I wasn’t always ambitious.
I had to tap into it. I once asked a former coworker what word he associated with me. I was almost hoping he’d say kind or dynamic or even beautiful. He responded: motivated. I’m always doing things. I should be proud. I suppose I’ve done a lot, and plan to do a little more.
Growing up on the American territory of Guam, my mom, for better or worse, was a typical tiger-resembling immigrant. And I was still a pretty good cub who didn’t talk back in Korean, even if I mumbled in English under my breath. Stifled fourteen degrees north of the equator, I wore lots of sunblock and begrudgingly set the table every night. I attended my piano and my art classes dutifully, quietly sat next to my grandma in church while holding her hand with legs uncrossed. Nothing more, nothing less. I followed filial piety. Even on the playground, I played a mouthless putty during “Power Ranger” over recess.
Mom didn’t raise me to roar in front of a pack, but I begin to internally question things and challenge the status quo. Maybe it was watching American TV. Instead of waiting behind in subservience, I started to bow with the boys during Korean ceremonies during our Lunar New Year or Korean Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house at the bottom of a lush hill. I didn’t want to be a nobody. I didn’t want to go to college in Seoul in the homeland and become a camouflaged cog in the societal wheel. I raised my hand in the classroom to read in my Americanized accent and volunteer my voice with rising self-determination. Without a real say at home, I spoke up with my academic opinions at school. Yet it felt less like a rebellion and more of stepping into a natural state. I was born in the year of the tiger and an Aries at that; my so far subdued personality is fiery and passionate. Despite the lessons, I wasn’t encouraged to pursue the arts. Expression was too fanciful. I found opportunity on the courts, I wanted to lead as captain. Outside the classroom after hours, I pushed boundaries, too. I snuck out in the middle of the night — not getting in too much trouble, but just enough to feel like I was doing something a little bold under God’s eye, sipping a little Mike’s lemonade here and there, making out a bit and coming back home by 2 a.m.
I had to wait for my hard-working Dad to come home first. I looked up to him when he was around the house, he who carved his own immigrant story as a risk-taking businessman. Dad arrived on Guam with nothing but my mom in labor with me. He had to prove himself over and over again with everything to lose and a family to feed. Fear was not an option. You could see him eventually flourish through the windows of an upgraded car that sat in front of our apartment. We used to have a sad minivan. Then came a gold, beat-up Cadillac and eventually a shiny Lexus.
Unwilling to become a conventional lawyer and without a stomach for anything medical, I had no idea what to study in college. Overwhelmed and undecided but still blindly confident, I took a few words of encouragement from a mentor who suggested I follow in her path and become a tv journalist. I ran with it, wanting to break down stereotypes of Hello Kitty Asians. I knocked on the doors of news stations. Why not — even if my parents lovingly joked my head was too big and my skin a different color for television. Lights, camera, action. On the climb, one executive producer tried to discourage me from coming to New York. Did he think I’d just go away quietly? He had his own agenda; I had my own dream. If my dad could move to a new island country and work his way to a premium ride, so could I move to a competitive island city and work my way to a prime shift. I sold my black CRV, moved anyway with no job promised to me, and worked odd jobs to make the rent.
Sometimes you have to be hard-pressed when someone tells you it can’t be done. Or creative about the way you work around the situation. Resilient and resourceful. You can set your mind to something — especially if it’s followed by heart and a stubborn head. I really felt the pull of NYC and the supportive push from my parents. The biggest voice in my head is actually… mine. My initial reaction is sometimes: really, me? Then the real, ego-healthy, supported me sinks in again. I lean on the enthusiastic drive of people like my Dad, who never give up. For example, he finally secured a taxi agreement with the airport after a decade of waiting. ‘“Think positive,” he says! “You got it baby!”
I can, I can, I can. Think about something amazing you want. Really, think. No matter how far away or silly it seems. Breathe all that imagery in, and breathe out the doubt. Don’t talk yourself out of your dreams, whether they’re old or new. There will be naysayers. There will be a moment in the discomfort zone you can push through. There will be roadblocks, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we get to the top of the mountain. We earned it.
I admit I start to freak out about new goals and new paths (that are not life and death), but deep inside, I have this mentality that believes that you can survive the worst and believe in the impossible. You can start with absolutely nothing. Instead of why me, I think ‘why not me? Why not!’ It’s like a form of reverse psychology self-talk.
Everything will be alright. Even failure is fine. Success is possible. You can prove yourself wrong. Full faith. Instead of shriveling, stand up and try. Say something meaningful. You are significant. You can plausibly go wherever, and something can manifest in ten years, too.
Inspired by Mary Oliver, this one, wild, wonderful life is too precious for you to be a wallflower.