cultural assimilation

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 6: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 6 Nani explains how poetry led her to anthropology.

Nani: Through Kyger’s influence I started reading Snyder, who’s a big advocate for anthropology. His work taught me the importance of knowing where people came from, how they live, and why different groups of people live in such different ways. It felt like foundational knowledge to me. That summer at Naropa I also took a class with Joanne’s friend Peter Warshall. His class also had an anthropological perspective. He took us to a sewage treatment plant to understand how we use water and deal with our waste. He wanted us to think about how our society has evolved to the point it’s at now.

Sarah: Were those experiences what gave you the idea of formally studying anthropology?

Nani: Yes. After a year and a half working full-time at the Learning Assistance Center, I spent a semester at San Diego State, taking prerequisites with the intention of applying to their master’s program in anthropology. But I quickly realized San Diego was not San Francisco. In retrospect I realized I went to San Diego to get away from a relationship that I was trying to end. After six months I returned to San Francisco and started my master’s at SF State.

Grad school was intense. For my thesis work I was drawn to one of the most controversial subjects in anthropology (at least at the time): the repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural artifacts. That exposed me to the ugly side of academic life. I was so surprised that individuals with PhDs could be so wedded to their own view that they would get downright hostile toward each other. The fight was primarily between archaeologists and physical anthropologists on the one side, and cultural anthropologists on the other. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists study the past by examining human remains and cultural artifacts, while cultural anthropologists study the present by working closely with present-living peoples, such as Native Americans. Because of their beliefs, many (though not all) Native Americans oppose the study of their ancestors’ human remains and cultural artifacts. One of the primary issues in the battle was that the two groups adopted polarized stances even though actually, even within each group, there was a range of perspectives and opinions.

Untitled.jpg

Sarah: How did you cope with the situation?

Nani: I tried to be diplomatic. Even now I still see both perspectives—although I lean toward cultural anthropology, because if you look at the history of physical anthropology, it’s pretty ugly. The physical anthropologists at U.C. Berkeley, including the renowned Alfred Kroeber, took some deeply problematic stances, from saying that the brains of Anglo Saxons were more powerful than those of other ethnicities, to removing Native American artifacts without permission. They excavated something like 2,000 remains of individuals—that’s still in contention to this day.

Untitled.jpg

I learned so much about the history of various Native American cultures. I hadn’t even known that Native Americans were the original inhabitants of North America. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. That narrative was never presented in Indonesia, given the suppression of critical thinking I described earlier. The Indonesian government didn’t want indigenous Indonesians to be aware of struggles by indigenous populations in other parts of the world.

Ultimately three factors led me to decide to not pursue a doctorate degree. First of all, I didn’t like the politics of the academic world—though I later learned that every field has politics—I just needed to learn the skills to cope with it. Also, as someone who is not Native American, I felt a little out of place speaking about Native American rights and traditions. And finally, I saw the pressure to be a good academic, strive for tenure—for example by writing papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Next: You Just Need to Find a Good Husband

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 5: Poetry Has No Rules

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 5 she describes her discovery of poetry.

Sarah: I think you started studying poetry writing with me right after you began working full-time at the Language Acquisition Center.

Nani: That’s right, we met in the fall of 2002.

Sarah: What drew you to poetry?

Nani: I’d read Charles Bukowski in one of my undergrad classes. Back home in Indonesia, poetry had all kinds of rules. When I read Bukowski, I was surprised and impressed that poetry could look and sound like that. “Wow, you can include cuss words and write in free verse about daily stuff!” I saw a flyer in the campus library about your poetry workshops and consultations. I was curious. When I first started working with you, if you remember, I didn’t join a workshop—I was too shy. You had put on your flyer that you also worked with people one-on-one, and that appealed to me. Then after you told me more about your workshops, I realized it would feel safe—I didn’t have to be somebody already in order to join.

Looking back, I can see that being in the workshop was such good practice in terms of learning how to express myself in a more public forum. I also paid attention to how you taught the class. All the students were working in different styles, writing different kinds of work. The course readers you put together introduced me to a lot of different kinds of poetry as well. I remember you had us read a poem about Frida Kahlo and you pulled a biography of her off your shelf; it had lots of reproductions of her work. You introduced me to Joanne Kyger’s work too. I was attracted to it for the same reasons I was drawn to Bukowski—the frankness, the dailiness, no rules. I wanted to write like that.

My undergraduate studies in English literature and Language Studies were more externally oriented. That’s where I first realized that people can express their individual visions and others might read that work. Coming from my culture, that was such new, exciting idea. Then in your workshops I was looking internally at what I had to say. The two approaches went hand in hand.

