(An interview from soon after “The Last Pluck” book launch in summer 2007 but still relevant; however, since 2008 my husband and I are now living/working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)
Where are you from and how/why did you come to Shanghai?
I was born in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and moved up to Wisconsin with my family when I was about 4, then returned to Chicago to Northwestern University to study journalism. With Deng Xiao Ping coming into power, a scholarship exchange program was offered for the first time to Fudan University and I was one of three students to go 1981/82. I stayed on working illegally in Jardines (a Hong Kong trading house) and then was deported later in 1982. I finished my degree and after a variety of training jobs, was picked up by a headhunter to become an economic analyst, first traveling to Taipei and then getting posted there in 1986. I personally believe I wasn’t particularly talented in one specific field, or incredibly brilliant, but I was one of the few young professionals who spoke Chinese at the time and I was a prolific writer so it truly was luck and opportunity that led me to live in Asia. My husband’s work now has me back in Shanghai 26 years later.
What is your life like in Shanghai?
I feel very blessed. I turned both 21 and 40 in Shanghai. To turn 21 in frontier Shanghai back then and again 40 when Shanghai was (and continues to be) an absolute buzz. There are plenty of problems here and in China (but then the rest of the world has their own, don’t they?!). I believe everyone has opportunities and each of us can make a difference, personally, professionally and in terms of charity and changing the world… in a way Shanghai is still very much a frontier. You need a lot of energy to deal with “more” here, compared to living in other cities successfully. Some cities are slow-paced and some orderly; Shanghai is frenetic and chaotic—I’ve always preferred a little dirt to manicured lawns.
You seemed very keen to live here (having been deported); what is it about China that attracts you?
I was actually a bit worried the first time I came back in 1994 after 12 years away, but I then realized the police (“gong an ju”) were just doing their job and making an example out of me. I was working illegally without a business visa so they had every right to deport me, but I was hardly a criminal so there wasn’t a problem coming back. (The interrogation was entirely in Chinese except for the word “prison” which they repeated in perfect English over and over!) I am actually keen to live anywhere. Every country/city has its own challenges and as long as my husband and I are together, it’s home. It’s true though that I am most comfortable where Mandarin is spoken… I’ve been using the language so long that it feels like a part of me; when separated from Mandarin too long, I miss it… I am sure many people feel the same. If I am back to the U.S. for a couple of weeks and there are Chinese tourists at a table dining next to me speaking Mandarin, I automatically feel happier (same goes for Japanese since I lived in Tokyo three years and studied Japanese as well). There must be some psychiatric syndrome name for this but I’ve spent over half my adult life in Asia, so this entire region feels like home.
You have done many different jobs in Asia. Can you tell us a bit about your career and give advice for those embarking on a new life in China?
I do kind of feel like a Renaissance woman… a little bit of everything and master at none! I started my own consulting service, based out of Hong Kong, in 1991. I would categorize myself as a deal-maker (I believe the politically correct word these days is “facilitator”!). My husband and I have both been in Asia so long that we know how to connect people and companies together. And if we don’t know, we know someone who does! It’s all about net-working. And listening to the needs of your clients. And knowing who to trust! I think integrity is missing in many people’s careers these days. To me a handshake is a commitment and in my book I talk about “Say what you mean and mean what you say”. Many young people want everything without the hard work along the way. I took many jobs and contracts I didn’t particularly enjoy, but I still did my best and took pride in the journey. It’s important to be able to look back and say I tried to do the best that I could. And all along the way, I tried to do charity work as I believe we all must give back to the communities we live in and that support us. For those embarking on a new life in China, I’d advise to have patience, be adaptable, enjoy each moment, take everything in as a learning experience and have a great sense of humor. Shanghai is not a hardship post compared to 25 years ago and it’s a thrill to get the opportunity to live in this amazing city. It’s not clean, or kind or gentle but that is part of the attraction to this vibrant, cutting edge Blade Runner of a city.
Is The Last Pluck your first book?
Yes. And most like the last too! I wrote the book to get a lot off my chest (and my husband tired of hearing me whine…) and then put it in a drawer for three years until friends kept nagging me to finish it. I just intended on having a few printed up to give to my best buds for a Christmas gift one of these years. I finished a final version but wasn’t really serious about publishing it until earlier this year when by some miracle it plopped into a dear friend’s hands who works with a publisher and now the book has taken on a life of its own. Truly karma at work. The book has now sold out in Hong Kong and Shanghai (the only two cities we physically put it with distributors) but is still available on amazon.com.
How does it feel to have written a book and do you have any stories about writing it?
