Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Sugarman Fantasy

I love movies.  I find watching a film to be relaxing, exciting, engaging, stimulating, and inspiring all at once.  I didn't realize this until my last few years of college, which led to me to pick up a really fun but admittedly irrelevant minor in Film Studies.  I thought a lot about potentially trying to work in film as a profession but have convinced myself that I don't want to corrupt my love for the art form by being forced to view it through the harsh lens of business.  Still compelled to create and not just observe, I have long fantasized about writing about films.  But I haven't.  Part of it is I didn't know what to write, a fear that I don't have any worthwhile to add, and the recognition that most likely nobody would want to read it.  But today, I'm just going for it.  Still finding my voice, so apologize if it is boring, but here's to getting started, right?

So I've been making my way through the various lists of "Best Films of 2012".  I agree with some of these rankings, others not so much (someone please tell me what was so great about Lincoln), but it has been a highly entertaining exercise because it has led me to question how I evaluate films. And I don't mean in an academic sense, I mean in a popular sense.  What are the ingredients required for you to tell everyone you know, "I loved it, you must see it"?  Sure, it's easy to say, but your recommendation will be judged as a reflection of you.  So in order to put yourself on the line, you must not only be truly moved by a film, but you must have related to it in some very fundamental way and want others to feel that, too.  So what does it take for that to happen?  In order to figure that out, I've been carefully observing and analyzing my own reaction to everything I've watched recently.

My first conclusion is that actually watching the film is just a small part of the overall experience.  There are a million different touch-points to your relationship with a film - from the anticipation of seeing it, to how the narrative engages you while you are watching it, to the bonds you form with new friends over the film years afterwards.  With infinite variations of each touchpoint, the process of watching a film will never get old (unless you're like some people I know and you just fall asleep, then your experience is in fact quite finite and I can't help you.)

To be honest, I wasn't very excited about watching Searching for Sugarman.  The description sounded somewhat mundane: "Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller, Rodriguez."  However, the romantic cinematography complemented by Rodriguez's Bob Dylan-esque raspy musical poetry slowly draws you in and before you know it, you're hooked.  How could this guy not be famous?  He's clearly so talented.  Well, the catch is that he was famous, he just didn't know it.  His music didn't catch on in Detroit and consequently his career floundered, but the contemporaneous turmoil of Apartheid in South Africa created a cultural storm that launched him into their mainstream.

A huge part of South Africa's fascination with Rodriguez as an artist was his mystery - nobody knew him or where he came from.  Many believed that fed up with a persistent lack of success and exhausted from years of trying, he was rumored to have committed suicide on stage. However, two particularly eager members of his large fan base in South Africa refused to believe that story and after years of persistently pursuing him were able to track him down alive and well doing manual labor in Detroit, Michigan.  They called him one day and said, 'You have to come to South Africa.  You're more famous than Elvis Presley here.'

Can you imagine getting that phone call?  Isn't that everyone's fantasy?  That your failure isn't a sign that you are not good enough, it is merely the absence of conscious recognition for your talents.  As someone trying to start a business, I dream every day that all of a sudden, a million people will crawl out of the woodwork and shower me with enthusiasm for what I am building.  That there are actually hundreds of people trying to buy tickets to the next General Assembly Hong Kong class, but maybe their credit cards won't go through.  When you struggle and bust your ass to bring every single student through your doors, the idea that there is some latent pool of potential customers out there that you don't know about is both reassuring and depressing.  This secret audience could provide you with both inspiration and satisfaction, but they are stuck in the realm of the 'unknown unknown'.  They could confirm your secret lifelong suspicions of personal grandeur by saying, 'No!  You really are special and you deserve to be recognized for it!'  And oh, don't we crave to hear that, to know that it could be true?

That must feel so good.  Just like falling love, or your company getting funded, or your blogpost going viral.  You find someone (besides your parents) who sees something truly remarkable in you that, until now, has gone unrecognized.  My heart swelled with the thought of how Rodriguez must have felt after years of assuming himself insignificant, looking out to an entire stadium of adoring fans.  Yes, there is hope that they're out there, they could be out there, they might be out there.  Even if you're struggling now, even if you've already resigned yourself to failure, that hope could be enough to keep you going until you find them.  (Sidenote: the fact that Rodriguez changed nothing about his life once he discovered his popularity, there is a distinct possibility that he never did assume himself insignificant but that is an entirely different discussion.) 

