Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lost in Translation?

Last October I had the chance to work as an English-Chinese interpreter in Philadelphia for a group of 110 Executive MBA students from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. They were on a two-week study tour in the US to hear a series of professors speak about leadership, business culture, etc. The particular session that hired me as interpreter featured Professor Todd Henshaw, Director of Executive Leadership Programs at The Wharton School, who also headed the Leadership Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point before joining Wharton.

I knew the West Point Academy (in Chinese, “西点军校”) has been a brand name very well recognized and admired in China as a cradle of leaders, perhaps no less than Harvard, Wharton or any business school is. These EMBA students came to learn what made the Academy a legend. Despite my relatively limited experience with professional conference interpreting (I’m more of a dabbler than professional), I managed to pass through the morning and do an OK job (according to my audience and client), mainly because I was, thankfully, somewhat familiar with the topics in the classroom – leadership models, styles, and cultural differences in leadership. The three-and-a-half hour class easily tops my list of the most interesting experiences in the year 2014.

Picture of me and Prof. Todd Henshaw during class break. 
Projected on my suit was part of an image of Chinese soldier Lei Feng (雷锋), which he was using as an example of leaders who “led by example”. 

I’ll share one interesting detail that left me thinking and smiling, an example of how something just can’t get translated without losing a bit of its meaning.
The moment came up when the professor pulled out a chart to describe the Western leadership style as more task-focused, and the Eastern more relationship-focused. Without much hesitation, I heard myself saying 关系导向 (guānxì dǎoxiàng, or relation-oriented). The professor, who was not supposed to know any Chinese at all, apparently heard me saying Guanxi, and stopped to correct me: “It’s not exactly Guanxi. It’s the leader-follower relationship.”
It took me a second to realize what’s going on: apparently the Professor had an accurate understanding of what Chinese business people call guanxi (关系; connections and contacts in the business world), and here he insisted on distinguishing what he called relationship from guanxi, explaining:
“Task-focused means getting the work done. It’s the opposite of that. It’s focused on building a trusting and caring relation with people in the workplace.”
I then took over to clarify the difference, emphasizing the word 关怀 (guanhuai, or caring) instead. I’m not sure how many of the 110 EMBA students captured the nuance, but I saw a few of them nodding. The class went on, and the morning quickly passed.

But here’s the paradox: there is no better word in Chinese that means relationship other than guanxi! How can you translate relationship-focus without mentioning guanxi, or otherwise running into a 10-second long explanation of the nuance? I would both blame how subtle Chinese is and praise how fascinating it is: This guanxi (relation) is not that guanxi (connections).

While I was typing down this anecdote, my memory was brought back to the Cross-Culture Leadership class that I took myself some years ago. What I remember is, when hearing that the East Asian concept of Guanxi was all about after-work boozes and Karaoke with clients, my Canadian and European classmates nearly drooled…

Monday, April 1, 2013

What disappoints you the most?

Rony Gao's answer to: Survey Questions: What disappoints you the most?

My greatest disappointment is when I lose interest in things that I used to be passionate about.

For example, I was very good at math in elementary school. Not really the "genius kid" type, but my math was good enough to secure 90+ in exams, for which I would be considered a fairly smart boy. Thanks to my parents' early education, my math skills and instincts were always one or two years ahead of the school curriculum. I enjoyed all sorts of brain teasers, mental arithmetics, participating in maths competitions, and other opportunities that allowed me to use math-related skills. One of my proudest childhood memories is when me and my twin drew a circle around a plastic wash basin on the floor of my grandma's place using chalks, and cut it into 1-cm segments with a ruler to measure its circumference. We would then compare the circumference with the diameter in order to come up with a value of π! There you go: Two third-graders, without any instruction, designed a project to empirically verify a geometry theory and even using some basic calculus thinking! So you can imagine our genuine interest in math.

Things began to change after Grade 8. In China, we faced standardized Entrance examination for high school and college admissions (Zhongkao and Gaokao). Math, of course, was an important subject to be tested. So we had enormous pressure of getting good marks in math. The pressure turned my passion into indifference, then lack of passion, then dislike. In Grade 9, I found myself getting inconsistent marks in math, often because of careless errors I made in exams. The real reason was because I didn't practice enough compared to my classmates - or maybe I was always a careless person. Anyway, my worsening scores dragged my passion away from math classes and homework. This lack of practice, again, hindered me from getting good marks. Vicious cycle... :(
Anyway, the story is, I stopped being interested in math, and I was disappointed about it. I knew my disappointment was not only from my bad performance in exams, but from the fact that I lost interest in math.

