Season 2, Episode 44

Straddling Cultures


Wendy Wei

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Today’s Guest

In today’s episode I am speaking with Wendy Wei

By day, Wendy is the Social Media Manager and Podcast Host at Pexels, one of the fastest-growing, and most loved photo communities in the world. 

In her free time, she is a published photographer who has worked with world-class clients from Tencent Entertainment to the likes of Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake. 

She carries a wealth of experience in the imaging industry specializing in community engagement and content strategy.

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If you have a comment or question please reach out to me at or on Instagram @gladiatrixpodcast.




Wendy Wei

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Malini Sarma 0:02

Hey, Wendy, thank you so much for being on the show. I'm really, really excited to have you on

Wendy 0:08

it. Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to dive into everything.

Malini Sarma 0:11

You're very welcome. So you were brought up in Canada, but your parents are originally from China. So what was it like? growing up? I mean, do you have any siblings? You know, what was it? What do you want to do when you grew up? What did your parents tell you what you had to do? How did that? How did it all pan out?

Wendy 0:30

Yeah, so I guess for most of my life, I remember as being in Canada, when I was born in China. And then my parents immigrated here when I was one and a half, two years old. So I always say I'm born in China. But honestly, I don't really remember much of the growing up part because I had to come here so early on, but my parents, they had pretty good jobs there. My mom worked for the government and had a really steady paycheck. And my dad was an engineer got his master's there. So they were very qualified and doing well there. But something wasn't right. And they knew that they wanted to go to a different country, to have a better life for their kids. And that was something I didn't really, I wasn't able to wrap my head around, really when I was younger, because when we came to Canada, we actually, like my dad actually moved here first. And then a month later, my mom and I came. And he lived in this like Co Op housing actually, where I used to live in Toronto, and he said he lived there with a bunch of other immigrants. And they were just trying to find work. And I was just like this Co Op housing in a pretty sketchy part of Toronto. So it wasn't a really good situation. And this is when my dad was just in his 30s. So this is supposed to be like the best part of your life. But they chose to kind of give up everything, the stable job, the steady paycheck to come to a country where they really didn't know, anything, they didn't know anybody here really didn't know the language. So we started living when all of us came to Canada in this little suburb of Toronto, and I vaguely remember this, it was in the basement of a house with other Chinese immigrant families. So I remember things being super hectic. For me, it was fun, because I felt like there was always kids around. But my dad's on the concrete floor, my mom and I stepped slept on a mattress. And I remember asking them how much rent was and it was like $300. At the time, we're a family of three. So that was my very first memory in Canada. And soon after, we moved to a another suburb called gwelf. And that's when we got an apartment with two bedrooms, which seemed like a luxury at the time. And my sister was born when I was four years old. And we were still very, very poor. I remember, I didn't realize it back then. But me and my sister, all we had was this hallway in our apartment to run around and go on bikes around. And now looking apartment, I was like, Oh my gosh, I'd be so annoyed if there's kids all the time. But that was just the situation at the time. And all the kids were like that we had the parking lot. And we had the hallway in our apartment. So very, very poor in the first few years. And then we ended up getting a house when I was 10. So it was overall a very good childhood, though I have reflecting back. It's all very good memories. And it's not until thinking about now what we have. I was like, wow, we really didn't have much at the time, but it was still a very happy memories.

Malini Sarma 3:20

Yeah, actually, you know, when you think about it, buying expensive toys and stuff. Never really, you know, it didn't make any difference. Would you rather have like a plate in the spoon that made a lot of noise or had a ball and you could just play on somebody right? Now that was the best part a child you never have to worry about stuff like you know, money and things like that, right? adulting is such a is overrated.

Wendy 3:40

Yeah, yeah. Especially. Yeah, like even now, as I'm getting older, like a few of my older friends are starting to like get married and have kids and they always, I'm sure, like, I don't know, this experience. But I'm sure first time mothers, they're always concerned about like, like what to do for their kids like making sure like they have the best life and especially the first child, I feel like people are always very nervous about an after they have a few. It's like, oh, like, Well, kind of. We've done this before, but But looking back, I was thinking like, we never really, like you mentioned we never really had any toys or anything. And I remember we had to go to like the local church. And when people donate toys, that's what we got. And I never really like made that connection before. But looking back, it's not about like, I feel like as kids you only know what you have right there and you can kind of make the most of it. So it's really amazing how like, kids are so resilient and kind of make the best out of their situations.

Malini Sarma 4:34

Oh, yeah, I totally agree. So so when you see your parents, you know, it takes a lot of courage to leave something that is very familiar and come to a completely new, you know, you're outside your comfort zone. You're not familiar with the language, the country, the laws, everything right. So it takes it takes a lot. It takes a lot of guts, so having having your parents having done that Knowing you know, because they want to do it, they want it. I know, I know, because I did the same thing. You want what's best for your children? Did they have expectations of what they wanted you to become? They're like, Okay, you know what, we left all this to come here to get a better life. So we want to make sure that our kids also become like, you know, their doctors and engineers or something. We never want to be, you know, living in in a sketchy part of town and we want to have a nice house and car and everything. Did they articulate that it was that like an expectation? Because I know, you said you're the oldest. And there's always that, you know, with the oldest child, there's always up, you kind of pick up a lot of things. Because you're like watching your parents as they you know, they live and how they manage things, right? So was there that was that expectation there.

Unknown Speaker 5:46

I think there was always a conflict. When I was growing up, it's like, not when I was in like as a child, maybe. But more. So when I turned into a teenager. And I started kind of, like you mentioned picking up on things like at school versus at home. And there was always that disconnect. So at school, like all my friends were like going to summer camps and like, hanging out at their friend's house all day, and like just doing things that normal kids would whereas at home, my parents would always make me do extra homework when I got home from school, and maybe go to math camp instead of like, art camp or something like that. And there's always an underlying expectation to do well. And in Asian culture, it's pretty normal to like, compare yourself to other kids like at school, we were always told, like, You're the best, like, just be yourself. And at home, it's like, oh, like this person got a plus on the test? Why did you just get an A? So there's always an underlying expectation to do well, and I kind of took it, I guess, as an offense when I was a teenager, and there was constantly like fights and like yelling, and I honestly didn't know any better. But it was always like, why do you expect me to be someone that I don't want to be? And like, Why are you always comparing me we're at school, we're told, like we're doing really well. So there was always an underlying feeling of like, not being good enough. But as I got older, I started to understand that as parents, they really want to come here to give us a better life. And all my parents, my friend's parents, they would talk about like growing up in their experiences like that. And for some reason, my parents never told me about, like, their own childhood. And I would always wonder about that. When my mom got mad at me for doing something I always like kind of retaliated with. Oh, like, were you an angel, when you grew up? Like, like, Why are you holding me to this expectation? Like, did you kind of have this growing up to. But as I got older, I started to realize that they had a really, really tough childhood growing up in that part, that timeframe in China. And I didn't realize this until I started doing my own reading, because I realized a lot of immigrants, especially my parents age, they struggled with a lot of like, like the revolutions that are going on at the time. And education was a big part of it. People were denied education in China during the Communist Revolution, especially those who are highly educated. And that's why they put such a big emphasis on education for us here. It was never like, Oh, we want you to do this, because we want to put pressure on you and make you feel horrible. It's for them this is their vision of getting a better life is education is such a privilege for them that they wanted to give that to us as well. And even that meant starting over at in their 30s working like odd minimum wage jobs to get there.

Malini Sarma 8:31

Right. And I think, you know, the most amazing thing about education is once you have it, nobody can take it away from you. Right? Yeah. It's It's such a, it takes you up an entire level, right? It makes you look at the world in a different way. And just contemplate things and come up with amazing ideas. So when so of course, the expectation was you would be going to university, right. So you went to university with a major in mind, but halfway through, you decided that you didn't like it. But how did you tell your parents that? Oh, I don't want to do this. Was that like a hard thing? How did they were they like okay with it? Or how did that all work out?

