Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I got my driver's license when I was 17.  That did not mean I started driving at 17.  Unlike most of my friends and classmates, who could not wait to experience the new-gained freedom, I put off driving for as long as I could.

I was not scared of driving.  I just did not see a need for it.  My mom was more than willing to drive me to school, our local library, and my job whenever I needed to.  She thought I was clumsy and was worried that I might run myself into an accident.  Insurance rates were high for teenagers anyway, if I did not want to drive, well, more money to pocket for my parents.

I was content.  I had no need to venture out of my comfort zone.  It was not until my second semester in college, when I had different schedules daily, that it became too confusing for my mom to keep track.  My mom told me I had to put my driver's license to use. 

My father got me a green Corolla in my second year of college.  It was his way of telling me that I had no excuse not to drive myself.  I had a driver license, a car, and a car insurance policy.  My father wanted me to be independent.  He told me that he had to learn to navigate L.A. traffic within a couple of weeks of arriving in the States.  He said the only way to get comfortable with driving was to do it. 

My Corolla and I ended up going to many places together... my junior college that was 8 miles away, my 4-year university that was 40 miles away,  my optometry school that was 5 states away, the different cities I did my internships at, and eventually Texas.  

I had the habit of taking the same routes to places.  If my parents told me there was road construction and I should take another way, I would quietly leave early, just so I could take my usual route.  I was not afraid of getting lost.  By the time I got to college, I had gotten over my shyness and was not afraid to ask for directions. I just did not like to change my routines. 

I remember one time, I stayed up late at home to finish my homework.  I had an early class in my 4-year college the next morning so at 1 am, I made the 40 miles drive back.  Unfortunately, there was construction going on, forcing me take a detour a few exits away from my apartment.  The roadside detour instructions were vague and I got confused.  I ended up in downtown L.A. at 2 am, driving around to find my way to my apartment.  After 30 or 40 minutes of fruitless driving in circles, I spotted two police cars in front of a convenience store. 

I was very excited to see them.  I was tired from studying and the extra driving.  I knew it was safe for me to get out of my car and approach them for help.  I ran up to them with such enthusiasm that could only be found in a cheesy chick flick.  Flashing a big smile, I said, "Excuse me....," in a high pitched happy tone, the officers probably thought I was going to hug them.  Then I noticed one of the officers froze his motion of sipping a cup of coffee, eyebrows raised, with a quizzical look.

Because of his bewildered look, I realized I had to compose myself.  I stopped, leaned my body away from them a bit, then politely asked, in a much more serious voice, "Can you tell me where UCLA is?"  The officer, still hadn't sipped his coffee, looked at my beige sweatshirt with the big bright golden UCLA logo written across it.  The two officers then looked at each other, trying to hold in their laughter, politely gave me instructions on how to get back to Wilshire Boulevard.  I was back in my apartment in 10 minutes.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My little place in the world

The new house we moved to during my junior year in high school had two stories.  The upstairs had a kitchen, a living area, a master bedroom, and two small bedrooms.  Downstairs, next to our garage, was basically a little in-law apartment.  It had its own entry, bathroom, and living area.  It was closed off from our house upstairs by a staircase and a door.  My parents initially wanted my brother and I to take the two bedrooms upstairs, leaving the downstairs suite as a guest room. 

I asked my parents for permission to live downstairs.  I rarely asked my parents for things.  The thought of having my own little space, away from everyone else, was just too appealing for me to resist.  My parents thought it was a little odd that I wanted to be alone downstairs.  They didn't see any harm in it, so they obliged.  They bought a bedroom set for me and gave me a lot of freedom. 

My parents were very lenient about the activities downstairs.  My friends were able to sleep over without an issue.  It didn't happen very often, even though my mom encouraged it.  She wanted me to have friends.  I wanted to have friends but I did not want to share my room with them.  I liked the feeling of living alone, I didn't have to say "hi" to anyone when I woke up.  I did not have to put on a face.  I could reserve my time and energy for studying. 

There were times when I grabbed a dinner plate and then came downstairs to my little world to study and eat.  My parents were so focused on academia, they were totally supportive of it.  In fact, they often reminded me of a distant relative, who came to the States as an adult.  He made a habit of memorizing words in a dictionary while eating dinner so he could learn English.  He did nothing but shoved food into his mouth and flipped through his dictionary during supper time.  He eventually graduated with a doctorate degree.  My parents told me that he should be my role model, his persistence should be my inspiration.  

