When Smart People School You

A few nights ago, I was at a girlfriend’s house for wine and cheese and a little banter. There were three of us there – all of us women, entrepreneurs in the ethical fashion scene, and each of us struggling through business, relationships, and life in general. We get together every once in a while just to vent, and air out our struggles in a safe space.

We were chatting about a range of things, and eventually, as we always do, the conversation turned toward relationships, particularly marriage and kids.

The hostess said, “you and J are going to have the cutest babies!”

My partner J is a white, French Canadian (a true “pure laine”, some Québecois will proudly say), and I’m Filipino Chinese. So whenever the topic came to babies, our friends and family always said things like this.

And I, without thinking, regurgitated what I had heard so often before: “I know! Mixed babies are always extra cute!”

I immediately sensed V., my companion from Malawi, tense.

She said, “Oh… I wish you hadn’t said that. I like to think my child will be beautiful no matter what their race and no matter who I end up with. Race has nothing to do with it.”

I was taken aback. In general, I consider myself an overall enlightened person. I’m conscious of the language I use, and am pretty aware of my own privilege – being an upper middle class, university educated Asian Canadian who was raised here and speaks English and French. I’ve had discussions with people about the intersectionality of race, gender, and class; and constantly remind myself that others’ lived experiences, though there are similarities, are not the same as my own.

In short, I am not used to being schooled.

So I was stunned at first, not quite sure how to react. I think I mumbled something about how I didn’t mean to say it that way. Probably tried to backtrack a little bit. I don’t even remember. All I can recall is the feeling of sinking, and a flaccid attempt to save face.

But as the conversation slid, as it tends to, away from discomfort towards ease (we had already moved onto something like books or films), I sat there not really present in the conversation, reliving what happened minutes before. I knew instinctively that my friend V. was right.

Without knowing it, I had been propagating racist stereotypes and unconscious biases people had towards lighter skin. Typically, when people talk about mixed babies, it’s always a mix of white with black, or hispanic, or asian. Or asians with blacks. Or hispanics with blacks. The overall effect of which is lightening the gene pool. Saying that “mixed babies are cuter” actually props up this hierarchy of skin colours – at the top of which is white, black is at the bottom, and the range of skin tones were inbetween, like a pantone system. Except instead of paint colours, we were talking about races.

I had unwittingly been promoting this idea that mixed babies were cuter simply because I heard it multiple times in the past. And I didn’t think to challenge it because I was benefitting from this misdirected claim. You’re saying my babies will be super cute? Why, thank you, kind madam!

No, of course I didn’t mean anything by it. And of course this didn’t automatically make me racist, but I was propagating a racist perspective – that some babies, because of their genetics, were better than others. And that’s a pretty fucked up thing to say, isn’t it???

In acknowledging this, I felt the embarrassment spill all over me, as though it became part of my skin. And the more I felt it, the more I wanted to cover it up.

I think about what I should have said instead, and how the conversation could have played out differently.

Rather than trying to backtrack and make up some excuse about what I really meant to say, instead of immediately becoming defensive and trying to save face, I could have said, “You know, you’re right. I never thought of it that way before. Thank you for pointing that out to me.”

And then we could have launched into a really amazing discussion about race and prejudice and perception. Wouldn’t that have been a much better way to handle it?

Now let me be clear. It’s never pleasant to be schooled, and unless you’re on a power trip and enjoy pointing out people’s flaws, you’ll find it equally unpleasant to have to be the one schooling others. But isn’t that what true diversity is? Creating safe spaces for people to make mistakes and to correct others and to engage in conversations where there is bound to be disagreement. And discomfort.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where you’re the one being schooled? Leave your ego at the door, and show appreciation instead. It’s not often you can get educated for free.

Because I Said Yes

Because I Said Yes

I remember sliding my clothes off, the apprehension and excitement of not knowing what would come next. Thankfully, it wasn’t a full moon that night, but the half that was visible shone an ethereal glow that bounced off the Madre de Dios river; calm and quiet and tranquil.

We were a group of us, all from different countries. One of us was Dutch, the other German, another from France, if I recall correctly. I was the sole Canadian, non-white, and proud of it.

