I grew up in the Bay Area, but I was born in Beijing. My parents left me with my grandparents at the age of one to come to America to make a living. They came with $10 in their pocket and no English. My mom lived above the restaurant where she was a waitress. Every night after it closed, her power would go out. As a mother myself, it’s so hard to imagine having to leave children behind and the sacrifices that they made for my future, and my children’s future.
My maternal grandfather raised me. I have such warm feelings for the time that we spent together. I learned a bunch of old man stuff, like fishing. We played a lot of chess, both Western and Chinese. My grandfather was a senior citizen pool champion, so every morning we’d wake up at six and go to the senior citizen billiards club. I wasn’t allowed to play because I was too young. I would just rack for him and his friends. But he’d break down the strategy. We’d spend six hours at this club and he’d be like, “Okay, so why did he go for that one? Why did he go for that ball in that pocket?” I feel really grateful for that time.
My mom lived above the restaurant where she was a waitress. Every night after it closed, her power would go out.
I joined my parents in America when I was five, but they wanted me to stay connected to my family and my cultural heritage, so every summer I would go back to China. At the age of seven, I started flying internationally by myself. One year, when I was eight, I arrived at the Beijing airport at nine o’clock at night. Whoever was supposed to pick me up wasn’t at the right place. As it got closer to midnight, I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to do this.” So I dragged my giant suitcase, found a legitimate cab—because back in the day, there were all kinds of shady ones—and was like, “I don’t have any money, but take me to this address and someone will pay you.” I showed up in the middle of the night and my family was like, “What happened?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but someone needs to go pay the cab downstairs.”
My career path has been very varied, but I’m grateful for that because everything that I do now comes from a previous experience. I started out in tech, doing business development and market research. I started investing in real estate developments because my parents, being immigrant parents, were like, “You can’t just let your money sit there,” and encouraged me to find smart opportunities for investment. I also worked as a freelance photographer. I soon realized that my business experience could be helpful for some of the businesses I was shooting for, so I started offering go-to-market strategy work in addition to creative.
What I love about cannabis is the way it meets me where I’m at in any given moment.
I now work as the creative director of Four One Nine, a creative agency and event space focused on cultivating culture and community in San Francisco. Earlier this year, we held a Cannabis Eve Party on 4/19—Four One Nine. I’m allergic to alcohol, so weed has always been this very natural, simpatico relationship for me. What I love about cannabis is the way it meets me where I’m at in any given moment. It can meet me at a very social event and just add an additional layer to the vibe. Or it can be a nightcap after a long stressful day. One of my favorite things to do is put some vinyl on my turntable, whatever music I’m feeling at that moment, and then roll and smoke a joint. Sometimes I read, but most of the time I just vibe out to music, look at art, watch the smoke from the joint, and try to be in the moment, feeling my body, feeling my senses, not worrying about the future, not bogged down by the past—just truly being in that moment.
It’s a very analog experience. I collect vintage lighters, so smoking for me isn’t just like, “Okay, let’s just get lit and go.” It takes refilling the butane lighter. I use a vintage ashtray. I love extracting shots from my hand-lever Italian espresso machine. I can feel the history and the tactile experience behind all these objects. I just drop into my body and that grounds me. I could be stressed out anywhere in the world and just think about the last time I smoked weed, and then I’m okay.
I first smoked weed in college, but I don’t think any of those college experiences complement your relationship to yourself. When you don’t know yourself, when you’re not connected to yourself, you don’t know how these things best fit into your life. I mean, it’s like dating, friendships, or anything else, right? So when I first started smoking in college, it was just stoner vibes, if you will.
It wasn’t until recently, when I developed a stronger and deeper connection to myself, that I understood how I wanted cannabis to show up in a positive, additive, and non-numbing way for me. Time becomes more finite, you know? You really have to start figuring out how you want to spend the hours in your day. I had been smoking weed on and off, but not in an intentional way. I let cannabis drive the experience for me rather than me setting my intention for what I wanted out of it. I see that in all kinds of things—a vice or food or anything. Even media consumption. Are you going to let your phone dictate your day, or are you going to be like, How am I approaching this device, this activity? It’s the difference between mindlessness and mindfulness.
Having this much choice around something like cannabis is such a privilege. Sometimes I get swept away by all the amazing, beautifully designed paraphernalia and products that are out there. But at the end of the day, as an analog lover, I just love smelling flower. Look, I know myself. I’ve tried all these things, but what is really authentic to my experience is smoking combustible flower. I have to remind myself of that sometimes when Elevate Jane, for example, comes out with some gorgeous new product. I’ll be like, Ooh. But then I’m like, Sonya, are you really going to use that?
When I developed a stronger and deeper connection to myself ... I understood how I wanted cannabis to show up in a positive, additive, and non-numbing way for me.
I tend not to smoke directly around my kids. I’m not typically any level of inebriated around them. But I welcome the conversation. They definitely see some of my stuff laying around or sometimes I’ll be smoking a joint with a friend and my daughter will come down and she clearly knows something is up.
