China Musings #17: The Elevator Lady

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A few weeks ago I used an abandoned freight elevator in my WeWork building.

Door opened and – to my surprise – there was a person operating the elevator, in tie and uniform, with a chair, a table, a table cloth, a plant, and her tea mug. She stood up to greet me as I walked in, hit the button, and then sat down. And once we arrived, she stood up again to "guide me out" with her hand.

I was so surprised, and I also felt really sad for her. The air was sticky, the AC wasn't really working, the elevator was small and metallic, and all she was doing was to stand up/down and hit a button. It felt so lonely. I alter learned she did so 6 times a week, 10 hours each day. 

The mere use of "bodies" for such mundane and mindless jobs is unfortunately very common in countries where there is such an oversupply of workers. I noticed it in Indonesia, and now again in China. And for some reason most of them end up working in such "security/guard"-type of roles where a simple uniform is meant to radiate authority, which yet perishes in sheer incompetence.

I told myself that there is not much I could do, but I promised myself that I would bring her flowers next time so she could upgrade her lonely plant.

And last Wednesday I finally had a chance to buy a bunch of flowers on my way to work and give them to her. I didn’t know how she would react, and I was worried about making her very uncomfortable with the gesture. Still, I felt it was a worthwhile thing to do.

Thankfully, despite initial disbelief, she accepted the flowers gratefully. And ever since, we have become friends of some sort. I’ve made it a thing to use the freight elevator instead of the employee elevator, we’ve added each other on WeChat, and every once in a while we exchange small messages: she would send me pictures of her flowers, and I would let her know that it’s raining outside and that she is not missing anything.

This experience was a great reminder that some things in life only require a small effort, but could have a big impact on others.

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China Musings #16: How Peppa Pig became a Gangster symbol and got banned

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Here is something both absurd and hilarious … the Chinese government has banned Peppa Pig because it promotes – not kidding – “gangster attitudes.”

This all happened after Peppa Pig became the unexpected cultural icon of the "shehuiren" subculture in China. "Shehuiren" literally means "society person," but what it refers to is people who run counter to the mainstream values and are usually poorly educated with no stable job. Mostly unruly slackers, roaming around and the antithesis of the young generation the Communist Party tries to cultivate.

How did Peppa become the symbol of an anti-establishment? Well, Peppa Pig grew in popularity across China after it was introduced in 2015. And Netizens soon came to realize that Peppa Pig is not just children's show, but a cartoon with storylines that present complex social realities. The first video that become popular in China was Peppa learning how to whistle: when Peppa found that everyone apart from her, including her "bestie" Susie Sheep, could whistle, Peppa felt betrayed and hung up the phone on Susie immediately. Netizens hyped this scene as a story that shows "how fake friendships work."

So as Peppa grew popular, memes popped up, emojis were exchanged, songs were dubbed, fake (and real tattoos) were shown off. On Taobao, China's largest e-commerce website, in just one month, one online shop alone sold 30,000 Peppa Pig tattoo stickers and 110,000 Peppa Pig-themed watches. And before you knew it, these "shehuiren" claimed Peppa as their icon.

So for these "shehuiren", since they are not actually gangsters, nor want to be really ordinary people, they have found in Peppa what they were looking for: by wearing Peppa watches and fake Peppa tattoos, they are mocking the big tattoos and golden Rolex watches of the real tough guys, while also distinguishing themselves from mainstream culture and fashion. The irony of the trend is that by ridiculing themselves through the use of the silly Peppa Pig, with her uncool and hairdryer-shaped head, they are now finally what they wanted to be all along: a pretty cool subculture, with a pretty gangster pig as an icon that has set a nationwide trend.

And while Peppa Pig videos were taken down, the hashtag was banned, and Peppa Pig was put on censorship lists for all sorts of content apps, it really just fueled Peppa’s popularity as a symbol on shirts, products, fake tattoos, and whatnot. Two days ago I saw this guy with a fake Gucci X Peppa shirt and asked him to take a pic. As you can see, Peppa is all well and thriving.

