Welcome to our new Soul Chat series! Soul Chats is an interview series here on the blog where we celebrate people who inspire us. It’s an exclusive opportunity for you to learn their stories, insights, business tips or unique outlook on life. Please join me in welcoming our first guest!
To kick this new series off I tapped my dear friend Justina Long-Am, aka Justina Vanessa on Instagram and TikTok. She’s smart, a super talented photographer and one of California’s top travel influencers who is passionate about inspiring women to travel, especially fellow AAPI women. I’m honored to have gotten to know Justina over the years and watch her grow creatively.
She works full-time as a dental hygenist, but you would never know it since she’s always getting around the world hunting out adventures and taking her followers for the ride (and sometimes I tag along for those epic girls trips that you see on Instagram!)
A Chat With Justina Long-Am, Aka Justina Vanessa
Let’s get into it! Also make sure you also give her a follow on Instagram @justinavanessa and TikTok at @justinavanessa.
For those who haven’t seen our travels together all over Instagram, can you introduce yourself for our readers?
Hey friends! I’m Justina, a travel content creator based out of San Francisco. I’m a first-gen Cambodian American. In my content, you’ll find everything about food, fashion and travel. I’m truly passionate about travel and exploration. You can find me hiking to a swimming hole in the mountains, or enjoying the deck of an oceanside suite. There’s an adventure to be found everywhere, and I intend on doing all of it!
You’re one of my OG content creator friends that I met in San Francisco back in 2015 (I think?) But you’re a dental hygienist by trade. What motivated you to start your creative journey as a travel creator and photographer?
A guy that I had been dating and moved into San Francisco with had broken up with me. Within that month, and while we were still living together, he started dating and fell in love with someone else. I was completely distraught. At that time I was posting #OOTD on Instagram pretty casually. But after that experience, I wanted to transition that negative energy into something positive. The last thing I wanted was for this experience to bring me down.
I found blogging to be a catalyst to self-growth and exploration. And I wanted to inspire others to do the same. After a year into it, I came to realize that my passion was travel and lifestyle. With travel you can reach and connect with a wider audience. No matter age, gender or sexual orientation, there is self intuition to want to explore.
How do you juggle a full-time job and content creation at the same time? What is the top productivity tip you can share with our readers?
Justina: Juggling a full-time job and part-time content creating is still something I struggle with to this day! Because my daytime job is what funds my travels, it is my top priority. But when I travel, I make sure to maximize my content creation, so that I have weeks worth of photos and videos to post on my social media channels.
Kara: Whenever I go on a trip with you, I always have at least 1000 photos to go through after. I don’t think followers on Instagram always realize all the hustle and work that goes into travel content creation, especially when there’s a full-time job to work around.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for an Instagram photo?
Justina: The craziest thing I’ve done for a shot is waking up at 4AM and driving to Dixon with Kara to shoot in a sunflower field at sunrise. It was the first time that I’d gotten up that early for a photo shoot. But now that I understand how much lighting makes a difference, I have no problem getting up early for that shot.
Kara: I remember this well. I think that was also my first time hauling ass to shoot a sunrise. Now it’s something we do all the time. I think we’ve become pros at it!! The key, if anyone is reading, is to totally prep your bags the night before, including coffee and snacks in the car if you can. This way you can set your alarm and literally roll out of bed into the car.
You are such a talented photographer. What’s your favorite gear to shoot with?
I really love my Canon EF- 24-105mm f/4L IS II lens. It’s heavy AF, but it works well for so many situations. You can use it for food photography and landscape, and everything in between. It’s been such a great investment!
One thing I really admire about you is your gumption for life. It’s rare to find you on your couch all weekend. Have you always been eager to explore the world or is that something you found later in life?
Justina: It was not until my late 20s did I realize that there’s so much that I have yet to do. Thanks to Pinterest and Instagram, I realized how much I was missing out on. And now that I was making big girl money, there was no excuse not to travel.
But to be honest, the best travels of my life have been the ones I’ve done on a budget. I’m truly blessed to be living in a state where I could visit the snow one weekend and hike through the desert the next. And all you need is a tank of gas and a motel room.
Kara: I have to agree with you on this. One of my fondest travel memories with you and Bri was when we rented that cheap motel in Weed, California and got up early to do a sunrise swim at McCloud Falls. I think in total we spent like, $50 each after splitting the room, gas and Burger King, and got very little sleep. Many memories were made!
You hail from Sonoma, which now is a buzzing wine town but was very different back in the 90’s. What was it like growing up there as a First Gen Cambodian?
In the 90s, Sonoma was known as a small agricultural town. It was predominately white, so I had a hard time relating to people. They weren’t being raised like me. Kids that I went to school with got to go to their friend’s house and go to parties.
Meanwhile, my parents were really strict. My life consisted of sports and academia. I was rarely allowed to go to the mall or the cinema. I felt that really hindered my chances of connecting with others, because friendship revolved around doing social things.
I definitely had an urge to connect with others that looked and were raised like me. So when I went to college, I joined all the ethnic clubs (i.e. Filipino Association, AAPI Club, Black Student Union) and that’s when I felt like I really blossomed. I didn’t feel alone and I felt comfortable with being myself.
We’ve talked together about skin bleaching before and how you don’t do it anymore. Could you tell us more about your journey of skin bleaching?
I hated my skin color as a child because I was told constantly that I was too dark. I went through desperate measures to be as light as I could possibly be. I loved swimming, but it made me tan. So I stopped swimming. I avoided the hot sun like it was the plague. And my mom introduced me to a Thai skin bleaching cream. I would wear this underneath my foundation so that it would bring up my skin tone a shade lighter.
One day, I looked at myself and realized how ridiculous I looked. My face was ghost white, while the rest of my body was brown. Since then I’ve ditched the bleaching cream and stay true to my natural skin tone.
I still get self-conscious about my skin to this day. Something that was embedded into your psyche is hard to brush off completely. But I’m far more confident in my skin than I was 10 years ago.
Real talk: what is it really like traveling as an Asian woman?
The only place where I’ve felt self-conscious about my race has been Northern California. They get surprised to see a person of color in their neighborhood. With the type of racial tension that has been occurring in the US, I can’t help but wonder if they’re thinking, “Get TF out of my town.”
What would you say to someone who is nervous about traveling because they heard a destination may be unfriendly to people like them?
Travel with someone else and make sure to have pepper spray on you!
If money and time wasn’t an issue, what is your ultimate bucket list trip/destination?
A luxurious waterside getaway in Lake Como, Italy!
Thank you Justina for your time and sharing more about your life and work as a creator!
If you have someone rad in mind you would love to see be part of this series, please drop their name below or email us at email@example.com.