Category Archives: personal

Balance and mental health

COVID-19 has made me pretty unhappy lately. I’m trying really hard to stay balanced, so I wanted to say all of this to make sure I have something to read later.

Back when I was in university, I was in a pretty deep spiral of anxiety and depression. I kept getting advice around that time that I should practice gratitude and positive thinking; for example, I should write down a list of all of the things I’m grateful for or all the ways that I’m privileged. That advice was infuriating to me. I lashed out at a lot of the people who gave me that advice and told them off for being insensitive because my mind was in such a bad state that I couldn’t think of anything positive or anything I was grateful for. At that time, I really wanted to say, I can’t stop thinking about dying all the time because I don’t want to have any of this life, so stop telling me to be grateful for the things that are hurting me.

I still think telling a person with depression to practice positive thinking is pretty insensitive and unempathetic. I don’t give that advice to people because I know how it made me feel even worse.

I switched to a new therapist a little while after that period of time in my life and her office was in Palo Alto. I started having to take a ~20 minute bike ride off campus to her office (I rarely left campus otherwise) and I started noticing things like children playing in the streets, or how beautiful it is that Palo Alto is covered in trees. Biking under the shady streets with light streaming through the leaves and blasting “Cool For The Summer” on repeat made me feel at peace. I didn’t really notice all of those small things before. I started feeling better and I guess now I’m here today.

I was talking to my therapist (the same one!) a few weeks ago about this period of time in my life and I said that I was scared because I couldn’t figure out the difference between the me of today and the me who was dangerously depressed. The me of today still feels anxiety and depression sometimes, but generally I feel really happy when I get to enjoy the small joys of life, like drinking a cup of tea or looking outside my window at some trees or doing some stretches. The me of today totally gets what it means to practice gratitude and positive thinking. I was scared of becoming like my old self again because I hadn’t ever found a “solution” for explaining what I felt or answering myself for how to get out of my depressive spiral. What was I going to do if one day, looking at some trees made me feel worse instead of making me feel better?

I think it’s some kind of engineering personality problem – I really was worried because I thought, if I was rational back then and I’m rational now, then it is impossible for me to have the same experiences and have such different reactions. Depression isn’t rational but I somehow am still convinced that my depression mind wasn’t wrong.

I’m writing all of this out to finally conclude with my therapist’s answer that relieved my fears. She said that years ago, I had spent too much time being out of balance with my mental health. There are small things people can do to keep their minds in balance (not overstimulated with too much joy, and not too much depression). For me, it’s keeping a routine, maintaining sleep/hygiene, and staying socially connected (against my own tendency to self-isolate). In my regular day-to-day, doing those things can help me maintain my energy levels and help me bounce back from smaller bouts of depression. But back then, I was so far off balance on the energy spectrum (extremely depressed) that I was lashing out at the suggestions that I do these small things to make myself feel better because they really weren’t working anymore to keep me balanced. The difference between the me of today and the me of back then was all of the months before that point and how much I was taking care of myself. I don’t know a lot about biology, but now I think of it as like, maybe my brain chemistry was thrown off and needed to reach healthy levels of “brain chemicals” to function properly. (This is a metaphor, not real science.) Now I know how important it is for me to have a toolbox of ways to keep myself balanced regularly because of how difficult it is to bounce back once it’s too late.

I know some people will ask how I “snapped out of it” if I’m saying that nothing was making me feel better at that time. I want to answer to give people who are in these shoes some kind of an answer, but I don’t really want to dwell on it, so all I will say is: through some intervention from friends, therapy, antidepressants, sleeping for about 72 hours straight, and withdrawing from some classes, I came out on the other end of that situation. It’s not glamorous or reproducible, but that’s what happened. I’m really grateful after all.

Japan 2020 trip notes

Over Christmas/New Years, I went to Hakone, Tokyo, and Hokkaido. I posted a ton of pictures on social media and got some messages from people saying they wanted to visit the places I went to.

I dumped all of my links into a table below so you can sort by location/type and plan your own trip. Below the table, you’ll also find my rough itinerary.

