S2E11 - Grace Liaw

Grace Liaw00:00

My brother Dave, four years younger, sweet, sweet kid. I remember making fun of him. I thought he wasn't very smart. And I just thought, you know what, you're probably gonna go to community college and that, and I know that was a horrible zing.

And then years later, when I was 28, when I started to go back to my undergrad studies, I chose community college because it was absolutely the most economical option, it made sense. It was close to home, and it would start me on my path towards getting a degree.

When I started, I just thought I'm pretty sure I made fun of my brother and guess who's the one at community college now, and I have a completely different view of any of these life choices. There should be no judgment on how people get to where they get to.

Danu Poyner00:49

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Grace Liaw, who describes herself as a connector, educator and a global citizen in progress. Today's conversation is all about doing things in a different way and order than you're supposed to. It's about not doing what you're told, leaning into life's sudden twists and turns, feeling behind and taking flight, all while figuring out adulting and navigating the exciting challenges, complexity, and expectations of cultural identity.

Grace Liaw01:21

There were a lot of unknowns about getting pregnant really young. I'll just say it, I might as well. That's what happened.

When that gets thrown into the mix, you can't send that one back.

We're very individualistic in the Western culture. We talk about, this is my life, this is your life. That's your decision. This is my decision. When we think about anything that impacts one person, you're impacting everyone around you. That makes things more complicated and confusing. Not everything ends up being a choice.

Danu Poyner01:46

Grace talks about her life in two parts. Unlike most of her peers, grace did not start her undergraduate studies until turning 28. The typical path to success through college and career was up-ended when she instead chose to start a family quite young. And so the two halves are about how she left the path that had been set for her, and how she later came back to it in her own unique way.

Grace Liaw02:09

I was in survival mode. In actually starting school again, and then trying to grow my career, I always feel like I'm behind and I hate being behind. I have something in my core that has to do with getting out, being able to fly, not wanting to be confined. I want to be somewhere where others are or where I'm told not to go.

Danu Poyner02:33

Grace has a true teachers' passion for education. And like many true teachers has bristled against the constraints of the school system. After finally fulfilling her dreams of being a teacher. Grace taught in New Jersey public schools for a couple of years where she realized that public education was not for her.

She has since held many different roles in and around education, including living and working in Shanghai, China for six years in various private schools. Today Grace lives in New York and works at Quantic School of Business and Technology, where she designs and hosts events, creates experiences and builds relationships with global students.

Grace Liaw03:09

They tend to be curious. I wanna give them what they want, which is usually to meet other people, to talk about things that matter to them and providing time and platform. That's our version of playground now.

Danu Poyner03:20

As usual, this is a conversation that goes on all sorts of tangents while being packed full of surprising substance throughout. We talk about getting tattoos in an Asian and Christian family, teaching in the public school system. The return on investment of different life choices, competing with your kids and why women need to lift each other up.

Enjoy, it's Grace Liaw coming up after the music on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.


Hi Grace, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Grace Liaw04:13

I'm doing well.

Danu Poyner04:15

Fantastic. Very glad to hear it.

You describe yourself as a connector, educator and global citizen in progress.

You are currently the program experience lead at Quantec school of business and technology, a virtual business school, where you design and host events, create experiences and build relationships with global students. You're a qualified teacher with experience in public and private schools from New Jersey to Shanghai.

You have a qualification in human ecology and family studies, and you also have a bunch of interesting hobbies, including birding, bread making, and a love, hate relationship with running. What's the most important thing for someone to understand about you?

Grace Liaw04:57

I definitely am someone who is quite curious in general about almost anything. And I don't know if that comes from getting bored easily or wanting to know something new or not being able to sit still. Ever since I was little it's I want to be somewhere where others are or where I'm told not to go. I'm always looking to connect with something, someone, or some place. And that is a constant driver for all the things that I do.

Danu Poyner05:30

Well, that's a great answer. And I already need to ask you about where is the most interesting place you've been, where you've been told not to go.

Grace Liaw05:38

So when I was about probably 3, 4, 4, 5 years old, I remember this very vividly.

I was at a relatives house, family party, get together. All the adults were eating and chatting in the backyard. The kids are doing other things that kids do. So, me and my cousins. Everyone was older than me. They were probably only four or five years older, maybe not even.

I was the youngest one in the group of three or four children just putzing around. And I remember being outside and on the sidewalk of a road. Very nice suburban neighborhood. And across the street was a lemonade stand that I guess the neighbors set up and my older cousins were all across the street and I was the youngest one.

