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Shang Gao
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Chapter III. Pitts-Da-Burgh! Or, just the burgh.

My experience with Pittsburgh is very similar to the one with Manila. I had a reason to come here, but god I was depressed, so much that every minute I thought of leaving.

We spoke about what happens to people who are under-prepared... they usually end up in situations that are not ideal, they had to take it but it was not ideal.

1. My first "real" job.

I started school at Pitt, and somehow found myself full-scholarship at least for the first year. But what I had to do to earn this scholarship composes my most funny experience in my entire US life. I was a night shift building manager at the William Pitt Union (the admin building and place where most of student events took place). I was clueless. I made so many mistakes that after the first semester two full-time managers come to talk to me and questioned if they could still hire me for the second semester. I needed the money, so somehow I convinced them I will do better. But honestly, I couldn't care less. I think even though I didn't fully understand what the jobs means, I had an impression this job is nothing but housekeeping. And so it never motivated to me to better, or thinking of ways to do better. Plus my language barrier. I mostly sit there and count the time.

Looking back, I dont think I intentionally try to push the boundary and screw things up. More than often, I had no idea what happened, or how to handle situation.

For example, one time, we were paged (we carry walkie talkies when we do rounds in the building) while on duty that there was an urgent matter in the grand ballroom when a large scale student activity was taking place. The problem was, there were primers on the floor, and so the student leader did not know what to do. I was the evening supervisor so I took a student on duty to come with me. But when I heard about this, my first reaction was.. "What is a primer?" Years later when I moved to DC and bought an apt and started renovating it, it all came to sense to me what a primer really is. But at the time, I didn't have a clue or a choice, so I looked at it, and said, "Is everyone OK? Lets try to clean this up as soon as possible. Casey, (my student on duty) please page the building construction worker to come take a look. How did this happen?" I must have spoken with such confidence and it looked like I knew what I was doing. So students felt "phew someone is in charge" and Casey later came to me said "Oh God I wouldn't know what to do if you weren't there." It is funny because I know at the time I had no idea what to do either, and that question "What is a primer?" keep circling in my head. It was a lucky case.

Another example, where I ran out of luck, was when my full-time building manager(my boss) asked me to check on the basement student club "discreetly" if at finish hour all things were wiped and cleaned and all chairs were put on the table. She wrote that in email and I did what she asked me to do, except that I never knew what "discreetly" meant (I mean I knew it meant in Chinese, but my English vocabulary didn't reach that far). So I went down and talked to the students that "Oh Chris asked me to come down to check on you guys see if you have finished all the duties tonight. Please lets hurry up." Of course, the next day students wrote a complaint letter to Chris (my boss) that they didn't feel trusted and why Isabella (I went by Isabella back then) had to come downstairs to sort of threaten them and check on their work. Chris first blamed me for not doing the work, then she asked me "Do you know what "discreetly" means?" By that time I certainly understood, and she also understood what the real problem was.

Other times, I would receive an email in the middle of the night to call me out on some work I hadn't finished but supposed to. Also times when I punched my time card, but moments later drove to my friend's birthday party and stayed for a full hour while clocked in. There was also another time I showed up wearing jeans, and several times later I was called into the boss' office that clearly I hadn't read the office manual--jeans were not appropriate as work attire. The whole experience felt like going through high school again, although it seemed you were in charge, but you have some managers that were like teachers to monitor every movement of yours.

By the end of the first year, they had no choice but to fire me. And I didn't even try to convince them otherwise because I knew how much I screwed up. It was a funny experience but also a good lesson learned on basic work ethics and what the grow-up world is like to some extent. I do believe my students (24 students whom I needed to supervise) liked me, but my boss, not so much.

At the same time, I passed my Core exam, which qualified me to proceed in my doctoral study.

Months later, I found a second job--Graduate student manager at the Confucius Institute at University of Pittsburgh. Same sweet deal, complete tuition remission with a monthly stipend of roughly 1300 USD. It was a lot to me back then.

