Do more, be more

Tonight, I was sitting at the Argo Tea at Broadway and 22nd Street, chatting with a Wellesley prospective at her admissions interview… with me. I honestly don’t give much money back to Wellesley, so I figure one small way I can give back is by being a Wellesley admissions representative and doing admissions interviews. My time is worth money, right?

She started out quite timid and awkward in both speech and body language. She began by making a lot of statements and not knowing how to back them up. I wasn’t quite clear on what she stood for until we got to the subject of public health, which is an area of passion for her. Her high school sounded very diverse and had a variety of classes that I would have loved to take when I was her age: public health, sociology, Latin American history, engineering (okay, I wouldn’t have loved to take that last one). But once we got to the topic of public health, of her awareness of the disparity merely across public schools in terms of educating on topics ranging from menstruation to birth control to STDs, of her anger that so many kids grow into adults and have no idea what a pap smear or gonorrhea are, she really shined and was her authentic self.

She talked about wanting to pursue public health as a career, and how her parents, typical Asian immigrant parents, told her it was a terrible idea, and why spend all this time and money going to school and then come out making nothing? “Other people pursue these careers and end up just fine,” she said to me. “I’ll be okay. I just want to do something I’m passionate about that can help others. I don’t want people to be unaware of things they should be aware of.”

The last week has made me think a lot about self-awareness and what we all stand for as individuals. What are we all passionate about and care about? And this led into the conversation I had at dinner at my apartment tonight with my friend, who lives just a few blocks away. He told me he doesn’t think there are enough people who are consciously thinking about how they can contribute to the world more and be better people. That’s… sadly probably true. Most people are so unaware that when you point out the most obvious things about them, they immediately go into denial and reject the idea before they’ve had even ten seconds to think about whether what we’ve said could be true. We’d be a better world if everyone consciously spent more time thinking about their own self-improvement and how to take action on that. He joked that it probably would be a great religion because there’s really no religion either of us could think of that focused on self-improvement.

The level of delusion that most people have is so ridiculous and depressing. I think the idea of a religion based on self-improvement would be offensive to them.

Insights training

Today was dedicated to Insights Discovery System training for our team. We had all taken an online evaluation that took about 15-20 minutes about two weeks ago that would be the focus of our training today. Insights enables companies to bring self-awareness to their people and teams; it’s sort of like Myers-Briggs but with an adjusted interpretation of Carl Jung’s theories. The goal is to ultimately increase self-awareness, which would then allow us to better form relationships and become more effective at our jobs. I’d taken a Myers-Briggs test years ago but didn’t remember my letter-combination; I find that the Insights approach of using colors is so much easier to remember.

One of the exercises we did was to have each person in the group answer four simple questions about their childhood: 1) Where were you born and raised? 2) If you have siblings, how many and who are they relative to you in age? 3) What was your “role” in your family? and 4) What was your biggest challenge growing up, and what did you learn from it?

I heard the questions and realized how vulnerable this was going to make a lot of us. What were we each going to share and how “revealing” would we be? How authentic to our childhood would the shared thoughts be? It ended up being this extremely emotional and intense setting, as so many facts about my colleagues came out that, if this exercise never happened, I likely never would have learned any of these details… things ranging from parenting a parent at the age of five, multiple instances of alcoholism of dads, dealing with the death of a sibling when a colleague was only 5, and being left alone regularly at the age of 4.

What you realize in exercises like this is how those childhood experiences shape you for the rest of your life. It may not always be obvious, but those experiences can come out at the most unanticipated moments. When I think about it, I can see in these colleagues who were so open to sharing and being vulnerable how those experiences at a young age manifested in the ways they lead their lives today, even in something as simple as everyday conversations or how or when to speak up in group meetings.

We had a room full of people crying and blowing their noses. Somehow, I managed to stay dry-eyed and only blew my nose when I was too congested from this stupid cold I’ve somehow caught. I never thought I’d ever be in a room full of work colleagues like that in my life. It honestly for me was an enlightening experience and one that I know I’ll probably be contemplating for the next several days.

Sometimes, it just works out.