IMG_5434.jpg

Sarah: Tell me about becoming friends with Joanne Kyger.

Nani: After you introduced me to her work, I decided to attend Naropa’s summer writing program, which she taught in. A lot of students wanted to hang out with her but it seemed like they were mostly curious about her personal life and her marriage early on to Gary Snyder. I didn’t feel the need to ask about those things. She told me that she really appreciated that I just wanted to talk about her work. For a while after Naropa we wrote postcards to each other. Then she gave me her email address, and then she invited me to her home in Bolinas. From then on, I visited her about once a year.

IMG_0619.JPG
IMG_0617.JPG
IMG_0610.JPG
IMG_0609.JPG

I felt our deepest connection came mostly in relation to poetry—I appreciated her work, and she appreciated mine. In person, we were very fond of each other, but I now wish we had a deeper in-person connection.  At one point she invited me to stay overnight at her place and I didn’t do it. I feel a little regretful knowing that I could have formed a deeper friendship and mentorship. She was very encouraging about my work. She published one of my poems in a local Bolinas newsletter.

Next: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 4: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. Part 3 of our conversation concluded with Nani attending San Francisco State University and feeling connected to her academic studies for the first time.

Sarah: You were also holding down a job, right? 

Nani: Yes. I became friends with other Indonesian students and they helped me look for jobs. My first job was working as a barista at the university’s Café 101. I was really into it. I loved making the perfect coffee drinks. And I liked the public-facing aspect. I felt cool working there. 

Then I got a waitressing job at a burger joint called The BullsHead, near my brother’s house in West Portal. It’s owned by Korean-American family. I had no experience in waitressing but they accepted me. It’s a very popular restaurant. Suddenly I wanted to be the best server. I even told my dad that my goal was to be a classy waitress at a fancy restaurant. 

A colleague at the restaurant told me that a great server is when the patrons don’t even notice you’re there. I learned so much about that. For example, if patrons are having an intense conversation, there are ways to interject without intruding. 

Untitled.png

I wanted to move up in the restaurant world, so I left Bullshead and went to Olive Garden, next to SF State. I learned how to pair food and wine, which was fun. But it was a very corporate environment, not at all like the mom-and-pop world of Bullshead. You had to show up when they opened at 11am. They could dismiss you any time between 2–4:30pm—but you had to be back at 5:30pm for the dinner shift. 

And the waitstaff were expected to compete with one another. I remember there was a prize for whoever sold the most desserts. I learned to cajole customers using witty comments—“Oh it’s OK, you have room because dessert goes to a different stomach.” I did get into trouble once. I was serving an older white American couple and I kept saying “you guys.” The gentleman gestured to his partner and said, Look at her—do you think she’s a guy? I apologized but then I repeated the term—it was just automatic for me. The second time he was pretty unhappy! 

Untitled.png

Even with the competition to sell, I was making less money than at The BullsHead. My performance started to slip—I didn’t want to be the best server in the world anymore. The store manager said, Nani, when you started you were getting 5+ stars but now you are only earning 4 stars. I didn’t last long. No regrets, though, because I learned a lot about workplace politics. 

Sarah: When I met you, you were working in a tutoring center run by the university. How did that come about?

Nani: When I first arrived and was taking basic English, one of my teachers was a French-American woman. I liked her vibe and felt comfortable with her because English was also a second language for her. A few years later I ran into her on campus and she said she was working at the Learning Assistance Center, which provides free tutoring to students. She encouraged me to apply.

I had my doubts. How could an ESL student tutor native and non-native English speakers? I didn’t think I did well in interview. But I was accepted for the position.

Then I wanted to be the best tutor.

Sarah: Tell me about wanting to be the best at everything you do.

Nani: I remember you once said, Nani, when you want something, you want it now. I tended to move fast and I wanted to be the best, but then if I wasn’t stimulated enough, I lost interest.

I learned a ton working as an English tutor. I felt my managers were more confident in me than I was in myself. Sometimes the director would pair me up with students who had learning disabilities. After a session I would have no idea if the student I’d worked with had gotten anything out of it. But we received training and the managers did sometimes observe.

I worked part-time there, tutoring students in reading, writing, and study skills. When I graduated they offered me a full-time position as an office manager with time built into my week to do some tutoring.

The director of the Center was one of the best managers I ever had. She expressed a lot of confidence in me, and she was compassionate and empathetic. For instance, she noticed that I liked to swim. She said, if you go swimming at lunch and you take a little more than an hour, don’t worry about it. I learned so much from her about how to be a good manager.

