Today’s Dame of the Day is Olivia Choong (February 13, 1979). Inspired by her interest in environmentalism, Choong founded Green Drinks, a global networking event where likeminded environmentalists gather to discuss issues over drinks. She also founded Green PR, an agency catering to small and medium sized environmentally-focused businesses. In 2013, Singapore honored her efforts by giving her the EcoFriend Award.
In today’s episode of Schoolin’ Life, we meet publisher Annie Koyama.
Photo credit: Robin Nishio
Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?
I’m a publisher of alternative comics, art books and zines in Toronto, Canada. I love working with and promoting emerging artists as well as more established artists. I am trying to curb my workaholic ways by taking at least one day a week off to appreciate nature and bad movies with my fantastic partner.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
I was probably too busy just trying to get by since I’d left home during high school. Although I had already ruled out social work after doing some volunteer probation officer work, I was hoping to find some work in the arts. I was enjoying being a set painter for the National Ballet of Canada and Canadian Opera Company.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
I was the eldest of six kids and a visible minority. There was an expectation to excel for sure.
What was your first job like?
My first job when I was of legal working age was in a women’s clothing store in a suburban mall. I certainly didn’t fit in as the store sold spongy, synthetic clothing to middle-aged women. Customers would pee in the dressing room wastebaskets and I’d have to take the wastebaskets downstairs down a long, dark corridor to get to the washrooms. I was making some of my own clothing at that time so needless to say, I never used my employee discount.
What was your first apartment like?
I left home during high school and found a roommate to rent a cheap two bedroom apartment in a mixed industrial/residential area of town. I had to take two buses to school. The two most lasting impressions were that I learned to co-exist with cockroaches and silverfish. And the local cookie factory was nearby so there was a sickeningly sweet smell to the whole area all the time. To this day, I can’t eat those cookies.
Did you experience any big life changes?
I finished University, where I studied arts, languages and criminology; then I got a chance to travel with my sister and a friend of my father’s in Europe. I discovered that social work was not for me, which saddened me, but at least I could move on. I discovered that while I am a competent painter, I was not a really creative painter. However, I got a job at the National Film Board of Canada, which turned out to be my entrance into the world of film production. I loved working in film and felt as though I had found my niche. I’ve stumbled into virtually every job I’ve had in my life. My 20s was the decade where I tried out jobs in different professions allowing me to eliminate the ones that were not for me. However, being an A-type, decisive personality and a person who didn’t want to do a job unless I could excel in it, I was pretty merciless in terms of evaluating my skills.
In what ways did your friendships change?
I kept in touch with some friends from university, but there was no social media in the 80s so some people fell by the wayside when I met new groups of friends. People moved away for jobs afterwards and it was harder to keep in touch.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
Whoo boy! What didn’t I learn? I learned that I’m good at cutting my losses in general which has helped me in other parts of my life. I often felt like the protagonist of “My Brilliant Career.” I turned down a few marriage opportunities that decade.
How did your relationships with your family change?
Growing up, I was close to several of my siblings, partly because, with six kids, we had to share bedrooms but having a bit of distance wasn’t a bad thing either.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I definitely experienced racism and sexism from an early age, but you have to begin to think about how you are going to engage with others during those instances. Being one of two female set painters and feminists in a union shop full of men was challenging but once I was able to prove myself as the job involved quite a bit of physical labor, things leveled off a bit. In North America, we tend to be viewed by what our profession or job is. It’s a narrow view and it’s always bothered me that there is more to people than what they do for a living.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
Because no job I’ve ever had was planned, I just stumbled into a variety of kinds of work. I guess you have to keep growing as you take on new challenges but I don’t recall that much changed emotionally. I feel as though I grew much more emotionally in my 30s.
How did you change intellectually?
As an avid reader and one who mostly enjoyed school, I had to continue to go from book smart to street smart. When you have the safety net of a tight family, you may be protected from making more mistakes. On your own, you fall more often but if you learn from each fall, I think you get smarter in a way that is more valuable. I still feel that you should surround yourself with people who you believe to be smarter than you in as many disciplines as possible. You can’t help but learn from them.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
As an eldest child in a large family, I always felt that I had to lead the way. I felt an affinity to the arts and figured that I’d somehow end up working in some art-related job as it was where some of my skills lay. What I didn’t notice consciously was that my organizational skills were becoming strong and that basis has served me in everything I’ve done since. I certainly became way more independent in my 20s.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
It’s difficult to avoid becoming cynical when you see injustice around you. I’m not a born optimist, so it’s really easy to become disillusioned by the shitty state of the world. Both my parents were interned during WW2 and their families lost everything they had and had to build again from scratch in a hostile environment. It would be easy to carry a chip on your shoulder after that kind of traumatic experience but, to their credit, they chose to go on with life. That kind of fortitude influenced how I try to endure the terrible things that take place in the world.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
Since none stand out, there must have been too many of them!
