Space to Play

Let’s Go Back a Few Years

It was summer 2018 when I first joined the BI after 18 years working in the non-profit sector in what felt like nonstop and at full speed until my body was shutting down. At this point, living this way felt like all I knew, so when I sent out my first emails as an employee and started to get return out of office messages such as,

“I’ll be taking the month of July to be with my family.”

“I’m taking some time to rest and recharge.”

“If your message is important, please re-send in September as I won’t be sifting through all my old messages.”

I actually felt thrown every time I read one. If you’re not sure why an OOO auto-send might be jarring to me, let me put it another way.

I imagined my former colleagues wanting to kill me if they got a “I’m in Hawaii, y’all!” while they were suffering and barely hanging on.

And now that I’ve been here 3 years, I can unpack what this all was. Here are just a few questions and revelations that come to mind:

  1. What were the tacit agreements that would make these messages not work in my context?
  2. What persona(s) of mine are at play here?
  3. What systems and structures might be genuinely oppressive and what aspects do I have agency to change?
  4. I know back then, nothing felt more scarce than time.

Right Here, Right Now, Today,

I can easily say in the summer of 2021, when I get one of these out of office messages, I have a completely different experience now.

I feel happy. I am celebrating and wishing you the space to play. I don’t carry the weight of fear and scarcity but of hope and anticipation of what is to come from you all taking care of yourselves and those you love.

What we all know inside (even though we may stop ourselves is),

“Taking time for me to reset is going to get my creative brain flowing.”

“My family needs me. I want to enjoy my kids right now and doing this will make me better at my job.”

“If I fully celebrate that I’m on vacation, I can come back with appreciation and my whole self, to solve some of the biggest problems we are facing.”

We have a lot to do friends, and the crises we face day to day may even be worse than they were before.

But sometimes we need to slow down to go fast.

Many of you are on the wave of slow down at the moment and I am feeling that with you in this community and looking forward to the hundreds of out of office messages I will likely receive after this message gets shared with our newsletter.

Hoping that in the moments you do take the time, that the minutes stretch long and you are savoring each experience.

– Selena

p.s. In case you’re actually feeling left in the dust and NOT here in the spaciousness, check out this workshop we’re doing in August. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out. Happy to help where I can (now that I think I can unpack some of this stuff) or simply just to listen.

Hey Kids, Can You Name Any Asian Americans Who Have Made Significant Contributions?

Name as many Asian Americans you’ve learned about in school as you can.

Last month, I asked our kids in high school, middle school and elementary school to name as many Asian Americans they could think of that they have learned about in school. The high schooler said she has read a couple novels written by Asian Americans, but all three of them could not name a single one. All three are fans of the actor and comedian Ken Jeong and in general know about Japanese internment, and possibly the work on the railroad. But while I perused my 9 year old’s library of biographies, I realized not one of them was about any individual of Asian heritage.

This question is just a reflection on how we’ve been taught, what’s out there to consume, and not a judgment — How many can you name?

 I am Asian and can barely come up with a handful myself.

Just last year when looking for something for my soon to be born daughter, I learned about Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the teenager who helped lead a suffrage parade on horseback in New York City in 1912, and wrote an essay in 1914 about the importance of extending voting rights and equal opportunities to women. When the 19th Amendment was passed, it would take almost another 25 years for Lee herself to be granted the right to vote with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. When trying to find the corresponding “Who was…” book on Amazon to go with my son’s biography collection, searching her name brought up zero biographies about her. Only a reproduction of a book of hers published before 1923 about the economics of China…and ping pong balls.



Mabel Ping-Hua Lee,
Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service/National Archives

A couple weeks ago, the first ever woman of color won the best director award at the Oscars. But instead of simply being able to congratulate Chloe Zhao on a movie I thought was pretty distinctly American, I scrolled through social media posts claiming this was a giant win for Communism and China, despite the entire ceremony and her win being censored by China.

I couldn’t help but wonder again if any of us of Asian descent will ever be individuals. And ever be acknowledged as Americans.

When you think about the first Asians having arrived possibly as early as the 16th century, it’s kind of amazing that the unconscious bias is looking at all Asians as perpetually foreign still exists so strongly as to cause inexplicable attacks both verbal and physical in 2021. And can we remember any of the names of those attacked beyond #stopaapihate?

If there is a definition of invisibility, I’d include this at the top.

When I worked briefly in international adoption, there were some reflections that were similar, “You know that the child’s parents are not ‘China’ or ‘Korea’ but two actual individuals who had a story, right?” Do you know their names? Because I can for sure tell you in domestic and foster care adoption, you definitely think about their names.

May is Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. My hope this month is that you might find and learn about some more Mabel Ping-Hua Lees, name names, share them with your kids if you have them, and share them with us in the community.

Learning Through Community Grief

As I write this, I am watching the tragic news of the second mass shooting in a week.

