Tell Me About Yourself

It was my third week on the job, a Wednesday. Up until this point, I had spent a week in training and two doing simple tasks like swapping keyboards and mice, learning the culture, and meeting various people. But on this day, which also happened to be an anniversary with my wife, I got my first major test, a desk swap.

On the surface, a desk swap sounds simple: unplug a bunch of cables, move the hardware, and connect them again. But these workstations were neither simple nor single; each desk had two machines connected with KVM switches; one had four heavy and thick (for LCDs) 21-inch monitors, the other had six. All the monitors were attached with heavy metal arms to rails on the desk. The traders had his or her preferences for which machine displayed on which monitor. These were also SBFI trading desks, which means that the cables are built into the desk, and that if they’re not properly labeled, it’s a trial-and-error process to figure out which cable is which. At the time I didn’t even know what a trading desk was, and I tried to pull out individual cables, which complicated things.

I was given fifteen minutes to do the job, starting at 18:45, with my scheduled off time at 19:00. Of course, knowing what I know now, fifteen minutes is not a realistic time in which to get the job done. Even at my peak, after I had mastered this job after a year, it would have taken at least thirty minutes, barring any unforeseen issues. This was a test from my manager. How would I handle it?

Of course, my manager did not know that it was my anniversary, and that I was planning to have dinner with my wife. We weren’t supposed to do overtime without pre-approval, either. With these looming over my head, I had extra desire to finish quickly, but it was my first time doing this and I couldn’t rush it. And it was the only window in which to get this done: the voice guys had already come and swapped the dealer boards, so there was no going back.

In my innocence, I thought it would be easiest to physically swap all the monitors. Considering the users’ preferences and that even identical model monitors can have variations in color and viewing angles, it seemed like the right thing to do. After all, in the small office environment where I had last worked, I’d do stuff like this all the time. I quickly learned that things were different in this environment.

First, as mentioned before, these motherfuckers were heavy. The monitors were 21-inch professional-grade NEC LCDs, three inches thick. The metal arms, then, had to be just as heavy duty in order to hold up these monitors to the rails. Second, the rails are situated at the back of the desk, furthest away from you. You have to lean forward and extend your arms while holding something that weighs like a couple of bowling balls, and you have to precisely guide the metal arms into the rails, then hold up the weight while you lock them down. And sometimes the locking levers were stripped so you had to manually position them a certain way or the whole thing would come crashing down, or you’d fuck up your fingers getting them caught in the rail. Seriously, I don’t think it was even physically possible for some of my skinnier coworkers to do this.

Third, on some monitors, the cable screws would be frozen in the holes, and no amount of twisting or even using a screwdriver could unfreeze them. This was a blessing in disguise for me though because this is how I learned that moving all the monitors didn’t make sense. In the end, I just moved the two over to the other desk and arranged both to match their originals.

Must have been the Hong Kong humidity
Must have been the Hong Kong humidity

All this time, I’m sweating profusely in my wool slacks, cotton undershirt, and button-down dress shirt, the standard uniform for this company’s IT staff, regardless of the physical demands of the job. On the third day of this job, three weeks prior, my 15-year-old pair of dress shoes gave out right in the middle of training, and I had to run down to the mall to get a new pair. Unfortunately for me, this was a luxury mall, and even the cheapest pair of shoes ran several hundred US dollars. If I was going to spend hundreds of dollars on shoes, I figured I’d at least get a pair that I thought looked good. Somehow, in the end, the shoes I bought cost nine hundred dollars, and I walked out of the store in a daze.

So here I am in my nine-hundred-dollar shoes, crawling and squatting underneath desks, pulling out wheeled trays with sharp metal edges on which 50-pound metal computer towers sat. These shoes were meant for going to a wedding, or a ball, or perhaps wearing to work by those whom I was moving these workstations for, not for physical activity. But I needed to bend my feet to get under the desk, and the leather was hard. Well, I had to do it, and when I finally sold the shoes on eBay last year the crease was still there.

See the crease? Sold for $170.

Now, it was 20:30, and with the workstations physically configured, it was time to test and make sure everything was where they were supposed to be. Fire up each workstation, confirm they are displaying on the correct monitors, confirm the KVM number matches, and confirm they can ping the Exchange server. Yes! Time to go, time to have a nice dinner with my wife, and time to worry about the true test tomorrow morning when the traders come in to work. Welcome to life in frontline IT support, investment-bank style.

Still Smiling
Still smiling after a hard day. Bon appetit!

