2017, family, family vacations, grateful, Thanksgiving

How A Simple Notebook Got My Family On the Same Page This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays to spend at home with my family. Though my parents no longer live in my childhood home, and though I no longer live 2000 miles from home, there’s still something nostalgic about my homecoming, spending the whole day together in the kitchen, and ending it sitting around the “fancy occasion” dining table of my youth.

This year, however, my family spent Thanksgiving week in Montreal and Toronto (where, notably, Thanksgiving was celebrated last month). I was not thrilled about the travel. I enjoy family vacations, but they invariably bring out our worsts. For example, although our last vacation included a helicopter ride over dormant volcanoes, all I remember is the volcanic eruption of emotions as my mom and I argued in an all-too-small hotel room. (Does that sound like paradise? Because our vacation was in Hawaii.)

I didn’t want our Thanksgiving to be tainted by the worsts.

After losing the battle of whether or not we travel at all, I started to brainstorm ways in which I could guarantee a week we would all be grateful for. I found the answer nestled in one of my favorite psychological principles around gratitude and happiness.

I texted my family the week of the trip asking them to commit to an experiment, and all (almost unquestioningly) agreed.

We met at the airport the morning of the trip. Gathered around a coffee shop table, I announced the two-part experiment:

  1. Outside of flying and drive days, we had four full days in Toronto and Montreal. Each person got to own one day. They could plan it however they liked, and only had to tell us the plan the night before.
  2. Each person received a Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. Whenever they liked or didn’t like something, they were to write it down in the notebook. We would air gratefulness and grievances each night before looking ahead to the next day.

Takeoff and landing were smooth, but things started to get turbulent as we waited for checked bags. It was late; we were all hungry. The carousel took forever and when we finally exited baggage claim, the group disbanded in every direction. My brother found a phone to call our airport shuttle while I searched for Uber pickup points. My mom walked off in an unnamed direction, and my dad was nowhere to be seen. I could see my brother’s temper rising, and just when I thought he would boil over, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. “Where’s my pen?” he asked in half-jest. “Follow all posted placards and signs,” he wrote as a grievance (which become a repeated grievance for my mom’s habit of walking off in random directions). I lost it—in a good way. Laughing uncontrollably, I finally got us a ride, we walked across the airport to get in it, and we were on our way.

A critical moment was during our first night, when we established our routine of airing gratitude and grievances (importantly both). The rest of the week, you often heard questions like, “Where’s my notebook?” or “I need to pack my notebook,” or “No this notebook is only for gratitude and grievances.” The notebook became a daily necessity and it was often someone else who commenced the evening ritual of sharing notes.

With each person owning and planning a day, this collaborative moment also allowed for sharing feedback and setting expectations around things we historically fight about in moments of hunger or fatigue—what to eat, how to get from one place to another, when to be ready—the simplest things.

Though plans changed each day, overall, we hit everything on every person’s list, from eating plush bagels and climbing Mont Royal on my brother’s day to taking a family photo at the top of CN tower on my mom’s, to a sibling run, visit to a history museum, and family-prepared Thanksgiving meal on mine, to finally, a Christmas market, art museum, and bookstore on my dad’s.

On our final evening, we discussed grievances for the day—and the week. On this night, unlike the first, there was more gratitude than grievance, and my mom was already planning our next vacation. Of course there had been occasional disputes (usually regarding whether to walk or Uber) and one intense conversation that was unavoidable whether we had been traveling or not. But these were each washed away with the airing and closure of each day, leaving us all with nothing but rosy retrospection.

On the plane back home, I asked each person to reflect on the effect their Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™ had on their vacation experience. For me, the notebooks afforded a platform through which my family could express their feelings in a healthy way (a skill we often lack). They also introduced humor to moments that are historically tense (for example, someone announcing, “Oh my god. I need my notebook,” while everyone else joked about what they might be writing down). The notebooks also gave us a way to thank one another and appreciate little moments that are typically taken for granted. For example, my mom’s Day 2 gratitude, “I like that you made a list and took us to the grocery store. It set us up well for snacks and the Airbnb.” That was enough for me for the week (and was especially helpful when my mom aired her grievances on how I lost my credit card and driver’s license on Day 6).

