Fairness

The other night, I was bargaining for a bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara at my hotel front desk.  We were short on options, because it was already 8:30PM and we wanted to leave in the morning.  Kat read online that the average bus fare was $3.50 per person for a comfy tourist bus, and our guy was charging us $6.00.  I presumed that the hotel would get a nice cut of our payment, so I tried to haggle downwards.  

A shortened version of the conversation:
Me: “We read online that the bus fare should be 350 rupees, can we do 400 rupees?”
Hotel: “No, where did you read that?  What bus agency?  It’s 600, standard price.”
Me: “Can we do 500?”
Hotel: “No, 600, standard price.”
Me: “Can we do 550?”
Hotel: “The difference is 50 cents, why are we negotiating over a dollar?”
Me: (after some thought and frustration) “Okay, we will just book the ticket here.”

(Before I am judged as a spineless bargainer, I will preface by saying that we have made some sick negotiations, ranging in hundreds of dollars.)

I felt very defeated and cheated, because I was sure that they were getting an unnecessary chunk of our bill, and we could’ve gotten a fairer price elsewhere if we had more time and daylight to look around.  I also questioned my own ability to bargain, and felt guilty for suggesting that he lower the price by 50 cents.

On further reflection, I contrasted the unfairness of the situation for us with the drastic differences in our economic contexts and social mobility.  We later learned that our hotel guy is studying to become an accountant, but paused his education in order to work to pay for expensive tuition in India.  I am not looking at him through pity or poverty, but even if we got the shit end of the stick for a bus fare, in economic terms I am among the most fortunate citizens of the world.  

I chose to be unemployed to go traveling.  Even with a forever-dwindling account balance, I have several years worth of an average Nepali’s yearly salary remaining.  The amount that I saved in a year and a half was enough to pay for several months of living abroad at a standard not too far from home.  

Entertaining the thought of reincarnation and being born, I lucked out on a 4-5% chance of being born and raised in America, and an even lower chance of growing up in a middle class home, and still lower odds of graduating from college.  Realistically, a lot of this has to do with the fact that my mom and dad took a huge risk in sailing to New York and busted their asses to provide for me.  However, I am sure there are many parents out there who take risks of similar magnitude and work just as hard as my parents do, but don’t end up with children who have as many opportunities, simply because their environment doesn’t offer as many open doors.

I could enumerate the many ways in which I am personally fortunate, but the main point is that WE are very lucky.  Even if various demographics in America have more advantages than others, as a whole it is much easier for us to capitalize on our internal and external resources than it is in other countries.  I’ve been able to meet a lot of people who are financially poor but wealthy in spirit.  It’s not just that we should be grateful to live with an infrastructure that tends to our basic needs, but that we should be motivated to live in an environment where it is really easy to grow, to be happy, to maintain a sense of adventure, to connect, to give and live life more fully.

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26

26 – another great year in my life to look forward to, another great year to look back on.  Never thought I’d be in India again to celebrate another birthday.  When I was a kid, I always thought that I would feel a lot older and mature in my mid-twenties than I feel now.  I guess in a sense though, these few years mark the transition from boyhood to manhood, as the societal clock ticks closer to serious financial, geographical, marital, career-minded decisions.

I am certainly not complaining about being in India, but one thing I will never find here is the security and comfort of the people I love back at home.  I am lucky to spend this day and many others with the love of my life, but sad that I can’t physically celebrate another year in my life with my friends and family.

Nonetheless, life is great.  This past year was monumental, and I am very proud of everything I was able to do and feel.  In no particular order:

I quit an amazing job at ISBX – probably one of the bigger big-boy decisions I’ve had to make thus far (in conjunction with deciding to move out of LA, moving home, and leaving America, since all those things unfolded in the span of 2 weeks).  I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish there.  There were many, many sunrises spent in the office to meet crazy deadlines, and a lot of self-doubt in my performance.  In hindsight, while I may not be the most genius of developers or agile enough as a project manager, I was able to pull off some amazing things and lead a great team of people.  I absolutely loved working with my team and looked forward to going to work to balance fucking around with getting a lot of shit done.  If not for the specific skills I gained, I gracefully walked away with the confidence in knowing that I made an impact there and that I can make an even bigger impact on society.

