I was born with a shorter stature, and I believe it is important to be seen

By Clara How, May 13, 2021

Jessica Chan, 36, was born with a genetic condition called hypochondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism. She may be shorter in stature, but not in presence. She wants you to see her, and all the other people who don’t look like everyone else. 

As a child, Jessica’s love for sport led her to manage the school sports team. As a teen, she ran for student government. As an adult, she is now based in Hong Kong as a senior director of a multinational real estate company, and vocal about continuing the conversation of the importance of an inclusive society. It is her parents, she says, who have raised her to believe in using her voice to share her story. 

This story is about dreaming without boundaries, the importance of parental support, and creating opportunities through being vocal. It also introduces what a democratic office space is, and if you find this lacking in your current environment, we ask that you start the conversation about why.

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As a child, my dream was to build shopping malls. 

My mother is a really big shopper. Growing up, I used to go with her to malls and department stores. I thought happiness could be found in a store, but as I got older, I realised that it was the memories that I had with my family, spent out and about. The dream was to create malls, so that they could become places where families could go.

I dreamed big, because my parents raised me to believe that I was able to achieve whatever I wanted. They never treated me like I was fragile. They just told me that I am different.

I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in Arcadia, California. My parents had immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s to seek a better life, and they met in the United States. I have always greatly admired them, because on top of being great parents, they had so much strength as a minority race living in the American suburbs. 

As it was obvious that I looked physically different, I used to ask about my shorter stature when I was three or four. My parents worked in the medical field, and they approached the conversation in a very matter of fact way: that I was born with a genetic condition and not a disorder, and it just means that my limbs are shorter in terms of bone growth. It wasn’t something that I would be able to change.

After a while, I stopped asking questions. When something becomes part of your life, you don’t ask about it everyday. I accepted that this is who I am. 

My brother and I.

My brother and I.

For an Asian family, my parents were on the liberal side. They exposed my brother and I to different cultures, languages and media, and always told us to speak up. They encouraged me to tell people how I was feeling, and not bury it inside. When I couldn’t try out for the school sports team, my parents gave me the perspective of doing something on the side of what I wanted to do – so I signed up to manage the team instead! 

I truly found my voice when I attended a larger high school than what I was used to in middle school. Prior to that, I had always grown up with the same friends in our small town, and everyone knew who I was. When my classmates asked me questions about my condition, I explained it the same way my parents had. 

I was never discriminated against, or at least, not that I was aware of. If I wasn’t given a chance because of who I am, I recognised that whether it was fair or not is out of my control, and I moved on. Perhaps it was my way of self-protection.

When I started high school, I realised that not only was I in a place where no one knew who I was, but I was also different, female, and a minority. If I wanted people to listen to me, then I needed to be seen.

So I ran for positions in student government and vice president of my senior class. I said: “I’m Jessica Chan. I don’t look like you, but I could represent your ideas in what you want for our school.” 

As part of our student government, we also had training in speech and debate, which was very defining for me as a teenager. Our speech coach told me that people wouldn’t listen if I didn’t have a clear voice, so I learnt to project my voice and enunciate. She taught me how to craft a speech, and what I needed to say to get people to believe in my ideas.

I realised that once people recognise that you are just like them, it makes them a lot more comfortable to talk to you, and believe in you. 

I also want to stress that just because people are different doesn’t always mean that they have different experiences.

As a teenager, I went through all the hormonal and emotional frustrations that any teen would have felt, whether it was not making the team tryouts or being in the popular crowd. I gained a really good group of friends who became my safety net both socially and emotionally.

A family photo at my brother’s graduation.

A family photo at my brother’s graduation.

This continued through my time in university. I read architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, which was very liberal, and had an open environment. While I did not meet anyone who had the same condition as me, there were many people from diverse backgrounds, whether it was a difference in country, race, ethnicity, or types of disabilities.

I had an incredibly supportive group of people around me, who have always reminded me that I can reach out to them if I needed to. For that, I am thankful. 

Today, I am a Senior Solutions Development Director (Asia Pacific) at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), an international company that provides real estate and investment services. I’ve worked in Washington, New York and Singapore, before moving to Hong Kong in 2015. I’m also the Vice-Chair of the American Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Influence committee, which is a business platform for the people in Hong Kong to network and build opportunities. 

Sometimes, when people meet me for the first time, they are surprised that I have come so far. My response is that I have always tried harder.

I felt like I had to work harder to prove to everyone around me that although I was physically different, my ability to perform both academically and socially was no different than anyone else. It was important to me to create my own brand – even if it meant working longer hours – and be the face of diversity inclusion to let people know that it’s okay to be different. 

My parents are at the heart of what drives me. They never pushed me towards a certain job, but they taught me that time is precious, and it was important to think about how much I wanted something before I committed to it. Even though they don’t put pressure on me, I never want to let them down. 

I first joined my company after university, when I realised that I didn’t want to take a traditional architectural route. I heard that there was a position for an executive assistant to the managing director of the construction arm of JLL, and even though I had no idea what that entailed, I applied. During the interview, the man who would become my boss was very open and vocal. He saw me, and remarked, “You’re different.”

I joked that I would still be able to get things done, that I was really good at writing and I’d answer all his calls. The conversation turned to what I wanted to do, and I told him that one day, I’d like to build shopping malls. He said, “We build malls. You can work for me!”

In the end, while I didn’t get to work on mall projects directly, I started with large base building projects. Over the years, I transferred from Washington to New York, and worked in very dynamic, demanding environments. I wanted to change my role within the company every three or four years so I could meet new people and learn new skills, and found mentors within the organisation to assist me in achieving these goals. 