2. Left-over from Boston, Greg Li, and his inspiration to me.

Just when I was enjoying the sweet times cruising through my doctoral study, a friend I knew back in Boston, came to visit me. Of course at the time he was more with the intention of turning me to a potential wife if his. But what he said to me was the most inspirational that changed my life track. He asked me "What is your plan for life? Do you just want to stay in Pittsburgh and finish school? What's after that?" I've never considered serious questions like those so I didn't have an answer. He looked at me and said "I felt the natural quality in you to be a leader. I think Public Policy studies are suitable for you. You should look in to the MPA program at Harvard Kennedy School." I honestly don't know why he had the thought, but Harvard sounded sweet.

By his introduction and some background research of my own, I got to know more about the program and some people who studied there at the time. I felt alive. It was the first time I saw a clear target that I can chase. And if I get my act together, I can possible reach that target. It was one of those moments that I felt hyper and all of a sudden my life has meaning.

Harvard is a place many people want to go. So how do I get in, but without telling anyone around me... ? It took me quite a long time, from the day I started preparing, to taking trips back to Boston to network with students and professors, to taking all the Goddamn exams again, to taking relevant course to Policy school but not to Education school, to trying to take HKS courses at Harvard... It was a long way, and it took me more than a year. I loved that experience because I missed the days I had to be the best version of myself everyday, in front of everyone.

Have a goal to chase is always the happiest.

I didn't get into Harvard. By my carpet bombing way of doing things, of course I would get in somewhere. And that somewhere is Columbia U in the city of NY. I couldn't be more delighted.

By that time, I've been through couple of bfs and finished all my course works for my doctoral program. To graduate with my PhD or not, that is the question.

I deferred my admission for a year, and tried to focus on writing at least some substantial chunk of my dissertation. I managed to get nothing done. All I did was to stay where I was, wrote two lines here and there, and maintained in my very memorable healthy relationship with Kia.

3. G-20

During my unproductive three years' stay at Pitt, nothing tremendous happened, but Pittsburgh G-20 happened! Because I was again the President of Chinese Students Association, and because China had become more important then, I was contacted to become the attache coordinator at Westin Hotel, where several national leaders stayed.

It was a big deal to me. Not only that I've never been in charge of something this big, I didn't even had a chance to experience something big like this in my life.

It took some sleepless nights to arrange all logistics. Managing 40 some volunteers to take shift staying at the Westin Hotel together with attaches from other country to welcome their leaders was quite nerve racking. We had to wake up everyday around 4/5am and get ready to enter the highly restricted area where the summit is taking place. Little did I knew, staying in the hotels weren't the most exciting thing, getting into the summit convention center was.

TBC



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Chapter II. US and A.

The highlight of my life so far (not very long yet, but still) is the moment I stepped on the soil of US and A. It almost felt like a dream of how it came to that--a small town Chinese girl flew to US to continue her life. It was year 2006, I was a fresh college gradate, I had so much curiosity love and ... innocence.

It never occurred to me that I would live in the US for 10 years of my life, just as it never occurred to me that one day I would leave the US.

I landed in Boston, a northeastern city in Massachusetts, a place where there were more colleges than lobsters. I got into Boston College. A small-town Manchurian Chinese atheist is going to continue her Master's degree in a Jesuit Catholic school in northeastern US. Honestly it took me a while to know what Jesuit Catholic means, although it sounded cool so I kept saying that whenever I told people where I went to school.

There were many funny moments now that I think back, but at the time, those moments were embarrassing and face-burning to me.

I remember when I first started my program, I would go to every professor's office just because I thought I should. Partly it is the Chinese kind of culture to maintain "good relationship" with my instructors. Partly, maybe because I didnt have a lot of things to do anyway.

