Maternal Instincts

Maybe it’s my age or something. Maybe it’s me becoming more of my parents with each passing day. Maybe it’s the current world climate, or the way I consider death to be a very real, tangible possibility today or tomorrow. But my propensity to worry (excessively) about the well being of other people has been kicking in lately. In a bad way. In a (semi-) irrational way. To the point that it can be debilitating for that short period of time.

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Smartphones. Computers. Laptops. iPads. Email. Facebook Messenger. Google Hangouts. Skype. iMessage. WhatsApp. Viber. The list goes on and on.

In today’s messy, globalizing, technologically advancing, multitasking, fast-paced world, we’re constantly connected to a seemingly eternal universe of information, and to each other. We’re connected to the ones we love and the ones we hate and the ones that we will never know in any sense of the word. I can send a message to a friend in Geneva, a friend in London, in Paris, in San Francisco, in New York, in Phnom Penh, in Yaoundé, in the length of time it takes my thumbs to move about on the keyboard of my iPhone – which, I’ll say, is not that much time. J I can do this with the click of a few buttons, for free, from the comfort of my desk, my local coffee shop, my daily bus ride, or in the middle of a lengthy statistics lecture. I can successfully communicate with my friends and family at any time in nearly any place and expect to receive a message back.

Now, let’s examine that last part: expecting to receive a message back (assuming that the message compels a response). I like to think that I’m a reasonable person. I wait a good amount of time for the response, allowing for a varying time range depending on who you are and the topic of discussion. I know who will respond within five minutes and from whom I shouldn’t expect to hear until next week. I know that my sister will respond immediately to a video of pug puppies, but conveniently “forget to respond” to a question about how her math class is going.

But there are some instances, when I don’t hear from someone within 24 hours, where Messenger’s Active 23h ago brings up my latent anxiety, releasing the monster perpetually lingering just below the surface. It’s that instant where my brain involuntarily jumps to the worst possible possibilities. But even as rationality takes over, remnant unease remains. In these few in-between hours, I wonder if my brain is simply programmed around loss and death. Perhaps this is just me.

Still, the response lets me know that they’re alive. I’ve clearly passed the stage of – “oh, they’re not answering because they don’t want to talk to me,” or “they must be upset with me,” or “hm, they must not have network.” No. I’m at – “SOMETHING BAD MUST HAVE HAPPENED.”

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Kind of. It’s more like – “well, I hope nothing bad has happened.” …repeating over and over and over again in my head…I hardly find that any better.

Where does this come from? This bubble of latent, and sometimes not so latent, anxiety and worry. Worry, when this other person is simply going about living their life. Yes, my friends and family simply have lives. Lives where responding to the multiple messages on their phone or email or Messenger is not a top or only priority. Being disconnected is something that we strive to do in preserving mental health, sleeping better, creating and maintaining real human connections, improving focus, gaining time, and life balance in general. This should be an admirable trait, to live unconsumed by digital connection, instead of shackled by a relentless need for connection. So when we’ve come to depend on it, to classify it as part of daily life, as a guaranteed mechanism to reaching another person, but possibly also exacerbating an underlying paranoia, does it become damaging?

On the one spick_maternal.jpgide, I’m convinced that heightened anxiety runs on both sides of my family. Fine. I’ve learned to cope with it in various ways: yoga and exercise, a balanced diet, regular pampering, reading, hot showers, acknowledgement of the importance of rest and leisure. But more generally, where does this tendency to worry come from? Is it related to a projected ‘maternal instinct’? If not, what is it? Is it beneficial manifesting in this way? Is this normal? Or am I the extreme? How much of my reaction is shaped by the current social and political world forces? How much is driven by fear? How do I separate the rational from irrational reaction? When is it valid to worry? Would it help if I made greater efforts to disconnect, making my world just a bit smaller?

Whatever the answers to these questions, I’ll just be over here, monitoring the Active 23h ago, hoping for the update, awaiting your response.

Three o’clock walls: a take-down

It happens every day. Sometime halfway between picking at the salad bar and fleeing the premises. Three pm. I have a not-quite-midlife crisis. Everything I’d ever hoped to accomplish comes flooding through my senses, reminding me that I desperately want to be anywhere else.