Wearing a hard hat at a building site.

Wearing a hard hat at a building site.

My company’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion (which includes supporting gender equality or LGBTQIA+ causes, or addressing racial imbalance ) was what convinced me to join and stay at JLL. Their position is to be an equal opportunity employer, and to hire the best person for the job, despite their disability or otherwise. This is reflected in the people who they attract and hire, and I do have colleagues who are differently abled in other parts of the firm. 

My company did not hesitate to custom make an ergonomic chair for me when I joined. I have never been discriminated against, or excluded from meetings. I’m also very active in the company’s disability empowerment initiatives, which has involved programmes such as raising awareness about how people who are visually impaired see the world. 

I’m pretty vocal about being different. People might feel uncomfortable asking me about my situation, or worry that it’s not polite to ask, but I want to break that barrier. It’s okay to ask, because you’re probably curious, and I’m more than happy to tell you.

After so many years, I don’t see the physicality of living in a world that’s not designed for me as a challenge — you just go about your day. I’m so used to asking people for help that it’s not embarrassing for me or them.

Whether it’s needing help to reach for something, turn a switch off, or get a cup of coffee because I can’t reach the coffee machine. When you put the word ‘help’ in a question, everyone is generally aware of why you’re asking them, and are happy to do so.

Happy hour with my colleagues!

Happy hour with my colleagues!

That being said, generally people don’t always think of other people. Not necessarily in a selfish way, but more so that they are naturally conditioned to be so. For example, in certain parts of Asia many accessibility regulations in building design are recommended, and not required. So when people design spaces, they don’t have that mindset to cater for the other. 

I represent 500 corporate real estate services firms in Asia, which means I’m constantly talking to people in all sorts of industries. All the lessons in my formative years (making speeches, putting myself out there) have crafted who I am now at work. I need to present myself as being relatable, but I also show them that because I’m different, I offer new perspectives.

I would sit in design coordination meetings and ask, “Why are you putting the light switch so high? That would exclude people in wheelchairs or people who are shorter.” 

They might answer that they don’t have any employees who require this, but my answer is: “You might not have them right now, but one day you may.”

People design with the best intent, and they don't make provision for those who are not like them out of habit. But I want my influence in the real estate world to be about designing a democratic space for the other, and not just for the masses. 

A democratic space would be one that considers accessibility issues, such as the positioning of door handles, water points or levers and switches. It would include designing for multiple scenarios, such as chairs for pregnant women. These decisions need to be made right at the beginning of the process, because often they wind up trying to be fitted in at the end. 

In these situations, I usually give my suggestions, and many clients are appreciative and take them on board. But of course there are clients who don’t see them as a priority, and that’s okay because it is their office and their money, and I respect that. I just think that it’s unfortunate that opportunities get missed in this way. 

Ultimately, the reason why I am so comfortable with being seen stems from my belief that everyone needs to tell their own story. We all need to have a voice to express our opinions and who we are as people, so others don’t come up with their own ideas of who we are, which might be inaccurate or not with the best intent. 

If people see you telling your own story, it legitimises who you are, what you stand for and what you’re capable of.

We need to show individuals that anybody can do anything, regardless of their gender or whether they are a minority. For those who are struggling to find support, I urge you to get out there and find a mentor, or join a support group online or in person, so that you have an outlet, and can develop your voice. Find people and organisations that challenge the status quo, who are open to new ideas and working with a full spectrum of individuals. Because when you are seen, you will be considered for opportunities, and these opportunities could be life changing. 

When I was the team lead for multinational clients in Hong Kong, I was the first woman in my company to take on that role. While I didn’t see the role as male or female specific, because I was female, a lot of other female managers who worked with me saw that they would be able to take my job one day. I hoped that they saw that there was nothing to be afraid of in wanting something bigger than you might have thought possible. 

With the women I met at a mentorship programme with The Women’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation that challenges gender stereotypes in Hong Kong. It was called the Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders, and meeting these inspiring women has been one of the highlights of my time in Hong Kong. I still participate in alumni events today.

With the women I met at a mentorship programme with The Women’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation that challenges gender stereotypes in Hong Kong. It was called the Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders, and meeting these inspiring women has been one of the highlights of my time in Hong Kong. I still participate in alumni events today.

I once spoke on a panel with two other gentlemen; one who is blind and one who lives with a mental health condition. We spoke about the importance of having conversations about being different to create an inclusive society that fosters emotionally strong people. But I realised that the one thing that the three of us had in common was that we were fortunate to have come from well-supported families, who recognised that we were different.

The event was organised by Swire Properties, and the panel was chaired by their Head of Diversity and Inclusion.

The event was organised by Swire Properties, and the panel was chaired by their Head of Diversity and Inclusion.

This is the one thing I would like to leave with anyone out there: that it is so important to talk to parents. Talk to parents of children who may be ostracised, who are emotionally fragile, or who see themselves as different. Support them, so that they can support their children to succeed in society.

Starting a family of my own isn’t something I have thought about yet, but I have friends and family who have children. It’s really important to me that these children feel accepted for who they are, and they know that they can come to me if they want to talk to someone who can give a different perspective of diversity in society. 

I tell my loved ones to be matter of fact when they talk about people with differences, and not to sugarcoat it. Tell the children that they can live with it, and do big things. That was how my parents approached it, and I will always be grateful to them.

Writer’s Note:

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about learning about differences; be it cultural, a chosen way of living, or just a matter of opinion. I write about how it is always humbling. 

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