Summary of 2012 – New Place, New Beginning

My first summer in 59/F, CKC

Some say I have abandoned this blog. I have not. I constantly think about what I want to post here, share here, and have started many drafts that were never complete. It takes a big chunk of time to generate the focus that will result in a good post, and as I have come to learn, while it is possible for a banking analyst to make time to balance out work and play, allocating that additional few precious hours to sit in front of a computer to write is much harder when you’ve already sat in front of a computer for the most part of a 24-hr day.

So here we are, capitalizing on the Chinese New Year break, blackberry-free and too lazy to move after consecutive nights of festivities having consumed as much food and liquor as my body could handle without getting sick, I am ready to share the snapshot of my 2012.

Leaving Columbia and NYC

2012 was an important year for me. Originally the class of 2011, I took a gap year and moved my seat to the class of 2012. Many people asked me what it was like to be back in school again. It felt like home. Like how you leave home for a year to school and return for the first time in 12 months. And like returning home after a long year abroad, I became more appreciative of what being in school had to offer and came to appreciate my alma mater. Learning was more fun (but only on a relative basis compare to previous semesters), because I finally had some real life experiences to convince myself the things I was learning were relevant. While the typical senior year results in borderline F’s and increased risk of alcoholism, I did better than any previous semester and forged new friendships based more so on common interests rather than social cliques.

But however nice school was, my mind had already felt like I was a graduate. Home, metaphorically or actually, was never a place where I dwelled extensively. Exactly a year ago, I finished my degree and came back to China to take part in starting a local VC/PE shop in China, in search of the kind of experience that I knew I’d never get once I set foot on the sacred pilgrimage of bulge bracket investment banking.

In May, I returned to NYC for the graduation ceremony. In June, I returned to NYC one more time for the global IBD training. When I boarded Delta 173 at JFK on August 17th, 2012, I knew I had ran out of degrees of freedom to go back to the greatest city in the world.

Asia – the Here and Now

During my college years, most of the ambitious college students with Chinese heritage have a China dream of sorts. Some chose to put those dreams to action right away, while others chose to gain more experiences abroad before returning. Having left China at the age of 10, and having engaged with a serious group of like-minded individuals through GCC, I simply did not have the patience to be part of the second group.

Hong Kong is a unique place. It’s filled with more exclusive clubs and associations than any other city I’ve lived in, and the whole city itself seems to be built on the elements of capitalism: consumerism, materialism, elitism, pragmatism – doesn’t sound like the most friendly place to live in the world, but there is upside. The combination of early exposure to capitalism, a small geographic area, dense population, and the Hong Kong people’s desire for achievements and global recognition has created one of the most efficient cities ever built by mankind. The most advanced mobile technology, transportation systems, public infrastructure, low-cost of domestic helpers and the simple close-proximity of everything spoil the expats here  to consider almost every other city in the world, inconvenient. And I have, for better or worse, become one of them.

As one can imagine, not everyone likes it this way. I am not short of friends who have shied away from Hong Kong because of its culture and the difficulties involved in adjusting to this city because of the challenge of Cantonese, the jaw-dropping rent (usually followed by varying degrees of claustrophobia) or a combination of all of the above. Luckily, having learned to appreciate Cantonese culture since TVB was available in China in the 90’s, and growing up in the beautiful Hong-couver, I saw no challenge in the language or culture.

Though I’ve always been interested in Hong Kong, the firmness of my decision to work in Hong Kong was purely a result of my gap year. I saw first-hand the types of opportunities that were available to young graduates in PRC, where the training of new grads never seems to make it to the top of CEOs’ agenda, I knew it was better to start in a more cosmopolitan environment with 1. English as the main working language and 2. a high degree of efficiency from mobile services to elevators to public transportations and 3. access to a great diversity of people. And Hong Kong has all three –  always has, always will.

When I landed in HKG at 11pm on Aug 18th, 2012, I was on familiar ground.

Everyone of us desired our China dream. And here’s mine.

Examining the Big Career Problem: Is Finance/Consulting Right or Wrong?

So the recent Occupy Wall Street movement got me curious to look into what percentage of people at Columbia go into finance. I flipped through the CCE (Columbia’s Center for Career Education) website to see if they’ve got this sheet of statistic on where Columbia students end up working after graduation. It turns out they still have it. And the numbers have escaped me since I last saw them back in 2007 during my CCE orientation as a freshman…

Part I – The Stats

An astonishing 24.9% of the Class of 2010 in CC and SEAS ended up working in financial services, with an additional 9.1% in consulting. SEAS graduate programs yield a whopping 32.9% for finance and 9.2% for consulting. (For a school as specialized as “engineering,” this could almost warrant a change in the school’s name.)

Now I got really curious and, before we begin to judge Columbia, let’s take a look at Harvard.

Source: Seniors Survey, Office of Career Services, Harvard University

On the Charles River, over the past five years, we see a few trends: smaller percentage of students in finance/consulting, fewer in military, more in non-profit, health/medicine, communications/media/arts, and business (presumably this is where entrepreneurship would fall).

Since we don’t have trend data by industry for Columbia, it’s hard to make trend comparisons. But just taking the 2010 data alone, 33% of Harvard seniors planned to work in finance or consulting – almost at the same level as Columbia’s 34% (though showing a noticeable difference where consulting firms historically have a stronger preference for Harvard than Columbia). At its height, 47% of Harvard seniors planned to work in finance or consulting in 2008 (just before the financial crisis). I’d assume Columbia’s 2008 numbers were probably similar.

You can check out UPenn, Princeton, and Cornell.

So I’ve been asked this many times and have wondered this myself – why do so many students from top universities end up in finance or consulting?

Here’s my take on why.

Part II – The Qualitative Analysis

Let’s admit it – for most of us, we have no idea of what we want to do after college. For starters, we all know that this campus is skewed toward finance and consulting (because that’s all that we hear about) – but for the average-over-achieving-Ivy-Leaguers, it’s just too difficult to accept that we will end up pretty mainstream and pick what everybody else picked – finance and/or consulting.

We think somehow there’s a destiny awaiting, a path beckoning, a road less travelled-by, and honor, glory, and fame are within our grasp – and right now is the moment to capture it before we are stuck forever in some cubicle in some office building in some major metropolitan area somewhere on this planet. We misperceive the fact that we have made it to the top 1% of the higher-education population (a system based on getting good grades, being well-rounded, and/or excel in one particular area) should be automatically translated into becoming the top 0.1% of the higher-income population (a system based on hard-workinheritance, networks, economic conditions, and chance). After all, if we have beaten the odds at getting into the best schools, shouldn’t we also beat the odds at making the most amount of money and impact? We assume that life is supposed to get better and better – the same assumption for economic growth, stock indices, and real estate prices in the long-term – and look where that’s gotten us today.

Some of us will actually take action to address this dilemma – picking the “Main Street” or being a maverick – most of us will just wait it out and succumb last minute. But even for the brave few I’ve seen, it is usually the same story: They get super excited about a seemingly brilliant idea and invest a lot of time and energy into it; a few months later, when miracle fails to surface (e.g. no venture capital is throwing down millions of dollar for them to play with, or the realization that being a real [read: poor] entrepreneur is too big a step-down from their dream lifestyle of beach-houses and Lamborghini’s), they quickly loses interest and rethink – Epiphany hits and they come to the realization that finance/consulting, and not something else, is the way to go. Because it gives you “a good training.”

But it’s not just the Ivy League, it’s everybody. To quote Seth Davis from the opening scene of Boiler Room (2000):

I read this article a while back that said that Microsoft employs more millionaire secretaries than any other company in the world. They took stock options over Christmas bonuses. It was a good move. I remember there was this photograph of one of the groundskeepers next to his Ferrrari. Blew my mind. You see s*** like that, and it just plants seeds, makes you think it’s possible, even easy. And then you turn on the TV, and there’s just more of it. The 87 million dollar lottery winner. That kid actor that just made $20 million on his last movie. That Internet stock that shot through the roof. You could have made millions on it if you’d just got in early. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do: get in. I didn’t want to be an innovator. I just wanted to make the quick and easy buck. I just wanted in.

Notorious B.I.G. said it best: Either you’re slinging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot.’ Nobody wants to work for it anymore. There’s no honor in taking the after school job at Mickey D’s. Honor’s in the dollar, kid. So I went the white boy way of slinging crack rock. I became a stock broker.

[Fast-forward to 2011] “… so I went the Asian kid’s way of becoming a stock broker. I became an investment banker.”

The movie version of the finance world is a bit exaggerated because it focused on the worst portion of the industry. But the dilemma of being a maverick vs. choosing the main road nonetheless exists.