Some days, anywhere else is a cafe, sipping a flat white and bringing antagonistic protagonists to life with perfectly manicured nails and an effortless casual chic. Other days, anywhere else is a hut in Mwanza interviewing a little old lady about her health-seeking behavior. On Tuesdays, anywhere else is generally bed. Wednesdays, a gym… with a trainer. Thursdays, a concert hall… and not in the audience, but front and centre.

I know I’m not alone in feeling stuck at a 9–5, but that doesn’t stop the daily restlessness from invading my veins, screaming at me to stand up and walk away from my less-than-ergonomic prison. Sometimes I listen. I grab a coffee. I convince myself that bean water is the answer. At the coffee machine, I have robotic conversation in interchangeable languages with equal banality.

“How are things?”

“Busy. Thank god for coffee.”

“It’s almost Friday.”

“Yea, I can’t wait.”

The math is all wrong. We do realize that Monday through Friday are 3 whole days more than Saturday and Sunday right? Monkey barring from weekend to weekend is clearly detrimental to quality of life.

I don’t have a job I hate. I just hate the number of hours I have to spend doing it when I’m not being effective. Honestly, my efficiency would be higher if the monotony of a work day could be broken up with feeding other facets of my personality. Give me flex time. Make skill development in an area other than my primary area of work mandatory. Offer design courses (it would have the added benefit of making our products less esoteric and more usable by the world). Subsidize gym sessions (it’ll lower your eventual health insurance payments). Understand “Innovation” rather than just paste it into mission statements. Be Google. Or better.

The 9–5 is on its way out. We all know this. The rate of change of businesses is indicative of it. Disruptive technologies are winning the economic battle. Businesses are offering shorter work weeks. Complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking are projected to rank as top 3 on the list of skills workers need at the cusp of the “fourth industrial revolution.” * (Revolution counting guide below because when did we get to 4??). These are generally skills that are stifled by the restrictions of the traditional 9–5. Employers need to create better enabling environments for fostering the very skills that are going to eventually determine their survival, relevance and success.

But I’m in the social sector. And the shift just isn’t happening fast enough. I feel like all the multiple dimensions I spent my childhood building are being stripped away as I slip into adulthood survival mode, sponsored by the subterfuge of a Merlot lullaby. Complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking? They’re gasping for air in the foamy playground of my burnt cappuccino.

Final note: It’s currently 3:15pm. Let me out of this concrete box. I promise you it would save my brain, and in turn, benefit the organization.

*Guide to the industrial revolutions: 1) water & steam power, 2) electric power/mass production, 3) information technology & automation, and 4) rather undefined fusion of technology, biology and everything in between.

Old Haunts

It’s been four years and I’m not quite sure that I remember the way to the cafeteria. But I feel my way. I make it. No problem.

I do remember that the food is bad, and expensive. But this time, I can afford it. I don’t have to get the soup and stack up on the free bread. I’ll get the special.

I eat alone today. Don’t worry, it’s by choice. It most often is. Attributed to something in between my own laziness and my grand appreciation for solitude in the midst of the blur.

It’s finally sunny. So I sit in the sunroom. I hear people’s conversations. There are a few distinctive types – the one happy for some superficial social interaction for their lunch break, the other discussing family details like they’ve lived amongst each other for years, another in what seems to be obligatory work discussion – just to have someone to sit with. With others, I see the plain-faced boredom – they look up to watch me eventually put my tray away. Longer than normal. Curiosity mixed with the interest of something new.

I start walking back to my office – my office for the day, anyway. The elevator is small, but I get in with two other people. Something, or really – someone makes it inevitably awkward. The first gets off at the second floor. “Bonne après-midi,” mumbled, just barely discernible. There’s no room for a response. The next elevator ding is mine and the other person gets off with me, clearly confused at who I am and why I’m on his floor, but no questions asked.

This isn’t the first time I’ve returned to old stomping grounds. And I suspect that it’s going to happen more and more often. I can’t remember if I ever really meant to be back here – I think I hadn’t exactly planned on it in the way that one doesn’t when one doesn’t think about it. It forces me to reflect on the ways I’ve changed and what I’ve done between now and then to cause that change, for better or worse.

