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Archive for January, 2011

Today I have an update to my last entry which I titled Biggest Flop 2010.  Quite honestly I am hardly surprised to see the latest development based on my earlier observation.  Since the disaster in securing top management buy-in, the organization is now put in a very vulnerable situation.  The business lines are all taking a bite off the procurement department, and its head is constantly kept in a defensive mode.  He is often summoned by other department heads to provide quick fixes that are hardly strategic or measurable.  The middle to upper management team is always called for ad hoc customer meetings where they have little idea how to respond, and whether or not to make certain commitments due to limited departmental resources.  The organization is in a complete state of chaos.

Based on the unfavorable circumstances, I can offer a few recommendations which can hopefully improve morale and make the situation slightly more bearable.

1. Salvage the situation

For the immediate period, nothing much can be done in terms of changing the corporate management’s views.  The best tactic is to embrace it gracefully, while striving to develop success cases from the ground up.  Having top-down mandate is ideal, but it’s not the end of the world even with its absence.  This is how true leadership emerges and shines.  Pick the best people to put in front of selected customers where there is the highest hope to succeed both in terms of quality assurance, savings potential and improved efficiency.  Convince the customers upfront that you are not expecting anything from them other than their cooperation.  Work from the bottom up.  Take care of all the paperwork, liaise with legal, compliance, finance and investigation, represent the clients well in front of suppliers, and make the customer experience a pleasant one. 

All this is needed to be put into the credits bank so that when the right moment comes, these customers are going to root for you in front of top management.  The best salesmanship technique is to have your customers sell for you, instead of doing so yourself.

2. Renegotiate goals

Now is the golden time to renegotiate goals.  Since a substantial spend area is taken away, the cost savings expectation should be adjusted.  In every case, link addressable spend with potential savings as tightly as possible, even if we know it may not always be a directly proportional relationship.  Merely negotiating terms and conditions without having the power to affect sourcing decisions will not bring in cost savings.  The moment top management is convinced and concerned over lost savings, they will change their minds and come knocking.

3. Retreat

For the spend area that is taken away (in this case above-the-line marketing), retreat completely.  Follow exactly the order of top management.  I am more than happy to be a good corporate citizen all along, but since my contribution is now deemed useless by corporate, I won’t be uttering a word.  In my many years of corporate experience, there will be plenty of crisis situations soon enough (knock on wood) where marketing will come screaming for help.  Their major supplier is asking for a 50% price increase and they are left with no alternatives.  The supplier is claiming structural damages compensation for incidents that need mediation.  The company is undergoing corruption and antitrust investigations by the local authorities.  Marketing is being criticized by internal and external auditors for their approval and authorization inadequacies.  When they come knocking – sorry, I can’t comment since I was not involved in the first place.

This isn’t meant as petty revenge, but no one will appreciate the criticality of a function (procurement) until they are bombed with crisis situations.  Let these risks speak for themselves.

4. Energize the team

No matter how one keeps the recent top management discussions in closed wraps, everyone in the procurement team will hear about it in less than 2 hours.  Words spread fast, especially bad news.  The team is going to view it as failure of the leader, and all these rumors are devastating. 

Leaders should address the team in plain language, and advocate that this is all just a transitional phase.  Unity is crucial.  The function’s credibility should never be tainted.  And leaders are working on renegotiating the goals with top management only as a tactic to regain power. 

When team members understand the leaders’ plan of attack, there will be better hopes of instilling confidence and morale.

5. Contain the virus

Keep your ground and don’t let the same happens with other business units or spend areas.  There is a likelihood that other business leaders will follow suit and take a shot of procurement.  Visit these leaders and explain to them of this exceptional and transitional development.  If they have concerns, ask them to come to you instead of escalating straight to the COO.  Depending on the party, different tactics may need to be deployed, ranging from “be your buddy” to scare tactics.  You just cannot afford to have more spend areas fall through.  Otherwise, you may as well propose to have the whole function redesigned as a purely operational cost center with no cost savings responsibility.  The function can then be outsourced to India, Philippines, or China!

Well, these are the top 5 steps that I can think of almost immediately.  Will they adopt any of that in the near future?  That’s what I am eager to find out soon.

