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Don’t be Strangers with XinYi

Don’t be Strangers with XinYi

XinYi, originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, moved to Dallas, Texas at the age of 7, facing significant challenges in school due to language barriers and cultural differences. Struggling to find a sense of belonging both in the United States and Malaysia, XinYi felt caught between worlds, unable to fully identify with either culture. Despite these challenges, XinYi embraced a diverse range of creative pursuits, becoming a “creative chimera” who finds joy in exploring and mixing various media, rather than settling on a single form of expression. Identifying as aromantic, XinYi felt disconnected from the prevalent themes of romantic love in pop culture, further compounding feelings of alienation. However, through forming deep, platonic connections, XinYi gradually began to feel less isolated, discovering a sense of home and belonging on Earth through the power of friendship and shared understanding. This is why she created Don’t be Strangers.

Grayson Mask: I was particularly intrigued by your background. From what I saw on the website, you moved from Malaysia at a young age. Could you share what that transition was like? Did you often travel back and forth?

XinYi: Yes, I was seven when my family decided to immigrate, primarily for my little sister’s surgery. It wasn’t exactly my parents’ long-term dream to move to America but rather a matter of necessity. After consulting with doctors back in Malaysia, we realized we had to come to America for the procedure. So, it was just my immediate family that moved, leaving our extended family back in Malaysia. My sister was about three years old then; we’re four years apart. Traveling back and forth wasn’t really feasible for us, mainly due to the high costs of travel and the severe jet lag associated with such long flights. Considering those factors, any trip back would need to be lengthy to justify the costs and the physical toll. Since moving at seven, I’ve only been back two or three times. 

Culturally, it’s been a unique mix for me. Malaysia itself is a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures. My grandparents immigrated from Southern China to Malaysia, which added another layer to our family’s cultural identity. Moving to America introduced another shift in my sense of identity. While I am Asian American, my connection to Chinese or Malaysian cultural roots isn’t as strong, given the distance and time away. Yet, I also don’t fully align with my Chinese cultural roots alone. It’s a fascinating position to be in, navigating these various layers of identity.

Grayson Mask: It sounds like these layers of extraction from various cultures have deeply influenced your sense of identity. How do these experiences shape your view on belonging and identity in a broader sense?

XinYi: The multiple layers of cultural extraction have indeed played a significant role in shaping my identity. Despite looking Asian, which is an identity I can’t escape, these experiences have made me feel more like a global citizen, transcending specific ethnic or national identities. This sense of being a part of a larger human narrative drives my curiosity and desire to explore the world. It’s like I’m constantly searching for where I belong, navigating an identity crisis that many people from diasporic backgrounds can relate to. This search and questioning have ultimately influenced my views on community, belonging, and the essence of being human, pushing me to think beyond the concept of being strangers and to explore what truly makes a community.

Grayson Mask: Reflecting on your early experiences in the United States, did your diverse background make it challenging to form friendships, especially considering the cultural and language barriers?

XinYi: Definitely. When I first arrived and entered second grade, the language barrier was a significant hurdle. But beyond language, just being Asian led to bullying and isolation, despite growing up in an area with a relatively high Asian population. Those early struggles with making friends were real. However, these challenges also taught me empathy and the ability to connect with people from various backgrounds. This lack of a solid, singular identity became like a superpower, enabling me to be open-minded and welcoming of different perspectives. Instead of being confined by a fixed sense of self, I embraced the opportunity to listen and learn from others, which, in turn, made it easier to build friendships across diverse groups. But this approach also meant I often prioritized listening over sharing my own story, reflecting a deeper uncertainty about my identity and where I fit within these different cultural narratives.

Grayson Mask: It seems like the fear of alienation profoundly affected how you shared yourself with others. How did this impact your friendships and your ability to express your full identity?

XinYi: At a very young age, I convinced myself that I was too different to be fully understood, leading me to hide significant parts of myself. My friendships were often context-specific; we connected over shared classes, hobbies like video games, or projects, but I was terrified to share more personal interests. For example, if we were friends because of our mutual interest in art, I would hide other hobbies from you, fearing that revealing more about myself would jeopardize our friendship. This fear of further alienation made me cautious, and as a result, even when surrounded by friends, I often felt lonely. This self-imposed isolation, even in the midst of companionship, stemmed from a deep concern about fitting in, which I perceived as essential for survival. Ironically, this approach led to a profound sense of loneliness, as I never allowed myself to be fully vulnerable or understood by others.

Grayson Mask: You mentioned feeling like an alien and referenced something about creative chimera. Could you elaborate on that concept?

XinYi: Yes, the chimera—a mythical creature composed of parts from various animals, like the body of a goat, the tail of a serpent or dragon, and the head of a lion—serves as a powerful metaphor for how I view myself and human nature in general. It’s often seen as a jack-of-all-trades, a term that can sometimes carry negative connotations, implying a lack of specialization. However, I see it differently. Before the modern emphasis on professional specialization, humans were inherently multifaceted. I believe we are all more complex than our job titles suggest. For instance, even though someone might work as a financial analyst, that doesn’t encapsulate their entire identity. I’ve always identified with being creative, considering myself an artist at heart. Yet, the label of “artist” often feels limiting due to its association with mastery in a specific medium. This has led to feelings of imposter syndrome when introducing myself in such a way. The expectation to specialize or master a single medium conflicts with my desire to explore and express myself across various forms of creativity. I resist defining my identity solely by my profession or any single aspect of my creativity, preferring instead to embrace the full spectrum of my interests and talents. This approach to identity, much like the chimera’s hybrid nature, reflects a refusal to be boxed into a single category, celebrating the diversity and complexity of the human experience.

