How We Met — Designing a New Future

Hello Readers, I’m taking a walk back and sharing with you how I met the first 10 people of the Another Door Opens project. I began with the most recent and am working my way back to the first. 

DESIGNING A NEW FUTURE

I had just come back to Chicago after about nine months of traveling and living out of a suitcase, and I was looking forward to boxing and kickboxing again with my friend Aaron.

Whenever I need to feel grounded in a new city — an experience I became accustomed to after moving around for more than 13 years for work — I find a place where I can do martial arts, boxing, kickboxing.

I’d only recently started down the path of opening new doors in the form of this Another Door Opens project, and I was eager to find the next person behind their door…. To hear their story… To ask them about their life… To share more deeply in the human experience.

Aaron knew of my project and was enthusiastic and encouraging. Then he mentioned his friend and colleague, Justin — telling me little, but emphatic that I should talk to him. I met Justin not long after and we agreed to meet again for an interview. He was 25 and making big changes in his life.

We sat on the floor at the gym, surrounded by heavy bags, and he told me his story with honesty, ownership, humility and pride. Thank you, Justin!

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How We Met — Easy Come, Easy Go

Hello Readers, I’m taking a walk back and sharing with you how I met the first 10 people of the Another Door Opens project. I began with the most recent and am working my way back to the first. 

Easy Come, Easy Go

It had been a great brainstorming session one day with a radio producer friend of mine named Kristin. We discussed some ideas about Another Door Opens. Stories. People. Doors. Experiences. Places.

Afterward, Kristin sent me an email with an afterthought. I think those are often the best emails to receive — the ones that follow a spirited, inspiring conversation, and begin, “I was thinking… and…”

She told me about the Green Door Tavern and thought it might have potential for an Another Door Opens story. I am embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of it, especially after learning of its colorful history. Once I knew a little, I liked the idea a lot. Doors are kind of fascinating to me —  some more than others.

I opened the crooked tavern door and a smile spread across my face. Even though it was coming on noon, after passing through the door, daylight dimmed and time faded away.

As I received my grilled chicken salad, I asked the waitress if I could tell her about my project. She listened kindly and with interest. She asked me to call Jeff Lynch.

Two days later, we met at 10:30am and Jeff shared his passion for the Green Door Tavern, for the people he’s met and for the memories he’s made there. Thank you, Jeff!

How We Met — Hats Off

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story.

Hats Off

It was mid-summer in the Windy City, and the urban heatwave was blanketing Chicago.

I wanted to find another door. But which one?

I decided to see where the sidewalk would take me.

Back in time and offtrack is where it took me. Or so I thought.

The plain but smart storefront of Goorin Bros hat shop had caught my attention many times and caused me to swerve a time or two, yet I don’t have a good reason for not stopping in sooner.

Inside, the big band music, ornate carpets, an aged chandelier and the caramel colored kaleidoscope of timeless hats was intoxicating.

Tanya Jaramilla, the shopkeeper,  greeted me with a bright easy smile and confirmed for me the surroundings were intended to evoke a sense of nostalgia for decades past.

Tanya answered every one of my hat-related and shop-related questions with enthusiasm, knowledge and ease.  As she gave me her business card, I asked her about talking with me for the next Another Door Opens story. She agreed.

One hour later, when Tanya’s colleague came in, I returned. We sat down on the old-fashioned sofa, and the conversation began. Thank you, Tanya.

How We Met — Where Is Home

Readers! I’m going to take a walk back and share with you how I met the first 10 people of the Another Door Opens project. I’ll begin with the most recent and work my way back to the first. 

Where is Home?

Anita Ong and I took Mandarin Chinese language classes together. At 6:30pm on Tuesday nights, we’d meet in a nondescript tiny classroom in Chicago’s Chinatown. Usually I’d speed from work through southbound traffic, past many Chinese restaurants and beyond commercial glass doors to a class that consisted of one teacher and two students: Anita and me. Our mutual friend, Z.J. Tong, founder of the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, had placed us in this class together, a chance for small-group adult language learning. Although we learned a bit about each other through our structured Mandarin dialogue, I knew only small pieces about Anita’s background.

