Lean Into Discomfort

Lean Into Discomfort

When I taught in San Francisco at a summer program, our director stood in front of us and clasped her hands together, looking out to each of us with emphatic purpose and declaring: “You have to be okay with leaning into discomfort.” I remember turning that phrase around over and over in my head until I grew dizzy with attempting to grapple with what that meant. How do we as humans perceive discomfort, or conflate it with conflict? How do we balk at the first sign of an obstruction in the road, and search for the next available alternative, in hopes that it will be less painful or difficult than the first? It wasn’t until I started teaching throughout the program when I started to better understand what that phrase meant.

When Peter Liang, former NYPD police officer and Hong Kong American who fatally shot Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, appeared in the international spotlight for multiple reasons, many of which centered around the fact that this was yet another police shooting of a young black man, and many others which focused on the fact that Liang was the first NYPD cop to be convicted in a shooting while on duty in more than 10 years. Jay Kang from the NYTimes wrote a piece that dissected the Asian American responses to the shooting and conviction, specifically as it relates to what Kang calls “the nation’s racial hierarchies.” He also notes, very honestly, that:

“I cannot adequately describe the conflict in feeling like a race traitor for applauding Liang’s conviction while also feeling like a race traitor for questioning it. I know the lifeblood of my conditional whiteness as an educated, upwardly mobile Asian-American lies somewhere in those conflicts. And because it’s historically been in the best interests of people like me to never discuss these things, even in private, I lack the vocabulary to discuss it.”

What Kang is talking about in this article has never rung more true for me. There are very few Asian American activists out there who speak out about race relations in the United States, and most who do tend to focus on Asian American media representation and the model minority myth—both of which are, of course, important issues. But that’s just it—just because one race-related issue is important doesn’t mean it should eclipse or take away from other salient race issues. And the violence, particularly police-inflicted violence, against black people is undoubtedly one such salient race issue. Yet it seems as though many Asian Americans are remaining silent on it. This could be due to a belief that it does not relate to them, that it is not “their problem.” Or it could be because, as Kang says, that they feel conflicted about how to talk about these issues as an Asian American, especially if they believe that they do not have the vocabulary to discuss it.

But it is our problem. It is a problem that sits upon the shoulders of everyone in this country as it continues to destroy black lives here in the U.S., and the more we avoid understanding it as our problem, the more the onus is put on black people, the more we are erroneously fostering an expectation that those who are oppressed should bear the weight of dismantling their oppressors alone.

Talking about the #blacklivesmatter movement and racism against black people is definitely uncomfortable for me as an Asian American sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. Of course, there are hundreds of conversations that revolve around police brutality and violence against black people where I have no authority or perspective from an experiential or personal lens. But in those moments, I have to step down but not leave the conversation. My role is still to be a part of the movement as an ally without speaking for black people who constantly face these dangerous moments of profiling and violence. Just because you do not have a sound byte to add, a small remark to pitch in, does not mean it is time to exit the discussion.

When the incident with Gurley and Liang happened, the response from the Asian American community—a term I hesitate to use due to the pluralistic nature of said community, one that too often ends up being a lump sum of wildly diverse nationalities and cultures—had been disappointingly removed from understanding the #blacklivesmatter movement. In fact, it seemed to further distance Asian Americans from sympathizing with the cause, which felt like even more of a shame because so rarely do we see Asian Americans advocating and rallying behind a race-related cause.

But after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a crowdsourced open letter to Asian American families surfaced, and it seemed to touch on so many of the barriers that Asian Americans often seem to feel when broaching the topic with their family—language barriers, differing cultural values and beliefs, confusion about where and how to start the conversation. But this letter was a concrete, tangible step toward pushing Asian Americans to finally stand for the movement. And that feels like progress. But the thing about progress is that in a movement, it should never signal or represent the finish line.

