It is human to be negative

Winter and shit happened her and there. I feel depressed. So I walked into a book shop to get some self-help psychological books before I get my turn in the six-month queue for a psychologist. Surprisingly, (or un-surprisingly), there are so many books on so-called positive psychology. They simply echo the advices I got from Norwegians. Be positive! Look at the bright side of life! At least, you have shelter and food. Think about those people in Syria who have neither peace or food, be grateful of what you have! At least you have a job to go to, think of those who lost their jobs in the oil sector. At least, you have health. Think about those who are sick with cancer and still fighting, do you still think you have something to complain? Why are you such a whiner? Why do you complain when you live in the richest country in the world? When you see a steak being overcooked on one side, you should focus on the other side… …

Previously when I was told so, I fell into deep reflection and started to doubt, if not to be ashamed, of myself. Yes, in this country, all you hear on the street, or any public places, is “Det var så hyggelig! (It was so nice!)” or “Kjempeflott (Very good)”, or such things. But excuse me, just a second. If everything is so perfect in this country, what is to account for the high depression and suicide rates? Those rates of Norway are even higher than lots of countries Norwegians regards as poor country or country without democracy.

In some countries, people criticise (complain) a lot, like in France, Italy, or some parts of China. Actually I heard in France, to be able to criticise is an indicator of being intelligent. In China, a country Norwegians forever label as a country with dictatorship and no human rights, I was taught to be different, to challenge the authority and to make changes from the first day in school. They told me, there is actually a very pragmatic reason to do that: because there are so many people in China, if you always do the same, say the same things, nobody will notice you and you will not stand out in the crowd. To say “everything good” in work place will surely incurred unamused eyes from colleagues as that is a clear signal that you just want to kiss the ass of the boss and keep your job. Even if one has absolutely no complaints, he would say something like, “though we are doing ok now, we can not be too complacent and have to keep our ears up since our competitors are looking at us like hungry wolves. If we relax for a second, they will swallow us. Therefore, I suggest the following improvement / changes… “.

Is Norway such a perfect country that there is absolutely nothing negative could be found? Well, the girls have the perfect make-up; you seldom see a fat or round person on the street and if you do, there is very likely a foreigner; their apartments are shining like Ikea´s show rooms; they have the shortest working hours in the world. I probably have mentioned how the girls quickly put on make-up in the change room right after training. (I always think this is a sign for gender inequality.) Some people argued with me that Norwegian girls do not put on make-up for guys, and instead they do it for themselves. But we don’t see our own make-up. So it must be for someone else. If it is not for the guys, then it is for the other girls, which I would call peer pressure. I heard of puberty age girls in Oslo, smart, beautiful and coming from good family, got depressed because she is not THAT skinny, just a tiny bit round… Work place drama is a whole new world to me in Norway. While in China, I always worried I would have to work for long hours once I started working. (This is probably well-known. However, what is less well-know is that Chinese have a much longer lunch and dinner, and that they might sleep, not even nap at the desk, but sleep in a bed, after lunch.) But among friends of my generation, office drama is not that often in the private sector because we live in an unprecedented economic boom and people are aware if they can make more money from outside, there is no point to spend time playing office politics with a colleague. While in Norway, I have heard so many cases of office conflicts that lead to depression, burnout and labor unions. This is not even most scary. What is truly most scary is that even all these are happening, people still put on a smile and tell you everything with this company is great! I have seen with my own eyes how a manager pressed down a very reasonable complaint of his employee, blaming the employee for not being grateful for the company while the manager himself was closing the negotiation to move to a new job. The pressure to be “hyggelig (nice)” and not to speak out any negativity is so overwhelming in Norway that you only hear about good things. (How could this be possible? If this perfectly peaceful picture of Norwegian place is true, the whole world will move to Norway.) It was so strong that made me feel hard to breathe and it was after a long struggle that I came to realise that to be negative is just to be human (we are the offsprings of people who focused on the sharp teeth and nails of tigers rather than their beautiful furs and reacted by running).

An argument against talking about negative things is that it doesn’t help. It does not make a difference, so stop complaining. However, I would argue it does make a difference. The way it does is through admitting the problem, which is the first and inevitable step to solve the problem! Only when one admits the existence of a problem, will he or she start to work on it and eventually solve it. Turning blind eyes to the dark side of life does not help.

