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A goal of this blog is to document the places where I lived. I have written about St. Paul’s, Harvard, SF, and I will soon write about my new abode, Chicago. Not until today did it strike me as odd that I never wrote about Hong Kong.

Even though I left at the age of fourteen, it is still home. As I write I can still feel the familiar humid heat. I can see the dazzling neon lights. I can sense the MTR crowd sweltering around me. I can hear the loud chattering at dim sum. I even vaguely recall the hazy, drunken nights I spent in Lan Kwai Fong. These fragments of memory are a familiar reality to me.

But it is not just the familiarity. Hong Kong is both a place where I belong and a place that belongs to me. I perk up with pride whenever I hear someone, perhaps a stranger at a restaurant, mention the efficiency of Hong Kong’s airport or the stunning density of its high-rises. When I look forward to that dreadful 18-hour flight that will bring me back, I think not only of my parents, but also of my hometown and my people.

Hong Kong is my political, cultural, and historical identity. That collective story of immigrants escaping war and prosecution to find refuge in Hong Kong is also my grandparents’ story and therefore my own as well. Each year’s June 4 and July 1 are special days for me. I stand in spirit with those who mourn at the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park and those who march for democracy. These are deeply, deeply personal things.

So Hong Kong is home. I have no doubt about that.

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Yet, I could not wait to get away. Hong Kong frustrated me a lot even as a kid -- the materialism, the gossip, the dumb politics, the pollution, and the lack of intellectual stimulation. Above all I hated the narrow-minded practicality. It pervaded conversation, television, tabloid coverage. The parochialism gave me an intense claustrophobia. It made me want to scream, even then: How is it that you do not see that there are big issues and so much more beyond the daily gossip? My parents had showed me enough for me to know that outside world promised so many more interesting things to see, so many more interesting people to meet. When they sent me off to boarding school, I could hardly wait.

That was a decade ago. I have since seen something of the outside world. The United States was a breath of fresh air. A vast stage for creativity and intellectual pursuit. I became an excited adventurer, chasing the newest fads, the latest technologies, and the most obscure music. I discovered entire new worlds in literature and poetry, in scientific understanding. I built friendships across cultures. These adventures energized me.

They also changed me. I learned to navigate airport security and to pack minimally. I learned to hate filling out forms that ask for a permanent address. I learned to strike up conversations with strangers. I learned cultural references. My accent disappeared. I learned about indie bands and great American writers. I began to watch the Daily Show and Mad Men. Partly it was my surroundings that forced me to assimilate. There were so few Chinese kids around at my high school. My friends were white boys and girls. Partly I was just so curious about it all. The cool kids listened to Bob Dylan and Joy Division. But why? I genuinely wanted to know.

As my knowledge of the West waxed, my knowledge of home and China also waned. Now I follow America politics more closely than that from home, and what I do know about China I know not from Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily but from Evan Osnos from the New Yorker. I can gossip about American Idol and Top Gear, but I can’t name a single episode from The Voice of China. At the karaoke I sing the Backstreet Boys rather than Jay Chou. I have no clue what TV shows are playing in Hong Kong. I don’t remember the last time I finished a Chinese novel.

Of course, there is something incongruous about this. I have come to know America better, but my self-image is still that I am a Chinese from Hong Kong. You might call it an identity crisis. The kind that 15 year-olds suffer through. I am 23. So I rarely talk about it. Frankly I’m not even sure I comprehend it.

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Since I moved to Chicago, I reconnected with a friend from middle school who also left to study abroad. We hadn’t talked in years. But he was unmistakable. He dressed very differently from our school days, but his mannerisms were the same. What was strange is that we weren’t conversing in Chinese, like we always had. We spoke instead mostly in English.

Our stupid inability to revert to our former selves posed a nagging question. In the past years I have gained much knowledge about the outside world, but what have I lost? What was my Faustian bargain? Consider that today’s Hong Kong is a different animal from the one I knew a decade ago. There’s the growing presence of all things from the Mainland. There’s a new generation of politicians I don’t know about. There’s probably a new set of vocabulary too. Even the furniture in my parent’s home is different. My parent’s home! Dare I still call it my home?