Grayson Mask: Before ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ came about, what observations or experiences led you to create this group?

XinYi: The genesis of ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ can be traced back to my personal journey from introversion towards developing more extroverted skills out of societal necessity. Despite my own skepticism, people repeatedly told me how adept I was at connecting with others, which was something I didn’t initially believe. This unsolicited feedback, pointing out my knack for networking and making friends, eventually convinced me that I had a talent for bringing people together. ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ originally began as a podcast aimed at connecting and sharing the stories of everyday people, stemming from my desire to explore connections beyond superficial interactions. This initiative was influenced by my experiences in creating content for YouTube, where I delved into various themes beyond fashion, constantly seeking engaging content. This background in content creation, coupled with my inherent ability to connect with people, naturally evolved into the ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ project, reflecting my passion for fostering genuine connections and community building.

Grayson Mask: Your journey from YouTube to podcasting and then to creating a sense of community through ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ is fascinating. Can you delve deeper into how these experiences reflect your broader mission of fostering belonging and connection?

XinYi: The transition from fashion-focused YouTube content to hosting podcasts was driven by my recognition of the meaningful conversations I was having in my everyday life. I realized these interactions could offer value to others, sparking the idea to pivot towards podcasting. This medium allowed me to share those conversations without the pressure of visual elements required by YouTube, aligning more with my personal consumption habits at the time. Podcasting opened a door to connect with individuals on a deeper level, but it also highlighted my intrinsic desire to bridge connections among people, stemming from my own experiences of loneliness.

This longing for belonging and the belief that everyone deserves to feel connected and understood motivated me to expand ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ beyond just a podcast. It evolved into a platform for community building, starting digitally with a “Pen Pals Club” for email exchanges, which naturally progressed into online and then in-person events. This journey reflects my mission to create a global sense of belonging, a mission born out of personal challenges in forming connections and a deep understanding of the transformative power of community.

Interestingly, despite my introverted nature and historical difficulty in forming group friendships, leading events and fostering community engagement has become a central part of my life. This role, while exhausting for an introvert, serves a greater purpose that aligns with my vision of creating belonging. To sustain this mission without depleting my social energy, I’ve designed ways to facilitate community connections that allow me to manage my involvement, ensuring I can continue to contribute to this cause in a meaningful way. This balance between personal energy and community involvement underscores the core of ‘Don’t Be Strangers’: creating spaces where people can connect, belong, and grow together, even as I navigate my own journey of connection and self-discovery.

Grayson Mask: You’ve expanded ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ beyond Dallas, even hosting events in cities like New York. Was the growth of these community events a gradual process or did they gain momentum more quickly than expected?

XinYi: The expansion and growth of ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ events across different cities have been a very gradual process, which I actually prefer. A sudden explosion in growth would likely overwhelm me, given my ongoing efforts to improve stress management. Slow growth allows for more manageable scaling and ensures that I can maintain the quality and intimacy of the community experiences we create. Additionally, managing people and coordinating volunteers has been a challenge, as my leadership style leans towards a more free-flowing and autonomous approach. I’ve found that managing a team, especially volunteers, requires a balance between providing direction and allowing for creative freedom, which can be difficult to achieve. My ideal scenario involves collaborators who are self-motivated and can independently contribute to the project, aligning with the playful and exploratory spirit of ‘Don’t Be Strangers.’

Grayson Mask: How do you manage the balance between guiding volunteers and collaborators, and maintaining the free-flowing nature of your work?

XinYi: Balancing guidance with the free-flowing nature of my work has been a learning curve. I’ve aimed to create an environment where ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ serves as a playground for creativity and innovation, encouraging volunteers and collaborators to take ownership of their projects. For instance, when someone proposed starting a Medium publication, I provided the necessary support and resources, allowing them to lead the initiative. This approach fosters a sense of ownership and creativity but also highlights the challenges of sustainability and motivation. It’s a delicate balance between offering support and allowing enough freedom for individuals to explore their passions within the framework of ‘Don’t Be Strangers.’ Ultimately, the goal is to cultivate a collaborative environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute in a way that resonates with them, even if it means some projects may not sustain in the long term. This philosophy underpins the essence of ‘Don’t Be Strangers’—embracing the process of exploration and play, rather than focusing solely on outcomes.

Grayson Mask: With a variety of events under ‘Don’t Be Strangers,’ have you found certain types of events to be more popular or effective in fostering connections among participants?

XinYi: Our reading events have truly soared in popularity, providing a comfortable platform for volunteers and attendees to engage deeply. The concept was inspired by a chance encounter in Barcelona, emphasizing the serendipitous nature of how ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ evolves. Typically, my travels or connections in cities like New York or Austin lead to collaborations that resolve logistical challenges, such as securing event spaces. These collaborative efforts have been essential in bringing our unique events to different locations.

The core of ‘Don’t Be Strangers’ is our conversation-based events, which I consider our unique proposition in the landscape of community-building initiatives. Derived from my desire to catalyze deep, meaningful interactions among strangers, we’ve developed conversation cards to facilitate this process. These cards are not just prompts but are the result of carefully curated questions designed to encourage openness and vulnerability in a safe environment. Our aim is not only to deepen existing relationships but to showcase the potential for profound connections with new acquaintances, challenging the notion that making friends is inherently difficult.

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