27 Weeks

Last night I read a journal entry for July 5, 2014, the last day that anyone in my family set foot in my Granny’s flat in Hong Kong. The place had been in our family for 40 years, give or take a few. The rent always stayed below market rate due to rent control, but even so it started making less and less financial sense to pay rent for a place that nobody was living in. On occasion, my mother or other relatives would stay there while visiting Hong Kong, but otherwise since 2010 when Granny moved into a home the place was uninhabited. It was kept in the hopes that perhaps one day Granny would return, or maybe for nostalgic purposes.

My mother and aunt had cleaned out the place, with JC and I tagging along but mostly staying out of it (save for keeping old newspapers and other historical items). They (especially my aunt) took a more practical approach to cleaning house. For example, old newspapers and other decades-old trinkets were considered trash. The antique furniture was sold to a dealer, and everything else was left to be kept or taken away as the landlord saw fit. I went there to retrieve a camera that my aunt had accidentally left there, and also to take my time and comb through the place for anything else worth keeping. Being the sentimental person that I am, I also took it as a chance to say goodbye properly to the closest thing I ever had to an ancestral home.

Goodbye to Granny's House
July 5, 2014 – Goodbye to Granny’s house

I’m reading the journal entry when I remember that the landlord’s representative, Mr. Lam, showed up near the end of my visit. He said that it was fortunate that I had gone there when I did, because he was planning to change the lock. I asked him if I could keep the lock for sentimental purposes, but he refused because he couldn’t make the call. He said that they would probably move that ancient lock to another property (lol). At that time I was just starting out at my job in Hong Kong, and I hadn’t learned the intricacies of CYA (covering-your-ass) yet, but now with my experience of working in HK I realize in retrospect that he was probably just afraid of doing something out of the norm. When I was explaining to him my sentimental reasons for keeping it, all he could think about was following the rules and toeing the line. Nothing I said registered.

This got me thinking about bureaucracy in Hong Kong and how deeply entrenched it is in HK society. Employee empowerment? Forget about it, they’re scared too shitless to make any decisions, call the manager. Remember when I complained about ticky-tack fouls? Bureaucracy in action. The players have been taught (or punitively programmed) to follow all rules to the letter in life and in basketball, so one little touch is a foul. What about when I tried to stick up for my coworker, or when I tried to order a battery for a user? Sadly, I did end up alienating some people at work due to the way I got things done, and I wish I would have gone about it in a smarter way where I could have had both my cake and to eat it too.

With my mind on Hong Kong, I went back and looked at all the updates I’ve made about living there, including some in my own private journal. I was reminded of how I felt when I was trying to find a job, how I felt my first month into the job, and how I felt about my career overall. There is some symmetry between what was happening then and what is happening now. I compare what I’ve been doing in the six months since returning from Hong Kong with what I was doing in the first six months of living in Hong Kong, and I find that I’m going through something very similar. And yet, in the 27 weeks I have been back in San Francisco, there have hardly been any updates on this site. I’ve posted a bunch of museum posts and VH posts, but nothing like those HK updates. So, here’s a quick recap.

In July, the first month of coming back, I had the momentum of moving from HK and being fresh from leaving a job. The first job application I sent out resulted in an interview. In my hubris, I did not prepare for the interview thinking it would be just like a meeting at work, which resulted in a poor performance and my candidacy being passed over. I continued applying for jobs with no results. On the recreational side, it was nice being back in America and going to BBQs, Costco, VH, and Sizzler. There was a learning curve to playing physical basketball again.

In August, same thing. Applied to a few more jobs, heard back from none of them. There was a family wedding which took up an entire week. JC landed a job. I continued playing basketball.

September, more of the same. I continued to mark off every Thursday: 10 weeks, 11 weeks, 12 weeks, etc. Our stuff from Hong Kong finally arrived. Since I didn’t have to work, I was tasked with waiting for the delivery.

In October, I enlisted the help of a staffing firm to assist with my job search, but nothing really happened on that front. I started having difficulty with waking up and not knowing what to do, which drove me to start planning my days ahead of time so that I could simply follow my calendar without thinking, similar to when I had a job and a routine.

November, I started ramping up the search again with the new system. I got my first interview arranged through the staffing firm. Everything went great, they told the agency that I was great, but sadly I lacked iPad experience whereas my competition did not. It was nice to spend the first Thanksgiving in three years with family and have multiple grand feasts. At 21 weeks, I stopped keeping track of how many weeks we’ve been back.

