Girls Gone Wild (in Asia)


Me with my then-pregnant friend Kati in Taipei 2011

One of my dear friends whom I grew up with – we lived in the same suburb, went to the same middle and high school and visited each other in different cities during university – just had her first baby. In Hong Kong. While I am excited for my friend and her new journey as a mother, I think it is weird that a significant proportion of my female peers that I was friends with in my hometown now live their lives in Asia. Me included.

The friend I just mentioned is an actress, director, agent and teacher. In New Zealand she was also these things, but on a much smaller scale. If you haven’t been to Hong Kong, you can’t imagine the vast amounts of wealth and opportunities available to talented, educated westerners.

My best friend from childhood who lived around the corner from me also lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two young kids. She teaches at an international school while he coaches the national rugby team.

Then there is my incredibly smart and hardworking friend who is a diplomat and does high-powered trade negotiations for the NZ government. I visited her in Taipei almost two years ago where she was posted with her family (her husband, one daughter and a son on the way, as shown in the photo above). Now she is headed to Beijing for four years. Yes, her apartment/palace in Taipei was rather incredible, her living room twice the size of my entire place.

While I’m tempted to wonder why, unlike my other Asian-dwelling lady friends, I am without husband, child, six figure salary, maid and nanny, the more interesting question is – how come we all ended up in Asia? I suppose it’s not just one thing, but more a combination of push and pull factors – economic opportunity, career development, an exciting expatriate lifestyle, the chance for travel and adventure. And really, when you’re young and adventurous, how much fun can you have in a country of 4 million people and 30 million sheep (unless you’re really into sheep)?

More obviously, we are products of a particular time and place. The economic rise of Asia and its increasing importance on the world stage means that more and more New Zealanders will head this way.

I was once just a blob of clay that has been sculpted by where I was born, who my parents are, where I went to school, what I studied in university and who my peers were/are. Along the way I had some formative experiences, defining relationships and developed a worldview, a personal philosophy, and grew some values. When I was conceived (in a bathroom, when my mother was 17 while she was supposed to be babysitting her little brother, so the story goes), I was stamped with a particular race (white), class (working) and gender (female). I grew up in the ’80s obsessed with New Kids on the Block and Kylie Minogue.

And yet, it is kind of incredible that while I grew up listening to my father’s stories about having to walk to school in the snow, having to get up at 5am to do the milk-run when he was still just a boy, and getting only an orange for Christmas, that I can live on the other side of the world, travel by plane, own a computer and have opportunities for education, work and lifestyle in fields and places that probably didn’t even exist back in those days.

Maybe it’s even weirder for my grandmother and great aunt who sometimes email me through their ‘machines’ to how interesting my life is. In truth, it’s not, but not in a million years could they fathom being able to be a single, educated woman roaming the world. When they were my age, they were married with children, being dutiful housewives, and having little economic or social freedom. In fact, they couldn’t even have a bank account. It blows their minds that I have several in different countries (albeit with very little money in them).

So yes, it is in a sense weird that I am living far away from home in an exotic Asian country that is technically still at war as a single woman but I think it is becoming more common and normal, in part due to the increased freedom and independence that women in the west enjoy as well as increasing globalization. While fingers crossed it’s not forever, for now it’s OK to be a girl gone ‘wild.’




A Fine Balance

tightrope walkingI don’t know about you, but I have always found it hard to find balance in my life.

Where is the balance between doing and being? Or between work and life?

No-one has an ideal work/life balance, but sometimes I think my balance may weigh more to the side of life, which would be good, except that I will then berate myself for not being ambitious enough or not earning enough money. Which brings me to my next dilemma (if it is not too bratty to call it that) – what is the best way to live for today, emotionally and financially, while planning for the future? What does carpe diem mean to the average person who has to work forty hours a week and cook dinner and pay bills and deal with annoying relatives?

Some truths about time are that the days are long but the years are short, and if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. So, how much should we try to live in the present and how much effort do we give to planning for the future? What goals are worth pursuing and what is worth sacrificing? How do we bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be without going crazy? And how do we ensure that we feel a sense of contentment when our target is always moving, the bar always getting higher as we try to keep up with our peers, or just try to keep our head above water?

