“Reclaiming mental health as Asian Americans”

After I got the advice from a friend to re-join a second library system, I used my Manhattan address to confirm access to the Queens Library last week, which I hadn’t accessed since 2012, when I lived in the borough. I always had Queens Library access and New York Public Library access since I first moved here, as it was one of the very first things I did once I got set up in this new city; Queens covers just the borough of Queens (since it’s so freaking huge!), while New York PL provides access for Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As an avid reader, I figured it would be wise to continue getting access to books that my tax payer dollars were covering. Until 2018, I was borrowing hard copies and picking them up/dropping them off at the nearest library. But since then, I access the library fully electronically via the Libby app. This then allows me to either listen to audio books directly from the app, or send the electronic book from the library directly to my Kindle. It’s been amazing: I cannot even count how many books I’ve read this way, and I’m obsessed.

The first book I got off the wait list for in Queens Library that NYPL did not even have in its catalog was Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans, which is written by psychologist Jenny T. Wang (who I actually started following on Instagram during the pandemic!). I already knew by page 2 that this was going to be a good book after I read this line:

“Our suffering and well-being do not exist solely in overcoming major crises or managing diagnoses, but also within the conversations held behind closed doors, in the tears we shed alone in the shower, and in the deep emotions that we cannot ignore despite our best efforts.”

I think when the average person thinks about mental health, they do define it based on crises and diagnoses; they don’t think about the everyday interactions and how they have such an impact on us. I think that is especially lost on older Asian generations like my parents, who think of “mental health” being a concern just for people who are “psychotic,” “crazy,” or “mental.”

I’m about halfway through the book now. It’s an easy to digest read, but it’s definitely extremely triggering, especially once we got into the section called “Boundaries.” So I can’t read too much of it at once and need to give myself breaks, which is what the author actually suggests, along with questions to stop and ask yourself. Other than the sexual and physical boundaries subtitles, my parents have basically violated every other boundary of mine:

They regularly would go through my belongings, from reading letters addressed to me without my permission to my school binders and notebooks to my closet/drawers; my dad has even gone into my electronic files on the shared computer, which resulted in quite the family drama.

They eavesdrop on my conversations and then would gossip about it later/yell at me for what I discussed with others.

Whenever I come home, I’m constantly being asked to do this, do that, with zero regard for what I might be in the middle of doing. I get yelled at if I don’t come right away.

When I come home, I’m expected to drop any plans I had made with any friend/relative so that I can spend time with them… most of the time doing nothing, just being under the same roof. She used to insist that, “(Insert name) is not that important… tell them you are sick and can’t make it,” or, “You already saw (insert name) a couple days ago. Why do you need to see them again? WHAT IS SO IMPORTANT OVER YOUR FAMILY?” And, if I don’t cancel the plans, then I’m “disobedient and against my parents, which means you’re against Jehovah!”

When I was in middle and high school, my mom used to regularly call my friends and ask them to be spies, to “report back” anything “inappropriate” I might have been doing. A friend I used to go hang out with after school at her house was one of these people. She told me my mom would regularly call her to “make sure” I really did go to her house.

Once I started working, I knew something was very, very wrong with my mom’s demand that I only take time off to come home and see her. If I took time off for a trip, it had to be with them. I was not permitted to take time off for myself, to take a trip with friends, or god forbid, a trip with a boyfriend/partner. So when I did take small trips to hang out with friends or travel to new places with them, I just didn’t tell her. The first time I finally admitted to taking a week off to go to Mexico with my then-boyfriend, the fireworks went on for two days. All she did was scream and yell. She said I was betraying her; I was not to supposed to take trips with a man I wasn’t married to; I wasn’t supposed to take time off unless it was to see her. How could I be so selfish…?

My mom has “tested” me by asking to me to write her checks for thousands of dollars… for dental and health procedures that she didn’t even need or follow through with. It was all a test to see how “loyal” I was to her. After sending her one of the checks (and after she cashed it), she told me she ended up not proceeding with that dental procedure. You can imagine how annoyed I was (and how infuriated my husband was…). She just wanted the money and likely had zero intention of ever getting the procedure done from the beginning.

My mom used to say to me regularly, “I control you until you get married, and then when you get married, your husband controls you.” That was fun to hear. I guess it’s no wonder why I made a goal during my senior year of college to get a job out on the East Coast, far out of her control and constant spying. And once I moved to New York, I vowed to never live anywhere close to my parents ever again.

