Category Archives: power

#TeamTogisala visits www.thekaratedojo.com

 

Here is how Social Media works in a positive way. Sensei Brian Pena and Sensei Butch Togisala re-connected after twenty years thanks to Facebook. These two men competed throughout the 1990’s all over the world. Sensei Brian and his family visited California and Togisala Shorin Ryu during Easter break and, a little over a month later, Sensei Butch was graciously invited to attend the Carolina Martial Arts Open tournament in South Carolina.

On April 24, 2016, Sensei Brian Pena published the following announcement via Facebook:

“EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT:

We are excited and honored to announce that multi-time NBL World Champion and Japanese / Okinawan Karate Legend: LELAGI ‘BUTCH’ TOGISALA of Torrance, California is set to be at The Karate Dojo in West Columbia, SC for a seminar, private lessons, and to receive a special award on May 14-15, 2016 to coincide with the Carolina Martial Arts Open.

Sensei Togisala is a Japanese Kobudo and Kata MASTER that holds the record of winning the NBL World Title in Japanese / Okinawan Kata for 5 straight years through the 1990’s until he humbly bowed out to his team member Marcus Young at the 1998 Super Grands World Games.

Please make plans today to meet, greet, and LEARN from a great friend of mine, and the single most prolific Japanese / Okinawan Karate & Kobudo competitor of the past 25 years – PERIOD.

Email me at Sensei@TheKarateDojo.com with Seminar interest or to schedule Private Lessons, and stay tuned in the coming days for further information.”

On Friday the 13th in May 2016, before the sun had risen, Sensei Butch and I boarded a flight to ATL to catch a connection to CAE.  There was a level of excitement in both of us bubbling and Sensei Butch had lots of questions regarding the weekend.  We knew that a greeting at the airport by Sensei Brian and a sushi dinner with some of his black belts were on the Friday evening itinerary.  So, we planned on checking into our hotel, resting a bit, getting our gi pressed for the weekend and just going with the flow.

I had cooked up a fresh batch of Kalua pork for Sensei Brian. He really enjoyed that when he was at our house for Easter.  A couple of pounds of frozen Kalua pork were one of my carry-on items. In addition, I packed some healthy snacks for the long flight across the country.  

Early morning flights usually mean a plane full of passengers who are either trying to sleep or overly sparked on caffeine.  We both attempted to catch some Zs after take-off, to no avail.  Because our seats were upgraded to Delta Comfort, we had access to free movies and he selected the film, “Invincible” starring Mark Wahlberg.  Sports-themed movies usually contain messages about hard work paying off, enduring monumental physical challenges, and overcoming adversity.  These themes were threaded throughout the film and I saw many parallels with what Togisala Shorin Ryu is experiencing.

We sat next to each other, sharing earbuds (yes, we looked like “that couple”) and enjoyed the inspirational true story of lifelong diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan Vince Papale. Coach Dick Vermeil called an open tryout to boost interest in the flailing Eagles.  Papale realized his wildest dream, survived try outs, and became a squad member.  The movie shows Papale’s tenacity, grit and heart in a mature and relatable way, beyond Disney’s usual animated fairy tales.

“Invincible” touched our hearts and there must have been quite a bit of dust circulating in the plane, as I had to keep wiping tears away.  No comment about Sensei Butch’s “allergies”.  The feel-good story focused on the importance of hard work and the responsibility of individuals to support their friends, neighborhoods and more importantly, their families. Competing in sports played a critical role in developing both of our personal core values around Respect, Discipline, and Courage.  He and I are athletes who have competed at various levels throughout our entire lives.  Sensei Butch leveraged his raw talent for karate and his incredible support from his father and surrogate father, Grand Master Sensei Richard Rabago, to “pull himself out of the ghetto.”  Disciplined training became a way of life and that led to a successful sport karate career that took Sensei Butch all over the world.

When a competitor sees someone who consistently performs at the level to achieve world champion status, that person impacts him/her in profound ways.  Sensei Butch has fans around the world and social media has connected him with other martial artists that used to compete with him. This is what brought Sensei Butch to South Carolina.

Friday afternoon we landed at CAE airport. Sensei Brian Pena greeted us with some of his senior students:  two of his black belts and one of his brown belts. The Karate Dojo welcomed Team Togisala with warm smiles, open arms, and deep bows of mutual respect.

We felt hungry but wanted to see The Karate Dojo before checking into our hotel. The facility was incredibly impressive. I had never seen a dojo as large as this one. The main floor also housed weight machine that looked more complete than most hotel gyms I train in while on the road. In addition, there is a smaller, more private training room and a large space perfectly equipped for child care and fun. But as impressive as the physical space was, even more impressive was the spirit and atmosphere inside the dojo. The floor, the walls, the equipment all looked pristine. But on the interpersonal level, everyone  from the  staff to the students showed immense respect to Sensei Butch. We heard, “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” in every response.  Such a simple behavior, using consistent and respectful manners, exemplifies the way a karate-ka should hold him- or herself.

Sensei Brian graciously allowed Sensei Butch to use his beefy, tricked out, and gorgeous Expedition.  He drove us to Downtown  Columbia, dropped the car off with the valet, and Sensei Butch spotted a man walking.  He told me, “Babe, that’s Coolio.”  I dismissed him and said, “Leave that man alone.  It is not Coolio.”  What would Coolio be doing in Downtown Columbia?  We checked in, unpacked, and grabbed a nap before dinner.

Friday night – sushi dinner in South Carolina.  That was not a sentence I ever imagined saying out loud.  We pulled up to a shopping plaza and found a restaurant called, “Inakaya Watanabe.”  Sensei Brian had reserved the private room with tatami mats and when we entered, there were two HUGEMONGOUS  sushi boats on the tables to greet us.  Sensei Butch felt a bit apprehensive about sitting on the floor throughout an entire meal but thank goodness, the tables were built over a sunk-in floor.  The food tasted fresh and I devoured the fresh yellowtail sashimi while Sensei Brian requested rolls like soft shell crab, chef specials and some terrifyingly hot roll with a mystery chili pepper of some sort.  Eating that hot scary pepper thingy roll was a rite of passage for Sensei Brian’s black belts.  Since I am deathly allergic to peppers, I did not have the opportunity to taste that mystery torture roll. Thank goodness.

 

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At the end of dinner, Sensei Butch presented a special gift to Sensei Brian.  We had a brand new set of rope kama made  by Tenth Degree Weaponary in Southern California for Sensei Brian.  Rope kama are Sensei Butch’s signature weapon and there are multiple videos of him swinging them in sport karate tournaments all over YouTube.  Sensei Brian appreciated the gift and we were delighted to present it to him.

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 May 14, 2016, Saturday morning, Carolina Martial Arts Open tournament day.  When we arrived at the The Karate Dojo, the building was bursting with competitors and their family members.  Sensei Brian treated both of us like honored guests in his dojo and asked for the opportunity to introduce Sensei Butch to all of the participants.  We didn’t know he also had a big surprise in store for Sensei Butch.

And then, Sensei Butch had me bring up another gift for Sensei Brian. It was a vintage heavy weight Team Togisala competition gi, complete with gashes in the back of it from Kama blades. I thought that this one of a kind, irreplaceable gift would be something that Sensei Brian would appreciate. Material gifts can’t beat sentimental gifts, in my opinion. We can all buy “things” but no one can replace memories and experiences. 

A wide variety of martial arts schools were represented by colorful gi and t-shirts.  The number of competitors could have felt overwhelming but the order and precision that Sensei Brian exemplified in running simultaneous divisions impressed me.  Sensei Butch and I split our time between walking the floor and resting and reviewing the seminar format together.  Jet lag crept in every hour or so, we tried to catch cat naps throughout the morning. While out on the floor, we met an enthusiastic competitor.  She cheered everyone on in the rings by yelling, clapping, and sending tons of positive energy.  I pointed her out to Sensei Butch and he said, “She’s an awesome hype man.  We should bring her to all of our tournaments LOL.”  Her enthusiasm was noted by others and pointed out to Sensei Brian.  He recognized her by presenting her with a special “spirit” award.  She found us at the end of the tournament and asked to take a photo with both of us.  Look how her spirit shines through in her smile.

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This tournament had numerous examples of how martial arts influences young lives.  The atmosphere felt supportive and loving and still competitive throughout the day.  It struck me that martial arts tournaments should always feel family-friendly, rather than cut-throat competitive.  We work to build character in our students through discipline, respect, courage, and fun.  Becoming a tournament champion does not have to be the outcome in order to build up our students’ character.  World Championships, trophies, black belts…none of that makes a Champion.   Students living their lives by showing respect for others, acting with integrity, and staying physically fit is the ultimate goal.  Martial arts training never stops.

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As the tournament wound down, I heard tid bits of stories of first-time adult competitors making their debut at the Carolina Martial Arts Open and examples of children showing love and support for one another.  Sensei Brian referred to his event as an “investment in the future.”  A father of one of the participants wrote a “thank you” note to Sensei Brian because his son was crying at the end of the  tournament.  This young competitor was overcome with tears of pride because his sister had won Grand Champion.  Sensei Brian recognized and rewarded this young competitor with a trophy, as well.  But in fact, what that young man gave all of us was a greater gift.  Love and support for our family members and dojo Ohana is the ultimate goal.  Sensei Brian encouraged all spectators to cheer for all competitors and the dojo roof was raised by all the positive energy and Aloha throughout the tournament.

Next up, was the karate seminar with Sensei Butch Togisala.  About 20 or 25 students attended the seminar on Saturday.  The game plan consisted of a brief stretching session to prep the participants for the first activity – stances.  Strong, low stances are a signature for Togisala Shorin Ryu and the foundation of our style.  Having a low base is critical to executing our kata correctly.  Sensei Butch selected Pinan Godan as the kata to teach during the seminar.  And we wanted each student to be able to learn the entire kata during the seminar, regardless of belt rank, and be able to perform it.  I will note that Sensei Butch thought I was being too strict during warm-ups but I protested that as I conducted a very short stretching session to prepare their hips and legs for doing basics, just as I do in our dojo every night.  But I digress..

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I have written about one of the mantra of our Sensei, the late Grand Master Sensei Richard Rabago, “Basics are Everything.”  The stance is the foundation for karate.  Not all Japanese karate schools take as a low of a stance as Togisala Shorin Ryu.  But I believe that the beauty in kata is taking a low stance.  It might be from my years of studying hula kahiko, my Kumu Hula taught us that our energy comes from our classmates and from the Earth.  Being connected to both improves the spirit or mana in a dance.  The same can apply to kata.  When the karate-ka applies the movements within a kata, it is a self-defense technique or offensive attack.

Sensei Butch began the seminar with running the participants through exercises to practice:  kiba-dachi (horse stance), zenkutsu-dachi (forward stance), and neko-dachi (cat stance).  We had students as young as six years old, all the way up to adult aged and yellow belts up to second degree black belts participating.  Everyone worked hard to adjust to the style of Togisala Shorin Ryu to learn a new kata, Pinan Godan.  This is a required kata for advancement to purple belt in our dojo but it isn’t taught at The Karate Dojo so it became a nice addition to their kata toolkit.  One of the black belt students in the seminar stated, “So very impressed with Sensei Togisala.  He captured my family with his calm yet strong patience.  He led a seminar with a 6 year old all the way to us older folks and NEVER lost our attention.  We all left not only being taught a kata but also being taught a lesson in humility and strength.  Thank you sir for graciously giving us your time and energy this past weekend!  Deep bow of LOVE and RESPECT!”

Personally, I learned a lot through the process of helping to teach our kata during the seminar.  In addition, it became clear to me that Sensei Brian teaches all of his students how to be Champions in life.  His dedication to teaching the martial arts is a gift.  Sensei Brian runs The Karate Dojo as a very special school, filled with exceptional students.  I humbly bow to him.

After the seminar, Sensei Butch and I went to the Club Lounge to relax with appetizers and a glass (or two) of wine.  He felt pleased with the outcome of the seminar.  We chatted with the lounge hostess, a student from USC (Gamecocks, not Trojans) and discovered something that Sensei Butch found amusing.  A big old school hip hop concert was held nearby and Salt N Pepa stayed at our hotel the night before.  They were hot during the early 90s, the height of my clubbing days.  Sensei Butch and I sang a bunch their songs, most of which the hostess had never heard of because she was an infant at the time.  And, unfortunately, it was revealed that Coolio was also staying at our hotel! BThat means Sensei Butch did see Coolio the day before and he reminded me over and over throughout the rest of the weekend that I blew a fantastic photo opportunity for him.  Ugh.

