25 Years and All the Highlights and Lessons

Happy 26th birthday to me!!

Here’s a glance back at my own life.

(Originally published in 2013.)

How I got to where I am today, why I am who I am, and why I do what I do:


1987, age under 1

Highlight: One morning in California, I was born a rabbit. (According to the Chinese Zodiac, I mean.)
Lesson: I’m supposed to be creative, compassionate, sensitive, and peaceful. My first favorite stuffed animal was a bunny and the necklace I’ve worn since 2009 is a rabbit. I’m not a believer in astrology, but just for fun, I took my sign seriously in 2008 when I wrote my own bio and gave my life a new and clear backbone heading into my senior year of college.

nathan-baby


1988, age 1

Highlight: When a doctor gave me massive shots and I didn’t budge or cry, he asked my parents in Chinese, “Is he crazy? This isn’t normal.”
Lesson: No, but maybe from birth, I learned to be detached from situations, to be numb from pain, and to carry on positively.


1989, age 2

Highlight: I stuck a pea up my nose and couldn’t get it out.
Lesson: Mothers don’t like picking noses for half an hour–especially other people’s. They will remind you of this lesson even two decades later.


1990, age 3

Highlight: I watched a lot of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, but I liked Mr. Rogers better.
Lesson: Years ago, I read an article claiming that children who grew up with Sesame Street had shorter attention spans and less patience later in life, while children who watched Mr. Rogers led slower and calmer lifestyles. (I suppose we don’t know if children who were slow and calm were more drawn to Mr. Rogers in the first place.) Thanks, Mr. Rogers. You’re still one of my heroes today, and I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of your thoughts, writings, and lessons.

My third birthday. We moved from Cali to NYC and NYC to New Jersey all before I was 3.

My third birthday. We moved from Cali to New York City and New York City to New Jersey all before I was 3.


1991, age 4


1992, age 5, started K


1993, age 6, K / 1st

Highlight: Very often I pretended I was a teacher and a writer. At home, I taught my stuffed animals arranged in empty tissue boxes and conducted lectures every night (in later years, I taught my sister—an upgrade to teaching someone real). But I was shy and hated public speaking so much that I never raised my hand as a student. How could I possibly be a teacher?

Highlight: I also stapled stacks of paper together and wrote my own short stories that my older brother and I would laugh at. I put quite a few phallic references in those stories. In school, my classmates admired me for how many pages I could write and how much “cooler” my stories were (for school-appropriate stories..). I admired them because they knew English as a first language and had better vocabulary than me. I was in ESL and Speech Therapy classes for years. How could I possibly be a writer? But I kept doing what I loved to do. I kept teaching and I kept writing.

Lesson: Do what you love to do. Everything else will figure itself out. Your childhood dreams are pretty good signs of your purpose in life.


1994, age 7, 1st / 2nd


1995, age 8, 2nd / 3rd
Highlight: I picked up soccer as a hobby at recess. It’s the only major sport I would say I play. But for years, I didn’t own a soccer ball to practice at home. I used a tiny rainbow-colored plush football I got from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. I practiced in tight quarters in my small family room. That explains why I am horrible with controlling air balls and juggling a real soccer ball but how my footwork is pretty good.
Lesson: Disadvantages and limitations can be blessings in disguise. Just work with what you are Given.


1996, age 9, 3rd / 4th

Highlight: In 4th grade, I had my first crush—I’ll call her M. She was one of my good friends who I talked to every day at lunch. Months later, my great aunt was the first relative I knew to pass away. I barely knew her, but my mom told me that my great aunt was the one who shelled out money decades ago and pushed on the idea for all the relatives to immigrate to America. I figured that if my great aunt didn’t exist, my mom wouldn’t have been in America, she would not have met my dad, I would not have been born here, and I would never have met M. Without anyone knowing, I cried in bed on multiple nights out of gratitude for my great aunt bringing me close to the love of my life.. hahaha.

