In Conversation with Isabella from ISM

What would you ask your alternate self if you had the opportunity to meet him or her in a parallel universe? Isabella, the creator behind ISM, shares her reflection on this curious thought and explores what it means to be not all-knowing.

I realized something profound—that life is much like climbing a mountain, with no knowledge of what may lie at the other side, or even the peak. Some days the weather is clear and we can see our next move—see even 10 steps ahead of us, and we get excited. And some days it’s cloudy and hazy and it’s difficult to even see 3 inches in front of us.
— Isabella

Hi Isabella. What’s your story? — Sustainability. Culture. Mentoring. These are the core tenets of me, and my brand, ISM.

After a car accident left me with scars, I grew up not knowing who I really was. At 7 years old, I became aware of the harsh realities of having a physical difference than others; at a young age, I had already began contemplating society’s idea of beauty and worthiness. When I began developing my true self, I began to focus on deep, intentional self-awareness and how I could incorporate my values into everyday experiences.

Today I mentor others through SkillSwell, my skill-building and mentoring company, founded in powerful cultural sensitivity, navigating emotional landscapes, and nurturing a one-size-does-not-fit-all learning style. I encourage students to express themselves through learning as a key to developing self-growth and divulge the hesitations and differences behind the learning styles in different countries. I coach those who have still not found their core and teach them about mindful living - both habitual and spiritual. I teach the Zen Buddhist worldview of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of change and finding beauty in imperfection.

On the side, I run my blog ISM and my Instagram, which both focus on building an audience interested in a sustainable, ethical lifestyle, and a greater awareness of intentional and mindful living. Through learning, my hope is that others may also begin revealing a self that reflects the actions they take in their lives, every single day. I also focus on supporting small businesses and building connections with them. Right now, I like doing interviews with brand creators and learning more about them while helping promote their products.


What absolutely excites you right now? — The prospect of continuing my journey. For a long time, it was difficult to see my goals and thus began to believe that it wasn’t worth the trouble of finding my path. As a result, I began to judge my worthiness based on the opinions of other people, searching their words to create some Frankensteined elevator pitch of myself, and further blocking me from advancing.

I realized something profound—that life is much like climbing a mountain, with no knowledge of what may lie at the other side, or even the peak. Some days the weather is clear and we can see our next move—see even 10 steps ahead of us, and we get excited. And some days it’s cloudy and hazy and it’s difficult to even see 3 inches in front of us. “Why do we keep climbing the mountain if we don’t even know where it leads?” That’s what I kept asking myself. In the end, the journey creates your life, and to me, that’s what’s most exciting now. Being able to meet new people, hear their stories, get excited about what others are doing, and elevate my own experiences through learning.

When you wake up, what’s the first thing you usually do? — I got into the habit of doing this when I was at my lowest—count “3, 2, 1…” then get up and stretch. I thought that if I gave myself a countdown I could trigger myself to muster up the courage or energy to do things. And it worked for the most part, but now I’m still in the habit of doing it!


What does it mean to be an Asian Between Cultures? — For me, it’s the distinct awareness of both difference and privilege. Growing up in the West means I might have more perspective and privilege to talk about things like feminism, mental health, and other charged topics. At the same time, I could never imagine living in the Philippines as a light-skinned Filipina, facing the privileges I might have received in a colorist society. I could never imagine perhaps living extremely frugally like some of my relatives in Baguio and Tagum. I never had a chance to engulf myself fully in my culture, nor even learned Tagalog from my parents.

As a kid, you accept aspects of your culture to be the norm. It was normal to eat rice with every meal, normal to go to Filipino parties with tons of food, and normal to go to church every Sunday. And it’s not until I grew up and stopped doing some of those things that I realized I took those experiences for granted and had disassociated them from “culture.” And it’s not until I realized a lot (a LOT) of Asian-Americans are actively separating themselves from their own cultures that I was able to really think about what my cultural identity was. Being an ABC also means I have the responsibility now to be aware of these differences that I have growing up here in the United States and learn more about my family. And my mindset changed a lot—I became more attune to cultural sensitivity and now try not to be completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world. To me, that’s a real privilege.