Last month, I started truly getting depressed. Maybe it was the holidays, maybe it was the cold, or maybe it was my career, or lack thereof. Remembering how I felt about my career while I was in Hong Kong, I wondered if I wanted to keep doing what I was doing, applying for jobs that I knew I could do but not really interested in. Did I really want a repeat of my HK job? If not, what would I do? Start my own business? Again, what would I do? I had and continue to have no idea. I went back and read about the tyranny of the shoulds. I’m back to the situation I was in when I wrote those posts, except I don’t really have any money now. Is there room for idealism when one doesn’t even have enough money for his own place to live? I’ve done IT support on and off for 20 years, should I not just hunker down and make some money via this field first? Or, have I forgotten the lessons I’ve learned during these past 3 years?

It’s been 27 weeks, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Happy New Year!

Disassemble, Dismantle

Box of Lego Pieces

Whether you want to call it dismantle or disassemble, I’ve spent the past two nights taking apart my Lego sets. As I did so, I thought about the past fifteen or so years of my life.

From 2012 to present, my Legos had been sitting on a bookshelf in my room, at my mom’s house. Prior to that, they spent a short time at our apartment before we moved here. From 2008, when I bought my first Lego sets as an adult (and as part of my shopping spree), most of them served as decoration and diversion at work. A Star Wars set that I received around 2000-2001 sat, assembled, in a plastic box under my bed. Lastly, there were some loose pieces from childhood that we had either brought with us when we first moved to the U.S., or had recovered from Granny’s house many years after.

All My Legos
At our old apartment – with the exception of Star Wars, all the Lego sets I acquired from 2008 on

When we moved to my mom’s house in 2012, I had thought about taking them apart, but was reluctant to do so. They had been a part of my life up until that point, and perhaps I was hoping to still be able to hold on to parts of the previous chapters. As I disassembled each set brick by brick, the chapters surfaced. The aforementioned shopping spree, then building the sets at work after hours. JC building the town hall on New Year’s Eve 2011. My cousin NLG and her family visiting my work, her kids playing with my Legos. Going to Hong Kong in both 2000 and 2001, and then the three years after when I stopped working. Even memories from childhood, from recognizing Lego pieces whose designs have remained unchanged in the nearly four decades that I’ve been alive.

Building the Town Hall
December 31, 2011 – JC building the town hall

Now, it is 2015 and we have once again moved to my mom’s house. What’s different this time versus three years ago that’s caused me to become OK with taking apart my Legos that have remained assembled for so many years? It could be that I’ve finally realized (or accepted) that the sets can be rebuilt. Maybe I had a hangup where I thought that the first build with new bricks is the cleanest (well, it is) and the tightest, and that it just wouldn’t be the same after taking it apart and rebuilding. Maybe after sitting on the shelf for two years without anyone touching them they’d gathered so much dust that they were no longer clean, so the hangup no longer applied.

I remember as a child, during one of my first sessions playing with Lego, my mother telling me that “Lego” stands for “Let’s go”, such that if a build doesn’t work out the first time you can take it apart and “Let’s go again!”. I don’t know if that’s what Lego really stands for, but it was something I thought about before starting. I’d forgotten one of the most basic things about Lego, which is that you can always start over. I made sure that I still had all the build plans so that I could “Let’s go again” if I ever wanted to in the future.

It could also be that I’m feeling weighed down. Fully assembled, my sets take up two shelves. As you can see above, they now take up a single filing box. As we near six months of living at our parents’ places, with no sign of anything changing in the near future, I feel like I want to slim down so that when the chance does arise, we can move swiftly.

Maybe I don’t want to have so much stuff, or to be responsible for so much stuff. I look at all the books I’ve never really read, all the games I’ve never really played, all the movies that I’ve never really watched, and I feel tired. As we get further into life, we acquire more and more things, telling ourselves that we will get to them, yet we never do. The basic model stays the same, nothing changes, yet we’re still standing in the store holding the product in hand, telling ourselves that somehow it will be different this time. I remember that near the end of my most recent job, six months ago, it was the same as it was near the end of the job before that: dead tired at the end of the day, having to choose between rest or recreation, sacrificing one for the other. Will things really be different this time?

As I said, I’ve been alive for nearly four decades. I’ve almost reached midlife, and I’m starting to feel the effects of reaching this stage. I imagine this is what everyone in their late 30s goes through, realizing that this is all there is, all the dreams from earlier years giving way to reality. We dream about having a place of our own where we can store all those Legos, all those games, have a fish room, have a garage with a lift so we can work on our Acura TSXs. But in order to achieve and then to sustain that, you’d have to spend the majority of your time working (unless you somehow got rich quickly). Would you have time to do all those things you want to do? I’ve already tried it, and the answer is no. Am I really so interested in those things anymore? Judging from my actions (or rather, inaction), the answer is also no. Maybe it’s time to dismantle and disassemble the dream.