At dinner time, we walked about a mile down the road to a restaurant ironically named, “California Dreaming.”  It came highly recommended by the nice man sitting next to me on the flight from ATL to CAE, that recommendation was co-signed by our lounge hostess and others.  They were right!  We had a fantastic walk and a lovely meal.

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After dinner, we called Uber so we wouldn’t have to take the one mile walk uphill.  A tricked out GMC SUV on 22″ tins rolled up, bumpin’ some hip hop. We looked at each other and laughed. Our driver was so chill, we talked about USC (Gamecocks, not Trojans) being on summer breaks. Then we asked about the concert and I had to hear how I blew an opportunity for Butch to take a pic with Coolio. Again.  They both laughed at me about that. Every person we encountered in Columbia, SC was gracious and welcoming. We had such a lovely time.

On Sunday, Sensei Butch was in his element, working one-on-one or in semi-private groups with students on their kata.  His innate talent for performing kata spills over into the incredible gift in customization and teaching.  Sensei Butch excels at making subtle shifts to sequences and moves that suit the individual’s strengths to transform a dojo kata to a winning sport karate kata.  Let me have some of the participants speak for themselves.

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“What an incredible experience to be instructed by Sensei Togisala, honored to have the opportunity, I hope to see him again one day to Thank him once more (or a thousand more) for helping me with my competition Kata.  He is an exceptional man.”

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The photographs above are from a semi-private lesson with two black belts.  They perform the same competition kata but Sensei Butch provided direction for each of them to customize a section of the kata to make it their own.

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“Very cool to have met someone I’ve only ever heard about (and seen in kata videos).  Sensei Togisala embodies who a leader and instructor should be – knowledgeable, caring, and patient.  Respect!!”

Sensei Butch started the morning off with a private lesson refining a kata specifically for competition.

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In this private lesson, Sensei Butch shared a few tricks of the trade to make this Sensei’s competition kata really stand out.  His strength could be amplified with a few tweaks at key points in Go Gi Shi Ho, which happens to be Sensei Butch’s signature open hand kata.

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Three private lessons were with junior colored belts.  Each of these students worked very hard and earned a lot of praise from Sensei Butch.  He reinforced the importance of basic stances and precision in strikes for competition.  As intense and serious as all these photos look, there was plenty of laughter and smiles during these private lessons.  Best of all, each of them asked questions when necessary, took the gentle criticism to heart, and applied their learnings in real time.  It was a delight for me to watch.

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The last lesson for the day was a semi-private session with two junior blue belts.  Each of them paid close attention to Sensei Butch.  Their high energy sustained him as he closed out the long day of teaching.  These two are well on their way to a bright and shining career in sport karate competition.

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Sensei Brian’s Team Dojo will “Never Give Up.”  The future of karate lies in our children continuing to learn and train from experienced instructors and competitors like Sensei Brian Pena and Sensei Butch.  Being open to new lessons and learnings was my key take-away from the weekend. Hard work is nothing to shy away from in karate or in life. As instructors, we need to be open to receive the lessons that our students teach us every day. On behalf of Team Togisala, I send a deep bow of respect and gratitude to Sensei Brian Pena and all of his students, staff, and parents at http://www.thekaratedojo.com.  We were honored and humbled by the experience we shared with all of you during the 2016 Carolina Martial Arts Open karate tournament.  Sending much respect and Aloha to Sensei Brian Pena.

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“Moral Compass” #DojoOhana #LiveAloha

At the top of the meeting today, my boss introduced me to the entire group as a hard-working leader, dedicated LGBT Ally, and the “moral compass” of the department.  That struck me as a bit of a surprise. According to the dictionary, the phrase “moral compass” is used in reference to a person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong and act accordingly.  

An image of Season 5 Glenn Rhee from “The Walking Dead” popped into my head.  His character always worked to find the win win solution or to avoid unnecessary violence on the show. Glenn put his family and loved ones first but never intentionally harmed another character. In the show, Glenn played the role of level-headed thinker and worked hard to keep peace for his group. (I really can’t help myself. I nerd out over “The Walking Dead”, “Star Wars”, and “Game of Thrones” while I’m at work.)

The interesting thing is, as I considered what “moral compass” meant, I remembered what happened when my Kumu gave our class Hawaiian names. Everyone had pretty names that started with the letter “K”. We had “Kaleikamaka” and “Kalani Ki’e Ki’e” and “Kapualani”, amongst other names. My given Hawaiian name was different from everyone else, “Pi’ilaniwahine”. When I asked what my name meant, Uncle Randy replied, “I see you as someone who works very hard, hula doesn’t necessarily come easy to you. You also always want to do the right thing and help others. So your name breaks down like this:  Pi’i = to ascend; Lani = heaven; wahine = woman.  Pi’ilani was the last king of Maui so ‘wahine’ is important to your name. You also always fight for equality for women.  So, your name means:  ‘The woman who ascends to heaven and achieves greatness.'” At the time, my name felt like big shoes to fill. It was a surprise to hear that he saw me as a person who always does the right thing. I fought for the underdog, I believed in equality and integrity. These days, I don’t even consider the deeper meaning of my name, I just love it because it is mine. 

As I reflect on the past eighteen months and all the change that our dojo has endured, being a moral compass becomes even more notable. We have experienced betrayal and uncovered dishonesty from people we once trusted. We have also seen loyalty dissipate in a flash. But instead of lashing out by taking an eye for an eye approach, I believe that living with respect and acting with integrity is the right approach. Team Togisala will rebuild by staying focused on our goals to teach karate, drill basics, and develop champions. 

To anyone who has knocked one of us down or stolen what isn’t yours, you cannot break us. When you point your finger at us in judgment and accuse us of doing something wrong, take a look at how many fingers are pointing at you. And as you try to keep someone from our dojo under your thumb, look around. You are no match for the multiple pair of hands around us that lift us up. The true meaning of Dojo Ohana is to give and love with no expectations of receiving anything in return. Our Dojo Ohana crosses multiple martial arts disciplines and even crosses state lines. As much as you try to take take take from those who you once called your friends, you will always wind up alone. Even Zazou in “Lion King” knows, “Cheetahs never prosper.”  