That position was a great match for me for a while, but over time I got frustrated by the manual system they used for scheduling appointments. I had learned that you could schedule using computers, which made it much more efficient. I offered my recommendations and was told my thinking was sound, but they were not ready to make the shift. I didn’t realize (and wasn’t patient enough to figure out) that in public institutions, things don’t happen swiftly. It’s not like once you identify a problem and a solution you can solve it overnight.

 Next: Poetry Has No Rules

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 3 of our conversation, Nani describes her initial encounter with U.S. culture and her nascent passion for exercising her analytical skills.

Sarah: What were your first impressions of US culture?

Nani: I was reading an old diary recently and I found observations about exactly that. For instance, I noted that people say “How are you” a lot but, as I learned the hard way, you’re not supposed to pause and really think about how you are—you’re supposed to just say, “Fine.” We don’t say “How are you” in Indonesia so at first I thought people really wanted to know how I was.

I also felt uncomfortable physically. In Southeast Asia, females are supposed to behave in a feminine way, and whiter skin is prized. I’d flunked that test because I wasn’t very feminine and was darker-skinned. Here in the US I had to wrestle with a new projection—I was seen by many as exotic. A lot of people—mostly but not only white men—assumed I’d fit the stereotype they had of Asian women as submissive, weak, nurturing. So I’d gone from feeling unattractive to attractive, but attractive in a way that made me feel objectified, uncomfortable. It took me a long time to develop the vocabulary to understand all that.

On an intellectual level I felt pretty stupid. I remember I went with American friends to see a film and one of them asked me afterward, Well, what do you think? Did you like it? I said, Yes, it was cool. The friend said, Why? I had no idea. My critical thinking skills were still very limited. Under Suharto, critical thinking was suppressed in both the public and private educational systems. You were not allowed to think for yourself. That’s why literature wasn’t offered in schools—literature promotes deeper questioning. Before I moved to the States I had never even heard of the most internationally renowned Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. His books were all banned in my time. After I got to the US I sought out Indonesian literature.

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Sarah: What did you major in at SF State?

Nani: At first I declared marketing as my major. I was still enacting the values of my parents and the world I grew up in. After one or two classes I said, this is so boring, I’m not going to do it. But I didn’t know what to replace it with. I had the same old frustration I’d felt in Indonesia—“I don’t know what my skills are; I don’t know what I’m good at.” I went back and looked at my performance at the American Language Institute. I’d excelled in writing and literature. I thought, maybe that’s what I should go for. I ended up double majoring in English literature and linguistics.

After that, I was able to say why I like or don’t like certain movies! I definitely struggled in the lit classes. But I was dating an American at the time. In terms of our communication as a couple a lot was lost in translation, but being with him propelled the speed of my learning. He would help me even with literature stuff, for example if I didn’t understand something I read or when I had to write papers.

Sarah: Why did you want to study linguistics?

Nani: I knew that breaking down the English language—looking at aspects like phonology, morphology, social linguistics—would significantly speed up the process of gaining mastery, which I very much wanted.

All of a sudden I became a proper student. It just proves that if you’re passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, no one even needs to tell you to be disciplined. You just do whatever it takes, providing you have access to the basics (housing, food, etc.), which I did, thankfully. I often went to my professors’ office hours. I would show up with lists of questions I’d prepared in advance.

Next: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 2 of our conversation, Nani describes how a car crash almost kept her from emigrating to the U.S.

Sarah: What led you to come to the States?

Nani: That choice was influenced by the fact that I had two siblings who were already living here. In 1985, when I was five, my brother, who’s 14 years older than I, left to attend college in Connecticut. My sister moved to the US in 1992, also to go to school.

Anyway, fast forward to my teenage years. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t finding my niche. I was such a bad kid, very rebellious.

Junior high.

Junior high.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Sarah: What did “bad” and “rebellious” look like?

Nani: I tried smoking several times—I didn’t even like it but I wanted to be cool. I was skipping school—not a lot, not even every month, but it was a lot by the standards of my milieu. My biggest form of acting out was coming home at night later than the agreed-upon time. I remember coming home at 10:30 or 11 and my dad would be waiting outside, very angry, ready to hit me.

At that time in Indonesia, and maybe even to this day, domestic violence was considered a normal part of family life. Husbands hit wives; mothers and fathers hit their children. Not all families were like this, but my family was, and I knew many peers whose families were the same. I forgave my parents for their part in all that a long time ago. Life is complicated and I believe they did their best in the only ways that they knew.

