Year in review: On learning to let things go

This is a first in a series of anecdotes I’m going to write about the year that was 2018.

If you know me well, you’ll know that I am a photography enthusiast. I’ve always steered towards the creative side, always have a desire to create something, but my enthusiasm, shall we say, for taking photos didn’t really take off until I was pregnant with my first child and got my first iPhone.

Fast forward several years later, I have another kid…and mountains of photos under my belt. I never deleted them. Instead, I accumulated photos the same way that a hoarder accumulates things–pile them on top of each other, until the space became unrecognizable.

My “space” in this case, was my iPhone storage, and cloud storage, and hard drive, and external hard drive. I uploaded my photos into the cloud, and hardly looked at them again. On my phone, I’d regularly look at my photos, but again…I felt a sense of nostalgia towards it, so I couldn’t bear to delete it. Besides, I am also an indecisive person by nature; thus, I couldn’t decide which ones were appropriate to delete.

You can see where this is going.

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I realized it eventually–that I needed to figure out how to let it all go. Not just my photos, but my things in general. My clothing and accessories are minimal in comparison to others, but at the same time, I have a very small space to store my things, so I couldn’t let it accumulate. And yet at one point or another during the year, I felt stifled by all the things I had, clothing mainly.

It’s like a mental game I’ve been playing with myself. I don’t have a lot of money, so I buy used things or things on sale. I grew up with little. These things have memories. Those still fits, etc. The battle continues…every excuse I can think of to not let go.

Sometime at the end of the summer, I finally realized this, and embarked on a journey to finally get rid of all those photos. Sure, I’ve taken a few fantastic ones, but a lot of bad ones too. The first task was to tackle my iPhone albums.

Because I had let it accumulate to over 2000 photos, it became the most exhausting and daunting task–more than I could’ve imagined. I realized I could not complete it in one sitting, so I took breaks and completely removed about 2000 photos on my cell phone in the course of several weeks. Mainly, I backed it up in my Google Photos drive…so many of the bad ones are still there, but out of my phone at least.

Next, I tackled my hard drive and external hard drive. This, admittedly, is still a work in progress as of today, but I feel like I am making progress at least.

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An ode to pictures

I also went through my kids toys, clothing, accessories as well as my own. What resulted, after several weekend afternoons, were several HUGE bags of donation to Goodwill. Again, it was quite exhausting, and I felt a bit ashamed, because it was so much stuff.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the fact that I felt much, much lighter… both physically and mentally, after achieving those two tasks. I was finally letting my nostalgia go, and I realize I can still keep memories in my mind, perhaps write it down somewhere if I want proof later on, but not have it cluttered around my home or electronic devices. I realized that I can actually live with just ten sweaters, five pairs of jeans, seven pairs of socks and ten or less undergarments instead of twenty sweaters, ten pairs of jeans, and mountains of undergarments.

This is what I learned–that I can actually live with less, that I should let go of really old things (just replaced our seven year rug) and introduce new ones if I want to, and I’ll be okay.

Sundays with Grandma, or a tale about a toddler who accepts bribes

My mother is a devout Catholic. This fact has not changed since I was born.

What has changed is the fact that I am no longer a devout Catholic. This fact, by itself, poses a threat to my mother. It’s one of the many things that we disagree about—why I don’t go to church, and why I shouldn’t “abandon” my religion, because after all, I was born into it.

Yes, my mother is one of those people who believe in lifelong loyalty to a religion. I think of it as a supercilious affection to an institution that as of recently, bores deep, dark secrets that nobody can justify other than it being horrendous and traumatic. Aside from that, some might even say that it is cult-like.

But I’m not here to talk about my views on religion, or my experience with it. I can assure you though, that it did not involve any trauma, besides the fact that I was never allowed to choose my religion. Simply put, I was born into it, and thus I must remain in it—that is what my mom believes anyway.

What I am here to say is that my mother has found another contender, a supporter of her religion—my five-year-old daughter—and together, they go to church every Sunday—without me, of course.

This alone is a source of  glee for me. I see it as a win-win, and I can’t wait for Sundays to come, for my mom would show up at 10 a.m. (religiously on time) and take my daughter Lily to church. Afterwards, they’d go to the usual sushi restaurant adjacent to the local Fubonn shopping center in town—a simple conveyor belt style kind of place—and together, they would have sushi for lunch.