In the same vein as The Last Supper having all its tickets sold out because my “advanced planning” wasn’t in advance enough, I tried to reserve a table at Massimo Bottura’s famed Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, a couple months back, but alas, I was too late. All the reservations that would have worked on days we could go were completely booked out, and so I opted for the wait list, which they supposedly said they would email or call me in the event that there was a cancellation. Last year, Osteria Francescana was rated the top restaurant in the world, and this year, it had fallen to number 2 on the list, with New York City’s Eleven Madison Park rising to first. I was disappointed, but I figured that if it was meant to be, then it was meant to be, and if not, it would be okay because we made another reservation in Modena at the “little cousin” restaurant of Francescana for dinner that night. To be sure I was on the wait list, I called the restaurant two weeks ago to confirm that I was on the wait list, and that we’d be open if anything were to be cancelled for lunch or dinner that day.

Lo and behold, during our walks around Milan yesterday, I received a phone call from a Modena number, and I immediately got excited and wondered if an opening had come up at Francescana. I called the number back on Chris’s phone, and they told us that if we were available, a 12:30pm reservation had opened up for us, and they’d need our credit card number to confirm the reservation. It ended up cutting deeply into our daylight time in Modena, but I think we can both say that the three-plus hours we spent at Osteria Francescana allowed us to have one of the most creative meals we’d probably had in our lives. Eleven Madison Park was beyond impressive the two times we’d gone together, but this really took creativity to another level. The first official course, a “salad of seafood,” was carefully layered pieces of lettuce, with pieces of seafood-infused “chips” of a similar texture of Chinese shrimp chips, calamari, shrimp, raw fish, and caviar. The chips are meant to add textural contrast and added crunch, and at the end after it’s served, it’s sprayed with a “seafood parfum.” Salad is hardly something Chris gets excited about; in fact, he hates on Sweetgreen constantly even though I think it offers the best and most consistent chopped salad in New York City, but this is a salad he truly enjoyed and was impressed by. Every course from then on was inventive, plated imaginatively, even with the patterns and actual textures of the plate playing into the overall theme of each dish. The restaurant lived up to its hype in Chef’s Table and its ranking, and for me, probably exceeded it.

I wasn’t quite prepared for how intimate the dining scene would be there; they make it very private, and the restaurant is more like a house with multiple small rooms, with each room containing no more than three to four tables where diners can be seated. The servers are attentive, refilling your wine and 10-euro bottle of water, and when you go to the restroom, they follow you to escort you, wait on you, and then immediately take you back to your seat, pulling out and pushing in your seat for you.

I also thought the three fake pigeons on a branch in the hallway when we entered was a bit eerie; they looked so real. And yes, we did have two dishes with pigeon in them. Pigeons are everywhere in Italy, and… even on your plates.

Workplace

Last week while having a Cuban dinner in Miami, one of my colleagues and I got into an argument. We weren’t yelling or raising our voices, but it was obvious we were having a huge disagreement around roles and responsibilities, and who should be speaking about what during our scheduled Friday meeting with a customer. I tried really hard to be controlled and not to make this a personal issue, and in the end, we eventually did come to a semi consensus and let the meeting go where it went. Today, he called me to discuss follow-up items from the meeting, who should take charge of what, and also… to apologize for arguing with me. He said he wasn’t in a good head space, was having some personal issues (I recently learned that one of his best friends died from cancer), and that he was a bit scatter brained as a result and inadvertently took it out on me and didn’t mean to.

I’ve had a couple heated arguments at my last job, a company and job I never truly respected, and they were always hostile, rooted in sexism, probably racism, and hierarchical bullshit that I’ll never quite agree with. They never, ever ended in an apology, not even the slightest, even when the other person was clearly out of line and overstepped his bounds (and even got called into HR for a formal talk). The people, particularly the men in inflated roles, never really had any self-awareness, and they refused to admit they were wrong.

I will probably have many more disagreements with colleagues while I am here… because I am not a doormat, and that’s okay as long as everyone is still smart, ambitious, respectful, and driven to do the right thing, and wants the best for this business. I kind of believe that really is the case here. I never believed that to be the case where I left. It’s almost like I’m so much more grateful for what I have now because I always had to deal with so much garbage at the last place. When I get mad at work now, it’s rarely because I think people are stupid. It’s never because I think they are sexist (I have yet to feel even an inkling of that). This feels like a good place.