Prying off each piece, I felt some sadness at taking apart things that had been intact for non-trivial amounts of time. The youngest set was four years old, others were at least seven years old, and the Star Wars set at least fourteen years old. At the same time, I felt some relief from being able to reclaim my shelf space, and from knowing that I could always rebuild the sets if I wanted to. I have the original plans, some of the sets have alternate plans, and there is always the option to not use any plans at all. It’s also therapeutic when one is able to overcome a fear and move forward.

And so it goes with the dream. It’s OK to take it apart, the pieces are still there, ready for me to arrange or re-arrange them into a new one.

In the end, I decided to keep the water truck intact. Something to play with on my desk, and maybe just a little something from the past to hang on to. As always, hope you’ve enjoyed this extra-commentary museum post. 🙂


Since 2012 I have been trying to deprogram, like the waking up late thing, should should should, etc. Trying to become the person that I want to be, to be happy. I want to have less of a part in making myself unhappy. I understand that I can’t control everything, but since there’s no way to not be all-the-time happy in life, I might as well eliminate myself as a source.

Latest thing is deprogramming this notion that I’m better than everybody else, that I’m smarter than everybody else. Moving back home now, I’ve realized that a lot of the programming is due to my family. Little things like my granny saying that we are 大人物 when we go to certain events, always expecting to skip the line at dimsum, or going to well-known schools. There’s also this new thing now with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and even this website. While sharing is nice, I want to stay cognizant so that I don’t get too full of myself. I’ve noticed that a lot of the times when I’ve made mistakes is when I’m thinking I’m so smart and better than everyone else (in basketball, driving, and work, to name a few), when in reality I’m just the same as everybody else.

One mistake that my family makes is that they think they are special without having done anything. For the people in society who really are special, I think there was something they really wanted to do, and they went about doing it, and did it really well, and then they became famous/special. I don’t understand why people expect special treatment when they haven’t done anything. So, they tell themselves they’re special, when they go out in the world they expect people to treat them special, and when it doesn’t happen they use manipulative or coercive methods to force people to do it. Usually, that just ends up making people feel shitty (the ones who comply) or combative (the ones who won’t).

Some other examples to be aware of:

  • Putting down others to raise yourself up. It’s internalized so that it’s done without thinking, without being aware of why, i.e. when you’re pointing out what you perceive as flaws in another person, you don’t go into it thinking “oh I’m going to make myself feel good now”. Also, because it does feel good, it keeps happening without you realizing it.
  • Spending a bunch of money irresponsibly (and beyond your pay grade) and then thinking you’re special because you’re a “high roller”.
  • Apps that ask for a lot of permissions – I have this weird thing where I believe that companies are out to get your information, and that I’m smarter than everyone else because I don’t fall for it and don’t download those apps – but is it really so bad and am I really that smart when I’m missing out on all the benefits?

This brings us to my current dilemma, which is trying to find a job. When you’re looking for a job, you’re supposed to show why you’re better than other people applying for the same job (or at least that’s what seems to be the readily apparent goal at first, see below). When you’re trying to deprogram, selling yourself as better than other people doesn’t really help. If you think of yourself as better than others, it’s also easier to get disappointed and start getting down on yourself when nothing happens.

So maybe it’s time to approach a job search with a different mindset. Stopping to think for a second, in your experience what is it about people that makes them good coworkers or employees? Is it because they know more? Is it their personality? There is so much variation in just these two things, let alone the entire spectrum of attributes that each and every human being has. Is one “better” than the other? What is “better” anyway? There are some generally accepted standards in society, and also some standards depending on your circle, but it’s probably safe to say that it’s subjective and that everybody’s standards are different.

That said then, I think fit is a better way to think about it. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece is relatively the same size, made of the same materials. The backside is the same. Only its shape and the drawing on the front is different. Is one piece of the puzzle better than another piece? I don’t think so. When a piece doesn’t fit, you can try rotating it around, and if that still doesn’t work you look for another piece, but you don’t say “oh, this piece is useless, I’m throwing it away now”. If you did, the puzzle would never be complete. In other words, each piece of the puzzle is vital to its completion, and in no circumstance is one piece “better” than another piece.

