We Need More Fujianese Mentors


credit: asiawiki

“What was it like moving to NYC from ChangLe?” A question I’m often asked.

Strangely, and I think a lot of my immigrant peers would agree, your world becomes a lot smaller.  Instead of being able to roam through the village with familiar faces, the boundaries of when and where you can trespass in Manhattan becomes more prominently defined by our socio-economic drivers.  So yes, my world shrunk to just a few blocks above and below Catherine Street.  And it would have stayed this way if it wasn’t for a series of genuinely good mentors including Mr. Newin.

High school was arguably one of the most cataclysmic times of my life.  Aside from all the teenage angst that we all dealt with, I moved just when our city suffered from the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history, blocks from our school.  Military armories were permanently stationed in the perimeter.  Some friends fled the city that their parents struggled so hard to reach. But surprisingly, this sense of doom and gloom also brought us closer under a mission to heal and to help.

The disruption broke loose the boundaries that governed my personal psyche just in time for freshmen biology with Mr. Newin (whose full name I never managed to uncover).  Like a sea captain reaching out to apathetic passengers on a sinking ship, he was a new teacher and eager to help inner city kids.  I held on tight to that lifejacket and in hindsight, that made all the difference.

It wasn’t any particular lecture or office hour that was monumentally life changing but rather it was his availability and willingness to help that established our mentor-mentee relationship.  With a shaky command of English, I remember saving up a list of terms every class and asked him after the period is over.  Our discussion slowly shifted from biology to math, to literature, to college, then career, and life.  It was the collection of these moments that helped develop the meta-skills I needed to learn and grow into a better expression of myself.

The Triumph of Mentorship

Even with all that is wrong in the world, I am optimistic about the future of humanity and our endless capacity to learn, to renew and to serve.  For those of us who are fortunate enough to have our lives positively influenced by a mentor (either formally or informally), we all have stories that we’ll carry with us throughout our lives.  But more than just good stories, mentors do make a measurable difference.  Young adults with mentors are 55% more likely to enroll in college.  They are 78% more likely to volunteer regularly, 90% are interested in becoming a mentor and 130% more likely to hold future leadership positions!  The numbers are even more pronounced when mentees and mentors have shared backgrounds and experiences.

I never had a chance to thank Mr. Newin when his contract ended that year.  He eventually encouraged and recommended me to a STEM internship program sponsored by the Museum of Natural History.  On the day of the interview, I recall taking the C train for the first time to a place beyond the 5 block mental radius that formerly defined the totality of my world.  Moreover, I can’t help but think about all the young immigrants that have made the jump into our community and are struggling to navigate through the challenges of cultural and social barriers.   As the year trickles down, I challenge everyone in the Fujianese American community to make the world a bigger place for someone less fortunate and volunteer to become a mentor.

Great Volunteering/Mentoring Resources:

  1.  BBBS
  2.  Kiwanis International
  3.  Mentor Impact
  4.  BCNC (If you’re local to the Boston area)

Till Death Do You Part – A Chinese American Look at Marriage Vows


A bride on her way to her wedding. Normally, a bride would cover her face with a red veil. It’s not entirely clear why this woman is using a basket. 
Fuzhou, Fujian. Circa 1911-1913. [Ralph Repo]

This time of the year, the walk down Bay State Road (a stretch of Boston University) always brings back nostalgic memories from nearly a decade ago.  I remember running to class with nothing but PJs, mid-night strolls under the gas lamps, and whatever happenings that were compressed to those few moments that now define our youth.

Instead of lugging along a bag of books and lab kits, I was escorting a friend’s wife to a ceremony on campus.  This was one of the many weddings that’s been etched onto my calendar, soon to become viral hits on facebook and sooner to be replaced when baby photos are published.

In the beautifully maintained chapel, the couple exchanged a traditional Christian wedding vow where upon they both agreed “to love and cherish one another for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health until we are parted by death.”


I tried translating the vow into Fujianese and giggled at the gravity of that statement.  Maybe my 5th grade understanding of Chinese is to blame but it does open a window into our interpretation about marriage and our anxiety in adhering to such grandiose commitment.

