After the storm

We Houstonians are no strangers to hurricanes. Living in former swamplands about an hour from the Gulf Coast, we’ve had to stock up on non-perishables and supplies, fill our bathtubs with water, board our windows, and evacuate. Our city has experienced major flooding, power outages, and even the loss of homes and lives. Recently, those on the East Coast experienced similar devastation. Sandy caused enormous damage, and some people lost everything.

The New York City area was hit particularly hard. Living next to Times Square, I was very lucky. While my office was closed for three days, other than flickering power, my apartment was fine. It was surreal, however, to witness for the second time since moving here, how empty and quiet the City That Never Sleeps had become because of a hurricane.

When we finally returned to work, one of my friends set up a volunteer effort for my team. With the little gas that we had, four of us made it down to the Rockaways early in the morning, with hot food and supplies – all generously donated by a local diner and colleagues.

We walked amidst the destruction, amazed not only by what was lost, but also by how many others had come out to help. We spent the day at a local church where the National Guard was also present, all of us organizing, distributing and delivering supplies. Despite being inside the building, we were very cold, which led us to worry about the dropping temperatures and wonder how residents would stay warm.

I have only these few words and pictures to share from my experience volunteering in the Rockaways. It will take a while for everyone to recover from Sandy, but what I saw growing up in Houston is very present here in New York: People helping people.

All photos taken and copyright by Angie Liang.

To Russia with love

Michael* and I went to school together for a decade – middle school, high school and even college – but we were mostly acquaintances who rarely talked. It wasn’t until two years after we got our diplomas that Michael and I really connected, when he asked me one day about a picture on Facebook from a recent trip I had taken.

From there, we started talking, and our conversations quickly grew more personal, philosophical and profound. We began to meet over tea, then dinner just to talk. In just a couple of weeks, we had become true friends and surprisingly close.

During that brief time, I received and accepted a job offer in New York City, giving me only one more month in Texas.  Normally, I would have found it silly to continue a relationship with someone when I was on the verge of leaving, but Michael insisted that we should make the most of whatever time we had left together. So we did.

I don’t think Michael will ever know the impact he had on my life. Perhaps part of it was the timing: I was graduating, growing up, and taking that large step of moving to a different city. Life was messy and thrilling, and I thought, how lucky I was to find a friend who understood my messy, thrilling self. Through the chaos, that enormous transition, Michael was there to offer calm and practical guidance. He never attempted to solve my problems, but he listened as I rambled on, confused and overwhelmed by all the possibilities in front of me.

Of course I also had my wonderful family and best friends, who have always provided me with support and love. But looking back, I believe I was supposed to grow close to Michael at that particular time in my life, a time when everything was changing. He opened my eyes with a fresh perspective to help me navigate.

Thanks to Michael’s different way of thinking, I started to understand multiple sides of a situation and became more open-minded. I tried to step outside the borders of my cookie-cutter life, and I even learned to embrace my mistakes – because, as Michael convinced me, they can help shape you into a better person if you make the most out of them.

After I moved to New York, Michael and I talked less and less. We went from phone calls to emails to eventually just text messages a few times a month. Recently, through one of those texts, Michael informed me that he would be moving to Russia – a dream of his – where I know he will flourish, after a roller coaster career in Texas.

I wished him well and meant it – hopefully conveying my hope, love and excitement for him – but I am unable to hide the sadness in my own heart at this new chapter in his life. We have grown further apart with time, and the physical distance will only deepen the space that separates us.

No matter what happens, I’m grateful for the impact Michael has had on me. He supported me during a critical time in my life, and now I have the opportunity to do the same for him. Maybe we’ll go back to the edges of each other’s lives, the way we were for so many years in school, but we will always have the memories of a closer time.

And maybe that’s just what some people are meant to do. They are here to guides us during a chapter of our lives, so that we will meet the people we’re supposed to meet and become the people we’re supposed to be.

*Name has been changed.

For love of travel

After days in and days out behind a desk, there is nothing better than to wander with curiosity in a new place. This is the gift I can give myself: Exploration. Learning history, experiencing new cultures, tasting different cuisines, and breathing a different life.

