Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Losing yourself

I took things into my own hands since my last entry, nearly six months ago. Tired of the punishing work cycle of M&A, and desperate to leave, I approached the partner I used to work for, in the department I used to work for, and asked if I could come back.

He made it happen. Just like he made my six-month period in Hong Kong happen a year before.

I felt like I won the lottery. I actually clapped my hands over my mouth and stared at him bug-eyed, astonished that he'd done it. He had to call in a favor, which was from the same guy who did him a favor by letting me into the M&A group in the first place after my time in Asia. It was pretty damn humbling, on all kinds of levels, and I felt very, very grateful to have this person's regard.

I started work back in the old group on Jan. 1, and it's been good. For about a month, I stopped waking up with that terrible dread. But the bloom is somewhat off the rose now, as I put in two tough weeks that completely sapped me of energy and turned me into a stressed out jerk.

When work is busy, I become a zombie, focused only on the task at hand. I wake up and immediately check my Blackberry. I can't concentrate on conversations with friends. I forego meals. And over everything, there is a haze of fear that I've done something wrong or will do something wrong or am doing something wrong that will catch up to me later.

It's terrible to live that way.

I had my annual review today, and was complimented on my calm, confident attitude. I put clients and colleagues at ease. I don't freak out. But on the inside, I'm living in fear.

I've changed since my time in Hong Kong. I have less time and less energy and less money, so I'm less social, less adventurous, less spontaneous. When I have free time, I need to catch up on errands, buy groceries, clean my apartment, go to the gym, sleep, get prescriptions filled, drop stuff off at the cleaners, take the recycling and garbage out. It's not possible to fit these necessities into the few free, waking hours I have when it's busy AND have a fulfilling social life, relationship or family contact.

So I come back to the question, never far from my mind: What next? How do I continue to make enough money and still be me? The me I want to be? The me I was in Hong Kong and Seoul? The me who would join a solicitors' choir, or spend a day trying to help immigrant workers, or show up at a hiking group, or go walking up a mountain in the dead of night? I turn the question over and over in my mind, and never seem to get any further than I did even seven years ago, when I was struggling over whether to go to law school or not.

How do you find fulfilling work in this world, especially in this economy?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Moments when you wonder

That would include this morning at 2 am, when I was at work for the 11th hour in a row, for the 9th day in a row, and a colleague happened upon me in the hall.

"I hope you haven't been here for a long time," she said.

"Since 3 pm," I shrugged. "You?"

"Since 8 pm, but not by choice -- we got a document in at that time."

"Yeah. Mine came in at 4:30. Whatever."

She shook her head. She's a year behind me at this job, though she and I are the same college class. "How do you do it, hk?" she asked, with wonder and sadness.

"I need the money!" I replied, loud and clear. "I do it for the money."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hark! The Return of the Whiner!

Wow. It's been so long since I wrote here, or even checked this page. In between my last entry (which was really about Christmas 2008) and now, I moved back to New York, began my permanent assignment as an M&A lawyer, discovered (not to anyone's surprise) that I hated it, and became a little desperate to leave my job. I'm surprised none of the partners can smell the Eau d'Esperation that I liberally spritz on every morning, or sense the waves of negativity coming out of my office. Especially since I've gotten careless about who knows how unhappy I am.

The incoming class started orientation last week and will be seated in their first rotations sometime this coming week, so I guess I'm a third year associate now at a big international law firm in their New York office. Since I started, one of my entering classmates was let go because she didn't pass the bar, one left to go get an LLM, three got laid off, and two left voluntarily this year for something Other. The latest one to leave skipped out of here at the end of last month with no plans in sight, just a smile and farewell. I expressed my envy of her, and she said, "Join me!"

It is just that easy... and just that hard. I always planned to leave around this time, and if it were just me, maybe I'd go to grad school, or take a 9-5 job to pay the bills while I tried actually writing some of the shit I've been thinking of writing for years. But while I don't have children of my own, I do have an aging aunt with Alzheimer's who will probably outlive my uncle, two parents without retirement funds, a brother with financial woes, and a sense of family obligation. No one is pushing me to stay in this job to the detriment of my happiness or health. It's just me, and my personal fears about not being able to be there if someone needs me.

Corporate lawyers, as my friend at work says, are like abuse victims. You work outrageous, unreasonable, crushing hours on a deal, swearing all the while that this is the last straw, you're going to quit, you need a new job, you need to get your priorities in order. And then the deal ends, and there's a lull, and you get a couple weekends off in a row, and you go on a nice vacation, and you collect your paycheck, and you think, "Ah well. It's not SO bad most of the time." And then the cycle starts again.

Life isn't all bad. The good parts are very good. But man oh man, do I need a new job.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Side Effects: Winter Solstice, 2008

She came on the shortest, darkest day of the year, a cold, snowy, wintry day in Tacoma, in the middle of a series of fierce snowstorms that paralyzed the area for weeks. Rage contorted her lined face, mussed her soft dyed brown hair with the gray roots, turned her smiling mouth into an ugly thing, a grimace twisted with hatred.