Name Type Location Notes Tweet
Yumoto Fujiya Hotel Hotel, hot spring Hakone
  • Booked on hotels.com
  • Less than 5 minute walk from Hakone Yumoto Station
  • Great onsen with indoor and outdoor bath
Owakudani Sightseeing Hakone
  • Overall pretty cool area, active sulphur vents were interesting and I love taking cable cars
  • The black eggs boiled in hot spring water were not worth it! They tasted like regular boiled eggs
  • Not recommended for people with respiratory issues due to sulphur
Valley

Egg

Hakone Yuryo Hot spring Hakone
  • There is a frequent free shuttle that takes 5 minutes from outside of Hakone Yumoto Station.
  • You can reserve private baths by the hour!
  • I’ve heard this place gets pretty busy on the weekends; I went on a quiet weekday, so I got lucky and was able to book a private bath on the spot. I think normally people should make reservations ahead of time.
  • I got the type 1 private bath for 2 people for one hour and paid an extra fee to have access to the rest of the facilities too. I saw some pictures online of the larger private baths and they looked pretty luxurious.
  • They have a great sauna there with something called “Loyly service” – someone comes every hour and fans steam onto you. It was unbearable for me but other people seemed to enjoy it.
  • They have a restaurant where you can charcoal grill your own food.
Private bath

