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With COVID-19, we belong neither in the U.S. nor China

As a 1.5 generation Chinese American, I no longer know where I belong. Being part of the “1.5 generation” refers to individuals like myself who immigrated to America in our childhood, and, in contrast to other Chinese Americans, we believe the U.S. is as much our home as is China. But the pandemic has created more separation and divide at a time when solidarity and support are essential. What I’m witnessing across both the U.S. and China is the growing sense of fear and frustration that overpowers rationality and compassion, emotions that trump reason. The results not only can become economically disastrous (via a trade war or worse), but may also propel an identity crisis among many of us who consider both countries our home. And to be blatantly honest, I feel fully accepted by neither the U.S. nor China at this moment.

My family immigrated to America from Southern China when I was just entering elementary school, and growing up, I took pride in my duality of values. As an immigrant, American and Chinese culture were equally represented in my upbringing, and the freedom to move across both countries was a luxury I gratefully embraced. In the U.S., the feeling of acceptance took many years to establish — it took mastering the language, understanding norms and pop culture, and constantly contemplating my Eastern heritage alongside my Western surroundings. When I return to China, it would take a few weeks to habituate to the dry humor, frequent use of idioms, and etiquette in front of guests and the elderly. Within each culture, I bring a bit of the other inside — eating pizza with chopsticks or mixing Chinese music with American lyrics. Having this duality makes me neither fully American nor fully Chinese, but a special mix of both, and with time, I was accepted as both.

But recently, as Sino-US tensions reached a new climax, I fret that this feeling of acceptance is at risk. In America, the increasing antagonism is rather unnerving. Each day, I listen to bitter accusations by the Trump administration blaming China for the virus and threatening to intensify the trade war, as if the current sanctions are insufficient. When I read about senators suing China in federal court for “causing the global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable,” or pushing for a bill to allow American “victims” to sue and seek reparations from the Chinese government, I worry that racism towards not just Chinese people, but Asian Americans as a whole, will gain momentum within the America. Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, a sentiment that has increased 20% since the start of the Trump administration. Animus is often strong among Republicans, but recently, Democrats are also agreeing that the Chinese government bears responsibility for the spread of the virus.

Fear and disdain are contagious, and if we allow it to fester, the resulting consequence could be a Cold War between the U.S. and China that’s even more tense than the previous one with the Soviet Union. It’s unlikely that we will see something to the extreme of Japanese internment camps during World War II, but as anti-Chinese fervor builds, I would not be surprised if a “Chinese ban” became the new Muslim ban. I hope history will not repeat itself, but in today’s situation, nothing can be said for certain.

For the broader category of Asian Americans, we wonder whether the negative sentiment towards the Chinese government will translate into daily life animosity towards Asians living in the America. Anecdotes of services requested by Asian Americans being rejected run rampant across our community. A friend’s mother was just refused service by a gardener because she was Chinese; an Asian friend of mine lives in constant anxiety ever since a stranger left threatening messages in her cell inbox. The coining of the term “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” by Mr. Trump has only incited greater friction. When I see #chinazi, #ChinaMustPay and #ChinaLiedPeopleDied trending on twitter, I take a personal affront mostly because I know how contagious negative language and bitterness can become. The quarantine somewhat protects us from confronting these people face-to-face, but post-pandemic, will anger and frustration be channeled towards us when we look for jobs, order in restaurants, travel from place to place? Within the confines our home we can only play these scenarios in our heads and mindlessly worry about our future in America.

When discrimination abroad exacerbates, I along with many other first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans think about returning to China. But going back to our home country proves to be a challenge as well. As the epicenter for the outbreak shifts from China to Western countries, mounting fears of a virus resurgence in China were met with hostility towards foreigners and induced other xenophobic responses. I receive frequent messages in a WeChat group touting the dangers of taking in Chinese people who are abroad. A forwarded message from the health department that warns of Chinese citizens returning from South East Asian countries and Europe sparked debate about whether they should be let in. Another message discusses the public’s outrage towards rich families requesting a charter flight from the government for study-abroad students in the U.K. The anger grew from the issue of letting in the students, to patriotism, and finally to the growing class divide (only the wealthy could afford sending their children abroad) and traditional Chinese culture and education. “Have you considered the hardships and sacrifices made by China to achieve today’s epidemic prevention achievements?” the message reads. And as the rumors and insults from the U.S. cross into their borders, they retaliate with similarly vicious words. Within my own community, I see rebuttals from both sides become increasingly defensive.