I would jump up and down in my little rental room feeling so happy and excited just because I spoke, for the very first time, in my class, in a semester. Speaking English as a second language and having the guts to say something in class in front of all my classmates and professor is a huge deal for me. For the second part, just ask any Chinese student. I bet on average a Chinese student had voluntarily spoken in class three times in his/her life. Somehow the Asia way of teaching and learning never involve too much of communication between teachers and students. If there were, it wouldn't usually be students trying to challenge teachers. (We will talk about Asia pedagogy in anther chapter, more profoundly.)

I would come to tail gate events right before our Eagles kicks off, without knowing what tailgating was. I was fearless, and was involved in as many student groups and activities as possible. The second year, they nominated me as the Chinese Students Association president, maybe because how much I talked, or tried to talk.

I am grateful to my bf at the time. He is Pakistani. Went to college in Wisconsin, high school in Hong Kong, truly international. He taught me a lot of things that I "should know" to be involved in the mainstream American culture, including the stupid things I say without realizing they are stupid or offensive, and when I first establish Facebook and spelled reggae wrong. (I didn't really understand what reggae music was either, but thought it was cool.) We would go to the same movie theater and Apple bees right next to it almost every single weekend, and I still found it exciting. We would also chat about his study as an Econ PhD. I think that also kinda inspired me to become an Economist in the future. I liked those long fancy equations. Both of us know our romance is nothing but a short journey. I was going to continue to get my PhD, and he is going home to marry a Pakistani woman. We kept in touch, both doing well. Although when he says things like "I am so proud of you (that you are now an Economist at the WB)", I felt a bit sarcasm in it. In the end, he is an Macro-Economist by training, I was.. well an Education Economist on the job.

My two years' spent in Boston was very oblivious. I think all I cared about was: going to as many parties as possible, be popular, and don't screw up my grades because they are important if I want to go for a PhD, and go shopping to keep up with the American fashion. More like the American college experience except that I could legally drink already when I got to Boston.

I've come to know some of my life long friends (at least still are), Ellie, Han, Peihan... We all took different paths after but somehow kept in touch. We've become so so different.

At the end of the two years, having partied a year and a half, I didn't have much choice but go for a PhD. I didn't want to get a job, mainly because I didn't know what I want to do, and I didn't want to go back to China either because somehow I felt more free and a better person in the US.

What is going to happen to people who are unprepared? They will have very little chance to succeed.

That is exactly what happened to me when I was preparing my PhD application. I spent money and applied for 30 some schools in the US, no purpose, just by looking as the USNews ranking. Had my professors sent recommendation letters to all 30 some schools (I think most of them hate me for agreeing to do this for me). And paid ETS to send my TOFEL GRE schools to all schools. I got into three schools. University of Pittsburgh, University of Florida, and Lehigh University.

I called my friend who went to U Florida, he hated his life there.
Lehigh didn't send the letter until much much later.

So there we go--University of Pittsburgh. I have no idea what kind of school it is, or where Pittsburgh is.

By flipping through the university webpage and reading on Wikipedia about Pittsburgh, I had a complicated feeling--it seems like a crappy place, but at least their website is very functional. At the time I decided to go, I had no scholarship. So whatever they told us when we first went to the US from China that every PhD has scholarships is wrong. I didn't know that social science doesn't have money, and that scholarships... we have to earn them.

I took a short trip from Boston to Pittsburgh to look for housing, check about 30 some apts and pinned down 1. I also managed to meet the Chinese Students Association President there, more like a high-level leadership meeting =). She was very nice, showed me around the city--where supermarkets and restaurants are. And while doing that, pointed out to me a place where her 'best friend" lived. Kind of random. Later on, as I realize, that "best friend' was supposed to be her boyfriend but never came true. And that "best friend" became my first boyfriend soon after I moved to Pittsburgh.

I moved to Pittsburgh. Before I moved, I took a three months break and went back home. During that time, I gave one speech to a college back home, as someone who's been very successful in the US. It felt funny.... but hope it helped some people to open their eyes. It is impossible to find someone with my experience in a small town after all. I made my mom very proud while at it.

The next chapter happened. Pittsburgh, a city I loved and hated. A city that had become much better after I left.