So, maybe the puzzle is society, and the pieces are people. As a job searcher, in order to not get discouraged, I need to take on the mindset that I’m a piece in a puzzle, that I’m not better than everybody else, because at the end of the day finding the right fit is a slog, with a massive amount of luck involved, too. I would be completely demoralized if I got down on myself every single time I didn’t hear back. While everyone has their unique combination of attributes, most people are relatively the same in terms of the total attributes that they actually have, the only variation being the degrees of each attribute (like a pie chart with differently-sized slices maybe?). It’s this combination that cannot be measured, yet in society and in my own upbringing, people still try to measure complete individuals using tests and scores that only measure a portion of that individual.

Lastly, it helps to remember that the programming has built up over years and years, and that it will take sustained effort and awareness to erase or rewrite it. There will also be setbacks when you will fall back on the original programming, but if you keep in mind that before you made a conscious decision to deprogram it never even would have occurred to you that what you’re doing is counterproductive to being happy, then that’s already way better than how it was before. Be patient, never stop trying to improve, and ignore those who try to hold you back. At the end of the day, you are responsible for your actions, and you are the one who has to or gets to live with the consequences of those actions.

29 Gallon Work Tank

I’ve been seeing a lot of this tank in my desktop slideshow so I figured it was time I kept my promise from this other post.

As I mentioned in that other post, I kept this relatively small tank at work after I was no longer allowed to keep the 50 or the 75. In retrospect, it was pretty awesome that I was allowed to keep fish tanks in the office at all in the first place. Unlike those other large tanks, I kept this one right next to my desk, so whenever I needed a break from staring at a bunch of monitors all I had to do was swivel right. If I needed even more of a break, I could grab my bucket and do a quick water change.

In terms of balancing maintenance and viewability, the 29 gallon tall might just be the sweet spot. Once I’ve settled down back in the U.S., I will strongly consider getting another one.

Hope you enjoy these photos.

29 Gallon Work Tank
The firemouth in his cave. He’s always renovating (digging).
29 Gallon Work Tank
Common guppies and rummy-nose tetras round out the short list of inhabitants.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Sometimes the tetras use the cave, too.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Like a squadron of fighters…
29 Gallon Work Tank
The tank during one of its cleaner stages with plants nicely trimmed and glass free of algae.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Closeup of one of the two common guppies.
29 Gallon Work Tank
They are hovering at 90 degrees to one another.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Tetras with Java Moss in the background.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Another nice photo of the entire tank. I don’t remember why I left it partially unfilled.
29 Gallon Work Tank
After a hard week, I might sometimes skip a tank cleaning and let nature take its course.
29 Gallon Work Tank
Up close with a rummy-nose.

Why u mad?

Been having a lot of beers lately so I thought I’d go do some exercise at Victoria Park tonight. And by some, I really mean some. Gone are the days when it seems like I can stay there forever. I go maybe once every couple of weeks now, if that, and when I do my body can no longer perform as it did before. That’s the reality of having a day job.

Speaking of day jobs, I’ve always thought that basketball is a microcosm of life, and more specifically tonight, of work. You encounter a bunch of different characters. You encounter cronyism. You get people of different abilities. You all (at least on the surface) are trying to achieve the same goal. Unlike work, however, basketball is a game, and it’s supposed to be fun. So why did I feel annoyance at the end of the game? Despite losing, I did fairly well, shot over 50%, and scored a few buckets, and I was fine with that. I guess I’ll explain it from the beginning.

I touched upon this a long time ago, about race on the basketball court. Being in Hong Kong, I’ve been a part of the ethnic-majority for over two years now. I rarely experience racial discrimination like I occasionally did back in the U.S. Well, the first thing that happens when I step on the court is that the 4 non-Chinese guys don’t really want me on their team. They want one of their own. They start speaking in their language. Nice. This by itself doesn’t really bother me, I’ve encountered plenty of people of this ethnicity and I’m no longer surprised when they behave this way, but it did get the ball rolling towards annoyance.

Once the game starts, everybody’s getting a feel for each other, and if I recall correctly I actually make the first bucket. OK, great, seems like maybe we’ll get along fine. Of course, once the game gets going, things start exposing themselves to you, just like how it is at work. There seems to always be that guy who never runs back on defense, waiting for the cherry pick. It seems like none of the guys on my team are interested in defense. It also just happens that there’s a couple of guys on the other team who are over 6 feet tall, one of them with handles who can get to the rim at will (he was wearing an NYK Sprewell jersey, lol), and another, even bigger guy who is pretty much unstoppable in the paint. So, 5-on-4 (and that’s a very shaky 4) with two of the five being the aforementioned six-plus-footers.