My concept of home is now nine years dated. I have spent more time living elsewhere in the intervening years–in Western academia, on English tech forums. Even this homepage is so much more concrete than that concept of home in my head. Perhaps this is why I never wrote about Hong Kong. It is difficult to face the fact that I have become a stranger to my own home.

When I first left Hong Kong, I thought that homesickness was just fear and loneliness. Fear of the unknown. Lack of friends. Today I know there is more. I have come to know America well and I have made plenty fantastic friends. Yet it is not enough. No one warned me that, even in this age of global interconnectedness, leaving home would actually mean leaving home behind. Or perhaps they did and I just never listened. My parents have always told me that humans need a community, a home. I thought then, cynically and terribly selfishly, this is merely their way to urge me to come back from abroad to alleviate them of loneliness.

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Am I merely melodramatic about all this business? I often am. Life continues. One finds work, makes a living, and starts a family. Things work out one way or another. I can find happiness anywhere. And my living here is comfortable. Why struggle with difficult questions?

But, to quote Colum McCann, “I’m not interested in blind optimism.” Rather, like McCann, I am interested in “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” The life I want is not the one that Don Draper defaults to as he runs away from his childhood and wartime ghosts. I have been running away from home for long enough already. When confronted with tragedy–and indeed so much of the Hong Kong and Chinese experience is tragic–I want to find light between a rock and a hard place.

Home is something one must build and then rebuild again. Today I picked up two books about China from the library. I am formulating plans to get to know Hong Kong and China better. That inept, lame duck government of Hong Kong is still my government. Those materialistic, parochially minded people are still my people. But it will take a good deal more than just a professed self-image for that to stay true.

Buying a car

Imagine a tense negotiation. You have seen them on television. You have surely heard fantastic stories about them. Perhaps, if you are wholly unlike me, you’ve even been in one.

Before I went to buy a car, negotiations like this seemed to have only existed in a world with closed doors and important, suited men gathered around a table. A world that an aspiring scholar-hipster such as I would never enter. All I knew about negotiations is an economic model I learned in class. Two parties somehow would meet in the middle of their valuations via Nash bargaining. It’s a beautifully simple shorthand for describing the world, but hopelessly useless in the car-purchasing application. By golly buying a car was no visit to the bookstore. In fact, my experience of buying a car had all the high emotions and treacherousness of living an HBO show. It is an experience far removed from the ivory-tower comforts of high-minded intellectualism I am accustomed to.

The purchase took several trips. The first was a pleasant test driving session at a dealership in a Chicago suburb. My uncle and I were helped by an unassuming and friendly salesman who spoke Cantonese to us. I tested a few cars that I was considering, a very informative exercise that helped me decide about the characteristics of cars I cared about. Being an old, unfashionable soul, of course I fell in love with the good old Corolla. It drove easily and was reliable. I left the dealership feeling excited to own one soon. Our scouting trip had been successful.

A few days later and after a few phone calls, we arrived at back at the dealership to negotiate. We brought all relevant paperwork: a photo ID and proof of residence. Soon we were sitting across from the salesman in a cubicle. After some banter, we began to talk prices. Eventually we put in a offer and he shuttled to his manager to discuss.

I had little idea about the sales tactics and psychological games that I’d encounter over the course of the next hour. I was shown price calculations in an intentionally convoluted way, mixing monthly payments with interest rates and down payments. It was impossible to make comparison with such numbers. When we objected to his calculation, he reframed a manufacturer discount as a concessions, even though any dealership had those, resulting in an even higher price. I quickly began to get flustered and impatient.