But that’s not all. Usually Lily would insist that Grandma, whom she fondly calls “Ba Ngoai” (which means grandma in Vietnamese), take her inside the shopping center, where she can ride those mechanical animals—the ones where you’d put in 50 cents to ride for a few minutes. Then, before they head home, she would also insist that Ba Ngoai purchase another “treat” for her, usually a sweet one, such as these Yan Yan sticks or sweet, crunchy crackers. Sometimes, she’d come home with more than one treat.

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This, I assure you, is no accident. My daughter is the perpetrator of all of these events. You see—many months ago, when my mom suggested that she take Lily to church with her as to get used to our religion—I reluctantly agreed to let Lily go. Little did I know that it would release me of one kid (so I only have my son to watch), and that she would manage to convince my mom to buy her sushi every single time they go to church. Sushi after church is their new ritual.

It’s a fair deal, I think. My daughter is a very smart little girl who can barter better than I can. Like many children, she loves sweet treats. Unlike many children, she also loves sushi. By agreeing to go to church with Grandma, she is in theory getting what she wants while at the same time, my mother gets what she wants—which is to introduce my daughter to Catholicism, and hoping she’ll turn into a lifelong believer.

IMG_6213IMG_6214This morning, when my mom came over to pick Lily up for church, she commented on how much my daughter resembles me when I was her age. This is where I say, “Maybe,” because although Lily holds certain personality traits similar to mine (her shyness, for one), she is still her own person, and we are more different than alike, I think. This morning, she wore this ridiculous white dress with puffer sleeves and a bow tied in the back (similar to a 90s wedding gown), something I hated wearing as a child but was made to wear constantly; Lily, on the other hand, loves dresses of any kind, and she’ll wear them wholeheartedly, especially if it’s one that is gifted from a family member. (No surprise, my mother bought her that dress).

The way I see it—they’re getting quality time together, something I wish I had with my grandparents but unfortunately never did. Because of that, I want my daughter to develop a relationship with my mother. Their time is theirs to decide. I just wish I had the same treatment when I was young. But I also wished that I was smart enough to bribe my own grandmother (or mother) to buy me things that I like when I was little, in exchange for going to church. Perhaps then I might’ve stayed a true lifelong believer.

 

What I learned from four years in banking

Last week, I ran into someone I knew from an old job on the train. It was 7 o’clock in the morning. He was heading to work and so was I. This wouldn’t have been any more common occurrence than riding the train itself, but every once in awhile I run into Paul. He and I exchanged a few brief sentences. He still teaches fitness classes for our local transportation system Tri-Met, he told me, and I told him about my new job. We then parted our ways when he told me he needed to get himself a cup of coffee.

It feels like ages ago but from late 2010 to late 2014, I worked in the banking industry. It’s an industry that I sort “fell into,” so to speak, because I didn’t specifically seek it out. Post college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Coupled that with experiencing the recession, it didn’t make for a particularly easy decision.

I got a job at a local bank because I had customer service and sales experience. It was there that I learned the proper way to count and display money (something I never really took into consideration before) and how to be vigilant for possible security risks (for example, examining checks for signs of fraud or observing people’s behavior when they’re interacting with you at the teller window). I continued on to a local credit union after 8 months because the sales environment was a bit much for me. It was almost a cut-throat sales floor where there was always a weekly competition and a reminder from management that we might be fired if we didn’t meet our sales goals.

Luckily, when I got to the credit union, it wasn’t like that, but I still had sales goals to achieve. It was a much more flexible, open environment where I could call anybody within the company and they’d respond right away and give me helpful information, which makes the customer’s experience that much better. To this day, I still bank at that credit union and would not recommend anything else.

Still, during my years there I had some turbulent moments, but also learned quite a bit about people’s behaviors. I had no idea that all the stuff I learned in college, and what I read online via personal finance articles/blogs/sites that it was nothing compared to having access to people’s personal financial accounts.

I learned how much people made (and the majority of the members I helped made significantly more than I did) via their direct deposit and physical paychecks. I learned what people did on the weekends by simply glancing at their transaction history–where they went to dinner, what type of things they typically spend their money on, and how much they spent at the grocery store (always an astounding amount in comparison to myself, who before I had kids, tried to stay at around $200-$300 per month).

