Year in Review: Books that changed my life this year

2018 was a year of great discovery and personal development. Or at least, it was the year that I actually put things into action rather than just thinking about it. Like many people, I have this issue with “time.” Not enough of them, that is. I probably make myself sound like the busiest businesswoman in the world, but in reality that is not what I am. I’m a mom of two small children, with a full time job that has very consistent hours. Besides spending time with my family (which is basically just my kids and husband), I don’t doodle too much into other things besides writing and photography.

And yet…I still feel like I didn’t have enough time to do all the things that I wanted to do. This, more or less, spilled into the idea that in America, being “busy” is considered a good thing, and to feel busy is better than not feeling busy. That’s what I thought at the beginning of the year anyway.

Now that the year is about over, and I’ve had time to reflect, I realize how wrong that type of thinking is.

This year, I made time to do some reading. Every morning from January 1st to today (December 31st), I woke up early, usually around 5:30 a.m. and read until 6:30 a.m., then head to work. As a result, I completed–as in actually finished–50 books. FIFTY!

It’s astonishing to me just how crazy that sounds…and how much I’ve learned through the process of reclaiming my time, and reframing my way of thinking. Doing something you enjoy is such a privilege nowadays, especially when you have little kids and believe me, they take up a lot of your time. Then, if you have a partner/spouse, you need time with them as well.

Speaking of spouses, that was how my husband and I ended up with more time together–in the morning, before reading, sometimes we’d talk about all sorts of different things, things that we typically don’t talk about late in the evening when we’re being interrupted by our kids or too tired to talk. Getting up early in the morning and having a cup of coffee together proved to be the wonderful, valuable time that we needed. It was great that he was also reading along with me. I think the mutual activity was inspiration for us to keep going.

From memoirs to personal finance to parenting books, I read it all…50 of them, anyway. That said, here are the books that made the biggest impact this year for me.

The Harry Potter Series (book 1-6 completed)

I had to see for myself why Harry Potter is so popular, and finally after finishing six out of the seven books in the series, I finally understood. If you don’t, you should read it. Enough said.

These are great debut novels. It garnered great reviews, and definitely lived up to its name. Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage opened the intersection between love and justice, whereas Cait Flanders’ book shed light into the world of consumerism and personal finance. Finally, Cary & Kyle’s New Minimalism is a short and beautiful book about decluttering and organizing filled with anecdotes and a discussion of mindsets, which was very helpful for me.

These ones were surprisingly good, not that I expected it to be. Gail Honeyman’s story about a young, sad, boring millennial with no friends proved to be anything but. Twists and turns later, you’ll find out the real truth about Eleanor. Laura Vanderkam’s book might’ve had some things I wasn’t keen on, but in general, she made some really good points about how we can all make the best of the time that we have by simply reframing our way of thinking and prioritizing. Finally, as far as memoirs go, The Glass Castle is truly astounding. Jeanne Walls’ story is an amazing story about survival, hope, and family.

These ones are true, deep and personal. It definitely opened my eyes in certain areas. Sherman Alexie’s is a mixture of poetry and prose, but it was still very good. Susan Cain’s Quiet shed light into the power of introverts and helped me see that being an introvert isn’t such a bad thing. Finally, Daniel Pink’s Drive talks about motivation in such a phenomenal way that I haven’t read about anywhere else.

And finally, my top two favorites of the year….Tara Westover’s childhood is the kind of crazy childhood that I can never fathom and to go into her world was beyond amazing. And Daniel’s book made me think much deeper about the concept of time, and as a result, I learned things that I never knew or thought about.

Breaking up with bad habits is hard to do

2018 First quarter recap

Every morning for the past three months, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. About five minutes later, I’d trudge out of bed, slowly at first, then stumble into the kitchen, turn on the coffeemaker, and then make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. Once I’m done, I head back to the kitchen, where the coffee is almost ready, then I’d go over to my husband, still sleeping on the couch (we sleep on a fold-out sofa bed) and nudge him out of bed. After a few minutes, he begrudgingly does the same.