Charcoal grill

Naokichi Food, restaurant Hakone
  • Naokichi is famous for yubadon (tofu skin rice bowl). Their yuba is made with Hakone hot spring water!
  • They have an English menu
  • To join the queue, you have to put in your info on a Japanese-only kiosk and you’ll receive a number. The tablet shows which number is next, so you can kind of keep track of where you are if you don’t speak Japanese
  • There’s only 3 options on the menu – tofu omelet, or tofu omelet + other tofu dishes, or tofu omelet + other tofu dishes + drink/dessert. You should definitely order the combo (#2 or #3) – the tofu “sashimi” and the soft tofu are incredible.
  • I don’t like yuba that much, but I still really enjoyed this place!
Food
Chimoto Food, cafe Hakone
  • You can get a beautiful, proper bowl of matcha here (hand whisked, no milk or sugar)
  • The cafe has a great atmosphere
  • They also serve traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) and have some seasonal options. You should get their mochi (yumochi)
  • They have a shop next door where you can buy their sweets for takeaway
Food
Hatsuhana Soba Food, restaurant Hakone
  • Soba made with grated mountain yam from Hakone!
  • Very very popular – go right when they open if you don’t want to wait too long
  • It was definitely tasty soba, but I’m not sure if I could tell the difference between it and other soba
nana’s green tea Food, cafe Tokyo (Shinjuku LUMINE EST)
  • I didn’t realize this is a chain – they even have a location in Singapore
  • Glorious parfaits
  • Not a great simple tea selection – ended up with a sweetened green tea latte
  • Their food selection was nice but nothing mindblowing – I had a salmon rice bowl
  • Disturbingly noisy. I was stressed out just from sitting there because the place was jampacked with young people talking loudly at every table
Food
Maidreamin Food, maid cafe Tokyo (Akihabara, Shinjuku)
  • My travel companions wanted to see a maid cafe so we randomly picked this one right next to Akihabara station.
  • I realized afterward that it is a large chain, so you shouldn’t go here if you want to support a smaller cafe.
  • It’s kind of pricy. Food is mediocre as expected. You can pay for a performance, which is nice.
Parfait
Coco Ichibanya Food, fast food Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Coco is a huge fast food curry chain. I love it and had it multiple times.
  • Personally, I like chicken katsu much more than pork katsu. I also liked it with a spicy level of 2-3 out of 10. I tried 5 and 8 spicy off of my friends’ plates and it was unbearable.
  • They have all-halal locations!
  • If you want katsu, say “katsu”. They have fried chicken on the menu as a totally different item (more like karaage) so you should be clear what you want when ordering.
Curry
Ichiran Food, fast food Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Ichiran is probably the most famous ramen restaurant in Japan. I recommend going during off hours (e.g., find a 24/7 one and go at 6am when you’re jetlagged).
  • My preference is strong both, light richness, lots of garlic, extra green onions, egg, extra chashu, 0-2 spicy.
Ramen
Junisoh Food, omakase sushi Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • Junisoh is inside of the Hilton Tokyo (Shinjuku) hotel. I found it by searching for highly rated sushi restaurants on Tabelog (Japanese restaurant review website) and looking for places with online reservation forms.
  • The online reservation system is great!
  • The omakase was reasonable priced and quite nice. I recommend the 8 piece nigiri set. My group went with the 9 piece + sashimi and we were way too stuffed.
  • I recommend this if you’re looking for good omakase but procrastinated on making plans and need to book a place online.
  • I don’t recommend this if you’re looking for a place where the chef speaks English. (There are multiple sushi chefs though.)
Sushiro Food, conveyor belt sushi Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Sushiro is the biggest conveyor belt sushi chain in Japan. If you’re looking for a great conveyor belt experience, I recommend it.
Hedgehog Cafe HARRY Animal cafe Tokyo (Harajuku)
  • They have otters, groundhogs, hedgehogs, chinchillas, and rabbits
  • You get to sit with a chinchilla in a basket on your lap – they are mindblowingly soft
  • The two otters are just okay – you can feed them and touch their paws from a hole
  • It was kind of expensive (I think around USD$30 for one hour, includes two drinks)
Animals
Penguin Bar Animal cafe Tokyo (Ikebukuro)
  • This place was pretty depressing – it was a regular smoky bar with a cover charge and crappy drinks with penguins in a tank/cage near the back
  • I did get to feed the penguins though
  • I wouldn’t recommend it now that I’ve seen it… I didn’t realize it was a real bar
One penguin
Ouroji Food, restaurant Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • Nice old school tonkatsu curry, recommended if you like going slightly off the beaten track
APA Hotel Shinjuku Kabukicho Tower Hotel, public bath Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • There are quite a few APA Hotel locations, so make sure you’re looking at the right one on Google Maps. This is Kabukicho Tower.
  • Good location near Shinjuku Station and near night life
  • They have a small public bath section with several tubs!
Hotel Hokke Club Sapporo Hotel, public bath Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Good location, 5-10 minute straight walk from Sapporo Station and also 5-10 minute walk to Odori station
  • Very small public bath
  • Nice receptionists, were helpful in English when I wanted help with a reservation
Nijo Market (Nijo Kani Ichiba – literally Nijo Crab market) Food, fish market Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • I went in the winter, so there were no local fruits in season
  • You can get sea urchin (uni) / crab / salmon roe on a rice bowl for a pretty good price! I strongly recommend getting sea urchin here even if you haven’t liked it in the past. I think most sea urchin tastes unpleasant and bitter because it’s not fresh, but I love fresh, creamy, no-aftertaste sea urchin.
  • You can also get crab, of course
Sea urchin / salmon roe bowl
Teshikaga Ramen (Ramen Alley) Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • The crab option is tourist bait, don’t bother unless you really need to do it for the ‘gram (as I did)
  • Really great broth
  • I think this place is a great option if you want to try Hokkaido-style ramen (miso broth, corn with butter)
Ramen
TK36 Bar Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • It’s not a particularly special bar, but the staff do speak quite a bit of English
北海道焼肉プライム (“Hokkaido Yakiniku Prime”) Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • My brother really wanted to go to a nice restauran with A5 wagyu at some point in our trip, so I found this place with reasonable reviews on Tabelog. They take reservations on Hot Pepper, but I wasn’t able to leave a Japanese phone number, so I had to call them. They accepted my reservation for the following day and we had a nice sectioned off table for 4.
  • Pretty good price, high-quality meat, and had fun grilling it
Meat
Sapporo Beer Museum Sightseeing, museum Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Surprisingly more fun than expected! I learned a lot about Sapporo’s history and didn’t realize how colorful it was.
  • I took the bus to get there and it was quite difficult to find the actual museum – look for the information desk signs.
Soup Curry GARAKU Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Hokkaido is famous for soup curry!
  • Their menu recommends the chicken curry and the roasted broccoli topping. I had both and they were quite good!
Soup curry
Sankaku Fish Market Food, fish market Hokkaido (Otaru)
  • This is a great place to get crab (grilled or hot pot), fresh sea urchin, and sashimi. There’s a ton of locations and you don’t really have to wait in line for long even if you show up in the late morning.
  • I told my brother once that I have dreams like, I wish I could just buy an uncut block of sashimi fish and take a bite out of it, or buy one of those boxes of sea urchin and just eat it with a spoon… well at least I fulfilled the second dream for 5500 yen (USD$50).
Hakkaku sashimi, crab, sea urchin
Noboribetsu Bear Park Animal park Hokkaido (Noboribetsu)
  • Pretty small place with two enclosures for bears and a small museum
  • You get to feed the bears!!!!
  • I recommend shelling out for the the 300 yen salmon treats. The bears don’t care much for the 100 yen biscuits
  • The crows are evil and will try to snatch your treat, so don’t throw it when they’re around
  • You get to take a cable car to the park!!!
  • During other seasons, I believe they have squirrels, but I wasn’t able to see them this time
Waving bear
Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel, public bath Hokkaido (Noboribetsu)
  • I would absolutely shell out for this ryokan again if I went back to Hokkaido. It was amazing!
  • They have one of the largest hot spring baths in all of Asia with five different types of hot spring water. The facilities are huge. It was my hot spring dream. Seriously, check out their photos on their website.
  • I had the deluxe kaiseki meal served in my room. I thought it was a lot of fun to get to try a kaiseki meal because I’d never tried it before and the arrangement was beautiful. That said, I think I was better off eating at specific restaurants (e.g., a steakhouse for wagyu, a seafood restaurant for seafood…).
MUJI Hotel Ginza Hotel Tokyo (Ginza)
  • It was an absolute delight, and I’d strongly recommend it for anyone who loves really great design or MUJI products. Everything in the hotel made me feel the “spark joy” heart pounding feeling.
  • I originally booked the type A room for USD$138 for one night, but they gave me a free upgrade to a Type C room with a larger bed. Yay!
  • You can take home some of their sample toiletries and the room slippers!
  • I enjoyed getting to try their essential oil diffuser and other fun products.
Room (Type C)
WA (MUJI Hotel) Food, restaurant Tokyo (Ginza)
  • This is the restaurant on the lobby floor of the MUJI Hotel.
  • They are a traditional Japanese restaurant focusing on fresh local ingredients.
  • I thought the atmosphere was great, the food was delicious, and it was fun to use MUJI tableware.