Many of us don’t realize that tellers, perhaps next to our priests, know so much personal stuff about us. Of course, we are not all defined by our bank accounts, but many things can be deduced from it. Take, for example, someone who goes to Starbucks a lot. It means they have a coffee addiction, right? Or someone who brings in a lot of checks and separates them out, and then makes you do multiple transactions that ends up taking at least 15 minutes means that they’re particular, right? (I did have one member who did that all the time).

Another thing I learned from my banking days is that you can never judge a book by its cover. I learned that although a lot of people make more money than me (post-tax), they still spend an exorbitant amount, so the day before their payroll hits, they only have $10 in their account, or they’re already overdrawn. Those are the non-saver types. Then there’s people who hardly spend anything. Instead, they only have savings accounts, and withdraws a certain amount of cash to spend weekly. There’s also the people who have a lot of money in their savings but also a lot of debt, given by their current credit balances are about as equal as their savings.

Finally, there’s people who are truly on the poverty level–they barely have any money, and when they do it usually comes from a state or governmental agency, like the IRS. I learned that those are the people who are most down-to-earth. They are also the ones who have horrible credit ratings, typically a D or C rating (550-690).

Of course, it’s easy to judge people by their credit rating, because credit rating equal credit worthiness, which in turns translates into human worthiness. How we’re able to pay back our debts has to do with our moral obligation to ourselves and our ethical beliefs, right? And how others view us contributes to that worthiness as well.

That can’t be more wrong. But unfortunately, in the financial world, numbers mean everything. I’ve heard people tell me about things that happened to them which brought down their credit rating by 200 points. Usually, all it takes is one major catastrophic event to make it happen, like a divorce, a legal battle, or a medical condition. These things happen, and even though we can’t really blame people for it (after all, it’s not like they choose to be sick), the reality is–we do. Banks and credit unions make a point from the previous recession in that they look at the person as a whole–financially, of course–and income and credit score is a major deciding factor in whether or not someone is granted a loan. Never mind the fact that they are now law-abiding citizens; if they so much as made a mistake in the past, such as declaring for bankruptcy because of a divorce, they will pay that price, literally in high interest, or a rejection for many years to come.

That brings me to the idea of privilege. For those who are privileged enough to have a good income that allows them to be approved for loans, it puts a bend in the road for those who wish to become good enough to have a loan, to get themselves back up again. I learned so much about privilege in my years there. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is about personal finance. From seeing what others were doing, I learned how to manage my own money. I learned how important it was to have a retirement account. And I learned that credit can benefit you and hurt you at the same time.

The reality is, bank tellers don’t make a lot of money. They make a few dollars above minimum wage, but besides the benefits, salaries for that particular job is very stagnant, with a possible increase of 25-50 cents per year. What most people don’t know is that tellers do a lot more than just counting money and receiving them. They are the agents for money exchanges and customer issues, in addition to selling additional products, balancing their till daily, and for some, like me, manage the entire branch’s vault, which requires additional duties.

Not surprisingly, the ones that I related to the most belonged in the last category that I described above–ones who hardly had any money, the ones who seems to be perpetually struggling. Like Paul, who only has a few hundred dollars on average in his account, I felt that I was struggling too. But somehow he manages okay. He’s happy making other people healthy and fit. You’d never think that if you look at him and his bank account.

The same goes for another customer, whose name I’ve long forgotten, but who I remember clearly because he was a mild-mannered man who dressed like he was poor. In reality, he was rich. He had about $50,000 in his account that he never touches, and after a conversation once when I tried to get him to talk to our financial advisor, and he turned it down, telling me that he made some bad choices with his money in the ’90s, so he only wanted to keep his money liquid, I wondered if he was an Enron victim.

The next time you’re at the bank, ask yourself–how much does this teller know about me? Chances are, it’s a lot.

The recession is over: it’s time to move on

This September marked the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, otherwise known as “the financial crisis of 2008” or “recession,” for short. Like many recent college graduates at the time, I was hopeful and excited at the prospect of having a career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that with a business degree, I had plenty of choices.

Little did I know how wrong I was.

Ten years later, last week, I received an influx of articles in my inbox reminiscing about this recession. In a NYT opinion piece, an editor who, like me, came of age during the recession, expressed bitterness for the “big guys” who crushed her parents’ hope of achieving the comfortable middle-class life and her ambition towards a financially stable future.

