17. How to Rebuild When Your Dreams Fall Apart with Lien Ta
The pandemic has forced many of us to stop – stop going out, stop seeing friends, stop doing the things that bring us joy. And when we all stopped eating out, it affected millions of restaurant workers in America, including restaurateur Lien Ta. Lien had to close the doors to her first restaurant, Here’s Looking at You, and find new ways to keep her second one afloat. How do you move forward when the future of what you worked hard for is out of your control? This episode’s practice is about grappling with change, grieving expectations, and giving yourself options when you’re forced to shift course.
Resources from the show
- If you’re in the LA area, visit Lien’s restaurants, Here’s Looking At You (which just recently reopened!) and All Day Baby.
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Claire, Lien Ta
Hi, I’m Clary Bidwell-Smith. Welcome to New Day. Today we’re talking about what it means to set an intention and follow your dreams. But then what happens when it doesn’t go as planned? I’ve known our guest today, restaurant owner Lien Ta for many years, we first met in our 20s. We are involved in Dave Eggers literary nonprofit eight to six LA. And over the course of our friendship, I watched Lien pivot from a really successful writing career into pursuing her real dream of opening a restaurant. She puts so much heart and effort and intention into this dream that her first restaurant here’s looking at you, when press in praise across the board. She even went on to open a second Los Angeles restaurant called All Day Baby. But when the pandemic hit, Lynn, like so many other small business owners around the world, watched her dreams collapse around her. How do we cope when this happens? How do we grieve the loss of a dream? How do we take care of ourselves when things fall apart? Lien and I get into all of that in today’s conversation.
Thank you so much for coming on the show. I’m really excited to talk to you for a lot of reasons. But we start every show asking our guests the same question. How are you doing? But how are you actually doing? Like right now?
I am actually doing better than normal this very morning. usually on Mondays I feel pretty defeated. It’s usually such a long week at the restaurant, you know, working sometimes 16 hours shifts a day. So by Monday, my body is usually just decaying. But I started journaling this year. And I did finally take some time this morning have been a little bit behind. But I wrote today that I felt that instead of feeling this sense of defeat, I felt more so that I have conquered. So that’s a little rare. But I’m in this slightly better place. I just came back from vacation. So that helps.
That helps. Yes, sometimes it’s like flipping the switch, right? We need to like flip the lens and look at it through a different way. Like you could totally look at everything through defeat. Or we can choose to look at some of the stuff we have conquered and have achieved. And it’s like it depends on the day. Right? Wow well we can do that. For people who don’t know you tell us about who you are today and what you’ve been working on these last few years.
Today, I’m probably best known as a restaurateur. And I was a restaurateur of two restaurants. But I unfortunately had to close my first restaurant which had opened in the summer of 2016. In the middle of last year at sort of, you know the height of the pandemic. And I’ve essentially since been running this one restaurant, it was a new restaurant at the time of the pandemic. It’s called All Day Baby. It’s located in Silverlake, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. And we’ve been keeping it alive. And I’m there all the time so people can find me. I’m serving. I’m Instagramming. I sort of wear a lot of hats for that restaurant.
Yeah. I mean, this was a big thing I really wanted to talk to you about one of the biggest reasons I wanted to have you on because I think last year so many of us as the pandemic came on, saw small businesses like yours, and I just remember just my heart sinking and thinking, oh my god, what are these people going to do, you know, from owners to busboys to just all the different levels of small businesses and watching them go under watching them struggle. I mean, it was absolutely heartbreaking to watch from afar and I can’t even imagine what it was like to go through firsthand, you know, and I have to imagine most people can understand this, but maybe they don’t. But restaurants are like babies. You own a restaurant, you build it up, you put that together, like what was that like to do for your first restaurant?