After he’s done in the bathroom, we’d go into the kitchen, where we’d drink a cup of hot, steaming coffee, sigh with satisfaction, exchange a few words here and there, then sit down on a small kiddie chair (him) and a step stool (me) and we’d start reading. This would go on until I have to go to work or one of our kids wake up.

We’d go on about our days as normal, him taking care of our kids mostly, and me at work. After the kids go to bed, we’d step outside and do our workout every other evening. On the evenings that we don’t exercise, we either work on a jigsaw puzzle or watch a movie or use it to take care of personal business.

This chain of events would never happen if we weren’t parents. It certainly would not have happened while we were poor college students. Back then, if I woke up before 8:00 a.m. I’d give myself a high five. Waking up early to read and exercising consistently 4-5 times a week is utterly incomprehensible to me up until a month ago. You might think that we’re crazy–you may ask, “Aren’t you tired after a long day with the kids or a long day at work?”

“Hell yes, we’re tired as ever, but we have goals to reach,” is what I’d say. When you want something to happen bad enough, you do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I had several realizations about myself. The first one is that I am not great at finishing things, mainly books. In a typical year, I’d start about 30 books but rarely ever finish them. Second, like many people, I went to coffee shops a lot! Of course, my justification was that if I only went twice a week, then it’s okay. Umm, not a good justification, because I don’t make the kind of money that allows me this particular luxury. Lastly, I hardly ever exercise. All my life, I’ve been skinny. I weighed barely 100 lbs in high school, and continued to be small throughout college and in my twenties. I never once thought that my weight would catch up with me. I thought my metabolism was invincible.

Boy, was I wrong. Earlier this year, I started to notice that my weight had climbed up a little bit. By BMI standards, I was close to being considered “overweight.” This translates into being 131 lbs. Ouch. For an American white female, this is normal, but for a short Asian female, it is not.

I wondered to myself if whether those pounds added up gradually because I had two kids or because I’ve had a sedentary job for the past year and a half and I’ve been going to Starbucks a lot to compensate for the long days.

I realize now that it is most likely the latter. The holiday season certainly didn’t help with my seasonal depression. I was feeling down because I didn’t have any money and we were living off credit cards, and I felt pressured to be jolly. Then February came, and I was greeted with a heaping portion of baked goods, to which I accepted. It wasn’t until the end of February when I went to the doctor for an annual check up and my doctor mentioned the phrase, “holiday pounds” that it clicked in my head. Yep–office job, the holidays and its sweets, then more sweets in February (Valentines Day and my birthday is only a week apart) is what got me to where I am today–being almost overweight for my age group and ethnicity. I cringed when I saw the number on the doctor’s office scale. Not watching what I eat and not exercising has been detrimental to my body. The scale doesn’t lie. This is the heaviest I’ve ever been without being pregnant.

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Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

I remember a customer that I used to help when I worked at a local credit union. His name was Paul, and when I first met him, I decided that he couldn’t possibly be older than 50. Then I looked at his profile and saw that he was in his mid-seventies! He looked incredibly healthy and fit. Not surprisingly, he worked out everyday and taught fitness classes for bus drivers. I was in awe, and admired him for his strength.

Then I examined those around me currently–at work, at home, in public places. And I was blown away by the evidence of unhealthy lifestyles all around me. At work, for example, I see at least three individuals who are extremely overweight and have trouble walking even three blocks. Plus, they looked so incredibly old for their age. The evidence was clear in their physical appearance–they did not eat healthy foods or exercised, two components necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.

I’m more inspired from seeing what I don’t want to be versus what I would like to be.

I thought about my bad habits and how they do not align with my values. It became obvious that changes need to be implemented right away.

So at the beginning of March, I stopped going to Starbucks. If I can manage to do this for an entire year, I’ll save at least $400, or $35/mo. I started my reading routine and invited my husband to do the same. My husband has never been the type of person who’d wake up early to read either. For him, it’s a real game changer. I also created a workout schedule, and even signed up for a 5K, something I never imagined I would do.