I recently read a very sweet coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha by an American man, Jaimal Yogis, who grew up in an unconventional way by doing everything in his power to ensure that he was always chasing his two passions, as you might’ve guessed from the title, surfing and Buddhism.

surfing_-_black_and_white-3055There were two things I took away from reading his work. First, he talks about how surfing is a good metaphor for life:

“The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills a minute portion of an adult lifespan.

The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.”

So, the key to having a full life it seems, is to enjoy the journey – yes, once you reach the top of Everest, it will be amazing, but it will be short-lived, and there will be another Everest to conquer. Better to also make the most of the climb up, even though it will inevitably suck now and then.

The other point he raises is near the end of his book when he is at graduate school studying to become a journalist. He is at Columbia University in New York, which has the best journalism program in the western world. But living like a student with no money, no free time, no surfing and no meditation coupled with copious amounts of stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and dealing with a strained long distance relationship leaves him depressed. He wonders about the value of what he is doing and questions his commitment and doubts that he can finish. Then, for his thesis, he goes out on a boat at night with commercial fishermen in the middle of winter to help them with their work so he can write about it.

It turns out to be one of the worst nights in his life as he is thrown all over the deck and spends most of his time vomiting and dry-heaving, drowning in waves of nausea. I guess it’s hard to describe unless you have actually experienced really bad sea sickness that leaves you feeling like you want to die. During this experience, he comes to an important realization that allows him to get through the rest of his seemingly grueling academic study:

“I realized I needed to stop complaining. I had it very, very easy.

If I come out of this alive, I said to myself, I will have perspective.”

This leads me to wonder where to find the balance between being grateful for what we have and wanting more; between feeling content and striving; between giving and taking in relationships, between wanting and needing…

These are matters for another day. For now, I need to get back to doing the laundry, cooking dinner and washing the dishes. In other words, paddling.


Outside the Ivory Tower

ivory towerWhat follows are some seemingly disconnected paragraphs related to a range of First World problems (things that people who work in coalmines or steel mills don’t have the time, energy or resources to pontificate about). Bear with me and you will see that some overarching themes will emerge – perhaps along the lines of: tangible vs. intangible, concrete vs. abstract, limitations vs. opportunities, relevance vs. obscurity, expectations vs. reality, thinking vs. acting.

It was quite by accident that I recently stumbled upon the amazing work of compatriot Priv Bradoo. Although very young (I think in her early 30’s), she has accomplished incredible things in the arenas of science, business, entrepreneurship and environmentalism, like discovering a new gene for brain repair and founding a start-up dedicated to recycling e-waste. Of course, she no longer works from little ol’ New Zealand, but is based in the U.S. where there is actually money and markets for things such as tangibly changing the world.

In a public talk she gave recently, she said that she used to aspire to being a neuroscience professor but serendipity intervened and she soon realized that she would need to work outside of academia and delve into the worlds of business and entrepreneurship to create the kind of large scale impact she desired. In order to do this, she had to let go of the notion that business people were ‘losers,’ and that she was going to the dark side. She urges people to consider empowerment (based on the tenets of entrepreneurship, such as innovation, creativity, action, proactivity, failure) over employment, citing the latter as paid servitude.

Enter Sarah Kendzior, a recovering academic in the United States who holds a PhD in anthropology. Despite the dismal job prospects for people in that field, she has managed to carve out a living for herself outside of academia through journalism, consulting, speaking, and researching. She empowered herself by giving up on an academic career (she didn’t have the financial resources to support herself when, and if, she found a tenure-track position) and realized that she can have much more relevance, influence and impact outside of the walls of the ivory tower. She writes about the sad state of affairs in her homeland for having or seeking paid servitude:

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

transitionRealize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises. I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

Does Molly Wizenberg care about other people’s expectations? I came across her food blog, Orangette one day when I was procrastinating and discovered that she gave up a PhD program in anthropology: she couldn’t see where she was going with it or how it would lead to gainful employment. The two most important things to her were food and writing, so she combined the two into soft-core food porn for the Internet to which I have a mild addiction (the food writing, not the Internet itself). Because she is passionate about what she does, is a skillful writer, a clever marketer and of course an experienced and knowledgeable cook, she has attracted a large audience. Other bonuses include: two book deals, her husband (he emailed her because he liked her blog), and together they have opened two restaurants in Seattle and recently had a baby. She is making things and selling them (food and words, not the baby). They are tangible. They are commercial. They make money. There is a demand for these things. (Side note: Molly went to top tier universities, and her father was a doctor, so probably there was no potential homelessness or crippling student loans to worry about if no-one liked her work).