I left LA and all of the people that tether me to security.  While it is certainly not goodbye for the people that are closest to my heart, it’s crazy to leave 8 years of my life behind for another chapter.  I vividly remember driving away from my apartment with all of my belongings, wondering if I was making the right decision.  It is sad to think that I won’t be able to randomly drive after work to visit ACA practices, or kickback and act stupid with my best friends in my living room.

I moved back in with my family, and I started calling my parents almost everyday while I was still in LA.  In college, I used to be a bit more ungrateful for everything my parents do for me, barely calling home and not picking up when they called.  It makes me feel very ashamed to look back at those days, but at least I can say now that I am making more of an effort to show my love and appreciation.  I am really excited to move back home after traveling, specifically to spend time with my family, cook with my dad, teach my mom yoga, hang out with my sis and cousins more regularly.

I worked out 3 times a week for almost a year, without exception.  There were spurts of times in my life where I tried to work out consistently, but I didn’t really have enough of a driving motivation beyond improving my appearance.  Something switched this past year, when I decided to take myself and my promises more seriously, and the thought of breaking a workout streak was more painful than enduring a short workout.  I actually broke my streak the day I was packing up and moving out of my apartment.

I finished off my last two classes at UCLA, a GE that I incorrectly thought I had fulfilled, and Chem 30AL (organic chemistry). After my 5th year I kinda got over school and just decided to work for a while, with the intention of recharging and eventually finishing.  It is definitely not easy working fulltime and driving through traffic to campus multiple times a day, so props to people who work their way through college.

I left America – I’ve been traveling since the end of July.  Kat and I spent a month in Bali, a month in Thailand, and almost two months now in India.  There is no combination of media that could ever capture everything I’ve experienced, but some highlights:

  • Bali
    • Being bombarded and scared by all the taxi drivers at the airport
    • Staying and meditating on an ashram, meeting amazing people
    • Going scuba diving for Kat’s birthday
    • Eating bread, shrimp chips, and ramen for a few days because our ATM card wasn’t working.
  • Trekking up a fucking mountain at 3AM to see a breathtaking sunrise.
  • Thailand
    • Drinking with Tommy on the beach in Phuket and losing my glasses
    • Getting open water diving certified in Koh Tao, being fucking amazed by schools of fish and a whale shark
    • FOOD IN CHIANG MAI.  Getting a combination of all you can eat Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu for $4 in Chiang Mai.  Fried street food.  Drinking ‘buckets’ and wishing we could be cool as the hipster Thai college students next to us.
    • Talking during a “silent” one day meditation retreat with a Buddhist monk.
    • Our frustrations with the Indian Consulate and finally getting visas for India the day before our flight.
  • India
    • Arriving in Kolkata at 3AM, driving through empty streets past homelessness and herds of goats.
    • Walking along the Ganga in Varanasi and seeing all the ceremonies, cremations, families traveling from all over to bathe in the river.  Walking through alleyways, playing local games, being offered opium and to buy my camera off me.  Volunteering at a slum school with some of the most enthusiastically inquisitive kids I’ve ever met.
    • Getting certified to teach yoga in Rishikesh.  Sitting and taking in a relaxing view of the Ganga.  Building a website for our yoga school.
    • At least for us, India has shown us the most hospitality by far.  We met the most incredibly kind people on our way from place to place.  A passenger in our taxi to the Kolkata train station paid for our fare, and led us through the crowded and confusing station to our train.  One of our friends at our guest house in Varanasi showed us around everywhere.  We met a man on our train to Rishikesh, who, at 5AM, let us ride along in his car for 40 minutes from the train station to our destination.

I started dancing again.  I always felt a little sad when people asked me if I was still dancing.  I figured I have all the time in the world to freestyle in my room for a few minutes, and that there’s no better distraction-free time to start that habit than now.

I created 100 invention ideas, submitted them to Quirky, and mailed them a book.  A week after my birthday, I found out that one of my ideas was chosen for development.  This deserves its own post (among other items in this blog) because it’s so huge for me, so I will stop here.

—–

In general, I am just really excited for life and what will be another great year.

  • A major goal is to have 500 users by Memorial Day 2014 on my web/mobile app that is yet to be brainstormed and built.  I have been gearing up for entrepreneurship for years now, and now is finally the time to make it happen.
  • In a few days, I’ll be doing a 10 day silent meditation (no music, electronics, writing, talking, exercise, contact with the opposite sex, etc.)
  • Kat and I still have a few months left of traveling left, tentatively Nepal next, Hong Kong for NYE with Jon, and maybe more of Southeast Asia (OR BRAZIL OR MOROCCO?)
  • Quirky will hopefully have my product on shelves before I turn 27, and I will finally have turned a creative thought into a tangible reality that other people can use.
  • I get to move home and get a lot closer to my family.