My boss may consider my role on the team as the “moral compass”  But I believe in Living Aloha. Do not harm but take no shit. Family first and family is not limited to blood relatives. My moral compass is grounded in the values I learned through my martial arts journey:  Respect, Discipline, Integrity, Perseverance, Humility. That’s what drives my moral compass. 

A Man Punched a Woman at the “One Direction” Concert

I had never been to the Rose Bowl for a concert. While I was a UCLA Bruin, I melted in the stands with my friends as we cheered our football team on during home games. But this experience was different. I was surrounded by thousands of screaming tweens and teen-aged girls. Their excitement was palpable and the decibel levels grew almost unbearable. Seeing my daughter singing and dancing with her friends made my heart smile, despite feeling exhausted from my summer of hellish business travel.

It was a beautiful summer evening in Pasadena, filled warm air and framed by clear skies. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about all the press coverage on domestic violence in the NFL. A Ray Rice video had just exploded on to our TV screens and monitors. The video showed Rice punching Janay Palmer, who married him a day after the indictment was issued, and he was cut by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. The media also covered the recent story of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson being indicted by a grand jury on a child abuse charge for his method of disciplining his son, with a switch cut from a tree. This violence didn’t surprise me. It angers me. It frustrated me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shock me. What did shock me happened two rows in front of me at the concert, during one of the many pop radio hits that One Direction has.
Situated in the second row from the top, we had a lot of space to stretch out and dance. From my vantage point, I saw a few 20-somethings drinking the overpriced concession stand beer and neither saw nor smelled evidence of pipes, bongs or even vapes being smoked. This evening’s entertainment came in the form of a concert fueled by tween adrenaline and hormones.

Because of the warm evening air, the individual vendors found themselves busy. People in the stands wanted to buy the frozen lemonade, ice cold water and soda without leaving their seats. Towards the end of the evening, I saw a male vendor walking across the fairly clear seats to sell a bottle of water to mother with her two young girls. One of the adult concert attendees, a woman, was trying walk past the vendor to reach the clear section of bleachers. She tripped over something a bumped the vendor’s empty plastic tray that was strapped to his front, like a large marching band bass drum. I saw the 6’ 1”, 215 lb. vendor snap his head around, mouth something like “what the fuck?!” and reach his fist back all the way to Tallahassee and strike the woman on the back of her head, near the base of her neck. The woman went down, face first, and the vendor looked a bit taken back and surprised. It seemed as if he didn’t realize what he had just done but a split second later, he tore down the bleachers through all the singing and dancing One Direction fans and tried to get outside of the venue as soon as he could. The security guard to my left saw it happen and gave chase. The woman slowly got to her feet and stumbled back to her seat. Two of the four young girls she brought to the concert sat down, stunned and quiet for the rest of the night. The other adult with them didn’t say a word to the girls, she checked in on the woman who was hit and sat in the bleachers, doing nothing. I heard the woman say, “I think I’m bleeding,” and “I am going to find that ****er.” I found another security guard and suggested that she come over and escort the woman to find medical assistance and/or the police.

Honestly, I have no idea what came of the incident. It just brought all sorts of feelings up in my head and heart that night. My heart hurt for the young girls who saw their adult chaperone get pummeled. My heart hurt for the woman who was struck by a strange man who was in the employ of the concessions vendors and trusted to provide a service at the Rose Bowl. My heart hurt as I remembered being hit by a boyfriend when I was fifteen.
Domestic violence comes in the form of a variety of abuse. It might be psychological, emotional or physical.

On September 8, 2014, Elahe Izadi wrote an article in “The Washington Post” whose headline read: “Nearly a third of U.S women have experience domestic violence”.
More than 31 percent of women in the United States have been physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey”.
Intimate partner violence covers “physical, sexual or psychological harm” by a current or former partner, according to the CDC. In addition to experiencing physical abuse by a partner, an estimated 22.3 percent of women (and 14 percent of men) have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
Among the most common types of severe violence women experienced by intimate partners: being slammed against something and being hit with a fist or hard object.
The survey also captured forms of non-physical abuse, with nearly half of women in the United States having experienced at least one act of psychological aggression by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Psychological and emotional violence covers acts such as threats and coercion.”

If the statistics say “nearly 1/3 of U.S. women have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner” and I think of me and my two best friends from high school, those statistics hold true. We were all straight-A honor roll students, involved in school clubs, and varsity athletes. None of us came from families of divorce. We definitely did not look like poster children for domestic abuse. Speaking from my relationship, I thought I could change my boyfriend’s jealous thinking and love him enough to make him realize that he could trust me.

This is a very typical thing for young girls to do when they think they are in love, fix the broken boyfriend. Some girls rescue lost and abandoned puppies, I tried to “love” away the abuse that my first boyfriend grew up with from his alcoholic and cheating father. His emotional and
psychological abuse of me escalated to the point where he actually struck me, in the face, with a closed fist. My softball picture from high school stills shows the black and blue mark on my left cheek, he was right-handed. Thankfully, I did remove myself from that relationship and that situation and found support from a variety of resources. I sought good counseling and filled my time with lots of academic and athletic challenges to distract me. There are stacks of journals and poems to prove that and my biceps and quads got their birth back then.

As I said, domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone, yet the problem is often overlooked or denied. This is especially true when the bruises are on a person’s ego and heart, not on their skin. It is clear to me that being Asian prevented me from speaking up against
the abuse and seeking out help. I was ashamed and embarrassed and didn’t want to shame my parents, who didn’t approve of me having a boyfriend at all.

They say that noticing and acknowledging the signs of an abusive relationship is the first step to ending it. No one should live in fear of the person they love. The bigger problem is to uncover why men in our society use physical and emotional intimidation. How do we prevent this cycle from repeating? How do we provide support to women who leave relationships with no income or means to shelter themselves? How do we stop abuse from happening at all? I witnessed a man strike a woman who was a total stranger in the back of head at a One Direction concert. I’ve been punched in the face by a man who said he loved me. Crisis centers, restraining orders and advocates provide very minimal protection. How do we stop domestic abuse from happening at all?