Leaning into discomfort means anticipating and responding to oftentimes intense moments of feeling a desire to escape, to turn around, to opt out of that discomfort, and still pushing forward anyway. It means, in this case, acknowledging that the lack of vocabulary to discuss the #blacklivesmatter movement and how Asian Americans can play a role in it is just the first of many difficult, uncomfortable steps. It means pushing past the easiness and comfort of complicity and understanding that race relations in the United States has been built upon a system that benefits and serves whiteness, which may be uncomfortable and difficult to talk about, but it is ultimately everybody’s responsibility to lean into that discomfort.

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Badness

Badness

In an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology, Roy Baumeister and his research team posit that humans tend to simmer longer with bad emotions and memories and describe them more strongly than they do for good ones. The popular study worked with participants who gained or lost money, and overall they were found to feel more emotional over losing that amount of money than gaining that same amount.

From a biological standpoint, the authors have proposed that this serves a survival-related purpose. Animals who are more in touch with understanding Bad events will be less likely to stumble upon or encounter those events again. Sure, this may have significant implications for avoiding dark forests inhabited by bears or thick, unbashful flames after getting a second-degree burn the first time around. It might even help us avoid toxic relationships with people who exhibit the same signs of neglect, disrespect, and instability.

But if we think about the trajectory of human development—of understanding, of emotions, of maturity—and the ways in which it fluctuates not only back and forth but also up and down, across diagonal lines, it is hard to picture a moment in which someone is not crippled by one negative event, one Bad thing that shapes the way he or she acts. Or thinks. Or breathes. Yet when we meet new people, and we see these snapshots of action, of thinking, of breathing, that scare us because of the way Badness seems to pulse ominously below the surface, we panic. Our instinct tells us that this is a familiar Badness that we should unequivocally avoid. For survival’s sake, we should run the other way, as fast as we can until our lungs tear past the gaps between our ribs.

I got to know someone just a little better this past week, and the way she believes in collecting Polaroids, enough to fill dozens of photo albums, enough to stitch together like a stop-motion film, is something I both fear and admire. Anyone who knows me knows I’m quick to judge, and I’ve been called out on multiple occasions for facial expressions that were “kinda judge-y.” I am the Queen of Judging First Impressions & Subsequently Discounting People’s Good Will, and the way this woman exercises an authentic desire to keep collecting those photos despite moments of Badness gives me pause.

Labels are horrible—we hear that all the time, and this runs counter to every gut instinct people have to categorize things, to put things into boxes to serve their own individual purpose because there is an inherent desire to find patterns and differences between things. We do it as kids all the time. “Find 15 differences between Picture A & Picture B.” “What is the next image in this patterned sequence?” “What do these objects have in common? Which is the odd one out?”

But maybe our problem isn’t categorization or finding patterns. Maybe it’s believing that we categorize for archival purposes, to stow these things in dusty card catalog boxes and keep them disparate via thick cardboard walls, to refuse to let people prove that their patterns are fluid, 3-dimensional, viscous but dynamic. Maybe it’s seeing Badness and pivoting immediately on our heels to run the other way, as fast as we can until our lungs tear past the gaps between our ribs. To avoid the permanence of the Badness label for survival purposes.

Maybe it’s that people are as surprising as they are changing, and maybe Badness is as strong as it is fleeting.

Things You Learn Before Turning 23 (& Things You Don’t)

Things You Learn Before Turning 23 (& Things You Don’t)

How to build fortresses out of bricks as heavy as the hypotheticals you carry on a day-to-day basis. On some days, you forget the ache they leave in the valleys of your shoulders from bearing their weight like it’s no big deal, like being accustomed to discomfort is the same as being okay with it (or maybe it is). Because when you protect yourself from room for error, you also protect yourself from room for growth, throaty laughter, nervous tingling. When you refuse to buy in too heartily, too brusquely, you can only expect the payout to be just as tepid, just as pallid and gray.

How to dive headfirst into Finding Yourself as if you were ever lost, when in reality you had both feet tied firmly in the ground, completely stationery where everyone was able to see you, just from afar. When in reality, Finding Yourself was never about discovering what it is you care about (you’ve always cared about the same things, just in iterations: fairness, good will, foods that taste like July). Instead, it was about learning patience for being alone, finding tools of self-care that weren’t just chocolate and bubble baths. It was about navigating loneliness but also friendship, where you’d share a pint of thick-churned ice cream with girls you’d lop off your right arm for, spoons clinking like wine glasses late into the night, and realizing that they too had been there all along, that they didn’t require Finding of any kind, just a little thought and care from your end.

