Five Things I Learned Between Almost Dying and Turning 30

The summer right before college, I was invited to a pool party in the outskirts of Brooklyn.  We grew up in the Knickerbocker projects so access to large bodies of water was restricted to crowded YMCA bacteria colonies or … the Hudson River.  Neither were good options so I was excited.  Little did I know, I almost became one of the thousands of kids who died at an unscrupulous backyard pool accident every year.

That sunny afternoon, I see my friends jumped in one after another.  I surveyed the water in my new swim trunks and slowly slipped into the bath except this tub (as I discovered) was bottomless.  Oh… those evasive tiles on the bottom that never touched my feet, how I yearned for you. The stings from the chlorine blinded me when I needed my sight the most, and in a moment of panic, I fought against the water, kicking, flailing my arms to find something, anything to ground me.

Everyone experiences near death differently, I’ve been told.  When my grandfather was coming in and out of consciousness during his hospice stay, he allegedly spotted his long-deceased parents sauntering about in this room.  After I’ve exhausted every ounce of uncoordinated energy, a quiet sense of ease came about. I stopped kicking. A glimmer of light grew more prominent. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen.  Maybe I should’ve been a Presbyterian this whole time. Maybe I should stop making fun of the Mormons. But before it became a tragedy, I felt an arm pulling mine towards the edge of the pool.  

I didn’t know the lung can house that much water but they all came violently spewing out onto the tanned porcelain trims of the pool. More than a decade after that incident, as I sit here inching my way into the big 3-0, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on my potential demise, the brave woman that reached out and saved my life, the abundance of mistakes I continue to make,  and five lessons I want to pass onto everyone kicking and screaming their ways into their 20s.

Mentors are Gems

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of good mentors.  These are the people that can offer you a transformative experience in your career, your health, and your personal development.  They come into your life via different paths. My first mentor was in fact, my high school biology lecturer which I’ve written about here.  He eventually groomed and got me into a multi-year internship at a prestigious institute (even though I was wholly unqualified).  In hindsight, this was a pivotal moment because it served as a building block for future opportunities that compounds on itself.

A mentor is a very fluid role that almost everyone plays and we don’t always have to perfectly fit into. I have a friend who I (and many other folks) believe to be a great father.  He might be a great source if I am also wanting to be a great father. If you have a friend you find to be very fit, she can potentially serve as your fitness coach.

I like to think that when you are ready to learn and work, the right mentors will appear.  The biggest mistake I’ve made in my 20s is to purely see mentors as a mercenary opportunity to grow my career.  But the relationship is so much more complicated. Good mentors are very busy and they seldom respond. You have to demonstrate your commitment to learn and be mentored.  This means hard emotional labor. It means starting early and leaving late. It means spending your free weekends researching, investing in studying the crafts, and constant/relentless follow up. In many cases, even after you’ve put in the hard emotional work, the mentor will simply not have time for you.  But I guarantee that you’ll impress someone else through this arduous process, and that someone might just be who you need.

Learn to Apologize

This one is strictly for men (and maybe some women). Growing up, I almost never see my Dad apologize about anything.  Even if he was blatantly wrong, he would murmur his wrong reasoning and carry on. I think many men in our lives have this tendency, as if an apology is an admission of our incompetence, our inadequacy and therefore rendering us undeserving of love.  But this tendency is actually very harmful for our emotional growth.

I remember in a moment of heated banter making a very personally offensive comment about a friend that picks at her deepest insecurity.  Almost instantly, I can see her eyes dodging away quietly and uncomfortably. Many of us will recognize this discomfort and even internally notice that we’ve done something wrong.  However, we’ll never make a point to apologize because it’s so goddamn uncomfortable. The best solution? Set up a time and have a heartfelt one-on-one conversation. Say you’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. Yes – that sounds fucking uncomfortable but it’s very necessary if you don’t want to be emotionally stunted.  It demonstrates that your ego is not bigger than your relationships.

Send Handwritten Cards

Technology and globalization have afforded us enormous wealth and but also made us increasingly lonely.  In fact, loneliness has recently been considered a public health crisis. In our effort to grow the economy, we sacrifice our ties to our communities/family in pursue of our career and professional development.  I’m not here to cast a judgement but rather to offer a simple but powerful way to add a human touch to our yearning for closeness.

