Negotiate, Negotiate and Negotiate – What We Can Learn from Jennifer Lawrence and Sheryl Sandberg

“American Hustle” actress Jennifer Lawrence revealed that when she found out both she and co-star Amy Adams were only getting 7% of profit while her male costars Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner were each getting 9%, she got mad at herself first.  She admitted: “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.  I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult” or ‘spoiled.’”


In her international bestseller “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook tells her story when Mark Zuckerberg offered her the job.  She confesses that she only started to negotiate hard until a male friend urged her to. 

A few years ago, I was offered a job after three rounds of interview that spanned from September to December.  After my recruiter got the new company to match my then employer’s vacation schedule, he flat out refused to further negotiate my salary on my behalf. 

If Jennifer Lawrence and Sheryl Sandberg, women of great means and remarkable accomplishments were reluctant to negotiate, average women like me face more resistance when we strive to be taken seriously.  To my credit, I did not accept the offer that the recruiter tried to jam down my throat.

It’s said that in business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.  I did not receive any formal training on negotiation, not even in the MBA school.  When a former boss noticed my weakness in that regard, he signed me up for a 2-day negotiation workshop, which taught me to look at my work and personal life from a fresh perspective.  How I wish I had learned to negotiate effectively early on, and I could have gotten more plum assignments, more vacation days, more schedule flexibility and yes, more money throughout my career. 

Therefore, when Randy Hecht invented a new educational board game called It’s A Squirrel’s Life™, I saw an opportunity to incorporate a negotiation element in its rules.  Since this is a competitive game, we instituted a trading post where players can trade with each other different food pieces such as pumpkin, strawberry and acorn.  As the

game gets more intense and players get closer towards the goal, each player’s extra food pieces all of a sudden carry different values.  It’s up to the players to bargain with each other, and they have to “pay market price” to obtain the missing while necessary food pieces to win.  This dynamic pricing structure is what Uber, Los Angeles Opera and airlines use to determine pricing and availability.  The sooner children know about and practice it, the better and more at ease they are at it.  


Dear parents, grandparents and teachers, kids these days are growing up in an entirely new economy, where disruption and innovation are to be expected and demanded.  It’s A Squirrel’s Life is a throwback to the days when families spent quality time together laughing and playing, and children get to practice basic math and negotiation while having fun.  We hope you all enjoy it.



A View of Our Border: an Objective Look at Illegal Immigration

Eddie is a Brooklyn longshoreman who along his wife Beatrice, have raised her deceased brother’s daughter Catherine, and has feelings for Catherine more than that of an uncle.  One night, Beatrice‘s two cousins who have just gotten smuggled in from Italy arrive at their house, and an sympathetic Eddie allows them to stay.  The two young men are: Marco, a married man who leaves his wife and three young children behind, hoping to make money to support his family back in Rome, and his brother Rodolpho, a single man whom Catherine eventually falls for.  Consumed with his obsession with Catherine and jealousy of Rodolpho, Eddie reports the two illegals to the US immigration authority.   Rodolpho and Catherine decide to get married so Rodolpho can stay in the country, while Marco alone faces the fate and shame of deportation.  His rage and devastation ultimately lead to an unspeakable tragedy.

I first came into Arthur Miller’s world when I was still in elementary school.  His “Death of a Salesman” was one of the first American plays that received its premier in China just several years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and it was an instant hit.  When I watched it thirty years later, its theme and the characters’ eternal struggles prove to be as timely as they ever were.  “A View from the Bridge,” his later work about this tragic longshoreman has been adapted into a movie and numerous stage productions, and is currently getting a revival in the storied Lyceum theatre on Broadway in New York.

A View from the Bridge poster


Eddie can’t conceal his contempt for Rodolpho and warns Catherine that he is only displaying his affection to get her to marry him in order to obtain his legal residency.  A confused and torn Catherine offers to accompany Rodolpho back to Italy, partially as a test and partially to leave an increasingly volatile Eddie, and Rodolpho refuses: “Do you think I am so desperate? My brother is desperate, not me. You think I would carry on my back the rest of my life a woman I didn’t love just to be an American? It’s so wonderful? You think we have no tall buildings in Italy? Electric lights? No wide streets? No flags? No automobiles? Only work we don’t have. I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here –work! How can you insult me, Catherine?”

It was eerie hearing such an impassioned plea in the backyard of Mr. Donald Trump, a multibillionaire who has made his fortune in real estate in New York and around the world, and who has vowed to build a wall to stop illegal immigrants from entering the US.  Historically, politicians, policy makers, think tanks and the general public have long held diametrically opposed views on the net financial effect of illegal immigration, and they each cite different studies to support their arguments.  Though universities, institutions and economists have done numerous researches on the subject, in my opinion, none was conducted in a comprehensive and agenda-free fashion, using data-driven, dynamic, simulation models.  If a convincing economic cost-benefit analysis is lacking, the debate on its human cost is an even more controversial issue.  When Mr. Trump declared his candidacy for President of the United States on June 16, 2015, he pointed out: “…The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”  Even though he was clearly referring to illegal, not legal, immigrants from Mexico, he was immediately labelled as a “racist” and a “bigot.” A firestorm ensued, and NBC, Macy’s and other corporate giants were quick to sever business ties with him, costing him hundreds of millions of dollars.  Yet, Mr. Trump refused to recant.  Public sentiment turned towards his favor on July 1, 2015, when Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico with a criminal background allegedly used a stolen firearm from a federal agent’s car to fatally wound Kate Steinle, a total stranger who, with her father, just happened to be visiting a popular tourist area in San Francisco, one of the so-called sanctuary cities where local police does not report illegal immigrants to the federal authority.  Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez was arrested and is going to be tried for murder, and some lawmakers drafted “Kate’s law” in honor of the victim to propose increasing “penalties applicable to aliens who unlawfully reenter the United States after being removed.”

Trump photo

Sensing the tide has turned, Mr. Trump continues to make illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.  His doubling down on this issue has run afoul of open border advocates and even candidates from his own party, won him supporters from all different stripes, and catapulted him to the top of state and national polls.  His rising popularity is not a coincidence.  Americans, especially the older generations, fear our country is on the decline.  They feel the illegal immigrants broke the law and instead of getting deported, take jobs away from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and enjoy public benefits.  They resent the politically correct media for sympathizing with these law-breaking freeloaders and publishing tear jerker stories of their “plight” on the front pages of national newspapers, and are fed up with the politicians without the backbone to stand up to them and fix the country’s problem.  They applaud Mr. Trump for speaking his mind, and respect and admire him for not capitulating even after his position cost him business deals.

border crossing sign

I understand how these people feel, as I myself are sick of subsidizing illegal immigrants with my hard-earned tax dollars.  However, let’s analyze the background of these illegals.  Most of them are people with very little education and skills fleeing war, poverty, and corruption back home.  They are so desperate that they are willing to leave their families and friends behind, risking their lives coming to America.  It is a sign that America still represents hope: if they work hard, they have a shot at having a better life.

Their yearning is a familiar one.  I came to the US from China as an international student twenty-three years ago.  I was toiling away at a dead-end job making about $10 a month, which was the government-mandated wage for a college graduate.  After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, I didn’t want to live in a country whose government deployed soldiers and tanks to crush a pro-democracy movement and slaughter unarmed students and citizens.  I did not qualify for any family or employment-based visa, and the only way was applying as a student.  I studied hard for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), two standardized tests required for admission to accredited MBA programs in the US., and my parents exhausted their lifetime savings and borrowed money from relatives to come up with my first semester’s tuition.  I still remember the early days when I worked 50 hours a week making minimum wage, and carried a full academic load.  On the one day when I had neither work nor school, I had to finish all the chores and make meals for the next week.  I was poor, my wardrobe screamed “fresh off the boat,” yet it was a happiest time.  I enjoyed everything American: food, freedom, and unwavering optimism of my future.

