Who Is Kien?
The short answer is that I am a photographer and filmmaker. I am a visual storyteller in constant search of new adventures. I see or learn about something cool and I add it to my Bucket List. Then I do my best to check off as many of those items as I can while finding a way to pay the bills. The longer answer has to a little more to do with realizing how precious time is and learning, unceasingly, how to make the most from what I was given.
I was born in a refugee camp on the island of Lantau in Hong Kong. My parents were part of a group of Vietnamese migrants who left a country forever changed by the war that ended just a few years earlier. Under the cover of darkness, they quietly hid on a fishing trawler that would make a perilous journey over a thousand miles in hopes of finding safety and refuge in Hong Kong. Their unlikely voyage brought them from Vietnam to Hong Kong to the Philippines before eventually settling them in 1980’s California. Here, my mom would stay home to take care of me and my sister while my dad worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week below minimum wage to support us. This was the beginning of our American Dream.
Chasing The American Dream
I don’t really know if my dad really had a choice in deciding that he’d be working as a butcher in a supermarket until he retired. He never complained at the time and he never used it to guilt me or my siblings into studying or working harder. He just did what he had to do for his family and that was that.
My mom had the grander ambitions for us. Despite her own limited schooling during the war, I remember sitting with my mom at the dinner table every night while she drilled me in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division even before I started kindergarten. With hardly any English, she somehow found me a octogenarian piano teacher who would give me lessons for $5. When she heard about a typewriting class at a local community college, she found a way to enroll me even though I was only 7 years old at the time. She even found a way to get me into a program for the gifted and then woke up every morning at 6 am to drop me off at the bus station where I’d take a bus for an hour to go to a better school.
Find Your Course And Run Towards It
I was your stereotypical hardworking Asian kid growing up. Straight A’s, played the piano, really good at math. I even played ping pong and had the bowl cut. Right on schedule, I graduated from high school, attended a prestigious Ivy League business school and secured a job with the largest asset manager in the world.
At the age of 21, I found myself in uncharted territories having accomplished everything my parents had hoped for when they first set foot on American soil. Now what?
The Good Life
The new job came with sharp suits, fine dining and disposable income. For the first time, I could buy my family nice gifts and take them on a proper holiday. For myself, I turned off my blackberry and spent 3 weeks running around as a backpacker every year, choosing the budget lifestyle over the lavish one. It was a nice balance, but one that ultimately had to tip one way or the other.
I became envious of backpackers who were traveling around the world for stretches of months and years at a time, rather than days or weeks. There were so many places to explore and adventures to be had. I was earning good money, but I couldn’t use it to buy more time.
Golden Handcuffs: The use of benefits, typically deferred payments, to discourage an employee from leaving. In practice, if you aren’t willing to leave your job at your current salary, will you be willing to leave it the following year with an even higher salary?
I enjoyed my job and the security it brought, but something was missing. I dreamed of sleeping under the stars in the Sahara desert more than being promoted to Managing Director. I had a wider smile at the thought of embarking on a series of unexpected misadventures with someone I just met than of buying a new car with my annual bonus.
Each time I went to Los Angeles to visit my family, I just wished I could stay for longer. Full stop.
Throwing In The Towel
In late 2010, these conflicting thoughts all came to a head and in a surprising moment of absolute clarity, I made a big decision: I quit my job.
I bought a one way ticket to London and started chasing the warm weather around the world (we were having a particularly cold year in San Francisco). To me, the economics of staying in my job just didn’t make sense. There was just so much to do. I wanted to see the world and I was putting it off and trading my 20s for a figure that now seemed absurdly small after taxes and paying for the cost of living in San Francisco.
Over the next year, I bootstrapped it across 5 continents and 17 countries. I ate sheep brains in Morocco, dived with sharks in Indonesia and sped down the Death Road in Bolivia. With my longer visits to Los Angeles, I did Zumba workout classes with my mom and gambled with my dad and a bunch of old guys in a Chinese take-out restaurant. I didn’t want it to stop. This life made more sense. What was I working so hard for if not to be able to what I wanted to do.
During my travels, I created a short 5 minute video capturing the beauty of my travel. The story and video went viral at the beginning of 2012 and I received an outpouring amount of emails and comments from people around the world who wanted to let me know how my video had inspired them to travel. Through this medium, I was connected to people I had never met and inadvertently stumbled onto the next phase of my career. Kien Lam, photographer and filmmaker. I liked the sound of that.
With my photography and videos, I could share my adventures and the world with others. In return, people introduced me to a catalog of random things I could try, like putting on a protective suit and getting chased down by a german shepherd or racing across India in a dilapidated auto-rickshaw. These things go into my big Bucket List and I want you to join me on these adventures together.
Maybe that thing about getting chased by an attack dog wasn’t exactly what my parents had in mind when they left Vietnam for a brighter future, but they reassure me that, regardless of the job, the important thing was that I would always have the opportunities to do what I wanted to do with my life. So that’s what I’m doing. Come follow the journey.