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
Probably realizing that I wasn’t destined to become a really good painter. That experience taught me to move on and not look back.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
I didn’t really have one in my 20s. I was certainly inspired by writers as disparate as Doris Lessing, E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima, John Knowles, P.G. Wodehouse, Fritjof Capra and John Berger. My mom was a music lover and took us to concerts even when we were pretty young, she instilled a love of music that I’m sure all of my siblings carry today.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
Maybe the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I lost many friends to AIDS related deaths. It was unexpected, confusing and unbearably sad.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I try not to look back but sometimes I wonder what would have transpired had I’d accepted a scholarship to a university arts program that was offered. I will always regret not travelling more due to lack of funds. You could travel pretty cheaply back then. I wasn’t as comfortable travelling alone then and if you waited for a friend, it wouldn’t happen.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
They’d all involve sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, so nothing original, sadly.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Junko Tabei (September 22, 1939-). While studying English literature in college, Tabei founded the Ladies’ Climbing Club. After climbing Mount Fuji and other large mountains around Japan, Tabei decided to go big. In 1975, she became the first woman to summit Mount Everest and, in 1992, became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits. When she’s not climbing, Tabei continues to champion environmental preservation.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Keiko Fukuda (April 12, 1913-Feburary 9, 2013). Growing up in Japan, Fukuda began practicing judo; her parents allowed it because they thought she would eventually marry one of her instructors. Over the course of her career, she became the highest ranking woman in the sport’s history. At the age of 98, Fukuda was promoted to the rank of 10th dan; only fifteen people have reached this level, and Fukuda is the first woman to achieve it.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Mahina Maeda. Maeda’s been surfing since she was four, but when she was 16, she became the second woman in history to ride the fearsome 30-foot waves at Nazaré, Portugal. Her ride caught the attention of Billabong, who named it the Ride of the Year. At 17, she’s spent the past year as one of 17 women touring with the World Surf League’s Women’s Championship Tour.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905-February 3, 1961). Born in Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighborhood, Wong began acting in silent films when she was 18. In two years time, she became an international sensation. Dissatisfied with Hollywood’s stereotypical casting practices, she spent half her time in Europe starring in major plays and films. In spite of the industry’s narrow typecasting and racist tactics, Wong became the first internationally known Asian-American actress.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Sheila Lirio Marcelo. Born in the Philippines, Marcelo grew up in an entrepreneurial family with stakes in the coconut, mango, and coal industries. As an adult, she attended Harvard Business School and put her skills into practice. While she struggled to find caregivers for her children and ailing father, Marcelo founded Care.com to help connect people with vetted care professionals. Today, Care.com has over 9.7 million members.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Michi Weglyn (November 29, 1926–April 25, 1999). Growing up in the western United States during the World War II, Weglyn and her family experienced the pain of Japanese internment camps firsthand. When she was released, she moved to the East Coast for college and later became the most prominent Japanese-American in theatrical costume design. Yet the wounds of internment still ached, and in 1976, Weglyn published Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. The book chronicled the government’s abuse of the Japanese-Americans and laid the groundwork for a later reparations movement.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Ai-jen Poo (1974-). As a student at Columbia University, she and 100 of her peers occupied the rotunda at the Low Library; this protest led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. In 1996, she began organizing domestic workers, helping them advocate for proper working conditions and better pay. This initiative led her to found and direct the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In addition to the Alliance, Poo’s work also centers around better care for the United States’ aging population and people with disabilities. In 2014, she became a MacArthur Fellow.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Patsy Mink (December 6, 1927-September 28, 2002). Over the course of her political career, Mink served twelve terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Upon her election, she became the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress. In 1972, she became the first Asian-American woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president. Mink co-authored Title IX, the law requiring equal funding for men’s and women’s sports at the college level.