I called my dad this week, to check in. I told him that I feel like I’m floating, a haze all around me, as I grapple with big questions. What does it mean to be happy or successful? What target am I aiming for? Why do I feel like something is missing?
“My late twenties have felt especially existential,” I said.
He sighed, and I thought he would laugh at the melodrama. I expected him to dismiss me, to remind me of how young I am like so many others have, or to tell me to count my blessings. Instead, he said, “Ah yes. I can see why you’d be asking yourself those things.”
That simple acknowledgement filled me with relief.
Often when I confide in people about feeling anxious, blue, or lost, their instinct is to eradicate these emotions: they try to help me look on the bright side, or they bring logic into the picture, to show me how much these feelings don’t match up to reality. These responses come with the best of intentions—and yet, they fill me with shame. How could I be so selfish as to feel sad when I have so much to be thankful for? What do I have to complain about, when my life is so beautiful? I must seem crazy to people, to be making such a big deal out of nothing. I find myself in a defensive position, with a need to justify my emotions.
There’s such an insistence on positivity in our culture. We want people to think we have “good vibes”—that we’re easygoing, no drama, chill, always down.
Sometimes, I just want to hear, “It’s ok to not feel ok.” These emotions aren’t something you need to earn the right to have. Even more so, I want to hear, “Tell me more”; I want an invitation to explore these moods without fear of judgment.
However, I don’t really expect other people to respond the way I want them to. We all have our own way of navigating vulnerability within ourselves and with others. We’re all just making it up as we go! That considered, I’m taking these desires as cues for how I should speak to myself—with patience, understanding, and curiosity.
I resisted getting a tattoo for a long time, because I felt the pressure to design something profound with long-lasting, regret-proof significance. But now, just a couple weeks after getting inked, I’ve grown to recognize that “meaning” is multifaceted, dynamic, and ever-changing.
To me, the design I chose (two koi, yin and yang) embodies the duality that exists in nearly all things, including myself. They also symbolize the potential for balance within all conflict. I find calm in this concept: when I feel anxious, I look at this image, and it tells me to breathe and surrender to the flow of life.
Truth be told, I landed on this design just a day before the needle breached my skin.
I was in Maui. While my boyfriend had intended on getting a tattoo on our Hawai’i vacation, penciling it into our itinerary weeks in advance, I didn’t think I’d get one, too. I assumed that when the time came, I’d chicken out. I’m not the type of person to get my first tattoo on vacation from an artist I know virtually nothing about—or at least that’s what I told myself.
Before this trip, I often defined myself by who I wasn’t and what I couldn’t do. I’m not adventurous, I told myself. I’m not a risk-taker. I’m not spontaneous. But after two weeks of exploring waterfalls and volcanos, swimming with manta rays, and catching sunrises and sunsets—pushing myself out of my comfort zone on several occasions—I realized that these ideas I had about myself weren’t hard truths. I didn’t have to keep living by them if they no longer served me. So by the time we walked into the tattoo parlor to see if they had openings for the final day of our trip, I thought not in terms of what I could or couldn’t do, but what I wanted to do.
This tattoo is proof that I’m capable of so much more than I give myself credit for. It’s also a reminder that no matter how much (or how little) I plan, life will find ways to surprise me; and no matter how well I think I know myself, there’s always more to uncover.
In short, this tattoo contains multitudes. Each day, it offers something new to me, and I can’t predict what it will mean to me in the years to come. Surprisingly, I’m okay with that.
I suppose permanent ink has helped me come to terms with impermanence.
As the saying goes: the only constant in life is change. And sometimes, change is a blessing.
I live in a near constant state of restlessness. Always occupied with something, anything, but unable to focus on any one activity for too long. Only a few idle seconds pass by before I’m on my phone, tumbling down a social media rabbit hole. Some nights, I find myself scrolling until the wee hours, soaking my face in blue light until I pass out from screen exhaustion, because lying there in the still, quiet darkness is too unnerving. I used to look forward to that sweet spot between lights out and slumber, time that I once used for ideating, daydreaming. These days, I feel overpowered by my own mind, as it relives past trauma or rehearses future devastation, refusing to anchor in the present moment.
The other week, I drew for the first time in months. I felt called to it that day, almost like a craving: an instinct deep in my gut told me that an art session would make me feel better. “Better” as in calm, relaxed, and present. I could best describe my mood for the preceding days as distracted. I didn’t feel engaged at my day job; and in the morning and night hours, instead of diving into creative projects, I doom-scrolled, binged vlogs on YouTube, and shopped online.
