How Oprah Speaking the Truth Helped Me Discover Mine

Like many of you, I was one of the millions of viewers glued to the TV during the 75th Golden Globe Awards, mesmerized and energized by every word our teacher-preacher Oprah Winfrey uttered as she made history, becoming the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

In true Oprah fashion, she taught us about phenomenal figures in history — Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks — whose lives should not be forgotten. She expressed sincere gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault with emotion-filled words that felt like hugs reaching through our screens. She even gave a nod to men — her partner Stedman Graham and others who believed in, inspired and challenged her.

She called for a new day on the horizon, inspiring us all to speak our truth, which she preached “is our most powerful tool.”

One of Oprah’s crowning achievements — inspiring us to follow our authentic truth. (Thanks Yasi and Luis for my fave birthday shirt. Now I can keep Oprah closer to my heart. LOL)

Her words and work have even deeply touched someone outside of her primary audience — a little immigrant boy on welfare, who grew up in the ’hood of South Sacramento, Calif. A boy named Toan. I may not be Oprah’s main demographic, but her words have touched and molded me just the same.

After watching her speech, I was inspired to write an ode to Oprah and wanted to hear how you were affected by her words. This from someone she probably never intended to reach, through the eyes and window of a gay, immigrant Asian male soul — me.

The ‘Aha!’

It’s amazing how words from a stranger can lift, shift and gift you and ultimately change the trajectory of your life. Magical words that could cast a spell over you and give you hope, gratitude and light in the darkest times. She was like a babysitter/mother/sister/friend/spiritual teacher to me every afternoon.

She taught me that every moment — even the toughest ones — divinely occurs to teach us something. Life is a class with constant lessons for us to learn. She has shaped me personally, professionally and spiritually. The most important “Aha!” life lesson she taught me is it’s OK to simply be me.

Her acceptance speech brought me back to my childhood when I was an insecure kid trying to find my way in life — days I felt like I didn’t matter. I tuned in to nearly every one of her shows religiously at 4 p.m. My cheap seats were from the living room of Section 8 housing. I sat cross-legged on the matted carpet next to my grandmother’s altar with fruit, Buddha and photos of deceased ancestors. I can still smell the incense.

Me and my Grandmother, a.k.a. O.G. spiritual teacher.

I am a gay, Chinese hustler. This would’ve been so hard to type and say had it not been for some of the groundbreaking, controversial and eye-opening episodes where Oprah would uplift and learn from our LGBT brothers and sisters on her show.

I remember watching those episodes and feeling like, finally, someone knew my secret, and it was OK to celebrate being gay. (Thank you, Rev. Ed Bacon and Michael Beckwith, for telling Oprah you thought being gay was a gift). It was as if my mom was telling me, “It’s OK to be you.” The little boy in me was impacted deeply by the “Ellen episode” where she came out about her truth at a time when society and Hollywood shunned it. Since that day, my heart and mind opened a little. I trusted my truth a little bit more. But I was still afraid to speak and take action on my truth.

My Story and Oprah

Yes, I’m a descendant of immigrant hustlers, boat people from Vietnam who left a behind cushy life, only to hustle for the so-called “American Dream.”

My father, who came to Vietnam as a homeless little boy from China, hustled his way to create a cast iron nail business. He became rich, married the love of his life and had five kids, me being the youngest. But as fate would have it, at the height of his success Saigon fell, the communists took over and he made the heroic decision — following his truth — to give his family a better life in America.

We landed in Sacramento, 10 of us crammed into a trailer in a trailer park, with $4 in our pockets. The only English my parents spoke were “Hi,” “yes,” “no,” “thank you” and “bathroom.”

From where I was sitting, the window to the world appeared bleak. I saw things my little eyes shouldn’t have seen. There were drive-bys, prostitutes and violence in my hood. No wonder why I didn’t think I mattered. I thought success in America meant being white and coming from some sort of pedigree.

Every afternoon, I followed Oprah through the ups-and-downs of her weight-watching journey (even the “wagon of fat” episode), through the big hair and epic episodes with white supremacists, relationship dramas, transgendered folk (even before that word was even understood) and, yes, the over-the-top giveaways.

“You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” I didn’t get a car and never realized my dream of being in her audience, but what I did get can’t be counted in coins or dollars. I learned life lessons that helped me navigate a spiritual life that has helped me suffer less mentally. I remember watching, intently, no matter what the topic was, I waited patiently till the end of the episode to see what the life lesson was in store for me.

“Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” Oprah’s words are completely aligned with why I started the “TruthDare” podcast last year. #TruthTellingRevolution

I was in awe of how she connected with people. I studied her communication skills.

Little did I know, that I would follow her footsteps, get in, and out of the news and eventually find my best — well better — self.

Full-Circle Moment

As a young boy, I never thought my story mattered. But as a man, I have built a career around telling my story and others’ stories, giving a voice to the voiceless. Oprah gave me the courage to follow my true calling.