I was young – fresh out of college. I’d never worked the 9 to 5. And I was eager, so insufferably excited. So sure that this is where I wanted and needed to be, that this was the only logical decision for me, because this is what you do, and what people want. That all dropped off somewhere in the first or second quarter of graduate school, scattered and windswept over the streets of Baltimore. By February, I’d had enough. I wondered where I’d gotten so mesmerized by all of it. It was time for something real. Two years later, I’m still finding that that’s a hard thing to pin down.

So, what’s the difference between being here then and being here now? Basically that I walk around like I own the place. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But in comparison to what my demeanor was before, that description is pretty accurate. There was confidence before. But that confidence seems to have taken root and blossomed, somehow escaping my watchful inward gaze. Or perhaps, I simply give zero fucks. I take in the looks and stares like they were self-evidently meant for me. And they’re thoroughly amusing.

Now, I’m left wondering where that change began. Was it becoming thoroughly jaded with the work and the world? Did it start with a need for more tangible impact, right now? Or realizing so much of the perpetual, tangible frustration are problems of the system? Or was it simply a byproduct of aging and more practice, if only four years of it? Whatever it was, I’d venture to say that the transformation hasn’t ended there. All I’m left with at this moment is sheer amazement at the magnitude of the change.

In some way, it gives me more confidence of the things that, in my head, I can’t do now simply because of “how I am” or what skills I may or may not have, I’ll be able to do only a short time from now. Perhaps I can now if only given the opportunity. But why leave it to so much circumstance? Maybe, I need to create my own opportunity.

To Do: Merge Worlds

I recently took a trip back to New York City. The trip had multiple purposes. One, I missed New York. I missed my friends and the life that I had there, however brief it was. Two, I wanted to maintain connections with my former organization and maybe make some new ones. Three, I wanted needed a vacation.

For the past nine months, I’d lived in San Francisco. It’s become one of my favorite cities. It’s often compared to New York. Apart from the fact that they make up opposite metropolitan centers on each coast, I’m not entirely sure why they’re so often compared. To me, the comparison isn’t justifiable.

I was there for a week. I fell easily back into the routine of long hours, post-work drinks, late-night trains, date nights, and bottomless brunch. Days were long. I was moving forward, getting relevant work done, and on the whole, a productive member of society that also had a rich social life. Yay, me. Perhaps these were the feelings that I’d missed.

I loved my trip back, but it also highlighted how much I’ve changed in only a year. It highlighted the extremes to which one’s environment shapes one’s thoughts and way of thinking. Maybe it’s the barrage of data and technology in San Francisco and what money and success means here compared to New York that makes the distinction so palpable.

In San Francisco, the conversation revolves around technology: engineering, coding, machine learning; data: data systems, integration, visualization; startup culture: entrepreneurship, innovation, connections, capital. Now, I realize that a life in New York means many different things to many different people, but mine is and was about being part of an international city. My world turned for global policy and world politics, the goings-on of the United Nations, who was coming to the US, and what it meant in the world. Relevant issues were defined as what we were doing about the refugee crisis, what was happening in the Congo, Syria, Lebanon, and the Ukraine, what you thought about it, what should be done, and the role you and others played. It’s not that these issues are forgotten in San Francisco. It’s just that discussion of them is often diminished by news of the most recent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what that means for society and private companies. And while these happenings too are important, the inherent differences between them are compelling.

I went back to New York with a mindset dominated by the accepted importance of data, tech, and startup culture. In New York, I encountered my old self – one for which the significance of these concepts were only peripheral. For that time, I forgot everything I was aiming to pursue in San Francisco. But the San Francisco influence clearly affected the way that I thought about and responded to old friends’ conversation around the usual international development issues.

What alarmed me the most is that I only realized these changes when I returned to the West Coast. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out of that environment that I realized its impact, that other places are consumed by different worlds. It highlighted and re-emphasized a few things for me.

  1. Make conscious choices about your environment – friends, work, and culture – because it will shape you and your life.
  2. Your world is small. Don’t forget that your present and its concerns are often only small elements of others’ worlds.
  3. Seek out new experiences and new places, but revisit the old ones. Don’t forget to reflect on them and recognize how you’ve changed as a result.

