Category: My Life

Forgiveness, A Personal Contemplation on White Supremacy and Asian American Identity

I’m lucky to be in a place in life where I can go to therapy regularly.  It started a few years ago when traumatic events entered my life.  After months of coming to terms with the horrors, I found myself in a new but recognizable place.    I had arrived back at myself.

The old me before the wounds, the me that had always and will always exist. And the me that wanted forgiveness. 

I did all this hard work to shine a light on the past, so now what do I do? How does the past pull me from the present?  Can I let go and live fully in the present? Can I achieve the clarity I desire?

The past is defined in a lot of ways in therapy, as trauma, as cognitive distortions, as past events, as our whole identity. We think we are real because of the memories our brain has stored. The good and the bad blend together to be the truth. I guess I am really knee deep into that truth.

Enter the #StopAsianHate hashtag.  Watching the video of the Toisanese grandmother howl at her attacker in San Francisco really triggered something deep for me.  It brought to light a significant truth I’d been holding on to, a memory of when the world became White for me as a child on the playground. 

It wasn’t just the fists or shoving or name-calling or multiple kids cornering me around the sandy pit of the jungle gym, but the deep othering of my existence in this society of the United States.   Bruised but at least not too bloody, they chanted “Chinese opera woman” as I swore every word I knew at them.

I got on my bicycle and peddled away furiously.  I ran through my mind over and over, how this truth would now come to define my entire worldview, as if I must now endure the unendurable for the rest of my life.  

I was a young child trying to settle this disturbing idea that I didn’t belong, maybe never belong.

It was probably the start of turning the lens onto myself in negative ways. I couldn’t be proud or comfortable being a child of Chinese immigrants, I was sort of this ambiguous blob of being. 

Even though my school and neighborhood was primarily white, I had for a while simply understood I was a unique person in a collective. I remember aligning myself with other classmates with fully European names, the Swedish girl, the Irish boy, as if I lived in the United Nations.  For a time I emulated them in creative arts and sports.

Body image, self-image, self-judgement, it all neatly ties itself back to this beginning of being othered and gazed upon.

The early 1990s wasn’t an enlightened time, and I have to accept that nobody knew the answers then. In the vein of all self-help advice to “live in the now”, why do I continue to judge myself against the expectations of a child. The child didn’t know, couldn’t know, and it’s time to put those conclusions to rest.

I can’t banish the Whiteness that is perpetually this country’s foundation, nor can I ignore its effects on my life and Black lives. But to move ahead means banishing one’s perceptions and self-limitations of that supremacy.  It is a paradox of survival.

Of course I do not mean to forget it does not exist, or that it has a history, or what it does today, but to understand how it holds you in the past, is no longer important. What letting go of White Supremacy is for you will be vastly different and meaningful. 

Simply, I can’t bear to hold the victimhood any longer.   It strangles me and creates a story that insidiously leads me back to pain.   There will be attackers in the future, but if I defend myself from that child’s worldview, I will already be down for the count.     

Instead, I’ll take that child’s strength to defend themselves, to defend their honor, to protect their inner truths.  Transfer power from the past to your present moment and as Eckart Tolle says, forgiveness will become unnecessary.

I think about the bullies in the playground and wonder what came of them, perhaps they’re now part of “militias” and alt-right groups.  Then again, I wonder how did they even find out about Chinese opera in a middle class suburb before the internet.   Perhaps, people learn.    

I also think about the friendly classmates who I admired in those early days.  I’m thankful to see some have become prominent officials in charge now and even advocated for black lives publicly.   I guess these geriatric millennials might have a chance at turning things around.

Waking Up in the ICU

Eight years ago I woke up in the ICU after three days of being sedated in a coma on a ventilator. The only memory I have was going to sleep on the surgery table, darkness, and a few seconds of the tube being extracted. In reality this story should be about how my adrenalectomy went terribly wrong and I could have died, but because I have no memory of any of that, all I have is my ICU experience. When the stories of COVID patients emerging from ventilators started hitting news feeds, I couldn’t help but pay attention. I had gone through all this so long ago and yet it still felt fresh in my mind. Last year in the midst of therapy I finally obtained the San Francisco General Hospital report, finally putting two and two together.

I remember the kind nurse who kept vigil over me. She had been recording each day, no change and good oxygen levels. From her point of view I had been under her care for three days now. She immediately shared what happened, eager to answer my questions and give me perspective. “Do you know what happened?” Of course! I had an adrenalectomy and I should be able to go home soon. The laparascopic had become open surgery. The right side of my abdomen ached, I opened my gown to see a large slash across my body from front to back. Metallic stitches precariously clung at the thick folds of skin.

She showed me a blood infusion bag, I had received nine packets or up to five liters of blood replacement. That would have been bad.

The strange thing is after this horrific revelation, I was calm. Somehow I reasoned that I couldn’t do anything about it. Getting angry would be pointless especially toward the nurse who had nothing to do with it. The strong IV drip of painkillers helped. I think I remember the surgeon checking in but not really exchanging words with me. I don’t think that would have been a good idea.

I probably got high off the oxygen cannula in my nose. It was so soothing and nice. I really wanted to adjust the bed and find a better position but keeping the wound steady was my main priority. The day went by, no hunger, just irritability. My family visited shortly in the ICU but quickly reasoned it was better to wait until I was a little better.

Then I was transferred to SF General’s “triage” basement because there weren’t rooms available for me to move to. I remember helping out maneuver the large ICU bed and the attendants being surprised how much strength I had. The many patients in triage were in various states of being on their way in and out. The hospital was under massive renovation at the time, so I figure the main room might be offline. Curtains were pulled and reconfigured depending on who was there.

I soon found out this triage room was chaotic. Here I am aching “in pain” and men and women were screaming about a wound or on drugs. The noise got so intense I thought I was being intentionally tortured and I cried out to the attending doctor to silence it. The ICU room was a luxury hotel compared to triage. I got ear plugs but listening to myself breathe ironically got to be too much. I became depressed and stopped trying to train my lungs to breathe again. The doctor turned the oxygen back up but warned me to keep breathing.

Being hooked up for days to an IV drip made me feel like a cyborg.

If anyone ever asks what it’s like to not be able to breathe, basically take a 1 second in and out breath through the chest only.

For the longest time the voices were droned out by a Cantonese auntie being prepared for surgery. I could see the doctor attending to her was also Chinese but she only spoke Mandarin. These were the early days of the Hong Kong anti-Mainland movement and I was incensed that she didn’t speak our language living in the Bay Area. The doctor called in the translator service, holding an iPhone on speaker phone between her, the auntie and two other doctors. It was kind of hilarious because the auntie asked why she didn’t speak Chinese. The doctor spoke to the translator and the translator tried her best to communicate medical speak. But it’s not the same! So much was kind of just inferred that this surgery is risky and just deal with it. After a while the auntie got tired of it and I laughed.

I remember having to re-explain my situation when new doctors came into take rounds. It was frustrating, isn’t there a record of all this? I guess medicine protects the patient by continually re-interpreting the situation so that the grapevine doesn’t dilute the information. By that time it was doctor number five, who knows what the previous ones wrote down.

Eventually I was moved to my “home” room where I spent two more days. This was a proper hospital room, shared with someone. My roommate was a middle-aged guy who wasn’t spending much time there, I think he had a wound or something. Eventually he was replaced by an elderly man who didn’t talk at all.

I was much more lucid by now and self-administering painkillers with the push of a button. The surgeon finally visited and basically talked over me. I didn’t have the energy to engage him the way I wanted to but I recognize he was trying to avoid a confrontation. I never actually called him up and regret that today. He’s still around but he hasn’t responded to emails. My endocrinologist who had been following the whole ordeal in real-time paid a great visit. He said he watched it go down and was terribly sorry. Really I owe the “cure” to him, getting surgery approved was difficult, regardless of the outcome.

My family again visited and this time it was everyone, mom, aunts, uncles, cousins, my sister. I don’t really remember what anyone said. Then my close SF friend came to say hi, the only one, and she was very brief but it was so endearing. She really didn’t need to come by. I’ll never forget that.

I learned to be humble in that room. As a 29 year old who thought he was was strong and intelligent, I could barely lift myself out of bed. After finally having my first meal, which tasted like nothing, I had a bowel movement all over the sheets. I was given a bed pan. Later the nurse who came to clean that out made a shrieking noise at the smell. I was so embarrassed and yet there was nothing I could do. I felt shamed and helpless. A very eccentric housekeeping staffer came to clean and wipe the walls down which added to the bizarre situation.

Yes the Bay Area has its own brand of milk.

Eventually I was given the go ahead to return home. I remember the moment I got into the wheelchair it was like the life was sucked out of me. I was exhausted and breathless. My heart raced every time I had a major change in position, causing me to worry if I was going to have a heart attack. The crammed construction catwalk was unpleasant but finally I was wheeled free into the pick-up roundabout. The feeling of the fogged over sun and wind was nourishing on my skin.

That was the end of my ICU and hospital stay journey. Of course it was the beginning of recovery which is another story. To this day really all I feel that summarizes the experience was the kindness of the ICU nurse, the first human I saw after what seemed like eternity. My stay was short, really a blip compared to coronavirus patients and I can only imagine the months to years it will take to get back to baseline. For a month I literally did not have proper breathing, and the muscles were all unbalanced for months after. I hope sharing this story gives someone peace of mind that they are not the only knows who have suffered and know that healing is a lifetime journey.

Living With My COVID Neighbor

Late on Friday my building management emailed us to say that a resident reported they tested positive for COVID-19.

I was shocked.

Then I was like, wait, I have been living the past month as if someone in my building of 300 souls already had it. For weeks when I ventured out to do laundry or fetch mail I don my surgical mask and creep around door handles and railings as if they were coated in coronavirus.

Why suddenly with confirmed news does it seem so much scarier.

The psychology of threats is that we prefer to see relatives than absolutes. The relative threat of coronavirus before confirmation today was knowing that everyone was taking precautions and that we as a community would safeguard each other by doing so. The numbers of confirmed cases were just news. My ward has reported the second lowest cases in the city, less than 1% of the ward’s population!

But now all of that is truly fiction and all I see is one big absolute, the threat is verified to be here and now. I feel compelled to take some kind of action, as many who experience gun violence first hand become the bearers for legislation action.

The reality is the DC government has already given us action. We socially distance, we sanitize surfaces, we wash our hands, we think twice before touching anything. We’ve been prepared from the start to do the things that we would do if coronavirus was already around us.

Without this preparation or heightened awareness weeks earlier, we’d likely already have an outbreak of community transmission here in these brick walls by now. We all have to interact with door pulls and elevator buttons.

For a week now I have been hearing a telltale dry cough echoing into my window. I don’t think it’s on my floor, but even so, I have to act like it is. My next door Italian neighbor had flu and dry cough for at least two weeks (as far as they knew). I interacted with them once even, and could hear them coughing next to my wall. Their symptoms have cleared and they are in good spirits, I didn’t get sick from that.

There is uncertainty over aerosolized coronavirus in public settings. No doubt the confirmed case neighbor will be filling their unit with virus for a few days. Most of it will fall to the ground after a few hours. Even though coronavirus can be aerosolized, it’s not certain if we will have SARS like building outbreaks. We have yet to see these stories in New York City where everybody lives in tight apartment spaces, but time still has yet to pass given the virus incubation period. There certainly would have been such a story out of Wuhan if it had happened, so far we’ve only seen outbreak stories occur in sustained close quarters (ie: churches, choir rehearsals, bus coaches, etc).

With all these unknowns, the day to day for me will be pretty normal. I will still don a mask, carry sanitizer, and use napkins on door handles in my hallways. I might choose to do laundry earlier in the day. But I’ll probably be more vigilant about washing hands AND face when I come back into my unit, just to avoid any “crumbs.”

While those scary SARS outbreak stories are in the back of my head, I feel at this point, we have a working understanding of how to live with and near corona.

I’ve been busy!

Me pointing at our Smartwalk feature for TransitScreen in Minneapolis.

Hey fam, I’ve been rather busy at TransitScreen lately. Sorry this blog has been rather neglected. Since the last post, I’ve had to become an Angular 1 ninja overnight and a Karma unit testing fiend. In addition it’s rather amazing what you get out of user testing!

