That Glass Ceiling, Break it

I was commissioned by The Guardian to write a 700-to-800-word article about Chinese women working in technology. After interviewing six people, each of whom with a distinct personality and an impressive story,  I wrote over 2000 words. The published version ( had be to cut down to under 1000 words.  I decide to publish the longer version at my own blog.

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“I hope my son would become someone like Elon Musk.  I hope my  daughter would choose her career in liberal arts or social sciences, so she won’t repeat my struggles. And she can go to work dressed up and made up, like a lady,” said Lanxuan (not her real name), a chemical engineer in Dongguan.

She would not have imagined herself saying this sixteen years ago, when she graduated from high school, with a score of 147 (out of 150) in chemistry at Gaokao (China’s college entrance exams),  believing she was  as bright, as intelligent, and as promising as the boys in her class.

She joined an electronic materials company in Dongguan, Guangdong Province in 2007, working in a lab providing tech support services. She has worked hard and seized every opportunity to prove her ability.  In 2011, she even sent her baby daughter away to her parents in Jiangxi Province, so she could concentrate on her career. Now she regrets it,  because she finds she barely understands her daughter, whom she brought back to Dongguan recently, and because there has been no promotion, nor pay raise.

Lanxuan would not give up easily, though.  In 2014, when her company launched a national speech contest, she saw hope: If winning the contest, she might be seen, recognized,  even promoted.  She won the first prize in 2015.

This prize turned out be the beginning of her final struggle before giving up. Instead of congratulations, she was bombarded with jibes: “she was wasting time on something not directly related to her profession, she was taking a shortcut, she was too ambitious for a woman.”

Sexism didn’t quench her desire for success. In 2016, she convinced her company to let her try on-site tech support for customers. However, with the opportunity, came more work and more struggles. She still had to do her old job in the lab besides on-site tech support – with no extra pay. The customers, usually men, hesitated to cooperate because she was a woman.  “If I asked for a chemical for an experiment, I had to wait for a long time. If my male colleague asked for it, they brought it immediately,” she said.  Meanwhile,  her colleagues at the lab complained of extra work due to her field trips for on-site tech support. They were extremely unhappy if her trip lasted more than one day.

Her superior, also a woman, had a chat with her, trying to persuade her to give up the field trips. “She assumed a caring tone,  ‘ it is too dangerous for women. You are a woman, why bother?’” Lanxuan  said,  “It was suppression in the name of caring.”

Lanxuan didn’t give up.

So came the second talk.

Still  she wouldn’t give up.

Then came the last straw: her superior went to her husband, “Why let your wife do this?”

Lanxuan was fed up, “For years, I have felt an invisible ceiling above me. Invisible but stifling. All those obstacles in the name of caring. The suppression in the name of protection.” She would have resigned if she had not found herself pregnant with her son last year.   

Now on maternity leave, she is preparing for her next career – selling insurance.  She will be able to dress up as a saleswoman, “As an engineer, I dress like a man. I almost lost my femininity!”

The glass ceiling Luanxuan experiences  is not uncommon in China.  Zhaopin Ltd., an online recruiter surveyed nearly 130,000 people in 2017 and found that about 22% of women have experienced severe or very severe discrimination when seeking employment. That percentage rose to about 43% for women with graduate degrees.  Women were paid 30% less than men in China’s internet industry last year, according to Boss Zhipin, which surveyed over 365,000 pay samples nationwide.

It is under such glass ceiling that Tian Xiaole (Not her real name), a software engineer in Shenzhen, seems eager to shake off her  femininity. In her team, all the women engineers dress like a man. T-shirts and jeans. Never skirts. “We are wo-men, instead of women,” She chuckled. Wo-men is a translation for 女汉子,  adult tomboys. Dressing like a man has become an announcement – we wo-men work like men. “If you dress up prettily, some men see you only a woman, not an engineer.”