How to lose track, just briefly, of time, despite always being someone who thrived off timetables. And don’t be fooled, you still like planning things at least five hours in advance, with time, location, and duration spelled out so detailed that the letters practically spill from the screen of your phone, but at least now sometimes you lay on your back with your shoulder blades grinding against the floorboards, mind stumbling until an hour has passed and you have no work to show for it. At least now you can sit through a 50-minute commute with a paperback pinned between your fingers, barely noticing the automated voice over the PA (even though you have the message memorized: “Please stand clear of the closing doors… 34th Street. Herald Square. Transfers available to the D, F, and M lines.”). At least you’ll still wonder every once in a while that in a city dedicated to speed and snappiness, momentum and hubbub, how much time slips through the subway doors, through the wide-mouthed vents along the sides of the road, through the gaps that weave between people waiting in long lines that bend from block to block?

How to say no. And how to believe heavily in a peace that will follow, especially since your most rickety, off-kilter moments are when you’re preoccupied with everyone’s opinions but your own. Those moments may never fully disappear, but you’ve learned how to stand by your choices a little better—or at least, hold tight when the wind threatens to push you into disequilibrium.

Things you do not learn:

How to tear down fortresses. How to tread water after diving in. How to reel time back onto its spool. How to stop straining to hear people’s inner voices when you know they were never meant for your ears anyway.

What it Feels Like to Belong to Everyone Except Yourself

What it Feels Like to Belong to Everyone Except Yourself

 

If you’ve ever gone away to summer camp for more than a week, you learn at least one of three substantial life lessons:

1. Your clothes will smell no matter how many times you wash them—not like you get the chance to wash them all that often.
2. Making friends is natural—almost automatic—in an environment where no one knows anyone on day 1.
3. You come home sounding like this discolored mural of mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that you’ve managed to pick up throughout the duration of the camp program. And suddenly you’re saying things like “killer” and “dayy-umm” and a whole palette of other things you’ve inherited from the friends you made that summer.

“We are the sum of all people we have ever met.” —Dirk Wittenborn

I want to believe that those instances are ridges along a mountain range that you sweep up in your arms, that we make every moment a part of our fabric because that’s how we become smarter, more thoughtful, more considerate, greater people. Yet at the same time, I fear the sound of my own consciousness slamming the door in my face, following the sum of all people I have ever met out the nearest fire escape. I’ve always been afraid of the reverberations that bounce between the walls of an empty shell.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking rice on the stove top and tapping my foot against the linoleum floor impatiently, I can’t smell the jasmine rice because all I can smell are the mistakes I’ve made, up in flames, burning like gasoline. Those are the moments when I feel as though I have the least amount of control over what makes up my body and thoughts, when I feel as though I am indebted to the causes that are not my own, when I feel as though I have disappointed people in waves—first at low tide, then at such a high tide that I can only feel engulfed by what I cannot achieve.

When I’m confused and disoriented, people often prompt me by asking: “Well, what do you want?”

And the hardest part of that isn’t coming up with a strong, representative answer—it’s trying to grapple with the possibility that there doesn’t seem to be an answer at all. That perhaps my mind is too busy fretting over what other people are thinking of me when in reality, I should know that other people are not giving the issue—or me—a second thought. After all, everyone is the star of their own life movie.

I don’t know what it is I want, but I do know that I can’t bear the thought of people disliking me, resenting me, disappointed by me—and that is the definition of belonging to everyone except myself.

When you belong to everyone except yourself, you keep a running list of IOUs tucked in the smallest pocket of your frayed wallet, constantly worried that you are forgetting someone from yesterday, last week, or five years ago. You scrawl haphazard notes about which bills you haven’t paid yet, about which ones are already accruing interest, up until the point where you feel like it might just be easier to file for bankruptcy altogether.