Some attribute the pressure to be positive, or at least not to be verbally negative, to the famous Janteloven (the century-old nordic rule that one should not be different from others in the community). But Janteloven can also lead to everybody complaining. So this would still boil down to the very inner insecurity of the people. The more insecure people feel about themselves, the more necessary for them to put on a fasade to look great. This explained the silence at a personal level.

 

I think this trend of “positive psychology” is made use of by the  managements in companies and politicians that manage the country. Because they are “in power”, they do not want any voice to challenge the status quo, which they enjoy. So labelling anyone who spoke out dissatisfaction as being negative would help them hold their position. Image if the Chinese communist party start to use this very western positive psychology to teach its citizens stop complaining and be grate for the party, how would the western media write about it?

While Norwegians are always perfect and have nothing to complain about, all coverage about China in Norwegian media is negative. You never hear a single piece of positive news about China from Norwegian newspapers or TV. When I asked my Norwegian acquaintances, they told me this is just the selling tricks of the newspapers. People want to read bad things in a remote country and this is how the newspapers are sold. Then can I write negative things about Norway to increase my readership of this blog, which is very small now? 😀

To be or not to be

Please don’t read this if you are Norwegian. Please!

I haven’t been writing for a long while. I was working really hard trying to find an answer to the question: to stay here in Oslo/Norway or to move out. I know I am the only one that can answer this question. I know deep in my heart, I do not even have the courage to move to a new country and to start everything from beginning. But…

Last year, almost all my friends (not too many, anyway) moved out of the country. No, they were not fired from the oil industry, though the diving oil price did hit lots of industries indirectly. The structural changes of Chinese manufacturing industries made people working in outsourcing less interesting. The weak Norwegian kroner made Norwegian salary not very attractive for those who spend a lot abroad (NOK lost half of its value against RMB from its peak time). The hot start-up scene in China and many favourable policies from the governments to encourage overseas Chinese to move back did manage to convince younger people to quit jobs from highly-respected companies in Europe to move back to highly polluted Beijing. Some just move out for some sunshine.

For me, the most depressing thing is not the long dark night, but now narrow some minds can be. Since the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, there is no a single positive article on China in Norwegian media. Consequently, people look at me with lot of sympathy in their eyes:

-Oh, you blog? You must be happy that your blogs are not censored in Norway. (WTF, do you think China has so much resource to read every article online?)

-Oh, your friends are visiting Norway? Then they must be from the elite class in China to afford such trips. (WTF, with the weak Norwegian kroner and efficient travel agencies, holidays to Norway is affordable to most middle class or below.)

-Oh, what? Your friend’s company is listed on NASDAQ today? Then he will probably be better paid than you. (WTF, most of my friends in Shanghai are better paid than me by doing reasonably good job for reasonably good companies. They are not outliers. The price in Shanghai is not lower than that in Oslo.)

-Oh, you said gender equality in Shanghai is not what we in the West thought, but then do you have female presidents in China? (Well, we don’t, but we had empress thousands of years ago. And China today is the only Eastern Asian country which have very successful female business leaders who made their way from factory floor to the top by harding work rather than inheriting.)

I don’t know who will believe these when you don’t see a single article positive on China in media. People might ask how much I got paid by the Chinese governments for writing this. 50 cents? I wish I could. It is like the Chinese restaurants in Norway. They all serve the same trash food. When locals have never tasted the really good Chinese food, you will be considered a bad cook if you serve anything different.

I felt really sad when I came back to Norway by the end of last year after a month in China. I was almost depressed in January. The contrast was just too sharp to tolerate. In China, everybody is talking about making changes, being the next big thing, and living a life to its full potential. While back in wintertime Oslo, quiet. There are many start-ups in Oslo, but most of their ideas have already been developed in China, such as online shopping, food delivery, mobile payment… These are already traditional business in China. And given the small population in Norway, it is hard to say whether they will be successful here.

