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Simple Civility

Two weeks ago, I checked a major item off my life bucket list: running the New York City Marathon.

img_0074Words can’t quite capture the experience of running through the streets of New York City with 50,000+ other runners. What I can say is that running through the five boroughs — from the mass exodus in Staten Island across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn (admittedly, my favorite borough), followed by Queens and a stampede of supporters on 1st ave in Manhattan, into the toughest miles in the Bronx, and then concluding with the final stretch along Central Park West — evoked a powerful sense of unity.

Somewhere in the Bronx between miles 21 and 22 when my legs began to give way, I also began to meditate and pass the time by drawing a line of comparison between the race itself and the race of life. (This is what happens when your neurotic brain calms down!)

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Though I am far from seasoned in either race, here are a few racing takeaways that emerged along the path:

  • Pace yourself. You’ll burn out by going full blast too quick, too soon. As an all or nothing type of person, this level of control is something I’m still trying to learn in life.
  • And yet, you’ll inevitably get tired regardless. It’s ok to stop and take a break when you need it. Recognize when to stop because it’s not about crashing and burning; it’s about finishing the long game.
  • Be prepared to lose some shit along the way. I threw out an old hoodie and a jacket as it started to heat up, and allowed my headband to fall to the ground. Some things you’re better off without, for no better reason than to simply lighten the load.
  • Go with the (ebb) and flow. There are various phases along the course: times when you’re riding high and filled with determination, and times when you’re on the major struggle bus near drunken stupor. During miles 3–9 in Brooklyn, I felt like I could run forever, as well as miles 17–19 along 1st avenue in Manhattan. The energy on the streets was infectious; when you see people from all walks of life cheering, you can’t help but feel like the whole city is on your side.
    Reality hits during what I call the ‘desert miles’; these were miles 12–15, while crossing the Pulkalski bridge into Queens, and miles 19–22, while crossing the Willis bridge into the Bronx. The crowd peters out. You’re alone and doing everything in your power to not give up. The going gets really tough.
    We all get by a bit easier with a little help. That said, we don’t always have the luxury of a personal cheering squad which means we ultimately need to rely on our own beating hearts to charge towards the end goal.
  • Get over yourself. Just when you think you’re struggling hard, you’re reminded that everyone else is running the same race while facing a battle of their own. People are overcoming challenges beyond what you could ever imagine. Towards the later stretches of the marathon, I found myself running next to a a group called Achilles International. Not knowing who they were, I was a bit irked when one of the runners ran into me. I think I gave her a look, only to realize that she was blind and guided by a volunteer with Achilles International (awesome organization btw, they pair those with sight with the sight-impaired so that they can participate in marathons and running events). Life is filled with humbling moments like these.
  • Everything is in your head. We are capable of more than we think. Running a marathon is highly mental. During those moments of immense pain and perspiration, the only thing that kept me going was sheer will, not athletic ability. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is easy compared to quelling the brain’s desire to quit. Conquer the mind’s restless chatter and truly, anything is within reach.
  • Have fun. A marathon is not something people generally do for leisure. But willpower is in short supply. As with all things in life, if you opt to train for something, you need to do it not because you “have to” but because you “want to”. Develop a strategy to make it fun. It will make the journey a lot more enjoyable.

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The marathon is one of those milestones that puts everything in perspective. I actually wrote this post two weeks ago without publishing, in between the marathon and our presidential election, but decided to post now because its lessons seem particularly trenchant to our current state of affairs.

Two main takeaways:

  1. What a gift it is to be alive and healthy. Training and completing the marathon makes me more cognizant of the gift of the human body and all the elements that allow me to move, particularly my 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 eyes, and healthy lungs.
  2.  Unity is possible. If people of all backgrounds can show up on the streets of New York and cheer a simple act of human endurance and resilience — running — why are we so divisive in other areas of life?
Which leads to one final thought about the topic on everyone’s mind –

 

Though we may not all be on the same page politically, may we aim for simple civility in the days to come. As we enter a potentially transformative time in our nation, let us remember the freedom we are afforded and use it wisely. Fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. And just like the long and winding path on the marathon, press on towards the victorious finish.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

2016: Presence > Presents

My favorite marketing campaign over the holidays was Sweetgreen’s clever play on presents.

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Accompanying this was a promotion: bring a friend and his/her meal would be on the house. Business-savvy move, since most fast healthy chain consumers are probably dining alone.

Beyond the benefit to Sweetgreen’s bottom line, there’s immense value in the social capital this taps into: an age-old desire to break bread with others.

This got me thinking, now that the ‘season of giving’ is over, what if we continue to give simply by being present?

Easier said than done. Time is a valuable resource, and surely it’s a lot easier to gift someone a $50 gift certificate then to expend 2 hours of time with them. Think of all the other things we could be doing!