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We so-called city folks are full of ourselves.  We think we are street-smarts and hence we are constantly guarded against everyone around us.  Indeed there are loads of crooks out there prying on the least prepared and the most gullible.  Though as residents of almost every fast-paced city, we should all learn to be a bit more accepting, and a bit more compassionate to people around us. 

We never want to lose out, so when we interact with people, a mental calculator surfaces that shows us what potential benefits, or trouble, we can get from the other party.  Shall we be friendly, or shall we just nod along politely?  What are the odds that we will be taken advantage by him or her?  What do they want from me? 

Not until I left the city and entered into a new surrounding did I realize how ridiculous our behavior could be.  I came into contact with all kinds of people in Taipei, and I received a lot of friendly treatments from all of them.   The people I met genuinely wanted to share life stories with me.  They opened up, and they took the time to invest in conversations. 

And I don’t mean hollow conversations where people only talk about what food they have eaten, cars they drive, or how much money they make.  I don’t think people should need these topics to justify their existence or value on the planet. 

I was greeted by very sincere folks in Taipei who were genuinely interested in knowing about each other.  I met people who openly shared their darkest secrets and insecurities with me, a stranger from Hong Kong whom they had never met before.  Though I cannot recall the last time I experienced it here at home, I didn’t find that odd at all.  It should be human nature.  The conversations I was engaged in were always candid, honest and at times vulnerable.  I like that on people.

In my mind, everyone should possess a certain level of confidence.  Showing your vulnerabilities is not a sign of weakness.  If you have inner qualities that excel amongst others, people will feel it without you needing to flaunt it.  Confident people, as long as they are not cocky, are incredibly attractive.  Insecure people, on the other hand, are usually despised and almost hated by others.  When I see people who are humble and willing to improve upon themselves, you will see me throwing myself at them like a moth to a flame.

Sounds like a bunch of random thoughts, but I owe it to Taipei who reaffirmed me on the goodness of people in the start of 2011.  Thank you.

 

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I came across a list of so-called oddball interview questions of 2010 from glassdoor.com, gathered by a  number of job seekers who had encountered them from various renowned employers over the year.  I can’t resist but to share the top 25 questions here with you.

  1. “If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?”   Asked at Goldman Sachs.
  2. “How many ridges (are there) around a quarter?”   Asked at Deloitte.
  3. “What is the philosophy of Martial Arts?”   Asked at Aflac.
  4. “Explain (to me) what has happened to this country during the last 10 years.”   Asked at Boston Consulting.
  5. “Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 how weird you are.”   Asked at Capital One.
  6. “How many basketballs can you fit in this room?”   Asked at Google.
  7. “Out of 25 horses, pick the fastest 3 horses.  In each race, only 5 horses can run at the same time.  What is the minimum number of races required?”   Asked at Bloomberg LP.
  8. “If you could be any superhero, who would it be?”   Asked at AT&T.
  9. “You have a birthday cake and have exactly 3 slices to cut it into 8 equal pieces.  How do you do it?”   Asked at Blackrock.
  10. “Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum numbers guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ for each guess you make?”   Asked at Facebook.
  11. “If you had 5,623 participants in a tournament, how many games would need to be played to determine the winner?”   Asked at Amazon.
  12. “An apple costs 20 cents, an orange costs 40 cents, and a grapefruit costs 60 cents.  How much is a pear?”   Asked at Epic Systems.
  13. “There are 3 boxes.  One contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges.  The boxes have been incorrectly labelled such that no label identifies the actual contents of the box it labels.  Opening just one box, and without looking in the box, you take out one piece of fruit.  By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly?”   Asked at Apple.
  14. “How many traffic lights are there in Manhattan?”   Asked at Argus Information & Advisory Services.
  15. “You are in a dark room with no light.  You need matching socks for your interview and you have 19 gray socks and 25 black socks.  What are the chances you will get a matching pair?”   Asked at Eze Castle.
  16. “What do wood and alcohol have in common?”   Asked at Guardsmark.
  17. “How do you weigh an elephant without using a weigh machine?”   Asked at IBM.
  18. “You have 8 pennies, 7 weight the same, one weighs less.  You also have a judges scale.  Find the one that weights less in less than 3 steps.”   Asked at Intel.
  19. “Why do you think only a small percentage of the population makes over $150K?”   Asked at New York Life.
  20. “You are in charge of 20 people, organize them to figure out how many bicycles were sold in your area last year.”   Asked at Schlumberger.
  21. “How many bottles of beer are drunk in the city over the week?”  Asked at The Nielsen Company.
  22. “What is the square foot of 2000?”   Asked at UBS.
  23. “A train leaves San Antonio for Houston at 60mph.  Another train leaves Houston for San Antonio at 80mph.  Houston and San Antonio are 300 miles apart.  If a bird leaves San Antonio at 300mph, and turns around and flies back once it reaches the Houston train, and continues to fly between the two, how far would it have flown when they collide?”   Asked at USAA.
  24. “How are M&Ms made?”   Asked at US Bank.
  25. “What would you do if you just inherit a pizzeria from your uncle?”   Asked at Volkswagen.

