Learning how to dance in the rain (or snow!)

It’s been a terrible winter we’re experiencing here in Chicago. Everyday in the past two weeks I’ve been back from my trip to India, the weather has been below 10F. Wind chill has been below zero consistently. Everywhere I go I see people miserable with the cold, including me. Snow is an unnatural occurrence in my life, since I have been lucky enough to live in tropical or temperate climates. It’s frustrating to have to put on layers of clothes and lug around bulky snow boots. I’m tired of it.

Of course, I have to blog about the bitter cold in Chicago at some point.

But negativity is also something that I try not to dwell on, and in order for me to get through this winter, I need to think about that which is good and comforting. Whenever I curse at nature for the icy cold wind that slaps me in the face whenever I go outside, I remind myself to say a little prayer, instead of muttering curses under my breath as I walk toward the bus stop. My walk to and from work in total gives me enough minutes to pray the whole rosary. I feel great afterwards, because it calms me down, and also because I know I’ve invested that time into something worthwhile and diffused off negativity.

It is not always easy to see the positive when the situation is thick with disappointment, fear and stress. Sometimes, at work, when we feel under pressure, we resort to negative actions. Today, we had a big team meeting and one of my junior coworkers clearly was demonstrating negative attitude toward the project, raising her voice and talking over others who are more senior than her. It probably feels good for her to do this, but it is only instant satisfaction. She is too young to understand that the longer term ramification is negative perception of her because the higher ups who have more experience can sense this. Especially when one of the higher ups is only a few years older than her; I’m sure he has an acute sense of the emotional states junior people feel, because he’s just been there (or is still going through this stage). I cringe at her behavior but cannot do much. She will learn in time, I thought.

How do we exactly learn how to dance in the rain? I think it’s driven by our attitudes and mindset. It is a conscious decision, to go toward the positive, and keen acknowledgement of the negative situation at hand. You can’t leave a negative state when you’re so caught up by it, you’re unaware you’re in it. It takes time to see the situation for what it is and detach yourself from, and it is not easy to leave what is negative and plunge into positivity. Sometimes, we are tempted to dwell in that which is harmful, and dwell we do.

I think it’s a constant exercise to train oneself to handle pressure and stress. Learning to dance in the rain is in itself a process. We are not born resilient right away. We develop this trait when we face events that test our wits and patience. I consider myself to be a resilient person, and I can tell you it is not an inherent trait, but an outcome of all that I’ve been through. I still get nervous at work, when presenting, or speaking to a crowd, or talking with my manager sometimes. I stutter when there is so much I want to say and feel like I don’t have enough tools to articulate everything at a given moment. But I know that I still have room to grow, and growing personally is a priority for me, so I ride through the discomfort and pain. I know I will come out more courageous, and better able to manage it all next time I’m put in a less-than-stellar situation again.

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Developing Weaknesses into Strengths

Yesterday, I came across the Pantene commercial portraying the differences between women and men in business settings. This commercial, which ran in Southeast Asia last year, illustrated how the strong qualities in men (ie. directness, assertiveness, workaholic nature, etc) are perceived as weaknesses when women possess those same qualities (ie. aggressiveness, defensiveness, and selfishness). It’s a relevant commercial that received much acclaim and shared widely in social media.

As I think about the feedback I’ve gotten from people around me over the last few years– from friends, coworkers, managers, etc– I see the differences in how they perceive me. My friends and family see assertive actions as strengths, and modest actions as examples of humility, while my manager would see both types of actions as weaknesses. I’ve been told that I’m too defensive and have a strong personality that people don’t know how to handle, and that I need to develop more confidence at work– in the same meeting no less. When asked for examples, my manager cannot give one on the spot.

When you get feedback like this, do you dial down assertiveness, or do you further demonstrate it? Should I speak up more for to be “perceived” as having more confidence, or should I be more accommodating to be perceived as having a gentler personality?

I think there are situations that calls for being assertive, and I try to play that role when the situation arise, and there are also times when I may seem more modest depending on the context in which I’m placed. All of us are like this, because we balance multiple sides of ourselves on an on-going basis. Where we’re caught in the middle is when we’re given such conflicting feedback, where there is a direct attack on our traits, rather than being mentored to better understand the situations that require the demonstration of a given trait.

