fear, suspicion, and helplessness. I never take for granted being healthy, and my ability to access treatment and information with dignity. And I will always advocate for universal and affordable health care, because my political stance is a deeply personal one.

2016 Reflections

2016 Reflections

Good bye, 2016. Let’s go 2017!

2016 Lessons Learned

  • Everyone believes they have integrity. Very few have the courage to live it
  • The only way to overcome your fear is to run towards it until you can’t see it anymore
  • Self love and compassion are the most radical forms of resistance
  • Story telling is a powerful way to heal and form community
  • Vulnerability is bravery. Authenticity is freedom
  • Coaches (of all types) have a multiplier effect and can help push boundaries
  • Life is too god damn short to live in fear of failure or disappointment
  • My primary language of love is Acts of Service and my language of apology is Accepting Responsibility
  • I find it more challenging to call out white women on their privileges (vs. white men)
  • Listen to criticism but don’t give into cynicism
  • I judge more harshly when I’m dating women, compared to when I date men
  • I have an incredible safety net that is ready to catch me when I fall composed of my family, friends, mentors, and sponsors. I am eternally grateful for and humbled by these incredibly kind and generous people
Work in Progress
  • I realized my sense of self-worth is derived from my ability to serve others. This attribution of worth based on my significance to others led me to feeling powerless and worthless when I hit a low point and felt I could no longer serve. Now I remind myself that I am worthy simply for being, rather than because I’m producing, serving, or progressing
  • I need to learn to bounce back from being disappointed by people without lowering my standards or completely shutting down, unless I’m ready to walk away from the relationship
  • I still haven’t found a sustainable way to manage guilt around caregiving / supporting my parents
  • I’m learning to truly celebrate others’ successes without letting my own insecurities, jealousy, or cynicism get in the way
  • I still don’t know how to help myself or others grieve loved ones’ deaths


Highlights / Lowlights Summary

  • Fell in love with boxing. I want to get better at sparring so I don’t get my ass kicked every time
  • Got an IUD – hurt like shit but totally worth it
  • Finally decided to follow my lifelong desire to be an entrepreneur by starting two side hustles (this one and this one)
  • Was inspired by so many of my friends’ new ventures as entrepreneurs — check out the Sarap ShopMuay Thai DiariesLambert Floral Studio!
  • Hosted a public post-election community dinner for healing, which made me realize how much I miss community organizing and working with like-minded folks
  • Remembered my grandparents, both of whom passed in 2015, with Mom by having our first annual Jesa ritual, which was incredibly healing and grounding

My mission statement for 2017:

2017 will be the year that I run towards my fears to launch my dreams. 

Fill in your blank:
2017 will be the year that I _______________________________.

Cheers,

Michelle

2016 in photos

What does your ESSENCE look like?

What does your ESSENCE look like?

It’s funny how the universe works. It sends you messages in unexpected ways, exactly when you need them the most.

A little over two years ago, I was on a plane headed to Rio de Janeiro, a trip I booked on a whim and completed solo with a small backpack.

At the time, I was exhausted. I was emotionally drained, physically tired, and just exhausted from the daily grind, the enormous amount of pressure I’d put on myself to carry the weight of my company, family, friends, and myself. I was ready to GTFO of the daily routine for a few weeks to just “be.” I was feeling jaded and confused, and was desperately looking for something to ground me.

On the plane, I sat next to a Swami — a guru / master yogi / an enlightened being able to rise above the petty humans that we are (that’s my definition, anyway) — who had just completed an engagement in San Francisco. He looked like Buddha. He ate kale chips. I felt completely vulnerable as he looked into my eyes as if he could read my thoughts and knew my entire life history without me saying a word. It became clear to me I had an incredible person sitting next to me. I was ready to be enlightened (he also happened to be quite famous in the yogi world, I later found out).

He asked me a series of questions that changed my life:

Swami: “If you lose your hands, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes…?”
Swami: “If you lose your legs, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes.”
Swami: “If you lose your eyes, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes.”
Swami: “If your body doesn’t define you, then what does?”
[pointing at my heart]
Swami: “Your character. Your spirit. It’s not something we can touch or see. We must commit ourselves to the lifelong journey of being true to our character.”

I can confidently say that if I lost my hands, my legs, my eyes, my anything physical, those who love me will still recognize who I am.

But if I lost my character — my integrity, my values, my principles, my passion, my loyalty — I don’t think even I would recognize who I am.

I’ve been wanting to share this story with more folks for a long time because of the profound impact it had on my life and the way I view “who I am.”

I’ve been going through some tough times lately that have shaken me to the core. I’ve been feeling powerless watching truth be distorted, feeling angry after being mischaracterized, feeling terrified by the thought of losing my hard-earned reputation, and feeling hollow witnessing so many injustices be played out right before my eyes.

After weeks of feeling sad, angry, disappointed, and empty, what I keep coming back to and holding on to, is knowing that I have been true to my character. That I have prioritized acting on my values and integrity over my personal gain or future potential. That I did the right thing, even though it’s hard – really, really, hard – to do the right thing. Even though it’s really easy to do the other thing — that other thing that doesn’t necessarily seem “wrong,” turning a blind eye or justifying with a few compelling, self-sympathizing reasons, but that thing that is still not the right thing. 

During this confusing, tumultuous time, I take enormous comfort in knowing that I am on the right side of history. I get to have the conscience to sleep at night knowing the truth is on my side. Without this conviction, I would flail and spiral out of control.