Unknown Speaker 9:13

Yeah, first of all, I totally agree with the education part. And I think that's where, for me, the biggest kind of change in myself came about because education was always such a battle when I was growing up. And I remember my parents like we got into these arguments they always said like, why is it so hard for you like it would like they would have like, honestly, like given up anything to have what we had right now. So they couldn't understand why was just so difficult for me to just like work hard in school, not that I didn't work hard, but like always be better. And for me, I thought, why are they putting this demand on me? So that was the kind of disconnect and education was always part of it. And as I was growing up, I always retaliate with like, oh, like, I could still be like, I could not make money and still be happy and I was like 1314 so there's like no logical way to kind of get that through. But growing, as you grow up, you realize you don't need to be have a million dollars to be happy. But there is a threshold that like a stability or like that sort of like knowing that you have a paycheck or something that is very comforting and a luxury for a lot of people. So I think the biggest switch for me was understanding, like you mentioned, education is for myself and trying to get better for me and not just to uphold someone else's expectations. So I did end up going to university, and I was actually a pretty big switch to what initially intended in high school. My dad is an engineer, my mom's an accountant. So I was always torn between business and engineering. So I was going down the engineering path, I thought it was pretty cool at the time, because I did grow up with a pretty academic environment. But as I got closer to the date, where I had to accept my offer, I thought, I think businesses a better decision for me. And even then my parents were kind of joked around and being like, oh, like you won't make this much money. But I thought, okay, like, this is more feasible aspect for me, because I was always a people person, and not really the best at physics and math. So I didn't know going to University of Toronto for business with a specialization in international business. And it was a pretty prestigious program, they only allowed like, 40 people in and there's interview process. So I thought, I'm set for life, this is great, I got into the program, I wanted to make everyone happy. And I'll just graduate and get a good job. And that'll be it. But after the first year, I ended up getting really poorly in my classes, and just not in a really good state where I didn't really enjoy where I wanted to be. And I thought I have no idea what to do, because this is what I prepare for for my entire life, or at least for the last four years. So I was at a crossroads where there was one part of me that I discovered photography and started going to bars and shooting live music nights that really allowed me to kind of escape from my current reality for a little bit. And that was kind of like, the only thing that was feeling me is being able to learn and grow in photography by myself. And by day, I still go to the classes and not doing well and still being upset. So there came a time where I thought, okay, like this is not working. Um, first of all, I don't enjoy what I'm doing. And second of all, I'm not doing well with it. If there's one or the other that worked out, then maybe I would have stayed with it. But there's something here is not working. So I remember sitting my parents down. And the few weeks before I was like going to my counselors at school and trying to figure out what to do. And even like literally making a pros and cons list and a presentation to my parents because I wanted to be prepared and show them that I was serious and making a change with the direction of my life. But I was really surprised when I sat down with them. I told them that I was going to switch into media studies with a double minor in psychology and economics. So So kept kind of like technical degrees there as minors, so they wouldn't freak out too much. But I was really surprised that they were receptive to it, they did kind of tell me that Oh, like your dad is gonna have to work a little, a few more years to be able to support you. But jokes aside, they were very supportive overall. And they knew that at the time I was turning into an adult. So they trusted me with my decision and what I wanted to do.

Malini Sarma 13:28

So you put a lot of pressure on yourself, because you were afraid that you were going to let your parents down because they had worked so hard to you know, come to this point, right? So what happened or what snapped in you that when you At what point did you decide they're like, Okay, this is not working, because you were going to class during the day and being miserable. And at night, you were going taking pictures and you were having a loving it. So did did somebody say something? Did your like roommate or your counselor or teachers? Did someone mentioned something for you to like, Why? Why can I do this? Maybe I should think about changing? Or was it just a self reflection that made that made you take that decision?