Someone once told me that each person has a different negotiating style. Some folks like to be friendly and work on a compromise. Others are stern and drive a hard bargain. My style is sheer frustration. From the beginning I hated the process. I hated being put under pressure. I just wanted to leave. Unrestrained I would have sad yes to almost anything just to end my discomfort. Thankfully my uncle’s presence mean that we only slowly increased our offer price. Still, eventually we hit an impasse. We spent many minutes haggling and making no progress.

We then got a very memorable good-cop, bad-cop treatment. The manager of the dealership came over after we put in our third, and apparently “insincere” offer. He sweet talked us for what felt like forever forever. He told us about his family, he flattered us with praise, and he entertained us with funny anecdotes. Then he made an about-face in his tone of voice and sternly informed us that we would be insanely idiotic to turn down their offer. He told us we knew nothing about the car business. He made an extremely emotional appeal about the integrity of his particular dealership and how we were getting the best price they could offer. Then he got up and walked off.

The “nice guy” salesman we had been working with told us he was sorry, but that the “bad cop” was right, and that he can’t do any better. I was ready to pay up, even though the price was a couple thousand dollars above what I would eventually get.

In the end my mother saved the day. I tried to call her to see if she’d be okay with the price and I couldn’t reach her. I had promised myself I wouldn’t proceed without her OK. I left the dealership without a car but much relieved.

The next day my mother did some aggressive internet searching and found a phenomenal Memorial Day sale. This made me realize how truly stupid I was to want to pay up at a much higher price. So I went to this dealership a week later. By then I had done plenty of homework both on the internet and from my previous information-gathering outings. I knew what prices and alternatives existed. I knew this time to be aggressive and to focus on the price. So I did a bit better and I kept myself from be distracting by psychological tricks. I was patient not to settle too easily and I called my mom frequently to stall.

Devastatingly the salesman told me that the online deal only applied to a red color Corollas as advertised. He then attempted to sell me a white car and to tack on extra fees. After an hour and half of back and forth I eventually managed to squeeze out a deal for a sleeker silver one I liked. After another two hours signing papers and buying insurance, I left the car dealership starving, drained, and world-weary, but finally in possession of a car.

Now if there is something to learn from my experience, it is probably how difficult being rational under pressure is. I felt profoundly dumb throughout the process. All the humanist books I’ve read are poor guides for this strange land. All those good grades that got me into college are useless. Neither intellect nor depth of thought reign in this land. Only smarts and experience do. Buying a car, I suppose, is a good way get that kind of real-world education.

Letter to a younger friend

A friend wrote to me about the confusion of entering adult life – the 9-to-5 grind, the loss of close-by friends, the phoniness, the materialism. Here’s my response.

I remember my first experiences of adult life well. It was during my internship the summer before senior year. I was exhausted each day when I returned from just sitting in front of a computer from 9am to 6pm. I was frightened to realize that all my friends were suddenly far away. I remember thinking, How did I get here? I was so confused about what to do with my life. I changed my mind again and again.

Adulthood was so utterly overwhelming that I took many, many months to ponder it.Many thinkers have helped me. I also benefited from talking and writing with many friends and, at one point, a therapist. Perhaps I can help by telling you a few principles that I now follow.

Goals

(1) Build deep relationships with many people - Psychologists say relationships with other humans are the single most important factor for happiness. As I left school, I began to realize that friendships just aren’t the renewable resource that it used to be. I’ve never been good at keeping touch, but I try to do better now. I have found this to be pretty simple: Just reach out to people whose company I like and grab a lunch or Skype. Really listen to them. Help them. It is incredibly rewarding to keep relationships with friends and family alive, warm, and meaningful. Here is more wisdom on how to love someone.

(2) Do work I enjoy - The idea is simple: spend as many hours a day as possible doing something I love. By contrast, this is very hard to achieve. It has only been a year since graduation and half of my friends have quit their first jobs because they weren’t a good fit. I think finding work you love is hard because no one can tell you what kind of work you will enjoy. To pick the right job you have to know what motivates and excites you. These things are partly unique to each person.