For myself, I had originally intended to return to China for a few months this year, but my parents and relatives strongly objected, showering me with public shaming anecdotes verbally attacking returning foreigners. When I toss around the idea of working in Beijing, they admonish that Sino-U.S. relationships are at its nadir and the trade war may disrupt business.

Sometimes when I return to China, I am asked by natives, “Why did you leave in the first place? Was this country not good enough for you?”

I felt the question to be unfair, since in my mind, I did not choose America over China, or China over America. They were both my homes. The idea of not being welcome to China, coupled with intensifying antagonism towards Chinese Americans in the U.S., worsens the identity crisis, as I fight to cling onto the two cultures that nurtured me.

Must the situation end like this? No. There’s still time to unite and set aside xenophobic attitudes, to speak out and against racial slur, to offer compassion and support to all those in need. In America, we should understand that placing accusations will not cure the virus nor will it absolve our leadership’s incompetence in curbing the spread. A pandemic does not differentiate between the East and the West, the rich and the poor. Placing all blame upon one country and demanding reparations will only breed racism within the public eye. The world did not blame Ebola on Guinea nor the H1N1 flu on the U.S.; other countries did not demand reparations for the world-wide economic damage wrecked by the 2008 financial crisis, where evidence suggests its cause to be largely catalyzed by subprime mortgage-backed securities in the U.S.

The damage and suffering caused by COVID-19 pandemic have been harrowing and unprecedented, but everyone is under the same threat. In China, preventing Chinese people abroad from returning to their home country creates national divide that harms the progress of returning life to normalcy. And even if some in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge the "sacrifice and action" by the Chinese leadership, pointing back the fingers will only fuel the tensions between the two countries.

The people who feel more confused coming out of the events of the pandemic and the sensational media headlines are the 1.5 generation Chinese Americans, broadly speaking, who feel like the two countries that they love the most have turned on them. People in America believe we are shadows of the Chinese government; people in China think we turned our backs to a perfectly good country. A WeChat group emerged during quarantine for first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans out of fear that prejudice will worsen following the pandemic. It states, “We must unite as Chinese people in America. It may be a dangerous world for us.”

In a way, we just simply don’t belong anywhere right now.


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Inside the life of a sex worker living in Russia

After spending a month traversing Russia through the Trans-Siberian railway, I finally arrive in St. Petersburg. Though fatigued and slightly restless from being confined on a train for a long period of time, I feel my energy renewed by the bustling chatter and music throughout the city. As soon as I check-in to my hotel, I am lured back out by the jazzy tunes lingering faintly in the distance. I may be weary but oh, how I crave a live performance right now.

Shortly after 10 P.M., I hop onto the 49 bus to do what I love most in a new city — wander aimlessly through its public transportation, free to step off anytime when something piques my interest.

I follow the faint jazz, and about a half mile in, the tunes grow more and more pronounced. I step off the bus and find myself in front of the Hat Bar, where a mid-aged man passionately plays his saxophone. Such talent, I think as I walk in and find a seat at the bar.

To my right is a woman, in her late twenties perhaps. She wears bright red lipstick and dark eye makeup. Her cheekbones are flushed and professionally contoured. Her black v-neck top outlines her full breasts and her dark, tight skirt that barely reaches her knee hugs her curvy figure. I give her a half smile and a slight nod of acknowledgment, almost embarrassed by how unkempt I look in my oversized denim top and stained sweatpants.

Unprompted, she turns to me: “Where are you from?” Her voice is resounding and deep.

“California. And yourself?” I ask, a bit taken back by her almost-perfect pronunciation. I had spent the past month without saying a full English sentence.

“All over,” she chuckles and throws her head back, gazing longingly at the ceiling,

“Wherever the most interesting men are.” She locks eyes with me again. “Care to join me for a cosmopolitan?”

And that’s how our conversation began. Alaina* was born in Belarus moved to the U.S. at a young age. She has been a sex worker since she was 20 years old and has evolved this career for the past decade.

“The biggest misconception about sex workers is that we sleep with everyone,” she whispers to me. “But that’s not true — I have the upper hand.” There is a betting process with men, and when a client presents himself, she lays her terms and conditions and asks for details and references. She calls the listed reference for more insight, making sure the client is reliable and respectable. Sometimes the trade of information can take many cycles.

