Updated: Jan 19, 2019
Welcome to Rock The Boat, a podcast about Asian Americans charting unconventional career paths. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, creative, or someone who’s looking to break through a few ceilings, this podcast was made for you.
We’re your hosts Lucia Liu and Lynne Guey.
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 1, lightly edited for clarity:
Lynne: Thanks for tuning in and joining us on this journey and boy, has it been a journey. For our first episode, we wanted to take you back to the beginning to how this all started, and share why we think it’s so important for Asian Americans to have platforms like these to share our stories.
We’ll give you a sneak peek of some of our season 1 guests, and you’ll get to hear from some very special people -- our parents. Hope you’re ready!
Lucia: To help you understand how this project of ours began, it’s important to talk about how we were brought up. Lynne and I are both first and second generation immigrants. Lynne’s Taiwanese, I’m Chinese, and we both come from very academic families.
This meant that education and holding a professional career was the top priority. Not pursuing a prestigious career at a reputable company or getting into a top profession like medicine, law, or finance was a cardinal sin.
However, as we entered the brink of our 30s and looked back on our zigzag careers - 9 different industries, 7 different roles, and 6 different companies ranging from fortune 500s to startups to the government - we realized that we felt stuck in our day jobs. We couldn’t find resources or a network to rely on for answers about our careers.
When I listened to startup podcasts, I couldn’t find any Asian American voices, and when I looked around my network I had a hard time finding Asian Americans who were creatives, entrepreneurs, or in upper management positions at Fortune 500s. Even in the media, too often we see Asian Americans portrayed as the model minority. We’re seen as quiet, studious, and utterly uncreative. We all know that's not true.
So, Lynne and I got together to create Rock The Boat. The idea was to start a platform where Asian Americans can share their unconventional career stories, open a dialogue around the things we don’t usually talk about like mental health and civic engagement, and shed light on the plethora of professions available to those of us who are curious.
We figured with Lynne’s background in journalism and my entrepreneurial enthusiasm, this was going to be easy. Right?
Lynne: Armed with passion and determination, we decided to interview our first guests. Our parents! They didn’t have unconventional careers but we thought that by interviewing them, we could get their perspective on our project. I started with my Dad.
He’s an engineer and like many immigrant parents, he and my mom always preferred that I go the more academic, career route. Fields like law, engineering, medicine could be quantified. And my parents’ laser-focused education in Taiwan taught them to associate rigor, discipline, and prestige with these fields. Perhaps most importantly, these fields could provide a steady paycheck, unlike that of the “soft” humanities. So my dad’s career advice to me isn’t much of a surprise.
Lynne's Dad: You gotta earn your own keep. I feel in my life I try to do that…
… the other thing is to be a little more practical, down to earth
My dad isn’t much for the idealism of our age: living for one’s passion and finding one’s purpose. He received his Ph.D in risk analysis from MIT...so he weighs the risks in every scenario.
Lynne's Dad: “You can draw a decision tree and you don’t have to quantify each individual decision…I would say all accidents are preventable from an engineering standpoint. Something you can control.”
For my dad, making decisions was more like a risk management exercise than listening to your gut. So me choosing to study journalism in college was like entering the red zone…
Lynne: At the same time, for all his practicality, I think my Dad does understand the importance of following your curiosity. If you look at our garage, it is stacked with shelves and shelves of books. He's a true bibliophile. Or more precisely logophile: lover of words. When my middle sister Wendy won the National Spelling Bee over 12 years ago, the first and still only East Asian to do so, my Dad’s passion for words truly came alive.
Lynne's Dad: “All you have to do is learn one more word. If you can survive one more word than other people, then you’re the champion…”
Lynne: He became her quasi-spelling bee coach quizzing her on words. He treated it not as a rote memory exercise, but as a puzzle to be solved. With each word, there was a story to be told. A root stemming from an origin language, a part of speech, definition, context for how it should be used in a sentence. All of these were clues to be collected and then interpreted and should you interpret them correctly - you'd spell the word and advance to the next round.