For some, dressing like a man is a way to boost confidence at a workplace dominated by men. “Somehow, men seem to be born self-assured, but some women tend to have a lower self-esteem,” Tian Xiaole said, then described to me a typical example of men’s self-assurance versus women’s lack of confidence at her work place:

“A software tester (a woman) finds a mistake in a test. She goes to the coder (a man), ‘I think there is a mistake in the coding.’ The coder, ‘can’t be. You must have made a mistake while testing.’  So the tester goes back and  tests again and again until she is sure the mistake is in the coding. She goes back to the coder. The coder grumbles as he checks the coding. And there it is, he finds a mistake in the coding. But he says, ‘I tell you. The coder before me wrote this line. Not my fault!’”

We  both laughed.  She said, “sometimes I wish I were a man.”

If she were a man, she wouldn’t  be pestered about her marital status when seeking employment, as happened in August, 2017, at an interview for a position with one of China’s biggest internet companies:

“Are you married?”


“Do you plan to marry soon?”

“I haven’t met my Mr. right yet. ”

“What if you meet your Mr. right soon?”

“I won’t marry in the next few years.”

“How are you going to guarantee you won’t marry in the next few years?”

In Chinese culture, it is common for women to put their roles as a wife and mother before their careers. After marriage, women are expected to juggle their careers with having children and looking after the family, including the older generation. While While maternity leave is available, it is seen by companies as a hindrance and as a result some explicitly state that they don’t hire women for certain positions.

In September, 2017, Xu Xin, an MA candidate studying AI engineering at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou was rejected by Huya Broadcasting, a live game streaming platform.  “They say they don’t want women,” Xu Xin lamented, “for the first time in my life, I realize that sexism does exist!”

Tang Guoyong, founder of HRoot,  an HR media company based in Guangzhou, confirmed that sexism is common among Chinese technology companies, “they filter out female candidates when going through resumes. The situations is worse now that China’s second-child policy is in effect.” That’s because companies fear a second child will mean more maternity leave and further time off to fulfill family responsibilities.  Mr. Tang thinks sexism in technology  is understandable, “because technology work is too intense for women, who are physically less strong, and not as good at logical thinking as men. ”

Li Bo, a software development manager with one of China’s biggest technology companies, disagrees with Mr. Tang. She works as hard as her male colleagues. She works out every day and is physically strong. She leads a team of twelve software engineers, ten of whom are men.

She also disagrees with Lanxuan and Tian Xiaole, who hide their femininity at work.  She highlights her femininity.

“I dress up and I wear makeup,” Li Bo laughed, “This is my statement: I AM a woman, but I am NOT inferior. ”

Indeed, she is not. In ten years, she has successfully developed her career from Product Instruction Writer to Customer Solution Manager, then Scrum Master, then Project Manager, now Software Development Manager.

Her career path is not always as smooth as it sounds, though. Some jibe at her and attribute her success to  “being close to the boss.”

“I don’t forget  jibes,” she said, “I revenge.”

She revenges by working harder, by acquiring new knowledge and skills,  by proving and improving her excellence.

The results?

She often receives invitations  from other  teams or companies to join them.

Her friends often joke that she is the Chinese version of Sheryl Sandberg. It happens Li Bo highly appreciates Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” She thinks Sandberg has set an example for women working in technology.

Li Bo, too, wants to set an example. While recognizing the glass ceiling for women working in technology, she does think that some women tend to victimize themselves as a minority, subconsciously associating femininity with weakness and inferiority. “I have a mission to shatter this mindset,” she said.  Maybe, with Li Bo and her likes’ leadership, when Lanxuan’s daughter enters the labour market, it would be common to see Chinese women working as engineers, managers, even CEOs in technology, with equal opportunities and equal pays,  prettily dressed up and made up.

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Feel like Frida

no, it’s been days, 
I feel like Frida. 
Not Frida, the artist, 
but Frida, the woman. 
Maybe I need a Tequila.
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Legs, faces, and gaze

He comes and goes.
She comes and goes.
They come and go.
Those legs, those faces, and that gaze.
That gaze stays.
But I tell you, it is actually fake, that gaze.