High school.

High school.

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

Sarah: How old were you when you came to the States?

Nani: Seventeen, after I graduated from high school. My brother who was already living in San Francisco advocated for me to attend university here. My dad later told me more recently that his response to my brother’s suggestion was, Well, this kid is not doing well here; if we send her abroad, she’ll either continue on that path or thrive. They both took a chance on me.

Sarah: What was your mother’s opinion?

Nani: In the back of her mind she was probably thinking, How could Nani ever thrive in a whole new country? Just before I was supposed to come to the US I crashed my parents’ shiny new car, which I’d driven without a license. My mom said, I don’t think we should let her go. I was desperate to leave and I really thought I’d sabotaged the whole thing at that point.

Besides the car crash were other factors that could have kept me in Indonesia. At that time, in 1998, the Indonesian economy was in terrible shape and there were lots of protests. The president stepped down; the US embassy closed. The dollar was three to four times higher than it had been, so studying in the US became way more expensive. I had friends who decided not to go because of that. But my brother had a good job and was prepared to pay for my tuition, have me live with him, give me pocket money.

Sarah: You ended up attending San Francisco State University. Were you already accepted there before you left home?

Nani: No. All I had was an acceptance letter to an intensive eight-week summer language school at the university called the American Language Institute. My visa was only valid for that period, so I could have been asked to go back to Indonesia. But I took the TOEFL at the end of the eight weeks and applied to the university. I met the criteria and was accepted.

Next: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. This is the first in an eight-part interview I conducted with Nani.

Sarah: What’s your current position?

Nani: Currently I manage localization marketing projects for LinkedIn— primarily for the European and Latin American markets.

Sarah: Can you explain what that entails?

Nani: My team, the localization team, partners with marketers in various business units to localize their marketing content and campaigns. That means we translate and localize marketing communications into local languages. Localization requires sensitivity not just to language but also to cultural factors.

Volunteering at MEDA-Cropped.png

Sarah: Help me understand the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Nani: My job comprises two major elements: active project management and relationship building. On the project management front, I make sure all the localized content is delivered on time—I build timelines, coordinate with marketing partners and vendors and manage tickets for all the projects in progress as well as our backlog.

The other part of my work is to drive strategy and plan with our partners. Localization is often thought of at the end of a marketing project, but really it should be planned for up front. Most of the content creators are based in the US and are still accustomed to thinking in terms of a US audience. But once a marketing piece—let’s say, an e-book with a really nice, polished design—has been produced in English, it’s challenging to go back in at that point and figure out how to create a parallel version in German. If the content creators are planning for localization from the beginning, it’s a lot easier.

So I engage with them early in the process and say, OK, it’s going to be hard to localize this image of San Francisco during the World Series for other markets, because it’s so specific to the San Francisco Bay Area. Or, this quote by Tori Amos might not be relevant to people in Germany or Spain. I’ll suggest they find a more globally relevant example. I’m not the final decision maker, and some teams are more receptive to feedback and changes than others. But I work hard to build relationships and stay engaged with our partners, especially the content creators.

Sarah: I’ve known you for most of your adult life, and you’ve explored a number of interests over the years. It hasn’t been a linear path. Yet looking back, it all seems to support what you’re doing currently. I see this conversation as a chance to trace your path with you. Let’s back way up. You grew up in Indonesia—where exactly?

In West Java, in Bandung, the third largest city in Indonesia.

Sixth birthday.

Sixth birthday.

Sarah: Were you thinking one day you’d move to the States?

Nani: As a child, I resisted a lot of the norms, customs, and rules around me. I couldn’t find anything to feel passionate about. I grew up in a community of Chinese Indonesians where people knew each other’s business and talk amongst themselves about the latest thing that so-and-so’s son or daughter has done.

Sarah: Were you insulated from non-Chinese Indonesians?

Nani: I went to the same school from kindergarten through high school—14 years—and about 90 percent of the students were Chinese Indonesians. I did have a couple native Indonesian friends. But as kids, we never explicitly addressed racial issues.

Seventh birthday.

Seventh birthday.

Sarah: Was there a sense in the Chinese Indonesian community of needing to stick to their own due to discrimination by the wider culture?

Nani: That’s a narrative that is real for many Chinese Indonesians. But I also think Chinese Indonesians tend to use that narrative in order to hold ourselves apart. The discrimination is real, it’s there—but sometimes, like many racial issues, the perception of discrimination is tied up with lack of openness to one another.