Another piece, also by the New York Times, poses a slightly more optimistic view, chronicled several selected individuals who were interviewed in 2008 about their lives in relation to the crisis and their lives now, ten years later. Some of them got back up after being knocked down and prospered, while others continued to struggle, never finding the same level of work that they were accustomed to before the crash. Finally, the New Yorker said that evidence shows middle class incomes have not rebounded back to same level as it were prior to the recession.

Coincidentally, just last week I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast called “Looking Back” in which they talked about regret in conjunction with nostalgia.

The episode (which can be heard here) dove into the idea that is so fundamentally obvious and yet we tend to forget about sometimes—that we regret what we didn’t do versus what we did do. Much can be said about the mistakes that we make as humans when we choose to do certain things, and yet more can be said about what we choose NOT to do.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about a terrible period in my life, but rather, disclose it in a way that tells you that I’ve learned a thing or two.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

From 2008 to 2010, I didn’t think anything was different or challenging from my post-college life (except for the fact that my husband and I owed the IRS more taxes than we had in the bank and therefore, we had to survive on a $30 per week grocery budget while we drove our used 8-year-old car as little as possible so that we can pay the bills AND the IRS back). I thought that was just the life that we were given, thus nothing out was of the ordinary. I didn’t pay attention to the news; thus, I didn’t realize the crash had such a fundamental effect on so many people.

Upon reflection, I realize that it was quite extraordinary that my husband and I managed it all. It’s extraordinary how we didn’t move back in with our parents, how we didn’t rely on charity (even though we could have), how we didn’t default on our loans, how we managed to come out of it alive and kicking.

After listening to the Hidden Brain episode, it brought me back to the early days of the crash and several years after that. After being laid off from a really nice job at a good company, I fell into a sinkhole of uncertainty and low self-esteem. I was more confused than ever, so I obtained jobs without much thought to the pay or the culture (because, let’s face it—back then there weren’t that many jobs to be had, so you couldn’t be picky even if you wanted).

I landed in a position that was so low paying with such a toxic culture that I came home crying every day. The job only lasted a year. Then, for the next four years, I worked in the financial services industry—first at a bank, then at a credit union. By 2012, things were starting to rebound a bit, and yet, I didn’t feel that I was making any progress.

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Photo by Chris Li on Unsplash

I had been there for a year and a half when a great position opened up in their accounting department (this mind you, was a small credit union with roughly 115 employees, and therefore, opportunities like that didn’t open up very often). By then, I was pregnant with my first child, and had already been rejected for another position prior in their call center. Because I didn’t want to face another rejection, I decided not to apply for the position.

The person who got the job was a fellow teller named Bri. Much to her surprise and mine, she got the position with no prior experience. In fact, she graduated with a degree in communications. But after knowing her for several years by that point, I knew how organized and consistent she was — two traits that would make a good accountant.

I remember talking to her after she got the news. I told her how happy I was that she got the job, and that the main reason why I didn’t apply was because I was five months pregnant, and that I would only be trained for a few months before going on maternity leave. She knew that I was taking some accounting courses and was looking for a new avenue to pursue. Bri told me that I should’ve applied, and I said I didn’t feel right competing with her. Now looking back on it, I knew how foolish that was. Pregnancy, after all, is a protected class, and they couldn’t discriminate based on that fact alone.

This is just an example of the many opportunities passed over the years, simply because I didn’t want to experience failure. Little did I know that failure only serves to bring people back up again. I truly felt like my twenties was spent fluttering my hand in the wind, with no sense of direction whatsoever, and no way of figuring it out, all because I graduated during the recession, got laid off, and didn’t get any (financial) help from anybody. I felt myself partly to blame because I wasn’t prepared enough for the recession. Now that I think about it, I think, “How can you possibly prepare for a major financial meltdown?” There is no business school or college course that talks about these kinds of things and how to prepare for them.

Now, looking back ten years ago, I feel exactly what the Hidden Brain podcast said–a sense of nostalgia marked by sadness but also with a certain level of triumph. I feel that many of us, regardless of what generation we were born into, will enter our thirties with more wisdom than we had in our twenties. Our experiences are influenced by the economic changes of our generation, and I feel that because I was amongst many of those who came of age during the recession that it only made me more resilient and aware of life’s volatility. I realized that I needed to move on—that blame and bitterness about the situation wasn’t going to change it. The fact of the matter is—I survived it, and thus it will go into my memory  as a story I can tell to my children.