Romanticization of Marriage

I was involved in a short-lived relationship with this wonderful person a few years back.  The fact that we lived in two separate cities became a point of friction for us and our conversations quickly dissolved.  We remained friends and through the power of social media, I learned less than a year later, she was engaged, married and quickly became a young mother.  All within the span of 1 year.  There was almost no refractory period between the end of our relationship and her engagement.  Although my personal ego was damaged, it also allowed me to be introspective about finding Ms. Right.  Specifically, is there such a thing as the perfect someone?

This romanticization of love and marriage is often a synthesis of the media and a reflection of our individual pursuit of fulfillment.  Movies don’t win viewers with plots about mundane reality of relationships and compromises.  With the advent of online dating, we’re further led to believe that the “perfect” someone is merely a swipe away in this sea of potential partners.  

Somewhere along the way our cultural purpose for marriage has shifted from one of self-sacrifice for the betterment of “us” to one about personal fulfillment.  In other words, the perpetual search for a perfect partner is also a reflection on our inability to accept our flaws.

Timothy Keller puts it best when he says that the goal of seeking a life partner shouldn’t be to find the perfect finished statue but rather it’s to find the high quality marble that allows the partnership to sculpt a life together.  

Harmonizing Your Identity

For Chinese Americans (immigrant or not), exploring the concept of marriage digs deep into a self-examination of our bicultural identity.  More than an examination, our marriages can be a moment where a newer and fuller American identity is formed out of our own volition.

I once found myself in a conversation with a group of friends talking about relationship deal breakers.  A seemingly liberal Chinese American friend admitted that he would only marry a Chinese woman and like most politically correct leftist warriors, we sneered at how narrow-minded that must have been to say in the 21st century. However, his intent wasn’t one of exclusion but rather it was to harmonize who he is with his family values (who happens to be traditionally observant Chinese Immigrants).

Obviously these are anthropomorphic observations without right or wrong answers.  However, the point to recognize here is that our marriage partners should not only be examined in the context of their capacity to support our personal fulfillment, but how we can sacrifice our impulses for the greater harmony of our family and public good.  That is a vow worth taking.

Reference: The Meaning Of Marriage – Timothy Keller

Resolving Your Infinite Filial Obligations


Young Mother Carrying A Child On Her Back In The Market, Hong Kong Island [c1946] Hedda Morrison

Imagine that one day, your parents approach you with a ledger containing all the items and services they’ve paid to raise and support you from infancy to this very point.  The ledger is so meticulously kept that it even includes the medical expenses to have you delivered in the hospital. 

And they want you to pay this debt today.  How would you react?  Would you want to repay them?  

This is somewhat of an absurd scenario but it forces us to examine our moral, social, and emotional obligations to our parents.  In our family, as with anyone influenced by deep rooted confucianist teachings, filial piety is front and center of every conversation.  To some, this sense of moral obligation is a bridge that connects your role in your family to your career, loved ones, and personal virtue.  Yet, to others, it could be a chasm in a widening cultural and philosophical debate.

Our Debt In Dollars and Sense

Your college tuition, clothes on your back, the rent that you never paid as a toddler, are all material obligations that many of us will never be able to repay.  These are items that can be itemized and because they are visible to us, we place the greatest amount of stress and importance on these tangible obligations.  These material obligations can lead us astray from the less tangible forms of debt, including emotional debt.  How do you account for those early weekend mornings when your mom is up at 6AM driving you to SAT practice?  Or saving the best part of the fish for you?  These are the debt that many of us will carry permanently in our subconscious journey.

Our first apartment in NYC was a 5-story pre-war walk-up.  Because we shared the unit with a number of other newly immigrated families, there was literally no room for a desk.  With all his pseudo-handy skills, Dad managed to build a murphy-esque desk right over our large window unit.  For my first few years in this country, that nook in the corner became my own little office.  There’s nothing remarkable about the sheets of shaved pinewood cobbled together on hinges but the sense of scrappiness and resilience is unshakeable . How do we even begin to put a price on this?  We don’t.

