Sunday, April 28, 2013

To stress or not to stress, that is the question

Lately, when people ask me, "So, how are you doing?" I have noticed that I usually answer in one of two ways.  The first is a deep breath, open my eyes wide, look around as if I'm not sure what to say, and then exhale, and finally say "Good!"  Or, I will furrow my brow and look around while I decide if I should be honest or not, and say "Umm... a little stressed."  As this has become a pattern, I am now resolving to work on crafting a better response because both of these options are unattractive, unproductive, and mildly pathetic.  But I hold authenticity in high regard and so in order to respond in a genuine way, I suppose I will need to actually reduce my stress levels.  Damnit.  That is way harder than just making up something more cheery to say.

At first, the very mission of "becoming less stressed" is nebulous, daunting, and ... well, stressful.  What does it even mean to "feel stressed" anyway?  It's an invisible weight that sits on your shoulders and never comes off.  Even when you're asleep.  It is being overwhelmed but not knowing when or how to get started, but knowing that you really need to.  Stress is the (or maybe just my) emotional response to uncertainty, indecision, and insecurity.

Even when I don't think I am stressed out, it still comes up to haunt me and remind me that things aren't quite good enough yet.  It might be in the form of stomach aches, dry skin, rashes... okay for everyone's sake I'll stop there but you know what I mean.  The point is that stress, for me, is very, very real.  I'm not just saying/thinking I'm "stressed out" because it makes me sound busy or important, because even if I don't say it, it is there.

It most commonly occurs surround a fear of being able to meet a goal, or a deadline, or not being good enough to take things to the next level, whatever that means.  Unfortunately for me, I happen to be a very goal oriented person.  So it makes sense when I look back on my life and realize I have pretty much always been stressed out.  Whether it was over getting good grades, making the basketball team, boys, getting into college, getting a job after college, leaving friends behind, graduating from college, finding an apartment in a new city, changing careers, moving to Hong Kong, fights, break-ups, make-ups, family, starting a business.... uncertainty, indecision, and insecurity really never go away.

So am I doomed to be forever stressed?  Simply because I'm ambitious, motivated, and want to keep growing, pushing myself for my entire life?  Or, do I secretly like being stressed?  Is that the key to my success thus far in life?  If I stop being stressed, what will keep me moving forward?  Blah blah blah.  Obviously, this won't work.  I'll never be able to enjoy anything I accomplish.  So this will need to change.

I always find it really fucking annoying when people say, "Don't stress, it'll be fine." or "Allison, you worry too much.  Just chill out."  It bothers me for a few reasons, primarily that it's kind of condescending and I don't do well with being talked down to.  But my response has always been a sarcastic, "Oh.  My.  Goodness.  Silly me.  You're so right!  I'll just stop worrying now.  Thanks so much for reminding me!" It just seems so absurd and overly reductive that someone could give you permission to stop stressing, and then you could flip it off like a switch.

But now I'm wondering if maybe these people are onto something.  Maybe I can just ... turn it off.  If I just accept both the positive and negative potential outcomes from the situation, and resolve that either way, I will be fine and life will go on... then is it possible to chip away at that weight sitting on my shoulders?  It might not go away completely, but at least I would be able to breathe a little easier.

Maybe.  I'm trying.  It's working, kind of.  Sometimes I just need to look at myself in the mirror and say, "I am not going to stress out about this."  It feels overly dramatic, like I'm in a teen movie, which is silly, so I laugh at myself a little.  And that helps.  So who knows, I'll keep trying and let you know how it goes. But for the record, to all you people who tell me "C'mon, you worry too much!" -- I still think you're condescending.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hong Kong, I love you (for now)

Like any city, HK has its drawbacks (some of which I bitched about in a previous post) but after spending back to back weekends traveling to Shanghai and then to Singapore, I have spent this week falling more and more in love with Hong Kong.  You might find this funny considering it's cold and raining in April (after a string of 70+ sunny days throughout the winter), but I guess it is true that 'distance makes the heart grow fonder.'