Admittedly, I, like a lot of skeptics, discounted Mr. Trump’s candidacy and his seriousness in the very beginning.  With his meteoric rise in a packed GOP crowd, I started to marvel at his innate ability to speak directly to voters, without the filter of the hostile mainstream media.  His political skills and instincts are natural and uncanny, and his rivals and pundits underestimate him at their own peril.  I think his moves should be required readings for all the Marketing, Communications, and Political Science majors, and wish him the best of luck on the campaign trail in the next ten months.  Strategically, I consider him brilliant making illegal immigration a national topic, as I firmly understand the stance of those who are against it.  Yes, we are a nation of law.  Yes, these people committed a federal crime when entering our country illegally or overstaying their visas.  And yes, what they have done is unfair to the people playing by the rules and waiting for their turns patiently, some for more than a decade.  The reality though is that most of these illegal immigrants unfortunately don’t, and probably won’t qualify to apply to enter legally – they lack immediate and direct family ties, they don’t have permanent, in-demand skills, and they can’t come up with half a million to a million dollars to invest in a business.  If you are poor, uneducated and hopeless, you must make a decision: to live in constant fear of violence and injustice, knowing you will probably never be able to feed your family; or risk your life and start a new one on the other side of the fence.  How surprising can their collective choice be?

As a student-turned immigrant, I want to caution those who fervently oppose illegal immigration to be careful of what they wish for.  People have long come to America for political freedom and economic prosperity.  When people start to make their migration destination elsewhere, it may be because America is no longer the “shining city on the hill.”  Mr. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, claimed that if elected, he would make conditions so bad that illegal immigrants would “self-deport.”  Well, he had a point there.  A colleague of mine recounted the one day he went to a Home Depot store in Los Angeles during the height of the recession in 2009, and the traditional, proverbial Hispanic day laborers were nowhere to be found.  Instead, they were all white Americans.  Likewise, the current Chinese students studying in the US are younger, more affluent than my generation, and most of them return to China upon completion of their studies because they believe there are a lot more opportunities back home nowadays, than when I graduated in the mid-1990s.  Human migration has its own course independent of any politician’s campaign promise.  As long as USA is still the source of innovation, engine of economic growth, and the land of the free, people will make their way here, legally or illegal, in a freight container, on a stingy boat, or by foot under the hot desert sun.  There will be no wall high enough, no ocean wide enough, no law in the book tough enough, to deter determined people from striving to have a better life.

climbing the border wall


Money, Prestige and Sex, Part I: How To Sleep With 1,000 Men?

During the Labor Day weekend of 2011, I paid a visit to a family relative who happened to reside just 6 blocks from where Mr. Steve Jobs lived.  Mr. Jobs was still alive then and had just announced his stepping down from Apple a few weeks prior.  Getting closer to his place, I noticed a brand new Mercedes without a license plate parked around the corner, and his backyard was planted with green and red apple trees.  As we continued to walk past his driveway, two boys – one about 13 or 14 of age with sandy brown hair, light complexion with freckles and full lips, and the other a few years younger – strolled towards a girl about 8 or 9 years old in a bright red and yellow jacket and pink skinny jeans standing in front of Mr. Jobs’ house.  The older boy called out “Grace” and the girl with her face lit leaped into his embrace.  It was a heart-warming moment that would put a smile on even the most jaded person’s face.

More than four years passed and that image was as vivid as it ever was.  The most arresting thing was how the boy exuded warmth, content, and grace, and the fact they walked to, instead of being dropped off at, Mr. Job’s house, indicated he was very likely a neighborhood kid living in this affluent community.  His pace was assured, and his gaze focused.  There was no trace of any hardship or suffering.

Shu Yi, a prominent writer based in Hong Kong, once notes in one of her novels that “the look of poor children’s eyes is always that of discontent.”  I did not fully comprehend it until a co-worker brought her son to work one day.  She was a single mother who according to her own account, had literally walked away from her marriage with only clothes on her back, and was at the time embroiled in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband.  Her son was a lanky lad with blonde hair swept across his right forehead.  I caught a glimpse of his eyes – eyes seemed to protest the whole world had turned its back on him, and had to quickly look away.

This coworker was an intense woman who would occasionally share her dating episodes with us.  One day she wanted to show me something and handed me her smart phone.  A picture of a naked woman on all fours – presumably her – was on the screen.  I kept my silence and composure as she quickly swiped it through.  One Friday she excitedly told us about her upcoming date with a guy living in her apartment complex.  The next Monday morning, she showed up looking deflated.  It turned out the date ended on a sour note when she refused to sleep with him after dinner.

Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional sex columnist in “Sex and the City,” once observes: “New York City is all about sex. People getting it, people trying to get it, people who can’t get it. No wonder the city never sleeps. It’s too busy trying to get laid.” I am almost certain all the single women in the world echo this sentiment: “They say the average 33-year-old woman has sex 3.5 times a week. I’d like to know who that woman is.” One woman who certainly had a more fabulous sex life than the average 33-year-old woman was Peggy Guggenheim.  She once famously claimed she had slept with 1,000 men, which was a staggering number for a woman even by today’s standard, though certain male movie stars, rockers and professional athletes have reportedly bedded much, much more.  I, for one, want to know who these men were and how she found them.

Peggy Guggenheim was born into a very wealthy family, even though she got a smaller share of inheritance than her cousins did when her father went down with the ill-fated Titanic.  She did not have to work for a living, nor did she have to marry a working man.  She surrounded herself with industrialists, writers, artists and other luminaries, and had time and money to devote to patronizing art and promoting artistic movements.  Based on the photos I see, she was not a particularly striking woman.  What I do notice is that she radiated glamour, confidence and refinement.   And why wouldn’t she have these qualities, if you received first-rate schooling, had resources for maintaining a svelte figure, and never had to worry about putting food on the table or comforting your crying babies in the middle of the night?  The wealth and prestige she inherited allowed her to put together an impressive body of 20th century modern art.  She collected art, and at the same time men, predictably drawn to her fame and fortune like moth to flame.

Peggy Guggenheim Huffington Post

A prostitute who slept with 1,000 customers would have concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, violence, or exploitation.  A woman of Peggy Guggenheim’s pedigree would cede no warnings of such.  She was merely described as having a “veracious” sexual appetite instead of being labelled as “promiscuous” or urged to seek treatment from sex addiction. Thus a self-fulling prophecy unfolded conveniently: once you have that many notches in your bedpost, you are believed to possess an admirable level of certain skills, which in turn attracts even more suitors.  Whereas a man might be reluctant to admit patronizing prostitutes, which carried stigma, being one of Peggy Guggenheim’s conquests inevitably led to curious cocktail hour inquiries in earnest and envy: “What was she like?”

Women who want to have a satisfying sex life thinking they can attain that by becoming wealthy and influential may be disappointed.  The power and allure of Peggy Guggenheim was rooted in her last name; she was born rich.  A self-made woman will no doubt have to sacrifice her social life to invest in her career before becoming successful, which amounts to losing time, the most precious commodity in her pursuit of both.

In the first episode of Season 3’s “Sex and the City”, Miranda Hobbes, the Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-partner who finished first in her litigation class, ponders as their ferry sails towards Staten Island leaving Manhattan behind: “Look at how small it looks. Who would have thought an island that tiny would be big enough to hold all our old boyfriends?”  Well, in Peggy Guggenheim’s case, it did not.  She moved to Europe, slept with 1,000 men, and her “Peggy Guggenheim Collection” is now a modern art museum overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.

Peggy Guggenheim Venice photo

Money, Prestige and Sex, Part II: The Fallacy of Having It All

Pragmatism vs. Romance, Then  

The “middle of the road” doctrine was one of the most fundamental principles of ancient Chinese philosophy.  Growing up, with the exception of being expected to excel academically, my generation was taught the importance of being modest, keeping a low profile, and not wanting too much of a good thing.  The theory applied to every aspect of life, from work to social, and had paramount influence on how one chose a life partner.  A man usually emphasized looks, age and domestic skills, and a woman put a man’s family background, education and career path above appearance and personality.  I still remember how shocked I was when reading a Sunday Los Angeles Times wedding announcement of a young American woman with a master’s degree working for Unilever marrying a serviceman with only a high school diploma.  A marriage like that was, and still is, unfathomable in China.

In the West where people have enjoyed steadily rising living standard, romance is still valued.  Both young men and women put a premium, at least initially, on physical attractiveness, with chemistry and compatibility rounding up the top three.

Pragmatism vs. Romance, Now  

As societies evolve, traditional way of life is giving way to new reality.  In countries where a woman’s primary role was producing children and being servile, the rapid economic development and social uncertainties practically demand a woman be productive and self-sufficient.  Whereas a man in the past focused on his bride’s youth and looks, the current male generation pays far more attention to her education, income potential, and most importantly, her ability to help his career.  Their courtship is almost transaction-based, and the prevalent culture’s deep-rooted pragmatism, while always strong, has taken on a modern urgency in direct response to economical unpredictability, social upheaval, and people’s general underlying survival instinct.