When you belong to everyone except yourself, you will convince yourself that everyone is keeping track of how you have failed them, and you will wonder what you have not yet tried to keep  a promise that you feel contractually obligated to fulfill. You will remember all the reasons people may have doubted you in the past and wonder how much they’ve grown in the past few years.

When you belong to everyone except yourself, you will tell people you don’t believe in regret because there is something to learn from every decision made, but in reality, you will sew regret into your skin like a patchwork quilt until it makes up more of you than your own cells do.

A Letter to My High School Self

A Letter to My High School Self

 

Dear 16-year-old-me,

On principle alone, you will resent this letter. You will cringe at the thought of something so cliché, convinced that a retroactive letter like this is the written equivalent of a cheesy time capsule, and you will be tempted to chuck this over your shoulder without a second thought. So I will ask you to bear with me, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about you (and me), it’s that patience is not our strong suit.

I’ll start off by saying that there are three main things that are still exactly the same:

  1. You will still have a hard time controlling your incessant snacking.
  2. You will still be easily offended. You will still take things a little too personally, hold everything a little too close to your heart.
  3. You will still waste hours upon hours on the Internet.

But worry not. Things have also changed, despite your inability to tear yourself away from both Facebook and tortilla chips. That still continues, stronger than ever.

I remember your promises, you know. Things like “I’ll find a career path that I love and can provide for myself with“, “I’ll avoid procrastination at all costs in university”, “I’ll live the single life in college at some point”, I’d never move in with a college boyfriend“, “I won’t let a boy affect my decisions.

I remember them because they are still a part of me, even if they have changed drastically since five years ago (five years ago, jeez). They were still the building blocks of my adolescence. They shaped my thoughts, my actions, and ultimately, myself as a whole.

Yet here I am now, pursuing a career that will be financially challenging, writing a blog post instead of studying for my upcoming final exams, still very much in a relationship with a guy from school, and moving in with said guy in two weeks’ time (after living with each other for nearly a year).

I can hear you scoffing at me already. “Are you insane? Where’s your sense of independence? What happened to wanting to meet new people and not engaging in another long-term relationship?”

And maybe that’s the point of this letter—to quell some of that obvious bristling you’re doing over there.

High school was a weird time, as it is for many people, I’m sure. You are waist-deep in a long-term relationship that is stringing you to another human being, and you will develop these feelings of self-induced fear that you will never be thought of as an individual, that you will always be one half of a pair. You will stress for hours that people will only invite you to things because the two of you are a package deal, or that they will refer to you as “his girlfriend” as opposed to by your given name. You will quake because high school is prime time to establish your identity, and you risk not just losing that opportunity, but destroying it, too.

Which is why you are probably ripping at your follicles right now, screaming at me, asking me why on earth I would embark on that same risk now, five years later.

To be one hundred percent honest with you: At first, I wasn’t entirely sure of that decision either. I questioned myself for days, actually, before agreeing to go on that date, before passing that one-year mark, before co-signing that lease. I worried, just as you did, that I was losing my sense of identity.

But ultimately, I signed my name next to his. I scoured the web for used furniture to furnish the new apartment. I made that decision.

What I ended up realizing was that the stage of a relationship is not a determinant of your (or my) state of being. Whether I am in the throes of my first dates with a guy or making dinner with him on our one year anniversary (yes, I know you gag at the very thought of anniversaries), I am still completely capable of establishing my sense of self. I can fear the strangeness of relationship “stages” and I can continue to imprison any nugget of trust I may have to give, but I can just as easily try to be multi-functional: I can decide what I need to do, what I need to be—or rather, what I am.

You are rolling your eyes at me right now, I’m sure, for my cryptic words and seemingly evasive explanation. But hear me out.

All this time, you worried that people would see you approaching and your hand would be superglued to his, that people would look at you and wonder where he was. You feared that you wouldn’t be able to figure out what the hell you wanted to do with your future or what you valued because you’d be too immersed in a relationship that kept pushing forward. You panicked at the thought of becoming grossly dependent on another person, regardless of your age.