Maybe I was naïve, but it was very rare that I was directly discriminated against for being Chinese. That might be due in part to the fact that my skin color is darker than that of many Chinese Indonesians. Once a cousin of mine, who like me has darker skin, was out with her friends, who were all Chinese Indonesian. They were mugged by a native Indonesian. When he got to my cousin he stopped and said, I’m not going to do this to one of my own people.

Sarah: So it sounds like you didn’t feel like an outsider so much in terms of the larger culture, but you did feel that somehow you weren’t connecting. Can you tell me more about that?

Nani: I felt like I had to conform to what was expected of me, but I didn’t want to. I did very poorly in my first decade of school; I just wasn’t interested. The subjects emphasized in the Indonesian educational system are life sciences and math. I felt pressure from my parents to be like some of my cousins, who excelled in those subjects.

Eighth birthday.

Eighth birthday.

I also felt pressure from my peers and family to be a certain type of girl, very feminine and materialistic. People were wearing a lot of American brands—Guess, Esprit—they were eager to catch up with all these Western materialistic obsessions.

On the other hand, I loved watching and imitating English-language TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and a Canadian series called MacGyver, about a resourceful guy who gets himself out of crazy situations. The emotional language is so different—Indonesians don’t speak about their emotions the way people do in North America. I’d hang out by myself in my bedroom and practice talking like these characters, saying things like, “How do you feel?”

Next: Such a Bad Kid

The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the final part in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. In Part 4, Joann described her transition from health care to program evaluation and how her path led her back to her alma mater.

Sarah: Tell me about your current job—it has a long, fancy title.

JoOffice.png

Joann: Yeah, it’s a mouthful: Program and Organizational Effectiveness Director at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. My role involves assessing the impact of Stanford’s public service and civic engagement programs for students. The work involves data analysis, identifying what’s working well and what can be improved.

S: How do you go about doing that?

J: We collect data through different surveys that ask questions like, “How satisfied were you with this experience? What skills or insights did you gain? How has this impacted your career or academic trajectory?” In addition, we may conduct focus groups, immediately after the students’ engagements end or a number of years later. We have also started looking at trend data.

Stanford has gone through a major shift in how we contextualize service programs. Thirty-plus years ago, Stanford’s President Don Kennedy recognized the value of a life in public service and initiated efforts to better understand the different ways students engage in service at Stanford.  This process revealed the need for greater institutional support. Without that intention, university administrations and students can lose sight of the value of service. Ultimately, the university established Stanford’s Public Service Center in 1985. Since then, we’ve always offered service opportunities at varying levels including fellowships for domestic and international placements where students work with community organizations or engage in public service that links theories learned in class with practical application in the community.

Two years ago, just after I came on board, the university launched an initiative that ramps up its already strong commitment to infusing service into all aspects of an undergraduate education.

The Cardinal Service Initiative has four components. Cardinal Quarter is an immersive, nine-week public service experience at an organization for at least 35 hours a week. There are funds available to support students to participate regardless of their financial situation. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a survey to identify areas of the program that work well and areas that need improvement, in order to understand which aspects provide a really meaningful experience for the students and the community partners.

Cardinal Courses integrates service learning into an academic setting and links students with hands-on service opportunities with community organizations. Also, students who meet certain criteria can apply for a Cardinal Service notation on their transcript. The university’s support and approval to incorporate this notation on students’ transcripts is a major milestone in acknowledging the importance and value of students engaging in public service.

Cardinal Careers provides advising and other programmatic elements that strive to link students with opportunities to explore work in the public interest either as a primary job or in a volunteer capacity. And Cardinal Commitment, the newest component, addresses the fact that many students are already doing service in a regular way, for example tutoring youth on a weekly basis or working on an advocacy or social issue, like the environment and climate change. Through Cardinal Commitment, we’re recognizing that contribution.

We hope incoming students will choose Stanford because service is an integral part of the University’s culture and Cardinal Service has been infused in our admissions and outreach materials.

Jo and colleagues

Jo and colleagues

The Haas Center for Public Service

The Haas Center for Public Service

S: How’s it been being back at your alma mater in this new capacity?

J: As an undergrad, my home at Stanford was the Haas Center. So it’s amazing to be working there now.