Growing up we were told to “do the right thing” in the face of extreme challenges and dilemmas. Superheros do the right thing. Good people do the right thing. You should do the right thing. Then over time, we were introduced the concept of “gray areas,” the blurred lines of morality and personal responsibility, further complicated by risks that seem to grow with what’s at stake and the perfunctory consideration of conflicting perspectives and others’ truths. We started to measure the impact of our stance, others’ perception of our opinion, fearfully calculating what that means for our future likability and employability, leaving us in a state of paralysis. But we always, ALWAYS, have a choice. We always have a choice to take a stand. To have an opinion. To stand for what we believe in. To make it known. And to walk away from those who view our integrity as a threat. We have to learn, and re-learn to trust our inner compass and walk in a direction we believe is the right way. Being pleasant, moderate, or neutral should not give you guilt-free sleep at night.

Amidst feeling depressed about what’s going on that is outside of my control, I feel fan-fucking-tastic knowing I stayed true to what is within my control – my integrity, my character, my principles – what, at the end of the day, actually defines me. 

So think about this –

Would people recognize you if you put your essence on a plate among other people’s? What does your essence look like? Is it shiny, sparkly, and full of rainbow-colored glitter? Fluffy and warm? Heart-shaped? Solid like a rock? Airy and light?

Who are you? 

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-11-59-41-pm
An email I wrote to the Swami a year and a half after we met — Sadly, I still have not committed to “nonviolent eating” (vegetarianism).

Goodbye, 2015

Be gone, 2015. I’m so done with you.

Here is a month-by-month year in review:

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 7.00.07 PMWhat a fucking year. I told my friend yesterday that it feels like I have 30 balls of yarn in my brain, all tangled up in a huge mess. I don’t know where to begin the untangling. I want to burn the whole damn thing, but I can’t.

Things I told myself repeatedly this year:

  • Hold on
  • Sink or swim
  • Don’t think about it
  • Be grateful
  • Crash and burn
  • Breathe
  • You’re enough
  • You’re not enough
  • When will it get easier?

2015 was tough. It really tested my limits, pushed and stretched me to levels I didn’t think possible. “But you got through it and you’re stronger because of it!” Well, I feel pretty beat up at the end of it all.

Of course, we learn from all struggles. Silver lining, I guess. So what did I learn this year? I learned what it means to be a caregiver. I learned I only know how to sprint, and don’t know a thing about running a marathon. I learned what it feels like to know how unbelievably lucky and privileged I am, and yet feel so little joy, leaving me feeling embarrassed and guilty to admit the disparity to the world. I learned about death and grief. I learned how painfully lonely and isolated I could feel. I learned how stress can literally ruin one’s mind, body, and soul. I learned no matter the amount of money you make, the credentials you hold, your health rules everything. I mean, everything. I learned about depression, self-love and hatred. I learned what it feels like when you have absolutely nothing to look forward to, and the sense of emptiness and panic that follow after realizing… I have absolutely nothing to look forward to. I learned to be vulnerable. I learned to ask for help. I learned to cherish every moment I get to spend with people I love, people who give a shit about me. I learned there are people who will be there for you without any expectations – what a miraculous thing that is. I learned I can’t do it all, and when something’s got to give, it damn sure should not be me.

I lost myself this year.

As I enter the new year, I feel more cautious than excited. 2016 is going to be the year of rebuilding. Slowly but surely, I will pick up pieces of myself and recreate parts of me that I used to love. Maybe I’ll be more kind to myself. Maybe I’ll feel more whole.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all the support and patience I received this year. And I feel so guilty for not having been able to do the same. I’ve been so focused and isolated in my own chaos, I felt I had no strength left in me to give, to care, to listen. I hope to change this in 2016.

No list of resolutions this year, but things I want to achieve – balance, self-love, and happiness – seem more daunting than any other year.

5 hours until I kiss 2015 good-fucking-bye.

Remembering Grandma

4am. Three missed calls: one from Mom and two from my sister. I knew she had passed.

My poor mom landed one and a half hour too late. She heard the news from her brother before even getting through Customs. She broke down in the sea of strangers waiting to enter Seoul. She had jumped on the earliest flight from San Francisco to head home to see her dying mother. Grandma didn’t wait.

My grandma had always said she was going to die on a “춥지도, 덥지도 않은 보름날”– full-moon day, on a day not too cold, not too hot. Summers and Winters were “safe” seasons for her. I remember growing up with every full moon day of the month being marked on the calendar with Grandma’s big red circle. She was a perfectionist, a planner, a hopeless romantic. May 3rd, the day she passed, was perfect just as she had prophesied – it was a full-moon day (lunar calendar date was March 15th) and the weather was perfect. Not too cold, not too hot. A beautiful spring day. She had orchestrated every detail. How did she do it?

By 7am I was on my way to the airport to join my mom. My sister was also on her way to Seoul from Baltimore. She was devastated.

My sister and I were both raised by our grandparents for over 10 years in Korea until we moved to the States. After the divorce, my mom worked. A lot. Days and nights. The three of us lived with our grandparents and they raised us with love, warmth, and discipline. I was taught to live a life of love, integrity, respect, humility, and courage. The courage to be different (as a child of a divorced single mom in a conservative society, I was already marked as being “different”), speak up, demand respect, and do the right thing.

Grandpa and me Grandma and me

My grandma had big dreams for me – she wanted me to be like “힐러리” — Hilary Clinton (I always preferred the presidency over being the first lady, but why sweat the details). I can still hear her voice telling me to marry the best man in the world and be happy. She just wanted me to be happy (ignore the marriage part, ahem).

