Journey Of The Noble Ones
Posted by Swara Pandya on Apr 17, 2020
In the last few days, I've seen Coleman taking a lot of pictures. He is a great photographer. Coleman, could you share about your practice of photography?
I like to think of myself as a landscape photographer. It's a type of meditation for me. Whenever I go out for a trek, it's my way of clearing my mind. So I don't think about anything else -- but really just be present and be one with nature. And, that is my best type of meditation. And I manage to capture just a sliver of time that is precious and very transient, but that's the only way we can really share that space, with limited time.
Also, as you mentioned, I am definitely a gadget guy -- a kid in a toy store. :) I just have a fascination with optics. I don't know what it is, but I've been drawn to optics from even when I was a little kid. I think that's why I became a photographer.
Could you share more about your childhood? How were you when you were a kid?
We chatted about this -- about my inner journey. My inner journey is really tied to my upbringing. I had a very unusual -- a very difficult -- childhood. My parents divorced when I was two. Essentially, I grew up with many different households; more or less like a foster kid. They were relatives, but I was a big inconvenience and very much unwanted. So that's how my life began.
As far as I could remember, I was being dropped off, I think, at the age of three. I got picked up by my maternal grandmother. She was actually a very loving grandmother, but I was not allowed to stay with her, because I grew up in Hong Kong and with the Chinese convention: being a boy, I needed to stay with someone from the father's side. I remember my maternal grandmother, as well as my aunt, were very nice. To me, my maternal grandmother was more like my mother, but I was pulled away from my mother and my grandmother, and dropped off at my great uncle's family.
So that's how I remember my life. Very much unwanted. I was a big inconvenience. I was physically abused -- being beat around quite a bit as a kid. It was almost like I became a servant to them. The whole clan kind of went through a major collapse, in a way, because of the turbulent times in China. In fact, my great uncle, he was probably some kind of corrupt Kuomintang official. I knew that because every October 10th, he would have a giant Taiwan flag. But their fortune, of course, was completely gone, so basically they were struggling. They had a new reality in Hong Kong; and now adding me to the mix, it was definitely not a good arrangement. I remember myself being very sad, and that's how I grew up.
The interesting part of that story was: however sad I was, I was never hopeless. Now that I am thinking back, it's really amazing that, I turned out the way I am, and then I'm really realizing the gift that, for lack of better description, Mother Earth has given me. Even though I was put in such a difficult condition, I never had any doubt in myself.
The other day, I think last night, Ari was talking about questioning about his self-worth. And it just hit me, I never asked that question. Either, it's genetic -- that I was predisposed not to worry about things like that -- or I could not answer that question. So, anyway, getting through my day actually wasn't that difficult. I daydreamed a lot. That was my survival. I'm not modest. I dream big. :) I dreamed that I discovered a new continent, so that I could explore. If you're going to dream, don't dream small. :).
I remember that getting through the day also required me to develop a sense of vigilance. I'm sure you have heard about kids from underserved communities, kids with traumas -- they tend to be hyper-vigilant, and very sensitive. That was pretty much true for me. In fact, whenever we got days off from school, my aunt (whom I really think of as my mother), would come to pick me up. Even though she was not welcomed [by my father's side of the family], she would bear the humiliation, all day, to come and just take me away to stay with my grandmother for a few days. That was the only time I got to see my younger sister. Once in a while, I would also see my half-brother, from my mother's second marriage. But actually, whenever I showed up at my grandmother's, because I knew they would tolerate me, I actually turned into a monster. I would have tempers. I would have fits. It was pretty much like what you see with kids in America, in school, when they call each other names. That was me, because that was the only way I could let out my anger and frustration. Again, to me, that was a gift from Mother Earth -- even though I was having that temper, those fits, I was fully aware of what I was doing, and I knew that was wrong. I don't know why, but I knew it.
