Me and The New Yorker

Exciting news! The piece I researched for The New Yorker magazine’s China correspondent, Evan Osnos, has been published. As a lowly researcher, my name isn’t credited. Nevertheless, it’s immensely gratifying to see the work I did make it into the final story. (I was tasked with finding out all there is to know about Lin Yifu…I would’ve PAID to have been allowed to accompany him on work trips, like Evan did).

Favorite things about working on this project?

  • Learning about my country, our history and economic development again (haven’t done that since college)
  • Watching a journalistic pro (one who has been on The Colbert Report, no less) go about writing his story
  • Interviewing octogenerian Mao Yushi laoshi in person (China’s older generation of intellectuals are so inspiring!)

Here is a link to the story. If you don’t have a subscription but are dying to read about China’s “boom doctors”, email me and I’ll try to finagle a PDF copy your way.


Really? This was censored?

In case you’re wondering why my article didn’t appear in the papers yesterday as usual, it’s because the tongue-in-cheekness doesn’t go over well with the “lingdao” (leaders) over at the Daily. A magazine will be running a longer version of the story in December, so there’s hope yet for self-deprecating humor in China! Read below for what didn’t make it into yesterday’s newspaper.

My life in a danwei

I’ve joined a danwei.

Well, sort of. The publication I now edit is owned by China’s oldest publishing house. Like many large historical enterprises, it operates in a nebulous quasi-state-owned zone. Regardless of its actual structure, it feels like a danwei to me, a novice at working for a Chinese company.

I started feeling the danwei-ness as soon as the hiring process began. It resembled nothing of the structured Round 1, Round 2, Final Round battle-style interviews I encountered in my previous life as an investment banker. At each meeting, the very professional conduct of the office HR representative contrasted with her need to seek further directive from the lingdao (“leaders”).

The nomenclature alone gives the danwei away. A lingdao implies, above all, seniority; a “CEO” highlights professionalism. Back and forth I went with the HR lady. After each interview she would conclude, “I will seek the leader’s opinion.”

Finally, the leaders and I decided we wanted each other. Then, on the most important negotiations I found myself speaking to two leaders separately about essentially the same things. A three-way conference call would’ve been easier. Or, the leaders could’ve debriefed each other directly.

When we agreed on the details I asked about an offer letter. My future leader assured me, “Don’t worry, we keep to our word.” For the first time in my short but multifarious career, I violated these golden rules:  “Get It in Writing” and “Leave Your Options Open.” I declined other job offers without first signing on a dotted line. I felt a little reckless, like a Victorian lady turning down one marriage proposal without bagging a better one. Would I end up a Marianne after the betrayal of Willoughby?

Fortunately, my leader kept his promise. My first week was surprisingly busy. In the first six days, I attended four big meetings. Really big meetings.

In size, these powwows resembled annual meetings at western companies. Everyone save the receptionist was called in to listen. The meetings were also big in that they were long. With so many people crammed into a conference room for four hours at a time – no scheduled intermissions or clear agendas – the meetings felt epically long.

Speaking of agendas, it seems my leaders like to call gatherings with little advanced notice and only vague indications of what might be discussed. This might be why most of my colleagues sat fiddling uncomfortably for hours, unsure of when they would have to present, nor when to slip out for a cigarette, perk up or doodle.

After Behemoth Meeting #2, I decided that doing things strictly the danwei way would slowly drive me mad. Tentatively, I approached my leader and offered a humble suggestion: could we make an agenda with talking points and time limits?

The leader then did something very un-lingdao-ish. He agreed. Let’s institute the changes, he said, provided that I would do the work. When the next meeting rolled around, I thought I heard an urgency in everyone’s voice. We finished in two hours. Apparently, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Danwei or not, there are always adjustments to make when fitting into a new company. Luckily, mine also comes with particular danwei perks. I’m in possession of a circular clearly stipulating that working beyond 5pm accrues over-time, which must be compensated with time off. Should I so desire, I can lay my head down on the desk at noon for a snooze without anyone coughing in embarrassment (as I did the first time I spotted a Chinese coworker napping). And, my favorite of all, there are danwei “outings.”

On my third day, I put on sneakers and met the entire publishing house staff in a parking lot filled with chartered buses. We set off for the “autumn outing”, a hike in the hills outside Tianjin. The last time I went on a seasonal outing was in grade school. The even more endearing surprise when we arrived at our destination? Our leaders distributed lunch money to everyone. It was so very Chinese.

As I sit at my danwei desk everyday I think how much my mother must chuckle over the idea of me adapting to a Chinese company. It’s certainly not what I envisioned when I joined the hoards of eager young Wall Street-ers years ago. But, for now, I like my life as a danwei employee. My leaders may not be western-style smooth operators, but at least they keep open minds on how to improve.


Once in a while

Once in a while, I get the urge to write something serious. Usually, I do it when I wake up from a dream. I type furiously without stopping to muse over my diction or even make proper paragraphs. Then I save it, slam the laptop shut, and never look at it again.

Over the last two years, I’ve started to look over these “something serious” writings. It’s still hard, but once in a while I’ll read something I wrote in a frenzy, make a few corrections, and put it away again.

Rarely have I showed these writings to anyone. Maybe never. But today, I want to share it. It’s been a few years, I think I can broach the subject matter, so I’m posting something small and serious that I just wrote.

Last night I cried in my dream

Last night, I cried in my dream. I cried when I realized it was a dream.

Everything made sense. I was in an office – my new office – going over work with colleagues who were just getting to know me. As we huddled around one computer screen he walked by, sharp dressed as always. We felt proud that he was stopping to look at what we were doing.  I was happy that he was there to hear the witty remark I was about to make.

