Midpeninsula Post

Flowers to photos: Emily Yao is a one-of-a-kind friend and journalist

Yao holds up a pot of yellow flowers in the Verde classroom. (courtesy Akhil Joondeph)

Note: This article belongs to a collection of features of the Post’s staff members in the graduating Class of 2022.

Every friend of Emily Yao eventually comes to learn what follows the sentence, “Hey, are you home?” In approximately five minutes, Yao will be at their front door with a bouquet of fresh flowers and a smile. 

The recent Palo Alto High School graduate upholds her reputation for these frequent flower deliveries, along with other arbitrary displays of kindness among her friends. 

“She has these monthly check-ins [on her private Instagram] where she forces everyone who follows her to literally tell her how their month is going and how they’ve been so she can check up on them,” longtime friend Kaitlyn Son said.

And if her friends don’t respond, Yao will quite literally track them down. This is a two way street though — when she’s not checking up on others, Yao keeps them updated on her own life through the account and daily BeReals where she often features adventures working at boba shop Umé, which she endearingly dubbed “pink prison.” 

Yao poses for a photo behind the counter at Umé. (courtesy Emily Liu)

“She’s such a hard worker and I know that she’s really passionate about this job,” friend Emily Liu said. “She’s so good at talking to people, so I feel like having a job where it requires customer service and talking to customers all the time is perfect for her.”

From a coworker’s perspective, Liu fondly recalled dropping a whole jar of lychee jelly on Yao’s shoe, which created an inside joke among the staff about the way it made her shoes smell. And as a friend, Liu’s favorite memories included a road trip to Napa during spring break where they made dumplings, toured wineries and explored bakeries. 

The two would’ve never joined the boba industry together without the help of Paly’s Verde Magazine. According to Liu, the two first met when Yao was photographing Liu for a feature article. As digital Editor-in-Chief of Verde, Yao undoubtedly excelled at reporting and editing, but also tackled last-minute photo assignments — even if it meant things like running up the football field bleachers ten times. 

“Working with Emily is pretty awesome,” co-Editor-in-Chief and friend Akhil Joondeph said. “She’s one of the most committed [people I know], and she’s always willing to go 500 extra miles for any of these projects. … It was so amazing to be able to work with her as an EIC because you just see the care and the kindness that she has for everyone on the team.”

Whether for journalism, occasional freelancing or just documentation purposes, photography is an essential part of Yao’s identity.

“Her love for photography, capturing moments with people as a way to appreciate them, is once again another way she cares and expresses love for her friends and family as well as the nature around her,” friend Sam Duong said. 

“She takes a lot of photos of me — like, the amount of Google Photo albums I have on my phone that are just labeled different days because she takes so many photos?” Son said. “I think it’s really cute how she kind of likes to capture everything.”

The reason for Yao’s constant photography? An unwillingness to let good memories go, according to Joondeph.

“Being friends with her, she’s always taking photos of me when I’m doing random things,” Joondeph said. “And at first I was like ‘Oh my God, Emily, please stop, this is not flattering. … But I think I’ve come to understand why she does that. I think it’s just another way that she loves to show her appreciation for the people in her life by documenting her memories of happiness with them.”

Perhaps to subconsciously compensate for her passion for photographing others, Yao is infamous for her own camera shyness. 

Yao will use anything immediately nearby as a means to hide from a camera lens — such as a Douce France coffee mug. (courtesy Akhil Joondeph)

“She’s someone who is selfless and feels like by capturing the photo, she can still be a part of creating the art that is the photo without necessarily needing to be in the spotlight of the photo,” Duong said. 

But Yao is more than just a bouquet-bearing photographer.

“Besides how much she cares for people, what comes to mind are definitely her appreciation for nature and her smile,” Duong said. “Also, the fact that she threatens you but we all know she wouldn’t hurt a fly, and even if she could she wouldn’t be able to.”

Yao flashes a peace sign at a Midpeninsula Post meeting in March 2022. (Allison Huang)

Liu would describe Yao in three words as “indecisive, bubbly, and annoying.” She questioned Yao’s oddly specific dislike of others chewing mint gum around her — especially in the car — and emphasized Yao’s dislike of Thai tea and celery.

“She’s incredibly radiant and cheerful and she’s just someone that always wants the best for everyone around her,” Joondeph said. “When I think of Emily, I just think of someone who loves to spread joy … with everyone that she touches.”

And the special people in her life are no short of advice and congratulations as Yao steps from high school to college.

After 12 years of friendship, all Yao needed to write in Son’s yearbook during the last week of school was “HATS,” or “have a terrific summer.” Son’s message back was equally short and sweet, indicative of the sister-like duo’s strong friendship. 

“Congratulations,” Son said. “It’s been so amazing knowing you the past 12 years, and I’m really excited to see what you do — and you better keep in contact with me.”

Joondeph — who insisted that Yao has a future as a “party animal” at Columbia University in the fall — advised her to “maybe not to just give flowers to all the random strangers in New York, because there’s a wide swath of people that live there and not all of them might be as kind to you.” 

“Congrats, Emily,” Joondeph said. “I can’t wait to see the incredible things that you’re going to do in New York — including becoming a party animal — but we’ll get there later. It’s been an incredible journey getting to know you since sixth grade up until now and seeing you become the person you are today. I can’t wait to continue to watch you become Emily in four years time. … Keep being kind and keep being yourself.”

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