Having said all these, I have to admit I don’t have the courage to move back to China or to another country. I am way behind my friends in Shanghai in terms of career development and having been spoiled by a very relaxing Norwegian working life, I am not sure I can get used to the pace in Shanghai easily. And since I had not bought an apartment in Shanghai before the price took off, I am not able to afford the smallest apartment in the area I was born in. What is more important, I am a loner that does not fit into Chinese social scene well. I never enjoyed Karaoke. Drinking is no no to me. Lengthy dinner with stupid flattery also makes me bored and very impatient. And I will never be the sweet daughter-in-law to serve my in-law parents (if I ever have some) as the traditional values expect good girls to be. Ha-ha-ha-ha, destiny sent me to Norway for a good reason.

Any other countries? Once you are in Norway, it is hard to move out. Just think, anywhere else, I will have to work longer hours and have fewer holidays. And living in bigger cities means more time spent on commuting and more stress. I hesitate. Not to mention if I want to move to countries like Japan or Austria (which sounds nice to me now), I will have to learn yet another difficult language at an even older age!

I don’t know when I can make a decision. People say follow your heart, but my heart changes all the time. So this entry is just a pile of complaints from me. Please ignore it.

Free education, costly option: why I don’t think education should be free

I see the discussion of tuition fee in the air again and having just had a chat with a Norwegian friend who was enrolled in the same study program at the same time as I was in Oslo but opted to study in the US, I suddenly found something to reflect on and something to discuss.

As I said in an earlier post, the reason I came to study in Norway is that anywhere else TOFEL and GRE scores are required to apply for graduate school and I did not want to spend two years preparing for these exams. I am grateful for the Norwegians for providing a free education to me, but thinking from the perspective of Norwegians, I think that was a stupid idea.

The current practice in Norway is that education is free, for both Norwegians and international students. The admission is easy for Norwegians unless they want to get into one of the very few highly competitive study programs such as medicine at UiO. Other than these very few programs, a Norwegian student never worry about his application get rejected. Money matters only if he wants to study in the private universities such as BI or abroad.  For international students, it is slightly more difficult, in the sense that you have to prove you have enough money to survive, which sounds reasonable. However, just to get admitted into a study program is much easier in Norway than in many other countries because Norwegians have the philosophy that education should be available to everyone, not be a privilege to limited few.

The consequence is … For most Norwegian students, because the education is “free”, they don’t have to think too much before they decide what to study. When they study, they don’t talk much about what to do after school. That sounds too materialistic, isn’t it? They come to party and the generous student benefit, the government sponsored student loans and the abundant (well-paid) parttime job opportunities keep them on campus for years. On the other side, in countries where education is expensive, for example, America, students may have their whole career planned before they start their undergraduate study since they have to make the pay-back plan for their student loan. There are, of course, Norwegian students who are highly motivated and know what they want to achieve after study. But for this group of people, do you think some reasonable tuition fee will change their mind? Obviously not. Today the private universities are quite popular, aren’t they?

For international students, except those who study subjects for which some Norwegian institute is truly a world leader, most of the students come without much ambition in acquiring the knowledge itself. Some, like me, come when they can’t get a place anywhere else. Some come to experience a different climate and nature (partly true for me, too). Among the Chinese students in Oslo, some go shopping of luxury handbags once every month in Paris. Their choice of Norway is at least partly based on the Schengen agreement and partly on the easy admission and zero rejection rate of visa application. Some come to deliver newspapers… In a word, I rarely meet people who are motivated by the study per se.

Since both Norwegian students and international students are not highly motivated, the classrooms can sometimes be very quiet. In the economics classes I went to, lecturers see no point of encouraging discussion and debate, not to mention competition. This might offer the freedom to the students who know what they want, but to the majority of students who need a kick in the ass, the wake-up call never comes and they graduate to be the kind of people that can work in a same position for 20 years.

For the country to be competitiveness in the long term without the unpredictable winning of oil lottery, it needs competitive work force which comes from world-class education. That is why I believe the education should not be free, the admission should be much more strict, and the quality of education should be constantly examined and improved. What if smart but poor (especially non-Norwegian) kids can’t afford it? Simple. Giving them a scholarship rather than waiving the tuition for everybody. And … the awarding of scholarship should be performance-based rather than politically correct.

