Saturday, March 24, 2001


I. Chasing Greatness

Last weekend, I read a provocative Atlantic Monthly cover piece by David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, best-selling author of leisure-class how-to-guide Bobos in Paradise, and modern-day Thorstein Veblen. In today’s zeitgeist, profiling has taken on a bad name, conjuring up images of New Jersey cops throwing darts at dark faces on the Turnpike. Nevertheless, for better or worse, profiles do exist -- and in “The Organization Kid,” Brooks paints as compelling and accurate a profile of my Ivy-trained, ‘next American elite’ cohort as I have ever seen.

Here it is, in a nutshell: We in this elite group were born to achieve, running the rat race as soon as we left the operating table. From grade school on, when our forward-looking parents signed us up for piano lessons and soccer drills, our self-worth becomes forever tied to how packed our schedules are. Raised under uncharted peace and prosperity – Ms. Dove meets Mr. Bull Market, one might say – we are assured future success as long as we ‘play the game’ and stay on the right track (Pick your door: law, medicine or finance).

In “The Organization Kid,” Brooks contrasts our achieve-achieve-achieve ethos with that of another group: the so-called “Lost Generation” that came of age during World War I. According to Brooks, that generation – exemplified by Princetonian Hobey Baker -- didn’t give a damn about intellectual achievement, schedule-packing or material gain. Rather, these were men of character, men who truly valued ideals and followed chivalry, glory and honor all the way to the trenches of Marne and Amiens.

An overly romanticized notion of history? Perhaps. But here’s his point: what these young men desired, simply, was to be great. In comparison, our lives – and I’m referring specifically to my Generation Y whiz kid, workaholic peers – seem hollow and without any larger purpose. For us, life is career is life. Yes, friendships, familial relationships and religion add meaning to otherwise one-dimensional lives, but isn't there – really, shouldn’t there be -- something greater than that?

Call me a romantic – call me Don Quixote if you’d like, amigo -- but deep down, I want to be great. What I mean is I want to believe in a cause or an idea bigger than my individual financial or career progress. Deep down, that’s why I’ve spent the past three years working at inner-city schools -- in arguably The Great Frontier of social change in America today. And deep down, that’s why – despite seeing my friends going back to school -- I still can’t get myself to look seriously at law or business school applications. (Tell me, is there really anything – anything at all -- ‘great’ about working for a firm or a corporation?)

And so, here I am chasing greatness, and yet something’s not quite right.

II. The ‘Lotto Winner’

Two weekends ago, I was in Atlanta with my parents when -- on the last night of my stay -- there was this moment of awkward, unforgettable irony. We were at the Ritz Carlton in a corner room with a $1 million view – a de facto pinnacle of success in America if there ever was one -- and my parents were regaling me with stories of how poor they once were. Not too long ago, my father would spend summers in college hitchhiking from Illinois to upstate New York, where he would find odd jobs at Chinese restaurants desperate for cheap labor. Other summers, he found menial on-campus jobs for 95 pennies an hour. And that was after immigrating to America from the Far East.

Last summer, I trekked through China for four weeks, seeing more of the country than most native Chinese would ever see in their lifetimes. Almost without exception, everywhere I went – rice paddies in Yangti, dumpling shops in Hong Kong, rolling hills in Yangshuo -- I saw children busy at work. Ever the naïve foreigner, I asked a few of these child laborers, “What about school?” Sometimes they responded with a laugh and other times with nothing at all, but the message was unequivocally clear: in many parts of China today, education is a luxury, not a natural right.

I returned home from my trek with one indelible realization: that I am really only one decision away from being one of those malnourished Chinese kids working in the fields. What if, for example, my father hadn’t decided to come over or if the Hong Kong immigration officer denied his visa in 1965? The writer Andrew Pham puts it best: I -- like the other sons and daughters of recent Asian immigrants – am a “lottery winner”. The ticket, however, in this particular lottery is a nonrefundable, one-way flight from a Third World country, where people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, to the Only Damn Superpower, where people spend money keeping their weight down.

And so the unresolved question now tearing at my mind and soul is this: How do I use this winning lotto ticket?

Am I obliged to secure the riches, prestige and job security that my ancestors never dreamt of? Do I owe that much to my family and heritage and the 1.3 billion other Chinese people out there?

Or do I follow Hobey’s legacy and keep chasing the great American cause?

Please weigh in with your opinion: