or how high school, being an immigrant, and an outsider made me an ecosystem builder.
Molly Ringwald recently wrote a wonderful article about The Breakfast Club for The New Yorker. It was a great trip down memory lane to a time and place when I was trying to figure out who I was and how I ‘fit’. The article was also a good way to look at the things that affected the person I've become.
Let me start by telling you, I’m a first generation immigrant, not once, but twice. My family is from Taiwan and had immigrated to Japan, where I was born. Everyone spoke pitch perfect Japanese, as most of them were educated in Japan, a trait that held high esteem for Taiwanese people, as well as many countries in Asia prior to WW II. The problem, unfortunately, is that the people of Japan don’t value that as highly as others. This was demonstrated in the poignant book by Min Jin Lee (1st high school reference, she attended the same school a few years after I did), “Pachinko”, a National Book Award Finalist. In her remarkable telling of four generations of an ethnically Korean family in Japan, she recounted the complex relationship between different ethnicities who share similar racial traits. Though my family had wealth and lineage in Taiwan and even did business with the renowned pearl merchant, Mikimoto Kokochi, we were never ‘accepted’. In fact, my uncle who married a Japanese woman and stayed in Kobe long after we left, had to take on his wife’s name to engage in business.
While in Kobe, I attended a Catholic school, though I am not religious, because my parents wanted me to learn English. The nuns were pretty strict and swift with their rulers, so I learned quickly and seldom spoke Japanese, my first language, in school.
Living in America….
When I turned six, we left Japan for the US and settled in Flushing, NY. Though I was part of the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants who settled there; back then, I would walk down the street and be the only Asian face you would see. They call New York City, a melting pot, but I always preferred the term “salad”. Melting pot denotes the mixing and coalescing of individuals to form something ooey and gooey that doesn't resemble what it was originally. Salads are a unique new dish made up of different and characteristic ingredients that blend and harmonize to create something that celebrates the medley. NYC, the salad…well, perhaps not the next great slogan.
As wonderful as it was to grow up learning about new customs, religions and food (especially the food!), it was not as easy for me to blend. Being like others is culturally something people strive for, especially true for most teens. Not being Caucasian or European made me less similar to my Jewish, Italian, and Irish friends. My Puerto Rican counterparts were closer to the others, since they were “American” in some fashion. Of course, everyone has a diversity story and we've all felt like the ‘other’ at one time or another. My intention is not to disregard anyone else’s journey, simply to share mine. So, while I was part of the neighborhood, there was also something ‘different’ and I often felt like I was on the perimeter looking in.
I’m from Bronx Science, I must be smarter.
Then came high school…let me back up a bit. When I was in junior high school, my (tiger) mom told me I wasn't going to Flushing High School (which I was zoned for). She said if I didn't make Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, I was going to boarding school. Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, along with Brooklyn Technical High School were 3 of the magnet schools in New York City. There were others that specialized in the arts or aviation, but academically, these there THE place to be back in the day. There was a test to get in and you better believe I did everything I could not to end up in boarding school!
Upon admission to Bronx Science, I commuted 45 minutes in each direction…when I was on time for the bus; otherwise it was an hour and a half to get to school. There were kids from all over the city. The biggest separators weren't race or nationality, it was which part of the city we lived in. The Bronx kids and those from Queens, like me, hung out together for the most part. The ones from Brooklyn had a long train ride and tended to travel in a group at school as well. There were common interests like Spades and D&D that mixed geographies, but the commonality was we were smart (or at least really good at taking tests). In mainstream schools, those who are smart or geeks are usually considered different or weird, in some fashion. They are outsiders in the school culture, not one of the ‘cool’ kids. In a place that consists of nerds and intellectuals, that’s not quite the case. Of course, there are some who didn't feel like they fit in at Science, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a part of something.