By late high school, especially after I started working at the bakery, my abilities to read people and interact with them improved a lot.  But there was a price for it.  The act of interaction took a lot of concentration from me.  Anytime I interacted a person, a lot of background analysis had to go on simultaneously in my brain to tell me what I had to do to look "natural."  From my choice of words, body movements, facial expressions, observing the other person's body language, to understanding their words, it was a lot of work! 

I was known to be cheery and bubbly at work, I had to be, my mom said no one wanted an employee with a "long face."  I enjoyed work because it made me feel useful.  I wasn't making much but I was contributing.  After a long day though, it was great to come back home into my little world.  In my little area downstairs, I did not have to interact with anyone.  I could be myself again, I did not have to act.  I did not have to constantly process information anymore.  My brain could finally take a break.    

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tidbits at work

Having a part-time job in high school meant taking closing shifts on weeknights.  I often spoke to my mom about events at work.

One day, I told her about my closing duties, which included taking inventory, getting boxes ready for the next day, washing trays, wiping down displays, sweeping and mopping.  Thomas did not assign these duties.  They were to be evenly shared by the closing team. 

I had noticed that my closing duties varied vastly, depending on whom I was partnered up with.  One girl in particular, whenever I closed with her, I somehow always ended up doing all the cleaning while she "busily" took inventory or folded boxes.  She did it so tactfully that most of the time I did not even know how it happened.  She must have planned her way out of cleaning many steps ahead.  I eventually figured out what she was doing.  I was not upset at her.  She was always sweet and friendly with me.  I was just baffled at how she could do it so smoothly. 

My mom laughed and told me, "Well, that's life.  Life is never fair.  If you know how to manipulate to get your way, then you don't have to do as much.  She is just one of the many many examples you will encounter later on in life."  My mom ended it at that.  She felt that it was not a big deal.  If someone could manipulate me to do things without me being upset about it, the person had done me a favor by giving me a free lesson .  She saw it as part of life.  My parents wanted me to work so I could experience life the way it was.  I had to learn to handle it myself.  My co-worker's behavior did not bother me, so I just shrugged it off.

Another thing I learned was that little white lies were not always bad.  During one of our busy afternoons, I was on the phone with a customer, one girl was stocking bread shelves, while another one took up cashier duties.  All of a sudden I heard a little scream, I turned around and faced our cashier girl.  She was looking at a bun she apparently dropped on the floor.  She looked up at our customer and apologized for her "clumsiness."  She quickly asked the girl who was stocking shelves to bring a replacement.  I did not think much of it and continued on with my phone call. 

It was not until an hour or two later, when we slowed down, our cashier girl took the fallen bun out of a waste basket to show us.  The bun was wrapped in a cellophane bag, there was a dead fly inside.  The cashier girl said that she saw the fly as she was ringing up our customer, but she did not want to make a scene.  She pretended to have dropped it so she could ask for a replacement without alerting all the customers in our store.  Thomas was very impressed with how she handled it.  He said our cashier girl not only handled the situation correctly, she did it intelligently.  It was a lesson I remembered 'til this day. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Manager

My bakery manager, Thomas, was one of the few people who made a long-lasting impression on me.  Diligent, witty, and with a good sense of self-discipline, he was my role model at the bakery.  Thomas was in his thirties.  He was not a quiet person but he did not say much about his personal life.  All we knew was that he lived with his girlfriend.  They had an Old English Sheepdog which they doted on.

Our bakery opened seven days a week.  Thomas was there everyday, or at least it seemed like he was.  He made sure that our bakery was running at top efficiency.  He knew every facet of the business.  From baking buns, decorating cakes, handling the customers, leading our team, to managing everything that happened in between.  Thomas did everything well. 

He was a direct person.  If he liked something I did, he would praise me verbally.  If I did something he thought was dumb, he would point it out right the way and told me to "be smarter."  He never sugar-coated any of his comments or beat around the bushes when he wanted me to change my ways.  It was easy for me to communicate with him.  He was blunt, so was I.  The difference between us was, he knew when not to be blunt, and I didn't. 

He taught me all my job duties pretty much by hands-on experience.  I was able to learn from his demonstrations, which was perfect for a visual thinker.  He never rushed me in terms of learning.  He allowed me to go at my own pace.  He could tell I was driven to do things correctly.  Fearing that I was the one who would hold back the team, I urged him to teach me more, but he told me to take it one step at a time.   I could tell Thomas was not a particularly patient person but he knew how to read people.  He knew our personalities and how to get the most out of each of us.  

Of course he also knew how to push people's buttons.  One time there was an arrogant customer who yelled at a cashier to a point of tears for giving her the wrong change.  Regardless of how the poor cashier apologized, she did not relent.  Thomas tactfully told her that in order to resolve this situation correctly, he would have to count the till.  He did it CAREFULLY, SLOWLY, and DELIBERATELY.  30 long minutes later, Thomas finally came to the conclusion that she was right. The customer stormed out with her proper change, and a half-hearted apology from Thomas. 