While we await more news of the circumstances of this massacre, it is of course the first mass shooting that included several Asian women in Atlanta that is prompting this guest blog. Over the past week there have been times when I have felt seen and noticed, the warmth of being asked how I am doing, and from hearing the words, “I am standing with you.” And on the other, there are moments when floodgates of grief have been released, when I don’t even have the words to adequately or eloquently speak what I feel. If you’ll bear with me, I’d love to share with you some of the experiences that come to mind. 

In the past year,

Along with many others, I asked people to stop using the words “China virus” or “Kung Flu” and was mocked as being too sensitive, that it was merely a fact or statement of origin that did not perpetuate racism. I reported to Facebook a post that said all Chinese people should die, stating that we all eat dogs and are clearly evil. The official response was that I needed to distinguish between words I didn’t “like” and “hate speech.” If saying a whole group of people should die is not hate speech, I don’t know what is. I wish that was the only time I read such words, but of course after that, I never reported them again. Because to report something and be told it’s just words I don’t like was almost as painful as hearing the words themselves.


Art by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom/정 울 림

I watched elderly people who reminded me of my grandparents but who are in fact the ages of my parents be pushed and punched and beaten, and wished those images had been enough to prompt a universal call to action. So I was quite grief stricken when it felt like a mass murder was what it took to be noticed. Then over last weekend, it seemed like all the Asian reporters from every corner of the country were called forward, as if all the affiliate news stations in the country had been emailed to ask if they had any Asian reporters to put on air about this story. It felt complicated to say I felt a bit resentful while also grateful the AAPI community was getting some genuine attention.


Beyond the times this year though,

It’s like my entire life is flashing before my eyes: my embarrassment about my heritage throughout my childhood, the time I shared in a Skid Row School that I might never forgive myself for the ways I didn’t defend my father against racist things people said to him, being called a “banana” and being proud of it, the contrast of feeling not attractive at all as a child and then suddenly being fetishized from my late teens through adulthood.

I have asked myself if I perpetuated the fetishizing of Asian women in the times I was cast in film and tv shows as a Japanese geisha, a Vietnamese “bar girl” during the Vietnam war, as a double for a sushi girl at a restaurant where sushi was served on her body, and a patron at a club in Shanghai. I reflected that perhaps even I did not know that sexual attraction did not equal “not racist.” And remembered the time when an adoptive family I met who had two pre-teen girls from China confessed that they had joined a country club where their girls were not only not welcome, but they hid their existence. Adopting kids from a certain race I learned definitely does not equal anti-racist.

Around this time last year during the George Floyd protests, I wrestled with my privilege. I couldn’t recall a time I had ever worried about my safety when seeing a police officer. Among so many other things the BIPOC community had to contend with, it was clearly not the time to complain about what I was experiencing as it related to the things I “didn’t like.”

Now I am both relieved to no longer be invisible yet also afraid of the visibility. Just this morning, a medical professional posted that as he was getting his children out of the car, a random person yelled, “Thanks for the virus!”  This was someone who was just coming from putting vaccinations in arms, who was putting himself and his family at risk for over a year treating those dying from the virus. I fear that now the attention is focused more on the AAPI community that instead of protecting us, it will hurt us more.

I have some hopes.

I hope that this moment will help us see each other more, including those of us within the Asian community. I’ve actually never been in an Asian owned spa. I’ve been to others though and I can tell you not one ever had a note on the door that had to state, “No sex.”

I also wish that more people in this country knew not just the history of Japanese internment camps, but knew about other immigration experiences of the AAPI community. I didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act until my 20s, which remains the only law ever in this country to prevent a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to this country. Just today I learned about the Rock Springs massacre which killed 28 Chinese miners and burned 78 Chinese homes. And the Hells Canyon massacre where 34 Chinese gold miners where ambushed and murdered.

Finally, I have one request.

That during a time of grieving of many Americans with Asian origins from 48 different countries (operative word Americans), it feels pretty disrespectful to say, “sorry you’re sad, but China is…” One day it would be nice not to be seen as perpetual foreigners and viewed as a monolithic group that may never belong. Nothing would mean more to me at this time than starting with engaging in the conversation and learning our histories here in North America.     

In service and solidarity,

– Selena


p.s. If you’d like to join us for an informal conversation about #stopasianhate and sharing our learning, our Billions Institute team will be on Clubhouse next Thursday April 1st at 11amPT

p.p.s. Recommended reading: The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

In an epic story that spans 150 years and continues to the present day, Iris Chang tells of a people’s search for a better life—the determination of the Chinese to forge an identity and a destiny in a strange land and, often against great obstacles, to find success. She chronicles the many accomplishments in America of Chinese immigrants and their descendents: building the infrastructure of their adopted country, fighting racist and exclusionary laws, walking the racial tightrope between black and white, contributing to major scientific and technological advances, expanding the literary canon, and influencing the way we think about racial and ethnic groups. Interweaving political, social, economic, and cultural history, as well as the stories of individuals, Chang offers a bracing view not only of what it means to be Chinese American, but also of what it is to be American.