Discovering Difference with Jessie Lian

“As a child, I was always wanted to be different. But I was too afraid, because I cared a lot about what other people thought. I remember super vividly when people would make fun of me for being Asian or for not wearing some kind of Abercrombie clothes.”

Jessie Lian is like salmon.
Swimming upstream, fighting currents, and pushing up against everything for a purpose, even she ends up a little bruised and bloodied. She steps back, heals, then swims again. Resilient, fierce, multi-faceted.

In middle school, Jessie joined the step team, “because I was like no Asian is going to join the step team so I’m going to do so little things like that. It had a lot to do with my wanting to push against Asian stereotypes, so it was I’m going to be a writer or someone who is good at the arts instead of math.”

In college, Jessie pursued a degree in Management Information Systems, because everyone thought she would major in journalism. “And it was such a weird thing, because I think I was always functioning under, I want to do what people don’t expect, instead of what is actually true to me as a person, but at the same, I always talk about, oh in college, I wasn’t authentic to myself. But I was, based off of what I knew about myself.”

But Jessie was on to something. Inspired by Chik-Fil-A’s Truett Cathy, she saw him in the business world focusing on purpose versus profit. MIS became an avenue for social good and belief in potential growth.

It’s pushing back against expectations that took Jessie her from there to a business consulting group then graduating from General Assembly in UX Design.

What catalyzed the switch?
Quitting a job and making a bunch of mistakes while traveling the world on her own: 

“An example of that is… I went to Yosemite, and I backpacked by myself for a week. I didn’t know anything about backpacking and didn’t know how to make a fire and was really under prepared. I brought a 55 degree sleeping bag, and it was snowing. Also, I brought a little camp stove, but the entire park was out of fuel. So the only way to make food or be warm was to make a fire, but again I don’t know how to make a fire. And my tent was a summer tent.

It was just a series of so many mistakes, but it was one of those things that I learned to just make fun of myself and not take myself so seriously. 

At first, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, all of my pride is being shot right now. I didn’t even realize this, but I came on this trip because I wanted to show people again that I’m this great adventure woman, that I can do these things by myself, and I’m independent.’

But to have failed so miserably and then to still realize, ‘Oh I am still okay as a human being.’ In fact, I felt very joyfully liberated from having to do A, B, and C, especially when in the wild and there’s really no expectations except for just being with the trees and the mountains and survival.”

Jessie returned, and quit her job. After surviving the wild and her travels abroad, no fear seemed to hold up anymore. She finally pursued an inkling for design, “being confident in my creative ability and not always comparing my creative self to other creative people. Really, really trusting in the growth as almost the end goal and not the end goal as the end goal. 

I’m always saying I’m not there yet, I’m not there yet, therefore I’m not this or I’m not worth that. But to realize you’re probably never going to get there, that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve always longed and ached for things, and I still do now. But I think it’s a beautiful thing to say okay, ‘Let’s take a step back and realize that what you’re going through with this growth, and this progress is you satisfying a bit of that ache.'”

How do you think this focus on being different helped you and hurt you?

“Hurt me in the sense that I was functioning off external factors, so I never really knew who I was, because I was always so concerned with who I was compared to other people.

But it was healthy in the sense of realizing that about myself recently, and kind of exploring what does it mean to be different, without necessarily letting it be dependent on what others are already doing. Just different in terms of Jessie-different, just as how anyone is different already by default, because they’re a human being. Living in that mindset, or else, it’s exhausting.”

What made you choose UX design from all of the options out there?

“Well it wasn’t until my first day of class that I realized how perfect UX design was. I just knew that it seemed like a good first step in getting into the creative space. But on the first day of class, I realized that it’s this blend between business and human behavior/psychology and research and data analysis and visual aesthetics and creating something that someone wants or needs. Doing something with purpose, which is something I’ve always inherently craved is doing meaningful work. By nature, UX is that but also a blend of all these interests and passions that I’ve always had, I just never knew that a field existed out there that could combine everything, so it’s awesome.”

You have just so many passions, but tell me about one of your recent passion: yoga. You’re now a yoga teacher!

“Yes! The reason I love yoga is because it forces you to be still and check in with your body and your soul and mind and make sure everything is still okay in there. My default is to function out of external factors, so it is so important for me to go into myself and practice a sense of balance as well, instead of being so extreme all the time in my emotions and passions.