I hope to get back and share some of my thoughts on asynchronous land and user interface design.

Have a wonderful Holidays!

From San Francisco to Washington D.C.

Shrink-wrapped Capitol

Shrink-wrapped Capitol

It’s been a week here in the beautiful, sunny, and humid District of Columbia (slash Arlington, Virginia). In all my years I have never been to the nation’s capital and it’s odd to finally see it all in real life. Washington D.C. is often cited in foundational urban planning and geography courses given that it was one of the earliest grand endeavors to fully plan an American city. L’Enfant’s plan introduced French sensibilities and diagonal avenues into our austere grid system.

The internet is full of delicious historical tales on the controversy of D.C.’s city plan so I won’t try to pretend I’m an expert on this.  For the most part, the city still maintains the Baroque underpinnings of ornate architecture, spacious gaudy plazas, and grand wide avenues punctuated by scenic vistas. (“Dresden: Making of a Baroque City” by @ralphharrington). Turning a corner, I’m awestruck by the rising Capitol (covered in scaffolding), neatly centered on spacious Pennsylvania Ave. Even small statues like Dupont Circle bring about a sense of wonder and folly. I thought I’d be giddy about the traffic circles (roundabouts in MN lingo), but they’re very wide and thus well integrated so they don’t seem so unusual or revolutionary anymore.

McPherson Square and Mr. McPherson himself. The square is a transit hub terminus for buses.

McPherson Square and Mr. McPherson himself. The square is a transit hub terminus for buses.

I can understand why the West Coast’s Pan-Pacific heritage draw upon Baroque styles and philosophy. The Hogwarts-esque Old Post Office with its Romanesque Revival entryway and clock tower is like many early 20th century towers in San Francisco or Berkeley. The Capitol vista especially reminds me of the Ferry Building. However, as appropriate a design for a federal city, it certainly does not do well for street life.  The streets are perhaps too grand and wide for the pedestrian, and the revival architecture has a foreboding fortress feel.  The closer you move to the National Mall, the more the rising building scale seems to isolate a person.

So I split my days between these granite symbols of our country’s permanence, for the green, tight-knit neighborhoods of D.C.  Interestingly, the row houses here are about as wide (or shall I say squished) as those in San Francisco. A single-family walk-up is a door and four windows.  What’s interestingly absent in D.C.  are vernacular architectural styles that yielded colorful Alamo Square Victorians and Italianate apartment buildings.  Perhaps the 1906 Earthquake had something to do with it, a need for San Francisco to prove itself after literally being leveled. D.C.’s housing on the other hand reflects its relatively early working class upbringing, with the good stuff focused in only particular neighborhoods that served the powerful (“Struggling over history in a gentrifying D.C.”).

Adams Morgan. A Haight Ashbury with actually interesting businesses and unique food. Also the freshest empanadas I've ever had.

Adams Morgan. A Haight Ashbury with actually interesting businesses and unique food. Also the freshest empanadas I’ve ever had.

The neighborhoods have impressed me. They’re sort of a goldylocks between Portlandish and Los Angeles attitudes. The affordable streetcar-era retail spaces allow for gentrifying small bites, coffee, and dessert shops.  Plentiful trees and parks highlight well done streetscapes and sidewalk designs.   There’s also plenty of mid to high-end restaurants with well-crafted concepts situated amongst all this.   And not so surprisingly, these neighborhood centers completely ignore L’Enfant’s plan, situating themselves arms reach out of main drags and transit hubs.  I don’t really see a San Francisco effect in the near future, so hopefully there will remain something refreshing here for everyone.

The glowing red orbs of the Eye of Transit keep those government workers complacent.

The glowing red orbs of the Eye of Transit keep those government workers complacent.

As for transit, I was very impressed. Everyone likes to talk sh*t about their own transit system. I’m amused by unsuckdcmetro because compared to BART, their system is light-years ahead in terms of capacity and service.  DC Metro is ridiculously convenient (stations every 2-3 blocks) and goes about just everywhere relevant.  It’s stations are immaculately clean and people orderly move about.  BART may win the award for frequency and on-time service, but after riding Metro for the first day, I realized I’d rather have a built-out subway system over a single packed line.