She also used to tell me regularly that Ed and I “have no right to get angry at your parents! You have NO right! We do everything for you, and you get angry with us?!”

It took me a while to figure out that being angry at one’s parents, or at anyone, is completely fine and healthy. All feelings – happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, whatever – they are what they are. There is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling. It’s just a matter of how you deal with them and move forward with them that matters. To tell someone they aren’t allowed to feel is pretty inhumane… and quite sad, when you think about it.

My first therapist once asked me, “Do you think you will ever move back to San Francisco?” I paused for a bit, and then responded, “I’m not sure. I don’t think so? Maybe I could. But only after they’re both dead.” It sounds like a very harsh thing to say, but I really meant it. The truth hurts. I don’t think my mental health could handle being that close to them. They have no concept of boundaries or how to treat me (or really, anyone else) respectfully and with true kindness. And like any other human being, I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. I’m not asking for that much.

It’s hard to think about the fact that I will never have a good relationship with either of my parents. In an ideal world, we’d get along and be much closer. But it’s not meant to be. Ed was the same way. But his life has already ended. Mine hasn’t… not yet, anyway.

Workplace appreciation: holiday gifts

Two nights ago, I was getting ready for my nightly candle and reading time before bed when I was going through my small candle collection. I came across a candle that was gifted to me by my former boss at my current company (she’s still at the company, and we still chat all the time). It was a soy candle with a pleasant floral fragrance. I remember it came as part of a larger gift set that she sent as a holiday gift just over two years ago, created by a company that is women-owned and run (of course, she would have the forethought to research this before choosing team holiday gifts). It arrived beautifully packaged with a heartfelt card she sent to thank me for all my hard work over the last year. I also remember I was on maternity leave when I received the gift.

A lot of people in general take for granted corporate gifts and holiday gifts; they’re just things that are given and done as a generic token of appreciation. But since I started at my current company, it suddenly dawned on me that for my entire career to date, which spans five different companies, that my current company is the only company I’ve ever worked for that did company-sponsored holiday gifts for employees. It’s the only company that thought that giving a token of appreciation at the end of year to employees was valued and necessary, and so the expense was deemed worth it. Two companies ago, when I was a manager, I became a manager in my third year at the company. In that year, management decided that managers would be responsible for choosing team gifts for everyone on their teams during the holiday season. The catch? The managers of the teams were responsible for paying for the gifts out of their own pockets, so I had to pool money with the two other managers on my team to buy gifts for my direct reports. I don’t remember how much I was forced to pay out of pocket, but it was at least $110-150. That’s on top of any holiday/Christmas gifts I spent on my own family and friends that year. And it was not fun. Why should individual managers be responsible for paying for holiday gifts on behalf of the company when the employer is too cheap to foot the bill for these things? The individual contributors aren’t working for the managers; they’re working for the company.

So I lit the candle that was gifted to me by my former boss that night and gave thanks for working at a company that values its employees and shows it through these gifts. I’ve gotten a lot of gifts while working here, not just during the holiday season, and I’ve never taken any of them for granted. I have a lot to be thankful for where I currently work. There are so many terrible companies that don’t value their employees out there and do nothing to give thanks for their hard work. I’ve worked for many of them. And these companies all need to go evolve or die.

10 years of fundraising for AFSP and remembering Ed

Today was the Manhattan American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness walk for this year. 2023 marks the 10th year that I’ve fundraised in honor of Ed’s memory. It’s been an interesting ten years fundraising. Each year, I share my personal story, which has evolved each year. And each year, I’ve somehow managed to elicit the support of not just my friends and family who have been repeat donors, but even new donors every time. Most of those new donors have been colleagues, new and old. Some have been friends or family members of my own friends and family. Others have even been complete strangers who found out about my brother’s story through an acquaintance or family member and felt compelled to donate. In all of these cases, I’ve always been touched that people would spend their hard-earned money to support this cause… all because I chose to share and be open about my brother’s story and ultimately, my family’s loss. It’s been a humbling experience to share his story and see who has felt something when reading it. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they’ve personally been affected by suicide or struggled themselves. But this is how people start opening up, and I am proud to be a part of the journey of destigmatizing mental health and suicide ideation and prevention.

2023 is the first year I haven’t met my fundraising goal, though. I raised $4,790 out of a goal of $5,000. I’m still waiting on a match from my company, which would add another $100, as my company matches donations up to $100 each year per employee. I think I am waiting on one corporate match. But I guess it’s hard to expect people to donate year after year, especially when there are so many other charities and crises that need our attention. So I’m grateful for even the smallest contributions.