The West’s feminists and pop culture have during the last few decades popped up the notion of “having-it-all,” whatever it means, and encouraged women not to settle.  The international bestseller “Lean In” causes an average working woman to think that if she works at it, she too can have a thriving career, and a nurturing husband who is equally successful in his own right, supports her career choices, and shares equitable household chores and child-rearing duties.  In other word, a modern man must play a number of roles: provider, friend, lover, child care technician, business partner.  I myself find it astonishing for a woman to think that she can find a man capable of performing all these functions, and a woman disillusioned enough to think that she can is setting herself up for disappointment. While Ms. Sheryl Sandberg has my deepest sympathy for the tragic loss of her husband, it’s a social experiment of gigantic order to see when, or if, she can find another man who will replicate what her late husband did for her.

Sheryl Sandberg

As if things were not complicated enough: as a young woman gets older, her needs in a man changes regardless of her marital status.  If her partner’s capacities do not evolve accordingly overtime, it’s evitable for a gap to develop and grow between what the woman wants and needs and what the man is willing or able to provide. If we breakdown the demographics of these women, an even more startling phenomenon emerges: when a middle class woman grows her professional circle and climbs up the socioeconomic ladder, when her investment in her education and career starts to pay off, she will find herself becoming more appealing to her contemporary men, who grow more appreciative of women who possess the life experience, maturity and confidence that they once did not value as much.  Interestingly enough, the difference between what Eastern and Western men want at this stage becomes almost negligible, as mature men appear to be more universally attracted to women of their intellectual and professional equals.

The Money Divide

I will not speculate what women of the upper echelon do to deal with the gap, and I can only point to anecdotes.  Ethel Kennedy was reported to have gone on dates after Bobby was assassinated.  When she realized none of these men could match what Bobby offered, she never re-married.  Peggy Guggenheim decided to just sleep with men after two failed marriages, and she was able to find 1,000 of them. This is another area where the rich have us beat: have you ever heard of any working class woman pulling off that feat?

Peggy Guggenheim portrait

While a wealthy woman makes a relatively easy decision to either give up or simply ratchet up sex partners, a middle-class woman with her new-found popularity has rather limited options:

a. Find a way for her man to fulfill her needs

This can be a daunting task akin to trying to teach an old dog new tricks, and is known to cause frictions and resentment.  No man likes to face his inadequacies, perceived or real.  Few women have the patience, strong will, or diplomatic skills to “change a man.”  Even fewer men have the desire or humility to improve.

b. If option “a” does not work, her choices include:

i.Giving up


iii.Filling her needs in a different man

Note neither “i” nor “ii” is desirable.  Giving up may lead to frustration, anger and depression.  Leaving can have adverse emotional, financial or logistical consequences. “iii” takes more courage and requires resources most woman are not equipped with.  Before Anna Karenina throws herself in front a freight train, Jinlian Pan, the most infamous adulteress in the Chinese history met her violent end and her story serving up as a cautionary tale was told and retold in traditional and new media of all sorts imaginable.  Pan was in a forced marriage to an ugly midget.  Humiliated after her handsome, brawny, valiant brother-in-law Song Wu rejected her advance, she sought comfort in a flamboyant playboy rumored to have the most advanced sexual prowess.  They conspired to poison her midget husband, and Song Wu exacted revenge by cutting her head off and disemboweling her organs as a sacrifice to his dead brother.  Since the quaint notion of a man being everything for his wife is deeply rooted in our culture, most people still find it appalling that a woman dares to think outside of her box (no pun intended).  My current dentist once shared her practice with her also dentist husband, who had a ski accident and has been confined to a wheelchair for the last five years.  A few weeks ago, she saw me when I went in for a routine cleaning, and told me in front of her staff that her therapy sessions with her psychiatrist had not helped at all.  She was a beautiful, accomplished woman, and I immediately realized that the elephant in the room was that she was sexually frustrated and had no outlet.

Pan Jinlian

Again, the dilemma seems to stem from the socioeconomic divide: while rich men are open to having just a strictly physical encounter, average men are much more reluctant to be just an f* buddy.  Samantha Jones, the character who embodies sex in the seminal pilot episode of “Sex and the City,” declares: “This is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” And her friend Miranda Hobbes points out: “Yeah, except men in this city fail on both counts. I mean, they don’t wanna be in a relationship with you but as soon as you only want them for sex they don’t like it. All of a sudden they can’t perform the way they’re supposed to!” Maybe because both men and women realize that whoever is capable of separating emotion from the sex act has the upper hand, and neither wants to relinquish the power, or forgo the ego of self-importance by being considered just a sex partner.

SATC F-buddy


Some suggest that Peggy Guggenheim was a role model for women, and I don’t really think she set out to be one intentionally.  She was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and she was not afraid of going after it.  Fortunately for her, she had all the resources and none of the inhibitions to accomplish that.  The rest of us?  Not that lucky.

Money, Prestige and Sex, Part III: A Tribute to Union

I have a friend Linda who confides her frustration with her husband Walter almost every time we meet.  Walter is in his early 70s, 17 years older than Linda, grew up on a ranch in Illinois, and is estranged from his parents and siblings.  Linda started her small business some time ago and deals with its growing pains on a daily basis.  When she returns home, she still has to cook and clean as Walter is domestically challenged.  Walter’s father passed away a few years ago and did not leave anything to him.  Walter deep down inside is a country boy and longs for the days when he can return to his family ranch in his golden years.  After he found out his father had left the ranch to his siblings, he hired a lawyer to contest the will.  It was a long, drawn-out battle that saw him take a second mortgage on their house and make multiple trips to Illinois.  Thirty thousand dollars later, he still did not have the ranch.  Needless to say, Linda and Walter have very little to say to each other these days, and sex is out of the question.  Linda is a smart, attractive woman who has plenty of admirers, and when I asked her whether she would leave Walter, she said something that caused me to pause: “I will never find a man who will ever love me more than Walter does.”  In 1980s, Walter was an American expatriate working for a Fortune 500 company, and brought Linda to the US on a fiancé visa after meeting her overseas.  He spent one month’s salary on her one-way business class ticket, married her on the last day before her visa would expire, taught her English, and showed her the world when he travelled extensively for his employer.  Without his nurturing, Linda would not have been able to start her own company.  Even though there is no passion, they still have great respect for and appreciation of each other.  She knows she is Walter’s only connection to this world, and walking out would devastate him.  As a compromise, she keeps interesting and successful men in her company, and sets her emotional boundary as she has no illusion of what they represent.

Conventional wisdom has that married men don’t leave their wives.  With the way family law is written, a divorce can send a man (and a woman) to emotional and financial ruins.  Statistics shows that 80% of the divorce petitions are filed by women, which is not a surprise given the great stride they have made in their education and careers.  While I wish these women the best finding what they want, I still recognize that divorce is a strenuous undertaking, with serious emotional and financial ramifications.  With the exceptions of neglect and abuse, a couple just doesn’t decide to call it quits simply because they don’t love each other anymore.  There are almost always underlying reasons that act as a catalyst to finally tip over the balance: affair, finance, career choice, illness, etc..  Well, do divorced people become happier?  Unfortunately, research shows they are no happier than before their divorce, which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, the fickleness of human nature is to blame.

When I was still in high school living in China, the airing of a television series “Anna Karenina” caused a huge controversy and inspired heated debate.  Back then, divorce was frowned upon, and a divorced woman was a social pariah and considered morally corrupt.  I don’t know what percentage of the couples stayed married because they did not want to bring “shame” to their families, or feared being ostracized at work, or could not afford separate housing.  I do still vividly remember a high school classmate’s mother complaining to me about her insensitive husband.  Given the backdrop, it was no wonder why even my literature class teacher could not understand Anna’s decision, and women shook their heads praising Karenin’s restraint dealing with his wife’s infidelity, as a typical Chinese man would have beaten his cheating wife to a pulp, or worse.  Years later when I read the novel, I marveled at Leo Tolstoy’s masterful ability at depicting human emotions.  After Anna leaves her husband and children, she and Vronsky live together despite the scorn of the entire aristocratic society.  She turns paranoid and jealous, and they argue constantly.  Tolstoy writes that Vronsky becomes increasingly fed up with Anna’s temper, and describes his disgust with the sipping sound Anna makes drinking her tea.  When she decides to attend an opera despite his pleading not to make a scene, Vronsky finds her beauty, which is what draws him to her initially, and her exquisite gown, repulse him.  Tolstoy initially did not intend for Anna to kill herself; as the story unfolds amid the tumultuous geopolitical, economic and social landscape, her suicide becomes an inevitable end.

