Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Stop buying all those handbags and shoes, Hong Kong – the price is too high

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says the obsession with shopping for ‘stuff’ we don’t need is damaging both our self-esteem and the environment, and we need to liberate ourselves by learning that lasting pleasure can be found elsewhere

Why do Chinese women love to shop? Well, because we’re hoarders. There’s really no other explanation for buying 200 pairs of shoes or 50 handbags.

And even though we have so much stuff and nowhere to put it, our No 1 regret when we go on holiday? Not buying more stuff!

It’s got to the point that there are now Gucci handbags for dead people. The streets of Sheung Wan are lined with them, paper replicas of Gucci goods to be burned at funerals for the deceased to carry around in the afterlife. The real Gucci freaked out when it found out; first, it said it was illegal, then did a U-turn and said it was OK. At HK$10 a bag, I have to say, it’s a pretty good deal. I almost bought one for real life.

Some say the Chinese shopping obsession stems from the fact that we used to have so little and now we can have so much. That certainly explains my relationship with Häagen-Dazs. Others liken it to a type of substance abuse. If you’ve ever read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, watched the YouTube sensation Ultra Rich Asian Girls, or heck, set foot in Causeway Bay on a Saturday, you know what I’m talking about: the wide eyes, rapid breathing, sweat beads forming on foreheads as shoppers hone in on their prey.

And it is true that shopping gives us a high. New research from the University of Michigan found that the high we get from shopping is similar to the high we get from sex. It’s no wonder that while 40 per cent of Hong Kong men surveyed recently by online travel agency Zuji said they wished they’d had more sex on holiday, only 18 per cent of women felt the same. The other 82 per cent were probably too busy ogling a cute top.

Don’t get me wrong, I like shopping as much as the next girl. But, these days, my closet is more of a museum than anything else. With three kids and no time, every day I reach for the same old jeans, the same sneakers, the same everything, while my stilettos and boots just sit there, gathering dust, staring back at me, shaking their pretty little heads at what I’ve become. And you know what? I’m OK with that.

Because here’s the thing about shopping: the high doesn’t last. It feels amazing while you’re in the store and 15 minutes after you leave, maybe, but then it plummets. And then what are you left with? A load of crap. Crap that needs to be stored and dry-cleaned and lugged around from one city to the next when you go on holiday, which you’re never going to use because once you’re in the new city, you’re going to buy more crap.

All of this comes at a huge cost not only to wallets but also the environment. According to fashion industry magnate Eileen Fisher, “the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil”.

To raise awareness of the increasing need for sustainable fashion, actress Emma Watson recently wore a gorgeous black and white gown made entirely of recycled plastic bottles to the Met Gala.

I hope more people follow in Watson’s footsteps, buying sustainable fashion or simply shopping less. That may sound dull but, quite the contrary, it’s incredibly liberating. Now, instead of shopping, I read. I go on hikes. I go out to dinner. I might not be the chicest gal in the restaurant, but I’m the most relaxed because I haven’t spent the last two hours obsessing over what to wear.

So, Hong Kong women, try this on for size. Ditch the shopping bag. Spend more time with your man or more time with yourself – you’d be surprised how great you’ll look.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

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Unhealthy obsession with technology, even in the gym, leaves us with no energy to form real friendships

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says our dependence on gadgets is affecting our ability to form meaningful friendships, leading to loneliness – and websites where people can now rent a friend

After eight blissful years away from the gym, I recently broke down and rejoined. I’m not a gym person by nature. My idea of a good workout is a hike in the woods.

However, my aunt recently got osteoporosis in her knee and watching her go through that reminded me of the importance of strength training and doing weight-bearing exercises so, somewhat reluctantly, I signed up.

Eight years is a long time to not be in any game, especially the gym game. In the time I’ve been gone, gyms have become ridiculously posh. They now come with free T-shirts, shorts, socks, fruit, water, Wi-fi and a range of charging options for your gadgets. Left your gadget at home? No problem – they’ll lend you an iPod. Seeing all this, I seriously considered giving up my apartment and moving in to the gym.

As I began my workout, I quickly realised what else was different compared with eight years ago: everyone was glued to their phones. Leg press machines were mere lounge chairs for texting, flat benches convenient bases for Snapchatting. On the ab machine, I saw very little crunching – only Facebooking.