Late Train Blogging; DiversityNerd Owes You

My last post was on July 21, 2014. That was a full five weeks ago. My day job has been cray cray busy and I am surrounded by people experiencing anxiety and stress. Because I’m in a position responsible for the tone and culture in the company, I’m fielding questions and holding counseling sessions and facilitating dialogue across the company. My poor little INFJ personality is inundated with the challenge of managing everyone else’s angst. That is part of the curse of being intuitive, I absorb everyone else’s pain and emotions when they come to me for help. I would be a lousy massage therapist because I would take in too stress and pain from my clients’ aching bodies.

I owe myself some quiet time to blog about July and August. My travels took me to conference in NYC, where I facilitated some same race and cross race discussion groups on Mentoring and Sponsorship. Then I spent some time nerding out at San Diego Comic Con with my two loves, my daughter and my boyfriend. Highlights: my daughter and I met Aisha Tyler and we all attended a live podcast recording of @girlonguy.

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I also scored press passes from @shakefire and had access to events with two critical members of the #TWD_Family: Greg Nicotero and Norman Reedus.

After SDCC, I drove to Las Vegas with the boyfriend for a work conference. Well, I worked and he got to explore Las Vegas for the first time.

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From Vegas, I spent a week back home before I set out on a work “expedition” with about 35 employees from all over the company to explore our new home in Texas.

During the time, there were numerous diversity related tragedies in our country, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall both passed away and the internet has been spammed with ice bucket challenges that are spilling over into the workplace. I owe myself time to do some writing.

I promise to address most of these events in a future posting.

Mentoring & Sponsorship @WMConferences

Last week, I spent time at Working Mother Media’s annual “Multicultural Women’s National Conference.” This event has provided me more personal development than any other conference that I have attended. I’ve even made a couple of new friends because of my participation and that is an extra special bonus. Imagine being in a room with 500 ambitious, driven, and successful women. The invitation to this conference is especially targeted towards women of color and Working Mother takes this opportunity to create a safe and honest dialogue about what is really going on with women in the workplace.

This year’s theme was powerful: “Vision and Impact: Charting What’s Next.” A brief website description read: “Together through collaborative conversation and vision planning we can launch real progress and ignite action in our careers and in our lives – thus positively impacting the future for the advancement of multicultural women in the workplace.

Our vision, values and goals shape the way we work, along with the expectations we have for our careers, and our lives. Knowing what we want – and being able to articulate that – is vital to live lives and build careers that have impact.”

Given the circumstances that my company has thrust upon the employees, it seems more than fitting. What is next in my career and my life? This conference presented me with time and space to evaluate my current professional career path. I set out very deliberate intentions to consider all the possibilities ahead of me, in the back of my mind. Externally, I agreed to play the role of a “Thought Leader” in the same race and cross race discussion groups.

Participants were asked to choose two topics related to a professional area that they needed to strengthen. My role became “facilitator” and I helped the guide a discussion to explore how the participants approach this area, how the power of their belief system shapes and influences that behavior, impacting career decisions and possibly impeding advancement.

We used a technique loosely based on Open Space Technology. No formal structured agenda existed in the beginning, each group had a topic area and began the conversation from there. The desired outcomes were simple: to raise issues that were most important to the participants in the group, engage everyone in the discussion, and share the findings in the cross-race discussions on the same topic. The six topics were based on six critical components for the career advancement of women:

EXECUTIVE PRESENCE
BRANDING
MENTORING
NEGOTIATIONS
WORK LIFE BALANCE
OFFICE POLITICS

What I want to share came out of my same race conversation circle on the topic of Mentoring and Sponsorship.

We were given a few questions to begin our discussion:
Do you have a personal board of directors? A mentor? If so, what is the value add? If not, what are the barriers to enablement? Do you believe someone in your organization is your sponsor—someone who is telling others about your value to the organization?

Questions:
Do you have a broad range and influential level of mentors and sponsors?
In what ways are you – or are you not – sponsorable?

Goal 1: Ensure race is part of the conversation—how does this group uniquely experience the topic at hand?

Goal 2: Encourage timely and actionable focus—is this something they’re dealing with right now and can impact in the near-term?

Goal 3: Avoid redundancy—seek to build on others’ thoughts, in the same conversation and from the session prior.

Goal 4: Go beneath the surface—use probing questions to uncover the “why”, “who” and “how” of the experience.

As always, I elected to start our dialogue with brief introductions: name, company and why they selected this topic. I find that this helps the participants hear their own voice in the room and therefore, “warm them up” to participate more fully. As an Introvert, I know this tiny step helps me. If I had more time, I would have asked each participant to share one thing they are excited about this summer. Having people talk about something they are excited about helps to elevate their levels of engagement. Adults really enjoy talking about themselves. Little touches like using an adult’s first name when addressing a question to them or following up a comment they made does wonders for an individual’s enthusiasm. This isn’t an ego thing, it is a human thing. Also, I’ve found that the higher one moves up in the organization, the less “human” their interactions become. People seem to lose their minds when speaking to high ranking executives and don’t give them honest and candid feedback for fear of harming one’s career progression. Also, people don’t treat high ranking executives the same way they would treat a person who doesn’t sit in the corner office. This is a ridiculous way to function in corporate America. The world is shrinking and communication needs to be transparent. We do not have time for politicking anymore. Work needs to get done through authentic and meaningful dialogue. Everyone adds value to the workplace -regardless of title, age, race, level of education, sexual orientation, gender and any other aspect of being a human being that people use to divide us into groups. Just keep it real and cut out the bullshit, people. We will all get a lot more accomplished.

Back to my Thought Leader same race discussion group…

We, as a group, decided to define “mentoring” and “sponsorship” before we went any further, I offered two very brief definitions: Mentoring is talking TO someone about career development and that someone is NOT in your direct reporting chain of command. Anyone can find a mentor or a mentor. Sponsorship is when someone is talking ABOUT you when you are not in the room. This usually happens during talent review or when leaders work to identify participants for stretch assignments. Sponsorship is usually earned through showing consistently strong performance and building a reputation for delivering solid business results. Interestingly enough, participants in both of my small groups said that they had never had a problem with finding mentors. However, only a handful of them knew whether they had a sponsor or not. In my mind, that is data worth exploring further. Why don’t Asian women know if they have sponsors? Or do they not have sponsors? Is there a cultural component to this? Is it because across corporate America, most of the key decision makers are still straight, white men? These are things to consider in the future.