To have a grounding place on my mat has been keeping me stable and sane in so many ways. Yoga gives you a sense of stillness. It aligns your spiritual, mental and body selves, so you feel a sense of wholeness by yourself. And for me, it’s been super spiritual, the Lord has been meeting me on my mat. It gives space for the Holy Spirit to begin talking to you, and your body is in a space that is more willing to listen and to hear.

Because you’re able to give yourself that space, you’re able to give people a fuller version of love, because I feel whole all by myself already, I don’t need anyone to fill that in me anymore.

It’s so healthy, and I want to share that by teaching yoga as well.”

Do you feel like because you’ve been battling seeking acceptance from external factors for your whole life, the battle has become one of your passions, and maybe your purpose as well?

“Ah, I actually have never made that linkage, so that is really awesome that I get to reflect on that now.”

It’s pretty clear!

“Yeah, that’s awesome, because I think that these past few months have been filled with so much self-discovery. And I think it’s time to turn that around, and be more outward again. Being internal is only half the journey, I feel.

I feel like I’m in that process of turning, and that is a really good little trigger. Because I do think, even in the church, as a mentor in high school and college, that was always one of the I wanted to tell the girls, your identity is in Christ. For me, that was such a big thing while not knowing who I was. As I’ve been stepping more into what that actually means, I think I’m finding my passions in helping other people find that too. Thank you for that discovery.”

Yeah, of course. Along the same vein, how important do you think it is for someone to understand who they are? Because in this time where everything is so fast and asking us to define ourselves in 140 characters, we’re not really given space to ask, who are you really.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s so funny, because I remember, in eighth grade on Facebook, spending so much time crafting that bio. And I would always go back and read it to almost validate myself.

I realized in college that I’m not going to do social media in the ways I’ve done it before, because it’s been so toxic of me, always trying to put out things always for the sake of being received.

I think it takes a lot of intentionality to understand, because everything is asking us what are you, what are you doing, blah blah. You feel pressured to come up with something quickly without taking the time to be still and reflect and have the courage to be by yourself for an extended period of time, and I think the fact that we don’t spend time by ourselves or even always posting on social media, ‘Oh I’m by myself right now,’ things like that. It just doesn’t make it easier.”

I feel like it takes courage also to say that we don’t know either.

“It’s so true. Ah, I think the older we grow, the more we realize that we don’t actually know who we are and the more okay you are with that space. It’s a goal for me to become that kind of safe space for people.

What do you dream for yourself?

“I know that before, my answer would have been very tangible things, but recently, I’ve been learning to let go of those very specific things. I mean they’re still there, but also being able to let go of what a specific dream looks like and just have a vision for what I want to feel, like I want to present all the time. I want to have a daily practice of meditation and yoga everyday, I want to value things that are truly important and be a citizen of my city. Very intangible but also things that I can walk toward and know that I’m walking toward them right now and be okay with that.”

What do you dream for the world?

“Oh man, that hurts to think about.

That question requires a lot of hope, that things can change in the world, and that I could have a part in it.

I know that I had that hope before, and maybe it was a very egotistical pride of I want to be able to say that I’m doing this for the world, but I think that recently it’s been hard to feel hope on such a grand level because of how hopeless I feel with the times.

In the space that I’ve been, I haven’t been reading the news, because I’m afraid if I look too long in the face of that I’m going to met with an abyss of empty darkness. I’m just too afraid to go down that path and then also, I’m afraid that it will be a trigger for depression if I’m not actively fighting it with the hope that I truly believe in.

I am currently trying to start small and thinking about the positive impact that I could have in the city of Atlanta and how to be a part of that and slowly making my way to thinking about the world again, because if I do that now, I will easily go back into depression. But also filling my heart with true tangible hopes and actually believing in them so that they’re strong.”

Yes, serving yourself well, so that you have space to serve others.

“That’s definitely the space that I’m in. My hope has always been to live in a foreign country, I’ve always had a passion for that to travel and know different cultures and maybe that is just in Atlanta and Buford Highway and things like that but maybe it also is going to China.”

So what are you struggling with right now?

“I guess, staying present. And not getting too ahead of myself to the point that I dismiss what’s happening right now and today.

