The future I deserve

You don't post much to this newsletter, because there aren't really that many new things to report.

You didn’t apply to any jobs last week. You also know those job openings slow to a crawl this time of year, so it’s gonna be rough for the next couple of weeks.

You’ve stopped counting the rejection emails you’ve gotten. In one recent video interview, an interviewer says, “I love your enthusiasm,” and there’s just enough of a backhanded tone in there to know that you fucked up your chances at that company. That position was for an engineering manager. The general read you’re getting applying for manager positions is that the professional experience you have isn’t enough; the team you managed wasn’t large enough. Ditto for Project or Product Managers. So maybe it’s back to development or design. But that requires a portfolio.

So it goes when you’re having a bit of a career identity crisis.


You’ve been catching up on all the technology you fell behind on. The same way people catch up with The Great British Bake-Off, except your livelihood is on the line.

While building said portfolio, you learn about the web app version of Photoshop, stumble upon a Twitch stream of a guy talking about Web Assembly, but with a radio DJ voice. He’s streaming from his empty office for a major tech company. The first thing you think is that that’s a really niche video stream. The second thing you notice is that he’s at his office on a Sunday at 7 pm, which means he easily spends 60-70 hours a week. Also, he’s most definitely younger than you.

The narrative in your head, of course, instantly goes to “you’re old.” Then it goes to, “you wouldn’t be in this position if you didn’t move to Miami seven years ago.” You suppress that thought immediately because it does no one any good.

You’re good at suppressing things.


Your mom has stopped calling every day. Things have been different ever since you reached your breaking point a couple of months back when you responded to her distress about her husband and daughter moving back in the house by saying you didn’t know how to help her anymore. Her last couple of calls weeks ago had been the polar opposite of all of this, drenched in syrupy optimism that you’ll find a job soon.

Now that she’s stopped calling, you’re not really sure if she’s stopped calling because the optimism is exhausting, or if you just don’t know what to say to each other.


You look up “how to get out of a rut” on YouTube. You stumble upon a TED talk of a psychologist who throws out the idea that the depression is in your head, something you just feel, and then your mind trying to make sense of all that nonsense tries to put a narrative on things. It would make sense, you think to yourself — your entire life, you’ve always been down on something, find a reason to be unhappy about something. You wonder to yourself how much of all of this is your mental chemistry, as opposed to having everything suck around you.

Your mind naturally goes to a thought you had when you were in your early twenties. That was when your sister had “the break” ten years ago -- a brutal, massive psychotic episode where she destroyed her possessions and ran away from home before checking herself into a hospital seven hours away. Your father “rescued” her the only way he knew how; by putting her on lockdown, a curfew, a military-style watch how he grew up. You have always wondered if you were going to turn out crazy as well, and when you didn’t hear voices in your head, you said, “thank god, I’m not as fucked up as she is,” and moved on with your life.

Except you didn’t get away scot-free, you know now.

When things are bad, really bad, you imagine yourself moving back with your parents. The family outings to McDonald’s, where someone has an outburst in the middle of a crowded fast-food restaurant, awkward silences when your sister asks a philosophical question and answers herself with a word salad. On the flip side: jobs. And friends too, sure, but friends you wouldn’t see much because you’d be living with your parents.

You know exactly what you would write, should you move back: “this is not the future I wanted, but clearly it’s the future I deserve.”


Your partner takes the leap and buys flights for the two of you to travel to Taipei over Christmas. Because of the long trip and how sitting coach in prolonged periods hurt his back, he insists on flying business class. You see how much it costs to fly business class. You protest.

“Christ,” he says, “can you just say you’re excited to go to Taipei?”

“I’m excited to go to Taipei,” you say.

“Good,” he replies.

He leaves the room to call Japan Airlines to finalize the tickets. You turn back to the laptop. There are 15 browser tabs for “budget luxury hotels,” and the paused tutorial you were watching moments before.

You’re not sure where to click next.