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portraits reviewed

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photos reviewed

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First School Day

A boy hurried toward the school gate, dragging a school bag one third of his body size and possibly too heavy for his size, panting and sweating. He was late for school. The very first day of the semester. He was probably panicking. But things were even worse than he could have dreamed. Instead of being scolded by his teachers for being late, he found himself captured, besieged and attacked by a gang of news wolves. (Yes, we news people in Hk are as cruel as wolves, if not tigers.) Intimidating grown-ups with their recorders, cameras, and poisonous mouths. One reporter kept asking him with an amused smile, “Why are you late on your first school day? Did you sleep in? Are you ashamed of being late?” He looked at the man and his smile, dumbfounded. He probably hated this man’s smile, and others’ smiles. Amused and gloating smiles. He was enclosed by them. How intimidating! I wondered if a nightmare had started awaiting him.

I wish I could punch the reporter who kept asking the boy those cruel questions. Doesn’t he understand the pain of growing up? Doesn’t he know the difficulties at school in Asia? Well, he is probably one of those people who yearn to go back in time and be a kid again because they want to escape the struggles as grownups.

While I sometimes yearn to be a happy and innocent child, I never want to relive my childhood. I particularly don’t want to go back to school in China. I will never forget the summer before my first elementary school year. I was so eager to go to school. I was looking forward to it every day, every hour, every minute. I kept asking my father, “when does school begin?” After a wait as long as for ever, finally came my first school day. My heart was pounding when my father took me to school, the best one in town, with his old 28-inch bike. Sitting at the front of my father’s bike, bathing in the morning sunlight, riding in the wind, touching my school bag, I was full of dreams. But by the end of the day, when I got home from school, I asked my father, “can I not go to school any more?”I was never a teacher’s favorite in China. Among so many teachers and professors I had in China, none, except one professor during grad school years at Jinan University, genuinely appreciated me.

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Modern Monks

While I never know whether Buddhists should stick to the ancient Buddhist lifestyle, it always fascinates me to see them in the context of modern technology. They, like mostly everybody else, seem to be obsessed by all kinds of gadgets, particularly cell phones. The contrast between their traditional robes and the apple cell phones they hold! The images are from an assignment last week. I made them on the side. They are not really what the editors want.

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Today is June 7th, 2017. Three days ago, there was a vigil, the 28th in Victoria Park, HK.  If things had happened differently 28 years ago in China, this vigil might not have been necessary. If you don’t know what I am talking about, do the math, and dig out what happened 28 years ago.

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Temple Street at Night

Sick, I don’t want to read or write or work serious jobs. Sick, yet not sick enough to stay in bed. So I go to the famous Temple Street Night Market, roaming through an Indian girl’s dreams, Cantonese dirty jokes, delightful bargains,  and a fortune teller’s suspicious look.

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Re-Experience China: A Migrant Mother


A slide door. An iron slide door. The kind that may remind you of a prison gate. She opens the door, we follow her in. A tiny studio with a kitchen and a bathroom, a bed and two bunk beds that make a letter L. Packed, dingy, messy. She unstacks three stools. We sit. She offers us tea, then sits on a stool against a filthy curtain serving as a kitchen door, with lots of teddy bears, folded at the bottom.

“How did you come to Hong Kong?” we ask.

She details her life starting from her village in Hunan Province, China. “All hardships. They are my fate,” she says, in Cantonese,  with a strong accent, barely understandable. She has been hardworking, despite everything – like her aching hands. She shows her hands. A peasant’s hands, injured from over-working. They are swollen and aching. She couldn’t do much now. She lives on social welfare. She did some cleaning work when they were not too bad, but she hurt them more and what she made from the job was not enough to cover the hospital fee. “I have been working so hard,” she complains, “but she (her daughter) is so lazy, always misbehaves. She doesn’t help. Doesn’t care.” She completely forgets the question. How did she end up in Hong Kong? The social worker has to remind her of the question. She has to remind her of each question we ask.

