There’s a reason why the phrases “kill them with kindness” and “a little kindness goes a long way” have been frequently used in our society. Life is too short to live without kindness. There are many words that are linked with the legal profession, such as competency and civility, but kindness isn’t necessarily associated with our profession. Lawyers have been perceived as cutthroat individuals, sharks, and rainmakers in part due to what society sees in movies and television. Lawyers are also expected to perform at high levels while advocating for our clients. These traits give off an aggressive, type A personality vibe. However, kindness should also be considered and practiced more often because the act of being kind can provide a sense of purpose and meaning behind the work we do as lawyers. Being kind can also help lawyers get more business and provide better legal representation. Merriam-Webster defines “kind” as “of a sympathetic or helpful nature” and “kindness” as “the quality or state of being kind.” I’d like to add that kindness to me is doing something that helps others without the expectation of receiving anything in return. For lawyers, that can be legal pro bono work or something entirely out of the legal world.
Life Lessons from Being Homeless
GPSolo magazine’s theme this issue is Public Service: How Lawyers Can Help the Community. When I first proposed this issue, I thought about my first experience helping my community and the meaning behind that experience. This was well before my life as a lawyer. If you’ve been reading my Legal Angle columns, you know that I enjoy storytelling and that I believe sharing one’s experiences can help others understand your point of view (and thus help lessen unconscious bias).
I’d like to start off by refreshing my readers’ memories regarding my background. My parents were immigrants on refugee status when they came to America. When they arrived here, they had no personal possessions but the clothes on their backs. I recall being homeless before my younger brother was born. My parents, older sister, and I lived in a van in a local park in Orange County, California. My dad would go to work early in the morning, and my mom would take care of my sister and me. My sister was already old enough to attend elementary school, and I was enrolled in preschool. We would have to get ready for school in our van and in the public bathrooms in the park once they opened. Sometimes we had to walk to a nearby restaurant to get ready for school because the park ranger hadn’t opened the park’s bathrooms yet. When we were at school, my mom took care of household duties like washing our clothes at a local laundromat. Because we didn’t have a kitchen, my dad would often bring us back food for dinner. My sister and I ate lunch at school because lunch was provided (free lunches provided by schools from kindergarten through high school acted as a lifeline for us, and I cannot express how grateful I am for the free lunch program).
Although we didn’t have much as a family, we had each other. The daily grind during this time wasn’t the easiest experience for any of us, and it wasn’t exactly fun, but we all tried our best. As a child, I never once thought that I was poor (even though we were at the time). My “backyard” was the entire park, and life was carefree during my preschool experience. I could escape my reality by reading books I checked out at the local public library. My parents taught me “the value of a dollar” and that everything is earned in life, including things that couldn’t be bought, such as respect and kindness. I learned to appreciate every single aspect of my young life because my parents constantly reminded me (and my sister) that the life they left behind in Cambodia and Vietnam was much worse than anything we experienced in America. They added that, at least in America, we had a fighting chance at making something out of ourselves. Of course, there were major obstacles in fulfilling the “American Dream,” but I understood what my parents were trying to convey to me at the time (and even now)—we had our lives. Since then, I’ve tried my best not to squander opportunities I’ve encountered and made a promise to myself that once I start something, I am going to see it through to the end. It’s been a long road to lawyer life, but I’m here now. And I plan on living a life that includes a life of service. If I can make a difference in one life by sharing my story, I’m going to do it.
Acts of Kindness Can Go a Long Way
From a very young age, I learned from my parents that helping others is important, but I likely didn’t fully appreciate acts of kindness during this time. Once we were able to move into a house, life was different. We were able to afford certain things that were once out of reach. My dad ran a bakery and eventually opened several locations throughout my childhood. This was a few years after my preschool days. Even though we could afford to purchase books, my mom still had us visit the local public library every weekend. She really instilled the importance of education in us, and reading was a way to become more educated. The local public library usually had several homeless individuals residing nearby. After we checked out our books for the weekend, we would chat with those individuals to see how they were doing, and we would often give them baked goods from my dad’s bakery. I learned so much from those conversations. A lot of those individuals really lived their life to the fullest. One person even taught me some basic American Sign Language. (I still know the alphabet to this day!) I didn’t know how to describe it then, but I do know that this act made me feel good inside.
After a while, my parents told my sister and me that they planned on hosting a Fourth of July barbecue for all the local homeless people because they wanted to give back to the community. During our first year hosting this event, there was a large turnout as individuals from all across Orange County attended. Word spread quickly about our event that was to be held on Independence Day. We ran out of food so fast that my mom insisted that we purchase more food and drinks. We hosted this barbecue at the park I called “home” when I was homeless. We started at noon and didn’t stop until it was dark outside. I looked forward to this event every summer and would reconnect with individuals I met from the summers before. I still think about these barbecues every Fourth of July and fondly hold onto these memories.
Celebrate Life by Living It Through Public Service
My parents really wanted to celebrate America because of all the opportunities they were given when they had the chance to live here, so they specifically chose Independence Day to give back to their community. We hosted this barbecue all through my childhood up until I was in high school. My parents didn’t get anything in return. They didn’t write off this act of kindness on their tax returns. They did this for years because they understood the positive ripple effect of being kind to others. This is another life lesson I take with me to this day. While I am a lawyer, I take every opportunity to volunteer and give back to my respective communities. You don’t have to be a lawyer to live a life of service, but it certainly helps. I urge you all to be kind and give back to your communities. A life of service makes life worth living!