So what do you think of the answers of the above questions?  Or are you deeply offended if you are asked these in your ucpoming job interviews?

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Taiwan is famous for its book scene.  I seldom see Hong Kong people holding a book in subways, buses, coffee houses or restaurants anymore.  Instead, we fiddle with our blackberries, smart phones, PSPs and NDS whenever we go.  Even if you think the launch of Kindle and iPad will re-ignite our passion of reading electronically, I often see people reading online newspapers, magazines and comic books instead.  Well, to be fair I do think having the proper infrastructure does play a big part in cultivating the reading phenomenon in Taiwan.  The city is filled with gynormous-sized book stores that open way into the night.  The stores are cozily decorated, quiet and artfully displayed.  There is plenty of seating, and flipping through every page of the book for hours in a row is not frowned upon.  The stores look more like libraries instead of commercial sales points in Hong Kong.  The latter, is definitely not an enjoyable experience.  No wonder Hong Kong people do not find reading pleasurable.

You can tell a city’s culture pretty much by the bestselling books on display.  Yesterday night when I did my last round of bookstore surfing after a soothing day of hot springs and comfort food, I paid attention to the bestsellers’ rack.  The titles (translated from Chinese) include:

  • The Anatomical Chart of Homes
  • Tokyo Design Life 100+
  • The 14 Economic Wars that China will Face
  • The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe
  • Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)
  • The Goldman Sachs Conspiracy
  • The Secret Laws of Management
  • Getting Organized in the Google Era
  • Living Life Out of Relaxation

…to name a few…

I am quite impressed.   Most titles I come across center around self-improvement, emotional quotient and living well-balanced and full lives.  Bravo.

So what are some of Hong Kong’s bestselling Chinese titles?

  • Land and The Ruling Class in Hong Kong
  • Taipei Travel Guide 2010-2011 Updated Edition (surprise…surprise!)
  • My Retarded Way of Raising My Baby (comic book I believe…and excuse me for my literal translation)
  • Tokyo Travel Guide 2011-12 Eat, Play, Buy Ultimate Edition
  • Learning English with Regina
  • Out of Control Hong Kong’s Kids

…and I am skipping 258 titles of “How to Get Rich”, “Investing in Property”, “Stock Market 101”, “How to Read Just Enough to B** S*** Your Way through Wine Appreciation”, “How to Get Your Kids into the City’s Hottest Kindergartens”, “Year of the Rabbit Fortune Telling”…

This is the fast food reading culture of Hong Kong.  We are all too goal-oriented, as if there has to be a definitive purpose to pick up a book and read.  It’s good that we like to be informed and knowledgeable at all times, but reading 698 pages of Eat+Play+Buy travel guides is not going to do yourself too much good when you find yourself exhausted running around a foreign city like a maniac.  The how-to guides are necessary evils but should be tamed down a notch.  I seldom hear people make good money from reading those get-rich guides either.  If we can all just pick up a handful of titles that are intriguing enough to our minds, I am confident this mental exercise we do will benefit us a whole lot more, and that may very well include living a positive life, maintaining healthy relationships and ultimately, building an emotional wealth that no money can buy.

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When I stepped into this hidden villa less than an hour away from the city, I was already impressed.  Listed as the “Hot List of The Year’s Top New Hotels” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2006, and rated as one of Asia’s best spas by CNNGo this year, one has to see it to believe it.  The villa used to be reserved for private members only and now it’s available through advance reservations.  Amazingly, the moment I entered the villa, all their staff, including their security guards out front, greeted me by my surname.   How do they do it?  I have only experienced similar treatments in Mandarin Oriental and Trident Gurgaon, India, which costs a whole lot more fortune to say the least.

