The Case for Ambiguity

These days it seems imperative to have an opinion — one that is clear, informed, and impassioned. Silence can be deafening, especially when you have platform and privilege. Pick your side wisely.

With more free time than usual this summer, I’ve posted regularly on social media about the current state of affairs, sharing resources and unsolicited opinions.

I write declaratively, post black squares in solidarity, and happily engage in discussion to defend whatever stance I’ve taken.  

Recently, I’ve begun to question my motives and wonder if anything I’m saying is actually helpful. Friends have remarked on my conviction in advocating for Black Lives Matter, police abolition, and voting rights. These comments make me a bit squeamish, not because I disagree with their observations, but because I know I haven’t done much more than talk. I try not to be dogmatic or forceful in my opinions; in person, I actually speak quite tentatively with many disclaimers. Online, though, everything comes across more definitively. I do support Black Lives Matter and significant reforms within our criminal justice system, but I’m far from knowing enough to rest my case on it.

This gradual blurring between perception (an algorithmic consistency that becomes affiliated with one’s identity) and reality (a more inconsistent, messier version of its virtual counterpart) is concerning but expected. Our lives in the public sphere, increasingly mediated by technology, train us to subconsciously project a more ideal version of ourselves. Being inherently more indecisive and meandering, I’ve curated my ideal self as a neater, more solid identity, one that is quick to have a “take” on things.

Given that the Internet tends to select for people with an opinion that magnifies opposition, this naturally creates an environment where we are quick to make assumptions about others based on cherry-picked statements. You’re either anti-racist or racist. You take COVID seriously or you don’t. You’re voting for Donald Trump or you’re not. Life presented in these binary terms is deceivingly simple, gratifying, and… misleading.


To be clear, none of this really matters. What I or what 99% of people post about does not actually change anything. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time I’ve spent crafting foolproof statements to demonstrate that I am on the “right” side of history. Who am I really convincing here? Empowering at best, performative at worst, the process of expressing anguish while people in power continue to make decisions in real life that we have little control over is more of a therapeutic, personal mind-clearing exercise than anything truly movement-building —  much like this post. At the end of a riveting speech, most people have not changed their minds and we’re still in the same predicament.

(Side note: this is not a piece about voting but one could argue that the real key to change is to vote the right people into power who make good decisions on our behalf! Are you registered?)

Not all this talk is for ill. I marvel at the range of topics we’re exposed to because of social commentary and engaged media consumption. Race relations. Anti-racism. Police budgets. The full history of slavery and emancipation. Healthcare disparity. Awareness can breed responsibility and these are important topics that deserve our full attention. But it’s precisely because these topics deserve more, and we have a limited ability to provide that attention, that so much is left to be desired.


Currently I’m reading Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing”, a book about resisting the attention economy. It’s got me thinking about our obsession with efficiency, productivity, and connectivity. The ways in which we’re assaulted with information, news, texts, Slack messages, food deliveries etc. and the speed with which we get it all is a bit like drinking from a fire hose, pummeled by an enormous wave of information with no way to swallow / integrate it into our tiny frames of existence. We’re simply not equipped to calibrate such magnification. And yet we mistake this magnification for engagement.

“We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations – and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.”

– Jenny Odell 

Indeed, it’s harder to solve the world’s complex problems when our attention span is directly correlated with the speed at which we’re accustomed to receiving information. In fact, it seems that the conditions for change in the real world are antithetical to Internet culture — slow, unpredictable, very physical —  requiring mundane, less disruptive mechanisms for change like compromise, difficult conversations, and routine maintenance.

So if the Internet is not the answer, what is? My instinct says it’s investment in people, long-term movement building, and institutional change, the mechanics of which mostly lie beyond me. In this groundless moment, I’ve taken great solace in Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” which is a beautiful primer on Buddhist philosophy and resisting the need to grasp for certainty. Since we’re mostly accustomed to finding the answers to everything in a matter of minutes, this concept can be anxiety-inducing. But even science doesn’t know the answer definitively to most things today. So I’ll start by being okay with not knowing.

“If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t make things completely right or wrong anymore because things are a lot more slippery and playful than that. Everything is always ambiguous, everything is always shifting and changing, and there are as many different takes on any given situation as there are people involved.

Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel secure and comfortable… Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong?”

– Pema Chodron

For me, writing has always been a process of discovering, or convincing myself, what I think. (It’s also an extremely regenerative and therapeutic process that burns through the fog in my mind.) Because of this, what is posted here often displays a greater sense of certainty than what I actually feel. I don’t want to grow too attached to this addictive thrill of finding resolution through pruned essays and words. One of the greatest distortions of the Internet, like writing, is that our beliefs over time are flattened into something overly consistent for the purpose of fulfilling an argument or identity, which then strips us of the context we get when we’re alive and interacting with a more dynamic, ever-changing physical world.

This doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the Internet and its orb-flattening effect. Having a public platform to figure things out in real-time with others is actually a beautiful thing. But if there’s anything I’ve learned during this summer of quarantine, behind the looking glass, is to resist the need to put a dot on everything. The work is to create an environment out in the world and within ourselves that accepts and embraces the uncertainty of not knowing. Perhaps then we’ll have a space that is safe enough to engage in real dialogue — not just projection and ego-flexing — with greater compassion, discernment, and nuance.

“We’ve got nothing except our small attempts to retain our humanity, to act on a model of actual selfhood, one that embraces culpability, inconsistency, and insignificance.”

– Jia Tolentino

I miss being a person in the outside world, a place no less chaotic than the Internet, but at least not experienced through a screen. Being in quarantine for the last 5 months with minimal in-person interaction has certainly left me a bit deluded by the ‘looking glass’, slightly confused about the nature of reality and one’s self-importance behind an avatar. But who can blame us? Times are difficult, our neurons are frayed, and we’re buried alive in digital noise. 


I’d be remiss to conclude without recommending three phenomenal books that have shaped my thinking for this piece:

How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell 
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, by Jia Tolentino
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron

April Dispatch

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oh hi, it’s me. just sending a virtually distanced greeting your way.

In times like these, my mind wants to have answers – a “take” on things – to provide some sense of certainty. Truth is, things are far from certain now and I don’t really know what to say. I found this tongue-in-cheek compilation of commonly used first line phrases from emails during this quarantine:

“In these uncertain times
As we navigate the new normal
Are you willing to share your ideas and solutions?
As you know, many people are struggling.
We hope this note finds you and your family safe. 
We’ve never seen anything like this before.
Here are 25 Distance Learning Tips!
As you know, many people are struggling.”
(source: Twitter)

 

Amid the massive uncertainty of when things will return to “normal”- if they even will – one glimmer of hope that I’ve found reassuring is our interconnectedness

The ramifications of being so closely intertwined are not all positive; in fact, they’re potentially deadly. We know that an unshielded sneeze has the power to infect someone six feet away. At a macro level, disrupted supply chains and global networks demonstrate how vulnerabilities in one part of the ecosystem can quickly spread, like cancer, to the whole. The big and small decisions we make have a ripple effect around the world.

But just as every tangled web of affairs creates collision, chaos, and confusion, so it also sews camaraderie. It’s been heartening to see all the creative ways people are organizing to help each other. Even if we do nothing more than stay at home, there is perhaps some sense of relief that we have more time to spend in the presence of loved ones, catch up on unfinished tasks – or simply, breathe.

On my end, I feel blessed to be back at home, safe and healthy, with my parents. After the campaign, I spent a few weeks in LA with the intention of looking for jobs out West. During this time, I learned that I was admitted to Princeton’s Masters in Public Affairs and Policy program – which I’m elated to start at in the Fall. Around the same time, COVID shelter-in-place orders began going into effect around the country. Amid the warning that interstates and state borders could potentially shut down, I drove cross-country to hunker down with my parents in Tennessee.

It’s now been a little over a month of quarantine life in the ‘burbs, which is blissfully (and sometimes aggravatingly) simple. Weekly outings to the grocery store are a highlight – masks, gloves, and all. I’m back to reading fiction and am even part of a virtual book club (a first for me!). I also finally submitted to a long-awaited Netflix binge. Thank the quarantine for reintroducing me to culture…

Of course, the greatest silver lining is having more time to reconnect with family and friends in novel ways. We hosted a virtual bachelorette for a dear friend whose bachelorette and wedding had to be postponed. My 5-year-old niece is currently with us in Tennessee, bringing three generations under one roof and injecting new energy around the house. We regularly Facetime my nephews in San Francisco, with my Mom teaching Chinese lessons and me leading a semi-serious yoga stretch routine. Call it summer camp in the age of corona. (I now empathize with WFH parents who are scrambling to keep their kids engaged – it’s not easy!)

I know that life on the other side of this won’t be so simple. With grad school on the horizon, I am in the privileged position of not needing to find a job in the immediate future. But I am still very apprehensive about what the future holds – both in the near term for me within higher education, and in the long run, for all of us, in an economy that is bound to experience drastic transformation. I have to stop myself from maniacally checking the news. Last week I removed social media from my phone for my own sanity. Whenever I start to feel a tinge of restless anxiety, I am reminded that I’ve got it easy compared to our frontline medical heroes who are literally towing the line between life and death.