Part III – Is this a problem and, if so, is there a solution?

Trends are difficult to resist. It’s how they became trends in the first place. You use an iPhone? Own a pair of boat shoes? Ever noticed how many Macs users are on college campuses? We follow trends. Because trends exist to appeal, because most people want to be liked, and because there is usually very little justification for not following trends.

When I spoke at the GCC-Carnegie Conference in June, Chenggang Rui, CCTV’s star anchor who goes around interviewing prominent businessmen and politicians, wrapped up his keynote address with a serious concern over the world’s (and China’s) talent pools. “If the guys working for Wall Street are more well-rounded and always had better grades in college than the guys working for the government, then how can the regulators ever outsmart the regulated?” He asked the audience. This talent dynamics is a losing proposition for the government and can only result in more problems in financial regulation down the line.

While Rui’s concern may be an over-simplification of the US political system and Wall Street, his concern is right in that too many people want to work in finance… especially in China.

In China, everybody and his grandma wants to major in finance and work in an investment bank. I’ve seen people with Masters, JD’s, and even PhD’s in fields completely unrelated to finance/economics dishing out resumes to banks and consulting firms.

Sadly, we should probably acknowledge to ourselves that our best educated people will be a generation of financial professionals – at least among the ethnic Chinese.

So we’ve identified the problem, but very few solutions – encouraging students to participate in government, non-profit, education, and business sectors outside of finance/consulting? But what’s the best way to “encourage”? Run a calculation on the expenses associated with college education (especially at the top schools) and you’ll find justification for why everyone wants to make more rather than less. How about teach less about finance and teach more about happiness? Maybe, but it needs to become mainstream to make a real impact (e.g. One day becoming part of the CORE curriculum at Columbia). During my time at Columbia, a new major called “Financial Economics” emerged, and a new minor in “Business Management” is on its way to become one of the most popular selections. Corporate Finance and Accounting and Finance expanded into two sections due to popular demand, and the neighboring Barnard College also began to offer more courses in economics.

College students like to blame the banks for spending money to recruit on Ivy League campuses. But the relationships between college caree officers, banks/consulting firms, and the student job-seekers are a matter of freedom of choice. Government and non-profits can either pay the same kind of money to recruit on college campuses, or they can shift people’s opinions to a point where the honor associated with working for government/non-profit is greater than the monetary gains of working anywhere else. Until then, those percentages shown at the top are unlikely to move significantly.

There is a bright side to this: most people stay in finance or consulting for only a few years before moving onto something else. So perhaps there is an alternative solution, not at the undergraduate level, but at the white-collar working level, capturing those career-changers and guide them to making real impact. Perhaps there can be organizations that group ex-bankers and ex-consultants together to create businesses, to consult non-profits, and to sit in workshops to discuss how to find the meaning of life through exploration and self-actualization.

Whatever the solution may be, the problem isn’t going away any time soon – especially not in this economy.

Closing Up the “Gap Year” Chapter

The Sentimental Part

I took one last look at my comfy bed, wooden floor, coffee table, and picture windows. Two suitcases, one briefcase, ticket in hand booked from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Ready?

I closed the door.

Eight months ago, I took a leap of faith and decided to take a year off from my life as a student. It was the first time that I was not one since kindergarten. Schools are fun, and having been through 10 different schools growing up, I can confidently say that I was not so afraid of switching out yet again to a new environment.

People gave me all sorts of reactions to my decision. At first, I cared a lot. My parents were vocally against it, and my closest college friends thought I was doing something terribly stupid. But I was not without support. And looking back, I must thank those that inspired me to take this step.

Eight months passed. When I now tell someone that I took a year off, I get lots of questions:

“Why did you take a gap year?”

Because I wanted to.

“What did you do?”

A lot.

“What did you learn?”

A lot more.

I wish there was a simple way to describe it all. With words. But words do a terrible job at capturing emotions and self-actualization efficiently. The most I can do is to list out my projects and achievements in a resume-like fashion as if it was an interview. But that’s not the whole story; it’s just the cover, and maybe the table of content.

It wasn’t the professional experience from Bain, the leadership experiences from GCC, the cultural experience from Beijing, the philanthropic experience from Heart2Heart, or the entrepreneurial experience from a company I founded with my buddy back at Columbia. It was living the unpackaged life, displacing the self from the support system that it has gotten so used to. It was testing assumptions, be wrong, be right, and formulating a view less breakable, a mind less shakable. It was introspection.

How often do you think to yourself, “I’m not like that,” “That’s not who I am,” “That’s not how I do things,” or, “That’s not what I want”? If you think like this pretty often, then congratulations, you seem to know yourself pretty well. For me, these lines didn’t come up often enough throughout my three years of college. True, it was important to keep an open mind, but open-mindedness is hardly self-awareness, and one doesn’t always lead to the next, because too many different experiences at one given time can sometimes confuse you and make you less aware of the self.

Exactly one year ago, I was struggling between the idea of becoming an entrepreneur and taking the traditional corporate path. I had trouble deciding if it’s better to make a thousand acquaintances or maintain a dozen close friends. I couldn’t decide if I should dive into China as early as possible before the window of opportunities closes on me, or spend more time in the US to develop myself before doing so. I sometimes relied on the judgment of others because I didn’t trust myself enough. I had a strong desire to take my path to China and reconnect my roots but I didn’t know how.

I had a lot to reconcile.

In the past eight months, I have done each of these conflicts some justice. I’ve found some valuable insights to these questions – some answered in full, some waiting to be solved.

Eight months later, I look into the mirror, and I see someone that I know better. After all, it’s me that I have to deal with for my entire life, and getting to know myself better is probably more useful than knowing anyone else.

My Advice

I made a few summaries below based on my above-mentioned experiences in China. Hopefully, if you ever decide to take a gap year, you too can discover its magical effects.

Beijing/China – The real life doesn’t give out award certificates. No one is obligated to be your friend and to spend his or her precious time with you “hanging out.” Real life is filled with individuals who are pragmatic, materialistic, and pretentious; and most people have got an agenda of some sort behind his or her actions. Useless relationships die after one meal; useful relationships rekindle even after months-long gaps. This is true whether you’re talking to entry-level employees or attending a high-profile networking cocktail watching corporate executives do their dances. (Students, fortunately, may be the only exception here.)

Beijing is a tough place to be. It focuses the many desires of China into a tip so sharp that you can sense it in the directness of how people approach you for things. Local Chinese don’t get paid very well, so in order to make it some day they must do what it takes – sometimes things that would be considered unethical in the West. Office politics are layered in matrices of personal relationships. Sentences can be delivered in ten ways but interpreted in twenty. Thinking too much is better than thinking not enough. And never trust someone that you can’t verify through another friend.

Age/淡定 – As students we honestly don’t think much about age. We are in a system called “school” which places us in the right places at the right age. But in the real world these restrictions are looser. How old are you? How old do people think you are? How old would you like to be? How old would you need to be? But really, how old can you be? Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time, but you might be at the wrong age. In the West, youth is good. Youth is energy, opportunities, and possibilities. But in China, youth is immaturity. It equates to inexperience, which to most people screams unreliability (i.e. 不靠谱).

We often think of discrimination in terms of gender, race, and other common distinctions. But age is just as key, and twice as severe in a country that has a hierarchical system by age. What I’m trying to say is this: Don’t let age limit you, but also don’t misperceive your own mental age. At what age does one find oneself exactly? Maybe one never does. But with age, you acquire a sense of 淡定. The nirvana stage of life. The moment when you have gained full control of the self.

Management Consulting – Mergers&Inquisitions posted an excellent article about PE in China a few weeks ago. I would borrow the general idea from there and say that the difference between working for MBB in developed markets vs. their emerging market offices is just huge. I was talking to a friend who is working at the McKinsey New York office and was told that he never had trouble finding market segment data about the industries that he was covering. They just email the research department and open Outlook the next morning – and voila!

Well, the bad news is, data mining is virtually the bulk of your work in China as an intern in consulting. Industry data don’t really exist because there is not a developed set of research companies that gather these data and make profits off them – asking Chinese companies to pay for data is like asking Chinese college students to pay for .mp3 music. So instead of buying it from someone, you hire cheap labour (i.e. The PTAs) and have them find the data for you via all possible methods. (I’ll leave the methods to your imagination. And you can think of the reliability of the data given those methods.)

Purpose/Meaning of Life – I would be megalomaniac if I think that I can somehow explain the meaning of life. But the general idea here is to find it. Something. Anything. The problem with most college grads is that once one has reached the college level (or grad school for that matter – once one has finished one’s education), one is lost. One gets a job. One meets a boy/girl. One marries, has kids, and realizes it’s too late to change careers because the opportunity costs are too high.

