Hey Girlfriend!: Ethelia Lung

Today I’m interviewing Ethelia, who is currently working as an an interaction designer at YouTube. Ethelia describes herself as “…a transplant to California from Hong Kong. I’m a curious soul who has sky-high expectations and a stubbornness to reach ’em. My parents let me ship myself halfway across the world to design delightful experiences and take photos of everyday minutiae. Perfectionist by day and mother figure by night, crafting helpful experiences is my main hustle.”

I met Ethelia for the first time on my visit to San Francisco, but we met online a very long time ago. I’ve been so impressed with her journey into a career in technology and know she has a lot of potential. She knows, though, that it hasn’t been easy – and in this interview we talk about some of the hardships she’s endured but also how grateful she is for the opportunities she has been given. 🙌

A woman with short dark hair, grinning. She is wearing a blue sweater with penguins
Ethelia is a food-loving interaction designer currently working at YouTube.

Hi Ethelia! I hope you have been well. Have you eaten at any new restaurants lately?

Hey there! I’ve been great, thanks. I hope you’ve been too!

You know it – I went to a Japanese restaurant with (another!) friend I met online called Eiji! It’s super cozy, they make their own tofu, and it was a pretty authentic experience from warm hand towels to instructions on how to eat the food. I’ll definitely be back!

Incognita, a project you worked on to illustrate and help visualise abject poverty in major cities, was the winner of Adobe Awards in the Social Impact category. Congratulations! :D What drove you to explore this theme?

Thanks so much! I’m very humbled. I was given a prompt in class to create an interactive infographic. I knew that I wanted to design an infographic around a topic I cared deeply about, and Hong Kong was particularly top of mind at the time. Maybe it was the homesickness. I’d heard about caged homes and wanted to dig deeper into that, but also considered exploring British Imperialism on a global scale.

A close-up of a hand pointing at an illuminated screen with text reading “A World in Tatters” on part of the screen
Ethelia won an Adobe Award for her project Incognita

You were born and grew up in Hong Kong. How would you describe Hong Kong to someone who hasn’t been there before, and how might you convince them to visit?

Haha that’s a great question! Hong Kong is an amazing place to visit for its culture. It’s a really vibrant city that, because it’s a cluster of islands, also has plenty of natural sights. There’s amazing food from all over the world, there are many hikes that vary in difficulty, there are museums that document Hong Kong’s eventful history, and a pretty poppin’ nightlife. There’s something for everyone. I can’t front: it could cost a pretty penny if you don’t do the right amount of preparation, but I think it’s a very worthwhile city to visit. The Vox Borders series on Hong Kong also does a great job of giving some background, in case you’re a facts buff!

You studied New Media Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Did you travel much outside of Hong Kong before you started studying there?

I’m really fortunate that when I was younger, my parents brought my sister and I to a number of countries in the Asian region, from South Korea to Thailand. We also visited Britain a couple times because my parents had ties there, Australia because we had (distant) family and friends, and visited California on a ski trip!

I wasn’t able to visit any universities before the big move, so I truly picked a school for all of its written values. It’s a pretty huge decision to make and I’m really glad it worked out! 😅

University is a tough road for anyone. Having recently graduated, what are some valuable lessons you’ve learned, either about yourself or about university itself, that you have taken with you in the next chapter of your life?

Phew, I’ve done a lot of thinking in this regard, to be honest, and it would probably warrant a dissertation in itself! The lessons I’ve learned about myself are largely to do with how I function as a person. What motivates me, what kicks start my anxiety, how to handle certain emotions, how to deal with stress. On the other hand, for university, I learned that it truly is the period in your life where you experiment the most, fail the most, learn the most, and grow the most.

One big overarching lesson is how to allocate my energy, not only with regards to projects, but with regards to how many fucks I give for certain things, situations, events. I learned to keep a sharp focus on my values and let them guide me, but also allow for them to be moulded as I keep growing.

A friend recently told me that every seven years, every single cell in our body has been replaced by a new cell, which leads some people to believe that we are like a whole new person every seven years (so 7 years, 14 years, 21 years, 28 years, and so on). Do you think you have recently, or are, going through the end or beginning of some kind of “phase”?

