Just as all moms like to do, my mom loves to reminisce and bring up memories of me as a baby. She often describes me as a generally happy baby who loved everyone, even strangers. I don’t know what happened between my infancy and the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was no longer that friendly, extroverted kid. Instead, I would keep to myself in class and hide out of sight from the playground at recess.

Maybe it was because of all the bullying throughout elementary school, but somewhere along the way I became increasingly withdrawn and self-conscious. It wasn’t until my tweens when I finally learned to walk into a room and not imagine that everyone was staring at me, whispering about me. By then, I was on my school’s dance team and chorus. I had been in the school orchestra. I was in honors classes and received special attention from my teachers for my writing. Finally, I grew out of a shell I had constructed around myself between the ages of six and eleven.

After that, I cannot recall feeling panicky when I had to stand up in front of a room full of people. I continued to perform in school orchestras, continued to dance, and even aced the required public speaking skills prerequisite in college. To this day, I am perfectly comfortable doing all of that (well, except for perhaps playing the violin because I’ve been out of practice).

About two years ago, when I was 29, I noticed that my hands started shaking, I would break out in a sweat right, and my heart started racing whenever I had to enter a room full of people. Right before I attended events that other people organized, the panicky feeling would overcome me days in advance. Do they really want me there? What if I’m not good enough to be their friend? Are they really my friends or do they want something from me? When I planned parties and gatherings, I would panic weeks in advance that no one would show up. There were the normal party-planning concerns: Do I have enough food? Do I have enough of a variety of beverages? And then there are the irrational questions: What if everyone cancels? What if they don’t have fun? Will they leave early? I even started Googling “What if no one comes to my party?” The irrational thoughts go on and on.

I remember so vividly how I got a panic attack at an after-party in September 2014 (the impromptu after-party followed a gala I had a large role in organizing and running). I was sitting at a restaurant bar, trying to chat with my husband’s coworker/classmate when all of sudden, just like that, the negative thoughts rushed through me. Why aren’t my friends talking to me? Not a single one of them greeted me when I walked in. Are they talking about me? My chest tightened up and I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my clutch and my husband, running out of there as fast as I could in my heels, the panic attack making my legs unsteady and weak. When I was outside, I wondered if anyone had even noticed that I left. Did they even care?

In recent months, that panic and anxiety have completely demobilized me. I planned a gathering in October that I had been preparing for since July. I sent out invitations a month in advance to give everyone time to respond and to make their plans. As the date drew closer, especially in the two weeks leading up to it, my panic attacks started. I started getting heart palpitations. What if no one shows up? What if only two people show up and think I’m a loser because I have no real friends? Although it was supposed to be a small gathering and I got a small turnout (as expected), the planning and fretting completely wiped me out. From then on, I had little to no energy for socializing, for making plans with friends, and even for reaching out to my best friend.

As the holiday season is now upon us and the party invites are flooding in, I’m weighing each one with a new scrutiny I didn’t exercise before. Which events deserve my effort and energy? More importantly, who do I want to spend time with? Who will truly miss my presence if I’m not at their party? Which party and group of friends are less likely to cause a nausea-inducing panic attack and nasty, negative, paralyzing thoughts from arising?

Those negative thoughts and insecurities don’t just come up in large crowds and social settings, but also in smaller groups, especially groups of three because I always feel like the third wheel. Maybe in some cases, it was intentional. But when I think about it rationally, I’m sure that most of the time it’s all in my head. For instance, for my 30th birthday, I celebrated in Miami with two of my closest girlfriends from college. For most of the weekend, I felt like they were making sure they were always walking a part from me. Their heads always bowed together, whispering, conspiring, intentionally leaving me out of the conversations. To combat these negative thoughts, I tried to focus on the positives—two of my friends took time off to fly down to Miami in order to celebrate my birthday with me. Although I had invited others, they were the only two who made the effort because they cared that much.

I’ve written a lot about my clinical depression, but I’ve never written about my anxiety before. I’m not sharing this to garner pity and sympathy. In fact, I’m downright scared that people will read this and think that I’m a freak.

My hope is that people would understand me better. People who know me well might be surprised to learn this about me because I’m so outspoken about—well, pretty much everything because I don’t normally worry about what others think about me and my opinions. Plus, I’m comfortable in crowds and I enjoy networking events and spending time with friends. I also love doing things on my own that some might find strange, such as eating dinner out by myself or going to the theater by myself; I’m never worried about others judging me in many cases. So why the social anxiety? I’m trying to figure that out myself.

I also hope that if there are others out there with the same condition, so they can tell me how they’ve learned to either overcome social anxiety or learned to cope with it. So far, I’m treating it like I do with my depression: I embrace the feelings—no matter how horrible and terrifying they are, and then I breathe.