So we all know how serious it is to take the right step right now. Without going any deeper and making this whole post about the meaning of life altogether, I want to say that whatever you do, do it for a virtuous purpose. Virtuous is the keyword here. Money, fame, bottles-and-models, are not virtuous purposes. Honor (not fame), pride (not ego), and the well-beings of others (family, friends, even strangers) are.

The Resume Version

Below, I decided to list out the milestones of this past eight months, with pictures and videos, to demonstrate that, no, I did not just waste time in China to 混. I did many things that I would’ve never been able to do without spending those eight months in Beijing. (The external photos are all linked to Picasa, so feel free to contact me if you cannot get access.)

So really, what did I do?

- October 2010 – Tsinghua University – Enrolled in an adult education program about Chinese capital markets and how SMEs can capture these opportunities.

- October 2010 – Began working at Bain & Co. as a Part-Time Assistant.

- November 2010 – Finished settling down in Beijing and began helping out GCC China Affairs Division. Arranged a series of meetings with potential partners/sponsors for GCC in Beijing (GCC website).

Meeting with 徐小平 in Beijing

Hosting meeting for GCC China Affairs Division

- December 2010 – Embarked on the fourth trip to Guizhou, China, on behalf of Heart2Heart Society, filming a short documentary denoting the society’s success story in donating to Guizhou (10min video):


优酷版本 if YouTube inaccessible:http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjc2MTI5MjEy/v.swf

- January 2011 – Helped secure a $10,000 sponsorship from American Airlines to GCC

- January 2011 – Invited as a delegate to the RENET Inaugural Sanya Conference (link)

Attending RENET Sanya Inaugural Conference

- January 2011 – Invited to attend the Sina Weibo Night (link)

Sina Weibo Night with Jack Ma

Sina Weibo Night with Zhiqiang Ren (任志强)

- March 2011 – Spoke and presented at GCC’s Third Annual Conference and Convention in New York City (photos).

Attending GCC's 3rd Annual New York Convention (formerly "GCC Day")

- April 2011 – Initiated and spearheaded a joint delegation between GCC and the MBA class of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. The two-week delegation visited Baidu, Lenovo, Innovation Works, SAP, Monitor Group, KPMG, Freshfields, Da Cheng Law Offices, Jun He Law Offices, Huiyuan Juice, Tudou.com, and the Wall Street Journal (Photos: corporate visits, cocktail).

Hosting the GCC-CKGSB Cocktail at the Beijing Raffles Hotel with the GCC Alumni Association

Led the GCC-CKGSB MBA Class Delegation to 14 Corporate Visits (photo taken at Baidu)

- April 2011 – Invited to attend the Phoenix Television 15th Year Anniversary (linkvideo)

Attending Phoenix TV 15th Year Anniversary Award Ceremony - Photo with Lord Wei, youngest Life Peer in the British House of Lords at age 33

Award Ceremony

- April 2011 – Visited the Guang Ai Orphanage in Beijing with RENET Beijing Chapter (link)

Visiting Guang Ai Orphanage with RENET

- April 2011 – Visiting Fudan University in Shanghai. Helped to coordinate the then-upcoming GCC-Harvard Conference in partnership with ASES of Fudan University.

Visiting Shanghai - Meeting with Fudan University ASES Representatives 张小雨 and 金山. ASES was a strategic partner of GCC-Harvard for a conference in May 2011

- May 2011 – Attended Heart2Heart’s Fifth Annual Fundraising Banquet. This year’s banquet committee invited JJ Lin (林俊杰) as the event’s special guest performer. The event attracted over 300 audience members and raised over $100,000CAD for charitable causes (website, photos).

Speaking at Heart2Heart's Fifth Annual Fundraising Banquet with Co-Founder Marco Chen

JJ Lin (林俊杰) auctioning off an autographed guitar to raise money for Heart2Heart

- May 2011 – Attended Columbia University’s Commencement.

Attending Columbia University Commencement for the Class of 2011

- June 2011 – Attending the first annual GCC-Carnegie conference in Beijing. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center is the earliest Western think-tank with an office in the PRC. Chenggang Rui (芮成钢, third from left), a well-known CCTV anchor, was invited as a keynote speaker along with GCC Senior Advisor John Holden (fourth from the left) (photos).

Speaking at the GCC-Carnegie Conference on US-China Trust

The Here and Now

So I’m off the plane, checked in a hotel, and ready to start the 10 weeks on my dream internship. I launched my gap year leaving this place exactly ten months ago. Same office, same hotel, same taxis, same routes, same elevators, and many of the same people.

But this time, it’s a different me.

Living Two Separate Lives – 活在两个世界里

Do you ever feel like you live two separate lives?
每次跨越太平洋的时候,都会有同样的感受。但随后它却又悄悄地、缓慢地消失⋯⋯直至完全被大脑抛弃,删除。这可能更加证实了人类是非常健忘地动物,完全活在现在,过分地以视觉、听觉及其他感官所带来的刺激因素,而淡化,甚至忘却,另一个地方的另外一个自己。
从进化论的角度来看,或许这也是为了生存。人类把99%的注意力都集中在当下,因为当下的生存能力决定了未来。而任何的过去,都是留给在当下过分清闲的人用来解闷的图书馆、音乐厅、电影院。
而每次横跨太平洋,却是见证两个世界共同存在的最好时机。比如,从纽约JFK机场塔上国航的航班,就好像半只脚已经踏入了国门,人、语言、空气、乘务员的服装、颜色、地毯和椅子散发出来的气味,一一触碰着脑海里的记忆神经,而随着飞机起飞后的腾空,地理位置的移动也开始提醒自己:马上就要迎接新的环境,哦不,是旧的环境⋯⋯就像打开一个个新的程序一样,此刻脑海里的语言、应变能力、警惕心理又从记忆硬盘当中调了出来。
同样的,当在北京机场踏上美联航的航班时,空中服务人员对人平等的态度、机箱里更加宽敞的椅子、每个乘务员标准的英语、甚至是发给乘客的pretzels,都提醒着我:马上要迎接的是一个人人都有主见的自由社会,而在这种社会里唯一的生存方法,就是拥有自信、头脑、幽默感、以及比他人更加难以动摇的主见。
有时后,觉得自己象是一台装了Windows的Mac,虽然小时候一直是用Windows,但自十岁起开始转用Mac OS,也逐渐成为了忠实的苹果粉丝。此时再回到Windows,还是会用,每次都需要一段时间熟悉,慢慢也会习惯,只是偶尔还是会对Mac存有浅浅的怀念,因为用惯了更好的系统,当然回不去了。
作为纽约的普通人,每天可以乘着百年老的地铁,走着路,吃着地边摊,住着比爷爷还老的房子,过着很悠闲、很轻松、很快乐的日子。
但如果要做一个普通的北京人,做同样的事情呢?地铁?去哪儿都只能走路?吃路边摊?住比爷爷还老的房子?
随着越来越多的人都拥有属于自己的两个,甚至是更多,不同的世界,如何生活和如何去选择一种生活可能会是越来越让我们痛苦的决定。In this case, options aren’t simply always good.

台湾记

2012年6月3日下午8:57分

台中往台北高铁

为了参加Renet的活动,有生以来第一次来到台湾,乘坐着台中往台北的高铁,静静思考着过去几天对台湾的印象。第一次来台湾,也只是待了短短的5天,所以只能仅凭一点主观的观察描述一下微观的社会。听着周杰伦的《青花瓷》,深深感受到海峡的另一端生活的人,是如何在多个方面保持着比我眼中的中国更中国的传统和美德。

刚到台北,从机场出来后第一个跟我聊天的是机场出租车的司机。他的礼貌、谈吐,都让我对台湾的印象足以打满分。当然,台北市政府对于机场接机出租车的管理也是出奇的严格。所有的车必须是最多开过2年的新车,因为新车安全性较好,而如果受到客户投诉的话会自动停牌2-7天,投诉3次送往行检局,入行检局2次就会被彻底开除。

在台中等列车时,轻轻的风,蓝蓝的天,但可能最让我难忘的,是台中高铁站月台的。静到可以听到鸟叫,听到风从耳边穿过,听到那么几个行人的脚步声。的确,台湾人不喜欢大吵大闹,这一点从故宫博物馆里穿梭于游客之中的高举着“禁止大声喧哗”手牌的工作人员的表情里就可以看得出来。台北的捷运上更是静得出奇,仿佛如果开口说话就是在打扰别人,打破每一个公共场合应有的,几乎神圣的peacefulness。