I was recently told by a friend who is a well published author that only 20% of book attempts actually do get published, so that’s quite a statistic to consider! It’s quite an honor to have worked with so many talented and generous people to get the book this far and for it to be launched at the Glamour Bar for a fundraiser as well for my organization Second Chance Animal Aid. I am truly grateful. As for stories about writing the book, since it did take five years from first draft to publication, I had to look at the content to see if it was still relevant five years after I first wrote it. Despite all the worldwide tragedies that have occurred, I mostly wrote about common sense and basic values that have guided my life and discovered that the content still remains pertinent today.
Who is the publisher?
It’s a small British publishing house called “Wise Monkey Intl Ltd”. I love this name!
What is The Last Pluck about? Can you sum it up briefly?
It’s about being a Midwestern American woman who has been living and working in Asia for over 25 years. It’s a bit of sarcasm, humor and common sense from the perspective of an American woman over 40.
Is The Last Pluck mainly a business book, biography or something entirely different?
It’s actually a bit of everything. There is a combination of business tips, my biography, a bit of history, some Prairie Home Companion, lots of liberal politics and more than anything, humor. My husband calls it a “rant”! I hope it provides some inspiration to young women to be independent and grab the most out of life that they can, and I hope it spreads the message that most of us are so blessed on this earth and we need to be thinking about those less fortunate and the helpless (this includes animals and the environment…). Sometimes the world’s problems look too huge to solve, but we can each make a different, one day at a time, one small goal at a time.
Who do you think The Last Pluck will appeal to?
I think it will appeal to women of many age brackets, to liberals and to those with a wicked sense of humor. I do believe it’s more of a gals’ read, but hopefully liberated men will enjoy it too. I wrote it with my girl friends in mind as we have all laughed and cried together over three decades as adults in various parts of the world.
Does The Last Pluck give any advice, anecdotes about living in China…any tips?
There is an entire chapter on business tips. There are many anecdotes about living in China and Asia. Actually, after finishing the final draft of the book, I wrote two more chapters at the end. One is about karma, anger management and coming up with a mantra to deal with daily life in China… very funny and useful I hope. I think most people will be nodding their head in agreement about the daily situations we find ourselves in here. The other chapter is about starting Second Chance Animal Aid here in Shanghai which is of course, an entirely different challenge! I have one chapter that is just about things I’ve learned by 40 that I think are important here or anywhere in the world. So much of what we worry and complain about is simply not worth the effort or energy when one puts life into perspective. We are all hearing about more colleagues and friends dying from heart attacks and cancer in their 30s and 40s… it makes you want to pause, grab time with those you love, pet your cat, take a walk with your dog, and sit in a café with a carafe of wine!
Why did you decide to write a book?
When I was approaching the age of 40, there were just so many thoughts going on inside my head… my husband got tired of hearing me repeat myself so I decided I better at least just write the thoughts down and get them out of my brain. Also, over the past couple of decades, I’ve made so many professional and personal mistakes that I’ve hopefully learned a great deal and have been able to offer words of advice (perhaps some wisdom too!) to those going through what I have suffered in the past….now I can say, read Chapter XYZ!!
What does The Last Pluck include?
There are chapters on business, on being an American business woman in Asia, about being a Midwestern woman with traditional values but liberal attitude, universally about being a woman over 40 (considering that when we were 20, we thought women over 40 were near death… so it’s quite different when you actually reach the age… suddenly 60 seems very young!), about the value of hard work, about today’s whining young people who don’t appreciate all they have, about the value of volunteer and charity work, about love and romance and marriage, about having or not having children, about airline travel, about politics, music, books, war, food, about making a difference, etc. etc. etc. It’s truly a smorgasbord of topics…
How long did The Last Pluck take you to write it? How many pages?
I wrote the first draft in less than a month while drinking lots of wine and whiskey in Bali. It then sat in my desk for about 3 years until friends nagged me to finish it. It then went through some major editing and rewriting, and more editing… you can edit forever so eventually you just have to stop. Thank goodness for deadlines. It’s about 300 pages now. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the last printer’s revision and there ended up to be 180 typos….so embarrassing to me but apparently most people haven’t noticed as they regard spacing and inverted quotation marks!
Where is The Last Pluck on sale?
It was launched and sold in Shanghai, and was on sale in Hong Kong; the book sold out (yay!) and there has not been a reprint yet. If I am not tarred and feathered, we might seek other markets worldwide in the future. It is currently still available on amazon.com and also at our boutique framing and interiors store in Shanghai ( www.lu-shan.com ).
The Last Pluck deals with charities too. Can you explain this i.e. is the content about your work with charities or are you just donating proceeds to charity?
I write about the importance of charity work throughout the book and there are a couple of chapters that actually deal with doing charity work in China and starting Second Chance Animal Aid . I just cannot imagine having a career or making personal profits without giving back. When someone refuses to give to a charity event I am involved with, I can only think what would it be like for that person if he/she needed help? Tomorrow, any of us could be someone in need of charity. And to not want to help those who cannot help themselves (e.g. the elderly, children, animals, the environment, etc.)? For shame. In any case, I also list the charities that I have actively been involved with and continue to support so that people can also take a look at these websites and perhaps get involved or donate (I am mercenary to the core when it comes to raising funds for the causes I believe in!). And of course, if the book becomes profitable I will have more funds to donate myself!