The same race groups who were discussing Mentoring and Sponsorship had five key points to share with the cross race groups. This is what the Asian women wanted the other groups to realize about us, as a collective group. I own these findings, as an Asian American woman.

1. We are usually the only woman, the only Asian, and the youngest looking person in the room. Because we look younger, we need to build credibility early in the meeting to establish that we are NOT the junior person on the team. Many of the women reported wearing glasses or very professional attire to look older. And everyone said it was critical to note their tenure with their company so we aren’t ignored or overlooked in the workplace.

2. Being Asian may get in the way of our own self-promotion. Bragging or at least talking about our achievements is very counter cultural to Asians. However, this skill is a critical one when finding a sponsor.

3. As we move up in our careers, it becomes more difficult to find mentors and sponsors who are key decision makers. In numbers, most organizations have less women and less women of color and even less Asian women at the top.

4. In order to be promoted, we must build cross-functional skills. It seems that we Asians are very skilled at being individual contributors and are not usually tapped on the shoulder for key assignments in the sexy departments like marketing and sales. Most of us received messages from our well-intended parents that hard work pays off and the nail that stands up gets hammered down. Well, in corporate America, one needs to learn how to stretch outside one’s comfort zone, take risks and stand out. We must be intentional in asking for coaching and career development.

5. Different Asian cultures have varying levels of comfort with speaking out. We enjoyed a lively discussion about how Indian women seem to have a lot less challenges in asking for coaching and feedback. Many of the participants were not U.S.-born and that adds a layer of complexity to the discussion. The long and the short of it was, not all Asians are alike. One size does not fit all.

The discussions did not bring any new revelations to my mind about being Asian in corporate America and trying to find a mentor or sponsor. The value I gleaned from this conversation was just in being surrounded by people like me. We all shared very openly and freely, things that came easy to us in the workplace and a few things that are barriers to our success. I feel like my course is still uncharted in terms of what’s next but I do feel like I own my responsibility to continue to help other women be successful.

The War Rages On… My Face

Today is Day Four after my IPL Photofacial. My face still has Oreo cookie patches all over my cheeks but it is starting to clear up. I also went back to work after being off for a week to spend Spring Break with my teen-aged daughter. Here is what my skin looked like this morning, I don’t think I look as scary as I did on Saturday.

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Because I was going back to work today, I took extra time to blow dry and style my hair. One thing I will admit is that I have pretty hair. It’s jet black and very naturally shiny. People ask me what kind of products I use in my hair so I have to tell them that I just wash it with normal shampoo and let it air dry. I don’t usually take much time styling it because I’m a very low maintenance kind of woman in the morning. I’d rather spend an extra 15 minutes cooking a hot breakfast for my daughter, sleeping, or checking my Facebook page in bed than styling my hair. Of course, I was going to be in the office with patchy skin today so I blew my hair out and put on red lipstick. That’s usually a dead give away that I’m tired or feeling a little down, red lipstick is like camouflage to hide behind. Here is a selfie from my car this morning:

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Today, my calendar was filled with conference calls and meetings. The sides of my cheeks are marked with Oreo cookie splotches. That made me very self-conscious as I walked around campus.

When I’m paddling, the areas that absorb the most sun exposure are the sides of my cheeks. Despite wearing a hat and heavy duty sunscreen, my cheeks have suffered the most exposure over the years. What makes it worse, when I’m at outrigger canoe practice, quite often my face is splashed with salt water from the ocean. No doubt my sunscreen is washed away, leaving my skin vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays. This exposure is exponentially multiplied by the sun reflecting off the ocean.

I realized this fact when we were paddling out towards the eight minute pole at practice tonight. As per usual for a Spring evening, the ocean was choppy and temperamental. It felt as if our canoe was paddling through a washing machine. It was definitely not gentle cycle. Our ama popped up from time to time, threatening to throw us out and make the canoe huli (flip over). Between the rookie in front of me splashing water on me and the rough ocean conditions, I found my face doused with salt water for almost 90 minutes straight. My cheeks stung from the salt water, extra sensitive skin was just another side effect of the IPL Photofacial.

I do NOT recommend going out on the open ocean immediately after having an IPL Photofacial treatment.

This morning is Day Five and the Oreo cookie patches or coffee grounds are starting to flake off.

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I felt like I looked horrible when I woke up. Thankfully, after I washed my face, my skin looked much better. What I noticed was that the skin beneath the Oreo cookie patches looks pink and new. But that also means I have small pink splotches on my cheeks. Hopefully those will blend back in to match the rest of my skin. What I am seeing in my forehead and the un-Oreo cookie patched part of my face is really glowing and healthy looking skin, thank goodness. It looks as bright as it does after I have had a spa facial plus a good night’s sleep.

Once I was out of the shower, I applied my make-up for work. The Oreo cookie patches were harder to cover today. The dead skin wanted to flake off of my face but I didn’t want to go to work without trying to cover it up. This is what I looked like before I left the house:

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Wednesday morning aka Day Six.
The Oreo cookie patches are almost gone and I didn’t have to wear foundation or red lip camouflage today. Instead, I used a tinted moisturizer and one of my favorite NARS lip colors called, “Club Mix”. I discovered it when I was out to lunch with a colleague one day. Her lip color was a shimmery plum and it was just gorgeous to me. The color is from the Velvet Gloss Lip Pencil so it is a chubby glossy pencil and all kinds I gorgeous. Here are my before and after from rolling out of bed to walking into the office:

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No vanity here, can you tell?

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Now, I’m curious to see how my skin is going to look on Saturday, which will be one full week after my IPL Photofacial treatment. My thoughts regarding doing it again are doubtful. The money I spent could have gone into my Gino Vacation Fund for our Italy trip.  Also, the recovery time is longer than I had expected. However, the experience was not as traumatic to my face compared to when I did a Vi Peel. That is a very intense chemical peel that essentially made my entire face fall off in sheets.  I looked like a Walker who had been cooking inside of an abandoned vehicle in the hot Georgia sun.