Unknown Speaker 14:09

Yeah, I think growing up, I always, at least as a child and teenager, I always felt I had to live up to other people's expectations. And when I got to high school, I started doing a lot of my own thing. And that means it was still like, type A like overachiever kind of like mentality but I remember my friends would like join Student Council because that was the easy thing to do. But for me, I found this program that allowed me to have real life experiences and run a global business organization with 8000 kids across Ontario and go to China for international trade mission when I was 16. So I always found little ways to kind of make it for myself. I still valued that. I wanted to get a good job and want to have a stable life. It was never that that like didn't want I didn't want to pursue it was what's how I make this my own. So I guess the thing that made me switch was I wanted to show people that you can do this. And like there are other opportunities to do what you love. And growing up an academically rigorous environment. Everyone had like jobs at Facebook are jobs that like, like I Snapchat and all these, like really big organizations. And I thought, this can't be the only way to do things like, of course, it must be amazing to have those jobs and go through this like process of like school and everything. But for me, I thought like, there has to be another way to do this. And it was more like proving it to myself, I think and proving it to my parents and those around me that, okay, like, I'm gonna do something different, but I can still be as successful as you are.

Malini Sarma 15:47

That's awesome. I mean, it takes a lot of maturity, you know, to come to that does and a lot of soul searching, because it's hard, especially when everybody around you is like comparing, and everybody's like, Oh, I got a job here. No, and no parents, like, look at her, you know, she got a job there and look at them, and they got this engineering job. Do you know how much money they made? I mean, it's such a, that's such an Asian thing. I think the comparison, right? It's all about, they can do it. So why can't you do it kind of say, hey, oh, yeah, that's commendable that you were able to come to that decision. You know, one so young, that you have a You said your sister is younger to you. But she was brought, you know, she was born and brought up over here to growing up as the older child of immigrants. Well, what was some of the expectations or the struggles that you know that you had to face that your sister never had to worry about?

Wendy 16:39

Yeah, I definitely think my parents were a little bit tougher on me just because I was kind of like, their learning curve, because they did grow up in a completely different environment than what's expected of children here. So for me, they didn't, they didn't really have an idea, like an idea of what that was. So like, what I would like go to school and have these like trip forms, I had to like, figure out how to like, sign up myself, because I'll take them to my parents. And they'd be like, Oh, can you just do it, because like, they didn't understand anything. So I always felt like this need to kind of like, take care of myself, like my parents provided everything for me. But social wise, I kind of had to figure everything out like my kindergarten graduation, I remember being so hurt, because my parents didn't show up. But everyone else's parents were there. But it was literally because they had no idea what a kindergarten graduation was, because that didn't exist where they grew up. So for me, I think like, we were very, very poor, my mom worked, or my dad worked like a $12 an hour job, but a factory when we first got here, and my mom worked as a waiter, like literally scrubbing toilets that are like a golf club when I was younger. So when I was a child, we were still very, very poor. And they were on survival mode, there wasn't like birthday parties, or Christmas presents and stuff like that. It was literally like, their only goal was to put food on the table. Whereas my sister when my sister came along, four or five years later, they were in a more stable place. And we moved into a house. And they were, I guess, a little bit more lenient on her because they kind of started understanding for me, like kind of how school works here that it's not all just study that there's like trips, and there's like little fun things that you can do. So for me, I think like, they were still kind of figuring it out. Whereas my sister, they started understanding a little bit more. So for me, they are always like, you need to set a good example for your sister, which is, I think, like, a normal thing to do. But there was a lot more pressure or it's like, if I did something wrong, they'd be like, what kind of example? are you setting? Whereas for her there wasn't really anybody after? So she kind of just could do whatever she wanted to know it.

Malini Sarma 18:47

So did you feel you know, your sister probably has a very different outlook to life, maybe some things are kind of like, just kind of a given, you know, she doesn't even think about it. But in your case, you probably ponder about things before you make a decision, because you're wondering whether it's going to have an impact on, you know, your family, your mom, what your mom say, or, you know, how would the family react? Or, you know, would they be happy with you? And are you going to be okay with that mean? Do you go through that? Or is like, and your sisters like just do it? It's fine. You're gonna be okay. I mean, do you guys see that? Do you notice that between you and your sister?