This is the power of a truly incredible film.  There is the literal sense of the narrative that is enjoyable in and of itself - two music fans seeking and re-discovering their most significant musical idol.  Then, there are layers of interpretation and application - this journey is not just about an artist, it is about love, it is about entrepreneurship, it is about the value of context.  Most powerfully, it could be about anything.  You can run it through your own filter and dig as deep as you like.  Or -- you could just stick to the synopsis and enjoy the beautiful scenery and the great, classic music.  It's up to you.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hong Kong Pet Peeves

As I fluctuate between a state of optimistic enthusiasm for being in a new place and an opposing state of cynical frustration with the absence of the comforts of home, I have been taking a mental tally of the things about Hong Kong that are undebatedly obnoxious (at least for an ex-New Yorker).  Don't get me wrong, I love it here.  I really do. And there will be a yang to this yin post, filled with all the wonderful things about Hong Kong that make it quite possibly one of the best cities in the world.  But today, the glass is half empty -- or at least I'm in a silly enough mood to laugh at the fact that the glass is half empty, so here we go.

  • People in Hong Kong do not understand the concept of walking in straight lines.  Nor do they seem capable of comprehending how to walk faster than... I don't know, how quickly a baby crawls.  The sidewalks are narrow, there are millions of people everywhere, and on the worst days it feels they are all conspiring to prevent you from walking at a normal person's pace.
  • As a lactose intolerant individual, I thought I would have it easy moving to Asia.  However, the lack of dairy in native Asian food has somehow translated into an entire culture that simply does not understand the concept of cheese.  When dealing in non-Asian cuisines, even if a menu seems to list all of the ingredients in a dish (e.g. Whole wheat Pasta with Tomato, Roasted Vegetables, Basil, Oregano, Salt, Monosodium Glutamate), the unspoken rule is to list all ingredients except for cheese.  They actually even take this a step further and when directly asked, "Does this dish have cheese on it?"  The consistent answer is "Cheese? No."  I don't even know why I bother to ask, because without fail the requested dish will be covered in shredded mozzarella.  Or cream cheese.  Or melted butter. 
  • For a place that is world renowned for ridiculously high levels of pollution, where it is nearly impossible to dispose of your household recyclables separately from the everyday trash, it is quite interesting to find that "saving the environment" is still frequently used as a means of modifying consumer behavior.  Two prime examples:
    • There are two elevators on that service every floor in my apartment building, and on each floor there is a laminated sign between them that says "Please don't press both elevator button [sic].  It will pollute the air and ruin the environment."  Really?  Is that how that works?
    • They strongly encourage people to bring their own bags when buying groceries.  This is done by charging customers $0.50HKD (~six cents in USD) for each bag.  They also have apparently trained the check-out people how to look incredibly disgusted every time you ask for a bag.  If you do have the balls to ask for one, they will emphasize how expensive it is and they they will have to charge you for it.  Then, they will proceed to try to place an absurd amount of items into the one bag, forcing you to, yet again, publicly claim your place in the "Environment Haters Hall of Fame" by explicitly asking them to split your copious amount of fragile, breakable, somewhat heavy items into two separate bags.  
  • Speaking of elevators, people in Hong Kong constantly seem to be conspiring to trap you in them by immediately rushing to enter the exact second that the doors open, without taking a moment to allow you to exit.  It's as if they are afraid that a moment's hesitation could result in them getting left behind.  
  • No matter what you are buying in Hong Kong, you will get at least two separate pages of receipts for your purchase.  It doesn't matter if you go to the grocery store and you buy just the bag, they will still give you two receipts for it.  This results in a deceptively fat wallet that I love to pretend is thick from cash but is really just teeming with wasted paper verifying each and every mundane purchase you've made over the past days, weeks, and months. 
  • Furthermore, in order to make 100% sure that you don't happen to walk off without both of your meaningless receipts, they hold onto your credit card and/or change until the very last second of the transaction. This means that all in this final moment, you are bestowed with your purchased items, your receipts, your change and/or your card.  Consequently, after you have been twiddling your thumbs for minutes while they verify your payment and print your detailed transaction records, you suddenly have three things to put away at once and are also already obnoxiously in the way of the next customer.  It seems quite odd and inefficient for a place that has managed to perfectly streamline most other quotidien processes.
  • Happy Hour pricing does not do your wallet any favors and also blatantly encourages alcoholism.  Instead of the typical "half price!" promos that I've seen everywhere else in the world, they give you "two drinks for the price of one!" and prohibit you from sharing.  At first, I willingly admitted defeat, thinking that this is actually quite smart since you're pretty likely not to ask for the second one anyway -- but they give you both at once.  Let me tell you, when you're trying to make new friends, there's no better way to make a first impression than to be double fisting at a bar at 5pm on a weekday.