Last time I saw her in personMom and grandma

My grandma was one of a kind. She was a charismatic woman with a strong personality. Also a hopeless romantic. Hopelessly in love with my grandpa even through her last days when she suffered from Alzheimer’s. A few weeks before she passed away, my uncle asked her:

Uncle: “엄마, 다시태어나면 누구랑 결혼하고 싶어?” “Mom, in your next life, whom would you want to marry?”

Grandma: “니네 아부지” “Your father.”

Uncle: “아니 진짜?! 왜?” “Really?! Why?” (Grandma complained about her marriage on a daily basis when she wasn’t ill with Alzheimer’s)

Grandma: “사랑하니까” (“Because I love him.”)

Visiting Grandma at the hospital

When I asked my grandpa about how they met, he said it was like a fairytale. For my grandma, it was a classic love-at-first-sight. A rich South-Korean girl from an elite family meets a North-Korean anti-Imperialist activist living richly only in the pursuit of his passion. A fairytale love story. No wonder she wanted me to marry.

1425748_10201678141929368_261409591_n

On this trip, I learned so much about my family’s history I had long neglected. I learned that my grandpa was the first person to shout out “대한민국 독립 만세” (“Long live the independent Republic of Korea”) in the streets on August 15th, 1945, the day Korea gained independence from the Japanese colonization. I learned that my grandma had laid her eyes on grandpa long before he even knew, and she made sure, like most things in her life, she had her way. I learned that my great grandfather was the only person who dared to write his name in Korean when asked to sign the registration list at his Japanese school. Looking back at how I’ve learned to understand and face the world, all of this made so much sense.

Great grandma and grandpa Grandpa, mom, and uncle

After I landed in Inchon, I went straight to the hospital where the funeral procedure was taking place. I had no idea what to expect. I had never seen or been a part of a funeral, let alone a Korean one.

When I got to the hospital, it was dark and empty – there was one information desk person, to whom I asked, “where is the funeral building?” It was the weirdest feeling. I stood in front of the funeral wing, staring at the piece of paper posted on the wall that had my grandma’s name written on it, along with her children’s and grand children’s names. I stared at her name for a bit. Everything was happening so quickly. I walked in, and saw rows of white chrysanthemums expressing condolences decorating the entrance way, sent by families and friends. The reality was still setting in but I didn’t have time to process what was happening. I was in this reality that I didn’t control and I was just supposed to play the part I didn’t know how to play. “Fuck” is all I kept muttering as I walked in to find my mom.

And there she was. My mom wearing an all black, traditional Korean dress traditionally worn by the deceased’s daughters. She had told me she wasn’t going to wear that. I could see and feel the pain in every inch of her being. And there she was – my grandma, smiling inside a black wooden picture frame decorated with a black bow and ribbons wrapped around. She hated black. But she valued tradition. I was hurried into a small room to change into the same clothes my mom was wearing. I bowed to my grandma – twice, just like you’re supposed to. A few familiar faces came and hugged me: my uncles, cousins, aunts. They shared their condolences.

Grandma’s children and grand children, including me, stood by the picture frame and welcomed guests who arrived and bowed to Grandma. They bowed to her twice, then bowed to us once. We bowed with them each time to show our gratitude. I lost count on how many times I bowed. People came and went. In Korean culture, when someone dies, the funeral procedure begins immediately. You book a funeral home (often attached to or inside a hospital), move the body to the hospital, let people know the location, and people come. I had no idea things would happen this quickly. And that so many people would show up on a day’s notice. Also, in Korea, people show up to the funeral service for the family, not necessarily for the deceased. I was in awe of this incredible custom, creating a true sense of community and support.

People who had never met my grandma showed up to support my mom, uncles, and cousins. People came, bowed, shared sympathy, ate and drank all night long until the morning, keeping our family company.

We held off the “입관식,” the process during which we put Grandma’s groomed body into the casket, until my sister arrived from Baltimore. My sister had a special place in Grandma’s heart. I would even say she was her favorite grandchild (of 7). My sister had always been so good taking care of her and Grandpa.

Sis and grandma

Once she arrived, we went downstairs and saw Grandma’s body for the last time. She was so skinny. The last few months was tough for her. She couldn’t eat or drink, and barely spoke. Her eyes were shut closed most of the time. We surrounded her body and prayed, cried, held her, and kissed her goodbye. She was wrapped in clean hemp linens and put in a casket, on top of a bed of fresh flowers. This was a ruthlessly painful event for everyone.

The next day we traveled about an hour to cremate Grandma’s body. We watched on the opposite side of the glass window Grandma’s casket enter the furnace. Again, a fucking ruthless process to witness. We hugged each other tightly and cried as our grandma’s body left us for good. We were escorted to a room to wait. In the room, we shared our memories of Grandma. We laughed, we cried, and we laughed some more. I felt the process of healing beginning.

Once the cremation process was over, we were called back downstairs. Through the same window, we saw the furnace door open. The area where her casket laid revealed only bones and ashes. The remains were then carried over to another station, where we watched the person remove metal pieces that held together Grandma’s broken pelvis. Her remains were then turned to ashes and put inside the urn. The entire process was shockingly transparent and frank. No euphemism of any kind here. Everything felt so matter-of-fact and perfunctory. But in the strangest way, I could see how this gives closure. Forcing all of us to be completely in tune with the reality, the reality of our permanent loss and meaninglessness of the physical remains.