After spending some time away from it, here are the top eleven things that I am currently appreciating about this Fragrant Harbour:
  1. Real, unadulterated, natural beauty (no this is not a joke).  A lot of people don't know this about Hong Kong because it's such a bustling city, but only a short bus/subway/car ride away and you will find yourself in the middle of a beautiful jungle-like mountain, or on a sandy beach.  There are a number of well manicured parks too, but there is nothing like being in the unmanufactured outdoors.  There are endless hiking trails, camping spots, beaches calling your name when you need a little break from the chaos of the city.  
  2. At the same time, you have always thumping Lan Kwai Fong - where there are endless bars, clubs, and restaurants that are really just bars masquerading as restaurants.  There is something happening every single night of the week.  Whether it's a sports league, art gallery, startup event, or just plain old "networking" (drinking), you can do it anytime you please.   
  3. Octopus cards.  Although the name is a little creepy, these are an amazing little slice of heaven that makes your day easier in the smallest of ways.  Not only does this little guy get you on the MTR, it can be trained to automatically refill itself, you can use it to make small purchases at restaurants, coffee shops, 7/11, and it is even hooked up to my apartment building so it serves as a swipe card for the front doors.  I feel there have been many attempts to do something like this in the US and they have never worked well.  That's the thing about (certain) things here, they just work.  
  4. Cheap massages.  Frankly, I find this to be one of the biggest perks about living in Asia.  In New York, if you want a 1-hour massage to unwind from a tough week, it's going to run you at least $100USD to go somewhere decent, if not twice that for a fancy spa.  In Hong Kong, you can get a one hour massage for $20USD.  Need a foot massage?  That's going to run you like $12USD.  Admittedly, nothing compares to the Philippines where we paid $2.50USD for a fantastic 1-hour massage, but still.  Rumors are always abound that these places make money in.. um.. other ways, but I don't give a shit.  Cheap massages are still awesome.
  5. It is incredibly easy and cheap to get around - no matter where you are going.  There are always taxis around, the meter starts at less than $3USD and rarely ticks higher than $5USD. You can take a taxi for 30 minutes and it will be $10USD.  And that's nowhere near as cheap as public transport, which starts at about $0.50 and is always clean, efficient, and on time.  
  6. Seriously though, the MTR fucking rocks.  It is 10x less expensive than NY subways, and your cell phone works everywhere in it.  It is spotless.  The trains come every 2 minutes.  Without fail.  It's fast.  Nobody molests you on it.  There are no smelly homeless people on it.  There are no Mariachi bands asking you for money to get them to stop playing.  Sometimes they don't let you eat on it which I have a problem with, but I'll deal.  The other fantastic form of transportation, and then I'll move on from public transit, is the Airport Express.  You want to go out of town for the weekend?  No problem - you can get to the airport door to door in 30 minutes.  It leaves every 12 minutes, it's always on time, there is never any traffic to deal with, and the seats are really comfortable.
  7. Whatever you like to eat, you can find it.  There are thousands of restaurants, and they range from delicious Chinese dumplings for $2USD, to expensive private kitchens with master chefs that charge a prix fixe of $100+ USD.  If you happen to love fish balls, you are also in luck because there is a shitload of them here.  There are also awesome juice stands on every corner where they sell fresh fruit and custom hand pressed juice in these little stalls.  I don't think I've ever bought one, but it makes me happy knowing that I could.
  8. English, lots of English.  Before I moved here I thought it was sad when expats moved to Asia and they just stayed within their little groups and did not make an effort to learn the local language or adopt the local culture.  Do I still judge this a little?  Sure, even when it comes to myself.  But, Hong Kong is a fantastic place to have the option of doing both.  You always feel safe because all the signs are in English, menus are in English, and most stores/establishments have at least one person who pretends to understand you when you speak in English.  I tried to learn Cantonese, and now Mandarin, but it's freaking hard and sometimes I like just being able to know what is going on.
  9. Speaking of which, safety.  Hong Kong is the safest place I have ever lived.  Seriously.  All the streets are well lit, and even if they're not, nobody bothers you.  People don't cat call at you, they don't really notice you, and violent crime is extremely rare.  Theft happens sometimes (it's not Utopia) but only if you're reckless, or you're unlucky, or blacked out on a park bench.  You can't underestimate how good this feels.
  10. Everything is always changing.  Sure, this is true in other cities, but there is really a grassroots energy when it comes to Hong Kong.  In the last 15 years it has belonged to 2 different countries, and its culture is shifting every day because of that.  When it comes to business and technology, it's a little bit of the Wild West. There's so much room for innovation and disruption that you can't help but constantly feel excited by the possibilities.  
  11. Especially within the expat community, most people living here are adventurous by nature, and so a lot (not all) are usually willing to go out on a limb or try something new.  I love that.  It is similar to how I felt when I left Goldman and joined General Assembly.  All of a sudden, nobody was fighting to protect their turf.  Nobody was worried about stepping on each other's toes.  At GA and in the startup world more generally, everyone was supportive of each other because there was just so much to be done that if someone else was seizing an opportunity, it was good for the entire community because it was probably something that you wanted to do but just didn't have the time or the burning desire to do and now you can at least learn from what they are doing.  
And I would like to include the disclaimer that, yes, I know that this is just one person's perspective.  I am indeed an American in Hong Kong, and I am sure that the experience of living here is quite different for someone who grew up in Hong Kong.  Or is from Europe, or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter.  I can only see this place through my own eyes, and this is how I am seeing things at the moment.  I reserve the right to not feel the same way tomorrow.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Observations from the Mainland

It is a running joke that living in Hong Kong is not really living in Asia, it's more like "Asia Lite".  With plenty of expats, extensive English signage, and never-ending alleyways filled with charming little Western restaurants, it is really easy to forget that this actually is China.  It is also easy to forget that although Hong Kong operates under an economically liberal regime (for now, at least), China is actually an insanely giant, opaque, and intimidating Communist superpower.  Well, thanks to my shiny new multiple-entry China visa, I was able to venture into the mainland over the Easter holiday to jog my memory.

