I received a tall compliment the other day from a friend. He wrote that I was “Born to Lead.” This was in response to a post about my work in policing and as a supervisor. I read the words and immediately felt my eyebrow perk up.
My internal reaction was that I wasn’t. I wasn’t “born to” do anything. Much less LEAD.
I thought about what I was “born to” do. You know what the first thing I came up with was?
“To be afraid.”
“I was born to be afraid,” was the phrase that materialized in my mind. I cringed. How was that my basal response? Then the deluge of self-reflection commenced.
I was a scared boy. From the time I was in grade school, through the time I grew into adulthood. Continuing in the time I was in college and the time I took an oath and took the on badge. Scared. Boy. But by that point, I had taken this path as a means to prove I didn’t have to be anymore.
Part 1: Childhood
I was a shy kid BEFORE I knew anything about anything. I used to hide behind my parents as a toddler and would never talk to strangers. I wouldn’t even talk to family friends or distant relatives.
With a late autumn birthday, I was always the youngest in my class, and through grade school I was usually the smallest. I wasn’t bullied physically much, but it happened.
I was born in Memphis and lived there until I was 8. The racial demographic back then was close to 48% black and 48% white. Everybody else squeezed into those last few percentiles. Kids are kids. They are amazing and beautiful and innocent until adults teach them things that mess them up. And so by no fault of kids themselves, I felt different. I felt weird.
I hated it. I wanted to assimilate so badly. I wanted to be “American.” I didn’t want to eat different food. I wanted to look like, act like, sound like my friends at school. But the South was a place where I was “Oriental” and school was a place where you recited “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these” as you manipulated your eyelids up and down. It didn’t feel hurtful at the time; it was just a thing. My family had only other Chinese immigrant family friends as “like finds like.” I liked the kids from these families, but it was like getting together with cousins where no one was your age, everyone a bit older or a lot younger.
Moving to the Seattle area was “better.” There were a lot more Asian Americans of course, even back then. But I found there were largely two groups. First, the families who were American as apple pie. Most were several generations in and were really only Asian in appearance. The other faction wanted nothing to do with pie and held onto their egg tarts and red bean buns. I wanted to be like everyone else. I became embarrassed of things that made me different: the cultural norms, the food at home. I am ashamed to say I was embarrassed of my parents’ accents. But it was what it was.
Part 2: Adolescence
I was still extremely shy in middle school. I was a natural academic by way of my upbringing. I usually knew the answer but never raised my hand. At this age, I wanted to be a part of something. I felt a strong sense of patriotism building, and wanted to join the Junior ROTC program, but that wasn’t approved by my family. There was nothing honorable about being a soldier culturally- and they wanted me far, far away from any notion of that. I didn’t even want to be a soldier before that… I wanted to be a cartoonist!
There were few acceptable and impressive careers options. Whether you’re Asian or not, you probably know the drill: doctor, lawyer, engineer. (Heard of Jonny Kim?! If you haven’t, look him up real quick and feel awful about yourself. No but, for real, listen to his interview on the Jocko Podcast. It is awe-inspiring, chilling and phenomenal). I have doctors and software engineers in my family, so you probably guessed that I took classes in high school and college to set up for these paths. However, my lack of passion and interest led to quick trips back to the drawing board. (See- I should have been an artist after all).
Looking back, I can conceptualize why the uniform was a no-go for my family. The military was a huge turn off. My grandparents all fled Communist Mao’s China, so there’s that. In Taiwan, enlisting was mandatory and it left my uncle with unresolved post-traumatic stress injury. He started a family and moved back in with my grandparents, never finding steady work or really getting back onto his own two feet. This is shameful in the US, so I don’t think using that word even scratches the surface in Eastern Asian culture.
I often wonder why the military was an interest at that time. The kids in Junior ROTC at my school were usually ridiculed or ignored. Yet something about it called to me. I saw it as a path to be something bigger in myself and a part of something bigger. I visualized montages of running through muddy obstacle courses in camo and boots- climbing ropes and crawling under barbed wire.
Surely, that could make me strong. Surely that could make me unafraid.
For Part 2: