September 30, 2011

Ashamed to Empowered

My childhood could be summed up with one word: shame.

I was ashamed because we were so po’. Yes I meant to leave the ‘or’ out of the word poor because we were so poor that we couldn’t afford the rest of the word. I can look back and laugh with nostalgia about this but it was quite sad. Sad because I was always embarrassed about our ‘situation.’ My parents left a bustling business in Vietnam. They gave everything up to immigrate to America for opportunity. When we landed in Sacramento (I was just two years old at the time) they had about $4 to their name and all 10 of us crammed into one trailer in a trailer park community. We then moved from ghetto to ghetto. I was always embarrassed to have friends over. The springs sprang out of holes in our mix-match couches. My mom used my tattered, no longer wearable hand-me-down clothes to stuff the crunchy burlap rice bag turned home-made pillows. I also remember being 5-years-old and waiting in line to receive free food – I didn’t know it was a food pantry at the time. One year, for Christmas, I made a makeshift Christmas tree with my grandma’s left over yarn and Christmas cards that I tacked on in zig-zag formation on the wall.


It wasn’t just material things, or lack thereof, that I was ashamed of, I was ashamed of a lot of other things; we were on welfare, we used food stamps and my immigrant Asian parents didn’t understand my American lifestyle. Prom, homecoming and sleepovers were never celebrated by my parents.

Looking back, I see all my experiences -- my past as scattered dots. As an adult, more than three decades later, I can slowly connect all the dots, even the outliers. I now know that all those experiences, growing up where hookers, drive-bys and liquor stores were my every day reality, set the stage for who I am today. My gratitude for all things – material and intangible – my love for connecting with people and their stories through journalism, philanthropy, teaching career and GoInspireGo, my immigrant worker bee mentality -- all blossomed out of shame. The makeshift Christmas tree made out of cards and yarn made me appreciate the true meaning of holidays with loved ones. The food pantry experience made me appreciate food in a whole new way as I’m now a foodie that loves to break bread with friends old and new. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to think about what the rice bag pillows have taught me… I guess, the love for 800+ thread count sheets?! Lol.

These defining moments and your defining moments create our lifes’ canvas. You are give tools and some have more paint than others, but you create the strokes and the masterpiece that makes your painting – your life, so special. So I invite every situation, every feeling, every person in my life as a teacher, as a lesson.

Photo Courtesy: Vasna Wilson

Please do the same… and as Maya Angelou says, “When you learn. Teach.” I now live my life with confidence, unabashed, and unashamed.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Toan for sharing such a personal story, you truly inspire me! Your experiences shaped who you have become, and that is an AWESOME, WONDERFUL person whom I'm privileged to call a friend. :)

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  2. What an amazing story, Toan. Thanks so much for sharing. Been a while since we've seen each other, but I've been watching you from afar, and admiring your works. Keep up the good work, each your holiday season, and talk to you again soon!

    Blessings,

    Carl Sackett

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  3. Oops, I ment enjoy your holiday season. You know what I meant :)

    Take it easy, brother...

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