But as much as I love Stanford and the Haas Center, it’s not always easy being in a bastion of privilege. There are times I wonder if I might have a greater impact in helping others by returning to work with a community organization. The past two years since Trump was elected, I’ve been heartbroken and shocked to see that privilege and entitlement runs deeper than most well-intentioned white people are even aware of. The racism my parents had to endure is stronger than ever. Sometimes I tell colleagues I’m scared I’m going to become this angry person of color who shuts down and can’t listen. Yesterday I was at Whole Foods, buying a honeydew melon. Good Chinese shopper that I am, I was searching for the best fruit. I spotted one at the bottom of the pile so I was carefully stacking all the other melons to one side. Someone behind me said, Watch out, someone’s behind you. This woman was hovering. As soon as I uncovered the melon I wanted, she reached and took it. I said, Oh, I was going to take that one. She looked at me and turned and walked away with the fruit. I wanted to say something nasty to her about being an entitled white being. I’ve never wanted to say something like that in the past. Then I reminded myself, Jo, it’s a melon!

JoannMelon.jpg

By the way, if my dad had been in my situation, he would have cussed her out! Butchers swear a lot. My brother points out that my father always spoke English with a Chinese accent—except when he swore.

S: How’s it going with work-life balance?

J: I’m back to full-time work. But I’ve gotten better at setting clear boundaries. I’ve learned to say no when I feel I need to and am more direct with requests regarding my needs as they’re aligned with my principles and values. Faith now plays a significant part in the way I view my work. I see what I do as ultimately God’s plan, so I’m not as invested in trying to control things as I was in the past.

S: When you say faith, do you mean Christian faith? Do you consider yourself a Christian?

J: Over time, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and reconnecting with my spirituality. I identify as Christian; I believe in Christ. This is a whole other conversation, but I have issues with Christians who use their faith to push their agenda, particularly political agendas. That’s not what it’s about for me. My perspectives are influenced by how my piano teacher carried herself as a Christian and how she treated others. I’m aware that my time here is temporary, and I view the gifts, opportunities and challenges in my life as part of a plan I can’t even understand. I go to church, and Fred and I are united in wanting to have a home that’s based in faith.

S: You mentioned to me in a recent email that you’re mentoring a group of Stanford students. What’s one thing you want them to know?

J: Embrace change—recognize the importance of flexibility and fluidity, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And know that things really do work out. If someone had asked me 20 years ago whether I’d be working at Stanford now, I would have said, No way! I live by the mantra, Follow your passion. Hone in on what sparks joy and excitement—what you feel a connection to. Don’t be afraid to explore it; develop experiences that honor it. Whenever I’ve tried to work just for money, I didn’t enjoy it. Work has always been far more fulfilling to me if it brought me joy and provided me with a meaningful way to contribute and support others. That’s when I’ve thrived and done my best.

The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the fourth in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. Part 3 ended with Joann describing her focus in grad school on the relationship between HIV infection and domestic violence.

S: What drew you to work on domestic violence?

I knew of cases of domestic violence in my own community growing up. In one case I even knew of a death that resulted from domestic violence. Over time I recognized that this was a real issue in the Asian American community—as in so many other communities. I felt called to address it.

S: Tell me what happened after grad school.

J: I’d been planning on working on the international stage but my thinking was shifting. I saw a lot of Asian Americans going into medicine, engineering, law—not so much public health. Yet there was a huge need, domestically. I witnessed this close to home—my dad’s sister was a garment worker who never learned English; access to health care was an issue for her family. So when I finished grad school I got a job working as a development director at a San Jose organization that serves Asian Americans. I later became director of their programs that oversaw a range of services including programs for seniors, youth, and survivors of domestic violence. It was great way to apply my public health background, but there was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and some of organizational dynamics of the agency. I ended up leaving, without another position lined up.

IQuitMyJob.png
Jo&HerMom.png
JosMomMothersDayBrunchFiloli.png

Amazingly, right after that happened, a job opened up at Asian Health Services. It was the same position I’d applied for earlier, and they asked me to come in for an interview but by that time I had already accepted a position at the San Jose organization. This second time around, though, the timing was perfect! I was hired to work for Asian Health Services and stayed there 13 years.

S: Why did you leave?

It was a very tough decision. I had thought I’d continue working there till retirement and really loved the people I worked with. But there was a transition in leadership and I wasn’t totally aligned with the values of the new team. As I mentioned earlier, I’d always been raised by my parents to stick to my values and principles—especially living with integrity. So I felt I had to leave.

I knew my mom would be ecstatic at the news, because she always felt I worked too hard and wasn’t treated very well. My long hours had taken a toll on her, too, because I depended on her a lot for child care. On Mother’s Day we took her out for dim sum and I gave her a box with the question, “Guess what?” on the outside.  When she opened the box, an image of balloons, stars, and a party hat greeted her along with the messages, “I quit my job!!!” and “Happy Mother’s Day!”  She looked at me, her eyes brightened, the tears fell. She thought I’d finally made the decision to put family first.