My kids are seven and four, so even the idea of drinking, I think, or being drunk, is an abstract concept. When it’s age-appropriate, I would love to engage in a conversation around responsible use and sourcing. Trusting your own intuition when you’re in spaces, whether you’re drunk or on some other kind of substance, you have to make sure that you’ve set yourself up for success and safety as much as possible, and that, for me, is what the conversation is rooted in. It’s not necessarily about a particular substance, because that can happen with alcohol, too.
I split time between San Francisco and L.A. When I’m in Northern California, I smoke exclusively Swami Select. When I’m in Southern California, I smoke exclusively 710 Labs. It’s so good. It just taps into that old-school vibe that I always love. Those are my two go-tos. It’s important to think about what your experience is and what kind of processes your body wants and enjoys and stay true to that. The more that you stick to what's authentic to you, the easier it becomes to just lean into your intuition when you need to make a decision.
I really want to challenge the monoculture that dominates the Bay Area and break the stereotypes that have really set in here. I’m dedicated to cultivating a local creative community and igniting positive social change, which is the foundation of my work across all of my projects. With Four One Nine, it’s not just about a single event or activation. We don’t see ourselves as a plug-and-play organization. We want to help the ecosystem of San Francisco grow and elevate. I’m raising my kids here. This is where I want them to be inspired and live. I don’t want to keep running to New York or L.A. or London for interesting events. We’re very stringent about who we work with at Four One Nine. One of the things that we often ask our collaborators is, “How do you see your career and where do you want to take it?” Because not only will we invest the resources to help them grow, period, we also want them to feel seen and heard.
So many people are only interested in press or accolades. But it’s not about that. Are you dedicated? Are you hardworking? Do you have that ethic? Do you have that idea? Because I was overlooked time and time again as an immigrant woman of color, and so I have that empathy. Like, if someone had given me a little bit more resources, what might I have done with that?
I’m also an executive leadership coach. A good friend used to work at Human Rights Watch. At the time, she was going into San Quentin prison on the regular and she thought that I might be very interested in criminal justice reform work. So I started going into San Quentin, mentoring the men in blue there around entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence, and financial literacy. I found the work so engaging and so fulfilling. I just felt my whole brain light up.
San Quentin is physically a very beautiful place, but there are so many rules and regulations. You have to dress a certain way, conduct yourself in a certain way, and go through all the security checks and protocols to then be amongst other humans. It just made me reflect on what it means to be human, what privilege is, what a practice of empathy is, and how powerful our words are. One of the things I hold very true is not over-promising or speaking in exaggerated terms. Because I get to leave at the end of the day, but the men there are staying. So my words, and how I show up, really affect them and their daily lives. It deepened my practice of empathy and understanding of human psychology.
How we choose to say what is on our minds and the words that we put forth reveal what our internal perspective is.
I think our egos and insecurities often get in the way of being able to relate to someone. But when you’re sitting in a maximum security prison and having a conversation with someone who might, on the surface, have had a very different experience from you, and you’re both still trying actively to relate with each other in a non-selfish way, that’s what builds connection.
I eventually completed a coaching training program and started coaching leaders and creatives. I’ve realized that my niche in coaching really is the ability to practice active listening, process what I’m hearing, and reflect it back, but from a place of self-empowerment. Our words are incredibly revealing. How we choose to say what is on our minds and the words that we put forth reveal what our internal perspective is.
One of the things I hear a lot in people’s vernacular is that we often use nouns rather than adjectives and verbs to describe ourselves. So when that happens, we attach it to our identity. So for example, someone could say, “I’m a good host. I’m a great host. I host parties all the time. I love it.” And so, when something at your party then goes wrong or somebody is having a sad moment, that becomes an attack on your identity. Because if I said I’m a good host, and someone’s crying at my party, clearly I’m not a good host. Instead of acting to address the moment, you’re coming from a defensive place because your identity is being attacked. Now, if I were to say, for example, “I love hosting,” that is a verb. So when someone’s crying at your party, that’s not an attack on your identity. That’s like, “Oh, well, shit, I love hosting. Let me go talk to that person.” My ego isn’t getting attacked by this person’s experience.
I used to cut myself off of a lot of different things. I used to say that I was not creative. I used to say that I was not entrepreneurial. I think that came from a lack of knowing myself, a rejection of myself, and not listening or being disconnected from my own intuitive voice. When I really started trying things and enjoying them, I surprised myself more and more. So now I don’t like to say that “I can’t do this” or “I’m not like that” unless I’ve really given it a go.
For instance, I’m about to launch a streetwear magazine called MYLES with my friends Jeff Staple and Zachary Glassman. I’m the co-founder and managing editor. It sits at the intersection of culture, art, and travel, understanding that these things are where we find our inspiration—whether it’s what we put on our bodies, how we style our homes, or how we sticker up our notebooks. Every issue is going to be focused on a different city. The first city is Los Angeles.
I think that as the world swings more digital, there’s always going to be this pull for something that is real, something that is tangible. Tech has introduced a lot of convenience to our lives and removed a lot of barriers, but it can never replicate soulfulness. Tech numbs our senses. There’s never going to be something that replaces the experience of sitting down and feeling something, whether that’s a magazine or a vinyl record. We are living, breathing beings. We’re not just a set of eyes. We’re more than that.