Schedules and geography changed, and our class disbanded. More than one year later, while having lunch with Z.J. at Chi Cafe, one of my favorite spots in Chinatown, he told me about Anita’s citizenship and how until that time, she’d been stateless. With Z.J.’s encouragement, I reached out to Anita by email, and we met for lunch about a week later at the very same restaurant.  We talked about the possibility of doing an interview so Anita could share her unique situation in the form of an Another Door Opens story.

She told me after some thought that she would do it. She told me she does at least one thing each year that requires extra courage on her part, something that scares her a little or a lot, and that puts her outside her comfort zone. And so we met again. And she shared her story. Congratulations, Anita! And thank you.

Where is Home?

Even the most independent person craves a sense of belonging — within a family, a workplace, a community. It’s part of the human experience.

Seated over a cup of hot coffee in a cafe on Chicago’s south side, 56 year-old Anita Ong is thinking about country.

“I was born in the Philippines,” she says. “My parents were from China.”

She pauses.

“So! I am in between.”

Her words carry a bright tone, but her facial expression reveals resignation.  She is taking me through the past, as though we are there.

“In between” because even though Anita was born in the Philippines, she doesn’t have birthright citizenship there. Instead, citizenship follows that of one’s parents.

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In the late 1940’s, around the time Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was declaring victory over the Nationalists, Anita’s parents left China — her father first, then her mother.

“My father went to the Philippines because life was really difficult in his home town — a small rural area. And my grandparents were really poor.”

Anita is the seventh of nine children, all of whom were born in the Philippines. Along with her siblings, young Anita grew up in Laguna and Manila and attended Chinese school.

She had to be linguistically nimble.

“In the morning, we studied English lessons, and in the afternoon, we studied a combination of Mandarin and Fukienese (both Chinese dialects). At home, we spoke Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) and a little Fukienese.”

To say she was a girl without a country is not far off…

I try to think of the long-term implications of this arrangement. How does one travel without a passport from your home country? How does one answer the question of nationality? What of the question of voting some day?

School of Life

Anita shares accomplishments with humility and brevity.

“In the Philippines, I ended up in medical school. I finished, and I did my residency in pathology.”

Upon completion, rather than a license and a medical practice, Anita received some bitter medicine. Suddenly, her career path appeared to be a dead end. Or perhaps, an “in between” space. Since Anita was not a citizen of the Philippines, she could not practice medicine there.

“It was very frustrating, because when I was doing my residency, my teachers told me that I was a GOOD pathologist.” Anita hints that this was a new kind of praise, a new-found and certain aptitude.

Beyond the issues of personal identity and pride, there was a financial question that accompanied the news: How would Anita earn a sufficient living? While staying with her parents, Anita remembers thinking, “there should be something better for me than this.”

Her mother agreed and encouraged her to go to the United States.

“I had been living a very sheltered life.” Anita spoke softly now. “What would I do in the U.S.?”

Her sister was living in California, but apart from her, she didn’t know anyone.  “I would be on my own,” she reflects. “It’s sort of scary.”

USA 

Anita boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles, traveling on a Taiwanese passport.

“If a person like me does not have a passport, you can choose either a PRC (People’s Republic of China) passport or ROC (Republic of China), which is a Taiwan passport.”

Anita has never lived in either mainland China or Taiwan.

She landed in California and visited her sister in Redlands for a few weeks. She remembers those first impressions with vivid detail. “There were a lot of citrus trees. I could smell the orange blossoms, and that was wonderful. I thought it was a beautiful place.

“Everything in America seemed to be bigger, grander and brighter.”

Weeks later, she made her way to the Midwest, specifically, the University of Illinois in Chicago. There, she would repeat her residency in pathology and add two sub-specialties.

“I realized I can survive.”

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Despite cold urban commutes through dark Chicago winters, Anita felt at home — both in Chicago and in her area of medicine.

“I like details. I obsess with details!” she laughs. “Pathology has a lot of details.”