Most importantly, when I travel, I take time to reflect on my life and understand who I am at the moment. I want to share some of my recent experiences. I hope that you, too, can look within yourself this summer.

Rome

In a roaring crowd of Italian spirit — the flag waving frantically back and forth, green-white-and-red colored wigs, soccer jerseys, and giant television screens — I’m standing sheepishly with my friend looking for a sign. We’re in the middle of Circo Massimo, an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium that houses hundreds of thousands of people. After we searched from the Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps, a kind police officer told us this is where we can watch the final Euro Cup game.

At last I see it — the Spanish flag. My friend is from Spain, so we will not be cheering for Italy, despite traveling in this beautiful country. Instead we find comrades with whom she can support her home team. Before the game, they exchange teasing boasts with the Italian crowd about whose side will win.

The next two hours are filled with shouts, groans, and excitement. Our group becomes family as we cheer together. My friend links arms with a fellow Spaniard as they wave the flag, while another jokes around with me. After Spain scores two goals, we are met with a little jeering and multiple bouts of water thrown at us. No matter, in this heat. We only cheer harder.

At the end of the game, we come out victorious, unscathed, and with a once in a lifetime experience.

Brussels

My day trip to Brussels was a whim. A good one. Everything about this city is pleasant — even how I got there. On the train, the man next to me is also from New York, and he’s listening to Tim McGraw. Once we arrive, I ask the station manager and helpful strangers how to get into the city center, beginning my adventure with really only one goal: Eat well.

After an amazing seafood feast, I’m standing near Saint Katherine’s with my map, confused. Behind me an elderly man named Rafael asks if he can help me locate something. I graciously accept, and then for the next couple of hours I’m given an unexpected local tour of the city. I learn about how many of Brussels’s famous buildings were constructed, where the best chocolates are, and even a “secret oasis” that once was the site of a Dominican church.

Rafael, an avid traveler who knows several languages, owns an antique crystal shop. His tiny store is filled floor to ceiling with crystal glasses, many from the early 1900s. He shows me some of his favorite pieces and explains their origins. He even demonstrates how to evaluate them. Piiiiing — the clear ringing sound assures me this is true crystal.

Upon my departure, Rafael gifts me a pair of port glasses. A keepsake from Brussels, so that I will return again.

On resolutions and the new year

Kristan

Sometimes turning the calendar to a new page isn’t enough. For a fresh mindset, I need a bigger, bolder signal of change. So I pick a different desktop picture for my computer; I rearrange the furniture in my living room; I cut my hair.

Still, the world is not new, and I don’t have a clean slate.

Every January, I have to come to terms with this all over again. I have to remind myself that the new year isn’t about a new me. It’s about a better me. Resolutions are meant to build upon the foundation we already have — to improve it, not erase it.

I think the best resolutions are small and simple. Something like “Become a millionaire” sounds great in theory, but it’s too big, too vague. Resolutions should be achievable — with clear, actionable steps that are completely within your control.

I prefer to make just a couple resolutions each year, in order to set myself up for success. After all, if these things were so easy to do, wouldn’t I have done them already?

This year, one of my resolutions is to make better use of my to-do list. I read somewhere that the best to-do lists have no more than 5-6 items per day. More than that and people start to feel overwhelmed. If/when they can’t cross everything off, they feel like they have failed. Plus the unfinished items carry over into the next day, along with their negative outlook.

So I plan to assign only a handful of tasks to each day, and to tackle them one at a time in an efficient and timely manner. It may sound small, but I think the ripple effects will be far-reaching.

Angie

Since moving to New York, I started recording my new year’s resolution as a pithy statement on my cell phone. The first year I moved here it was “Don’t forget about you,” to remind myself that I should stand up for my own decisions. Last year it was “Help others.” For 2012, I chose “Dream big. Act bigger.”

There are many things I would like to learn this year, from expanding my skills at work, to learning how to surf and ski. I also would like to continue traveling to other countries, seeing new sights and experiencing different cultures. Do I need a resolution to accomplish these goals? Of course not. But it helps.