After my last blog post went live, several people thanked me for writing about such a personal experience. A couple of people opened up to me about their troubled relationships with their fathers. Others expressed shock that I would publicize such a personal matter. Both sets of reactions encouraged me to write this latest post.

As a woman, many assumptions are placed on me based solely on my gender. I’ve written about some of these before, such as cultural expectations on marriage. This time, I want to write about childbearing. Frankly, just how plain rude it is for people to ask me about having children (When? How many?) and telling me what to do with my life and my body. Family planning is a very personal matter, yet people take it upon themselves to make the following two assumptions about me as a woman:

1. I want to have children.

2. If I don’t want children, then I must hate children.

Both are utterly false and I’m tired of people giving me looks of pity when I tell them that I have no plans for children.

One acquaintance, in particular, is a great example of how this behavior is perpetuated. One of the first times she asked me about children and I told her I don’t want any (Example #1), she flippantly said, “You’ll change your mind when you get older.” Mind you, this woman was just two years older than me but she felt okay talking down to me.

Later on (Example #2), the same acquaintance accused me of hating children in response to a Facebook status I posted about about choosing a child-free life. I did not hesitate to set her straight: I’ve been raising my brother since I was 5 years old, I used to babysit my younger cousins at a very young age, I worked as a babysitter charged with infants when I was in high school, and I love my friends’ kids. I probably knew more about caring for children than she did at that point in her life.

This acquaintance gave birth earlier this year. After I met her new son, she said to me (Example #3), “I’m not in the business of changing people’s minds if they don’t want children, but you should have one.” Contradict much?

All three of these examples are common assumptions that people place on those who express that they don’t want to have children of their own, biological or not. There are plenty of other assumptions placed on us as well: selfish, immature, etc. This video with Susan McPherson disproves all of these misconceptions perfectly. Sure, Susan is not representative of all people who don’t want children, but the video demonstrates that there are a lot of misconceptions and false beliefs about the population that don’t/have children.

I’m so glad this has become a popular topic in public forums, in the media, and on social media lately, such as The Atlantic’s article on “Why Women Choose Not to Have Children.” The discourse on gender and family planning has to change. It holds back women’s rights when other women continue to place antiquated expectations on other women as baby-makers and even homemakers.

I’m not going to list my reasons here to justify why I don’t want children. Maybe that might change or maybe it won’t. Regardless, it’s no one else’s business but mine and my partner’s. So… Don’t tell me I will change my mind. Don’t tell me I should have at least one kid just for the experience (this was actually said to me by a man). Don’t tell me not to wait because my biological clock is ticking. Don’t cite statistics on birth defects to me. Don’t tell me I will die alone and I need someone to take care of me when I’m older. Don’t tell me I will regret it. All of those have been said to me by multiple people, including friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, neighbors, my cousin’s husband’s aunt’s grandfather… I am willing to have candid conversations with people about this topic—as long as the participants don’t come with preconceived notions about me and my gender.

I respect your decision to have children (and I may even love these kids), so please respect my decision to not have children.

Planning my wedding was two of the most emotional years of my life. On top of the usual wedding drama and stress (i.e. guest list, budget, vendors, decor and details, etc.), I was mourning and grieving the loss of two father figures in my life, plus a father-in-law I was looking forward to spending many years with. I asked God many times why he took away all the men in my life who mattered to me. I thought perhaps it was a sign to finally make amends with my biological father.

In the two years leading up to my wedding, I only heard from my father when he needed confirmation from me that I still acknowledged his existence. This came in the form of phone calls–rare and infrequent, and (thankfully) short and brief. He never asked how I was doing. He just wanted to make sure I picked up the phone when he called.

At my Uncle Gan Jon’s wake and funeral, my father showed up dressed in khakis and sneakers. That was only one example among many transgressions committed by him in my adult life. It especially stunned me that my father did not shed one tear at his brother’s funeral. They had spent the majority of their lives together, migrated to the US together, lived together as adults for many years, and then lived across the street from each other. My uncle was always there for my father no matter what he did. Yet, at my uncle’s funeral, my father did not show an ounce of gratitude or pain.

As the anger I’ve harbored my entire life against this man was stirred and reawakened, I was also not the least bit surprised. By now, I had learned not to expect much from a father who disappointed and hurt me for most of my life, especially during my formative years. He was the man who would use force on me when I acted out, dragging me across a room or down the stairs with a tight grip on my arm. He was the man who would throw food and plates at me during dinner for no apparent reason. He was the man who not only assaulted me, but also my mom and my brother. He was the man who cheated on my mother more than once. I remember how he would flirt with my mom’s best friend whenever he thought he was alone with her.

