Tag Archives: life


Originally posted on Medium.

Trigger warning: Suicide.

It was a beautiful Friday morning. I had gone to a Creative Mornings talk at Seattle Center and was headed to the University of Washington to do some grading and hold office hours. I had a clever idea: instead of walking a mile to downtown Seattle and catching an express bus to the University District, I would walk a few blocks and catch a 32 that would take a more scenic route via Queen Anne and Fremont. It was a risky move, because the 32 came much less frequently, but I had plenty of time and was feeling adventurous.

I started walking. Although I was on a major road, there was very little traffic. I could only see two other pedestrians, both about a block ahead of me on either side of the road.

A loud crack shattered the quiet. Suddenly, a block or so ahead of me, there was a man lying in the road, less than 10 feet from one of the other pedestrians. He wasn’t moving.

I couldn’t figure out where he’d come from. Had he been hit by a car? If so, where had he been before that? Why hadn’t I seen him? He wasn’t moving. Was he ok?

I started walking towards him, to figure out what had just happened and whether or not I could help. The man near him pulled out his phone and called 911. The other pedestrian ran across the street to the prone body. A car pulled over and three people rushed out. One of them started to perform CPR and the other two assisted her.

As I got closer, I could see from across the street that CPR wasn’t going to change anything. I was faintly impressed that she was trying anyway.

Other cars started to pull over and block off the lane that the man was lying in. By the time I made it over, there was a crowd of 10-15 people assessing the situation. I could only hear snippets of what people were saying.

From the woman doing CPR: “No pulse…”

From the man on the phone: “He almost hit me!” (Had the man fallen? Or jumped?)

An ambulance pulled up and the crew jumped out. It was clear that I wasn’t going to be of any use. I left.

I ran into an elderly Asian woman, headed to the grocery store. She reminded me a bit of my grandmother. I told her that she didn’t want to walk down that street. She’d heard the noise, wanted to know if someone had been shot. I didn’t know what to say, so I just reiterated that she should take a different route. “You don’t want to see that.”

As I walked up to the bus stop, I pulled out my phone and texted a close friend. I still wasn’t sure what had actually happened, but I was starting to suspect that the man had committed suicide by jumping off a nearby structure.

(I later confirmed this by checking publicly available dispatch reports and local news articles. I don’t know why knowing mattered so much to me, but it did.)

Unsurprisingly, I missed my bus. Dazed, I got on a different bus headed towards downtown. The people around me were going about their lives, business as usual. It occurred to me that they probably had no idea that someone had just died less than half a mile away. That they would probably never find out. I didn’t know how handle the fact that these people would never care about something that had sent me reeling.

I couldn’t get the sound he made hitting the ground out of my head.

As much as I wanted to talk to someone, I was wary of upsetting people or grossing them out. I discussed it with a few close friends, handwaving away the details. I didn’t tell them about how neatly he was dressed or the way his body flopped as the woman from the car performed chest compressions or how I knew that he’d hit his head.

To one of my housemates, I simply said that I’d “had a weird day” and that I didn’t want to ruin his day with the details. To the other two, I said nothing.

The man died. I don’t know who he was or why he did it, but I know that he wasn’t there by accident. And even then, although it was a lost cause, people stopped and tried to help.

It seems like a weird takeaway, but it was an unexpectedly reassuring experience. The street had been empty save for myself and two other pedestrians. In the time it took me to walk a block and cross a 4-lane road, there were enough people trying to help that there was nothing for me to do, and city emergency response vehicles were only a few minutes behind them. I can only assume that people would react the same way if something bad happened to me.

Welcome to the colorblind future

Originally posted on Medium.

A stranger stops my mother as she carries me across the UW campus.

“Did you get the baby from Korea?”

“No… I made it myself.”

When my mother picks me up from daycare, the other kids tell me that I’m adopted. I try to argue with them, but they won’t listen to me.

My sixth grade classmates switch to Chinese whenever I walk near them. I know that they speak English more fluently; this is just to drive the point home.

Although he was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, my father started school without knowing a word of English. Scarred by years of intense bullying, he never taught me Cantonese. 11 years old and desperate to fit in, I’m oblivious to the irony of resenting him for it.

“Mixed children are always the most beautiful.”

I’m not sure why my guidance counselor is telling me this, or what it has to do with approving my class schedule.

My mother and I are in line at the grocery store, stealing some time together while I’m home from college. The Asian woman behind us accosts my mother, offended that she is wearing Chinese jade. My mother explains that it was a gift from my grandmother, a family heirloom. The woman doesn’t seem to care.

I’m on vacation with my family, enjoying a brief respite from grad school. The clerk at the ice cream shop tries to take my father’s order with the Asian 20-somethings standing next us, skipping past me, my mother, and my brother.