Unlike Kristan, I find the point of a resolution is not to set measurable goals, but instead to shape your values and beliefs into something important. Resolutions create a focal point, and they represent your commitment to accomplish something you never thought you would. Seeing my new mantra on my cell phone every day helps frame my thinking and influence my actions in the right direction.

For example, there is a particular goal that I’ve had in mind since last year. “Dream big and act bigger” is a promise to myself that I will work hard to achieve it, continuously pushing myself out of my comfort zone without comprising who I am. That may mean I accomplish the goal, or it could mean along the way I change my course. But as long as I try, then I know I’ll be happy.

It also means I will look beyond myself and understand my impact on my peers. My decisions may be for myself, but we only reach them with the help of others.

This past year I have been very grateful for the faith that my family, friends and colleagues have in me, along with the opportunities I’ve been given. But I know there is more that I can learn as well as contribute. So I can’t settle for the status quo. I have to dream big and act bigger.

Happy Anniversary

By the time you read this, my 2nd anniversary of moving to New York City will have passed. Like most weeks, it was rather uneventful and busy with work. Though tired as usual, I couldn’t help contemplating where my life is heading. After two years of working and living in this fast-paced city, I’m surprised to find that I’m still a little uncertain about it.

Moving here was propelled by a great career opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, but my honeymoon period with New York had ended a couple years earlier, during previous internships I’d done here. As I settled into my fourth-floor studio apartment, I no longer felt the excitement and wonder of so many students and young professionals around the world who dream of living here. Instead, I found myself battling expenses, egos, and a dwindling sense of passion.

Before I came to New York, I was active in developing environmental policy on my campus, fundraising for the local children’s hospital, and even planting trees. I danced every week—two-stepping, salsa, clubbing. I went to concerts with friends, hosted dinner parties in my apartment, cleaned up the local river, played piano…

All of that stopped when I moved here.

But it’s not entirely the city’s fault. There’s plenty to do, and a raw energy that radiates through New York’s 8 million residents. Even strangers and visitors remark upon this aura, this vitality that cannot be captured. But it belongs to the city, not to me.

I’ve tried to borrow that energy by tapping into the veins of New York. Walking the grid of streets, I continuously explore and find things to appreciate. I love running my hands through the grassy plants along the Highline, an urban park converted from the old railroad track. I love the tiny, foreigner-filled restaurant in Nolita that exudes coolness but pretends it’s not that hip. I love the farmer’s markets, flea markets, street markets, any market. Most importantly, I love the sassy 13-year-old girl I mentor, and the good friends I have made here.

To help me understand my hazy emotions and desires, I asked some of these friends to explain why they liked New York and whether they’d still be here in two years. Some grew up in the city, others are transplants like myself. The answers I received from them reflects the magic that the city exudes:

“The energy is unlike anywhere else.”

“Always so much to do. Friends are always visiting.”

“Everything about New York is energized, and there are infinite possibilities.”

Yet even with all the positives, most said they did not expect to stay here long-term, echoing my own mixed feelings.

New York has never been shy about its complexity and allure, but I never realized how tough it would be to live in that, day in and day out. I’m here now, but who knows where I’ll end up. That’s the excitement of life. That’s something New York City has taught me to embrace.

The Power of Sharing

Keep it to yourself. That used to be our family motto. We never talked about my sister’s “condition,” especially not to anyone outside the family. We were private, and there was nothing anyone could to do help anyway.

In high school, I started to rebel against our silence. I was beginning to learn who I was (headstrong) and what I wanted to do (make a difference). Being on the newspaper staff during this time helped me develop a voice, and despite my parents’ hesitancy, I wrote about my relationship with my sister. For the first time, our story became public.

There is nothing heroic — or shameful — about our family. My sister has mild mental retardation, or more appropriately, she is a wonderful woman with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). She is lively and clever, attends community college and job training, lives in a group home, and is a Special Olympics athlete. Nowadays, everyone around us knows of her achievements. They have seen her grow and blossom over the years.