Country comparison: it is not what you eat, but how you cook, that makes the difference

In my first few years in Norway, I had been asked this question many times: what do you think is the biggest difference between life in Norway and life in China. I guess Norwegians expected answers like freedom and human rights, I usually answered, “Oh, I have to cook!”

Having said that, I didn’t mean I am going to leave the conversation, but I meant in every day I have to cook. This is the most significant change in my life since I came to Norway. At University of Oslo, they used the same text books as we used in Shanghai and student life is no more than studying, socialising and part time working (a minor difference is my friends in China take part time jobs in banks, consulting firms and other MNEs while my friends in Norway take part time job in local shoe shops, cafes and restaurants). Since I didn’t speak Norwegian, I didn’t even qualify for these jobs, so cooking was the biggest challenge in life.

My dear mother land, China, is most famous for its long history (of making complicated and delicious dishes). In this case, stereotyping plays for us. If a Chinese living abroad failed to make a good living in any profession, s/he can always open a Chinese restaurant. However, in fact, not every Chinese can cook. I can’t. I have never cooked a single dish before I came to Norway. And this is not rare among my friends in China. We had always been students and school canteen offers tens of dishes everyday at student-friendly prices. And to those who don’t believe China treats Muslims well, I just want to say that in every school canteen I have been to in Shanghai (which is not a Muslim city), there is a section for Muslin food. And there are numerous small and cheap restaurants near campus, offering even more choices. Student dormitories have bedroom and bathrooms, but never ever a kitchen. When we start working, we barely move our meal places from small and cheap restaurants around the campus to fancier restaurants in CBDs.

So when I came to Norway and faced the fact that everybody cooks, I was hugely disappointed. So for a long while, I was vegetarian and even raw foodie, because those meals are easier to make: I just buy a pack of salad and open it and put the leaves on the plate. I obtained my proteins from nuts. Simple. However, smart as I am, I quickly found Norwegian food is not much more complicated than that. Matpakke is just bread slices + ham/cheese + some small decorations. And an ok dinner is potato + salad from package + oven-baked salmon. 15 minutes. Ding dong! Dinner is ready!

Having got used to these, I found it too much when I visited home and sat in front of a 10-course dinner. I felt that is too good for me. Chinese food can be very complicated. For example, a very common dish, “fish flavoured eggplant”, uses fish and many other spices just to give the eggplant a particular flavour. I always wonder what they do with the fish. Just to throw it away? Isn’t it too extravagant? This is not in line with Buddhism… And people order waiters or waitresses to do this or that for them and complain about the slightest dissatisfaction. That doesn’t happen too often in Oslo.

That put me into thinking. Chinese society has much more visible hierarchy. Does that start from the kitchen? An average Norwegian spend 15 min making dinner for himself while a decent Chinese dinner takes at least an hour. If they are both… say IT consultants… and compete in the global job market. What should the Chinese do to reduce the time spent on making dinner? As economist, obviously the solution is economies of scales. Option 1: eat in a big family where one person cooks for a lot of persons and average time spent on cooking reduced. Option 2: eat out in a restaurant, but this only makes economic sense when your hourly rate is (much) higher than the hourly rate of the cook, otherwise, you’d better to cook and eat at home. Traditionally, Chinese intellectuals opted for option 1. So family was important. And since a lot of people are dinning together, who takes which seat is sensitive and hierarchy is created and etiquette has to be obeyed. Nowadays, young people opted for option 2 which means some people have to be cook, making those complicated dishes at a wage significantly lower than the IT consultant. Again income gaps need to be guaranteed and it, in turn, guarantees hierarchy.

I still love some of delicious Chinese dishes, but understanding the influence of different cooking styles helps me to enjoy the simple and cold Norwegian food because that is part of a smile life and an egalitarian society. However, it is a self-selection process that ambitious and capable people go to China and Norway attracts lazy ass like me…

Gender equality: Shanghai vs Oslo

Norwegians are very proud of the fact that they always score on top of the world in terms of gender equality[i]. Women in general have more freedom in choosing what they want to do and who they want to be with than women in many other countries in the world. Women’s participation in the labor force is high. It had a female prime minister and is having another one right now, and so on. On the other side, people tend to think Chinese women are miserable. It is always in the news outside China that pregnant women in China take abortion once they know it is a girl. However, as a woman from Shanghai who has lived in Oslo for almost a decade, I think both these two pictures are over simplifying the situations and to guarantee equal treatments of two genders in work places is far more complicated than any current policies can take care of.