For most of my life, I resented my mom for not leaving my father. Although I still don’t understand her reasons for staying with him for 22 years, I realized I don’t have to make the same mistake she did. Unlike my mom, I refuse to remain a victim.

That was how I realized that making amends with my father was not–should NOT–be the plan. Instead, I did the complete opposite. Right before getting married, I had my last breakup; and it was with my father. I broke up with him by blocking him on my phone. When he found me on Whatsapp and sent me messages (and a voice recording) demanding that I respond and call him, I blocked him there as well. I cut all ties with him without any hesitation. I finally took back the one thing he had on me–control.

There was no question about whether he was invited to the wedding or not. For the ceremony, I walked down the aisle by myself. First, to make a statement that I’ve had to stand up for myself for my entire life until I met my husband. Second, I did not belong to anyone to “give away” or “to take.” Third, if I had ever wanted to follow the tradtion, the only two men who I would consider asking to walk me down the aisle were now gone.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve ceased all communications with my father and I feel like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. I feel like I can breathe again–the same way I used to feel after getting out of an unhealthy relationship with a guy I was dating. It was the best decision I could have made in my premarital phase.

Finally, some happier memories are resurfacing, such as how my father was present at all of my school graduations with his camcorder in hand. How he used to take me and my brother to the park on Sundays to fly kites. How he always knew what my favorite dishes were and would cook them up for me on his days off (which was only one day a week). How hard working he was; when he owned his carry-outs, he worked 7 days a week, including holidays. How he encouraged me to develop my creative talents by buying me art supplies and a typewriter (later on, computers).

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering all the father figures in my life I’ve been blessed with, including the birth father who was not a good person but did the best he could as a father.

10 Years Ago on This Day

Ten years ago on this date, I embarked on a journey that changed my life. Just four days before, on June 13, 2005 I boarded the MV Explorer docked at Grand Bahama Island. I was one of a dozen college students who were accepted into the work study program. So on top of getting to spend my summer taking classes on a boat while sailing around western, northern, and parts of eastern Europe, I was getting a discounted tuition and I got to board the ship four days ahead of the rest of 500 students who were meeting us in Halfix, Nova Scotia.

Eleven of us met up in Freeport two days before we had to board the ship so we celebrated our fortune by getting drunk by the pool, going to the beach, and taking an eco-tour of Grand Bahama Island on horseback. I remember getting a mosquito bite on the back of my ankle during the horseback riding trip. The bite swelled to the size of an orange and caused me to limp because I couldn’t bend my ankle. The swelling finally went down after the shipboard doctor removed the fluid in the bite. To this day, that is still the worst mosquito bite I had ever suffered.

I remember very clearly the first few days on the ship, traveling from The Bahamas to Halifix. We had the whole ship to ourselves and we worked every day to set up the library, bookstore, computer lab, and administrative offices to get it ready for the summer semester. The ISE had only started leasing the ship two semesters before that summer. During the spring semester before ours, a 50-foot swell had damaged the ship’s bridge. Although critical repairs were made in order to continue the spring semester while the students were in between scheduled ports, there were last minute touchups between the spring and summer semesters. I remember pulling off the large plastic sheets covering some of the bookcases to protect them from dust.

I remember getting my sea legs on those first few days, learning to carry a tray of food from the buffet to a table in the Garden Lounge. (Having ridden the NY subway for most of my life made it a lot easier.) I remember the waves that hit my porthole when the sea was rough. I remember, when the weather was nicer, sitting on the back of the 6th deck, just watching the tail of the ship. That continued to be my favorite activity while we were at sea, meditating on the back deck and allowing the water to put me in a trance.

I remember arriving in Halifax, adjusting to the blast of cold air after our mini-vacation in balmy Freeport. I remember how my legs felt like spaghetti when I stepped off the ship to walk on solid earth after spending four days at sea. I remember walking around downtown Halifax, making the most of the short day we had there before setting sail again, officially starting the summer semester en route to Reykjavik. I remember reuniting with the group of students from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; we had met up in Manhattan to introduce ourselves to each other before the voyage.

I remember celebrating the first white night on the evening before we reached Iceland. My friends and I were in absolute awe of the sun that continued to shine down on us at 11:00pm.

I remember the community of students, faculty, staff, and crew. I remember learning about the death of our captain on July 4th. We were all called into the union after the Fourth of July barbecue on the pool deck. We were told the captain had passed away in his cabin from cardiac arrest. I remember grieving with this newfound community.