Drawing a portrait keeps me off my phone and out of my head for several hours. When I draw, I don’t even feel the urge to jump on Instagram, and all the worries from the day slip away. I’m too fixated on the curves of my lines, the angle of my pencil, the hues I must mix to achieve that very specific shade of skin from my reference photo. In other words, I am too immersed in each moment, too enthralled by the physical thing in front of me, to be bothered by my virtual or imaginary worlds.
In fact, this may be why I enjoy drawing straightforward portraits based on photos, as opposed to metaphorical pieces packed with meaning: it does not require much imagination. Rather, it compels me to truly acknowledge, examine, and process what is actually in front of me. Some people intend to make art that sends a message, that aims to change the world, or at least someone’s worldview. I don’t believe that my drawings say much, aside from celebrating the beauty and humanity of the people I portray. My art isn’t really about the art as much as it is about the exercise of creating it. Art-making gives me the opportunity to reclaim my attention and use it with intention.
I haven’t yet adopted a meditation practice in traditional terms – you know, sitting still, inhaling and exhaling, just being. But drawing feels meditative to me, for the way that it pulls me into presence. This is why I don’t typically do commissions: drawing for others would drive me to worry about the end result (Is this good enough? Will they like it?) and distract me from the joy of the process.
There seems to be an expectation to commodify our talents, to transform hobbies into side hustles. But I’ve found a sacredness in art for pleasure, art for art’s sake. I suppose my art gives more to me than it does to anyone else. Inner peace, pleasure, beauty, aliveness, creativity, satisfaction – all mine, all priceless.
I have a love/hate relationship with to-do lists. On the one hand, the structure they lend to my day can ease the mind. As unsexy as it sounds, I gravitate towards predictability and stability. To-do lists offer a roadmap, a track to follow. On the other hand, seeing all my tasks stretch down the page, screaming at me to DO MORE, MOVE FASTER – well, that fills me with dread and anxiety, too. There’s a point where the checkboxes make me feel controlled instead of in control, and I grow resentful. Even something like purchasing a birthday gift for a loved one can start to feel like just another thing I have to do.
Lately, I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to shift my focus towards the things that I do have control over, as opposed to agonizing over the things beyond my reach. While I don’t always get to decide which tasks sit on my plate, or how much I must accomplish in a day, I can (for the most part) choose my attitude. I don’t want to look around at my life and see tasks. I want to see blessings and possibilities. I hold an immense amount of privilege; it’s about time I actively recognize it.
In an attempt to change my mindset, I rewrote my to-do list as a list of opportunities.
“Get Mother’s Day gifts” turned into an opportunity to show the mothers in my life how much I love and appreciate them.
“Edit client’s personal statement” turned into an opportunity to use my skills to help someone else achieve their goals.
“Grocery shopping” turned into an opportunity to fill my kitchen with delicious, nutritious foods to enjoy throughout the week.
Cheesy? Yes. But did this exercise help me feel more excited about my day? Absolutely. I transferred the emphasis away from loss (what the tasks took away from me, like energy or time) towards gain (what I could offer to myself or to others). This exercise also compelled me to stop victimizing myself over the littlest things and to start acknowledging the power I actually have in each situation. In nerdy grammatical terms, it’s like living in active voice instead of passive voice.
I may not do this every single day or for every single task. But for those moments when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, I’ll turn to this practice to reset, reframe, and reclaim my day.
If you couldn’t already tell (*gestures around at the blog*), I’m not a particularly private person. I’ve written about my insecurities, my identity crises, my heartbreaks, and much more on the internet. These most raw pieces of myself are out there, for everyone and anyone to consume and judge as they please. My habit of oversharing crosses into my personal life, too. Friends and family have gotten used to seeing the darkest corners of my inner life, the basements and closets that most people keep locked shut. I call it a habit, because it’s not always conscious or intentional. It’s like the filter that should sit at the base of my throat, separating private from public, is missing.
Despite my candor, I still feel exposed when I share my most sensitive thoughts and feelings with someone else. I still feel that fear that I’ve said too much, that I’ve burdened others with my emotions, that I’ve revealed an ugliness that’ll make me less likable or lovable. (This is what research professor Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.”)
Sometimes, I wonder if my openness cheapens or downplays my vulnerability. Brown posits that not everyone we encounter deserves to bear witness to our stories:
Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?”
