Mr Helmly, Revisited

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It’s funny, isn’t it, how the way we view people and things change so much between the time we’re kids and when we’re adults? Or even year to year? How the way we remember people and events change along the way?

Well, at least most people and things in life are like that. But not Mr. Helmly. For those of you who remember, Mr. Helmly was my 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher who had a profound influence on my life. [Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.]

Earlier this month, after more than 11 years since I last saw him and nearly 3 years after I began to look for him, I finally met up with Mr. Helmly again while I was visiting the city in which he now lives. The restaurant could have been packed to the core and I still would’ve been able to pick him out in a hot second. Take a look.

(For the sake of the story, I’m posting this time capsule from the ’90s, with a special appearance from the friendly classroom skeleton. No comments on my fashion choices please.)
For the sake of the story, I'm posting this time capsule from the '90s. No comments on my choice of clothing please.

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Can we also talk about how he absolutely does not look like a man who’s going to turn 72 this year?

Besides the fact that I’m now taller than him, Mr. Helmly is really how I remembered him, still with that personality of not conforming to the norm. I did, however, misremember certain facts about him. For example, he was not a lifelong bachelor as I had always remembered, but rather had been single for the many years when he was teaching at my elementary school. (He is now remarried, however, so send him your best wishes).

I wanted to update those who were keeping up with this, but for his privacy and mine, this post is intentionally kept short. For those who are still looking to get in touch with him, please leave me your info in the comments or email me at rowena [at] rowenali [dot] com — Mr. Helmly has said he’s happy to correspond with any former students.

Go Doyle Dolphins! :)

Last Saturday I Went on Three Dates…

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And no, I’m not telling you who, what, when, where, or how things went. I just figured it’d draw your attention ;)

So how did I end up on more dates in one day than I’ve been on in the past year (Nebraska’s not exactly prime territory…)? OKCupid.

I’ve had close friends who’ve been doing online dating for two or three years now, including some with successful long-term relationships, but I’ve always been a little hesitant. I figured I was just in an odd spot because I was living in Nebraska. I mean, surely it couldn’t be too difficult to meet people in bigger cities. As it turns out, online dating is way more prevalent in bigger cities. And so with a push and nudge from a few friends, I finally signed up just before the new year.

When you think about it, online dating is both a positive and negative indicator of our society. It’s kind of sad that we are all so busy going about our own lives via our routines and within our friend groups that we seldom meet the very people surrounding us, that we live in a society which deems it strange to just randomly approach someone and start a conversation, unless it’s in a bar or at some social event. Yet it’s wonderful that we now have the technology to connect people who may have never otherwise met each other, especially because in the real world, most people tend to meet each other through mutual friends. (These apply to both romantic and platonic relationships.) There are also other pros and cons of online dating that researchers have found, but that’s another topic for another day.

But regardless of whether this experiment is successful for me in the romantic sense, I can already say that it’s been a fantastically fascinating experience. Perhaps it’s because of my background as a journalist or perhaps it’s just due to my innate curiosity, but I’m always fascinated by other people’s stories and experiences. And boy did I hear some stories on Saturday; pretty much made me miss my days of reporting.

So if you’ve been thinking about trying out online dating, today’s a good day to take a leap of faith. If nothing else, it’ll be an intriguing exercise on learning about different perspectives and meeting people from all walks of life.

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The Lost Kids

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I call them kids, but they’re not really kids. A lot of them are my age or older.

And I call them lost, except many of them are perfectly content as they are.

I live in the Haight, a neighborhood in San Francisco that is somewhat known for its gathering of homeless people. (Or at least what society would label as homeless people — I’d say vagabonds is a better description.) Many of them travel in twos or threes, adding in and swapping members of their group as days pass and as people move on. They sleep and hang out on most major streets in the neighborhood and they’re often in Golden Gate Park. 

Like most people on the streets, they ask for money, cigarettes, food — but they’re never aggressive, and usually, they’re quite polite. I try to give them food whenever I can; there’s a special corner that I’ve picked as the spot I go to about once a week, dropping off whatever food I’ve got to whomever happens to be there at that time. Usually they thank me and I go home, but last night, I stopped to chat.

The kid I spoke to the most is 19. He grew up in foster care in New Mexico and first ended up on the streets at 14. He eventually made his way to college, but when he got laid off from one of his jobs, he had to default on his tuition payments. That caused him to lose his part-time job at the college, which meant he could no longer afford rent. And from there, it was no college, no apartment, no job. He still has his car, but there’s also been streets and sewers.

He says he rarely stays in any one city for more than a few days because he’s afraid of getting attached to anyone or revealing too much of himself to anyone.

He says he likes the drifting because in part, it’s a type of freedom that he’s never had in any other part of his life.

Another guy I spent a good amount of time speaking with is 30. He’d been on the streets at a younger age, but for the last five years he had been married, holding down a job, and living in a home. This month was his first back on the streets after a nasty breakup.

He says he doesn’t even try to “get his act together” anymore because whenever something good starts, it all starts falling down.

He says he knows he’s a coward for thinking like that, but he’s willing to live with it.

They’re often hungry. They’re often dirty. They’re more than often seen as society’s downtrodden. But they could teach those of us society labels as “normal” a thing or two. 

1) Sharing is caring.

Last night I brought a bag of just-cooked tortellini, a bottle of lemonade, and some candy. It was amazing to watch as they passed the food around, each person taking one until everyone had had at least a share. There was no meticulous dividing or any sly hands even though there were 20+ of them and they were hungry.

I asked about how they decide who shares what with whom, especially given that many of them don’t stay in the same area for more than a few days. The answer? That they don’t keep track of it. You always share what you have with whomever is there; that sharing always comes back around at some point.