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China Musings #15: The Beijing Bikini

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Even though this is my second summer in China, I still get SUCH a good laugh out of seeing Chinese men with their shirt rolled up and their bellies exposed. It’s a curious yet common sight on the streets of China, aptly named the “Beijing Bikini.”

They hang around, play cards, drink tea (or beer), or stroll on the sidewalks exposing their little voluptuous paunches. It’s not rippling abs you see, but more more a sight of flabby tummies – often accompanied with their trousers pulled up past their belly button, and their sleeves rolled up.

One of the main reasons behind this custom lies in Chinese thinking. The belly is an important receptacle for “qì” – energy in Chinese medical theory, believing that covering your belly will store it, while exposing it will help get rid of excess amounts. Another reason is more practical, they do it as a means of cooling themselves.

The habit is actually a sort of compromise to the custom of men going totally shirtless, which is often considered embarrassing to do. And although midriff-exposure is something men of all ages do – even the younger ones – the ones with the biggest belies are always the most prominent ones.

While this social behavior isn’t necessarily favored by the government (a state-run paper once expressed that “exposing one's belly is not conducive towards developing urban civility”), it’s tolerated socially because no one will call them out on it. That said, the government did once begin to crack down on the no-shirt habit during the pre-Olympic run up (2007/2008). During that campaign the Beijing Daily ran pictures of men who went around shirtless, often with less than attractive upper bodies, in an effort to shame them into dressing respectfully.

A newspaper, “The Paper” recently wrote on its Weibo account that the “Beijing Bikini” is a problem throughout China and the world at large, admitting that Chinese men are the brunt of ridicule by foreigners without saying anything in defense. This ambivalence is also seen in their conclusion: "There exists an unclear boundary between personal freedoms over clothing and the etiquette of sharing public spaces."

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China Musings #14: The Delight of Studying Mandarin

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One of the more delightful experiences on my Mandarin study journey are the reactions I get from people.

Despite being spoken natively by over a billion people, Mandarin is a very hard language to learn. That’s why Chinese – not all, but most – get very happy to hear foreigners speak it, no matter how little or how badly.

Sometimes it really just takes a “Nĭ hăo” (Hello) to elicit a thoroughly well-intended “You speak Chinese very well.” Such reactions are ridiculous in their judgement, yet endearing in their intention.

A still common, slightly cheesy, yet increasingly outdated way to respond is with the question “Nǎlǐ, nǎlǐ?” (Where, where?), a polite way to deny the praise that's been given. For example, if someone says you are beautiful and you respond with “Nǎlǐ, nǎlǐ?,” you are implying “Beautiful? Me? Where? I don’t see myself being beautiful.”

The origin of this expression is linked to traditional Chinese Confucianism, where being modest and not revealing your strengths is seen as a good personal trait.

So no matter if in a cab, at a coffee shop, or with security guards on the street – sometimes even the slightest display of your Mandarin skills can conjure up a smile on locals’ faces.

— A colleague took this pic of me at our team meeting today. We had switched the language to Chinese to accommodate for our non-English speaking staff, so I lost myself in studying characters while everything was being translated.

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Book Recommendation: Ben Rhodes' "The World As It Is"

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I highly recommend Ben Rhodes' recently published White House memoire, "The World As It Is." (Amazon: https://goo.gl/e6iEeH)

Ben Rhodes is a former White House staff member who – at the age of 30 – served as the Deputy National Security Advisor and speechwriter for Barack Obama.

I consumed the 500+ page book in under 7 days, and here are three reasons why I recommend it:

1) Ben joined the Obama presidential campaign in 2007 at the age of 30. He very soon worked himself up to becoming his speechwriter and National Security Advisor – basically spending all of his 30s with Obama in the White House. His very young age allowed him to bring a fresh perspective to the table – one that often challenged status-quo thinking. He earned Obama's trust over the years and was eventually appointed to being the key negotiator of the successful Cuba thaw in 2014.