 

The most distressed profession in America, according to NYT & Time

As a newly immigrated adolescent in the late ’90s, I attended a public middle school, then went on to a public high school. It may have been 15 years ago since I graduated from high school, but I can remember a particular teacher named Mr. Harvard, who taught choir and band (RIP, Mr. Harvard) and who made a profound impact on me, so much that when I began college, I decided to major in music… only to realize that I couldn’t read music. Eek. So my plans were thwarted to another “artsy” subject–apparel design, then finally graduating with something more practical that my mom would approve called “a business degree.”

These days, I am an accountant, a position that I never really saw myself doing, mainly because I didn’t know any accountants in my circle of family and friends (or families of friends) and thus I didn’t know what they do, and how I would go about seeking information on their jobs. What I did know a lot of, and was exposed to, were teachers. Now that I think about it, Mr. Harvard was an incredibly passionate teacher, perhaps the only one that I’ve ever met in my entire life, who loved music, and extended that love in the classroom every day. He was a jolly man who were prone to give big bear hugs and had a big, boisterous laugh. You couldn’t help but love him. He was an extremely likable person. Clearly, he chose the right profession, I thought.

So when I found out that he died several years ago, from post-surgery complications, when he was just barely 40, I was incredibly sad. I wrote a letter to his family, telling them about the impact he made on my life and of so many more out there who they may not know.

Mr. Harvard is a rare breed of teachers in the overall scheme of public school teachers. I recall other teachers that I had in high school, the majority of which did a fine job, but overall was not as enthusiastic about teaching as Mr. Harvard was. It’s the kind of enthusiasm about teaching that truly resonates with the students, for it is one thing to be a good teacher, but another thing to be an enthusiastic good teacher. Many of us don’t come across enthusiastic good teachers. I was one of the lucky ones.

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Photo credit: Freepik.com

That’s why I was disheartened to come across three recent articles about teachers in America. The New York Times magazine dedicated an issue to education, and in one of the articles, What Teachers Are Doing to Pay the Bills, I read about eight teachers who are working a second (one works a third) job to pay the bills, because their teaching salary is insufficient to cover living expenses. In another feature by Time magazine, I read two more stories about teachers, this one and this one. The solemn faces of 13 teachers are profiled (why 13, an unlucky number, I don’t know), standing or sitting in their dark, grimy classrooms (or hallways) provides a reflection of the current state of teachers in America.

To add to the depressing tone of the articles, almost all of the teachers profiled appears crestfallen and sad, like they’re about to give up teaching, period. Only three are smiling, and I wonder how many of those smiles are actually genuine.

This is the kind of media coverage that would put me to shame if I were a teacher in America. As someone who has seriously considered teaching as a career (as a kid, I admired my teachers greatly, and would always answer, “A teacher,” whenever an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up), I feel a personal conflict with how teaching has evolved over the years but also how it’s perceived as a career. Teaching is a noble profession, and those who chose it have varied reasons, but can all agree that they value education greatly. However, stagnant wages, rising living expenses, and battles over state funding are the reasons for why our educational system is failing to retain good teachers.

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Photo credit: Freepik.com

It’s a shame that the media has chosen to portray teachers this way. Surely, certain facts are not being disclosed. We ALL know that teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that they have to deal with the politics of unions, benefits, and compensation that makes it difficult to teach, but at the same time, these people chose the profession in the first place, knowing full well that they will never get rich from teaching.

Certainly, it doesn’t help to profile the most depressed-looking teachers in America. So what happened?

I think in general, teaching became a depressing career because as a country, we don’t regard teachers as highly as we regard other people who are also public servants, such as police officers, firefighters, and military. We don’t have a solid system in place to recruit and hire the best teachers (even the “best” system for hiring teachers, Teach for America, still relies on recent college graduates with no prior teaching experience). There are no hiring bonuses, reduced tuition programs, free housing, or reductions in other costs, as evident in the nursing profession. The only thing offered is a student loan forgiveness program for five years of teaching at an inner city school. It’s no surprise then that a lot of teachers quit within the first five years.

I’ve always regarded teachers as people who deserve a high level of respect, simply because they are public servants. Teaching is one of those difficult professions in which one can say, “If someone doesn’t do it, then who will?” Without teachers, who will prepare the future of America? Who will lead the kids who will eventually grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, businessmen and journalists who will write these articles? I wonder if there will any future Mr. Harvards?