Lesson: I look to that incident as the first time I really appreciated what my ancestors did, the sacrifices they made, and the risks they took on behalf of future generations. I also realized what a sappy hopeless romantic I was.


1997, age 10, 4th / 5th
Highlight: I finally learned to juggle three balls. My gym teacher taught everyone for the first 10 minutes of class once a week. About 30% of the school knew how to juggle. I was one of the stragglers. But once I learned, I was hooked. I was a major dork, so I borrowed books and VHS tapes from the library to imitate tricks. Within weeks, I was the best juggler in the school and was able to do fancy schmancy moves and even 5 balls.
Lesson: Perseverance counts. Now juggling has been a core in my life. It’s a metaphor for life balance, it’s meditation, and it’s entertainment. It’s also the number one thing that gets asked about on my resume. Juggling was a memorable topic of conversation in more than half the interviews I’ve been to!

nathan-juggle


1998, age 11, 5th / 6th


1999, age 12, 6th / 7th
Highlight: One morning I threw up on the school bus and went to see the nurse the moment I got to school. I was sent home. I felt a little dizzy, but I vividly remember that I denied to myself that I was sick. I played a soccer computer game in my basement instead of going to sleep. Then I even did flips and practiced bicycle kicks on a fold-out bed. Within hours, I was feeling A-okay.
Lesson: I learned to heal myself. From that day onward, I believed in the power of placebos, natural health, and trusting my body. In the years prior to that day, I was bedridden sick multiple times and took whatever medicine my mom gave me. Ever since that day (from 1999-2013), I’ve been bedridden sick just once. I also made a conscious decision to never depend on pills and medicine like my siblings did (today, they get headaches and get sick; I don’t). In my life, I have never taken Aspirin, Advil, or any pill. And since that day, I’ve never taken any sort of medicine. I believe that the body is a magical vessel and that it is intimately connected to the mind. To a realistic degree, your body will believe whatever you want it to believe.

Highlight: I started writing in a digital personal journal. From 1999 until today (2013), I have written something almost every day. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
Lesson: Writing brings so much clarity to your life. It also brings a deep appreciation of the past, an eye for the present, and a vision of the future.


2000, age 13, 7th / 8th
Highlight: In my second semester of 7th grade, my science lab partner and friend committed suicide. Details—how, where, why—were all hush hush. But it happened on the night of National Junior Honor Society’s new inductions, an event he was not qualified for and was not invited to (and a fact that no one else brought up). He often failed many assignments and laughed at himself for having the lowest grades in his honors classes.
Lesson: What could drive a 13-year-old to take his own life when he had so much ahead of him? My friend’s suicide haunts me. In my career as a teacher, I’ll always wrestle with this issue and be extra sensitive to my students. I want my students to be the happiest, healthiest, most joyful young adults possible, NOT the hardest workers and most “successful” in academics.


2001, age 14, 8th / HS freshman
Highlight: I taught myself web design, web programming, and HTML. Making websites and having worldwide audiences became hobbies of mine. Coupled with my passion for writing, I fell in love with communications and media arts.


2002, age 15, HS freshman / sophomore
Highlight: I got really good at writing just by speaking my mind, being honest, and telling emotional truths. But to this day, my vocabulary is still relatively low. I’m just not a words person. Many teachers deserve credit for giving me a boost of confidence in my English and writing skills.
Lesson: Good writing is from the heart and soul. That’s all.


2003, age 16, HS sophomore / junior

Highlight: The summer before junior year, I began to be fascinated by personal development, self-growth, and inspiration. I read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (not the best self-help book I’ve read, but it was great as a starter) and ever since then, I’ve read at least 50 other books and hundreds of articles about maximizing my potential and having lasting happiness. I was also inspired to write my first draft of my mission statements, bringing some clear direction and purpose to my life.

Lesson: I was positively brainwashed by everything I read. In the next few years, I tested out all the theories and principles in my own life—especially when I moved to a new city for college.

Lesson: As a writer, I wanted to positively brainwash my own readers and inspire them to lead happier, proactive, and joyful lives too—especially if they had miserable, passive, and boring lives (such as mine before college).