Now, back home, while I have my lists from the past week, my gratitude can all be summed up in one word: family. I’m grateful for family members that are passionate about their individual views, but come together as a unit when it matters most. I’m appreciative of a family who is open to trying new things. I love that we are light-hearted enough to try simple tricks for increasing happiness and harmony. And I feel lucky that each person leads, first and foremost, with empathy. And while this has likely been there all along, perhaps it is not something I would have recognized while sitting around that dining table from our youth, during a routine Thanksgiving meal.

art, creativity, family, friendship, grateful, passion, Passion Company, social pressure, Thanksgiving

Why Simple Concepts Deserve More Attention Than Complex Ones

Be present. With us, not with your phone. Forget small talk. Talk about your dreams. Love yourself. Play. Engage with the art and creativity around you. 

These were the instructions I received hours before attending a perfectly San Franciscan event with three friends. Hosted by The Passion Company, the event showcased projects and lectures by people who found ways other than money and status to define themselves.

Though I wasn’t presenting, I was nervous to attend. I felt anticipatory insecurity about how I would measure up to other attendees who had surely discovered, you know, the meaning of life and stuff. The feeling doubled when my friend and I walked through the door.

A girl in a Renaissance gown asked for my name and checked me in. “Head over to that table with nametags on it. Write down your name and one thing you are grateful for about yourself.”Ugh. Why can’t they just ask for a name like a normal event?

I walked to the table and stared at the blank nametag with blank thought. I knew that others would write insightful, perfectly crafted adages on their nametags. Trying to push past the creative paralysis, I racked my brain. I am grateful for my optimism, but I thought it too fluffy for such a sophisticated crowd. Falling back on ever-reliable alliteration, I went through adjectives that start with “R” like my first name. Something stuck.

Rationally optimistic.

“Oh that’s good,” my friend said next to me, while she wrote hers.

Creating communities.

“Oh that is good,” I said to her.

We pinned our nametags onto our shirts (pity the man who still uses stick-on nametags), then started to schmooze.

Nametags were reliable conversation starters and within moments, we were talking to a native New Yorker who was grateful for his family. “I know it sounds silly,” he apologized glancing at my friend and my nametags, “but I am grateful for them! I was just talking to my sister before I walked in.”

He didn’t need to apologize. In fact, I was grateful for his nametag. The one simple word “family,” was immediately relatable to me. This is because the word was accompanied by a deep and universal concept. Thinking of my love for my own sibling, I instantly felt connected to this man, and more importantly, at ease at this event. I stopped worrying about the potential of mismatched intellectual planes. I was as similar to these people around me as I was different.

My nametag was much less relatable than that of “family” man. Mine couldn’t create community. As I continued to walk around, I received eye-raises and Oh, that’s good!‘s, but the slightly complicated phrase was incapable of forming a human connection the way “family” could.

I left the event feeling hokey, not because of others, but because of myself.

Two weeks after the event, I was lying in bed scrolling through pictures on my phone. I came across one of my recently deceased pup. I posted it to Instagram. The moment I pressed “Share,” my eyes welled with tears.

I cried for an hour.

Finally, a familiar tritone brought me out of it. The message was chillingly perfect:

The next day, I received this message from another friend who recently moved away from San Francisco:
And then, at what would have been 11:30 PM her time, another friend FaceTimed me. “I might fall asleep on this call,” she started, “but I just needed to see you this weekend. All weekend I just felt like talking to you. I feel like you might be sad. Are you sad?”These are just three of the uncountable, beautiful friendships that define my life.

As simple as it sounds, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my friends. The depth of these relationships goes much further than the simplicity of the word.Though I’ve always had friends and though I’ve always loved them, this year, I’ve needed friends. Through the good, but also through some bad and ugly. My friends kept me standing on my two feet then pushed me forward. And through it all, each played a different but necessary role: my fan, my therapist, my parent, my tough love, my unconditional love, my inspiration, my motivation, my pillar. My raison d’être. My friends that had always just been there in the background, were now the entire foreground.

If I could go back and do it again, that nametag would read, “My friends.