I have a clearer idea now that I have tried a few things: I like thinking about ideas and helping people I love. I love writing and teaching; I get totally immersed in it. But I hate commuting, short deadlines, and meetings. I’m also not really a competitive person, so I don’t excel at everything I do. I’m much more motivated when my actions lead to something bigger than myself, like helping people.

You might think: all this should be obvious, right? But while I could say these same words two years ago, they were not meaningful realities. Two years ago I could say, “Oh, 9-to-5 is a drag”, but did I really understand how or why it was a drag until I experienced it? Sometimes one has to make mistakes. Mistakes hurt, but they also make one think harder. If you’re not completely happy with your internship, you might ask: Well, why do you find your work unfulfilling? What might make it more fulfilling? How do you get there? The only way to find work you enjoy is to try.

(3) Make some money (eventually) - Money is a means to an end. Money matters to me because I want the power to do things for people I love, such as pay my parents’ medical bills or my kids’ education. Money also matters because it frees me to do things I enjoy and spend time with people I love; I don’t want to worry a ton about the cost of groceries or be unable to purchase airplane tickets. When you think about it this way, making money can be an act of love. Some people make money for selfish reasons, but it is possible to make money for selfless reasons too.

So how do I make money? In fact there are so many ways to make money. Sure it can mean joining a profession like law or banking where entry is difficult. It can also mean making yourself desirable for employment in less traditional ways, such as being really good at graphics design or statistics. Importantly, making money can be separate from the work you love. This is why I put making money as a separate goal from doing work you love. People who have the opportunity might borrow cheaply (e.g. from family) and invest on the side or start a lifestyle business. You can even have an extremely fulfilling life with a totally boring job but an awesome hobby, like the famous postman/librarian art collectors Vogels did. Each of these paths involve different kinds of stresses and rewards. Some are riskier. Some are more challenging. For example, starting a business can really pay off, but it’s also very stressful. It’s for you to decide out how to go about it.

I am fortunate. I don’t have kids yet and my parents hopefully have many healthy years left. It wasn’t easy, but I did manage to find jobs that allow me to subsist and learn a ton. Learning is enjoyable and it helps me make money in the long run.

There are often moments when doing things I love comes into conflict with making money. When this happens, I try to remember that money is just a means of achieving some other things that I care about. I ask myself: Are those other things worth the time that I won’t be doing what I love?

Other observations

You raised some interesting criticisms about the culture of the tech industry. I’m not sure that they should stop you from doing what you enjoy if indeed technology is what motivates and excites you. There will be bad incentives and bad culture in any industry. Academics spend too much time fussing about publications and tenure, doctors with lawsuits, bankers with face time, priests with orthodoxy. If you ruled out industries due to some generalization like “people in tech aren’t tackling meaningful questions”, soon there won’t be any industries that you can work in.

What matters is that you do work that is fulfilling and meaningful. Thankfully, variation within industries is often large. I care more about the mini-culture of my specific team. I look for coworkers that I can learn from for a long time to come. I look for bosses that give me clear goals and good feedback, but trust me to be independent and creative. Great parents do that for their kids. Great teachers do that for their students. Great bosses are like that too.

Now the 9-to-5 grind and the loneliness of adult life – that shit is real. When I was grinding away in consulting, I barricaded my soul against the tedium of work life with books, documentaries, new experiences around the city, intellectual conversations with friends nearby, and letters with friends far away. Even now with a job I enjoy much more I still try to keep my life varied.

I try not to live beyond my means. Getting used to a lifestyle can lead to suffering, because you then no longer know how to live without it. Behavioral economists call this loss aversion. Buddhists call this attachment. But at the same time it is too extreme to shun all worldly pleasure. What I try to do is to live with a bit of awe in my daily life instead. I try to remember that I come from dust and to dust I will return. Everything nice is nice while it lasts. It is a luxury and not a necessity.

As for networking, I think of it as finding out about different people and different work and maybe making friends along the way. It is really not that important to impress anyone. I just let them teach me something new and have fun listening.