Yet today, I am intertwining my fingers with his at my leisure. Today, people will see me and ask how my exams are going (ugh). Today, I am working to sculpt my prospective career, I am defining and redefining the things that matter most to me. Today, I am an independent in a relationship with another independent.

This relationship has not come to define me, I’ve realized. He and I have defined it, and we have helped define each other in small ways. And I know you’re over there raising as many red flags as your hands can carry at the thought of a boy “defining” me, but isn’t that how we grow as people? We define the people we meet, and we let them define us. Because that two-way exchange is a sign. A sign that you are willing to learn, to change, yet  that you will always hold fast to your sense of individuality.

No matter how much you will balk at the thought of growing so close to another guy, I want to let you know that I have thought long and hard about it—that I have remained conscious of how my relationship both has and hasn’t affected me. I want to let you know that there are steps that we will take that will terrify us, that will keep us up late at night wondering if we’ll wind up regretting our decisions. I want to let you know that I have learned, and that I am still learning, how to make those decisions.

And I want to let you know that you needn’t harbor those worries so stubbornly—let go for now, and I’ll do the worrying for the both of us.

Love,

Jenny

Jun Qi, Sorry™, and Life™

Jun Qi, Sorry™, and Life™

 

The sunshine is always stronger in my brother’s room. His bedroom faces the East, mine the West. During the early hours of the day, it seeps through the gauzy brown curtains and reaches even the most reluctant of corners in his room. By the time the sun ambles its way to my side of the house, it’s almost as if it were too exhausted, too weary to extend its warmth to my frigid bedroom.

On days when I am home from college, sometimes I will lie belly-up on the carpet in his room, appreciate the warmth, and survey the changes that have been made since I was last home. The wallpaper no longer bears Winnie the Pooh’s smiling face and instead patterns the walls with modest shades of beige. The bed is no longer littered with stuffed animals and is lined with sand-colored sheets that match both his walls and his curtains. My brother is a creature of habit, much like I am, and he has settled within the arms of his bedroom walls more and more with each passing day. He drinks Chinese green tea by the pint, frequently emerging from his room after long stretches simply to refill his mug, and he pockets granola bars after dinner most nights as if anticipating hunger. Our mom tells him to eat more, makes frequent references to a history of “growing boy” pleas, but he shakes his head and retreats all the same. The first time I occupied the empty space on his floor for no apparent reason, he was half-watching How I Met Your Mother, half-waiting expectantly for me to say something to prove my purpose for being in his room. Now, he just lets me lie there.

“This might be weird—”

“Probably.”

I don’t know when he got so sardonic but part of me knows how. I told him I was probably to blame once and he just shrugged.

“This might be weird,” I repeat, frowning a little, “But I want to apologize.”

“For what?” He sounds as bewildered as he looks.

“When we were younger, I used to cheat whenever we played games.”

“…What?”

“Games,” I elaborate, shaking my hands in the air emphatically. “When we played Sorry™ I used to move four spaces instead of three to land on a more favorable spot. When we played Life™, I used to peek and grab the better Career card. When we played jun qi—a Chinese chess-like strategy-based game—I used to lie about the placement of my pieces.”

“Uh…”

“You were only like four or five years old,” I continue, still a little stressed out by my own confession. “It was really easy to dupe you.” Even as I say it, the guilt oozes from my words, my mouth, my tongue.

Silence.

“So yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry about that.”

“Yeah I had no idea. And it doesn’t really matter.”

My voice feels faint. Distant. “I’m still sorry.”

He returns to his episode of How I Met Your Mother, where Neil Patrick Harris is giving himself a self-five and grinning from ear to ear. I don’t budge from my spot on the floor.

The truth is, I’ve felt the guilt about cheating against my own little brother in all of those games from the first moment I decided to be dishonest about a board game to have the upper hand. Even as I triumphantly beat him at the end of the game, I could feel the guilt chewing at the insides of my cheeks as I hoped silently to myself that he couldn’t detect the glowing redness rising to my face. But he was young, I reasoned at the time, he wouldn’t know. And I was older—it would be embarrassing if I didn’t win. I had five years of experience on him. I couldn’t lose.