I am definitely sure my parents told me don't cross the street. The street was probably not even that big, but it looked like an ocean across the way. I just kept wanting to be where the big kids were and be where the lemonade stand was.

I'm not sure if it was a lemonade stand that I wanted, or I just wanted to be part of the big kids crowd. I definitely knew I wasn't allowed to cross the street. My parents weren't watching, so I found myself across the street somehow. I crossed the street. I didn't get hit by a car. I do have a vague recollection of being hunted down by my parents because they realized that I was no longer where I was supposed to be and being scolded for crossing the street.

That is probably the first concrete memory that I still have today of me disobeying in the my parents, but me pursuing what I wanted to pursue, because I thought there were better things for me. At three or four years old, it was pretty interesting to cross a big road and get lemonade.

Danu Poyner07:19

What a great story. So is it one lemonade stand after another, since then?

Grace Liaw07:24

Yes, I'm going to write that down. It's just been a life full of lemonade stands.

Danu Poyner07:29

I can't wait to hear about all of those. I need to ask you something about birding. It's not a term I've heard before. Is there a difference between birding and bird watching?

It sounds a lot more active, like you would seek out birds rather than just identify them when they come past or something. Is that what you're doing?

Grace Liaw07:48

I almost feel like it's bird noticing. It's not watching because birds don't stay still long enough for you to really watch them.

I am just starting to scratch the surface of this hobby, which is very much a lifelong pursuit for people who are really into birds because there's so many species. We all have birds where we live, which is also very cool. I hear them every morning, but you just don't pay attention because they're in the background. But once I had that first conversation with my colleague, I started to look into it a little bit. And then of course, I ended up down a rabbit hole of what bird watching is.

And I went on a bird watching tour and I learned two more species than I ever knew for my first four or five decades of my life. So then I started to notice things. And I realize, oh, not only are there birds everywhere, but there are more species of birds than I ever paid attention to.

Danu Poyner08:43

We're off to a good start. Normally, I would have to discover a framing device for the conversation as we go along, but you've already given me one with lemonade stand and I've heard you say you've gone about your life in reverse compared to your peers with family and children coming first and college and career was something to come back to later, if at all. It's quite a departure from the usual playbook for a lot of Asian American or migrant households. What can you tell me about that?

Grace Liaw09:13

For sure, just in the most basic way, it's the reverse. When I think about what it is that families and parents and caretakers care about with their next generation, the long goal is always that our children can provide for themselves and thrive; have a good job, all of that. I can't speak for all cultures around the world, but I know that for Chinese families, for instance, so I'm Chinese American, Chinese families, east Asian families. Education is first because that's the key to supposedly unlocking success for the future, that will set you up, that will equip you for all the things that you need to provide for yourself, provide for your family. Provision is a very important theme in Asian families and I'm sure many other cultures. So for my family and many of those families whom we grew up around and with, it's just a no brainer that you move up and through the path of education and through the stages as you need to, primary school, middle school, high school, college, and university. It never crossed my mind not to go, but I only realized much later in life that not everyone gets to go, not everyone has access to go, but it was always understood and seen and witnessed that all the people I grew up around everyone went to study higher education because of this path that everyone understood to be the one to be successful. Our parents' generation and many of those folks, they worked their tails off to come to the states to gain what they thought was a high quality education to do all those things.

As children of immigrants, it was just the norm that we would all do this sequence of life. When I got to that point and I was 18, 19 years old, things changed and things happened and life just takes a turn. And before I knew it, I was taking the family route instead and left college.

My then husband and I, well, we weren't even married at that point. It was a sharp right turn and pretty big shock to the system. We kept that path and we just changed plans suddenly. And so that set the new trajectory for us. I think that's important to tell because people would wonder, why did you do it differently?

Well, it, it wasn't quite planned. But even as plans change, then we have to go with it and keep moving forward. Therefore, children happen first. School had to be put to the side. Something else we inherited from our parents' generation and our culture really is the sense of responsibility.

If new responsibilities come your way, you pick it up and you live up to those responsibilities. So that set me on a completely different path. We went forward with it and we just kept moving forward. The momentum never stopped. It was just a change in direction.

So now looking back, it just looks like a picture of something flicked. We continued on that path until it was the right time to consider whether education is still on the table as an option.

Danu Poyner12:17

It's quite clear how you've made sense of that time in your life now, but I imagine at the time it was pretty momentous and less clear and I'm wondering, was everyone with you?

How were you experiencing that right turn at the time?