We went home that day with Grandma’s ashes in the urn. We put her on top of our family heirloom chest, along with her photo. I felt comforted by the fact that she was finally home – she never liked the “home” she was at for the past 3 years. She wanted to be with her family, at her real home. She was home now. At least for a couple of days. It was also my first time being back home in 2 years. I was overcome with a feeling of familiarity and memories of Grandma preparing my favorite dishes during my visits from the States.

She left so many marks in that tiny little apartment. I could still smell her, hear her, and see her move around. She was a collector of things, but also a frequent purger. She didn’t have a lot of stuff. But she was everywhere.

On Thursday we carried Grandma to Il-Juk, where her mother’s and younger sister’s urns are located. It was another beautiful day. Flowers were blooming and the sun was shining. Grandma is such a perfectionist. We brought a 생크림 cake, Grandma’s favorite, and a basket of flowers. We placed her urn inside the family pagoda, by her mother’s. We prayed, we bowed, we said our goodbyes. It was peaceful. We all left feeling a little bit more at ease. Now she is in a better place, by her mom, truly resting in peace. I had never really internalized the phrase, “rest in peace,” until that moment – I think I get it now. I understand what it means to wish someone peace and know when they are indeed, resting in peace.

This was by far the shortest trip I’ve taken to the motherland, but the most meaningful one. I am terrified just thinking about the decision I almost made to not attend the funeral. I now realize the criticality of allowing oneself time to grieve, with people you love who understand your pain. Had I not been with my family, I would have never taken the time to grieve nor begun the healing process. Going through the entire process with my family gave me the sense of closure and clarity I needed to start finding peace.

Facetime

Losing someone I love dearly was, and is, as difficult as I had imagined it would be. And unfortunately, this won’t be my last time. But I am comforted by the fact that I won’t be in it alone.

My grandma was one of a kind. And I intend to live to be a kind of my own, with her spirit always within me.

할머니 사랑해!

Three generations of women :)

Mom and Grandma Grandma and her sisters Birthday Grandpa's birthdayGrandma when she was a young girl

Grandma as a baby and her mom

2.5 Weeks in Peru (and Inca Trail Hike): Planning Guide

Ok, it’s been a while.

My honest intention was to write a series of blog posts documenting my travels (Brazil, Argentina, India, and Peru), but life got the best of me and I never followed through. The last 12 months have been wild, but more on that later.

I recently took a trip to Peru after quitting my job. A good ex-coworker moved to Peru a few months ago after he quit the same company, so I guess it was on my mind. Apparently Peru is trending (#sohotrightnow) since a lot of people have been asking me for recommendations and itinerary tips for their upcoming trips. So I decided it would be best to document my planning and itinerary in a blogpost (similar to the Brazil one I did) to maximize reach and efficiency, because, that’s what I do.

I was in Peru for 2.5 weeks. March is Peru is considered “off season” due to the rain, but the most amount of rain I experienced was 1-2 hours a day. Most of the rain happened at night. I always enjoy traveling off season, because 1) things are cheaper 2) you get more done in a day because there are way fewer tourists trying to do the same tourist shit you’re trying to do and 3) locals are more patient. Thank goodness it was off season, I was able to get my Inca Trail permit 2 weeks before the trip (people usually secure the permit 6 months in advance, since there is a limited number of daily permitted hikers). I later learned that they only admit about 200 tourists per day on the Inca Trail (~300 are reserved for guides, porters, and cooks, etc.). So first things first — if you want to go on the Inca Trail hike, get your permit ASAP. Of course, don’t forget to do the same for Machu Picchu.

I wanted to see a few different cities, but I was pressed for time. I actually really wanted to go to Bolivia to go to Salar de Uyuni, but there wasn’t an easy way to get there from Peru. My only options were 1) take a long ass bus ride or 2) take a long, expensive multi-stop flight (Lima -> Cuzco -> La Paz -> Uyuni). Nope, it wasn’t going to happen. I was sad but then I realized how much there is to see in Peru and I calmed down. I was looking up multiple bus options for traveling in South Peru — seemed somewhat complicated and inconvenient, but then I found Peru Hop. It’s a hop-on, hop-off bus that travels to popular cities. It saved my trip. Here are the things I liked about Peru Hop:

  • Flexibility: You choose how long you want to stay in a given city. There’s no “set itinerary,” although the one they recommended ended up working out perfectly with my tight timeline (I had to be in Cuzco by a certain date for the Inca Trail trip). You just need to email them the day before you want to get picked up. You specify where you are staying, they come to your door, drop you off at any location of your choosing along the route.
  • Convenience: I booked most of my hostels myself, only because I am a type-A freak and I have to know where I’m going to sleep in advance, review the reviews on Hostelworld, and secure my bed. Most people on Peru Hop just booked the hostels through Peru Hop, got special deals, and were happy. Peru Hop gives you options (party hostel vs. quiet) and their recommendations often matched what my personal research found. They also booked all tours for me — it wasn’t much more expensive than what I would’ve paid through another agency / hostel, and it was so convenient.
  • Safety: For audacious folks traveling alone, especially women, this is an easy way to relieve some stress around safety. You’re on the bus with a bunch of gringos, people who speak English, who are all broke / traveling. No worries here. Your stuff is safe (still keep your passport and wallet close to you!), especially relative to those overnight local buses.
  • People: As I mentioned in the previous bullet point, you get to meet other travelers. So much of your travel experience is defined by who you spend time with, so being able to make friends so easily and travel the same route with a somewhat constant group of folks was awesome.

So yea, do it.

As for my itinerary, I got a lot of help from Peru Hop. I basically did the full South of Peru trip. Here is my detailed itinerary (I told ya I’m psycho type A).

Peru Trip Itinerary

The itinerary will take you to a desert, beach, canyon, farms, mountains.. you name it. It was truly a beautiful, nature-oriented trip. Every city was very distinct and I enjoyed that aspect very much.

Here’s a short list of the “must-do’s” in each city:

Super Efficient Must-Do List

Lima

  • EAT GOOD FOOD — explore this culinary mecca by trying these must-eats: Anticuchos (tender, grilled beef heart skewers to die for — don’t bother going anywhere else but here), ceviche (Punto Azul is great), lomo saltado, and picarones (deep fried dessert with molasses syrup, death by foodgasm. Tio Mario‘s was great). I also went to Latin America’s #1 restaurant, Central, for a 11 course meal. Honestly, though, you don’t need to spend a lot of $$$ to find great food in Lima!
  • Walk around Miraflores, Downtown, and Barranco (be careful if you are outside of Miraflores at night)
  • Drink pisco sours
  • If you have time: Walk along the water (not actually on the beach, but above, since there’s not really a good walkway along the sand) and check out the beautiful mall Larcomar
  • One random tip — Peruvian cabs don’t have meters. Negotiate the price before getting in.

Paracas

  • National Reserve Park was stunning. So weird to see the desert / cliffs meet the ocean. Beautiful scenery
  • The standard route will take you to Islas Ballestas, aka “poorman’s galapagos.” I wasn’t all that impressed with the animals (mostly sea lions, which I see a lot of in the Bay Area) but maybe it’s your thing

Huacachina

  • Dune buggy ride and sandboarding — ask for the “psycho” driver (there is one popular dude). Not all drivers are crazy. You want your driver to be crazy. Trust
  • Chill by the pool
  • Tip: stay at Banana’s Adventure. It’s the best one (skip the one PeruHop recommends for this town)

Arequipa

  • Check out the main plaza. It’s especially beautiful at night
  • Go on the Colca Canyon tour! Don’t skip this!
  • Drink coca tea, eat coca-flavored candy, toffees, chocolate, you name it

Puno / Lake Titikaka — SKIP IF SHORT ON TIME

  • Boat tour to the floating islands where the natives live
  • Suffer from altitude sickness. Just kidding

Cusco

  • Bake in an extra day to adjust to the altitude, especially if you are coming from a lower-altitude city — you won’t be able to do anything if you get altitude-sick!
  • Sign up and go on the 4-day long Inca Trail hike, duh
  • Mercado San Pedro — easy to miss gem. Amazing market with fresh produce (try all the fruits you’ve never had before!), best prices on gifts / souvenirs, and AWESOME food stalls for the best and cheapest eats (get seco de res and chicken soup)
  • Eat lots of cake. For some reason, there are a lot of great cafes with delicious cakes. Do it. You’re on vacay
  • Climb random hills — you can climb up to where Jesus Blanco (oh, the puns) is to see a great view of the city
  • Don’t pay more than 4 soles to travel by cab within Cusco (7 max for off-hours)
  • If you really want to… you can try Alpaca or Cuy (guinea pig). Not all that great IMO

If you’re short on time, I’d recommend cutting out Puno / Lake Titikaka. While the lake is beautiful, and I can now say “I’ve been to the highest lake in the world,” I suffered from debilitating altitude sickness and the lake activities felt very touristy. You’ve been warned.

I wish I had more time to spend in Arequipa — I really didn’t have any time to explore the city because of my Colca Canyon tour. Other than Arequipa, I felt I had the right amount of time in each city.

About the 4-Day Long Inca Trail Hike

Inca Trail

I highly recommend the Inca Trails hike. I did the 4-day long classic Inca Trails with a tour company called Llama Path. I paid extra to climb Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, which is a mountain by Machu Picchu where you’ll get an amazing view — highly recommend. You are required to do the hike with a guide. When I was choosing the company, I paid particular attention to the companies’ stance on porter well being and social / environmental consciousness. You can find much cheaper tour companies, but you will quickly realize where they are cutting the cost from. Because you will spend so much time interacting and watching how the porters are treated, you will be reminded of your spending choice. I felt good knowing that I chose a company that compensated the porters fairly and treated them with respect — had I consciously made the decision to save cost and go with a less socially responsible tour company, I would’ve felt guilty and shitty the entire time. With a little bit of research, you can quickly find out which companies are ethical and which are not. The $$ simply won’t add up.

Most of the tour companies will provide options for you to hire a porter to carry extra weight so you can travel lighter — I highly recommend folks at least select the “half porter” option, which is what I did. For an out-of-shape gal like me, walking for 4 days in the mountains was a challenge enough, and not having to carry extra clothes, toiletries, sleeping bag, and mattress was worth every penny. Most tours also include all food — what they don’t make clear is that you will get a professional chef who will cook up a storm every single meal, providing you with a 3-4 course fine dining experience. I was shocked by the quality of the food — I honestly felt they were the best meals I had in Peru (one night, the chef flambeed bananas by the table side, inside the tent. WHAT!?). Every morning, I woke up to gentle knocks on the tent followed by a warm cup of coca tea, and was given a cute little snack pack every day. Other than the fact that I couldn’t shower for 4 days, I was quite comfortable at the camp site thanks to the Llama Path team.

A lot of people have also been asking me what I packed for my Inca Trail trip. Good question. Here is my full packing list!

