What does it mean to trust that you're where you're meant to be? For Shirley Cai — a young multi-disciplinary creative, wise beyond her years — this question has been a guiding light for her creative journey. While her path to creativity has been one that's non-linear and unconventional, speaking with her, you can see how all the meanders and detours along this path has led her to exactly where she needs to be.
Shirley is a communications specialist, a writer, photographer, audio producer, and so much more. She works as the Communications Manager at Kundiman, a literary nonprofit dedicated to nurturing generations of Asian American writers and readers. She is also the Art Director & Assistant Editor for the multicultural food journal, Peddler, and additionally writes and produces their podcast, The House Specials. She also happens to be our former Media & Communications Manager. At a tender age, she flew across the Pacific with her blinding ambition and a steadfast belief that the chapter she was embarking on was the right one for her. An intangible and unexplainable feeling guided her here to New York, where I met her and welcomed her into the 7115 family. From the day we met, it's always been clear to me that Shirley is a storyteller at heart, and I've been privileged to watch her growth over the years and see her find her way home to a life centered on writing and community — where her passion and creativity shines with an unyielding brightness.
Her story of navigating, surrendering, and reconciling with all the gains and losses that this concrete jungle has presented has reminded me that courage is a practice, a muscle. To be courageous, to take the next step without knowing where it leads is the life and blood of our creative journeys. Nothing meaningful exists without it. Shirley may be young, but her practice of courage and decency is nothing short of a heartfelt inspiration. I, for one, can't wait to see where she is going next. I hope you enjoy learning about this journey as much as I did. — Szeki
7115: You were born and raised in Sydney, Australia, moved to the US alone at the age of 21, which is still quite a young age to be moving to a country with no family or job security. Can you walk us through your thought process at the time? What was the driving force of that determination?
Shirley: In hindsight, I moved to the United States at a very tender age. At the time, I was buoyed by a sense of fearlessness, determination, and naivete — which I don’t necessarily see as bad, because if it weren’t for that, I likely wouldn’t have left the security of home for a place where I had nothing lined up. I moved from Australia to the United States for two main reasons. The first is more pragmatic: I had always wanted to pursue a career working in the media, or something adjacent to that, and I knew that there was an abundance of opportunities over here for that. The second reason is more abstract: I was born and raised in the Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. While I was fortunate to have a loving and safe upbringing, part of me had this feeling that there was something else waiting to be discovered. So I also left because I wanted to spend my formative years learning a new frame of reference, to expand my understanding of what it means to be part of this world.
“ I just follow my curiosity. I do what feels right in the moment and what feels right for the story that I’m trying to tell. ”
7115: You have a vast and varied experience working in roles as a writer, photographer, podcast producer, art director, and more. How do you divide your time to develop and invest in all these different skills?
Shirley: One of the biggest things that helped me to even begin to split my time between all these disciplines was the simple act of acknowledging that I enjoyed them all. For a long time I harbored a lot of shame in being multi-disciplinary because the more common narrative in our society is that you need to pick one craft and become the master of it. Finding homes in writing,
photography, audio, and print, was a very natural process for me that was born out of my curiosity and love for storytelling. And I found that making time to hone my skills in one discipline actually opened up room for me to explore and develop skills in another. They’re all in conversation with one another because they are all in service of storytelling. When I was able to understand that, I stopped feeling guilty about spending more time working on photography one week and less on writing, for example. Another example is that, for a couple of years, I dedicated myself fiercely to studying audio production — investing my time and money in courses, conferences, creating audio stories — simply because it felt like the right path to follow at that time. Only from there did I find my way back to writing. I credit the time I spent learning to tell stories through audio to my ability to write the way I do now though. All this is to say, I don’t really have a set structure when it comes to breaking up my time to develop skills in each medium. I just follow my curiosity. I do what feels right in the moment and what feels right for the story that I’m trying to tell. I should also be transparent and mention that all this was not easy to do while also juggling a full time career in marketing, but I think that the time constraints that my 9 to 5 introduced actually made me not want to waste a single minute learning and developing my skills.
7115: How would you describe the person before leaving the comfort of home, and who is she now after years of experiencing New York, what changed and what didn't?
Shirley: It’s funny because I think at the core and value-wise, I’m still the person I was when I left home, but at the same time I have grown and stretched so much. The person who left home was definitely more naive and softer. The person I am today is still trying to remain soft, but in a more intentional way. I’m more realistic, more aware, and my worldview is more expansive. I have learnt so much about how to be of service to the world we live in. I’m very grateful for New York in helping me understand what it means to be part of a community.
7115: What are the great losses and what are the great finds so far on this on-going journey?
Shirley: There is a lot that I have given up and lost to keep following this path. Relationships, love, security, and time with my immediate family. However, there is also a lot that this experience has gifted me, unexpectedly too. It’s helped me find what kind of work gives me meaning. It’s given me a beautiful found family.
But perhaps, the greatest “find” for me has been the nurturing of my relationship with my family’s history and my ancestors. I was born and raised by two Vietnamese immigrants in the Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. I have family in Australia and the United States as a result of the war in Vietnam. I was able to reconnect and even meet family members that I hadn’t ever really known because I moved here. It’s also ironic that the distance from my parents has brought me closer than ever to them.
7115: How do those experiences inform what you do today?
Shirley: What I do today wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for all these experiences. First off, moving countries myself opened up my ability to reflect on the journey my whole entire family made when crossing oceans, from a much more nuanced perspective. It allowed me to connect the dots. It helped me realize how important it is for me to center my personal work around exploring and complicating the notions of home, movement, and migration. The struggle I had to navigate while trying to break into the media industry, coupled with my experience of being an Asian woman in these spaces, and in America, fueled my desire to support as much representation and diversity within these industries as possible. I carry all this with me when I do the work that I do, both professional and personal.
7115: It's been almost a decade since you left home. Do you see yourself staying in this city with the same drive and passion for the next decade?
Shirley: I never really have a concrete plan, but I trust the flow of my life so fiercely. While I don’t know for sure if I’ll be here for the next ten years, I do know that I will approach every year and every day with intention and precision. New York and this experience has given me so much, so I will continue to show up for it with the same energy and see where that takes me.