Finally, I have been reading a memoir about a glamorous former New York writer (Kristin Kimball) who falls in love with a dashing and charming farmer. Together, they founded and run a farm that feeds hundreds of people. In the following lines, she reflects on how her view of work has changed as she became an experienced farmer:

As I patched the barn with scrap lumber, pig-tight but ugly, I was forced to confront my own prejudice. I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world – the trades – was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white-collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now. I ordered books from the library about construction, plumbing, and electricity, and discovered that reading them was like trying to learn in a foreign language, the simplest things – the names of unknown tools or hardware, the names for parts of structures – creating dead ends that required answers, more research. There’s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking.

So, there you have it. I guess that now I am at the end, all these words put together into sentences construct some kind of meaning – to which I now interpret broadly as being about thinking, acting, and working outside of the box; as exploring the road less travelled and flipping the bird to society’s and other people’s expectations.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Created by friend and fellow expat,  Mike Stewart

Created by friend and fellow expat, Mike Stewart

There’s a chance these could be famous last words, but I don’t think so. As tensions between North Korea and South Korea escalate, the western media seems to be having a field day, creating a sense of fear and panic when none is legitimately warranted by blowing (pun intended) everything out of proportion.

While it’s true that I am somewhat jaded and inured to the conflict, having lived in this environment for several years and, at times, freaking out only for it to end in nothing, I still feel like it is more or less business as usual in the South Korean capital. My parents have called, slight panic in their voices, and even my great aunt cranked up her ‘machine’ to send me an email – quite a feat I’m sure. One or two of my co-workers, particularly the American ones, are allowing their panicked friends and family back home to spook them. Another co-worker, who has a Korean wife, said that it was the first time in their years together that she had expressed fear over the situation. There was some macabre talk in the office the other day about what the best way to die would be if something were to happen (it was generally agreed upon that it would be better to be quickly turned to ashes than to lose a leg and live). But, for the most part, everybody is going about their daily lives. Given the discrepancy between the reality of life here and the portrayal in the media, it is interesting to consider the impact, influence and power news outlets like CNN have in shaping our reality.

This is what my American friend who used to work for the American military here (and still lives here) had to say:

Just to let you know the real reason. As an ex-military hand it’s all financial. There is no real threat. Never will be. The news creates a panic and a rustle which works in the favor of the military complex of the USA (which has been coming under some expenditure scrutiny as of late). With a “nuclear threat”, a blank cheque and free license is given to the US military. Meaning more money for the military and its military contractors. They also tend to mark up their costs (sometimes as high as 200%) during the times of “military danger and incursions.”

The 2nd thing is that the military knows it needs more arms here in the Asian peninsula. Not because of North Korea but cuz of the threat of China (and their Russian ally). The USA would be over-run in 48 hrs by the Chinese military. EASY. So when they hype-up the BS of NK they can come send over more arms, men’n’muscle to beef up security in the region and fortify their presence.

3rd, Korea has been wanting to decommission the USFK (at least minimize its presence in Korea. That in itself is contrary to the USA’s long-term hegemony ideals. So what’s the best way to ensure you stay put. Get the media to egg on the noise of war and chaos in the region. It causes the S.K. nation to lose its investments and its economic stability and currency value. Send many USA troops in to the region and investors feel safe to invest again when the noise “suddenly” settles, and they return in force to invest and get stocks which had been sold for cheap during the crisis, boosting the economy. In the end the USFK dont go anywhere. the S.K. govt get ample investors. the region is secured for hegemony purposes. NK get concession. and we all live happily ever after.




P.P.S the most dangerous thing to the USA is a united Korea, cuz that may mean a bond formed with China, the region’s largest powerhouse and, by proxy, China’s ally, Russia. A new power block the USA cannot collectively defeat. Beware the red herrings ad see past the smoke and mirrors.