2004, age 17, HS junior / senior


2005, age 18, HS senior / college freshman
Highlight: I graduated 3rd in my high school class of 327 with a higher-than-perfect GPA, multiple math awards, and more English awards than anyone else from four years (after years of ESL!). In retrospect, that achievement and those stats did not make me happy.
Lesson: I wish I traded some high grades for more sleep, more leisure time, and more social time. When I got to Boston University, I wanted to keep all of this in mind.


Highlight: At Boston University, I thought I would be far behind my peers who came from private schools. I was from a super multicultural, relatively low-income, disadvantaged, and violent public school. But I somehow knew more than most of my college peers did, was a better writer, and had more confidence in figuring things out for myself—not just depending on the professors. I learned from some of my high school friends that they thought the same thing at their colleges.
Lesson: A bulk of education is how curious and independent YOU are, NOT where you’re from and what school you went to. This shaped the way I teach. I want my students to figure things out on their own. And I want my inner-city students to have pride in where they’re from, what they can learn about diversity, and how their school’s limitations are blessings in disguise.

My high school. This was my sister's graduation though.

My high school. This was my sister’s graduation though. She’s smack in the middle.


Highlight: At BU, I was surrounded by more wealthy Whites than I had ever seen. My whole life, I was sheltered by my high school’s poor and multicultural community and never got the chance to interact with the Americans that movies and TV shows usually featured. I remember some of my new college friends shrugged when they pressed a button to order their books in a convenient box waiting for them at the bookstore while I did heavy research to find the cheapest options online. Excuse the generalizations for a second: I was jealous of how many of my friends spent money as if it meant nothing to them, wasted food as if it wasn’t precious, and how few of them understood the minority experience.
Lesson: I was intrigued and fascinated by how different two worlds can be. And I wanted to somehow merge the two. I desperately wanted the two camps to understand each other better.


Highlight: For college, I moved to a new city and wanted to test out all the happiness theories in books I read. I wanted to start a new life. I drastically changed a lot of things I did not like about myself. I smiled more, crushed my social anxiety, and placed more emphasis on social life than academics. I started to turn my life around 180 degrees. It worked. No big deal.
Lesson: Now it was confirmed that whenever I want, I have the power to change ANYTHING about myself. I can learn anything. I can be better at anything. I can do anything. I solidly understood and accepted the fact that my life is mine to craft.

My life journey and transformation


2006, age 19, college freshman / sophomore
Highlight: I picked up theatre as a hobby.

Highlight: During my second semester of freshman year, I failed two courses because I didn’t balance my academic and social lives well. Before college, I rarely received anything less than an A and never anything less than a B+.
Lesson: I mean it when I say that experiencing failure was one of the top 3 best things to EVER happen to me. In that moment, I let go. I was free. For the rest of college, I did my best but never worried about grades again. Unlike high school, I didn’t have to keep up with a perfect GPA for four years and strive for summa cum laude or honors or anything because those were already out of the picture! YAY! I was free to have fun, socialize, take difficult courses, overload my schedule, and learn at my own pace. (Oddly enough, I mentioned these two F’s in the interviews for the last two jobs I’ve had. I claimed that, as a teacher, I am able to truly understand what it means to have straight A’s and also what it means to fail. I said I am able to connect to different types of students because of this. I was accepted to and took both jobs. F = getting a job. Things don’t happen for a reason. Things happen. It’s up to you to create a reason. Woooo!!)

Highlight: I was in my first relationship.
Lesson: Relationships take work. We were good as friends but not meant as a couple (our values and outlooks on life were very different). We were together for longer than we should’ve been. Still, I have since learned that even in better pairings, relationships take work. Things weren’t meant to be, but I wouldn’t trade this experience. I’m grateful for what I learned in my first relationship.


