The Concrete Floor

The hare had escaped.  The farmer yelled at his hunting dog, “You’re a highly trained animal!  How could you let that little hare outrun you?”  The hunting dog replied, “Master, I was merely hunting for my lunch;  he was hunting for his life.”  — Aesop’s Fables

I recently went back to the U.S. on a business trip, and caught up with friends I haven’t seen in a while – so the usual ten minute synopsis of recent developments in their relationships, job, and education.  My friends are at the age now where summer is now just considered “wedding season,” but people don’t really have kids yet.  It’s a moment when we’ve finished processing all the norms our parents gave us, and are now deciding what ones we consider our own.

One such norm is gender equality, specifically in the workplace. Thanks to the women’s movement, men and women can, at least in theory, now do the same jobs, get paid the same for doing them, and advance to the same seniority at them.  My mother fought hard for that privilege.  She was one of ten women in her medical school class of over a hundred.  Thanks to my parent’s generation (and my parents!), I could attend a formerly all-boys school in New York, play baseball on a co-ed Little League team, work on a historically male Wall Street trading floor, and drink scotch at a formerly all-male New York Athletic Club.  I have been told me there’s a glass ceiling somewhere out there, but I haven’t yet felt it.  We women have my parents’ generation to thank for such liberty.

And yet, I don’t have to look too far ahead to see something that looks suspiciously like a glass ceiling still out there in the workplace.  I don’t need to barrage you with statistics proving that there are notably few female CEOs, directors of companies, or Congresswomen in the US.  Here’s one fun fact though: Lehman Brothers, where I used to work, promoted 199 people to Managing Director last year. 176 of them were men. Only 23 were women. 

So why, after all these decades of gender equality, are women – ambitious, talented, smart women – still not keeping up with men in the workplace?

It’s not just the “glass ceiling” preventing women from rising higher.  There’s also a “concrete floor” preventing men from falling behind, a floor built by you, and by me.

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When cars meet bikes

I got hit by a minivan yesterday while biking along the highway that makes a ring around inner Beijing.  It had just been raining.  The defined bike lane, usually separated by a row of trees, had just ended as a road branched off the highway.  To my right was a moped veering left to avoid a deep puddle, and to my left, a minivan that was veering right to exit.  Between them: me, hitting the brakes of my beloved bicycle;  my shoulder, hitting the moped;  my back wheel, hitting the minivan’s back wheel. And then my rear reflector clattering across the concrete.

The minivan pulled over, and a young couple came out.  After their initial confused emotional angst, they kindly asked if my bike was broken.  “Did you get hurt?” I hadn’t even tipped over and didn’t have a scratch.  Only the splashguard over my rear wheel was warped, so that it pinned the tire in place.  “If we had tools,” the wife said, “we’d definitely help to fix it.”  They seemed genuinely concerned.  Eventually there was nothing more to say, and they drove off, maybe a little slower this time.

I grabbed my bike with its immobile back wheel, careful not to get grease on the suit I was wearing, and carried it a few meters looking for a place to park it overnight until the bike repairmen returned to their street carts.  There, by chance:  a woman standing by the open hood of a car; a man crouched next to a fan and some piping;  and a wrench.  I asked the auto repairman if I could borrow his wrench, and he instead got up without ceremony, took out some tools, and expertly repaired my back wheel.  He refused a tip. Even the woman didn’t seem bothered that he interrupted fixing her car to help me. Eventually, there was nothing more to do, so I biked off, maybe a little slower this time.

Getting hit by a minivan reminded me why I love China.  There are so many people here that you can’t avoid bumping into them once in a while — sometimes they’ll break your bike, sometimes they’ll fix it. In Beijing too, there’s that same persistent “plodding along” that I felt in New York this March; despite the pounding pace of change, such patience.  Perhaps it’s because things have been so hard for so long, Chinese people I’ve met tend to recognize what’s horrible, and what’s really not — and then they shrug off the stuff that’s not.

Next week, the US and China, one land known for its cars, and one land known for its bikes, will meet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Washington, D.C.  The headlines, I suspect, will focus on the collisions, since people like to read about accidents.  Admit it.  You’ve been reading mine.