I’m not politically savvy enough to know if I agree with all of his points, but I get the gist of it. In the meantime, I will be careful with what media I expose my eyes and ears to, know the whereabouts of my passport and credit card and keep calm and carry on.

Mulling over Meritocracy

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

The notion of meritocracy has been on my mind a lot lately. While even I’m not idealistic and naive enough to believe that the world is a fair place, it still irks me that it is sooooo unfair. Forgive me, for what follows could probably be categorized as ‘stating the obvious.’ Fight the urge at the end of each paragraph to mutter under your breath ‘no shit’, or ‘d’uh’. I promise that in just a few minutes, you will think differently about how the world works.

The society I currently live in is one in which having a penis is like having the golden ticket (the glass ceiling is a topic for another day – suffice it to say that it’s almost like I live in a weird Asian episode of Mad Men). Being from the right stock and having friends in high places opens doors and knocks down walls in the Land of Morning Calm. Relationships and who-you-know trump pretty much anything else. Hell, I’ve benefited from it. It’s just the way the world works. Or is it?

During the 2012 Presidential Election in the States, I spoke with my white American friend. Well, ‘spoke with’ is a bit of a euphemism as we got into a heated debate (also a euphemism). OK, we yelled and screamed at each other as if we were both deaf. Long story short – I was pro-Obama, he was anti. According to him, Obama is bankrupting the country because he lets too many people be on welfare and black people want to be on welfare so they don’t have to work (and all the people on welfare are obviously black and taking it by choice). They are too lazy to work. Illegal immigrants are placing too much of a burden on the tax payer because they don’t contribute (even though they are being exploited by working illegally and end up doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do).

While I admit I don’t understand the intricacies of how government, politics and the economy work in the U.S., what irked me the most is that my friend couldn’t see all the unearned privileges and advantages he had – growing up in a middle class two-parent family as an only child with a stern, achievement-oriented father in the Navy. As a semi-professional soccer player, he thinks that he got to where he is by sheer hard work and determination, which in a sense is true. But who was taking him to soccer practice? Who was watching his games and paying for his uniform and new boots? His comeback was that he had taken advantage of all the opportunities that had come his way – true, but he also had all the resources and support at his disposal – human, financial and otherwise so that he could take advantage of them.

More recently, my friend, also American, but African-American gave me what I called an ‘Angry Black Man Rant.’ He grew up in the gritty inner city of Washington D.C. This time, however, we were on the same page, both being the first in our families to go to university etc…We agreed that growing up in a culture of achievement and success was one key way for people to make something of themselves. Neither of us really had that, at least not academically, yet we both succeeded, in large part because there were adults in our lives outside of our immediate family, such as teachers or friends’ parents, who believed in us. We also agreed that for people to beat the odds, they needed a mindset in which there was the expectation of achievement and success. Still, neither of use are ever going to become the next Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Of course, I recognize that advantage exists on a spectrum and I am much more privileged than a woman living in a village in India. I have had many opportunities in my life that I didn’t ‘earn’ – for example, when I was a student I went to Sydney to find work in a bar for the summer vacation. I worked in a bar in my hometown too, but I wasn’t that experienced. The manager of the bar in my hometown – qualified and very much more experienced than me – also went to Sydney at the same time to work. Who got a job in a bar the day after arriving? Me. The pretty blond, blue-eyed, nubile 22 year old. Who didn’t get a job that summer? The bar manager.

Anyway, I read years ago Malcolm Gladwell’s treatise on meritocracy (Outliers: The Story of Success) and how western societies are much less meritocratic than we think. In light of recent events and conversations (yelling matches), I decided to re-read it.

Gladwell tells stories of Outliers – extremely successful people – and exposes how it isn’t just hard work and talent that got them to where they are. There are myriad factors influencing one’s success that the term ‘self-made’ doesn’t really apply as he uncovers all the opportunities and ‘right-time-right-place’ factors that propelled them.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book that exemplify his central argument:

“We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

“The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

So, on that note, I’ll give Carrie from Sex and the City the last word: “Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we’ve been dealt, and accessorize what we’ve got.”