Hahaha that’s an amazing thought! Thinking about the past 22 years, I absolutely see that. My phases are in different bursts, I think, based off of the structure of my education and maturity:

~*-Wild-*~ exploration – 9 years

(years 5-8/primary school and early middle school)

I just remember being given a lot of instruction in different subjects but not being entirely enthralled by it. I learned almost the same amount if not more outside, because I was actively reading books and scouring the Internet based on what I thought would be my interests. This is the time period where I was super invested in webdesign! This was a period of fast development

Prescribed directed education – 13 years

(years 9-11/middle school and junior high school)

When the school curriculum gets rigid. I personally shelved my personal projects and explorations in favour of academics and schoolwork, and throwing myself into extra-curriculars. You know, the CV padding items that help you get into college.

Direction exploration – 16 years

(years 12-13/senior high school and early uni)

The ages where I started to seriously think about the direction of my career. I thought that I wanted to do computer science but ended up going in the direction of design. Early uni was also a period of fast development because of the entirely different environment and the focus on my major.

Unleashed to the wild – 22 years

(late uni, early career)

I’m here right now. There’s a slower aspect of development because I’m falling into a regular routine now, but at the same time I’m still learning so much from being in (yet another) city, being an employee at a massive tech company, something something something… adulthood.

You’ve openly written about your years of study and learning and how recognising your own self-worth came out of first acknowledging your self-loathing, and that we all have room to improve. What advice do you have for others who might be struggling to find their self-worth?

Ah, Georgie, you articulated that in the best way possible – to find self-worth through self-loathing. My advice is that the pain is inevitable, but don’t forget that you’re not alone. If you are able to find people you trust who can be there for you, to lend a shoulder and also to listen to you, don’t be afraid to lean on them. Reflecting on yourself honestly and objectively isn’t easy, so be kind to yourself.

Something that I’ve found has helped me is to write down what I’m feeling. No fancy essays, just free-writing. Very often, I get so caught up in my thoughts that it gets super jumbled and I can’t figure out the source of what’s really getting me down. Writing forces me to take it one idea at a time, and I can also come back to something tangible to think about once I’m calmer.

You have had some strong mentor figures through your journey so far. Based on these experiences, what do you think makes a great and helpful mentor?

Absolutely, and I’m so thankful for all of them. I really hit the jackpot with my mentors. The best qualities in a mentor include a genuine will to listen, to make time for a mentee, and to stay honest and humble. One thing my manager-mentor Chris told me last year was “we need to get this busy mentality out of your head – I’m never too busy to help you out” and that promise of support really stuck with me. It means a lot for mentors to acknowledge great work and be honest in critiquing when there can be improvements made. Plus, you’re never too senior to be able to learn from your juniors, so that’s something to keep in mind too!

Coming from a marginalised background as an Asian woman, and especially with the stories that have emerged from women in the tech industry, you’ve no doubt felt rather self-conscious. Do you feel you have been disadvantaged in your career because of this?

I’m honestly very fortunate that I’ve found myself surrounded by people who have only pushed me forwards and up. For example, the people I work with are open with addressing our diversity in numbers and honest with where we want to be/how much further we still have to go to be diverse and inclusive. I used to feel disadvantaged, being a woman in tech and in particular from a rather traditional background, but I’m pretty headstrong in chasing what I think I deserve and finding people who have the same drive to align myself with (like yourself!) so that I don’t get discouraged. I’m also so grateful that my parents are supportive of where I’m taking my life despite their initial unfamiliarity with both the US and the design industry.

I came across this Twitter thread by Celeste Ng, about Asian women being harassed for being in relationships with non-Asian men, and it both upset and surprised me. It surprised me because, living in Australia, I am unfamiliar with this kind of behaviour. Do you think it’s prevalent in the U.S.? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.

God, that thread and the first article hurt so much to read. I’m furious.

While I haven’t experienced it myself in the US, likely because the city I chose to live in and the area especially (the Castro) is so open and liberal, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people who held these views here in the US. Even back home, there was always a hint of tension when it came to relationships like these, in particular relationships between white males and Asian females. I think the stereotype was that the men had “yellow fever” and that the women were gold diggers. I’ve never seen these particular racist views as viciously and outwardly expressed though. Damn.

Internal racism within ethnic communities is no joke and from my personal experience, it can be pretty passive aggressive too. Something I’ve increasingly noticed in Hong Kong, especially now that I’ve left, is how discriminatory the culture can be. Whether it’s against people who attended international school because of certain tropes (or vice versa against people who attended local school), or against people with darker skin tones because it connotes people from South Asia, I’ve heard so many stories and also been the subject of some degree of discrimination even in my own home town. I don’t have anything intelligible to say aside from how curious I am in finding out where the roots of this racism originate. Insecurity? Jealousy? Nationalism?