But I hope that the real story will be about how the US and China can help each other out anyway.  That sometime during those two days, Treasury Secretary Geithner turns to his counterpart at the SED, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and says, “Hey, sorry you got hit by this financial crisis thing.  Did you get hurt?”  And maybe in response Wang Qishan will look at his wounded economy, which isn’t really that horrible, shrug and say, “We’ll be alright.”  At some point, after all the tea and coffee is drunk, there’ll be nothing more to say.  And so the US and China will set off on their own ways as they work to rebuild the world economy in their own ways.

Maybe a little slower this time.

The Big Five

I had seen the Big Five before I knew what they were.  It happened Wednesday January 28th at 5:50pm in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the moment I caught sight of a leopard — the last of the “Five” — hidden in the grass and about to pounce on an African gazelle.  I had spent almost two full days scanning the horizon from our ten-person open-top safari Jeep, seeing zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, baboons, wildebeests, impalas, wart hogs, vultures, hawks, and the other Big Four — lions, elephants, water buffalo and cheetahs.  I really hadn’t been paying attention to what the Big Five were, too enraptured by the sunsets and the blue sky, the peaceful coexistence of zebras and warthogs and impalas grazing together — and an inexplicable affinity for a chicken-like bird with a huge red eye spot that would suicidally cross the road. Don’t ask why.

I might have overlooked this Big Five thing entirely, had not the manager of our lodge that evening asked a British couple in our Jeep how our magnificent day had been.  “It was pretty disappointing,” the glum bride-to-be replied. “We missed seeing the leopard, which ran away before we could spot it.  So we only saw four of the Big Five.”

I thought about her comment the next two days of my safari trip. I thought about it when I was back in New York last month, listening as people shared their concerns about their careers.  It echoed in the back of my mind when talking to friends about failing relationships, about challenging grad school applications, nerve-wracking job applications, indeterminate health checkups, volatile pension savings.  It seemed everywhere there were people looking for, and just missing, elements of their own Big Five, whatever they were — career, family, love, health, house, finances, future.

And yet, despite this financial crisis, despite illness, and breakups, and losing jobs and identities, so many of you, unlike the British couple, have found the good in all this.  You’ve come to appreciate the blueness of the wide open sky, and the vividness of the sunsets.  You’ve found your red-eyed chicken.  You’ve deepened your friendship with your fellow travellers.

Look, I am glad that we have the Big Five to look for:  it’s a great excuse to go on safari. 

But I guess I’m not too bothered if we don’t spot that last leopard.  In the end, I just really enjoy being here, watching chickens cross the road, spending time with you on this ride together.

Wearing Black in New York

The upside of this financial crisis was that my friend was able to join me shoe shopping last Thursday at Harry’s Shoes on 83rd and Broadway.  He still had his severance package in hand from that morning’s trip to his firm’s “16th floor,” a blue folder that those kind people in human resources suggested he put in a white envelope to be more (you know) discreet.

I really wasn’t expecting New York to be quite so bad.  We read about it in the news here in China, but just aren’t feeling the financial crisis quite that hard.  China’s GDP is still growing a “worrying” 6 to 8%, people estimate — multiples of the pace of the developed world even during the good years. 

But as soon as I landed in New York last week, even before I crossed the tunnel from Newark airport into Manhattan, it became clear this crisis was as bad as the papers were saying, if not worse: my cab driver told me that I was just his second ride during his 12 hour shift, when he used to average 5 rides a day;  he thinks this will last so long that he’s considering moving back to Turkey after 5 years here in the States.  Later my parents took me to a good restaurant which normally required reservations;  it was so empty they let the three of us sit at a booth normally reserved for 8 on a Friday night.  When I met up with friends in a bar last Thursday for a brief “what are you up to” drink, the stats were depressing — a full quarter of my friends had been laid off in the past few months, and another quarter were worrying about their jobs or working extra jobs for colleagues of theirs that were laid off.

I went home that night feeling like Scarlett O’Hara picking her way through the bodies laid out near the hospital in Atlanta, grateful that I could at least return to the still surviving economy of China.  It felt that night that New York had fundamentally changed.  Even after 9/11, New York had a fighting spirit to it, a rallying passion.  Last Thursday, though, walking between the vacant office towers of midtown, it felt like New Yorkers were getting ready to abandon the city, and take its soul with them.