Lien Ta 04:21
Well, it was so traumatic. I just remember, you know, March 15th, that evening and having to write these heartbreaking emails to lay off 100 people, including myself, and we call it furlough. I had never even heard of the word furlough at that point. But legally, that was what we were counseled to say to our team. And I mean, it’s quite devastating. It’s unexpected. You know, I love your analogy that you’re using to describe my restaurants as my children because they really are I don’t have human children. I do have my restaurant children, which encompasses real people, my employees who I do, call my family. And it was just so unreal to see this unexpected turn. And you’re having to figure out, what are the solutions? Now moving forward, what are you going to do? How are you going to care for them? Are they going to see another day?
So how was the restaurant doing up until the pandemic.
The first restaurant, here’s looking at you was doing great. It was sort of a steady, a steady restaurant, you know, opened seven nights a week, two days for Saturday, Sunday brunch, a wonderful following with incredible regulars, still a lot of first timers, tons of visitors from international guests even, in the last couple days leading up to March 15. We’re pretty extraordinary and shocking, just to see, you know, the level of cancellations that occurred and all of that. So that was, that was odd, you know, but I had a team that had many of them had been there with me for years, or from the very first day. So I think, I mean, they were great. The other restaurant was in a more challenging place, it was so new, had so much debt, you know, we’re constantly just trying to open. And so for three months, we were open seven days for breakfast and lunch, and everybody was like your restaurants called All Day Baby, when are you going to ever open at night, I’m like, well, if we’re gonna be technical, it is open during the day. So we’re, you know, finally, by the time we were able to find every buddy that we needed to open up for dinner, and to train them, we had open for 10 days, use the 16, 17-hour days. And then we had to close and it was so, you train all of these people that time that I think I personally put in to each individual. It’s just even now when I look back, I don’t generally imagine my life with regrets. That’s just not usually what I think about. But it’s been hard not to look at this time and be like, gosh, all of those beautiful people and talented souls that I worked with are not with me anymore with that it’s such a way, you know?
Yeah. I remember when, when you opened and just all the praise and press you were getting and people were so excited about this. So I’m just thinking about how much thought you had put into this place. And then to have the pandemic, sweep over us and just take it out from underneath you is I’m still trying to like, think about it, it’s so much. And it must have just felt, you must have felt so powerless, and you’re not and you’re just one of like 1000s of people, maybe millions that this happened to in the last year. Right?
Right. 11 million restaurant workers were affected, at least in the United States. It’s still today feels like starting over. And to do so with a lens of optimism can be really challenging. And I would say that I’m, I can operate this way. But to constantly measure the level of disappointment that I feel like I carry all the time, even for example, I think when guests come into this to the new restaurant, and they talk about the old restaurant, I think they’re certainly just trying to share and empathy. What they miss about that restaurant are the empathy that they have with me at the loss of it, but it hurts, like just constantly review, the grief and the loss of that wonderful restaurant or whatever it is that they want to share. Sometimes I don’t have even the patience for it, which I’m so disappointed to say. Like I said, I’m getting better and it takes time to just sort of accept their grief as well on top of my own grief, and I’m still managing. But it’s also been a wonderful opportunity, I will say to focus on All Day Baby, the second restaurant and I have to say I love it so much more than I expected to, your mom, but I don’t know if this is what mothers feel. But, you know, let maybe like an accidental birth or something like that, or, you know, a really challenging birth. This was so challenging. And I was like God, this restaurant, I kind of hated a little, you know, raising the money was so hard I had to take out on my own really, really hefty loan in order to get this place and it just had a lot of problems. But now, you know, it’s this kind of new little life that it’s been taking on and now it gets its own little accolades. Even though it doesn’t feel as fancy as that first restaurant or the as glitzy and sparkly, it somehow has managed to form its own very, very special and unique identity.
I love that. I think it does work well as a mom. I was thinking about my two daughters who you know, And I had […], and I was so excited about having this girl and it was like the first baby. And then […] came, and I was like, What am I gonna do with another girl? Like took me a minute to be like, oh my gosh, and then I fell in love with her too, you know? So I was thinking about that before you even said that. But at what point did you begin to grieve for here’s looking at you like, as with all of us, I don’t think we realized the magnitude of the pandemic, how long it would last, like what was the moment when you realize it wasn’t coming back?