A fictitious, somewhat farcical conversation between me and the JavaScript programming language

Image result for michael douglas falling down

Ernie: Hey, JavaScript.

JavaScript: Oh. It’s you.

E: Yeah. So it’s been a while.

JS: Oh. It has.

E: I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. You know how it goes; it’s just been super busy the past couple of years. Being a manager at all of that.

JS: Mm-hmm.

E: Anyway, I’ve been hitting some roadblocks getting PM jobs because everyone wants more experience. So I want to get reacquainted with you because I’m applying for Frontend jobs again.

JS: (chuckles) Yeah? And how is that going?

E: Yeah, so, uh, it turns out that Frontend jobs aren’t what they were like three or four years ago. I can’t even build a static page anymore because apparently that requires JavaScript.

JS: Duh. How did you do it before?

E: Uh, with HTML? And CSS?

JS: Well, that’s pedestrian. You’re telling me you haven’t used any JS frameworks?

E: I mean, I learned backbone a couple of years ago. And Angular.

JS: Angular 1? Or Angular 2, where Google invited everyone to Salt Lake City for a conference and told everyone they were rewriting everything over again, all from scratch, so the year or two you spent building things was completely obsolete?

E: (sigh) Angular 1. I was at that conference.

JS: Oh, you sweet summer child. In the time you were away, trying to talk about your “feelings,” I’ve met someone. His name is React, and he’s now required for 85% of the jobs that now exist in the market.

E: But I don’t know React.

JS: Hrrm. You shouldn’t have spent those three years teaching millennials how to set SMART goals then.

React: Hey. I’m from Facebook. You look famil—

E: Yeah. I interviewed with Facebook four years ago. Some nineteen-year-old gave me an interview over video chat and I got a rejection email, like, ninety minutes after.

React: Damn shame. We offer free Segway rides between buildings.

JS: Listen, all you have to do to ever have a tech job again is to learn this completely new JavaScript library. No big deal. It’s not like your identity isn’t completely centered around web development or anything.

E: It kinda is.

JS: Well then. Get to studying, pork chop.

(Sometime later)

E: (looking through docs) What is this JSX nonsense? Like, HTML as javascript fragments? And since when has it been okay to inline CSS inside of Javascript?

JS: Since React said so.

React: Facebook offers free mango lassis in our cafeteria.

(More time passes)

E: This is insane. There are, like, two ways to write components. Half the docs on Google write them one way, the other half write them the other way. So which version do I learn?

JS: lol I dunno. Both?

E: For fuck’s sake.

React: Did you know Facebook offers an egg freezing policy? Because having a baby should never be on a product roadmap.

(Sometime after that)

E: Hold on. Your syntax has completely changed too. Did… did you get a makeover?

JS: Oh, ES6? This little thing? Do you love it?

E: I mean, I guess the ASCII arrows look good on you, I just… I knew you as someone else. I can still code with the old version of you, right?

JS: You could, in theory. But.

E: “But?”

JS: I mean, think about it. You’re doing coding interviews. People are going to be looking at your code. You could code the old way and you wouldn’t be incorrect. But you don’t want people thinking you’re outdated, do you?

E: …

JS: Do you know who’s outdated? COBOL programmers. Do you know who was a COBOL programmer? Michael Douglas in the 1993 action thriller, Falling Down.

E: Michael Douglas isn’t a COBOL programmer. That was a role. He was acting.

JS: Suicide by cop. That’s how he dies.

E: Dude.

JS: (loud whisper) You’re gonna lose your shit and a cop is gonna kill you.

(Sometime after that)

E: I think I’m getting the hang of you, React.

JS: Sweet. Now, look on the horizon.

E: What?

JS: Just look.

E: I don’t see OH JESUS, IS THAT A BLACK HOLE?

JS: It sure is. It’s called Redux. It’s a state manager. You get to learn 150 new terms and a whole bunch of boilerplate to match. It’s a rabbit hole. Or, you know, something a little more than a rabbit hole.

E: (screams as he’s sucked into the void) HOW DO NEW DEVELOPERS GET THIS?!