Anyway, at the end of my workday, I noticed that my skin was peeling and very dry.  Ugh.  This is frustrating.  I lost the Oreo cookie splotches but gained pink patches and flaky skin.  This IPL Photofacial recovery time is no joke.

These last six days have given me an opportunity to figure out why I’m spending so much time and money to fight this war against aging.   A realization came to me that it may be about control.  Or trying to hang on to my looks as a way of controlling the aging process.  It isn’t logical.  I know can’t stop time but our society is geared towards valuing youth.

Pick up or download women’s magazines on health or beauty and there will be articles helping you to “Look Younger Longer” or to advising you to eat “Foods That Fight Aging”.  The message isn’t subtle, it says that looking young kicks ass on aging. I recently saw a quiz that helped the reader answer, “How Old Do You Look?” with younger scores being more highly valued.  These articles and quizzes were located just below a headline that read, “Beat The Clock.” Time keeps slipping through the hour glass of aging for us as we scramble to keep the sand from filling up.

I stated in part one of this blog that I feel 28.  That’s not entirely true. My body feels strong and healthy.  And luckily, my hobbies include dancing hula, paddling outrigger canoes, half marathons and Okinawan Shorin Ryu so I stay active.  I will admit that I love my red wine and wine tasting is also an interest of mine but I’ve been limiting my alcoholic intake lately.  If I open a bottle of wine at home, I always have two glasses when I drink, I tend to want to nosh on something yummy.  Red wine and Trader Joe’s Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds are a killer combination. You get chocolate with a sprinkle of salt and a kiss of sugar. Mmm, it can bring out the best notes from some of my favorite wines. Other times I enjoy red wine with a spicy Gouda from Whole Foods Market. The cheese needs a cracker or other carb to sit on before I devour it. I think I am as addicted to the crunching sound as I am to the yummy snacks. My point is, if I drink wine, I tend to snack and if I snack while I drink, I may over snack. That is not good for my waistline or my skin. But I digress.

I had stated that I feel 28 years old, which is true as far as my body goes.  But my heart and my brain are a wise 43 almost 44 years old.  I finally understand what it means to feel romantic love.  Let me correct that, I finally understand what it means to feel mad, passionate, sappy, romantic love with a man who values my nerdiness as much as my intelligence and my 28 year old feeling body.  It took me a while to find him but he is definitely worth the wait.  And my 40-something year old brain realizes how short life really is.  I don’t worry about having stuff to keep up with the Joneses.  I’m not sure who the Joneses even are but I know that reference is appropriate.  And I stopped sweating the small stuff.  Financially, I am doing ok.  My mortgage and bills are paid on time and I know I can’t spend like a maniac.  But I also don’t feel like I need to shop for things to fill a void in my life.  The things that are most important to me aren’t things.  They don’t cost anything other than my time and attention.  My daughter makes me see the world with fresh eyes and she rescued me from being dragged down into a dungeon of despair and distrust.  I experienced more pain before I turned 25 than most people can imagine. Becoming a mother showed me how love heals everything.  And I already had incredible parents and siblings and family that I like to hang out with as much as I love them.  Some people don’t like their family members but I adore mine.  My house isn’t impeccably decorated nor do I have the latest flat screen TV and appliances but it is warm and welcoming.  Just ask my amazing friends.  Some of them are my age and older, some of them are in their 20s and 30s.  I bet some of them have tried Botox and photofacials, not that it matters to me.  Sometimes I am afraid of looking older and that fear drove me to try an IPL Photofacial.  I thought I was fighting a war against aging but I realized I was trying to defy the laws of nature and control it.  Instead of desperately holding on to my youth and spending hundreds of dollars to control the aging process, I think I am going to let go and live life all in.  I may have another treatment to hide the 11s between my eyebrows, if I start looking upset again.  But I haven’t enjoyed feeling like I need to hide my Oreo cookie patches on my face.  Living life all in, laughing loudly every day, and loving the people who mean the most to me is how I will win this war against aging, all while wearing 30+SPF sunscreen.

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Colorism Crosses Racial Lines

Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o delivered a speech at the Essence “Black Women in Hollywood Awards” and thanks to the Internet, I saw and heard her inspiration and powerful message about beauty.  Her words spoke to me, an Asian Pacific Islander woman who is the mother to a biracial (Filipino and African American) daughter.  Ms. Nyong’o reminded me that I have an obligation and responsibility to shape my daughter’s self-esteem and her point of view on beauty.  But her speech also reminded me of the mixed messages I received growing up as a child of immigrants and a young person of color in the United States.  (You can watch the speech via YouTube link here or read the transcript at the end of this entry.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE

Just to reiterate this point, I am not African American.  I do not have black skin.  However, as a young girl, I often asked myself if my skin was light enough to be considered pretty.  I even asked myself if I was White enough to be beautiful.  Well, I realized at about age 12 that I wasn’t White, never would be, and somehow that meant that I could never be beautiful. 

There is a book entitled, “Is Lighter Better?  Skin-tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans” written by Joanne L. Rondilla and Paul R. Spickard.  Yes, you read that correctly.  “Skin-tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans.”  People may find it hard to believe that the color of one’s skin comes with value in the currency known as beauty, even amongst Asian Americans.  We also have to fight against the self-hate that leads us to want to have surgery to alter our eyelids, dye our hair auburn or blonde, or to never consider dating an Asian man.   Let’s look a little more closely at the concept of “colorism.”  

Wikipedia provides this definition for “colorism”:  “Discrimination based on skin color, or colorism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.

The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest-skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, and finally the black-skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin color.”

According to Rondilla and Spickard, “Colorism is defined as discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same ‘racial’ group on the basis of skin color.  In other words, some people, particularly women, are treated better or worse on account of the color of their skin relative to other people who share their same racial category. Colorism affects Asian Americans from many different backgrounds and who live in different parts of the United States….Do they reflect a desire to look like White people, or is some other motive at work?  Including numerous stories about and by people who have faced discrimination in their own lives, this book is an invaluable resource for people interested in colorism among Asian Americans.”

