What I Said and What I Meant

Old habits die hard – I began preparing a few days before my lecture on the American Dream at the United States Consulate in China. Staying up past midnight for many days, I revised, re-researched, added, removed and finally submitted the Powerpoint slides for the big day.  The last time I had given a speech there was on Breaking the Glass Ceiling in America and I was so nervous that I vowed not to put myself through it again – except fear was an imagined terror because I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do it again.

What better topic to talk about in another country, at the U.S. Consulate other than the great American Dream? To talk about the country known for its land of opportunities not just in the past but even today. While traveling for the past one year, the people I’ve met in Europe and Asia praised it for its transparency, integrity and a place that can offer them what their mother country could not – a better life.

But like any creative work, my initial intent on speaking about the “great” American Dream morphed. Instead of talking about the good, I presented both sides of the coin, the good and the bad. I gave four examples: Danny Chen, a marine who committed suicide because he was racially harassed in the military, former President William Clinton, current Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who immigrated from Taiwan to America at the age of 8 and the black lives matter movement.

Pressed for time as the conference room where I gave the presentation must be vacated sooner than usual and foreign to my slides,  I read them, seldom making eye contact with the audience, a room of thirty people. I tried to be mindful of my speed because they were all native Chinese speakers and their English proficiency varied from grade one to high school; some did not speak an ounce of English.

After my lecture, I began the discussion with questions such as “What is your American Dream?” “Are all men created equal? (a reference to the Declaration of Independence)” I was full of excitement, waiting for a wave of heated discussion.

Contrary to my last lecture, perhaps more straightforward, more people and less controversial which ended in many questions and comments, this time the audience was pitch quiet.

Instead of answering my questions, someone asked me, “What is your American Dream?”

Continue reading “What I Said and What I Meant”

My Fifty Percent

Summer of 2017. Beijing, China

The boy sitting a couple of seats from us was staring at my friend and I. At standing height, my friend was 6’3,” sitting down, his torso was about 2 feet, lean and athletic.

“Do you think our life was decided for us when we were born” I asked.

“It’s fifty-fifty.”

“No matter how hard I practice or swim, I would never be like Michael Phelps, I wasn’t born into his physique. So, fifty percent of your life was determined when you were born” he said.

“The other fifty percent I can decide for myself.”

I have finished drinking my iced Costa coffee. The plastic cup had 2 ounces of cold water, formerly iced cubes. I spun the plastic straw around them.

“People who are successful do a few things – one is that they have a vision. When you have a strong vision, you will conquer all obstacles because you believe in it. And, they lift barriers, they don’t see them as a halt.”

The kid couldn’t take his eyes off of my friend. He noticed him noticing him. My friend smiled and briefly interacted with the kid.

“What do you think?”

“I’m back and forth between if it’s decided or not but I think I agree that it is fifty-fifty.”

Winter of 2018. Pristina, Kosovo

“Are you backpacking,” the house guest asked.

“No,” I laughed. “I’m traveling.”

“What do you do for work?”

“Not working right now, I’ll probably write a book when I’m done.”

The space heater was making king, king, king sounds. I turned to look at it to make sure it wasn’t going to catch on fire. I haven’t used a non-fan styled space heater since the 1990’s.

“Some parents here just have their kids go beg for money. Why not send the kids to school, it’s all free,” he continued.

“Oh really? It’s all free.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe they just see things short-term, not long-term enough, they just want what they can get today.”

“I grew up in a village in Kyrgyzstan so making money is my top priority. It’s either survive or live your life.”

I listened.

“There aren’t that many opportunities. It doesn’t matter if you’re smart and hard-working.”

The space heater that looked like the one I used in the 1990s was still making king, king, king noises. I have stopped looking over it to see if it would catch on fire.

“You said you could always find a job, that’s the fifty percent of your life that you didn’t decide on. You were born into it.

Tiffany in Thailand

My Day to Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison

I sat on the damp cushion on the couch. Reaching inside my camera bag, I re-counted the twenty-five dollars I had in USD currency: one 5, one 10, and ten 1’s.

Ten minutes later, I walked out of the outdoor hotel lobby, through metal gates, and boarded the minivan that was labeled “Killing Field and S21 Tour.” It was air-conditioned to 18 degrees Celsius.

The van arrived in front of S-21 Prison, which used to be a high school. Overhead water sprinklers were on. The 30 degrees Celsius water particles landed on my cheeks and the tip of my nose.

“Yes, I would like an audio tour.”

I handed in 3 one dollar bills and took the audio device from the staff. I put on the headphones and walked into the yard of the high school.

Towards my left was a row of classrooms. Inside the classrooms, the walls were of light yellow, some paint were peeling, some paint had stains of dark red and brown. On the wall, there was a 4 by 2 feet picture that showed a body. I walked closer to it and discovered that the face was blurred out. As I moved from every room, I saw that every room had a picture, on the wall- the body of the victim who had died in that exact room. And in every picture, the face of the victim was redacted.

“If you feel that you need to take a break, there are white benches outside,” the female voice from the audio guide said.

In the courtyard, there weren’t any vacant white benches. Most of the visitors wore dark sunglasses, not revealing their pupils. As I took a pause from my audio tour, I heard sighs around me and nothing else.