I used to think it’s ludicrous spending $6 on a piece of folded cardboard until a friend sent me a postcard from her travels in Switzerland.  It was literally sent from the peak of Interlaken and I was pleasantly surprised. She didn’t just sent a email with an emoji. But rather, she took the time to find a pen, a leveled surface, and wrote down all that she felt about me on this piece of memento.  In her scripple, I feel the rotating table she was writing on. The blemishes that lays naked on the page. It was as if a piece of her was sent along with the joy, the pain, the angst, and everything that a simple text message cannot encapsulate. I still have that postcard and unlike a text file that’s been saved in the cloud, the card has aged much like our relationship.  

We can’t always be near everyone and a postcard cannot replace the tactile and physical encounters we have with the people we care about.  However, I have made it an annual tradition to sit down and pour my gratitude and love onto a blank canvas before snail mailing them out to all the wonderful humans that have crossed my life.  That simple act in itself, gets me a little closer to them.

Embrace Dirty Work

5 years ago, I got to bask in all the joy of home ownership.  In my 100+ year old Victorian home, my pipes exploded after my furnace stopped working in the dead of New England Winter.  I watched in panic as my basement turned into a kiddie pool, surfacing years of aggregate dead rodents. As I called a plumber for help, I suddenly realized that none of my higher education could prepare me for this. No amount of matlabing or spreadsheet mastery would dry up my basement and get my heat back.  Eventually a plumber came to my rescue. I don’t ever recall feeling so helpless. Somehow, we’ve been acculturated to believe that such “dirty work” is beneath us. That we should all strive to get highly educated and make as much money as possible so that we can afford to outsource every mundane tasks that’s part of life.  

To be fair, I am a firm believer that our society can’t grow without specialization but there is an overwhelming sense of empowerment that comes with dirty work, with replacing your own plumbing fixture, with refurbishing your furniture.  In many cases, the economic calculation couldn’t justify me spending the time, money and emotional labor in doing this. But the equation does not factor in the sense of ownership that comes from the literal blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into feeding the washer back into the fixture or trimming the door down to size.  It is as if a union is created between the user and the animate, giving you a deeper appreciation for all the tools and materials that serve us everyday.

Without getting too political, this country has somehow created a splinter in the workforce.  On one side, blue collar employees suffered through the recession while their white collar (college educated) counterpart has largely bounced back (Hidden Brain Reference).  Across the cultural landscape this has created a rift between the two groups (urban elites vs. rural tradesmen) and is manifested in our recent political swings.  In fact, I think our overvaluation of college education and devaluation of trades is the reason why we have an overabundance of student debt, unhappy spreadsheet taskmasters, and bullshit jobs.

Here’s something really practical you can start with: Get a nice power drill and a screw set.  Subscribe to a DIY handyman channel. Try to fix things yourself (after some research) first before getting help.  You’ll learn to appreciate the complexity of trades work and the sense of Essentialism and self-sufficiency that comes with dirty work.

Your Parents Don’t Know It All

I had my first emergency room visit the year I turned 25.  I had woken up to a gloomy Fall morning when I suddenly realized that my jaw was locked.  Worst yet, every attempt to feed myself was followed by a deep pain akin to the dental revenge scene from Park Chan Woo’s Old Boy (see visual aid below).

Oldboy - Korean Dental Care

Oldboy – Korean Dental Care

I finally caved in and sent myself to urgent care where I was diagnosed with “Trismus” (which oddly sounds like Christmas) and an infection caused by the impacted wisdom teeth that I’ve neglected for many years.  In the days that followed, as I prepared for a very painful and costly experience, friends and co-workers scolded me.

“Why didn’t you get it taken out in high school?”

Honestly, I don’t know why and for some time, I resented my parents for neglecting my dental care which led to that wonderful Trismus morning.  Negative thoughts like these inevitably bleeds into one another. Why didn’t we ever go on vacations as a family? Why couldn’t they help you with your financial aids application?  Why did they name me Sue? The abundance of blames we can lay on our parents for their shortcoming can spiral out of control and do some serious damage on your relationships.

You can’t choose your circumstances but you can control how you react.  Several years after my dental ordeal, I asked my mother about my lackluster childhood dental care in which she responded.

“Well, it was between putting food on the table or getting your teeth pulled out… and I know you’re smart enough to figure that out one day.”

I spent a huge part of my 20s trying to figure out my identity in relation to my makers: the two people that somehow decided to commit to one another and combine their best (and worst) qualities to raise a family in a foreign country.  And what I’ve learned is that parents are vulnerable too. They’re susceptible to all the human follies like jealousy, anger, and greed but they also love you because you’re an extension of their combined selves. So they might not know everything and that’s okay because you’ll figure it out.


