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TED@New York

Tania Luna: How a penny made me feel like a millionaire

July 12, 2012

As a young child, Tania Luna left her home in post-Chernobyl Ukraine to take asylum in the US. And one day, on the floor of the New York homeless shelter where she and her family lived, she found a penny. She has never again felt so rich. A meditation on the bittersweet joys of childhood -- and how to hold them in mind.

Tania Luna - Surprisologist
Tania Luna co-founded Surprise Industries, a company devoted to designing surprise experiences. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm five years old, and I am very proud.
00:12
My father has just built the best outhouse
00:16
in our little village in Ukraine.
00:20
Inside, it's a smelly, gaping hole in the ground,
00:22
but outside, it's pearly white formica
00:26
and it literally gleams in the sun.
00:30
This makes me feel so proud, so important,
00:33
that I appoint myself the leader of my little group of friends
00:37
and I devise missions for us.
00:40
So we prowl from house to house
00:43
looking for flies captured in spider webs
00:45
and we set them free.
00:48
Four years earlier, when I was one,
00:51
after the Chernobyl accident,
00:53
the rain came down black,
00:55
and my sister's hair fell out in clumps,
00:57
and I spent nine months in the hospital.
00:59
There were no visitors allowed,
01:02
so my mother bribed a hospital worker.
01:03
She acquired a nurse's uniform,
01:07
and she snuck in every night to sit by my side.
01:10
Five years later, an unexpected silver lining.
01:14
Thanks to Chernobyl, we get asylum in the U.S.
01:17
I am six years old, and I don't cry when we leave home
01:22
and we come to America,
01:26
because I expect it to be a place filled with rare
01:27
and wonderful things like bananas and chocolate
01:31
and Bazooka bubble gum,
01:35
Bazooka bubble gum with the little cartoon wrappers inside,
01:37
Bazooka that we'd get once a year in Ukraine
01:41
and we'd have to chew one piece for an entire week.
01:44
So the first day we get to New York,
01:48
my grandmother and I find a penny
01:50
in the floor of the homeless shelter that my family's staying in.
01:52
Only, we don't know that it's a homeless shelter.
01:56
We think that it's a hotel, a hotel with lots of rats.
01:58
So we find this penny kind of fossilized in the floor,
02:01
and we think that a very wealthy man must have left it there
02:05
because regular people don't just lose money.
02:08
And I hold this penny in the palm of my hand,
02:11
and it's sticky and rusty,
02:13
but it feels like I'm holding a fortune.
02:16
I decide that I'm going to get my very own piece
02:19
of Bazooka bubble gum.
02:21
And in that moment, I feel like a millionaire.
02:23
About a year later, I get to feel that way again
02:27
when we find a bag full of stuffed animals in the trash,
02:29
and suddenly I have more toys
02:32
than I've ever had in my whole life.
02:34
And again, I get that feeling when we get a knock
02:37
on the door of our apartment in Brooklyn,
02:39
and my sister and I find a deliveryman
02:41
with a box of pizza that we didn't order.
02:43
So we take the pizza, our very first pizza,
02:46
and we devour slice after slice
02:49
as the deliveryman stands there and stares at us from the doorway.
02:52
And he tells us to pay, but we don't speak English.
02:55
My mother comes out, and he asks her for money,
02:58
but she doesn't have enough.
03:01
She walks 50 blocks to and from work every day
03:02
just to avoid spending money on bus fare.
03:06
Then our neighbor pops her head in,
03:08
and she turns red with rage when she realizes
03:10
that those immigrants from downstairs
03:13
have somehow gotten their hands on her pizza.
03:15
Everyone's upset.
03:19
But the pizza is delicious.
03:21
It doesn't hit me until years later just how little we had.
03:24
On our 10 year anniversary of being in the U.S.,
03:30
we decided to celebrate by reserving a room
03:33
at the hotel that we first stayed in when we got to the U.S.
03:35
The man at the front desk laughs, and he says,
03:38
"You can't reserve a room here. This is a homeless shelter."
03:40
And we were shocked.
03:43
My husband Brian was also homeless as a kid.
03:45
His family lost everything, and at age 11,
03:49
he had to live in motels with his dad,
03:52
motels that would round up all of their food
03:55
and keep it hostage until they were able to pay the bill.
03:58
And one time, when he finally got his box
04:02
of Frosted Flakes back, it was crawling with roaches.
04:04
But he did have one thing.
04:07
He had this shoebox that he carried with him everywhere
04:09
containing nine comic books,
04:12
two G.I. Joes painted to look like Spider-Man
04:14
and five Gobots. And this was his treasure.
04:18
This was his own assembly of heroes
04:21
that kept him from drugs and gangs
04:24
and from giving up on his dreams.
04:26
I'm going to tell you about one more
04:29
formerly homeless member of our family.
04:30
This is Scarlett.
04:32
Once upon a time, Scarlet was used as bait in dog fights.
04:34
She was tied up and thrown into the ring
04:37
for other dogs to attack so they'd get more aggressive before the fight.
04:40
And now, these days, she eats organic food
04:44
and she sleeps on an orthopedic bed with her name on it,
04:48
but when we pour water for her in her bowl,
04:50
she still looks up and she wags her tail in gratitude.
04:55
Sometimes Brian and I walk through the park with Scarlett,
04:59
and she rolls through the grass,
05:02
and we just look at her
05:05
and then we look at each other
05:07
and we feel gratitude.
05:09
We forget about all of our new middle-class frustrations
05:13
and disappointments,
05:16
and we feel like millionaires.
05:18
Thank you.
05:21
(Applause)
05:22

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Tania Luna - Surprisologist
Tania Luna co-founded Surprise Industries, a company devoted to designing surprise experiences.

Why you should listen

Tania Luna has an unusual title: she calls herself a “surprisologist.” The co-founder and CEO of Surprise Industries, Luna thinks deeply about how to delight, and how to help individuals and teams thrive in uncertain circumstances and develop the bonds needed to get through them.

When Luna was invited to take part in TED’s Worldwide Talent Search in 2012, she expected to give a talk about surprise and the importance of not being attached to outcomes. However, she was inspired to tell a more personal story -- one many of her closest friends didn’t know -- about her Ukrainian family getting asylum in the United States when she was 6-yeard-old and arriving in New York with virtually nothing. She sees her work as connected to her upbringing -- in which a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, a thrown-out toy or a mis-delivered pizza was magical -- because it gave her an appreciation for the joy of little surprises. 

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