No voices, only brisk movements from visitors.

Towards the exit of the S-21 Prison, there were survivors of the genocide. One of them was selling a book he had written. Some visitors had asked to take a picture of him. Some were getting the book signed. I did neither. I looked into his eyes. He had the gaze of a three-year-old child.

We boarded the van to drive to the next and last stop, Killing Fields.

We all opted for the audio tour guide, placed on our headphones and walked through the fields.

I walked up five steps, took off my shoes, stepped onto the white floor and ascended a few more steps to the entrance of the glass memorial tower. From the outside, I saw skulls, one on top of another.

There was a sign in white, against a black background that read, “WOULD YOU PLEASE KINDLY SHOW YOUR RESPECT TO MANY MILLION PEOPLE WHO WERE KILLED UNDER THE GENOCIDAL POL POT REGIME.” Continue reading “My Day to Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison”

Must I Attend Networking Events…?

As an introvert, I dislike going to networking events. Going to them is like eating parsnip, getting them stuck in my front teeth, then suffering from diarrhea and constipation. Yes, it is that bad.

At my third job, I was working in the sales department of a media company. My plan was to leave after one year to then work in the producing department. The plan was working out great, I just had to swap out one year with ninety-nine years. A friend of mine lit a fire up my behind and suggested that I should be doing everything possible to leave if that is what I wanted.

I decided that eating parsnip should be enjoyable and getting them stuck in my front teeth and suffering from you know what should also be enjoyable. So, I signed myself up for a networking event that was hosted by my company’s employee resource group for women, HERE. The event was a speed networking one where managerial level female employees would speak one-on-one with other female employees who were of much senior positions. I didn’t quite qualify to attend because I wasn’t yet at a managerial level. So I slipped the organizers a five-hundred-dollar bill and they agreed to let me be a volunteer to help guests check in. They neither confirmed nor denied if I could hang around after check in was complete. I was fine with this ambiguity because my buddy Denzel Washington said, “If you hang around the barber shop long enough, sooner or later you will get a haircut.”

I was sitting at a table, with four other women who were networking with among themselves. The elevator pitches and self-introductions were complete so they started talking about random topics and I joined them. Continue reading “Must I Attend Networking Events…?”

My Tiffany and Co. Necklace

During college, I had a liking towards necklaces made by Tiffany and Co..

One year, I was taking one of the hardest courses at Carnegie Mellon University – Decision Analysis and Decision Support System (DADSS). It was taught by Paul Fischbeck, an intelligent, somewhat handsome, 6’3” (estimate), slim, professor who received his Ph.D from Stanford University and went to the military. The class taught me how to use mathematical equations and/or formulas to quantify factors, analyze outcomes of all possible decisions, and recommend the most optimal option. The goal was to analyze the consequences of decisions in an economic fashion, often in complex scenarios. Zzz.

After graduating with this major, people usually worked in consulting, legal, government or just about anything social science related. I never thought that it would one day help me do what I do now, drug dealing. Kidding!

What was I saying again? Oh yes, Decision Analysis and Decision Support System (DADSS) class and Tiffany and Co..

For Christmas, these people who may or may not have the same blood type as me, who may or may not also have the same DNA as me, offered to buy me one (1) necklace from Tiffany and Co.. Only one. How cheap of them!

My DADSS class happened to assign this homework which was to present a decision that I must make, sort out the options, list three factors to quantify the options, quantify them, and recommend one option that was most mathematically optimal. So, I chose to analyze which Tiffany and Co., necklace I should ask for.

The factors I finalized on were:

  • Retail price, they ranged from 150 USD to 225 USD
  • The presence or vacancy of the Tiffany & Co. logo on the necklace
  • Aesthetics

After quantifying these factors, I applied blah blah blah (you probably don’t care), and concluded that I was to go with option B. Continue reading “My Tiffany and Co. Necklace”

To Succeed, Should You Step Over Others or Help Them?

In 2013, at the end of my second job, I wrote that I didn’t believe you need to step over others to succeed. I supported that argument with a personal example, thinking that it must have persuaded millions to stop believing the statement, “nice guys finish last.”

The other millions of people around me though have challenged this philosophy. They believed that you cannot climb the success ladder without hurting others, intentionally. Sometimes, I struggled to hold on to this belief because the nicest people have objected it and explained that I was wrong. I also witnessed a colleague of mine changing her belief on being nice to people to that being nice gets you no where. I have tried to talk them out of having this outlook but I usually end up failing. So, I did what I did best, nothing.

Since writing that post, four years had passed and somehow I came across a book that agreed with my argument! What up haters! In Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, (published in 2014, and where was I in 2014, not reading his book?!), he argued that to sustain long-term success, we should help people, not take advantage of them.  Findings in his book were such a pleasure to read that I’d like to supplement what I wrote in 2013, that on the path to success, helping others is the key, not taking.

In Grant’s book, he classified people at the workplace into three categories: Givers, Takers and Matchers.

Givers help people without the expectation that the help will be returned.
Takers take, and take more than they give back.
Matchers take equally and give back equally.

Continue reading “To Succeed, Should You Step Over Others or Help Them?”