Here’s a rough sketch of how I spent my time and how I handled transportation:

  • Tokyo (0 nights)
    • Landed at NRT, took Narita Express to Shinjuku Station (~1.5 hours)
  • Hakone (4 nights)
    • Immediately took Hakone Romancecar from Shinjuku Station to Hakone Yumoto station (~1 hour)
    • Probably should have looked into the Hakone Free Pass but didn’t know about it
    • Pretty much stuck to walking around the Hakone Yumoto area and didn’t venture out much because I was tired and there was lots of stuff to do there
  • Tokyo (Shinjuku) (7 nights)
    • Took the Romancecar back to Shinjuku Station, stayed in Shinjuku the whole time
    • Probably should have squeeze in a few days in Kyoto, but I planned this trip while super busy at work and didn’t have much time to think about it
  • Sapporo (4 nights)
    • Took Narita Express, flew Jetstar from NRT to CTS
    • Regretted not booking from HND because getting to NRT is such a pain
    • So much snow
    • Took a day trip to Otaru during this time via a ~1 hour rapid subway
  • Noboribetsu (1 night)
    • I really wish I had stayed here for more than 1 night! It was great and there were so many things I wanted to do that I didn’t have time for.
    • I took a 1400 yen bus from Dai-ichi Takimotokan (my ryokan) straight to CTS airport.
  • Tokyo (Ginza) (1 night)
    • I landed in Terminal 3 at NRT and was surprised to find out that there is a 1000 yen bus that will take you to Tokyo Station or Ginza Station in about 90 minutes. I now feel like a chump for having taken the Narita Express (roughly USD$30 for a 70 minute trip) this whole time. The bus was great.
    • I took the bus back to NRT the next day for my return flight.
    • It was silly of me to go all the way back into the city for just one night, but I wasn’t thinking clearly when I booked all of this, and in retrospect I probably wouldn’t have done this. All’s well that ends well, though – I had such a blast at the MUJI Hotel that I don’t really regret how this turned out.