Packing List for 4-Day Long Inca Trail Hikers

Clothes — I highly recommend you buy compressable plastic bags like this to save room
* In general, pack light weight dry-fit workout clothes. You will sweat. Layering is key for the changing weather condition. Pack light. You will be gross, but so will everyone else. You won’t have clean clothes every day, but I promise you you’ll regret bringing more than what you absolutely need.

  • Hiking shoes (SUPER IMPORTANT, obviously. Break your shoes in before the trip)
  • Sports bras x2
  • Underwear x4
  • Hiking socks x6 (pack extra pairs for when your feet get wet from the rain, puddles, etc.)
  • Dry-fit sleeveless shirts for layering x2
  • Dry-fit long sleeve shirts for layering x2
  • Dry-fit long pants or leggings x 2 (I wore my workout leggings and was fine — shorts are recommended if you get hot easily and are going in the summer)
  • Packable waterproof pants to wear over your leggings — something like this
  • Packable puffy down jacket for night time / cold weather
  • Lightweight waterproof rain jacket with a hood
  • Baseball cap (I forgot this and I regretted it)
  • Pajamas (I wore a warmer pair leggings and a cotton shirt for sleeping)
  • Gloves
  • Optional: alpaca socks to sleep in at night 🙂
  • Optional: bathing suit, if you are planning on going to Aguas Calientes

Toiletries — bring only what you need in small containers to reduce weight.

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Makeup remover cloths (life saver for when you want to quickly freshen up)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Light weight, small, quick-dry towel
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes for day-time use
  • Body / baby wipes (in lieu of showering) — I brought “Shower Pill” packs and was very happy with them
  • Deodorant
  • Lipbalm / chapstick — you’ll thank me later
  • Panty liners — ladies, you will also thank me for this
  • Optional: make up
  • Optional: dry shampoo
  • Optional: face wash / cleanser
  • Optional: emergen-C or other vitamins to keep you going and healthy!
  • Optional: tampons (I didn’t need them, but I was told high altitude can make you menstruate off-cycle. Better to be safe than sorry!)

Other Essentials — little details can make your experience so much better and easier. Pay attention!

  • Sleeping bag and mattress — I rented both of these form the tour company. If you are getting your own, make sure they are lightweight and sufficiently warm!
  • Daypack — I fit all my stuff in this bag but remember I also had a duffle that I filled and gave to a porter to carry. I only carried an extra jacket, rainproof pants, poncho, and other day-time essentials that I need access to throughout the hike
  • Water bottles x2 — I had two 1L plastic bottles I refilled each day
  • Headlamp — no, not a flashlight. You want a headlamp
  • Poncho — I really liked my $5 REI poncho. It was thicker than most plastic ones that rip after one use. Make sure you get one that is large enough to cover your backpack!! Common mistake I’ve seen people make
  • Earplugs
  • Portable cell phone charger / extra cell phone battery
  • Earbuds / Headphones — I didn’t really use them because I talked to people or just listened to the sound of the nature 😉
  • Basic first-aid kit / drugs (e.g., bandaids, ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal drugs, etc.)
  • Plastic bags / ziplock bags — they always come in handy
  • Passport pouch to carry your passport, money, etc.
  • Optional: notepad / pen for your night time reflections
  • Optional: water filtering tablets (you will get boiled water to fill your water bottles every day)
  • Optional: ankle or knee brace (I brought both just in case, because I’m ankle injury-prone)
  • Optional: Hiking poles (you can rent)

Alright, I think this is a pretty good planning guide for first-time Peru / Inca Trail travelers.

Generally speaking, Peruvians are warm, welcoming, and obsessed with food and Pisco. I don’t blame them. There is so much to see, eat, and learn — enjoy every moment with an open heart and learn a few Quechua phrases to show your respect and gratitude.

Feel free to message me directly if you have additional questions.

Happy traveling!

MK

Taste of South America in Two Weeks!

If you are not about to drop everything to travel — quit your job, pause your relationships, and rent out your apartment, etc. to pursue a nomad lifestyle — but you are lucky enough to take some time off to pursue your passion for exploring the world, this post is for you. Before I get into the details of each city and juicy stories, let me provide you with a high level overview of my trip. I will share my itinerary, tools I used to help plan my trip, things I packed in my backpack for you non-believers, and other helpful tips for people thinking about going on a similar trip.

 

The Itinerary

After my rather impulsive purchase of the nonrefundable roundtrip ticket to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was time to plan my route. I wanted to visit at least three cities. After researching online for common travel routes from Rio, talking to well traveled friends and coworkers, and looking at a lot of Google Image results for inspiration, here is the final itinerary I landed:

Day 1-5 (4.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Day 5-8 (3.5 Days): Iguazu Falls (Both Brazil and Argentina sides)
Day 8-13 (5 Days): Buenos Aires, Argentina + Day trip to Uruguay
Day 13-16 (2.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

I already came clean about being “type A” so I will share my detailed spreadsheet I developed in preparation for my trip. I saved this spreadsheet on my phone (thank you, Evernote Premium!) and also had a hard copy with me at all times — very handy, especially on travel days, when you need to take a quick glance at the flight number or the hostel address, etc. I also shared this spreadsheet with my friends, family, and coworkers so they could “keep track” of me, just in case of any emergencies.

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Aside from the cost of flights, I had two factors in mind when scheduling the inter-city trips: I wanted to spend the first weekend in Rio, and the second weekend in Buenos Aires. So I made sure my trip to Iguazu landed during the week (not much night life there!). I also wanted to make sure I can go to the Sunday market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and also took into consideration La Bomba de Tiempo, which only happens on Monday nights in Buenos Aires.