My parents and I have grown and blossomed along with her. After meeting and talking with other families we found that this informal support network mattered, that other people understood our experiences. Their friendship gave us strength. So my parents began telling our story and sharing their strength too.

My parents now work tirelessly on FFASN (Friend and Families of Asians with Special Needs), a nonprofit they helped found to inform and empower parents and caregivers about what they can do for their loved ones. (Note: Despite the name, FFASN is for everyone, not just Asian families.) With other volunteers, my parents organize support meetings for parents, sports teams and musical activities for their children, and fun picnics and festivities for the community. They dedicate much of their resources to something they truly believe in.

One of their most impressive undertakings so far was hosting the first FFASN community workshop earlier this year. The workshop focused on educating parents and caregivers about available resources, such as waiver programs. As a FFASN volunteer, I flew home to help out with the workshop.

That day was moving in many ways. Watching my mild-mannered father open the workshop and encourage a room full of parents to be their child’s advocate was especially inspiring. But the best part was hearing all the positive feedback from participants about how helpful the workshop was. One woman graciously told me, “Really, thank you for doing this.” But that the credit really belonged to all the wonderful volunteers who make FFASN possible.

I never dreamed my parents would go from “keep it to yourself” to sharing their story and creating a nonprofit. After years of silence, they opened up in a big way. I wrote this column because I am incredibly inspired and amazed by their hard work and continued efforts to make not only my sister’s life better, but other families’ lives as well.

* * * * *

FFASN will be hosting its second community workshop, “Long Term Planning for People with Special Needs,” on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at the MHMRA Conference Center at 7033 SW Freeway, Houston, Texas 77074. Early registration encouraged, seating is limited to 100. There is a $10 registration fee for attendees and lunch is provided. To learn more about the workshop or FFASN, please visit www.ffasn.org or email FFASN.Houston [at] gmail [dot] com — or feel free to email Angie at JBUcolumn [at] gmail [dot] com as she will be attending the workshop.

Making music

Hordes of tourists and natives alike crowd Times Square at any given part of the day—in my case, 7 p.m. on a Monday after work. My friends were standing around a sunshine yellow piano located right at the epicenter of Times Square, and a professional pianist was delighting the crowd with his masterpiece. As I listened, my heart sank to my stomach and my hands were shaking.

“You’re next, Angie,” one of my friends said with a nudge.

Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea.

I was one of those children that you had to force to sit at the piano to practice. Sometimes it involved screaming. Eventually I realized the minimal amount I had to practice each week to get by in my piano lessons. Then when I started college, there were no more lessons or practice sessions, and suddenly, I realized how much I loved (and missed) playing the piano.

In college, my friend Jenn and I would storm the private music rooms on campus to play all our old classical pieces and attempt some current hits. Later, my boyfriend at the time lent me his weighted keyboard so I could play in my bedroom. This became especially beneficial whenever I felt stressed and needed to let my emotions flow from my head and my heart and out through my fingers.

Moving to New York, I had to forego making music. Due to lack of transportation, space, and time, I returned the weighted keyboard and stopped playing. After a few months, I started getting antsy and looking up piano room rentals at local theatres. So when New York hosted a two-week art installation project of free pianos open to the public around the city, I knew I had to play.

There was only one problem: stage fright. As much as I love playing, I am terrible with large crowds, something that is unavoidable in New York. When it comes to piano, I view playing as a personal fulfillment and only choose to share it with a few close friends. The thought of performing in front of a large crowd of strangers creates a terrible anxiety and nervousness. Luckily, Jenn happened to be visiting and I told her of my goal to participate before the installation ended in July, and she happily agreed to support me.

On our first attempt, we walked in the dead of night to one of the free pianos at Central Park. My logic was this: It’s late, so not as many people will be out, and it’s dark, so they can’t really see me. But somehow my logic did not factor in that the piano would be locked during the night.

The next day I made my second attempt, more determined than ever. I discovered that there was a closer piano in Times Square, so I decided if I was going to do play somewhere, why not one of the most heavily trafficked locations in the world?