2007, age 20, college sophomore / junior

Highlight: I spent the summer working as a counselor at Camp Lohikan in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. It was my first teaching-related job.
Lesson: I was good at building relationships with the youth but poor at managing behavior. As Haim Ginott once wrote: It isn’t enough to care. You must be skilled. Imagine a surgeon telling you, “I care about you lots, but I’m not skilled.” I had lots to learn about behavior management.

Highlight: I was in a long-distance relationship while working at camp. Communication was rare. I also witnessed other long-distance relationships break apart. Or people would grind or make out with others while they had partners elsewhere. I don’t know all the backstories and whether they were in open relationships or anything, so I’m not in a position to judge, but I remember being really bothered by seeing all of this and how needy people were for physical affection. On the other hand, I was an idealist when it came to relationships. I made sure everyone I met knew about my girlfriend. For staff introductions, we had to answer in front of 100 people “Do you have a car? (a hot commodity because we were in the middle of nowhere for days/nights off) and “Are you single?” When it was my turn, I joked and said “I don’t have a car, so I can’t give you a ride. I’m also taken, so I still can’t give you a ride.” The entire camp cracked up and kept bringing that joke up again throughout the summer. I showed photos of my girlfriend to anyone who was curious about who she was. And ironically, by the end of summer, my girlfriend was seeing someone else.

Lesson: My breakup was actually a perfect ending, as we weren’t meant to be. It forced something to end that wasn’t worth it. And it forced a way to not get back together (I broke up with her once 8 months before this but we got back together soon after) (last I heard, she seemed happy with him). But with everything combined that summer, I also trusted people less in dating. I became super picky and gave someone a chance only if I thought they were exceptionally trustworthy, loyal, independent (and doesn’t need constant communication—something I couldn’t do at camp and something I’m not good at anyway.. to me, it’s the thought and trust that count), and overall positive. Since then, I’ve been in one other relationship and on many dates with some pretty amazing people. Thank you to all these people for helping me regain trust and, as much as it didn’t work out with us either, thank you for being part of my journey towards meeting who I’m meant to be with.

Highlight: At the start of junior year, I dressed differently (and slowly learned how to dress well), branched out to lots of social circles, made tons of new friends, and—if I’m allowed to say it myself—I became super popular at BU. In terms of being social and a community leader, I finally “made it.”

Lesson: That breakup was such a blessing. Opportunities for growth are hidden in adversity.


2008, age 21, college junior / senior
Highlight: I launched many of my original blogs on 8/8/08, a lucky date in Chinese numerology that coincided with the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. One blog is still my most visited website today.

Highlight: I learned to be proud of my accomplishments, my strengths, and who I am. Up to this year, I was sometimes a bit too modest and passive (per Chinese culture), making myself marginalized.
Lesson: Be proud of who are you, what you have done, and what else you can do. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.

Highlight: I was a student teacher / intern for a media arts class at The English High School, America’s first public high school.
Lesson: I actively pursued my childhood dream of being a teacher. It paid off later after graduation.


2009, age 22, college senior

Highlight: I graduated college.
Lesson: All who wander are not lost.

Highlight: On a personal trip alone, I was stranded on an island. I asked a random family of strangers to drive me five miles. They said yes.
Lesson: I was inspired by the kindness of strangers. Actually, all people are good at heart.

Highlight: I lived in an apartment for the first time. I learned to cook. I never burned my place down.
Lesson: Cooking is easy (especially with easy-to-please taste buds).

Highlight: After enjoying singledom for two years and working on myself, I learned to date. I’m traditional. I like meeting people everywhere—guys, girls, older folks—all as friends. And if a girl I meet fascinates me (or a girl I’ve been friends with), I like inviting her to something one-to-one for something casual with no expectations, then see her a few more times, get to know each other, like each other as more than friends, then see if we’re on the same page with things, then see where it goes from there, then formally “ask her out” and decide on our relationship status on a certain day that would later be the anniversary.
Lesson: Gosh, I feel so left out for not relating to the bulk of “the end of courtship.”


2010, age 23
Highlight: I started running as a hobby.