2) The Obama presidency of 2008-2016, and the political decisions that were made during that time, has truly shaped the world as we know it today. Ben's memoir is a very candid recap of the inner workings of the Obama White House, one that helps understand the "whys" behind the "whats" that we witnessed from the outside. From the successful take down of Bin Laden to the inaction towards Syria. The book helps put all these events into context of the values that the White House applied to its decision-making.

3) Last but not least, reading the memoir in the context of today's administration, only makes you appreciate more the integrity, candor, and thoughtfulness that Obama brought to the job as president. The book evokes nostalgia, reminiscence, and a sense of gratitude towards the White House as we knew it.

There were two lines/quotes in this book that really helped me zoom out and see things in perspective. One was a quote by MLK which was "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," the other was a statement by Obama in which he highlighted that progress is not a linear line, but it zigs and zags. 

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Entrepreneurial Readiness

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I remember when I told my colleagues at work that I would leave Google to pursue an MBA, people shared my happiness, but they were also surprised. Given the hands-on, creative, entrepreneurial image they had of me, they always imagined – almost expected – that I would leave the corporate life for the garage life, to start my own company. Yet that path was not any consideration for me at that time. 

Today, things are different. I am 31 years old and after multiple stints in the corporate tech world (which for me is anything that is 1 to 100, not 0 to 1), I finally feel ready. In the following I am going to talk a little about the notion of “Entrepreneurial Readiness.”

Experiential Readiness

I strongly believe in the notion of experiential readiness. Entrepreneurship has been and still is a very hot topic. It’s a popular thing to do. After hearing all the “dropped out of college and then started a successful company” stories, it’s just so natural to imagine yourself doing the same. But do you really have the right experience to do so? 

When college students ask me whether they should go an start a company straight out of college, I advise against it. I strongly believe there is a lot to be gained and learned in working in the corporate world for a few years. You learn about organizational structures, incentive systems, management styles, company goals, resource allocation decisions, as well as all its daily challenges around bureaucracy and politics. Not always fun experiences, but insanely valuable ones. These experiences are important for when you are actually starting your own company. The more you know, the less likely you are to make wrong decisions that could kill your company. 

There is plenty of studies that suggest that those who are successful founders are not straight out of college, but on average in their 40s (Harvard Business Review claims its 45 years). You could argue this is because they have a better network or are more credible when they go fundraising. While I think those are valid arguments, I believe that at its core it’s their experience that makes them more likely to succeed.

Motivational Readiness

There is a second type of readiness which is motivational readiness. Speaking from my own experience, I was not ready to start something after college, not ready after Google, and also not ready after my MBA. I always aspired to be an entrepreneur, but there was a gap between that aspiration and my readiness for it. I could have forced it, by throwing myself at it, but I always knew I still had to nurture that readiness. 

Things are different today. I am willing to take the risk, willing to take that salary cut, willing to work those extra hours, willing to not be protected by a strong employer brand anymore, willing to have to watch my expenses, willing to fully throw myself behind something I believe in. That’s a level of motivation that had to be nurtured. 

At Google, as exciting as my work was, it was always a small contribution to the whole. In the context of the entire company, my work was meaningful, but insignificant. This nurtured my desire to be in work environments where my contributions would matter ore. At Ofo, I would sometimes work until 5am, writing contracts for global deals we were doing. I was doing this enthusiastically, but I would still go to bed and wonder what it would be like to put all that effort into my own idea one day, not someone else’s idea. If it wasn't for those experiences then, I wouldn't have that readiness now. 

Financial Readiness

I think there is a third type of readiness for people who are considering entrepreneurship. It’s financial readiness. I think at different stages in your career, you will be optimizing for different things. 

The first few years of my career I was optimizing for safety. I wanted to work for a big brand and build up my reputation. I wanted that organizational support and mentorship. That came with a safe salary, and little equity. But it allowed me to build up savings that would later help me finance my MBA. 