Jenn and a few friends stood eagerly near me as the pianist finished his piece. As my other friend nudged me, I looked at Jenn. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with this, but she smiled to give me confidence and encouragement. Even the professional said, “This piano is for you to play.”

And he was right.

Despite my nervousness, and even my mistakes, I sat on the bench and played. I played because I could make music. I played because it made me happy. I played until the piece was finished, the crowd applauded, and I turned and smiled.

Recalibrating

When you’re a kid, you dream of growing up. Turning 16 means you have control of your life, as long as you get access to four-wheels and a motor. Turning 18 means you no longer have to listen to anyone but yourself, although if you’re smart you’ll still listen to your parents sometimes. Turning 21 means, for most people, a real party. Personally I don’t drink, but it’s definitely rite of passage for others.

But somehow, when you graduate from college and start working, birthdays lose some of their meaning. Really, what happens at, say, 23?

As soon as we leave the school bubble, we really do have to grow up. So here I am, employed in my first job and facing the first dreaded milestone in my life: 25th birthday and the quarter-life crisis.

My generation grew up believing in ideals: Chase your dreams, follow your passions. These beliefs permeated our actions as we strove to be not only the genius, but also the dedicated athlete, volunteer, musician, etc. A well-rounded generation of dreamers and achievers.

Throughout my education I was well-versed in balancing homework, extracurricular activities, and a social life. I could work on a paper, study for a test, and still go out with friends. When it came time to leave college, I cheated the system and went to grad school. Two more years of the school bubble. Two more years to avoid reality.

Of course I did eventually make a decision. I’ve lived in New York for almost 6 months now, and my whole lifestyle has changed from the laidback Austinite to the fast-paced New Yorker. I’m working at a large public relations firm, and I like my job and my team. I like the city for all its sights and adventures, and I’ve made new friends.

Yet I still feel lost.

The quarter-life crisis exists because of this big transition in life. Every idealistic notion I had for the past 24 years was demolished with a diploma and a decision about my career. Many of us face the problem of balancing reality with passion. When we leave school, we have to start thinking about the future, which means we can’t spend all our money traveling the world, or else how will we ever afford our 2.2 kids and that house with the white picket fence?

Somehow the achiever is still achieving, but the dreamer is dwindling.

There is only one thing we can do: recalibrate. I am balancing new factors while slowly building new routines with my passions. Yes, a lot of it revolves around work, but it’s also some of what I enjoy, like exploring the culinary delights of the city, and becoming a mentor to teens.

What I’ve learned is that it’s okay not to know what you want or exactly where you’re going. Just try to have a vague idea of where you want to be, and slowly make your way to that general vicinity while trying everything along the way. You’ll figure out what you do and don’t like, and you’ll start dreaming again.

What I think I want changes constantly, but every day that passes I am learning more about where I want to be. 25 is here, and it’s not so bad. I’m looking forward to everything I will learn and experience as the years pass.

I’ll just have to keep that in mind when I approach the infamous 40.

Two ways to celebrate April 22

Children at work
By Kristan Hoffman

Shortly before I was born, my parents became small business owners. For some kids that wouldn’t change life too much, but I have always been involved in my parents’ work. Every day after elementary school, I went to the office and sat next to my mom while she finished her day’s assignments. As I grew older, I started to help by answering phones, collating copies, typing up articles, whatever. Over time, my parents’ employees became like extended family to me. We even celebrated birthdays and holidays together.

So when schools started to promote Take Your Child to Work Day, I just rolled my eyes. I already went to my parents’ work every day. What was so special about that?

Now that I’m an adult in the workforce, I can see what a positive impact going to my parents’ office had on me. I got a lot of experience that people don’t get until their late teens or twenties. I saw firsthand what it takes to manage people and operate a business. I even helped manage people and operate the business sometimes.

Exposure to a work environment definitely gave me an advantage as an employee. Of course not everyone is going to get the same degree of exposure, but I do think every little bit counts. Through Take Your Child to Work Day, children can witness the value of individual competence and work ethic, as well as team effort and collaborative spirit. Kids can learn that every job is important, regardless of title, because each job affects the others in the company. And most of all, they can see what their parents do, how to balance work and home life, and the value of education. They can begin to form their own professional dreams and goals.