站在台中高铁站的月台,有种回到家的感觉。

台湾的服务人员,无论是企业的还是政府的,都给我留下了礼貌到极致的印象。有时,“谢谢”的回答不是“不客气”而是另一句“谢谢”。我感谢你帮助了我,而你感谢我让你有了帮助我的机会。再高尚的美德不过如此简单。中国的每一种权利都在过去的30年中被金钱化,而在台湾,权利是一种荣誉,是选民给予每一个政客的机会,而滥用这个机会的人即会得到应有的惩罚。陈水扁的案例再清楚不过。

在心理学中,能够区分后天环境和先天基因对人类影响的就是研究一对双胞胎。因为他们的基因一样,所以他们长大后的所有差异都来自于外界对他们的影响。同样的,如果要研究中华民族到底能否做的更好,怎样做得更好,台湾和大陆得对比可以说类同于心理学上对一对双胞胎的研究。

人对人和蔼可亲的态度,对他人的基本尊重以及对自己的基本要求,都让我感到很惊讶 – 海峡两岸的两个孪生兄弟,怎么在100年间差距可以拉的这么远。

是,台北比我想像当中要破很多,它的楼房大多都很旧,而且高楼大厦要远远少于香港、上海、北京,甚至连武汉的高楼都要多过台北。但一个国家治理的好与坏不是靠它楼宇的高低密度而决定,一个民族的幸福也不是靠它的GDP增长率来衡量。的确,台湾的经济不如从前,越来越多的“世界第一”和“亚洲第一”逐渐被大陆和其他的竞争对手所取代,公民的团结意识也消磨在缺乏主导思想的民主政治的诋毁和谩骂声中。但一个国家的未来为什么要和多个“世界第一”密切相关?国际关系并不是一场谁拿第一的游戏,尽管大部分人在投票的时候难免受到某种盲目的爱国主义的干扰。

幸福与否,大多数取决于信仰、信念,而非物质。一个永远不会满足的民族,自然永远不会幸福;一个得到足够就很满足的民族,自然很容易就会幸福。

所以我眼中的台湾人,很礼貌,很幸福。

“The War Against Youth” in US and China

A while back, a friend of mine posted an article from the Esquire on his Facebook titled “The War Against Youth” (in America). I got interested and had a few thoughts on the same problem in a Chinese context.

Graphic from Esquire.com

The article argued that “[n]obody ever talks about generational conflicts,” because it’s difficult to bring up. I disagree. Americans are too liberal and too vocal to shy away from bringing up anything that they think is worth arguing for. The fundamental problem of the lack of discussion in inter-generational conflicts is that people of different generations tend to think of each other as in-group members as opposed to out-group members. For instance, I would place my father within my “group” rather than an opposing group when considering things like “class conflicts.” We are much more likely to group together and fight for common interests based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and geographic regions than by age or generations. But inter-generational conflict exists. Because in general, the older you get, the more you make and the less you have to work for it.

The fact that you make more as you get older is pretty intuitive, because you build up experiences and expertise through years of work. But the proportion at which this gap exists should also make sense. Not in the US. “In 1984, American breadwinners who were 65 and over made 10 times as much as those under 35. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost 47 times as much as the younger generation…” A jump from 10x to 47x in the span of 24 years. How did that happen? Did older people contribute more and more during this time? Or did experience become more and more valuable?

If asked which one is more important for the nation, I think most people would agree that education is of a higher priority than Medicare. But money says otherwise. “The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education… Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably.” According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, “The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget.” This may be caused partly by the fact that 1. it costs more to keep people alive than to put kids through school and 2. the US population is aging as baby-boomers retire.

Now let’s take a look at the lives of the young Chinese graduating from college. For their entire lives, grades have been the only thing that mattered to get to the top. The most successful students of China are the best at memorization and test-taking. Yet what lies ahead after graduation is one of the most complex and political worlds imaginable. Their skill-sets, mastery of test-taking and problem-solving, are of little to no help. But this is only one of many difficulties lying ahead for them. From education to on-the-job training, from the job markets to culture, nothing helps the Chinese youth – except maybe their parents who can and are willing to.

Education – The Chinese education system is widely acknowledged to inhibit students from developing a creative mind and face real world problems. The One-Child Policy only exacerbated the problem by allowing grandparents to treat their only grandson or granddaughter as their “bao bei” (“precious”) and not allowing them to encounter any type of hardship from childhood through adulthood. Many children from affluent families end up finding jobs through family connections, and those from low-income families with no solid connections often take up low-wage entry-level jobs in manufacturing or services. Still, with all the funding poured into education, “[a] McKinsey study found that 44 percent of executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent limited their global ambitions.” To make matter worse, “According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the average college graduate earns just 300 yuan — roughly $45 — more than average migrant worker [per month],” which explains why so many rural students choose to drop out of school and begin work early rather finishing their zero-value education.

On-the-Job Training – Having experience working in Beijing, Hong Kong, and New York, I can speak to this from my personal experience – on-the-job training in China is pretty bad. How bad it is will really depend on what type of company you work for. But the point is not just a general lack of formal training programs, but also a lack of mentorship and professional developmental networks. How much people are willing to help you really depends on what you have to offer in return. This makes it very difficult for ordinary young professionals to move up because all they have to offer initially is pure physical labor. Without quickly assemble resources and figure out how to utilize everything around you, you may find yourself stuck at the bottom of the food-chain with no end in sight.

Job Market - State-owned enterprises dominate the job market; jobs at state-owned monopolies in fields like oil & gas, telecom, and financial services are among the most coveted careers in China. But they are nothing like corporations and private enterprises. In SOEs it is generally understood that the longer you stay, the more power you have and the more income you generate. But doing the most work doesn’t necessarily make you last the longest; staying out of trouble does. Therefore, there is little that a young person can do in an SOE other than to wait, and the incentives against innovation create some of the world’s largest “dinosaur companies.” Below is how an SOE entry-level employee described her situation online:

“工作,我们俩都是在国企,都是那种稳定到死的,在各自家里看来,如果要辞职就是脑子有病。在工作初期家里都是花了银子托了关系的,家里完全不赞同辞职。而且是双方家里都是这情况! 但说实话,我们俩对自己的工作都不是很满意,没什么前途,就是熬日子,国企基本都这样。”

“In terms of jobs, my boyfriend and I both work at SOEs, the most stable type possible. In the view of both of our families, we’d be retarded to quit and try something else. In order to get these jobs our families both had to pay people money and find connections, which is why they don’t agree when we told them we wanted to quit. What makes it worse is that my boyfriend and I are in the exact same situation! Honestly speaking, we are both not satisfied with our jobs, there’s no future. The only thing to do is sit there and get by the days – SOEs are basically all the same.”

Today, even lesser-known SOEs require some guanxi to get in, and the better-known ones (usually monopolies) may cost you both guanxi as well as money, as is the case above. A job at CCTV may costs you a few thousand US dollars; a job as a stewardess for Air China may be double that. That is if you already have the necessary qualifications for these positions. This shows that people would rather wait for years for higher-level income than taking any risks in the more competitive non-SOE markets.

Below, we can see that as of 2010, seven out of fifteen of the world’s largest employers are Chinese SOE’s. This is not counting the 2.3 million peopled hired by the PLA.

CNNMoney’s ranking of world’s largest employers

Cultural Reality – In my earlier post, I talked about how “[i]n the West, youth is good. Youth is energy, opportunities, and possibilities. But in China, youth is immaturity. It equates to inexperience, which to most people screams unreliability (i.e. 不靠谱).” But you can’t blame people for believing this. Younger professionals often quit without notifying his/her boss, steal corporate contacts and other confidential information, or just have a lack of commitment in general. This creates a vicious cycle when society doesn’t help young people which forces them to break more rules and make them seem even more unreliable.

The gerontocratic nature of China’s government and SOE systems is largely a matter of political legacy, and a common legacy of most states with a powerful central government. All of China’s presidents took power at age 60+, with some remaining in power until death. In comparison, Obama took office when he was 48, and no one really cares where Bush or Clinton is.

The older generation of Chinese are sitting on anywhere between 10-30 years of savings, and many receive retirement compensations at a rate of RMB1000+/month (equivalent of minimum wage at a small second-tier city in China) and enjoyed a huge boost from the housing boom if they owned any property from 2005-2009. But keep in mind that elderly people are generally married (income x2), have no mortgage (housing often taken care of by the SOEs from the communist era), lower spending habits, and money from their children, with medical care as their highest area of spending. The younger Chinese on the other hand, must pay for mortgage in post-housing-boom China (if they want to get married and move out), spend more on social and leisure activities, take care of the children’s education (a rising cost), and sometimes take care of the elderly parents.