Ultimately, I think it is up to us to choose how to act in a given situation. People around us may tell us to tuck in our weaknesses and show more strength, but when our strengths are construed as weaknesses, we must stand our ground and further demonstrate that the weaknesses others see in us are actually are greatest assets. First, we must learn to be honest with ourselves and determine if our traits that others perceive as negative are harming others, and if they do, we must transform them into more positive ones. Second, we must weigh if the feedback is coming from someone who has our best interest at heart, or if criticism is being used as an attempt to place us in a position that will garner them political gains. Lastly, we must show the world everyday how our perceived weaknesses can be judged as a strength that is in line with the shared direction of the relationship, whether it be with our employers, coworkers or friends and families.

People around us will always tell us what to do, but in the end it is up to us to take their feedback or do a better job to illustrate that their criticism of us is misinformed. I’ve been blessed to be self-aware and reflective enough to know how others are perceiving me, and everyday I try my best to transform my weaknesses into demonstrable strengths. There have been many times when I’ve failed, but it is an iterative process, and I try again everyday, and I can say that this same process has contributed to my successes, my professional growth, and has extended to personal development in my own life.

Remarkable Experiences of 2013

The year started off filled with building excitement for travel and marveling at art. I went to a travel expo where I not only sampled foods from all over the world, but also experienced cultural shows in the form of dance (Mexico) and music (Ireland).

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Chicago’s Chinatown and walking around in search of mooncakes (my fave!), rose tea and almond cookies. It’s also a year of baking when I can. I don’t do it much, but when I do, it’s always a delight. Making homemade biscotti in February with my aunt in Rogers Park was exciting, as making chocolate chip cookies and lemon cupcakes in December.

The beginning of the year was about anticipating the Art Institute’s Picasso exhibit. When I finally saw the exhibit, I understood the genius behind his work, which I once upon a time resisted. I was skeptical of his many works that carried the theme of a “woman’s profile,” because I did not see how elemental lines put together in a seeming disorder can depict the women he featured in his work, among other creatures. I saw the light on my first visit, and I returned 4 times more. I was amazed at the breadth of work this artist had created over the course of his life. And it compelled me to pay more attention to his public art installations all over the city of Chicago. I love understanding art, despite the struggle, especially comprehending what the artists is communicating through his work. Beyond Picasso, this year was also marked with multiple trips to this art museum, where I basked in Chagall’s windows many times over and drunk copious amounts of hot chocolate.

Studying on the go was one of the main activities in 2013. I read textbooks on the bus, highlighted academic papers while sipping coffee, studied presentations while eating lunch. In the bleakness of the winter, it was hard to do any other activity. It was a struggle to find joy, especially when your plate is packed with work, school and the minutiae of everyday life… and your environment is devoid of sunshine. Being someone who thrived in the sun, there were times in the winter when I couldn’t recognize myself. Nonetheless, I searched for beauty and found it.

In between the winter and spring quarters, I flew to Texas to lead a team in a social media competition, and we won second place!

Aside from museum trips, I also made sure to party like they do in advertising!

Friends and I celebrated July 4th this year with a delicious barbecue. Celebrating holidays and friendships more deliberately seemed like a recurring theme in the mid-year. I flew to San Francisco to find adventures in the city with my bestfriend Aiza and good friend Tracy.

And I was invited to speak at Stanford GSB to share my career journey and inspire college students!

When I got back to Chicago from SF, I visited my family in the suburbs for our family clan reunion, to meet with family who flew in from the East and West coasts (and Texas)!

And again, parties cannot be avoided when you work in advertising, and I made it to a Lollapalooza pre-bash with Rolling Stone magazine at Paris Club. Oh, and I also saw Janelle Monae (who always puts on a great show!) at The Vic in Lakeview.

2013 Collage 1

2013 has been good for my traveling spirit. I was one of the organizers of a class trip to bring 25 master’s students and 2 professors to Asia. We went around Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo, met with top companies and their marketing executives, and connected with alumni in the region. I stayed in Asia for a week more and went to Singapore and Manila, where I networked with new acquaintances and spent time with family and friends. Perhaps one of the biggest gifts this trip brought me was helping me find, challenged me to redefine and learn how to assert my multifaceted identity (Asian, Southeast Asian, Filipino, American).