My task now is to effectively integrate and balance these perspectives for innovation and impact. These are experiences that make each of our views unique and relevant. So how do I make mine tangibly relevant? That still remains to be seen.

The Best of Both Worlds

“What are you talking about? You can’t say anything. You’re hapa, you have the best of both worlds.”

Translation: How could you possibly relate with me with respect to race and the racism I experience? You’re part them.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_03-04And I am proud. But no one on the street would pick me out as white. That is fact. So much of how people treat you is based on appearance – an age-old phenomenon of human nature. Never considered white and never considered Asian. Is it really the best of both worlds? Or is it simply a constant reminder that you don’t truly fit anywhere?

I grew up in a close-knit family, always perceiving that I was different in a way over which I had little to no control. I didn’t know the language as well as my cousins of the same age. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable Som Pas-ing every time I saw grandparents. And sometimes, I didn’t know how to properly react to things, but knew that as my mother’s adorable offspring, both she and I would be unreservedly judged on my responses. Instead, without being fully white American, I spoke impeccable English, my dad being a stickler for that sort of thing and my mom fearing that being fully bilingual contaminated my brain with a ‘foreign-ness’ that would hamper my chances in a decidedly Western world.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-05Even among other hapas or multiracials, even if you matched two people’s distinct cultural composition, each will have his or her own melding of cultures to different degrees of acceptance and understanding to form his or her identity. Applied to real life, this translates to distinct differences in experiences with regards to race and minority issues.

In my case, my parents divorced when I was young. The separation between Asian and white cultures was distinct – lines drawn with the disdain that often comes with such life events. There was an Asian house and a white house with no communication between. Living primarily with my first-generation Asian mother, it wasn’t until my dad reminded me, “You’re white too, you know,” that I realized how much I related with one culture over another at that point in my life. Simple words captured how I had shaped my identity based on one perspective, but neglected to account for how much the other also pervades. I knew how to properly pray at a Buddhist temple, but could also recount to you my lines in that year’s Christmas pageant. Rice is a staple of my diet, but I could also make a mean lemon meringue pie. I bridge the influences of a strict Asian tiger mom and a hippie, openly affectionate father. On top of all of this, I am, in many ways, quintessentially American.

Friends have had markedly different experiences. Third- and fourth-generation hapas have expressed regret and loss at their own tangible separation from cultures that are inevitably represented on their faces. Not knowing languages or how to cook cultural foods, inability to communicate with family elders, failing to fully grasp the meaning behind traditions, and still being regarded as part of this group in society can make you feel like an imposter – even if an imposter by circumstance – where you can’t live up to implicit expectations coming from all sides.

Still, this duality also gives an unprecedented freedom to choose what you believe and what you value. Young first-generation immigrants may also experience this kind of freedom as a result of being thrust into a new culture and society. While some cultural ideals complement each other, others compete. If they do compete, you or someone else (usually parents) must choose which to live by. Your parents and influences, assuming that your parents are active in your life, build so much of who you are. But in some cases, being two or more requires conscious choice, rationale, and justification. It also fosters greater openness to entirely new ideas and ideals, where it seems true innovation and uniqueness can flourish.

Looking to the future, my potential children will have a completely different identity, a mixture of cultures as well as parts of the collection that I’ve become. It leads to a number of questions into how multiracialism as an identity will affect dominant understandings of race, culture, and values into the future.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-01It is human nature to want to fit in somewhere, to relate to other people on different levels and find where you “belong.” What happens when individuals can’t be categorized? Is that a category in itself? I’m not proposing that any of these ideas as wholly new concepts in society today. It floats around with questions of “finding one’s identity” and “heritage awareness” and “racial affiliation” – “The Hapa Movement” and “The Multiracial Identity Gap.”

Multiracial Americans as a demographic group is growing three time as fast as the population as a whole. It’s increasingly becoming a natural consideration for inclusion and a focus of research, policy, and politics. So how do we deal with a population group that doesn’t necessarily mesh within their own family units, let alone a larger subgroup, that is based on a self-constructed, often fluid identity? Can we get real answers to any of our questions about multiracials when the diversity of backgrounds and self-proclaimed identities that we are attempting to make fit are inherently disjointed?