While it’s true that when older generations pass away, they often pass down all their assets to their children (a source of conflicts in many Chinese families between siblings), but with inflation at 5-6% per annum (and far more so at the most metropolitan areas), the middle-aged Chinese are feeling squeezed, and the younger Chinese graduating from college simply see no light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike in the US, where college grads are pretty much on their own, Chinese parents are often willing to take care of their children for as long as they can.

This makes some people’s lives easier, but it creates another huge problem – the inequality of opportunities. A research paper from 2010 found that, in China, “richer parents helped a person’s prospects (a 10% increment in parental income was reflected in a 4.5% income boost for their offspring) and having parents who were employed by the state helped a lot. Parental education, on the other hand, was no help whatsoever. In these provinces, where your parent works matters more than where he went to school” (italics added).

How to End this War

A few bright spots that might materially shift the dynamics in this “War Against Youth” may be the privatization of state monopolies, the growing service industry, and the IT industry. Baidu, for example, employs over 16,000 people and with an average age of 26. There are also countless number of jobs created via various start-ups in e-commerce, social media, and other forms of online innovation.

China’s current leaders may still be under the influences from China’s turbulent past, but a commitment toward a more open society, starting from the top, may usher in a new era of explosive development through deregulation and innovation. At least that is what we hope for.

If the above sound all too serious, here’s some comedy relief. Watch this episode of Family Guy, where Chris and Meg Griffin traded place with Peter and Lois, only to realize that it’s not easy to be kids or parents, and enjoy a good laugh!

My Thoughts on the World Journal -《世界日报》- Article on “Gap Year”

Last Fall, I received a phone call from a journalist from the World Journal who’d like to learn more about my decision to take a gap year and what I did with it. A few months later, an article appeared in the print-version of the World Journal magazine with a story covering gap years and how more and more students are taking them.

Many people have told me how much they wish they had taken a gap year while in college. After speaking with many Chinese people over the past few months, I am starting to believe that Chinese students would benefit even more from taking gap years than American students. The real – and really, the most important – goal of a gap year is to self-actualize – to understand the self, to find meaning behind the things we do, and to figure out where we are headed to. While many American students have clear goals in mind, they are not always certain as to why they are going after those goals or what those goals will bring to them. But the way with Chinese students is that very few of them have their own goals to begin with – their parents set their goals. Many Chinese students are simply living a planned life masterminded by their parents. “I live much longer than you and that is why I know better” is the common mentality between most Chinese parents, instilling in their children both pragmatism and obedience. Students are often muted because they cannot voice an opinion strong and convincing enough that their parents realize that they must back off. A gap year allows an opportunity to develop that opinion.

I really believe that I have figured out a way to make a gap year strategically beneficial in every way possible.  Although the article below cites many students who take gap years between high school and college, I do not think you can gain the most out of that period – you are simply too young. In my view, between your junior and senior year is the best time to do it (or between your penultimate and ultimate year of undergraduate education in general). You are just old enough to have experienced enough college, yet you understand the importance of finding a job and/or setting your next coure of action. You have gained enough skills or experience that a company might actually think about hiring you or giving you an internship. You are at a point where you must make decisions about the future (always a good motivation) which will push you to try hard no matter what you do. If you are mature, you are ready to take on the real world and can test it out; if you are immature, you must mature ASAP to ensure survival after graduation.

I certainly hope that if anyone out there is thinking about taking a gap year and the only thing stopping them is their parents’ traditional way of thinking, this article could serve as great evidence that a gap year, if done correctly, can be extraordinarily beneficial, and to many, necessary.

For ease of reading, I have attached the article below:

《專題報導》高中畢業 休息一年再出發

by 本報記者/羅旦兮

03.25.12 – 06:30 am
「媽 (爸),我要休學!」如果家中剛從高中畢業、準備進入大學的青少年這樣宣布,恐怕會讓不少家長心跳停止。每到驪歌初唱的時候,也是高中生從青澀走入大學校園、準備進入成熟的重要階段。不少父母汲汲工作,希望至少協助子女完成大學學業,可是也有越來越多青年選擇在高中畢業、大學入學前,暫停學業,利用時間「探索」自我,掌握人生目標再出發。

這種休學的方式被統稱為「Gap Year」,「Gap Year」被稱為「休學年」、「休耕年」或是「空檔年」,通常是指高中生在畢業後取得大學入學資格,選擇「暫緩」入學,在學習的道路上休息一年,和緊湊的校園生活「小別」。

「休學年」的概念最早出現在歐洲,由於英國的牛津和劍橋大學入學考試在9月,通過考試以後,距離開學的日子還有九個月之多,於是校方便鼓勵學生利用這段閒暇做自己喜歡的事。漸漸地,這習慣蔓延到英國以至歐洲其他學府,成為普遍的風俗,時間也增長至一年左右。

學生「休息一年再出發」的風氣,也逐漸吹到美國,包括普林斯頓、哈佛、安赫斯特學院(Amherst College)、麻省理工學院等名校正式的大學入學規定中,不但允許或鼓勵即將入學的大一新鮮人延遲入學,今年哈佛入學通知單上鼓勵學生考慮休學,而普林斯頓大學甚至為部分大一「休學生」提供「休學規畫」。

十歲隨家人至溫哥華、現為紐約哥倫比亞大學大四學生的朱英楠,可能比同班同學大了一歲,因為在2009年大三時,朱英楠做了一個決定:他要休學,去確定自己未來的人生方向。

「許多中國留學生都在想:『我畢業後,到底是留在美國拿幾年工作經驗,還是直接回國尋找發展機會?』我也不例外,有的人說有幾年華爾街經驗,回國比較容易找工作,可是也有人說現在華爾街經驗在中國根本不吃香」。朱英楠想了好久,問了好多人,當發現沒有人可以給他明確的答案時,他為自己做了決定。朱英楠趁大三升大四、課業和學分都掌握差不多的時候,給自己一年時間,「親自回中國去看看」。

朱英楠在哥大時是「全球中國聯接」 (Global China Connection,簡稱GCC)組織的一員,這個完全由留美中國學生組成的非營利機構,旨在促進中國和國際社會在各個行業和領域的溝通與合作。主修經濟的朱英楠以GCC外務事務組副主席的身分,前往北京展開他Gap Year的旅程。

大三暑假前,朱英楠已經拿到許多不錯的實習工作機會,但是為了確定自己未來的方向,朱英楠都忍痛放棄。

朱英楠其實沒有用到一整年的時間,2010年9月開始到2011年5月,八個多月的時間,朱英楠去了青海、麗江、杭州、深圳、香港、武漢和北京。回來之後,他覺得自己「脫胎換骨」。

休息為了充電 走得更長遠

洛杉磯加州大學(UCLA)高等教育研究中心去年曾針對全美30萬名四年制大學大一新生進行一項調查,發現有1.2%的學生是延遲一年入學;高等教育研究所的研究主任助理迪安傑洛(Linda DeAngelo)表示,目前大約有5%的院校明文規定允許學生推遲就學,比率與幾年前相比,有顯著的增長。其他大學則是根據學生的個別申請批准推遲就學。

隨著休學年觀念的推廣,低收費的休學計畫明顯增加,全美各州由政府補助的社區服務,也開始針對休學生擴張活動計畫。推廣「休學年」的美國非營利機構在全美各大學舉辦的「美國休學年博覽會」(U.S. Gap Year Fair),從四年前只有幾間學校接受,到現在該博覽會已在全美30個定點為青年學生提供正統教育之外的另一種選擇。

「孩子才剛從高中畢業,不上學要做什麼?」這樣的想法應該是大部分家長的擔心。一名協助學生規畫休學年的諮詢人員表示,「休學年」並非漫無目的,許多有意在大學前或大學期間休學的年輕人,通常已經考慮這段時間要達成的計畫或目標,針對這些有理想而不知如何實現的學生,協助規畫休學年的非營利組織也紛紛成立。學生在這段時間去旅行、去海外做義工,或去實習、賺錢。在美國,各類有組織的休學年活動正方興未艾,提供各式各樣的「休學計畫」,協助年輕人把握這一年時間學習第二語言、異國文化、服務社區,或是獨立完成一項研究。

在麻州成立42年的Dynamy是全美推廣「休學年」的元老級非營利機構之一,Dynamy於1969年在麻州成立時,主要為學生蒐集和提供實習機會,以及其他的進修項目,該組織在各地學校舉辦實習博覽會的同時,發現學生們對「休耕」的需要,因此於2007年成立「美國休學年博覽會」。

「如果我唸書時知道有這樣的機會,我一定會把握它,去做自己想做的事。」主任鄭嘉暉表示,根據Dynamy統計,在美國接受「休學年」觀念並付諸實行的,大多是18至22歲的青年,也許他們認為尚未準備好進入大學生活,或是希望透過「休假」一年,以另類方式為自己充電,「進入大學前先休學一年,不是為了玩,而是為了自我充電。」