 

The villa has 5 suites for overnight stays, and that screams exclusivity.  There are 5 other private rooms for hot springs, public pools separated between male and female, one Italian restaurant, and a spa catered for everything in between Chinese meridien treatments, skin care, and toxin relief programs. 

I signed myself up for the public pool access so that I can make it a grand finale of my Taipei getaway trip.  Like hot springs developments in Japan, there are a number of similar establishments in Beitou.  I was recommended by a good friend of mine to experience this villa due to its exclusiveness and tranquility amongst the neighbors.  The reason why advance reservations are required is for the villa to manage no more than 30 guests in the public pool area at any one time.  Yes, 30.  The result?  I hardly saw more than 10 guests during my 4-hour stay.  No kids under 16 years of age are allowed, and the facilities are all top-notch.  I can really tell that the owner has put in tons of money designing, building, and maintaining the property similar to a Bali-like facility.  There are lots of wood, stone, fountain and greenery everywhere. 

 

 

There is nothing better than soaking yourself in 42.5 degrees outdoor baths on a chilly drizzling day.  Since there were hardly anyone around other than the super attentive and courteous staff,  I could hear the natural hot springs bubbling underneath the property, and I could witness the sky filled with hot springs steam, so much like I was in heaven.  Indeed I really thought I had gone to heaven.

 

There were altogether 4 outdoor and 4 indoor pools, and I concentrated on soaking between the 2 hotter outdoor pools.  My neck and shoulder pains were simply gone.  The hot springs made my heart beat really fast, and for every 15 minutes or so I had to get up and lay down in comfortable lounges out on the porch.  No doubt I was feeling a bit dizzy and pumped from all the blood circulation, and then I realized I was drunk!  Not by alcohol, but by hot springs and the picturesque harmony of sounds and nature.

 

There was a meditation room upstairs, and a resting area for guests to take a nap.  When my hangover has slightly subsided, I made myself a cup of tea and relaxed myself in the cozy lounge area.  Again, I hardly saw anyone else.

I left with the biggest grin on my face, and the biggest weight off my shoulders.  Though I hardly ate at all the whole day prior to the bath, I felt relieved, nurtured, pampered, and recharged.   I would definitely visit again.  Well, as if I need any more excuse to come back to beautiful Taipei.

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Eat, Pray, Love… in Taipei (Part One)

Taipei is a destination where I don’t mind traveling alone, similar to Bangkok.  The two cities however are very different in the most obvious ways.  Although I have been to Taipei both for business and leisure countless number of times, it’s been a year since my last visit to the city.  I am here for 6 days which I think is the longest consecutive period that I have spent, and hence I have a lot of time to re-acquaint, chill, and take in what the city can offer.

Though it’s always more enjoyable to savor a city’s cuisine with good friends, sometimes I just need to make do when the circumstances don’t allow this to happen.  This time, I have skipped all the sightseeing activities and shopping.  I have done my more than fair share of supporting our economy back home in the last 2 months, and the weak Hong Kong dollar is not making it much fun either.  Instead, I am focusing all my energy in finding local food which I can sample myself, alone.  And it’s not difficult at all, here in Taipei.

There are plenty of street side stores serving the most mouth-watering local delicacies, and I am not even talking about the ever delightable night markets.  I can’t help but notice that none of these eateries operate like what we have in Hong Kong.  They don’t serve 158 different dishes and 37 beverages.  They hardly charge service fees, and they seldom change hands.  Many stores have been in the same business and location for the past 40 years or more.  Most of them stick to the same menu and sometimes even prices.  They always sell what they are specialized in, and very often work on complementing their neighbors.  I find it very refreshing, and at the same time sorry about the depressing food scene at home mainly due to exorbitant rental prices.  I love to return to a simpler time when I can go back to the same place, eat the same food, meet the same owner, and be consistently satisfied in the same way. One dish, is all I need to remember them and to go back again and again.

Maybe it’s a sign that I am really getting old, but I am always thankful to a city which has given me so much joy and comfort, both spiritually and gastronomically.

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I think I am cursed.  Just two days ago I had to go to a new hair salon because my regular stylist was sick at home.  Aside from the obvious dialogue on styling preferences, the new guy asked me the one question which I dreaded the most.  You will know what that is from my very first blog post here.  “Sir, what do you do?”

