Two weeks before I turned 21, following an 8-year immigration process, my family and I left everything and everyone in China to embark on our journey to the United States.
The first few weeks were exciting and intimidating. My English had been considered good in China, but I soon faced the reality that I couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced American speech or cultural references. Lack of financial assets also meant discontinuation of my education. I needed to earn money before I could resume my university study.
While staying with my aunt in Washington, D.C. for the first two months, I was lucky to get hired for two jobs: one as a cashier at a deli/restaurant, another as a waitress in a French restaurant. I had done neither before and had to learn on the fly. A few weeks later, I was fired from both jobs because I wasn’t speaking and comprehending English well enough to serve the customers. The French restaurant manager took pity on me and allowed me to remain as a dishwasher. I determined that I needed to improve my English to survive.
A couple of months later, my family moved to New York. Finishing my university education was not only crucial for getting out of poverty; it was also a token of appreciation for the sacrifice my parents made. However, enrolling in an American university as a transfer student was more complex than I could anticipate. After reading tons of material, I somewhat understood the requirements and optimal timing for me to enter a city university in New York, where tuition was the lowest. I still had to save the money, though. Fortunately, my aunt knew of a job agency and I went to talk to them about employment opportunities.
After passing the math test with flying colors, I joined a marine insurance company as an accounting clerk. The work was low-paying and repetitive, but I observed how colleagues interacted with each other. Brisk walking through the ground floor of the World Trade Center with thousands of people gave me the adrenaline rush every morning that made me feel alive. Ambitious people and the efficiency of chaotic New York City motivated me to work hard and use my time wisely.
After saving up for a year, I finally could afford to enroll in college full-time. I learned that I wasn’t really interested in civil engineering, which I had committed to studying in China when I was 18. Studying anything that required complex English was daunting so I chose the easiest subject I knew I could master – computer science. Debugging and solving problems was time-consuming but ultimately rewarding. I never envied my friends who had time to engage in other activities or didn’t need to wait for buses to go home late at night. My goal was to survive and not be a burden to anyone.
My on-campus job at the computer lab helped me develop thicker skin under a condescending manager. Working with my career center led me to an internship in a financial advisory group where I formed a meaningful working relationship with another intern. When I interviewed for a summer internship at a non-profit organization many months later, I met that intern again – he had become a full-time employee after graduation. His attestation to my abilities and work ethic got me hired. In hindsight, cultivating relationships with everyone, including peers, brought me my first professional opportunity that led to many that followed.
In my first post-college job, I developed software applications to support the investment portfolio at a reinsurance company. Finance was a foreign language to me but I quickly learned the basic concept of securities and derivatives in order to work with the investment team. This motivated me to get my MBA while I was working, with full tuition coverage from my company. I learned the most from my classmates, who worked at a variety of places, especially how company culture impacted performance and growth.
My tenure in financial services companies ended after the dot com crash and the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. After moving on with my transferable skills to support advertising sales planning in a large media company, an opportunity came to pause my career and switch gears to spend time on what I had wanted to do. During a trip to Thailand for a family reunion the previous year, my heart broke when I saw how many young girls became sex trafficking victims and how many adults were profiting off other people’s children. With the support of my husband, we moved to Thailand so I could learn Thai and volunteer at an organization that supported women at risk. My Thai was only sufficient for elementary conversations, but being there to witness transformed lives energized me.
We came back to New York to a very dry job market right after the financial crisis. After a couple of consulting gigs, I received a full-time offer from one of my clients. Marketing analytics in an advertising agency gave me insights on the importance of branding and the competitive nature of this business. Then, another opportunity to move came my way.
My husband took a position in Hong Kong and I quit my job and followed without hesitation. Moving to another country was no longer a chore but an exciting adventure. When I explored new career possibilities in a new world, I learned about a field called “executive coaching” in which coaches work with successful people to achieve even greater success. After a few informational interviews, I decided to enroll in a training institute. Through networking, I joined a human resources consulting firm to become a coach. My early coaching engagements gave me the opportunity to work with professionals from different industries in Hong Kong on cross-cultural communication, relationship management, and adapting to change.
Today, at the Carey Business School, I have had the honor to work with thousands of students from diverse backgrounds. It gives me great satisfaction to help people gain clarity on their goals, grow confidence in their value, and build a compelling brand in the world of business. I had not envisioned that I would be in the profession I am in today. I have learned that we can be at our best in different careers at different stages of our lives, and in different countries. Along this journey, building relationships with different people and learning from them was my greatest asset.