The next day, I walked through Columbus Circle.  The subway station is a mess:  construction marked out by blue plywood boards, walling in passages and blocking exits.  Up on the street, yellow cabs jolted over potholed pavement that had been poured quickly in patches during the black night — overused roads that never have enough of a break to heal fully.  No one else noticed the constricting plywood walls or the mutilated streets, though.  New Yorkers just deal with it, and move on anyway.  Watching them pick their way through the hazards of this urban jungle, I realized they would get through this too.

E.B. White wrote “Here is New York” in 1949 to describe this very same city that swept me through its tunnels and spit me out onto its streets last week.  He noted, “Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin: they sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they meet confusion and congestion with patience and grit — a sort of perpetual muddling through.”

When I left New York last weekend, the sky was blue and spring was in the air.  I left dreaming of lazy flocks of unemployed bankers and lawyers, with a falling reservoir of savings and a rising surplus of time, soaking up the free things with which New York summers drench its citizens:  free movies at Bryant Park, cherry blossom festivals in Brooklyn, Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater, Philharmonic in the park, swing dancing at Lincoln Center, free concerts everywhere.  They will gather amongst errant frisbees and oversized dogs, and spend the time they wished they had when the churning economy was rushing them along.  They will spend more time with each other, now, and ask themselves what it was that they imagined their life and world would look like before all this, before they became corporate assets that travel up and down in elevators each day.  And from the supernova dust of this financial crisis, new constellations will form that I can’t imagine yet.  But they will.

And while they rebuild the economy through this solemn time, they will wear black. Not because they are mourning the passage of something wonderful, that moment in time when life was good and hard and easy.  They’ll wear black because they are New Yorkers, who have always worn black, and have been ready — always ready — to muddle through.

Civilization in the West


If you want to see the exposed gears of civilization, come to China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, where the ancient cultures of the silk road mix with the seven countries that still border it today – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan/ India.  Visit the ruins of Jiaohe city, a trade center on a plateau until the water dried up seven centuries ago; visit the vineyards still using the irrigation systems dug in China’s “Death Valley” two-thousand years ago; eat raisins dried on trellises in brick-walled homes.  Time seems to have stood still, told out only by the site of motorcycles, cellphone towers, tour buses, and impeccably paved roads. Continue reading

To Mumbai with Love from New York

I never had much interest in going to India until today.
This morning, a glowing Saturday in Beijing, I treated myself to watching to Ric Burns’ 16 hour long eight-episode New York documentary.  I had gotten up to the final episode, which chronicles the rise and fall of the World Trade Center.  I had seen this episode before, and it’s not the best of the series, so while the steel symbols of a globalized world were rising and falling on one window on my laptop, I was reading the news on another.  News of a city on the other side of the world that I had never been interested in, until a friend shared a story of her parents driving past Cafe Leopold seeing people streaming out, and watching the fire on the rooftop of the Taj as the army rolled in.

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai felt familiar, but this one Op-Ed by Suketu Mehta, a professor at NYU, really nailed down why. The Mumbai he describes has a New York soul. 

And his suggested response is a New York response:  “…the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever… Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.”
Dear Mumbai, as a New Yorker who has marveled at our own great city rise from the ashes of an incomprehensible terrorist attack, I have confidence you will overcome this too.  As Mayor Giuliani said on 9/11, “Tomorrow New York is going to be here. And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before.”

So will you.  New York is cheering for you.

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We expats are proud to be American today

Tonight I went out to celebrate Obama’s victory, and the end of an administration that history has already judged as a failure in so many ways.  As an American living abroad, no failure has hurt me more than America’s loss of esteem in the world’s eyes.  Why did I feel I needed to slap Canadian labels on my luggage all these years?  Why have I been so embarrased to let people know I’m American?

But tonight, it finally hit me what today’s election meant to our country — and to me – when I overheard a young woman raise her glass and toast proudly, “I’m an American!”  Tomorrow, I’ll go back to being skeptical of “change” and critical of the new administration too (as always), but for now, it feels great to be an American.  I am proud of the democratic process, proud of my fellow Americans, proud of Obama and his team, and proud of this moment in history.

And I’m not the only one.  Here’s a video I took (endure the first 5 seconds of static please) of a spontaneous outpouring of patriotism that erupted on the rooftop of the Saddle in Sanlitun, a bar district in Beijing, so you can see for yourself what this means:

Congratulations, America.