This question is one of the very fundamental reasons why I themed this blog around my work.  Since I am not the type of person who will just mumble some ambiguous crap to dismiss such questions, watching other people’s blank stares has always been my biggest fear.  I therefore tried my best to describe my work in the most conceptual manner.

It seemed to be working.  My new stylist seemed to be genuinely interested and kept asking me follow-up questions (or maybe he was way too courteous to yawn in front of me).  Soon enough I found the other stylists as well as assistants eyeing our way.  I think they were just puzzled to hear some weird chap babbling about his career at a high decibel.  Also, you can clearly see from their eyes that they have never heard of such profession in their lives. 

“How can one enter this profession?”

“What are the qualifications for your job?”

“I have never met any client who do what you do!”

It’s exhausting to answer these questions as I never want to misrepresent my profession, if the other party is genuinely interested.  After hearing my elaborate answers, my new stylist jokingly said that I should start a teaching career.  I told him that was partly what I did on a corporate level instead of a commercial one. 

“So what is your title?” I think he was asking for what my company put on my name card.

When I answered “procurement” both in English and in Chinese, he confessed that he had never heard of it in his entire life.

Alright there is just something seriously wrong here.  I am not trying to glorify what we do here, but when there is this low level of general awareness around us, we need to take responsibility.  Perhaps we have been doing a sucky job in the past that makes us so redundant.  Maybe the results and deliverables we generated can’t really be traced back to our efforts.  Maybe we were never good at advocating our value in front of clients, and perhaps even chose to stay in the comfort zone of assuming tactical purchasing roles that is increasingly commoditized. 

I can’t depend on the others, and so I will try my best to continue doing my part to help elevate such awareness, especially when I know there is immense value we provide to our employers.  I won’t be an obnoxious geek when I hang out with my friends and peers, but I surely won’t be shy in front of business clients and partners. 

There I said it.  Let’s see if I will get killed one way or another.  If you don’t know what I mean, read this!

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The life lessons we learned in a school filled with so much diversity never meant to be easy.  When you were 17 or 18, you weren’t such well-behaved, accepting and politically correct as you are now.  Most students had never set foot out of their countries or even their hometowns.  We ran into schoolmates whose countries we couldn’t pronounce.  We celebrated each country’s national day, and we brought along our so-called national costumes to showcase in cultural events.  (Don’t ask me what national costume I brought along)  No matter how many seminars and coaching sessions the school teachers had hosted from day one, there were still many cases of disputes, complaints and charges on racial remarks, disturbances, and sometimes even physical fights.  However it was also these painful incidents for us kids to learn in a hard way.   Of course, there are still lots of funny bits which I can still remember quite vividly, even after all these years.

1. To Eat

With students coming from over 65 countries, there is only one commonality of all: we all hated the cafeteria food.  It serves American/Mexican and occasionally blends in exotic choices from around the world.   Regardless of their efforts, no one was pleased, including the Americans.  The result was that the dorm pantries were filled with students scrambling for the shared pots and pans to make their own meals, utilizing less than exotic ingredients we could gather from the nearby Safeway.   Our American friends were not used to the pungent smells and smoke we created downstairs, but when hunger striked, you often saw them digging in the stir-fry you just finished from scratch.  It was loads of fun when you find eating the ultimate universal language.  It is unimaginable for us now that the most popular staple food in school used to be the super unglamorous and unhealthy instant noodles.  The instant noodles they sold in the school’s store as well as in Safeway was the worst you could find on earth, with bizarre flavors named “Oriental”.  Yet on almost every hungry long night, nothing was more satisfying than a hot steaming bowl of noodles.  The Asian students first started cooking them and after a week or so, all of our European and American friends became adopters.  Soon after we experimented various new ways of cooking instant noodles like pan flying or mixing with other ingredients we stole from the cafeteria.  I always had my American friends knocking on my dorm room door at 3am, asking whether I could spare a pack or two.  I miss those simple days.

2. To Hear

There was one public phone per dorm and it was always occupied.  I think some of my schoolmates lived there.  In those days long distance calls were incredibly expensive and I barely made one every few months to call home.  I could understand how emotionally challenging it was for all the international students, but I couldn’t help to frown at those American friends who were glued to the phone every night.  After all, they could have their families visited them, on campus, much easier than everyone else.  To this date, my parents still have absolutely no idea what I went through in those 2 years.  I could have attended Hogwarts with Harry Porter, for all they care.