Thanks for sharing this with me.

Let’s jump back to 2007 and visit pixel art for a bit. There was a whole niche, a little network of pixel art sites, and you and I were part of that group and friends with all the owners of these sites. I must admit, my graphic design style moved beyond pixel art and I grew bored of it and I felt some serious impostor syndrome amongst the community because I felt like I failed to make good art. 😂 We were both teenagers producing creative works for fun, but did you ever feel pressure to create something amazing or were you overly critical of your work?

Ahh! Pixel art was such a great niche and paired so well with my cross-stitching hobbies. I did fall far from it after a while because of style and just how time consuming pixel art is hehe.

I feel pressured and am overly critical all the time! There are two parts to this too (I like breaking things down into parts if this wasn’t already obvious lol). One, is that the pressure comes from various sources, namely myself and not wanting to disappoint, and from other creatives. I tend to see things in a competitive light, which if pushed too far can get pretty debilitating. I’m my own harshest critic. It could be cultural? Regardless, the constant comparison of my own work to others’ work especially in professional settings is real.

Yes, the keyword here is “professional setting” – and listen: I’ve been prepping for years to be able to start my career, and so all I’ve been striving for for years is how to put my work out there for professional consideration. I don’t consider any of my work amazing, and I’m actually super insecure about my “creativity”.  I like to think that I’m logical and methodical and that’s my approach to user experience design. I truly feel like I’ve lost that creative touch, that totally wild and frivolous approach to creation, that blissful ignorance of others’ judgement. I’m trying to figure out how to ignite that childish wonder again!

Two is that without the pressure and critical mindset, I don’t think I could have gotten this far. Having high standards that always get pushed higher by my peers ensures that I never falter, that I resist developing an ego, and that I stay humble and keep pushing myself. :)

What are some things that help you get “in the zone” and in the mood to work on a project?

  • Passion for the project! If I’m super hyped about the project, I’m more likely to throw myself into the work. This is the ideal but it’s obviously not always the case, so…
  • Hans Zimmer playlists on Spotify. His soundtracks are seriously so great to work to especially for work that requires thinking. They amp me up!
  • I’ve found that I personally like some mind-numbing dubstep or EDM (substitute as appropriate!) if the work is menial
  • Projects can be tedious, or something that I wish I didn’t have to do in this moment in time. At this point I would break it up into bite-sized steps so that I would have milestones to refer to. Post-its/checkboxes/Dropbox Paper lists/whatever you need to help you get that hit of accomplishment 🤣
  • Caffeine
  • Intense time pressure is never the ideal but always does the trick lmao

Who is your favourite Beatle? (Mine is George Harrison 😄)

OMG. I thought you’d never ask. Paul McCartney 100%! 😍 George is a close second though ;)

I feel like I’ve written an entire paper for you! Thanks so much for giving me this space for this wide variety of thoughts!

I hope you were inspired by Ethelia’s growth so far, especially as a recent university graduate. I know that I’m really excited to see what she works on next. ✨ You can find Ethelia on Instagram or on Twitter as @theilsanne. You can also check out her amazing portfolio at ethelialung.com!

To find out about more women in tech from around the world with different backgrounds and experiences, check out other Hey Girlfriend! interviews. A new interview is posted every month.

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Comments on this post

I had a look at Incognita and found it so informative. I had no idea the wealth gap in Hong Kong was that huge! British Imperialism is also an interesting topic to explore. It’s interesting to see the long lasting effects that the British left on many of the countries they overtook and the relationship these countries now have with the British.

I’ve been watching this series on ITV called Strangers which is set in Hong Kong and it has made me really want to visit. It has been on my list for a long time!

I like what Ethelia said about what she learnt at university. Definitely is the place where you experiment, fail and grow the most! I learnt so much about myself when I was at university and skills that I carried over into the job world.

I’ve just read the article on the Twitter thread you linked to and I’m absolutely appalled. As a multiracial person myself, it hurts me that anyone could ever think my mother married my father because she couldn’t find a white man. It hurts me that Asian men are even thinking that about Asian women. It’s the same in the black community where black men will drag black woman for dating outside their race and yet, they themselves are dating outside their race. It makes absolutely no sense to me. How is the partner someone chooses to be with anybody else’s business? Is it their relationship? Their life? Their choice? How does it hurt them in anyway?

Thanks for sharing, Georgie. It was really good to read more about Ethelia! This interview was so interesting – I’ll definitely have to check out all of her socials and portfolio :)

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