Life is awesome!  A little late, but thanks for all the love on my birthday and this past year.  I am grateful and humbled to look back on an accomplished year, and excited to live out another one.

Charisma

Kat and I are a week into a 200-hour, month-long yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, India. Apparently it is the world capital of yoga. In the area we’re staying in, it seems like there are more yoga schools than restaurants. It’s pretty fascinating to get instruction from PhDs in yoga, from people have or are on their way to spending decades devoted to the lifestyle.

The last class of our day is focused on meditation. It’s taught by a guru named Swami Atma (soul) who exceeds the stereotypical image of an Indian guru – a flowing gray beard, decked out in orange (even his socks), a soothingly slow voice, years of wrinkles and experience. 

I’ve only met with him for a total of 3-4 hours, but Swami Atma is the most captivating and charismatic person I have ever met. He says everything with dynamic tempo and volume, with  laughter and a smile, with gentle confidence. All of my questions are profound and intelligent. He remembers things that I forget I’ve said and asked. I feel like I don’t have to present myself in any certain way, because it doesn’t seem like he has any ounce of judgment in him. Sitting in front of him is a very warm, inviting, disarming, and curious experience. 

Charisma has always eluded and intrigued me.  The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, touches on charisma from a sales/marketing/persuasive perspective.  If I remember correctly, aside from elegantly captivating you through a conversation, a charismatic person can match and lead you through a mixture emotions and facial expressions.  The president of my previous company is charismatic, the CEO of a client account that I worked on is charismatic, Steve Jobs was charismatic.  They all exude a certain confidence and playfulness that I’d like to have more of.  To some degree, I feel like I’ll need that charisma and persuasiveness in order to be a successful entrepreneur.

One thing that always felt unnatural about growing more into my ideal of a charismatic person is that they’re intimidating. Steve Jobs is a notorious asshole, completely fine with telling an engineer who worked 40 hours straight to redo everything. He obviously did something right, as the Apple logo is a status symbol in every country I’ve been to, but something always felt weird in moving towards that type of charisma. It’s like a type of charismatic confidence that makes you want to show only certain parts of your personality and hide others, like you can’t fully unwind and be your stupid self.

Swami Atma has shifted my definition of charisma. While I’m not sure that he could convince the world to love the iPhone (or even want to), he is wise and experienced in more ways than I know, but doesn’t make me feel like I have to prove myself or that I’m lacking in anyway. He’s eloquent and gracefully confident, but disarming.

At its core, I think his demeanor assures me that I’m not being judged, and that he’s not worried about me judging him. Maybe he really understands that we’re all the same on many levels, and that there’s no need to compare or compete with other people. It seems likely that it’s not about trying to be more persuasive or confident or charismatic at all, but more about not judging others and not worrying about being judged as much.

Freedom of Feeling

On our 9 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai southbound towards Bangkok, our bus pulled over for an investigation by Thai police.  The officers asked a few passengers to show their passports and ID, so Kat and I pulled ours out before they passed by our row.  To our surprise, they skipped over us, along with other white/lighter skinned folk.  Kat postulated that even though our bus wasn’t crossing any national borders, the officers were probably making sure that there were no stray illegal immigrants crossing borders from Burma or Laos.  

One of the many things that stuck with me from a conversation we had with Seema was her perspective on the uniquely American values of freedom and volunteerism.  Seema is one of the most worldly and wisest people I know, having cumulatively devoted decades of her life to UNICEF/USAID/World Bank development projects for dozens of countries.  From her perspective,  we are very lucky to live in a “free” culture – free to speak our minds, free to marry whoever we want (almost there), freedom of faith, free to bear arms, etc.  She said she doesn’t really find as many citizens in the world who care about volunteering as much as Americans, because we deeply feel that others should have the same freedoms that we have.  Not to say that there aren’t volunteers from other countries, or that altruism is uniquely American, but the concept of freedom is deeply engrained in the foundations of our country.

As the bus ride went on through the night, I began to wonder why people would need to escape Burma in the first place.  I am not politically or globally versed in any sense, but I figured it had to be some sort of past intense economic/political/military strife strong enough to split famiilies apart and motivate people to sneak through borders.  