文化背景不同 家長多憂心

「休學年」對甫從高中畢業的青年也許非常有吸引力,但是對家長,特別是亞裔家長來說,對「有大學不上」這樣的觀念通常是難以茍同。

「你有聽說過哪個NFL的足球運動員,會突然決定要『休息』,去當揹包客環遊世界?哪個球員可以休息一年再回球場衝刺?他們要花多少心力,才能回復原來的職業水平?」美國今日報報導中,一名父親抒發了他對休學的嚴重質疑。就像大部分的父母,都認為做學生的時候,就應該把書唸好,完成人生一個階段後,再去想其他的規畫。

「當我高中剛畢業、和父母提想要休學一年時,父母的反應很激烈,我只好乖乖進大學。」住在麻州的楊伊芙(Eve Young)從高中時代,就知道自己要朝醫學領域前進,並申請到競爭激烈的知名女子私立學院,「高中三年不斷的學習、競爭,加上修了幾堂大學先修課程,我知道進了大學,課業壓力會更大,」楊伊芙的一位女同學在申請到大學後休學一年,申請了獎學金跑到法國學法語,讓她很羨慕,「可是父母說什麼也不讓我這麼做,他們說:『這是不用擔心未來工作的有錢人才能做的事。』」

由於教育文化背景的不同,重視教育的亞裔、猶太裔家長和學生對休學的接受度比較激烈。「休學年」組織諮詢人員指出,當有學生決定休學時,他們要花許多力氣去幫著學生「說服」家長,因為不少家長聽到子女要「先休學」,第一個反應就是「會不會就因此不去上學了?」

「爸媽聽我說要休學,第一個反應是『為什麼不畢業再去做這些事?』」朱英楠說,父母覺得他只剩一年就要畢業,應該老老實實地唸書,他笑說:「媽媽反對得最厲害,一開口就是『不准!』」反而是爸爸聽完他的想法後,跟他說:「你別給自己這麼大壓力,該做什麼就去做。」朱英楠花了許多工夫,讓父母了解他的想法,並在返回哥大唸書後,在自己的博客上列出過去近一年努力的成績,宛如履歷表的日誌,讓朱家兩老對兒子休學做了哪些事有一點概念,「不過媽媽可能到現在還是不太了解,為什麼當初我想做這件事」。

而爭取休學不成的楊伊芙,後來還是依「人生計畫」,進入大學成為新鮮人,雖然課業壓力大,功課仍一直名列前茅,「每天清晨5點起床就是唸書,一直唸到就寢,別人說大學新鮮人的校園生活都是多采多姿,我只覺得越來越不快樂。」

因為沉重的壓力,楊伊芙情緒出現極大問題,不願意再留在該校就讀。大一學期結束後她申請轉學到另一所知名大學,但她很擔心未來的大學生活還是一樣,只有壓力沒有快樂,「我根本無法想像自己能不能撐過剩下的三年。」和心理諮詢師深談後,她決定暫緩上學,參與「Dynamy」的休學計畫。看到女兒日漸憔悴的臉龐,這次,楊伊芙的父母不再反對。

選擇休學一年 理由千百種

「休學年優勢:對你的子女在進入大學前後的助益」共同作者海格勒(Karl Haigler)和尼爾森 (Rae Nelson),曾經對高中畢業生選擇休學一年的原因做過調查,發現美國高中畢業生選擇延遲進入大學,是因為「在高中時高度競爭的壓力使他們疲累」,以及「想更了解自己」。

華爾街日報指出,經濟一直無法復甦,越來越多的學生自我「休學」一年賺學費,不過也有更多學生是為了「發現自我潛能」或「開拓眼界」。

報導指出,休學生在休學期間會做的事情範圍很廣,除了打工賺錢,有的跑去擔任社區義工,有的去旅遊、從事戶外活動,有的去上充實自我課程,也有些畢業於精英高中的學生在高壓的競爭下,獲得名校錄取後主動休學紓解壓力。

華爾街日報報導,伊利諾州的派克(Ben Parker)說,休學年的體驗讓他的學業有了轉折性的改變。高中最後一年,進入知名大學的壓力令他幾乎崩潰,他離開了長曲棍球隊,成績也越來越糟糕。帕克對華爾街日報說,跟父母交談之後,「我們認為現在進大學只是個浪費。我還沒有做好準備。」因此在收到愛阿華大學(University of Iowa)的錄取通知書之後,帕克沒有入學,而是去了懷俄明州的戶外技能培訓機構─美國國家戶外領導力學校(National Outdoor Leadership School)。之後他去尼泊爾待了一個學期,住在一個村子裡,學習語言,攀登喜馬拉雅山。

現年20歲的派克如今已是大學二年級的學生,他說,他又重新擁有了接受嚴酷考驗並樂在其中的能力,「回到學校的時候,我已經做好了學習的準備。」他的成績開始名列前茅,後來還擔任校園文學雜誌的編輯。

Dynamy主任鄭嘉暉認為這類「休學再出發」的學習方式有許多優點:讓學生在進入大學生活、準備從青年變成成人的時期,以非傳統的方式自我教育,認識自己;或是在自己想要鑽研的專業領域上開闊眼界,她指出,在DYMANY的活動中,就有已被康乃爾大學接受、準備唸教育科系的學生,先辦休學到中國了解亞洲的教育系統;也有攻讀Social Justice的學生申請到緬甸等東南亞國家,認識其他地方的法律,「這些對學生來說不僅是大開眼界,也為他們日後面對大學繁重的課程打下基礎,在唸書時可以更了解課堂內容。」

目前Dynamy每年約幫助近50位學生,雖然該機構服務的學生以麻州居多,也近年來也有來自德州、佛羅里達甚至瑞典的學生,透過休學一邊修學分、邊充實自己。

「有時不是學生要說服家長讓他們休學來充電,反而是倒過來,家長建議子女休息一年再出發。」鄭嘉暉說,部分青年選擇休學一年的原因,可能是申請到的學校並不是他心目中最理想的學校,「透過一年休學的服務經歷再重新申請,可以提高學校錄取學生的機會。」

「教育心理學雜誌」 (Journal of Educational Psychology)曾經刊登了一篇澳洲研究人員針對2502名學生進行的調查,文章認為,體驗空檔年會讓學生在大學期間更有進取心。「休學年優勢:對你的子女在進入大學前後的助益」作者黑格勒的調研則發現,體驗休學年的學生當中有90%會在一年內回返學校,但也有些學生在休學年之後迷失了方向,乾脆就不上學了。為了預防學生退學,黑格勒建議不妨要求學生先辦理入學手續,然後再休學一年。

休學開眼界 重新規畫人生

華爾街日報報導,住在科羅拉多州的18歲盧姿(Monica Lutz)夢想是去貧困國家工作,幫助解決當地的經濟和社會問題。因此當她從高中畢業後,沒有直接去上大學,而是在家人朋友的提議下休學一年,去一家公司上班,這家公司致力於將太陽能技術推廣到印度的一個偏遠村莊,她被派往印度進行推廣。

但是,在一個泥土砌成的房子生活了幾周之後,她改變了主意。她覺得,在此過程中面臨的種種障礙令她身心俱疲,於是她告訴自己,「我還沒有準備好,無法獻身於這個事業」。

同一年秋季,盧姿開始了大學生活,她打算重新考慮自己的職業規畫。她說:「如果沒有休假一年,我也許會在花了四年時間和20萬美元的學費之後,在同樣的國家得出同樣的結論。」

楊伊芙2008年順利從塔虎茲大學畢業,回首當年的決定,她認為是非常必要的,「如果當時沒有休學,我可能畢不了業,成了大學輟學生。」

楊伊芙在休學的近半年裡,她透過Dynamy組織到其他大學修了非本科的英語和社會學,到音樂工作室實習,並參與國際非營利組織,在社區宣導重視國際饑荒問題。「我覺得那半年做的事情比學校生活更忙碌,但是開拓了我的眼界,」楊伊芙說,校園學習生活雖然也很緊湊,「但(校園生活)就是按表操課,我唯一要關心的只有功課、成績,對其他事務沒有任何興趣,完全不知道要去找學習和生活的平衡點,結果生活一團糟,自己越來越不快樂」。

她覺得透過Dynamy的規畫,鞭策她一邊忙碌於達到實習目標,一邊重新認識自我價值,「原來這個世界上還有其他許多值得我們去探索的領域。」楊伊芙返回校園後,坦言自己有了不小的改變,「我以前只知道專注於醫學,現在對教育也有興趣,」楊伊芙現在課餘會到高中擔任課後輔導,聆聽青少年學生的煩惱,並分享自己的經驗。