The worst time was when I was in first grade. I was so desperate. We were so poor -- we had nothing. We (my great uncle) lived in a tiny unit. It was a Hong Kong version of a UK council house. I think the room was from here to the carpet, this much [shows visually]. It was my great uncle, his wife and their three kids who lived there. The youngest one was already a teenager. And then me. This was the space we all had to live in. On the outside, there was a balcony hallway, which was used for cooking. The building was organized almost like an 'H'. The cross had the bathrooms and the common washing area was. So I can fully relate to all the beautiful toilets that we have seen [here]. :) It's the same squatting posture. We basically had a giant gutter that ran through, with partitions. That's the way I grew up. Even as terrible as that was, it didn't bother me. I just had to get through the day. My survival strategy was just to dream -- to daydream and zone out.
In first grade, I started stealing stuff from my classmates. Whatever I needed and didn't have -- like pens and pencils. I even stole toys from shops. But every time I did it, I had such guilt! I'd say, "This is terrible." It was a phase that I went through and I then I just stopped. I couldn't take it. I decided it was more stress for myself than not having whatever I stole. So, I ended that.
Then, I got moved to my uncle's family -- my father's older brother. He finally got married and then again I got moved around. Now, you know, he was newly married, and then had to take care of me. Again, it was just not a good situation. So that's how I managed to survive. So from a sad kid, I remember then becoming a very angry teenager. In fact, I can show you -- I have developed my angry look. [Everyone laughs]. So, I perfected that. And I actually joke with my kids that these are my evil eyes. And, and that's how I survived.
Along the way, on my maternal side, my great-grandfather was actually in the US. Like most Chinese immigrants at that time, he would work and save a lot of money and then move back to China. But because of the Cultural Revolution and all the turmoil, he went back to San Francisco. So we always had sort of a history.
But -- and this is another sad side of the story of Chinese immigrants -- I'm sure some of you may have heard of the term, "Paper Son". What it means is that my great-grandfather had two kids, a boy and a girl, but he reported to the administration that he had two boys. So my grandmother was never really named, and he gave the paper to his brother -- so his brother ended up sending one of his sons to America. That's the reality. So my grandmother's brother was doing really well in San Francisco, while meanwhile she struggled in China. But, eventually, she got refugee status to enter the US.
Basically, I didn't know my parents until I was sixteen. Whatever I knew was not good. Growing up, I would wonder, "Oh, why am I in this condition?" Consciously, I never really asked the question, "I must not be good enough" -- I didn't follow the typical reaction of blaming oneself. I didn't consciously do that, but I think, subconsciously, there was a degree of feeling that maybe I was not good enough and that I needed to push myself. So, in that sense, I guess I am driven in that way. Even though I wasn't really a good student. (Some of you may have heard how much I disliked school.) [Laughter] I still don't like school, :) but I was determined to get out of that situation.
My mother eventually managed to get to the US, because of my grandmother. My mother, I could tell even as a kid, that she was an embarrassment to my grandmother. First she had me and my sister. Then, she had my half-brother [which was culturally taboo]. My grandmother didn't even know how to explain who this young boy [my half-brother] was to her neighbors. But yet, I saw unconditional love from my grandmother. Even though my mother was such a difficult woman.
Thank you for sharing that, Coleman.
So, my father also actually claimed that he had no kids when he married someone in the States and got his papers. So my mother was really the only way we could, sort of, make our way to the US. But after we met for the first time at the age sixteen, I just couldn't stand her. Initially, my younger sister and I were going to stay with her, but after two weeks, there was just no way. So, I actually, plotted our way out. I really didn't know my father, but I called him and said, "Dad, I know this is not the arrangement, but is there any way I could, come to New York (from San Francisco)?". He said, "Yes". That was nice of him. So I went first.
As much as I disliked my mother, I was not prepared to see my step-"monster". That's how we called her, between my sister and I. She was probably worse than my mother. The very first night I arrived in New York, they took me out to Chinatown for dinner, and as we walked back from the restaurant to the car, he said to me, "Well, I just want you to know that this is America. Everyone, all the other kids, they put themselves through school and you need to do the same."
I said, "Okay." I got the message. That was pretty quick.
