Yup, it's true. It's already my one year mark here in NYC and I still can't believe it! It seems just like yesterday that I was hugging and crying my family farewell at the LAX airport. Just thinking about how I must've looked the night I arrived makes me laugh and shake my head. I came so cluelessly with two huge suitcases, an awkward bob haircut, and was so painfully unequipped for the cold city winter.
It feels strange to know that it's been over 365 days since that night.
2016 WAS A HARD YEAR
Two weeks ago, I was sitting at a restaurant in Chinatown with ten or more other friends around a large round table, family style. The cuisine for the night was traditional Cantonese food. While enjoying all the warm food and flavors, we busily chatted with each other about different topics.
Near the end of the dinner, I mentioned to a close friend sitting next to me that it had been exactly one year that I'd moved to New York from California. She reacted excitedly and congratulated me. You survived! I laughed and nodded my head. I had indeed survived. She then leaned over and asked me: So... How has the past year changed you? Any lessons?
Oh dear. Unable to say anything right away, I paused and thought about her two questions. I wasn't sure where to start in describing how I felt about the past year let alone unpack how I thought it'd changed me.
All that ran through my mind at that moment was all the negative rough patches of 2016 — I missed my family every other weekend. Commuting to work from Queens was no fun. My immune system hit an all time low. I slipped into bad habits. I started all over in building a community of friends. Mo' money mo' problems. Mismatched attraction. Miscommunicated attraction. Inconsistent sleep. Lots of unfamiliar loneliness. Wrestling on some dark nights with the fear of uncertainty.
The frustrating factor was that all these things seemed to come at once and in large tsunami waves without warning throughout the year. As I had these thoughts, I turned to my friend and said I needed to spend some time thinking about it. What came from it all?
Two weeks later, it's clear. Looking back, I see an obvious and reoccurring lesson (or thing) that came about as a result of the past year's ups and downs... grit. Some real undeniable doses of grit.
WEAK CALIFORNIAN GIRL
Before moving to New York, I was commuting a significant distance from my parent's house in the suburbs to work in Downtown LA. After about six months of a ridiculous commute, I was so burned out. I wasn't sure how much longer I could continue waking up at 4 AM and sleeping at midnight. So I decided it was time to quit the craziness. I had no desire to move to LA at the time and I didn't really feel like I was growing in my job anyway. I swore to myself I would never put myself through commuter hell again.
Fast forward to last year. When I ended up settling in Flushing, Queens, I was too clueless to know that I was about to sign up for a kind of commute in its own league. The only part of the picture I had thought about was saving my money on cheaper rent. What I didn't know was that I was going to be saving nothing else. Nope. In return for my cheap rent, it turns out I was also trading in much of my personal happiness and time. On really bad days, I think I've spent up to 4 hours commuting on the train and bus. Days that it would also happen to be miserably raining cats & dogs (of course why wouldn't it be).
Any of my coworkers now or from the past could tell you all about how often my morning commutes trample on the start of my day (present tense because this is still my everyday today). Train accidents, homeless person fighting the MTA employee, heart attacks... you name it. While mornings are bearable, it's honestly the late nights that often break my spirit.
But... despite the struggz. I realized very early on what any longtime New Yorker already knows — there are countless others that wake up even earlier than me and take longer routes BY FOOT than me every day. This is especially true in Queens.
GRIT LESSON ONE: When it's clear that you're complaining about trivial discomfort, suck it up and learn from those who are doing what you're doing in more difficult conditions without complaint. If you have energy to complain, it means you've still got energy to use.
TAKING THE HEAT
Growing up in a fairly dry climate, the humidity here in the summer was really something else. I was always accustomed to taking hot dry heat, but had a miserable time trying to get adjusted to hot wet heat that erases all your makeup and undoes all hair in a few minutes.
There were a lot of firsts during the summer — installing an air condition unit in my window, battling mosquitos of all shapes and sizes, staying away from puddles, trying to keep the windows shut, fending off drunk men at night, trying to keep my hands away from sticky rails, and much more.
It's beyond me how some Americans call this country the greatest country on earth when I remember how clean, modern, and well-maintained the public transportation infrastructure was in Asia YEARS ago when I was just a child. Being the greatest country on earth (in my books) means that y'all need to cross-check all the boxes.