JS and React in unison: They’re all half your age.

E: Oh.

FIN

That time I completely bomb my technical whiteboard interview

Man, how bad could it have been, you ask yourself?

Last week, I had a technical interview with Google. It went badly.

And it wasn't just, like, Asian modesty badly. The last 45 minutes were a slow-motion train wreck, one of those things where the interview finishes and both parties just sit in silence, mortified and let down; a one night stand where someone gets a little too relaxed and poops the bed, or calls out the name of their mother, or bellows out "HITLERRRRRR" just as they're climaxing, and now one person has locked themselves in the bathroom and the other is checking their phone, hoping an Uber can travel by the speed of light.

Everything up to that point had been okay. My resume is pretty good, I'm great with personality, I can charm the pants off of people.

I am warned about the types of things you get tested during the Google interview. I am prepared for this as well. I download an e-book on "cracking the coding interview." Google isn't mentioned, just inferred. I study every day for at least an hour or two.

I tell select friends I'm applying to Google, that I have, like, a 20% chance of getting in. Are you studying for it, they ask? Of course, I say. In the book, they give you a list of concepts to explore, things like hashes and lists and queues and computational times. There are other concepts like binary trees, breadth and depth-first searches. I know the ideas as they're pretty straight-forward. Still, I've never had to implement a binary tree in a non-academic setting, ever. It may be because I've always focused on user interfaces - what a person sees on the screen. Even the stuff behind the screen is, like, business logic. I don't bother building any of these concepts out in the programming language I know because there are 40 other concepts I am trying to study first.

I don't bother building out a binary search algorithm in the programming language I know. It's on my list of things to do, it just never becomes the next thing to do.

(Pause) Anyway.

The interviewer calls you. They are from either Australia or New Zealand. They ask if I have any questions about the company, and even though neither of us hopes I don't have any questions, I ask anyway because I don't want to look like I don't care. He asks a "what would you do in this scenario" question, and I confidently give an answer. It could be wrong as fuck, but at least I answer it confidently.

He moves onto the coding question. The legendary whiteboard interview. How do you find a range of target numbers in a sorted array?

Here you go, you think to yourself. Your research gives some strategies: the worst thing to do, they say, is not to code at all. The way to not code at all is to overthink the problem. Code it any way you can, they tell you. Brute force.

You start to code out the "brute force" answer. You type about 30 characters until he stops you. Okay, that's enough, he infers, now do it the ideal way, in O(log n) time. He is telling you to build a binary search algorithm with iterating left and right pointers to find boundary edges. You know this because you read about it in the book.

Basically, he’s telling you to skip the brute force solution and just get to the fucking point already.

It throws off your tempo.

You try to implement the thing. You know you have to find a midpoint. But you forget how the pointers move to calculate a range of numbers. Does the right pointer move to the left, only stopping when it hits the left range boundary? Or is it the right?

It's silence on the other side. A vacuum. Your interviewer is probably writing a TPS report. Maybe he's drinking one of those mango lassi drinks he gets for free.

Does the right pointer stop after it crosses the left pointer? Should the left pointer move first? What if there were infinity target numbers? What if they were zero? Goddammit, you totally remember how to do this if you were just finding one element. But a range? What if--

And it's here, around the time you've re-written that function at least four times, where your mind blanks. Blank, as in, you're completely void of thought, and you feel your chest tighten.

What comes to mind after thinking about nothing is the time Angela had that one particular psychotic break, and the police had to be called to dragged her away. She goes catatonic, and her muscles go completely limp and crumple to the floor, making it more difficult for the cops to move her to the car. You catch yourself thinking about your mentally ill sister in the middle of an interview with Google because you are freaking out.

You know how this interview is going to end.

"Can I get a time check?" you ask.

"We're already 20 minutes over," he says," but take as much time as you need, I guess." You read between the lines.

"I can't do this," you blurt out.

"What?" This is the equivalent of job interview suicide, but it's true, you’re done.