As physical distancing continues for the foreseeable future, how we stay connected will become fundamental. Connection is a vital social lifeline, a light in the middle of this long tunnel. We may be ravaged by a microscopic virus, but the inimitable human spirit will beat this. I hope you have someone nearby to talk to, laugh with, and get through this with. I can’t wait until we gather again.

Why Organizing is an Exercise in Real Ground-Changing Hope

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When I first decided to join Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign as an organizer, a friend asked me why. Why Pete, why now, and why as an organizer.

I’ll circle back to Why Pete but I’ve been reflecting on the other two pieces during this strange moment of hysteria. When each incremental piece of news seems to ratchet up our collective anxiety, how do we stay sane and useful? At times, it’s been tempting to throw up my hands in immediate resignation. Yet off the heels of a campaign that ran to the tune of high hopes (literally!), I know I can do better.


A Reflection

5 months ago, my reasons for joining a campaign were pretty straightforward. 2020 is an important election year, I wanted to play my part in electing a new President. And for all my love of city life, I was ready for a taste of life outside the NYC bubble. Nevada, where I was offered an organizing role, was about as far west as I could go before hitting another coastal bubble 😉

Photo Feb 22, 9 11 47 AMAs for organizing, it seemed to be the most realistic entry point into a campaign for someone with no prior political experience. It was also the most immersive. I was told that I’d be talking to people – lots of people – about issues they cared about. This is what I wanted.

Be prepared to operate in 110% extrovert mode”, a mentor and campaign veteran told me.

Never mind that I’m an introvert and that the thought of knocking on strangers’ doors gave me real anxiety.

Signing up for something out of my comfort zone seemed to be the perfect antidote to my own mental malaise and selfishly, a way out of my unproductive self talk when thinking about the state of our country.


Pete’s historic candidacy is now well-known lore: a small town mayor with a hard name to pronounce surged to the top of the field as a leading presidential candidate. He did this by centering his campaign in lasting values – “Rules of the Road” – and never shying away from his identity as an openly gay Harvard intellectual and veteran from the Midwest. Internally, our campaign culture also reflected these values.

When you feel safe, motivated, and know that you’re called to bring all of yourself, you’re in an environment to thrive. That’s what it felt like to be on the Buttigieg campaign.

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Since the campaign ended what seems like forever ago, I’ve been admittedly less optimistic. It’s been difficult to process the influx of emotions that come with being on a campaign so vested in a particular candidate / lifestyle, only to return to “normal life”and realize that “normal life” is turning increasingly “abnormal” with each passing day.

I’ve tried to compile some key lessons and takeaways from the campaign as a means of organizing my thoughts and moving into some new norm meaningfully.  It’s not the most concise or organized, partially because there’s no neat ending to all of this. But if there’s anything I learned so far, it’s to be ok with the discomfort of the messy unknown.

So, what did I do on the campaign?

I was part of the field organizing team in Southwest Las Vegas. Our job primarily was to turn people out to support Pete Buttigieg at the Nevada Caucus and recruit volunteers to amplify our efforts. Nevada is a caucus state, so we were also responsible for training precinct captains. These captains were designated leaders in their precincts, trained in caucus rules and persuasion techniques to convince undecided voters (or those in unviable groups) to join Pete’s group on caucus day. This would then maximize our delegate count. Our win in Iowa is largely attributed to the fact that organizers had successfully secured and trained captains in nearly every precinct.

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Just a small taste of the energy that Team Pete precinct captains brought across the state of Nevada

What did I learn?

Among many things: the hard ask, caucus math, how to cold call, cut turf, seamlessly slide into gated communities (shhh). Perhaps the biggest lesson was recognizing that what happens on the ground is far more important than anything else. Pundits and distant observers of a campaign may use polls and televised appearances to gauge a campaign’s success but only the people who are *in it* know exactly where there is traction and where there isn’t.

This, to me, is the biggest advantage of an organizer: you see the small wins (and gaps) firsthand. You know who is showing up to organizational meetings, and who is noticeably missing. You notice the quality of attention at the doors, how many people know what’s going on, and how many people do not. These micro-observations are not measured or covered by the media, but they are real indicators of how effectively a campaign is reaching everyday people.

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I’ve had my fair share of professional experiences, but the level of unpredictability in campaigns is pretty unparalleled (and would be anathema for most). Uprooting yourself to a different part of the country and knocking on strangers’ doors requires a degree of courage that some would call nonsensical in an overly optimized world. But let’s acknowledge its boldness. Organizing is not for the faint of heart. Learning to find a way forward amid discomfort & disagreement is one of the most valuable skills anyone can learn – and organizing is the best training ground for it.

What was the hardest part?

The hard ask. I remember being petrified the first time I had to cold call and ask people to sign up for a canvassing shift.