Lien Ta 10:32
So I immediately thought about its ending right away, and was managing the grief of that even weeks before my staff was aware that we are going to be closing. And then there was this period of time in discussion with our landlord that it was just going to be temporary, this closure was temporary, the pandemic is temporary. So I was like, okay, this is temporary. So I’m going to table this grief. And we’ll come back to it. And then I started to think this is quite awful. The grief actually started manifesting, even in my physical self, my body just sort of stopped working. And it started to feel real.
Yeah, I just don’t know if any business owner is really equipped to figure out how to do all of this, like go through all of these ups and downs, I don’t care what kind of business degree you have. It sounds so hard and overwhelming, and the amount of money and loans and responsibility again, your mom was a small business owner, right? Like, tell me about that, and how that plays in at all to, to your experience of it.
You know, so she owns nail salons, she opened nail salons all around America. And she kind of even said to me, like, who knew nail salons would ever go under? You know, and this is what she told me. She goes, I’m gonna retire now. And I was like, okay, mom, you know, and she just couldn’t, she really understood that first of all, my health came first, I was so happy that she believes the pandemic is real. And so she very much cared a lot about me taking care of myself and not being at the restaurant. At that point. She actually only knew that I had one, which I think you know this about me too. I keep things from her. So she didn’t find out. She didn’t know about the second restaurant until she read about it in a Vietnamese newspaper. Because she heard about it on national news. So then she called me and was like, you have two restaurants? I was like, Yeah, I do. And I’m really sorry. You know, my first inclination is just to tell her I’m sorry. But yeah, I’m so happy that we have this ability to relate. And I now can see, hindsight is hilarious. She hated that I got into restaurants, which is why I kept that secret both times from her. Why did she hate it? She just felt that there were other things that I could do. That would better show tribute, for example, that I was a child, privileged enough to be born in America have a college degree, and not have to work in this service and labor force that she has done her whole life. And she just hates that I got myself into a place where I work so hard. And now that I see how hard I do work. And for the most part, it’s obviously extremely rewarding. But she I think she’s right, like I could have probably chosen an easier way. But I’m here. So this is where I was meant to be.
Do you think she’d role modeled all of that for you? Do you think now, in retrospect, you kind of followed her path or tried to improve on it? Or?
I don’t know, I think she probably looks at it as like, why didn’t she listen to me? Like, why does my job but you know what, I love those, you know, my father was a small business owner too. And he passed away when I was 13 from cancer. But um, I think about him constantly at work. And I think about all the little skills and the value he put into creative thinking and creative solving constantly. And I tell small stories all the time at work when these epiphanies hit to my young staff. And I mean, it’s incredible how hard my both of my parents worked. And, you know, because of that, how hard I worked to as a young child, and so I’m not afraid of hard work at all. But I can see, you know, with my maturity and my age, that if any young person is going to ask me, you know, what are their options? I would say that there are so many options, and it would be good to find something where you can balance, a little bit of self-worth and self-care. And that’s where I’m struggling with right now, which is I don’t have that balance. And I know that I need it.
Somehow we hit our 40s. Right? And we realize we have we don’t know how to care for ourselves. What is this? Like this phenomenon that’s happening? Is it American culture that’s just like this, go, go, we have to work 16-hour days and achieve all these things. When do we stop and take care of ourselves? And when do we learn how to do it? And who’s giving us permission? When it’s not ourselves usually, you know, so what, what has that been like for you? At what point did you hit a wall or like, what happened?
Well, I constantly feel the fear that I’m disappointing people. So I’m disappointing. My staff, if I’m not open at all, are open only for five days a week, I’m certainly disappointing guests clearly, by not being open all day, baby. And it’s hard. So you know, the pressure of constantly feeling like I need to be open, I need to be working, I need to serve the dish that I can’t even source right now. Because, you know, there’s lots of food and food problems right now. So I felt very defeated. As far as this, like I said, this measuring of disappointment where I’m disappointing all of these people, so I need to do more and more and more. So yes, the wall for me, I hit it when I realized, physically, my body was unable to do what it needed to do. I was foggy in my head. I’ve always suffered from digestive issues. And I, you know, I have remedies and whatnot. And I take care of myself in that way. But nothing was working. And my body was not working. And I was mentally and emotionally blocked. I think a lot of people have certainly shared with me that they’ve shed a lot of feelings and emotions since the beginning of the pandemic, and I was the exact opposite. For me, there was no time, I was not allowed. I did not allow myself the time to cry, release, think about what I’ve thought about, feeling.