Thomas later told me that if she had been more courteous, and accepted the cashier's initial apology, he would have resolved it immediately.  Instead, she bullied the cashier.  It got on Thomas's wrong side so he did not reward her behavior. 

This event taught me that sometimes it was not about being right or wrong.  It was about knowing how to resolve a situation.  I realized that one could get a lot more done by working with people, instead of against people.  Thomas continued to explain similar situations to me in the 2 years I worked there. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I love food, but I only love food that I love.  I was a very finicky child but I loved my grandmother's cooking.  When my class went on field trips, my grandmother had to pack my lunch because I did not want to eat anything that was unfamiliar to me.  I was never curious of what my classmates' were eating.   My 15 individually wrapped marinated chicken drummettes kept me satisfied.  In fact, I was the one whom the other kids wanted to trade their lunches with.

My grandmother had to get up early to prepare, cook, wait for the drummettes to cool, and wrap them.  She did not mind though.  She was more than willing to go out of her way to accommodate the only grandchild.

Tomato is my mom's favorite food.  She eats them like apples.  I remember when I was 4 or 5, I saw my mom sitting in our courtyard in China, munching away on a tomato, commenting on how delicious it was.  When I saw her eating the red tomato like it was an apple, I imagined in my mind how it would be sweet and crispy, like an apple.  Of course I asked for a bite, but my senses went into shock because it was the complete opposite of what I had imagined.  The texture, the taste, and the smell were so unexpected, I spat it right out.  To this day, tomatoes and I still have not become friends.

My father introduced me to Filet-O-Fish, French Fries, milkshake, and apple pie from McDonald's when I was 6.  For the next 20 years, those items were pretty much the only things I ordered from McDonald's.  I've tried other items as well, I just tend to come back to the ones I am familiar with.  I find it especially true when I am tired, in a hurry, or stressed.  I don't like to try anything new when my mind is preoccupied.  Under those circumstances, knowing what my food will taste like before I consume them brings me comfort. 

On a side note, McDonald's does a great job of keeping the taste of their menu items consistent.  I know because I've ordered them from McDonald's in Los Angeles, Dallas, Saint Louis, Houston, Austin, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Beijing.  If T hadn't stopped me, I would've confirmed my faith in McDonald's Filet-O-Fish in Taiwan and Shanghai as well.  

My father played a pivotal role in my path-to-be-less-finicky.  After I came to the States, he introduced to steaks, sushi, and many other food I was not forced to try in Hong Kong.  He wanted me to be more open-minded about food (on top of many other things).  He felt to be finicky was to be unappreciative of how privileged I was, considering so many people in other parts of the world were starving.  He did not force me to continuously eat food I did not enjoy.  He did force me to try an item before rejecting it.

I've learned to take a middle-of-the-path attitude with food.  Nowadays, I still tend to gravitate towards food I am familiar with.  New stuff, however, reminds me of my father's teaching, and I am no longer resistant to trying it.  I see trying new food not as a challenge or fulfillment of curiosity, but more as a form of respect to our good fortune of being in a country with an abundance of food. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fitting in at work

I went into this job without a lot of expectations.  This was my first job, let alone working around a kitchen.  I wasn't allowed in our kitchen in Hong Kong.  I helped my mom with dishes at home, but I didn't know how to cook.  I wasn't interested in it.  I was, however, serious about doing well at my first job.  It had nothing to do with pride, it was about practicing the work ethnics I learned from my dad.  Regardless of how much I was paid, I wanted to do my job to the best of my ability.

What gave me some ease was that the help-wanted sign said "no experience necessary." I figured everything would have to be taught to me.  I wanted to be a good pupil.  My mom said no one was obligated to help me.  If I wanted help, then I better make it easy for others to offer it.  I tried my best to be a sponge, absorbing as much and as quickly as I could.   If I made a mistake, I immediately apologized and took the lesson home to analyze in my mind.  I would replay a scenario again and again, not only to avoid making the same mistake twice, but also to see how I could handle similar situations more efficiently. 

At the time, I didn't see anything wrong with myself.  My parents told me I was dumb.  My job proved it.  Within a few days of working, I realized that everyone there was more worldly than me, even the part-timers who were around my age.  They knew more about life, about how to deal with unhappy customers, about what to say to the store owners when they called so they knew we were working hard.  I thought to myself, geez, my parents were right.  I was still getting my orientation on the slow lane,  and my co-workers were already zooming by at full speed. 