Anna Karenina book cover

Anna Karenina

When a couple first meets, sparks fly and fireworks erupt.  Eventually, passion gives way to the mundane, whereas an all-encompassing companionship evolves and transcends whatever physical, financial or logistic bond that binds them together in the first place.  There may be detours, circles, or even dark holes on the way; however, the path points forward.  It is that very bond that elevates coupledom to partnership: a deep, unbreakable connection designed to withstand the test of time.

The fictional ultimate political couple Frank and Claire Underwood has a common goal: power.  They are friends, lovers, and the staunchest supporter of each other’s and their collective cause.  When Claire’s former paramour Adam is blackmailed by Frank’s political enemy to reveal their affair, Claire and Frank summon Adam to their residence to strategize, and here is the exchange:

Adam to Frank:                      Oh, your wife? What does that even mean to you?

Frank to Adam:                      Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is, or how insignificant you are in comparison.


Adam to Claire:                      I’m sorry I ever met you.  All you’ve ever done is cause me pain.  Now you’re fucking with my life and the life of the woman that I love more than I ever loved you… I’m not part of this world.  I didn’t sign up for it.  I have no interest in it.

Claire to Adam:                      We‘re giving you an out, Adam.  And if you choose not to take it, I will bury you.

Adam to Claire:                      I’ve never hated anyone before.  Now I know what that feels like.

Claire to Adam:                      It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it?


Frank and Claire

Series Conclusions

Peggy Guggenheim was a pioneer in her endeavor well before the feminist movement, which has given women choices and empowered them to freely decide what they want to do with their bodies, sexuality, and relationships.  I wholeheartedly support whatever they do to pursue their happiness, however they define it.  Unfortunately, even though our society supposedly is more advanced and tolerant of alternative lifestyles, there is still a considerable amount of stigma associated with a single woman who opts for sex rather than marriage, or a married woman either seeking attention and comfort from a man other than her husband, or leaving her marriage outright to go after whatever it is that she wants.  I am thankful to Peggy Guggenheim who was ahead of the curve demonstrating to her admirers and distractors alike that she could unapologetically sleep with as many men as she pleased, just as men could.  I also find it equally laudable for women to stay with their men, regardless of how inadequate they may be, to build a life-long union that is based on love, friendship, respect, companionship that transcends the purely physical.

Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict


Feminism is the New F-Word

In her international bestseller “Lean In,” Ms. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, cites how Professor Michele Elam noted very few students who took her “Introduction to Feminist Studies” course felt comfortable using the word “feminism” and even “fewer identified themselves as feminists.”  When I asked several male friends what they immediately thought of upon hearing the word “feminism,” some clammed up, and one actually sneered and uttered a derogatory word not fit for print.

The feminist movement and its activists have made great strides towards gender equality.  Women make up more than 50% of college graduates and 47% of the workforce.  The percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs has reached its all-time high, though at a still dismal 4.8%.  19.4% of our representatives in both Houses are women, and there are currently two female presidential candidates attempting to smash the ultimate glass ceiling.  So why do so few women profess to be feminists, and why do the word “feminism” and “feminist” appear to have such a negative connotation these days?

There are two interesting articles that have been widely discussed during the last few weeks.  Ms. Heather Robinson writes for the New York Post that some of the women living in the city she interviewed long for the days when men would actually call women for dates, put on suits, and pay for dinners.  The New York Times published an article called “Poor Little Rich Women,” whose author Ms. Wednesday Martin observes that the women she meets on the Upper East Side, despite having education from elite universities, choose to “stay home, exercise to a razor’s edge,” focus on their children, and hope for bonuses from their hedge fund manager husbands so that they can plan a girl’s night out or splurge on a $10,000 table a charity function.  These behaviors and sentiment seem so far removed from the ideals our previous generations’ feminists struggled for, and they are rightfully baffled.  Ms. Sandberg again quotes Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation who ponders: “My generation fought so hard for all of your choices.  We believe in choices.  But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.”

Maybe that serves as a clue to why feminism has lost its appeal.  Ancient Chinese philosophers have warned that “too much of a good thing becomes bad.”  I am afraid that in today’s overly sensitive and hyper politically correct atmosphere, disagreement and legitimate debates have been succumbed to hyperbole and heavy-handedness.  Though Ms. Martin does not declare it, it’s evident from her choice of words and tone that she considers these women superficial, materialistic and downright tragic.  Why, she wonders, would these educated, smart and beautiful women engage in seemingly trivial and frivolous pursuits? Well, she should know: feminism has empowered women to pursue lifestyles of their own choices: they can elect to work, or stay at home.  Why should those who opt for staying home be regarded as not fulfilling their potentials? While the trailblazers in their eras helped usher in voting rights, protections from discrimination and harassment in the workplace – and women of this and the next generations will forever be grateful to them – we must respect different voices and decisions.  Case in point: when a first time novelist decides to poke fun at you, you know that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction:  Ms. Patrick Park, in her debut book “Jane Re” creates a character “who seems crazy,” and who is, what else, “an eccentric feminist scholar with an attic office,” married to a younger man living in her shadow who, is it really surprising, is her title character’s Mr. Rochester.

Bertha Mason photo

I for one, after experiencing all sorts of stereotypes, discrimination and harassment at classroom, boardroom and card room both in China and USA, have changed my own attitude and approaches over the years, and concluded that humor is the best tactic.  When my colleague and I were travelling in China last month, on one particularly grueling day we had to spend 16 hours on the road visiting three potential clients.  Our last appointment picked us up at 7 pm and admired me, “a woman,” for doing so much trekking.  I chuckled, and quoted my idol Madonna: “A girl has got to make a living.”  Laughter erupted and tension gave away to understanding and admiration.

Our pop culture likes to tell women that they can have it all, whatever the definition of “having it all” is.  Our current state of feminism, in its extreme and militant style, has alienated men and women, the very group it intends to protect and promote, so much so that even women who are for equality of opportunities and treatments, afraid of being ostracized and ridiculed, refuse to admit that they are feminists.  Some men, on the other hand, for fear of being labeled as “chauvinists,” stop taking professional and personal responsibilities or displaying “chivalry.”  Isn’t it time for the so-called “feminists” to re-consider their messages and strategies, and adopt a methodology that is actually going to advance their agenda?

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Why New York women wish they lived in the ‘Mad Men’ era

New York Post

By Heather Robinson

May 14, 2015

The final episode of AMC’s “Mad Men” this Sunday heralds the end of a TV era. The show’s seven seasons covered the turbulent decade from 1960 until 1970, dramatizing changing styles and social mores in the lives of “Mad Men” and women, or professionals in the Madison Avenue advertising industry.

For those who aren’t regular watchers: A lot of the show’s male characters spent their time chasing young women around the office and a lot of the female characters spent their time trying to land or keep a husband.

Critics have consistently lauded the series, not just for its entertainment value but also for exposing the dark underbelly of a prosperous, conservative era. Yet I can’t help but wonder if in some ways life wasn’t easier back then — especially for single, marriage-minded women.

New York City career women in their 30s and 40s told me this week that in some ways life seemed easier back then for single women, and love was easier to find during our mothers’ day than it is now.

Melanie Notkin, cultural anthropologist and author of “Motherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” said the women she interviewed, “no matter their race, ethnicity or cultural background, had similar concerns with dating — men didn’t plan dates, dressed down for dates, were no longer chivalrous.”

Although she faced other problems, surely Joan, the voluptuous office manager on “Mad Men,” didn’t date anyone who failed to put on a suit, plan an evening and pay the check.

The proliferation of online dating sites and “hookup culture” — or decreased stigma around no-strings-attached sex between strangers — means that immature men’s playground is no longer just the halls of their office buildings. It’s the entire city.

“It’s like we’ve become this commodity where men can pick out what they want whenever they want,” said Alicia, 37, who works in advertising and lives downtown.