So earlier this year, I started to realize I needed to release some of these feelings. Because once it started coming out, it was coming out in ways that I was quite ashamed of it like it was irritability. I was feeling like I was lashing out at, you know, my guests, or just, I wasn’t, I couldn’t feel as open hearted, which is what I like to feel and when I’m sort of used to feeling. So I had to just find ways to so journaling I had I mentioned journaling was my first start. I also just for humor sake, because I know, you’re like this too. I call this energy doctor in Hawaii, a friend recommended me this energy doctor and he was like, it was so bizarre. I was sitting here in my miniature apartment, and he’s like, put your feet on the ground. And then I don’t know, he essentially gave me like a one pager report on the other women or men that I’ve been in my past lives in the past several 100 years. And they, you know, one died from colon cancer, for example. And it’s just tons of crazy, crazy information. You know, and I used it for a short while, but the journaling helps because it was just a way for myself to express myself, to help me to coach my body to also express itself.
Did you realize you weren’t giving yourself time or permission to feel all that stuff? Or was were you just kind of surviving and getting through and it was building up and building up and you didn’t even realize that
for a long time it was I was in survival mode, I did not even see that this was something unnecessary something that I needed to be doing. And then yeah, I sort of hit this place where I felt a lot of hurt. And I realized I was just bubbling; I think is the phrase in the in the feeling I was just bubbling and being on this crazy crazy edge and so I just realized I needed to take care of myself. I’m not always the best at sort of traditional therapy like talking about it. At that point. I think I was just talked out. And I needed something a little more quiet. And what I’ve learned is something to fix myself sort of my physical body and because I shouldn’t be this broken. At that point. I hadn’t turned 40 I just turned 40, so still in my 30s.
Yes, I got few years older than you. Yeah. How does your experience compare to other small business owners, other restaurant owners of last year? Do you think everybody was going through some version of this?
Lien Ta 20:00
I think sometimes where I would compare myself to other restaurant tours would be, you know, I just, I felt like I didn’t have as much help and support within the restaurant walls that other restaurateurs had, like my peers. So I just felt they were just so much further along than me. Or maybe it was luck. You know, they had a lot of outdoor space. And so they found or had the money to outfit beautiful, you know, outdoor patios, and I was like, I can’t even buy a heat lamp. First of all, they’re not available, and I can’t afford one. You know, so there was just, I just felt not as far along sometimes as other restaurants, you know, some people just had empires, or maybe they had, you know, savings, for example, just, you know, a lot of backing or maybe they don’t care about the financials, maybe as much as I do. And I, you know, the first person to get cut is myself.
Yeah, I mean, I really thought about you a lot in this last year. And because there were so many layers of what you were going through small business owner restaurant, you know, female business owner, but then there was also the Asian American female business owner layer. Can you talk about that a little bit. You wrote a beautiful essay, After some of the hate crimes that occurred. Can you talk a little bit about what you said in that essay? Just for people who haven’t read it yet?