I came back again years after to receive my diploma. It felt nice then. 
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There goes, the last chapter of my career as a development worker.. I officially resigned from the Asian Development Bank on May 30th 2017. The reasons are complicated.

My last day at ADB is June 23. Between that and the day I suppose to start at Amazon, there are couple of weeks. Hopefully I could write more during this time.

1. The realization of my ACTUAL value added in development.

I remember the reason I joined the world bank and started my career--the very impressive building of the HQ of WB in DC. As a Columbia Grad student, I had a chance to travel to DC from NY to meet couple of alumni who work at the WB in various forms, some short-term consultants, some extended term consults. I dont remember much of the successful lessons learned from the predecessors, but I do remember how grand I felt when I was wondering in the atrium of the WB building. And then I said to myself, I am going to work here one day. That day came several months later. But thats not why I stayed in the development business. The reason I stayed, is because of passion for development, inspiration among peers and managers, and the almost-crazy way of how people treat work. Everyone is proud of what they do. No one seems working at a regular 9-5 business hours. Yes, I grew the passion and I grew the "fire in the belly" (a common term development workers use). Regardless of what I did, I felt I am part of something that is really exciting.

Quick forward to 3.5 years later, I left the WB and took the offer of the YP Program at ADB. It was out of the question that I shall take this offer at the time. People respect this program, partially because it is selective, participial because it promises a very bright career in whatever development institution. So yes, people respect it, and it is CRAZY if one chooses not to take it.

Interestingly, it was this program and the ADB experience made me think about the purpose of development twice and made me wonder if I am really helping in anyway as meaningful as I imagined.

Work is similar, I go on mission a lot, mostly in south asian countries such as sri lanka. I stopped seeing beneficiaries being inspired anymore, I stopped seeing counter parts challenging us back on the project methodologies. All projects seems very transnational to me. It's more about the numbers, not about the people anymore. So then what is the point.

The reason I stayed in development is because I believed in human capital theory, I believed that part of the reasons for disparities in the world is because most people in low income countries are lacking resource and access. Kind of "Idealistic" but practical. So I believe human beings can make anything possible, including rewriting your life paths and becoming someone no one would have thought. If they are empowered with the right tool, they will fly, as fast as anybody from the richest countries. Being part of the team that makes all this happen, is VERY EXCITING.

But this dream got crashed over and over again, when I see 10 year old computers lying around classrooms in rural sri lanka and when I hear from my supervisor more complaints than the urge to seek for answers and when we keep doing the same projects over and over again without knowing how effective they are. I started to question development and I started to question the meaning of me keeping my job and working for ADB.

I don't see the fire in the belly anymore. Instead, the discussions are more about ADB staff's helper (maid) and drivers, how the privileges we already have are not enough.

It almost felt like an important part of my is dying. I am not a part of something that is so exciting anymore. And I am giving up what I believe in, my religion. It felt painful. I had almost half a years' time when I felt lost of the meaning of my life, my career, and my identity--who am I, what is the purpose of my life? For some of you, this may seem way too dramatic, a job is just a job. For me, no. If I ever work for something, I should believe in it. If not, I quit. It is a career, not just a job.

And at the same time, my health had been deteriorating since I moved back to Asia, with UTI, ENT infection, and all others. I started to question... why.

2. Personal motivation, which always comes first, for women age 30s.

Women had become much more independent these days. Feminism is more of a fashion than a phenomenon, so fashionable that sometimes people wonder if feminism means diminishing the rights of men. Settling down and starting a family no longer bears the meaning of finding a life-long vending machine for housewives. Regardless of how much women progressed in terms of social status, our bodies wouldn't lie. It'll come naturally to a point when you just realize, oh, I should start thinking of having some babies.

I am also Chinese. So this means despite all of the above, and how my mother had been educating me since I was a little girl, I had to oblige to the social norm which is getting married and starting to have children at a reasonable age range. Back home, girls of my age (32) are called "left-over" women, because we are basically too old to be married in the Chinese society.

