For today’s Schoolin’ Life installment, we’re checking in with the magnificent Charlotte Chang.
Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?
I’m a dog lover, nerd and enthusiast. I think deeply and am sensitive. I’m into things that challenge me (holistically if possible) – that is, intellectually, physically and emotionally. I spend my days taking care of my dog, Rocky, coding, and being fit and active. I value balance, patience, and growth, in the world, others and myself.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
I expected the “traditional path to success” over the coming decade….go to college, graduate, get a good job, get married, have kids, et cetera.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
Society was a huge factor in my expectations of myself. This is especially true because my parents immigrated and very much encouraged me to assimilate into American culture and standards.
Society really affected me in two ways:
1. what it means to be a woman – I learned that people considered me attractive and I was really naive thinking that those people wanted to get to know me…but they didn’t. These weren’t just guys, but also people that shouldn’t have abused their positions of authority and power. I really became shy about my physical appearance – never wearing makeup and always wearing baggy clothing.
2. what it means to be successful – I didn’t realize that I could trust myself and that good things could happen if I followed my dreams…I thought I had to follow the “safe” path…good degree leads to good job leads to American dream. I never thought about happiness until I was living the “American dream” and was miserable.
What was your first job like?
My first job was unrelated to anything I had studied for – I was a buyer for a food distribution company. The job was pretty interesting at first – mainly because of the math and logistics but I felt very unprepared in a lot of ways…negotiating job terms like salary, sitting at a computer all day, be able to express my opinion in a professional manner. But I’m really glad I did the job – it sent me down some paths that I’m still pursuing now.
Yearly, there was a company sponsored trip to Grand Cayman and also the company sponsored basic training such as scuba diver certification. This really spawned my love of diving – which, long after I left the company, led to traveling to the world diving and becoming a dive master as well as abstaining from eating seafood.
Working in the food industry exposed me to a lot of the US food industry practices – and basically the industry, as a whole, focus on profit margin rather than healthfulness. I’d recommend never eating at a buffet.
This job and my subsequent job were unrelated to my collegiate field of study – so I learned that really all you need to do is be able to show that you are smart and can learn.
Lastly, having a morning commute got me thinking about the idea of “ritual” and how we as a society don’t really have many anymore – maybe rituals escaped when communities started disappearing. I really enjoy getting a cup of coffee on the morning drive in and listening to NPR. To this day, I really value daily rituals; they can define what it means to be human.
What was your first apartment like?
My first apartment was close to campus. I did not have roommates. It was run of the mill – not dodgy and not lavish.
Did you experience any big life changes?
My 20s were a huge change. Basically, I went from accepting societal norms and being really unhappy to refuting them, trying to believe in myself and follow my own path.
I left a Fortune 50 company.
I left a serious relationship.
I started playing sports.
I left the US.
In what ways did your friendships change?
I don’t think I really had many quality friendships in my 20s. It was initially because I would never let anyone in and later because I myself was learning to trust myself and feeling so vulnerable with others that I’d chase them away. But in my mid 20s, I started working really hard to be happy and made my first adult female friend. She and I keep in touch today. It was a major accomplishment because up until then, most of my friends were guys and I knew that having female friends was a very important step to my development towards being a stable person.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
My romantic relationships in my 20s were a disaster. I was really insecure and that translated into either letting guys step all over me or choosing guys that were comfortable but not bettering/challenging/complimenting my life. (I hope this makes sense.) Looking back, I think it was because I believed I wasn’t good enough. I learned that romantic relationships are like looking in a mirror and a reflection of who you see and what you want.
How did your relationships with your family change?
My relationship with my family got better in my 20s. We never talked growing up, so it was nice to be able to explain how unhappy I was and get empathy from my parents. I also realized that my parents were and are very proud of me.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I’m not sure. Probably the way I portrayed myself? A bubbly cheerleader.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I changed a lot emotionally. In my early to mid 20s, I was really unhappy and lonely. I was suicidal. I got help eventually from a wonderful therapist who really understood that I wanted to be a strong woman with a wise soul. She understood that I didn’t want to take prescriptions to solve my problems. I wanted to understand why I was unhappy and actively work on changing myself, my ability to handle myself, my life. She was amazing and she set me on the path to feeling stronger and trusting myself. I am so grateful for her. I wasn’t done growing (as I’m still on that path) but through my 20s I got stronger. I had to fight really hard for it, though.
How did you change intellectually?