With 25 years of experience of living and working in Asia, you are by far more experienced in life in Asia as an expat than most expats. On that note, which are some of your most important experiences in Asia? What have you learnt from living in Asia?
I think that what I have witnessed most in Asia is the resiliency of people. So many parts of Asia have suffered terrible tragedies (both natural and manmade) over decades, yet the people bounce back and create so much from nothing. There is an optimism and spirit in Asia that truly says tomorrow is another day and we will pick up the pieces and move on. There is still the fiercest desire among people in Asia to give their children a better future. I feel the future of the world may very well lie in Asia’s hands, for better or for worse, so education is key. Children now throughout Asia need to learn to protect those who are in need (including the elderly, those financially helpless, abused women, animal species of all kinds, etc.) and to cherish this earth’s fragile environment. I end the book with a quotation by Mahatma Ghandi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I believe by living in Asia I have learned that anything is possible.
How has expat life changed in the 25+ years you have lived in Asia?
It’s become SO much easier. When I hear people saying so many places in Asia are hardship posts, I want to laugh! I remember when I first lived in Taipei, my boyfriend (now husband) would bring me all my shopping (cheeses, canned foods, pantyhose, soap, shampoo, etc) from Hong Kong in suitcases! The only restaurants in Shanghai in 1981 when I first arrived were either in the five major hotels (Shanghai Mansion, International, Jinjiang, Peace and Overseas Chinese) and the “People’s” restaurants (which were mostly lots of pork bones and rice with stones!). I was in Shanghai when the first Coca Cola and Snicker Bars arrived; pure decadence! Now you can buy almost everything, there are schools for expat kids and fairly decent healthcare available. We expats are SO spoiled, even if living on a limited income.
How have you experienced being a businesswoman in China?
I have always found being a businesswoman in greater China to be much easier than in other countries such as Korea or Japan. The bottom line in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China has been profits. It has never mattered much if there is a woman on the other end of a contract or as a facilitator….the business speaks for itself. In the past in Japan, I have been asked to wear dresses to meetings or to pour tea for those at a meeting. In Korea and a few other countries, I was asked if I was “Mr. Wolfson’s” secretary and have had to explain that I am indeed “Mr. Wolfson”. In China, everywhere I’ve traveled, people have always been appreciative that a Western woman is doing business and speaks Chinese. Southeast Asia has always been a joy to work in as well; the ancestors or families of many people in high ranking government or banking positions in Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, etc come from China so it’s often a common language at meetings and is a great way to break the ice.
At your book launch you mention that you partly wrote the book because you were always asked to give advice. Which type of advice? What have you advised people to do?
I’ll let the preface of the book answer this!
Over the years, numerous friends, colleagues and clients have turned to me for advice, both professional and personal. I assume this is because I have survived so many missteps – both professional and personal – during my years in Asia. I am now considered an “old Asia-hand” or some such relic, because I have spent a lot of time in this part of the world pondering affairs of the heart, mind, soul, and return-on-investment. This includes working in the professional realm, bringing clients and customers of various cultures to the same side of a negotiating table (often after months of screaming about non-payment and other such nonsense, either via a translator or directly in the local lingo, once they realized that I understood what they had been saying in front of my clients, until I chose the time to finally confront them in their local lingo…).
The first draft of this book was completed in the winter of 2000. Since then, the world has suffered horrific tragedies: the World Trade Center and Bali bombings, increasingly aggressive terrorist attacks throughout the world, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tsunami of 2005 in Asia, massive earthquakes in so many poor developing countries, destruction of precious environmental habitats and animal species, and death, mass hysteria and economic repercussions as a result of SARS, the ever-expected Avian flu pandemic, etc.
Six years later, I reviewed the text with a knot in my stomach, wondering if what I’d written was still relevant in light of subsequent world events. Overall, I am relieved that most of what I’ve written here remains valid: simple vignettes about life in Asia as seen through the eyes of an American woman with Midwestern-American principles that have guided me through the years professionally, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve come to believe that these principles are universal, in that they help one distinguish right from wrong and reflect a belief in the sanctity of all life on this planet. These principles also emphasize living according to a moral code of empathy and compassion. What makes them particularly Midwestern values is the threat of a swift kick in the rear for noncompliance (I grew up on Sundays of Prairie Home Companion after all…).
It has been a comfort for me to be able to rely on such values in times of seemingly never-ending tragedy. If we look to our own hearts for guidance, the human spirit of eternal optimism, hope, and resilience will always triumph. That is my prayer for all of us who have the ability, strength and affluence to heal this planet and save helpless species, both human and animal, who are dependent on the efforts of others for their survival.