Shame on these magazines, really. Shame on them.

What it’s like to grow up with Asian parents

The other day, I was graced with an article in my inbox that describes perfectly the feelings of one adult Asian towards her parents and her culture. In “The Bitter Regrets of a Useless Chinese Daughter,” Jianan Qian begins the story about her mother getting sick, and how she had a stroke with the ways in which she failed to disclose the information to her daughter, for the sake of inconveniencing her. Ironically, the same sentiment arises halfway through the story, when the author realizes that she needs help in order to get her mother into the best care possible.

“The only friend I could think of was my dorm mate, Y.C., but like my mother, I felt reluctant to inconvenience her. She is pregnant. And I didn’t want her to face the same moment of truth I was facing–have I made “useful” friends that I can ask for a favor?”

This story is not just about sick parents, or grown children with sick parents–it’s about changes and identity, and how growing up in a certain culture can cultivate that identity or dismantle it.

As someone who has been alive for the past thirty three years, I’ve always pondered the possibility of what it would’ve been like had I grown up in America. Would my parents still be the same parents, with the same thoughts, ideas, and beliefs? Or would they merge and assimilate with the place that they live in? I know my mother falls into the first category.

My father is no longer around to speak for himself, but as for my mother–she falls perfectly center in the “traditional Asian parent” category. Not so much a tiger parent, mind you, but pretty close. She’s a tough cookie, and still is, and what one outsider might mistaken for love, I would call it “tough love.”

Growing up, I was taught that hard work, dedication and an education can get you far. In other words, I needed to get more educated than my parents. Their whole life and how others view them through the social lens depends on what their offspring is currently doing. For example, a child studying at Yale is clearly more impressive than a child living at home, working part-time at a restaurant, paying for his own bills, and going to a community college. Not surprisingly, a lot of Asians try to get into Ivy League schools, simply for the status and for the opportunity to impress their parents.

I felt a lot of pressure to do well in school, but I was never particularly interested in Ivy Leagues. I knew that I wanted to be far, far away, but not so far as to have to spend more than four hours flying home. Thus, I settled on a state college that was a 3 hour drive from home; later, I transferred to a public university in town and graduated there. I don’t regret my decision at all, but I wish that I hadn’t bought in so much on the idea that there are only specific jobs appropriate for an educated Asian person–doctor, engineer, lawyer, accountant, or executive. With perhaps the exception of an accountant, all other jobs require long hours and travel, making the possibility of having a family much less malleable.

And if you grow up in an Asian family, you’d know that relationships are everything. As a collectivist culture, Asians focus a lot on the social relationships–from maintaining the ties in their family to the ones in their community–it all comes down to economics. Who can help you in case of emergency, when you’re in a dire situation and you need help, whether it be financially or emotionally?

Ironically, the pressure embedded in their children–to succeed, to make lots of money, to obtain a higher social class than so-and-so’s child–do not allow ample time and opportunity for these children to cultivate meaningful relationships. For if one is so inherently focused on making money, traveling for their job, being on call 24 hours a day, how can one find the time to have coffee dates or go out to lunch with a friend?

Of course, Asian parents don’t take this into consideration. They see money as a status symbol, sometimes shown through what type of cars that you drive, and the size of your house. Never mind the fact that you may not have much money in the bank left after paying your bills, it’s the fact that others see you with these things, and thus you must be successful.

The lack of social relationships is mentioned in the article, and I definitely relate to what the author feels. It is difficult to maintain a relationship when geography is involved, but also because in this day and age, social relationships are less likely to be in person and more likely to be online. Time is of the essence here. Everyone’s busy. Not many of us have a lot of time to sit and ponder what to do with our days every single day. After all, we have to go out and make the money, right? So we can get the fancy car, and buy the fancy house and host fancy dinners.

No other place is this concept more evident than in popular culture. The current Hollywood blockbuster hit, Crazy Rich Asians, plays into this quite well. I finished reading the book earlier this month, and was blown away by the author’s descriptions of the drama encased in these rich Asian lives. Although I will never know what it’s like to belong in a rich family, I do know the cultural commonalities, such as marrying into one’s kind, respect for elders, and tight money management. I think perhaps as a fault and an advantage, Asian parents want the best for their kids, and some of them will stop at nothing to get it. Sometimes this can translate into an overbearing necessity to meddle in their children’s lives. The price of independence is a hard one to pay when you’re in an Asian family, with a traditional Asian parent.