In some ways, money has become a subordinate currency to time: a band-aid solution to a lack of time. “Sorry I can’t be PRESENT but here’s a cool thing. See ya later!”

Which is why attention may be the greatest gift we can give, no matter the season.

I’m not trying to be self-righteous. Presents – the materialistic kind – are wonderful things and I love receiving them. It’s when they become our sole focus that perspective gets warped. How many times have you been asked, “What did you get for [Christmas/birthday/Valentine’s Day/insert consumer insert holiday name]?” as if receiving a present is a given.

Even in the land of charitable giving, undue emphasis is sometimes placed on material exchange or donations. When people asked what my short-term mission team did in Mumbai, by default I ticked off the gifts we brought: books, supplies, money, food, a computer, and a motorcycle for a pastor in the slums. Never mind that we also taught Bible Study, financial literacy classes, and held devotionals. But by lauding our funds and gifts, I (unintentionally) perpetuated the notion that short-term missions are non-committal, swooping in and plopping their gifts like Santa Clause. What happens to Santa at the end of the night? He returns to a distant faraway land never to be seen for another year.

Presents can bring tremendous value. But they can also distract, absolving us of a responsibility to be truly involved in the lives of others.

If the value of a mission trip lies not in its material gifts, where then does it come from? Here’s what I believe: the benefit of giving a week of your time to fly across the world and partner with vulnerable populations in less explicit and more implicit. It sends a message. A message that the poor, sick, and needy are not forgotten. A message that they are loved. Most of all, a message that they are worth. our. time.

Time is the real value. It’s not the books, the computer, or even the motorcycle we gifted to a pastor to ease his travel to and from the various slum communities (though it’s pretty badass).

Time spent listening, empathizing, and seeing beyond what a rigid caste system deems as untouchable (and therefore, unworthy) is both a palpable and impalpable gift. You can’t package it into a pretty box, but you feel its impact. This doesn’t just exist in the third word. Think about what our aging parents would prefer: a perfectly-wrapped present, or our full and devoted presence (sans buzzing phones – scarce commodity!).

As we return to our post-holiday routine, there will continue to be multiple distractions, obligations, and stressors  fighting for our attention. The best we can do is intentionally focus our attention on the things that matter: our friends, spouses, parents, children, or whatever it is we value most.

In a world where attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, it’s as simple – and difficult – as that.

Mumbai Dispatch

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Photo Credit: Brianna Johnson

 

In late November, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a week-long mission trip to Mumbai.

The trip was part of Redeemer Presbyterian’s short-term missions program, which coordinates dozens of trips each year to assist and serve international nonprofits and NGOs in various capacities.  Thanks to the generous support of family and friends who contributed financially and prayerfully to the cause, I was able to embark on this eye-opening journey into the heart of India.

Words can never adequately describe the full experience, but I attempted to share some highlights and takeaways. The following is adapted from an email I sent to supporters shortly after the trip:


 

IMG_9956With open hearts and minds, the Mumbai mission team traveled into the heart of India for Redeemer’s 4th mission trip centering on human and sex trafficking issues.

Our team of 13 doubled down on efforts to bring light to the victims of sex trafficking through spiritual, educational, and artistic activities. This was made possible thanks to a blossoming partnership with 2 partner organizations on the ground: International Justice Mission, and another organization (whose name must remain hidden for security purposes).

Our team split time between two locations: 3 days in Mumbai, and 4 days at a school/shelter in Badlapur (a small town about an hour outside of Mumbai).

Below is a day-by-day summary of how our time and dollars were spent.


 

Day 1: Context

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We started our trip in the Red Light District of Kamathipura, Mumbai, arguably the world’s largest hub for sex trafficking (it is reported that 40% of the world’s human slaves live in India).

It’s an ironic truth that within the sprawling confines of Mumbai, there’s a booming industry – one that runs counter to the city’s moniker, “City of Dreams” – where thousands of women are stripped of their dreams through violence.

After worshipping at the Red Light District Church alongside women (some of whom still work in the brothels), we drove through the Red Light District’s noisy and winding roads. Though we were shielded from view in a car, the scene was a harrowing glimpse of the reality that some 300,000 women experience daily in Mumbai.

Women stood wistfully on the streets, platform-heeled & sari-bedazzled, while men casually eyed ‘goods for consumption’; it was an image reminiscent of a meat market. Grotesque as it was, what we saw doesn’t come close to capturing the full situation. All-told, the Red Light District houses more than 1000 brothels, with most hidden from sight within the District’s dark alleys.


 

Days 2 – 5: Badlapur 

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We traveled to the ATC Village*, a recently-built educational facility an hour outside of Mumbai, where approximately 40 rescued children of women in prostitution receive a free, high-quality education.