Wendy 19:21

Yeah, I think the two biggest things. The first one that I noticed was when she wanted to go to art school in New York. She's very, very talented. Like with painting and with drawing and stuff, like very naturally talented. And I remember like, when she was in middle school, she would always joke about like, wanting to go to art school, and my parents were like, oh, like, how are you gonna make money and whatnot, but then they were still kind of trying to find alternatives. So it's like, oh, like maybe if you don't go to art school, you do graphic design or something that's a little bit more applicable, but they still had the opportunity open whereas for me, I felt like I didn't even have an opportunity to think about that kind of stuff. So when she said she wanted to go to art school, we like go rode to New York for nine hours from Toronto and like visited all these schools for her. And, like, they were like, at that point, they were like, okay, like, if this is what you want to do, like, we'll find a way to support you. Last minute, she ended up actually switching to accounting, which is like so random, but I guess like that worked over my parents. But even that like process of like touring art schools, and then like saying, they'll figure out a way to support her was something that I never really had. On. The second thing was also the approach to mental health. So for me, I feel like with all teenagers, at some point, they do struggle with some sort of like, like reflection, or like, kind of figuring out who they are. And that can be really hard, especially if they don't have like, the proper support. So when I was 1516, I, I never really labeled it as depression. But looking back, I definitely feel that's what it was. And I didn't really, like have anybody to go to at the time. Like, during the day, I would go to volleyball practice and like, go to my clubs after school and everything would be fine. But at home, I would like kind of lock myself in my room and like cry every night. And I had, I thought this is gonna be a phase like it's okay, like, it'll eventually get better. But I never kind of like, told that to my parents at all. And my sister went through the same thing. And they immediately took her to speak to someone and find a therapist and try to figure it out. And it wasn't until my sister told them that I struggled with the same thing that they had, they said they had no idea with me. And that was very eye opening for them. Because like at first they did think like, oh, like, Is there like something like, quote unquote, wrong with my sister like what's going on? Because I guess in their culture, it was never like, a like the norm to talk about it. And it wasn't till they figured out that's what happened with me as well that they were like, wow, like, we had no idea like, why did you kind of like hide it? So? Yeah, I think those are the two biggest different No,

Malini Sarma 21:59

I think you hit the nail on the head. Mental health is something that nobody talks about, I think, even in the US, probably not as much I mean, here, you know, going to therapy, at least you have the option people talk about, oh, I'm going to therapy. But in most other countries, it's it's a taboo topic is like, Oh, are you crazy? You know, it's like, is this something wrong with you? Maybe there's, there's something wrong inside your head is that's why is the reason but it is so important to have somebody to talk to even if it is even if it is just a friend. And when is his immigrants when you're straddling two cultures, because when you go to school, it's a completely different world. And when you come back home, it's something completely different to so it's like, who do you talk to? So your sister was lucky that she had you right to talk to you, you had to probably wait until she got to a certain age when you you were confiding in her and she was like, you know, she was telling your parents. But it's, and I see it even today, you know, the struggle is real. So it's growing up teenage years are hard. It doesn't matter which part of the world you're from teenage years are hard hormones are going in all over the place. People don't understand you. There's a lot of, you know, ups and downs and mood swings and everything. And then on top of that, when you have nobody to talk to you just makes it a lot harder. So yeah, I can totally relate, I can totally relate to everything that you just said. And I'm sure there are so many other young women who are probably thinking the same things like okay, I'm just hoping that like they know, or they realize that they're not alone. So but now you are in marketing, you were in podcasting, I'm sure your parents was so proud of you for all the times they're like, why aren't you in Facebook, at least hopefully now they're like, Wow, look at my daughter, look at all the stuff that she's doing. So what would you want to tell other young women who want to be, you know, want to follow their dreams and want to go into marketing or something that, you know, their parents probably don't expect them to? What kind of advice would you want to give them? Especially as a woman of color?