One helpful suggestion my regional director Nick offered is to to think of my ask as a gift, and to never assume a no before you ask. A simple but revolutionary reframe! I went from thinking I was asking people for a favor, to giving them an opportunity to get involved in something meaningful. Once I started thinking of the ask as an act of giving (instead of taking), it became much easier.

Though I’m still not great at it, I know that many people gave what they could (especially busy working parents and older people with limited physical mobility), and I’m proud / grateful for their efforts.

What was most surprising?

Empathy shows up when you least expect it. Some of my most fruitful conversations were with people who weren’t the most eager to engage at the outset.

Take Tracy, a former Republican who survived two bouts of cancer. When I first called her, she quickly hung up. Most people on our call lists were registered Democrats, but registered Republicans like Tracy would occasionally slip in. I continued to call her every few days.

One day she called back (with the intention of telling me to stop calling) and I asked for her genuine thoughts about the election. I figured she’d hang up on me again; instead, she confessed that she wasn’t a fan of Trump and wanted him out of office. She’d seen Pete on TV and liked his calm, even-keeled approach but wasn’t sure if she was ready to do anything more. I invited her to a caucus training to learn more about the process. No pressure to do anything, “just come and learn” I said.

Tracy came and brought her sister Teri (a Biden supporter). They were both a bit confused by all the caucus technicalities, but grew to love Pete, his vision, and moral courage. Shortly after, Tracy asked how she could help. She couldn’t knock doors because she had a hip replacement. So she tried phone banking. When that wasn’t quite her cup of tea, she and Teri helped put together caucus training packets.

Though Tracy didn’t talk to as many people as some of our other volunteers, each time she came, she gave what she could. I enjoyed talking to her because she wasn’t an obvious Democrat supporter, and it wasn’t easy for her to carve out time like this.

She told me that her friends would say that it was impossible for Pete to win.

Her response: Of course it’s impossible if you don’t try.

I will remember Tracy for her willingness to choose agency over resignation  — despite it not being the most obvious or easiest choice. Tracy ended up becoming a precinct captain and winning delegates for Pete. Her story mirrors that of many others on our campaign who came, not because we rammed an opinion down their throat, but because we gave them space to reflect on their lives and listened.

What’s next?

As much as I’d like to hole into self-isolation (and we all should physically do so), now is not the time to look away as a community. There are some really big things happening in the world with monumental consequences. In times of uncertainty, it is more important than ever to support one another and to stay informed.

“We are struggling for the survival of humanity, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. That’s the struggle against autocracy. That’s the struggle against the climate crisis. That’s the struggle, now, against a fast-moving pandemic.” – Sarah Kendzior, Gaslit Nation 

And this is the only the beginning. At at time of so much disruption, we need leaders who can organize: people who can communicate, reach people with critical information, give time and space for conversations, and keep hope alive. I’m reminded of the wise Krista Tippett’s words:

Culturally, we are the generation of our species that is redefining elemental human fundaments like community and marriage and gender. We are, that is to say, retreating famously into either-or, tribal feeling or productive organizing. – On Hope


One final story: on Super Bowl Sunday, I was knocking doors in SW Vegas and feeling somewhat dejected. Most people weren’t answering and those who did, gave me little time. About to call it a night, I knocked on the door of a woman who graciously stepped out during the game and thanked me for what I was doing. We talked for a bit about the election. She told me she was committed to supporting Elizabeth Warren but would support whoever the Democratic nominee is.

Towards the end of our conversation, she asked if she could pray with me. A bit taken aback but thirsty for some spiritual counsel, I agreed. Together we prayed for the welfare of the world, our nation, collective spirits, and everyone campaigning on ‘the front lines’ – for our energy levels to be sustained, our efforts not to be in vain, and grace no matter the outcome.

Then she bid me goodbye with scripture:

“Never grow weary of doing good.” – Galatians 6:9

I didn’t know how much I needed to hear those words then, now, and well… every day.

Joining a campaign was an act of hope. Choosing to reach out in the face of continual disruption will always be an act of hope. At a time when our system seems to be spinning out of control, it’s easy to forget that in every moment we have a choice. We can either submit to our most primal impulses or pause, draw a long collective breath, and…organize.

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Here’s a photo of some great community organizers. But whether or not you’ve ever been involved with campaign, we can all step up in this time of need.


Some immediate ways we can all help, specific to the coronavirus:

My Favorite Little Piece of Italy in NYC

Third SpaceI can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.

Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.

As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.

I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.

And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.

Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,

“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”

The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case  –  but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.

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Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.

I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor.  Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.

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!)

——-

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.

sweetgreen presence

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.

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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.

———

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.

———

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.

———

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!