Not long after that fateful Summer, I eventually learned to swim alongside my very supportive prepubescent classmates.  It was either that or walking around with a life-jacket all summer long. I hope you’ve enjoyed these 5 lessons and would love to hear your top life lessons in your 20s!

blacka nd white cheng.jpg

Acting A Fool at Victor and Yi’s





Our Insatiable Craving for Self-Help

self help tony

credit: Tony Robbins

“Your hair looks better up!” I screamed over the densely packed dance floor.

“What?” She leans closer and frowns as if that’ll help to mentally block out the frantic bass and seizure inducing light.

She then stopped mid-track and stared straight into my eyes, “Are you negging me?!” before pushing me aside and disappeared into the sea of sweaty, testosterone pool of men. I stood there dumbfounded at the ubiquity of modern-day pick up lingual.

Neil Strauss would’ve been proud that his once bestseller (The Game) which panders to socially awkward men around the world is suddenly a must-read for women’s psychological self-defense.  And while I never managed to become as suave as Mystery or dated Jessica Alba, Strauss did open a door for me into the world of self-improvement.  In other words, he led me to the realization that people must have contemplated for many years on how to live a good life and found a way to codify that into writing.  I was just not looking hard enough…

From Tony Robbins to the 4-Hour Work Week, the self-help industry has ballooned into an $11+ Billion marketplace with no end in sight.  One can argue that as our lower bracket Maslow needs are met, there’s been an even greater emphasis on the higher psychological yearning for meaning and purpose.

My latest encounter down this rabbit trail is a well curated book by a Swiss Columnist, Rolf Dobelli.  In the Art of the Good Life, Dobelli pulls together 52 teachings from modern day positive psychology studies, ancient stoic philosophy, and a smattering of cognitive biases.   We’ll touch on a few chapters that surprised me:

Circle of Dignity

Circle of Dignity is a tight set of non-negotiables or core values that define how we live.  In other words, these are the preferences and principles that we do not negotiate. In the book, Dobelli colored in the chapter with the story of Dunkirk where the English troops were outnumbered and surrounded by the Germans.  However hopeless the situation, the troops were commitment to evacuating the small French town only because defeat was non-negotiable.

In our day-to-day we may not face an impending assault by the Third Reich, but our core values are, nonetheless, constantly put to test.  Are you ordering another drink? Are you going home early to have dinner with your family? Can you make that soccer practice? Are you skipping the gym because it’s raining?  Our core values and principles are constantly under assault from the elements. Many of us will simply try to use a process of logical analysis to arrive at our core values.  Dobelli suggests that core values are not developed through reasoning and logic but rather through a process of crystallization. This is a process where you experience wrong decisions, disappointments, failures, and crises.  Without this indispensable step, we’ll have to rely solely on our thoughts and reasoning. Values developed through reasoning is vulnerable to constant attack and cunning arguments. Dobelli argues that the process of crystallization is an indispensable step towards becoming an mature adult with solid foundations.

Life Stories Are Lies – Why we go after the world with a false self image

If we ask 5 of your closest friends to tell your story, we’ll likely get 5 different storylines, each with their own peaks and valleys, positive and negative interpretations of reality. Stories are great communication tools because we’re wired to remember stories better than raw data.  However, stories are inherently subjective which does not paint a good picture of reality. Dobelli proposes 3 points we should remember when we try to interpret the world:

  1. We change more rapidly than we think – In high school, I was adamant about majoring in Biomedical Engineering.  After graduating, I got involved with healthcare management. In the past 5 years, I’ve been investing in real estate.  I would’ve never imagine how my career and life choices would have morphed into the current state, in such a short period. There’s even a Harvard study (via Dan Gilbert) to show that we underestimate how little we will change.  Dobelli argues that this can be a source of dissatisfaction because our static interpretation of our future self translates to actions/decisions that lock our lives in a state that will soon be incongruent with what we want.
  2. Our lives seem more amenable to planning than it is –  Before I even stepped outside the door this morning, I knew that the weather was going to be high 60s in the afternoon and taper to low 40s by sunset.  I knew the exact route that would take me to work. I knew the valet will pick up my car when I arrive. My doctors will tell me the exact dose of medication I should take and when I should expect to feel better.  In short, our world has become incredibly predictable and any unpredictability we experience such as untreatable illnesses, a car accident, a natural disaster, we attribute these misfortunes to lack of planning. We are much less willing to simply accept our bad luck. No amount of planning can shield us from misfortune.  In some cases, we’ll be happier to just accept our lack of control over the world.
  3. We have a positive self-attribution bias – There’s almost a primal human tendency to attribute all of our successes to our personal actions and our failures to external circumstances.  It’s primal because it’s a relic of our ancestral need to avoid threat and hoard rewards. That might be very relevant when there’s a limited supply of edible berries to pass around but very counterproductive when we overestimate our own capabilities.  In an age of abundance, humility is more important than self-preservation.