 

I moved to amy.dev

I published my first blog post on here in March 2013 (6 years and I’m still at it!!) and I talked about how I get intimidated when thinking about doing things that I’ve never done before, such as installing WordPress. At that time, I wrote:

When I learn new things, I’ll try to document what I learned to delineate exactly why I reached the conclusion that it was simple. Installing WordPress, for example, is only simple after you do it.

Today, I finally sat down and moved from amynguyen.net to this new domain, amy.dev. You know when you log onto Turbo Tax and they ask you “How are you feeling about doing your taxes?” before you get started? I would definitely choose the frowny face option for how I felt about getting through this today. And six years ago, I would have chosen the “don’t ask” extra frowny option.

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What would it take to start my own company the way I want to?

I’ve been having the same conversation with myself over the past few months. Whenever I end up in a cycle like this, I like to write everything down. I think writing gives my brain permission to stop ruminating because it feels assured that I won’t forget. So this time, I’m going to share a little about what I’ve been thinking regarding starting a business!

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2017 Retrospective

I want to write down my memories of this year because I might forget them otherwise. I debated whether to publish this because, for the world, 2017 has been an awful year, worse than any other in my short memory. Yet it was a year of huge personal growth and professional success for me, and I still want to celebrate that, in a way that acknowledges my own privilege. I’m not sure what else I should say on this note other than that I recognize that I am fortunate, and I am grateful for what I have.

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Whistling Vivaldi: A Stereotype Threat I Didn’t Know Of

When Whistling Vivaldi was first recommended to me, my initial response was, “I already know what stereotype threat is. Why do I need to read about it?” In other words, I was your standard punk-ass college student. I had never really given concentrated thought to stereotype threat in the broader context of society, or how it affected people who weren’t me. But this book gave me a deeper understanding of how stereotype threat happens and how it can be combated. My only regret from finally reading it is that I didn’t read it before starting college. Now that I’ve finally dragged myself to the finish line for my bachelor’s degree (after 6 years!), it seems especially bittersweet that this book helped me recognize some of what was happening to me right at the end of my journey.

I haven’t felt so compelled to share a book with other people in years. Reading, for me, is usually for entertainment or personal development, and I go from book to book without wanting to sit down and reflect in a way that is useful for others. This book is different. I feel obligated to share Whistling Vivaldi because it made me burst into tears from recognition of my own past pain. I didn’t think I needed affirmation that my experiences in college were shared by others, but I did. This book gave me time to reflect on moments of self-doubt from the past and helped me re-interpret them in the context of stereotype threat instead.

This book is useful both as a tool for self-reflection (even if you don’t consider yourself as a minority!) and as a tool for supporting others. I want more people affected by stereotype threat to read this book so they can have the time to think back on their own experiences and how they were impacted. I want more people in general to read this book to gain empathy for what students, coworkers, and friends might be suffering from without realizing.

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The Harm in Being a Diversity Pick

When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.

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The Impact of Diversity on Everything

I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.

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On Sincerity, Effort, and Authenticity

I don’t know when it became uncool to be sincere. I used to think it was a problem with kids these days, but it seems to occur among people of all ages. I have a hard time defining the exact attitude that I’m so bothered by, but it’s… it’s the embarrassment and shame that is somehow associated with hard work, sincerity, and failing at something you tried so hard for.

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