3. To Run

You would think that with all those physical exercises as described in Part Two, we would all be sound asleep at nights.  Oh no, there would be on average a night per week where we would be awoken by loud piercing fire alarm at 4am.  Everyone ran to the porch where you could see the weirdest pyjamas of all cultures.  Some wrapped themselves with blankets, and some amazingly fully clothed as they had not even been to bed yet.  It was always caused by kids smoking inside their rooms, or somebody forgetfully leaving their bag of popcorn in the microwave.  The most interesting scene for all, however, was to see who came out together from a room.  I am not talking about roommates here, people.

4. To Perform

You are naturally possessed with patriotic adrenaline the moment you enter the school.  Since you may be the only one from your country, you become the ambassador.  I remember I used to write to the Hong Kong Tourism Association offices in the States to ask them to send me all kinds of crap to spread the goodwill across, and they did!  I had beautiful posters of Hong Kong skyline, junks, lion dancing and dim sum, and I also got cardboard displays sent in.  My dorm room looked like a freaking tourist information center, for god’s sake.  Yet that was the pressure I felt back in the days.

And then there were these yearly cultural performances we had to perform.  Asian National Day, Latin American national Day…you get the picture.  We scratched our heads out thinking what we could do including Tai Chi, Kung fu, Chinese dances, reciting poetry, calligraphy etc..  It was hugely entertaining for us since we could just draw up random figures on red paper in front of unsuspecting audiences. 

 

The UWC life is a very unique experience.  Since my time, more schools have been opened, including one right here in Hong Kong.  Each school has its particular offering which no other could compete or replace.  I wish I could have kept in contact with more of my schoolmates, though it was challenging when e-mails weren’t too popular when we left.    One thing I know, is that many of them are now working in public offices and environmental bodies.  To me, I am just grateful to be sponsored to enjoy such rewarding experience.

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After literally 2 full days of connecting flights and school buses, I arrived in the middle of nowhere.  Montezuma is next to a town called Las Vegas but nothing like its sister in Nevada.  The school is located at a 3-hour drive from New Mexico’s airport in Albuquerque.  I couldn’t pronounce half of these names at first since they are all Spanish.  The community is largely Hispanic and I felt nothing like in the States, though technically I got no reference in the first place.  So when my friends and schoolmates asked me whether I had been to New York, San Francisco, LA, Washington DC or Florida when I was studying in the States, they couldn’t believe my answer. 

The school however was located in a picturesque part of the rocky mountains.  Although it is located far south of the States next to Mexico, the town is 6,400 feet above sea level, so there was a decent amount of snow during winter.  We were completely isolated from everything else because there was no public transportation, no shops or malls.  The students were not allowed to drive because of insurance issues, and had to rely on scheduled school vans to take us out to the nearest Safeway (supermarket).  I felt completely trapped.  I was surrounded by my schoolmates 24 hours a day, and the school and our second year seniors had organized all types of activities for us that were meant to knock down cultural barriers.  That was very much needed, since there were language issues, cultural issues, curriculum issues, discipline issues, and sex issues.  Yes, you heard it right.

The UWC schools have a long tradition of incorporating wilderness and community services inside our curriculum.  For a city boy who was hardly skilled in sports in school, it was definitely something new.  I went for 5 day hiking and wild camping trips carrying backpacks half my height, stuffed with cooking pots and pans, food, sleeping bag and mat.  We hiked through the woods with compasses and maps and had to hang our food up the trees at night to avoid sniffing bears.  The boys needed to pee around the wild camp site to mark our territory against bears, and we often saw knocked down trash cans the morning after as proof that they were around us just a mile away.  Sometimes part of the hike involved kayaking.  After 10 hours of hiking and paddling every day, I always collapsed no later than 7pm after the camp fire, under the brightest and biggest night of stars I had ever seen.  Rock climbing was another extremely scary but fulfilling experience.  And no, we didn’t do it on a rock wall.  We did it on the coarse mountain tops under light snow.  When I repelled down, I felt that I was literally going to die.

Community service was not easy work either.  Yes it did sound like something which mild law offenders were sentenced to do in orange jump suits.  We built houses for the elderly, painted fences, cooked for the homeless, and in my second year I paid weekly visits to the elderly who lived alone and wanted someone to talk to.   It was the school’s mission to pay back to the nearby community, and being located in a rather run-down hispanic environment, there was plenty that a group of 17-18 year olds could do.

