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What it means to belong (part 1 of 2)
We talk a lot about Belonging in context of Diversity/Equity/Inclusion/Belonging (DEIB), but what does that look like if I reflect on my experiences?
Hi everyone! I’m really excited to jump into this week’s topic. I’ve been working on this post for a few weeks and have shared it with a number of friends for their input. This is probably the single topic that I am the most passionate about – for two reasons:
I think belonging has been a critical part of my success so far.
I have seen so many instances where a lack of belonging has hurt professional prospects for others who come from similar backgrounds to myself.
I wanted to dive into a number of personal stories so I’ve divided this into two parts between this week and next week. In case you aren’t already subscribed, hit the button below so that next week’s post lands right in your inbox!
Before I dive in, I want to reiterate that I can only speak to my experience.
Over the past few months, DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) has been a large area of focus for us at work. As part of that, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my own experiences as an Asian-Canadian female. As I think back on the formative moments in my personal DEIB journey, I think it breaks down into a few chapters.
Growing up blissfully (?) unaware of difference
Growing up, I was rarely ever the only Asian – let alone East Asian – in a room. I have distinct memories of being in kindergarten and speaking Chinese with some other kids. I remember the first time I was the only East Asian person in a room – third grade, when my class primarily comprised South Asians. Throughout high school and college, I was always surrounded by many other East Asians so I truly never felt that I stood out. When I heard people talk about their experiences as a minority, I logically understood it but it never resonated at a deeper, intuitive level.
At age 23, a rather delayed awakening to my differences
The first time I ever really took note of standing out was during my first full time job. I worked in Management Consulting at Bain in San Francisco. Granted, the San Francisco office actually had and continues to have a pretty large number of East Asians. I never felt super isolated – particularly after Asians at Bain was founded (more on this next week).
However, there was one particular project I was staffed on where I was the only non-white person on my team. I had never experienced this visceral awareness of difference until this project. Certain things I remember include being the only one who wanted noodles for dinner one night when we were traveling to our clients, having this super contentious debate about why I didn’t just hire a cleaning service to clean my apartment (everyone insisted it was a better use of my money - “did I consider how much my hourly earning potential is vs the cost of paying a cleaner?”), being silent during conversations about the gym / working out / other sports, and sometimes skipping over parts of my weekend when we were catching up, if it was going to take too much explaining to be understood.
Thinking back, I often felt anxious about having to spend extended periods of time with the team. I was pretty comfortable with the work itself and enjoyed working, but anything that was social – whether it was lunch together or team dinner while traveling, or even just having conversations while in transit – made me feel increasingly distant and alone. At the time, I didn’t quite pinpoint what it was that made me feel that way. I just knew that being around the team felt like work and it never quite felt like I said the right things or was truly part of the group. (All this said, it is important to note: I have true friendships with a few of the people on this team even today. I genuinely don’t believe that any of them had bad intentions.)
I did two things during this period of time to try to fit in more.
The first one was convincing my husband (boyfriend at the time) that we should hire cleaners. He was very skeptical, as we split the chores and generally keep things pretty clean at home. We hired cleaners one time as a result of my campaign and then promptly concluded it didn’t feel worth it to us. (I will caveat that at the time, we were barely a year out of college and there were relatively few demands on our time outside of work. I can understand how the calculus on this may change as you introduce kids or other commitments into the time mix so I’m not saying that we’ll never find hiring cleaners worth it.)
The second one was learning how to go get my nails done. This is something that I think about to this day. The other women on the team often talked about getting their nails done and would go on manicure dates together, and I felt at some point that perhaps this was the new golf, but for women. (I feel like a lot of people’s parents either encouraged their kids to learn to golf or talked about golf as this golden ticket into white society / success at work, though today this feels a bit outdated to me.)
The context that I have to provide here is that growing up, my parents were pretty strict and didn’t let me paint my nails very often. If I did, it was always done at home. My mom is not someone who frequents any sort of spa / salon and so I’d never grown up going to get my nails done. The majority of my haircuts were done at home or in the kitchen of a lady who ran a hair salon out of her house.
When I decided to “learn how to get a manicure,” I was super nervous.
I researched a ton of places in San Francisco and finally picked one that was well reviewed. I showed up and bravely told them I wanted a polish manicure (not gel, because then I’d have to pay extra to get it removed). It felt like being five years old again when my parents told me to go order for us at McDonald’s: “Speak loudly and clearly so the cashier can hear you.”
The manicure part itself wasn’t anything too surprising, but I have a distinct memory of being left in a chair for the polish to dry and (gingerly) texting a friend of mine frantically, “Do you know how long I have to sit here and wait? When can I leave? Will they come tell me I can go?” I truly had no idea how any step of the process worked. I was so nervous about doing something wrong or outstaying my time in the chair. When it came time to pay, I fumbled to get my credit card out of my wallet with my newly painted nails. I didn’t know that it’s a good idea to take out your payment card before the manicure so it’s easily accessible afterwards. (Nowadays, I do that when I remember. 10/10 would recommend.)
When I got home, I was so exhausted from the whole ordeal but I felt like I had just gone through this rite of passage. The thought that had haunted me leading up to this was “What if someone more senior at work invites me to get manicures one day and I make a fool of myself there and they think I’m incompetent?” Now that couldn’t scare me – at least not as much.
To be continued next week…
I was 23 years old the first time I felt like I didn’t belong. I generally felt quite anxious about socializing in this group where I didn’t feel understood. In an attempt to fit in more, I tried hiring a cleaner for my apartment and got my first manicure. Next week, I’ll talk about how I learned more vocabulary for how I felt and started to find my own identity.