I once wrote about my more rational approach to finding work I love. Perhaps I was a bit vague there. Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Be curious. Try things. Put yourself in positions where you get to try many things. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • Don’t buy into the myths and stories you’re told. Keep an open mind.
  • Keep track of what you enjoy and what you don’t. Be honest with yourself.
  • Don’t decide on your life now. Keep some options open.
  • Stay in touch with people you like and admire.
  • Reflect often. Meditate or pray. Give yourself plenty of time and space to grow up.

Living well is the work of a lifetime. In retrospect I feel lucky that I didn’t love my first job; I ended up with lots of mental bandwidth to reflect and work through personal issues. You and I will experience many more things in the next few years. We should expect to change our mind many times. We are young and we still have time.

Things to do in San Francisco

I have been missing SF very much since my move to Chicago. Here’s a list of things I came to love while I was there. Perhaps you will find them useful.

  • Favorite brunch places - Brenda’s, Universal Cafe
  • Favorite burrito - Tacqueria Cancun
  • Favorite bookstore - Dog-eared books
  • Favorite Vietnamese - Turtle Tower
  • Favorite dim sum - Hong Kong Lounge; Runner up: The House in Milbrae (actually it’s better, but much farther)
  • Favorite Yakitori - Kokko in San Mateo
  • Favorite place to drink beer - Suppenkuche
  • Favorite coffee shop for working - Coffee Bar
  • Favorite mode of transportation - bike (Sidecar if drunk)
  • Favorite late night date spot - Hotel Biron
  • Favorite place for a walk - Ocean Beach at sunset
  • Favorite weekend trip - Yosemite; Runners up: Big Sur, Hearst Castle
  • Favorite bike ride - across the Golden Gate to Sausalito
  • Favorite day trip - Oyster shucking at Tamales Bay
  • Favorite place to be a kid again - House of Air
  • Favorite picnic spot - Alamo Square before sunset
  • Favorite place to fly a kite - Chrissy Fields
  • Favorite food truck - Chairman Bao
  • Favorite bakery - Tartine
  • Favorite food at 2am - Naan-‘n-Curry