 

Goofing around post-quitting.

Goofing around post-quitting.

Jo&Samantha.png
Jo&Nicolas.png

But as it turned out, I didn’t even stop working! Someone from another health care organization immediately asked me to work with them as a consultant. I realized I wanted to remain connected to community and service; I couldn’t just stay at home. So I consulted for this organization for the next year and a half.

S: That was your last job before you went to work at Stanford, is that right?

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

J: Almost. I had one more job at another health center in the Bay Area before returning to Stanford.  But I felt an increasing desire to leave health care and work on program evaluation again. I had coffee with someone I knew at the Haas Center and I asked, do you have any needs that I can help out with? She tried to connect me with folks she knew in the health care field and I told her I was actually interested in doing more work with data analysis and program evaluation. She said, Funny you say you’re interested in this area because we may have a position opening up for evaluation in the future. I started volunteering there, and in that same period I interviewed for a curriculum development job at a health center in the Bay Area. The health center offered me the job. I told them, I’ll need to work part-time so I can attend to my kids and to my mom, who has health issues. I’d always put the job first and I was clear that that needed to change. I also told them, Being honest is important to me so I want to let you know that there may be a job opportunity that comes up at Stanford that I am interested in; if this job comes through at Stanford, I will apply for it. They hired me anyway, at a high salary.

That experience showed me the importance of going into a job interview with clarity and resolve. You need to able to say, “This is what’s important to me and if that doesn’t fit with your needs, so be it." Be willing to walk away.

And then six months later, the job came up at Stanford. I applied and was hired in October 2014.

Next Installment: Watch Out, Someone’s Behind You

The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the third in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. At the end of Part 2, Jo described a six-week trip to China shortly after graduation that changed her relationship to her roots.

S: What had been your relationship to being Chinese American up to that point?

The Beijing YWCA.

The Beijing YWCA.

J: As an adolescent, I fought it. My mom would speak to me in Chinese and I’d say, I’m an American, we should speak English. My mom would lay into me: “Joann Wong! You are Chinese! You look Chinese! When people look at you they see Chinese!” I’d look at her like, OK, whatever, I just don’t want you to yell at me any more. I didn’t get it—what can I say, I was a stupid teenager.

S: What effect did this awakening during the China trip have on you?

J: It was pivotal. When I returned to the States, I was determined to work in the Asian community.

At the YWCA I’d had a chance to work on program evaluation and I’d really liked it. Putting that together with my experience in China, I was inspired by the idea of going back to school to study public health, in particular international health, with a view toward doing program evaluation.

I got into Boston University’s public health school and deferred so I could spend a year in Asia. My idea was to find an NGO where I could work on HIV issues while studying Chinese. A program called Volunteers in Asia placed me in Taipei because China wasn’t open about HIV issues—this was 1993.

I had an uncle who lived just outside Taipei, a half brother of my dad’s from his father’s earlier marriage. I didn’t know him; I’d only learned as an adult that he even existed. The idea of developing our relationship was an added draw.

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Attending a conference in Taipei

Attending a conference in Taipei

In Taipei, I spent mornings studying Chinese and evenings teaching English. In my free time I volunteered at an NGO called Living with Hope, which supported families living with HIV/AIDS. Taiwan was a decade or so behind San Francisco in terms of the fear and misinformation flying around. One of my best friends at the NGO was an activist/organizer named Zhang Wei. Inspired by him and other staff there, I went to my first gay rights protest. I’d been such a goody-goody growing up; I’d never protested before. But somehow in Taipei it made sense to me. Zhang Wei said, You’re weird—you support these things that in our culture are so taboo and stigmatized.

When I came back to the US to attend grad school I experienced an intense case of reverse culture shock. I realized how big and loud Americans are compared to life in Taipei. And Boston was another new environment. But I embraced it. When I’d gotten into school in Boston, I thought, I wonder why God is sending me to Boston. And you know how that turned out—I met Fred there!

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

AIDSQuilt2.png
AIDSQuilt1.png

Much  of my grad school work focused on the connection between HIV infection and domestic violence. In 1996 I volunteered as a Logistics Chair with the Names Project to help with their display of the entire AIDS memorial quilt in Washington, D.C. I was on my feet twelve to fourteen hours a day for the duration of the display. I’ve never been as exhausted as I was then. I remember being in tears by the end of one day because my feet hurt so much; as a grad student living on the cheap, I didn’t buy more comfortable shoes! But somehow the incredible love, compassion and support from thousands of people who came to see the panels carried me through. I also volunteered with the Multicultural AIDS Coalition in Boston and with a shelter for survivors of domestic violence—one of the first in the country tailored to Asian women’s issues.