Alright, I think that's enough ranting and raving for now.  I'm sure I'll be adding to and adapting this list as time goes on.  Sure, these are all obviously tiny details in one's day that are not worth getting frustrated over.  But that is precisely why I wanted to share them -- to identify them, acknowledge them, and embrace the absurdity of the concept that they could potentially ruin an otherwise overwhelmingly amazing experience.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


I have now been living in Hong Kong for two full months.  I've been blowing through the "firsts" - first week in the new apartment, first night out in LKF, first GA event, first time at an art gallery, first visitor, first time that Foursquare kindly points out that I've been to a bar five days in a row (thanks for that, Foursquare.)  Consequently, the buzz of a being in a totally brand new place is starting to wear off.  With it has gone that heightened sense of awareness that comes with being completely out of your element, that ability to watch yourself react to your new environment and use those datapoints to deepen your understanding of your own complex motivations, desires, and insecurities.

In fact, not only has that awareness faded, but I feel it has swung in the other direction entirely and has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of numbness.  This makes the whole concept of "getting started" very difficult, as I am suddenly missing the drive of conscious anxiety and am now just overwhelmed by the indecision of not knowing what I want or what matters most at present.  I've spent a lot of time wondering, "What's wrong?" "What am I missing?" and "What can I be doing better?" and "What should I be doing differently?"  Obviously nobody can tell me the answers, and I don't know even know if they are the right questions to be asking.

The worst part is that whenever you try to share this sentiment with anyone, the response is "Oh yea, that is totally normal.  It just takes time to adjust!  You'll figure it out!"  I understand that people think this could potenitally make you feel better, but please note that it does not make anything better.  In fact, it makes me feel infinitely worse because it seems to diminish the potency of my current state of discomfort.  Knowing something will eventually be better certainly does not keep it from feeling awful right now.  Furthermore, writing some vague unhappiness off as "normal" feels as if you are saying it isn't important to figure it out.  That seeking to reattain that heightened level of self awareness is not necessary, because all of this will eventually go away on its own.  Who knows, maybe that is true for some people -- but certainly not for me.  Nothing tends to go way until I can put my finger on it, at which point it almost always seems to magically dissipate.  Identification and acknowledgement are elusive, but key.

Perhaps it is just the fact that meetings, classes, signups, etc. all slow down over the holidays and so progress feels like a distant promise.  Everyone is away on holiday, e-mails go un-answered, and my days lack the structure that comes with scurrying around town meeting interesting people with great ideas.  There's too much time to think about what the hell am I doing, how is it possible going to work, and how will I even know if it's working?

Things are picking back up, though.  GA's first class is tonight, I'm working on putting together our first long-form course for late February, and we'll have more wonderful visitors to entertain in February (my mom is coming and I couldn't be more excited about it.)  Maybe people are right when they say that "it just takes time" and before I know it I'll be back in the swing of things and the answers will just appear out of nowhere.  Until then, however, I'll be quite busy overanalyzing what I could be doing differently.  Feel free to chime in with any ideas, as long as they don't involve "Just be patient."  Because, frankly, I'm just not.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 in review

Multiple life changes can make time feel like it's flying by, but at the same time you try to think back and things were so different last January that you can't even believe it's only been 365 days.  If you told me where I would be right now (at a cafe in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, China, working on General Assembly HK related matters), I'd be pretty damn confused.

I know I should be thinking of resolutions at this point, but in an attempt to procrastinate I've decided to dive into my iPhoto and try to remember what the hell happened over the course of the past year.  Was this a massive waste of time?  Probably.

Regardless, here's a quick recap of some highlights of 2012, mostly in pictures because that's way more fun.


  • Generally hated life.  Was desperately miserable in finance and not yet at the point where I was empowered to do anything about it.  What could be worse?
  • I saw Tracy Jordan, I mean Tracy Morgan, do some incredibly un-funny stand up at The Caroline in NYC.  As much as I love 30 Rock (which is a lot), this was not worth it.