The people who know me best are the ones who can immediately tell you that the most significant experiences of my life happened on Semester At Sea, both my summer and fall voyages. The program taught me how to travel, how to make the most of my short time on this planet, how to find beauty in everything, how to appreciate the dins of a roaring urban jungle and enjoy the silence of the sea at night, and how to love life. The experiences on my voyages have inspired everything in my life: my career, this blog, and my outlook on life.

Ten years later–after college and grad school, two careers, continuing to travel for fun and for work, and finding my lifelong travel partner–I can still remember my first white night; getting lost in Bergen, Norway after doing some grocery shopping; the overnight train ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow; visiting Auschwitz; getting introduced to tapas/pinchos by an Argentinian in Bilbao; and not wanting the journey to end as the ship docked in Fort Lauderdale in August. Most of all, I will never forget the tail behind the ship.

The first time I met the MV Explorer on June 13, 2005

The first time I met the MV Explorer on June 13, 2005

View from the back deck

View from the back deck

On Christmas afternoon, I turned on Pandora and tuned into the Christmas station. As I started preparing the batter for my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, I realized it was the first time I had turned on holiday music in 2014. Throughout December, I was either listening to T. Swift’s 1989 (almost on constant replay on my phone and computers since the album came out) or the Serial podcasts. How did December fly by so fast? How did 2014 fly by so fast?

I went down the list of all the activities that took up a notable amount of time in the past 12 months: work, job search, wedding planning, informational interviews (giving and receiving), job interviews, attending weddings, YPFP… Much like the Christmas letter Kyle and I sent out with our cards, the dominating themes of 2014 were: career, professional development, professional transitions, and leadership development. The transitions were namely my switching jobs after an arduous year-long job search and my stepping down from the volunteer staff of YPFP.

To briefly summarize my time with YPFP, I got involved in 2010 as a member of the New York branch and then joined the DC staff in 2011. For almost 5 years of my life, I was committed to YPFP in some way–whether it was helping out with resume and interview workshops or running a program or leading a department. This ranged from 15 to 35 hours each week; it was essentially a second job. Since 2011, checking my YPFP email was as habitual as checking my personal email. In fact, when I realized my YPFP email account was finally turned off last night, a wave of sadness swept over me.

My time on YPFP staff coincided with my career switch from marketing and sales to international affairs. Thanks to YPFP, I was able to build up a network of like-minded peers in a short amount of time (some of which led to strong friendships). In 2012-2014, as I took on more time-demanding leadership roles with larger responsibilities on staff, the opportunities allowed me to exercise and hone managerial and leadership skills I didn’t get the chance to do at my day job. Speaking of which, my boss at the job was such a poor example of leadership, I learned exactly what not to do. Between my day job and the leadership laboratory that YPFP offered, I decided to compile a list of lessons I’ve learned as my last blog post of 2014.

I’m not going into the differences between “boss” and “leader.” The advice below are things I’ve learned in my specific experiences at work and at YPFP that may or may not apply to everyone else.  (Or even outside of the DC circle.)

1. Don’t hold people back. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some wonderfully brilliant and creative people on YPFP staff. They were great reminders that I can’t do everything on my own and thus I learned to relinquish a lot of control, especially things beyond my control and outside of my expertise.

2. Prioritize. Know how to make the most of the 24 hours you have each day before you help others prioritize their tasks. Likewise, respect your staff members’ time. If you know someone is already overloaded, sit down with them to help them prioritize their list. Preface new requests with, “I know you’re already overwhelmed, but this emergency just came up.” And end with, “I’m here to help. What can I do?” At my day job, my boss pushed all of his responsibilities to me and my teammates with very little regard to our workloads. The worst requests were administrative tasks that he was fully capable of handling on his own, but he felt was too superior for them. Hence, #3…

3. You are not above menial tasks. As a volunteer, there were many times when I had to wear more than one or two hats. The same applied to the president (who’s also a volunteer). This stood in sharp contrast to my day-job boss who was actually paid for his job and treated his staff like glorified interns.

4. Be transparent. Don’t hold information back from your staff, especially if the information is crucial for them to get their work done. At my day job, junior and mid-level staff were constantly kept in the dark on matters that impacted our work. This hindered trust between the different levels of hierarchy.

5. Know when to protect your staff. In tandem with the previous point, there may be times when you shouldn’t share information with a staff member. In my experience, it was to prevent and mitigate conflict.

6. Learn what motivates your team members. This was extremely important on YPFP staff but also equally important at my day job even though the latter was a paid position. What makes someone get out of bed in the morning? What makes them respond to work-related emails at 9:30pm on a Saturday? What makes them care?