I stood fully bare, took in a deep breath, and ran into the water, wanting to cover up my nakedness and also knowing that if I waited long enough, I would change my mind. The four of us waded in the water, laughing and teasing one another. I floated on my back and let out the breath I subconsciously was holding in – here I am, looking up at a blanket of stars and moon, naked and skinny dipping in the Amazon Rainforest. What the fuck.

Some of the best memories of my life were exactly those: what the fuck. How did I end up here? How is this even possible?

When I think back to how any of it happened, it was because of a single word: yes.

I had said yes to travelling to Peru by myself, despite never having left North America since we immigrated from Philippines. Despite not knowing anything about travelling abroad or taking a flight by myself or knowing Spanish. My mom was livid and tried to discourage me, but supported me when I made the decision, and for that I love her. Upon landing and feeling my feet touch the ground, I knew. Anything I experience these next few months will hinge on that first yes.

That was over six years ago, and this year will make it seven, since I travelled to Peru. I still think back on that trip often, not because of what I said or did, but because of how I felt. I felt alive. I felt free. I felt like I had taken the best and worst parts of me and reorganized them into something brand new.

The next time I took such a plunge was in 2015, the year I said yes (or in this case no) to my corporate job, and said yes to starting my own business. I knew nothing about retail, knew nothing about fashion, knew nothing about sustainability or running a business. What the fuck.

Since then, I’ve learned and am still learning. Less than six months after launching our business, we travelled to Philippines to source products, and then Indonesia. This year, we’re going back and adding on Vietnam. I’ve rekindled friendships, ended unfruitful ones, and created new ones. I’ve fallen in love again and again with J, my partner in life and in business. I’ve challenged myself to grow in ways I never thought possible.

I feel like a nervous ball of energy teetering on that familiar edge between apprehension and excitement. Years from now, I won’t remember what I did or who I met, but I’ll remember how I feel: I feel alive, I feel free. I feel like me.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know that whatever comes is because of that one word: yes.

Train Tracks & Faith

I looked up at the night sky and wondered about the promises I made myself when I was younger.

Who did I want to be? Where would I be at this point in my life? What would I be doing? Was I happy?

As a kid, I always told myself I was meant for something big. I was special in some way, I was meant to do more.

As I grew up, there were moments where my faith in that truth wavered. Life has a way of kicking you down, submerging your head into a toilet like a bully, and making you feel like you’re nothing. You’re small. You’re insigificant. You’re just like everyone else.

But these days, my faith is secure. Running a business, living with my partner, staying up til 4am talking with my siblings over hot cider spiked with rum (a new Christmas  tradition) – I know there’s something magical in the mundanity.

I may be just like everyone else, but maybe everyone else is special, too.

We don’t always know where the train tracks we’ve laid down will lead… they may sometimes go nowhere, or they could lead you into this majestic place undiscovered and untouched, a little bit wild and taken over by green.

The point is to make a promise to yourself and to keep it. Despite the chaos, there is a way to stay grounded. Follow the tracks, let them lead you somewhere new. Promise yourself that you will end up right where you are meant to be.

My Life As A Copycat

I wonder sometimes if I’m a copycat.

I’m not really sure when this all started, but I guess the earliest manifestation of my copycatness was as a child. I loved art and drawing, but I could never create anything that was truly, originally my own. My best works of art were ones I had copied from someone else, imitating their talents down to the very last etch.

Then as a teenager, I struggled with confidence and self-esteem (as all teens do). I worried that I was too quiet, too shy, too boring, too fat, too smart, or not smart enough.

I used to watch shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and ALIAS starring Jennifer Garner. Buffey and Sydney Bristow were my heros. They were beautiful, strong, ultra intelligent, and I wanted to be like them.

So I tried. Not really in the most obvious or literal sense. I didn’t try to fight vampires or become a spy or anything. But in my most trying moments, I would tell myself to breathe.

“You’re not Gelaine. You’re Sydney Bristow,” I would say in my head. And that would make me feel slightly better.

As though I was stronger. As though my wobbly two feet were being propped by a third or fourth leg that was someone else’s.