I know as a matter of fact that the transfer of interest is just inevitable in everybody's growing-up. Losing passion in one thing usually means finding a new love to compensate and comfort this loss. For example, after my interest in math faded away, I discovered my passion in languages. From high school to college, English was one of my favorite subjects. I happily put in more time exploring this new territory. I think this change was constructive. But it's just the first stage when you realize you lost interest in your old love, that is really disappointing and discomforting.

P.S.: I do not hate math now. In fact I am very thankful that I came from Asia where academic foundations are taken seriously. I'm also lucky to have grown up in a family that valued early education (my parents both work for universities). Good math foundations and quantitative reasoning skills opened many doors for me. It only annoys me when, knowing how badly I once wanted to be a mathematician or natural scientist, I accept that I'm not that interested in it any more. I guess this self-discovery can be rather disappointing for anyone. It has nothing to do with money, achievements or inter-personal relations. It's purely a disappointment about how your enthusiasm changed.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My parents' first apartment (1)

One of my earliest and happiest childhood memories was when our family visited our new home for the first time in March 1989. This was the apartment we lived in later for 10 years, seeing me and my twin grow up from 3 to 13.

My parents got married in 1984. Me and my twin were born in 1986. My parents did not come to own their first house (which was technically a 60-square-meter unit in an apartment building) until 1989.In between these years, it was the era for most Chinese households to see a whole new lifestyle coming up-close.

When I say they owned their first apartment, it is not the same concept of ownership as we define it today. To be precise, the apartment would be owned by my dad's school. We were just given the privilege to live in it.

The first three years of my life (1986 - 89), our family lived in a shared apartment with another working class family. It was given to my grandpa by his danwei (unit of work), which was a major steel mill that employed almost half of the city. I still have some memory of the dark (and tiny!) room and shared bathrooms that we could barely call home. Not a fun place to be. But since everyone else was almost living the same way, no one seemed to complain.

In fact Dad was with his job in Ningixa, 200 kilometres from home, until 1987. When he was finally transferred back to Baotou, he had to begin from scratch and work all his way up in the new school we called DianDa, or Radio-Television University. It is a distance-education college where he ended up working for 20 more years. It might sound like an improbable idea today how distance-education colleges could even exist before the age of the internet. But they did. Students learned through recorded video courses, radio broadcasting, and of course lots of traditional correspondence.

Anyways, by 1989, two years into his new danwei, my dad was in a solid enough standing in the school to secure him a unit in the apartment building the school decided to build. A college builds an apartment building on his own campus and accommodates its own staff? Yes, this is what Socialism is about. The money would be collected among the staff themselves. My family chipped in 7000rmb. I won't bother doing an inflation calculation and tell how much it would have equal today, but basically, this amount was more than their total savings at that point. They borrowed from their parents of both sides.

The school then does what's called Fen Fangzi (分房子), distributing the apartment units. All 50+ staff members were to receive a unit each, but the size of your unit depends on where you rank amongst your colleagues. All employees on the payroll were ranked by their hierarchy and seniority, mainly depending on how many years you have worked in the school. My dad earned some extra credits for making sure of the construction quality of the building, as he was the only employee that had an architecture background. Thus, he was given a pretty decent 一室半 (1.5 rooms) unit, consisting of a living room that we called the "big room", a small bedroom, and a nearly-non-existent corridor that we called living room. But still, having our own little nest with separate kitchen and bathroom was totally a dream come true.

As soon as they got the keys, my parents moved in happily despite not having much furniture at all. The day we went into the room for the first time as a family, I could vividly remember how my parents were filled with joy and excitement about their life.

Moving into the campus of my dad's school also meant the commuting distance was much shorter, both for my parents' own work and sending us to kindergarten. It was a big relief of burden. My dad could spend lots of lots of time playing games with me and my brother. To this day, I am more thankful about this than anything else they did for us in our early years.
On our 6th birthday in the DianDa house, 1992 :-)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

be the next to change these kids' life

Dear Friends,

If you ever thought about doing international volunteer work, please do consider this program! Locations include Bolivia, Peru, Thailand, Nepal, Ghana, and more.. 