Eventually she realizes her mistake and blushes.

She doesn’t apologize.

Aftermath: Talking about depression

About a month and a half ago, I posted an essay about my experiences with depression. A surprising number of people read it (more than five times as many as my next most popular essay). Nobody left a comment on the actual essay, and very few people responded to the Facebook and Twitter posts I made to share it.

However, a significant number of people have contacted me directly. I’ve received Twitter DMs and Facebook messages, had lengthy IM and face-to-face conversations, and even gotten snail mail about it. I’ve drawn a few conclusions from this:

  1. A surprising number of people are affected by depression. I never would have guessed that any of the people who reached out to me had also dealt with depression. I also talked to several people who had never personally been depressed, but had watched helplessly as their friends dealt with similar problems.
  2. Nobody wants to talk about it publicly. Many of the people who contacted me said things like “thank you for writing this” and “you’re brave for sharing this”. A lot of the people I talked to had (legitimate) fears that they would be penalized, socially or professionally, for discussing their experiences with depression in the open (I assume it only gets worse for other mental health problems). It’s really unfortunate that this is the case, and I’ve been pondering how we can create safe ways for people to share their perspective.
  3. My network is more supportive than I expected. The fact that people reached out to me to say that my post resonated with them was great. The fact that people reached out to me to say that they had never been depressed and were grateful that I had shared my perspective was amazing. I knew that I had good friends, but I was genuinely surprised by my friends who talked to me with the intention of learning how to better support their friends. I don’t know how well this generalizes to other social circles, but my working hypothesis is that if you’re having a tough time, your friends care and want to help you.

In short, talking about depression matters. I’m not entirely sure where to go with it, but it’s clearly important. If you have thoughts or ideas, I’d love to hear them!

Talking about depression

Allie Brosh recently updated Hyperbole and a Half with the most poignant description of depression that I’ve ever read. If you’ve never dealt with depression, go read it.*

She highlights a lot of really important parts of depression that many people don’t really understand, putting words to an experience that’s incredibly difficult to describe (especially when you’re in the middle of it). Her post resonated with me because I’ve never had a good framework for describing my own experiences with depression.

I sank into a bout of depression at the end of my senior year of college**. I graduated without a job or a plan, surrounded by friends who had already lined up spots at companies like Microsoft and Google. I moved home and sat on the couch for a few months. Then I moved to Seattle and sat on a different couch. I mostly did nothing. Although I was bored, lonely, and frustrated, I couldn’t muster the energy needed to deal with other people.

Friends encouraged me to look for a job, not realizing that looking at job postings triggered massive panic attacks. I was too inexperienced, I was terrible at interviewing, nobody would want to work with me, I had no explanation for my unemployment – these all seemed like insurmountable problems to me. While I never completely lost hope that the future would be better, I had no idea how to get there. All I wanted was to fast-forward through my life and skip to the part where all my problems were solved. Thoughts of suicide never came up, but I frequently wished that I would get hit by a car so that I could just stay in the hospital and wait for things to get better. In a way, I think I wanted the state of my body to reflect the state of my mind so that all of me could heal at the same speed.

Nobody really knew what was wrong with me. My friends knew that there was something wrong, but couldn’t figure out what to do to fix it. My parents worried from afar, but didn’t know the extent of my problems. I certainly had no idea what was going on, attributing my unhappiness to my unemployment and lack of direction (it wasn’t until much later that I figured out that these were symptoms, not causes).

After about 10 months, the fog started to lift. It just took was some waiting; my depression was more like a broken bone than a chronic illness. I was incredibly lucky that all I needed was time, and that I could afford it, supported by friends and family who stuck with me and helped me keep going (no matter how difficult I was to be around***). Re-energized, I got my life back on track. In less than a year I was doing quite well: I helped start the Seattle Awesome Foundation, entered graduate school, got a job as a TA, and joined the Global Shapers in quick succession. More importantly, I rediscovered my drive, ambition, and ability to really care about things.

I recently told a new friend this story and she responded that she never would have guessed, that I seemed so happy and successful that she never would have imagined that I had been so low only two years ago. You can’t look at me and see my history. I don’t have any scars from my depression. That’s why it’s so important to me to talk about it: knowing this story will change your perception of me, and I hope it will change your perception of depression as well.

I’m not ashamed of my experiences with depression, and I don’t think that anyone else should be ashamed of theirs either. I mostly wish that someone had talked to me while I was going through it. My biggest fear was that there was no way out and I was going to be trapped in that state forever. Seeing that this was a temporary obstacle, and being shown that I could get through it and still live the kind of life I wanted to have, would have done so much for me. While I’m positive that I would have outwardly rejected it and explained that this was a nice story that couldn’t possibly apply to me, I think that deep down it would have planted a few seeds of hope.