Here we spent the next 4 days leading Bible Study, financial literacy classes, arts and crafts activities, and homework help. Most of the girls’ mothers are still enslaved or undergoing HIV/AIDS treatment. Despite their lack of parental figures, they were eager to learn: many speak fluent English and have dreams to attend university, have a career, and become financially independent.

At one of the shelters we visited, rescued women underwent job training and learned to make beautiful handmade quilts, jewelry, and handbags, with the ultimate goal of creating their own businesses.

To top it off, our Events team “made it rain” with sprinkles and glitter at each of the three facilities (including a shelter home for rescued women and their children as well as a dedicated home for HIV positive children). Dressed to the tee in fedoras, glowsticks, and fancy shades, the girls (and boys!) had a blast posing at our instant Polaroid Photo Booth.


 

Days 6 and 7: Mumbai Slums  

DSC00083If the first part of our trip was “service”, then our last two days were serious “education”.

On the final leg, we returned to Mumbai and served food to the homeless at a food mobile truck. We also met with International Justice Mission (IJM) to learn more about their unique 4-prong strategy to protect the poor from violence.

Not only does IJM conduct raids to rescue victims from sex trafficking, they actively work to change the system through prosecution of the perpetrators, legal advocacy, and policy-making. As of December 2015, they’ve trained 10,000 Indian police officers to more effectively enforce the law and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice!

Equally important is their rehabilitation work that restores current victims to their community through educational and health services. We were blessed with the opportunity to meet with a leader of one of these Mumbai outreach ministries, Pastor Guy. Guy is an inspiring and energetic soul with a heart for the poor.

He took us to a slum community where he ministers; there we met with a family who graciously welcomed us into their home and we then prayed over each other.

Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to purchase a plentiful stock of groceries for the family, as well as a new motorcycle for Pastor Guy! We hope that these gifts can nourish the family’s health and facilitate ease and convenience for Pastor Guy’s work in the slums.


 

Thank You

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

More than anything, this trip reinforced a nascent view of mine about simple grace and generosity. There were several moving moments, but one in particular stands out.

At an evening devotional with the girls, after prayer and worship, the group of 40 girls prayed over each of us. The fervor and depth of their murmurs were more heartfelt than anything I could ever muster! It hit me then: this belief that we came to “bless” was a misnomer, for along the way, I received more than I gave.

“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”

– 2 Corinthians 8

More importantly, I left Mumbai with hope that organizations like the ones we worked with are providing victims with opportunity to start new lives in a protected environment of love.

IJM provides a great overview of the human trafficking issue at large, if you’d like to learn more. While more healing is needed to restore the spirits of those affected by the scourge of human slavery, I am personally blessed by the “votes of confidence”: friends who listened to my doubts trusted counselors who nudged me to take this trip, as well as all who generously donated to the cause. Words never suffice, but thank you.


 

*Christian organizations like the ones we worked with, have recently been the target of hardline grassroots organizations who oppose spiritual freedom in India. A partner organization’s name and its facilities are hidden in this post to protect its identity.

I’m running the NYC Half Marathon

…in less than 2 weeks!

I’ll be carrying some winter pudge; nonetheless, I’m excited and honored to be running on behalf a charity team close to my heart, Apex for Youth (Apex).

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Apex is a mentoring organization for underserved Asian American youth that I’ve been involved with for 3 years as a middle school mentor. My mentee Melanie (pictured at right) and I have been together since she was in 6th grade, and it’s been a lot of fun to learn and grow with each other.

I am less than $500 from my fundraising goal, and accepting last-minute donations here.

Your donation will help me cross the finish line but more importantly, will help sustain the many youth enrichment programs that Apex runs. Anything you can spare is truly appreciated, even a simple word of encouragement!

Donate here and learn more about this wonderful organization.

Otherwise, if you’re in NYC the morning of March 15, please meet me at the finish line on Water Street and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. There is no formal reunion area, so if you do come let me know. We’ll meet and snap a sweaty selfie or something.

To movement!
– L

The Most Influential Things I Read In 2014

This year, instead of sharing some of the personal milestones experienced in 2014, I’ve decided to compile a few of my favorite reads.

We are what we read, and these 12 thought-provoking and compelling essays helped shape my perspective as the events of the year unfolded, shedding new light when I veered astray.

As we turn the page to a new year, I hope a few of these digital treats provide literary inspiration— as it did for me — to make the most of this one beautiful life we have.

kalos kai agathos

Alas, Life

In 2014, I enjoyed the exhilarating, at times torturous, freedom of singlehood.

While it’s been fun, this NYT Modern Love essay echoed a nagging worry that perhaps many other single women experience: are we becoming selfish cat women?

“I worried that my single years were shaping me, hardening me into a woman too finicky and insular for a lifetime partnership.”

Reading this piece reinforced the notion that while being single can be hard, sometimes all you can do is simply learn to do your best and leave it at that. And there’s value in that.