I mentioned this, but with my new job, it’s really scary because after choosing to make so many changes in the world of my career, it’s like, okay I should’ve arrived at a certain place at this point. But I feel like I’m always evaluating, is this where I need to be to get to the next place and then get to the next place? Then I feel like if it’s not the right place, I get super anxious and reevaluate and then it turns into a weird going overboard, doing all these random things that aren’t helping anyone or become super melancholy, depressed and apathetic, or I just indulge in drinking and eating lots of things. I have such a hard time with balance. Just being present and being happy in that.

Being so inward, it’s important to have something to give again but also, it can feel so hopeless. It’s all the more important to see how light is breaking through everyday,

how God is breaking through and how he is working things to a greater purpose and fixing things. It can be so hard to see that especially if I’m not trying.

dear jessie,

whatever you do, don’t forget to hope.

whenever you get that achy feeling that makes you feel like an empty void, hope. whenever you feel like screaming into your pillow angry obscenities, hope. whenever you want to roll up in a useless ball in the corner of your room, hope.

whenever you feel discontent, hope. whenever you feel apathetic, hope. whenever you feel ashamed, hope. whenever you feel suffocatingly alone, hope.

hope in the strength of others to help you through, hope in the love of God to carry you past. hope in the simplicity of the present to bring you joy, hope in the expanses of this earth to teach you what’s wildly free. hope in what is lasting and infinite, hope in what is good and pure.

squeeze every ounce of hope out of your tiny little body, then plant it and watch it steadily grow into strong and organic joy. crush those fearsome weeds before they even take root, and let the fruition feed your hopes, and your hopes the fruition.

not everything needs to be so serious, jess, not everything needs such eloquent answers.

but hope.

with a love that I think is growing,


photos by Gina Yu ©2017

Jessie, you are luminous. Undeniable, catalyzing, dazzling, warm. Thank you for the ways you search yourself and then search the world— for meaning and for goodness. 

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Poetry in Progress: A Life Alive with Esther Yoon

“So, about me… I’m boring with sprinkles but with exploding colors.”

_mg_7513 Boring with sprinkles, and exploding colors is how Esther Yoon describes herself. Sprinkles and exploding colors, yes. Boring, the last thing to come to anyone’s mind.

As an administrative coordinator for a university and occasional worship leader, she works with college students everyday, yet studies theology and writes songs in her free time. She creates circles of safe spaces for people. “Because I think even though I’m constantly changing, I believe I can really feel for people,” she says. “I think a lot of people will try to find the one thing that they’re passionate about, and for a really long time, I couldn’t find what that was.”

Hunger, sex trafficking, depression, anxiety.  The stories of healing. The stories of love and redemption and new beginnings. She saw those passions, those fascinations, those ruminations trickle down to one passion, life.

“I just love seeing people living life alive, because I believe you can be living life dead, dormant, indifferent,” she says. “And I don’t think that is the way we were meant to live our one life.”


How do you feel like you’re living out your passion?

“That’s actually a funny question, because for the past couple years I’ve constantly been in transition. It’s been a lot of fun but also extremely challenging. Some things were constantly changing where it was really easy to be more alive, to feel like I’m more alive. Because I think being more alive is also connected to growth, but I think the hardest place to grow is when you feel like there’s no change happening. That’s been like my year. Constantly in places where okay, I’m working a 9-5 Monday through Friday, the kind of schedule I never really thought I would ever be in.

For the past ten years, I always thought I would be the person, right out of college, doing ministry. Yet that’s the thing, I am. It just looks different. Life has been kind of boring, and I’ve been struggling with that. What does it look like to be alive in the midst of my responsibilities and duties, things that I don’t always look forward to?

I think the biggest thing is paying attention.

I was reading that book called Kisses from Katie, and she was saying that world changers have one thing in common: they know the importance of the individual. They’re satisfied with one smile, on stomach, one life.

I feel like as a generation of what I would like to think of dreamers, we’re called to dream, but we’re also called to sacrifice. Those dreams really start from the humility of knowing that we are so unworthy but also so graced to be used, and I think that’s where it kind of starts to be able to live life alive in the mundane Monday through Friday 9-5.

To be awake and present and pay attention to the many stories around you. We don’t even have to know if we’re affecting it or not. Sometimes we’re blessed to have certain reminders that we are, but it starts with paying attention.”


