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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.

Although I didn’t intend on a follow-up to “Help me help you: What to do and what NOT to do when networking” (July 7, 2013), this little ditty was too good not to share.

A “friend” of mine reached out to me a few days ago after a year of no contact. He IMed me on G-chat late one evening out of the blue. The next day while I was still at work, he asked me if he could call me. I gave him a short time slot when I was running from work to an appointment. The following morning, he texted me to tell me he had lost his job. Ah-ha! I suspected there was an ulterior motive behind the sudden barrage of messages.

This is such a great reminder of all the things you should NOT do when asking for an informational interview or help on your job search. The first rule is: Don’t contact people when you only need something from them. Second: Ask about their lives first which will clue you in on their schedule and availability. Third: Respect their time. If they have limited availability, don’t be rude about it.

I honestly wanted to help this guy—I’ve been in his position and I know how much it sucks, so I almost never turn people away. And I never know—there might come a day when I might need their help. After this conversation, which took place over the course of three days, I am crossing this contact off my list.

I normally keep all of my conversations private. But every once in a while, I get caught in a truly outrageous, are-you-serious, WTF conversation. The name and my phone number were changed for privacy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014 10:23 PM
Rob Haas
hi
its been a long time. how’re you?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 4:24 PM
Amy Chin
hey Rob
sorry i didn’t see your message till later

Rob Haas
Hi there

Amy Chin
are you still in DC?

Rob Haas
VA
I’m working in DC this month
can I call you in a little bit?

Amy Chin
right now?

Rob Haas
what?

Amy Chin
i’m still at work

Rob Haas
I’m working on vermont and K street right this very minute

Amy Chin
how about at 6:10?

Rob Haas
So I can call you afterwards

Amy Chin
i should be out the door by then

Rob Haas
I will probably be on the train back to vienna where I am living
is it still 347-555-5555?

Amy Chin
yeah
i have some free time between 6:10 and 6:30

Rob Haas
ok. I’ll call you when I have reception

Amy Chin
i have plans after that

Rob Haas
ok. I’ll call you and if youre around itd be good to catch up

Amy Chin
sounds good

Thursday, September 11, 2014 11:08 AM
Rob Haas
hey. you get my text this morning?

Amy Chin
yes, did you get mine?

Rob Haas
no
No I got a job in government relations at a company
oh… it just came through… weird

Rob Haas
You have time in the near future to get coffee?

Amy Chin
i’m booked for the next couple of weeks
i might have some time the weekend of the 26th
i can let you know as that weekend gets closer

Rob Haas
That is Rosh ha shanna

Amy Chin
it will have to be the following week then

Rob Haas
Yom kippur
Well figure it out. Take care

If “Rob” had asked me at any point of the conversation, “How’s work going?” or “Have you done any traveling this summer? Any trips coming up?”, I would not have minded filling him in. In fact, I have a couple of weddings coming up (both out of town), I’m planning my own wedding, and I’m transitioning to a new job—among other obligations. The point here is: It was unreasonable for him to demand and expect me to drop everything immediately to carve out some time for him. As much as I wanted to help him, I don’t owe him anything. I might have considered him a friend before, but his behavior clearly proved me wrong.

Update (September 21, 2014): After the painful G-chat conversation, “Rob” called me on the following Sunday morning and left a voicemail asking to meet up for coffee again. Obviously, I didn’t call him back. He texted me a week later (also on a Sunday) to ask if I could put him in touch with someone at my previous NGO for a job he’s interested in. Now it’s turning into harassment. If my mind wasn’t made up before, I am now definitely, absolutely, NO-WAY-in-hell I am putting him in touch with ANY of my contacts. I would be an idiot to risk sticking my neck out for, well, an idiot.

This guy is now blocked on my G-chat, phone, and social networks.

Update (November 3, 2014): At this point, “Rob” has attempted to contact me on Facebook and he emailed me on October 30 to once again let me know he’s on the market. The tone of the email was still very demanding. I let it sit for a few days because I didn’t know how to respond and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. Instead of ignoring it, I finally replied and told him that his outreach strategy was excessively demanding and overly aggressive. His immediate reaction was not good–he was offended by my feedback. The next day, he sent an apology which I honestly appreciated. However, this last interaction further solidifies my concerns about this person, and I am absolutely not comfortable in referring him to a contact or job opportunity. I hope he learns that DC is a small town.

Stop talking AT me!

I’ve become increasingly bored of many conversations since my mid-twenties and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I’m choosing my friends carefully, I know when to remove myself from toxic friendships, and I know how to exit a boring conversation tactfully… So what’s the problem?

In the last couple of days, I came across two different articles on the negative effects of social media, one being that users are talking at their friends. This resonated with me and I went over some of the mundane and repetitive conversations I’ve had with friends in person. Don’t get me wrong–my friends are kind and very interesting people, but the conversations were lackluster. That’s because my friends were actually talking at me. I’m completely disengaged in these conversations because I know my responses, reactions, and feedback are not heard and won’t be reacted upon.