I felt like I became an undercover detective, secretly observing others' actions and learning from them.  I was very impressed with how my co-workers took care of business. Even on busy days, their actions were seamless.  The job was not complicated, but it could get very hectic.  We were in a popular shopping center, hundreds and hundreds of customers go through our store in a matter of hours.  Seeing how my experienced  co-workers covered each other as a team, and still kept their cool, was inspiring.  It was something I wished I could do myself. 

I shamelessly copied people. The action was not new to me though.  I had to do the same thing when I moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, then again when I immigrated to the States.  This job opened up a new world for me.  In the past, adaptation was to make life easier for myself, but this job required more than that, I had to learn to make life easier for everyone around me. 

One thing I really wanted to know was when to offer help without being asked.  My parents said it was an intuition I lacked.  They tried to teach me, but they said one could not learn how to fight a war on paper.  I needed real experience.  Initially, I did not know what they meant.  I understood the concept because they taught me if A, then B.  But my parents said there was something deeper that I was not catching.  They introduced me to a skill, but it could only be polished through work experience.

It wasn't until I started working that the light bulb went off in my head.  The girls at our bakery were able to work together very well.  "Betty" knew exactly when to stop what she was doing and lend "Sara" a helping hand without a word exchanged.   "Jill" knew to grab our price book and order form as soon as she saw our store manager on the phone, trying to scribble down a wedding order on a piece of napkin.  "Sara" knew to distract a wailing little boy so his mom could concentrate on telling "Betty" what she wanted on her custom cake. 

After analyzing MANY of these little examples, I finally understood what my parents meant.  I got better.  Even my parents said so.  I was no longer a bead on an abacus.  I knew how to take initiatives.  I was able to help out, like the other girls.  I fitted in. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Job duties

This job proved to be a very good learning experience.  The bakery was one of 8 or so stores owned by a Chinese family.  Each store had its own manager, full-time and part-time employees.  My store manager was in his early 30s.  The two full-timers were also in their 30s.  I was one of their 3 to 4 part-timers, who were all students. 

My job included an array of duties:  Ringing up customers, boxing cakes, answering phone calls, keeping surfaces clean, washing trays (where customers put their selections), sweeping, mopping, daily inventory, and taking orders of custom-made cakes. 

The bakery had around 20 types of buns (breads with sweet or savory fillings) and 30 types of cakes, pastries, and tarts.  Back in the 1990s, all prices had to to be rung up by hand, there was no computer to help.  The quick turnover of items also made putting price tags on them impractical.  It was a cashier's job to be familiar with all the prices and basic ingredients. 

I started my job in the evening of a school night.  My manager wanted me to start on a slower night so I would not get flustered.  I was, however, still a little bit overwhelmed.  Operating the register was pretty straightforward, I was able to pick that up quickly.  The difficult part was differentiating all those buns/cakes and recalling their prices, especially under pressure.  I soon realized that without knowing the products and prices by heart, I would be constantly dependent on my co-workers to back me up. 

I didn't want to be the one who was slowing down the team, I wanted to be able to multitask, just like my coworkers. 

Remembering what my parents told me, I decided diligence was what would get me through.  At the end of my first week, I asked my manager for permission to bring a price sheet home.  My manager said that I didn't have to do that, I wasn't going to get paid for it.  I insisted and he finally gave in.  I went home and made flash cards.  I studied them, like I was studying for a test. 

Within a few weeks, I was ready.  I was no longer nervous behind the cash register.  This freed up my mind.  I no longer needed to physically wave a bun in the air in mid-transaction to ask for prices.  I could ring up orders, package items, while answering a phone call, and still managed to smile at my customer all at the same time.

All my co-workers were more sociable than I was.  I did what my mom told me, I did a lot, but I spoke very little.  I was always polite to my customers, but I did not know how to hold a conversation.  It didn't take me long to realize that our service was just important was our products. 

I thought it was neat how my coworkers handled customers, especially the frequent visitors, who often liked to chit chat.  Whenever it was slower, I would secretly observe them.  While wiping down displays, I would eavesdrop on their conversations with these customers.  I wanted to know how they made customers laugh and felt so happy about patronizing our store.  I was intrigued. 

I wanted to be more like them, just so that I could be a better employee.  Surely the store owner would want his customers happy.  I copied my co-workers, without letting them know.  I practiced what they said, their tones, and their gestures in my mind, just so I could use them when an opportunity came.  It was no small task.  If I were to copy something "Jill" said, I would have to make sure "Jill" wasn't there when I repeated it.  Having studied from 5 or 6 co-workers, it was a lot of work to keep track, but I enjoyed it.  I was part of a team. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Pearls of Wisdom -- Work Edition

As a congratulations gift for landing my first job, my mom gave me more pearls of wisdom.  In the few days before I started working, she drilled what she considered to be essential work etiquette into me.