I didn’t feel rushed at any particular point during the trip. If I could do it over, I would probably spend one less day in Buenos Aires. It was too cold for my vacation mode (winter in Brazil is very different than winter in Argentina) and it’s a big city where you either have a few days to hit the “touristy” spots or you have an extended stay to really get to know the city. 5 Days felt too long to be doing just touristy stuff, and too short to really fall in love with the city. Kind of like San Francisco. I’m glad I was able to take a day trip to Uruguay on my 4th day — more to come on that. As you can see, all of my travels were via the air. This was a conscious decision to save time — – people who are more budget conscious have ground transportation options. There are bus options for all of the routes and they are quite cheap. I hear it is most definitely worth spending a few extra bucks to upgrade to the first class bus seats, especially on overnight rides. The first class seats recline all the way and a fellow backpacker said they are “more comfortable than hostel beds!”

Some other cities I wish I had time to visit on this trip are Salvador, Buzios, Florionapolis, Mendoza, and Salta. If you have more time, I would strongly suggest incorporating Peru and Bolivia into the itinerary as I’ve heard amazing things about both places from seasoned travelers.

 

Time of Visit

When I visited South America, it was “winter,” its lowest tourist season. In general, I prefer to travel during low seasons, because I find it’s easier to have a more authentic experience without the hype of tourism. Here are some of the benefits of traveling during off-peak times:

  1. Cheaper prices — flights, hostels, and even food prices will be lower during low seasons
  2. Less crowded — easily hit up multiple “tourist attractions” in one day by avoiding long waits
  3. Cooler people — ok, this one is debatable, but high season crowds tend to attract young college students (who are cool, just not “life-time-explorer-cool”) who are restricted by the schools’ vacation timeline or those who are laser focused on big parties (think Oktoberfest, Carnaval, etc.) and getting absolutely wasted

There are definitely some drawbacks to traveling during low seasons, such as the weather. Rio and Iguazu Falls were both perfectly fine in May — warm and breezy, it was the perfect beach weather. Buenos Aires, not so much (cold and rainy). Do your research beforehand (I definitely did not!) and weigh your options!

 

Visas

Brazil requires a visa. Because it was a month before the World Cup and the earliest appointment at the consulate was after my trip, I had to go through a travel agency specializing in expedited visa orders. I ordered my visa through Travel Visa Pro and was very happy with the service I received. The website provides you with a list of things you need for the application as well. It took about 3 weeks for me to receive the visa after I submitted my application. Unfortunately, you do need to mail in your passport. I paid around $250 for a 10-year tourist visa (including agency service fees) and I am looking forward to returning to Brazil before my visa expires!

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For Argentina, U.S. citizens must pay a “reciprocity fee” (the U.S. government charges Argentinian tourists, so this seems fair) prior to entering Argentina and show the printed receipt at immigration. This is a relatively new requirement some people are not aware of, so be sure to do this if you don’t want to be held up at the border. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete online, and it cost $160. This “visa” is also good for 10 years. Here is the website for paying your fee: https://virtual.provinciapagos.com.ar/ArgentineTaxes/ and the end product looks like this (I grayed out personal information):

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Packing

I had a small backpack. I wanted to travel light and be nimble. I brought only the essentials with me and I felt I was very well prepared. I didn’t have time to pack in advance, so I spent all night packing the night before my departure. It really helped to have a solid “packing list,” which I will share here. The list is skewed towards travelers who identify as women (or maybe not).

  • Clothes (I brought: 1 jeans, 1 pants, 1 shorts, 2 leggings, 3-4 tank tops, 2 t-shirts, 1 dress, 1 sweater, 1 packable down jacket, 1 warm jacket, bras, plenty of socks and underwear) *I packed my clothes in airtight ziplock bags to reduce volume
  • Bathing suits
  • Wrist watch (get a cheap one — make sure it’s cheap-looking, too)
  • Sun screen
  • Bug repellent 
  • Shoes (Walking shoes, flip flops / sandals)
  • Quick dry towel (I got one from REI)
  • Ear plugs (SOOOO essential!)
  • Locks (bring 2 — one for a locker and one for your backpack)
  • Toiletries
  • Ibuprofen & other medicines
  • Plastic bags / ziplock bags (never know when you’ll need them!)
  • Headlamp (useful when you need to unpack / pack late in a hostel dorm room)
  • Make up
  • Camera
  • Electrical Converter / Adapter
  • Phone & Charger
  • Pen
  • Notebook / journal
  • Travel guides (I used Lonely Planet – Brazil)

 

Useful Tools

  • Hipmunk for booking flights
  • Hostelworld for booking hostels
  • Evernote Premium (for use on mobile device) for offline access to important documents (I stored copies of my itinerary, hostel confirmation, passport, IDs, visa receipts, etc.)
  • WhatsApp for communicating with people back home or with other travelers

 