As a part of the generation of dreamers, what are your dreams like?

“One of the biggest dreams I have personally is…

Well how I figured out this dream is, there were two worship leaders leading a song, in two very different settings. One was deep gospel and another was super conservative and angelic worship. I remember seeing the worship leaders and I had no idea who they were; I’ve never met them, but when they started to lead worship, it felt like straight magic where I just felt like I knew them.

They were both women, and I remember thinking, I know these women. The spirit was so all-consuming that I felt like I knew this person, because we both were in the spirit together. I can’t verbally describe what that feeling or experience was like, but it was insane.


If magic is a thing, this is what it was. I could feel like I was somehow in oneness with a body, and my dream is to be that living invitation where when people see me, that I would be so all-consumed by the Holy Spirit in the presence of God, where when I’m inviting someone to sing to the Lord, it’s like they already know me.

It’s that safety, that oneness, that warmth of a presence where there’s no mask. It’s the feeling of being understood. I can’t verbally grasp what that was like, but I knew that’s what I was called to do. To be that living invitation.

There’s a humility in leaning on God and seeking Him, knowing that I can’t do that, but that he could use me to be that vessel.


Dreams for the world?

I dream more people would care about each other. I think that would change the world.

If people could pay attention to each other, to where they could feel understood (not saying that they’re always going to agree on everything, because they’re not), but to feel like man, they’re paying attention to me. I’m being heard. To give people the opportunity to be that person for each other. That would change the world.”

How important do you feel like the idea of someone’s story is?

“It’s funny because when I tell people my story, sometimes I feel like, ‘Do they even believe me?’

I’ve gone through sexual abuse as a toddler, was suicidal growing up, was extremely depressed and still have symptoms of depression every now and then, and was bullied.

But it all goes back to paying attention and the importance of the individual, because I think if people could genuinely pay attention to a person, before the person even has to tell their story, I feel like there is a freshness in treating them as who they are now.

Because sometimes, people don’t have to know my story, because I met them now. It’s beautiful when we share how we became who we are. It’s crucial, because I feel like it shows the magnitude of how God is so specific towards people, in the ways he draws them to his heart. Knowing someone’s story isn’t completely necessary, but it does show the amazing beauty of how wide and how deep the Father’s love is. There truly is no bounds. No one is marked off from being loved by Him— being sought and pursued by Him.”


What are you struggling with right now?

“I think there’s a lot of fear in what I’m struggling with right now. Fear of, you know, you don’t really know much, everything’s changing, and I feel it. You feel, after college, the crushing of certain dreams or the feeling of your dreams being crushed, even if they’re not. The questioning of what your life looks like as well as the fight in your head trying to be like ‘No, Esther, this is not the end. You’re still so young.’

I’m struggling with wondering if I’m authentic enough, if I’m good enough with my talents or if they’re even talents. I struggle with fighting off those thoughts and admitting those thoughts and feeling stupid for thinking them. It’s a constant tension.

We live in that tension of what our flesh and mind naturally goes to, and I feel it. You know they say the more you know, the more you’re responsible for. And I love to learn, but as I grow up, I’m realizing the more I decide to learn, the more responsibility I’m putting on my shoulders to carry, especially with my faith.

Sometimes, I struggle with missing being ignorant and being able to make stupid mistakes, because it’s so easy to look around and see people being apathetic and indifferent about each other and this world. It’s starting to feel like the norm is indifference.

The struggle is knowing that the road is narrow but still seeking to be satisfied by God, knowing He can. But I can only really do that if I fix my eyes on Him.”


A letter, from Esther to Esther:

Hello Esther,

You’re freaking weird dude. Like, I know at times, you can feel like you wish for once in your life that you could feel belonging- this yearning to just have what others have, but don’t. This yearning is a heavenly tension, don’t make this place your home. It’s not. You want more from God, but He has already given it to you. He has healed, and brought to life all your “impossibles” and He will surely bring you home. He holds you so intimately close. He thinks of you and loves your being. Talk to Him. You miss Him, so talk to Him. Tell Him the truth, and stop saying “You already know” to Him, because more so, you saying it out loud is for you.

Love Him, for He loves you.

photos by Gina Yu ©2016

Esther, you are fire and light. Imperfectly, poetically divine. Thank you.

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