“Why did you choose this profession?” I ask, curious as to what leads someone to pursue sex work as a career.

“How else does someone pay for college,” she scoffs. Lack of ability to fund her education forced her to earn money through phone sex and web cam favors, and later, porn and prostitution.

“It wasn’t easy at times. I was naive, I faced brutal challenges and a lot of emotional abuse.”

Alaina married someone she met online, but the marriage lasted only three years. Sex work has completely taken away her ability to feel intimately close to someone. “I will never be okay with a committed relationship,” she sighs.

“So why did you come to Russia? Isn’t prostitution illegal here?” I inquire. I had read that prostitution had been banned during the Soviet times.

She looks at me seriously, “Honey, I am not a prostitute here. I’m on vacation. I live in Montreal now. Would you care for another drink? On me.” I join her for a second cosmopolitan. “When you see girls with baileys on-the-rocks, you know they are fishing. In Saint Petersburg, half the women are prostitutes. There’s no other jobs for them”.

“How do they get around then?”

Alaina flashes a wad of cash. “That’s how. Always have them around in case the police stops you. Business is business. We have to live somehow.”

She’s been in Russia for two months and has not yet determined when she will return to Montreal. “I like it here. St. Petersburg has flavor to it. I’ve lived in three different neighborhoods already.” She turns to me and winks. “If you want to make some money, a lot of money, I can hook you up now.”

I let out a nervous laugh and quickly change the subject. “How do you even reach your clients?”

Similar to many other prostitutes, Alaina started off by offering services on Craigslist. Soon after, she created a Twitter account that gained tens of thousands of followers. Most of her clients nowadays find her through Twitter. “I gained confidence after using my real name,” she tells me. “The most important rule to success is to know yourself and your own character, and dial it up to the max.”

She describes her character as dominant and peculiar. For example, Alaina appeals to men who desire a naturally curvy body and a full bush. She learned after her phone sex experience that her comparative advantage lies in her mannerism and conversation skills. This led her to create her own sex consulting business, where she taught other sex workers how to speak in a manner that is domineering yet enticing and irresistible. “I charged $100 an hour. You can look on Rolling Stones and Vice. They wrote about me.”

“So what are types of sex workers, and how do you classify yourself now?”

“There are many different types of sex workers,” she answers. There are the street sweepers, who wander the streets waiting for clients to sweep them up. Usually, they’re forced into prostitution because of financial reasons. Then there are the brothels, where a profit-sharing model is in place. Men choose from a line of women and are quoted a price. Women get to keep 50% of the payment but must get tested every two weeks. At her best, Alaina is considered a mid-elite. They earn slightly more than the other two types and usually have recurring clients. At the top of the totem pole are the elites. These women are beautiful model-figures who have invested hundreds of thousands on plastic surgery. They’re classy and understand how to talk to men, which also explains why many of them are escorts for politicians, moguls, and tech billionaires.

Alaina is now working on how to make her clients come back. “It’s a business. I need to develop empathy so they keep coming.” When asked how she achieves this, she mentions to play it nice at first, and then gradually dial up the aggressiveness and domineering qualities. “The men like it, and they will come back for more.”

Couples seek her out as well. “Sometimes, the husband knows his wife is cheating on him, and so he finds someone else to add to their relationship.” Her eyes widen, “Other men pursue trophy wives and enjoy watching them have sex with other men since they know they are still in control.” She laughs. “Can you imagine? Such power hungry men.” The third type of couples is less interesting. “Sometimes a couple wants to extend their relationship and find a prostitute. They will house and purchase anything the prostitute wants, as long as emotional and sexual engagement continues.”

She calls over the bartender: “two more cosmopolitans please!” Her attention goes back to me, and I wonder if she’s had too much to drink.

“My last client spent $45k and took me on this one month paradise resort in Jamaica. It’s hedonism. He wants to be in a relationship with me but that’s not what I want.” She leans a little closer. “There’s something truly powerful about getting paid to have sex. It is sexy.” In her words, she satisfies the men who are rotting, who are fulfilling their sexuality bucket list, who lack attraction physically and sexually… “and I get paid more than enough.”

I wonder how much of what she’s telling me is true. Maybe it’s the cosmopolitans that have bolstered her storytelling skills, but maybe this is simply her life.