This is where the silence happens, where all those feelings of disappointment and shame all bubble up. Google's core principle is optimization and efficiency, and you just wasted everyone's time. "I appreciate your time," you say under your breath. "A recruiter will follow up with you shortly," he responds. It's a throwaway comment.

The first thing you do after it’s all over is send an email to your friend at Google thanking her for the referral and apologizing she won’t get that referral bonus you both were hoping.

The next thing you do is devour an entire fucking pizza to numb out your feelings.


Later that week, I got turned down for two other engineering positions. I am, more or less, back to square one. This time with a bullet-riddled ego.

I guess I'm at a crossroads as far as my career is concerned. I've always thought that I've been an okay developer, but maybe this is a sign I need a different strategy. Perhaps I need to learn that Javascript framework that became the hot new thing while I was taking on non-techy roles. It may mean I need to find more roles as an engineering manager or a PM, even though I've technically never interviewed for those positions before.

I have to believe I’ll find a job soon. Even if my brain chemistry is screaming at me to give up and move back home with my parents, there's a part of my brain — the one involved with logic, or farces I guess — convinced there's a position out there that I'm capable of doing while fitting my passions and making a suitable wage.

It just won't be programming at Google, I guess.

Property walues

I misspelled "values" on purpose because I'm a terrible son

This weekend, I asked my boyfriend if I could borrow some money to pay my income taxes.

I can feel all the spirits of my ancestors, rising from their respective graves somewhere in China and floating across the Pacific Ocean, crossing the country at light speed to fly into my living room here in Miami, only to look at me disappointingly, and then fade away.

This is the first year in six or seven years where I owe a good chunk of money to the IRS, and it’s all due to my condo in the Bay Area making a modest profit from renters. For those who don’t know the backstory: I bought a condo in 2005, right next to a strip mall right off the exit of I-880. Dad was super into the real estate as investment thing, buying houses to rent out, selling houses the family had spent weekends fixing up for a minimal property. He eventually offered to pay half the downpayment.

“WALUE,” he said, trying to say the word “value.” So I agreed.

Let’s pause here: Asian parents do this because their children are an investment, the same way a social networking startup or a young prizefighter or an acre of sorghum is an investment. Asian parents also pay their kids higher education, those who can afford it. Asian kids usually aren't expected to pay their parents back financially, so much as we pay with our independence and individuality. For the case of my education, a waitlist at private Carnegie-Mellon University was vetoed for a public university with Chinese power, and I got to choose from being a doctor or an engineer.

In the case of the condo, it served multiple uses for my parents: the condo was a five-minute drive from their house, a nice break for each of them individually as they started the separation process. Each had keys, of course, and read my mail. It became an extension of their house, and the realization that I needed to get out of there was when my dad had found my Senior Ball photo of Christine Kamphaus and me, and taped it to my bathroom mirror.

You know, as a reminder. To not be gay.

It was dad’s version of how white moms leave sweet notes in their kid’s lunchboxes, except I got self-loathing instead of Lunchables.

That was my breaking point. Later that summer, I rented a room from my friend Don who lived in SF. Dad agreed to it so I could “get San Francisco out of my system.” I never moved back.

It’s for this reason that buying a house has never been my “American Dream.” When Kareem wanted to go in on a house here in Little Haiti, I was in San Francisco worrying about my Fellowship and ambivalent. Eventually, I caved in: “I’ll go in on the money,” I said, “but you have to do all the paperwork.”

The paperwork process — especially the mortgage paperwork process — was fucking terrible. But hey, Kareem wanted to do the legwork and three years later we’re still here:

At this point, I’ve spent more years living in Miami than I have lived in that condo. I don’t plan on moving back — too close to the family. I miss the friends I have in the Bay Area, but after the little nervous breakdown I had this summer, I don’t think I’ll be moving back to Northern California for a while.