When I began writing, I wasn’t exactly sure why. But after working and living in Asia for over 25 years, observing so many events – both exciting and incredibly ludicrous – I felt that the overload of thoughts and experiences filling my hyperactive brain needed an outlet of some sort. Hence this book, and its smorgasbord of thoughts to share and tales to tell. I also figured that, at the very least, I’ll have created a proper diary.
You mentioned at the book launch that your book contains Midwestern ethics: In which sense? Does China in your opinion need a shot of ethics? What can Chinese learn from a Midwestern perspective? (Please provide examples) And what can an American here learn from China?
No, I do not at all mean that China needs a shot of ethics! I think maybe the entire world needs a shot of ethics as we are all becoming more concerned about making money, material possessions, getting all we want very quickly without hard work that makes one appreciate the journey or the end result. We want everything NOW, no matter how it may affect this planet or the species we are losing every day due to our greed ( e.g. global warming, the fact that almost 92,000 species are being lost every year due to human encroachment, the fact that while so many of us live very affluent lives and don’t appreciate what we have, more than 1 billion people in this world live on less than US$ 1 each day….). The concept of Midwestern ethics in the U.S. is being raised to appreciate the value of hard work (we have hard winters, mostly farmland under threat, and it’s the more traditional part of the U.S.), right and wrong and that nothing good and lasting comes in an instant. It’s hard work, loyalty, compassion, kindness, honesty, integrity, a firm handshake that is the same as a contract, etc. that leads to the appreciation of what you accomplish in your life. These are worldwide ethics…it’s not about what an American can learn in China or what a Chinese person can learn in America; it’s about what we can learn from each other wherever we are.
I would say what we can learn in poorer areas no matter where you are in the world is humility, compassion, etc. Here is part of the chapter called “Being Here”…the last part is what I find so beautiful about Asia…..
Throughout my years in Asia, I have encountered astounding, incredible change, particularly in China. The Shanghai of today is a very different place, where I have to search hard for the sites and stores that existed 25 years ago. Nowadays, Asia as a whole reeks nowadays of the excitement of newfound freedom and success. The joy of watching Asians succeed, often creating so much from nothing, is the ultimate satisfaction. I’ve seen death in my presence, fear in the eyes of people who have suffered past terrors, and have witnessed the infinite hope of those who sacrifice all for the sake of their children’s future. I have friends in Asia whose parents were blinded and tongues ripped out; who watched their children being raped. Women whose husbands and brothers were abducted in the night to fight some battle or other, never to return. I have held the hand of many an older friend whose spirit was damaged in their country’s civil war. The astonishing thing is that some 40 to 50 years later, they are still resilient survivors, albeit changed forever. The sadly ironic thing is that their grandchildren have no patience for their compelling stories. Most countries in Asia are now flourishing and the younger generation would much rather be off to the local McDonalds than listen to their elders.
In Asia, you constantly see the poorest of the poor overcome obstacles with a spirit that is more than humbling. In stark contrast, you can also witness the increasingly ludicrous excesses of the Asian nouveau riche. In Vietnam, I have rocked HIV-positive babies and abandoned babies in my arms. In Ulaanbaatar, I’ve seen four year-old prostitutes hiding behind older girls and boys as they shiver in sewers, the warmest place to be in the dead of winter. I’ve visited cockroach-ridden jails that held children as young as four, many of them unclothed, in summer and winter alike – with little food and no books, toys or education. Children whose petty crimes have landed them there, only because there is nowhere else to put them, or no family member sober enough to collect and care for them.
I just consider myself lucky to have lived here for so long, watching the world grow smaller. Here it is clear that the important things in life remain the most basic: joy over a baby’s birth, a child’s smile, a grandmother’s loving gaze and unflinching grasp, the reassuring handshake that represents a bond of trust with no written contract necessary, and the sharing of a meal no matter how small or simple. This holds true across Asia, whether in a poverty stricken village or a cosmopolitan city.
You appear like a true networker and someone who knows everybody. Where and in which way do networking and personal relations have an influence on your life in China?
I think this is also true worldwide. Networking and knowing the right contacts is how successful business is accomplished. Both my husband and I have lived in Asia more than 25 years now….after this amount of time in Asia, you get to know a lot of people in different industries! I think what is key in China, and anywhere in the world is having contacts, both professional and personal, that you can trust. When people contact me they know when I say yes, I mean yes, and they can count on me. And when I give a contact to someone, they know they are trustworthy and honest. It’s the handshake equivalent of a contract once again. I write in the book that I truly believe one should say what they mean and mean what they say. This goes beyond borders, beyond nationalities. Our words and integrity are all that we have and it is the foundation of who we are as human beings.