I pictured a viral image I saw during the Boston marathon bombings, where Syrian teenagers held up a sign that said something to the degree of “our heart goes out for your loss, but this happens every day in Syria.”

I tried to simulate what would happen if I somehow happened to slander the Thai Royal Family (you get thrown in jail if you get caught talking shit about their monarchy.)

America faces many problems, but we are pretty damn lucky to not have to worry about many of the routine realities in other parts of the world.  We have a trillion dollar debt, but at least a great majority of us don’t have to worry about getting blown up while we walk our dogs.  

We are largely free to enjoy our lives and choose to do whatever the fuck we want.  I feel like the irony is that our freedom gives us too many choices.  While the problem lies much higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy and is definitely a good problem to have, I feel like it can be paralyzing and clinically depressing for some.  Wondering if another choice would make you happier is a very itchy itch.  Having the vast freedom and social mobility to capitalize on my life and make the most of it often leaves me anxiously wondering if I actually am making the most of my life.  

But underneath that I feel is another western/American problem of instant and external gratification.  Advertising pushes quick fixes and purchases to induce feelings that we often forget (myself included) we can induce by ourselves (Opening Coke = happiness, Old Spice = manliness, shampoo = beauty, money = success).  Seeing western-style advertising in Southeast Asia makes me kinda sad – there’s nothing wrong with having an iPhone or beauty products, but I can’t help but feel like ads corrupt a sense of emotional independence.  The parts of Bali and Thailand we saw were pretty developed, but there were a lot of smiling kids and families who don’t have much and still maintain their smiles even in the absence of shampoo and Coke and fast cars.  

Routines

I finally started on a morning/daily routine that I’ve been able to commit to for 2-3 weeks now.  I have been trying to commit on/off (mostly off) to one since 2010, but it’s a little bit easier now that I don’t have as many scheduling obligations that would require me to be somewhere at a certain time.

It consists of:

Meditating (7-15 minutes)
After learning a little bit more about meditating from people who have done it almost everyday for years, I decided to get a little more serious about incorporating it into my daily life. At least right now, I am trying to just let myself go wild. A lot of times I try to stop thinking and just observe my emotions. There have been quite a few meditations where I felt an emotion (anxiety, sadness, love, happiness, anger, etc) to the point where I was shaking, gritting my teeth, smiling, etc. It is scary but therapeutic, and I am trying to learn to just let myself feel those things.

Another thing I’ve been trying in the past few days is to try to count my breaths without forgetting my place. I feel like this will build my focus and concentration in other areas of my life as I get better it. It’s only my 3rd or 4th time, but I feel really drained afterwards and usually need like a 3 minute nap.

Stretching (15-20 minutes)
I just use the stretching routines from my ACA days. There is at least a decade of bad posture in my upper back/neck/shoulder blade area, and I am trying to stretch the shit out of it.

Freestyling (3-5 songs, for however long I’m in the zone of a particular song)
After ACA, a lot of people asked me if I still kept up with dancing. I would sadly reply “no… I’ve been [   ]”. Being busy was the go-to answer, and I remember consciously deciding not to dance as much because I had other priorities in my life.

In 8th grade, my sister’s raver-esque friend showed me the arm wave. I downloaded as many videos as I could in the pre-Youtube days (Liquid Pop Collective, anyone?) and retrospectively was really lame dancing in my room and at school dances. From there, I kept sucking and auditioned for my high school dance team during the end of my junior year. I made it onto the team during my senior year, and I experienced confidence and humiliation like nothing I’ve ever felt. Doing jazz leaps across the floor is not something I’d ever wish upon anyone, but it was in those steps I learned about humiliation and humility. From there, I latched onto my confidence in movement, and spread it to confidence in my appearance, my social skills, my personality, my status, blah blah blah. The pinnacle of my K-12 days was performing solo in front of my entire school, shaking to applause, realizing I was no longer a shy asian kid.

One of my 200-word UC application essays was an exaggerated piece about my love for dancing, and likely increased my odds of getting into UCLA. There, I found ACA, two parking lots, many stages, lifelong friends, role models, leadership, passion, competition, unconditional love, family, forgotten nights, unforgettable memories.