As March continued on, I started feeling better. My insomnia was almost nonexistent. Surprisingly, I looked forward to working out, because it meant quality time with my husband. And because of the consistent reading, I’ve finished three books in January, three books in February, and five books in March. My husband has also finished his own share of books. We’ve completed two jigsaw puzzles together. I went to Starbucks zero times (okay, I cheated– once to a Dutch Bros. thrive-thru, and once to a convenience store, which comes to a whopping $5 total). I spent roughly $16 on coffee for home brewing, and still have coffee for next month. I bought lunch exactly once. It was the best $5 I’ve spent in a long time. I exercised for fifteen days. During the month of March, I ran approximately 26 miles and averaged 9709 steps, roughly 3000 more steps than I’ve had in the past six months. Simply put, I’ve doubled what I’ve done in terms of exercise. I’ve saved a lot of money by not going to coffee shops as often. And I’ve nurtured my brain with jigsaw puzzles and reading every day.

I realized that if I’m going to allow my kids to eat only Cheerios and no other sugary cereals, then I must treat myself the same way–with restraint. I must practice eating healthy and resisting the urges that ignite in my brain whenever I’m bored/anxious/sad/angry/whatever. I have to learn to distinguish between a true need and a simple desire.

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

I ran into Paul several months ago on the train platform by my house. We exchanged a few brief words. He still looks the same as he always does–fit and happy. And it made me think–if I want to be as healthy as him in retirement age, then I need to start early. I need to start now.

The first few days were incredibly difficult. Like stepping on hot coals for the first time, you feel a sense of shock as the pain registers in your body—as mine did in the first few runs. The “fight or flight” response is in full swing at this point. Instead of choosing to quit, I chose to fight. My determination overrode my fear of becoming a depressed, unhealthy individual.

I’m not going to lie–it’s been hard. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the past month it’s this–determination is the driving force to success. It starts in the mind. To me, there are three elements to achieving a goal. The first is deciding on which goal to tackle. The second is putting it into action. Lastly, continuing that action until you see active results. This is the part where a lot of us get hung up on–patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and for many of us, myself included, impatience gets in the way. Bad habits manifests itself in your thoughts, like the devil whispering on one side of your ear telling you that you are not capable. Being able to shut out the intrusive thoughts is difficult, but this month and beyond, I plan on continuing my path towards developing better habits.

Want your kids to be a better reader? Talk to them more

One chilly Thursday morning in January, I dropped my daughter off at her preschool. After saying goodbye to her, I ventured into the Family Resource Room, nestled to the side of the school’s main lobby paneled with wall to ceiling glass. It was there that I saw three women strike up a conversation with each other. All three appeared to be in their mid-to-late thirties with short brown hair and average height. As they talked among themselves I overheard one of them saying that they were a little early for “SMART time,” meaning reading time; hence, that’s why they were waiting in the room.

SMART stands for Start Making A Reader Today, one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in Oregon. Every year, they bring together thousands of individuals into elementary school classrooms to read books to children from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. However, it should be noted that SMART tends to focus mainly on inner city schools, lower performing schools, and schools with a high concentration of minorities and children of color, including African Americans.

The three women continued talking amongst themselves about a variety of subjects, one of which I caught was the perils of obtaining childcare. One woman noted that someone she knew had to take their kid to work once a week because of a babysitter snafu…and the talk went on. As typical as their conversation seemed to be, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “It can’t possibly be that the only type of people who care about reading are white, middle class women.”  Where is everyone else?!? I imagined that if any of them had children of their own, their kids must be at least 15 years old. Perhaps their kids have already left the nest, and they’re feeling lonely. Or perhaps they’re not that old. Maybe they’re just stay-at-home moms who have the means to go volunteer every week at an inner city elementary school filled with African American children, just to make themselves feel better about contributing to society.

Later that evening, I talked with my husband about this observation. Our conversation quickly molded into the subject of storytimes at the library, something I do on a regular basis. He asked me if this racial representation also applies to storytimes. The thought of who attends storytimes isn’t necessarily something that I think about often; it was only when he brought it up that I began to realize that yes—the people who typically bring their children to storytimes are white, middle class women! Most likely stay-at-home moms, sometimes fathers. Oftentimes, they look much older than me. But then again, I look like I could be my kids’ babysitter.