I’m not too averse to playing harder on defense because my main goal tonight is to get in some exercise. That rolling ball of annoyance is just creeping along at a snail’s pace at this point. But then, some inexplicable shit starts happening. I finally get the ball from a teammate (as opposed to grabbing a loose ball or a rebound) and the first thing my teammates tell me to do is to pass it. Four guys on my team are yelling at me to give them the ball. I’m like “WTF?” but I continue to play within the flow of the game, trying to make the proper basketball decision. It continues to get more and more inexplicable. I have guys not playing any defense, period, demanding the ball from me as I’m bringing it down. I’m like fuck that shit, I’m taking it myself. I have some fun with my man before moving the ball (i.e. when I get tired from too much dribbling, haha), and then one of my teammates again comes up to me and says I need to move the ball. I wonder if he realizes that I’m running around on offense getting open only to watch him or his pals take shitty shots.

At work and in basketball, there sometimes comes a moment when you realize that nothing you do is going to change the situation, that it might be better to just stay in the corner and be quiet. I literally did this a few possessions later: I stopped running around and just parked myself in the corner, wide open. I then proceeded to watch the guy who just told me to move the ball get double-teamed on my side of the court, then lose the ball out of bounds. The next few offensive sequences consist of me running to the corner and standing there wide-open while my teammates proceed to turn the ball over.

One of my biggest beefs with basketball, work, and life, is hypocrisy. I can’t stand it. If you can’t do an equal or better job, or worse, you’re not even aware that you can’t do an equal or better job, don’t go around telling people what to do. It’s amazing how one guy can completely ignore the laziness and incompetence of his buddy (and himself) while criticizing the guy who hasn’t done anything wrong. All I saw was a bunch of guys jacking up shots and not playing defense, and they’re getting on my case for wanting to hold the ball longer when I finally get it? Fuck that, man. I’m perfectly fine with admitting when I play shitty and don’t deserve the ball but tonight was not one of those nights.

So this whole episode got me thinking about my annoyance (and sometimes anger) at stuff like this. My goal was to get some exercise. Did I really have to be annoyed by it? I don’t know the answer to that. Why do I get so annoyed by it? Is it because I get treated unfairly? But being treated unfairly happens all the time, it’s life not just for me, but for everyone. If the standard in life really is cronyism and nepotism (and one must really question whether this is not the case, seriously), why do I get angry at something that’s natural? Do I get angry when it rains, or when the sun comes out? Do I get angry because plants grow? I don’t like myself succumbing to this pet peeve.

Maybe one day I’ll analyze how I got to be this way. For now, it’s back to the grind, tomorrow. Good night. 🙂

Blowing Whistles

I wrote the following (redacted) letter a couple of weeks ago after seeing something happen to my coworker. In the beginning, I was specific with my complaints and signed the letter with my own name. Later, I chose to anonymize the letter in order to protect certain people on the team (recall that I am a lowly associate who should not be embarrassing people higher up than me). In the end, after discussing the issue with those people higher up than me and out of respect for them, I elected not to send the letter. For the version below, I chose to sign it with my own name after all. It would seem that sometimes, things aren’t that black or white…

April 16, 2015

Dear Mr. Regional Head of IT,

I am a contingent employee currently working on one of the IT teams here in the Hong Kong office. I am writing to ask for your help.

This evening as I was preparing to close up shop, I received a phone call from one of the newer members of our team. When I heard him on the phone, I immediately knew that something was wrong. Normally a cheerful guy, his voice was now quiet and shaking. I asked him what was wrong, and he asked me to join him on the 41st floor (even though he was actually on the 42nd; it was obvious he was shaken up).

When I went up and met him in the lobby, his lower jaw was shaking and his eyes were watery. He explained to me that he had been interacting with the impacted user and then another user stepped in. When he mentioned the name of this second user, I immediately knew what had happened.

I first encountered this user last year, also when I was relatively new. The thing I remember most from the encounter is that she threatened me with the loss of my job. Afterwards, when I told my teammates what had happened, they nodded with affirmation after I revealed the user’s name. It would seem that this user was already known for being difficult as well as verbally abusive.

At the X’mas Luncheon last year, I remember you saying that all employees, whether full time or contingent, deserve to be treated professionally, and that if we ever had any problems we could come to you for help. I hope I didn’t take you too literally, because I am asking for your help now. I have no problem with and am understanding of one-time, irregular outbursts from users who can be under a lot of stress, but this woman has shown a consistent pattern of berating and verbally abusing IT staff, and it has to stop.

