Karen Mok is a mental health advocate and the co-founder of The Cosmos, the community for Asian women to care for themselves, their community, and the world. Since it was founded in 2018, The Cosmos has been featured in publications like the New York Times, Paper, and Bustle, and has gathered over 10,000 self-identifying Asian women together, both digitally and IRL. Karen previously lived in San Francisco and worked at Stripe as the head of global identity and verification partnerships. While sheltering in place at her childhood home in Charleston, South Carolina, she re-discovered her childhood dream of getting a dog. Upon moving to Brooklyn, New York with her partner, Karen adopted a rescue terrier mix named Cat, who resides in (almost) harmony with the cat, Amarela.
Did you grow up with dogs?
I’ve wanted a dog my entire life, but my parents are Asian immigrants and they were pretty reluctant-slash-hard no on getting a dog. Their number one reason was that I couldn’t even take care of myself, as a child. How could I take care of a dog? I was very disappointed. I would bring home books about dogs. I made PowerPoint presentations about why I should have a dog. And they didn’t work.
I love that you made a whole PowerPoint. That’s a lot of initiative for a kid. When we interviewed Andy Nguyen, who is also a child of Asian immigrants, he told us how he really wanted a dog as a kid because it felt really American. There’s something really American about having a dog, like when you watch television and you see these—mostly white—families with dogs. Did that ever occur to you?
Absolutely, I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a very white town—less than two percent of the population is Asian. Everyone around me had animals. I thought if I had some picture of that American life, then I would fit in more and would belong. I was also really lonely as a child. I have an older sister, but both of us were so different from everyone else in school and in our neighborhood. The idea of having a best friend—a dog—who would love me for who I am really appealed to me. I struggled with loving myself, and I projected these ideals onto my aspiration for a dog. Even though I’ve been on this journey of loving and accepting myself for a while, there is something really special about the nonjudgmental love that a dog gives you.
Tell us about your journey to getting Cat. How did you know you were ready for a dog?
During COVID, I was quarantined back home to the same house and neighborhood where I felt so lonely growing up. It’s still very conservative. I felt lonely and left out again—like when I was a child. I was there for five months, which is a long time to feel that way. I started revisiting my childhood dreams, my journals, my PowerPoint presentation. I re-familiarized myself with that dream, and I started going on Petfinder.
My partner grew up with dogs, so we’ve spent a lot of time talking about our love for animals. I also spent some time in Maryland with his family dog. I knew I had to get out of my family home and move to New York, and that the first thing I would do when I get to New York is adopt a dog. It wasn’t even getting furniture or getting to know my neighborhood.
I submitted over 20 Petfinder applications before I had even moved. I got rejected because there is high demand for adopting dogs right now. But on my second day in New York, which was two months ago, I got an email from All Humane Animal Rescue in New Jersey for Cat. She had just gotten out of a hoarding situation in Alabama. She wasn’t exactly the cutest dog, according to the photo. She just looked really terrified. Something about that really drew me to her, as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety.
We were on the way to IKEA when I got the email, so we turned around and drove an hour and a half to this rescue.
She was the most submissive ever—it was like she had never been outside. She laid on the grass the whole time, belly up. She was terrified. My partner was worried. He was like, “Hey, this could be a lot of work, caring for an anxious dog. This is your first dog and we just moved to New York. Are you sure this is a good idea?”
But I knew in my gut that I needed to give her a home. We adopted her right there. Her rescue name was actually Catwoman, but we shortened it to Cat. We have a cat already, so we thought it would be subversive and funny.
What’s your cat’s name?
The cat’s name is not Dog. It’s Amarela, which means Yellow in Portuguese. The cat is from Brazil, where my partner and I lived.
As a fellow rescue dog mom, one of my favorite things about rescue dogs is how they open up to you—and change—the more that they trust you. How has Cat opened up to you in the past two months?
It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had for a long time. The first week, she wouldn’t move. She would sit in the room that we dedicated to her, and she would lie there the whole day. It was really sad. We tried to give her space so that she could feel comfortable in the new environment. Over time, with treats—obviously—and lots of love and patience, she started to open up. She’s the most loving dog. She’s so sweet. She just kisses and licks you.
She’s so sweet and kind despite the trauma that she went through, and despite not being loved the first six months of her life. I haven’t had any really bad anxiety since we got Cat, and I think part of it is because seeing a dog overcome that trauma is so inspiring. Now, she’s running around—she has so much energy, and she’s so curious about the world. We take her to Prospect Park during off-leash hours and she runs around so fast and so free, with so much love for the world.