And in pathology, there is less patient contact, which also suits Anita.

“I like dealing with people sometimes, but sometimes I get shy. And sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming.

“Generally, we are in the background,” she says of herself and her fellow pathologists.

Intermingled with mention of microscopes and objective lenses, Anita says, “We have specimens. They don’t have faces, so in a way, it’s easier.”

Anita wanted to do this kind of work for many years to come.  She wanted to practice medicine in the United States.

Her superiors wanted that too.

Working visa.

Green card.

Employment.

Home.

Sort of.

 July 3, 2013

“Will it sound bad to say that I wanted to be a citizen of a country?” Anita asks me. “I wanted to be a citizen.

“Life has been GOOD to me here.”

Anita was working at the hospital when a woman called from a government office: Anita was going to be sworn in as a United States citizen on July 3, 2013.

“They usually don’t call people, but this was such short notice.” Anita is speaking faster. “She left a message on my cellphone and on my home, so it was like listening to the good news TWICE!” She is laughing now. “Actually, I listened to it a number of times!”

On July 3, Anita went to work, then left for the ceremony at around lunchtime. “I was so excited! So restless!”

In an ordinary room set up with rows of chairs, Anita estimated there were about 60 people, from about 30 countries. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke.

“Then there’s a portion of the program where they call the country.”  People from that country are to stand at that time.

“And I was thinking, ‘Should I stand up for the Philippines? Should I stand up for China? Should I stand up for Taiwan? I should stand up for Taiwan, but then, would they have a slot for Taiwan?’

“They did,” she smiles. “So I stood up for Taiwan.”

As soon as Anita’s ceremony was complete and she was a U.S. citizen, she left the room and encountered a man distributing voting forms.

“The FIRST thing I did as an American citizen was register to vote!” Anita can’t contain her excitement. She has never been able to vote in her 56 years of life. “I can have the EXPERIENCE of voting. It makes me feel like I’m doing something MEANINGFUL. It is a privilege!

Then she looks at me deviously.

“Do you want to know what my SECOND thing was?”

Yes.

“I went to McDonald’s! My second act as an American citizen was to eat a burger!” she laughs. “I didn’t get fries though. I was feeling guilty.”

She went back to work that day as a citizen of the United States. “I was showing off my certificate, and some of my friends called me.

“I was so happy! Really. I was very happy. And now, when I think of it, I can’t help but smile!”

A friend asked Anita what she wanted to do to celebrate. Nothing much. She doesn’t like crowds. They talked playfully about eating hot dogs and burgers, watching the fireworks and buying red, white and blue carnations.

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July 4, 2013

Instead, they decided to get together for a low-key movie-watching afternoon at Anita’s friend’s apartment.

“He said he needed to stop at the laundry room,” says Anita. “So we went down this corridor, and suddenly there were these people saying ‘surprise’! They were cheering!

“I was just so surprised and speechless for I don’t know, a few minutes, I was just standing there and laughing. I felt like I wanted to cry and laugh.

“It was such a heart-warming gesture. It was such a happy…” Her voice trails off and she wipes her eyes.

“There are so many people who care for me….”

Anita received symbolic gifts from her friends that day — a flag brooch, a necklace with a heart-shaped locket bearing red and blue stones, a shawl that is an American flag.

She also received a copy of the Constitution of the United States.

“One guest made copies of the Declaration of Independence and distributed them so everybody could read a portion of the document and discuss,” says Anita.

“I read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.”

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary…”

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Hats Off

When I stepped inside Goorin Bros. Hat Shop in Chicago, there were hats on every table and every shelf — fedoras and flatcaps, baseball and bowlers. There, I met Tanya Jaramilla, and not unlike the establishment itself, she wears many hats: shopkeeper, wife, sister, student.

“I’ll be the first person in the whole family to graduate from college.”

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Tanya is 32 years old and approximately one year away from earning a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Communications from DePaul University.

Tanya’s grandparents came to the Windy City in the 1950’s from Puerto Rico on the promise of steady factory work.

“For my family, it was a BIG deal to finish high school.