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Along similar lines, Joan Didion’s classic 1961 essay on self-respect was a go-to as I continued shedding a number of pleasant certainties, an act I now associate with the growing pains of adulthood. To quote the lady herself,

“I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, and that passive virtues would guarantee me happiness, honour, and the love of a good man.”

But to be freed from the expectations of others, to give back to ourselvesthere lies the great singular power of self-respect. Thank you, Joan Didion.

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Having a shitty day (literally)? Roll with the punches. Take a line from improv. Life is funny, and the only way to keep a scene going is to say “Yes, and…

Questioning Habits and Beliefs

Why go out? Especially when it’s cold and PJs are so much comfier. As an introvert, it’s always kind of a personal victory when I decide to go out for a night on the town since 9 times out of 10, I come home more depleted than energized. In this hilarious and super real essay, writer Shelia Heti posits that we should go out precisely because we fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to bepeople.

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On that note when we do socialize, why do we drink? To feel liberated for a fast second, only to be entirely useless the next day? What does it do for us?

I justify why I drink because I’m stressed and need a drink to calm down. But it turns out that there are legitimate spiritual reasons for drinking in our quest for ritual and self. Read this and drink in peace.

The expanse between 10 pm when we first left our cramped apartments in search of an ecstatic experience until 4 am when the bars closed was what the ancient Celts called a “thin place” and a “thin time”places and times where the veil between heaven and earth, between the temporal and eternal, wear thin.

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Stereotypes. We all have them, so how are they formed and how can we correct them?

“Jews are so crafty and short; of course they’d succeed at basketball! Asians are so intelligent and short; why would they be playing basketball?”

This smart, thoughtful NPR piece uses the Jew-Asian basketball analogy as an example of why we need to ask questions that expose where our stereotypes have disguised themselves as explanations, calling us to search for the real explanations, in all their complexity.

Technology and our Networked Society

2014 marked immense progress in technology, including the reveal of a new Apple Watch and a record $22 billion buyout of mobile messenger app WhatsApp. But is it technology we’re obsessed with or the consumer-ification of tech?

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Some of the most interesting stuff I read showcased a growing gap between what we think of traditional tech and its evolution into tech as a “service”. (Think Uber-type services.)

Paralleling the arc of manufacturing to services, this shift has created a deep rift between old and new companies, hardware vs. software, enterprise vs. consumer-focused businesses. At its core, it raises the question of whether this brave new world is really making our lives all that much better… or if we’re simply creating more apps that cater to our instant gratification impulses.

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem is a fascinating NYT magazine article penned by a member of the new tech elite that nicely summarizes this old vs. new rift.

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A major trend to watch in 2015 is algorithmic accountability. It’s not just an Internet issue, it’s a human rights issue. Read how it may have affected when, where, and how you heard about the Ferguson protests in the aptly-named, What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson by sociologist Zeynep Tufecki.

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A larger global transformation is taking place, thanks in part to the growth of the Internet economy. At the center, is a frayed tug-of-war between old power and new power.

Understanding New Power lays out the framework of this emerging new order. An important read for anyone wanting to participate.

On old age and death

It’s morbid, I know. But in reading about death and what those on the brink of it value, I am reminded that we have this one precious life which can be ripped from us at any moment. So, why not spend it on things that make it meaningful?

Take it from this old man, he’s learned a thing or two.

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These last two selections brought tears to my eyes.

What the Dying Really Regret, written by a hospice chaplain who spends time with patients in their final months, puts body shaming…to shame.

“There are many regrets and unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with mein the months before they die. But the stories about the time they waste hating their bodies, abusing it or letting it be abusedthe years people spend not appreciating their body until they are close to leaving itare some of the saddest.

What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.

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Finally, this Father’s Day account from a journalist whose father’s health is faltering, struck me, for one because the author’s background (a second-generation Asian American growing up with traditional scholarly parents) paralleled mine. His advice deserves extra attention:

Make peace with your family, whatever that looks like, if it’s at all possible. Make amends, forgive others and forgive yourself. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Reach out now. Our time is limited. And even though I know this in my bones, I have to remind myself. All of this will pass.

But here we are.

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Onwards

I wonder why I take the time to put pen to paper and share these things. I’m well aware that artfully-worded essays won’t change our circumstances nor make life easier, but time and again, I say the same thing.

A well-told narrative, framed from a lucid and sincere perspective, can lead to wisdom and a higher order of understanding. Or at the very least, a reminder that we’re not alone.

Ahoy, 2015!

3 Years in NYC: A Tribute

3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices.  The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.

masala walaWhen I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:

I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.

Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.

In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.

In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.

It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.IMG_5683

I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.

And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”.  Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.

I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.

I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.

Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.

So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.

I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.

I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.