A huge thing I did this year was to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to Singapore. It was a grueling process and my application is now in review- a lengthy time period and I’m sure other applications are biting their nails anxiously for the decision as we speak. I’m still keeping ALL my fingers crossed for a positive outcome for this one. My research topic of focus is how media influences identity and how this identity can be turned into power, in the Southeast Asian context.

We welcomed fall 2013 with a homecoming party in Evanston to show our Wildcat school spirit. Also, I played tennis this year, and I wished I went to the gym more but I just couldn’t find the time and energy. I will change this in 2014.

2013 Collage 2

In addition to connect with art through museums, I was invited to go to an art charity event which the Chicago advertising/creative community sponsored. I can say that I have been spoiled by the art gods in 2013. One of the best books I’ve read is Milan Kundera’s identity, which was apropos especially since this topic was a key one to me in 2013.

I had my fair share of networking events, and some of the notable ones include: Emerging Markets Summit at Chicago Booth, Chicago Ideas Week, Design Research Conference, IMC TalentQ event.

I spent the holidays in L.A. with the family and we spent time in Palm Springs, as well as the beaches and Hollywood. I love being at home. My sister and I are currently making plans for 2014, which we’re gonna make sure will even be more spectacular than this year!

Very much looking forward to ringing in the new year! 2014, here I come!

From My Perspective: Defining my Identity

Identity is something I think about a lot. It also appears a lot in my writing, especially lately, and it could be due to my phase in life, the experiences I’ve been having, or the recent events that have awoken my spirit.

I grew up in a country that, while for the most part nationally homogenous (citizens were from the country, not immigrants), was still multicultural. The Philippines is a country comprised of so many different cultures and dialects, depending on which region one belongs. I never had to define who I was outside of how I saw myself: I believed that the way I perceived myself was the same way others perceived me.

Then my family immigrated to the States, and that changed things. I was placed in a neighborhood where they weren’t a lot people who were like me. I had a different upbringing from my classmate. I couldn’t relate to many of the things that connected them: certain topics in pop culture, American slang, inside jokes. There were people who looked like me, but at once very different from me: they were not Filipino, or if they were, they were born in the States. And I felt that I was seen not for who I was as a person, but for the characterizations I was given and the boxes I was placed in. People saw me and placed me in the typical Asian American box: the one who took the hard classes, got good grades and went to prestigious schools. Yes, that all of those are true about me, but I am also so much more.

By the time I was in college, I was very aware that others perceived me first as a member of my race before they consider anything else about me. That prompted me to see them in the same racialized lens through which they saw me: you are made up of your racial stereotypes until you prove otherwise. This assessment of others is acutely inaccurate, and not seeing them as unique individuals denies us of seeing their complex identities, compositions of their being that cannot possibly be fully deciphered in a few class meetings. We went on to be civil with one another, we kept comments that involved race to ourselves, and if we do mention anything that involves race, these are shared through humor that have far too often led to awkward silences or end to conversations.

Many times in college and the years after, I found myself in situations where I’m the only person of color in the room. And I am reminded of this through the dismissive attitude people have toward me, which was illustrated in slight remarks that I am passive and non-participatory, which signaled insensitivity to my plight. I do not know if I’d rather have them notice me for my racial difference, or have them ignore this facet of my identity completely.

In Asian culture, there is this sense of community and often times, I’ve seen Asians give space to others who haven’t participated yet. Sometimes, people’s lack of participation does not mean they are indifferent or do not want to participate; it could be that culturally, they let others speak first so they can listen and offer their thoughts after. I realize that in a non-Asian environment, this does not happen. People always try to make themselves be seen. They pounce at the chance to say something. Whenever I’m with folks who grew up as part of the majority, whether it’s race-related or socio-economic related, they assume that the norms of the culture they grew up in is shared by all. I think the norm is to self-promote, to become the squeaky wheel who gets the grease. I do not feel like I’m invited to contribute nor given the space to voice my opinion. It must be that the way to win this game is to play offense. To assert your opinion at every chance you get. To fight for your voice. To define your own voice before others define that for you. To not stop talking even when there is nothing important to talk about. This is something I would understand deeply this year.