Intellectually, I started to realize that I appreciated those that were different than the status quo – people that thought differently or lived differently. The 20s for me were very much an intellectual birth. I started to embrace my inner nerdom.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
I went from cheerleader to nerd, insecure to interested, extroverted to introverted, American to Chinese-American, mainstream to critical thinker. I really started to embrace and encourage what I believed makes me special rather than what society deems special about it.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
I became a lot more aware of the misgivings of the US and what it means to be American. At some point, my dad asked me when I became so “anti-establishment.” I learned a lot about the bad things that corporations and industries do to their own employees and their own citizens. I learned a lot about what the US does to other countries and to its own citizens. I became a cynic, a conspiracy theorist and mostly cautious about anyone and any organization that exhibits and executes the power of others.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
I think nowadays “embarrassing” conjures up a story in which hilarity and laughter ensues. I can’t really think of anything like that, but I had a lot of experiences where I’ve tried to relate to others in an “American” way where the situation isn’t right for my attempt. I was embarrassed in the sense that there were expectations and misunderstandings. My parents immigrated, so they were learning English when I was but, of course not, as well as me…because they were in their 20s and I was a kid. Still, on their path to learning English, they were very direct in spoken language. And, of course, nuance and subtlety were out of their depth, let alone American humor. So a lot of my 20s was spent trying to become more American intentionally – for example, I worked at a fine dining restaurant so that I would know more about proper etiquette, wines and fine foods. I also watched and listened very carefully to others who were good at getting others to laugh – I tried to listen to their jokes. Often I got the words right, but the execution was poor.
There was a time where I tried a joke on a couple that I used to work with who were apparently having a fight but I didn’t realize it. They guy snapped around to me and told me to mind my own business, following it up with pointing out that my relationship was a mess. I can’t even remember what the joke was, nor what I did after, but I can definitely remember feeling embarrassed. There are a lot of times when my intentions are pure and good, but I am a bit clueless as to what others may be going through; it’s scary trying to be friends with people sometimes.
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
At work, I was being groomed to take on more responsibility. And I knew it. So I was given a leadership role with a small project but with a tough client liaison. By “tough” I mean he was a “bro” – sexist and a bit of a bully. He harassed me a lot and I thought that I had to take it and handle it because I was supposed to be strong and a leader. I tried to handle it on my own and ended up making bad choices for which I took the fall at work. I’m disappointed that I didn’t set up boundaries and vocalize them and I’m disappointed that my company didn’t realize what was going on and stand by my side. Lastly, I’m disappointed that I stayed with that company for years later, where they continued to put me in unsupported situations.
I wanted to be a person that could “fake it until I made it.” I wanted to be a person that could handle a “tough situation.” I wanted to be that person with “big shoulders.” It set me back emotionally for a bit, for letting myself down. I realized that being strong and reliable isn’t about being able to handle anything. Being strong is sticking up for myself and really understanding what is reasonable and what isn’t, what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not.
An idea that I worked through as a 20 something is the idea of parenting myself. Part of that is listening to myself rather than the voices of my parents. Part of that is also trusting myself. I wanted so desperately to be “the best” that I really didn’t enable myself to be “my best”. Trusting myself in the face of opposition is hard and this situation took me awhile to recover from.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
This is a hard question. And there are probably three people that I can think of that have really influenced me. They are all strong women. (Which is interesting because my mother and I have a tenuous relationship.) The three really taught me similar things but in different ways: it’s okay to be me, it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to get what I need and others are okay with it. I think I always thought I had to be accommodating to others or else I wouldn’t be liked.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
This is a hard question because I think there are ideas that get born and percolate and then some time when the opportunity arises, decisions are made with that original idea in mind. So there are probably a couple of big experiences that have shaped my life when I was in my 20s. One of the major experiences that changed my life was leaving a “safe” job with a Fortune 50 company for a smaller IT company. I remember my parents really being concerned about it – after all, I was leaving stock options and a safe future! But I was so bored with my job and the value system of the company wasn’t the same as mine. I remember senior management jokingly (but not so) referring to themselves as The Mean Girls (from the movie).
Leaving that job was a huge step in trusting myself – meaning I was veering off the “safe” and “secure” path and trusting that I could land on my feet, even if the other company wasn’t as stable. I trusted that what felt “right” or “comfortable” to me wasn’t necessarily the “recommended path to the American Dream”. It was scary, but I’m so glad I did it. With this change, I entered the “real world” of IT…and with it, utilizing my analytic skills and meeting others who pushed that thinking farther. I’m still in the IT industry to this day and from what I can tell, it’s the right place even though there are still a disproportionate number of men to women in STEM.
Perhaps it’s a little sad that the defining moment was a job, but I was pretty focused on my career. If you were to ask me this same question about my 30s, the moment, of course, would be different because the emphasis is personal growth over professional growth.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I try not to regret anything, as I feel like that borders on implying I don’t value who I am today or the experiences that have influenced me. But if I were to talk about one thing that I wish I did somewhere along the way in my 20s, I would have focused on more personal development. I am quite focused on self development, but I really wish I could have matured faster. My career has been fairly successful; however I think it was at the expense of personal development and personal relationships. I didn’t date much and when I did, things were pretty disastrous. Also, I cared about work too much and that’s a bad habit, as companies will take as much as they can from you but will never be the same as family, friends, loved ones.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
In 2007, I got the opportunity to work in Melbourne Australia for 4-6 weeks. The call came on a Thursday night; I was living in Chicago at the time and took the call in Small Bar, a local bar. They wanted me to start on Monday. I was flying out already the next day for an ultimate Frisbee tournament in LA called Lei Out, so I adjusted my flights/schedule/life to fly from LA to Melbourne. I went there and ended up staying for five years.
I hadn’t really planned it, but I wanted it to happen and I was already doing something fun. It was an adventure and there were definitely some safety nets, but I was also trusting myself to let go and see what happens.