Lessons Learned from Shifting Focus

After leaving Saari Residency in Finland to re-enter Thailand before the border closes, I’m now safely anchored in Bangkok and re-evaluating the virus’s effect on my life and my creative studio, Made In Asia. Seems like now is a good time to resist the urge to get swept up in  ‘new normal’ and sit in some lessons I’ve learned since the last time my world turned upside down. 

A little background on me: 

As a kid, I always aspired to turn my world into a gigantic playground. I’d fall off slides pretending I could fly, added plastic googly eyes to buildings and winked at them, and used my hair as a very inefficient broom. 

That playfulness stayed with me as I entered university where I studied Literary Journalism and Cognitive Science. With Journalism, I got to look for the drama in everyday life. Cognitive Science helped me understand the biological tools for how people absorb these stories. 

After graduation, I became anxious because the world I graduated into didn’t look like the playground in my head. At the time, I didn’t know how to change that so I decided to shift myself instead. 

Big Shift #1: Continents

Moving to Thailand killed two birds with one stone. For one, everyday life became a grand adventure again. I learned to frogger across busy streets, make new friends, order chicken nuggets in Thai, and started working. 

Two, as a child of immigrants, I went back to learn about the sacrifice, everything our parents left behind for us. All the while, my parents were back in LA, probably rolling their eyes as if to say ‘‘we just got here”. We learned to meet each other in the middle. 

Life was great for a couple years. I wrote for the Bangkok Post, learned to navigate bicultural office politics as a product manager, then quit to freelance in communications and marketing for startups and NGOs. Digital nomad life suited me well. I scooted around different countries for a month at a time while learning to source clients, keep promises, and manage my time. I both loved and was terrified by the responsibility of being in control of my own life.

But as life goes, I changed. Developing tactical mastery didn’t fulfill me anymore and I yearned for playful, creative, big picture work. Also, I got lonely. Traveling around meant I never settled into a community. The people I did meet were all wonderful, smart, curious people, but we were so similar to each other. I felt trapped in an expat bubble and needed to explore life outside everything I’ve ever known. 

Big Shift #2: Gone Kerouac-ing 

Tab in Yazd

I hit the road again. I had to start asking myself questions like “what does freedom mean to me?” and “Could I live on the fringe?”

For about 8 months, I hitchhiked from Bangkok to Bombay, visited human rights activists around Myanmar while working on a Burmese cookbook, and couchsurfed my way through Iran, Armenia, and Turkey. I met the kindest people who refueled my trust in humanity, especially in Iran. I was in Tehran when Trump won the election in 2016, and was so ashamed to admit I was American. But everyone showed me how little the politics of our home countries matter. The stories we share with each other are what binds us. 

It made me work towards being a better listener. 

Big Shift #3: Reality 

A dragon shooter demo. Very experimental.

While traveling, I chanced upon an Oculus demo in Germany and instantly ‘a-ha’-ed. The importance of global community and stories had been brewing for the past couple months. Experiencing VR opened my eyes to how transformative form factor can be to stories. 

My next big focus crystalized from there. I started an event series called Made In Asia to create a platform for artists and storytellers from all over Asia to exhibit VR, AR, and games in Los Angeles. VR was at such an early stage that I felt there was an opportunity to highlight stories from creators in countries unfairly viewed as ‘copy-cat’ countries. I wanted to dispel the myth that innovation spreads from the West outwards while also allowing new creators from Asia to get feedback on prototypes in a rapidly developing scene. 

This developed into a creative studio business that mixed workshops and consulting around integrating VR into business or events. Work ended up bringing me back to Thailand and I felt more inspired than ever getting to know brilliant artists here in Bangkok. I was happy to highlight other stories, but as time went on, I wanted to create some of my own. 

Which brings us to the present.

Like millions around the world, much of my work has dried and I’m brainstorming how my skill set can meet our new normal. All while taking care of underlying anxiety that pervades this pandemic. I’m privileged to have the time and space to meditate on my past and remind myself of the concrete steps I took to weather those changes.

1. Understand my own rhythms: At this time, I’m incredibly sensitive to the news, my moods, and must pay close attention to work that gives me energy and tasks that zap it. Creative work is difficult for me at the moment, so I’m working on clear, step by step tactical work. My optimal mix between tactical and creative work changes day to day, so I’m doing my best to check in with myself every hour. Building that self awareness for my mental health helps me feel more in control. 

2. Community is everything: Every week, I video chat with at least 3 people who are working on projects or have similar questions about how our world is changing. We make time to brainstorm, do Pomoro sprints, and support one another. I was recently accepted to NYU’s ITP program and love getting to know the NYU community over chat. I’m also taking up projects with artists I admire – such as this audio installation I recently curated. Be intentional, kind, and genuine. People need help more than ever so I’m working on offering as much as I can – while looking after myself.

No one could ever be ready for a global pandemic, but at the very least, I’m learning to cope and give myself time to observe this moment. I’ve made a habit of throwing myself at the universe, and I know I’ll keep doing that once it’s safe, but for now, I’m going to let this moment distract me.

May this crisis dismantle faulty assumptions and push me into new terrain.

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