“For me, I always wanted bigger and better and more.”

Tanya was certain she would go to college.

“I just didn’t know when or how or what that would look like. It’s really, really, really important that I get my degree and graduate — do the whole shebang!”

If you’re doing the math, you already guessed there was a detour after high school that Tanya will tell you was worth every minute and helped her become the person she is today.

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“I have no regrets, because if I hadn’t lived the life I already lived, I wouldn’t be living the life I have now. I run this fantastic little hat shop. The people that work for me are great, and the people that come and shop here are great. I’m doing school the way I wanted to do it, which is with all my focus and energy and attention.”

Straight out of high school, Tanya worked part-time at a Gap store and was soon promoted to a full-time manager position. What had been a balancing act between work and college tipped. “I did that for a really long time. And school just kind of fell to the back burner.”

Simultaneously, Tanya was in a long-term relationship.  About seven years later, and in a cloud of mistrust, Tanya’s relationship ended in a break-up that became a total life shake-up. She changed her job, her home, her city.

“I left and went to Vegas to live for a few months with my grandma, and that was one of the best experiences I ever had. I was able to connect with her on a level that I’d never done before.  We talked about her life, and I learned stories about her struggle.

“It really affirmed for me the decision that I had made to move on and change and do something that was right for me. So when it was time for me to come back to Chicago, I came back with a cleansed soul. I felt like a new me. I felt like the me that I was trying to get to for the last six or seven years, and it just never happened because I kept letting my comfort get in the way of it.”

Tanya says she wanted to do something important. Something that makes a difference. Something she could be passionate about. She found it in a non-profit organization called the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.

“It was a little surreal at the beginning because I was so used to having to struggle. And having to overcome something.

“I started digging in. I started really working with the organization in the community.”

And she realized something.

“This is what I was supposed to do, you know? It was meant to be. I was meant to get to know these young people who have all of these aspirations but no real support or access to resources. I was able to provide that for them in ways that they never had before.”

Tanya remembers an inquisitive little girl named Susie. “She made me feel like I … showed her that you don’t have to succumb to the neighborhood that you’re from. You don’t have to fall into the traps that the community around you sets for you.

“That’s something I try to instill in my little sisters. They are young moms, and it’s a conversation that I’ve had with them over and over. You don’t have to settle.

“I was settling for a really long time.” She thinks back to that old relationship. “Once I finally broke free of that, it was really important for me to make sure they understood that their lot in life doesn’t necessarily have to be that. They can work harder, they can be better, they can do more, if they want to.

“I grew as a person from my relationship experiences, but also as a woman.”

Tanya says in her relationship, she had become someone other than who she wanted to be. “In order to fulfill someone else’s happiness, I was turning a blind eye. I was in denial. The biggest challenge for me: being honest with myself.

“Another thing I taught my sisters was that people will only do to you what you allow them to.

“If I continue to let someone treat me terribly, they’re going to keep treating me terribly. Because I’m not putting a stop to it. And I’m not ending it. It gives them the message that that’s ok. And it’s not ok.

When Tanya was 27, that year was filled with introspection.  “I did a lot of digging into myself and thinking and feeling.

“It wasn’t easy. I don’t think those moments in life ever are. But I think it paved the way for me to be the person I am today. I feel like I am much stronger. I’m more confident. I have a better view of what my future’s going to be like.”

A future that includes her new husband Sonny Jaramilla. They were married just last month.

“When I found him, I realized that all of the things that I had worked through and I had lived through … that was preparation for me to get my mind right and my head right and my heart right and my soul right, so that when he came along, I was ready.”

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It was Sonny who reminded Tanya of her dream of graduating from college. “He gave me the kick in the butt.

“He is the one who encouraged me to leave the non-profit so that I could focus on school without having to try and juggle the two.”

Tanya is not abandoning her mission of making an impact on the community. She’s investing in it through education. And going forward, she plans to find ways to give young people who are from low income neighborhoods opportunities to engage in the arts.

“I’m very urban. I’ve lived in Chicago pretty much my whole life. And I know the challenges that urban life can bring.  But I also feel like there’s some opportunity and some beauty in that.