I’m no stranger to literacy. I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was about 14 months old, and now at the age of four (almost five), she is a fantastic reader. She is well beyond the reading level of her peers, so much that her teacher this year was beyond surprised because she is only one out of two children who can really read amongst her 15 classmates.

Of course, I’m not here to brag about my child’s reading abilities, because that would seem selfish. Research has shown that reading to your child at an earlier age sets the stage for their academic and professional development later down the road. It enforces certain skill sets such as critical thinking and analysis, as well as written communication. The sooner the better, they say, so they don’t fall behind. That is why I began when Lily was just a year old, and why I’ve also introduced books to my son, who at 17 months doesn’t appear to be too much into books yet—however, he is slowly starting to engage with them.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, an organization that collects data for educational purposes, they noted in their July 2017 report that about 43% of adults read at Basic or Below Basic levels, as compared to 57% of people who can read at Proficient or Intermediate levels. Digging deeper into this statistic, you might be surprised to find out that Hispanics are part of the majority—41% of them read at Below Basic level, followed by African Americans at 24%. This is really troubling, because a large majority of minorities and people of color cannot read good enough to be able to do basic, everyday tasks such as signing a form, balance a checkbook, compare ticket prices, and use a TV guide to look for certain information, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report.

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freepik.com

At Lily’s school, the evidence is there—roughly 34% of the student population is African American, followed by 30% Hispanic, the rest is variety of multi-racial, Caucasian, and Native Americans. On a global scale, approximately 757 million adults are illiterate. Girls account for the majority of this illiteracy rate, with two thirds of the world’s women unable to read. This is startling because there are many more girls than there are boys in the world, and girls play a pivotal role running the household as well as in the real world. Women can conquer the world by owning their own businesses, doing their own taxes, and managing their own employees.

I’m not saying that educating boys aren’t important—I’m simply saying that the gender educational gap has been long withstanding. We all know that many girls, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, have less advantages when it comes to obtaining an education. And part of obtaining an education means learning how to read. It all comes down to granting independence for girls, and unfortunately, many countries are not ready to do so.

Of course, the problem is not just a global problem. It’s also a United States problem. By the age of five, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary to be successful in school, and this number increases dramatically by the time they’re in fourth grade. The disparity comes from a lack of early literacy. Language development is the most pivotal from birth to age three, when babies’ brains are the most malleable because they’re developing fast; hence, vocabulary development plays a role in reading achievement by third grade, according to SMART.

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Reading was a big thing for me growing up—I had a father who was a voracious reader. Despite the fact that we lived in a poor country with limited resources, he read the newspaper every single morning, and he’d read books every chance he got. Thus, I can attribute my love of reading to him. Both of my parents believed in the value of an education, but my dad was key in developing me into a lover of books.

Luckily, the skills that I gained from reading at an earlier age helped me in my English studies after my family immigrated to America. Due to a miscommunication, I was enrolled in a regular classroom, not an ESL class, and it was there that I sat with a volunteer reader (none other than a blonde hair, blue-eyed white middle aged woman whose name I’ve long forgotten) who read books to me as a way to help me learn English (this was after they figured out my lack of English skills and it was too late to put me in an ESL class), and later on, encouraged me to read by myself.

It was that kind of support that gave me the confidence to further learn English on my own. During my free time at home, I watched TV shows with subtitles on, listened to American music on the radio, and read as many young adult novels as I could possibly get my hands on, always with a dictionary in tow. That method proved successful, for I became proficient in about a year and a half. It’s still my preferred method of language learning today—to immerse oneself in the culture and language with as little assistance as possible. I believe that an average person like me has the brain capacity to figure things out when I didn’t have too many resources, like an after-school tutor.

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After the conversation I had with my husband, and the realization about the scarcity of non-white parents showing up at story times and children’s events, I began to question why. WHY are there hardly any people of color volunteering to read in schools? Despite what I do, why am I still a minority, both at the physical level and the cultural level? Are there any underlying reasons as to why this is happening?