As a parent raising her kids in America, I feel that I have to take bits and pieces of what I was given as a child and mold it to my own preference. I know I can’t force my child to become a doctor if she’s the artistic type. And I know that I can’t force my son to be a big shot executive if he’s more interested in a mid-level job. I know I have to instill a sense of good faith, and push my children a little bit, and help them figure things out on their own.

When it comes to exercise, it’s all in your head

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my husband and I experienced a strange occurrence–we were both off work for the day and our kids were in the care of someone else (my mom). I can’t remember the last time it happened–where we were both by ourselves with no children – because it happens so rarely. So, what is a couple to do when left to their own devices?

They play tennis.

We trooped on, happily skipping to a nearby tennis court, not believing our luck. (Well, technically we drove the car, but what’s the difference?). We felt giddy with excitement, not just because we had time to ourselves during the day but also because we’ve been meaning to play tennis for awhile. It’s a sport that we can both agree on.

While in the car, I asked my husband when the last time he ever played tennis was. He replied, “Never.”

I found this hard to believe –perhaps he might’ve forgotten all those early experiences in PE in middle school, or perhaps he was more into other things, say, track and field, which is what he did in middle school to lose weight. Or perhaps he does not associate any memory with tennis because he hardly played it.

At any rate, I confessed that it’s been awhile for me as well. “So we’re both newbies at this,” I said. He shrugged.

Turns out, tennis was way more fun than we expected. Who would’ve thought? In middle school and high school, when physical education was required, I don’t remember playing tennis very much. It was usually a mix of basketball, baseball, soccer (sometimes), volleyball and track. Oh, and dodge ball. How I hated dodge ball, due to the fact that I hated being hit by a ball coming at me with such high velocity. It felt like one of those times where it’s socially acceptable to hit each other in the name of sportsmanship, when in reality, such a blow in a classroom would’ve landed you in the principal’s office.

Not surprisingly, these unpleasant experiences in PE classes are reminiscent of a recent study done at Iowa State University, recently wrote about in a New York Times article here, about people’s attitudes towards physical fitness. The authors of the study concluded that based on a long questionnaire recalling one’s memories of the past, the participants who had negative memories grew up to associate exercise with being a chore, not a fun activity. Conversely, those who had great experiences in PE grew up to enjoy exercise.

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

It’s a pretty obvious assumption, and one that doesn’t really require a study, I think. There are also limitations to the study, such as the reliability of one’s memories. I can safely say that I have some memory of PE classes, but not in specific details. I just knew that I didn’t enjoy being pummeled with a ball and I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life (thus, you can guess that I didn’t enjoy volleyball either), but as far as hitting a ball with the aid other things…I discovered that I can be a really far hitter in tennis, a surprising element to my physical ability.

I do think on the general consensus, we can all conclude that there is some degree of truth from our early days with the way that we view exercise as an adult. Unfortunately, many of us have sedentary office jobs; thus, those who do enjoy exercise may not get the chance to do so.

Personally, I’ve found that the process of getting sweaty is quite unpleasant and as soon as I start to sweat, I’d want to get rid of it immediately. However, after the game or exercise is over, I am always glad and grateful that I did it, because my body is filled with so much adrenaline and feel-good hormones that I can hardly contain myself.

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Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Since that first successful tennis session, my husband and I have tried to do it again…albeit with the kids in tow. However, we’ve discovered that with two kids next to us, and one of them providing background noise in the form of whines doesn’t make it a particularly fun activity. Perhaps next time we’re alone together we’ll attempt it again. Or wait until they’re old enough to be left alone together. At any rate, I’ve discovered that my attitudes about exercise in general has changed dramatically since the beginning of this season, as evidenced in this post. I’ve come to enjoy getting sweaty (to a certain degree) and would not hesitate to try again with my partner in crime.

What I’ve learned from the past seven months about myself

This year in February, I turned 33. Eek. I cringe just typing that number. It didn’t feel like I was born that long ago. For my birthday this year, I didn’t have any expectations or know exactly how I wanted my thirty third year to turn out. What I didn’t want was to get on the scale and learned that I was 131 lbs, and I’m not even pregnant. For someone to be that weight, and only 5 feet tall and Asian American, it is definitely a concerning number. I was tipping the scale into overweight territory, and for the first time in my life, I felt great doom about my health.

