Growing up a mixed-race child in lily-white upstate New York, I wanted nothing more than to blend in with my peers. If people asked, "what are you?" I would claim, "I'm just like you!" This despite the Chinese mother by my side and my own clearly Asian hair, eyes and skin. I celebrated Chinese New Year with my family, of course -- who could resist sweet pastries, brown sugar cake and red packets stuffed with money -- but never shared any of these traditions with friends at school.
At the same time, I followed the model minority path of good grades, musical prowess, and adherence to most school and parental rules. I genuinely thought of myself as a meek and obedient girl who would never make waves in life. An introvert.
How things change.
Since becoming a mother eight years ago and an independent journalist three years ago -- courtesy of a somewhat anticipated layoff -- I have found my voice with a vengeance. And the process began earlier, of course, with every career success or personal triumph that built my self-esteem little by little. But somehow, having children for whom to set an example and a family to feed give me the motivation to speak my mind and the confidence to know that my thoughts are worth sharing.
In particular, I've started speaking up about work-life balance and workplace flexibility. For the last decade, I've covered workplace issues as a journalist. My intense focus on this subject has hammered home my belief that work gives life meaning -- but it can also drain life of joy without healthy boundaries.
On this Chinese New Year that celebrates the most powerful of all zodiac signs -- the dragon -- I feel even more free to share. So on Saturday night, when I was chatting with a fellow elementary school parent about her return to work one week after giving birth to her first child, I took a risk. This was a woman I'd just met, the mother of my kindergartener's classmate. I hope to build a friendship with her over the next 18 years our girls might be in school together.
But when she bemoaned having to go back to work so early, instead of just making sympathetic noises, I encouraged her to ask for more time off and for a part-time schedule, at that. She protested: it would never work, she just started the job, she had too much responsibility. I recounted the number of managers I've interviewed over the years who praise the efficiency of a working mom pushing to get home to a school pickup, and advised her to figure out herself how to get the job done in the hours she wanted to work. Then, she could make the business case to her supervisor.
In the old days, I probably would've kept silent for fear of offending her. Or perhaps, because I doubted the value of my advice. Who can really know another person's situation, after all?
But now, I feel so strongly that life is precious and fleeting. That there's no better time than the present to ask for what we want -- and our families need. That employers get more out of you as a worker when your work is structured appropriately to let you meet your personal needs. That we as women must be leaders of our families and advocates for the time and resources they deserve. I like to think I'm following in the tradition of the Woman Warrior, Mu Lan and my own mother, who left her homeland to build a family and career in America.
Happy Chinese New Year! Are you going to do anything new this year to awaken the dragon within?