Granted, I spent most of my hours in a nice cool office in Manhattan. But it was still frustrating to be met by a wall of humid heat every morning and night. The worst moments were those on the deeper levels of the station, waiting endlessly for the F train to arrive... only to walk into a car with zero air conditioning and contained heat of other people's sweat. GREAT.
GRIT LESSON TWO: When the discomfort seems unbearable, meditate. Let it all go. Look far away into the distance. The more you pay attention to the negative things that are out of your control, the worse it will seem.
PUSH FORWARD & ADAPT
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Thanks to repetition, the initially new stresses became normalized parts of life. Eventually, I got better at seeing past the obvious exhaustion that came with the inconvenient lifestyle. I did what I could to embrace the learning curve and adapt to new circles of friends in this urban jungle.
Even though I knew it would be very tiring, I stayed late at the homes of new friends. Even though I knew I would have to carry a lot of stuff, I would go to dance workshops to sweat it out. Even though I actually just wanted to sleep in on the weekends, I would go out and try to explore the city.
I think when you're new to NYC like me, you have this sense that you don't know how long you'll really be here... so you want to make the most of it. You tell yourself you might regret it if you don't push a little more each day to do all that you can to enjoy New York for yourself.
GRIT LESSON THREE: Move beyond surviving. You owe that to yourself. In order to rise, you need to step up and do more. Stay up a little later and ship that project. Walk a few more blocks. Go to the workshop. Look up and see the skyscrapers. Own your experience.
grit anchored in love
I think there's a weird sad and condescending tone to the saying: Life isn't meant to be easy. Life is supposed to be hard.
The word adulting has been used in conversations with friends so often this past year that I've lost count. It's a dumb verb we've applied to an array of new responsibilities that we haven't encountered before. A quick search online of the word will take you to dozens of (yet more) articles that scoff at the young adults using the word adulting. These articles say that the word undermines our 'real potential' or that it makes us 'entitled.' Grow up, they say. Suck it up. Adulthood is adulthood, not 'adulting.'
I don't really have that strong of personal attachment on this word 'adulting.' But I bring it up because I think the use of it is actually pointing to something that's not talked about as much in conversations about grit.
Grit has many definitions and ways it can be used. The grit I've been referring to in this post so far is the 'noun' grit that means courage and resolve, strength of character. But there's another definition of grit that I think is worth thinking about. The 'verb' grit means to clench your teeth, especially when you're faced with something painful or unpleasant. As someone who actually used to have a lot of jaw problems, this is not a type of grit I want in my day-to-day life.
Some news! After one whole year of unmanageable stress (mainly from my long commute), I'm finally moving. Next month, I'll be moving to Brooklyn!
When I shared with someone older recently that I was moving from Flushing, Queens to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these were his exact words:
Oh. So you're choosing the yuppies over grit, eh?
Of course, I knew he was saying this to really make fun of me. And without hesitation, I replied — "I'll happily choose the yuppies any day if it means that I won't be dying a year earlier from cancerous stress or wasting precious time that I could spend on something valuable."
GRIT LESSON FOUR: Grit that refuses to live within the frame of valuable growth and self-love is not healthy grit. If you think hustling means to 'grit' your teeth all day in endless struggle, you're headed down a toxic road.
My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents didn't go through wars, food stamp lines, racism, and the immigrant hustle only for me to continue their saga of first degree grit forever. I've finally learned that there's more to grit than physical endurance of inconvenience and that it's time to let go of this desire to prove myself to people who don't even matter.
No more, my friend. No more. I'm saving my strength for things beyond working hard for the sake of working hard. In 2017, I want to put my grit towards things that really do need to be changed.
Michael Luo, an editor at the New York Times, published an open letter to a woman that told his family to go back to China exactly one week ago on the streets of New York. You can read it here. It received an enormous outpouring of responses from Asian Americans online. Michael was overwhelmed and surprised by how many people responded to his open letter. As a result, he decided to do an open call and ask for responses from fellow Asian Americans about their own encounters with racism.
Early Tuesday morning, I'd just woken up and opened up Twitter on my phone. Still in bed, Michael's tweet was the first thing that popped up on my newsfeed. I had read his piece the day before and felt compelled to join the active conversation. I tweeted four recent encounters that I could remember off the top of my head.
