A little while ago, I ran into some colleagues on the way home from work, and one of them pointed at my chest, lifted an eyebrow and asked, “You’re wearing your name badge home?” I told her I was, and that I always kept my name badge in my purse in case I needed it for something. The truth is, sometimes I forget to take it off, but sometimes I leave it on intentionally. I leave it on because it’s a weapon in a battle I face everyday. It sends a message I don’t need to verbalize—that I have a job, that I can take care of myself. It reminds me that I’ve made it, that I’ve pulled myself out of the poverty hole I grew up in. It acts as a shield against my memories of food stamp and milk vouchers and the barely contained repugnance of more privileged shoppers at the grocery store.
Shame and shopping
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the grocery store. Mom stuck out like a sore thumb in her multicolored pajama pants, oversized t-shirt, beanie and socked-up feet in dirty flip flops. In the middle of winter. And if that didn’t garner attention, then our cackling voices did—we seemed intent on overdoing each other in volumes that could only be compared to hyenas in the savanna.
Before WalMart came to town, Willows had two main places to shop--Sani-Food Market and what at one point used to be a Food-4-Less—and on any given day you were sure to run into someone from school. If I went, sometimes Mom’ll let me choose a bag of chips or she’ll give me a couple of pennies for the gumball machine (yep—they still had those). But going meant that I risked running into someone I knew—after all, Willows had less than 10,000 people—which happened a lot. The trick was to walk in, get the benefit of grabbing the yummies, then wander off when Mom headed toward the cash register. I also found that if I moved around a lot, I decreased the chances of running into anyone.
Sometimes, though, no matter what I did, I ended up at the cash register, in line, in front of the judging eyes of strangers. Mom would pull out her bundle of colorful food stamp coupons and milk vouchers for all the world to see, and I would shrink smaller and smaller into myself until I was nothing but a mushy puddle of shame. Then we’d shuffle out of the store to our Toyota, and I’d swear to God that I’d never do that, never feel that low again. I’d rather starve.
Where worth comes from
Early on, I learned through observation that your worth is measured by your family’s income—generated by your parents’ education—and their jobs and their ability to give you the things you want. And my parents didn’t have jobs, and most of the time they couldn’t give us the things that we wanted. It all led me to think that maybe my family and I weren’t worth very much at all.
So when Dad started working as a groundskeeper at one of the inns in town, I felt relieved. Now I could say things like, “My dad went to work this morning” or “My Dad can’t take me because he’s working.” Stuff that normal kids—kids who weren’t poor—say. I even practiced it to make sure I was ready to say it when the opportunity came. As a teenager, I desperately wanted the other kids to see that I was normal, that I could be part of their club. That I was worthy.
Jobs and enoughness
The shame I felt at being poor sent me on a journey searching for the next doorway to success. I’ve held multiple jobs since I was in middle school. More than money, having a job meant I was visible. It confirmed that I was a member of society, that I wasn’t just existing on the fringe, taking handouts from the government, but I was a contributor. I belonged. The problem was that by tying my worth and my identity to holding a job, I unintentionally made it really fragile. I unintentionally made it so that I could never be enough because jobs come and go and there will always be another person with another job who makes more money than I do.
At a Hmong women summit a little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of listening to a panel of successful Hmong women talk about their professional and personal experiences. There was a clear message: no matter how successful you become—even if you are working at the highest level of your field, you can still feel as if you aren’t enough. Enoughness is—much like comparisonitis and imposter syndrome—an ailment that hits everyone at every stage of life. You can’t find it chasing a title or a salary, you can only find it within yourself. I’m going to venture a guess that enoughness has the warmth of inner peace and the calm of being completely present.
Metrics and worthiness
Sometime between elementary school and adulthood, society gave us a ruler. On this ruler was the system they wanted us to measure our worth by, and sadly many of us accepted it. My response now? What. The. Heck. You totally screwed us over, society. You set us up for failure. I mean, how were we supposed to measure weight with inches? Distance with liters? We couldn't. (At least not in my world.)
You have to match the correct measurement with the correct item, and you coulda started with that, society.
I realize now that it made no sense to measure my worth and my family’s worth by jobs or education or money. I was water while my peers were flour. There’s a reason why we use different measuring instruments for liquids and powder. They’re different.
Mom and Dad didn’t have “jobs” like the other kids’ parents. They didn’t make a lot of money—close to nothing at all actually—but they’ve worked all their life. In Thailand, they cultivated every grain of rice they needed to feed their children. In the U.S., they woke up every morning to drive their children to school and made sure to pick them up every afternoon. They fed us whatever they could find. Mom insisted on taking us to the hospital for every cough and every scratch. They kept us safe. And if I had to measure their worth—and mine—I’d say our metric system is effort and intention. And we are worthy. We’ve always been worthy.
So what’s in a name badge?
Every time I stand in line at Trader Joe’s now, I get flashbacks to those unnerving moments of vulnerability with Mom in the grocery store in Willows, and I get ready to do battle again. Just a few days ago, the cashier noted my name badge and asked me what I did at Chico State. “I coordinate the Writing Center,” I said proudly, waiting for that yummy feeling of total satisfaction to sink in.
Nothing but a light breeze of contentment. And, suddenly, I’m not sure if I’ve won or lost the battle.
So what’s in a name badge?
A year ago, a month ago, maybe even a week ago I would’ve said everything. Now: not so much. What I thought was my weapon for battle, what I thought held my identity and my worth, turned out to be just a piece of plastic. My badge isn’t me. My job isn’t me. I'm more than that, and I choose to face the battle with a better weapon: the truth. I may have started with nothing, but I am worth everything.
If you enjoyed this blog post, sign up for updates about upcoming posts, book recommendations and more from the Cultivate & Refine blog.