Grace Liaw12:31

It was hard. Even as I say those words, it was really hard. It's three, four words but it definitely does not capture what was going on in that time for our lives at such a young age. It's set certain things in me that will be irreversible and I can trace a lot of things back to that time of my life, because of the young age and because of being at a certain crossroad when you're very soft in the underbelly and you're just young, you don't know. 18 is legally an adult. That doesn't mean anything, but you look like you're old enough to make decisions. But it's also all those around you who are also not ready to make certain decisions or think about certain things.

In the modern world, we talk about, this is my life. This is your life. That's your decision. This is my decision. We're very individualistic in the Western culture, I'm talking about the us for instance. When we think about anything that impacts one person, you're impacting everyone around you. I think that complicates any kind of life decision or life happening everything is a decision, not everything ends up being a choice.

Life events will impact a lot of people and that makes things more complicated and confusing.

Danu Poyner13:42

I like what you said about taking responsibility and that sounds like a moment of clarity. That this is something that's happening and now I'm going to accept it as a responsibility and clearly March forward in this direction.

Grace Liaw13:58

I think when people are stressed and under a lot of pressure or there's adversity, we will probably subconsciously grab onto the thing that we know. What I did know, and I know David, my husband at the time, what we both knew when we were young is we knew how to be responsible because we were taught that from very young. There's certain things hardwired into us from our upbringing that were natural.

Those things did make sense. It was probably very important at that time when there were a lot of unknowns about getting pregnant really young. I'll just say it, I might as well. That's what happened. We became pregnant while we were in college.

And when that gets thrown into the mix, because you can't send that one back, in order to make sense of trying to make a decision on that, then what was familiar was, okay, well, what's the responsible thing to do. What's the right thing to do. If there is a right thing to do. so Then we think about, what do our parents do?

What are they good at? They're good at providing and doing things that are sensible. We just had to manage what seemed like an unmanageable situation with the few tools that we did have already.

Danu Poyner15:02

Did that approach cost you, not just materially, but in terms of social relationships and things at the time?

Grace Liaw15:09

Most definitely. We had to just fast track, responsible adulting. We had to grow up so fast in some areas of our life, at the exclusion of others. Once you become a parent, your social circle either becomes other parents or actually blocks out a lot of your previous relationships. For us, it was a really obvious change in our social network because all of our friends were in college or starting their first job. Almost all of them were just single and doing the thing that young people do.

And we immediately became isolated because we were raising children and working at the age of 19, 20, 21. That naturally changed friendships. There wasn't social media back then we were still using landlines back then.

So you didn't see people. And there were no zooms. But even more than that, just to see the psychological and emotional separation for everyone else, because we suddenly became so different. And anyone who had children our age were like 10 years older than us. That created a divide as well. I think we also just felt self-conscious or we felt sensitive or are we gonna be judged?

There were just all of those things I think that also naturally pulled us away from socializing. That has long term implications. You have to socialize a puppy right in the first couple months.

And if you don't, that's it that's my dog, my dog does not know how to get along with any dog because we didn't properly socialize her.

Danu Poyner16:40

You mentioned how everyone's on the same trajectory and how you someone who likes to be where others are, and this experience seems isolating, just that sense of being out of sync with everyone can't be easier.

I'm guessing a knock to your confidence about coming back to college and career and those things as well. How were you experiencing that?

Grace Liaw17:03

I do wonder sometimes now, decades later, how I would've been different if things were different.

I've been thinking about confidence and self worth, all of those things. I think I've always projected myself as confident. That little Grace, crossing the road, she was reckless, definitely confident, confidence based on, I don't even know what, like I'm just gonna go.

I think that's definitely part of me. And somewhere along the years, I think it's quite normal for a lot of us to lose footing on our confidence and question ourselves. The life circumstances around my late teens and early twenties, definitely shook my foundation more than it would have if life took on a more quote unquote normal route.

But I think I manufactured a lot of confidence through that time. I was in survival mode. In actually starting school again, and then trying to grow my career. I always feel like I'm behind and I hate being behind. I like to do the thing that I'm told not to do. So, it's pretty complicated and I'm still trying to figure it out. I think the core of who I am hasn't changed, but the layers and the shells and the versions of me have evolved.

I'm not as confident as I think I am sometimes. Isn't that an imposter syndrome? Isn't that what we all talk about?

Danu Poyner18:21

I think so. It's quite a complicated thought.

I'm not as confident as I think I am. Let's talk a bit about the reentry into college and career then. you describe your life in two parts, and I think that clear division is interesting in itself. I'm wondering if you could explain, when did the second half start for you and what drove that.