Oh, my gosh, I will try to remember, it’s you know, there were the shootings that occurred in Atlanta, at some spas in the beauty industry. My mom came from the beauty industry and nail salons. My mom herself has also experienced something personal that is that yeah, could be called a hate crime, I would say. And I hadn’t really much thought about it. From my perspective, I wasn’t expecting and I don’t know if it’s my own, you know, inability to observe things from what if this happens to me, like, I didn’t imagine somebody coming up to Sunset Boulevard to my restaurant, you know, having, you know, a terrible thought to harm me or anyone in my restaurant. But it was happening, it was happening, certainly in San Francisco, the harrowing videos occurred that I saw out of New York against Asian Americans. I just feel the biggest thing that I’ve always felt and you may remember some of this from my younger, our younger years together, Claire, it’s just I just never felt visible. You know, so I think, you know, I’m not I’m certainly not White, I’m certainly not Black and sometimes it is a Black and White lens that we are sort of walking through in this little lifetime, in Asians are there odd expectations for Asians and Asian Americans. And I think the, you know, what our parents teach us, I think, is that you’re supposed to just put your head down, do a good job, be invisible, do great in school, get a great career and just like be quiet. So even just the sense of like, having a voice is really difficult for me and, or something that I’ve been working on. And so I think this piece, what I really wanted to express or illustrate is that we all have a voice, Curiosity is not just a privilege is just something that you should just do and have for one another. And value. It is so important to value the work of people in the labor force, especially if they are of Asian descent.
I feel so emotional listening to you, I don’t know if it’s today or what’s going on. But I’m just thinking about just I don’t know, I’m so proud of you of everything you’ve been going through in this last year and just continuing to like show up for it. You know, like it’s just a lot Len. Like, there’s so many people out there going through this too. And I think that idea of disappointment, like that feeling that you’re carrying of disappointing so many people I know it can’t be real. Like I know that there aren’t that many people disappointed in you, but I know that the feeling is so real. How do you carry that? How do you advise carrying that what have you learned about carrying that?
I’ve learned that I can’t carry it. because it will start to accelerate the decay of my own body. So I don’t recommend it. Some people are very good at getting it out, whether it’s in the form of tears, talking to somebody exercising, you know, like these are real tangible ways of release. And so I would say to somebody, as a form of guidance is to find your way, like whatever that is. So I recently, for example, found my way. And I don’t have a lot of time to myself right now, which I have to fix. But there are two days that the restaurant is not open. And so I find that’s my time to catch up on things. But I go to yoga. I’ve been doing yoga since I was 16. But even that, I’m just like, is it really doing anything? I see an acupuncturist, either once a week or once every two weeks. And I’ve been doing that since the beginning of my restaurateuring life. So the year is great. So the year that I was fundraising and looking to find ambassadors for my first restaurant, I realized that I was crashing like midday, like 1pm, just like in unable to be awake and form a sentence. And I realized that my adrenal glands are working in overdrive. And, you know, again, I hadn’t thought this was before, like goup was talking about adrenal glands. I was like, what’s, what’s that? So you know, and it’s just this sense, where I was constantly viewing every task as an emergency. And you can’t do that, you should only view an emergency as an emergency. And but everything was just hyper, hyper needed, you know, of my attention, and my fix and all of that. And so there’s that. And then recently, I found this physical therapist is the best way that I can describe this interesting man. He’s just specializing in neuro therapy. And it’s such strange work.
But what is neuro therapy?
He believes that our pain or physical pain is manifests or is attached to your neurological system. So he uses this device called an ARP wave, I think it’s pretty new age and strange. But he attaches me like different parts of my body. To this like machine, it feels kind of like getting electrocuted, which I know sounds really exciting to all your listeners out there. But anyway, I see him once a week we do these two-hour sessions together a third of the session is this electrocution. And he at this point has already assessed my pain points. And he like he knows what to do. I don’t know what he’s doing. But he’s, he’s putting these things together, to release built up tissue and pain.
I can’t tell if this sounds really sexy, or like torture.
It felt a lot like torture and was extremely unsexy in the beginning. But because, you know, what I realized was, you know, as he was getting into these, you know, sometimes the inner areas of my hips, you know, the back of my shoulder blade areas, and so, I just started doing a lot of unattractive crying in his place. And so, you know, my nose is running out of control, and I immediately just felt shame. I was like, Oh, my God, like, I haven’t cried. I haven’t cried period. A long time, but I haven’t cried like this. In front of someone. Ever. It felt like, and I felt awful about myself.
Did you feel shame? For crying in front of him? Or shame? Was shame coming up that you’d been holding? Or was it shame that you hadn’t let yourself feel this? All of them?