  • Visited with two of my best friends in the entire world in the lovely state of Rhode Island (no pinheads were allowed, obviously).  As usual, we had a blast and they were kind enough to listen to me whine about my perilous state of unhappiness.  
  • I headed down to ATL to hang out with me soon-to-be-sister-in-law.  We had never really gotten to spend a lot of time together, and it really hit me in the face how lucky I am that my big bro found such a wonderful woman and brought her into my life (yes, obviously them getting married is about me).  
  • I had the privilege of working on the Microlending Film Project, I got to play hookie from Goldman for a few hours and play producer on the set of an interview with Mary Ellen Iskendarian, the President and CEO of Women's World Banking.  So. Awesome.

  • Washington DC to spend more time with good friends and awesome people.  
  • Continued to toy around with quitting finance and doing something crazy, but didn't have the balls quite yet.


  • A life changing month.  Did the Landmark Forum and constantly fantasized about quitting GS.
  • Quit GS.
  • Spent a week working at an orphanage in Ghana, realized that I don't hate children.
  • Came to some major realizations about the fundamental need for humans to be loved.  This led me to believe that all forms of cruelty stem from insecurity.
  • Started at General Assembly.  Immediately became obsessed with it.
  • My boyfriend got the call that he was being transferred to Hong Kong.  Awesome.

  • My big brother got married.  A festive, Southern occasion where I had a blast but was completely out of my element in a pink Bridesmaid's dress (read: it was gorgeous, I just haven't worn pink or dresses with bows in ten plus years due to my irrational aversion to being seen as too girly.)
  • Flew home to Chicago to work with my parents on the wedding.  This led to rediscovery of what I really looked like as a child.  No further comment needed.
  • It also led to a lot of reflection on my relationship with my brother.  He is amazing and I am in awe of the fact we have been so close and he has watched out for me every day of my life since I was born. 

  • Danced my face off to both Skrillex and the Beach Boys at my second annual Bonnaroo.
  • Turned 25 and had a fantastic birthday dinner where I got to invite all my favorite people in New York.  
  • My boyfriend really moved to Hong Kong and I promptly fell into a pathetic state of "I'm so alone" mild depression.  

  • Moved to Long Island for a month to save money on rent.  What's in Long Island, you ask?  My boyfriend's parents.  This was actually a total blast and exactly what I needed but admittedly sounds somewhat shocking.
  • Visited Hong Kong for the first time.  Was able to go on a fantastical boat ride that led to a serious panic attack in the ocean.  I need to learn to swim properly.
  • Also ventured to the Phillipines, where everything is unimaginably cheap and they insist they don't have a bus system, only "Jeeps".  Which, for the record, are buses.

  • Lived in a perpetual state of anxiety about whether or not to move to Hong Kong.  Tears were shed.  It wasn't pretty.
  • Said goodbye to 5951 South Grant, the house where I grew up.  My father the architect designed it and I spent most of my life living with it under construction.  I couldn't have asked for a better place to call my own.  It was quite hard to say goodbye.  
  • Yes, that is the "Golden Mare" in the driveway.

  • More time spent with best friends at quite possibly my favorite place in the world, Sky Farm Maine.  Shout out to our generous hostess, who I hope knows how much I appreciate the invitation :)
  • Struggled with but finally solidified my decision to move.
  • Began my flirtation with not hating baking.

  • Said goodbye to the best team ever in New York.  You don't know what you have 'til it's gone.  

  • Moved to Hong Kong.
  • Travelled to Myanmar and Bhutan - see previous post for observations and pictures.

  • Realized that I live in fucking Hong Kong
  • Moved into a new apartment
  • Started using Instagram, can you tell?
  • Participated in the Michael Sloyer/Pure Fitness-a-thon which raised nearly $10,000 for the kids we worked with in Ghana at the West African Children's Foundation.
  • Held the first GA HK event at The Hive, a screening of 'Making Something People Love' followed by Skype videochat with Alexis Ohanian.  It was awesome.
  • Went parasailing in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Well, shit, that was really long, and there was a LOT that I left out.  If you are reading this, I love you, and I feel so lucky to be able to connect with you from so far away.  Here's to another awesome year that will take us all places that we can't even begin to imagine.