Moral Obligations

David Graeber tells a story about a couple that moved into a new town and pretended on their first night that the husband was beating the wife mercilessly.  She made sure that her screaming for help was heard by the neighbors.  This continued all night but no one intervened.  The next day, they packed up and moved out of town.

Why do we feel a moral obligation to society? In one respect, the world has offered you all that it has aggregated: culture, history, art, and science.  And the price of admission into this community is conformity.

Fujianese weddings have a long standing tradition of giving hong bao (red envelopes) to the newlywed which can amount to several hundred dollars per attendee.  I initially felt weird maintaining this practice, particularly since most of the couples are so far removed from our family.  But this is in fact the perfect tool for social cohesion.  Newlyweds essentially take out a “loan” from the greater Fujianese community to start off their new relationship.  Then as new relationships are formed in the community, the same couple is expected to return to the wedding as guests and offer the same (inflation-adjusted) hong bao to the newlywed.  This cycle is expected to repeat in perpetuity.  

This sense of moral obligation is tied to not only our yearning to re-compensate but also to the cyclical nature of our relationship with our parents.  Just as we were once infants requiring unlimited unrequited love and nurturing,  our parents will one day come to this infantile state as they physically deteriorate.  And during this concluding phase of their lives, the moral obligation is gradually flipped onto us.  Nature has a way of balancing out the universe and all debts must be resolved in one form or another.

Ref: Debt – The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber)


When ChaBuDuo Is Not Good Enough

on quality

credit: Getty Image

A few years back, my parents had a major renovation done to their apartment.  Instead of going through the cringe-worthy, formal bidding process of finding a contractor, my dad knew a guy.  It’s like a superpower that all Fujianese parents have; a secret construction guy, tucked away in their back pocket, waiting to be summoned at a moment’s notice.

Most Americans would find this unusual but there is a huge overlap between business and family for Asians.  When the contractor visited, it was akin to a long lost uncle wandering his way back home again.  Dad ushered him around the home, finger pointings ensued, they exchanged gestures, congratulatory pads on the shoulders, and just like that, they’re locked into a verbal contract.  It was the most machismo and unnerving thing I’ve seen.

Months after the project completed, I returned back to my parents newly renovated empty nest, now covered with marble flooring and granite countertops.  It was an impressive transformation until you start noticing random quirks in the finishing. Sink in the bathroom was unusually tall for us, which meant having to lean into the mirror every time we use it.  The counter had an outward facing notch that led splashes to flow outward.  Any of these issues are minor until you start seeing our whole family touting giant wet spots on the bottom half of our shirts every morning.  High comical quality indeed.

I asked my dad about this.

“Chabuduo.” He responded.  

This culture of close enough plagues the perception of Fujianese American (Chinese) craftsmanship.  And that’s what we’re here to examine.

This is not a diatribe about first world problems.  A poorly placed vanity isn’t killing anyone.  But this lack of of adherence to quality on an industrial scale can be catastrophic.  Remember the melamine scandal of 2008 where thousands of infants died from drinking tainted baby formula?  Or the school that was built to withstand earthquakes and collapsed?  The numerous plants that have spontaneously combusted?  People die when chabuduo is amplified across billions of lives.

Was It Always This Bad?

The story is rather different more than a thousand years ago.  Remember the silk road? The route where Europeans traveled thousands of miles to access the highest quality textiles, spices, and services in China?  Even today, high quality porcelain is called fine china because of its origin in high quality Chinese craftsmanship.  The more I dig into this history of excellence, the more I’m confounded by the juxtaposition between the past and the present China.  How is it that we can engineer the forbidden city to last for more than 600 years but can’t design a school to withstand an earthquake?

What Went So Wrong?

An entire group of ethnic Chinese did not just wake up one day in history, had bad coffee, and decided that close enough was good enough.  In the context of modern history, the bustling Chinese metropolis as we know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the free market, it was done so with relentless ambition of catching up.  Since the early 1980s, explosive economic growth brought more than 500 million Chinese out of poverty.  That’s more than the total U.S. population!  So credit should be given to the Communist government.  But imagine if your purpose in life isn’t to produce high quality goods but rather to meet the quotas of production set by the government.  In the pursuit of catching up to the west, the collective effort has been shifted from individual agency to meeting economic metrics set by the global elites.  Building 20 good enough schools is suddenly more important than building 1 great, earthquake-proof institution.  Somewhere along the way, chabuduo became a pervasive new standard.