Absolutely. I can relate to that. I always say that my dog taught me to be brave. What does a day in the life for you and Cat look like? I know that entrepreneurs like to say that every day is different…
If anything, Cat has added a lot of regularity into my day! She sleeps in the bed with my partner and me, sometimes wedged between our legs or under the covers. Around noon, we take her out. We have a really nice community garden, so if she doesn’t want to go for a walk, we’ll take her there.
My partner and I take shifts. We’re co-parenting. He takes the morning and night shift, so I can sleep in a bit more. I get up around 10 A.M. and feed her before brushing my teeth. She’s my first priority. I feed her Fromm Puppy Gold Dry Dog Food, which is bougie puppy kibble that comes in a hot pink bag. Before we make coffee and breakfast, I put treats in her Kong ball, which occupies her for 15 minutes—just enough time for us to eat. Then, I go to my office. Our apartment has three bedrooms, and two of them are offices. Even without COVID, my partner is a remote engineer and we both work from home. She has a big squishy pink anxiety bed for napping. Around 12 P.M., I take her on a walk. If she goes on a long walk, she’s good to nap for two hours. When she’s awake, we try to monitor her and stop her from eating the cat food.
Once a month, we give her a bath. We use Earthbath Shed Control Pet Shampoo in Green Tea & Awapuhi. She smells amazing—for like five hours until she goes outside again. Because I’m Asian, dirty feet is very hard for me, including for the dog. Every time she goes out for a walk, I give her a wipe down with Nature’s Miracle Deodorizing Bath Wipes.
Are you a shoes-off Asian household?
Yes. Having dirty floors is just very difficult for me.
Around 6 P.M., we’ll take her out for one last walk, and around 8 P.M., she gets really sleepy. We’ll chill at night—we call it family time, with the cat and dog co-existing on the couch together.
As the co-founder of The Cosmos and a mental health advocate, have you noticed Cat inserting herself into your work?
It’s so much more fun to work with an animal around. The Cosmos is a community platform for Asian women to care for themselves, their community, and their world. What really motivated [my co-founder] Cassandra and me to start The Cosmos was creating spaces to connect with other Asian women and share our stories in a nonjudgmental way. It’s space to talk about the hard issues that we all think about, but often don’t have the space to do so in a way that allows us to learn how to understand ourselves more.
Mental health is one of those areas. As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I didn’t feel wholly comfortable talking about that or even getting help for that because of the stigma in the [Asian] community. I created The Cosmos because I needed that, and it’s still a work in progress. So much of the Asian community is very much in the progress of acknowledging mental health issues, especially for younger generations. We have intergenerational experiences in which our parents and grandparents have lived very different lives, and we have to find a way to understand and accept that part of ourselves, but also show the American part of ourselves.
We’ve been running The Cosmos for two years, and we’re constantly looking at the world, looking at how our community is changing, and trying to create experiences that align with that. This year, with Black Lives Matter and COVID, we’ve really realigned The Cosmos to be a place for us to learn about Asian American history and Asian American activism—focusing on more experiences to help connect us to the BIPOC community.
I love how you’ve adapted and evolved as a community. As a new dog parent, have you discovered a dog parent community in your new neighborhood?
We had a pet channel in our online Slack community at The Cosmos. It was definitely my favorite channel, with people posting pictures of their cute animals. Now, we’re starting to recognize the same dog owners because Cat will interact with them. But she’s definitely still anxious with other dogs. We’re trying to figure out which dog community Cat is comfortable with. She seems to get along with other puppies and small dogs, so we need to find a small dog community so that she’s not overwhelmed.
It’s so important that dogs find their pack. Like us, they need their own communities, and I love that you’re being patient in letting Cat find hers. What do you consider your biggest extravagance for Cat?
I’ve realized that my day-to-day mental health and happiness is so much better because of the responsibility of caring for Cat and giving her a really good life. About a week after I adopted Cat, my co-founder Cassandra came over and said, “You’ve completely changed.” It hadn’t been very long, but she saw how my whole day was oriented around Cat, and I’m not upset by that. Caring for something else and not so much about myself—like what’s in my head—has been good for me. There is something purposeful and meaningful about this relationship between Cat and me. I’m very happily branding myself as a dog mom because that’s what gives me fulfillment every day.
Photography by Tayler Smith