I can only hope that telling my story will make it easier for someone else – maybe by giving them a way to talk about their own experiences, or getting them to ask for help, or encouraging them to stick with a friend who’s struggling, or helping them keep up the search for the light at the end of their own tunnel.

* If you have experienced depression, do what you want. You may find it comforting to read or it may be triggering (primarily the description of suicidal ideation) or it may be neither here nor there for you. I found it incredibly relatable, but we all have unique experiences and perspectives.

** For those of you dying of curiosity: The short story is that I got in over my head trying to help a friend and ran myself into the ground. The long story involves other peoples’ personal information, which means I’m not about to broadcast it to the world.

*** And I was quite difficult to be around, oscillating between clingy, emotionally unresponsive, and relatively normal. I’m incredibly grateful to have these people in my life.

Snapshot: college, being a transitioner, and doing things that matter

I originally wrote this in November of 2010, about 6 months after I graduated from college. This is probably the most clearly I’ve ever been able to articulate what college meant to me. It’s also interesting to me to see how much I cared about doing “things that matter” at the time. I forget all too easily that my desire to make a difference didn’t start when I joined the Global Shapers or the Awesome Foundation. Although I haven’t found a singular driving passion that compares to Olin, I like to think that I’m doing pretty well so far.

Ellen and I talked about personal changes that she’s noticed post-Olin. The biggest one that stood out to both of us was that even though she likes her job, she’s not excited. It isn’t that she’s not jazzed about what she’s working on (most of the time, anyway), but that she isn’t passionate about it in quite the right way. After all, there is a whole grown up world concept of liking your job and finding your passion and such, but it’s still very different from what we experienced in college.

So we talked about how we feel now, and how we felt in college. Namely, we were obsessed with Olin. I don’t think it was in a bad way at all, because I believe that what we did at Olin was both meaningful and life changing. However, the fact of the matter is that we really were obsessed. We may not have talked about it constantly, but it came up very frequently. We thought about it all the time. And more importantly, we prioritized it above other things. I was a little more balanced, in that I never really had to think about whether or not I would prioritize Olin above classes. I went through school with a “everything gets done” mentality, and I actually was able to get everything done. However, for people like Jeff and Ellen there was no question about it at all: Olin was their priority. If it came down to doing something for class or doing something for Olin they would choose Olin. That’s just the way it was for them.

We were all extremely dedicated. And it wasn’t because we felt some external obligation, like we owed the school for our free tuition (at least not directly). We genuinely cared. No matter how tired, stressed out, frustrated, happy, or anything else we felt, we could be engaged in a discussion about Olin. We could switch from “I’m exhausted and going to bed right now” mode to “it’s 3:00am already and we’ve barely gotten started on this” mode in the space of a few minutes. For us it was a powerful emotional reaction, because we cared deeply about the issues we were discussing. Most of all we felt frustrated about the (many) parts of Olin that weren’t working the way we felt they should and excited whenever any of the parts did work the way we felt they should.

The thing is, since graduating neither of us (Ellen and myself, that is) has found something like that. Not even close. And Ellen came to grips with this today while trying to figure out exactly why she was feeling frustrated. She realized that what she’s working on, while cool, isn’t going to Change The World. This is a big demotivator because we’re the kind of people who want to have real impact. We don’t act very alike, but we share the same desire to matter. Working on issues at Olin made us feel like we mattered, because we could directly affect how things ran and what happened and who heard about our school and what their impressions of us were. Even better, we felt deeply connected to a mission that we thought was important and meaningful. To be able to say that we have done something to affect engineering education in the US, let alone the world, is a big deal. It feels like we’ve been able to contribute something of value to humanity, even if our part in it was comparably small (give us time; we’re only 22).

The problem is, once you leave Olin you have to let it belong to the people who are still there. It isn’t ours anymore because we’ve graduated, and we have to take our hands off it and let the new freshmen fill that space. It’s only what’s fair and right, since we’re not on campus any longer and don’t have a good handle on what’s happening there. But it does leave us with a gaping hole to fill, and a sort of cliche search for meaning.

To address this problem, we’ve decided to find our own meaning. We’re moving on to something else, because the choice is to find a new passion or to stop having one altogether. And while being part of Olin felt like having an impact, it’s pretty small compared to what we will be capable of. So we’re going to figure out exactly what we want to focus on, and we’re going to do something about it. We’ll pick a big ticket issue, something that really matters in the world, and we’ll educate ourselves on it, and then we’ll devise a plan for being part of the solution. It will take a long time. It will be hard. But if our experience transitioning from the always-on culture at Olin to the so-called real world is any indication, it will be entirely worth it.