I volunteered with uVolunteer Thailand last year teaching English at a local elementary school. An absolutely enlightening and fun experience! :-) Just got a message today from the project manager that they are in need of more volunteer English teachers. The kids keep asking - When are we going to get a farang (foreign) teacher again? - that makes me feel sad..
Maybe you or your friend can be their next teacher! Please pass the word around!

I would be happy to answer questions about the program if anyone is interested. (Ask me at )  I spoke about my teaching experience in this video, and there are many more on the uVolunteer website. :-)

Wish everyone a Happy 2013!

Monday, July 2, 2012

harder citizenship test makes sense, but government should have done more

When new and old Canadians celebrated the 145th birthday of Canada, a piece from The Globe and Mail revealed How applicants are stumbling on the final step to becoming Canadians.

Visa application form from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. (iStockPhoto / Getty)

Is it reasonable to raise the bar for citizenship? I say Yes. But this necessitates extra support from the government, which is unfortunately missing. 

Higher standards for citizenship are definitely constructive in the long run as they push new Canadians to work harder on, if nothing else, their language skills. This will benefit both the immigrants and Canadian society because better language skills will enhance their employment prospects and overall well-being in the country for sure. The intention of this test is not to bar them from obtaining citizenship, but help them integrate.

Now the only issue is relative fairness. That is, if certain groups (the Globe and Mail article mentioned Afghanistan community, for instance) have more difficulties passing the test due to poorer education backgrounds or tougher life-situations, the federal government should make sure they receive proper assistance prior to their tests. Either should the government offer subsidised preparation programs (just as how it provides ESL classes to new immigrants), or  compensate local ethnic groups for offering such classes. This type of assistance programs should have been made available simultaneously when the citizenship test was reformed in 2010. The costs, however, are then inevitably imposed on other residents who pay tax.

At the end I think this is a paradox about fairness: either domestic taxpayers or certain immigrant groups have to sacrifice their interest (and therefore claim to have been treated unfairly) for the average new Canadian to become a little more educated about their shared homeland.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Thai Education Fails

The latest issue of The Economist attempts to explain why Thailand has failed to progress on education, and why Yingluck's tablets are not going to solve the problem.

Given my first-hand experience volunteering in Thailand's elementary school this spring, I have to agree with The Economist. Let's make it clear: I personally have no doubt in the revolutionary power of tablets in classrooms. It is handy, eye-catching, interactive and extremely educational if you use it right. But the inconvenient truth is, the country's education is failing because of poor management. Teachers and school administrators are not paid on results, and each individual school runs itself like a family business. Of course the blame can climb all the way to the very top of its system: education policy-makers and, ultimately, the government.

Had I decided to go there a year later, we might be playing with Ms. Yingluck's tablets instead of my own. But how much difference does it make?

Here I want to raise a deeper and perhaps less correct explanation why Thailand has difficulties turning extra resource into better academic performance: the Thai culture and social formation. To say the least, Thai society is more relaxed than ambitious. Remember, the country's economy has been tourism-driven for decades. Smiles and hospitality earn you money; textbooks and literacy don't. This being part of the people's DNA, you can hardly believe the students themselves are motivated to excel at school, if their parents don't even consider academic excellence as a gateway to well-being.

When I was there as a volunteer English teacher, I saw as many smart kids as anywhere else. But hardly could I call them hard-working and dream-bearing ones. The Thai people are naturally not fans of competition. This is especially true if you compare them to their Southeast-Asian neighbors.

So, if power and wealth are given by one's last name, the King, and the Buddha, what's it have to do with my studying hard?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Weibo: Interview with Taiwan's English Radio

Radio Taiwan International's Eye On China recently produced a series of programs on China's Weibo phenomenon. I had the pleasure to be interviewed and featured on two episodes.

The June 7 episode is a birdview of what Weibo is, how Taiwan's celebrities have extended their influence through Weibo, and how the social media service is viewed by "grassroot" users including me. My voice clip can be heard at the 7th minute.

The June 14 episode is an edited version of my full interview. I was telling Natalie Tso what I do on Weibo, and how Weibo has become an addiction. To hear the program, click here, then hit the icon on the page.