 

During the two years in UWC, I hardly spoke a word of Cantonese or even Mandarin in front of mainland Chinese schoolmates.  The norm was not to speak in languages which others couldn’t understand, so we were instructed to always use English whenever possible, with no disrespect to our own cultures of course.  I remember I was tongue-tied when I landed HK during summer.  For the first hour or so I had to remember how to speak in Cantonese.  The people, the various accents, the cultures, the weird food, the temperature, the wilderness, and depending on nobody but yourself was quite daunting for myself at the time, but it was exactly this exposure that helped shape who I am today, rather than the academic curriculum that you haven’t heard me mentioning one bit, so far.

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After my secondary school education in Hong Kong, together with a number of my classmates, I was nominated by my secondary school counselor to apply for an international school scholarship.  I didn’t know much about what it was at first except that our school had a pretty high acceptance record in the past years.  There were only 10 seats per year for Hong Kong graduates to compete against each other based on school merits, extra-curricular activities, and personal presence.  The scholarship was not widely known except for a few rather prestigious private and subsidized secondary schools in Hong Kong.  Our Hong Kong alumni comes from a dozen well-known schools who truly understand the value and mission of the scholarship.

“The United World College (UWC) schools deliver a challenging and transformative educational experience to a diverse cross-section of students, inspiring them to create a more peaceful and sustainable future.”, the brochure says.  The current President of UWC is Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, and its Honorary President is Nelson Mandela.  During my days, the President was HRH The Prince of Wales.   The UWC concept was conceived in the 1950s, and it has now 13 colleges and schools across five continents, offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.  It was like the UK A-Level in my days.

After submitting my school records and a number of other papers and recommendations, I was invited to attend a face-to-face interview with a panel of judges who were tasked to screen and select the students representing Hong Kong.  I recall that the panel was headed by Doctor Man Wui Ho (何文匯博士).  I don’t recall much of what happened during the interview, but it was mainly an attempt to select young people who were eloquent, had common sense and open minds.  Just before the Hong Kong Certification of Education (HKCEE) results were out, I got notified by my school that I was fortunate to be selected as one of the 10 that year.

In my days there were only 7 schools within the network, and we applied to this network instead of each school individually.  We could put down our preference and rank them in order, but there was no guarantee.  Some schools have slightly larger student bodies and could accommodate 2 or 3 HK students every year.  Some schools can only take 1.  Each school is committed to have a student body representing over 65 countries every year like a mini UN, so they have to be extra careful in filtering each year’s applicants by personality, country of origin, and gender.  Like many of my fellow scholarship applicants, I picked the supposedly safer bets of UK and Canada as my preferred choices in my application.

I was notified by my school that I was selected to be the only 1 Hong Kong student to attend the UWC in the states that fall.  The school was in Motezuma New Mexico.  Like almost everyone, I flipped out my atlas with my parents and simply couldn’t find it on the map.  At the time when HK people are only familiar of east coast schools and west coast Hollywood and California beaches, anywhere in between was utterly non-existent and unthinkable. 

The school is named Armand Hammer United World College of the American West.  It has one of the smallest student bodies in the network, just over 200 students.  The 2-year IB program means that each year there will be around 100 new students from all over the world.  Being the school in the states, US students occupy about 50 seats each year, leaving the rest to be shared amongst 60 plus countries.  It’s easy math that the school will never have more than 2 Hong Kong students, one of each school year.  I was the only one attending that college from my home country.  The scholarship covers all room and board, tuition and books, as all students live on campus.  Everyone needs to pick up two languages, and will be responsible for plane tickets and incidental expenses particularly during winter and summer breaks. 

 

So that fall, I waved goodbye to my family, friends and classmates.  I packed my whole life in two super sized luggage that weighed more than myself, bought a one-way ticket that would need me to make 3 stops across continents, and left Hong Kong for the very first time in my life.   I got no friends or relatives anywhere in the States, and I had a million questions and thoughts on my mind.  However, everything happened so fast that I simply had no time to be scared.  I just knew that I would not be able to see my sister and parents for a whole year.  In an era without cell phones, internet, Skype and e-mails, that thought was utterly horrendous.

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