As always,


Not just because Obama’s name also has two As and a B

I still don’t know what Obama’s voice sounds like.

I don’t watch foreign television here in Beijing, and for whatever reason, haven’t caught Obama clips on Chinese TV, though I am sure they have them.  When I realized my pretty unique situation half a year ago — how many non-deaf eligible voters in the whole world don’t know what Obama sounds like? a hundred?  — I started to make a concerted effort to avoid videos of him speaking until I could read his policies and platform objectively.  I basically ran out of time, unfortunately, and now only have 15 minutes to share my thoughts, so apologies for the haste.  In a few minutes, I’ll bike over to a restaurant in Beijing where I can watch CNN.  If Obama is elected
president, I’ll hear his voice for the first time when he gives an
acceptance speech.

But before I do that, I wanted to write down why I felt it was
important to not hear him in the first place:  when asking people what
they liked about him (most Americans living in Beijing are Democrats),
almost everyone pointed to a time they heard him speak — the 2004
convention, or a key debate.  And it had me wondering: was this just a
charismatic guy, who could work a room better than a “beady eyed” and “grouchy” McCain?  Were his supporters getting swept up by his
charisma more than by his policy stance?

In broad strokes, I do agree with Obama’s policies on most topics –
though his seemingly protectionist stance concerns me and I’m not
clear whether an Obama administration will be able to fix the key
problems in America’s health care system.  And there are bigger things
that worry me about McCain, including his choice of Sarah Palin for
VP, that had me cast anti-McCain absentee ballot more than I was
casting a pro-Obama one.

But as I’ve talked to people about my “charisma concern,” I realized
that actually, for a president, personal character SHOULD matter, a
lot.  Other legislators in D.C. should be, well, people who legislate,
and so when you vote for them, you should be voting for a set of
policies.  But a president is special;  he (or one day, she) needs to
be a leader, someone who can react to problems that we can’t
anticipate, build consensus to get things done, make prudent decisions
under pressure, listen when it makes sense to listen, and speak when a
clear voice needs to be heard.

More to say (always), but my 15 minutes are up.  Obama’s 15 minutes,
though, look like they be far from done.

Happy 2008,

On the financial crisis, from my time at Lehman and in China

It didn’t really hit me that this financial crisis was bad until I got an email from the president of ING Direct, where I have an online savings account, telling me not to panic.  I’m still digesting the news, the policies, the politics, and the implications, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share my perspective from the two places I’ve been which are relevant to this story:  the trading floor of Lehman Brothers, where I sold derivates several years ago to US corporations looking to manage currency risk from 2002 to 2006, and China, where I spent a year in Chengdu, China’s equivilant of middle America, before coming to Beijing where I am now a business strategy consultant for US multinationals.   The story I lay out below is based on my personal experience, and obviously misses a lot of pieces of this immensly complex puzzle. 
But from where I sit now and where I’ve sat, I see two fundamental reasons for why the financial world has unravelled:  (a) that banks and the financial markets are run by actual human beings, and (b) that Chinese people don’t have the financial protection that would allow them to feel comfortable spending their savings.  If I’m right, this mess may self-correct itself as talented financial managers leave the rubble of New York to help build up China’s consumer financial network — but before we get there, first here’s how we got here.
Disclaimer:  I haven’t worked at Lehman Brothers in several years, was never involved in management or oversight, and cannot in any way comment on the financial strength of that company.  In no way, shape or form should this Aabservation be seen as any sort of investment recommendation.

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(Repost) Bullet Points on Working in Lehman Brothers FX

The following is a “dispatch” I wrote for my friend Catherine Price’s e-zine, Salt, back in 2004, after having worked at Lehman Brothers on the Corporate Foreign Exchange (FX) desk for 2 years.  It gives a brief sense of what it’s like to work there, and thougt you might be interested: 

Originally posted in August 2004 on Saltmag:
With apologies that my reflecting pool is never still enough to see
clearly what we look like on the trading floor, I am sending you a
dispatch written in the only language that can survive the choppy
waters of short-attention-spanned corporate America — bullet points:

* My job at my investment bank (the “Firm”) is to help multinational
corporations manage their foreign currency risks Continue reading