These are important lessons for a person’s career – and for a person’s life in general.

So come April 22, 2010, I hope all parents who are able will take their sons and daughters to work. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it someday.

(Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

***

Nothing wrong with loving dirt
By Angie Liang

It started with dirt and some daffodil bulbs. My dad took my sister and I out to plant daffodils in the backyard, and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the earth. My dad continued to foster this interest by taking the family to national parks—I’ve visited over 35 states because of this. When I see the red-orange glow of the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon or the bubbling mudpots in Yellowstone, a sense of awe engulfs me.

I continued to develop this interest throughout high school and college. In addition to double-majoring in geography – for fun – I also became active in the Campus Environmental Center (CEC). Through the CEC, I planted trees, worked on sustainability policies that the University of Texas eventually adopted, and volunteered at our campus-wide garage sale that practices the idea of re-use, which has saved tons of items from going into the landfills.

Now that I’ve begun my career in advertising, people often wonder why I bothered with the geography degree. But I use it everyday! While I am not active in influencing environmental policy, I do what I can to live an environmental lifestyle. I continue to recycle, I use my own eating utensils at work, I eat less meat, and I find ways to reduce my waste. They are small adjustments, but every step matters. I do all this because I learned to appreciate our earth.

Which is why, come April 22, Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary, I hope you will join me in celebrating. Whether you plant a tree, advocate for industry regulation, or just make a small adjustment to your life – like buying one less bottle of water – you can impact change. Let’s make that change together!

Here’s to new adventures

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because it’s the one tradition my family keeps. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a holiday centered around food?

Every Thanksgiving since as far as I can remember, my family has dinner with my best friend Jen’s family. Our parents have known each other since college, so we grew up hand-in-hand. Sometimes the menu changes, sometimes more families join in, and goodness knows we all age, but every year it’s a full meal and lots of laughter.

A few years ago, Kristan and I added our own tradition to Thanksgiving. The two of us would return to Houston and run — or more realistically walk — the Turkey Trot, an early morning 10K race benefitting Sheltering Arms.  Then we’d rush back home to shower, and in the afternoon we’d volunteer at the Superfeast in downtown Houston.  Later in the evening, we would go to our respective family dinners.

Last year, Kristan changed our tradition. She understandably wanted to spend time with her boyfriend Andy and his family. At first I was disappointed, but I still had my other traditions. I knew I’d get to spend time with Jen, gorging on stuffing and pumpkin pie.  I could deal with a little change.

Little did I know, that little change was just the beginning…

For years and years my Thanksgiving traditions were the same, and this year I was looking forward to another rambunctious gathering. However, in October I abruptly uprooted my entire life in Texas to start a new job in New York City.  Given the quick timing, I found myself unable to return home for Thanksgiving.

At first I didn’t think too much of it, but as the holiday approached, I started to realize how incredibly homesick I was. Friends and coworkers talked about their plans for family gatherings and delicious menus, and I secretly envied them. Luckily though, a few New Yorkers reached out and helped me plan a new Thanksgiving for myself.

Just between us Texans, I want you to know that despite their reputation, New Yorkers are very sweet. From an Italian father with a great love of tea, to a sweet couple I met at IKEA, to my boss who I admire greatly, I have gotten to know an amazing number of very nice, very open people. In fact, after just one meeting, the IKEA couple invited me to join them for their Thanksgiving lunch.

Everyone says that when traditions end, you start a new one. But I’m not looking to start a new tradition, I am just looking to start my adventures, because who knows how next year will change. This year I am spending Thanksgiving with three different families, which also means three big meals and, of course, an overabundance of laughter. Next year, who knows?

And yes I am still a bit homesick, but I also realize that now I have many homes welcoming me. So I give thanks for all the good in my life, I look forward to returning to Houston for Christmas, and I wish all you dear readers a very happy holiday season.