For the most part, I agree that you can’t trust everyone, and that trust must be earned. I’ve received my fair share of disappointing responses from the people that I’ve confided in. That said, I think some folks take self-protection to the extreme, using it as justification for building a wall between themselves and the world. They think, now you can’t hurt me, as if strength is the absence of vulnerability. I believe all this hiding from others—from hurt, from criticism—may eventually lead us to hide from ourselves, until we no longer feel connected to our own stories, to the experiences that have made us who we are. While we don’t owe anyone our vulnerability, we owe it to ourselves to accept our humanity, even the parts that ignite shame, fear, and doubt.
If we expect open-mindedness and acceptance from others, perhaps we need to look inward and take note of our own judgments. We can’t always know whether someone “deserves” to hear our stories before giving them the opportunity to do so. Vulnerability requires a leap of faith. To share our truth with the world, we must trust in the goodness of others—and, more importantly, our ability to persevere regardless of anyone else’s opinions. To me,THAT is a demonstration of strength.
I may overshare here and there. But I will continue to pour my heart out into the open, because that is my truest mode of being. Life is too short to spend it in hiding.
Recently, I had a conversation with my boyfriend about fitness goals.
“Who would you consider body goals?” he asked me.
A hot defensiveness rushed through me, and I launched into a tirade about how I’m trying to refrain from comparing myself to other women (which I still stand by), and how this entire conversation was incredibly triggering for someone like me, who has struggled with body image since childhood, and how he should know that by now, after all the conversations we’ve had about my insecurities.
“Every time beauty or fitness comes up, you get upset,” he said. “I understand you have these insecurities. The question is, what are we going to do about it? How can we move forward?”
At first, I felt shut down. Yet again, I’m too sensitive, too emotional—these feelings are too much of a burden for someone to deal with. But his questions marinated in my mind for several days after that. I’ve already done a ton of self-reflection over the years to understand why I am the way I am. I’ve identified the peer and family dynamics that fueled these insecurities in my youth; I’ve investigated my relationship with Eurocentric beauty standards as a biracial woman; I’ve highlighted the hurtful words that had been thrown at me in my former romantic relationships; and I’ve recognized how Instagram pushes me into the depths of toxic comparison. I used to think that if I dug deeper and deeper into my psyche and got to the root of my insecurity, I’d be able to grab ahold of it and yank it out of me. Alas, it’s not that simple.
My boyfriend was right: almost every time beauty or fitness comes up in our conversations, I get upset. All my worst insecurities creep up, and instead of shooing them away, I invite them in, naming them, introducing them to him. Again and again, I position past relationships, beauty standards, and social media as not only the cause for my low self-esteem, but the justification, to the point where it seems logical and inevitable to feel this way about myself. The more I tell these “origin stories” about my insecurities—to myself and to others—the more I believe this is how I should feel about my face, my hair, my body.
Clearly, understanding the “why” is only half the battle. So what comes next?
I think I’ve figured out what needs to happen: I must change the narrative.
The way I talk to myself and about myself plays a key role in shaping my self-image. That considered, it’s time to stop recounting those “origin stories,” so that I don’t give them any more power over me. Whenever I feel the urge to pull out the skeletons in my closet, I will pause and remember that I have an opportunity to tell my story in this moment. Which story do I want to tell?
Next, I will work on self-deprecation.
“Your love language is words of affirmation,” my boyfriend reminded me. “Why do you speak this way to yourself?”
I make self-deprecating comments on the daily, either mentally or verbally. It’s as if I’m training myself to handle these insults—as if it’ll make them hurt less when someone else says them. But of course it doesn’t, and if anything, I’m much more likely to believe these things when I hear them. Textbook confirmation bias. From now on, I will replace these harmful criticisms with affirmations. I want to treat myself with the same kindness that I extend to others. To help build a habit, I’m going to record daily affirmation videos and/or voice memos. Yes, it sounds cheesy and cringey, but it will force me to make space for this practice each and every day. I don’t necessarily plan to publish any of these recordings publicly, but I may write a follow-up post to share my progress. (Accountability!)
Awareness is the first step to meaningful change—but awareness alone is not enough. Real change arises from action. That said, I don’t expect to transform my self-esteem overnight. I’m in this for the long haul, because despite all my doubt, I know I am worth the effort.
I visited my parents’ house recently, where my teenaged bedroom is still, for the most part, intact. The Green Day and Fall Out Boy posters no longer stretch across the walls, but the bookcase is filled with my favorites from middle school and high school. I devoured young adult books by authors like Sarah Dessen and Meg Cabot throughout my adolescence. I connected to the coming-of-age stories about girls like me, struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. Before I discovered these treasures, I didn’t care for reading that much. Now, I can’t imagine not having a love for books.