I read that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language development. Babies learn from the words that they hear and the touches that they receive from their caregivers. Research has shown there is a link between vocabulary development and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time they’re three years old, babies from poor families will have heard 30 million words less than their more affluent peers. A Stanford University study found that amongst 18 to 24-month-old children, there is a language gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were defined as those with an average annual income of $69,000 per year, and the poor with an average income of $23,900 per year. The study found that children who came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understood more words by the age of two than children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason why? They speculated that children from lower income families had parents who talk less to their children, hence the 30 million word gap by age three.

“The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” – Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times “The Power of Talking to Your Baby.”

Unfortunately, this word knowledge disadvantage continues well into fourth grade. Kids from lower income backgrounds tend to fall behind their more affluent peers, and the struggle becomes harder as they get older. More children continue to fall behind by the time they enter grade school, with minorities and people of color fall into this category the most.

Now, let’s think about this for a second. Is it really true that white, middle class parents talk more to their children or is it because they have the means to hire nannies, and require the nannies to speak and play with their children, thereby relinquishing the responsibilities of teaching their children about language? I may not be rich, but I am aware that “rich” parents are rich for a reason—they work long hours to be able to provide for their families, and unlike their lower class peers, they actually have the ability to hire help. Tutors, nannies, enrichment classes—you name it, they can afford it, whereas low income parents are struggling every day to pay for the bare necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

It’s not to say that low income parents don’t have the time to talk to their children—it’s how they talk and what they say. Parents who are on welfare typically have multiple children, and oftentimes, their talk involves an authoritative or scolding tone, such as, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “Clean up your toys!”

I’m going to declare right here and now that I do not consider myself part of that trend. As with many parents, my husband and I exhibit a certain level of authority when it’s necessary, and other times, we talk a lot as a family. I’m not a big talker but my husband is, and this was passed down to my daughter. So, while I think there are some truth to the study and the statistics above, I also think that it is not representative of a lot of families in America, especially ones who are minorities. Just simply talk to your children more sounds great in theory, but one must take note of the privileges that rich kids have—being that their parents are more educated and have less children; therefore, the stakes are higher for these kids.

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I wondered to myself –what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a parent who was so into reading? I would’ve become a statistic, a stereotype. Of course, the statistics mentioned above do not reflect wholly on the number of low income parents out there who are avid readers and writers. And my experience at my daughter’s school is in no way reflective of the reality of literacy, but there is some truth to it, I believe.

In a way, I am a statistic, but I’m trying not to become the obvious statistic—that because I don’t make that much money means that I don’t have the time or money to give the gift of reading to my children.

As an adult or parent, regardless of your socioeconomic background, I believe we can ALL play a role in supporting children’s literacy. We need to. Our future depends on it. For birthdays and holidays, instead of giving them the latest gadgets or toys, give the gift of books instead. And instead of going to the mall, a compendium of material things, head to the nearest library for story time—they’re free events that allow children to socialize with each other and hear stories. Finally, instead of simply tucking your child in bed at night, make time to read to them. They say that it only takes 20 minutes of reading each night to a child at least 3 times a week for it to make a difference in their life.

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Every night, we ask my daughter to pick out books—usually 3 books, because that takes up 20 minutes of reading—from the stack of books that I choose based on her reading level at the library. It’s a ritual that we’ve done for years and will continue for many more. As a working mom nowadays, I don’t have as much time to take her to the library as I used to, but I make an effort to go at least once a week for story time and other children’s related events. She gets incredibly excited each time, and I believe it’s a culmination of the hundreds of times that I’ve taken her in the past.

This past Christmas, we gave my newest nephew a book—his first one. Even though he’s only three months old, I’m hoping that his parents will read to him, thereby instilling a sense that reading is important for learning and developing the mind.

Remember that kids don’t care where you get the books from. You can scout the library stacks, go to Barnes & Noble children’s section, browse through Amazon’s enormous selection, or get it at Goodwill—it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you are giving the gift of books that matters more. Lastly, when gifting books or reading to a child, it’s important to be as excited as possible and allow them to ask questions. You may not realize it, but kids do model their behavior after you (the adult), so if you’re not excited about books, then why should they be?

Reading sets the stage for future success. We can’t allow kids, especially ones from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fall behind simply because we don’t talk to them enough or read to them enough. It’s our job as adults to propel them towards common core skills that are going to be useful for them to function in society.