Lynne's Dad: How do you do that? It takes some extraordinary effort. People who spend one hour and get this far; you probably have to spend two hours. I mean, that's just the way it is and no way around it.
There’s no royal road to “Hey, I can master this thing. Oh, I can just get into this by osmosis.” There's no such thing. I guess you have to struggle, get out of your comfort zone, and be able to struggle and figure it out yourself.”
Lynne: Last year, I left my stable job of over four years up at the City Economic Development Corporation with just a small bit of savings and no job lined up. As you can imagine, my parents were slightly bewildered. They never had the luxury to take time off. The thought of not working to them was unfathomable. But looking back to when I made my decision, I couldn't deny this gnawing feeling that I was misaligned between the life I was living and the life I wanted. In some ways, I didn't even know what that meant. All I knew was that something needed to change.
So, I freed myself from the constraints to get clear on what I wanted. It was six months of exploring a random mishmash of things: getting a yoga teacher certification, traveling to the Middle East, writing more often. I even dove into the wacky world of blockchain. Stripped of my usual identity markers, I had no other compass to follow but my curiosity.
This may sound strange, but I think I was following my Dad's advice all along - getting out of my comfort zone and struggling - because sometimes staying where you are in a job that you don't enjoy is easier than getting out of it and wrestling with life's important questions: questions about who you are, what you stand for, and what you're uniquely made to do.
I'm still figuring it out. I think we all are.
But I now see this journey to self-discovery and greater fulfillment in our work as a gift, a gift from our parents who didn't have as many choices and struggled so that we could then have a choice. And it's a gift I don't take lightly.
Meanwhile, Lucia was across the globe interviewing her parents.
Lucia: When I flew back to Shanghai, I took the opportunity to tell my parents about Rock The Boat. I recorded their responses.
Lucia's Mom: Hi. Hello, I'm Jennifer. I'm Lucia's Mother.
Lucia: Dad: Do you want to introduce yourself?
Lucia's Dad: Hi. Hello. This is Jian, Lucia’s Father.
Lucia: To give you some background on my upbringing, I feel like one of the lucky few Asians. My parents never pushed me hard to become a doctor or a lawyer. Even though I did well in school, they never pressured me in academics and always respected my decisions.
I also want to note that I am an only child and am very close with my parents. Even though they never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do growing up, I still wanted their approval.
Lucia’s Mom: I bring you to America, I just want you to have a better life, a better education.
Lucia: My parents, like many other immigrant parents, came to America penniless. My father borrowed $2000 from my uncle to come to the States for his Ph.D in electrical engineering. My mom gave up her career and her Masters degree to take care of me. She always told me her biggest regret in life was not having a career of her own. She encouraged me to find a stable job. But that morning, when she gave me her support and her blessing, it brought me to tears.
Do what you like to do. You don’t need to be like us. At that time we need to struggle for the better life. Right now you stand on our shoulders, we are your support.
At that time we don’t have support. Right now you have very strong support. I just want you to be happy. You don’t have to do something you don’t like just for the living. - Lucia's Mom
Lucia: Just as Lynne said earlier, it’s easy to go on with life slugging away at a job with no meaning, wishing or hoping things would get better.
I think my dad understands this. 8 years ago he started a technology company building sensors and lasers. It wasn’t a successful venture; there were many ups and downs, layoffs, restructures. My dad had even stepped down as CEO, but what I admired most about him was that he never gave up. Still, today, he’s fighting the good fight, raising a series A for the company. When I asked my Dad what his expectations were for me, he said:
You are our life extension. We do hope you can do better than us. A lot better than us. In every aspect. More happy, more better life, more better career, more kids.
Lynne: There’s a popular quote attributed to Sir Isaac Newton. He writes, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
For us, we stand on our family’s shoulders and because of the sacrifices they’ve made, we are able to climb higher on Maslow’s ladder to reach self-actualization.
If you haven’t heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Maslow is an American psychologist who developed a pyramid of needs that started with the most basic needs of food and shelter. The following tiers encompass higher needs like belonging and self-esteem. His theory is that the most basic needs must be satisfied before anyone can pursue the higher echelons of the pyramid. At the pinnacle of the pyramid is self-actualization.