As I reminisced, thumbing through the book spines, I noticed how virtually all these books were written by white women about white women, entangled in heterosexual romances with white men, in middle class suburbia. I pulled out the few books that featured characters of color (usually love interests or sidekicks) and flipped through the pages. Rereading passages, it was obvious to me that these characters were written from a white perspective, too. One in particular stood out to me: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
When I first read Rowell’s book years ago, I was just excited to see a biracial, mixed-Asian character. I didn’t often see that part of myself reflected in the books, TV, and movies that I consumed back then. However, when I revisited this book, the racism jumped off the page. I felt angry at myself for not immediately throwing the hardcover across the room when I first read it, all those years ago. I think I even wrote favorably about the book on a blog at some point. (I’m cringing as I write this. I’m so disappointed.)
Here are a couple of excerpts. Below, co-protagonist Eleanor describes Park’s eyes. Park is half-Korean and half-white.
Park’s eyes got wide. Well, sort of wide. Sometimes she wondered if the shape of his eyes affected how he saw things. That was probably the most racist question of all time.
From ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
Yeah, Eleanor. It is. Not to mention, she compares Park’s mother to a China doll.
His mom looked exactly like a doll. In The Wizard of Oz—the book, not the movie—Dorothy goes to this place called the Dainty China Country, and all the people are tiny and perfect. When Eleanor was little and her mom read her the story, Eleanor had thought the Dainty China people were Chinese. But they were actually ceramic, or they’d turn ceramic if you tried to sneak one back to Kansas. Eleanor imagined Park’s dad, Tom Seleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea.
From ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
There’s more where that came from, including a ton of internalized racism in Park’s character.
In a Goodreads blog post, Rowell reveals that she took inspiration for Eleanor & Park from her father, who fell in love with a Korean woman while serving in the Army overseas. They didn’t last.
What if fate and circumstance and the U.S. government had come together to deliver my father across the continents to his soulmate – and he just left her there. He could have stayed, I thought. He could have brought her back. Omaha is a military town; people bring wives and husbands back from all over. […] So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home.
By Rainbow Rowell on Goodreads
The part that disturbs me about this post is the way she laments how her father didn’t bring a wife back to the States, as if this woman were a souvenir. It gives me the same vibes as that “China doll” excerpt: in both, Rowell strips the Korean women of their agency and humanity, turning them into things that white people can own and take.
How could I let this slide upon my first read? (*Screams into a pillow as the delayed rage hits me.*) Here’s my best guess: I think I wanted to see more multiracial characters in books so badly that I held onto that sliver of so-called “representation” and tolerated the rest. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people who don’t fit perfectly into whiteness have done the same thing with a book, movie, or TV show at some point. We’ve been conditioned to believe that this is just the way it is.
Representation isn’t just about the presence of diverse characters. Writers (especially those who don’t fall into the category of #OwnVoices) must create these characters from a place of deep respect and understanding—and at the very least, grant these characters the same level of humanity and complexity that you’d give to their more privileged counterparts. This sounds basic, and yet, we’re living in a time where books like Eleanor & Park are rewarded with movie deals. Writing harmful stereotypes into books isn’t a trivial matter; YA books play a key role in shaping the worldviews of young readers. I know they did for me.
I may be kicking myself now for my past passivity, but I’m encouraged by these realizations. I’ve raised the bar for myself and for what I expect in others. I can’t suck it up, look the other way, or let it go anymore. That’s not how change happens.
While it may sound strange, I feel far less lonely now than I did before the pandemic.
Over the past year, I’ve felt conflicted about acknowledging silver linings—as if doing so dismisses the horror of it all. But the truth is, amongst the profound grief and anxiety and despair, I’ve discovered pockets of positivity for myself. Little joys and meaningful growth. I’ve made some changes to my priorities that I intend to keep alive, even when the world “opens up” again.
Pre-pandemic, I felt a pressure to pack my calendar, weekends filled with hikes, concerts, bar crawls, and brunches. Every time I went out, I documented the event on social media, to make it seem like I had an active and exciting social life. And yet, I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough or that I didn’t have enough friends—as if being perceived as interesting, adventurous, and popular mattered more than the reality of my life. (Frankly, I think being a loner in my adolescence fueled my need to redeem myself online as an adult. Sounds pathetic, but at least I can admit it.) Fixating on other people’s opinions left me with a near-constant feeling of inadequacy and loneliness.
I no longer felt shame for spending time alone.