Slowing Down

Examining how the Chinese economy might turn around is slightly beyond the scope of this discussion.  But on an individual level, you can affect the quality of your output and character if you simply slow down.  The key ingredient for quality is caring for your work.  But you can only care with adequate gumption (the fire, resourcefulness, and hunger to initiate).  It’s awfully difficult to be excited about writing the next report, if you have a quota of 100 to complete this week.  So this leads to a condition of impatience.  Robert Pirsig calls this a gumption trap.  So often we find ourselves overwhelmed with our workload but we persist without taking a break, fearing that we’d fall behind.  But this exact form of impatience is what leads to corner cutting and the culture of chabuduo.  The best remedy?  Slow down.  Take a break. Go hike a hill.  Everything you can do to clear your mind will replenish your gumption.  This means you’ll likely have to push out your journey but sometimes, it’s better to travel than to have arrived.

When Wealthy Fujianese Americans Struggle


Warhol’s Mao

The New World Mall is an unapologetically utilitarian building sitting in the center of Flushing, Queens.  On a typical Sunday, you may find this structure towering over a sea of pedestrians; a scene I often try to avoid if not for the palatial dimsum restaurant atop the concrete enclosure.

On the surface, the restaurant has all the standard appeals.  You’ll find an army of steamy metal carts roaming through the narrow openings between tables, families fighting for the waiters’ attention, and porcelain plates clamoring away.  But more than anything else, my family was enamored with the success story behind this particular restaurant.  A story that’s resonant with many Fujianese migrant workers who cobbled together every penny they’ve pinched to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

While stuffing my face over a plate of durian pastry, I unscrupulously asked my mom why didn’t she ever invest in a business of this size?

“Because I invested in sending two kids to college instead.” she said with a smirk.

She has a way of cutting through people with her words.

“Besides, why do you care? You’ve got a cushy job that pays you well.  Don’t waste your time with restaurants.  Your dad and I had to endure this so you don’t have to.”

This comment haunted me because it encapsulates the irony of Fujianese Americanism.  The grit and discipline that developed out of hardship in building a good life is shaved away when it comes to what we wish for our children. What if a good job is the only thing that’s preventing us from living a great life?  What if wealth comes with unintended consequences? It has long been studied that economic mobility not only brings comfort and power but also gluttony, apathy, risk avoidance, greed, and even our modern psychological maladies.

Suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other alarming conditions are not just confined to the poor.  In a society that believes that money can buy our well-being, upper-middle class youngsters and wealthy suburban women are two groups most likely to suffer from depression and suicidality [Tribe – Junger].

This is particularly relevant for the next generation of Fujianese youngsters who may find themselves in the upper-middle class without any context of the struggle that led to their condition.  Some may argue that the higher rates outlined above is merely due to the fact that wealthier people have greater access to mental health services.  And that’s true to some extent but what Junger points out is that as Americans become wealthier, they also begin to dissociate themselves from their communities, breaking themselves away from their tribes.  This alienation is a source of psychological angst.

Too Much Safety Can Kill You

Growing up in a struggling Fujianese immigrant family, I remember sharing a single bedroom apartment with 4 of my cousins under the care of our grandparents.  The irony was that I never felt poor or needy.  In fact, the most nostalgic memories I have were the gloomy Saturday mornings we shared watching cartoon. But as we get older and accumulated more wealth, we moved further away from one another.  We can afford strangers to babysit for us so we no longer need our neighbors or relatives.  Our yards get bigger and fences get taller.  We hire security guards to watch our gated communities.  We don’t ask our neighbors to borrow sugar anymore but instead we ask for recommendations for a psychiatrist.  This level of wealthy alienation is the reason why the next generation of Fujianese Americans will struggle greater hardship than their migrant parents did.  Evolution did not prepare us to be permanently safe.