At first glance, one might wonder about the qualification that allows Dobelli to tackle such an ubiquitous question as life itself.  After all, it’s not difficult to live a good life when you’re a wealthy successful author, living in the most developed country on the planet.  But as I sit here thinking about privileges, I’m reminded of the plethora of mental tools encapsulated in the book, specifically – that life isn’t fair. What’s surprising about the book is that all the teachings are incredibly reasonable but also incredibly difficult to uproot (as I’ve demonstrated in my self talk just now).  It’s difficult because to embrace stoicism, to denounce our self importance runs against our natural instinct for fairness, for power, for sex and for wealth. If I have to sum up this book in one sentence, it would be that less is more.  If less is more, then we all have the capacity to live a good life.  Ain’t that a better way to go?

Reference: Art of the Good Life – Rolf Dobelli


Charlie the Cloud


My story started before I was even born. In the early 1930s, a young man became a father for the first time. He was enterprising and founded the first rice milling factory in town. But far from perfect, he was also a philanderer.  Like many wealthy Chinese men of that era, he was a degenerate gambler, had several mistresses, and fathered a number of illegitimate kids.

Oh…and this man was my great grandfather.

His story was sparsely discussed around our dinner table as I was growing up and everything I’ve learned about him was loosely stitched together from snippets of Dad’s drunk history lessons.  What really attracted me to his story was not only his meteoric rise to power and wealth, but also his eventual collapse.

My great grandfather became a wealthy landowners at a time when populist uprising was brewing in China. Mao and his army of cadres were sweeping across the country, encouraging peasants to dispossess local landowners.  An estimate 20 million landlords and dissidents were murdered during this period. My great grandfather was lucky.  He was sent to a re-education camp instead and was given a job as a mailman subsequently. 

To many of us, this would have been a horrendous event to have experienced. Surprisingly, my grandfather never questioned what had happened to his father. Instead, he became incredibly religious and devoted the rest of his life to buddhism.

Fast forward to the 80s, two love birds were meeting for the first time.  Within the span of 4 months, they were married and my mother was pregnant.  Dad was always a troublemaker.  In fact, his childhood nickname was ri ben (日本) which literally translates to Japan.  Being called Japan was not exactly a compliment in rural China.

More than anything else, he aspired to come to America.  This was a sentiment shared by many young Chinese men. The 70s was a transformative time in China.  A new party secretary was taking office. Deng XiaoPing, the son of a former landlord, rose to power and brought with him free-market ideologies.  Under his administration, China opened up to the world again.  This not only created export discipline domestically but also gave everyday Chinese a window into the  abundance of opportunity overseas.

Along with this new open-market view, the one child policy was implemented.  As we know today, this was a monumental shift in social infrastructure but also have implications for Chinese-American relationships.  A string of conservative presidents (led by Reagan and Bush senior) made the one child policy a human rights violation, giving grounds to Chinese refugees to claim asylum in the United States.  

Unbeknownst to the world, this slight stroke of a policy sparked an exodus of Chinese to America.  Every able-bodied men in the village was lining up.  My grandfather was among this wave of migration in the 80s.  Through the family reunification program, he brought his whole family to the United States, including my mother.

The day I moved here, America was a turbulent place: Clinton was entangled in an extramarital affair, I’ve never seen a non-chinese person before, and we lived in what many now would consider a walk-in closet.  But no lack of material wealth could compare to our yearning for an identity, a universal place we all want to claim.

Over the next two decades, I’ve gone on to identify myself as a solid B+ student, I’ve been an amateur Squash Player, I’ve introduced myself as an engineer, and some nights, as a toastmaster.  But nothing was ever the right fit.

There’s an old buddhist metaphor that compares your life to a drifting cloud, morphing and taking on different shapes, with and without your control.  The cloud goes to a destination that’s not really a destination. And when it’s ready, the cloud cools down and becomes water again.

There’s something really beautiful and nihilistic about this comparison.  But I think we’re a lot more than just an aimlessly drifting body of condensation.  We’re special because of our capacity to tell stories, our ability to collect all these moments and experiences in our lives, and share them with our friends and families.  And the bigger realization  was that these stories that you tell yourself and the world is who you are. So the next time you find yourself scratching your head because you’re having a quarter-life crisis, reach back into your personal universe and think about all the infinite number of impossible events that have to collide with one another to bring you here today.

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.