It got to the point where I almost couldn’t exercise. As I sat waiting for everyone to finish taking selfies so that I could actually use the machines, I started watching the many personal trainers around me with their clients. Eight years ago, personal trainers were a rarity. Now, they’re practically a prerequisite for joining the gym. I took this to be a sign of their superior skill and effectiveness when it comes to exercise, but, to my surprise, a lot of the people with personal trainers weren’t working out either.

Instead, they were just standing there chatting – talking about their date and the latest movie they saw. I couldn’t understand it. Personal trainers are expensive. Why spend HK$600 an hour just to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones?

It dawned on me that perhaps we’ve become so dependent on all this technology, so used to communicating via a screen, that we no longer have the time, patience or energy for real friendships. And now, when we feel the urge to talk to a real human being, live, maybe it’s easier to book a person rather than track down a real friend. Is that where the future is heading?

A new website, seems to think so. It allows you to do just that – rent a friend. According to the website, there are more than 526,000 such “friends” from all around the world for hire, including many here in Hong Kong. For HK$80 per hour, you can rent these people to hang out with, watch a movie or go shopping with you.

Such websites are capitalising on the surge of loneliness in recent years. According to Time Magazine, loneliness may be the next big public health issue. A new study by Brigham Young University in the US found that loneliness increased the chance of early death by 30 per cent. That’s on a par with obesity.

Whether or not we can solve the loneliness problem with technology remains to be seen, when arguably it is that very technology that is causing the problem. I remain sceptical.

Five frustrating gym sessions later, I decided to ditch the clean towels for some clean(ish) air: I went on a hike. However, just as I was about to set off, a fellow hiker came up from behind. He was an elderly man carrying a radio which was blasting out 1990s music. For the next 90 minutes or so, we hiked the trail together and I had to listen to Celine Dion belting out her greatest hits. It was annoying as heck, albeit a different kind of annoying – a more familiar one.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

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It takes more than just money to create a happy workforce, in Hong Kong, the US or anywhere else

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says there is much companies can do to make work challenging and engaging, beginning with inspiring leadership, as a good salary isn’t the only reason employees stay

When it comes to their jobs, most Hong Kong people are unhappy. According to a recent report by a jobs website, more than six in 10 Hong Kong people are miserable at work. And contrary to what you may think, it’s not just because of the money.

Instead, the unhappiness has more to do with the relationships with their colleagues and bosses. And while some experts were quick to dismiss the findings, saying “you can never satisfy employees”, I disagree.

It’s possible to have happy employees – not only that, it’s essential.

After all, today’s companies rise and fall not just on the quality of their products but also on what people think of them. That starts first with their employees. All it takes is for one indignant status update to go viral, and it’s good luck with finding new recruits.

It takes more than money, according to research by Professor Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College in the United States. He found that, increasingly, workers also want to feel challenged and engaged.

Schwartz found that firms that offer interesting and meaningful work, over which employees had some autonomy and discretion, not only produced happier workers but were ultimately more profitable.

Yet, too often, this isn’t the case. And it’s not just in Hong Kong, but in the US too, where a Gallup poll published this year found that close to 70 per cent of workers were not actively engaged in their jobs.

As a whole, we’ve become so obsessed with efficiency and streamlining and so accustomed to rewarding people monetarily rather than intellectually that work has become, well, dull.

That’s got to change if we’re to survive and thrive in the digital era. Hong Kong employers cannot keep counting on the economy being bad as their main reason why workers won’t leave. That should not be the reason. The nature of the work, the energy of fellow colleagues, and the inspiring vision and leadership of the boss – those should be why workers stay.

Simple things like being more transparent with employees on the state of the company, allowing workers to focus on their jobs by eliminating unnecessary meetings and emails, asking for employee input, allowing flexible work schedules, especially for working parents – all these go a long way to making employees happy without breaking the bank.

It’s with all these goals in mind that I’ve led my company for the past 10 years. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always got everything right. I began my business straight out of law school, at the age of 20. What did I know? But one thing I did do right, in hindsight, is to not run it like a conventional business.

Instead, I ran it like a think tank. I traded hierarchy for openness and collaboration. I encouraged workers to disagree with me, letting ideas battle it out rather than job titles.

And most of all, I mentored people. Lots and lots of extraordinary colleagues, whose strengths I identified, refined and leveraged.

Make no mistake, it’s not easy mentoring staff. It’s much simpler to just write a cheque.

But the former has rewarded me in ways that the latter alone could never have done, not just in terms of staff retention rates but in terms of happiness and satisfaction. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want from work?

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.