We Feel The Safest When We’re Needed The Most

So where do we go from here?  Should we all just keep our kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods and substandard schools?  The key (I think) lies in how we connect with our communities.  Months following the 9/11 terrorist attack, rate of suicide in America decreased noticeably.  When interviewed, Junger suggested that such events (however terrifying) have the uncanny power to pull people together and even give folks a reason to live.  The central thesis is that we need our tribes.  We have a primal urge to feel needed and to identify with our tribes regardless of our socioeconomic status.  The beauty is that there are tribes all around us.  Whether is volunteering for the local food pantry or organizing events with your neighbors for a local fundraiser, the opportunities to connect and build a tribe is readily available.   The next generation of young Fujianese Americans will inherently struggle with this as they’ve been taught to not invest in activities with no direct financial return. Moreover, as we continue to assimilate and adopt American Individualism, many of us will operate with diminishing collectivist mentality.  This indirectly pushes us to deal with our hardships without the support of a tight-knit community while combating the stigma of seeking professional help.  Your biggest struggle is to fight against that intuition and to embrace the communities that surround you.

Quiet Racism Of Chinese Immigrants

dark streetsAlmost as a rite of passage, many Chinese immigrant teens are intimately plugged into their family business.  For me, it was preparing ungodly amounts of vegetables at my dad’s restaurant during the Friday evening shift. Over the course of my high school years, this arrangement developed into a familiar routine. Even the commute across the NYC skyline became a passive response.  Little did I know, one November night, this commute would inadvertently plunge me deep into the inner bellies of the Bronx, altering my outlook as a newly minted American.

I arrived at the bus stop that evening and spotted the usual crowd of restaurant workers, old ladies with bins on wheels, and large families of children fighting for their parents’ attention.  Smart phones weren’t available yet so people watching was the preferred distraction.  Off to the periphery, a nameless girl in a beige sweater was browsing through her book.  Flipping through my mental rolodex, it immediately became apparent that she and I shared an ESL class.  It’s worth mentioning here that I’ve also been harboring the biggest crush on her.  As the bus rolled up to our stop, she hopped on and I followed.  I was thinking to my awkward 15 year old self that this could be the serendipitous encounter to spark a lifelong romance.

She found a seat near the front and I was squeezed into the back, clinging onto the strap near the door.  I spent the next 15 stops ruminating over all the different ways to salvage this situation.  Should I casually move up next to her?  How do I even describe what dicing through 50 pounds of garlic and onions smell like?  What if she doesn’t recognize me at all? On the 16th stop, she got off and I just sat there dumbfounded.  On the 17th stop, I realized something strange was happening.  I couldn’t recognize any of the establishments we were passing.  Evidently, I’ve gotten on the wrong bus. A sense of panic ensued.

The stories that circulate in a typical Chinese immigrant family are often incredibly personal and quietly exclusionary.  My first encounter with inner city violence was the night our delivery man was sent to the hospital after being beaten at gunpoint.  Mom said his injuries were so bad that he could barely open his eyes.  These stories quickly morphed into blanket statements about entire communities of people which ultimately mapped onto our realities.  Horrified that I might meet the same fate as our delivery guy, I ran up to the bus driver and asked eagerly for directions back to a familiar stop.  He nonchalantly asked me to get behind the yellow line.  Frustrated, I jumped out onto the sidewalk at the next stop, looking to regroup before I’m ushered further away from civilization.  

For a city that never sleeps, the neighborhood appeared to have never been awaken.  Shops were almost entirely closed off with graffitis smeared across each parcel.  In the distance, you can hear the clamoring of the commuter rail as it roamed by this forgotten town.  Sparks of dimly lit lamps guided me down the street.  All of sudden, I felt a nakedness which can only be described by the absence of my bag. As if the universe was suddenly issuing a pop quiz on urban survival, I stood there kicking myself all while the bus disappeared into the night along with all my belongings.

With adrenaline now coursing through me, I chased the bus for the next few blocks for as long as I can until a man appeared. He walked briskly towards me.  In that moment, all the horror stories of inner city murders, rape, and robberies flooded my reptilian brain.  I imagined my face on a milk carton the next day and the Sunday headline reading, “Lost Immigrant Boy, Distracted by Girl, Slayed.”  