AFSP fundraising update

I sent out my fundraising update email this past weekend. I think it’s a good thing to do, to update your donors to let them know if you met your goal, and by how much. Most people don’t respond, which is fine, but it’s nice to know that the people who do read the updates care.

Two of my colleagues emailed me to let me know how moved they were by my fundraising update. One said that he reached out to a dear friend of his who he knew was struggling with depression. Another said he was struggling himself and found it inspiring that I would “bear your soul.” He said he found it so shocking how brutally honest I was.

I’m just being myself. We spend so much of our time trying to be a certain way around certain groups of people in our lives. When it comes to the way I grew up and my experiences with my brother, I can’t be bothered to mask anything or spend time fabricating stories. I rather just say what I want to say. I’m settled in my thoughts and emotions. If other people can’t handle it, then it’s really their problem to deal with and confront.

Fourth year walking

Today, I participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Out of the Darkness walk here in Manhattan. This year, I raised over $5,000 for the cause. I really didn’t think I was going to surpass my $4,000 goal, but my new colleagues’ levels of generosity have really astounded me.

I was on the stage taking photos with the big fundraiser sign that ranks the top fundraisers in order. This year, I ranked third in Manhattan, which is kind of a big deal considering exactly how big the group of fundraisers is in this borough. Thousands and thousands of people participate in this walk, and it’s only getting bigger each year that we do it. While on stage with Chris taking photos of me, the director of the program found me and asked me if I was Yvonne, and I said, yes. So we talked for a bit given that she’s the new director and is still getting to know everyone, and she said she’d been following my stories the last few years and wanted to meet me, but felt shy about e-mailing me. She asked if I’d be interested in sharing my loss story with other suicide loss survivors, whether it be at events or talks, or even one-on-one with people who reach out to AFSP. I said I’d be happy to do it. I think it would certainly be challenging, to speak publicly about it and not make it all a sob story, but I think it’s a challenge I’d be up for, especially if it can help others cope and get through their loss, or help people who want to understand and be more empathetic be there for their loved ones.

What is the point of going through life with all your tragedies and losses if no good can come out of it? Every day there’s so much suffering in the world. It can be so overwhelmingly depressing unless you want to do something about it yourself.

Singing our praises

It’s been endless customer breakfasts, lunches, random meet ups between sessions, and endless stimulation. There hasn’t been a dull moment in the last three days, and it feels like in every conversation, I am selling our company and product and what we do. And then, there are the moments that surprise me, when I am hearing my customers chat with other customers, and I hear them telling them why our product is important and how it’s helped them, and why it could help that person’s business. Why don’t we have these conferences all the time so that our customers can just network, share learnings, and do my job for me?

No one really wants to hear why we think we’re great. Customers want to hear from other customers about what value they’re deriving from using us. Networking is what these events are actually about. And so hearing people singing our praises (or even singing my praises, which is crazy to me) — it’s so humbling. There’s no other word to describe it.

Goal reached this year

Fundraising four years in a row for the same cause certainly has diminishing value for most people, whether it’s for people who choose to continue donating, or for the person who is actually doing the fundraising. The first year, it’s new. Everyone’s excited that you are raising money to increase awareness and help others in need. All your friends (at least, the ones worth keeping) cheer you on and donate, if even a small sum, to show that they’re supportive of your efforts. Then, the second year comes. You’re asking the same group of people to donate… again. And then you meet new people, whether it’s new colleagues, friends, or acquaintances, and you ask them to donate. Then the third year comes, and the fourth year, and so on. Can you count on people to continue supporting your cause even though the fundraising just keeps going? It’s not like you’re raising the money for yourself, right? It’s going to the foundation to help others, not into your actual wallet. It’s tiring, but I want to keep going. I hope people don’t think I am ungrateful asking every year to donate; I get that not everyone has tons of money lying around. But I have to keep doing this.. partly for selfish reasons because I feel like it’s the only way I can keep Ed alive… for me.