She came equipped with the strength of someone twice her size, a strength that enabled her to throw a 20-pound --- "no, closer to 30," the cop said --- slab of marble covering a side table, after throwing the table and the vase sitting on it. The vase, black enamel with mother-of-pearl swans, was from her first marriage, nearly four decades ago.

The rage gave her a voice, gave her the words to curse her husband. "Goddamn son of a bitch!" she cried. "Goddamn thief!" She was always so quiet, made shy by her country upbringing in Korea, and her difficulty with English, and her fading hearing. But this person, this person was strong and vocal and above all, angry. "Give it to me!" she demanded, grabbing at her husband's ring and gold necklace, things she bought with her own money and gave him, she thought. If he was going to steal her diamond ring, if she had to do without her jewelry, jewelry she had bought and paid for, he would have to do without his jewelry too.

This person, this man, this husband, the one shying away from her words, her anger, the table she threw, and the vase, and the stone -- this goddamn thief, this cowering form -- the one who had been a drunk and a womanizer and a nothing of a man -- she had made him into a man, she had been the one to fight and scream and by sheer force of will turn him from a drunk, a womanizer, a smoker, a nothing of man into something resembling a good husband.

But he had stolen her ring from her. The diamond ring. Where was it? Where was it? There was no one else. He must have stolen it. She started toward him. Her sister was crying, her sister's daughter tried to stop her, held her back, and she didn't resist, but she could see him on his phone, dialing the police again like the coward he was, calling the police on her like a common criminal instead of trying to talk it out with her.

It was still the darkest, shortest day, still snowing, when the policemen arrived, two tall young men who filled her small house with their height and their black uniforms and watch caps. Their boots were wet when they walked into her house. They asked her questions and she answered them calmly. Otherwise, they would handcuff her like the last time, and she might end up standing in That Place again, against the wall, wondering why she was there, hands cuffed behind her, cell bars in front of her.

But they took her anyway, even though she hadn't stole anything, she hadn't struck anyone so hard their ears rang and never heard the same after, she hadn't come in drunk and smelling of smoke. What had she done? Nothing, that was what. Nothing but work her whole life and make her husband into a man, when before he was nothing -- an alcoholic, a smoker, no good.

The young cop started saying something, but he spoke so fast, they always spoke so fast and mumbled, and someone said something, and the other cop bent down a little and said slower and louder: "We're going to take you to the hospital, okay? We're going to take you down to St. Joe's. And you don't have a choice."

He said the words not unkindly, and she maintained her composure, getting dressed in warmer clothes, putting on stockings, her red coat, saying only that he needed the hospital, not her (for who in their right mind would steal a diamond ring from their own wife of 35 years?).

"I won't see you again, so take care, honey," she said as she hugged her sister's daughter, and it was only when she hugged her sister, 12 years younger and so much the baby, always her baby sister, that she broke a little and said in a choked voice, "Make him go tomorrow."

She walked out of her house, then, into the cold, wintry night, the snow falling. Out of her front yard, through the chain link fence, a tall young cop in black before her, a tall young cop in black behind her. She was just a small Asian woman in a red hooded coat, walking in the white snow between two giant figures in black. She slipped a little bit, and the cop behind her offered her assistance, but she didn't need it. She got in the back of the police car. Somewhere inside, her sister and her husband (so sick, he must be sick, because why would he steal from her otherwise?) were weeping in each other's arms. Her sister's daughter stood by the gate. Snow was falling on her. The car slid in the snow, gained traction, took her away.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Today, 16 months after I began work as a corporate lawyer, I paid off the last of my law school loans.

Over $80,000 I owed my law school and the U.S. government are now off my books. I am in the black.

I'm early. I originally planned for this to take 2 years. 104 weeks. 730 days. (It actually took 490.) It helped that I came here, to Hong Kong, with an expat package that's looking more and more obscene as the days pass and the global economy goes from bad to worse. It helped that I went through hell and high water to find a subletter for my apartment. It helped that I don't have a taste for expensive clothes or accessories. It helped that my grandmother gave me a graduation present of enough cash so that I had a rainy day cushion already.

There's a line from an Eliot poem that I only know because in college, BC had it printed out and stuck on her wall: "But our beginnings never know our ends!" The beginning of this race to pay off my law school loans could never have guessed all the twists and turns of the course, the most twisty and turned of them occurring in the last four months, what with the economic meltdown, the U.S. election, my and my brother's moves across the world, my aunt's Alzheimers and subsequent institutionalization. (If the list of those events sounds haphazard and incongruent, it's because they are that way in my mind.)

The beginning could also not have known the extent to which I did not hate my job, or the strange way in which Hong Kong expat life worked in tandem with my repressed response to my aunt's dementia to suddenly free me. I've been good for a long time. Cautious and careful and responsible -- a good girl. But life doesn't reward you for being cautious and careful and responsible, for being a good girl. It doesn't reward you at all. It just is. It's up to you and me to find our own rewards, and our own joys, and never more so than in the tough times.