Other Tips

  • Money: I used my Chase Sapphire credit card and Charles Schwab checking account to access cash out of ATMs. Chase Sapphire credit card does not charge any foreign transaction fees — in general, credit cards offer the best exchange rates. The annual fee for the credit card is $90. Charles Schwab reimburses all ATM fees and does not charge foreign transaction fees. Many banks do not reimburse ATM fees, especially when traveling abroad, so if you are a frequent international traveler Charles Schwab checking account is definitely worth looking into. There is no annual fee or minimum amount to open an account. I just got back $40 worth of ATM fees reimbursed to me from the trip! In Brazil, I used my ATM card to access Reais (Brazilian currency) and made big purchases using my credit card. In Argentina, using the “blue market” to exchange dollars to pesos is a common practice and highly recommended for its exchange rate (on average 20-30% better return). Be cautious since there are a lot of scams and potential fake exchanges (fake money!) — I had local intel and connections that brought me to a “legit” blue market exchange shop disguised as a newspaper stand. It was quite the experience on its own.
  • Cabs: I encourage solo travelers, especially women, to take cabs from and to the airport, especially in Brazil. Any hostel will call an official radio cab for you. I paid premium on official airport cabs (you pay in advance inside the airport) for added security. Remember, you are carrying ALL of your valuables on your travel day! When you are not yet familiar with the city, it’s nice to see take a “mini-tour” during the drive from the airport to your accommodation. When choosing a cab during your stay, look for ones with a company logo printed on the outside of the car. I always tried to take cabs with two logos (a tip given to me by a hostel manager) rather than one. Always make sure the meter is running!
  • Hostel picking: I had two main criteria for picking hostels — location and cleanliness. I compared scores, read reviews, looked at photos, and nearby public transportation options. I was happy with all of my hostel choices (more detailed reviews of each hostel will be included in future city posts).

 

Young, bold, and dumb

2014 started out rough.

Work was all-consuming in a very stressful, emotional way, with tons of changes and uncertainties. My life changed in a big way when my mom immigrated to the U.S. permanently. Sure, I had been planning for the moment to come for the past 10 years and I had pictured how this was going to go down hundreds and thousands of times in my head… but this was huge. Being responsible for someone starting a new life in a completely foreign country is a big task. When we ran into unforeseen challenges — her wallet getting stolen on her second day with all of her identifications and money, needing urgent medical help when she’s without health insurance — SHIT GOT REAL. The combined weight of personal and professional responsibilities, insurmountable amount of stress, and feeling guilty for being stressed all led me to excuse myself for having no patience or compassion. Basically, I’m sorry if you had to interact with me during those times.

I wasn’t a good teammate. I wasn’t a good daughter. I wasn’t a good friend. I wasn’t a good roommate. I wasn’t a good person. I didn’t feel that way anyway and I felt frustrated feeling helpless and tired all. the. time. I desperately wanted to escape the reality and remove myself from it all. It’s unfair, I know, it’s cowardice, I know. But I wanted to do something for me — not my clients, coworkers, family, or friends. I wanted to be unknown, unfound, uninterrupted. I recognize the ability to flee is a tremendous luxury and I am very privileged to be able to do so without immediate or extreme financial hardship.

I often day dream about traveling the world but being the Type A planner that I am, international trips usually don’t happen “spontaneously.” I would require at least 3 months of planning, calculating, researching… But something came over me one day, when I randomly searched for a roundtrip ticket to Rio De Janeiro and found one for $950. Without much thought or hesitation, I bought the ticket. A nonrefundable ticket. Luckily, I have a flexible job and a cool manager (who received a desperate weekend text “Can I take two weeks off please I already booked my flight” and responded “sounds good.”) which allowed me the spontaneous escape. For you Aussies and Europeans who travel frequently for long periods of time, this may seem a bit dramatic for only a two week vacation, but for an average American with a job to keep, two weeks is not a trivial length to be away from work (back me up, fellow hard working Americans!). Also, given this was my first time traveling alone, this seemed like a much bigger deal to me than it probably would to other seasoned travelers…

I had never been to South America and Brazil seemed like a cool enough place. I hadn’t done any research. Soon I found out… 1) I need a visa to go to Brazil 2) World Cup is happening in Brazil in June, therefore all consulate appointments are full 3) It’s “winter” in Brazil 4) Rio is not recommended for solo female travelers due to the high level of violence and crime rate. OH…. great.

But where there is a will, there is a way. Actually, scratch that. Throw money at your problems and they will go away. Problems 1 & 2 were resolved by doing just that — I used a local travel visa agency to expedite my visa. Not cheap. #3? Occasional rain and upwards of 70 degree weather… survivable. #4 was the ultimate risk. To ensure I travel solo, I purposely did not announce my trip to friends or family until closer to the departure date. And when I did, most of the reactions involved worry, horror, warnings, head shakes, and face palming. They sent me terrifying articles about crimes in Rio, blog posts and travel site comments about the violence, and encouraged me to rethink my trip destination — some suggested I delay the trip until I find a travel companion. I did a fair share of research myself, and yes, it was scary. “But how bad can it really be?” I thought. “People live there.” Let’s be clear, I was fully aware of the need to be extra cautious as a woman traveling alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, where I can’t “pass” as being a local. But anywhere, San Francisco included, can be dangerous if you refuse to use common sense and caution. Ultimately, my desire to venture out outweighed the risks. I decided to play ignorant and be brave. “I’M YOUNG AND BOLD” I told myself, half the time believing in it and the other half… cursing myself and banging my head against a wall. With lots of justification and self-assurance, I prepared myself for the adventure.

Every major decision in my life that was beneficial to me in retrospect all came with a degree of uncertainty, risk, and that butterfly-in-your-stomach kind of feeling. This felt like one of those moments. So I packed my backpack and took off.

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Why not a suitcase, you ask? I wanted to be lightweight and nimble. I wanted to not need a lot of “things.” The backpack met most of the travel modes’ baggage requirements for carry-on. Plus, it’s much more romantic this way. People don’t say “I suitcased around South America,” right?

I will be posting a series of blog posts journaling my experience in South America. Not sure how long this will take, but I’m hoping my writing will provide useful information, inspire others to travel, and most importantly, help make my experience longer lasting.