Joanne Cao

coffee date #39 with joanne cao

future healthcare worker, sunshine in human form, an iced water drinker, not a coffee lover, fellow internalizer, hiking queen, youngest of 3, the-one-who-washes-her-lululemons-with-the-rest-of-her-normal-clothes

me: strawberry acai refresher w/ lemonade | joanne: strawberry acai refresher
location: the ed building, the college of new jersey

Joanne Cao is truly one of the most precious souls I’ve ever met. I met her last year, when I barely knew anyone in college and was creating my mental list of people who made me feel safe and grounded. Joanne made the list pretty early because she carries a sense of maturity, kindness, and radiance with her everywhere she goes.

Every time she visited my apartment or I’d visit her townhouse (where coffee dates #27 and #29 also lived), she’d have this vibrant smile that radiated across her entire face. We’d complain about Orgo, sigh at our levels of exhaustion, and occasionally eat some cake because it was always someone’s birthday. But that’s about it. I never had the chance to sit down with her and get to know her on a more intimate level.

Knowing that she’s one of those rare souls who doesn’t have a bad bone in her body, I took a leap of faith and texted her, hoping she won’t think I’m being a weirdo suddenly inviting her to get some coffee with me. Luckily she agreed, so here we are now – diving into the world of Joanne Cao…..


  • the child inside all of us

| the excitement over the funnel cake at six flags | the love we felt to go on playdates with our friends | the comfort of not having to think about ‘what’s next’ | the ability to be here, in the now | the naiveness of not knowing what was ‘feminine’ or what was ‘masculine’ | the acceptance of everyone around us | the ability to give and take love because we inherently believed that we were worthy | the acceptance of ourselves – the way we looked and the way we were – all of it |

Add more ^^^ to that list as you reflect on who you were and how you felt as a child. Joanne and I both concluded that we miss the feeling of being so utterly invested in the present moment. Children don’t think 5, 10, 100 steps ahead of time. They literally only think and feel in real-time and that’s a feeling that we’ve both missed – and will now try to gain back again.

  • navigating the uncertainty of our 20s

Majority of my friends and I have officially entered the scariest decade of our lives. Society is set up in a way that forces us to create our entire life during this decade in hopes of experiencing the benefits of it in the latter half of our lives. This is often the decade during which many jumpstart their careers; some may fall in love, get married, spawn some offspring; others might buy their first house, while the ‘business bros’ end up in a one-bedroom New York apartment; a rare few will give this capitalist word the middle finger and drop everything they’ve been trying to accomplish to backpack across Europe for a year. Welcome to the 20s.

I find this concept to be odd because why are we relying on our 20s, when our brains are still not even fully developed, to figure out how our lives will be when we’re 50, 60, 70, dead?

The thing about the 20s is there’s a lot of confusion. Confusion about whether or not we’re still young or if we’re old. Internally, many of us still may feel like children; however, externally there is no room for us to let the child out because we should have already been financially independent; should have landed a secure job; should have learned how to do taxes; should be able to balance late nights with friends and colleagues; should have allowed romantic relationships to kindle.

Whenever we catch ourselves following all the ‘shoulds’ in life, that’s when we know that we’re acting like puppets just blindly following some unwritten life guide.

“I have to decide now, but I also don’t have to decide now.” – Joanne Cao, 2023

With so many things to think about and act on, there’s a sudden pressure on making decisions that we think will be ‘life or death.’ If we pause for a minute and really think about those decisions, we might see that truly nothing is ever ‘life or death’ or ‘black and white.’ We are so used to thinking that there’s this pre-set path for us to navigate through and so every time we experience something that might sway us off that path, we feel the need to halt abruptly, make decisions, and bulldoze forward. But maybe the true awakening comes in those moments of uncertainty – when we do sway off and potentially realize that there are an infinite number of paths to reach that same goal.

  • we are not our thoughts

Back when I used to meditate, I would have to have to inhale when the recording said “I am not the body” and exhale when it said “I am not even the mind”

During those few months I didn’t exactly know what that meant because if I’m not the body and not even the mind, then wtf am I? I obviously cheated the system and Googled the meaning. Google answered the question by saying that we are all just our consciousness. We can not identify ourselves with our bodies and minds (i.e. thoughts) because we are so much more than that – we are conscious human beings.

“You don’t have to conform to your thoughts.” – Joanne Cao, 2023

Thus, I found that the meditation was trying to teach me that though we have unconscious thoughts and feelings arise regularly, we are still in control because our consciousness will be able to differentiate between what we want to and do not want to believe. Meditation helps master this ability to keep our consciousness in control and not let our subconscious thoughts take over.

  • seeds of doubt

“Don’t set yourself on other people’s standards. Set yourself on your own standard.” – Joanne Cao, 2023

There’s a quote that says that ‘change is the only constant we have in life.’ I am aware that this true, however, no one outlines exactly how to embrace that change.

Joanne started this conversation by mentioning that she started off college with an entirely different career track in mind. She entered TCNJ as an education major (*mind = blown*). I swear my jaw dropped when she told me that during the date. After freshman year she realized that she wasn’t that interested in education and pivoted to the healthcare field. Education –> Healthcare – now this is massive change, so how did she embrace that change?

She sat in the discomfort and let the seeds of doubt propel her forward rather than fester up inside of her. The important thing to note, though, is that she had a solid support system. People around her who never questioned or criticized her decisions; instead, they gave her the space to communicate and list all her pros and the cons. For some, change can only be embraced with a strong foundational support and that’s okay. We live in a culture that tells us that we have to do everything on our own, but that’s such a lonely way of thinking. If you have loved ones who will stand by you, then why not use their love to embrace life’s changes?

The specific epiphany that Joanne had while transitioning into a pre-PA track was that “teaching was just me trying to play into my childhood role.”

This is why change is so freaking scary for so many of us! We have all of these beliefs and aspirations in mind that stem from when we were children, so we grow up believing that that is how our life will unfold. However, as we grow older, we’re exposed to more and more and may find that our passion(s) lie elsewhere. Moving away from our childhood ideas and accepting our adulthood passions can be scary terrain, but those who go with their gut feeling and embrace these changes end up being so much more happier.

  • ‘forgive & forget’

We touched on the idea of potentially kindling romantic relationships during this decade of our lives. Joanne explained that from what she’s noticed with her friends in relationships the #1 thing that creates a successful relationship is communication.

Along with communication, though, there also must be enough respect to learn from one’s mistakes. Joanne mentioned that the concept of ‘forgive & forget’ is unhealthy even though we hear that phrase so often. Forgiving is okay after we had a chance to process, communicate, and heal from the situation. Forgetting, on the other hand, does not make sense.

Joanne mentioned that when we ‘forgive & forget’ we are more likely to make the same mistakes over and over again, leading to the same triggers and discomfort in the relationship. Instead, we should tweak that phrase to something that ensures that we learn and move forward consciously.

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