Says Ellie, 42, a student on Manhattan’s East Side who used to work in publishing, “Technology is supposed to bring people closer, but especially in the context of dating it pushes people further apart. It used to be a guy had to call and leave a message and you called him back and you made a date.”

Now, says Ellie, it’s just “texting that leads nowhere.”

“I think there was more respect for marriage and family life during” the 1950s and early 1960s, Ellie added. “I wish I could travel backward to a simpler time.”

Indeed, for better or for worse, more Americans are putting off marriage or deciding to forgo it entirely: According to a September 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an all-time high.

In 1960, only one in 10 adults age 25 or older had never been married. Now it’s up to one in five.

Pew also found that people are marrying for the first time later in life now than in the early 1960s: In 2011, the median age for first marriage was almost 29 for men and 26.5 for women as compared to the early 20s for both sexes in 1960.

Is it possible that some of the wild enthusiasm for “Mad Men” among viewers stems from a yearning for the satisfaction and sexiness of traditional sex roles, including chivalry?

“When I watch ‘Mad Men,’ I think, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great to date a man who knows what he likes to drink, who pulls out the chair, who dresses up and is clean shaven and at least wears a sport jacket?’ It’s sexy,” said Notkin.

“Although in many ways he’s despicable, in certain ways many of us find Don Draper attractive,” Notkin said, adding that the character Joan — the office bombshell — resonates with some female viewers because “we are craving the power of our femininity.”

Ultimately most women want equality with men, and value the increased legal protection from sexual harassment in the workplace of the type dramatized in “Mad Men.”

After hours, though, some of us long for men who can treat us not only as equals to be respected, but as women to be desired — and cherished.

Have we become madwomen to consider anything less?


Poor Little Rich Women

New York Times


WHEN our family moved from the West Village to the Upper East Side in 2004, seeking proximity to Central Park, my in-laws and a good public school, I thought it unlikely that the neighborhood would hold any big surprises. For many years I had immersed myself — through interviews, reviews of the anthropological literature and participant-observation — in the lives of women from the Amazon basin to sororities at a Big Ten school. I thought I knew from foreign.

Then I met the women I came to call the Glam SAHMs, for glamorous stay-at-home-moms, of my new habitat. My culture shock was immediate and comprehensive. In a country where women now outpace men in college completion, continue to increase their participation in the labor force and make gains toward equal pay, it was a shock to discover that the most elite stratum of all is a glittering, moneyed backwater.

A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another. I stuck to the facts. The women I met, mainly at playgrounds, play groups and the nursery schools where I took my sons, were mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools. They were married to rich, powerful men, many of whom ran hedge or private equity funds; they often had three or four children under the age of 10; they lived west of Lexington Avenue, north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street; and they did not work outside the home.

Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions.

Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my background in anthropology might help me figure it all out, and that this elite tribe and its practices made for a fascinating story.

I was never undercover; I told the women I spent time with that I was writing a book about being a mother on the Upper East Side, and many of them were eager to share their perspectives on what one described as “our in many ways very weird world.”

It was easy for me to fall into the belief, as I lived and lunched and mothered with more than 100 of them for the better part of six years, that all these wealthy, competent and beautiful women, many with irony, intelligence and a sense of humor about their tribalism (“We are freaks for Flywheel,” one told me, referring to the indoor cycling gym), were powerful as well. But as my inner anthropologist quickly realized, there was the undeniable fact of their cloistering from men. There were alcohol-fueled girls’ nights out, and women-only luncheons and trunk shows and “shopping for a cause” events. There were mommy coffees, and women-only dinners in lavish homes. There were even some girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes, where everyone packed and wore outfits the same color.

“It’s easier and more fun,” the women insisted when I asked about the sex segregation that defined their lives.

“We prefer it,” the men told me at a dinner party where husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms.

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

But what exactly did the wife bonus mean? It made sense only in the context of the rigidly gendered social lives of the women I studied. The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women.

Financially successful men in Manhattan sit on major boards — of hospitals, universities and high-profile diseases, boards whose members must raise or give $150,000 and more. The wives I observed are usually on lesser boards, women’s committees and museums in the outer boroughs with annual expectations of $5,000 or $10,000. Husbands are trustees of prestigious private schools, where they accrue the cultural capital that comes with being able to vouch for others in the admissions game; their wives are “class moms,” the unremunerated social and communications hub for all the other mothers.

WHILE their husbands make millions, the privileged women with kids who I met tend to give away the skills they honed in graduate school and their professions — organizing galas, editing newsletters, running the library and bake sales — free of charge. A woman’s participation in Mommynomics is a way to be helpful, even indispensable. It is also an act of extravagance, a brag: “I used to work, I can, but I don’t need to.”

Anthropology teaches us to take the long and comparative view of situations that may seem obvious. Among primates, Homo sapiens practice the most intensive food and resource sharing, and females may depend entirely on males for shelter and sustenance. Female birds and chimps never stop searching out food to provide for themselves and their young. Whether they are Hadza women who spend almost as much time as men foraging for food, Agta women of the Philippines participating in the hunt or !Kung women of southern Africa foraging for the tubers and roots that can tide a band over when there is no meat from a hunt, women who contribute to the group or family’s well-being are empowered relative to those in societies where women do not. As in the Kalahari Desert and rain forest, resources are the bottom line on the Upper East Side. If you don’t bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world.

Rich, powerful men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and act like true partners, and many do. But under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.

The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.

Patricia Park talks about her Korean American spin on Jane Eyre

Los Angeles Times

By Steph Cha

May 17, 2015

Patricia Park’s debut novel, “Re Jane” (Pamela Dorman/Viking: 340 pp., $27.95), is a retelling of everyone’s favorite Gothic Victorian Brontë romance, “Jane Eyre,” transferred to New York and South Korea in the early 2000s. Her heroine, Jane Re, is a half-Korean orphan raised by her uncle’s family in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood that feels “all Korean, all the time.” When a prestigious post-college job offer falls through thanks to the dot-com crash, Jane takes a job as an au pair in Brooklyn in order to escape Queens and her uncle’s grocery store.

Her employers are Ed Farley and Beth Mazer, two Brooklyn English professors with an adopted Chinese daughter. Ed, as you may have guessed, is brooding and manly, with a strong jawline and a Brooklyn accent — pure Kryptonite for our wide-eyed, 22-year-old Jane. He lives in the shadow of his older, more accomplished wife, an eccentric feminist scholar with an attic office, who takes it upon herself to educate their sheltered au pair.

With her mixed blood and her torn loyalties, Jane embodies the confusion of both young adulthood and the hyphenated American experience. Impressionable and accommodating at the start of the novel, she struggles to find her own identity as the places and people in her life try to claim her. Her journey is a pleasure to follow, immensely rewarding and speckled with humor and romance.

Like her Jane, Park grew up in Queens, the daughter of Korean immigrants, and she currently lives in Brooklyn. Since graduating with an master’s in fiction from Boston University, where she studied with Ha Jin, she’s spent her time writing and teaching in the U.S. and Seoul.

Park spoke by phone about New York realities, Korean manners and of course, Jane Eyre. She will be reading from “Re Jane” at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Tell me about your relationship with Jane Eyre.

I was born and raised in Queens in an immigrant Korean household and I encountered “Jane Eyre” when I was in the 6th grade. I was immediately struck by it — it was the first time I saw a heroine self-described as “poor, obscure, plain, and little” get so much airtime. She was so different from the Disney princesses I saw.

And growing up in a strict Korean home, I felt like there were so many parallels to the strict, conservative Victorian England Jane lived in. When I was little and I would misbehave, my mom would say in her broken English, “You act like orphan.” I realized that the postwar Korean construct of the orphan was one that was kind of wicked, mischievous or rather shameful, someone who acted like they didn’t get a good family education. When I revisited “Jane Eyre” in grad school, I noticed a lot of these epithets were thrown at Jane.

What were some of the challenges of adapting and updating this novel?

I think Jane Eyre is so beloved because she was refreshingly independent and ahead of her times, but she was also part of her times. In my earlier drafts, Jane Re was so passive, in the vein of those old English novels. It took many drafts to get her back up to speed and have all the richness of a modern-day lead female character. These are probably fighting words to purists, but I had a lot of problems accepting Rochester as Jane Eyre’s romantic endgame. He betrayed her almost unforgivably. I guess some of the challenge of writing Ed Farley’s character was making him round and sympathetic.