She puts her face in mine, “the women to your left, she’s an escort. You can tell by the nails, because men pay attention to the details.” She’s looks down at hers — perfectly curved and painted with a layer of fake, glossy, neon-yellow polish. “And I can also tell she’s eavesdropping on our conversation.”

With delight, she calls over the bartender, “Two more cosmos, pazhalsta!”


*name has been changed

What I learned from working within data science, product, strategy, and growth

This post is not meant for those looking to enter engineering or people management roles.

Credit: Jared from Silicon Valley — HBO When you click into the “open roles” tab on a tech company job page, you may at first be overwhelmed by the sheer number of niche positions. Which one should you apply to? Or should you simply apply to all of them and see which ones extend an interview? Maybe you somehow know you want to go into, let’s say, product. But is this the right role for you?

Over the past few years, I worked across both the business and product sides of tech, which gave me a holistic view of how these teams interact with each other and what the benefits are for each. I’ve had countless phone calls with classmates, colleagues, friends and acquaintances who have reached out asking about which role they should choose or whether they would enjoy working on a certain team.

It’s stressful thinking about what job to pursue — who wants to get stuck in role they don’t like?

These conversations, as well as my personal feedback from past managers and mentors, sparked me to share my insights such that others can benefit as well. When I started my senior year in college, I was constantly irritated thinking about which roles to apply to. Most of my classmates flocked to finance and consulting jobs, which never really appealed to me. The e-commerce venture I had started in college renewed my entrepreneurial spirit, and I was determined to get a job in tech. Since many of my peers didn’t share the same sentiment, there was few people I could go to for advice.

I went into the industry blind. At that time, I optimized for acquiring as many diverse skillsets as possible to start my own venture again (which I would realize later is not my goal).

Over four years, I would work as a data scientist, a product manager, a business strategy associate, and a growth manager (on both the product and marketing sides). I joined two companies pre-IPO (Dropbox and Lyft) and witnessed both companies change after the public offering. I’ve taken on a new role almost every year, which is not very common within tech, and it taught me a lot about the functions of each role, as well as its merits and limitations.

Cost / Benefit of Roles

Keep in mind that roles are unique to that company, and each company is different. For example, a growth position at Lyft may not operate the same as a growth position at Facebook, and a growth position at a startup is like a foreign planet compared to the other two.

Before you decide to take on a role, it’s important to ask the hiring manager which projects and/or products you would be held responsible for. What you own inside a company will vastly influence your experience. Here I’ve summarized the high-level merits, limitations, and skills gained for four roles across business and product. It’s a reflection of my personal take on the roles, and hence, you should also form your own judgement based on your preferences.

Business Strategy & Ops

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…frameworks, writing docs, alignment meetings, presentations, consulting, constant people interaction, senior-level and cross-org exposure

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…execute on any part of the strategy, specialize in function-related skills, have ownership within the company

Product Management

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility and pressure, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, actually build out the product features, gain cross-org experience at the start (you will once you become a senior PM)

Data Science

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…stats, modeling, numbers, large blocks of problem-solving

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…lead cross-functional teams, be exposed to senior leadership, gain cross-org experience

Growth Product

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, fast-paced environments

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, work on core products that are not growth-related, diversify product intuition, gain cross-org experience at the start

Growth Marketing

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, sending emails, alignment meetings, rapid experimentation, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, behavioral economics, marketing

  • You would not enjoy the role if you want to…work on building products, specialize in function-related skills, have a dedicated team of designers and engineers

Key takeaways from my experience

  1. Data is the foundation for practically every decision and subsequent experiment. Whether I was working product, growth, or strategy, I had to frequently leverage my SQL knowledge and data visualization skills to align with cross-functional teams, influence leadership, and evaluate the experiment efficacy.

  2. Working in product can be rewarding, but beware. As a product manager, you are like a mini entrepreneur with your own team of designers, engineers, scientists to help fulfill a vision. If you’re working on an early stage product, it can be exciting to start from scratch and determine product-market fit, talk to users, and continuously iterate on the MVP; but if you’re working on a fairly established product, you may find yourself limited to optimization features and tactics.

  3. Business strategy & ops provides a holistic view of many different organizations within the company and also exposes you to senior leadership. For example, at Dropbox, I worked closely with the Head of Product, COO, and Chief Customer Officer on numerous high-level projects. However, you do not have ownership of products and/or metricsnor can you execute on the strategies.

