Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Financial inferiority complex

Moving from a trading floor to a startup means changing a lot of things about your lifestyle.  For the most part, I haven't minded this at all.  In fact, it is incredible how much easier life gets and how much less you "need" when you're actually happy.  When I was getting into work at 6 am, working 12+ hour days, and out drinking every night of the week with clients, it was all too easy to use my perpetually stressful lifestyle as a means of justifying my large purchases. Yes, I could look for this on sale, but I don't have time.  I need to just get this done, now.  Or, I need this massage so badly, it's been such a stressful week.  A lower salary but a higher quality of life means that you can put up with the little inconveniences that come with saving a few bucks here and there. 

But there are still times when not making a lot of money really sucks.  Part of the problem is that both American and Chinese culture seem to equate money with self worth.  I frequently remind myself how much I enjoy what I am doing, but Hong Kong seems to have a special way of rubbing salt in the wound.  There is no baseball here, so Hong Kong's national pastime is shopping.  And the number one industry is finance.  If you are introduced to a local person, their first two questions will be "How much money do you make per month?" and "How much do you pay in rent?"  No matter what you say, the response is a judgmental nod and "mmm.... okay, okay."  In short, you are constantly reminded that you are either a have or a have not.

And if all of that weren't enough to break down your ego, you can walk into the most ubiquitous consumer bank and they will explicitly tell you that you are a have not.  In fact, I have come to believe that HSBC in Hong Kong was specifically established to make me feel bad about myself.  Ever since I literally begged them to let me open a free checking account, each and every encounter with them has left me feeling like a bigger and bigger loser.  A quick recap of why they suck:
  • Any transaction with HSBC begins with you waiting in a line of at least 10 people.  
  • This includes going to the ATM to withdraw cash.
  • After patiently waiting your turn, you find that your request cannot even be considered becuase you did not bring the proper forms.
  • No, you cannot fill them out now because they don't have these forms available in the branch. 
  • No, you cannot fill out the forms online, all requests must be submitted by paper form, in person.  This is probably why the lines are so fucking long all the time.
  • Sure, you can sign up for online banking, but if you want to actually do anything online, you should be aware that your limit is currently set at 0.  Please submit a physical copy of this form for consideration.
  • Also, the answer is no, and they "can't" tell you why.
I recently went through this process in hopes of acquiring a credit card - which in most locations is the only way to make purchases here, outside of cash.  Ultimately, however, HSBC decided I was not a worthy candidate.  Of course it took a month of no news for me to brave the lines to find out that I was rejected.  I guess they don't care that I have always paid my credit card bills on time, I have a good credit score, a solid employment history, and have never overdrawn my account.

Although this is not a uncommon issue amongst foreigners in Hong Kong, I am suffering from a severe financial inferiority complex and was deeply hurt by this rejection.  Yes, I remember vividly how unhappy I was when I was making an investment banking salary.  Though I tried, I know that no amount of wine, or fancy dinners, or beach vacations could fill the gaping void left where "feeling a sense of meaning" should be.  However, it is also hard to sufficiently shift your definition of "success" to completely exclude monetary gains.  Learning a lot is invaluable, but it also doesn't pay the bills.

It's especially difficult when you look around at your friends still in the corporate world and they're in the midst of receiving year-end bonus checks to the tune of tens to hundreds of thousands of US dollars.  They're celebrating with large purchases, or parties, or trips.... and as much as I do believe I "don't need those things to be happy", I am still subject to a stab of jealousy and a twinge of envy when I think about how fucking hard I am working, how much of my time, my energy, and my life I am dedicating to building this business, and who knows what lies on the other side.  I hope that doesn't mean I'm totally shallow and destined to be unhappy no matter what.  But at least I know that no matter what happens, HSBC will always be there to keep my ego in check.