I think it was all of them, Claire, I think I mean, the immediate reaction was shame that I was crying in front of him. And because it just was so awful and bad and it in Yeah, to me, it just seemed like I have to I must be the only patient that does reacts this way, because there are no tissue boxes in this place. And you know, but and one day was just so awful and crying, I continue to cry in the car. I like I didn’t start my car to go home. I headed home and cried more, and just started to feel awful about tons of other things. Like, why is my relationship with my mom this way? Why did I close that first restaurant? What am I going to do? Like, why does that investor hate me? You know, and it just started bubbling up and all kinds of funny little demons started coming out. And then I realized I felt better.
I think you’re talking about something so interesting here, though, right? Because I think that and you touched on this earlier, most people when they’re going through stuff, and they realize they’ve got emotions to work through or grief to work through, they go often to talk therapy, you’re going that alternate route, like you’re starting within your body to let these things out, you know, crying, talking, thinking about them, but starting first within your body, which is really cool. And which is, I think, a route that is absolutely available that not many people think of, we do store so much in our bodies, and we’re so connected to them, our emotions are so connected to them. I constantly ask all my new clients like what’s going on with you physically? How are you? How do you take care of yourselves? You know, are you sleeping? Are you eating? Do you take vitamins, you know, what does your body feel like? And it’s somehow the last thing a lot of people think about, and they really underestimate our connection to our bodies. So I think it’s really cool that you went this alternate route of starting first there in order to reach maybe your emotions and thoughts about what was going on.
Sure. And you know, and I would be lying, if I said it was deliberate, like I didn’t know that was what I was doing. It just turned out to be exactly what I needed to do, because nothing else was working. I mean, all the energy that I have, is reserved for other people. It really is, it’s for my staff, and it’s for my guests. And it’s for more of my staff, and for my more of my guests. And it’s not to say I don’t read a book, or go to, you know, try to get eight hours of sleep, it’s, I think I’m smart enough and old enough to now know that I do have to do these little things to make it all a little bit more manageable. But it’s been extraordinary to find new ways of looking at it, and new ways of going about it.
I loved this conversation with Lien, I was gonna say that I am so impressed with her and so proud of how she has managed to get through this. But then that just makes me think of all the clients I’ve had who’ve gone through something really hard. And they always tell me about the people who say, I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t do it. But of course you could. Hard Things happen to all of us all the time. But in order to do so, we must give ourselves grace, compassion, honesty, and most importantly, time to process and rebuild ourselves and all the things we’ve worked so hard for. So this week’s practice is about letting go of disappointment. Taking care of yourself when you’re struggling with expectations. Give yourself Grace between your goals and priorities. Give yourself gentle reminders and check ins along the way. Like do I need to cry, allow yourself to cry. Don’t ignore your grief. Ask yourself if you feel tension in your body, and then pinpoint where it is and release it. That might mean a stretch, a massage, maybe even a little pleasure. Allow yourself to feel free to change your plan and goals as you go. Be honest with the people around you about what you can and can’t do. Do you feel yourself slipping? communicate that with the people around you. Lien’s stories also a great example of the options that exist outside of traditional talk therapy. For her, a neuro therapist was the key to releasing the tension she was holding on to. So look into yoga or some other form of wellness this week. Journal, journal, journal, figured stuff out on paper. Lastly, some amazing news. After months of uncertainty, here’s looking at you has officially reopened. So if you’re in the Los Angeles area, stop by and give them a little love. As always, thanks for listening. And if you get a chance to try one of these weekly practices, I’d love to hear all about it. Call and leave me a voicemail at 833-453-6662, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune in next week to hear my conversation with Simone De La Rue she’s a world-renowned fitness guru, but it’s mostly a conversation about just doing the best you can especially when your toddler is running around in the middle of your podcast interview.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show is produced by Jackie Danziger, Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Lily Cornell Silver and Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the Well Being Trust, The Jed Foundation and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me at clairebidwellsmith.com. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now on the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo and then the subscribe button. Thanks for listening. See you next week.