When my colleagues first found out that I was leaving banking for private equity, they congratulated me. After all, moving to the “buy-side” after 2 years of banking was something to be proud of. But when they found out I was leaving Hong Kong for Beijing, their jaws dropped. What??? Are you forreal? The air there is toxic, the food is poisonous, the traffic is suffocating, and the tax is demoralizing. What is wrong with you? Do you hate Hong Kong or something?
No, the truth is, I love Hong Kong. The two years I have spent in Hong Kong are probably the most carefree and purposeless fun I will ever have in my entire life. But I had to go – because something was missing in Hong Kong.
67/F Cheung Kong Center, where I have spent longer hours starring at a computer screen than my entire pre-work life combined.
No, I’m not talking about the work experience of pumping out models and PowerPoint slides like a machine around the clock, or the deal experience of closing cross-border M&A’s to earn bragging rights among fellow bankers, or the travel experience of flying business class with corporate executives from New York and London.
I’m talking about living the Hong Kong-style life, under the neon lights of Lan Kwai Fong, about the materialistic life that makes living and breathing the Hong Kong experience a young bachelor’s must-have in a lifetime. When I boarded flight Delta 173 on August 17th, 2012 from JFK to HKG, the city with the highest concentration of Rolls Royce’s and the most tall buildings in the world, I knew it was time to lay off the gas pedal and just enjoy the ride.
Grand opening party of a new club in LKF, the name of which I can no longer recall. The club closed within a year.
As affluent Hong Kongers are some of the world’s best practitioners of hedonism, you will find yourself quickly blending in the Hong Kong lifestyle around happy hours, dinners, boat trips, birthday parties and other forms of wine & dine experiences. You go from ordinary food establishments like Tsui Wah and SimplyLife to private kitchens and Michelin stars; you start to turn down tourist bars along LKF hill in favor of whiskey bars, cigar bars, sheesha bars, ice bars, dining-in-the-dark restaurant & bars, liquid nitrogen ice cream bars, your friend’s bars, your friend’s friend’s bars, and so on. If you can think of it, it’s there in HK. You find dining & entertainment expenses escalating over your rent in almost no time (particularly if you are male, the gender which always pays). Slowly, your spare capacity goes from planning your life as a great [insert dream here] to planning your next fancy dinner, your next epic weekend, your next marvelous holiday, your next fabulous birthday party… and the list goes on.
Probably the best city view in the world.
Gradually, the comfort and safety of Hong Kong bring you what you’ve always desired – the pure enjoyment of life itself, without having to feel sorry about it because everyone around you is doing the exact same. You don’t see the negativities of society anymore around you. Poverty doesn’t show its faces, crime doesn’t come near you, pollution isn’t broadcasted as a social problem, food safety is almost guaranteed, healthcare services are among the best in the world, and tax is definitely not getting any complaints – if utopia existed, it would look something like Hong Kong Central.
But once you’ve spent long enough time here, you will see that Hong Kong is a concrete jungle not only for its buildings and underground tunnels, but also for zero social mobility. The resulting social structure under these circumstances is not one where everyone is talking about the global power dynamics, debating the benefits and harms of creative destruction, pondering the philosophical nature of the human existence, or even whispering the future of democracy. No. That is not Hong Kong. At least not the Hong Kong I have experienced. Living in Hong Kong as an expat is much more like attending the grand parties of the Great Gatsby, where the crème of the crop of the Ivy League and Oxbridge graduates proudly settle in the most fit-and-proper professions ranging from doctors, lawyers, accountants, to bankers and civil servants, toasting and celebrating the greatness of their own achievements.
Magnum, where film “Lan Kwai Fong” was filmed. Magnum Entertainment listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in January 2014. The offering was over 3000 times oversubscribed. Currently shares trade 50% below its first week’s performance.
But the most mercenary aspect of Hong Kong is the ease of leaving her. During SARS, those who could leave disserted the city and made it a ghost town almost overnight. In the 1990’s (think 89 and 97), those who could afford to emigration in Hong Kong have all obtained foreign passports, with Vancouver being one of the favorite destinations – and the reason behind my conversational Cantonese having grown up there.
Hong Kong, in this sad existence, is Mr. Gatsby himself. If he dies, no one will be staying for the funeral, because his guests are busy and have got other parties to catch.
Admittedly, for the better part of my 2 years in Hong Kong, I was one of them. I lived my life as a guest in Mr. Gatzby’s party, and I gave my love to every moment I have spent inside his doors. I have been there, standing in the VIP areas of Dragon-I/Volar/Levels/Magnum, on the floor, on the table, on the stage, feeling like I’m with the most important people in the entire world. I have been there, dropping my entire month’s salary hosting parties and treating friends ranging from my future best man to someone I have never even met and will never meet again. I have been there, posting photos of drinking and partying festivities on Facebook to gain popularity and social status, making acquaintances so numerous that deleting them all would probably be faster if I got a new phone and reinstalled Whatsapp.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of very successful people in Hong Kong who have found the right balance to achieve happiness across the spectrum of one’s life desires. But your 20’s is meant to be spent in a way to maximize your potentials, and the 24/7 work-party-sleep cycle isn’t exactly “maximizing” – it’s in fact “burning”, eating away the fuel and the drive to reach the dreams you once had.
After an all-nighter at the printer for a company’s IPO. Long hours typically result in a binary lifestyle swinging between extreme work and extreme play.
So as one of the most junior attendees of Mr. Gatsby’s great parties, I have chosen to walk away. After all, what is the point of devoting my most productive years to a grand party, only to be handed another glass of champagne, gazing upward to tycoons who will always be tycoons, and dancing alongside white-collars who will always be white-collars. Leaving Hong Kong was not because it was destroying my body or polluting my mind, but because it was killing who I could be.
[This post has been uplaoded in parallel on my WeChat public account : 朱英楠David]
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.
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.
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-work, inheritance, 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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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).
– 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)
– January 2011 – Invited to attend the Sina Weibo Night (link)
– March 2011 – Spoke and presented at GCC’s Third Annual Conference and Convention in New York City (photos).
– 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).
– April 2011 – Visited the Guang Ai Orphanage in Beijing with RENET Beijing Chapter (link)
– April 2011 – Visiting Fudan University in Shanghai. Helped to coordinate the then-upcoming GCC-Harvard Conference in partnership with ASES of Fudan University.
– 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).
– May 2011 – Attended Columbia University’s Commencement.
– 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).
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.
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.
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。
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.
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:
“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.
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!
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 course 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:
03.25.12 – 06:30 am
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」。
朱英楠在哥大時是「全球中國聯接」 (Global China Connection，簡稱GCC)組織的創始理事，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。
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。
「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。
「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。
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。
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。
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。
© worldjournal.com 2012
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.
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:
“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.
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 ;)
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 question: Did 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 (unless of course, your parents worked for one of the bulge bracket firms in which case you shouldn’t be reading this article at all).
The most they’ve heard of is that the son or daughter of so-and-so got hired by some big-name firm even before graduation – 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 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 or 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. 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 a “what if” question is by 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. 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:
- Despite what we have learned all our lives growing up, life is not a matter of individual effort, ability, and achievement. 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.
- In most classes, there are always right vs. wrong answers, but real life doesn’t. 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.
But here comes the more important part – the reality of decision-making:
- A decision by itself changes nothing
- At the moment a decision is made, we cannot possibly know whether it is good or bad
- 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.