Let’s start with the Norwegian picture and see away from the nice statistics Norwegians provide. Three phenomena send out different voices. First, Norwegian women has much higher rate of sick leave than men and this gap is even increasing. This recently raised attention in the media and one of the highly likely explanations people come up with is: women take more share of the house work, still! Second, woman on average earn 85% of the salary as man in the same position earns even though it is written in the law that employees should not be discriminated by gender. This might be the result from that women are not very affirmative in salary negotiations and in work in general. So solutions from experts are: work like a man. Third, even with the famous gender quota requirement in board rooms in public companies, very few women are in top management positions, even fewer than in the U.S. where there is no such quota rule[ii] and worse still, Norwegian research shows that female leaders won’t help female employees[iii]. A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. The walls there are covered with portraits of prominent people in the Norwegian shipping industry. Among dozens of portraits, only one is of a woman and she has the only one that does not have the golden frame.

Gender Eq

Having been quite disheartened by the situation in Norway, I try to think back how things are in China. However, China is a huge country with very different cultures and unbalanced development. In general, Chinese women are so miserable as CNN tries to depict and Shanghainese woman are famous for being the boss at home.

There are many reasons for this. Historically, during the war time, the communist party needed soldiers, so female soldiers were and common. After 1949 when PRC was founded, again men and women were needed in building the new country. Mao has made the well-known quote that “women hold up half the sky”. As for Shanghai, which has always been a trading center rather than a manufacturing city where men are needed to do the heavy manual work. Women’s social status, as well as participation in job market, has always been high.

Politically, the one-child policy in China, at least in big cities like Shanghai, wiped out the boys’ privileged status in families. Since every family has only one child, the family has to put all its resources to that child regardless it is a boy or girl. In schools, if the girl is not treated same as a boy, the girl’s family will not let the school have an easy time since this is their only child.

Culturally, Shanghai is one of the first cities to open to the Western world. Men from Shanghai were told to be a “gentleman” by doing all the housework. Men give their salary to their wives and their wives decide what to buy for the family and return a small amount as pocket money to their men.

In all the schools I have been to in Shanghai, girls perform far better than boys. I studied economics in the best university in Shanghai. There were 120 students in the program, gender ratio being 1:1. At the end of the 4 years study, among the top 20 students, there was only one boy.

Does this support the argument that Shanghai beats Oslo in terms of gender equality? No. School is one thing and society at large is another. A few years after university, girls are in the new competition of who gets married first, who marries a socially-acceptable (or above) husband, who gets baby in an expensive private clinic first… Those boys who did not do every well in school, spent time thinking what they really want in life and went for it. Today, the richest or the most powerful people in China, or even in Shanghai, are still men.

Surprisingly, same could almost be said for Norway or Oslo. Norwegian women don’t care so much about marriage (cohabitation is a legal status in Norway with cleared defined rights close to marriage), but they care no less than Chinese women about men. In gyms, you can see girls immediately put on make-up once they are done with training and they spend long hours on their image as if a slightest mistake will cost them their boyfriend. In the freezing cold winger days, when Norwegian men are fully covered, Norwegian women are still wearing short skirts and walking on ice with high-heel shoes. In work places, women join men in jokes about sex like a man. Since I started working in shipping a couple of years ago, all jokes I heard at formal work-related dinners are directly about sex. Women might talk about what kind of men they want while men go directly to the topic. It is not my Chinese background that makes me uncomfortable, but it is the repeated jokes that made me bored.

In my attempt to understand these, I come to realize that even though Shanghai and Oslo are very different cities, behind those superficial observations, there are fundamental similarities and they come from our similar natures as human beings.