Evict the Yuppies

IMG_1977Evict Google.

From this, it’s very apparent from where I’m writing. There’s no point in trying to hide it. My neighborhood, or perhaps this city, is notorious for their campaigns to “evict the yuppies” or stated in plainer, more targeted terms, “evict Google.” Their campaign is characterized by the familiar tags over abandoned buildings and empty spaces. I am not Google, or even close to a software engineer. But it always occurs to me, are they referring to me too? I have never identified as a yuppie. This is mostly because I have never been in the world of business or banking, toiling for profit margins or to catch the attention of those higher in the food chain. Still, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who openly identifies him or herself as a yuppie (or maybe you do – I can hear the condescending pretension already…).

Anyways, what do they, referring to those who feel the need to share their thoughts on the matter on city streets, mean by yuppie? Well, there’s the book definition: “short for ‘young urban professional’ or ‘young upwardly-mobile professional’ defined as a young college-educated adult who has a job that pays a lot of money and who lives and works in or near a large city.” (Thanks, Wikipedia) But when they write on the walls of abandoned, boarded up corner stores and in a city where transplants are coming and going all the time, it can mean so much more. Are they referring to a certain social class, level of education, degree of wealth, or particular unsavory attitude? And do you have to convey only one of these qualities, or all of the above?

Obviously, at the macro level, they’re saying not-so-wonderful things about the gentrification of this neighborhood and the city at-large. But on the micro level, are they telling me to get out? I am a transplant. What right do I have to be here? Am I part of the problem that’s hiking housing prices up because I can get a job that will allow me to afford it? The thought is not particularly welcoming. And I can see the tensions it has created in my short time here.

In the first two weeks of my moving here, I emerged from my cave in search of some nice succulents to brighten up my office. I found a nice neighborhood shop. It was plain to the shopkeeper that I had just moved to the city and I told her I was just looking for something to make my office space a little happier. She asked where I work. “Oh, wonderful. You’re one of the good ones. At least there are still a few around here,” she responds to my answer. My friend, who had come with me on my mission that day, ironically, worked at Google. We both smiled and nodded, looking at each other and down at the register.

With this question in mind, I start with the most natural case study: myself. I wouldn’t consider my upbringing wealthy by any means, raised by a proud immigrant parent. But I did grow up with many privileges of the mid- to upper-middle class because that’s where my mother chose to put me. I am a product of higher education and unequivocally, generation Y. My daily attire is spotted with designer pieces and I regular indulge in a Saturday morning manicure. Yoga and spinning are mainstays in my weekly routine. I do not make a six-figure salary, engage in any pronounced start-up or tech culture, or sport the notorious Bay Area “lumbersexual” or “hipster” fashions. So, am I a yuppie? I don’t deny that I am part of the sweeping gentrification happening. However, it is difficult to accept that you are a part of an injustice characterized by involuntary migration, that is eviction.

So every time I read it on the walls, the thought bubbles to the surface – am I part of the problem? I’m trying to live my life as well as possible, and have a career too. That’s what brought me here. I’m also struggling with the skyrocketing housing prices and food, etc. etc. These are not, by any means, excuses. But, if I am part of the problem, is there anything I can do to address the issue? The solution, like the problem, is complex and multifaceted.

I would venture to say that gentrification is natural in many ways as urban areas develop. However, it is an anomaly that this form of gentrification is happening with alarming rapidity, and only adding to San Francisco’s history of evictions rooted in poverty, race, and culture. Newcomers need to become a part of and embrace the history and culture that is here, not overtake it. We must not replace it, but learn to grow within it. Get to know your neighborhood. Volunteer to work with the community right outside. (Okay, you might have to venture a bit further if you live in the Marina, but you get what I’m saying.) It will not solve everything or maybe not anything at all, but it will at least give perspective on what people are dealing with when you’re world is consumed by everything that goes into climbing that ladder, and connect you to a new (and perhaps truer) reality.

Now finally, all of these intentions, they can’t come out of guilt. Guilt only seems to accentuate the sense of privilege and otherness. This must come from love, empathy, and respect for what came before and striving to be part of what it will become.