When I was 14 years old, my family and I moved from Seattle to Vancouver. Unlike our first move from Taiwan to Seattle as a third grader, this one stung. I was in the 10th grade, getting used to high school, had a tight circle of friends, and thought I was cool with my trendy haircut (short on the sides, slick on the top). We didn’t have a lot growing up, but I had friends, a big brother, a loving mom, and a dad who worked hard overseas nine months of the year to provide for us. I was happy. So, this move hit me particularly hard as I had to leave all that behind and start over. That time was the beginning of my life with alopecia areata – a time I’ve just recently begun to speak openly about and one that has deeply impacted me.
Three months after the reluctant move north of the border, I woke up and noticed scattered hairs on my pillow. At first, I thought to myself, what the heck was this all aboot (I was starting to get the Canadian lingo), but quickly forgot about it. The next morning, I woke up with several patches of hair missing, and my first reaction was – not surprisingly – to blame and punch my brother. He and I shared a room, and as super mature teenage boys, we were no strangers to pranking each other. So, in typical brotherly fashion, I accused him of shaving my head in the middle of the night. It took a few more days before we realized we should probably seek medical attention, but I received my diagnosis: alopecia areata.
Imagine my disbelief as a teenage boy upon learning that my case was deemed more severe because it occurred before adulthood and was not likely to ever reverse. Even though it wasn’t, it felt like a death sentence. I had a girl I liked. I was trying to fit in at a new school at a time when, like it or not, appearances mattered. Why me? After asking my brother to shave my head for the first and last time – as I couldn’t bear to see it gradually fall away – I started wearing bandanas and hats to feel normal.
"Not many companies would take a chance on a minority kid in a hat, but I’ve always felt embraced by New York Life."—Dylan Huang, Senior Vice President and Head of Retirement & Wealth Management Solutions.
Although as many in this community know, the cause of alopecia is unknown, it’s thought that extreme stress can be a trigger. While not medically proven, I suspect the move to Vancouver triggered my condition. And, the stress that followed in retrospect was even worse. All of my good friends were in Seattle, so I lacked a support system. I had to handle this solo. I never talked about it openly, so teachers and other kids thought I was severely ill, and many actually thought I was dying. Curious stares and whispers were common, but I learned to deal with them. It’s during tough times like these when you learn more about yourself and what you’re capable of. I stayed relatively positive, and I powered through – life went on. Eventually, I adjusted and made friends. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and I had a normal-ish rest of secondary school (Canadian version of high school). In case you were wondering, yes, I did go out with that girl.
Over the years, through early adulthood and until now, I’ve continued to adjust. Since my diagnosis, I’ve always worn a hat, and by now, it’s become an integral part of who I am and how I’m perceived by others. It’s been my brand, my moniker of sorts. However, it’s also been the reason I’ve been denied entry to churches, theaters, restaurants, and many other places due to dress code restrictions. For example, when going to a restaurant, most people look at the menu as a deciding factor. But I look at the dress code first, and if I’m allowed entry, I’ll look at the menu. While these situations make me angry or sad, they are also an opportunity to educate others, and I’ve found that living with alopecia areata has made me much more empathetic. We’re all facing challenges and experiences that shape who we are. I am thankful for these opportunities.
I am also extremely thankful for my employer, New York Life. I recall being written off in internship interviews because of how I was dressed. Not many companies would take a chance on a minority kid in a hat, but I’ve always felt embraced by New York Life. This is one of the main reasons I chose to come back to work here full-time after my internship. The culture of accepting people for who they are and providing a fair opportunity for everyone – regardless of their unique choice of workwear – to succeed as a business leader has shaped my admiration for this company.
Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune skin disease, causing hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes on other areas of the body. It affects as many as 6.8 million people in the U.S. Read the entire article and learn more about alopecia areata here.
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