 

 

Next installment: Fireworks and Tears

The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup

I’ve always known that my brother’s wife brother’s wife, Joann Wong, had a cool career. But when we’re in the same room, it’s usually for a family gathering—we’re too busy dishing up food to have a real conversation. Recently I invited her to talk with me about her work. Her vivid storytelling riveted me. And I learned how, by expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, she fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the first of five installments of that conversation.

Sarah: How did you first get enamored of service?

Joann: I always wanted to serve others. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, the product of immigrants who lived through food-shortages and war, and sought something better for their children. I learned from my culture and my family how important it was to support the family unit. But somehow in my mind, “family” expanded to “world.”

S: Tell me about your parents’ experience.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

J: My mom was born in Macau, a small Portuguese territory. During World War II, Macau was initially a neutral area. Refugees from China flooded the tiny island, leading to food shortages and appalling living conditions. Then the Japanese took power. My mom tells stories of how people lined up for rice rations every day. After they left the line, they’d discover that under a top layer of rice the servers had filled the bowls with sand. Early in her life, my mom became sick and lacked proper nutrition. She was so malnourished she lost all her hair. Her grandmother cooked a soup made of mice—so my mother would get the nourishment she needed to grow her hair back. Her grandmother insisted on using field mice, because they’re cleaner than street mice.

My dad was born in Hawaii when it was a US territory. My grandfather had come from China to California where he found work building railroads. Later he went to Kauai, where he worked for the Wilcox family at what is now called the Grove Farm Homestead, as kitchen staff, and he and my grandmother started a family. One day, when my dad was around four years old, my grandfather had his palm read and was told, “You’re going to die in the next five years.” When he heard this, he told his family that he wanted to die in his homeland. So my grandfather packed up the family and moved everyone back to China. My grandfather lived another ten years. My dad emphatically advised us, “Don’t ever believe palm readers!”

Once back in China, my father and his parents lived in a village area called Hoi Ping, outside of Guangzhou. My dad told me less about their living conditions and more about what his father was like. My grandfather was extremely strict, and corporal punishment was typically the discipline of choice. When my grandfather got home from work, if his slippers were not properly set out, someone got hit. If family members talked during dinner, someone got hit.

When my father was 14, my grandfather died from what my dad thinks may have been a heart attack. This was during World War II, when the Japanese attacked China. My father remembers being chased through the fields by a Japanese soldier as a teen. My grandmother was a tough, sturdy woman. She’d walk for miles carrying two buckets of salt slung on each end of a stick that she balanced across her shoulders. She’d walk to the edge of the main road where she could sell the salt, and then walk back home at the end of the day. That’s how she sustained her four children.

S: As immigrants to the US after the war, what work did your parents find here?

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

J: While living in China, my dad’s family stayed in contact with the Wilcox family in Hawaii. When the war ended, one of the Wilcox family members wrote to my Uncle George and advised him and my dad to go to the US Embassy in Guangzhou to try to return to the US since both my uncle and father are American citizens. Ultimately, my dad and his brother returned to Hawaii on a US military ship that was coming back from Guangzhou. They worked for the Wilcox family on Kauai. My dad was a gardener for Sam Wilcox. Sensing more employment opportunities might exist on the mainland, my dad moved to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, he ultimately became a butcher. He dealt with a lot of racism on the job; he was called “Chinaman” and “Chink.” He had to put up a front, act like it was all fine. Ironically, my father’s youngest brother died serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War—we’re a Gold Star family!

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

My mom came to the US at the age of 16 and did well in school, particularly in math. She enjoyed tinkering with mechanisms and figuring out how things work. She wanted to study to be an engineer but didn’t have enough money to pay for a college education. Instead she took classes at a trade school and became a beautician. She worked in a beauty shop at JCPenney for a little over a year, then opened a salon with two other business partners. My mom also experienced her share of discrimination, including a time when one of her clients exclaimed how hearing my mom speak in Cantonese to another customer at the salon gave the client a headache. She asked my mom to stop speaking Cantonese.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Anyway, as a result of my parents' struggles, they encouraged us to work hard, always do our best, stay committed to our family, and get a good education. My father would say, "Don't end up in a situation where others can boss you around. Be your own boss." As a kid, I didn't have many chores; I was expected to focus on my education. When I would offer to help, my mom would say, "No, you go and study."

Next Installment:                             Mom, It's Only a Nickel