Looking back at the last decade of my life, my biggest catalysts (aside from my family, friends, girlfriend, and heartbreaks) have been dancing and writing. No classroom or curriculum has shown me more about myself than those two art forms. Why I decided to cut out dance from my life for the past two years remains a mystery. I don’t regret the choice, but I am sad I left it behind. During the past 2 – 3 years, I kept comparing my dwindling sharpness in dance to others. The comparisons interrupted my creativity every time I watched myself freestyle in the mirror. I was (and still am) insecure about not being as good as others who practice much more frequently than I do. Eventually, my schedule and insecurities knocked dance far from the top of my priorities, and I almost stopped altogether.

When I dance now, I try to forget about everything else and watch my reactions to melodies. I’m trying to explore and create for myself, to lose myself and let go and embrace my own style and who I am. We’ll see where it takes me and what I learn, but it feels good to reconnect with that part of myself again.

—–

Some recent routines by Shaun that I love.

Uprooting

I’ve met a good amount of people (like our dive instructor) who have completely transferred their lives from a western country to Bali or Thailand (and definitely others). While I’m sure their stories and motivations are uniquely powerful, from a financial standpoint it isn’t a huge jump.

Especially if you live in a metropolitan area where things are excessively expensive, and especially if you can afford to live in those areas, Southeast Asia is way more cheap and affordable. I am very fortunate to have a smaller number of genuine obligations that would tie me to a specific locale or occupation, and I have a lot of respect for people who do what they do to tend to those obligations.

But barring any major obligations like blood or health or money, people who have wanderlust should seriously consider traveling for a few months. I feel like fear of the unknown is a major paralyzing factor, and I am still getting over it every day, but I am sure it will be worth it a thousand times more the next time I step foot in America. The stress of preparing to travel is very real, and my last day in the US was one of the longest days I’ve ever had – I almost fainted.  But here I am, 6 weeks later, blogging from our room while Kat’s watching TV.

While I don’t agree with some parts, Four Hour Work Week goes into a lot more detail and definitely fueled some of the tank to go on this adventure. It has been surprisingly more safe, familiar, and easier than I thought it would be.

Apparently a lot of people fall in love with a place and end up starting a business there. Maybe a bit hypocritical of me to say, but with what I would like to accomplish and the regrets I would have otherwise, I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop everything and start a random shop somewhere. But it certainly is an option for many, many people, and quite possibly myself at a later stage of my life.

Schools

As of a few days ago, I am a certified Open Water Diver by PADI, and can go down to depths of 18 meters / 59 feet. It was really nice that our instructor was fluently Canadian (English with ‘eh?’ and ‘aboot’), and an ex-English teacher of 8-10 years. Also very nice that it was on a beautiful island with white sand and clear, comfy waters.

I felt like a nerd again, studying through all of the reading and assignments. It brought me back to my high school days, dominating tests but maybe not truly understanding the lessons.

On our last day, we dove with a whale shark – a “baby”, about 12-16 feet long. As we were gearing up, all of the dive instructors and boat crew screamed with excitement and rushed into the water to see it. Apparently we were incredibly lucky, because our instructors dive almost every day and only see one once or twice a year.

All of my training went out the door. In lieu of the slower “buddy check” where Kat and I would check each other’s equipment before diving in, our instructor said that he would check everyone before we went in. I took a long ass time, and my instructor was already in the water. Right as I was about to take my feet off the boat, I thought “OH SHIT, my air isn’t on”, and I asked one of the crew to turn it on for me. I almost dove into the water without my air valve opened.

The whale shark was amazing. In the midst of anxiously clearing my ears of pressure and adjusting my equipment and worrying about breathing correctly and tuning my buoyancy, my jaw dropped when I finally spotted it. Shit was massive and friendly.

I was thoroughly amazed and lucky to see a shark. To be honest though, I was waaaaYYyyy more astounded and frozen by the schools of fish. It’s probably related to my fascination with traffic and group behavior, but the way they interact with one another is so intriguing. It’s not like they have a complex controller governing where they all go swim. Each individual fish has a few simple rules they follow to dictate how far they swim from each other, who they follow, what direction they swim, how fast, etc. But the aggregate result is jaw-dropping. I literally froze in front of a whirlpool of fish that had to be 20-30 feet in diameter. Shortly after Kat nudged me to keep moving, I swam through another school of fish hanging closely to corral, darting around a few inches from my eyes and totally fine with a giant human being all up in their business.