So, just as the world economy starts disappearing into the toilet, just as the Middle East goes haywire yet again, just as my firm starts laying off people in New York and other cities, just as my aunt's brain began to melt down, just as my aunt and uncle's hopes and dreams of a quiet and joyful retirement are irrevocably and utterly dashed -- at the same time as all that, I find that I'm having the time of my life here. In the past four months, I have acted and sung and danced and drunk and flirted and hiked -- sometimes all in the same night! -- far more than I did in the past four years. I feel awake. Free.

So, as Mrs. Esq very wisely asked me 470 days ago: Now what?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Side Effects

One of the defining features of expat life in Hong Kong is the Filipina amah. Favored for their ability to speak English, and the fact that they will work for very little (compared to western standards), Filipinas make up a huge percentage of the service industry catering to foreigners. One coworkers pays his "helper" the equivalent of USD 450 per month for cleaning his apartment 5 times a week, cooking his lunches and dinners, doing his laundry and ironing, and doing all the shopping. These amahs also walk dogs, take care of children and the elderly, and whatever else needs doing, all for the right price.

From my balcony today, I could see across the street a woman taking the sheets off a bed, undoubtedly to get it laundered. Perhaps it's a serviced apartment, like mine, and she's a Hong Kong native, but it's very likely that she isn't, that she is an overseas worker from the Phillipines, working for her wages by cleaning other people's houses and sending much of that money back home to her own family.

My aunt was a woman like this. She left school in Korea when she was in 8th grade, and she has taken care of other people's children, cooked for other people, cleaned other people's houses. She has lived selflessly in many ways.

I am home today due to an odd feeling of utter exhaustion, which I chalk up to not enough sleep this weekend and a tough hike yesterday. I almost forgot to call my aunt and uncle this morning, as I have been doing the past several weeks, but at around noon, I finally recalled that they would probably be expecting my call.

Because my uncle was there, my aunt spoke with me in Korean for half an hour, and it was clear she was suffering. In the midst of a delusion, she told me that she had discovered my uncle stealing her jewelry. That she knew he was hiding it at his office. That she knew he was a kind man, but that she had lost feelings for him and was afraid. That she was considering going to his office and talking to his supervisor, or going to the doctor and asking for advice, because there was no other explanation for his stealing her jewelry except that he was mentally ill.

Over and over, the same story for 30 minutes, because she forgot that she had said the same thing not 3 minutes earlier.

The recent literature on Alzheimers advises those around the patient to go with the flow. Not to disturb the sick person but to accept their version of events and make them calm. So I did not reject her version of events. I said that my uncle clearly loved her, that he was a good person, that it made no sense, that there was no reason why he would steal her jewelry. I agreed that it must be a sickness. I agreed that she should talk with my mother about it (my mother has also been the target of my aunt's suspicions, but my aunt seems to have forgotten this). I urged her not to go to my uncle's office, not to speak to his supervisor, but to instead go to the doctor and ask his advice instead.

I don't want to encourage her paranoia, but I also don't think that rejecting her point of view would do anyone any good. In fact, I am worried that I too will become an object of suspicion, and god help me, I want to put that day off for as long as I can. To help her feel that she has someone to talk to, yes, but of course to put off the day when she also withdraws from me, mistrusts me, loses love for me, and becomes afraid of me.

If you wondered, as I have, why I am apparently in the midst of starting an affair here, wonder further why I didn't see it before. Yes, it's a little lonely here, and yes, it's been a while since anyone sparked my interest. But it seems very obvious to me now that the thing with the dude here did a wonderful thing for me this week, and that was to completely free my mind from thinking about my aunt and my uncle and the lonely, sad house in the suburbs of Seattle.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Sunday Hike

Buffalo Hill, New Territories. An interesting hike. I like rocky terrain; hate loose rock and dirt. Half of the trail was the first, the second half consisted of the latter. So I half hated it and half loved it. But it was pretty, nonetheless.

One of my favorite hikers, a Frenchman who took a sabbatical to come live with his wife here, snapping a shot:

The city of Sha Tin:

Looking towards the direction of Hong Kong:

So, the hike was interesting, but not as interesting as it could have been (and by interesting in the second clause of this here sentence, I mean disastrous). The dude, despite sending me an email at 3 in the morning saying that he had just come in from a night of gambling in Ma cau, made it to the hike, though I was sure he would not. And the dude's girlfriend did not make it. So my moral inadequacies did not up and smack me upside the head today as I expected.

There were some hi-fucking-larious moments today as related to the dude. My favorite was when, over burgers and beers with the aforementioned Frenchman and his wife, the Frenchman teased the dude, "And during your trip to the States for Christmas, will you also be giving [your girlfriend] a ring?" Mind you, I'm sitting right next to the dude, who (methinks perhaps with a slight flush?) denied he had this in mind.

On the bus home (and again on the street on which we both live), dude asked me ... out, is the only way to describe it, for Tuesday night. Against my better moral sense, I said okay. This time, the WTF applies to me, I guess.