When I told my colleagues that I planned to write you, they pleaded with me not to. They even said that I could lose my job for breaching protocol. And actually, if I had not remembered what you said in your speech, I probably would not be writing you now. But as a man of my word, I believe you to be the same. I believe that even if you don’t handle this matter personally, if you make the request, something effective will be done. Nobody should have to go through at work what my teammate went through tonight or what I went through 7 months ago.

Because I am acting of my own accord, and due to the sensitive nature of this issue, I have not named names and have written you anonymously. Nevertheless, it would not be difficult to identify who I am and I am prepared to accept any and all consequences of writing you this letter. I have already informed my managers and they are aware of what’s happened, so all you have to do is make the call. Thank you very much for your valuable time.

Best regards,
Jonathan Young

Rules and Procedures

For tonight’s bus ride home I decided to sit in the front instead of the back, and one of the interesting things I saw was a couple of ladies running and waving towards the bus as it was about to pull away from the stop. The bus slowed down and stopped, and for a second it seemed like the driver would let them on. All he had to do was open the doors. It didn’t happen, and I realized he stopped only because he was trying to merge into through traffic. In the end, all the ladies could do was throw their hands up in the air and look exasperated.

This got me thinking about why the bus driver would do something like that. I know I would have pulled over to let the ladies on as a matter of course. I would have to fight a bunch of instincts in order to completely disregard someone actively seeking help that I can easily give.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the driver has a schedule to keep. If (and that’s a very hypothetical if) the driver stopped for every straggling passenger, it would be unfair to the passengers further down the line who would now suffer a delay. But, how much of a delay would there be? And, compared with the realities of bus schedules, would the delay even be significant? After all, the driver could have opened the door while waiting for the break in traffic. He could have killed three birds with one stone: the passengers getting to ride the bus, the bus company getting to make extra money, and he himself getting to feel good for being nice. So, why didn’t he do it?

In a recent post about work, I wrote about how rules and procedures (or maybe I should say broken ones) prevented me from solving problems quickly and efficiently. Since that time, I’ve seen a few more situations where insistence on following rules and procedures hinders a process instead of benefits it. I have noticed that blindly following rules and procedures is a big thing in Hong Kong, and tonight it occurred to me that the same thing could be happening in the case of the bus driver.

Most people probably want to be helpful in their jobs, no matter what their job is. In my previous case at work, I wanted to solve the IT problem in the shortest amount of time so that the user could get back to work. If I were a bus driver, I’d imagine that I’d probably want to take as many passengers from point A to point B as I could, because that’s my job. But then, imagine that each time you stop to pick up an extra passenger, your supervisor reprimands you for no reason other than skirting the established behavior. You’re encouraged to take a longer and more convoluted path to a solution, or worse, to not come to a solution at all. Perhaps, to add another layer of complexity to this, your livelihood depends on following the longer path. Would you still take the shorter one?

It occurred to me that Hong Kong bus drivers might be encouraged to never stop for people running after the bus. I’ve seen it happen a disproportionate amount, to the point where I would say that the majority of bus drivers do it. On more than one occasion JC or I have gone up to the glass door, knocked on it, and then watched the driver look at us before pulling away. It doesn’t make sense that there would be so many asshole bus drivers, so the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s systemic. There is something in place that causes drivers to behave like assholes, and I would venture to guess that it’s monetary. There is no better motivator (especially when it comes to Chinese people, but that’s another story).

Today at work, I overheard our team manager calling a former teammate about a job he did last year. I will be doing the same job this weekend, and the manager was asking the old teammate if he could send us the email that he used last year as a template. I asked the manager if it was really necessary to have a template for saying “hello everyone, the job is done”. He told me that it’s the established procedure, and that if we didn’t send out that email, we’d be attracting negative attention to ourselves. It’s exactly like the case with the battery: some people care more about procedure than they do results. All I could do was shake my head.

In another case, I accidentally processed an order and set it to “received” instead of “pending” while doing a training run. All it is is a switch to set it back to “pending”, but it took over a week, at least a dozen emails back and forth, and an entire new ticket before it finally switched back. I won’t be making that mistake again, but did it really have to be that hard? Nobody could make the decision to just flip the switch?

I could go on but if I did I won’t be going to sleep tonight. I’m not saying that rules and procedures are bad in and of themselves; you definitely need rules and procedures for predictability and consistency. There is also an original reason, or spirit, behind every rule or procedure. They are supposed to be a means to an end, and not the end itself. Sadly, many people in Hong Kong seem to have forgotten this little detail, focusing only on the how and not the why.