Our parents provided us with food, shelter, education, and our basic necessities. They saw opportunity in the United States and they worked hard to obtain it.
Now that they’ve set the stage for us, it’s our responsibility to climb higher.
Lucia: After we interviewed our parents and got their take on our choice to pursue Rock The Boat, we started to assemble our Season One guests.
We even hosted a storytelling event at LMHQ to validate our idea. Inspired by the conversation with our parents, we named the theme for the event, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”. Our speakers shared stories about their upbringing, their struggles, and their journeys.
Speakers included Monica Noh who left a successful career as a fashion designer to pursue a life as a creative freelance consultant and writer. Here’s a clip from her story, in which she shares how the legacy of her father inspires her everyday to pursue her dreams:
"Only now, three years after he passed away, do I feel I’m beginning to grasp how much this man really meant to me, his outsized influence on my life’s journey. Only after I began to peel back what I thought was my personal will, my ambitions and my perspective on life, was I able to see how illusory that separation is. And while in my earlier years I had felt burdened by trying to prove his sacrifice worthwhile, that feeling has transformed into a deep respect and genuine appreciation for him as an artist, a father, a human being.
From this vantage point, I see the task of standing on his shoulders as a great privilege: the opportunity to take the baton, embrace our dual or plural natures, and take ownership of expanding our ancestral narrative. - Monica Noh, 5/1/18
Another speaker was Roni Mazumdar, a former IT consultant, turned actor, turned restaurateur. He opened the Masala Wala, an Indian restaurant on the Lower East Side, as a retirement gift to his father. Roni’s story began when he moved to the States when he was 10 years old:
The biggest shift in my life happened when I moved to the States and we thought the streets were paved in gold but it was anything but because we moved to the Bronx. - Roni Mazumdar, 5/1/18
Other speakers included Mike Lee, the former executive director of Apex for Youth, an organization with the mission of finding mentors for underserved Asian and immigrant youth in New York City; Joy Chen, the petite yet incredibly strong, city planner by day and yoga instructor by night who founded Cosmic Fit Club; Deepti Sharma, the founder of the online catering service, Food To Eat, and whose grandfather was a freedom fighter; and Caroline Shin, the host and founder of a web cooking series called Cooking with Granny.
After the event, our guests told us they were both inspired and surprised to find such a diverse and amazing group of Asian Americans charting their own paths. This proved to us that we were onto something.
Over the next few months, we continued to meet with Asian Americans who had extraordinary stories. People like Charlotte Cho, the co- founder of SokoGlam an online Korean beauty marketplace with a community of over 250K. Charlotte and her husband started Soko Glam as just a side project.
Charlotte: We were definitely passionate about starting this little side project on the weekends. And we didn't really think it would go anywhere other than just being a side project...
Or Chris Cheung, one of the co-founders of Boxed.com, a wholesale e-commerce company competing with giants like Costco. He broke more than a few rules on his path to building a $500 million company.
Chris: I valued what I could do with my two hands. I wanted to do something. I wanted to see what was possible.
Each week on Rock The Boat, we’ll take you into the minds of an entrepreneur, technologist, creative, or artist we’ve met on our podcasting journey. We ask them how they view success, what they struggle with, and what it means to rock the boat.
Ivy Teng Lei: To me, what it means to rock the boat is to do the right thing and put yourself on the line even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do to everyone else.
Roni Mazumdar: What if I fail? Who the hell cares? Fail a few times! I would rather try and fail and fail than never try at all! To me, it’s the most basic of how anything should be run.
Bob Wu: Sometimes it’s not what you view as success, but what your parents think is success. I do have that mindset. I do want my parents to be happy.
Justin Ching: Two things changed my life when I was 18. The first was that I got into college…and then really tragically, before the end of my senior year, one of my best friends took her own life.
Along the way, Lynne and I will share some stories from our own personal journeys. Our hope is that these stories can bring people together, help build a community around issues we need to talk about as Asian Americans, and open a dialogue for how we can each live with greater conviction, make waves, and ROCK. THE. BOAT.