Today, I am optimizing for different things. I want to maximize my upside and gain experience building something from 0 to 1. And once there, I want to grow a brand from 1 to 100 so that it, too, can give organizational support and mentorship to others. And for that, I know that I will have to live with a 60%+ pay-cut, or with many months or even years without accumulating savings. But that’s fine, because today I am finally ready to exchange these conditions for the upside – the financial upside, and the experiential one. 

By the way, you might have noticed that I didn’t use the word “start-up” in my article. To be honest, I don’t like that word. It’s overused, and to me, the notion of “starting something up” doesn’t embody the longevity I hope to instill into any of the business ventures I aspire to found. 

 Some sample names of successful entrepreneurs who weren't college dropouts. 

Some sample names of successful entrepreneurs who weren't college dropouts. 

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China Musings #12: China's rise among the world's leading tech companies

Today, 8 out of 20 most valuable tech companies in the world come from #China. 

In the context of China, it would have been unimaginable in 2005 that the most valuable companies would be companies not owned by the government. Yet here we are, with 8 of them among the global tech elite. Just five years ago, China was represented with only three companies.

In 2013, this list had three other countries in the mix (Japan, Russia, Korea). Today, however, the list only has American and Chinese companies. An interesting development considering that in other industries, the largest players are rather distributed globally (think of car manufacturers, pharma, energy, and retail). The same cannot be said for the rapidly-growing tech industry. In a connected world where a tech company can achieve hyperscale in 3-5 years, having a huge homogeneous home market with deep pockets as the install base is proving to be a huge advantage.

Aside from the USA-China duality, the other major noticeable aspect of the list of the world’s largest tech giants is that it clearly shows a divide between top-tier companies and those further down the ladder. In fact, there is not a single company with a valuation between $200 billion and $450 billion. The top seven companies on the list account for 81% of the total value of the list, and they are all above the $450B mark. These include behemoths like Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft, but also two big Chinese companies as well (Tencent, Alibaba). Meanwhile, the bottom 14 companies muster up just 19% of the value – a fact that underlines how hard it is to vault a tech company into the upper echelon of the market.

And it looks more and more likely the next battleground in the coming decade will be between the tech giants from US and China. We live in interesting times... so, in all seriousness, what’s your China strategy? No matter if you are a business an individual, you just cannot ignore what’s going on in China.

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Thriving at the intersection of "it's hard, but it feels so damn right"

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A simple thought on how to think about whether you are at the right spot in your life. 

I was on the phone with my friend Matt the other day who is in LA hustling on his start-up. He was sharing how hard things are, that he barely gets to be social, and that it feels like a massive roller coaster day in and out – yet also how right it feels what he was doing. 

I was fully able to empathize with him because my situation wasn’t any different. Living a life between continents and in unknown cultures is really hard. It comes with a lot of loneliness, setbacks, unfamiliarity and self-doubt. Yet in spite of all this hardship, it still feels 100% right. 

Both Matt and my situation made me thing about this intersection of doing something that is really hard, but where you are able to bear that hardship because it feels so damn right. It’s this feeling of not wanting to be in any other place, not wanting to do anything else. It’s almost as if that hardship wasn’t taking away your energy, but it was fueling you. Being at that intersection is like the moment when your sail and the wind are aligned: you gain speed, you move ahead, you become unstoppable, nothing seems impossible, everything starts to make sense. 

Are you at that intersection? What would it take to get there for you? 

In my opinion, you don't get to that intersection by going towards what is hard. Just throwing yourself at hard things doesn't instantly make things feel right. But you ought to go towards what feels right. Often times, the "what feels right" is what is hard. It's those things that we normally shy away from because of all sorts of blockers we have (risk-averseness, fear of failure, judgement of other people, etc). Yet once you defy those blockers and walk towards the "what feels right" you might find yourself at that intersection sooner before you know it. 

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