I don’t have to read a book to understand discrimination based on the color of my skin.  I don’t need to read a book to know that women are treated differently based on the shade of their skin.  I heard these sorts of messages at the tender age of only three, which is as far back as I can remember.  One aunty would say that flat noses were not pretty and Filipinos are known to have flat noses or at least to have no bridges.  (For my Asian brothers and sisters, have you ever tried to buy stylist plastic framed glasses but you couldn’t because they kept sliding down your nose?  The cute frames never come with nose rests, right?)  Another aunty would point to a beautiful brown-skinned young woman, she may have even been a cousin of mine and say, “She is very pretty.  Too bad she’s so dark.”  Or, my most favorite and most confusing messages were around food.  Many Asian cultures, especially Filipinos, show their love through cooking food for their families and friends.  There is a certain pride in being a good cook and having parties where people enjoyed a dish that you made.  But sometimes an aunty would scold you for getting fat, which usually led the poor girl to eat more, out of stress.  She would spiral down into the never-ending cycle of eating for comfort and then hating yourself for not being rail thin.  Or, that same aunty might shove her index finger into your chest and say that you are getting too skinny.  What the hell are we supposed to do with that feedback?

Margaret Cho, award-winning comedian, actress, musician, and LGBT advocate talked about her very specific experience being an Asian woman in Hollywood.  She found herself the star of her very own sit-com, “All American Girl,” which was the first primetime TV show centered around an Asian American family.  During her one-woman stand-up routine, Margaret recounted the experience of how the producers said she was “too Asian” and then they said that she wasn’t “Asian enough” and finally, the network felt compelled to provide the show and Margaret an “Asian consultant” to help her act more “Asian.”   Ironically, there was a great deal of backlash about the show from the Asian American community.  Asian Pacific Islander Americans are not one size fits all.  We do not fit into a neat little origami folded box.  “All American Girl” was touted as the example of what Asian Americans are like in the United States.  There is so much diversity within the Asian American community, a blanket statement as such feels extremely marginalizing. So, even the target market who should have been the biggest fans of the show weren’t rushing home to watch “All American Girl.” 

Asian Americans are often touted as the Model Minority.  The stereotypes that Asians are hard-workers, very good at math, very poor at driving, the subject of sexual fantasies, quiet IT professionals, eaters of stinky food, etc. cannot be changed overnight.  And we also do things to our own communities that sabotage our success.  For example, we drag down our young people when it comes to standards of beauty.  Beauty has a value in this country, particularly for women.  What are we doing to our young women when we tell them that they are too fat, too dark, too short, or too Asian-looking? My inner circle of friends from elementary school are all Asian American.  We are either first or second generation immigrants.  This circle has representation from the Philippines, China, Japan and Vietnam.  We definitely had friends who were Latino, African American and White, most of whom we played varsity sports with in high school.  However, these women are “my crew.”  We hold each other secrets, wrapped with love inside our hearts.  We saw each other through first crushes, first loves, first heartbreaks, and those big arguments with our parents over academic endeavors, extracurricular activities and Asian culture clashes with our American experience.

One of my closest friends was always the prettiest one of the group, in my opinion.  She was tall, about 5’6,” which may as well be 6’ for an Asian woman.  I always thought she was so lucky to be tall and elegant looking.  Clothes hung better on her and her limbs were graceful and long, unlike my short, muscular, and stocky legs.  We were talking one day in college, probably over a Bartles & Jaymes tropical wine cooler or some classy Andre Cold Duck, about how our parents get so mad that we don’t date Asian men.  I remember my friend saying that Asian guys are like her brothers, not like men to date.  She couldn’t imagine kissing an Asian guy.  Now that I think about it, I’ve never heard my White girlfriends say they couldn’t imagine dating a White guy.  It feels like a bit of self-loathing and self-hatred to not want to date men who are our own ethnicity and/or race.  But what struck me as a shock was when she said her mom wanted her to have eyelid surgery, or more specifically, surgery to create an upper eyelid with a crease, or a double eyelid.  It made me mad to hear that and I told her that she didn’t need to have surgery.  She agreed that surgery was an extreme and unnecessary choice to make for the sake of beauty but we both sort of yearned for bigger boobs.

Thankfully, my mom never suggested that I should have surgery.   But I do remember her stroking the bridge of my nose and saying that she used to do that to me as a baby so I wouldn’t have a flat one.  It makes me giggle now, a bit, but my impressionable young brain internalized that message.  Flat nose = unattractive.  Add that to dark skin = unattractive.  I used to spend my summers playing tennis and swimming so I had lovely dark brown sun-kissed skin throughout my youth.  But by the time I cared about boys, I had given up on thinking that I could ever be beautiful so I didn’t think anyone would ever like me.  That sure did f*ck me up for a while.

But this issue of colorism isn’t just because of my aunties and my mom making these comments.  I rarely saw Asian men or women on television in significant roles.  I never saw them in strong, leading roles.  Long Duck Dong was in “Sixteen Candles” and that overly stereotyped image of an Asian man did not help with my perspective that Asian men were sexy.  Margaret Cho joked that she aspired to be an extra on M*A*S*H* when she was young.  At one point in my life, I would go out on commercial and television auditions and the roles represented two different opportunities:  trashy hooker or Chinese restaurant waitress.  Or, to add to the mix, I might be called to pose with a beer bottle rocking a skimpy bikini for a beer commercial.  I had purchased the silicone chicken cutlets to lift my B-cups into full C-cups.  My agent sent me out fairly often, I had enough call-backs to know I had talent but I never felt beautiful.

Twenty years later, I work in a corporate position with a mission to create culture change that respects all people and includes diverse insights and backgrounds to add value to the organization’s success.  I have had impact at the organizational, group and individual levels.  My work provides me validation and joy.  I feel like my spirit of feeling like the underdog and the unbeautiful has sparked a drive inside of me to leave the world in a better place.  It has taken a lifetime for me to truly feel beautiful.  Logically, I realize that the color of my skin may be extremely attractive to some people and it may turn others off completely.  The size of my okole may be labelled obscene by someone and been seen as kryptonite by another.  When all is said and done, beauty is all about how much we give to the world, not about how much we get.

Borrowed from another website, here is a transcript of Lupita Nyong’o’s speech from the Essence “Black Women in Hollywood Awards” with quotes that particularly struck me highlighted in bold type.

I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you:  “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”

My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.

And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. That, there is no shade in that beauty.