This is also the first year when Kaia has walked with me. Well, we pushed her in her stroller, but she did attend the walk, and she loved the Top Fundraising Team sign that we had for Ed. We also had Chris’s cousin and his daughter come from London, who also accompanied us at the walk, as well as my friends and their young daughter.

Each year when I am listening to the remarks at the opening ceremony, I cannot help but tear up while listening to all the stories of loss. Someone’s teen daughter died from suicide. Someone else lost their dad to suicide. The stories just keep going on and on, and I can feel the pain. It’s just so gut wrenching to hear these stories and see that this keeps happening over and over. But while it is sad, it makes me feel better knowing that I’m doing a little something for the community by fundraising each and doing this walk.

10 years of fundraising for AFSP

2023 marks the 10th year that I’ve been fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in honor and memory of Ed. In the beginning, I set my goal really low, at $1,000, because I wasn’t sure how much, if anything, people would donate. I got totally blown out of the water that year and raised far above $1,000. Each subsequent year for a number of years, I kept raising the goal by a thousand dollars. Then, the pandemic year hit in 2020, and I realized it would be too much of a stretch to keep going on that trajectory. So I scaled it back. Since, my goal has been $5,000, but which each year, it feels like more and more of a stretch to reach. In the last two years, it’s been especially tough with a poor economic climate, seemingly endless layoffs, and crazy inflation. It always feels like it’s a lot to ask of people to keep donating, year after year. It’s tireless and exhausting. I’m 10 days away from the Out of the Darkness walk and still haven’t hit my goal. I am currently ranked 6th for fundraising in Manhattan.

But then I have a friend who has been fundraising for breast cancer research since we were 18 with her sisters in memory of their mother, who died suddenly from breast cancer (caught just 3 weeks before dying). She’s been doing this fundraising for almost 20 years now and never gives up. I took a look at her donation page today, and she’s barely raised $400. It kind of goes to show that people tire of these asks after a while, and we can only expect so much.

It’s rough. Losing someone you love prematurely is hard. Trying to keep their memory alive is hard. Fundraising and asking loved ones and colleagues to donate year after year is hard. It’s hard to know when it’s actually too much to ask. But at that point, are you letting your loved one’s memory essentially die?

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, aka time to eat mooncake

Growing up, I had no idea what Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was, but I did know that at around the same time of year every autumn, I could expect to eat moon cakes. Around September of every year, my grandma would buy boxes and boxes of Cantonese style moon cakes as gifts for family and friends. In return, we (surprise surprise) also received endless boxes of moon cakes, as well. I never understood the cultural importance of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival then. I just enjoyed eating the moon cakes. Since our family is Cantonese, I was really only ever exposed to Cantonese style mooncakes at home. It wasn’t until I was in college when I realized that there are many regional differences across not only China, but different parts of Asia, for mooncakes. Just a couple weeks ago, I finally had Thai style moon cakes, which are really more like mini round flaky pastries with a filling. And apparently, Shanghainese moon cakes are similar to these Thai ones, as well! I feel like I’m always learning new things about my culture and variations of the food I grew up eating.

It wasn’t until college that I officially learned what “Mid-Autumn Moon Festival” even was. Historically, the festival marked the time of the year, in autumn, when families would gather to enjoy the fruitful reaping of rice and wheat, and they would mark this with food offerings made in honor of the moon. The day that Mid-Autumn Moon Festival falls is always an evening of a full moon. So today, families will typically gather and have a delicious feast. And at some point of the day, they will cut moon cakes into small pieces and eat them together with tea. The moon is a symbol of harmony and unity, and so it’s considered auspicious to eat moon cake during this time of year. Moon cakes are always round, just like the moon (not unique, but you get the idea). Families eating moon cake during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is basically signifying that their family is unified and complete.

Since my grandma died, our family never really did anything for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival other than buy moon cakes around the same time each year. But I would like for Kaia to understand the cultural significance of these Chinese holidays since they are part of her culture. This year, for the first time, I actually went down to Chinatown specifically to buy moon cakes, specifically ones that I special ordered via email from Kopitiam, a Malaysian cafe/restaurant that was making snow moon cakes based on demand. I ordered five: two durian, one taro, one black sesame, and one white lotus seed paste (the last one is the most traditional Cantonese filling, and my favorite one growing up that I was exposed to).