Just like I don’t know how it started, I don’t know when it all ended.

I remember going to Peru in 2010. It was after my second year of university, and I had gone through a big crisis of life. I was still studying animal biology at the time, thinking I wanted to be a vet, but also knowing all the while I would never become one.

I had to escape from my life. I had to get out of my head and go somewhere else to become someone else.

So I ran off to Peru. Paid a shit ton of money to volunteer in the Amazon Rainforest where I had no internet access, no outside world.

Just me and my inner voices.

I disappeared trying to escape who I was, but the interesting thing is that I found myself in that jungle. Without even realizing it, I stopped channelling everyone else and I began to channel me.

It was the first time I realized my life was better than a TV show. That I was better than a fictional character, because I was here – I was real flesh and bone and sinew.

I was enough. I am enough. And I don’t need to hide behind someone else to make it.

This was written in response to the Daily Post’s daily prompt “Copycat” 

How Becoming A Better Writer Could Change My Life: A Post About Damn Fine Words

How Becoming A Better Writer Could Change My Life: A Post About Damn Fine Words

I remember back in fifth grade when we had to write short stories for class. Our teacher would make each of us go up to the front and read our stories out loud, word for word, for everyone else to hear. Others dreaded this exercise and hated the thought of having to share their intimate creations out loud, let alone write them down. I, on the other hand, took delight in it. I recall one particularly gory story I wrote about a young knight trying to avenge the death of his mentor, Sir Albatross, who had been beheaded by an evil ruler and sent his butchered remains to the rest of the knights as a warning. Even as a kid, I remember being impressed with what I wrote. Already I could tell that writing can change people; it can influence what we think and how we feel.

I still feel that writing has the power to do that. Sadly, the process isn’t as effortless or nearly as enjoyable as it used to be for 11 year old me, especially when I’m up after midnight banging out blog posts for my business after a week of zero sales. What I used to find so effortless, exciting, and fun has become a roadblock. Worse, it’s become a source of resentment. But what if I could become a better, more confident, happier writer? How would that change my business and my life?

I’ve been following this website called Men With Pens for the past two years and have subscribed to all their newsletters. James Chartrand, the mastermind behind the Men With Pens website, offers an online writing course called Damn Fine Words which I’ve read plenty of damn fine things about. I found out that James is hosting a writing contest to win a free scholarship to her course. All you have to do is write about how DFW could help you. Simple, right?

I want to tell their stories and to educate the masses, but I don’t have the tools or skills to create compelling content that influences people to take action.

First, there’s my business. I quit my corporate job and launched Cambio Market last year with my partner. Based in Toronto, Cambio Market is an online shop for socially responsible products which give back to a social cause. Eco-friendly greeting cards made by survivors of sex trafficking, jewelry made from upcycled T-shirts, bags handwoven by indigenous artisans – these are the sort of products you can find in our shop. We’ve invested plenty of time and money into building our business and it’s been a wonderful journey, but there are so many days where I just want to curl up into a ball and cry my soul out. You see, we have compelling stories and we have beautiful products – but none of it translates online. Our social media lacks real engagement. Our blog posts dissipate into the black hole of online space. Our website barely garners 40 visits a day. And don’t even get me started on our sales…

Yet when I’m in front of people at a local flea market and I tell them the stories of our products, people are floored. Their eyes light up and I feel an instant connection. They get it. They love the products, the story, and the impact. But how come this same connection isn’t happening online? Our website copy, blog, and social media aren’t terrible – but we’re lacking a real connection with our audience. Actually, we don’t even know who our audience is. We don’t know what to write about, how to write it, and how to reach the right people. If what I’ve read about DFW is true, this course could help us identify our ideal readers and understand how to genuinely connect with them. We could finally stop throwing things against the wall and hoping something sticks. With DFW, we could build real relationships with customers, grow our sales, help our artisan partners grow, and develop an engaged community of individuals who want to make a difference like we do.

I want that wash, rinse, repeat process that James has promised – that steady process that could help me bring the best part of me to life whenever I needed her.