Here’s to reducing bureaucracy and procedure, and to going back to just plain old helping each other out. Good night!

Writing on Walls

Having recently reached and passed two years of living in Hong Kong, we’ve naturally started thinking about how much longer we’re going to stay here. Our two year rental contract ended back in February, and the other day I finally got a message from the landlord: she wants to raise the rent by 11%. With rent already taking up 79% of my take-home pay, it would seem that in terms of staying in Hong Kong, the writing is now on the wall.

One of the crucial requirements that I identified before moving to Hong Kong was that we had to have two incomes. We would be living the good life as a DINK household, staying inside on hot, summer nights with the A/C on. As it turns out, the periods when JC and I have worked concurrently during the past 2+ years have been few and far between. Before landing my current job I frequently tapped into my savings and retirement money. I’ll probably need to do so again in the near future.

Speaking of my current job, I don’t mind saying that I’m now making less than USD$30k per year. When I first started looking for a job after two years out of the workforce, I wasn’t confident that I could land a job with higher pay. I was also unmotivated and fearful, and didn’t want to take on a higher paying job and its associated responsibilities. I went for the easy job with its accompanying low pay. Now, I realize that it was a mistake. What you put in to the job has no bearing on how much you get paid. I am working almost as hard as I was before, I am still dead when I get home, but I am making a quarter of what I used to (let me tell you, this job is not 75% easier than my old one). The other thing I’ve learned is, if you start low, even after a raise you’ll still be low. That’s why people in Hong Kong change jobs so much, because it’s the only way to get a raise. I should have aimed higher when I started out. Now that I’ve spent time in the work environment and regained my confidence, I’m pretty sure I could have done it easily. Anyhow, that’s spilled milk.

Back to the rent increase, though. I’m talking to the landlord now, but if she won’t budge, then the proportion of rent to income becomes 88%. Who in their right mind would continue in this situation? Not I (says the person who’s accepting 79% now and ∞ before). My options are pretty clear: move to a cheaper place (with its accompanying costs in time, money, and hassle), get a higher paying job (which would mean leaving my current company because there’s no way I’ll be getting a significant raise), ask JC to get another job (which she doesn’t want to do), or finally bite the bullet and go back to the U.S. Let’s discuss each option.

When I was stressing about money before, it didn’t occur to me that there was nothing stopping me from getting a higher paying job. It is a free market, and people come and go as they please. Since I’ve been at my job, people have been leaving pretty regularly. The notion, however, of investing in a job search, learning the new job, and then quitting soon after does not appeal to me at all, even though it’s somewhat normal here. Like with my current job, I would want to stay for a year, minimum. That’s a hefty commitment after being in Hong Kong for over two years and after originally intending to stay for only one.

Similarly, moving to a cheaper place would only make sense if we stayed for another year. It would be inefficient to expend the effort to find a place, find a mover, actually move, settle in, and then move out just a few months later. So once again, the question that presents itself is this: do we want to stay in Hong Kong for one more year?

This question is a little easier to answer for JC than it is for me. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been really good with landing jobs and working, but due to various reasons (here’s one) having to do with the realities of working here, she hasn’t stayed long at any of them. Considering that it was my dream to live in Hong Kong and JC came only because she is my wife and wanted to help me fulfill my dream, considering that all her family and most of her friends are back in the U.S., and considering all the effort and sacrifice she’s made to try to make this work, I do not fault her at all for being ready to move home. And, just to be clear, she is ready to move home.

For me, despite knowing that it’s probably inevitable, I’m still having a difficult time because ultimately I still have that ingrained affection for this city that I was born in. There are many things that I will miss. At the same time, there are many things that I won’t miss. It’s not unlike how I miss and don’t miss certain things from the Bay Area, because like Hong Kong, I also have an ingrained affection for San Francisco, the city that I grew up in. Both places have their pros and cons, and I know I can be happy in either place. Financially, the U.S. wins hands down (there’s a reason immigrants still want to go there). It’s just that right now, despite paying through the nose for rent, I’m here in Hong Kong, I’m comfortable, I have a routine, and I have momentum – and it can be hard to overcome momentum.

As I was typing this out last night, I received another message from the landlord. I had asked if she’d be amenable to lowering the rent increase, and her response was that her daughter is getting married in the middle of the year and will probably want to take the apartment back (hmmm, ok). We agreed to keep the rent the same until our last day, June 30. So, what will we do? Having a deadline helps to overcome the momentum, and knowing that I have at least a couple of months to decide will give me time to organize my thoughts with some more writing on the wall. We shall see!