And how about that madwoman in the attic?

I confess I’m being a little playfully meta and poking fun of academia by casting Beth as a women’s studies scholar. I really have problems with this notion of female hysteria. I think it’s such a cop-out that women are written off as crazy. In Beth Mazer I wanted to create a character who seems crazy, at least to Jane, but who she starts to read with new and empathetic eyes.

Right, because she’s 22, which really is a specific time of life. How was that time for you?

When I entered college, I had a very different idea of how things would turn out when I graduated. The economy was still booming, and I thought everyone got cushy job offers. But when I graduated, the economy had tanked and we were all competing for unpaid internships. I moved right back into the home I was trying to get out of when I shipped off to college. I think for Jane, she never got the experience of going away for college. She always did the smart, practical nunchi-ful thing. She thought she would move away, and that was denied to her.

The concept of nunchi is one of the defining principles of your book. So,what is it?

Nunchi has no translation in English, but it’s kind of anticipation and foresight. It’s the ability to walk into a room, read the situation and anticipate how you and everyone else in that room is supposed to behave. It’s the governing principle of Korean society. In some ways, it has a parallel to Victorian society, which is very scripted, where people are expected to know how to behave.

Jane Eyre is constantly shot looks of nunchi. What is a governess doing in a parlor? I’ve found personally whenever I move from Korean society to “mainstream American” society, my nunchi radar is off and I find myself behaving in strange ways and having to readjust. It’s not as clearly defined in Western culture, so I felt like I needed to introduce nunchi in “Re Jane” because a Western audience might not understand Jane’s own impediments or social restraints without it. She’s trying to follow a specific code of social behavior as she tries to make her way through the world.

Jane shuttles between Brooklyn, Queens and Seoul, and the settings really define the moods of the novel. Can you talk about what these places mean to Jane, and to you?

I was born and raised in Queens and my parents have a grocery business in Brooklyn, so I’ve been shuttling between the two boroughs my whole life. As a native of the outer boroughs, you grow up basically in the shadows of Manhattan. My whole life, my goal was to end up in Manhattan. That being said, we’re living in a time where the commodification of Brooklyn is almost a cliche. There’s cultural and artistic cache to Brooklyn, and Queens is on its way as well. I find it ironic that the places I grew up thinking of as undesirable are coming into a renaissance.

Korea was the place Jane was always told was the “motherland.” And for me, as a Korean American, I also grew up with that mentality. But Jane arrives in Seoul and finds that it feels even more foreign, there’s such a disconnect between Korea in her mind’s eye and technologically advanced Seoul. Jane feels like a foreigner in Flushing in Brooklyn and in Seoul, and it’s only after she tries on her assigned identities that she comes to learn who she is and carves out her own space.

Ultimately, I want to challenge neat, little, boxed identity categories, that question of “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you really from?” I would hope that anyone who feels or has felt out of place can find something in this book.


Why did Ellen Pao lose her landmark case? – A Cultural Perspective

Vogue, the flagship fashion magazine in the world, is not only recognized as an authority on style, but also is known for its coverage on subjects such as literature, architecture, photography, theatre and even political figures.  Its trademark, unabashedly forward thinking flair is why I am a subscriber.  And the month of May means only one thing: the Met Gala.  This year, the theme was China and its influence on fashion.  Therefore, I was anxious to read the May issue’s reporting on “China: Through the Looking Glass,” an exhibition that according to the Metropolitan Museum’s web site, “explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.” I figured that if I liked what I read, I might add a stop at the exhibit to my to-do activities when I visit New York in the next few months.

My excitement vanished as I flipped through the pages.  The outfits designed by the houses of Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and Valentino were superficial and lackluster, and many so-called “traditional Chinese dresses” I discovered at the boutiques in Shanghai’s former French concession, at a fraction of what these designer gowns cost, are far more flattering and spectacular.  Then, the caption on one of the featured photos caught my eyes: “Western pop culture still often portrays Asian women as having mysterious power of sexual mastery.”  I sat back thinking I might have read it wrong, so I focused, read it again, and burst into laughter.  Mysterious power of sexual mastery? Really?

McQueen 2006 Valentino 1968 Chanel 1996 Chanel 1984 Saint Laurent 2004With Pianist

Shortly after though, anxiety and inevitably, a sense of inadequacy set in as I started to wonder how many Western men we have collectively let down.  I began to recall in the movie “The King’s Speech,” when the Duke of York and future King George VI asks his wife what hold Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, has on his brother Prince of Edward, she sneers: “Apparently she has certain… skills, which she learned in an establishment in Shanghai.” Add to the list:  Nancy Kwan’s turn as the sultry and tragic Suzie Wong, and the factually baseless ménage à trois scene that was wildly ridiculed by Chinese historians and audience alike in “The Last Emperor”.

Last Emperor Suzie Wong Mrs Simpson

Goldie Hawn once famously declares that there are only three ages for women in Hollywood; “Babe”, “District Attorney”, and “Driving Ms. Daisy.”  Well, I would argue that there were even fewer categories of Asian women perceived by and portrayed in our culture: “kitten” and “dragon lady.”

Ms. Ellen Pao, who holds an engineering degree from Princeton, and an MBA and JD from Harvard, and with stints including a former junior partner at a prestigious venture capitalist firm in the Silicon Valley and the interim CEO at Reddit, has difficulty fitting in either category.  Wearing flowing long black hair, dark glasses and a slightly shy smile, she looks more like a graduate student than a brilliant corporate leader or for that matter, a self-described victim of gender and racial discrimination and sexual harassment.  Usually, women who claim to have been subjected to discrimination, harassment or unlawful retaliation are considered angry, weak and down on their luck.  Yet, Ms. Pao was constantly photographed in her suits looking polished and calm during her trial.  With her pedigree and accomplishments, she is too upper echelon to be considered a kitten; yet, judging from her frail frame and youthful look, she does not fit the traditional, overbearing “dragon lady” mode either.

Lawsuit Ellen Pao

When I first read Ms. Pao’s complaint, it was as if she were describing one of the firms I worked for.  There were very few women in the company to begin with; even fewer with advanced degrees.  Despite my extensive education and experience in the field, I was reduced to an administrative clerk, performing menial tasks.  I thought about speaking up a few times, and decided against it because I did not want to be labelled as a “whiner” or “trouble maker.”  I gave up completely after a few of the more outspoken colleagues were terminated.  One of my bosses once informed me that he and his family were going on a vacation the following week, and told me not to call him at 2 am.  I left his office feeling disgusted, and I knew better not to complain to Human Resources, because he was in charge of Human Resources!  Another Chinese female co-worker with a Ph. D. confided in me her anguish at how his male colleagues constantly belittled and bullied her, and how she had to seek medical treatment for stress-induced insomnia.

While ultimately the burden was on Ms. Pao and her legal team to convince the jury that her termination resulted from retaliation after she filed her discrimination and harassment suit against her former employer, and while I could empathize with Ms. Pao what it’s like to be ignored, marginalized or passed over for an important assignment or promotion – since there is really no such thing as “jury of your peers” in my opinion considering Ms’ Pao’s academic and professional background even in a place like the Silicon Valley where supposedly the best and brightest converge – jurors had a tough time sensing Ms. Pao as a victim, based on her looks, the way she carries herself, and her stellar credentials.  As a result, they could not and did not rule in her favor.

About two months after Ms. Pao lost her case, the Business Section of Los Angeles Times publishes an article called “Asian American face glass ceiling at tech companies,” and it points out: In a separate study published last year by UC Hastings College of the Law titled “Double Jeopardy,” the authors examined gender bias against women of color in science.” 

The study found that on top of the biases women already face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Asian women experience the double whammy of being negatively stereotyped and facing workplace pressures to fulfill traditionally feminine roles.

“All women walk this tightrope,” said Joan C. Williams, a professor at UC Hastings. “Asian women experience sharply higher levels of pressure to behave in feminine ways, and they experience higher levels of pushback if they don’t.”

This is an experience Ms. Pao, my co-worker and I can all attest to.  As long as our culture, including a premier magazine like Vogue, continues to perpetrate ludicrous stereotypes and put us in a certain “box,” our struggle to be taken seriously will go on.  And this is no laughing matter.


The Power of Small Theaters

One of the great benefits of living in or near a metropolis is access to its abundant cultural offerings, and with the exception of New York City, where else can one find a more vibrant underground theater scene than Southern California?