I see gender inequality has different levels and affects societies and human behaviors in different ways. It is first and foremost physical. Even among the siblings of the same parents, boys are bigger and stronger than girls. So it is hard to deny the physical difference between men and women. In places or jobs where physical strength is important, woman looks up to man for that. Neither Shanghai nor Oslo is at this stage. Secondly, two genders also differ in other important qualities which matter in modern world, such as intelligence and determination. Research has suggested that though the difference in average intelligence between genders is negligible, man’s intelligence has larger variance[iv] which means that the super smart and super stupid are more likely to be man. This might explain the fact that the greatest scientists in history are mostly men and in today’s academic world, more top researchers in science are men. However, most business jobs today, even at top management positions, don’t require top intelligence. In my view, it is the determination that plays a role. Women are more sensitive to small things in life and less determined to march to the final goal. Thirdly, the gender inequality is also biological. The hormones released during sex makes women feel attached to men while bring men pure enjoyment. This is why women in any culture care more about relationships than men in the same culture. Besides, during pregnancy and child-birth, hormones again make women feel more responsibility for their babies and consequently, care more about their family. Inevitably, the calculation between job and family is never the same for man and woman.

For the last two reasons, and maybe many other reasons, it is not simple to guarantee gender equality in work places. Companies can make arrangements to take care of employee’s human side (e.g. some Chinese companies offer days off or flexible days for woman during menstruation) , but absolute gender equality is not possible given our biological and psychological differences. It might actually be easier not to force gender equality like the quota system Norway used, but to understand the differences, to foster strengths and to circumvent weaknesses. And sometime, to be creative.

 

[i] http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-4-gender-inequality-index

[ii] http://blogs.wsj.com/moneybeat/2014/05/22/norways-exemplary-gender-quota-just-dont-ask-about-ceos/

[iii] http://www.dn.no/karriere/2013/03/15/kvinnelige-sjefer-diskriminerer-kvinner

[iv] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7604277

Gay marriage and why I end up in Norway

I recently met a few gay couples and saw a few very sweet gay couples on the street. All of the married ones were so proud of their marriage. They can’t wait to tell people they are a married couple. And the ones I saw on the street looks so passionate for each other. These really made me think: in the very materialistic world today, does true love only exist among the homosexual people? I put this stupid question to a few people, among which some are or know the gay people well. The answer is not surprisingly no. Then why gay couples are so eager to tell the world they are a happy couple while heterosexual couples choose to just live together, or get married but divorce easily? I thought really hard and found probably the answer is that compered to heterosexual marriage, same sex marriage is only recently legalised in Norway, and not even legal in many countries around the world. So they view marriage as a hard-earned right, something really precious, while for heterosexual couples, today, at least in Norway, there are very few barriers to get married, so they don’t care much about it.

Another thing I noticed is that among my female friends of my age, from China, Norway or any other countries, those that are kind, honest, hard-working but not very seductive, tend to be single unless they found someone in school or colleague or settle for someone introduced by family or friends for the Chinese girls. This seems easier to explain. Good girls don’t know how to play hard to get. In school, there is less mind games between girls and boys. Two people met, get to know each other and decide to be together or not based their personality. Once we are out of school, there is less time to know the inside of people. Then the mind game plays its role. Good girls, first of all, don’t get too many guys because they don’t constantly send out the signal of being available and eager. And so when they do meet guys, once the guys appear to be loving and caring, and made some promises, they fall for that. They think that is the one in life. They are faithful, which in the guys’ eyes, clingy. And that is when the guys want to run away and the heart-breaking period starts. Nobody cares about something easily available. Human nature, isn’t it?

Having said that, my main topic of this post is why I came to Norway and why I am still here though I am not too happy. 9 years ago, I was in the first year in the graduate school of the university from which I just got my bachelor degree. I was bored of the teachings because they were just the same as the undergraduate classes. From the uni, there were some opportunities to study in Norway. The most ambitious students want to go to the USA and they spend years preparing for the TOFEL and GRE exams. I never wanted to go abroad before that year and was too lazy to do any extra exams. So when the opportunity to go to Norway popped out and there wasn’t even much competition, I took it even though I didn’t know anything about Oslo except the name. The plan was to be here for a couple of years. Then another study opportunity popped out and then a job and then another job… All were in Oslo. Every time I thought I would be here for a couple of years, I ended up staying longer than that. Because the opportunities came too easily, I have never been extremely happy with them at each stage for this reason or that.

People don’t value what they can get easily. Sad.