Highlight: I was in my second relationship. It was a short-lived but great experience, especially for me to regain trust (see 2007).
Lesson: Awesome people are out there. I’ll keep looking.

Highlight: I started working at a law firm in downtown Boston.
Lesson: Office jobs are not for me.

Highlight: I started working at Citizen Schools.
Lesson: Despite all its challenges and hard work, I do indeed love teaching and all its rewards.
Lesson: Students will sometimes accidentally call me Miss Chow. Or Mister [other Asian teacher’s name]. Or Mom. I really shouldn’t take it personally.

class-thank-you-cards


2011, age 24
Highlight: I gave a TEDx Talk titled “The Missing Lesson: Character Education” and spoke about how schools need to teach about integrity, compassion, and joy and not just focus on academics. (My philosophy about education was obviously influenced by my disappointment in my own super academic high school life—and by the haunt of my friend’s suicide.)

nathan-tedx-talk

Highlight: I went abroad to Costa Rica for vacation. It was my first time outside the US or Canada. Pura vida!
Lesson: Spanish profanity. Callate la boca, $%*@. Te gusta &#${@!??? JAJAJAJAJAJA.


2012, age 25

Highlight: I taught English for a month in Cusco, Peru and my students called me loco calato (a term for a very crazy person). I met amazing people, had awesome adventures (Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, and more), compared Peru’s classrooms to America’s, and compared Peru’s living standards to America’s. It might be one of my top life experiences.
Lesson: We take so many things for granted in America.

Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

At Machu Picchu, one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.

At Machu Picchu, one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.

Highlight: I quit a job at a place I loved (Citizen Schools). It was time to move forward.

Highlight: I quit a side job where the manager was inexperienced and awful with honest communication. I won’t name this one. It was also time to move forward.

Highlight: This was also the year I learned to say no to people, including friends. I also learned to set limits to what I’m told to do at work.
Lesson: If you don’t have your own limits, everyone else will break them for you. You teach people how to treat you.

Highlight: I learned that it’s okay to pick favorites. Ever since cultivating a huge network of friends in Boston, I was always neutral and wanted to please everyone, see everyone, invite everyone, help everyone—even those who were flaky, negative, shared few values or hobbies with me, or even took advantage of me. This year I deliberately spent more time with people who were dedicated friends who positively supported me and/or who brought so much laughter and joy to my life. I became infinitely more at ease, relaxed, and free, not needing to worry about people who didn’t show they cared about me.
Lesson: Some of my friends deserve more of my love and more of my time. Give your love and respect to everyone. But give your time to a select few. Let them prove if they deserve that. It’s okay to not spend time with some people. Just don’t burn bridges.


2013, age 26

Highlight: I got a new job as the first Middle School Program Coordinator & Instructor for the Castle Square Community Center. After months of freelance tutoring, I missed being with groups of students. This was the only teaching job I applied to. In a surreal touch of coincidence, Castle Square also happens to be the apartment complex my dad, my grandparents, and their family lived in back around 1970 before my dad met my mom. I did not know this until I told my aunt about my interview. This new job is like reaching back to the past while teaching the future.

csto-with-peace

Highlight: At a one-night retreat to a Zen center in the woods, I started my own personal book of goals, missions, values, and vision boards. For almost 10 years, I’ve had some digital files for these. But I wanted a hardcopy book to flip through. I revisited the mission statements I’ve had since 2003, I made my new principles clear, I set lofty goals for myself, and I condensed some of my favorite quotes and inspirations into one place.

At the Zen center. This photo was from 2010 though.

At the Zen center. This photo was from fall 2010 though.

Highlight: I hosted an early Chinese New Year party.
Lesson: Never ever roast beets and peel them during a party. Your hands will be red, you will be forever checking the oven, and when people call or text, you will awkwardly ask guests to reach into your pants to pull out your phone. Mr. Rogers would not be proud.


25 years? Check.
Awesome life so far? Check.
Dedicating my life in the service of others? Check.


Gratitude for being alive? Double check.

And onward with 26!

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