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.

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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