In certain circles, I am the loud one. I was the child who couldn’t stop talking, who was always told to turn down the volume of my voice but never does, or who was bouncing around the room talking to many different kinds of people. Yet in environments where I feel like there isn’t much support nor acceptance of who I am, I feel uncomfortable to speak. My suggestions or comments are often left unheard, or worse, dismissed. I feel like I don’t belong, out of place, or I don’t have the right. I learned this year that we must stop asking the question, “what am I doing here?” but focus on remind ourselves, “I’m supposed to be here.” This is a way to come into any conversation uninhibited and share the gift of ideas and participation– which ultimately benefits the group. Every time I’m in a group– whether meetings at work, in class, or a networking event– I am very much a part of that group and have the same right to express myself as others do.

It turns out, the feeling of discomfort is not some nebulous thing I imagine on my own, but it is evoked in me by the situation I’m in. So whenever I feel this unease about being conscious of my difference, I would think about what beneficial thing I can do with this knowledge of my difference. My difference that is perceived in a negative light by others (“she’s an outsider,” “different,” “not one of us”), is something that I can fully own and actually turn into a positive (“she offers a unique perspective,” “she can bring new knowledge that we don’t know yet”). This led me to remind myself to own my difference every time.

Do understand that this was not won overnight. Defining my difference goes is a continuous process, and it goes beyond racial consciousness. I can list all the ways I am different from others, even those who are members of my race. With that list, I would supplement it with a list of ways I am the same as others, including those from another race. Understanding the makeup of the group, the social structures in place, and your place in all of it is important because it helps you assess the situation in order for you to determine how to act effectively.

In graduate school, I realize I’m one of the very few Asians in my class. I’m not surprised by this, since when I moved to Chicago I was shocked my the size of the Asian American population here, even in the city. For an internationally recognized city, you’d think Chicago would have more representation of Asian Americans. Apparently, that is not the case. In my graduate class, my peers were quite welcoming, and my initial discomfort at the beginning faded and I felt I was very much a member of the group. However, I think sometimes they are unsure of how to characterize me– I am an Asian in the Midwest where they are so few of us, and my classmates may have had limited exposure to people of my race, but I am also a foreigner, someone who grew up in a different country, and who has spent a significant amount of her formative years in another American city.

I went to Asia this past summer, and to my surprise, I felt that in China I was seen more as an American, as part of the class that I went there with. I am indeed, American, but I expected that in Asia I would be seen more as Asian. One thing was clear: I was not seen as being from there. I was not seen by local Asians as one of them. Even my Asian experience in Asia was striated; I was incredibly aware that I was Southeast Asian in East Asia. When I was in Singapore, I felt that others treated me as one of them. In fact, a bakery owner asked me which neighborhood in Singapore I was from, and was surprised when I told her I’m from the States. In Manila, I was told I looked “imported,” which signified that they saw me as someone who was not from there, demonstrating that I was not seen as a local, but a foreigner. Someone from a different land. I was seen as a stranger in the country, the city, I was born in.

If there aren’t many places where people think I belong in, then where do I stand? What do I call home? Who makes that call? If people don’t know which group I belong to when they interact with me, then who owns me? If people from my very place of origin don’t even see me as belonging in their place with them, then to which group do I belong?

I am part of a group of people who share my experience of living in a variety of cultures across countries and cities. I am a Third Culture Kid. If nothing else, I am part of a group that recognizes that identity must be asserted. You reserve the right to shape your own image of yourself, and preempt others from doing it for you. It is a constant battle. And an invitation to participate in conversations with people different from you will never be given, it must be fought for with the courage gained from defining, fully owning, and asserting your own identity.

Drawn to Beauty

I was at the Art Institute today. Museums have been a habitual destination of mine over the years. This year has been a particularly eventful one for my museum visits, as I must have gone there about 20 times. Today was my last visit for the year since I’m flying to California in three days.

I brought a book with me to read, because all I really wanted to do was to was sit in the museum lounge and bask in the gray brightness of the snow emanating from outside the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that mark the perimeter of the Modern Wing. I drank my share of coffee, hot chocolate, and even had a very satisfying and elegant carrot soup for lunch. After a while, my mind was saturated and I couldn’t focus on the book that I was reading because for some reason I just couldn’t block out the chatter from those who are there with their friends and significant other. Either they were talking too loudly, or that I came with an open mindset to absorb the beauty in the museum that I was also inadvertently taking in the noise being created by others.