Grace Liaw18:43

I think there are at least two layers to us. There might be multiple. If we imagine my emotional self as on one track or one layer, and then my external self, I guess, the one who gets up every morning, the one who types away at her computer, the one who's getting a job. Between my two selves in the same person, I think the adulting part of me, because I started very early, I reached a certain point in that sooner than a lot of other people. I think I hit my midlife in quotes, probably in my early forties or thirties.

I thought I was mature. I thought I had done everything. And I think that one was in some ways ready for the second half of life, whatever that meant. But I now know that there was another part of me that didn't catch up yet, which is the emotional self.

She was very far behind because of starting early in life and not having a chance to grow up in certain ways. There were some parts of us that never saw the light of day that never got to socialize properly.

Never got to understand what it's like to interact with people in an emotionally healthy way. That part of me has taken much longer to catch up, but now, I'm kind of midlife. I feel like the two selves are a little bit more aligned now.

Even a few years back when I started to use that first half, second half of life description, it was because I read a book by Richard Rohr called Falling Upwards. Rohr is a Franciscan monk, like a modern day monk. That was where I had the first understanding that there is a first and second half of life us. Mostly emotional and spiritual, but practically speaking as well. So ever since I read that, I started to think about it a lot and picture my life, what was my first half like, and what will my second half be?

Now I think about it all the time, because I think I finally caught up a little bit and I think I actually cleanly look to my second half of life, career, relationships, relationship with myself. What's my half of life going to be, my contribution to the world, all of those things.

Danu Poyner20:48

You went to community college at some point and I would have guessed that would be a moment, but I imagine there's some context around.

Grace Liaw20:58

Yes. Going to community college, first of all, was never in the plans. It was not an option when I was much younger, say 10, 12 years old.

I have three younger siblings. The one right after me is my brother Dave, four years younger and sweet, sweet kid. And I remember making fun of him. I guess, for a second, I thought he, wasn't very smart. And I just thought, you know what, you're probably gonna go to community college and that, and I know that was a horrible zing.

And then years later, when I was 28, when I started to plan and go back to college or start my undergrad studies. And I chose community college because it was absolutely the most economical option, it made sense. It was close to home, and it would start me on my path towards getting a degree.

When I started, I just thought I'm pretty sure I made fun of my brother and guess who's the one at community college now, and I have a completely different view of any of these life choices. There should be no judgment on how people get to where they get to. I think the first half of life I had multiple chapters. That would've been a moment of realization that, wow, it's taking me this long just to start something that everyone else did 10 years ago, but also, wow, I get to do this now. There's always two sides to all these coins where there's a positive and a negative. So that was a great time for me, that set me on a really nice trajectory to what felt like reclaiming lost time, lost opportunity.

I don't know that community colleges are the same, or if there are community colleges in all countries or junior colleges. But they are just like mini universities.

They are usually two year programs. They are tertiary courses and programs and degrees. I registered and I started taking part-time courses. I was very practical, very pragmatic at that time. I had been parent for many years When you're raising a family or just living with a family, one of the first things is like, can I commute there? Is it going to be expensive? Is the facility nice? It ticked all of those boxes. But what made it a really great experience? It was just like any school, it was because I was ready. I was sitting at the front of the classroom. I didn't care. In high school you would never sit in the front of the classroom You just didn't do that. But at the age of 28, it didn't matter to me. I was there for the education. That's an adulting choice. Once you make a choice like that, it's bound to be a good experience because I chose to do it. I just soaked it up. I felt great about it. It was my choice. It didn't cost a lot. It was a great return on investment.

Danu Poyner23:39

This is a phrase I hear you use a bit, return on investment, which I guess is connected to what you were just saying about being very practical. Is that how you think about the chapters that you go through?

Grace Liaw23:51

In order to gain education and knowledge, you do have to spend money, tuition time.

When it comes to those things that you can see that are very tangible, it is easy to use that framework of, was this a good use of time and money?

My whole undergrad studies, including the community college portion, which was the first two years after which I decided, okay, I can now go ahead and transfer to a four year college and get my bachelor's. I was hesitant at first, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to finish. That's another reason why I did the community college because I was scared that we wouldn't have enough money or what if I didn't like it, or if I couldn't commit to it. Once I decided that I wanted to complete my bachelor's degree, I also went about it in as practical a way as possible.

I applied to a university, not very far. Not one I would've chosen when I was 18. I would've wanted something more prestigious, or with a bigger name, which is silly, right. I applied and I applied for a scholarship. I did my entire undergrad studies spending maybe 10 to 12,000 us dollars, which in the us is hard to come by. It was still a lot of money for us, but it was great. And I'm really proud of it. I love talking about it. I'm like, you don't need to spend a hundred