I’ve been increasing my goal by $1,000 each year since I started, so this year, it was $4,000. I felt it was a big stretch for many reasons: it’s four years for the same cause. The story has evolved as life evolves, but it’s still the same cause and the same reasons. I’ve started a new job this year in a remote office, which means that if I’m not sitting in the headquarters being a physical reminder about my fundraising drive, I thought no one would feel compelled to donate or care about my story or reasons for fundraising.

I guess I was really wrong there. So many of my colleagues donated, and in very large sums, as soon as I sent out my outreach email back in August. And today, I posted on my company’s #team Slack channel, which almost everyone in the company across the world checks, and within hours, I exceeded my goal. I had multiple donations of $100, and one from our cofounder of $250. Colleagues I still haven’t even met yet donated generously and sent encouraging messages. It was really humbling.

One of my colleagues who donated who I still haven’t met messaged me and said how much my story touched her. She said she literally cried when she read my message on my fundraising page. “Before I read your page, I never really thought about the significance of sibling relationships,” she said. She said she never thought about suicide on a personal level much or the Golden Gate Bridge in that light until she read the details on my page.

That’s the thing about tragedy. Sometimes, when you share your story, it gets other people to think about the things they take for granted and don’t think much about and really force them to confront their fears and stop avoiding all the things that are painful but necessary to understand. I’m happy to be someone that others can go to when they’re in need. I just wish more people would be open about all the things that aren’t so pretty in life.

 

Cultural appropriation

So many chefs and celebrities over the years have been accused of cultural appropriation. Some of it is legitimate, and some of it may be a bit off base. Famous chef and cookbook writers like Ivan Orkin, the owner of Ivan Ramen, and the British chef and cookbook writer Fuchsia Dunlop, who was educated at the Sichuanese culinary academy and is the author of several acclaimed Chinese cookbooks that vary by region of China, have both been accused of it. The thing about both of them is that they both have made seemingly complex cuisines more understandable to Asian Americans like myself, who oftentimes struggle to understand how to “bridge the gap” between Eastern and Western culture. Ivan Ramen introduces new techniques to the humble ramen bowl by introducing rye as an ingredient in ramen noodles. Fuchsia Dunlop tries to use more modern techniques in Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine while preserving flavors, and even writes a memoir that helps me understand the nuances of a culture that I’m supposed to claim as my own, even though I’ve grown up here in the U.S. She’s actually studied the language and the history of China, and tried to understand the language nuances and cultural differences in a way that someone who isn’t Chinese in China can understand. It’s people like Ivan and Fuchsia who have helped me better understand these Asian cultures, one of which I’m supposed to identify with. But in China as in the language, everyone outside of China is an “outsider,” even those who are ethnically Han Chinese.

Erratic route

After I checked out from my disgusting hotel yesterday at noon, I had an Uber driver take me from the hotel back to my parents’ place so I could rest for the remainder of the afternoon. The oddest thing about the drive, though, was that the driver took the most erratic route. The quickest way to get from the financial district to my parents’ house from downtown is via Pine, and it’s especially fast when there’s no traffic (and at around 1pm on a Friday, there was none). He did begin by taking Pine, but when we were reaching the end of it, he went on some weird back streets and continued to use backstreets all the way back to the Richmond. And another odd thing: one back street he took brought us right past the Columbarium, right past Loraine Court, where my brother now rests.

I felt guilty this week for multiple reasons — being in San Francisco for work and not being able to participate in our mid-year kick off event, which was the primarily reason I was out here to begin with. I felt guilty being laid up in a terrible hotel bed when I was supposed to be engaging with my colleagues and doing work. I felt bad using company expenses to not work and instead to vomit into a toilet while being sick. And I also felt bad knowing I’d have no energy to go visit Ed at the Columbarium. It would be the only trip I’d ever take to San Francisco since my brother’s passing that I would not have gone to visit him, and it made me feel terrible.

So maybe this erratic route was some strange, other-worldly way to acknowledge my brother, to acknowledge the fact that I wanted to see him and say hello despite falling ill and not being able to do as I originally planned.