When the world shut down, a lot of us were forced to spend more time at home, in solitude. Fortunately, I don’t live alone; I have an amazing roommate, and together, we could entertain ourselves endlessly. That said, I adapted rather quickly to the relative quietness of lockdown life. Now that there wasn’t a pressure to be doing things with other people all the time (a pressure I imposed on myself), I no longer felt shame for spending time alone.I started writing more, reading more, drawing more. I felt like me again. I hadn’t quite realized that I’d felt so disconnected from myself.
Don’t get me wrong: I miss people. I miss seeing my extended family. I miss basic LA brunches with my friends. I miss striking up conversations with kind strangers in coffee shops. I miss the hustle and bustle of walking down city streets, people watching every step of the way.
At the same time, I love how comfortable I’ve gotten with myself. The more I enjoy my own company, the more confident I feel that others will enjoy spending time with me, too. I don’t feel like I have something to prove anymore, which allows me to live in the moment. I used to document every outing for the consumption of others. These days, I often forget to take pictures; or I take pictures and choose to keep them to myself. I prioritize the experience over the “content” I can generate from it, as I should’ve all along.
Now, the interactions I do have with other people feel even more authentic and powerful.
As we inch closer to reentering public spaces, I’m nervous that I’ll forget these revelations and fall back into my old insecurities and habits. (Tbh, I’m nervous about reentering the social scene in general. Please tell me I’m not the only one.) That said, I’m hoping this blog will help. While I’m still curating content for someone else to consume (hello reader), I’m trying to focus more on how my experiences feel and less on how they appear.
Photos are valuable keepsakes. But what matters more to me are the stories behind them.
Writing has felt especially difficult lately. The older I get and the more I learn about the world, the more responsibility I feel as a writer to use my skill for public good. Each time I sit down at my computer, I wonder, what’s the point of this? What am I contributing to society, by writing about my life? Why do I write, anyway? More often than not, I come out of these sessions with a whole lot of anxiety and a blank page. Turns out, the pressure to change the world within the margins of a Microsoft Word document is rather…daunting.
In his famous essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell (known for Animal Farm and 1984—admittedly, books I still haven’t read) outlines what he believes to be the four primary motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. It is this final motive, political purpose, that I’m reckoning with, one which Orwell describes as follows:
“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “political.” Politics? Oh, I’m not into politics. I didn’t used to think of my writing as political. Political writing, as we typically think of it, focuses heavily on election cycles and politicians. But if we broaden our understanding of what is political to include the dynamics of race and class, gender and sexuality, capitalism, ableism, and how they shape our everyday lives—is anything truly apolitical?
After four years of studying literature in college, I learned that you could muster a political analysis from pretty much anything. It was unclear whether we English majors unveiled or imposed this meaning. But that didn’t really matter. A reader may find such meaning in your words, intended or not. Not to mention, the choice to avoid politics is a political choice. (As Orwell writes, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”)
By default, most works by people from marginalized communities are read through a political lens. We see this with antiracist reading lists, a cornerstone of social media “activism.” The authors on these lists are treated as representatives of their race, and their stories, no matter how fictional or personal, are consumed as the experiences of a people. I believe these lists are made with good intentions, and they do boost the authors’ visibility. However, these lists are a reminder that we, again and again, expectwriters of color to double as educators, to carry the responsibility of saving us all, to write with a political purpose. Unsurprisingly, we don’t hold white writers to the same standard.
Regardless of what people expect me to write, I want to at least try to make a difference.
But…how can I make a difference when I can’t seem to get the words out?
After one too many fruitless writing sessions, I paused and considered: Maybe I’m approaching this all wrong. There must be a way to do good with my writing without feeling the weight of the entire world on my pen. Then, I remembered that, as presented in “Why I Write,” there are several motives that move us to write, all at once. They coexist.
No doubt “political purpose” and “historical impulse” sound far more noble than “sheer egoism” or “aesthetic enthusiasm.” Yet, I’d rejected egoism and aesthetics so fiercely, fearful that I’d become too self-involved or too surface-level, that I’d forgotten how 1) writing for self-exploration is completely worthwhile, and 2) it’s more than okay to write for the fun of it. It’s perfectly natural to start with the self, to use one’s personal experiences to make sense of the world. All stories, including stories that tackle big, meaty issues, must have a point of view. After all, how can we expect to change the world if we don’t understand our place in it? And you know what? Life is too damn short to deny ourselves the pleasure of creating and admiring beauty, whatever that may mean to each of us.
We don’t need to address the whole world every time we uncap our pen. We can start with our world, our communities, our families; we can examine what we feel, observe, and experience in our daily lives, and then workoutward from there. At the end of the day, the goal is to write with intention, to challenge ourselves to acknowledge the problems we see—to name them, understand them, and ultimately, challenge them—one word at a time.