Sometimes, we feel so pressured to leave an impression that we unnecessarily complicate things. Those nametags taught me that simplicity is approachable, relatable, and powerful. Simplicity makes an impact. Simplicity is authentic.

Thank you for sharing your shoulders, your smiles, and your love. Here’s sending all of that back to each of you.

choice, coffee, foodie, Giordano, health, Jane, San Francisco, Smitten, Thanksgiving

“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.” – Oscar Wilde on San Francisco

Having worked as a Cold Stone ice cream specialist for two summers, I have served a lot of samples. In fact, I’ve had customers get full off ice cream tasting. Imagine my surprise, then, that when I visited San Francisco’s Smitten Ice Cream for the first time a few weeks ago, I was refused the right to sample.

“Could I possibly try the salted caramel?”

“No.” Cold as ice. “We make our ice cream made-to-order.” Why is she annoyed? I should be annoyed. Resisting the urge to turn and leave, I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I’ll have a small salted caramel then. The smallest.

Do you want chocolate on that?”

“Um, obviously I’ve never tasted it, so, what do you suggest?”

“Oh, I definitely recommend the chocolate. It helps cut the taste of the ice cream a bit.” Cut the taste? CUT THE TASTE? You cut the taste of a vodka shot or cough syrup. What is this ice cream?

Okay, a small salted caramel with chocolate I guess.”

“That’ll be $5.25.” Over five-dollars? For ice cream? That I can’t even sample beforehand?

Overcome with the illusion of powerlessness, I handed the server my credit card then sat down at a bench to wait. Moments later, I heard my name being called and went up to the counter to be handed a bowl of fresh, locally sourced, organic, high-quality, no-additive ice cream literally made just for me. I walked to an adjacent park to enjoy several “tastes” of salty, caramely, chocolatey ice cream. I was torn between unfoundedly hating it and fairly assessing the ice cream whose tastes could cut. It was a little too sweet for my liking, but I still ate every last bite. On principle.

Just hours before, I witnessed a friend attempting to substitute ingredients in her sandwich at Giordano. “We really don’t encourage people to make changes. I’ll do it, but I won’t be happy about it,” her sandwich artist responded as if he would be eating the sandwich. He, like my ice cream server, perfected that guilt-inducing tone that leaves you inexplicably submissive.

The next day, my friend and I stopped in at Jane, a Pacific Heights coffee shop that wishes it was a cookie shop.

“Do you have nonfat milk?” I know, I know. Asks the girl who went on an ice cream date with herself less than twelve hours prior.


“Okay. Well I guess I’ll just have a whole milk latte if I don’t have a choice.”

“Yeah, you don’t.” To compensate for the less-than-ideal latte I would now “need” to consume, I added a cookie to my order.

“That’ll be $6.25,” the barista said as he handed me my cookie. I took a chewy chocolatey bite while waiting for my latte. It was foam-artified and my name was called. I admired the art, threw a lid on it, and took a sip as my friend and I waltzed out the door.

While I typically cook for myself during the week, I explore San Francisco’s expansive coffee and food scene over the weekend. On this particular weekend, however, I was completely stripped of my gustatory freedom.

I was victim to San Francisco’s foodocracy. The one in which what you like or don’t like and what you consume or don’t consume is decided by some other entity. The one in which a word like “organic” trumps your preferences, dietary restrictions, or semblance of control.

A week later, I arrived at a bus stop to see a young couple enjoying a to-go-box meal while huddled over a trash can. They hadn’t been guilt-tripped into purchasing their meal. They weren’t susceptible to the foodocratic policies. No, they were empowered to choose from a plethora of options. Options castaway by ungrateful foodocrats. Options that resided in a city trash can.

Observing them from afar, I was struck by a not-so-tasty reality, one that I was forced to ingest whether I liked it or not: Some could only dream to experience a problem so first-worldly as the San Francisco Foodocracy. To spend over five dollars to taste too-sweet ice cream. To devour a sandwich whose combination of ingredients has been carefully chosen and perfected for decades. Oh! To be a foodocrat!