I said my funny thing. The others laughed. And he backed me up, adding his signature humor to the conversation.

I looked at him, so pleased that we could share this joke together. I looked at him with my glowing happiness, so pleased that we could stand in this sunlit room together, chat together.

Then, I saw that it was a dream. I saw that it couldn’t be. Panicked, I seized his hand, holding it tightly in both my hands, and rushed the words out before they drowned in the oncoming sobs,

“Daddy, I miss you so much.”

Read more of me (us) at…

The World of Chinese! Last week I started working as  Senior Editor at an awesome bi-monthly publication on all things Chinese. Linguistics nerds, serious Sinophiles and people who love the quirky and weird in life as much as I do, I urge you to give the strangely retro-looking magazine (Project #1 – redesign for 2011) a try. The writing is stellar and with every issue I find myself chuckling to the sublime humor of our scribes (Bravo to AD, NR, CC and everyone else).Here’s a sampling from our most popular section, “The Hard Seat” (more on our website):

The Perfect Shoe

When I was first introduced to Feiyue shoes, I was told they were once worn by China’s famed Shaolin monks. I’ve never confirmed this fact, but I do know that Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt have both recently been spotted sporting these Chinese classics.

Monday, October 04, 2010 BY BILLY CHUNG KWOK
E-mail // Share Print

When I was first introduced to Feiyue shoes, I was told they were once worn by China’s famed Shaolin monks. I’ve never confirmed this fact, but I do know that Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt have both recently been spotted sporting these Chinese classics. This news, of great interest to China’s fashionable youth, exploded on the Internet and within minutes they were a hit with China’s vintage clothing connoisseurs.

Feiyue shoes experienced their heyday in the mid-’60s. They were produced in Shanghai and 1.6 million pairs were shipped across China annually. They were the dependable, go-to athletic shoe. Not trendy per se, but reliable. A generation and a half later, these shoes are back with a vengeance. Distribution numbers may have fallen to a few hundred thousand per year, but bloggers, hipsters and even a French designer have taken great interest in this Shanghai classic. – B.C.K.

Zen in the big city

This article has been published…read it here or at China Daily:

Some readers have noticed my writing absent from these pages over the last month. I took a small hiatus from the keyboard to immerse myself in another passion – yoga.

Over thirty days, I took forty-eight hot yoga classes (that’s ninety minutes each in a room heated to forty degrees) and attended over one hundred hours of lectures on anatomy, philosophy and history. To cram this much yoga into that many days, I was up at six AM and in bed long past ten PM daily to bend, stretch, and memorize. By the end of week one, I had taken to calling the program “yoga boot camp.” Luckily, “boot camp” wasn’t set on a military training ground, but at a luxury resort on the southern coast of Thailand.

Before I left for Thailand, most friends were encouraging of my ambitious undertaking. But a few said it like it was:

“Are you crazy?”

“Why would you spend the money to go work? Why not just relax on the beach?”

Why did I do it? To find Nirvana, I jokingly explained to the friends who questioned my sanity. But on a more practical level, I wanted to be certified as a yoga instructor, so I could come back to share what I enjoy with more people.

Sure enough, during the month of intense exercise and soaking in of yogic principles (while eating an immensely healthy diet of mostly vegetables) I was cool as a cucumber, a big change from my usual hot-tempered Beijinger alter ego. Daily reading of pithy aphorisms on life that the sages wrote down thousands of years ago helped me “still the fluctuations of my mind.”

Anyone who has been to a yoga class has seen that besides incredibly toned arms, yogis also sport a bewildering calm. They seem to float on a happy cloud high above petty daily problems. Now I know their secret – they owe their Zen-like state to a true understanding of the meaning behind these arcane statements:

“From the practicing of contentment the highest happiness is gained.”

“When the breath fluctuates, the mind fluctuates; when the breath is still, the mind is still.”

“Think not of internal object, neither of external object. Abandon all thinking. Think of nothing, not even thinking itself.”

When I was in Thailand, it was easy to pretend that I grasped the profound meanings and emulate the calm of long-time yoga practitioners. After all, I was living in a sunny paradise with room service and a saltwater swimming pool. Besides the cushy amenities, there were also few distractions at “boot camp” – just sun, sea and books. Alcohol and tobacco, along with other unhealthy elements, like fried chicken, were banned from the ultra-healthy premises. Although each day was busy, the two-minute strolling commute from my room to the classroom could hardly rival Beijing’s rush hour traffic. Put simply, there was little to stir the fluctuations of my mind, my moods, while I was away.

When I stepped off “boot camp” grounds to return to reality, my yoga was put to the test. You know what I’m talking about, those little trying instances that upset us each day in Beijing. Someone cutting in front of you in line, on the sidewalk or in a lane of traffic. People walking through doors you’ve taken the trouble to open with the nonchalance of hotel guests gliding past a doorman. Having to shout and wave your arms wildly just to get a waiter to come take an order.

So, the real challenge, I’m discovering, is how to maintain the calm of a yogi in the bustle of the big city? I caught myself halfway as I started launching into a snappy retort to a taxi driver who grilled me on which route to take less than twelve hours after touching down in Beijing. (How am I supposed to know? He’s the one who’s paid to drive!). Over the last week, as I settled back into my metropolitan life, I’ve been extra mindful of my reactions. Whenever something tempts a rise out of me, I ask, “Why is this bothering me so much?” Most of the time, just pausing to question myself is enough to make me realize that whatever the thing is, it’s no big deal.

Perhaps this will be the way forward for me: it’s impossible to stay cool all the time, but as long as I put a little thought into my words and actions, I’m getting a step closer to enlightened bliss.