“Oh, a colleague of mine introduced him (her late husband, a Hong Kong citizen) to me when I was working in Shenzhen,” she says, “I didn’t want to marry him, but he really liked me. I didn’t want to marry him. But he really liked me. He was too old. Too old. Twenty years older than me. Too old. He really liked me.” I examine her. She looks older than her age – fifty-one, weathered, short and chubby. But she must have felt superior to her late husband. When I point to a line of photos of her hanging from one of the bunk beds, she chuckles. I hear her pride and dignity. “When I was young, I had good skin,” she is all smiles, “people even said I should be a model for skincare products.  They said I was born a beauty.” She laughs more.

Those are studio photos of her dressed up and heavily made up. They are flatly lighted and over-exposed to make the skin look whiter. Dramatically whiter. Typical studio photo shots popular with women in mainland China from the 1990s till recently. In these photos, women have glaring, unreal white skin.

I wonder if her late husband admired her. He died in 2015. She took care of him. It was hard. She details how she took good care of him before he died. She forgets to tell us why she married him even though she saw him as too old to match her youth and pretty look. Again the social worker has to remind her of the question.

That was because her friend said this old man could take care of her daughter while she went to work. So she married him. That was it. He turned out to be a very poor man, one from the lower class, at the bottom of the social ladder.  She worked and worked hard to support the family. He was old and sick. She took care of him. Then he died. But She got her Hong Kong ID card and her daughter got to  join her in Hong Kong, finally, after living with different aunts for some years.

The daughter, a fourteen-year-old, over weighty,  sleepy, her hair messy like a bird nest, keeps her head down most of the time.  She sniggers when I take her photos, and from time to time snaps a few shots of me taking photos of her. She is shy but she seems flattered when I take her photos. I take quite a few photos of her.  We can’t publish photos with her face identifiable, though. Nor their names. She sits at one of the bunk beds, plays her phone, buries her head in her chest as her mother complains about her, turns to the social worker when asked questions.  She has a clearer mind than her mother, throwing out insightful quotes sometimes.

“Are you happy?” We ask her.

“I am happy,” she says, casually.

But she bursts into tears when the questions become specific. “I was happy when I first came to Hong Kong (five years ago). I thought I could finally live with mom,” She sobs, “Yes, I like sleeping, but I simply can’t help it. I feel tired all the time. I don’t eat out a lot. I just don’t feel like to eat sometimes…(Her mother’s biggest complaint is the daughter doesn’t eat the food she cooks. She worries about her health.) I don’t shower for an hour! That’s exaggeration. Only half an hour.”

“Even half an hour is way too long,” the mother scolds her.

It goes round and round and on and on.

“She behaves at school. She just doesn’t listen to me. Doesn’t care about a thing at home. We are not meant to be mother and daughter,”the mother sighs.

The mother and the daughter don’t get along. They fight often. Physical fights.

I  imagine their fights in this tiny, dingy, messy studio. I frown. Better not imagine the fighting scenes. I turn to look at the mother again. Her lips moving. Her eyebrows knitted.  It is depressing to hear her long-winded complaints about life and her daughter. She forgets what she says. She repeats herself. She is illogical. The social worker has to stop her from ranting, steer her back to the topic, then finally finishes the interview. I am sorry for her, and her daughter. I admire the social worker’s patience with them. I feel relieved when we finally stand up to leave. The mother offers us sodas as we turn to the door. They must be precious in her eyes. The sodas. We decline the precious gifts. She offers them again, and again. We say no thanks. Again and again. Finally she walks us to the lift and keeps talking till we enter the lift. She waves her hand and smiles at us when the lift door closes.

The lift door frames her as she smiles and waves us goodbye, but it is closing, like a movie screen sliding into pitch dark. End of story.

But her life continues. So does her suffering.

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