For example, earlier this year, one of my friends asked me if my fiancé and I have picked our song for the first dance at our wedding. (If he really knew me as well as I had hoped, he would have known that music was a top priority for me not just in the wedding planning process but in life.) I told him three songs I had in mind, and he didn’t say much in response. About 6 six months later when I caught up with this friend again, he posed the same question to me and the same conversation played out again in verbatim. He even said he was considering one of my three songs as his first dance at his wedding. (Excuse me?!) Once again, he was talking at me–not to me. This wasn’t a conversation but rather just a superficial question for him to 1) break the silence and 2) switch the subject to his wedding so he can talk about himself.

Yes, maybe I know some self-centered people, but aren’t we all self-centered to some degree? Since I’ve become more aware of these superficial conversations, I am now more cognizant of people’s body language and expressions when I’m speaking. Are their eyes glazed over? Am I actively listening and engaging by asking follow-up questions?

I don’t deny that social media is an outlet for users, myself included, to talk at other users–but that behavior doesn’t have to eclipse reality.

Dear 15-Year Old Self…

Recently, I dug up my old journals in search of a list titled “Things to do before I turn 30.” I’ve always loved making lists because it helped me organize my thoughts. I recalled keeping lists upon lists in my diaries even when I was very young–lists of places I wanted to travel, dream careers, books to read, movies to watch, etc. I didn’t find a list called “Things to do before I turn 30″ so perhaps I never wrote one.

I stored my old journals in a plastic bin along with old photos. (Yes, photos from 35mm film.) I found my photos from my 6th birthday when my parents surprised me with a birthday cake in my kindergarten class (I remember my teacher was just as surprised because they didn’t tell her in advance). I found old class photos. I found photos from our trips to Ocean City, DC, the Baltimore Inner Harbor, Hawaii, China, Toronto… I found photos of my dad’s first car–a red Ford. Our house in Parkville, MD. Playing with my cousins on the playground. Playing with my cousins at their house (the same house one of them still lives in). My childhood looked so colorful and idyllic in these pictures.

After I removed all the stacks of photos and albums, there were my journals in the bottom of the bin. The earliest ones are in spiral-bound Lisa Frank spiral notebooks; the later journals are hardcover notebooks. I flipped and scanned through each journal chronologically. I paused here and then to read an entry or two. I relived my childhood through the pages and I remembered why I started writing in my journals.

I had started keeping journals because I was lonely. Outside of school, I didn’t have many kids my age to socialize with. My parents did not have time to schedule play dates for me, not to mention dropping me off and/picking me up. I spent some time with my cousins on the weekends, but other than that, I spent most of the time between ages 3 and 13 in the back of my parents’ restaurants. My parents did not talk to me except when it was necessary (i.e. dinner is ready, turn off the TV and go play outside, peel these shrimps, go ring up the customers, answer the phone and take orders, etc.).

After I placed the old journals and photos back into the bin, I started thinking… If I can go back in time and talk to my younger self,what would I say? At what age would I try to catch myself? Maybe when I was 10 and miserable at school because I was being bullied. Or maybe when I was 12 and my relationship with my parents started deteriorating even further. Or maybe when I was 13 and I was extremely upset about relocating from Baltimore to Brooklyn. Since today is my 30th birthday, I think it would be most appropriate to speak to my 15-year old self. I was still adjusting to life in Brooklyn. I was thinking about where to attend college. I was dealing with bouts of depression which wasn’t diagnosed until my early 20’s. My experiences as a child–tough as they were–made me the person I am today, but 15 was when I had encountered most of the traumas that caused me to spiral further.

Dear 15-year old self,

Happy Birthday! I wish I can tell you that things will be better this year, but I can’t.

You know all those times when you were ready to run away from home? You had a bag packed and a goodbye note to leave behind. You planned to sneak out the back door at night and walk down the alley, but you didn’t know where to go from there. That was why you never carried out your plan. When you’re 30 years old, you will be grateful that you stayed in your bed, just dreaming about escaping. Years from now, you will realize that you’ve had a guardian angel your entire life.

These are the things I wish someone told me on my 15th birthday:

  1. Regardless of what your parents say, you are not selfish, fat, dumb, and untalented. Most importantly, you are not unlovable. 
  2. You grew up in a home that didn’t have a lot of love, so you will look for it. Don’t look for love in the wrong places. In fact, don’t chase after boys. Love will find you in time. Save yourself for someone special and worthy.
  3. When you reach your twenties, be selfish. Don’t worry about dating, marriage, and your parents. It’s all about you. You’ve had to take care of your parents and your brother since before you learned how to write. It’s okay to give yourself a break from that.
  4. You’ll learn that in whatever situation you find yourself, you have to make the best of it. Yes, right now, you hate being in New York and you miss your friends and family in Baltimore, but you will be in New York for a while so take advantage of all the food, museums, and live shows.
  5. Get a math tutor–you will need one to get through high school and it will only improve your chances of getting into a good college.
  6. Don’t close yourself off to all possibilities. When you’re working on college applications, don’t cross University of Florida and Vassar off your list–you will regret it.
  7. Make sure you have a diverse group of friends. You’re in a graduating class of 1,000 students–don’t just hang out with the Asian crowds. You will surround yourself with a more diverse crowd by senior year, but I’m telling you this now so you can start sooner.
  8. Although it doesn’t seem possible now, you will eventually realize that you can choose your family. Dad will never be the father and the man you wish he can be, so don’t hold your breath. Your cousin, Sue, is truly vindictive; stay away from her, especially when she’s visiting New York.
  9. Stay away from credit cards. For financial advice, talk to anyone else but Dad. Don’t listen to him when he tells you to get your own credit card.
  10. For relationship advice, talk to anyone else but Mom. Don’t listen to any relationship advice Mom gives you. Whatever she tells you to do, just do the exact opposite.
  11. Always trust your instincts. 
  12. Don’t give up on your dreams. You know that goal you’ve had forever about traveling around the world? Your dreams will come true sooner than you expect because you will make them happen.
  13. Keep your feet on the ground. You know those boy bands you’re obsessing over? Well, all of those ballads, dance moves, and good looks set an unrealistic standard for romance. Nick Carter and Taylor Hanson will disappoint you for sure.
  14. Keep dancing.
  15. There are moments when you will feel lost, powerless, and lonely–those are the only consistent emotions you’ve felt you’re entire life. You’ve often asked if God exists, and rightfully so. You will find God in time, and He will be there when you need extra strength.

Today, I turn 30. I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes, but I’m happy I made some of those mistakes because I’m all the wiser for it.

Love,

Yourself

Mourning Fatigue

One of the top reasons why I moved to Washington, DC after grad school was to be closer to family. Most of my relatives live in Maryland where I lived between the ages of five and thirteen. In many ways, my heart had never left. I had always resented living in New York because it kept me away from the people I loved. One of these people was my Uncle Kent.

Just like my parents and their siblings, my grandparents, and some of my older cousins, Uncle Kent came to the US as an immigrant from southeast China. However, he was different from most of my immigrant relatives in that he got an American education, he was fluent in English, and he worked his way up in the real estate industry. He also volunteered his services to Chinese immigrants in the Baltimore County region, and he always reminded me to give back to my community (I owe my spirit of volunteerism to him). Regardless of his busy schedule, he always made time for me and my brother. He and Bridgid took us on a lot of day trips to the movies, the Baltimore Zoo, the Inner Harbor, Ocean City… But my favorite memories of our time together was spending quiet Saturdays at their house. After a long walk, we would lounge on the floor with their dog, Katie, while watching TV. Then we would sit down together for dinner, and they would talk to us like equals. It gave my brother and me a sense of normalcy and stability.

As soon as I arrived in DC in June 2011, I called Uncle Kent to tell him that I was “home” and I can visit him more frequently again. Before I called him, I had imagined the delight and surprise in his voice followed by a deep chuckle that always warmed me up. However, to my surprise, he told me that he and my aunt Bridgid had just moved to Fort Lauderdale. I missed them by less than a month.

On January 15, 2014, I called Aunt Bridgid to tell her and Uncle Kent that I was planning a visit to Florida for the end of February. She didn’t answer her phone, so I left her a voicemail. A week later, on the 22nd, I got a call from my cousin Joyce, one of Kent and Bridgid’s daughters. She told me that her dad had passed away on January 14th. I missed him by exactly one day.

So I got up, got ready for the day, shared Uncle Kent’s obituary on my Facebook page, and I went to work. I went through the motions every single day as though nothing was wrong. I had lost several important people in 2013. I was tired of sympathetic looks and people telling me how sorry they were for my loss. I was tired of mourning.

When we lost Kyle’s dad, we spent a lot of time sharing stories about his dad. And we cried when the pain was too much to bear.  I was heartbroken for Kyle and his family. When my Uncle Gan Jon died, I cried a lot–and I didn’t care if I was at home, at my desk at work, or outside in public. I worried about my cousins and my aunt because I knew they were a tight-knit family.

Since Kyle and I got engaged in May 2013, we’ve crossed a few names off our list due to deaths. Tonight, I opened up our guest list again to make updates. When it came to my Uncle Kent, I couldn’t bring myself to hit delete. It was as though my arms and hands were momentarily paralyzed. It suddenly hit me how exhausting it’s been to hold in all the emotions–the grief, anger, and heartache overwhelmed me all at once. I had somehow managed to cram it all into a deep corner somewhere so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge it. It was no wonder I’ve had a short fuse for everyone around me recently.

I used to refuse to believe that girls tend to marry someone who are very similar to their fathers, because that would mean that I have a likely chance of ending up with someone who was physically and emotionally abusive, juvenile, and selfish. Kyle is the exact opposite of that. Instead, as I had known since early on in our relationship, he reminds me of my Uncle Kent–spiritual, caring, kind, and intelligent. I was looking forward to introducing him to Kent who was the best male role model in my life, and the closest person I had to a father.

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