Making my way out of the museum, I passed by some cycladic figurines, which were beautiful and delicate, and I thought, I should pay another visit to the work of some of my favorite painters. I asked the museum docent where “La Grande Jatte” was and he pointed me to the main building. I marveled at the impressionist works of Monet, Rodin, Seurat and I took away new insights from the work that I’ve seen repeatedly in the past. Isn’t it uncanny how you can take many looks at a piece of art at varying times, and see wildly different things?

What resonated with me today was Claude Monet’s series, “Stacks of Wheat.” In his series of 25 works (10 of which are housed at the Art Institute) along with a short caption containing some quotes from the artist, he talked at once about the power of iteration in his work as a painter, humility developed in man when he realizes his falling short to the work of nature no matter how much he has ascended, as well as the relationship between an ever-changing, elusive truth and the prevalence of permanence.

stacksofwheat

Per the caption:

Seen together, as the artist intended, the series presents a world without one fixed appearance, infinitely changeable with the light and atmosphere. Yet the primeval architecture of the wheat asks, thatched to resist the wind, rain, and snow, endures throughout.

As I was looking at this piece of art, I can’t help but reflect on some of the questions I’ve been asking and observations I’ve been noticing. I’m drawn to art, and it draws emotions out from me. It can change your mood, transform your thinking and tweak the way you behave. It has the same power as a piece of advertising, but these two sides are diametrically opposites. Advertising is so vulgar, a sell-out, a manipulator, compared to art that provokes, makes a statement, and offers a voice to what is unspeakable.

And, lest we forget the elephant in the room, this series was like holding up a magnifying glass to me, affirming that I am changing, it is inevitable, and while I ride the change while resisting forces that keeps me off track from my goals, the only way to find out if I’ve made the right choices is to document my evolution and course correct at critical moments.

Identity

It is known that identity is a recurring theme in my writing– ask the professors who’ve mentored me, my friends who’ve been the audience of my thoughts around this, my blog readers who have read posts after posts about this topic. I never get tired of it especially since it explains so many things in life: people’s attitudes, behaviors, and connections revolve around this topic.

There were many points raised this past week that prompted me to think about it more deeply. This year, really, has been a key period in my life where I’ve reached a new level of understanding of identity at a personal level. Before then, most of my ideas revolving around identity lived in the realms of the intellectual, academic and literary. Now, I pick up elements from everyday life that adds to my perspective on it. It is a continuous, evolving, indefinite learning.

Typhoon Haiyan

News about Typhoon Haiyan this past week inadvertently led me to think about identity further. The typhoon caused major damage in Tacloban, a town in the island of Leyte, as well as the areas surrounding it. People lost many of the important things in their lives, both material and immaterial: their houses, cars, businesses, their children, spouses, relatives. For some, they lost entire families. How do you deal with the aftermath? I cannot begin to fathom, from emotional, geopolitical, societal, economic and logistical standpoints. I don’t have family there, and I don’t know what those that do are going through.

It was all over major news outlets around the world. Headlines, articles, videos, social media posts…. it was everywhere. It broke people’s hearts. Many of those who paid close attention to the news scrambled and organized their own fundraisers to accumulate funds they could send. For them, any small thing helps. I am truly grateful for these people, especially those who have no previous relations to this country, yet had been so vocal and active in their support. Thank you.

As the news coverage was going on, and people around me consumed news on their devices, my friends reached out to me with concern in their voices and messages. Our company CEO pledged to donate money and sent out internal communications encouraging others to donate as well. Our Manila office is putting together major efforts to help.

Beyond those who I knew personally, I also got attention from those who I didn’t know. I felt that people acknowledged me more on the streets. They smiled at me more, they offered more niceties, they looked at me more and wondered if I was Filipino. They must have wondered if I had family in that area, if I knew anyone from there, and if I’ve heard from them. People asked where to donate. I did not know where to direct them, but something is better than nothing, so my usual response would be to point them to an international organization. But I have to say, when I do that, in the back of my mind, I really wish they can help through another means because I don’t know how much impact their dollars will have. And I want their donation to have that impact.

