Shin Yu Pai: Writer, Editor and Poet Specializing in Obscura And Generosity
Editor’s note: Shin Yu came to us by sheer chance, after we posted about our plans for The Woodsy in an online writers’ group. The more we engaged with her and discovered her work and background, the luckier we felt to be able to include her as one of our first profiles. As if the stories she offered aren’t proof enough, we can attest that she’s been nothing but generous and open with her time and her insights. It’s our pleasure to share them here.
Name: Shin Yu Pai
Where did you grow up: Riverside, California
Where do you live now: Bitter Lake neighborhood of Seattle, WA
What do you consider “home”?: I will always be deeply connected to SoCal and its culture and people. Boulder, Colorado, also had a formative influence on my personal development. Finally, though I was not born in Taiwan, I maintain a strong connection to my extended family and to my parents’ homeland as a place where I will always feel a deep sense of karma.
What is your career path?: I’ve had a non-linear career. A consistent thread has been my work as a writer and curator/editor. I’ve worked in museums, advertising agencies, humanities organizations, academia, and philanthropy, as well as nonprofits and community newspapers. Currently, I’m continuing in philanthropy and fundraising, while also curating experiential events for Atlas Obscura, an organization with a mission to inspired wonder and curiosity.
What other passions do you have?: Alternative medicine, world religion, obscura, my family.
Favorite thing about the NW?: The sea and mountains. Lush abundance. Wild berries and foraging opportunities. Innovation and entrepreneurialism. Literary culture. Communities centering their work around equity and social justice.
How do you take your coffee (or other morning beverage)?: Hot water, sometimes with lemon.
How do you record info (pen/typing/etc)?: Pens and typing.
Favorite season in the NW?: Spring-summer.
When you’re out, how do you protect yourself from the rain?: Waterproof jacket and an umbrella if it’s pouring.
What are people surprised to learn about you?: That I began going by a different name in my twenties. I was given an English name by my father who named me after an American celebrity who was popular in the movies of the era, a beautiful blond woman that could sing and act and did so in many movies with Rock Hudson. My third uncle divined a name for me shortly after I was born. In the early part of my life, I went by my Chinese name. When I got old enough to attend public school, having a Chinese name marked me as being different. People had difficulty pronouncing my name, so I went by my English name for nearly two decades in an effort to blend in. As an adult, I chose to go back to using my Chinese name, after living in Boulder and spending time in my parents’ native country of Taiwan. People who meet me in a contemporary context do not know the history of my names. These days, professionals I’ve interacted with in healthcare, law, human resources, or in the classroom know my English name. One professor in grad school once commented that he usually found his international students from Asian cultures adopting anglicized names, whereas I was moving in the opposite direction. Strategically speaking, using a Chinese name may make me less eligible for certain kinds of professional work that interest me, since the name can create an unconscious bias in others. That said, I feel a deep connection to my name and its meaning and I try not to worry about it too much.
Has any specific woman or women in your life made a significant impact on you?: I talk about my mother a lot in interviews, but I’d like to talk about my midwife Bev who helped me deliver my son in 2013, and my childbirth educator Penny Simkin. I wanted to have a home birth and to be assisted by someone who had given birth before who could help me to move through the pain and transitions in a way that felt embodied and real. I didn’t want a cheerleader or someone who would be focused exclusively on “comfort” who would minimize the experience or the pain. At the same time, I needed a guide that I could fully trust to be full of compassion and caring and presence. Bev directed me to working with Penny Simkin, who is the godmother of the doula movement. Penny gave me the biological and physiological information that I needed to work with my mind and my wear. Working with both women, I experienced a fully empowered and embodied birth.
What’s the best decision you ever made?: To marry my partner. We were together for eight years before I consented. The circumstances under which we finally got married had to do more with practicality in a foreign country, legal rights and status, and non-romantic motivations. Up until that time, I had told myself that I would have been happy being a girlfriend for the rest of my life — I’d have an escape route, maintain my freedom, and maintain a commitment to my own life and personal development. By pushing off commitment, there was also a way in which I was not looking at my underlying beliefs around relationships, perfection, and self-worth. All growth happens in relationship to others — and though my internal and external decisions took time to align, committing my life to my best friend has taught me how to be a better, more complete and fulfilled person.
What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?: Years ago, I taught a creative writing workshop for a community-based organization in Dallas. One of the participants, a woman of color and an immigrant, came to the session late, with her young daughter in tow. I think her daughter may have been about ten or eleven years old. The woman’s childcare had fallen through at the last minute. The class was for adults and we were focused on writing poems about works in a visual art exhibition at an arts center. I could feel from the group that they felt the energy was being disrupted, but they seemed to be willing to be accommodating. The young girl brought books to read and was prepared to sit in a corner quietly. I saw no reason to leave the young girl out of the activities and welcomed her to engage in looking and thinking with the group and encouraged her to participate. Years later, one of my museum colleagues from a previous lifetime was teaching a group of high school students in an educational program. The girl who had been in my workshop was one of her students. I may have been doing some freelance workshops at the museum at the time, I can’t remember all of the details, but somehow my friend mentioned to her that she knew or had worked with me. The student who had grown into a confident and strong young woman told my friend that she adored me and wanted to be like me when she grew up and had never forgotten our afternoon looking at art together.
What advice would you give yourself when you were graduating high school and starting college?: I left California as soon as I possibly could, at the age of 17. My criteria for college as a teen was that it be far away from my origins. I made my decision to attend college based on the glossy marketing magazines with attractive and happy college co-eds (none of whom looked like me) in a region where I could experience the four seasons and a more urban and cultured experience. I also made that decision based on where I could squeeze out the most financial aid. I ended up at a second-tier school, one of 30,000 students in an urban environment, when I had the opportunity to go to a small college like Sarah Lawrence or a university more closely aligned with my personal values like UC Santa Cruz. I would have encouraged myself to take bigger risks and leaps of faith and to think less about my dating and love life and proximity to my parents. I was afraid of being in a small and intense environment where I’d be put on the spot and forced to speak my mind which seemed relatively unformed, versus blending quietly into the background and just getting a college degree. I would have told myself that instead of just going through the motions, to reflect deeply on what kind of experience I wanted to imagine for myself, like what roles creativity and community could play into that vision and what were the life experiences, skills and knowledge that I was looking to master. I would have told myself to not miss the opportunity to learn both something about myself, but about knowledge, and the greater world. I’d also tell myself to think carefully about the impacts, not solely upon my own development, but upon my relationships with family and friends.