I was just one of many individuals that responded to the prompt. The conversation on Twitter got really active over the next hours after I had tweeted that morning. When I got home in the evening, I realized I hadn't checked my personal inbox yet. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a message in my inbox from the New York Times. They explained they had seen my tweets and that they were looking for New Yorkers who'd responded to the hashtag and open call to be in a video. Could I be on camera in the morning? Fourteen hours later, I found myself taking a deep breath in front of two NYT producers and their camera in a small quiet room at their Manhattan headquarters.
Overall, this was a very vulnerable experience for me and for all the other wonderful souls that ended up coming out to share their encounters with microagression and racism. While reading my tweets, I actually cried. (Hahaha) Thankful they used the cut before it happened. I know that it was a moment of exposure not just because of the filming, but because I was oddly shaken up by it for the rest of the day. I feel like some kind of shell that I hadn't been aware of was cracked that morning.
For the most part, I'd say that the video was somewhat successful. It sparked a larger conversation online and offline. Sure, there are trolls and haters that STILL try to downplay all of the stories shared on the video. My feelings about these types of responses was summed up in a caption I put on Instagram along with a screenshot:
"Put yourself in the other person's shoes. We're not being sensitive. It's the repeated little hits that ultimately break people's souls/spirits. 25+ AsAm read our tweets sharing some of these hits we've experienced in some way. It made me real sad. It's not OK. It's not just homes and bodies that make up community. Our words, small actions, and assumptions are part of community too. Let's be more thoughtful and anchor some love in our interactions. #thisis2016"
On an ending note, I'd like to thank my brother for being so real and understanding of me sharing something that had actually happened to him directly. It wasn't my intention, but it's the one that ultimately made the cut. We had a long phone conversation today about it and it was a big relief to me that he said, "I understand." This nod from him was important to me. He's still friends with all those kids that ignorantly said those things to him a while back. I know them and still love them for being lifelong friends to him. But... if any of you are reading this, I hope that you'll understand where this is coming from too. It's not OK. Don't start saying historically racist and hurtful words just because someone else does it. Don't give in so easily. You can do better that. We can do better than this.
After all... it's 2016.
Coffee & Convos is a project and platform created by San Diego-based social media strategist Alyssa Mopia. She connects with creative entrepreneurial people, grabs coffee with each of them, let's the person talk about whatever they'd like, and shares snippets of the conversation that might inspire others.
HOW WE MET
Back in April 2015, Alyssa and her friend were in line behind me at a photo booth for the CreativeMornings/San Diego event. I'd driven down to San Diego all by myself to attend the event and was determined to get a picture even if I was alone. As I walked up to take a photo, Alyssa complimented my outfit. (Turns out compliments are always a great way to catch the attention of people...) Later on, I was scrolling through the CreativeMornings hashtag on Instagram and recognized Alyssa and her friend. I left a comment on their photo saying that we were in line together. She got back to me with a nice reply. After that interaction, we started following each other.
It wasn't until August, four months later, that we bumped into each other again at another CreativeMornings/San Diego event. The moment we saw each other again, we both agreed that we needed to totally connect in real life and get coffee together.
In typical California fashion, I didn't have high expectations from us declaring that we should totally connect since so many people these days just say that they want to hang out and then don't ever follow up. But to my surprise... one day, Alyssa reached out and explained that she was running a small interview project called Coffee & Convos and that she wanted to catch up with me. She was going to be in the O.C. area and wanted to meet up!
FIRST COFFEE & CONVO
On a sunny October afternoon, we met up at Portola Coffee Lab in Santa Ana, California. I don't really remember exactly what we talked about, but I do know that our conversation revolved around our backgrounds and the things that were on our minds at the time:
“I know where I want to be and its the matter of connecting those dots of where I am right now and getting to that end goal...”
This coffee date essentially transformed our vague acquaintance into a wonderful creative friendship. You can read the snippet of our conversation here.
VACATION IN CALIFORNIA
While on a ten-day break in California, Ivan (my brother) and I met up with Alyssa in Oceanside at Revolution Coffee Roasters. I had a lot of fun catching up with her and hearing all about the official launch of the Coffee & Convos website. I'm especially happy that I was able to somewhat connect my brother to someone like Alyssa!
I had no idea the hangout would be anything related to her project, so I was happy to find that she's also started to feature coffee shops on her site. Props to Alyssa for supporting local businesses and creatives along the California coast!