I could be this hippie development worker who moves to different countries every several years working on the most exciting stuff all my life. Or I could have a stable relationship and start to build on a future family. I chose the latter. I had to. So this means, no Myanmar no Côte d'Ivoire, but places where both of us can live healthily and have a happy life.

I met my partner when I was this hippie development worker back in DC, 2015. We've just dated for 4 months when I knew that there was a possibility that I might move to Manila in the near future. It was a tough situation. My partner definitely had never asked for it. It wasn't fair to him. It took us a while to decide, OK, we are going to stay together, and we will figure it out. I was very happy we came to that. But at the same time, we don't know HOW we are going to figure it out. Luckily, I have a very hardworking and dedicated partner who would just fly across the world to hunt for jobs and ended up with two job offers in Singapore, one in Manila. We decided that he would take the job in Singapore. It was also around the same time that my love for ADB or development had died out a little. I was very excited. He's finally moving to Asian to join me. (By that time we had been long distance for 9 months.) But it was awkward as well.... I am in the Philippines, and you are in Singapore. We are together, but not exactly.

My personal reason was a trigger to reinforce my decision--OK, I am leaving my job. Also, for a fine man like that, it is worth it =).

3. New challenge and environment.

I've always fancied how it would be like if I leave the public sector and get a job just like a normal person in a private company, large or small. I never had the guts to do so. Many reason, I loved what I do, it is comfortable, and most importantly, I think my values are better matched in places like the WB. So yes you can say that I am a bit afraid. Though along the years, I have tried to bridge to the private sector, interviewed with IBM BCG etc, trying to find a way out. Nothing solid came from those.

"If I ever had to learn something completely new, it has to be during the beginning decade of my career." I believed it.

I've come to the conclusion that I had to come to the private sector. Just because public sector has a tiny market in Singapore. If I were to land on any job and move there, I had to take a private sector job. So where should I go.... ?

The most intuitive thing came to my mind was MBB. Knowledge I acquired by hanging out with business sch kids back in Columbia. I've done some case competitions in grad school also. Frankly I never really understood why I fancied consulting business, but everyone else fancied it, so there must be a reason. So then through personal connections etc I got interviews from EY, McKinsey, BCG. I bombed all of the interviews. Ended up having a very sad offer from EY-Parthenon, didn't take it.

OK, consulting firms are no go. I tried to tell myself, maybe it is just not meant to be. It could be true, maybe I am not cut for consulting business.

So now what? I tried think tanks, universities, knowledge institutions like The Economist (I've always had a thing for them, I am a regular reader), and NGOs. Almost had an offer from an NGO, but the pay is way too low, so no.

At the same time, my eyes landed on the tech companies. Because... they pay well and I am curious. Btw, another motto of mine is if I can't believe in what I do, I need to be paid a lot to do what I do. I first tried google, facebook, airbnb, grab etc. None of them is a good fit. Then Amazon came to the horizon.

I know very little about cloud computing before I started to prepare for my Amazon interview. But one can learn, right? Thankfully, Amazon figure that I have some potential and so it decided to take me on and see how I struggle =).

There goes, my new chapter in life, the Education Program Manager at Amazon Web Services.

The thing is, throughout the entire job hunting process until I received my offer from Amazon, the world gave me an impression that my skill sets are not valued or cared at all in business outside of development. And it is a process of self reassessment, destruction, and questioning. I always liked to think all these happen for a reason. But when I was in it, it is very hard to think how I suppose to think, but easier to feel disappointed. Looking back, maybe, everything did happen for a reason. If I were to accept the very sad offer from Parthenon, Amazon would never happen, I'd end up working at a company that kind of but not really believe in me. Lesson learned, I guess, is to believe in that "every carrot should have its own hole" (a Chinese idiom)... means everyone would find something that is suitable for him/herself, eventually. 
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Chapter I. The innocent and passionate Chinese girl.