1)  "If your co-worker or your boss is explaining something to you, you nod, you smile, and you show appreciation.  Even if you already know what he/she is teaching you, you still show gratitude towards him/her.  You never say "I already knew that."  No one likes a know-it-all.  You want people to help you in the future, you make them feel good about helping you."

2)  "You have to think ahead, don't be like a bead on an abacus.  Use your common sense.  If your boss tells you to wipe down the display, look around when you are done.  What other surfaces need to be wiped down?  You don't have to wait for your boss to tell you.  If you see the glass door has hand prints on it, or the refrigerator doors have smudges, then wipe them down as well."

3)  "Keep yourself busy at work.  Your boss is not paying you to sit around.  You can always find something to do.  Don't do personal stuff when you are at work, not even school stuff.  Work is work.  Your job in school is to study, your job at the bakery is to work.  If you are constantly working and moving, your boss will be more forgiving towards your mistakes.  If you sit around a lot, well, your mistakes will be magnified because you haven't done a whole lot."

4)  "Always smile.  Smile at your co-workers, smile at your boss, smile at your customers.  No one owes you a dime, they are not obligated to deal with your personal problems.  Keep your problems to yourself.  Your co-workers want a pleasant work environment, you boss wants a cohesive team, and your customers want good service.  So bottom line is, who cares about how you feel, you smile at others."

5)  "Show your work through your actions, not through your words.  Don't boast about your abilities.  A good employee is one who does a lot but says very little.  You may be dumb, but you can make it up by being diligent, pleasant, and humble.  These are priceless qualities as well.  No one wants to help out a braggart."

6)  "No matter what your co-workers say, do not complain about your boss or your work.  You don't like your job?  You can find a new job, but don't complain about it.  If you don't have the ability to find a new job, then learn to deal with your job, but still don't complain about it.  You don't like your boss?  Well, too bad, he/she is your boss and gets the final say on everything.  Work hard, study hard, then one day, you don't have to have a boss."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Landing my first job

I started my first job a couple of weeks after my first interview.  It was a cashier position at a Chinese bakery.  The bakery was situated inside a small Chinese shopping center my family frequented.  

A few days after my interview at the chiropractor, my parents said that I should take initiates and call to follow-up.  I took their advice and was told that the office would contact me once a decision had been reached.  I didn't think they were going to hire me.  My parents simply told me that a job was not going to just land in my lap.  If I wanted a job, I would have to actively look for one.  My father said that I had to learn to be braver and more thick-skinned.  He said a "no" should not be a discouragement, it should be a driving force for me to try even harder until I get a "yes."  

A couple of days later, while we were shopping at the Chinese supermarket, I saw a "hiring" sign.  It belonged to the bakery.  I pretended to walk by its window very nonchalantly several times.  Each time taking a quick glimpse of the sign, trying to see what its requirements were.  "No experience required" and "weekend hours," yay, I qualified!

I ran up to my mom, who was picking out Chinese movies from a video store nearby.  I told my mom about the hiring sign and its requirements.  My mom told me, "What are you waiting for?  Go ask for an application!  I will wait for you here."  That was all I needed from her.  I didn't need any encouragement nor reassurance.  I already knew I should get a job, I just needed a firm nudge from her. 

I walked up to a man who was wiping down a glass display case in the bakery.  Remembering my mom telling me that no one would want to hire someone who was shy and unsure, I tried to sound pleasant and enthusiastic.  Stuttering a little, I asked him if he knew how I could get an application.  He told me he was the manager and asked me about my job experience and availability.  My heart was racing, but I forced myself to stay calm, answer clearly, and avoid any unnecessary body gestures.  He then gave me an application and told me to bring it back.  I took the application and tried my best to walk out casually, in reality, I just wanted to make a bee line for our car. 

I returned the next day to drop off my application.  The manager happened to be free.  He looked over my application and asked me when I was able to start.  I told him anytime.  I landed my first job!

Life is full of surprises.  Right after I got hired by the bakery, I received a phone call from the chiropractor.  She wanted to hire me.  I told her I already accepted another job.  She asked me where it was.  I told her I was going to be a cashier at a bakery.  She said her office was better suited for me and offered to pay me more.  I told her I couldn't go back on my words.  She insisted a couple more times.  I thanked her for her offer, but I couldn't do it.  In my mind, it was easier to turn her down, than to go back on my words with the bakery.  Doing so would not rest well with my conscience.