I could also help myself. I have ideas in my head but I don’t know what to do with them. I try to write them down but I quickly become daunted by The Blank Page. I dream of writing for magazines and blogs on topics of sustainability, food, and culture (and make money while doing it), but I write too slowly and too hesitantly. Sometimes I get so engrossed in researching a topic that I amass mountains of information, only to abandon a post halfway when I become overwhelmed with the thoughts in my head. DFW could help me develop a process to organize all the ideas floating in my head and bring them to life down on paper in a way that’s fast, effective, and impactful. If I could do that, I would quit my minimum wage part-time job and write freelance about topics I actually care about.

Despite the hurdles, I actually do enjoy writing once I can get into the groove. Writing brings out the best part of me when I can do it well. At my best, I’m funny and courageous and compelling and informed. I’m inspired and inspiring. When I’m in the “zone”, I feel like my mind is clear and I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. There is nothing like that sense of accomplishment at completing a blog post and seeing people share it. I want that more. I want more sales. I want to be able to tap into my best self when I want it, not when the wind happens to blow in that direction. I would have the confidence to start a lifestyle blog and talk about my experience being a woman of colour and an entrepreneur.  I want that wash, rinse, repeat process that James has promised – that steady process that could help me bring the best part of me to life whenever I needed her.

So how could Damn Fine Words help me? It’s about more than just making me a better writer.

Damn Fine Words could make me a happier and better person.

Continue reading “How Becoming A Better Writer Could Change My Life: A Post About Damn Fine Words”

Sleeping Alone

Sleeping Alone

A close friend of mine was attacked during our third year of university. A stranger entered her room at night while she slept. Since then, I have trouble sleeping alone though it happened many years ago. When my partner is away on business and I have our apartment to myself, instead of sleeping, I bake. Or I clean. Or I binge watch on Netflix until the early hours of the morning when I pass out from exhaustion. If there are others in the house and I have a room on my own, I sleep with the lights on and my phone next to me. One time, I even hid a hammer under my bed. All the fears and nightmares which most people outgrow from childhood are more alive to me in my 20’s than ever before.

People say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Every negative experience is a learning opportunity, an obstacle to overcome, a chance to become better. I believe that, I really do. But people rarely talk about the various ways that every negative experience can hurt us and scar us, even the slightest things. They leave us damaged in little and lasting ways. I forget who said it, but someone once described all of life as the continuous attempt to build yourself back up when the world tries to break you down. That may sound melodramatic, but I can’t help but feel there’s some truth in that. 

The other day, my sister and I were casually chatting about sleeping alone. When I told her I couldn’t sleep in a room by myself, better yet an entire house, I immediately and unconsciously added, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” My partner overheard and later said to me, “You know why you can’t. It’s not your fault.” 

Fault. Guilt. Failure. There’s always that mix floating around which we can’t seem to be rid of, no matter how hard we try to find peace. To heal means to become healthy again, to recover. But it doesn’t mean or imply to be the same, or to be unchanged. It may seem obvious, but it never occurred to me that this strange fear I’ve developed was related to what happened almost six years ago. My friend is beautiful and strong and so happy now, but I can’t even imagine how that horrific night must creep up on her in the most insidious ways.

Physically speaking, healing involves building new skin overtop of a wound. Sometimes, it leaves a scar visible to the naked eye, other times it doesn’t. One of the most important things I’ve learned as an adult is that we’re all a little scarred, and we each wear our damages in different ways. Two years after “that night”, one friend told me how that entire experience left her angry and hurt. “I feel like I’m tarnished”, she said with dry eyes. She spoke with sadness but conviction, as though it was just a fact of life. I couldn’t agree more with that word – the way it hung heavy in the air.

Tarnished. Scarred. Damaged. All words of encouragement and false hope that had been so programmed into me couldn’t come. All I could do was hold her hand and say, “me too.”

How starting my own business has made me a better person

How starting my own business has made me a better person

Now that it’s been a bit more than a month since I quit my 9-to-5 job to start my own business Cambio Market, I’ve had time to reflect on what being an entrepreneur really means and how it’s impacted my life beyond the typical “work for yourself” mantra.