What are some of the blessings that come with being an ABC? — Food. Food. Food.
Actually, one of the biggest blessings is having a deep connection to something greater than you. When you hear stories about your family and find out surprising or shocking details about your culture, it’s like you’re listening in on a whole new life and experience. I used to have a “Western” me who tried to fit in to my mostly White neighborhood and an “Eastern” me who appreciated our culture back home. I think it’s important to demystify and break down that barrier of East and West within ABC lives, and become one whole person.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as an ABC? — Not being Asian enough for Asian people, and not being American enough for American people. I frequently get mistaken for an Asian-born individual by Americans. Multiple times I’ve had random people say “ni hao” to me because apparently Chinese is the only Asian that exists if you have paler skin and look Asian. I’m not bothered by it anymore, but it can certainly be disconcerting to know people are still prejudice nowadays even in a Western society. On the flip side, because I don’t fluently know Tagalog, I feel like I can’t completely connect with my relatives or my culture. Sometimes I’ll get messages from relatives who converse in mixed Tagalog and I sometimes feel embarrassed to ask my parents what they’re saying. Sometimes I feel like language plays a big role in bridging the gap between cultures, and I often feel at odds with myself for not truly understanding. I’m working on learning more Tagalog in the future, though!


How does being an ABC shape the way you engage with those around you? — I think once I began to really become invested in culture, it became very difficult to interact with people who are willingly unaware of the difficulties people around the world face every day. I don’t have a tolerance for intolerance and feel that I do have the privilege of having a voice and the perspective of someone who can learn about injustice in the world. On the same vein, it’s helped me become more compassionate toward other Asians who experience prejudice and can better learn from and understand their thoughts. I am also a big advocate for teaching others about culture whenever I can, especially those who are hungry to learn more about others but might be too shy to ask.

Cultural identify and upbringing is a great way to start deeper conversations. Why do you think most people engage or disengage with these topics? — Engage: I’ve only seen conversations about culture and upbringing happen between POC, who can emphasize with each other and have those moments of “My mom did that too!” Engaging with these topics is a great way to create a deeper connection through a shared experience. It helps to know you aren’t alone. Disengage: I’ve seen this happen mainly with two types of people. Asians who have distanced themselves from their culture, or non-POC who haven’t gone through the experience. I’m sure you can glean why it’s difficult to talk about these topics with them. Honestly, I don’t blame people for not being comfy with hearing about upbringing if they didn’t experience it themselves. It’s a moot point of discussion if the other person doesn’t have a way to understand it.

What is the driving force in your life? Share with us your motivations and why you keep on pursuing your dreams. — My motivation comes from knowing that I’m not all-knowing. I think for quite a long time, I wanted to know any and every piece of information about things and people, and if I didn’t know something, I told myself I failed. My relationships and connections were forged and broken on misunderstanding and superficialities, and moving forward, I want to keep letting go of the specifics of how I think life should be. Things are ever-changing and thus I am more excited than ever to explore my possibilities without fear of the unknown.


If you had the opportunity to meet one person you haven’t met, who would it be, why and what would you talk about? — Rather than haven’t yet met, maybe I would like to meet someone that I physically cannot meet in person: Myself in a parallel universe in which my accident didn’t happen to me. I would like to ask how her life is going. Learn about how she sees herself, what her plans are, and what she does for a living. And I would like to see how my experience differs from hers. Is she strong-willed? Confident? How do her interests differ from mine? In a sense, it’s more of a fantastical answer that can’t ever happen. I suppose it’s more of a reflection of my curiosity to see how that accident really affected my life. So if there’s anyone I’m curious to know about, it’s the alter-Isabella. But I also suppose the evidence of the life-changing moment is already before me—understanding my emotions and where they originated from, peeling away layers of my core, and being in tune with myself. It’s fun to think about an alternate self. But it’s not fun to wish you were them.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your previous self? — Honestly, my previous self (both years ago and even one year ago) would not have been able to keenly listen to my advice. Rather than advice, I would probably try to help the past Isabella understand and learn how to manage her emotions in a healthy way. Perhaps that would circumvent some unsavory events, and maybe it won’t; either way, she might be able to handle each moment a little more gracefully than before. Also, don’t be lazy!