I gave this speech to begin a meeting at Rhino Business Toastmasters in SF
I keep this photo on my desk at work.
The woman in the middle is named Zer-Zer. She is a member of black Hmong tribe in Sapa, a mountainous region between China and Vietnam. Zer-Zer is married with four kids and has lived in Sapa her entire life just as her ancestors have for over 300 years. I took this photo the first day I met Zer-Zer without understanding the influence this photo would have on me after I left Sapa.
For the time my friends and I shared with Zer-Zer, her schedule became ours. A normal day for Zer-Zer and her family begins at 5:00 am. She and her three daughters spend 3 hours hiking from their home in the mountains down to the town center where the first load of tourists arrives at 8:00 am. There, Zer-Zer and her daughters sell homemade Hmong clothing among other souvenirs. On a good day, they sell all or most of everything and begin their hike back up the mountain, another 3-hour feat. On a bad day, they sell almost nothing and have the same hike but with all the clothing and items they didn’t sell. When they arrive home they build a fire and begin cooking dinner with Zer-Zer’s husband who is returning from a day of mountain mining. The family is racing to beat the sunset for once it sets; the only light source is the fire. This is what life for Zer-Zer and her family is like 7 days out of the week, 12 months out of the year, yet I never once saw anything but a smile on her face – the same one fixed in the photo.
At my current job, I work as a management consultant where I deal with demanding clients, strict deadlines, and late nights more often than I would like. There are nights I just want to go home and sleep in my own bed. Nights that make me question, “Did I really go to college for this life?”
Every time I get this feeling and I feel the mental frustration, I turn to look at this photo and I remember how Zer-Zer and her daughters never complained about having to wake up early, never complained about their 6-hour commute, and never complained about never leaving Sapa. I’m not riding a private jet from meetings to meetings, but no matter how late I stay, I’ll always be able to call an Uber or hail a taxi; Zer-Zer has a three-hour hike ahead of her. No matter where I need to fly, I’ll have a hotel room with running water waiting for me; Zer-Zer’s only access to running water is hiking to the village waterfall 20 minutes away.
In all of our lives, life can be overwhelming that we immediately focus on how we are being inconvenienced. We focus on what is wrong in our lives – what we don’t have, what we haven’t done – that we quickly forget how fortunate we already are – what we do have, what we have already accomplished. Someone somewhere in the world would look at our lives and if given a choice, choose to be us. We often forget this.
This week, when you experience an inconvenience in your own life such as a last minute request that keeps you at work or missing a bus, remember how lucky you are to have a job and to have access to transit. Remember about all the problems you don’t have to deal with that others have do day-in and day-out. Remember the Zer-Zers in your life, those who might not have been born as lucky as you, but takes what they are given, makes the most out of it, and do so with a smile.