2) Happiness is what you make of it, so stop trying to measure up to other people’s definitions of it.

Few of us who “live a normal life” would be happy living on the streets without a warm place to sleep or some sort of guarantee of not going hungry. But happiness is what you make of it. As one of them explained to me, there are the go-getters in the world and then there are those who are content to just be, even if it’s a drifter’s existence on the streets.

Happiness doesn’t need to be a Maserati and first-class world voyages. It’s okay to not spend your entire life climbing the socioeconomic ladder as long as you’re happy. (But if you need that to be happy, that’s cool too — to each his own.)

3) Help others — you always have something to give.

The youngest of those there last night was 17; many of them have been on the streets for years. Some of them had just met, others had traveled together, and it was just refreshing to see and hear about how they take care of each other when they’re together, even if that’s only 24 or 48 hours.

So many of us are so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t stop to help others. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be your time, your labor, some food, or even just an ear to listen.

We spoke about so much more, and I was bursting with curiosity, but I finally bid them farewell when police came to disperse their group.

Apparently 20 or so kids sitting at one corner is trouble a-brewing. 

[An aside: apologies for disappearing from the blog for 3+ months -- San Francisco has been exciting to say the least!]

Smile :)

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Sometimes I have crappy days.

Like today. It’s not one of those terrible days when everything just goes wrong and I think life would be easier with a pint of ice cream always attached to me. It’s just one of those days when things are iffy.

Usually I go work out when I’m feeling down, but I couldn’t get my full endorphins today because I’m temporarily without a gym and I really didn’t want to get heatstroke out in the 106-degree sweat lodge that is the outside. Sometimes I also go to thought catalog or buzzfeed for a few laughs, but nope, couldn’t find anything all that laughable today.

And so I came back to my favorite Pinterest pin ever:

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Happy Wednesday! :)

Growing Up AA

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Growing up, race was never a subject that entered my consciousness. It wasn’t until my teens, when we moved to Florida, that I became conscious of my race because others consciously remarked it. Until then, in my own perception, I was Asian because I had been born in Asia and American because the U.S. was the country I identified with. The only time I was ever Asian American was when I had to check off those “race/ethnicity” boxes on standardized tests and other forms (young’uns, this was a world before you could choose “multiracial” or “decline to answer”).

But being Asian American isn’t as much about race as it is about culture. My parents have always said that growing up amidst two cultures means I get to choose the best of both worlds, and that is absolutely true. At the same time, it also means never feeling like you truly belong to either.

It means laughing at something in a movie but not being able to relate it to your own family. It means going over to a (white American) friend’s house for dinner and wondering why your family doesn’t lay out proper (Euroamerican) table settings. And even though my parents have never been stereotypical Asian parents — for example, when I decided to pursue journalism in college, they didn’t threaten to stop paying tuition unless I got on a med/law track, nor did they stop encouraging me to pursue my dreams — there were still aspects of Chinese culture that they enforced in the home. So growing up AA meant growing up trying to balance two worlds, instead of belonging fully to one or the other. And let’s be honest, in adolescence, belonging means everything.

To a certain extent, I carried this imbalance and confusion with me to college. I had a diverse group of friends just as I had always had, but college presented something new: certain groups of Asians and Asian Americans who only hung out with other A/AAs. And honestly, they terrified me. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hang out with only others of the same race, especially those who had grown up in the States. And so I went along with my life, ignoring all those freshman year invitations from the Chinese Students Association, Asian American Intervarsity, etc. etc.

Then in the spring of my freshman year, I ended up in an Asian American Women & Gender class due to a scheduling problem. I was actually somewhat unhappy about it – I didn’t want to be labeled as one of those A/AAs who only cared about the A/AA culture. But the class was surprisingly interesting, and after another Asian American Studies class the next year, I declared a minor in AAS.

For me, my AAS classes were a way for me to learn about Americans of Asian descent, yet as history showed and as I experienced when I lived in more rural areas of the States, there are still many Americans who see AAs simply as Asians who live in America, and therefore, not true Americans. (Please see 1998 & 2002 headlines re: Michelle Kwan.)

Through those classes and through other friends, I eventually did make a couple of AA friends in college whose main group of friends are other AAs, and I began to understand a little bit of why they chose to hang out mostly with other AAs. In general, it was about being able to relate and to belong. But even so, there were times when I hang out with these friends, that I wanted to shout to the world and say, I have more diverse friends than just this! I was still afraid of being labeled.

And so as I finished up college, I was still unsure about what it meant to be AA.

Apparently the AAS department had a better understanding of my own confusion than I did. Upon graduation, the AAS department gave every AAS major and minor a copy of the following book. I packed it up with everything else, and for an entire year, it sat on a bookshelf.

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I finally picked it up last month, almost exactly to the date of graduation, and wished only that I had read it later. The first-person narratives in Balancing Two Worlds made me laugh and they made me cry. The book allowed me to relate to others as they shared their innermost thoughts, and it made me rethink how I viewed AAs as a group. Most of all, it made me realize that I was not alone in my confusion.

I think I’ll always be navigating the two rivers of Asian and American cultures, but this book definitely provided valuable insight.

As it was gifted to me upon graduation, I wanted to pass it along to someone else so that they too may benefit from it. And so I shipped it last week to my friend Amanda, who graduated from Penn this year and also wrote her own blog on being AA. She’s starting her first real-world job this month, so I won’t blame her if she doesn’t get to the book immediately. After all, it took me a year to get to it. But I truly hope it offers her useful insight as it did me.

Amanda, your only obligation after you finish reading Balancing Two Worlds is to write a note on the title page and pass it on to someone else who may benefit.