A few observations on the experience:
  • Google and Facebook are both prohibited in mainland China.  It was eye opening to see how difficult life becomes without these two.  We frequently found ourself struggling to figure out how to get in touch with friends.  And this conversation may or may not have actually occurred: Where should we go for dinner tonight?  I dunno, let's Google it.  Oh, wait, no... I guess we can't.  Oh, Googling really just means "looking up"? There must be other places to look things up.  Other search engines you mean?  Like what?  (long pause) Umm... Bing? 
  • Nobody speaks English.  Really, nobody.  Instead, what people do is even when you clearly state you do not speak Chinese, they will look at you and continue to speak at you (usually, yell at you) in rapid-fire Shanghainese.  Then, they end the soliloquy with "ma", then look at you expectantly, but also half laughing,  waiting for you to answer their question.  Obviously, that doesn't happen, and the unproductive ridiculousness continues until one of you throws your arms in the air, exclaims "Ahhh!" and walks away.  By one of you I mean it is pretty much always the local who ends the interaction in frustrated desperation and disgust.
  • I kid, but it's actually really scary not being able to communicate.  Sometimes you'll end up in the wrong the place, unable to provide directions on where you were actually trying to go. Or, you'll end up sitting in a taxi performing the exchange described above, and you don't end up going anywhere.  Then you have to get out and do the whole thing over again.
  • We met up with some friends who are part of the Hare Krishna movement and they were telling us how celebrations are often difficult because of how secretly they have to approach any type of gathering.  The government strictly regulates and enforces limits on religion throughout the city (and the country) and does not allow for multiple sects of the same religion to exist in the same municipality.
  • All of these anachronisms are incredibly bizarre because Shanghai is also a huge, hustling, bustling, culturally rich, sometimes decadent, modern city.  It's stuck in the past in so many ways, and yet continues barreling ahead into the future.
One section of the expansive Marriage Market.

The most interesting experience of the trip was probably visiting the Marriage Market in People's Park.  Yes, that's right, the Marriage Market.  When you first hear of this, you might think it would involve people hawking wedding goods like dresses, jewelry, or veils.  You might even think it would involve people who want to get married.  But you would be incorrect.  There is no such exchange of goods.  In reality, it involves parents looking for an adequate mate for their unwed children. And this is not just a few parents, either.  We're talking hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents swarming around the park, perusing posted signs that include a prospective spouse's name, height, weight, birthday, monthly salary, and previous marital status.  

Parents reading about prospective mates for their
available children.
 After I timidly approached a few of the people who appeared to be agents, manning the postings and consulting with parents, I was able to find someone who could speak broken English.  However, when I tried to ask what was going on, she laughed loudly and said with astonishment, "You here looking for boyfriend?!!"  I'm not sure if she was more amused by the fact that as a foreigner I'd be there searching the postings for my ideal match (as long as he had an adequate monthly salary) or the fact that my parents weren't there doing it for me.

As I made my way through the throngs of eager families, I was mildly refreshed by the frankness with which the market-goers approached marriage (as a contractual joining of two families for the purpose of reproducing), but also quite depressed by the complete lack of romance.  But who's to say what love should be like?

It occurred to me that this is exactly why I enjoy traveling so much.  On one hand, it makes you feel so close to humanity.  You see that in spite of being spread out all over the globe, having varying languages, dispositions, and ways of life, we really are all just human beings.  At the end of the day, we all are just fighting to eat, sleep, and reproduce.  We adapt to each other and our environments in order to keep doing those things.  It makes life's biggest dramas feel petty and insignificant.  Whatever you think you're going through, there's a billion other people just living through the same things.

Yet on the other hand, glaring cultural differences such as the marriage market prove how humanity is still so strongly divided.  Being born into a certain nationality and way of life can dramatically alter the way you perceive yourself, others, and the world around you.  And isn't that all that we have anyway, our perceptions of those things?  So, in that sense, just because you are made of 99.99% the same stuff does not mean that you can even begin to understand what someone else's life is like.  We might have the same physical needs, but we all go about meeting them in completely differing ways.

This explains why China is still a monstrous business opportunity that foreigners just haven't cracked.  You can't just take your usual way of doing things and impose it on a culture that has spent hundreds, thousands, of years doing things a very different way.  They say great companies solve problems for their customers.  But given all we are actually doing is running around trying to eat, sleep, and procreate -- I think it would be more accurate to say that great companies solve their customers' perception of problems.  Figuring that part out is the key, and it takes a lot more work than most are willing to do.  For now, I'm just enjoying observing, collecting the facts, and building a strong appreciation for the power of perception.