My step-mother, she was also an alcoholic, so every weekend I had to deal with that. That was the low point in my life. At that point, when I went to school, that's when I really met so many (what in Cantonese we call) guiren, which translates to the "noble ones" or the "treasured ones". They were my teachers and three Asian kids in the high school that I went to. Two of the Asian kids were from Hong Kong and one from Korea. They were in about the same grade as me. I was also very fortunate that, technically, I should have gone into 10th grade, but they placed me in 11th grade. That was the month of May. So I had a little over a month left in the 11th grade and then I would be a senior in high school. I could speak in Cantonese with the two kids from Hong Kong, so I was lucky. They pretty much adopted me as the newbie "off the boat" and dragged me through the entire process of taking SATs, doing all the college applications, etc. I still remember my SAT scores: 780 in Math and 310 in English. :) I said, "Why would they penalize you when you were trying to make educated guesses?" I think, in the new SAT, they don't penalize you, but back then you couldn't guess anything. [Laughter]
What I remember was, at that time, my life really changed. Not so much in the sense of feeling so different, but it was all the wonderful people, the noble ones, that came and gave me a helping hand. I still remember all my teachers. My math teacher, Mr. Pragner. Mr. Colon from Physics. My English teacher, actually, he was my favourite one. Mr. Cohen. Even when I got my work back from him, it would be very colorful, because I made so many grammatical errors, but he would never grade me down for that. He would always grade me based on my idea and how I'm thinking. And I thought, "Wow."
I still remember, he said to me, "Coleman, if you stick your mind to it, whatever it is, you want to do, if you don't give up, you will get there." And that really was my motto from that point on.
Since then, I've been on autopilot, more or less. I don't really plan much. I kind of go with the flow. I went to RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). In my sophomore year, I managed to get a job with General Electric as a co-op student. So I ended up working for them for eight months, and I enjoyed my work. I loved my mentor. But at the end of that I decided, "Okay, physics is not for me." I could not imagine myself working in the lab for the rest of my life.
But then I had no idea what I really wanted to do. So I quit school. I actually, initially, was thinking about joining the Navy, thinking that'd be the best way for me to travel around the world. But Mother Earth had a different idea for me. :) Either, I went to the wrong place or the navy recruiting station moved. Down the block, there was the army recruiting station. So needless to say I was sold, because they told me, "Oh, if you wanna travel, how about we send you to Germany?" So then I never went to the other places.
So the rest is pretty standard. Thinking back, one thing that really hit me, that leads me to what I do today, is really about how we deal with stress and our own mental health. The most amazing part for me is I have never had any thought of hurting myself. Never. I actually don't have voices in my head. I find that really strange because I know a lot of friends that struggle with noises, with self-doubt, with a lot of ruminations. I don't know how, but I never have had them. I'm sure this is a gift, and I would question myself, thinking: I must be emotionally stunted in some way, because I really never had that mother-child bond. And even when I had my own kids, it was a struggle. In fact, I had to act like I was so excited, in the beginning, especially with my first child, because I really didn't know how to behave.
So along the way, I had all these questions. But then, as I go, I don't think I'm really emotionally stunted, in case you missed my emotional moment. [Laughter] Even with my kids, because I was so hyper-vigilant and really sensitive, I am very good at reading people. I think that's another gift. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I can sense peoples' suffering. And, as a photographer, I need to be visual, but I actually have amazing hearing. I have amazing sense, period. The fact that I could actually start my own company- I had no role model. I had no one to say, "Coleman, you should do this." I had no plan. The idea just came.
So, basically, as I went on with life, I realized that I'm really just a vehicle. There's me, there is my "me" little ego. But then there's this big self -- this big spirit -- that is connected with all of you guys. All of the noble ones. I think I'm here, for this retreat, as part of that spirit. It's that connected spirit that brought me here. And I'm still making the learning along the way.
How do you connect the gratitude that you have for the "guiren" [the Noble Ones] with the work that you are doing?
Again, I don't have any role models, but I just know that I want to pay it forward. I give back. So, Fung Institute is one example. I support a lot of other activities, and even the work that I do today is my way of trying to answer the question of mental health. If I can bottle what I have and share with other people, that'd be great. I know I couldn't do that, but what is the best next alternative? I don't have the answer, but somehow it just just comes. I don't know how. It could be through my meditation or through ideas that surface during workouts. I love swimming. I love running, and then ideas come to me. So that's the gift.
That's why I'm very grateful. I'm very grateful.