For some context, Cambio Market is an online marketplace to connect consumers with socially responsible products and responsible businesses. Every purchase from our store directly gives back to a meaningful cause and helps socially responsible businesses grow. For those of you familiar with the concept of social enterprise, we are one. We just launched last week.

What I realize is I really do like myself more these days than before. That may be a weird thing to say, but I have to admit I think I’m a much better person. Here’s why:

1.  I’m much more informed. We research each of our partner suppliers to ensure their products are up to par and their social impact is real, positive, and authentic. As a result, I’ve been learning so much about business, international development, and the social issues facing different communities around the world as well as the creative ways social organizations attempt to address them. Being a business owner also means understanding how government policy, local, national, and international issues impact how we operate so I pay attention to the news and Reddit much more. I’m still not as informed as I’d like to be, but my knowledge has definitely improved over the past four weeks.

A photo from our Instagram account @Cambio_Market. For every selfie taken with hashtag #DrinkGoodDoGood, Naked Juice company will donate 10 lbs. of produce to help communities in need.
A photo from our Instagram account @Cambio_Market. For every selfie taken with hashtag #DrinkGoodDoGood, Naked Juice company will donate 10 lbs. of produce to help communities in need.

2.  I’m much more connected. I barely used Facebook in the past and my friends used to have to text me reminders to check my Facebook messages (everyone has a friend like that, right?). These days I manage all the marketing and social media for Cambio Market, which means I’m constantly on social media. Not surprisingly, I’ve been much more up to date as a result and know more about what’s happening in my friend’s and family’s lives. This has significantly improved my personal relationships.

I also occasionally publish updates about Cambio Market, which has prompted several of my long lost friends to reach out to me and see how things are going. In the past month, I’ve been able to re-connect with at least four friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve also forced myself to reach out to people and ask for their help (something I was always scared to do before). This has unexpectedly opened up amazing opportunities to re-connect with good friends and learn from them.

3.  I can have more meaningful conversations. When I was working in corporate, it felt like my conversation skills were going down the drain. Office talk always centres around plans for the weekend, what you did last night, what you ate (though 80% of my conversations are still about this :D), and plans for the holidays. These days, I’m catching up with old friends or meeting new people in the community which opens up opportunities for much more meaningful conversations. It’s been awesome.

Me at last night’s We Are Cities roundtable to discuss issues facing our city and how they can be addressed from a youth perspective.

4.  I’m more in touch with my creative side. Sometimes I forget how artsy I used to be as a kid. I used to take art classes on the weekends and would spend hours drawing. I even still have some of my old sketchbooks. It’s been about ten years since I’ve drawn something, so I’ve loved the opportunity to do all the creative work for Cambio Market. We’re literally just two people in our team and Jérôme is more on the technical side handling our IT, business compliance, shipping and logistics, so I do everything else. I designed our logo, create the creatives for our social media, write all our content, and even spent hours doing arts and crafts to package our orders. I love how I’ve been able to re-connect with that part of myself.

I spent hours doing arts and crafts to come up with our finalized packaging for Cambio Market!
I spent hours doing arts and crafts to come up with our finalized packaging for Cambio Market!

5.  I’ve been able to meet people outside of my regular circles. Networking is always important, regardless of your stage of life. As a social entrepreneur, it’s crucial. I’ve actively forced myself to attend various events in the city and meet new people. Last month, I attended a Creative Mornings Toronto event, a free speakers series in Toronto geared towards the creative community. Last night, I participated in a youth roundtable through We Are Cities to discuss issues facing our city and how these can be addressed through a youth perspective. I was definitely outside of my comfort zone for both events and some were better than others, but I’ve learned a lot from every single event I’ve attended and person I’ve met. It’s been awesome and I’ve become more aware of issues facing my community.

6. Last but not least, I’m happier. Not to say that happy people are necessarily better people, but I’m generally more optimistic than before and willing to fight for things I care about. It’s empowering.

If you’ve had a similar experience or thoughts to share, I’d love to hear them! 🙂 

Photo credit Bruno Ramos: http://brunoramos.es/puesta-de-sol/