Unknown Speaker 24:04

Yeah, I think for me, growing up, there was never really, obviously there was like role models out there and people to look up to, but there was no no one that I really felt like, I'm, like, look like me or like, felt like I couldn't like fully relate to like, I would see people on TV and be like, Wow, that's so cool. But there was never really like, especially for people of color. Like it's getting a little bit better now, which I'm really happy about. But I think there's still a lot of work to be done. But I think for other like young people of color, the thing that would really help is to find other people that look like you that are doing like what you want to be doing. And those are the role models I think that you should look up to because there is that like cultural conflict there. And I know like for me, it was always like, oh, like they got there by doing this, but like that's not the situation that I'm in. So like how do I do that? There's like this disconnect being shown being like there of like what's being shown versus what I'm used to. So I think like for any like person of color, the important thing is to kind of like understand where your culture is coming from because for a long time I blame that I thought like, why did I have to go through this while other people like my friends like they had like seemingly like very normal childhoods and like, I always felt like this kind of like, maybe like underlying, like anger or resentment there. And never really like kind of shown up, I was kind of pushed it down and like, didn't really like think about it at all. But I think the first thing that helped me really like understand like, who I am was going back in like reading about, like, what my parents culture was like in when they grew up and understanding where they're coming from. Because the biggest disconnect is being like, why are you making me do this and then being like, why aren't you doing this? So I think if there's that mutual understanding, that's where, like real growth can come from. And being in a new place that like, where the majority doesn't look like, you can be really hard. But the reason why I think, like your parents give up so much is to give you that opportunity. So I think I never really like once I kind of grew up I never thought like, oh, like what I had was a disabling factor. It was okay, like, here's some new opportunity, what can I do with it? So? Yeah, I think like for people calling, you can do anything that you want. And if you can find role models that look like you and have been where you are, then I think that would be really helpful.

Malini Sarma 26:33

No, I think that is very that that is very important. Know where you're coming from, you have to be proud of your culture, and you know, who you are and where you're coming from. So that if anybody kind of tests you, you know, where you stand, right? That's the first part. Once you know where you stand, then it doesn't matter after that you can figure things out. But that that's the tough part. Right? When you're like, Where am I? What Who am I? What am I? You know, once you know that, then the rest of it falls into place. Yeah.

Wendy 27:07

Yeah, before I used to be like, ashamed in a way where it's like, oh, like, my friends are bringing Lunchables to lunch, my mom's pocket like traditional, like Chinese food for lunch. And I've always felt like ashamed of that just something so small, and that way, but like, I always I was ashamed that I like had to go to math camp, and I had to go to all these things. But growing up, I was like, wow, like, I really appreciate that. Like, there's always like these stereotypes against Asian people of like, oh, like, all they do is work and whatnot. But growing up and like, understanding where that came from makes me really proud to be like, wow, I'm really, really thankful that my parents pushed me. Maybe like, if there was more understanding, it would be a little bit better. But I'm really glad that they kind of instilled that work ethic for me from a very young age. And like you mentioned, it's like appreciating and understanding your culture.

Malini Sarma 27:53

That's really, that's really cool. So what's next for Wendy? What's next for you?

Wendy 27:58

Yeah, so right now I am working at pexels, which is, I wouldn't say very small startup anymore. We're still small, but we're changing. Our mission is to change the world of stock photography and bring more diversity, like showing people of color and like people of all different backgrounds and sexual orientations and showing what it's like to be a family. That's not just the traditional Mom, dad in like two kids. So we're trying to change what it means to kind of being a human in today's day and age. And I think that a lot of that comes down to the imagery that we use, and that we provide. And on the side, I have my podcast called overexposed, where it's about showcasing ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the creative industries. Because for me, if it wasn't for listening to other creatives tell their stories on how they got to where they are, and then being vulnerable and sharing their stories, I wouldn't be where I am today. So I really want to pass that forward with the podcast and showcase how creative people are, have been able to live their dream lives and how everyone else can do the same.

Malini Sarma 29:06

That is awesome. And so thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your story because I know it was it was not easy. But I really appreciate your coming on the show and sharing your story. Because I think there are a lot of young women, especially women of color, who think that they were alone. And when and my mission is basically to you know, promote that and say that you're not alone. It doesn't matter what color skin or whatever it is. If you really want to do something, you should just do it. Just find a friend you could talk to. So surround yourself with positive feedback. Surround yourself with people that are like minded so that you can do whatever you want to do. So thank you so much, Wendy. I really appreciate you taking the time and coming on the show. Yeah, thank

Wendy 29:47

you so much for having me. Malini.

Malini Sarma 29:49

You're very welcome.

Transcribed by

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