Back to Molly Ringwald and John Hughes, who depicted that better than anyone, the haves and have-nots of teens in the 80s. All those characters, the roles, the Brat Pack… exemplifying a generation of those who were IN and the rest of us. One of those was my true life classmate, Jon Cryer, aka Ducky from “Pretty In Pink”. I tell everyone I had the coolest prom, cause Ducky went to my high school. While the latter is true, I can’t even tell you if Jon went to the prom cause, I don’t remember. I know he didn't enjoy school completely, but had a great time in the school play and quickly went onto the Broadway stage after graduation. Ironically, he made a career out of being someone who didn't fit the mold.
Finding my roots and discovering who my people were.
A couple of years later, I left NYC for Taiwan, the country of my heritage. Though I may look to others like one of the locals, none of the locals thought that I was one of them. They would ask me if I was an “ABC”, an American Born Chinese. They thought of me as a “banana”, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. These weren't said in a malicious manner, per se, just relayed as a fact. I was different, not like them. Funny though, all the ex-pats I met welcomed me as one of their own, regardless of their nationality or race. We were all from someplace else and we were a community there. People would ask me where I was from, to which I would answer, “New York”. It was the first time in my life they would just take it at face value, sometimes remarking, “I love New York”, “I've always wanted to go” or something like that. This was the case no matter who asked, locals or the foreigners residing there. In other places and times, the follow up was always something to the effect of, “no, where are you REALLY from?”, as if I was from Toledo, but I just told them New York. Yes, you can argue that they meant to ask my ethnic roots or where my family originated. But in this day and age, could you construct a less offensive question?
So it wasn't the people of my homeland, but the foreigners living in the country with whom I connected. I even married (and divorced) one of them, but that’s a whole other topic.
The three questions.
A few years ago, corporate America and I parted ways. Living in a world judged by other people’s values was not the place for me. Along the way, I worked and volunteered, advocated and planned. As I jumped into the entrepreneurial world with both feet, I joined start up communities and became an organizer for 1 Million Cups (a Kauffman Foundation program). Last year I was invited to the Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit. I had no idea what it was about and honestly blew off the email for a few weeks. They were persistent and I learned it was a convening of ‘ecosystem builders’. What the heck was that? I had little knowledge of what it was, let alone the notion I was one. In fact, I was one of two people in my state be invited to attend, and the other was recognized by the Obama Administration as a Champion of Change. Well, when a multi-billion dollar foundation says you are an ecosystem builder, you pay attention. It was an inspiring experience and it made me assess a lot of my efforts, skill set and values. In doing so, I asked myself and those closest to me, what I was doing when I truly came alive, those moments when my eyes lit up and I was excited. The resounding answer was what I had thought was the answer to question #2, which was: what am I really good at? What I thought was my superpower, was the thing my friends and family said was what I loved to do; bring people together. The next question was about what I am passionate about. I always thought this was more of a social justice thing, but now realize it was about my driving force and values. When I would facilitate workshops about diversity and inclusion, I focused on inclusion because that was the action. Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice. What I now realize, is that belonging was what I was seeking all along, for myself and everyone else. It was what made me get on that bus for a commute to high school that took over an hour. It is what keeps me connected to those classmates and had me organizing a reunion from over 1200 miles away. My desire for greater belonging is what drives me to schedule meet-ups, work towards the creation of a community theatre guild, plan events and be the connector for a myriad of organizations.
What would your answer be to the three questions?
- When do you come alive?
- What are you truly good at?
- What keeps you up at night?
Last week I was in Istanbul, as a US delegate to the Global Entrepreneurship Congress. I met and connected to ecosystem builders from all over the world. I felt very much at home and kindred spirits with everyone I encountered. Some of my deepest connections were with people from Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Nigeria; places I've never been. My most serendipitous experience was during the Nigerian reception where I introduced myself to the head of GEN Space, Stephan Reckie. We talked about where we are from, I currently live in Tulsa, OK and he’s in Denver, CO. In a matter of minutes and few questions later, we figured out that we both grew up in New York City, both first generation immigrants and had actually attended the Bronx High School of Science at the same time (he graduated a couple of years prior). When you belong, your people find you and it’s a beautiful thing.