7. Don’t just hire the most qualified person for the job, hire the best person. This may seem like common sense, but have you ever applied for a job you didn’t think feel 100% qualified for? Giving someone an opportunity to learn on the job as long as they have the right attitude will pay dividends.

8. Don’t sugarcoat things–it only wastes people’s time. There will be situations (and people) that require directness and firmness. However, also know when to…

9. Show appreciation. Sometimes all it takes is a simple “thank you” to recognize the hard work and countless hours that someone dedicated to a task.

10. Know when to call it quits. Thankfully, as I had mentioned earlier, I was able to transition out of the toxic environment that was my day job to a more collaborative and empowering environment. Unfortunately, with the increase in responsibility, I had to step down from my role on YPFP staff. After three years, I also felt I had gotten everything I could out of the experience and I recognized the fresh energy in the newer staff members that I used to have. I’ve seen people in both YPFP and at my former day job who refused to recognize when it was time to go. By staying and not contributing in a productive and meaningful way, they were holding back progress for everyone else. I didn’t want to become that person.

As 2015 is fast approaching, I’m seeing my calendar already filling up with dance classes, wedding-related appointments, and professional development trainings. Although I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to take #2 to heart, to prioritize, to try my best to be cognizant of the present. I don’t want another year to fly by and then have to ask myself, “How did that happen again?!”

“Are you going home for the holidays?”

This was such a foreign question to me when I spent my first holiday season in Washington, DC, a city of transplants. I can’t remember anyone ever uttering those words to me in New York. I was born there, spent 2/3 of my life there, and went to a commuter school for college. Sure, the number of transplants in New York, especially in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, are progressively increasing, but the question I was familiar with was, “What are you doing for the holidays?”

“Are you going home for the holidays?” was such a jarring question for me. Where was home for me? Who would I celebrate it with? So many questions! In fact, I often had to pause and think for quite longer than a normal conversation would require before I could even muster up an answer. And that was usually, “I will be here in DC.”

Unfortunately, people are usually never satisfied with that response. What consequently follows is a stream of very personal and prying questions… “Why aren’t you going back to New York?” “Where do your parents live?” “Are you from Maryland or Virginia?” “Where’s your family?” “Do you have relatives in this area?” “Why don’t you spend the holidays with them?” “Do you not celebrate Christmas?”

Sure, the questions are not offensive or even all that private and invasive, but when you come from a broken home, they trigger a lot of negative emotions. For most of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to run away from home. The most cherished memories I have of Christmas from my childhood is the one I spent with my Aunt Brigit and Uncle Kent. The best Thanksgivings were at their house, too. Otherwise, all of my holidays with my parents were cold, lonely, and just any regular day. My brother and I would try to make the most of the season by watching holiday specials on TV and singing Christmas carols with each other.

When I was old enough to establish my own home, I decided that was home. Wherever I went, that would be home for me. I’ve spent a combined 6 months on the MV Explorer and celebrated many holidays there. That’s been a home for me. I’ve also called Prishtina “home,” and the hotel in the IZ in Baghdad “home.”

I still haven’t figured out a graceful way to answer the question, “Are you going home for the holidays?” When I answer, “Yes, I will be here in DC because it’s my home,” I still get a barrage of questions. “I thought you were from Brooklyn? Or was it Baltimore?” “Do you have relatives in this area?” “Does your family not celebrate Christmas?” “No, seriously, where are you from?” That’s when I say, “What are you doing for the holidays?”

Thanksgiving 2006 on the MV Explorer, en route from Croatia to Span.

Thanksgiving 2006 on the MV Explorer, en route from Croatia to Span.

Learning to Breathe

When I was a kid, I remember getting winded whenever I had to run track. I was not overweight, but the shortness of breath and tightness in my chest plagued me to this day. I’m able to keep up stamina when I’m dancing, walking, or doing other forms of exercise, but running was always out of the question. I couldn’t run a block without feeling winded and dizzy.

In the last four years, I gained 15-20 lbs but my doctor continued to reassure me that I’m still within the appropriate BMI and I’m not overweight. Late last year, I started to explore new workout options, including spinning. I struggled with the uphill climbs. On my second STTA to Baghdad, I got winded playing volleyball. When we went for walks around the IZ, I couldn’t keep up with everyone. Finally, one day, one of our security contractors asked me if I had asthma. Somehow, the thought had never occurred to me before.

As soon as I returned home, I went to my doctor who diagnosed me with Exercise-Induced Asthma. She prescribed an inhaler to me. That was almost 9 months ago. Today, I can run up to 2 miles. I know it’s not much to regular runners and marathon runners, but it’s definitely a huge feat for me.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,086 other followers