Like most immigrant parents, my “Ma” and “Ba” wanted me to be (cue broken English) “docta, lawya, engineer.” My truth is, I love to read, write and talk. As a child, I would read aloud every book I could get my hands on. In the shower, I would even recite words on shampoo bottles: “rinse, later, repeat, methylparaben.”

I knew one day, I wanted to use my communication skills to make an impact on people for a living. That was my professional little secret. I remember thinking there weren’t any Asian male broadcasters in the mainstream media, but there was Oprah, someone who didn’t look like the rest of the people on TV.

As a little boy, my prayer to God was, “Please use my life, my body; use me to help others.”

I struggled to tell my parents that, against their behest, I wanted to pursue a career telling stories and teaching people. My heart wanted to be a teacher, TV reporter and, ooh yes, do something, anything on LeVar Burton’s PBS show “Reading Rainbow.” Yes, LeVar and Oprah paved the way for my wildest dreams.

As fate would have it, I would become a TV reporter, university instructor and co-host of a PBS show. I listened when Oprah said she didn’t want to be “used by TV” and instead wanted to “use television (as her platform) to help people lead better lives.”

I, too, followed my truth, quitting my job as a TV reporter to produce uplifting stories about everyday heroes through my nonprofit, Go Inspire Go.

Filming an AARP documentary on caregiving heroes.

In a time when everyone is fed up with “fake news” and once-unspoken truths are surfacing in Hollywood and the ’hood, it’s time to wake up, pay attention and take action with our proverbial double-edged sword, our authentic truth. We are all born with this gift, this inner GPS. It’s called your gut, your intuition, that feeling that you can do and be better.

“Now That You Know, You Can’t Pretend You Don’t”

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

When Oprah said this, I knew it was the truth. How? My body tingled with chills (that is usually my affirmation). The BIGGEST lesson in life you can learn is at the end of the day, you only have your truth. You must trust it. Honor it. Be it. While it may the single most difficult thing you can do, it’s also best gift you can give to the world.

In 1995, journalist Lisa Ling appeared on “Oprah” to report on mass atrocities against women in Congo. After sharing these widely unknown stories of sexual violence and genocide, Oprah ended the show by saying poignantly, “Now that you know, you can’t pretend you didn’t hear it.”

Those words woke me up and changed my life forever. They helped me get through the doubts of leaving my successful career in TV news during the 2008 economic crisis to start my nonprofit. They gave me the courage to put one foot in front of the other after my savings ran out and I only had .80 cents in my bank account. I clung on to on my truth no matter what.

Regardless of how many or how few likes I had on a story or follows on my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, these stories mattered. I matter. You matter. Regardless of what naysayers said, I knew my words had impact and people were listening.

Through the stories produced on my Go Inspire Go platform, a five-year-old helped feed hundreds of thousands of people in San Francisco, a reverend helped dozens of kids attend school in Haiti, and a homeless boy who was kicked out by his parents for being gay came to terms with his truth and found his way.

Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t turn my back on the gifts God has given me and I couldn’t give up on myself.

#TIMESUP — Trust Your Truth, I Dare You

“And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.”

I believe a new day is dawning. It’s beckoning. It’s here. It starts with you. It starts with me. We all must listen to our truth and no matter how scary it sounds, we need to act. No matter how big or small you think the action is, we must do something to speak up, even if it is uncomfortable.

It’s what Rosa Parks did for Recy Taylor. It’s what a friend did for me when I was being made fun of on the playground . It’s what humans naturally do for humanity’s sake. It doesn’t have to be a big protest. You don’t need a bullhorn. You don’t even need hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. You just have to be YOU. SPEAK and BE your truth.

Last year, fed up with the lies on TV, at dinner parties, on social media, I was inspired to start a podcast called “TruthDare.” I would have conversations with acquaintances, friends and loved ones and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to record these?” The goal is to have illuminating discussions with truth-tellers who have found their TRUTH and true calling. I would then DARE the audience to discover, live and be their truth.

Dr. Gladys Ato discussing her new book, “The Good Goodbye,” on TruthDare.
Speaking with S.F. CrossFit co-founder Kelly Starrett during a recent episode of TruthDare.

My work with Go Inspire Go and the TruthDare podcast has not only led to life-changing occurrences for countless people, it’s led me to my ultimate truth — that it is OK to be me.

I’ve always striven to see the silver lining in bad situations and the light within darkness. This #METOO movement made me realize when I’m going through a bump in the road, if I am vulnerable enough to speak the truth and say, “Me too,” others will know they’re not alone and there is hope.

Your Turn

What is your truth? Have you told anyone? Are you living and being your truest self?

Join me on this truth-telling revolution: Simply share a story about your truth or a truthful moment in the comments below. It could even be about how Oprah or someone else helped you discover your truth.

No rules here.

I believe that together, we can LIFT each other with love and support, GIFT each other with the words and stories of how we found our truth and SHIFT our perspectives.

TRUST your truth. I DARE you.


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