This evening, as I bake a pie to be enjoyed under a roof with loved ones tomorrow, I wear my food-beliefs humbly on my chest. I am privileged to be a foodocrat. I am thankful to be so well-fed.

finding extraordinary, finding yourself, passion, thanks, Thanksgiving, writing

This above all: To thine own self be true

Last week, a friend stopped by my desk during a coffee break (note how sometimes I am merely associated with a coffee break, not necessarily partaking in it). Knowing him to be an enthusiast of both creating and consuming delectable prose, I shared with him this delightful flowchart on how to publish your book.

“That reminds me, there is this piece I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me in Boston. It was just so amazing, the experience. I can’t even quite describe it, but it was just so…I need to sit down and write about it before I lose all the emotion.” My friend’s eyes had lit up with excitement.  The lack of detail made it so that I could not revel in that particular moment of which he spoke, but I appreciated the general sentiment.

“What are you writing it for?” I thought for a moment perhaps he had a blog or some other public outlet through which I could enjoy his work.

“Nothing specific. Just, for myself. Whenever I have an experience that I feel is noteworthy or that I want to be memorable, I write about it. I include a lot of detail and spend a good amount of time editing it and stuff so that it’s a really awesome piece of writing.”

“Maybe all your texts will be discovered posthumously,” I joked. My joke was only to cover what I was truly feeling, which was a sort of embarrassment with myself for having immediately assumed that he was creating for someone or something other than himself. His passion, after all, should have been enough.

I have been writing since I could hold a pencil. Until middle school, I kept a journal in which I would record the daily goings-on in my life, always starting with “Today, I woke up…” After all, you can’t do anything until you wake up. In anticipation of any private matters that might come up (none ever did), I guarded this journal with lock and key.

Sometimes I would go days, or even weeks, without writing. As more and more time passed, I would be overcome with a sort of anxiety. That which comes with a sense of incompleteness. I would reprimand myself and continually include journal-writing on my daily to-do list. Finally, I would force myself to sit down, and for as long as it would take, recollect everything I had done each day since I had last written. Of course, I would never lead on in the actual writing that I was retroactively journaling. Each day started with “Today, I woke up…”

As I entered my teenage years, journal-writing became more therapeutic. I wrote about my life — thoughts, fears, accomplishments — at a a higher level. On a more grander scale than the day-to-day. I ended each entry with “lOvE aLwAyS aNd FoReVeR,” yes, in camel case, followed by my signature. I don’t know who I was writing for, nobody in particular, and perhaps even nobody at all. All I knew was that the pages’ ability to eat my words and cushion my emotions was unrivaled by any other worldly entity.

I had this romantic notion of my “texts” being excavated by future scholars, but was not really prepared for anyone I knew to read any of it. Ever. Even today, I will argue that not enough time has passed for me to feel comfortable sharing that writing in any forum. It’s my private classifieds.

For a brief period after I started my public blog, I maintained a personal journal as well. But soon after, the blog consumed all my effort and attention. The extrinsic motivation — approval from friends and family, public endorsements in the form of blog competitions, retweets, Facebook likes and comments — was far too addictive. As I wrote each post, I was distracted by how the sentences or words might be interpreted by others first, before I interpreted them for myself.

Recently, I’ve tucked myself into a personal book-writing project. While I plan to publish the work at some point, the day-to-day writing has been a thrilling rediscovery and exploration of my personal passion. It’s an intimate process, where I’m writing truly for myself.

At the beginning of each of my yoga classes, we spend a few seconds setting “a dedication,” as my instructor calls it, for our practice. Something we want to keep in our semi-conscious as the subconscious takes control. Last week, our instructor provided some Emersonian guidance. “In the spirit of Thanksgiving, forget all the external stuff. Think about something intrinsic for which you are thankful. Something that, no matter what happens around you in, in this world, with the people you know, will remain with you. That’s the thing that stabilizes you. That keeps you going through thick and thin. Be grateful for that.” If you think about it, that which he describes is what grounds us as individuals. If you ask me, that thing is passion.