Lessons from APT

  1. There is always a simpler or better solution. Someone else probably knows it. It is often surprising who knows things about the things you care about. Don’t short change yourself by thinking you can figure it out yourself; ask widely. Don’t be afraid that you are wasting the time of other people either. If you ask, people are generally willing to help.
  2. Make your team’s processes as transparent as possible. If you lead an engineering team, set up a good, easy-to-use code repository. Let everyone see everyone else’s code. Most likely you’re not the only person trying to do something, nor is it the only time you’ll have to do it. Sharing knowledge will lead to huge efficiency gains.
  3. Write APIs and stored procedures. Always abstract away redundancies. It reduces error and makes life easier in the future. Understandably putting in this additional effort is often easier said than done, because humans are lazy and don’t want to invest in efforts that only pay off much later.
  4. Don’t make smart, engineering-minded people do repetitive, manual things needlessly. It’s a waste of resource. Instead, arm them with the best tools and license them to overhaul your most inefficient processes. Tell them what the company needs done, then let them take charge of the hard problems and solve them for you while you help from the sidelines.
  5. Flexible technologies encourages innovation by users. Users will be able to accomplish really, really cool things with your software if you let them. Engineers may not want to allow users to do something because they worry that users might use it wrongly, but these engineers are wrong. Instead of constraining the user to avoid error, good UI design can provide both user freedom and error prevention. For example, give users good feedback on the state of the program and easy ways to undo errors. If you are a product person, you have to believe that the user is never wrong; it is always the product that is sub-optimal.
  6. There is no better remedy for a problem than concentrated effort. Unreasonable requests can lead to creative innovation. Impatience can lead to efficiencies. Often posing a challenge in a seemly unreasonable way is the fastest way to get other people to achieve their maximum potential. The moments of greatest growth for me when I was challenged this way.
  7. Code review is a fantastic get someone (me) to code better. Start early. Do it often.
  8. Product people constantly juggle opinions and have to sell both ways. Don’t just be the advocate for the user. Go to the user and be an advocate for the software team. Or vice versa. By being accountable to all parties, you gain respect and trust all around and get more done.
  9. When working with data, always write checks to ensure the integrity of your data. You don’t want to discover six months later that you have the wrong number of rows.
  10. Giving constructive feedback to other people is hard to do and even harder to do well. A good way to give feedback is to write down some benchmarks and expectations, and let them know where they stand.
  11. Just say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
  12. Have a story. People connect with you better that way.
  13. It’s very rare that people ask great questions. However, it’s worth searching for the million-dollar question, for it will pay back in droves.
  14. A long, unproductive meeting sucks. Have an agenda. Get it done. Get out.
  15. Changing an organization is difficult. Even if people know something is broken, they are not good at seeing how things can be done differently. Psychologists call this the availability heuristic - you can only easily retrieve ideas that you have seen before. This is perhaps the more significant form of inertia. It is difficult to build consensus about something unknown. The best way to start change is by changing yourself and showing it to others. Sometimes you’ll have to cajole, sell, evangelize, and coerce as well.
  16. Since change is hard, it’s critical to get things right at the beginning. Mainly, this means building company culture, specifically socializing the way people react to ideas and behavior. Fortunately, APT got a lot of things right.
  17. Most entry-level jobs are about being thorough and detail-oriented. Expect to spend a lot of time making sure your output is perfect. Sadly it is not often that folks are expected to think about the big picture until later on.
  18. Motivating employees is difficult. Pay is a part of the equation, but other things matter a lot: belonging, meaning, ownership, recognition, achievable goals. Perhaps the best motivator is to have good role models who give you useful things to improve upon.
  19. Keep everyone in the team posted about your progress. Use a team task management software, if possible. Properly managing expectations will make you less stressed and help your team run smoother.
  20. Small offices are more intimate and less intimidating, but larger offices give you more people to learn from.
  21. Cross-office communication and initiatives are very difficult. Open few office unless local talent and presence is absolutely necessary. Flying product managers and senior product engineers to different offices is highly beneficial to company unity.
  22. PowerPoints are only good for presentations. As internal documents they constrain ideas. Use written word for internal communications instead. Yet again, flexible and expressive media is better.
  23. Record meetings as videos. It helps people improve their public speaking. It’s also a great way to share knowledge across offices when timezone is a problem.
  24. So much of building a good company is about finding talent, keeping talent, and using talent. Great founders and managers spend a ton of time on recruiting, supporting staff, and building up company culture.
  25. Sales is a combination of understanding the prospective client’s perspective and persistence. Henry Ford said something like the secret to success is to be able to see the world from another person’s perspective. During my time at APT, I’ve observed his saying to be rather true.
  26. Relationships with clients reigns supreme. Cultivate the relationships. Get to know them at more than a superficial level. They will do amazing things for you. APT embraces this attitude and it is one of the reasons for its stellar growth.
  27. The corporate world is bewildering. There can be entire business units in large corporations devoted to doing very little. Politics can be very toxic and lead to little or no information sharing within a company. Things are easily lost within the corporate hierarchy. What gets done depends very much on what the C-level executives care about. Managers can only work within their fiefdom and around on the margins; many just want to protect their jobs. Are competitive pressures just not strong enough to make organizations more efficient? Does the organizational form of American businesses make sense? I don’t know!
  28. Corporate restructuring causes a lot of nervousness and can bring productivity of managers and analysts to zero. The costs of such an exercise is not small.
  29. It is worth it to bond deeply with co-workers. Organize fun activities for the team. Get to know their backgrounds. Fight for their well-being. Help them when they need it. Unfortunately I was too shy early on and I leave with a sense of having foregone the opportunity to develop friendships more deeply.
  30. All in all it has been a good eight months. Taking a more roundabout career path (with a wonderful stop at APT) has taught me a lot. I am rather hopeful that I am getting closer to finding something I love to do.