“Everyone cannot live in Lakeview, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the neighborhood and the community that you’re in. It should still be safe, and it should still be beautiful, and it should still be full of life and creativity!”

And that is where Tanya says her future will find her.

But first, she will keep working toward the day when she dons the style-impaired mortarboard and turns the tassel from right to left.

After that, Tanya will be wearing a proud new custom hat, in a style all her own.

Designing a New Future

Do you feel like you can exhale?

“Noooooo, not yet,” is the quick reply from Justin Hughes. “Not yet.”

Sitting on the floor of a Chicago gym surrounded by a forest of heavy bags, he is smiling and energized after teaching a boxing class.

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“I still wake up nervous.” He is more serious now. “Is a bullet gonna fly past me?”

The 25 year-old trainer and amateur MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter’s expression tells you he wants to exhale, but he can’t yet.

Justin grew up in South Chicago, where street signs delineate gang lines.

“We’re raised in a war zone, you know? You gotta learn how to survive while you’re trying to pursue your dreams.”

In that order.

“Surviving is more important than doing homework or track practice or going to the library, because you can get shot going to any of those.

“As a kid, I was a punk. I used to always get beat up. I had glasses. I was skinny. And I had no big brothers.” That meant no one to help him out in a fight. “No retaliation means they’re gonna do it again. And keep doing it.”

Wherever there is a void, something enters to fill it. Guys in the neighborhood did what they could to protect the young boy Justin from the streets.

“They used to tell me, ‘Go in the house, they’re about to start shooting.’ So, you know, I used to run in the house and then hear the gun shots.

And like many boys Justin knew, he didn’t have a father in his life.

“We can talk about me not having a dad. But that’s everybody!” he says, his arm sweeping wide. “Nobody had a dad.

“So we looked up to the guys in the neighborhood. They would make sure we stayed in school. We’d get punished if they’d see us ditching.”

As Justin got a little older, the ways they protected him became less parent, more peer.

“There’d be times where we’ll be fighting with other neighborhoods, and we’ll be sent to go shoot at them, and they’ll pick certain ones like, ‘no, you can’t go.'”

Sometimes Justin was among the ones who couldn’t go.

“It’s like being surrounded by water. And you’re trying to get to another land that you see over there.

“You gotta know how to swim. So eventually I had to dive into it. I had to learn how to swim with the sharks for a while.”

Even though his dad may have been absent, his mother was fully engaged.

“My mother is strong!” he smiles. “She’s like an Army general.

“And my mother was real strict. ‘Gotta be in the house before the street lights come on,'” she’d say. “And we used to have to ask to get water out of the refrigerator,” he laughs.  “I don’t see where THAT came in…”  But he understands what she was doing.

“There were a lot of kids that were very disrespectful to their mothers out there, and I guess she was making sure we would never EVER be like that. So it was good. She raised me good.”

Tough Times and Turning Points

The influence of people outside was growing. And darker days were coming.

“I kind of lost my way around 14,15. My mother definitely didn’t want me going down that path, as you can imagine.

“I’d come home with scratches, or the police would bring me home and tell my mom ‘your boy was fighting.'”

As Justin’s trouble increased, so did his mother’s pain. He remembers her crying. He remembers her trying to get through to him.

He didn’t want to listen. But she persisted.

“I’d go in the bathroom to take a shower, and there would be a letter there. She’d write me letters and leave them where I’d find them.

“They would say things like, ‘You need to slow down, son…'”

He stopped to think about that.

“That stuff always made me cry.”

He knew she cared, and beyond that, she was also highly intuitive when it came to Justin.

“I am inches and seconds away from getting into some crazy trouble,” he remembers. “And she’ll just call my cellphone. At first I’m ignoring her. But I can’t ignore my mom, because I’m in fear of her.”

So he’d answer, and hear her voice down the phone.

“‘What are you doing? Huh? What are you doing? Get back in the house!'”

Shaking his head, he smiles then laughs. There is a hint of awe.