Snow moon cakes, in the last several years (as long as I am aware), have become all the rage during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. They’re basically like the modernized version of moon cakes: they have the same round shape, the same beautiful molds, but instead of a shortening or butter-based crust on the outside, snow moon cakes have a “shell” that is made of mochi or glutinous rice flour. They are instant eye candy and are just stunning to look at. And the moon cakes that are being made by places like Kopitiam — you know for a fact that they’re not taking any shortcuts or using artificial anything. I cut two, the durian and the taro, and Chris and I shared them. I offered a bite to Kaia given the holiday, though I’d normally never give her anything with added sugar. Initially, she seemed intrigued, but when she got close enough and watched us eat, she said she didn’t want any. It’s okay: I still want her exposed to these things, and at some point one day, she will be tempted.

An ode to Ammachy

This past Sunday, we learned that Ammachy, Chris’s maternal grandma, passed away. She was widowed quite early on in her marriage and had three daughters she ended up raising on her own. She worked hard and made sure they had a good childhood, and they all went on to do relatively well in their respective careers and lives. Because she lived in India and never actually moved to Australia, Chris spent less time with her than he did with his paternal grandma. I had seen her on a number of occasions when she’d be in Australia during Christmas time, and Chris and I also went to visit her in the summer of 2018 during our India trip. She was always soft-spoken and thoughtful, and there was never a time when she was not reading a book (always in extra big print because of her vision problem). We were really looking forward to going to India this summer to visit her and finally have her meet Kaia. I really was excited for her to see Kaia, her second great grandchild, and have them interact with each other, but unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Our India trip this summer will now be a bit different than how we had hoped and envisioned.

Although Ammachy has passed, I still think it’s amazing that Chris got to see both his grandmothers live well into his late 30s/early 40s. While it’s sad that she is now gone, it’s comforting to know that she lived a good, full, long life and had many people who loved her and will always remember her.

Early Intervention (EI) for children

A lot of people look at the need or mention of “early intervention” in their baby or toddler’s life as a condemnation of their parenting abilities, whether it’s about whether they have done enough for their child, or if it’s something they could have passed down to them genetically that has stunted some part of their development. I’ve generally always been pragmatic about it: if a child needs some additional help, it’s probably better to get them help sooner rather than later, because whatever that developmental delay is, it could cascade and have negative affects on other areas of development if not addressed.

I had a hunch Kaia would be quite verbal this time last year, and I was right: at this point, she can say over 60 different words, which according to developmental milestone charts I’ve read, is at the 2-year old-plus level of speaking. But the area where she hasn’t been that strong is in walking. She easily pulls herself up and gets down. She sits in a lot of different positions. She also is happy to walk while we hold her hands, or when she’s pushing her walker. But she just won’t walk independently, and she will only stand on her own for about 3-4 seconds max. She crawls super fast though, and she’s very, very nimble. Crawling was supposed to precede walking. But still to this day, no walking on her own. I told the doctor this at her appointment today, and she suggested that she recommend Kaia for early intervention to see what we could do to help her walk. Someone would likely reach out to me in the next 2-3 weeks to set up an appointment to come to our home and observe and potentially make recommendations to help.

I don’t really mind it, and I don’t see any harm in having someone evaluate her and watch her closely. I especially don’t mind since it’s fully covered via our health insurance, plus we don’t have to go out of our way to get the help. Who knows – our nanny says that she thinks Kaia is just on the brink of walking and will likely get there before the EI appointment is even scheduled, so we shall wait and see.

Good friends who do anything for each other

During the course of my now 15-year career, I’ve met a lot of interesting people. I’ve met really inspiring, ambitious people, the types of people who’ve made me look in the mirror and think, “wow, I’m the definition of mediocre.” I’ve met dull, baloney-and-cheese sandwich boring people, the type who brings the same lunch to work every single day and never do anything new because, well, nothing compels them to do so, and they don’t see value in it. I’ve met people who volunteer regularly to help those less fortunate, who donate thousands of dollars each year to charity because they acknowledge that while they’ve had good luck and opportunities in their lives, there are plenty more people who are nowhere as lucky as they were. I’ve also met people who are so selfish that they have said, out loud in front of many others, that they see no reason to help those they do not know personally because they will never see how their help “really paid off.” You meet a lot of people over the course of 15 years, especially when you’re on the road traveling to different places, and especially when you work externally with customers from all walks of life.