Honestly, the extent of my relation to the disaster is limited to the fact that it plagued my fellow Filipinos, and shook the country as a whole. I didn’t know anyone from there. My family is from areas north of the calamity. I want to help, but I don’t know if donating money to international relief organization is the best way to help, given the inefficiencies and bureaucracies with these organizations. That is a whole other issue that I will tackle at a different time. But I know there is a better way somewhere that allows those who want to help can help. A more efficient system to get donations, monetary and in kind. I know it won’t be through aid organizations. It will be a disruption of that system… to better serve people. I have a feeling it will revolve around mobile devices and community. I hope we will see that innovation soon.

These are the readings that sparked my pondering about identity this week:

Boundaries

Today was a great Sunday.

I woke up early feeling well rested. I prepared to go downtown for church, and had a coffee and croissant afterward. I like reflecting and thinking things through during Sundays. This is one of the few times we have when we’re able to look back at our decisions, weigh our present options, especially in today’s world where time alone is scarce.

My reading today took be to the topic of boundaries. It laid out the definitions of boundaries across various categories as well as how to identify issues associated with their lack. Boundaries are mechanisms we put in place that is tied to our sense of self. It allows us to establish who we are in relation to others, it marks the separation of the places in us that we hold dear, and the outside world. These “boundaries” are concepts that are not fixed, and they can change given the situation, people and setting. 

This is a critical topic to explore growing up. For me, I’ve always had an intuitive sense of boundaries, but it is only now that the lines are become more clear. I think it is when we’ve defined our own boundaries that we have the opportunity to decide how flexible we want them to be.

From our youth, the boundaries we have were directly learnt from our parents. They’re like guardrails that help guide us to the right path. We know that being present in all class meetings is right, and skipping school is wrong. We know that A’s are good and must be displayed in our report cards, and getting anything less is bad. 

Then we step into the real world, where it’s chaotic. People you meet do not have the same sense of right and wrong. Wrong can pass as acceptable. It happens all the time. I had a hard time dealing with this, and I think I continue to struggle with this realization. For me, there are just certain things that are wrong. Exploiting the weakness of others is one. Leading people to conclude what you want them to think even when you know it can potentially hurt them is another. Pushing to get yourself in front of the line at the expense of others is also prevalent. This is the environment of the corporate world, and everyone who is still in this game knows this to be true. In fact, for them, this may be an non-issue. Everyone just accepts this as the nature of the beast.

More than ever, I feel gratitude for the goodness that permeated my youth. I was set on the correct path, with such a strong sense of right and wrong. It’s tough to know if having this instinct is a good or bad thing. I ask myself, am I too rigid? Or do I just have strong convictions that I want to assert because I deeply believe them to be true and well intended for everyone? There’s nothing like the real world to show you that life is a gradient palette. It is not completely binary. And I understand that. Yet I want to place my feet firmly on a ground that is inherently good, pure and true. Accepting that life is a gradient makes me nervous. This is probably how people end up on the wrong side. They trade their conviction to get what they want. For example, if someone on your team proposes an idea that is too risky and can lead to negative consequences for the group, but you know that getting on this person’s good side will help you get promoted (or that thinking differently will set you off a different direction from what the team wants), you will probably support this person’s idea and start questioning if your instinct is really on target. Of course this is just an example, but it is not far from what actually happens day to day at our work places.

If truth is relative, to which direction do you set your compass? What is true north?

I’m still trying to figure this out.

Boundaries need to be defined at some point in one’s life. Sometimes it comes naturally, while for more complex applications of it require trial and error. Undefined boundaries are imprisoning, and dangerous since we may assume all of us work with the same sense of boundaries. We may place ourselves in others’ shoes when they are in need, but we also need to keep in mind that we need to keep our emotional involvement to a certain level so we can be objective for them and be able to listen and help. Also, defining our own boundaries help to hone our internal radars so we know when we’ve deviated from them, and then we can decide if we’d accommodate or stand our ground. Boundaries are empowering. With them, I can defend and fight for myself. I know when and how, and understand better what is involved.

I think these are good questions to ask. It’s part of clarifying my purpose, values and things that are meaningful to me. I’d like to keep track of how I’m mulling over lthese questions in order to live them to get through the answers.