“My mom is THE angel,” he beams. “I’m talking about THE number one angel!”

Justin’s mom, good grades and participation on sports teams kept Justin attached by a string to hard work and honest living. But increasingly he was marking time outside of school by more brushes with the law, violence, guns, selling drugs.

Even so, he graduated from prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, then went away to Champaign for college.  He loved art class. His professors saw promise in him. A new day was beginning.

But old patterns followed Justin, and his world changed again: Felony possession of a defaced firearm.

“They gave me a two year suspension from school. There was a trial…”

And a little jail time.

Justin went home to Chicago. And back to the streets.

 Color Therapy

“I had no direction. I was getting in trouble every day. Just selling drugs and surviving. My mom kicked me out a couple of times.

It was to the point where I was like, man, I gotta do SOMETHING, you know?”

When things were on the mend, you could find Justin at home on the couch, playfully fighting with his mom over the television remote control. His mom would win.

“I was sitting there watching HGTV, and I was like, ‘Mom, this is BORING’.

“After a while, I was like, ‘They should have made the kitchen THAT color. They should have put the towel over there.’

“And one day a light bulb clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘I might actually LIKE this stuff.’

“I had started learning about colors and color therapy and how colors make people feel, and I felt art was deeper than what the mind can see.

He thought to himself, “I might need to pursue this. What does this cost?” He got on the internet and he searched.

He sought out the Illinois Institute of Art.

And he got in.

“Art school was very expensive, and you gotta get art supplies. I was applying for jobs, but they weren’t coming quick enough.

“So I started selling drugs even harder. I was out at 6:30 in the morning. I needed money.  And I used that money to buy my books and art supplies.”

It got him through. That and a lot of hard work. Across his chest, a tattoo in all capital letters reads HARD WORK. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture.

“I feel like college is a good point for finding yourself. I felt like the professors I had really helped me — the way they related the lectures and the work to life.”

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New Direction

Justin is meeting new people and developing new interests. New passions are being revealed. He has a talent for MMA and has become an amateur fighter. He wants to win a title belt. He found he not only has an aptitude for boxing, but also for teaching the sport. He is a personal trainer. Instead of selling crack, he now makes his money at the gym. He has an apartment of his own. Justin is starting to think about dreams a little more and basic survival a little less.

His yesterdays are still not far away though. When he visits his mom, he walks a fine line with some people from his past.

“When I come back, I can feel some resentment. But it’s my home.

“I’m trying to drag some of the little guys out of that life. They still look up to me. They see some of the stuff that I’m doing now. And they have seen where I came from. So they listen to me sometimes.”

Wherever Justin can find success, he plans to use it to help young people.  

In martial arts: “I want to coach kids. I want them to be the best.”  In music: “I love making beats. I want to help kids make beats.”  In art: “If I get the chance to open my own design firm, I’d like to hire some kids as interns. I want to show them there’s other things than playing basketball and rapping.

“Now, it’s not about ‘What do I want to BE’. But ‘What do I want to CREATE?'”

Justin wants to dream a bigger dream for kids than they do for themselves.

A football coach once did that for him. In his senior year of high school, Justin was new to the sport. When the team’s middle linebacker got hurt, Justin says coach Tim Franken summoned him.

“‘I want you to play middle linebacker,'” he said. Justin’s voice jumps in disbelief at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m 5’7”, a hundred and some change, soaking wet!’

“Coach Franken said, ‘I think you got heart. I see it.’

“He instilled so much confidence in me in that one sentence. ‘I think you got heart. I think you can do it.’ I swear to God, I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”

He laughs a little, uplifted by the thought of it.

His laugh is contagious and bright and transcends hardship. And it is not a laugh “an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle”, as scripted by Carl Sandburg in his raw rich poem “Chicago”. It is a laugh of joy and battles hard fought, of new horizons in view and of promise. It is a laugh that, when unguarded, vibrates with the sound of youth.

“I’m not lightly breezing through life, but I’m not fighting myself spiritually anymore.  I feel like I made it through a very rough stormy part…

“But I think I still got a lot to go.”