Evaluating the company

  1. If you have a company you want to work for, first evaluate the core focuses of the company. If product robustness and experience is the centerpiece, maybe the product team would be good to join; if the company is in the middle of hyper-growth, then the growth team would be a good option. Understanding which stage the company is in and what they value will help you get a sense of the amount of influence, impact, and growth opportunities your role will have.

  2. If you want to work on a startup in the future, there is no better way to learn how to start a company than to start it yourself. If you’re still unsure and want industry experience, then two areas I would look at are strategy roles (get exposed to high-level thinking and see how everything inside a company works) and product roles (build our your own product with a team). However, don’t succumb to herd mentality and start a company just because. Think carefully about what you’re passionate about and what the long-term vision will be.

  3. The role you choose does matter for your next job. So if you have something in mind as to where you want to end up, prioritize interviewing for roles that inch you closer to that team. Especially if you’re looking to switch companies and roles, recruiters are especially keen on your current role and experience level.

So how do you approach role-changing?

Finding the best fit may take time, and it’s okay to engage in some trial and error. Even after four roles (or five, if you count my time working on economics research within tech), I am still on a quest to find the role that I want to dedicate the next few decades towards. But so far, I’m enjoying the learning journey across different teams and am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.

There is no wrong role — every role will teach you something new, and as cliche as this sounds, it’s the learning process (about the job and yourself) that really matters. Depending on who you are, here’s some recommendations on how to approach roles:

If you are…

a) A college grad looking to enter tech

  • Jobs in tech can be limiting for new grads, but there are ways to get around it. First, look at new grad programs you can apply to, such as Google APMGoogle APMMFacebook RPMDropbox New Grad PM ProgramLyft APMUber APMLinkedIn Business Leadership ProgramLinkedIn APM. Most large companies offer some sort of new grad rotation. I would check their websites directly for opportunities.

  • Optimize for skills and network rather than role. Your career is very very long, so no need to worry if you don’t get your first choice company or the role you want. Focus on acquiring a strong analytical foundation early on in your career; this is will allow you to succeed in many other roles that you pursue in the future.

  • If you have a startup idea, work on it. No better way to learn than to just do it yourself. If you know you want to go into product but lack the background necessary for it, then look at joining other roles inside the company first, and then switch into product after 1–2 years.

  • You can also cold e-mail startups and smaller companies. It’s a great way to increase your optionality, and many teams are thirsting for talent and an extra helping hand.

b) Looking to switch from another industry into tech

  • Leverage the skills you acquired from your current industry and first find the roles that best encapsulates those skills. Think about getting your foot in the door and then switching roles once you’re inside.

  • Search within your network to get a referral to a role. Your chances of getting an interview is much higher that way.

Here are some examples of what my colleagues in other industries have switched from:

  • Consulting → product management, business strategy and ops, growth product / marketing

  • Finance → corporate development, financial planning & analysis (FP&A)

  • Analyst somewhere → data science, product / data analytics, FP&A

  • Startups → product management, growth product / marketing

  • Marketing → growth marketing, brand marketing, product marketing

  • Architecture → product design

c) Looking to switch roles within tech

  • Switching within companies: this is relatively easier to do. If you have a role in mind that you want to switch into, start talking to people on the team to see if there are opportunities to work on a small project with them alongside your work. Speak to your manager and see if he/she can make an introduction or help you will the transition. Your manager’s responsibility is to ensure your career success, whether that on your current team or elsewhere, but if you’re uncomfortable talking to your manager, that’s also understandable. Start by getting the other team to vouch for you.

  • Switching between companies: this may be a bit harder to do, but not out of reach. You won’t have the opportunity to work on a project with the team you’re looking to switch into, and hence you’ll need to rely on the interview process. I’d recommend getting a referral and switching into a role that is more analogous to the other (e.g., data science to business strategy, analytics to growth)

  • Keep in mind if you are switchings roles, you may need to down-level. If you hare a Level 5 business strategist, you may down-level to a Level 4 product manager.

I’m only speaking to the roles I’ve personally worked in. There are plenty of other roles within tech that not covered in this post (e.g., FP&A, product design, product marketing, user research, partnerships, and so forth).

Good luck, and hopefully this adds a bit of color to your role search!

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