在華裔學生眾多的紐約知名高中史岱文森高中擔任學業輔導員的王稚鶴,他坦言雖然聽過學生討論申請到大學後先休學一年,但「實際付諸行動者極其不普遍,少之又少」。王稚鶴認為這與美國大學教育系統,以及華人傳統的教育觀念有關,「在台灣的大學制度裡,新鮮人在大一時就各自選好科系,但是在美國,大部分大學生可以到大二下學期才決定專門攻讀的科系。」他指出,既然不必一進大學就要為讀哪個科系傷腦筋,自然也就不需花額外時間尋找自己對未來規畫的方向。

王稚鶴說,在他擔任高中輔導員的時間裡,只有一位學生獲哈佛大學錄取後,先休學一年,但這位學生是因為受重傷的特殊原因,才向學校申請停學。

王稚鶴說,一些學生家境不是那麼富裕,沒有拿到大學獎學金,或是沒有獲得學校聘用,在學費考量下,也可能休學一年賺取學費,同時賺取生活經驗。不過華人學生較少在高中畢業後休學自我衝刺的最大原因,「應該是家長的考慮。」他指出,華人家長會擔心子女停學的一年裡無所事事。

一年誰金援? 學術機構支持

一位有五名子女的家長在網上直接表明立場:「我不可能讓我的小孩做休學的事,除非那一年他們可以花費自理。」這位署名「五子之母」的網友說,剛畢業的青年心智成熟度不一定足夠,金錢觀念也還沒建立完全,她覺得學校不應該鼓吹高中生一畢業就去「尋找自我」,「如果這『休學年』期間的經濟花費還是要靠父母,那還不如乖乖去唸書。」

很多學生在休學年裡打工賺學費,或是在高中時就先打工積存「休學基金」。紐約時報報導,住在紐約的凱雅利用高中最後四個月努力打工,加上原本的積蓄,高中一畢業就跑到玻利維亞 (Bolivia),參與聯合國非營利組織的一個教育項目;紐約上州史卡斯岱爾高中生克里斯托夫一畢業,和另一名志同道和的同學先後到中國清華大學和大連語言學校學中文,並且打工賺生活費用,最後幾個月他們到了西藏,在西藏迷路摸索的幾個月中,他看到「比原來更大的世界」,而克里斯托夫的父親則將兒子的休學經歷刊登在紐約時報上,引起不小迴響。

基督教科箴言報(Christian Science Monitor)指出,有越來越多包括大學的學術機構,為休學的青年提供經濟上的協助。根據報導,目前約有超過80所大學提供對等獎學金,給參與非營利性組織政府機構美國志工團 (AmeriCorps)服務的學生,該義工團給予獎學金的金額從2009年的一年4725元,上升到今年的5500元。北卡羅萊納州立大學教堂山莊分校 (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)去年獲得一筆150萬元的捐款,專門協助大學新鮮人去完成他們的休學年計畫。

耶魯大學雖然沒有直接提供經濟上的援助,但該校的「橋年計畫」(Bridge Year Program)鼓勵學生延遲入學,參與該計畫的學生必須在美國境外學習,與其他耶魯學生住在寄養家庭,而學習費用全免。

耶魯2009至2010年的「Bridge Year」計畫,將學生們送去了祕魯、迦納或塞爾維亞,該計畫並非人人得以參與,2009年共有54名學生秋季入學時申請,僅有20位獲得去海外免費學習的機會。

社區部分非營利組織也針對休學年設計學習計畫,對於沒有明確計畫的學生,通常會報名參加那些有組織的活動專案,不過學生需在費用方面多加評比,有些工作職位會給薪水和獎學金,另一些則需要收取費用,費用可高達3萬5000元。

除了上述的DYNAMY,USA Gap Year Fair羅列出美國多個休學年組織,學生可以比較各種規畫的優劣與合適性;2004年幾位美國大學生在完成休學年的活動後成立了Omprakash,也提供學生查詢各地實習或做義工的管道。

不過,很多低開銷的服務計畫頗難申請。去年,City Year和美國志工團 (AmeriCorps)旗下全美民間社區服務團 (National Civilian Community Corps)的申請人數,都比服務計畫可容納人數的數倍。

過來人建議 讓休學有意義

非營利機構「休學年」 (gapyear.com)定期在網路上舉辦休學年網路論壇,2011年12月初,多位曾經在生涯規畫中「休息再出發」的背包客專家和媒體人,在網路上為有意暫停學業的青年給予實用建議。

一名計畫在學年之間休學的網友想到澳洲「充實自我」,但是發現當地物價頗高,令他裹足不前。專家指出,澳洲因為很早便開始推廣休學年,為「休學年」青年規畫的服務和項目都很完善,的確有不少青年以澳洲作為休學前進海外的首選,不過專家也認為如果在經濟考量的前提下,東南亞和拉丁美洲也是可以增廣見聞的地區,專家們表示,許多義工項目其實也有支付薪水,青年們不妨優先考慮。

如果是到海外,到底是要帶現金去?還是帶張信用卡?專家建議不妨申請一張借貸卡 (Debit card),或是申請預付信用卡 (Pre-paid card),平常使用的信用卡僅作為備用,並且事先了解自己銀行對海外提款索取的費用;最重要的是「不要將所有雞蛋放在同一個籃子裡」,將卡片和現金分開放置,避免丟了皮包大失血。

朱英楠休學八個月返回中國,最大的感觸是現實社會與校園生活真的很不同,「現實生活中,沒人會因為你做得好而給你獎勵,也沒有人義務要當你的朋友,」不過他不認為這是一種負面的感受,反而是激發他的能量。「北京是個競爭很激烈的城市,人們都會積極地去達到自己的目的,」他在北京期間更深刻了解待人處事之道,「想久一點、多一點,比準備不充足好」

另外一個他想給有意到中國的青年,不論做什麼事,要表現鎮定,「在學校,學生幾乎很少想到年齡問題,因為大家都差不多年紀,可是在社會裡,你的言行必須足夠成熟,否則會給人『不靠譜』的印象。」朱英楠說,在西方,年輕普遍被認為是充滿活力、精神十足的象徵,可是到了北京,年輕代表不成熟,無法負以重任。朱英楠剛到北京時,也會在意自己的年紀會無法獲得別人的尊重,可是越到後來,他不用刻意去想自己是個才22歲的大學生,與大公司或舉辦大型活動時的表現也越來越「淡定」。

「雖然跑了很多地方,但自己知道會在北京花最多時間。」朱英楠說,北京是中國的文化中心、政治中心,而且他的朋友也都在北京,他回到中國後,先是在清華大學旁聽課程,並遞履歷申請到北京的大公司實習。朱英楠並在停留期間,在北京召開「全球中國聯接」活動,讓北京各大學學生認識並參與該組織的活動。

「我覺得休學的這段期間給我很大的意義,我長大了許多,」朱英楠說,無論學校有多好,「它永遠像個泡泡,包覆著學生,讓學生不受傷害,當你真正走出校園,接觸到的東西完全不同。」
© worldjournal.com 2012

The Greatest Enemy of Efficiency in China

… Traffic.

That’s all that I can think of as I sit through hours of traffic every day since I came back to China.

For old times’ sake, I set my Google Calendar to the week of October 18th, 2009. That week I had 10 classes, 4 meetings, 3 career networking events, 2 dance practices, 2 dance performances, 2 a capella rehearsals, 1 coffee chat, 1 dinner, 1 social event, and Homecoming. Columbia. It was all possible then. Doing everything and missing nothing. Going between all of those obligations took around 5 minutes each way (with the exception of Homecoming which was 100 blocks up north on another planet called Bakers Field).

I buy what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers. Based on his theory of success, our entire academic, social, and career achievements are made possible because we are able to allocate enough time doing each of them. Essentially, practice makes perfect. In college, I was able to waste little to no time every day. Now I spend hours in traffic daily.

Here, sitting in this metal frame with glass windows, surrounded by carbon dioxide, skyscrappers, and countless number of people on foot, bicycles, motorcycles, coupes, SUVs, vans, and buses, everyone seems desperately wanting to get somewhere, but no one seems to be moving. Motorcyclists take sharp turns without glancing behind. Cyclists ride on the automobile lanes and slow down everyone behind them. Buses use their only advantage of size to squeeze ahead, trying desperately to meet their daily rounds…

Aha! A green light. Good. But not good enough. It’ll take another 2 green lights before I even make it to the front of the line. And after this green light, there’ll be another 10 of those before I get home. 10 lights. 30 green lights to wait. 70 seconds each. Total of 35 minutes for a distance of 5km. Averaging <9km/hr. I’m beginning to think that people in China purchase cars so that they could run without getting rained on.