I never realized how much I coordinate my decisions based on reputation, on imagery, and—unfortunately—on saving face. Everything I do rests on the backbone of “What will people think?” At school, I frequently fret over how I am being perceived—by my peers, my professors, my friends.

Now, I am no longer ten years old. There are a lot of things I thought I’d have figured out at twice my age at that time, but like any other expectation about The Future, it was sorely skewed. I’ve figured out how to solve integrals, how to cook a decent curry, how to do my own laundry. But I haven’t figured out how to stop making everything about myself.

And even though those board games may have seemed trivial, I was consumed with concerns over how ashamed I’d feel if  anyone would be able to go around saying that my five-year-old brother had bested me. In the end, who would have really cared? Perhaps some people might have teased me a little for it, if anything. But it would have disappeared with the setting sun, and no one would have given it a second thought.

This past August, our family went to Jamaica. There was a giant chess set by the beach, and my brother asked me if I wanted to play. I’m awful at chess, but I agreed with a half-smile. We were head-to-head for the most part, and the game lasted about twenty minutes. I looked on during the last few minutes, when he gridlocked my king  and left me with nowhere to go.

“Damn,” I grin, shielding my eyes from the sun with the back of my hand as I exchange a look with my brother. “Good game.”

Career Choices and Cultural Schemas

Career Choices and Cultural Schemas

I’ve been putting off this blog post for a very long time, mostly because it involves something that I hold very dear to my heart—something that can often be a touchy subject and something that I care about deeply—and I wanted to express everything on my mind while still writing somewhat coherently.

I think the quarter life crisis is a defining moment in a lot of people’s lives, and it applies to nearly everyone—regardless of their race. That being said, I do identify with a lot of the sentiments in this article that I recently read from WordPress’ Freshly Pressed. My dad has a PhD and has always been an academic, and I also internalized the academic mindset (or fervor) that drove many of my choices in high school. I also labeled myself as a “math and science” person because I finished math quizzes quickly (and was embarrassingly smug about it, too) and because I scored well in both subject areas. It took me a while to realize that I was never an any subject person. I wrote abundantly even in elementary school, taking great pride in my short stories and poetry. I wanted desperately to compete in the state-wide GeoBee. I spent hours sitting in the library devouring books. It also took me a while to realize that there was no real reason for or rigidity in that label I gave myself so hastily.

Med school was something I never fully understood, even though I latched myself onto the idea as early as my freshman year of high school. I didn’t really have a good grasp on the university experience, the job market, the dynamics of each field of work that was available (or unavailable, given the economy) out there. It was automatic simply because of that restricting self-label, and simply because it’s what I knew. As a high schooler, I had no idea what a radiologist was. What a molecular biology researcher did. In my mind, science was a natural segway into medical school.

But the more I learned about what being a doctor really meant, the more I began to feel uneasy. I took a health sciences course in high school because I was starting to feel doubts about my previous focus on one day applying to med school, and though I enjoyed the course, I could start to feel myself withdrawing. I kept changing my mind—maybe I’d look into a PharmD or maybe research—but at the end of the day, I was still trying to shove myself as a square peg into the round hole that was scientific vocations.

I found myself starting to study biological sciences in college as well, and I felt more out of place than ever. The weird thing is that I so enjoyed LEARNING about science, yet felt lost and uncomfortable among all the med school hopefuls that surrounded me. The more I heard about people’s excitement for applying to medical school, for one day doing clinicals or conducting experiments, the more I began to doubt my decision to pursue science. It was confusing at its core solely because I couldn’t understand how I could be so interested in science yet so turned off by its career prospects.