I’ll sell the condo in California. Eventually, I’m sure. It’s an artifact of my father, someone I have little to no communication with nowadays, the least it’s ever been now that my dad is 90 and his Mandarin has regressed to Shanghainese, a dialect I was never taught. I don’t even know if he knows he does that, honestly. He’ll forward video clips posted on WeChat; an antidote from the CEO of Alibaba here, a fireside chat with a white guy who lived in Mainland China for 50 years with perfect Mandarin. Even when he’s trying to reach out and empathize, everything he sends me reminds me we’re two different cultures and philosophies.

Now that I think about it, I have no idea what the value of the condo is worth. I go to Zillow, type the address into the search bar, and a satellite map appears, suburban paisley roads attached to a four-lane highway.

I look at the property values. The neighboring unit just sold for six times the original buying price.

“You clever bastard,” I say out loud to a father that will never hear it. “You were right all along.”

disassociation

keywords: job hunts, screenwriting, mild PTSD

I’m in Los Angeles with Kareem for the week. What am I going to do otherwise, stay in Miami by myself for his birthday? For my, what, imaginary job?

It’s pretty humbling as he paid for my trip out here. Usually, I’m the breadwinner. I’ve prided myself on being the person who makes money while the significant other has a job in the arts, the non-profit arts, no less. It probably comes from a lifetime of seeing my mom, the housewife, with dad, the HVAC engineer who worked 25 years at the same job. I know it’s like comparing apples to oranges, but having a job was one of the few things I didn’t have to worry about. I was allowed to be a hot buttered mess otherwise.

Again, I’m trying my best to take everything in stride. It’s only three weeks since I parted ways with my last job, I tell myself, even though it has been eleven weeks since I’ve last had a steady paycheck. There has been a string of job rejections recently, which hint to me I need to stop my mind from going into double overdrive during tech interviews, or that I’m interviewing for the wrong positions, that I should be looking for jobs I’m good at, but just miss out on because I don’t have enough years of experience. I tell myself I’m not my rejections. I repeat this to myself, like a mantra, as Kareem is typing away at the laptop next to me, following his dreams.


Kareem is working on a movie here in LA full of people in the film industry formerly from Miami. Tonight we’re hanging out with more people here in the film industry previously from Miami. At this point, I’m pretty convinced LA is mostly former Floridians working on movies, and I’m the weird Chinese salmon who swam upstream.

They ask me how my script is going.

So here’s the interesting thing I’ve learned about writing a script, especially an auto-biographical one in nature: there are some parts of the process where I think I’m really, really good. A couple of weeks ago, I tasked myself to open up some scriptwriting software and to write a scene, like, any scene. It got a chuckle out of Kareem, and he’s the type to tear your art piece apart, never mind if you’ve spent the past ten years in a relationship or not.

It turns out, however, that like two scenes do not an entire screenplay make. It turns out there are many, many scenes that need to be written. Even crazier, they all have to lead into each other to tell a cohesive, overarching story. It turns out that’s how all narrative storytelling works, whether it’s writing books or movies or whatever. After a couple of years of short-form blogging and tweeting, I’ve gotten really good at writing things funny, so long as they’re less than, say, 500 characters.

According to Google, the way to get around this is by writing a plot, or an outline. Just a couple of sentences of each scene to get the point across, so I do, right?

(All, like, actual things that happened a couple of months ago, by the way.)

But now I’m in a tailspin because I’m basically disassociating myself from the Ernie on paper, trying to figure out how the Ernie on paper resolves his problems from the first act. How the fuck do I do that when I can’t do that in real life? Also, how do I write down my father’s incoherent Chinese babbling due to dementia into words? In English? Which family interactions do I edit out, for the sake of moving a plot along? Keeping in mind that as I write this stuff down, as much disassociating as I try to do, I’m simultaneously reliving this in my head, over and over again.

Seriously, writers and/or storytellers: y’all have any advice for me? Because this has been a mental block in writing auto-biographical stuff for a while now.

Eventually, it becomes too much, and my mind wanders: shouldn’t I be looking for jobs?

And then I close the document and start studying data structures for interviews again.

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