Today, so much of what we do is for external appearances. Be it for a grade at school, a promotion at work, or Likes and comments on the web. I often find myself wondering if we would say or do the things we do, go the places that we go, document the scenes that we instagram, if it weren’t for the opportunity of public validation. If the answer is yes for any of those things, then that is true passion. Hold fast to those aspects of your life and never let go.

It is not to say that we should not do things for others, but it is to prevent ourselves from doing things for others under the pretense that we are doing them for ourselves. Whatever happens, don’t feel selfish. If you are anything like my literary friend who introduced this post, the time you spend drafting, editing, and perfecting that personal passion will inject itself into all other aspects of your life, and the people in your life. And that’s something for which both you, and they, can be thankful.

And despite my criticism of this particular medium for my writing, as we approach Thanksgiving, I do want to thank you, for reading even a sentence or a word. You have helped me to grow not only as a burgeoning writer, but also as a person.

Bocce ball, expectations, friendship, Thanksgiving, tradition

“As beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration.” -Laura Nyro

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my family’s Thanksgiving tradition, one that we have been enjoying for about ten years now. Despite my having posted the article hours before our get-together, my description was exceptionally accurate (Magic 8-ball App. Download it). What in actuality was a prediction was accurate because that is the nature of tradition. As much as we might look forward to those typically annual occurrences in our life, no matter how conventionally happy they might make us feel, the element of surprise and unexpectedness is notably absent. And as someone who goes out of her way to establish routine in her life, I am almost shocked at myself as I type this post.After I started college, my social life with regards to family friends “back home” became depressingly reliant upon the calendar. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Birthday, maybe. Spontaneous social events were a privilege I gave up when I opted for geographical distance. And with that, our friendship became increasingly predictable. At each gathering, we would pick up where things had been left off and fall out of touch in the intermediary.

In my life so far, my most memorable moments have been the ones that were completely unexpected. What made them “once-in-a-lifetime” was much more their random nature and much less the hype around them. The traditional events now bring along their “been there, done that” baggage.

Yesterday, my family participated (or rather, competed) in an organized game of Bocce Ball, alongside the same group with which we enjoy our annual Thanksgiving celebration. To me, though, even with the exact same company, this event was significantly more fun (which I can state at 95% confidence). Together, we entered the courts not knowing what to expect (my philosophical side), not knowing who to fear and whom to taunt (my competitive side). Not knowing how to feel. Untainted, not-(yet-)jaded blank slates.

When Thanksgiving dinner was over, it was over. Ready to move on to their Black Friday shopping, ‘Til next years were exchanged as people scrambled out the door. But yesterday, not knowing when another such opportunity (scheduling, more than anything — we’re busy families!) would present itself, people were reluctant to let go of the night. The group traveled as a pack from the courts to a restaurant to our home. Today’s back-and-forth group email thread only confirms the extent of the fun which was had by all (hey, that’s how you measure anything this day in age).

In my pre-teen years, I participated in the annual Growing Up Asian in America essay contest. Each year, the prompt was almost exactly the same, basically revolving around the contest title. The first year, I spent hours writing and editing. I didn’t win. The next year, I started from scratch. Yet again, I didn’t win. As the years went on, I transitioned from a complete demolition of the previous year’s work to some mere nipping and tucking sparked by a gradually induced discouragement, jadedness, and apathy. I finally realized there was nothing fun about this traditional (read: never-changing) essay prompt, my “traditional” essay, and my traditional loss.

In my rotational program, we associates are encouraged to speak our minds and present our “fresh perspective” to our teams, usually involving employees who have worked at the company much longer than we have. We’re told that ironically, our lesser experience in the field may help the more experienced to see things in a new light.

There is something to be said about the comfort that accompanies tradition. From simple occurrences like the route I take to work or more conventional events like Thanksgiving. It is nice knowing that despite the curve-balls (or bocce balls) whizzing through life, there is the occasional rock keeping things in place. But at the same time, the line between tradition and “I’ve just always done it this way” is a fuzzy one. Every so often, it’s important to break free of tradition, be it for your own personal growth or for the continuing success of some larger institution. To question blind compliance. To shake things up a little. To change everything. And, as Apple would say, to change everything again.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the entire scope of my family’s Bocce skill lies with my mother.