Yesterday afternoon, I was on the phone with one of these interesting customers. He’s the kind of person who is very reserved when he’s being recorded on our Zoom calls, but once you get him on the phone, he totally opens up and tells you everything and anything; he loves talking and sharing, and he is truly an open book. Although he is based in Virginia, he had been working from the Bay Area since the beginning of February. One of his very best friends from high school was doing a clinical trial to help with the recurring liver problems she’d been facing, and the side effect of these trials is that they can really wipe you out completely to the point where you could be bedridden for days. She’s a single working mom raising two sons on her own with no family nearby. So my customer, being this selfless friend, decided to drive his car all the way from Virginia to the Bay Area, rent an AirBnB, to help out this friend, plus her two teenagers. He said he drove because he wanted to be able and ready to help with anything from getting her to appointments to doing grocery runs, and he didn’t need the added expense of a rental car for that long period. He got an AirBnB for the first 1.5 months so he didn’t encroach on their personal space since they live in a condo with limited room. He was planning to spend the last two weeks of this month at their home.

“It’s really not a big deal,” my customer insisted. “Three plus years ago, I could never do this because we all had to be at the office, but now we’re remote first. So as long as I have a computer and Wi-Fi access, I’m all set to work. So when she told me she had to do this, I knew I had to help. It was a no brainer to me. I’d do anything for her. We’ve known each other for 40+ years. And all my kids are out of the house! So I’ve got no responsibilities!”

Even if you remove the ability to “work from everywhere,” I still don’t know many people, if anyone, who would temporarily relocate for two months across the country they live to help out a friend in this way. I was really awestruck and thought… wow, I must also be an inadequate friend next to this customer…

This is 37

Every day, we are getting older. Every hour, every minute, every second, we are all getting older. Certainly no one is getting any younger. As Kaia gets older, everyone observes and comments in wonderment, seeing her do things like crawl to walk to run, like holding a ball to actually throwing and catching it. With people of my age, though, in terms of “development,” people just wonder… how old is she against how old she “looks”? Is she getting grey hairs or wrinkles on her face, neck, and other parts of her body? Has she achieved the society-imposed “life milestones” like getting married, having kids, buying a house yet, etc.? “Development” means different things at different stages of life, and the world can sometimes feel like a stage where everyone is watching, waiting to give their opinion about you.

Well, last month, for the first time, I actually noticed wrinkles around my eyes in a photo that was taken of me. I paused for a second when I looked at it and then zoomed in at the corners of my eyes. Are these the beginning of crow’s feet? I thought to myself. Well, crow’s feet manifest a little differently on Asian skin vs. White skin, so I guess this was my version. I’m 37 and noticing these types of wrinkles for the very first time. I’m definitely getting older and approaching middle age. In a lot of ways, I feel very young, almost child like at times when I think about things I like and admire and things I care about. Other times, I feel completely jaded by the experiences I’ve had. I’ve never really quite felt like “my age” if that makes any sense. But now that I’m officially in my late-30s, I feel like at heart, I’m much younger than my numerical age. I’m unsure if that’s a good or bad thing.

Having a child to care for has definitely changed my perspective on life, no doubt. I think it’s made me a better person, someone more cognizant of the challenges that parents and caregivers face every single day without always thinking about it. It’s given me more empathy not just for other parents and caregivers, but for babies and growing toddlers themselves.

I’m not sure what my actual “age” should be if I had to decide what I “felt” like, but I do know one thing for sure: I am grateful for the days I have lived and the experiences I have had, both the good and the bad, because unfortunately, not everyone has been as lucky as I have been to have lived 37+ years on this earth. Ed wasn’t that fortunate. Our friend Raj wasn’t that lucky. And many others will never know what it’s like to be 37. So I celebrate today and am happy for what I have and what hopefully will be. Happy 37th birthday to me.

Decluttering for the new year

We didn’t leave the apartment at all today. It felt like we were fully unpacked yesterday, but I still had to organize a lot of things today, plus I wanted to declutter and give away/donate a bunch of things. I separated out some baby items I wanted to post in our Buy Nothing group. I got rid of lot of junk and old papers in my drawers. After seeing all the clutter and “stuff” in Chris’s parents’ home, it almost drove me to want to own even fewer things than I already own. And relatively speaking, Chris and I own very few things. We’re confined by space given we live in a New York City apartment with limited storage space. And the less space you have, the less space you have to store and display stuff. But the idea of owning stuff that I not only do not use but am barely aware I even own did not sit well with me.

I tend to give away/throw out stuff almost every year at the beginning of the year to “start the year fresh.” But this time, I really want to cull things I don’t use, even if it’s just half used face masks or shoes I haven’t worn in 3+ years. Less stuff will make me feel better.