In the summer of 2011, I stumbled upon the Rogue Machine Theater, located in the somewhat seedy mid-Wilshire district, an area I could not drive past quickly enough normally.  As I parked my car on one of the side streets lined with modest houses with yellowing lawns occasionally strewn with empty water bottles and litters, and walked past stores advertising payday loan and cash for gold, I started to wonder whether it’s actually a good idea to be in this neighborhood.  The non-descript theatre was staging “Blackbird,” a story about two people who just can’t seem to move on from their troubled past.  The setting, direction and acting were intense, tight and breathtakingly haunting, and it constitutes the most satisfying theater-going experience I have ever had.

letter to the LA Times 071512

Since that great find, I have been attending more experimental and edgier plays.  With an open mind and sense of adventure, I have enjoyed the Echo Theater Company’s “Firemen,” the Matrix Theater’s “The Pied Pipers of the Lower Easter Side” and more.  Small theaters fill a void that mainstream playhouses don’t, can’t or won’t.  After “Blackbird” was over, I congratulated Mr. Sam Anderson for his searing performance, and commented that I would never have expected to see this play at Taper or Geffen.  He laughed in agreement and said “no.”  Indeed, based on the subjects of these three plays, I doubt their respective producers would be able to find a corporate sponsor to make them a commercially viable run.

event-poster-4024404 Firemen photo 1

The notion of smaller theaters only performing works by fringe or lesser-known playwrights has not turned out to be true either.  The Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills recently presented Pulitzer finalist Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution,” and The Hunger Artists Theater in Fullerton introduced “Art” written by Yasmina Reza of “God of Carnage” fame.


after the revolution

There has been some controversy surrounding the Actor’s Equity’s recent decision to mandate that its Los Angeles members be paid minimum wage.  Those who are for it believe it will protect the welfare of actors and stage managers, and its opponents predict that many theaters will be forced to shut down for not being able to meet the financial requirement.  An advocate of free market, I will sit this one out simply because I am not familiar with the inner workings of theaters at all.  As a fan of live theater though, I can only hope that the small theaters in Southern California will continue to thrive, to take more artistic risks, and to offer innovative and challenging alternatives to safe choices seemingly favored by the more established venues.


Actors Equity and the Future of American Theater

Huffington Post

By Hoyt Hilsman, Author, journalist and former Congressional candidate

This week, the membership of Actors Equity, the union of American stage actors, voted to oust an incumbent president – virtually unprecedented in the history of the organization. The ouster was the result of an organized revolt by actors in Los Angeles, who have been fighting Equity’s efforts to gut LA’s vibrant intimate theater scene. While the election is the first step in a long battle, it may significantly impact the future of American theater.

Actors Equity has a long and proud history of championing the rights of actors, beginning in 1913 when it was founded by a courageous group of a few hundred actors. The union has been in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and freedom of expression, notably during the McCarthy era when it refused to ban blacklisted performers. However, as the LA battle illustrates, Equity has at least temporarily lost its way.

As far back as the 1950’s and ’60’s, when the burgeoning Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements were spawning a generation of playwrights, directors and actors who would dominate the next generation of American theater, as well as film and television, the seeds of the future have been planted in storefronts, basements and church halls where actors not only perform, but build sets, sew costumes and staff the box office. They devote their time – inevitably without pay – not only because they love the theater, but also because they want a chance to experiment, to test their creative wings and to dream beyond the boundaries of commercial theater.

While Equity has sometimes been resistant to these grassroots movements – as they were initially to Off and Off-Off-Broadway – it has also been instrumental in helping these movements to grow and blossom. In the case of New York, Equity came to recognize the importance of nurturing new theater companies and carved out a number of exceptions to its strict union rules to permit actors to work in non-commercial theater. This, in turn, led to a vital and prolific theater scene in New York that produced many of the most significant plays and theater companies of the twentieth century. There is no doubt that Actors Equity has a vital role to play in American theater in the 21st century, much as it did throughout the 20th century. However, if it wants to preserve its vital role it must change its vision of the future, as well as the manner in which it pursues that vision. Its heavy-handed approach to the Los Angeles theater community reveals serious flaws both in Equity’s vision of the future and its ability to implement any vision at all. From the beginning, Equity misread the sentiment of its LA membership – perhaps out of a myopic view of LA theater – or simply out of ignorance. To compound the problem, Equity ham-handled the rollout of their proposal, turning what may have been intended as an opening gambit for discussion into a dictat from an uncaring union.

Hopefully, the union leadership has learned its lesson after the open revolt of LA membership and the ouster of an incumbent president. Ironically, the bungled rollout of Equity’s LA theater proposal may have strengthened the hand of other insurgent groups in New York, Chicago and other cities, who would like to see a more progressive approach to their small theater scene. New York’s Showcase Code is in many respects more restrictive than LA’s, and actors in Chicago small theaters are in an even worse situation. As actor Chris Agos wrote in his book about the Chicago acting scene “The overwhelming majority of live theater in Chicago is happening in storefront spaces and being done by actors who aren’t affiliated with AEA. Audiences will see innovative, powerful performances in these theaters, but they simply can’t afford to pay their actors a living wage.”

Far from killing off LA’s intimate theater scene, Equity may have spawned a national movement to follow LA’s lead. As in any adventurous endeavor, the quality of Los Angeles theater varies wildly from the groundbreaking and inspiring to the narcissistic and pedestrian. However, the same can be said of the early days of Off and Off-Off-Broadway. This is the nature of the theater, of creativity and of change. Whatever one’s view of the LA theater scene, it is indisputably one of the most vital theater communities in the country, if not the world, and could certainly serve as a model for the future. At this important turning point in its proud and storied history, Equity has the opportunity to provide leadership for the next century of American theater. Let us hope that it will step up and embrace that opportunity.





The Fall and Rise of a Wall Series, Part I: A Tale of Three Cities

Twenty five years ago, the Berlin wall came down, and the world was a changed place.  Twenty five year later, I am saddened to realize that the physical wall may have been demolished, the virtual one has gone up.

Berlin – September 25, 2014

In the morning of a gloomy day when the temperature never reached over 15°C – typical weather pattern for Germany’s capital city in September I was told – I was pacing from one edge to the other of the 70-meter-long-expanse, remnant of part of the structure that had divided this city till November 1989.  Rain started to fall and wind continued to pick up.  The former Sophien parish on the grounds, despite the usual bleakness one would expect to find at a cemetery, somehow appeared more dreary.  The solemn voice of the recording read the names of the victims who paid the ultimate price to try to reach the other side.  I wondered what drove them to even consider making such desperate attempts, knowing full well that armed guards could spot them and would not hesitate to shoot.

The city of Berlin was gearing up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany.  During the week leading up to the marathon, students on field trips roamed the streets and athletes filed in and out of my hotel elevators.  Checkpoint Charlie was abuzz with souvenir shop activities and tourists posing with American GI impersonators.  A mall at the Potsdamer plaza offered an extensive multi-media exhibition with photos, videos and objects.  The fanfare was supposed to be festival, yet the atmosphere felt more somber.  On this day when my parents and I toured the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Street, its eerie surrounding finally prompted my father, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, to question out loud: “whose idea was it to build this wall?”

Beijing – June 4, 1989

I was at my home in Shanghai having dinner with my family when all of a sudden regular TV programming came to a screeching halt. A CCTV anchorman announced that the People’s Liberation Army had just succeeded in its crackdown on the “counter-revolutionary riot” and taken over the Tiananmen Square.  Prior, the students had congregated at the square for a few months, calling for democracy, corruption eradication and political reform, and pressing for a dialogue with the communist government.  Their fate unfolded as the whole world watched in horror: some of them were murdered, some were maimed by tanks, and some narrowly escaped death or injury.  The state propaganda machine went on overdrive to portray the students and their sympathetic, supporting citizens as “mobsters.”  To drive home its point, it repeatedly showed a burned, shrunk corpse of a People’s Liberation Army solider, said to be lynched by the unruly mob.  The image was so forcibly etched in my brain that for months I cringed at the sight of seeing tree stubs on campus.  All my classmates and I were also forced to write an essay, detailing our whereabouts that day and pledging our support of the mass killing.