1.1 The root.

Thought I should probably start somewhere about telling you who I am.
I grew up in China, Liaoning (one of the Manchurian provinces in the Northeast), a city called Tieling (literal meaning, iron mountain/hill). Went to local primary, secondary, high school, and later went to a university located in Dalian (one of the more developed cities in the same province) to study English literature and hospitality management (mostly forgotten and useless).

Growing up in Manchuria China during that era has many advantages:
1. It teaches you how to compete.
2. Whatever you'd have after that life would seem very nice to you.
3. You are never afraid of cold weather again.

I don't have to explain number one. People grew up in countries like India and China naturally understand what this means. Because the absolute number of population is high, and people are not giving up having sex and babies, I always end up competing with much larger amount of peers as I grow up comparing to kids growing up in western countries, or any country that has modest population. I remembered growing up, I am such a mediocre kid because I can never stand out in anything, school examinations, talent competition, even snowball fighting. You just have too many people to compete with you. You will have to be very talented in anything you do to win. I mean, VERY TALENTED.

Second point is more of a personal experience. I grew up in the late 80s early 90s when China is going through a major change in... basically anything. Heavy industry is less of a main driver for economic growth and computers are starting to slowly kick in. I remember during my childhood, large amount of people were laid off, including my parents and close relatives. They mainly worked for state owned large enterprises, either manufacturing or chemical factories. I was allowed to have my first laptop when I started college in 2002, it was a prize for me. Everything skyrocketed to change after the 90s. And in times like this you have one main gain as a country, your GDP is going to jump high. But you also suffer from one thing as a country, people are unbelievably lost. Everyone sees the changes happening everyday, buildings were torn down and rebuilt, farm lands were changed into either industrial zones or suburban condo buildings, your uncles' bother's son just got an amazing deal somewhere in the more developed area of China and you wonder why that didn't happen to you, foreign countries (like UK, US, Australia...) are more known and understood by people and therefore seemed more appealing and you start wondering what it'd look like at the other side of the world. Many things are happening, people are busy making a living and catching up with the changes, government regulations change everyday because they need to cope with things that never happened before. You focus on what you and your peers are doing and what your parents expect to do, earn a modest salary in some state owned or international company, but at the same time constantly feeling something is missing - who you really are and what you want for your life. That thought seems be a luxury to youth of my age, because your parents would be slapping your head yelling at you to wake up and get real. People of my age desperately urge for a life different to what they have or could have in China, and therefore grass is always greener, anywhere except in China.

Well, third point is obvious. Manchuria is right below Siberia. Holding climate change constant, it should be one of the coldest places in the world. This makes my first stop in America: Boston to be very much like home. 

I said to Dan during the new year 2017, that I will start writing a blog. Part of the reason is, I feel like I might be leaving development business soon and so it's better to document something while I am here, part of the reason is that I still believe this part of the world that we development workers live in is still very foreign to people living in other parts of the world, and so it would be interesting for them to have a read.

In the nutshell, I work in an industry that is supposed to save the world. The overarching goal for everyone in this business should be: alleviate poverty and promote shared prosperity. Very noble right? Wait, I haven't told you what I do yet.

In my old job at the world bank, I work on human development projects, primarily on education. This sector then got changed to become a global practice while the World Bank was undertaking a massive restructuring during 2012-2016, which are the exact four years when I worked there. I basically help to issue large sovereign loans to developing countries, and through rigorous interventions seek to help release the human potential. In simpler words, I work on providing people opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise.

I had "fire in the belly" when I first started. Right outside of grad school, what else can I do that's more badass than this?

I later joined the Asian Development Bank, through their so called prestigious leadership program, which nurture ADB's future leaders. Still doing the same thing, exploring the human potential.

So, I do meaningful and impactful work, with a glamorous title. That's pretty much all the good things about it.

But I want to write about the development business and tell something that's usually unheard of to many people who have normal jobs in this world. It's interesting, different, exciting, and a bit twisted. 

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Dak Lak school visit Maya 10th
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Dak Lak school visit day 1
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VP Visiting Bac Giang VNEN school May 6, 2013
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