I played with the idea of becoming a teacher for the first time during my junior year of high school, and part of me almost wonders if it stemmed from my early days where I would pretend to teach a cooking course using Legos and stuffed animals. Or whether it had anything to do with how much I enjoyed teaching my little brother how to do new things or about all the things I learned in school. I don’t know if teaching was written all across my childhood interests, but it began to settle into my brain and…well, it fit. But at the same time, I also had to entertain the idea that maybe this was just a fleeting thought—something akin to an offhanded comment like “Hey, what if I became an FBI agent?” or “Maybe I should run for president someday”. I had to consider the possibility that this “quarter life crisis” was nothing more than me panicking about my future and that I only wanted to do something—anything—other than med school. But I would think about it more and more, and teaching excited me in a way that all my other career considerations didn’t. I began accepting it as a reality, and I would go on to learn how to embrace it as something that mattered to me.

I was so afraid of my parents’ reactions—not that they weren’t supportive or encouraging, but because I was worried of breaking some imaginary mold that all the other Asian Americans seemed to be fitting. In the community that I grew up in, Asian American families were painfully aware of each other’s children—especially their successes. It made sense, in retrospect, especially because it’s completely natural to want to brag a little about your child’s achievements. But it also meant that we were conditioned, in a way, to feed off of the glorifying spotlight. Look what my kid won. Look at the position my son just got. Look at the college my daughter just got into. I began focusing on achieving things almost because I wanted to have something to give my parents to brag about.

And although that aforementioned community wasn’t just chock full of Asian American children vying to become doctors, the vast majority of those families would always laud career choices that were linked with prestige, job security, and respectability. At the dinner table, my parents would share when one of our family friends got into a top tier business school. When one of them snagged an engineering job straight out of college. They all set this precedent that I was terrified of straying away from.

Because my parents never came home to share with us about a family friend who started up at teacher’s college. Of course, the topic of the way society views teaching as a profession is another conversation entirely, but I fixated on that because it made me nervous about the way I was starting to picture my future. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind for the time being, but as time went on, I found it harder and harder to ignore it. Teaching interested me. Teaching seemed like a challenge that I actually WANTED to take on.

And so once I reached my sophomore year in college, I scooped the idea back up and began to look into it more seriously. What would I have to do to get certified after undergrad? (apply to a teacher prep program) What would the lifestyle be like? (enormously difficult) I began to fall hard for the profession.

When I finally told my parents about it, they… didn’t take me too seriously. Not that they laughed at me or thought I was joking, but I think they might have believed it was a “phase” I was going through—one that I’d leave behind eventually. But it didn’t go away, and last summer I worked at a teaching internship where I got to teach science to middle school students at a summer enrichment program for underrepresented students. It was without a doubt the best experience I’ve ever had.

Of course, this put a lot of questions into my head, the main ones being: How do I redefine the values I associate with my career goals? What did that experience teach me about education? What did it teach me about myself?

This upcoming summer, I’m returning to the program. I have an Excel document listing all the teacher preparatory programs that I’m considering applying to, with their respective deadlines and application requirements.

The best part in all of this is that although I didn’t wind up pursing the career sector that my parents may have originally envisioned for me, my parents haven’t rejected my decisions either. Teaching is a tough field—one with rocky job prospects, long hours, low pay, and enormous challenges—and my parents are always saying how that’s what worries them the most. But ever since I expressed my choice to them, they have communicated more and more openly with me about it. I always have to remind myself that I almost shoved the idea of becoming a teacher aside simply because I was afraid of what my parents and my peers would think. I am so grateful that people have been for the most part supportive (every time one of my friends learns that I want to become a teacher and says “You’d be so good at teaching!” I can’t help but feel my heart expanding), and I constantly remind myself that if I had let that fear get the better of me, I could very well have ended up spending the rest of my life doing something I had no interest in.

I’m nowhere near the end of my career goals (in fact, I’ve barely begun that journey—and sometimes I still daydream about doing something radical like dropping everything to work in a bakery), but I like to think that the “quarter life crisis” I had wasn’t so much of a crisis as it was a self-discovery that helped me reevaluate what was important to me. It would be a job that I would have to go to every day for the rest of my life, and at the end of the day, it couldn’t be a career that I submitted to—it had to be one that I truly believed in.