PLA soldier body

Four years later, I made it to the USA as an international student. The first few months of my arrival produced quite a few instances when some American classmates and co-workers, after finding out I was from mainland China, asked me why the students had given up their quest.  My English ability at that time was limited, and all I could say was that they did not have weapons to fight back.  The puzzled Americans could not understand and reasoned that if the students had continued, they might have finally prevailed.

Years went by and I stopped getting questions of what happened on that fateful day.  One reason is of course memory fades, though it is probably more because the Chinese government now has an arguably tighter grip on its people.  As the West watched with glee how Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania ended their communist rule, culminating with the fall of the Berlin wall, I have always believed that it was the students on Tiananmen Square, and images of their courageous defiance and the government’s brutality that inspired the people in the former Eastern Bloc to rise up and free themselves from the tyranny.  Fortunately for them, their governments’ soldiers had conscious and refused to shoot at their own people.  The bloodshed in China may have saved lives in Europe.

man vs tanks

Hong Kong – October 30, 2014

When I met a businessman for a breakfast meeting there, I assured him that the whole international community was behind the students’ pro-democracy demonstrations that started in late September, and that the entire world was particularly interested in the end game.  He confessed that he was a leader of his university’s student organization at one time, and predicted the movement would run out of steam once the weather got cooler.  By the time of my visit to Hong Kong, the Chinese government’s state-sanctioned media had toned down its rhetoric, and it became obvious that Beijing’s strategy was to wait it out, hoping the demonstrators would eventually grow tired and go home.  The businessman helpfully suggested that I visit one of the sites in Central when our meeting ended.

While walking towards the Admiralty district after sampling Mandarin Oriental’s signature afternoon tea, I was getting a little disappointed after seeing only a few scattered barricaded spots with used books, stools and flyers.  I continued my trek towards the gleaming, futuristic high-rises, and was stunned to find myself all of a sudden surrounded by seas of handwritten slogans, life-size posters, and wall-to-wall post-it notes.  It was a surreal moment to witness the genuine, palpable excitement of a fearless young generation’s epic yearning for freedom and democracy, juxtaposed with the towering skyscrapers emblazoned with logos of some of the wealthiest financial institutions – considered symbols of pure, unadulterated capitalism – casting an all-encompassing shadow over the site.  People in Hong Kong had long been known for being apolitical, and for their relentless pursuit of all things money.  The cynical stereotype is now disavowed in the wake of their protracted, peaceful demand for electing a chief executive of their own choosing, and for the majority of the protestors to be young people, it just signals hope, not only for Hong Kong, not only for China, but for the rest of the world.

Standing in the epicenter of the movement and watching lights flicker as night started to fall, I could not help but think of what happened twenty five years ago.  The students at Tiananmen Square were, looking back, naïve: they had no intention of overthrowing the dictatorship.  They did not want to change the status quo of the government’s having its final say on everything from their education, work, and life.  All they asked for was while keeping the existing framework of the one-party rule, a small window to enjoy some degree of freedom of press, and a more transparent legal system to account for corrupt officials.  They pleaded, they begged, and they even kneeled.  Their fate?  Being shot at and run over.  Luckily for the students in Hong Kong, they live in a former British colony where there are still laws that supposedly protect residents’ rights to assemble, even though Beijing is the ultimate master of what’s tolerated.  Regardless of what direction the movement goes from here (I noticed rows of police vans lining up the streets in the Admiralty area when I returned in mid-November), they set the spirit of the people in the whole city, and arguably the whole world ablaze, and the flame will burn more brightly than ever when re-ignited.  After all, it was Chairman Mao who declared that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”

Images China October-November 2014 283 Images China October-November 2014 287 Images China October-November 2014 291 Images China October-November 2014 286 Images China October-November 2014 289 Images China October-November 2014 288 Images China October-November 2014 290 Images China October-November 2014 274




The Fall and Rise of a Wall Series, Part II: The Jewish Influence

I. Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

ribbon cutting by Netanyahu

A lot of people know that Schindler risked his life and saved about 1,200 Jews.  Not many know that a greater humanitarian effort took place in Shanghai when the then Nationalist government’s diplomats issued visas to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and enabled them to avoid certain deaths.  No one knows for sure the exact number of Jews saved, though recent data pegs it at about 30,000.  The Hongkou district of Shanghai was compared to the Noah’s Ark where the refugees settled, lived peacefully with locals, and even conducted small businesses and trades, a feat all the more monumental considering that twenty-three countries at the Évian Conference while acknowledging their plight, signed a treaty to refuse their entry.

Dr. He, Fengshan Shanghai's Jewish past

It’s a piece of history that offered a rare bright spot in the dark backdrop of mass murder and destruction, and visitors can now get a glimpse of the past visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.  Looking at the survivors’ names inscribed on a plaque at the entrance was a solemn experience, and reading their accounts of horror after the Japanese army occupied the city was terrifying.  My somber mood however was altered, when the curator before beginning his scheduled 1:15 pm tour asked visitors, including me, this awkward question: “Are you Jewish?”  He then went on to explain the three big Jewish influxes to China: the first during the silk road era, the second when the first opium war forced the Imperialist Chinese government to open ports, and the third time between 1910s and 1930s.  He was an otherwise competent guide, though I found his statements like “Jews are very good at making money” and “Jews at the time owned the Bund and the Nanking (aka Nanjing, Shanghai’s Fifth Avenue-equivalent) Road” callous and cringe-worthy.  Growing up, I knew all along that the wealthiest man in Shanghai in the 1920s was a Jewish immigrant by the name of Hardoon, whose former palatial mansion-turned-exhibition center is across the street from the Portman Ritz-Carlton and visible from the elevated freeway connecting the cities’ two airports, left behind a staggering fortune estimated to be $650 million dollars at his death in 1931, and those who dealt with the Jewish refugee small business people remember them to be cunning and shrewd.  However, I don’t think these statements have any place inside or outside of a museum, and feel they reinforce stereotypes when visitors should be moved by the harrowing survival stories and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

Japanese Nazis Jews Japanese sign security service of the refugee camps Jewish refugess in Shanghai Jewish ghetto

The museum’s exhibits detail the daily lives of the Jewish refugees settling in the ghetto after the Japanese occupation, and are deeply personal and heart-warming.  As someone who is married a man of a different race, I found one story particularly interesting: a Jewish man fell in love with a local Chinese woman, and alas, both families objected.  The man’s family was not fond of the idea of his dating a shiksa, and her side wanted her to marry a Chinese man.  Eventually, their love prevailed.  Despite the happy ending, I found it puzzling why his family, while seeking asylum in Shanghai, would oppose his marrying a woman from the country that provided them shelter and safety. Shouldn’t survival, or love for that matter, have taken precedence over tradition?

Jewish wedding

II. The Death of Klinghoffer

I missed the Long Beach Opera’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” in the first part of 2014, and when I found out the Metropolitan Opera would stage a production and broadcast it in the fall, I was really looking forward to it.  The opera is based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.  It gives voices, literally, to the terrorists and the victims as both sides sing arias to tell their stories.

See it Then Decide

During the contentious labor dispute between the Met and its labor unions, the mounting of the production and the immediate controversy it caused was used by the union leaders to argue that the Mr. Peter Gelb, the General Manager lacked leadership.  Under pressure from the Jewish community, the Met decided to cancel its HD simulcast overseas.  However, the move failed to quiet the falling-out.  The firestorm reached its peak before the production premiered in October, when I was in China where major international media sites are blocked and could not access accounts of the latest developments.  The timing was particularly inconvenient as the students and citizens in Hong Kong were in the middle of the “Occupy Central with Love” movement calling for free election without China’s influence; and as a result, even innocuous foreign sites were temporarily shut down.  The only source of information I could get was the International New York Times from my Western-branded hotels.  I am an unabashed advocate for the First Amendment and artistic freedom; I understand why the Jewish community and the Klinghoffer family feel the opera glorifies terrorism and promotes anti- Semitism, which I unequivocally denounce.  I find it ironic that the wealthy Jewish community in New York, which considers itself progressive and tolerant, exerted so much pressure on the Met, and even more saddening that one of the most prestigious cultural institutions actually caved and cancelled all the theater and radio broadcasts home and abroad.  I am disappointed that the angry detractors succeeded in preventing me from having the chance to see the production for myself and making my own conclusion.  This, I am afraid, is in and of itself a tragedy of magnitude.

Klinghoffer protest protest before Met