In major cities across China, most people spend far too much time getting from work to home, then grocery shop, cook, eat, clean, leisure (an luxury item), and sleep. More and more can be accomplished on mobile phones or computers, but most things in China still require physical visits – work, school, banks, hospitals, malls, business meetings. In Beijing and Shanghai, subways stations are so big that you spend half the time walking instead of riding a train. In my hometown of Wuhan, the first subway line won’t be opening until 2014. The upkeep of a car (parking, gasoline, fines) has become so high that some people would only drive on weekends and bus to work instead – with traffic it takes about the same amount of time anyway.

I’m worried. Not just for my capacity, but for the capacity of this country. No one expects anyone to be on time because it is impossible to be. Yes, people are getting wealthier, and many are buying their first cars. But the flow of traffic is like the flow of blood in the human body, and the cars are clogging up the cities’ arteries.

China and Brazil – How the World Runs While We Sleep

Founding President of Harvard GCC chapter and a former Director of GCC Management, Eric Glyman, spoke at Harvard last week. His message was simple: it’s not about the here and now; it’s about the future, and China and Brazil together hold a promising future for anyone who cares to learn both Mandarin and Portugese. Video posted below:

Eric Glyman – China and Brazil: What You Need to Know from Lowell Student Speeches on Vimeo.

“Always remember to look up and look ahead.” Cliche? Sure. But it all comes down to those who are making moves to put cliche ideas into practice.

Ready for Valentine’s Day?

As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I thought I might share this interesting infographic on Valentine’s Day spending trends. Men spend >2x as much as women do on Valentine’s Day, so maybe all the ads should target what men think women might want instead. Also, 53% of all women would end their relationships if they didn’t get something on Valentine’s Day – time to create that perpetual annual event reminder on your calendar ;)

Enjoy!

 

Valentine’s Day Spending 2012 [infographic]

Examining the Big Career Problem Part 2: New York or Hong Kong? Does It Even Matter?

As recruitment season for summer internships is coming up, I’ve been getting some inquiries about a number of issues concerning interning in finance in Asia. One question in particular pretty much tops all lists as the most-frequently-asked questionDid you ever contemplate working in New York instead of Hong Kong? If so, why did you pick Hong Kong over New York? My answer is probably the same as most people that have studied in the US and have an interest in China: Yes, we all have.

Why you are asking, and why I asked the same thing about a year ago:

Understandably, choosing a job or a career is probably the single most important decision you have ever had to make. The last big decision you had to make was probably which college to attend, but parents usually had a pretty big influence on that.

This time it’s different. Our parents might have had some knowledge of how colleges ranked and how the application system worked, but they know almost nothing about how to find a job in a big firm or how campus recruitment works when it comes to finance/consulting.

The most they’ve heard of is that this kid or that kid got hired by some big-name firm even before he graduated – because nosy family friends love to gossip about this stuff, as if those kids didn’t even need to apply and some company CEO just magically arrived on a helicopter and handed them job offers on a silver platter.

After debating with your parents for a year or two, hopefully demystifying the recruitment system and discrediting your aunts, uncles, and friendly neighbors, you realize that you are pretty much on your own. Depending on your parents’ level of English and financial literacy, they may think that becoming a banker means that you’ll be sitting behind a cashier and helping people with their deposits and withdrawals; if you’re lucky, they may think you take rich people’s money and help them buy and sell stocks; if you are really lucky, they may actually understand that you are going to take companies like Groupon and Michael Kors to an “IPO.” The term “consultant” is even more ubiquitous and difficult to explain because there are simply too many different types of consultants out there. Unless your parents work in the industry, there is very little chance that they will understand what kind of job you’re really applying for. So regardless of how lucky you are, your parents are of little help. And for the first time in your life, a big decision is pretty much all on you.

What to do about it:

I’ve said this many times before but here it is again: The best way to answer any question about this type of stuff is by actually trying it out. I highly recommend taking a gap year to really dig deep. But not everyone wants to/can do that. So what you can do otherwise, is to build a mental model of what it would be like if you worked in Hong Kong or New York (or Beijing, Shanghai, London, Dubai, São Paulo – anywhere for that matter). If you can convince yourself that the outcome of one place is better than all the rest, you can go ahead and pick that one. After all, you just need convince yourself that your final decision is the “right” one – whether  or not it’s actually better than the rest doesn’t even matter and isn’t even relevant because you will never get to test it out.

In reality, we overestimate how much impact a major decision like this will have on our happiness. If you are able to make it into finance or consulting in any of these big cities, you are already in good shape to become a high-earning white-collar and retire with plenty of vacation money (unless something like the current financial crisis happens). And if all you wanted was to do a two-year stunt in a prestigious firm just to show that you can, doing so in New York vs. anywhere else doesn’t matter nearly as much as how prestigious the firm is. Just as your educational outcome may not have differed much had you gone to Princeton instead of Yale, so too your professional success may not be all that different if you decided to pick Barcap ECM over BAML NRG.

However, if you think your life’s dream involves much greater ambition than just becoming a white-collar, then your task is a little bit harder – you’ll need to figure out what that dream is first, before you do anything else. School, I find, is a terrible place to discover one’s true passion, because school is nothing like the world you will have to deal with once you are outside of it (unless you go into academia).

For one of my business school classes, we were assigned to a book called Managing with Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer on the importance of power when one desires to make impact on this world. A section entitled “Lessons to Be Unlearned” summed up a few very important points that all college grads should keep in mind:

  1. Despite what we have learned all our lives growing up, life is not a matter of individual effort, ability, and achievement. How well you do in school is a result of your individual academic efforts and capabilities, but it’s independent from your classmates. This is even more evident in the Chinese education system where the final exams account for 100% of your course grades, and your gaokao exam score is the sole determinant of which university you end up in. As the author puts it, “the private knowledge and private skill that are so useful in the classroom are insufficient in organizations. Individual success in organizations is quite frequently a matter of working with and through other people, and organizational success is often a function of how successfully individuals can coordinate their activities.” In short – drop your books and join some clubs.
  2. In most classes, there are always right vs. wrong answersbut real life doesn’t work that way. I like to think of school life vs. the real life as an Venn diagram, where there is a portion of school life that can be applied to real life, but a large chunk of it is pretty irrelevant (such as how to register for class and memorizing the difference between Doric and Ionic order columns).

But here comes the more important part – the reality of decision-making:

  1. A decision by itself changes nothing
  2. At the moment a decision is made, we cannot possibly know whether it is good or bad
  3. We invariably spend more time living with the consequences of our decisions than we do in making them

So instead of pulling your hair out trying to decide “New York or Hong Kong” before graduation, focus on implementing the decision and maximizing your returns whatever you decide to do and wherever you decide to go. John Legend became a singer after three years at BCG; Peter Peterson went from Secretary of Commerce to co-founder of Blackstone. Anything can change after a good start. As self-righteous homo sapiens, we will always find ways to justify our decisions later and play 事后诸葛亮, but the most important thing is that we do everything we can to make the most out of every situation.

The Beauty of Last-Time’s

I walk down the stairs of Low Plaza. As far as Columbia is concerned, I stand at the center of the universe.

Unknowingly, I filled in the scantron, signed my name under the honor code, finished my last sentence with a period, packed up my backpack, handed in my exam, and walked out of the classroom…

… for the last time. Possibly in this lifetime.

The gate of memories swings open. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

A part of me just died. Officially.

Ironically, for my very last paragraph of my very last essay on my very last final exam in my college career, I was writing about Jonathan Evan’s theory of the dual-process account of reasoning. Two processes live in our minds, one that is quick, efficient, intuitive, and prone to mistakes; the other slower, effortful, evolutionarily recent, and reliable. The latter accounted for our normative and rational decisions, while the former our irrational and emotional ones.

My last paragraph essentially attacked the field of economics and bashed the assumptions that humans are, for the most part, rational agents and utility maximizers – we are neither. We know to collaborate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to be altruistic even if it goes against our own well-being; we are situationally adaptive yet universally categorizable; we are at once emotionally rational and rationally emotional.

The philosophers championed reason, enabled by the second system and credited for transforming this planet from soil and plants to concrete and skyscrapers. Yet reason, who has been convincing me that this moment shall be a happy, triumphant one, cannot explain to me my feeling of loss. By tomorrow this moment will seem like a dream, rationalized by reason, and stored away into memory’s abyss.

But right now, this moment is beautiful.

If the second system is distinctively human, then it is the first system that makes us human at all.

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