Gasping for air, I instinctively blurted out, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money” and waved my hand at him.  Before I had a chance to dodge away, he smiled and asked, “I’m Brother Ibrahim, are you lost?”  

“Yes.” I responded.  And as if for the first time someone is listening to me, I explained my predicament to him while keeping a healthy distance.  In a moment of surprising altruism, he said he wants to help me get back home.  As he walked with me down the corner, I was wondering to myself if this was just a ploy to usher me to a convenient spot with fewer eye-witnesses. But as we walked towards the main thoroughfare, I felt this sense of anxiety and fear soothing away.  Even the streets have gotten brighter and more populated.  Upon arrival, he handed me a map, instructed me on the train I have to take, circling the stop with his finger.  I nodded in agreement. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a transit token and dropped it in my hand.  “Good luck and don’t get lost again.”  He smiled before disappearing out the door.  

We fall into autonomic responses because that’s how we make sense of the world. It’s much easier to just paint some people as all criminals or murderers. And sadly the Asian community hasn’t done enough to dispel these stories.  In a perfectly meritocratic society you’d get what you deserve until you’re the one begging for help because you’re lost and penniless.  Is it then fair to say that you’re lazy and maybe even inclined to commit crimes because you’ve failed to achieve the American dream?

I never had a chance to really thank Brother Ibrahim that night, but his simple act of kindness profoundly shaped my American experience.  It taught me that we have far less control over our situations than we think we do, especially as immigrants.  But even in moments of distress and heartache, there are always good people willing to help regardless of language, religion or creed.  The least we could do is to aspire to do the same.

The Fujianese Dinner Test

dinner date

It was our first date and I was craving something unusual.  Tucked away in the dark alleys of downtown Boston is a scrappy cash-only restaurant with four tables, a legit local joint that you’d be hardpressed to find in New England.  No General Tso’s or Crab Rangoons. No frills.  Just good old country-style Chinese cooking.

They say to never take your first date out to a messy meal but the temptation was overwhelming.  I ordered us a large plate of braised oxtails and frog casserole, all things that conjure nostalgic family gatherings for me.  Sitting next to the kitchen, I could smell the sweet and musky evaporation wafting in the air even before the plates landed on our table.

I eagerly raised my chopsticks but paused when I saw the look on her face.  She was in a confused trance. I explained the entrees to her and suggested that most people around the world have frogs and oxtails in their culinary repertoire.  That in fact, Americans are denying themselves of an otherwise hedonic worldly experience by sticking to perfect clean cuts of chicken and steak.

That was our first and last date.  

Admittedly, I’m guilty for trying to push a culture onto someone so soon.  I felt a sense of unease,  not because the date didn’t work out,  but because I was confounded by my reaction to her mild disgust.  A part of me felt the urge to stand up for Asian foodies everywhere. But a side of me was also secretly ashamed of the messy assortment I was brought up on.

My grandma was, by most standards, the perfect housewife.  She was always vehemently ready to support her family, even when they were blatantly wrong.  But beyond her unconditional love, she was also simply an amazing cook.  Her specialty was duck braised with fermented rice wine (Bo Jiao Ag).  It’s a long messy process to prepare but at the end, you’ll find yourself with a bowl of a perfectly aromatic concoction.  In all her resourcefulness, you’ll find parts of a duck you never knew existed before.

At dinner, she’d save us the meatiest portion and worked on the unsavory leftovers herself.  I once unscrupulously chewed on a jagged piece of bone so hard that it chipped my tooth and punctured my gum.  I was 13 and tossed the biggest hissy fit I could muster, vowing to never eat her cooking again.  In hindsight, I could tell she was hurt by those comments.

Food sits at the heart of most Fujianese families. Even as an adolescent, you’re taught to chew carefully through the complexity of these meals  And if you’re successful, you’ll learn that the best part isn’t the bone, but the art of being resourceful and gritty.

That evening after the date, I ended up keeping the odds and ends of the oxtail.  While it may be messy to eat, I’ve learned that it’s a quiet symbolism for the messiness of being a Fujianese immigrant. And that I think it’s worth keeping.