One part of me could’ve avoided it altogether. She could’ve compared herself to other overweight people of her generation and say, “Well, it’s not so bad. I mean, look at everyone else!” But the other part of me was tired of comparing myself to others and didn’t want to base my level of what’s normal in terms of health against what I currently see. I realize that too often we do that–compare ourselves to what’s current as a way to rationalize our own behavior and lack of self control and to desensitize ourselves from what we don’t want our future selves to be.

I decided I had to face my problem head on. So I began with resisting sweet treats at the end of February, right after my birthday. I was inundated with baked goods for several months, and I heartily accepted…which was probably what added the pounds on my body. When I realized that baked goods are the devil until I can lose 10 lbs, I had to say no.

Then, in March, I began an exercise routine. Mind you, I’ve never really been an exercise fiend at all. I barely survived PE in high school. I do enjoy a game of kickball or badminton now and then, but as far as exercise for health is concerned, I’ve always been blessed with a metabolism that allowed me to pretty much eat anything I wanted without gaining weight. That metabolism got fed up with me and said goodbye last winter, and I was left to deal with the error of my own ways.

I begrudgingly said to my husband, “I want to start exercising.” (grumpy face). Even though he wasn’t technically overweight, he was feeling the seasonal depression too, and thought that exercising might help, so he agreed to be my running partner. From March until June, we ran every other night after the kids went to bed, because that was the only time we had to ourselves.

I’m not going to lie–the first few weeks were incredibly difficult. So difficult that I wanted to quit. But whenever the thought of quitting entered my mind, I also rebutted with the thought of not wanting to be overweight at all whatsoever. I wanted to be in the normal range again. I knew that the only way to lower that weight was to exercise.

End of story, right? Not so much.

After a month or so of running, and realizing that it’s not so bad after all, I ran my first 5K–an amazing feat, one that I will call a personal achievement, because never in my life did I ever think that I could complete a 5K. EVER. With all this excitement about completing a 5K, I thought I could just continue what I was doing–running for 30-45 minutes four times a week. But the weight didn’t come off…at least not as fast as I’d hoped. After several more weeks of running, I realized that I barely lost 2 lbs. I felt very discouraged.

So I started reevaluating myself. Is it what I’m eating? I wondered. I discussed this with my husband, and after doing some research, came to the conclusion that in order to lose weight quicker, I’d have to amp up the protein, fruits & vegetables, and crank down the carbs and the starch. Rice was my biggest vice. I love, love, love rice. I grew up with it, and can never part with it. That’s why I eat it almost every day for dinner. Heaping big scoops of rice, possibly two cups of that beautiful starch regularly entered my stomach.

I learned that the amount of rice I was eating was adding on hundreds more calories than I needed and that in order to lose the weight, I’d have to burn more calories than I took in. Thus began another journey of resisting rice. Two cups became one quarter of a cup–a dramatic difference on a plate. Again, it was excruciating, like waiting for the results of a genetic test to find out whether you have the chromosomal abnormality for cystic fibrosis.

As painful as it was to give up that much rice, I started to see results right away. Combine that with the exercising, I was able to lose the weight in just three months. These days, the pants and shorts I wear are so incredibly loose that I can put two hands into it and still see plenty of space around my waist. My husband can also do the same.

These days we don’t exercise nearly as much anymore. We decided to take a little break for now. I am currently in a state where I’m happy with my weight. Temptation rises all the time, especially nowadays at my new job where there are treats all around all the time. Sometimes I can resist the doughnut. This morning I didn’t though.

But what I’ve taken away from the past seven months is this: it’s unrealistic to compare yourself to others, given that the standards in which others live their lives are not the same as yours. If I had ignored my angel side telling me that it’s a good idea to exercise, I would’ve joined the millions of people in America who are overweight and can’t find the inner strength to exercise or eat healthy.

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Look, I’m not trying to generalize or put people on a certain pedestal, but I am saying that once you let go of what others around you are doing and saying and thinking and start listening to yourself and your own values, you will realize what’s important to you. As philosophical as that sounds, I think that rule can be applied to just about anything, not just health. Letting go of preconceived notions and self-doubt was purely life-changing for me. Once I started thinking of myself as an able-bodied person who can do things and should probably do things, then things started happening beyond what I expected.